The Great Arch

Corrigan, Philip, and Derek Sayer. 1985. The Great Arch: English State Formation as a Cultural Revolution. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

I had high hopes for this book. First, because I’m a big fan of Derek Sayer’s other work and, secondly, because of the way it was put to such generative use in Everyday Forms of State Formation. The authors admit at the outset that theirs is not a history from below of English state formation. Still, some tacking between “above” and “below” would have made this a much better and more interesting book. It seems such movement would be necessary to see through the argument that state formation in England was also cultural revolution. This problem also seeps into the empirical field in terms of what “counts” as culture, which for the authors seems to be defined as “superstructure” (though not undialectically or as pure idealism), which makes sense since their analysis is of “the state.” Nonetheless, the book has a great many strengths and insights.

Above all, if you consider the state to be a “collective misrepresentation” à la Philip Abrams (their professor), then how would you write an account of the development of that misrepresentation? And how would you go about it without reifying, building a false unitary coherence, or abstracting beyond belief? That’s clearly a difficult task. The authors approach this thicket by analyzing reforms around issues such as religion, local government, the law, labor relations, bureaucratic and stately rituals, and, above all, via the moral regulation implicit in these processes of reform.

As the preface notes, there’s a lot of Norbert Elias and Michel Foucault in the book, if not explicitly, particularly since so much about what they see as state formation is the production of particular kinds of subjects. It could also be seen as what Foucault called the “governmentalization of the state.” Indeed, in the introduction the authors explain, “What this book attempts is simultaneously to grasp state forms culturally and cultural forms as state-regulated” (3). One of their more nutshell argumentative statements—because it assumes their theoretical triad of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim—is the following:

We call this moral regulation: a project of normalizing, rendering natural, taken for granted, in a word ‘obvious’, what are in fact ontological and epistemological premises of a particular and historical form of social order. Moral regulation is coextensive with state formation, and state forms are always animated and legitimated by a particular moral ethos. Centrally, state agencies attempt to give unitary and unifying expression to what are in reality multifaceted and differential historical experiences of groups within society, denying their particularity. (4)

Marx gives the historical materialism, Weber is there in terms of the idea of authority as power made legitimate, and Durkheim’s offers ideas about the state as the “organ of moral discipline.” The authors want to explore how it is that the state makes possible certain human social capacities while limiting others: “state activities more or less forcibly ‘encourage’ some whilst suppressing, marginalizing, eroding, undermining others” (4). For the authors, this process is as much about the way rule is accomplished as it is an integral part of growing capitalist development.

One of their constant points of attention is the secularization of authority/sovereignty and the growing development of local-national articulations of government, something that early English state formation did particularly well. They offer a view of the state increasingly expropriating or absorbing competing forms of authority—the church, nobles—while the sovereign king is ultimately expropriated by parliament. The hegemonic authority of parliament is a long process that they trace through hundreds of years in which various forms of local and national administration became tightly bound up. But this was also a process that involved the perception of an increasingly separate authority called the state.

The law also played a fundamental role in this process as capitalism began developing along with attendant class relations. The Law becomes an absolute authority as once was God. “This partial displacement of religion as a dominant legitimating code for and within the state, towards solid bourgeois values of law, property, ‘liberty’ and civility was a major cultural legacy of the revolutionary decades.” (80)

The development of law was particularly important in solidifying moral codes and perspectives around property, propriety, proper behavior: “The law was used not only to privatize as property what had been commonly enjoyed, but also – and inseparably – to render as crimes what had been customary rights, and to execute, transport or condemn to the hulks those subsequently criminalized” (98). This also had a broad theatricality in terms of proclamation, enactment, punishment, etc. Jeremy Bentham wrote: “Law alone has accomplished what all the natural feelings were not able to do; Law alone has been able to create a fixed and durable possession which deserves the name of Property” (109).

The chapter on the working class traces a story not only “of violent repression, there is more ‘subtlety’ than that. Equally to be witnessed is a concerted moral revolution, an attempted organization of consent and incorporation, which culminates in a certain kind of admission – sponsored, protracted, conditional and profoundly disruptive of labour’s own forms of social organization and expression – of labour into society” (115). Labor itself becomes a recognized (however grudgingly) as part of society and in need of representation, repression, and, above all, regulation—moral and otherwise. In this process, and throughout the book, Corrigan and Sayer do a good job of highlighting the gender dimensions of state formation at various scales from the home to parliament. At various turns and in multiples ways, they show “masculine dominance is constitutive of the cultural revolution which is English state formation” (134).

Labor repression (e.g. criminalizing unions) was another integral part of the process.

But these overtly violent and coercive forms of regulation should not be overemphasized compared with the forcefulness with which certain social and moral classifications were materialized, strengthened, broadcasted and repeated. These marked people, and demonstrate how the modern democratic (we will come to that in a moment) nation state continues ‘to deal in ideologies’, to be ‘interested’ in all forms of moral regulation, including – centrally – establishing forms of approved, acceptable social identity. (140)

Among the cited examples are vagrants, women and child laborers. Pages 141-142 have important things to say about power and hegemony. The authors close with Marx’s writings on the Paris Commune: “This was, therefore, a revolution not against this or that, legitimate, constitutional, republican or imperialist form of State power. It was a revolution against the State itself, of this supernaturalist abortion of society, a resumption by the people for the people of its own social life.”

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