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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Sunday, October 1, 2017

How the attack on the state harms us all

We’re all ambivalent about “the State”….We slag it off with pejorative terms…and often profess to anarchistic and libertarian tendencies….In my formative period in the early 70s I was very taken with the concept of The Local State whose corporatist tentacles we saw strangling everything in Scotland. Cynthia Cockburn’s 1977 book on the subject and the products of the national CDP Project were the most powerful expression of this critique – although Newcastle sociologists such as Jon Davies and Norman Dennis had led the way with their books of 1972.
And yet I was an active social democrat, consciously using the levers of (local) state power open to me to push the boundaries of opportunity for people I saw as marginalized and disenfranchised
That period of my life lasted from 1974-90 and is captured in From Multiple Deprivation to Social Exclusion

Since then, my focus has been more single-mindedly on the development of institutional capacity in the state bodies of ex-communist countries. The World Bank reflected the prevailing opinion of the early 90s in asserting that the state should simply be allowed to crumble….. and only came to is senses (partly due to Japanese pressure) with its 1997 Report – the State in a Changing World
By the time of my exodus from Britain, the country had already had a full decade of Thatcher – and of privatisation. I confess that part of me felt that a bit of a shake-up had been necessary…..but it was George Monbiot’s The Captive State (2000) – 3 years after New Labour’s stunning victory - which alerted me to the full scale of the corporate capture of our institutions and elites regardless of political affiliation …

And why did this capture take place? Simply because of a set of insidious ideas about freedom which I felt as I grew up and have seen weld itself into the almost irresistible force we now call “neoliberalism”……..But it is a word we should be very careful of using….partly because it is not easy to explain but mainly because it carries that implication of being beyond human resistance….
The sociologists talk of “reification” when our use of abstract nouns gives away such power – abstracting us as human agents out of the picture. 
Don’t Think of an Elephant – know your values and frame the debate is apparently quite a famous book published in 2004 by American psychologist George Lakoff - which gives a wonderful insight into how words and phrases can gain this sort of power – and can be used deliberately in the sorts of campaigns which are now being waged all around us…    

Amidst all the causes which vie for our attention, it has become clear to me that the central one must be for the integrity of the State – whether local or national….I know all the counter-arguments – I am still a huge fan of community power and social enterprise. And the state’s increasingly militaristic profile threatens to undermine what’s left of our trust. But those profiled in “Dismembered – how the attack on the State harms us all” are the millions who work in public services which are our lifeblood – not just the teachers and health workers but all the others on whom we depend, even the much maligned inspectorates - all suffering from cutbacks, monstrous organizational upheavals and structures….
I am amazed that more books like this one have not been forthcoming…

Coincidentally, I have also been reading the confessions of a few political scientists who argue that it lost its way in the 70s and, for decades, has not been dealing with real issues. I do remember Gerry Stoker saying this to the American professional body in 2010 and am delighted that more have now joined him in a quest for relevance 
And I’m looking forward to the publication in a few weeks of The Next Public Administration – debates and dilemmas; by Guy Peters (and Jon Pierre) who is one of the best political scientists of his generation.

For too long, “the State” has been the focus of irrelevant academic scribbling….at last there are some stirrings of change!


  1. The state is the immediate "enemy at home" of the working-class. I am not ambivalent about it one bit. Just because the old feudal monopolies and paternalism sometimes offered succour to the working-class as against the ravages of industrial capitalism, that was no reason for workers to put their faith in that set of exploiters rather than another.

    The state is iniquitous precisely because it does represent a throwback to those kinds of monopolistic and paternalistic relations. It turns millions into dependent serfs, reliant upon its handouts, the most vile consequences of which have also been seen in places like Libya where state capitalism dominated, but are to be seen also in the ghettoes of every developed economy in the world, where the daily lives of millions of welfare recipients are controlled and policed by the state and its representatives.

    The idea that the local state any more than the nation state could provide a solution for workers was always a utopian and elitist pipe dream. As a local Councillor, I always saw my role as a shop steward rather than a manager and administrator of the local state. I always saw my role as using the platform and levers it provided to encourage workers to organise for themselves, and to drag power back from the clutches of that state into their own hand, by creating their own organisations such as TRA's etc. One of the best things that could have happened in Liverpool in the 1980's, would have been for local workers to have created housing co-ops, so as to take ownership and control themselves of the city's housing stock so as to prevent or at least make much more difficult Thatcher's Council house sales programme.

    AS Kautsky wrote long ago the state is a much more effective exploiter of labour than private capitalists, because they can directly bring to bear all of the power of the state in any conflict. The 1984-5 Miners' Strike was a perfect example of that fact. The bureaucracy, inefficiency, paternalism and therefore, greater oppression of workers that arises in all such state capitalist enterprises is no coincidence, and the extension of that truth to its logical conclusions in the USSR, Eastern Europe, Cuba and elsewhere simply presents to workers in plain sight what the logical development of such relations represents.

    Just because the landed aristocracy and their Tory representatives attacked the evils of capitalism in the 19th century, and even used their positions in Parliament to pass legislation to limit it, was no reason for socialists to abstain from attacking the iniquities of capitalism themselves, for fear of giving succour to the feudalists. Nor just because Tories and Liberals attack the state is it any reason why socialists should abstain from such criticism themselves. Our criticism of the state comes from a diametrically opposed direction.

  2. always an honour to get a comment from Boffy…I appreciate that I am a bit of a scholastic mugwump but bear with me (and others like me) as I try to clarify my thoughts. You and I seem to agree that those who become politicians should (as we both did) use their access to levers of local state power to help activists organize themselves; that social enterprise and cooperatives are crucial agencies to support; that, on the other hand, state powers are becomingly increasingly repressive.
    But where does that leave the millions of workers in our schools, hospitals, works depots and protective services? I am no friend of Polly Toynbee - but her “Dismembered” book seems to me an overdue defence of a sector which is generally the focus of ridicule and attack. The State (at both local and national level) is a constellation of diverse interests – public, professional, party, commercial and security. My post uses the term “the local state” simply because there was active debate in the UK in the 80s about the nature of that particular beast and those interests. As indeed there was about the nature and power of The State generally – although most of it went over my head.
    But then such talk seemed to disappear.
    Come 1997 and even the World Bank recognized that the undermining of the role of the State had gone too far. But it has taken a long time for voices such as Ha-Joon Chang and Marianna Mazzucato to get leverage….In the meantime talk of “platform capitalism”, the P2P “commons” and automation confuses most of us… and the last remnants of European social democratic parties have, with a couple of exceptions, totally collapsed

    So do we simply give up on the idea of constructing a State which has some chance of working for the average Joe and Jill?

    1. Ron,

      I had this same discussion some years ago, on my blog and on that of my then interlocutor Charlie McMenamin.

      It revolves, I think around the question of "In and Against The State", which was a centrepiece of the debate from the 1980's, to which I think you are referring, and groups such as the London-Edinburgh Weekend Return Group.

      I, of course, make a distinction between those who work "in" the state, and the state itself. The former are as workers always in a struggle with the latter. The question really is whether this struggle can actually go beyond what is ultimately an economistic struggle, so long as its confined within the structure of the existing state.

      One of my first uses of the arguments was when I was a teaching student, and wrote about the limitations of the teacher in the school.

      I also take on board the points that Marx makes in his essay on "Political Indifferentism". That is just because I would choose a different alternative to state capitalist provision does not mean that I am in favour of a sectarian rejection of it, where it exists.

      What I reject is the idea that we have to be uncritical of, or big up the existing capitalist/welfare state simply as an exercise in putting a minus sign wherever the Tories/Liberals place a plus sign. I saw no reason to apologise for Stalinism, simply because it was being criticised by imperialists, so I certainly see no reason to be an apologist for the capitalist state, simply because it is being criticised by reactionaries whe want to turn the clock back further.

      In fact, I am intending next week to write a short blog on the question of civil servants v entrepreneurs. Its a common refrain that nationalised industries are inefficient because civil servants can't make the same choices that entrepreneurs do. But, of course, the civil servants Michael Edwards, Ian McGregor etc. were "entrepreneurs" before taking on those Nationalised industries, and went back to such roles after.

      My point here is that when the reactionaries raise their criticisms we should point out that the same arguments apply to all the other huge enterprises of which these individuals are figureheads, and the answer cannot be, then, privatisation, but can only be pushing forward through the current limitations, to a democratisation of those industries/services.

      In some places, they might mean having to establish separate competing structures. For example, we have a network of co-operative pharmacies, nurseries and so on already. My answer to your last question, therefore, is that we have to build structures that actually represent an alternative state to the one we have. Its actually what the bourgeoisie did in the towns and boroughs, where they were strong, in building an alternative structure to the feudal state.