chapter  1
24 Pages

Modern states

A US Supreme Court judge hearing an obscenity case had to decide what was meant by ‘pornography’. Admitting that he could not define it, the judge insisted nonetheless that ‘I know it when I see it’ (cited in Hawkins and Zimring, 1988:20). We may feel the same way about the modern state. We might find it difficult to give a precise and comprehensive definition of the state, but we think we recognize it when it flags us down on the motorway, sends us a final tax demand or, of course, arranges for our old age pension to be paid at the nearest post office. We may also think that we recognize the long arm of the state as CNN shows us a group of marines raising their national flag over some distant corner of windswept desert. Stateless persons, refugees and asylum seekers have a very keen sense that it makes a real difference to live beyond the jurisdiction (and protection) of a state. From the mandatory certification of our birth (which should have taken place under medical circumstances prescribed by the state) to the compulsory registration of our death, we tend to feel that the state is (nearly) always with us. Even in Anglo-Saxon countries, everyday political discussion is replete with appeals to, condemnations of and murmurings about the state. Rather like the judge, we think that we know the state when we see it, yet it proves extremely difficult to bring it under some brief but generally acceptable definition. ‘Everybody agrees’, so Berki argues, that ‘the modern state . . . is a rather baffling phenomenon’ (Berki, 1989:12). At times, it seems that collective bafflement is about as far as the agreement reaches.