That British and other states are becoming increasingly privatised is the sad litany of our age. So too is the way states incorporate market principles of price and competition within their own internal governance structures. And now, with companies running public services, owning public assets, and providing a model for how state bodies should interact, the state itself is being re-imagined: as a public corporation – formally accountable, at in/decent intervals, to its share-holders (the electorate); substantively accountable to its stake-holders (that changing array of sectoral interests).
The corporate state
It is not difficult to develop this corporatist line of thinking.
– Repeatedly, we are told states compete with each other, in a marketplace of states, for investors, customers and clients, that’s why levels of corporation and income tax for high earners must stay low; regulations to protect workers and users minimised or else standardised (to manage competitive advantage).
– State assets – territorial and otherwise – are resourced and mined for the wealth they bring in (even as assets, such as “global cities”, may be vulnerable to counter-claims – such as predatory raiding or management buy-outs – as cities seek to assert their autonomy and others attempt to own and control them).
– To different degrees, and in different ways, nation-states sell ownership and access, with prices reflecting the value of their stock. Malta recently received considerable attention for suggesting £944,000 might be the price of their EU passport. But Malta is far from being the only country to put a price-tag on its national shares. Other countries also offer special deals to those keen to invest in, buy up or lease their assets, including Britain – now looking to vary the rate for accessing its territorial goods, through “rights to settle” schemes open to those willing and able to pay.
– And, in raising the value of a nation-state’s assets, branding grows ever-important. National leaders emphasise the distinctiveness of their country’s brand; local leaders emphasise the distinctiveness of their city or region; and sometimes, the two conflict. Just as companies fight over the identity of their products (are Jaffa Cakes in fact cakes or really biscuits?), states fight over the character and identity of their products also. Arguing against Scottish independence, British Prime Minister, David Cameron, was recently quoted as saying: “Sometimes we can forget just how big our reputation is, that the world over the letters ‘UK’ stand for unique, brilliant, creative, eccentric, ingenious. We come as a brand – a powerful brand. Separating Scotland out of that brand would be like separating the waters of the river Tweed and the North Sea.”
British political leaders, however, seem far less concerned about brand-UK’s coherence when it comes to other brands making inroads upon it. Privatisation and contracting-out of public services means not only are British assets owned by private commercial interests; these same assets can end up owned by other states in those cases where countries have maintained nationally owned corporations. According to Open Democracy, “The profitable publicly run East Coast mainline is …to be put up for sale, with potential bidders including SNCF and Deutsche Bahn, the French and German state-owned railways”. Seumas Milne, writing in The Guardian asks, “Why, you might wonder, is it acceptable to hand basic services to state-owned companies, so long as they’re owned by foreign states?”
With journalists remarking on French, Arab and Chinese state ownership of British assets – implying a form of empire that works through “legitimate” market savvy rather than military invasion – it’s an easy, if troubling, slide into a xenophobic stance that worries why Britain no longer “owns” itself. But what interests me, in this current entanglement of corporate and state identities and functions, is whether anything progressive can be opened up by it.
Treating states as analogous to commercial market-players seems depressing: another disheartening sign of how competitive corporate interests are crushing public concerns. While historically, states and corporations have had a long, complex and entangled relationship, epitomised in the state/ company hybrids and collaborations of colonial exploitation, their symbolic differentiation proved a striking dimension of modernist discourse. Marxists may argue that liberal states work, fundamentally, to legitimate and sustain capitalist economic relations, and the discursive articulation of nation to commercial interests remains a powerful refrain. Still, for many, modern liberal states promised a bulwark against capitalism, or at least some of its excesses, foregrounding the importance of public goods against the narrow-self-interest of private, commercial concerns.
A two-way resemblance?
A public focus has not been entirely lost within liberal states, and current isomorphic tendencies, in which states and corporations are seen to resemble each other, are far from one-way. State benefits and support may have become like corporate philanthropy, conditional and not to be relied upon, with welfare entitlements sharply cut, and funding allocated through discretionary lottery regimes. But, corporations are also expected, by many, to demonstrate a public agenda, evidencing a felt social responsibility towards producers, consumers, and the environment, alongside economic growth (the “triple bottom line” of People, Planet, Profit).
Less positively, many profit-based firms and commercial activities mirror the coercive activities and apparatus of nation-states, with their security workers, indentured labour, and use of violence, including in militarised form, to protect and grow their market position. The coercive and militarised activities of commerce behaving like nations remind us (if we need reminding) that states are not benign entities. But is there anything progressive in this developing isomorphism of states and corporations – a claim of mirroring which is not only descriptive but, for those who use this language positively, intended to be performative as well, procuring a sea-change in public common-sense, so that what is acceptable for corporations becomes acceptable for states?
The benefits of branding?
Reducing states to corporations may have some limited benefits when it comes to nationalist sentiment. Brands may try to generate loyalty, but the sensible recognition that brands are not that dissimilar minimises what brands can legitimately ask of those that follow them. Facebook “likes” – a currently popular way of demonstrating public attachments – do not differentiate between “liking” Coca-Cola (which has almost 80 million “likes”, England, which has just over a million, and the Supreme Court of Israel, which has 223). While relative popularity may tell us little about the force and power different entities possess, to the extent nations are entering a market-place of brands, do notions of national sacredness, exceptionalism and “being special” go to the wall? Do states lose their magic and grandeur as they become simply one embodied form among a multitude of not that dissimilar others?
The dominant logic of neo-liberalism, where “Rule Britannia” has been replaced by “Cool Britannia”, may unsettle the special aura states have long relied upon, along with the special attachments of their citizens. Neoliberalism may turn national membership into a propertied relationship in which members “belong” to a state that can impose obligations and duties upon them (from military conscription and work, to reproductive heterosexuality), but the logic of neoliberalism also suggests that the human properties of states should be able to free themselves and go elsewhere – they have no mystical or emotional relationship to one particular territory. The commodity form does not just render human goods fundamentally interchangeable (despite any brand distinctiveness they may possess); to the extent states “own” their citizens, it logically follows that such ownership should be temporary and interchangeable too.
Of course, the freedom to try other national brands does not exist for most people for reasons that are well rehearsed. But can we use the disturbance of the nation-state that neoliberalism is generating to create space for other kinds of state paradigms? What metaphors and frameworks might make it possible to think about states in ways that foreground social values of public responsibility, welfare, justice, coordination, and redistribution, as well as creativity, play, ecology and dissent?
New state metaphors
If we stay in the realm of economic organisation, states don’t have to model themselves on transnational corporate enterprises, with shareholders, senior management, and a large disciplined workforce, with exploited producers at one end of the vertical chain, and manipulated consumers at the other. States might draw instead on other kinds of economic associations – cooperatives, for instance, or alternative exchange and trading networks, with quite different forms of organisation, social responsibility and participation.
Yet, while economic entities vary, what they share is a concern with production – with making, producing or procuring wealth, goods and income. Is economic generation, however organised, particularly helpful for thinking about states, given the close association that economic entities have with products and production – even when these are imaginatively and critically extended to include such public goods as happiness, and such unpaid domestic and neighbouring goods, such as care?
If we don’t imagine states as economic entities, what else might they be? Radical and progressive critics have long rejected the pastoral image of the shepherd and his flock as too paternalistic and disciplinary. Similar criticisms have been made of other confessional and guardianship models. The associational form, liked by some who argue for more pluralistic approaches to governance, may be too inward-looking and too focused on membership. Network models offer fluidity and contingency but can significantly discount the importance of “placing” and determining public responsibility, and the embodied organisational agency that needs to go with it.
Metaphors and tropes have their limitations, but they help make things graspable and imaginable. They inspire and facilitate action. In this era of corporate thinking, how do we go about the task of developing a counter-imagination attuned to what states could become?
 Although under pressure from the EU, applicants must also spend at least a year in Malta. Interestingly, the scheme is described as managed by a Jersey-based company, Henley and Partners, BBC News, 30 January 2014, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-25959458