Giorgio de Chirico, Piazza d'Italia

Theories of the State: Politics, Institutions, and Power

Instructor: Rafael Khachaturian
This is an online course (Eastern Time)

The state is both an omnipresent and an elusive feature of modern life. Hardly any political and social relationship exists outside of its reach and influence; and yet, it is impossible to point to a person, group, or institution that represents the state as a whole. As the sociologist Philip Abrams once noted, “We have come to take the state for granted as an object of political practice and political analysis while remaining quite spectacularly unclear as to what the state is.” What, then, makes a state? Is it successfully claiming the monopoly on the legitimate use of force? Or is it better understood by its ability to control class conflict and stabilize capitalist societies? What role has it played in the spread of colonial relations of domination, and in the reproduction of contemporary patriarchy and racism? Does the state even exist, or is it just an illusion of unity projected onto diffuse power relations?

In this course, we will attempt to answer these questions by considering some of the foundational perspectives on the state as a mode of organized political power. Along the way, we will examine the origins of the modern state form in late feudal Europe, and its gradual becoming the exclusive and definitive space for political activity. We will consider its dual role: on the one hand, as a repressive power and guarantor of social order; on the other, as a social relation that both reproduces class, gender, and racial differences and pacifies their antagonisms. And given that modern states have a concrete historical origin, we will consider whether this political form is also fated to someday give way to a different kind of social relations. Readings will include Thomas Hobbes, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, V.I. Lenin, Max Weber, Michel Foucault, Pierre Clastres, Evgeni Pashukanis, Nicos Poulantzas, Wendy Brown, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Henri Lefebvre, Bob Jessop, Heide Gerstenberger, David Theo Goldberg, and Samuel Clowes Huneke.

Course Schedule

Wednesday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
April 10 — May 01, 2024
4 weeks

$335.00

Registration Open

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