Chapter 3 - Understanding the capitalist state

All the people we talked to experienced the state as contradictory, oppressive, frustrating. Turning to the state for the things we need, or helping others to get what they need may appear to provide an escape route from the injustices of a society based on the pursuit of profit, but there is little sign of this in these conversations. In all of them there is a common thread; the injustice, the inequality, the discrimination of society at large are present too within the state and everything that it does.

Our experience belies the myth of the welfare state

It is common to think of the state as being set apart from the rest of society. 'people sometimes think of the state as compensating for the inequalities of capitalist society, as redressing the balance between rich and poor. Or, even if the government is clearly not doing much for the poor at present, it is argued that its policies should be changed, that the state 'ought' to help redress the balance more.

This is the dominant, 'Fabian' ideology of the Labour Party. The expansion of the welfare state is identified with the onward march towards socialism. Often people make a distinction between two different sides of the state. They think of the state as having a 'good' (i.e. socialist) side, which would include social services, health, education and nationalised industries; and a 'bad' (i.e. capitalist) side, involving such functions as defence, law and order, and aid to private industry. In this view the struggle for socialism involves trying to expand the good side and restrict the bad side.

The experience of the people we talked to makes it clear that such a view of the state is totally removed from the reality of our everyday contact with it. Maureen's contact with the social worker does not suggest an experience of socialist liberation or even collective solidarity - 'I couldn't have that aggravation again, always being put down and everyone reading your notes'. John described the network of supervision and spying in the state-run buses and the constant resistance and sabotage of the drivers who feel it is necessary to deliberately let their tyres down and drive slowly. This seems hardly the embryo from which a rational system of socialist transport will grow. Their experience, and the experience of the others we spoke to, stands in stark mockery of the empty abstraction of the Fabian view of the state.

It is true that the welfare state gives us some of the things we need, gives us 'benefits', but it does so in a certain way, in a way that, puts us down and oppresses us, in a way that incorporates and perpetuates the inequality and discrimination which run throughout the whole of society. It is not possible to separate off a 'good' side of state activity and see this as being simply in the interests of the working class. As we have seen, even those aspects of state activity which seem most beneficial to the working class are experienced as oppressive by those involved. We receive 'benefits', but somehow, the receipt of benefits always confirms that we are underneath, that we are on the receiving end of society, and it is always bound up with submission to supervision and control. And giving us 'benefits' always cuts of the question 'why'; why do we need the benefits, why are we underneath, why is society unjust and unequal?

The state, then, is not 'our' state. It is 'their' state, an alien, oppressive state.

It is very easy to lose sight of this when the state comes under attack, when the material benefits we receive from the state (including our chances of employment) are being eaten away by the state expenditure cuts introduced by Labour and now increased by the Tories. The immediate reaction of the Left is to fight the cuts, to defend the state. This is very contradictory as we shall argue more fully in the last two chapters, because it implies the state is 'our' state.

An important reason why the cuts have been implemented with such ease and the reason why the Tories' attacks on the 'overmighty state' have had such popular appeal in the recent election, is precisely that most people experience the state not as our state but as an oppressive institution. Maureen, for instance, was emphatic that the modern state, despite the resources it offered her, made life worse for her than it was for her mother in Ireland. It is important to realise this if we are to have a realistic basis on which to build struggle against Tory policies.

A capitalist state in a capitalist society

The state cannot be treated as being totally separate from the society which surrounds it. To understand the state we need to first look at society as a whole.

We live in a class society. We live in a society based on the domination of one class by another, society based on exploitation. The working class produces the wealth but does not control it: it is taken over and controlled by the capitalist class. We can see signs of the class society all around us: in the contrast between rich and poor, in the coexistence of thousands of homeless people and rampant speculation of prestige office blocks, in the 'rationalisations,' which throw thousands of workers on to the rubbish heap of unemployment, in the antagonism which runs through every bit of society.

The exploitation of one class by another is not, of course, peculiar to capitalism. Feudal and slave societies were also based on exploitation. What is peculiar to capitalism is the form which this exploitation takes. The essential characteristic is that under capitalism, the labour power of the worker is bought and sold. It is a commodity. This is different from other class societies. Slave owners, for example, exploited their slaves by owning them and forcing them to work in return for their keep. Feudal serfs were politically and legally subjected to the rule of their lord and forced to work a certain number of days for the lord. In both of these cases the class nature of the society was fairly obvious, and was recognised by the political and religious institutions.

Under capitalism, however, the relations between the classes are less clear. Society is still based on exploitation: a ruling class still appropriates and controls the wealth produced by the working class. But the worker is not owned by his or her employer, nor is s/he politically and legally inferior to the capitalist. On the contrary, the worker is formally a free and equal citizen, just like the capitalist. The distinction between them is that the latter owns and controls the means of production, whereas the worker has no access to the means of production. S/he therefore has no means of surviving unless s/he enters into a contract of exchange with the capitalist.

In this exchange, the capitalist gives the worker a wage which enables the worker to buy food, clothing, shelter and so on in order to survive. In return the worker gives the capitalist control over his or her labour power for the working day. What the worker produces over and above the value of the wage during that day (the surplus value) belongs to the capitalist. In the same way as the slave-owner appropriates the surplus produced by the slave, and the lord appropriates the surplus produced by the serf, so the capitalist appropriates the surplus produced by the worker. The difference is that under capitalism, exploitation takes place on the basis of formal relations of apparent equality.

In pre-capitalist class societies, class distinctions openly permeated every aspect of social life. Under capitalism, exploitation is concealed under a formal veil, a veil of freedom and equality in exchange. Workers are 'free' to exchange their labour power with any capitalists they choose. This is an 'equal' exchange in the sense that the workers receive the value of their labour power (as defined by the money needed to ensure survival and reproduction). But the 'equal' exchange conceals exploitation, because they do not receive the full value of what is produced by their labour power in action.

This does not mean that all workers are fooled by this appearance of freedom and equality into thinking that class exploitation is at an end. Far from it. But it does provide the basis for a whole framework of social forms which protect the status quo by simply denying the existence of class exploitation. Thus, wage negotiations, for example, take as their starting point the formal - equality of the exchange relation between worker and capitalist.

The slogan 'a fair day's pay for a fair day's work!' assumes this fairness and equality, completely blotting out the relation of exploitation which underlies the contract between worker and 'employer'. And on this basis a whole network of rights and obligations is built up between worker and capitalist, all of which, assume that their relation is intrinsically a fair and equal one. The notion of 'unfair dismissal', for example, presupposes that the opposite of dismissal, employment (i.e. exploitation) is 'fair'.

When we say, therefore, that under capitalism, relations of class exploitation 'appear on the surface' as relations between free and equal individuals, we do not mean that everyone is fooled by that appearance. We mean that the way in which workers relate to capitalists (through the sale of their labour power on the market) provides the basis for a host of different structures of social relations which isolate members of classes, and treat them as equal individuals with mutual rights and obligations. Capitalists and workers are treated not only as 'employers and employees' (with the assumption that this is a natural and fair relation), but as 'landlords and tenants', 'manufacturers and consumers', or merged indiscriminately into 'patients', 'passengers', 'voters', 'taxpayers' etc. Society seems to be made up of millions of interconnecting but fundamental1y fragmented social relations without any structure. We are confronted by a host of different ways of relating to people, all of which seem to deny the existence of class and class exploitation.

How is the state a capitalist state?

It is common to think of the state as being a capitalist state simply because of what it does: defending property against attack, keeping pickets under control, paying subsidies to the monopolies, providing cheap labour power for industry etc. However, the conversations we described in Chapter I, suggest that, at least as important is how the state does things, that is, the social relations embodied in the organisation of the state and its activity. What makes the state a capitalist state is the way in which it is built into the whole structure of capitalist social relations.

Capitalism is a particular system of social relations, of class relations, which appear on the surface as relations between free and equal individuals. The capitalist nature of the state expresses itself in the way that it consolidates those social relations. The categories of the state (that is the categories through which the state deals with people) are built upon the categories of exchange and constitute an extra layer of protective seal over the class relations of capitalist society.

Starting out from the 'free' exchange of commodities (including the labour power of the worker) the whole structure of the political system is built upon equality and citizenship, or upon distinctions which do not relate directly to the fundamental antagonism of capitalist production. It treats us as citizens, voters, taxpayers, patients, social security claimants, employers, employees, smokers, non-smokers - on a host of different bases, but never on the basis of class, never on a basis which would raise explicitly the question of exploitation and class domination. And so these questions simply get squeezed out of political discussion. Exploitation is presupposed before bourgeois politics even begin.

Conflicts within the confines of bourgeois politics concern only the structure of social relations to be built on top of exploitation: the conflicts may be important but they never raise the fundamental question of class exploitation itself. This is the significance of the distinction between politics and economics: to make that distinction a rigid one (as does the whole structure of the bourgeois political system) means that, from the start, you cut yourself off from an understanding of politics as one aspect of the system of relations of production 'and exploitation.

The state, then, is not just an institution. It is a form of social relations, a class practice. More precisely, it is a process which projects certain forms of organisation upon our everyday activity, forms of organisation which do not pose any threat to the reproduction of capitalist social relations.

When, as at the moment, the development of British capitalism is particularly oppressive (rising unemployment, rising prices, declining social services and so on), the state invites us, not as a class, but as individuals, workers and capitalists alike, into the ballot box to mark a cross in the hope that it might influence which party will next try to govern the capitalist system. When capitalism makes us destitute, the state requires us, not to demonstrate as the victims of Class domination, but to fill in forms and apply, as individuals in need of assistance, for supplementary benefit. When capitalism ruins our health, we are taken as patients into hospitals to be treated as unfortunate individuals; the state never assists us to fight back against the causes of ill-health. At every step our relation to the state breaks us up, pushes us into certain moulds, removes from sight all mention 'of class, or exploitation, or anything which might raise the question of the interrelation between our fragmented ills.

Furthermore, the processes by which the state fragments (or 'confirms the fragmentation of) society at large find their counterpart within the internal organisation of the state apparatus itself. Just as the state deals with people in a fragmented manner as patients, social security claimants, or old age pensioners, so this is reflected in the internal division of labour within the state apparatus between officials who deal with patients, those who deal with social security claimants, those who deal with old age pensioners, and so on.

And just as the receipt of benefits and the definition of the claimant is bound up with a whole network of supervision and control, so within the state a massive system of hierarchical control ensures that the proper division of labour makes it virtually impossible to raise the question of class or exploitation. For a state worker to try to get to the roots of a problem would be to stray beyond the definition of her or his job.

So what is at issue here is not just a question of ideology in a simple sense. It is not just that our minds are constantly bombarded (as indeed they are) with the idea that we are living in a free, democratic society, that illness and poverty are individual problems. It is more than that. Even if we see through all this, even if we see or sense that illness or poverty are problems of society, we are still faced by the problem that any positive action by us seems to require us to jump through certain administrative hoops, to go through certain procedures which, whatever our beliefs, constrain us to act as individuals or fragmented groups.

The struggle against the state, therefore, is not just a matter of enlightening people, of showing them that the state is capitalist. It is a problem of trying to develop alternative forms of organisation which will counteract the fragmentation imposed by the state and give material expression to class solidarity. The state is constantly trying to reduce us to abstract individual citizens. We must struggle against that. We must find ways of expressing our struggles materially as class struggles.

The two senses of 'state'

How can we use our daily routine contact with the state (as 'clients' or as 'employees') to struggle against the state? This is the problem which cannot be avoided. On the one hand, we have seen that 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. On the other hand, to assume that our routine contact with the state cannot be used in the struggle for socialism would be to condemn ourselves to the hopeless dilemma of after-hours socialism. The dilemma of strengthening capitalism by working as agents of the capitalist state during the day and try to weaken it by our socialist activity in the evenings and at weekends. For those of us who work for a state or semi-state body, or who come into routine contact with the state, as claimants, or tenants, or councillors, for instance the question is inescapable: how do we work in and against the state?

To talk of working in and against the state implies that we are using the term 'state' in two slightly different senses. So far, we have emphasised the importance of seeing the state not just as an institution, but as a form of social relations, of seeing how the process of state activity takes place. But it is also an institution. Indeed, this is the more common view - to see parliament, the army, judges, as making up a machine, an apparatus, an 'instrument of the ruling class'. When we say we are employed by the state, or that we come into routine contact with the state, we are referring to an institution, a network of hierarchical rules and financial powers and controls. But when we say this, we say as yet nothing about the way in which the state operates.

Therefore we can distinguish between two senses of the word 'state', between the state apparatus, and the state considered as a form or process of social relations. The two senses are closely intertwined, but the distinction is important. The problem of working in and against the state is precisely the problem of turning our routine contact with the state apparatus against the form of social relations which the apparatus is trying to impose upon our actions.

Now, it is very clear that the state apparatus is not neutral. The whole complex of rules, procedures, divisions of competence, the way that buildings are constructed and furniture designed - all seem to press our activities into a certain mould. The teacher slots into a certain hierarchy in the school, s/he is instructed to teach a certain subject during strictly allotted periods of the day, within a classroom in which children are separated from the rest of the world and placed at desks arranged in a neat, orderly pattern. But it cannot be assumed that the form of state workers' activity is inevitably and completely determined by the state apparatus.

We have already seen examples of peoples' contradictory experience of the state, reflecting the contradictions and antagonisms of capitalist society. The process of state activity is continually interrupted by workers' behaviour being inconsistent with the aims of the state apparatus. Teaching is not always schooling kids for capitalism, community workers are not always acting as 'soft cops'.

In Chapter 6 we shall give examples of this. There is always a tendency for a break or disjuncture to exist between the state apparatus and the way it is trying to form our actions. The state apparatus, the network of rules and controls to which we are subject is a fossil, the outcome of past struggles to channel activity into the 'proper' form. As such, it is far from neutral, but it also has a certain hollowness and, if we are strong enough, brittleness. The rules are constantly being resisted and broken: the problem for us is how do we bend and break them in a politically effective way, in a way which would strengthen the struggle for socialism?

The state casts a protective and opaque seal of freedom and equality over the class domination of capitalism, but this is far from being a smooth, impregnable seal. It is more like a thin crust on a seething, bubbling cauldron of soup. Any system based on class exploitation is bound to be unstable, because it is based on conflict, on the oppression of the majority by the minority. Class struggle does not simply erupt on the fringes of capitalism, in occasional surges of militancy. It is there every day, everywhere, in the whole system of antagonistic relations based on the active and daily repeated exploitation of one class by another.

To think that such a system based on antagonism could ever be stable, could ever be reduced entirely to routine habit, could ever reproduce itself 'normally' without conflict or disruption, as the bourgeoisie would have us believe, is nonsense. We can see all around us that the 'normal' condition of things is one of instability: factories, families, schools - all are riven by conflict, disruption and impermanence - far from the havens of peace and tranquillity which bourgeois ideology suggests. The veneer of equality and harmony scarcely conceals the daily eruptions of state violence and discrimination on the one hand, and on the other sabotage, truancy, absenteeism, vandalism and the million other acts of rebellion which capital is constantly seeking to control or suppress.

This seething, steaming soup which constantly breaks through the thin crust of bourgeois forms exists inside as well as outside the state apparatus. The antagonisms which constantly disrupt the flow of things outside the state find expression also in direct relation to the state apparatus. Often these antagonisms are expressed simply in individual acts of rebellion with little political consequence, but sometimes they take more significant forms: organisation by claimants, for instance or community workers joining tenants in protests against state housing provision. Everywhere cracks constantly appear in the relation between the state apparatus and the state as a form of capitalist social relations.