Where does the state come from and what are its effects on society? Theorists have discussed this topic for thousands of years. The second season of “Orange is the New Black” on Netflix makes a contribution to this debate through the lens of an all-women minimum security prison. What emerges is not the state as such — the real state is why they are there in the first place — but something close to it that very closely resembles its tactics, methods of control, and effects.

Let’s first review season 1. Here we saw how a stable social order can emerge even within the extreme conditions of prison life. The desire on the part of the inmates and the guards for a relatively peaceful order incentivizes everyone to find ways to get along and cooperate. Markets emerge from within, even in nascent and truncated forms, and this contributes to a growing ethos of the value of each member.

A delicate balance emerges based on demographics. Blacks, hispanics, whites (who further divide along class lines), and the elderly form tribes. These tribes are not malicious; they serve as mutual aid societies, and can be counted on to defend fellow members in the event of a conflict, but there is also cooperation and a healthy respect between them, plus plenty of mixing. “It’s not racist; it’s tribal,” explains an inmate, and that tribalism is softened by beautiful displays of cooperative individualism as well.

What Season 1 demonstrates is that it is impossible to suppress the human penchant for finding ways to cooperate to improve life, even under extreme conditions. Even in the prison environment, we never really leave anarchy. It is not the rules and coercion that generate the social order but the spontaneous efforts on the part of everyone to find ways to get along.

Season 2 opens with recalling this order and it is striking how workable it truly is. In the first episode, it is almost possible to forget that this is prison. Everyone seems to have found a place in the social order and a kind of lovely happiness is forged even out of tragedy and suffering.

But that begins to change with returning inmate Yvonne “Vee” Parker. She is a sociopath who resents the happiness and stability of the community. She has power ambitions for herself to lead the blacks and have the blacks dominate the prison.

She undertakes her revolution in a systematic way, with catastrophic effects on the entire population of the prison. People end up turning on each other in wicked ways, but only a few fully understand what is happening.

Vee begins her work by sowing discontent. She explains that it is not enough that people get along. Blacks should rule this place, getting all of the best favors and telling everyone else what to do. Others in her trio are skeptical. She begins to recruit people to her cause, beginning with the lowliest prisoner, the outcast who is already somewhat socially marginalized. Vee gives her new pride in her identity and an important role.

Vee next establishes herself as a wise judge and stable personality with a certain fearlessness toward others. She does favors for others and calls in those favors to isolate those who are skeptical of her ambitions.

Her next step is centered on providing material benefits to those who comply, putting together a complex system of contraband trade centered on the most desirable commodity, namely cigarettes. Her tribe begins to ascend up the ranks, acquiring more and more credits to use in the prison store. This material power disturbs the balance between groups.

Where peace once defined tribal relations, now we see growing antagonism and anger. Friendships are broken. Tit-for-tat games of punishment and reward replace cooperation. Vee begins to demand aggressive signs of loyalty and punishment among dissenters. This eventually results in violent attacks against outliers, joined in by others who only weeks earlier would have never imagined doing such a thing.

Vee is the state. She emerges along the same path as described by 20th century political theorist Bertrand de Jouvenel (“On Power”). In his telling of the story from history, states do not normally spring into being suddenly or come from conquest. They emerge from elites in society who gradually earn the trust and loyalty of key members of the community, through deception that turns to division that turns to hegemony.

The gradual conquest comes in stages. The elites who forms the core of the state are given extra status in the most normal way, by being the most respected adjudicators of conflicts they themselves often create. They buy off skeptics with the promise of material reward. They sow more conflict and, in so doing, begin to break apart social associations that stand between themselves in their total rule. Finally they enforce their rule through demands enforced by violence. These acts of suppressing dissent are overlooked by those who have gone along so far.

What was once respect is now replaced by fear. It is a process that necessarily emerges in stages, since no one would go along with anything like a state if it were just proposed. There must be, at some level, a degree of social agreement. This is not the same thing as a social contract; on the contrary, there is no contract. It is result of a complex system of consent, payoffs, confusion, and fear.

And what is the effect of the emergence of a powerful, state-like leader in Orange 2? What was once a relatively stable social order of mutual cooperation is replaced by warring tribes, characterized by antagonism, mistrust, seething anger, and the threat of violence. There is no question that everyone is now worse off — everyone but the leader herself. But because few are entirely sure of the cause and effect relationship here, and the few who are are now completely out of power, no one can do much about it.

Moreover, it is not entirely easy to remember what peace felt like in the days before Vee entered on the scene. So much suspicion and antagonism now exists between individuals and groups, these conflicts themselves become the desidera of daily life, not the presence of the leader.

De Jouvenel was exactly right about this. This is a rough sketch of the emergence of all modern states. We see it in microcosm in Orange 2. The irony of course is super penetrating. This is, after all, prison, the ultimate statist environment. But even here, the core ambition of the social order is to live in peace and community. This ambition is realized until some one person shows up who is clever enough to trick others into trading their cooperative relationships for power relationships.

Once again, “Orange Is the New Black” has revealed to us far more than a rare look into a setting that mostly remains a mystery among us. The new season has shown us how a social order falls apart through power ambition and violence — the willing corruption that always underlies the gradual ascent of elites with the ambition to rule others.

What we have here is a microcosm of our whole society. The police state, the welfare state, the military state, and social management state — every bit of the oppressive order that manages us today outside the prison finds its analogy in the prison environment. “Orange” is a story about a tiny society but it is actually a story of the whole of life as we know it.
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Read more:
Orange Might Be Your New Black
Netflix Fights The Power
Five Ways To Think Like a State
Society in Jail