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 political 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 laying claim to the monopoly of 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 forms of patriarchy and racism? Does the state even exist, or is it just an illusion of unity projected onto diffuse power relations? And if the state has a historical origin, does this also mean it will one day give way to a different kind of organization?

In this course, we will attempt to answer these questions by considering some of the foundational modern and contemporary perspectives on the state as a form of organized political power. First, it looks at why and how the state has come to be the exclusive and definitive feature of “the political” in modernity. Then, it examines its role as a repressive power and a guarantor of political order, from the early modern period to the present. Following that, it turns to the state’s role in both reproducing social (class, gender, and racial) differences and subduing their antagonisms. Lastly, it ends by examining some critiques of the state and statist thinking, on both theoretical and political grounds. Readings will be drawn from works by Thomas Hobbes, Karl Marx, V.I. Lenin, Max Weber, Carl Schmitt, Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, Nicos Poulantzas, Stuart Hall, Wendy Brown, Charles Tilly, Theda Skocpol, and Ruth Wilson Gilmore.

Course Schedule

Wednesday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
January 27 — February 17, 2021
4 weeks


Registration Closed

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