what you get here

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!

Monday, February 26, 2018

Bringing the State “back in”?? – a story about Academic Tribes

Books are a frequent trigger for the musings here – last autumn, a small book actually inspired me to pose no fewer than 16 critical questions about the operation of the modern state. The questions included the following -
- Why is the state such a contested idea?
- Where can we find out how well (or badly) public services work?
- How do countries compare internationally in the performance of their public services ?
- Has privatisation lived up to its hype?
- what alternatives are there to state and private provision
- why do governments still spend mega bucks on consultants?
- If we want to improve the way a public service operates, are there any “golden rules”?

Rather than answering the questions directly, I chose to give a brief summary of how each question had been treated; and identified 2-3 books which I considered made the best job of answering each question – ensuring that each title had a good hyperlink.
The results are attractively tabulated in the pamphlet - Reforming the State”.

I was conscious, however, that I had left the first – and most difficult - of the questions unanswered namely - what do we really mean when we talk about “the state”?
I was actually in a good position to give a coherent answer – for 50 years my focus has been on the workings of local and central government from a position as both a lecturer on public management issues (17 years) and local and regional politician actually managing programmes (22 years); and, finally, a similar number of years as an international consultant to some 10 national governments.
But, despite all this, I felt inadequate to the task – and didn’t even try to answer the question….I just left it hanging…..

Let me try to explain why………
When I started in academia and local politics (both in 1968), things were simple – at least in my teaching role. Public administration was basically legalistic – the first books with a managerial bent only started to appear in the early 70s (Peter Drucker was the only management book easily available then!!). But American material from President Johnson’s 1964 War on Poverty programme had started to trickle over from the Atlantic – particularly Dilemmas of Social Reform (1967) – coinciding with the student revolutions of 1968. 
“Participation” became all the rage – even the British government felt obliged to start its own (small) community development projectI lapped all of this up – not least because, with the help of the Rowntree Foundation, I was managing a community action project whose work fed into the ambitious social strategy some of us developed a few years later for Europe’s largest Regional authority…..Here is an early paper which expresses how I was in those days trying to make sense of what I saw as a huge "democratic deficit" in the Local State. In this I was assisted by the political science literature on the structure of power in US cities which has started in the mid 50s
Urban sociologists and a few geographers suddenly found the city a site worthy of their critical attention. Land-use was changing dramatically as heavy industry collapsed – to the detriment of the people in areas which, for a time, were called “traditional industrial regions”. The academics started to explore embarrassing concepts such as industrial ownership; to talk of the “ruling class” and “workers”; and to focus on how “the local state” treated the poor….
But the language many of these young academics used was Marxist; the concepts pretty tortuous; and so interest in the locality fairly quickly faded….   

Bob Jessop is probably the best-known writer on the State – producing The Capitalist State - Marxist theories and methods in 1982; and State Theory – putting capitalist states in their place in 1990. Both are difficult to read – his conclusion to the second book and this article on State Theory – past, present and future are probably the best things to look at to get a sense of his contribution – particularly the last and most recent which can be seen as a flier for his latest book of the same title. .. .

In 1985 an interesting article mapped the thinking about “the state” in the period from the end of the war to the late 70s – at least from the American perspective (so there was hardly any reference to Marxist texts). The article was by a political scientist (with a political sociology bent) but the title she chose, Bringing the state back in, was rather curious since this was precisely the period when Margaret Thatcher was making privatisation fashionable (and soon global) and the phrase “The Washington Consensus” was just about to be coined. It was indeed only in 1997 that the World Bank rowed back from its apparent mission of sinking the State - and published its apologia in The State in a Changing World.  So all I can imagine is that Skopcol was allowing the state "back into" some academic debate…..since it was at the time definitely being evicted from the political scene

But the same title was reprised by Bob Jessop in 2001 who used it, however, to take a completely different approach – with his sub-title “revisions, rejections and redirections” giving a good sense of the drift of his (largely incoherent) analysis. This seemed to focus almost entirely on disputes between European Marxist sociologists – and certainly ignored the corpus of work which political scientists on both sides of the Atlantic were doing on issues relating to the state eg “Varieties of Capitalism . This succinct 2007 article by Vivien Schmidt showed the sort of analysis about the state which the Marxists had missed….. In the meantime a famous American sociologist had been developing this very useful Reading Guide to theories of the state

Even so, you can see how different all this is from the questions I was exploring last autumn – questions, of course, which don’t seem to be of any interest to the sociologists nor even (strangely!) to the academic political scientists – although there are a few exceptions such as Matt Flinders.
The questions I posed last autumn have been of interest mainly to a (declining?) tribe of public management theorists… people such as Chris Hood and Chris Pollitt, a political sociologist (Guy Peters) and, to a lesser extent, political scientists such as Rod Rhodes. Rhodes achieved quasi-guru status in his particular tribe by virtue of his development first of the “Hollowing-Out” thesis of modern government; and then of his anthropological approach to political science – best expressed in his 2010 book with Mark Bevir - The State as Cultural Practice which basically seems to tell us that “it’s all in our minds”!!

This is not the first time I have here accused academics of confusing us all (and themselves) with their failure to talk across disciplinary borders – here is a hint about how the State is treated by the various academic disciplines…..


Core assumption
Most Famous exponents (not necessarily typical!)
Struggle for power
Durkheim, Max Weber, Talcott Parsons, C Wright Mills,Robert Merton,  Herbert Simon, A Etzioni, Ralf Dahrendorf

Rational choice
Adam Smith, Schumpeter, Keynes, P Samuelson, M Friedmann, J Stiglitz, P Krugman
Political science
Rational choice (at least since the 1970s)
Robert Dahl, Gabriel Almond, David Easton, S Wolin, Peter Hall, James Q Wilson, Bo Rothstein, Francis Fukuyama
Mackinder, David Harvey, Nigel Thrift, Danny Dorling
Public management
mixed for traditional bodies - rational choice for New PM
Woodrow Wilson, Chris Hood, Chris Pollitt, Guy Peters, G Bouckaert,
shared meaning
B Malinowski, Evans-Pritchard, Claude Levi-Strauss, Margaret Mead, Mary Douglas, Chris Shore, David Graeber
Political economy
draws upon economics, political science, law, history, sociology et al to explain how political factors determine economic outcomes.
JK Galbraith, Susan Strange, Mark Blyth, Wolfgang Streeck, Geoffrey Hodgson, Yanis Varoufakis,

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