Chapter 2 - The predicament

A number of major predicaments seem to emerge from these conversations. It is not that everyone experiences the state in the same way, but that nearly always a problem experienced by one individual or group is reflected in the experience of others. We discuss below a number of issues that seemed to be recurring in what people told us. The issues are difficult to separate out and pin down for examination, however, because they are interactive. The relation between the state and ourselves is a seamless web.

Resources we need involve us in relations we don't. The major contradiction that seems to arise over and over again in peoples' relation with the state is that the state's institutions offer certain needed goods, benefits or services - things we cannot do without, or would rather have from the state than from any ready alternative source; yet getting these things somehow puts us in an undesirable position. This contradiction takes a number of different forms in our conversations. To win a degree of control over the operations of the local authority, Labour leftists felt they had to fight elections. Yet once elected they found themselves involved in a management situation, employer to low-paid workers. Advice centre workers wanted to obtain legal rights for their 'clients', but to do so they and the people they were helping had to observe the stifling forms of the law, submit to legal procedures, take on the role of plaintiff.

Another expression of this contradiction is found in the: interview with teachers. If some socialists and feminists seek higher posts in the educational system they can channel resources to, and defend the interests of, progressive classroom teachers and working class children. Yet doing this embroils them deeper and deeper, the further up the ladder they go, in hierarchical organisation, in maintaining and observing discipline, in the administration of rules and regulations. It often means accepting the daily practice of sexism and racism too.

An example drawn from an entirely different situation may help to illustrate the way we sometimes have to compromise over relations to acquire resources. Through the squatting movement, people in need of housing have taken independent, direct action in occupying houses that were standing empty through private and public landlords' inability or unwillingness to administer them. Apart from obtaining somewhere to live, many squatters felt that the act of stepping outside the relations of property, the relation of tenant to landlord, was both challenging to the authorities and encouraging to working-class people. They felt politically good about it. But many local councils responded to squatters by inventing a second-class form of tenure called a 'licence' to occupy short-life housing. They offered licences to people living in squats. It meant semi-security for the squatter, and a renewed grip on housing management for the authority. In most cases a homeless family needed the physical resource of the house for which they were offered a licence so much that they could not consider rejecting it. They submitted to the compromising relationship of landlord and licensee and abandoned the principled political stand of squatting.

Caring helps the (capitalist) world go round. A related but somewhat different point is that as state workers charged with the task of helping people achieve things they need (teachers - a-levels, social workers - extra social security payments, advice centre workers legal redress), we actively endorse a deceptive illusion. This is the illusion that everyone is equal, with equal rights, freedom of action and access to resources, and that the state can help people achieve this equality. We know from experience that this is untrue. We know that relatively few people can get 'their rights' through the process of law and that the rights which are accessible to them in this way are skimpy. Likewise, we know that relatively few who pass through the education system get O-levels, and that, besides, O-levels are not all that could be wished of a really good education.

Yet in present circumstances people really need and want these things, and because of this, we want to help them achieve them. The CHC workers and advice centre workers in our interviews were caught in this contradiction. They were uneasy about the casework they were asked to do because it was so evidently needed, for different reasons, by both the individual and the state. It placed them in a position where to challenge the state's expectations of them as workers, they seemed to be hurting the very people they wanted to help.

In a sense, the social worker or nurse or teacher is in a similar situation at work to that in which she is (and others are) as mother or lover at home. She loves and cares because she is human. But that loving and caring is doubly exploited. It seems to involve her in unpaid and unfair amounts of work in the home. And it causes her to accept underpaid and often heartbreaking work outside. Yet if she resists, she risks hurting herself and those she cares about, merely to ruille the state a little. Men too are involved in such caring relationships, and sometimes work in caring jobs, and insofar as they do are caught in the same contradiction.

[The following poem appears in a separate box at this point in the text, on page 44]

A bed for the night

I hear that in New York
At the comer of 26th Street and Broadway
A man stands every evening during the winter months
And gets beds for the homeless there
By appealing to passers-by.

It won't change the world
It won't improve relations among men
It will not shorten the age of exploitation
But a few men have a bed for the night
For a night the wind is kept from them
The snow meant for them falls on the roadway.

Don't put the book down on reading this, man.

A few people have a bed for the night
For a night the wind is kept from them
The snow meant for them falls on the roadway
But it won't change relations among men
It will not shorten the age of exploitation.

Bertolt Brecht

The imperative of need. Behind this particular contradiction lies the helming problem of actual physical economic need in capitalism. Practical need is so demanding that anyone with any knowhow or resources feels obliged to shove a finger in the dyke. Teachers felt they needed to act as social workers, the advice centre workers as philanthropists and advocates. A strong sense of caring leads first to a liberal and charitable perspective from which difficult to move onward to a collective and political one.

Human warmth of feeling presses the individual state worker to respond to the individual client's suffering. Besides, many of these institutions, even the advisory or participatory ones, do have, (ever limited, some financial resources for such purposes. If they are not used they are wasted. Yet the deployment of them is time consuming. Coping with peoples' needs stops you attacking the source of need. To ignore immediate need and organise a struggle with broader scope, directed against structural evils, seems to be an indulgence, and hard to justify to people who are poor, or sick or homeless. Because in such circumstances they are often reluctant or able to collectivise their problem and fight in campaigns. 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.

The state workers' problem of choice is rooted in the fact that people have very little choice. It is difficult for people in tight 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.

Ourselves as wage earners against ourselves as consumers. The indivisible web of our relationship with the state and with each other is such that there seems to exist a conflict between our interests as wage earners working for the state, and our interests as 'clients' of state services, as consumers. Official statements about 'wage/price spirals' warn us off wage demands because of their effect on prices, which take the money out of our pockets as soon as we earn it. The press and other media often seem to play on this theme. And it reflects, although in a distorted way, a real experience for many of the people we talked to.

An example is Maureen's dependence on hospitals, hospital personnel and ambulance services. Her interests are apparently harmed by strikes among these workers. But many hospital workers, especially auxiliary workers, are also women like her, many with children. And they have no recourse, given present union policy, but to strike if they are to get higher wages or better conditions of work, so as to provide for themselves and their families and to continue or improve the service to Maureen.

The conflict between ourselves as wage earners and ourselves as consumers, however, is more apparent than real. What descriptions of the 'wage/price spiral', or of the 'irresponsible public sector worker' leave out of account is the vital third term: capital, which is so often the root of the problem we experience.

Official discourse ignores that there is another party manipulating the situation for gain, or for control. For' instance, in '1 official discourse about education, the teacher is often pitted against 'the school child' or 'the parents'. Yet the state has a special interest in the performance of both teacher and child. Somehow this escapes attention. This was clearly expressed in the conversation with John about the experience of being a bus conductor. The conductor is pitted against the passenger in a painful individual way, so that he or she comes to see the struggle as being one to get fewer old age pensioners travelling free on the buses for less of the time, rather than a struggle against the state to get more buses for everybody and more conductors' jobs.

It is not just a problem of consciousness but of practice, however. If, as a state worker, you take militant action of any kind you will run the risk of hurting and angering working-class people more than you hurt the state. Hospital workers, by striking, might gain improvements in wages which would lead to better staffed hospitals. But in taking this course of action they would be likely to alienate the very patients whose strength is needed in this campaign and whom the hospital is conceived as serving. John showed how both individual sabotage of the bus service and union-supported strike action both damaged the service and made even worse the workers' relations with the London working class who use the buses. Militant workers in the state, and their unions, partly because of the contradictions of their situation, partly perhaps because of limited vision blinkered by the way union struggle has developed historically, have difficulty finding forms of action that do not damage the working class as much or more than they damage the state.

Another example of this particular contradiction occurs in the councillors' description of their managerial relationship with their employees. Here the effect is the opposite one. They (stepping into the state role) find themselves saying, in effect, 'We are going to ensure that we exploit your labour power to the full, as council workers, in order to give you, as members of the public, the best and cheapest possible service.'

So who is defining us and our problems? 'Wage earner' or 'consumer', these categories separate us. It is the state that seems to define who we are. People say, when there is a disagreement about words 'it's only a problem of definition', as though definition is unimportant. But when one group of people have the power to define another group of people, and the authority to make that definition stick, it has real and painful effects.

The main thrust of the Women's Movement has been to overthrow the definition of women imposed on them by men, to define themselves. The struggle of homosexuals is to define their own sexuality in defiance of the limiting definition imposed on them by an aggressively heterosexual culture. In a social world definitions actually construct reality. We tend to act most of the time in the way we have been defined. And the state seems to have a big hand in defining us. It tells us who we are and confuses us about where our interests lie: we are tenants, parents, ratepayers.

The state also seems to represent our problems to us in a way that muddles us as to what is problematic for us and what is problematic for the state. Immigrants who are suffering from racial discrimination, by the state as much as by individual racists, are told they have a 'language problem'.

The Community Health Council workers were frustrated that they were expected to concern themselves only with the NHS, in such a way that it was difficult to talk about the more urgent question of what is making people ill. The teachers were expected to deform their students' learning experience in the interests of examinations, when they know that a pre-ordained number will not even pass them. Exams are really the state's problem, yet they are made to seem the child's. Teaching students to confront this reality was almost a proscribed activity. The advice centre workers were expected to help people in obtaining rehousing in the full knowledge that this would make others have to wait longer for a house. A class problem is posed as an individual one.

It was clear from the interviews that the' state's day to day priority is management. Although we are told that the welfare state exists to help us with our problems, it seems to be more concerned with finding ways of dealing with the problem we are for the capitalist system. The CHC workers, teachers and advice centre workers all found themselves in the business of managing conflict: channelling dissent about hospital closures through endless consultative committees; perpetuating the illusion of equality of opportunity; providing an outlet for people to make complaints without threatening the system.

All along the line, the state uses language and engages in practices that confuse us as to what are problems for the working class and what are problems for the state. Health managers are interested in discharging people from hospital to their homes as soon as possible. They claim this is better for our health and morale. We know it saves them money, however. We are the ones who know' best about our real problem (whether our home conditions would help or hinder our recovery). We want the choice. The state workers' predicament is that they often get bogged down in these definitions, especially if they think of themselves as 'neutral professionals'.

The conversation with John, the bus conductor, adds a rider to this. The unions too, are often in the business of redefining our problems and turning them into statements of need that we may go along with, but that we somehow feel do not represent our real requirements, We are led by the union into demanding more overtime rather than better basic pay, more buses, more jobs,

The taboos of sex and class. The workers in the advice centres, the schools and the Community Health Council said they found it very difficult indeed to use class as an explanation, or to propose certain class-based forms of action, even when this seemed to them as socialists to be the most realistic thing to do, Instead, they found themselves speaking of 'parents', 'patients', 'individuals', the public, and 'local people' not only when they really meant to point up these characteristics and attributes, but as an alternative to speaking about 'the working class', Many are aware that they do this for a quite specific reason, People are designated this way within the terms of reference of the state workers' job, people are grouped into such categories which then become the sphere of the worker's job. Their political actions only have legitimacy if they stick within these terms of reference. To speak of class is to 'break cover'. As long as we act on the false definitions we are all right. When we hit on the correct way of looking at problems, when we have a sense of sex and race and class, we're in trouble.

Advice centre workers address people as individuals (though as we have seen, they would prefer not to) because their legitimacy derives from being caseworkers. The 'public' implies a societal rather than a class interest - hence the Community Health Council's brief is 'to represent the interests of the public in the NHS'.

Geography also sometimes has to act as a surrogate for class. The CHC workers felt that they had to look for 'causes of ill-health in the borough', though they were actually aware that more causes of ill-health to the people of the borough lay in industrial practices and employment patterns that are not even national, but international. .

State workers are also sometimes shy of invoking class because of the ambiguity they feel in their own class position - as educated, 'professional' people. And because some people who are objectively working class do not identify as such and say 'what's that to do with us?'

To use surrogates for class, however, is not only the result of being duped into being blind to class realities, or being constrained by the remit of our jobs. Many of the effects of capitalism hit us in specific ways that we experience in common with others in similar specific situations. Problems do present themselves to parents of children differently from the way they present themselves to teachers of those same children. Cyclists do experience the roads in a different way to car users. The way into a socialist consciousness is often through such experiences. The challenge is how to transcend these categories, to see and respond to the more fundamental causes of our problems without losing the sense of immediacy and reality that alone can drive people to act.

A further contradiction exists here, however. We have seen that women's subordination, whether as state workers, as clients of the state or as domestic workers, is not only to the state but also (and with a far longer history) to men. The state ignores sex inequalities in the same way that it obscures class inequalities. The teachers in our interview had a struggle to convince the educational hierarchy in the school that there was anything political about the question of how one is addressed, as a woman, and whether there should be an element of choice about it. The state differentiates between women and men but does not acknowledge that there is any inequality implicit in the differentiation. So the category 'woman' is often one that women feel it is politically progressive to invoke, and the taboo on this is experienced as almost as difficult to outface as the taboo on class.

The need for new ways of fighting back

Traditionally, socialists have given themselves only two models for thinking about the state. One perspective is to see increasing state control as steps towards socialism. The other is to see day-to-day struggle with the state as peripheral or even irrelevant, since capital is 'the real enemy'.

The first view told us that nationalisation was a form of socialism. The Conservatives and the Confederation of British Industry are fiercely opposed to nationalisation - and this reinforces a socialist's belief that there 'must be something in it for us'. When the coal pits were nationalised they put up notices: 'Now the property of the National Coal Board, for the people.' We really believed that then. We believed that the National Health Service was 'for the people'. How far away that seems now. People have come to see the state as something else. Because what we get is not quite what we asked of it. In fact people often prefer private social relations. People sometimes make their own (not capitalist, but libertarian) alternatives where they can, just because the state's provision is not only materially inadequate but actually oppressive.

The second view led us to think that to focus working-class struggle on politics, on the state, was a strategic error. For example, in the late sixties when community workers were developing tactics for community organisation, they often felt it misleading to encourage a local community to see 'the town hall' as the main enemy. They really ought to 'let the dog see the rabbit': capital was the real enemy. Much research was done on ways in which the local council was tied up with local capital. And that was useful – because these connections exist and are little understood. But it was not quite right, or not quite enough. The state (it now appears to us) is 'rabbit' too. It is an important part of the capital relation, in its own right. That the state is important to us, that it plays a big part in our daily lives, that it permeates and deforms – our relationships with each other, is clear from the conversations we have reported here. Neither of the traditional socialist ways of understanding the state seem to help deal with the kinds of contradictions people have described to us.

The attack by the Thatcher administration upon certain aspects of the state (council housing, the National Health Service, the Prices Commission) make it urgent to find ways of fighting back that are not-simply a defence of something that socialists, along with many working-class people, some of whom vote Conservative, feel is not worthy of our support . . . that in its own way, exploits us. New ways of understanding the state, theorising the state, are needed that match our experience. Perhaps a better theory can help us decide how to go about solving problems of everyday practice as state workers or as people who have a routine relationship with the state in our 'private' lives.