Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
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
The Spanish state is seizing ballot papers and raiding meetings, write Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte – but it is being met with united resistance
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project
Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power
What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains
The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going
A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism
Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase
Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields
Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton
Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi
A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain
Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank
Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded
West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens
Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age
Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today
The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi