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Colin Barker

Stuck in the State

(March 1980)

From Socialist Review, 22 March-19 April 1980: 3, pp.31-32.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Struggle Over The State: Cuts and Restructuring in Contemporary Britain
CSE State Apparatus and Expenditure Group
CSE Books, £2.50.

Capitalism and the Rule of Law: From Deviancy Theory to Marxism
ed. Bob Fine et al. for National Deviancy Conference and Conference of Socialist Economists
Hutchinson, £3.95.

In and Against the State: Discussion Notes for Socialists
London Edinburgh Weekend Return Group
PDC, £1.25.

Over the last decade or so, there has been a revival of Marxist intellectual debate.

One area on which discussion has been focused has been the central political problem of the state. In a first wave, discussion was dominated by the fundamentally barren ‘Miliband-Poulantzas debate’, both of whose major participants evolved openly towards left-reformist positions. A variety of impulses, however, turned the discussion out of this constricted furrow towards a concern with questions posed by classical Marxism. In their way, the three works reviewed here are all contributions to the ‘second wave’ of state debate. In different ways, they all reveal the strengths and weaknesses of the present left-academic debate.

Regrettably, Struggle Over the State is the least interesting – regret because the authors have attempted to produce a readable, relevant book. Its strength is its inclusion of empirical materials, in a variety of chapters that examine the ways in which the Callaghan government slashed and restructured the ‘welfare state’ in Britain. The difficulty, perhaps, is that the book emerged from a discussion group whose members had rather different political perspectives, some being left-reformists, others revolutionaries. Some share a commitment to some version or another of the ‘Alternative Economic Strategy’, others are resolutely opposed. The specifically theoretical and political sections of the book groan under the weight of the group’s attempt to blend slops and fire. Still, the book contains useful documentation on a variety of questions of practical concern to socialists, and is ‘good in parts’.

Capitalism and the Rule of Law is a collection of essays concerned with the state and law. Of the three books reviewed here, it is the most ‘academic’ in tone. Running through this collection is a central argument about ‘reform or revolution’. Several authors take up the arguments of E.P. Thompson, who has developed, in several places, a more or less absolute defence of ‘the rule of law’, which he has posed in terms of an attack on a (partly imaginary) revolutionary left. And an essay by Dario Melossi presents an at-first-sight impressively radical attack on the modern state, whose social relations are presented in terms of the relations of a prison; far from this being the foundation of an ‘anarchist’ theory, however, Melossi’s conclusions are conventionally reformist – he calls for ‘an anti-capitalist use of the state’.

In and Against the State is the most accessible of the three works. If only because it is written in a fairly ‘popular’ style and is well illustrated, it is most likely to gain a significant audience.

The authors’ Preface spells out their problem:

‘Because parties and trade unions on the whole have devoted little attention to the problem of how a state worker’s hours of employment can be directed against capitalism and towards a transition to socialism, we have found that when we join them we are limited to “after-hours” socialism. We spend our evenings and weekends struggling against capitalism, and our days working diligently as agents of the capitalist state to reproduce the capitalist system.’

The authors focus, in particular, on the state’s ‘welfare’ agencies. They write: ‘Resources we need involve us in relations we don’t.’ In the welfare state, those seeking improvements in working-class conditions find themselves embroiled in all manner of social relations that actively impede their efforts. Left-wing Labour councillors, aiming to better conditions in their boroughs, find themselves acting as employers, stifled by central government rules and demands. Teachers find themselves involved as much in discipline as in education; they must teach children, too, to pass pointless exams, in which many children must – through pre-set pass-and-fail rates – be declared ‘failures’. Those who work in the welfare state, in jobs involving care and concern for need and suffering, find themselves being super-exploited for their pains.

Central to the way the welfare state works is its tendency to turn collective class problems into individual cases. Areas and industries are unhealthy, but the state deals only with the individuals who are sick. Health workers themselves are so busy and over-worked dealing with the immediate problems of the individual sick that they have little time or energy left for developing collective solutions to collective problems. After all, these sick individuals’ needs are real and pressing, and cannot be ignored:

‘If someone comes into the CHC office crippled with arthritis, it is difficult to tell them to join a group to make the NHS change its priorities... It is difficult for people, in tight personal circumstances to turn a personal tussle with the state into a political struggle against it. Women with children and without collective support can barely get out of the house for a meeting.’

Teachers who know the exam system is irrelevant, that it distorts education, also know their students need those qualifications if they’re to get jobs. If they don’t teach those hated, competitive exam courses, students and parents will protest.

The dilemmas socialists face arise, the authors suggest, from the very character of the capitalist state. The state is capitalist, not just because of what it does (defending capitalist property, limiting workers’ rights, fostering racism through immigration policies, etc.) but also because of how it does it. Certain kinds of social relations are imposed on us by the state.

In capitalism, exploitation is hidden behind a veil. In, say, feudalism, exploitation was transparently a matter of give-and-take (the peasants gave, the lords took.). But in capitalism it appears that everyone is equal and free. Each worker is free to work for a particular employer or not, free to live his or her own private life. But the world of the ‘free’ labour market is not the place where exploitation happens: exploitation occurs in the ‘private property’ of the capitalist, in: the – workplace, where it is hidden behind: the illusion of ‘a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay’. Employers enter ‘fair and free’ contracts with workers, and end up with their wealth expanded; while workers end up no better off at the end of the process than at the beginning. The everyday procedures of capitalism disguise and mystify the realities of exploitation.

Similarly with the state. It is not constructed around the fundamental antagonisms of capitalist exploitation, as an agency of open class oppression. But it appears as the state of the ‘citizens’, of the individual free agents of the labour market, who appear to be equal. The state relates to these ‘free and equal’ individuals, and reinforces these relations of freedom’ and ‘equality’. The state does not relate to us as rriembers of classes, indeed it does not recognise classes. Rather, it treats us as fragmented, individual roles: as ‘voters’, ‘taxpayers’, ‘delinquents’, ‘consumers’, ‘claimants’, etc.

All the procedures the state lays down for dealing with us, and for meeting (some of) our needs and problems, atomise us and conceal the class character of our needs and problems. So, as the authors emphasise, the very form of the social relations imposed on us by the state are quite useless for socialist struggle.

‘... the idea that you can achieve socialism through the state is illusory: the state channels and fragments our struggles in such a way that socialism can never appear on the agenda.’

The problem is acute right now. The Tories, following Labour’s lead, are launching massive attacks on the welfare state. We should not forget that Thatcher won millions of votes, in part in a campaign against the state and in particular against the taxation burden. (Not, of course, that the Toriesrhave any interest in cutting workers’ tax burden in reality!) Tax has become a significant working-class issue: in 1950 the average male manual worker paid no income taxes; today he pays something like 20 per cent of his wages in income tax, high rates, national insurance contributions, and 15 per cent VAT on a wide range of items.

Also, it is only in reformist circles – more and more removed from working-class experience – that the welfare state appears as ‘our’ welfare state. All too often, the experience workers have with welfare agencies is of a set of authoritarian, alien institutions, where they are bossed around, spied and checked on, insulted and demeaned, in return for needed but meagre benefits. A high price is demanded for the state’s miserable provision of needs.

Are there ways, the authors ask, in which – in the very fight to defend the welfare state against the Tories’ attacks – we can challenge the existing forms of the state, and begin to advance other, socialist conceptions of how education, health care, social benefits and the like might be organised? Must the struggle be one where we fall in loyally behind reformist politicians, who have no desire to go beyond (at best) restoring the former status quo, or can we raise the question of collective action and organisation, of workers’ power?

The authors note that Marxists have tended to ignore the way in which relations between the state and ‘everyday life’ (the individual, family life, leisure, work, travel, etc.) have changed, and in changing have altered the forms and organisations of the class struggle itself. Marxism has tended to be too narrowly focused, insufficiently open to the changing forms of the class struggle, and thus less effective in its interventions. All this is well said, and important.

Up to this point, I think, the pamphlet is first-rate. It provides one of the most acute analyses of the capitalist ‘welfare state’ yet published. But, I find less satisfactory the comrades’ answers to the problems they pose very well.

The political parties, the comrades suggest, have tended: to ignore the problems of workplace activity. Or, they have confined their activity to trade union demands on pay and conditions. Let us acknowledge that there is some truth: in this charge. But it needs to be: qualified, more than they admit. In the first place, they draw no distinction between reformists and: revolutionaries here. Yet this is sanely crucial: the theory and practice of reformism does not require a challenge to the state form, while revolutionary Marxism asserts the absolute necessity of the destruction of state forms.

The authors’ argument slides too easily into two kinds of assertion: first, that revolutionary organisations ignore these questions; secondly, that ‘trade union’ issues are relatively unimportant. As a result, they clear a space for a turning away from the problems of socialist party organisation entirely. And, they ignore the inter-relation between ‘economic’ and ‘political’ struggles (where ‘political’ includes the issues of challenging: the state form in daily practice) – a matter on which Rosa Luxemburg’s The Mass Strike is so magnificent, and; whose significance appears confirmed in recent history. Put bluntly: a movement that cannot defend its wages and conditions, that cannot struggle effectively against sackings and victimisation, is an unconfident movement, less likely also to challenge the state’s definitions and the ways the state structures and divides the working class. Of course, the reverse is also true: a movement that does not challenge the ways the: state shapes our lives will likewise be less capable of ‘economic’ defence.

The pamphlet’s authors argue that revolutionary organisations have placed too little weight on the question of struggles against state forms, I’m sure they’re partly correct, though they also exaggerate the issue. They, in turn, use this charge as a basis for arguing, in effect, against socialist party organisation altogether.

Thus, in effect, the comrades justify the ‘anti-organisation’ tendency that currently characterises a section of the left. It is an argument we cannot allow to go by default. ‘Anti-partyism’ is not a virtue for socialists, but a confession of weakness; and the weakness is not only in the existing organisations, but in the arguments and politics of those who one-sidedly adopt this position. It is, ultimately, a cop-out, and a strengthening of the self-ghettoising tendency of too much of the left today.

I have spelled out my reservations with this pamphlet at some length, precisely because I think it is important, and worth reading and discussing. It deserves to have some influence in the movement. But that influence is likely to be ambiguous and contradictory because its real strengths are combined with serious weaknesses.

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