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International Socialism, October 1977


Irene Bruegel

Policing the Cities


From International Socialism (1st series), No.102, October 1977, p.30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Local State
Cynthia Cockburn
Pluto Press £2.95

On the cover of Cynthia Cockburn’s book is a picture of St Agnes Place, Lambeth which neatly encapsulates her thesis of local government as local state. There’s a paddy waggon or two of police protecting demolition squads against protesting homeless people. The local authority has decreed that the houses should be demolished for the extension of a park. The people in the area need the park as well as the housing but because of the expenditure cuts they won’t get either; the land is simply to be left bare. In this situation no wonder that the repressive face of the local state is for once starkly revealed. What Cynthia Cockburn seeks to do in this important book is to explain how such a turn of events comes about. How apparently democratic, responsive and concerned local authority is but one arm of the state and therefore, at one remove of the interests of the ruling class.

Cynthia Cockburn argues this by taking apart certain of the myths surrounding local government making use of a detailed study of the operations of one particular authority, Lambeth. She deals particularly well with the myth of democracy; that the decisions of the local authority reflect the expressed wishes of the people. She shows how the ruling Labour Party is cut off from the local working class, how management techniques, culled from big business, help concentrate decision making power in the hands of a tiny elite of top bureaucracy, excluding all but the most management orientated local councillors and how these facts are disguised by a plethora of ‘progressive’ devices.

The major focus of the study is on two so-called ‘progressive’ developments in local government; corporate management and community development. She shows these to be complementary techniques. The community approach is no simple response to working-class demands but a necessary concomitant to the development of more sophisticated management practices. Both are shown to be necessary for the containment of urban problems in an increasingly anarchic capitalist system. Not only must cities be managed for capitalism, so too must the people.

However radical community and neighbourhood workers are as individuals, Cynthia Cockburn shows that in the context of a working-class area like Lambeth, they are inexorably incorporated into the process of management. In Lambeth, despite the radical gloss, the institutions of participation were designed from the start to enhance the power of the central directorate, by providing them with relevant information, and to facilitate cuts in expenditure, by letting/making the community meet its own needs. Where the neighbourhood councils did challenge the council over housing policy, the participation structure was quickly demolished.

Such ‘democratisation’ does of course throw up immense contradictions; it can serve as a legitimation of greater state control but it can also, as Cynthia Cockburn puts it, open up a ‘new terrain of class struggle’. By this she dos not mean ‘community action’ which she argues, is just as parochial and ultimately incorporative as the state’s own community package, but the broadening of conscious class struggle beyond the workplace. For, she recognises that however central the class struggle at the point of production may be, it cannot be contained within that realm (for capital extends its domination into all aspects of everyday life.) Within such a perspective she considers particularly the role of organisation amongst council workers and the pivotal position of women in furthering working-class interests outside the workplace.

This book is not a sophisticated theoretical analysis of the local state; there are numerous problems with some of the particular formulations Cynthia Cockburn adopts. While she touches on the myth of local authorities as ‘honest brokers’ seeking merely to reconcile conflicting interests of people within the area and shows how they create and extend such divisions (such as that between squatters and ordinary local families) – in order to respond more effectively to the dominant, but hidden interests of the nationally (and internationally) based ruling class, this argument is not as well developed as it might have been.

Nevertheless Cynthia Cockburn has produced a readable analysis, related to concrete experiences in Lambeth, which provides us with a coherent revolutionary perspective on local government. This is an area which is fundamental to the maintenance of the modern state which revolutionaries have ignored for far too long.

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