John Harris’s feature (Guardian 30 July 2013) on Serco, the global corporation with UK government contracts to manage prisons, GP out-of-hours services, school inspections, and London bikes, alongside a portfolio of public services in other countries, is a powerful addition to a long line of stories about the privatisation of public services. Like many, I worry about for-profit companies doing the state’s work, reducing democratic control of public provision, obliging public workers to become corporate employees, and tying future service provision to anachronistic terms agreed years earlier.
But is the story as simple as the state contracting out to private providers and selling off its ‘wares’? Does the state remain what it has always been (if somewhat smaller); has it just acquired some new relations – the organisations now doing its ‘donkey work’? Or has the state itself changed? Are the companies running public services in fact part of the state itself?
Whatever our level of concern about privatised services, the notion of for-profit contractors carrying out state chores seems far less harmful than a re-assessment of the state as having become privatised. But whether we have lost a public state depends, at least in part, on how we conceptualise it. If we think of the state as a particular set of institutions commanded by government (or parliament), the privatised state, in Britain at any rate, seems some way off. But if we think of the state as the assemblage (or organisation) of public governance, then private for-profit companies do appear to have stepped into public service providers’ shoes. Some may argue that all these companies are doing is carrying out the agendas and policies of institutional (state) others. But as work on bottom-up policy making and street level bureaucrats suggests, those who implement policy exercise considerable discretion. They can decide what a policy means, how to operationalize it. And since they are the bodies that users engage with, how they exercise discretion comes to constitute what the policy is.
There is no right answer to the question of the state – what it is and how we should conceptualise it. Different understandings of the state – that focus on institutional form or on particular functions and activities – will produce different state shapes. What’s more important are the effects that come from how the state is imagined and understood. Writing about refugee activism, Nick Gill argues that organisations engage with the state differently depending on how they see it. We can also see the importance of what we count as the state in relation to the Human Rights Act, which targets public authorities and public actions. If for-profit providers are judged as exercising a public (or state-like) function, human rights cases can be brought against them.
But there is another broader political reason for seeing private companies, engaged in governing, as part of the state. It impels us to recognise how precarious and contingent what we think of as the state is. Marxists may argue that the state in a capitalist society is necessarily and always capitalist. But actually seeing private corporations as now part of the state, indeed in danger of becoming the state, ratchets up what is at stake. Adopting a more flexible conception of the state, however, isn’t just a means of heightening anxiety. It also allows us to recognise our own power in creating a different kind of state, something that gets neglected when the state is seen as a set of institutions. So, not simply resisting, fighting or ignoring the state, but building a state (or many states) through the exercise of public governance in all its various forms – from managing community gardens to refugee activism, forms of boycott justice and international aid.