Chapter 2: The State
"You have by this time brought us under the heaviest burden and into the hardest yoke we ever knowed. We have counted up that we have gotten about sixty of us to every one of you; therefore should you govern, so many to one?"
Letter from the Norfolk Labourers to the Gentlemen of Ashill - 1816. From "The making of the English Working Class." - E. P Thompson
WHAT IS THE STATE?
Although capitalism is the dominant form of social organisation for production there are things that it cannot do on the basis of profit. Broadly speaking it cannot supply the civil organisation of society that it needs. This need of capitalism is met by something else, the State.
The State is the means by which a small minority control and dominate the huge majority in the interests of the ruling power in our society; the capitalists. To give an idea of the sizes of the classes involved the old often quoted statistics that over 84% of the wealth of our society is owned by 7% of the population still holds true and indicates how small the ruling class really is.
The State then, is that set of institutions and bodies through which government is exercised. For example, parliament, local government, ministries, civil service, police, education, church, tax collecting etc. The aim of this government is to control class conflict and regulate competition between the capitalists to ensure the smooth running of society. Adam Smith, the right-wing 18th century economic philosopher beloved of the 'New Right' in the UK and the USA was dead clear about the role of the State. Here is a statement of his that is not often quoted;
"Law and governments may be considered in this and indeed in every case as a combination of the rich to oppress the poor and preserve to themselves the inequality of the goods which would otherwise soon be destroyed by the attacks of the poor, who if not hindered by the government would soon reduce the others to an equality with themselves by open violence."
Here Smith hits the nail on the head. The main function of the State under capitalism is to enforce the law of private property and the right of the capitalist to buy and sell it despite the effect it has on our lives. Whether that property is land, food, sex, factories, houses - anything.
The State preceded capitalism and has always been a form of control and oppression in the interests of what ever ruling class is in power and of what ever economic system they choose to use e.g. the Roman ruling class in the Roman Empire had a highly developed State structure. The feudal States in Europe that existed before capitalism governed the people in the interest of another power or ruling group, the aristocracy. Often the church (of various kinds) was heavily involved. Every State seems to have to justify its own existence and authority with reference to the idea of a 'higher' or 'superior' power that is often a 'God' or it can be a philosophy that takes the place of a 'God' as with Marxist-Leninism in the so-called communist countries. While there is a State there will always be oppression.
Religion and the State
As we have just mentioned the State always has to justify itself by reference to some superior force. We will go further than this now, and say that wherever you will find religion you will find the State. Why, you will ask? Our reasoning goes like this. Once you believe in divine beings or forces above humankind with superior power over our lives then you give up the right to control your own life yourself. If you look to divine guidance then you will look for the human representatives of that divine power on earth, or they will find you, whether they are guru's, wise men, priests or Billy Graham. To them you will give your obedience. You will become a follower of the god or power you worship. Through this you will become a slave of the church and priests of your chosen god and through them you will become obedient to the State that they choose to bless. The point we are making here is that religion justifies and explains why one person should have power over another, which is the essence of the political power of the State. So, religion brings about the right conditions for the existence of the State. The Russian anarchist Michael Bakunin was absolutely clear about the negative effect of all religion;
"The idea of God, (or 'forces) implies the abdication of human reason and justice; it is the most decisive denial of human freedom and necessarily ends in the enslavement of humankind, both in theory and practice. If God is, then we are slaves; now, we can and must be free; then God does not exist. I defy anybody to avoid this circle, now, therefore, choose!"
"God and the State" - Michael Bakunin.
The established churches, such as the Church of England are an integral part of the State. In the UK the Church of England is part of the State machine with Bishops sitting in the House of Lords and the Privy Council. In times of crisis, like war or industrial and social unrest, the State will wheel out the priests. At crucial times in peoples lives the church is often involved, birth, marriage and death etc.
However, newer religions and churches have sprung up as a result of people's disillusionment with the State and the conventional churches moral values. But these new religions generally channel peoples energy away from confrontation with the State into passive mystic nonsense. The new religions share all the same failings as the older religions.
WHAT DOES THE STATE DO?
It delivers the kind of society that the capitalists need to keep doing business;
Military Force; it provides, at home and abroad, an armed force to protect capitalist interests. Capitalists do not have armies, States do. In the so-called communist countries the capitalist class is also in direct control of the State and its army which makes life a lot easier for them! When we say military force, in this category we can include special outfits like secret police, special branch, internal and external intelligence and security services such as MI5 and M16, army intelligence, SAS etc. These organisations often have a close working relationship with directly funded capitalist organisations in the UK such as the Economic League, the Freemasons, the Adam Smith Institute and other right-wing think tanks and so on to form the networks that bind the ruling class together and through which power is exercised.
Political Stability: a situation where radical or revolutionary criticism of the ruling group is discouraged and prevented, by force if necessary. Instead discontent is channelled into harmless activities like petitions and elections. This harmless action is called reformism.
Education: this has three main roles; to justify and encourage acceptance of the economic and social order, in short to legitimise the status-quo; to organise young people's integration into society i.e. to make the most of the 'failures", and to supply the knowledge and skills to the workforce that capitalism needs.
Social Services: to alleviate the worst excesses of the capitalist system in order to aid stability.
Infrastructure: by this we mean the provision of the services the capitalists need for their society to work, for example; education, roads, communications and healthcare.
Law and Order: a legal force (the police and para-militaries) and a judicial system (the courts and judges), that protects the capitalists from those whom they exploit and that controls the activities of the lower classes.
How the State Works in Practice
Every State has a group of unelected permanent managers and bureaucrats who are the elite of the civil service and a very powerful group in their own right, e.g. the cabinet secretary, the secretary to the treasury, secretaries to ministries and the chief executives of local authorities.
Then there are the politicians who compete to control the State machine and its managers. These politicians represent different groups or cliques in the capitalist camp. Their ability to control the State machine depends on the strength of the power group they represent.
The condition for us to have a right to vote in this competition is that all the candidates are on the boss's side.
The British State is supposed to be controlled by the politicians and the politicians elected by us. This, we are told, allows us through the ballot box to change things. So why does the State act in the interests of the ruling class regardless of whoever is in power - Labour, Tory or Liberal? It is because to function and succeed politicians and their parties are ultimately controlled by the capitalists and the States own permanent unelected officials. Lets look at the activities of these two groups.
The Capitalists and the State
Groups that speak for the capitalists interests, like the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the City of London (also increasingly international finance) put forward their requirements to the politicians and their parties and watch closely for their response. If they are ignored the offending politicians and political parties are ridiculed and attacked, through the capitalist propaganda media machine of the newspapers, TV, radio, advertising etc. Many of the political parties rely for their funding from rich backers which can be used to exert pressure.
The State Officials and Managers
The State is a huge machine containing many powerful non-elected officials. Elected politicians are relatively small in number and wrapped up in public relations and electioneering work a lot of the time. This leaves them relying very heavily on the advice they receive from the State officials, or rather the advice these officials see fit to give them. Challenging this unelected power group would be very time consuming and very difficult, not surprisingly politicians don't do so very often. The fact is that the State has a life of its own separate from the elected politicians.
In practice the capitalists, the politicians and the State officials have the same values and objectives, most of the time. In the UK most of these people will have gone to similar schools and universities. Together they constitute the bulk of the ruling class (see Chapter Three on class) and keep in close touch with each other through official and unofficial means. Factions within this class come into conflict in pursuing their own objectives but for the most part this is handled internally through their own social networks and organisations, only occasionally do the differences surface in court or the newspapers. As it exists, democracy is most definitely an illusion. It fools us into thinking we can change things through the vote. It also give us figure heads to blame for our difficulties such as this or that Party or politician. The purpose is to make us identify with the State and its values and channel our discontent into safe, legal activities that will absorb all our energy.
Instead of the chance of voting every four years or so for one of the bosses candidates we aspire to a society where people represent themselves and their needs directly to each other. This has all been done before in Russia, Germany, Spain and Hungary for example. By local, regional and international assemblies of people, workers councils and Soviets with the use of immediately recallable delegates to represent groups of people all operating within a federal structure i.e. independent groups sharing common aims and values.
We see the new, so-called, 'democracy' movements of Eastern Europe as a futile attempt to ape Western methods of government and as the expression of a politically ambitious middle class and a small group of frustrated capitalists. Equally we see the attempt by the Left in the UK to vote 'radical' MP's into parliament as useless. While we understand peoples desires for a better way of life, parliamentary style representative 'democracy' is not the means to achieve it. Why do we take this..view? Firstly, because parliament is not where the decisive power lies within this society and secondly, if the ruling class were actually threatened by an elected government they would remove it. This 'removal' can take two forms; by force as with the socialist government of Allende in Chile in 1973, or by intrigue as with the Labour government of Wilson in the UK in 1974-76.
Genuine popular uprisings against capitalism and the State are crushed without mercy. For example Russia 1905, Germany 1919, Spain 1937, Hungary 1956 and many more. Faced with a determined revolt international capitalists will often act as one, through the means of finance and the military force of nation-states.
The military force of the State is used by capitalists in competition with each other to defend or further their own interests. Politicians and State managers will also use military force to further their own ambitions. The Falklands/Malvinas war certainly saved Thatcher and Co. from a humiliating election defeat by whipping up a frenzy of nationalist patriotism at a time when they were presiding over massive job losses and were one of the most unpopular governments ever in the history of the UK. In 1991 the Gulf War secured long term oil supplies for the First World.
The State can also act to regulate the activities of individual capitalists who could threaten stability and upset the dominant interests within the ruling class. For example the banks are only able to function under license from the State. There are also a whole range of regulations and guidelines governing manufacture, distribution and employment in Britain. This is primarily in the interest of stability and represents the deals that capitalism has had to do with the working class in Britain to keep going, deals that are negotiated through the State machine by the labour movement.
The British trade unions are crucial to this role of regulation, stability and control and because of this you will find union officials on many committees. In advanced capitalist countries like the UK capitalism cannot function without the help of the unions.
This is the process where the ruling class try to get the working class to identify with the State and its values. To achieve this identification racism, religion and patriotism are often used. Nationalism can be present where a new State is in the process of being formed against the will of an occupying State, as in Northern Ireland, Palestine and the republics of the old USSR.
The British working class identify strongly with their State and as such are very nationalistic. The heart of this 'British' nationalism is really English and grows from the fact that the British State is really still identified with an English identity. Two socialist historians comment;
"Englishness - as nationalism at home, and imperialism abroad - permeates the social power of the State, enormously enhancing its legitimacy through a systematic practice of identification."
From "The Great Arch" by Corrigan and Sayer
The English are an extreme example of nationalism, having had their original culture and identity largely destroyed with the start of capitalism and the industrial revolution. English national -identity was largely remade in the late 19th century with the Royal family at the centre, they had previously been spat at when they dared venture on the streets! A lot of the English do not even realise it, it is so deeply conditioned that many cannot see what the Irish are complaining about, or the Scots or before them the Indians and Africans! As a Welsh socialist historian pointed out,
"It is as if a really secure nationalism (i.e. English), already in possession of its own nation-state, does not see itself as 'nationalist' at all"
The British State is not as secure as it once was, it is facing increasing resistance from within, (Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and even different regions of England). Politically ambitious sections of the middle and upper classes are often involved in drawing up schemes for local devolution etc. from which they will benefit of course.
Other People's Nationalism - Identity
However, we have no wish to deny or limit the diversity of different peoples and their cultures. But the nation-state is not the best expression for this identity. We look forward to a world without frontiers. All States are artificial creations, a line on a map does not define a people but it does define a piece of property which is what a nation-state is all about.
Meanwhile, the domination and exploitation of groups of people and their lands by strong nation-states such as the USA, USSR, UK etc., causes much suffering through physical and economic repression, and denial of native identity and culture. This experience is real. The Irish, Palestinians, Kurds, East Timorese etc. are not imagining what is happening to them. They're being oppressed by another country. This brutal process is at the heart of imperialism and takes many forms. Sometimes direct occupation such as Britain in Northern Ireland or using a puppet native government, as in some African countries, to exploit the local economy in the interests of international capitalism (called Neo-colonialism.) Either way resistance makes itself felt. This resistance can be channelled into aspirations to form an 'independent' nation free of the outside oppressor. This approach is naturally promoted by the 'local' middle and upper classes who have the most to gain from such independence. While we agree with the removal of such imperial and colonial oppression we argue and fight against the 'local' oppression waiting in the wings to take over.
The Response of the British Left to Imperialism
Trotsky once said the British Left love a revolution as long as it's a thousand miles away. This is very true. Their response is either complete support for every national liberation movement or complete rejection of them all for being backward. This is not good enough.
Those at the sharp end of the oppression of imperialism and colonialism often have little choice but to fight back in whatever way they can. People in the UK and similar countries whose governments are responsible for the most brutal acts in places like Ireland and the Palestine often have difficulty in understanding the actions of those fighting against 'their' government. This is hardly surprising as most of us in the UK have no experience of organised murder, torture and terror. It's this real experience at the hands of the British State that leads people to join the IRA and similar republican organisations.
What we must understand is that in the face of often brutal oppression nationalism gives working class people something. This 'something' is identity, pride, a feeling of community and solidarity and of course physical self-defence. We need to combat capitalism and its nationalism with something as strong i.e. with our own identity, pride, community, solidarity, history, culture and the inspiration of the international working class. To achieve this effectively will require courage and determination. To challenge nationalist ideas means doing more than saying that they are bad, we must prove that fighting for our class is better than fighting for a country.
To those people involved in often desperate struggles against imperialism we need to speak as equals with some respect for their struggle and sacrifices, in the same way as we seek to speak to our class at 'home'. That means we have to match their courage and determination. Then we will be in a position to criticise effectively the negative and reactionary elements in their nationalist movements, and we will be able to do so if we are seen to be as hard on our own homegrown British nationalism as theirs. Unless we can do this we will suffer the same fate as much of the Russian anarchist movement, who sat in their intellectual circles waiting for a 'pure' social movement to form before they would condescend to get involved. They rejected much of the Russian revolution out of hand and the Ukrainian anarchist insurgents as merely 'nationalists'. We wonder how many of the modern anarchists are set to repeat this miserable mistake where arrogance is only exceeded by ignorance. This obviously leads on to the question of Northern Ireland. Please refer to the Appendix for our views on this matter.
CAPITALISM AND THE STATE
In the so-called advanced capitalist countries of the world like the UK and France, the State plays a crucial role. In these countries the changes brought about by the 'Restructuring of Capital', mentioned in Chapter One, have made great demands on the State as the lower classes are forced to accept cuts in living standards. The State's response has been a three fold attack. Firstly, there has been an intense and sophisticated propaganda campaign orchestrated by politicians through the media. The main thrust of this campaign has been to minimise or deny the existence of class and to transfer the blame for unemployment and poverty onto the individual. Phrases like; "Get On Yer Bike" and "Scrounger", are still ringing in our ears from these campaigns of the 1970's and 80's. Secondly, the steady dismantling of the welfare state to keep workers tied to their jobs and accept lower wages - by the removal of the safety net and cushion of welfare benefits, especially unemployment benefits. Thirdly, the State's strategy of rolling-back the powers of the organisations that represent and control the working class in the workplaces; the unions. This has now largely been achieved.
Mass Culture and the State
It is worth saying here that there are two branches of enterprise that work closely with the State from the point of view of social control; the media and the advertising companies with their related off shoots such as research and public relations. The huge growth in these areas in the late 20th century shows how capitalism has become more bureaucratised and the extent that it has to plan ahead just to survive. It also shows how important the creation and control of so-called popular culture is now in the advanced capitalist countries. During the 1991 Gulf War the UK government employed no less than four public relations companies to 'market' the war.
The Carrot and the Stick
In the advanced capitalist countries with their new industries and growing service sectors, it is absolutely vital that the workforce are self motivated. Brutal coercion will not programme computers, make high-tech weapons, or inspire white collar workers to administer pension funds or insurance schemes. Nor will it force builders to build or drivers to drive. No, for advanced capitalism to work effectively, the workforce has to identify and agree with the aims and values of the capitalists and they must feel involved in things, without this they will not be motivated. These ideas and values are called 'bourgeois ideology' by the Left.
Things are made easier for the capitalists in these countries because the working class benefit materially from the international position that 'their' country occupies. Some (but not most) working class people can do quite well in terms of material benefits, in almost a quite random way (called the "bingo effect") depending on where they work or where they live. Some examples; until recently some work, like printing, was highly paid because of the workplace organisation and the wealth of the employers. On Fleet Street, printers used to be paid more than some of the management! More dramatically, people were buying their council houses in South East England for say £20,000 and were able to sell a couple of years later in the 'boom' of the late 1980's for over £100,000! The "bingo effect" can only apply to a few but makes a powerful impression on the rest of us - adding to the idea that it is possible to 'make it'. It is part of the carrot that is offered to us.
Of course coercion of an economic kind is there. If the boredom, stupidity or low pay of work pisses people off, then the alternative is no work and no pay and the prospect of sliding down the social scale to the bottom of society. To keep people going to work in the morning and to stop those at the bottom from revolting, modern capitalism and the State have to fill people's minds with the 'right' ideas, and deny the validity of those ideas that question the status quo. They do this by the means of the media and mass culture.
This task of social control started in the 1700's for the capitalist. Now it is an enormous job, every day the ruling class has to explain and justify the present situation to us, or re-invent the world as some wit has remarked. If they stop or reduce the pressure our society will disintegrate under the weight of its own contradictions. This is the role of bourgeois ideology; to keep the whole manure-heap from collapsing, and is in a large measure what the middle class are employed to do. These ideas, and the social relations of capitalism seem strong but they are also brittle and can shatter under a sudden blow from our class.
The State - Conclusions
The power of the State lies in the hands of the capitalists because they control it. The government exists to protect the existing social order and class system. Therefore the primary duty of the State is the enforcement of property laws and protection of privileges associated with ownership. The principal freedom the capitalists want to protect is the freedom to buy and sell which is at the heart of their society. If at any time this set-up is seriously threatened by the working class the government will respond by force of arms.
The State represents the dominant views and values within the ruling class, not one or two individuals. In a country like the UK one of its most important jobs is to promote these views and values through education, religion and the media. Lastly, there is always the risk that a small group can mount an attempt to gain control of the State. For example a fascist coup or Lenin inspired communists of the Bolshevik type.