Overview of topic: Politics and the Political

After reading Chapter 2, you should now be familiar with the concepts that were introduced relating to coercion, authority, and legitimacy in politics, as well as theoretical approaches to political action. You are advised to consult this chapter if you have not done so already as the contents will not be repeated here.

As chapter 2 discussed, there are different ways of conceiving of what it means to be political. For Sheldon Wolin (2016), the apparatus through which the state functions and reproduces itself should be contrasted with political action. So the incremental and consistent modes through which social relations are regulated and managed are understood as distinct from the fleeting moments of disruption that are separate from (in other words, may operate outside of or independently from) these institutionally or formally regulated forms of organization. These two levels of collective public life, Wolin refers to as politics (institutional life) and the political (that which challenges the status quo). This case study aims to illustrate how the political erupts in public life, disrupting the taken for granted assumptions of politics and calling the latter in question.

Scholars have taken varying theoretical approaches to the question of why or how coercive authority is often invested with collective legitimacy, though many have drawn inspiration from Karl Marx (see chapter 2, section 2.3.3). For Antonio Gramsci (2006), the legitimacy of existing forms of institutional political life is grounded on the middle classes developing and implicitly supporting a dominant ideology that normalizes hierarchy. This hierarchical structure privileges elites and middle classes, while the working classes are those that must be forcibly or coercively suppressed if they demonstrate dissent against the inequality that characterizes the order. Similarly, Louis Althusser (2014) saw ordinary people as invited to accept existing power structures, not as ideology, but as the natural state of affairs and therefore legitimate; this happens, for Althusser, through a process of interpellation in which people come to recognize themselves as individuals through this relation to an authority higher than themselves. In the following quote, Althusser explains how ideology renders an individual a subject – or an actor beholden to the power structures out of which it appears.

Case Study Box 2.1

“I shall then suggest that ideology “acts” or “functions” in such a way that it “recruits” subjects among the individuals (it recruits them all), or “transforms” the individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) by that very precise operation which I have called interpellation or hailing, and which can be imagined along the lines of the most commonplace everyday police (or other) hailing: “Hey, you there!”“ Louis Althusser (2014) On the Reproduction of Capitalism: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (London: Verso) 264.

In thinking the distinction between politics and the political, Jacques Rancière (1999) locates disruption to the status quo or the existing political arrangement as the main vehicle for change. Existing institutions, such as courts, political parties, or the police, function to keep the status quo in place – including the kind of roles and identities that different social groups can access – and it is those who make claims that contradict and undermine these established arrangements that bring potential for new ways of being. They do this by revealing how society is not based on a natural foundation but could be otherwise, an emphasis that proves to be crucial as it suggests the status quo is contingent and therefore open to contestation. In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault argues that individuals come to police themselves in the context of a panoptical society, or a society in which we feel as though under constant surveillance. From this perspective, we consent to coercive forms of authority, following its rules, in order not to transgress social norms and be punished for doing so. Alongside state control, self-regulation becomes important. People may police themselves to avoid the attentions of the state and the police as a central arm of violent enforcement. Here, Foucault suggests the invisibility of these articulations of power is important for understanding its effectiveness in producing and shaping subjects as fixed in its gaze.

Case Study Box 2.2

“Traditionally, power was what was seen, what was shown, and what was manifested ... Disciplinary power, on the other hand, is exercised through its invisibility; at the same time it imposes on those whom it subjects a principle of compulsory visibility. In discipline, it is the subjects who have to be seen. Their visibility assures the hold of the power that is exercised over them. It is this fact of being constantly seen, of being able always to be seen, that maintains the disciplined individual in his subjection.” Michel Foucault (1995) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. (New York: Vintage Books) 187.

Section 1: Coercive authority and anti-racism


In this section, we see how legitimate forms of political control can be contested when police violence is perceived as violating the accepted boundaries of coercive authority. It might be argued that some people follow forms of state authority based on the assumption that the latter more or less functions to benefit the citizenry, while others might follow the rules as laid out by the state most of the time, despite an implicit rejection of its authority. Relations between state and citizens are therefore varied and marked by histories of power rather than being neutral.

1) Race, class, and the legitimacy of authority

Encounters between arms of the state, on one hand, and citizens and residents, on the other, are shaped by divisions created by classifications such as race, class, gender, or sexuality. The implications of this are that institutions like the police are not accepted and perceived in a singular way by all members of the public. For example, there are calls to abolish the police in the US associated with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement against racial injustice, in particular that which takes the form of police violence targeting Black citizens (see Purnell, 2021). The claims of practices and norms of racial discrimination among police forces made by protesters on both sides of the Atlantic were intensified after the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis in 2020.

Case Study Box 2.3

“I started to understand why we need police abolition rather than reform. Police manage inequality by keeping the dispossessed from the owners, the Black from the white, the homeless from the housed, the beggars from the employed. Reforms only make police polite managers of inequality. Abolition makes police and inequality obsolete.” Derecka Purnell (2021) Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom (London: Verso).

The case of what became known as “the London riots” following the killing of Mark Duggan, a resident of a Tottenham housing estate with a history of opposition to police violence and raids in the estate, at the hands of police can be understood as a moment of disruption that predates but resonates with the BLM movement (see Ball et al., 2019). In the summer of 2011, protesters expressed anger at Duggan’s death when they gathered outside the local police station to demand justice for what was framed as racial violence. These demands intensified, starting with anger at police treatment of Duggan and expanding to claims about police violence towards marginalized urban communities more generally. This led to collective forms of protest appearing in different boroughs, as people took to the streets to demonstrate their rejection of violent coercion against minority communities, in particular those marked by racial difference, class, and socio-economic disadvantage.

These events and the protest movements that have coalesced around them point to the contested nature of policing, and the experiences that racial minorities give voice to in relation to interactions with police, demonstrate the absence of legitimacy attached to certain forms of police violence. Thinking more closely about the practice of stop and search sheds light on the contested dimension of “stopping” as a mode of racialized policing. For Sara Ahmed, the practice of stop and search is “a technology of racism” (2007: 161).

Case Study Box 2.4

“To stop involves many meanings: to cease, to end, and also to cut off, to arrest, to check, to prevent, to block, to obstruct or to close. Black activism has shown us how policing involves a differential economy of stopping: some bodies more than others are ‘stopped’, by being the subject of the policeman’s address.” Sara Ahmed (2007) A phenomenology of whiteness. Feminist Theory vol. 8(2): 149–168, p161.

2) Politics and the political in the London riots

We see disruption to the status quo when those who reject the legitimacy of coercive authority of state institutions like the police, appropriate public space to make claims against the purported role of the police to protect and serve “the people”, a vague category that does not reflect forms of difference indicated above.

Chapter 2 (see section 2.5, Becoming Political) discusses Hannah Arendt’s approach to the legitimacy of political authority, how it must hinge on the ability of authority to maintain a substantive degree of freedom and autonomy. If marginalized groups and communities live with a sense of discrimination, marginalization, and oppression, institutions vested with political authority, such as the police, will not hold the legitimacy that would be required for limited forms of coercion to be practiced in the name of the public good. Following Arendt, protesters in London in 2011 and BLM political actions could be understood as attempts to create a common world, one distinct from that represented by police oppression, marked by a rejection of coercive authority perceived as primarily harmful. Protesters in 2011 sought to create, or make visible, a world located within deprived spaces that was based on anger at police violence and its normalization against inhabitants of the urban margins who are marked by racial and class difference.

Adam Elliott Cooper (2021) traces the legacy of today’s BLM movement in Britain to earlier forms of contestation of the treatment of racialized minorities, led by newly arrived migrants from Jamaica and other parts of the British empire who encountered forms of violence in Britain similar to the colonial violence these migrants had left behind. This coercive authority, rather than enjoying legitimacy among these communities, was resisted from the outset and continues today, according to Elliott Cooper.

Case Study Box 2.5

“It is from encountering racism in Britain that black communities organised to change policy and legislation, demanding civil rights and liberties, and challenging racist stereotypes and violence.” Adam Elliott Cooper (2021) Black Resistance to British Policing. (Manchester: Manchester University Press) 22.

This case study has aimed to illustrate the theoretical and empirical distinctions between politics, as the everyday life of state authority, and the political, as moments of resistance and challenge to established forms of control and their implications for ways of being that ordinary people can expect to inhabit.


Ahmed, Sara (2007) A Phenomenology of Whiteness. Feminist Theory vol. 8(2): 149–168.

Althusser, Louis (2014) On The Reproduction Of Capitalism: Ideology And Ideological State Apparatuses. London: Verso.

Ball, Roger, Stott, Clifford, Drury, John, Neville, Fergus, Reicher, Stephen & Sanjeedah Choudhury (2019) Who controls the city? City 23(4-5): 483-504.

Elliot Cooper, Adam (2021) Black Resistance to British Policing. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Foucault, Michel (1995) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books.

Gramsci, Antonio (2019) Hegemony, Intellectuals and the State. In: Storey, John (ed.) Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader. London and New York: Routledge.

Purnell, Derecka (2021) Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom. London: Verso.

Rancière, Jacques (1999) Disagreement. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.

Wolin, Sheldon (2016) Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Author details

This case study has been provided by Sophie Crowe, PhD candidate at Queen Mary, University of London.