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The case of the state

Isabel Parrot assesses the continuing relevance of In and Against the State

November 30, 2010
5 min read

In and Against the State first appeared as a 1979 pamphlet written by the ‘London Edinburgh Weekend Return Group’, a collection of socialist public sector workers who sought to understand how they could overcome the contradiction of being full-time state workers and part-time revolutionaries. They had come together as a working group of the Conference of Socialist Economists and included the now quite well-known John Holloway. Seeking to move beyond being public service workers working within the traditional state/individual clients relationship by day and organising to ‘smash the state’ by night, they explore ways that as ‘employees’ and ‘clients’ we can collectivise rather than prevent dissent.

Why, as socialists, the writers ask, do we treat the welfare state as ‘ours’ and the army and the police force as ‘theirs’ when our daily experience teaches us that the welfare state is also estranged from us? Education is there to turn us into workers and healthcare, while providing short-term relief, often fails to address the reasons why we fall ill in the first place. Yet even though the welfare state is not ‘ours’, we still need to defend it because we rely on the services it provides. How do we address this contradiction?

In and Against the State starts with the premise that the state is a set of social relationships whose form is defined by capital. Our task therefore is to challenge these relations and find new ways of organising. The writers present us with a series of conversations with a bus driver, a single mother dependent on benefits for income, teachers, health workers, advice centre workers and members of the Labour Party.

This represents a thoughtful illustration of the conflicts involved in working inside the state and shows us how we can use this position not simply to fight for resources but to change oppressive welfare relations. By treating patients as individual clients, health workers cannot address the collective health problems of tenants living in unsuitable housing. However, by assessing a group of tenants or homeless persons and linking them up so that they can challenge a landlord or council collectively, people can break out of their isolated positions and we can begin to see a way forward for socialist struggle.

In and Against the State remains highly relevant today because in the face of the current round of public sector cuts we face similar questions about how we work, how we make demands of the state and how we defend public services.

Despite the fact that it was written over 30 years ago, it taps into unresolved debates on the left and provides a creative starting point for thinking about more participatory forms of action.

Refreshingly, the writers do not set aside their own personal experiences from their politics, nor do they attribute working class individualist sentiments or unwillingness to organise against the cuts simply to ‘false consciousness’. When public services are withdrawn because of strike action, it is often working class people who suffer more than the state or management. Similarly, those who work in caring professions are still today unwilling to join a trade union or go on strike because they feel that this contradicts their caring role.

This leads to a questioning of the standard response of the left to our current crisis: that unions and workers should be prepared to respond to the cuts with traditional industrial militancy.

The writers go some way to addressing these difficulties – for example, setting out alternative forms of militant workplace action that do not alienate part of the workforce or service users, such as refusing to clean management offices, refusing to attend NHS staff meetings or running staffing timetables collectively.

Equally, as the crisis sets in and we enter a time of austerity measures, the writers of In and Against the State remind us that we should not let this limit our horizons. For example, as unemployed workers we should assert our ‘right to work’, but equally we should assert a right to work that is valid for us, a right not to accept demeaning or low paid jobs, a right not to work when caring for children and a right to more than a life spent working.

In and Against the State is a book for everyone because it reminds us that our own experiences in relation to the state and to capital are important. The state gives us some of the services we need but we experience this in an autocratic way, in a way that puts us down and compartmentalises our difficulties. We need to engage in struggles that prefigure what we are fighting for.

For the writers of In and Against the State, one example of this was in law centres, where instead of treating each client individually, workers launched campaigns with them and supported them to organise together against their landlord or against the council. A similar approach might be to use a union meeting designed for pay or contract-related discussions to also talk about different approaches to education or to patient care.

In and Against the State is an interesting and timely read that prioritises grass-roots and participatory organisation and invites further thought and discussion.

In and Against the State is available to read online at www.libcom.org/library/against-state-1979

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