We are a small group of people who work for the state or for organisations which receive money from the state. We are socialists. We believe that the struggle for socialism includes a struggle against the state – one in which we, as state workers, hold a key, and at the same time contradictory, position. If we are to work in and against the state, we must find ways of bringing the struggle for socialism into our daily work.
The class position of some state workers is clear. Many public sector manual and clerical workers are the lowest paid of all employed people. For others it is equally obvious: they are highly paid management staff, top civil servants, directors of nationalised industries. But what about nurses, teachers, social workers? Their position seems ambiguous.
Those of us writing this book fall into the middle group of workers, who are often termed 'professional'. We are social/community/advice/research workers. Often these types of jobs might seem as though they were above class. But our jobs have become increasingly disciplined, especially since the cuts in public expenditure which are pushing us all into positions and attitudes that are similar to those of workers for private capital.
We do not want to make some easy assertion that we are working class. That overlooks the real differences between people's oppression, for class derives from all sorts of hidden advantages and disadvantages as well as our jobs. But, the changes in the jobs that we do over the last 15 or 20 years have brought us like thousands of others in similar jobs to see ourselves as part of the working-class movement. Like many others we have made a choice. If we don't choose to be part of it, we inevitably choose to work against it. The point of this book is that we choose to be part of the struggle for socialism within our own jobs by the way we do them. We write from within our own struggle, the struggle against the state.
Some of us are women and feminists. For us the struggle to change relations within society is not just against capitalism but against sexism as well. The subordination of women by men existed long before capitalism, but is reinforced by the capitalist system and the state. The fight for a change in the relations between men and women must go hand in hand with that for socialism. It cannot be assumed that sexism will automatically disappear in a socialist society.
In our group some of us are tenants, some are parents, all, at one time or another, have been patients. We know we have no choice but to enter into routine relationships with the state to obtain money, resources and services. We depend on and are controlled by state provision, rules, demands. As 'clients', too, we feel the need to organise to fight against the state.
The state is not neutral. It does provide services and resources which most of us need – education, health care, social security. But it does not do so primarily for the good of the working class. It does it to maintain the capitalist system. Although the state may appear to exist to protect us from the worst excesses of capitalism, it is in fact protecting capital from our strength by ensuring that we relate to capital and to each other in ways which divide us from ourselves, and leave the basic inequalities unquestioned.
We believe that it is essential that capitalism be seen not just as an economic system, but as a set of social relations. It determines the way we see ourselves and others, the way we treat each other, the way some people have control over others' lives.
The state, too, is more than a structure which administers numerous services and programmes. It is a complex set of social relations which must be maintained if capitalism is to 'continue'. It is characteristic of the state that it treats us as individual citizens, families, communities, consumer groups – all categories which obscure class. By this process, the state seems to define us and our problems in ways which confuse us. It helps hide the fact that it is the capital relation which is the root of our problem and shapes our lives. The state also establishes a hierarchy of power and decision making. This hierarchy is one of class, but it includes the subordination of women and people of certain races and religions. These groups have a special experience of state oppression and must sometimes organise autonomously as well as together with other parts of the working class.
Those of us who work for the state are inevitably part of the state. We must find ways to oppose it from within our daily activity, which means breaking out of the social relations in which the state involves us and creating alternative forms of organisation as we struggle for socialism. If we do not, whether we recognise it or not, we are perpetuating a capitalist society - one which is exploitative, sexist and racist.
Struggle against the state - against the social relations it perpetuates - goes on all the time. The state is an often frustrating and threatening part of our daily lives, and struggle against it is instinctive. But it is often individual, risky and ineffective. Struggle must be collective. It is important that we understand what forms of collective action will most effectively challenge the state form of relations and provide a basis for building socialism, and then organise ourselves around them.
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. Like Penelope, in the Greek myth, we stitch the tapestry of bourgeois society every day and attempt each night to unravel it before dawn.
Is there any way out of this hopeless dilemma? Can we shape our daily activity in such a way as to avoid stitching capital's tapestry, can we hinder rather than promote the reproduction of capitalist social relations? Does the fact that our work is situated in the state give us special opportunities in this respect, or is that merely a reformist illusion? These are the issues that we want to discuss. The aim of this book is to provide a framework for that discussion.
We first look in detail at the predicament people feel they are in, as state workers or as 'clients' and subjects of the state. Then we look more directly at the state itself. What is its part in capitalist society, how has it developed in recent years, how has it responded to crisis and change, and what difference has that made for us? In particular, we emphasise that the state is not just a set of institutions, but a pervasive form of relations. Finally, we consider the shape that working-class struggle against the state has taken, ways in which people have seen and seized opportunities to oppose, to challenge the state form.
The Conservative Government elected in summer, 1979, is apparently attacking many aspects of the state, cutting state expenditure yet further, causing the loss of state jobs. This confuses many people who feel the need to defend the state, yet do not feel that it is 'their' state and know that the state itself oppresses them. It is all the more urgent, therefore, that as socialists we look for ways of fighting back oppositionally, rather than simply defending a state we know to be indefensible.
London Edinburgh Weekend Return Group Autumn 1979