Drawing on long-term ethnographic fieldwork, Insa Koch explains how British citizens experience democracy and what grassroots understandings of politics and care they bring to their encounters with the state.

Liberal democracy appears in crisis. From law and order policies to austerity measures to the Brexit vote, commentators have rushed to explain the current conjuncture. But while many have argued over ‘why’ liberal democracy has taken an illiberal turn, less attention has been paid to the ‘how’ and the ‘what’: to how democracy is experienced by its most marginalized citizens and what it means to them. Personalizing the State fills this gap. Drawing on long-term ethnographic fieldwork on one of Britain’s largest council estates, the book uncovers a legacy of coercion in British state liberalism that unfolds over a longer period and is more encompassing than commonly acknowledged. But this is only half of the story. Citizens have also brought their own expectations to the state that are not easily collapsed with popular support for authoritarian interventions. By foregrounding everyday relations between citizens and the state, the book complicates narratives of crisis that have presented the people as a threat to the democratic order.

A legacy of state control

Council estates are housing developments that were largely built by the state in the post-war decades as housing for the working classes. They are frequently seen as the remnant of a ‘golden’ era of post-war social democracy, a physical manifestation of what T. H. Marshall called ‘social rights’. But the history of council housing also betrays a more sinister story of citizenship-making. Council estates were always intended as class-specific projects that physically separated the country’s working class populations from the middle classes. Those considered to be deserving of council housing – the Fordist working classes – were closely supervised by a paternalistic post-war welfare state. Yet, it was only from the 1980s onwards that classed control came more explicitly to the fore. As Margaret Thatcher pushed for privatisation and neoliberal reforms, so council housing was turned from being a marker of social inclusion (however classed and gendered) to a marker of social exclusion and abject failure. Today, those who live in rented housing on council estates count among the country’s most vulnerable socio-economic groups.

The demise of the post-war welfare state has not resulted in a straightforward withdrawal of the state. Rather, it has been accompanied by the expansion of coercive policies into those areas that the liberal state has typically considered ‘private’: people’s homes and neighbourhood life. Means-tested benefit policies that have made a resurgence since the 1980s require their recipients to live up to the state’s own ideas of what constitutes an appropriate household and living arrangements. Law and order policies, rolled out under the New Labour government in the late 1990s and 2000s, have not only targeted the daily movements and relations of young, mostly poor men; they also potentially place their families’ tenancies at risk, as evidence of ‘anti-social behaviour’ becomes a legitimate ground for eviction from a social housing property. And finally, with the shift to austerity politics since 2010, policies like the ‘bedroom tax’, the ‘benefit cap’, and ‘universal credit’ have pushed families beyond the brink, while at the same time further extending the state’s regulatory reach into people’s homes.

Re-engaging politics

But a focus on top-down control only tells half the story. This book shows how people bring their own expectations to their daily encounters with the state. These understandings are not grounded in the state’s own definitions of deservingness and entitlement but rather derive their legitimacy from grassroots understandings of what constitutes a good person and by extension also a good citizen. At times, grassroots understandings have dovetailed more easily with official policies and practices. This was perhaps most closely achieved in the post-war era of Fordist production when a climate of full employment, relatively high wages, and an expanding welfare state led to a fragile moral union between state authorities and the affluent working class citizens living in council estates. Today, however, people’s attempts to ‘personalize the state’ – to hold the authorities accountable in accordance with their own understanding of what makes a good and hence deserving person – remain frustrated, if not silenced by policies and practices that all too frequently dismiss people’s demands.

This process of silencing is perhaps best illustrated in the case of electoral politics. Decades of political dispossession, driven by the demise of Labour as a working-class party (and which Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum have failed to revive in working class neighbourhoods), have reinforced a sense that politicians are the antithesis of ordinary personhood. On the estate where I carried out my research, voter withdrawal has fallen below levels of 20% in local elections. This is, however, not to say that citizens have disengaged from electoral processes altogether. Take the example of the EU referendum. The estate was a majority ‘Leave’ area. Some people who had never voted in their lives came out in favour of Brexit. But their vote was not a sudden departure from long held liberal values, as commentators have often assumed. Rather, it was a continuation of deeply felt frustrations with those in power. For some at least, it was an opportunity to personalise politics by saying ‘no’ to government tout court: to reject the constitutional structures that had long turned political citizenship into an experience of punishment.

Authoritarianism revisited

Those who have bemoaned liberal democracy’s illiberal turn have often laid the blame at the feet of a certain kind of person: namely the bigoted, authoritarian, and ignorant citizen. For example, in criminal justice circles, liberal commentators and academics bemoan the punitive shifts that policies have taken with popular support. Some have even gone so far as to advocate that criminal justice policymaking should be insulated from public input and debate. Likewise, recent political developments, including the Brexit vote, have been interpreted as evidence of a rise of popular authoritarianism or authoritarian populism in the public sphere. Let me be clear. My intention is not to deny that punitive feelings – whether they are xenophobic or otherwise – exist among the British citizenry. Nor is it to downplay the dangers posed by the rise of the far right in Britain and beyond. And yet, dominant narratives that present the ‘common’ people as a threat to the democratic order run the risk of reinforcing a simplistic divide between a ‘liberal us’ and an ‘illiberal them’ that can only further harden the lines of debate.

Bottom-up engagement might go a long way towards breaking open the impasse. At the most basic level, a grassroots perspective brings into focus the experiences of those who have rarely been heard. More substantively, it provides insights into a particular kind of everyday authoritarianism that has been overlooked in narratives on democracy’s punitive turn: namely, the daily authoritarian actions of a liberal state that has intervened in the most intimate realms of people’s lives, whether this was through post-war paternalistic policies or more recently under austerity rule.

But the state’s own repertoire of deservingness and entitlement never exhausts the imaginations of those at their receiving end. As this book shows, citizens also engage the state on their own terms. In so doing, they express murky, sometimes contradictory desires for a personalised state that cannot easily be collapsed with popular support for authoritarian interventions – or popular authoritarianism – alone. Above all, Personalizing the State exposes then the state’s disavowal of its political and moral responsibilities at a time when the mechanisms for collectivising redistributive demands have been silenced.


Note: the above draws on the author’s latest book ‘Personalizing the State: an Anthropology of Law, Politics and Welfare in Austerity Britain‘ (Oxford University Press, 2018). The code ALAUTHC4 can be used for a 30% discount when purchasing the book from the publisher’s website.

About the Author

Insa Koch is Assistant Professor of Law and Anthropology at LSE.

All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image: Matt Biddulph (Flickr, BY-SA 2.0).


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