Challenge the state, don’t reclaim it

Hilary Wainwright has criticised John Holloway for a too pessimistic analysis of the state. Sarah Young responds.

November 1, 2004
8 min read

When considering the state it is all too easy to get bogged down, reacting to the existing dogma on that subject. We end up getting confused and forgetting what the point of the discussion actually is.

So let’s start at the beginning.

We want to change the world. We want to see an end to poverty, war and environmental crises. So we know that we have to take action.

But when we go on marches, sign petitions or lobby parliament, we find that MPs, local councils and companies do not listen. So we try other types of activity: strikes, pickets, blockades and more. Then we come up against laws that render our actions illegal or police who suspend our activities. Even the army has been used to intervene in industrial disputes in Britain.

Whenever our protest deviates from what the state has decreed as being acceptable (i.e. writing to MPs or marching from A to B), we inevitably come into contact with the forces of the state. The state is the collective name given to all the organisations which operate to keep the status quo in society. As we live in a capitalist age, it is capitalism that the state serves to protect and preserve. There have been times in history when the establishment could only be maintained through bureaucracy and violence. This is what we mean by the term fascism.

The British state doesn’t rely on violence and coercion to keep the British establishment intact. But consider this. Have you lived near a British airbase and heard the bombers flying overhead on their way to Iraq? Have you lain in your bed filled with anger and fear, because you know that you cannot stop those planes? If so, you have tasted the power of the state first hand. The state is not working for us, but for the oppressors. We don’t just think this. We feel it, in the core of our beings, as we cry in anguish about the fate of humanity.

And so we come to consider the state.

How did the state come into existence? How does it organise itself? Do we need a state? Can the state be made to work for us, or do we have to get rid of it?

Hilary Wainwright argues that we can ‘reclaim’ the state. This is a view commonly held by liberals, Fabians and parliamentary reformers. Indeed, ‘reclaiming’ has been the way of progress in Britain over the last one hundred years, culminating in the creation of the Welfare State in 1945. The hope, since then, was that more reforms could be won and that society would gradually get better.

So many of us work for the state in socially useful jobs (e.g. in libraries or hospitals), that we believe that on the whole, the state is progressive, not oppressive. A few years ago, when I stopped working in the public sector and went to work in industry, some of my left wing friends treated me as though I was deserting all my political principles.

We also think about the troubles our parents or grandparents had, to get decent housing, or health care. We think of a relative who died young, before the NHS was founded, or, before the family’s council house was obtained. So surely the state can be progressive and be made to work for us?

Wasn’t the welfare state created because of the popular struggles of ordinary people? Or was it created by the establishment to enable order and stability to be maintained (without violence) in the post-war capitalist world. The answer is yes to both (and that is not a contradiction).

But as Hilary pointed out, many of our reforms have been eroded since the seventies. Welfare reforms have not gradually extended. Instead they have retreated. We are living in a post-cold war world, where new global labour and consumer markets, coupled with unimaginable developments in technology are forcing Britain to compete with cheaper labour overseas. Manufacturing has been shutting down. Britain is sustained by the financial sector (i.e. trading stocks and shares in other people’s misery) and through debt financed consumerism (i.e. buying cheap goods made in misery overseas). All over the world, the poor are getting poorer. It is not an epoch for achieving progressive reforms from the British state and even if we did, at whose expense would we achieve them? Labour politicians try to deflect us from Iraq by drawing our attention to successful reforms at home, as if a free nursery place in Birmingham were a reasonable exchange for a child’s life in Baghdad.

But there are other factors to consider. The welfare state has never been controllable by ordinary people, i.e. people like us. It has supported an elite serving on policy creation bodies and quangos. These people have designed social policy in Britain, policies that frustrate and enrage teachers and nurses every day of their working lives. Policies that have created and maintained a disempowered section of the British population that lacks the wherewithal to make changes for itself. People who are dependent on benefits, the ‘council’ and luck. People who have the same status as travellers or asylum seekers, but who are often referred to by left wing activists as ‘lumpen’ or ‘neds’. Sometimes we grumble about ‘middle class liberals’ lording it over us with their out of touch initiatives. But John Holloway’s arguments avoid these pointless complaints by getting straight to the heart of the matter.

The simple point John makes is an obvious one. The state excludes people, it thwarts our participation and it allows us no control. And this is the foremost reason why we cannot waste more time on trying to reclaim the state. For we will inevitably become involved in and replicate organisations that continue to exclude, degrade and disempower. As we participate with the state, so our organisations mimic the state. This doesn’t just mean the Labour Party, but the so called revolutionary parties too. From the Communist (‘lets reclaim Labour”) through to the SWP (-RESPECT”).

These are the ‘top-down’ parties of the type that Hilary describes. And this is why we reject these organisations. We are not interested in hacking our way to the top of parties, so that we can manipulate the upper echelons of organisations and have a shot at bending the ear of the state. We are not interested in the upper echelons. They are not us.

Hilary, quite rightly, has a vision for a new type of political organisation. We need to act so that we can create real chances for change and as John says ‘we cannot wait’. For our actions to be effective, they will inevitably challenge the state. What kind of activity will allow us to be effective, start challenging the state, and start creating the world that we want?

To stop the war, we needed to do more than demonstrate. We needed to strike to stop the movement of armaments. We needed to effectively blockade the airbases. We needed a vast campaign of civil disobedience that was capable of actually stopping the war machine. We need now to build the confidence so that we can do this. We need to help each other to be able to do this. We need solidarity. Solidarity means people like us, supporting each other so that we can do it for ourselves. Solidarity cannot be created and controlled from a committee that decides that we should be doing it. It can only be done by us alone: thinking, participating, sharing, helping and creating.

The state cannot help us to do this – the state is the organised antithesis of this. And we must come to terms with the fact that the traditional left parties in Britain are so integrated with the workings of the state, that they cannot do it either. This should not be considered a sacrilegious statement. We all know it in our hearts and we have already demonstrated it by our actions. Most of us in Britain who want to change the world have chosen not to be in a political party, ‘revolutionary’ or otherwise. We have already turned our back on the state.

By turning ones back on the state, John doesn’t mean ‘dropping out’ into a sub-culture or trying to pretend to ourselves that the horrific power of the state doesn’t need to be dealt with. Turning ones back on the state means refusing to part be of the state’s excluding and disempowering organisations and starting to build our own alternatives. Alternatives that will celebrate participation and start to build the kind of solidarity and confidence that will allow us to start challenging the state. Only then will the protest-and-lose-protest-and-lose cycle of left politics in Britain be broken.

Let us start to win. Our rejection of the traditional left is a rejection of elitism and decisions being made for us, not by us. It means that we are starting to realise that we are important. We know that what we think and do counts. The organisations we need to effect real change don’t yet exist. What they will be like is down to us and our creativity. The established parties have their routes of communication carved out like motorways in the political landscape. But we tread hundreds of roads and thousands of pathways, in small groups and as individuals in a vast uncharted network. To make connections is our challenge.


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