Philip Corrigan and I published The Great Arch in 1985. It was an iconoclastic book, which met with decidedly mixed reviews. The core of the argument, developed through a narrative of English history spanning the tenth to the early twentieth centuries, was this:
Moral regulation is coextensive with state formation, and state forms are always animated and legitimated by a particular moral ethos. Centrally, state agencies seek to give unitary and unifying expression to what are in reality multifaceted and differential historical experiences of groups within society, denying their particularity. The reality is that bourgeois society is systematically unequal, it is structured along lines of class, gender, ethnicity, age, religion, occupation, locality. States act to erase the recognition and expression of these differences through what should properly be conceived of as a double disruption.
On the one hand, state formation is a totalizing project, representing people as members of a particular community—an “illusory community,” as Marx described it. This community is epitomized as the nation, which claims people’s primary social identification and loyalty (and to which, as is most graphically illustrated in wartime, all other ties are subordinated). Nationality, conversely, allows categorization of “others”—within as well as without (consider the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthyite era in the United States, or Margaret Thatcher’s identification in 1984 of striking miners as “the enemy within”)—as “alien.” This is a hugely powerful repertoire and rhetoric of rule. On the other hand, as Foucault has observed, state formation equally (and no less powerfully) individualizes people in quite definite and specific ways. We are registered within the state community as citizens, voters, taxpayers, ratepayers, jurors, parents, consumers, homeowners—individuals. In both aspects of this representation alternative modes of collective and individual identification (and comprehension), and the social, political and personal practices they could sustain, are denied legitimacy. One thing we hope to show in this book is the immense material weight given to such cultural forms by the very routines and rituals of state. They are embodied in the former and broadcast in the latter, made to appear as—to quote Herbert Butterfield on the Whig interpretation of history—”part of the landscape of English life, like our country lanes or our November mists or our historic inns.”
While I would now (of course) no longer endorse all of the historical specifics of the analysis Philip and I presented the best part of thirty years ago, I see little to quarrel with in this as a starting-point for demystifying “the state” and what is done to people under its auspices and in its name. The omission of different sexualities as a key axis of structured inequality, maybe. But anybody interested in where I would nowadays want to qualify the (overly) grand narrative of English history offered in The Great Arch might want to look here.
For good or ill, The Great Arch has had considerable influence on thinking about “the state” across humanities and social science disciplines over the last three decades. Though Blackwell issued a (very small print-run) second edition in 1991, the book has long been out of print and copies sell for ridiculous prices secondhand (one is listed today on amazon.co.uk for £336.64). Since the rights have now reverted to the authors, I decided to put it up on academia.edu, where it can be legally downloaded free. The text is that of the first (1985) edition.