We instinctively recognise the state as the tool for ruling class power. Yet at the same time we see it as providing the answer to our problems...
TUC march, 20 October 2012: without a fight for wages and conditions, attempts to retain public sector provision will not succeed. [Photo: Workers]
Radical changes to the NHS from 1 April are a dramatic and visible sign of the way that the role of the state is changing. There are other, less obvious, changes in the way that the state and government work. At the moment most of our attention is on immediate effects and the increasing role of the private sector. There are other, wider concerns for our class too.
Handing over services to private companies is about more than making profits; it goes together with reducing what workers get from the state. Quantitative easing, inflation and wage freezes cut standards of living – that’s easy to see. This is matched by the undermining of pensions, housing, education, health, local services, arts and all else that we’ve grown up to expect.
It’s tempting to call for a fight against every cut in services, to reverse every new benefits rule, to tax the rich, or even to renationalise key industries. All of those are valid in the right time and place but do not, even together, comprise a programme for the working class to defend itself and to rebuild Britain.
Historically our class has been ambivalent about the state. We instinctively recognise it as the tool for ruling class power. Yet at the same time we see it as providing the answer to our problems – hence the call for public sector control and against privatisation. Those calls alone miss the point. Capitalists make profits, or hope to do so wherever they can. Yet it is seen as a problem for them to do so in certain areas like healthcare. Food is just as essential, arguably more so, but few challenge the role of capitalism in food production – until something like the recent horsemeat scandal.
Do we hope that state provision of something takes that aspect of our lives out of the grip of capitalists? Or if we work for the state do we hope, against all evidence, that the employer will be kinder? Yet many of the successes of our class and positive features of Britain have become part of the state. That hasn’t been wrong or something to criticise. The fears of life without proper healthcare or of ignorance and low self worth through poor education are rightly high on the list of workers’ concerns. The failure would be not to recognise that those gains are temporary without a continued struggle to maintain them. In the end only we are interested in the future of our class.
The government of the day represents the ruling class and acts on its behalf, whatever the party in power. Parliamentary democracy is limited; it is never directly responsive to our needs. That’s as true now as it was in 1945 or in the 19th century. But at times the working class has been able to influence or even dictate what the government does. Our dilemma is that although we despise politicians and the political process, we don’t see any other way to secure our aims.
At the moment it is the ruling class and its government that appear to be breaking down the old ways of parliamentary democracy. And, if they were to be believed, they are also “rolling back the state”. The opposite is true. They are removing control and decisions as far from working class influence as they can manage. At the same time they are redefining what the state does and how it exercises class power.
Decisions affecting the economy or the working class are made not in the open or in parliament. They are made in EU meeting rooms or company boardrooms (often in tax havens). The ideas they take up are not from workers in Britain, or even local politicians; they are generated by think tanks and research institutes operating only in the interests of capital.
These polices are presented as what’s good for Britain and as the only choice. The limited public debate that follows rarely acknowledges how this is happening, or effectively challenges the presumption that capital decides on the future of Britain. Sadly even trade unions and the TUC aspire to little more than hand wringing and commenting on the worst features of government policy.
The history of the working class and government has been a series of big steps mixed with periods of absorption and attempts at reform. Nor is the development of government the path to ever-increasing democracy, as those in Westminster would have us believe.
A universal franchise took nearly 100 years to emerge after Chartist agitation and the first reforms. The establishment of permanent and effective trade unions in the mid-19th century was followed by 50 years of wrestling with parliamentary repre-sentation ending only in the foundation of the Labour Party, though in this time many laws were passed to regulate employment and working conditions.
Workers’ organisation grew in depth and breadth. The scope of the state was transformed in that period, laying the foundations of local government, education, health provision, and other social changes that benefited our class. We’d recognise many of them even now.
The modern capitalist state meets common needs through providing state services and managing the economy – or it did. It also holds coercive powers (law and order, defence). During the 20th century there were periods when it seemed that the working class could gain control and make changes, for example in 1945. That followed 30 years of world war, depression and another world war (and a war in Ireland). There was an immense increase in central planning and control. Without that there would have been no victory to celebrate.
The 30 years after 1945 were a historical aberration. The working class could make more progress and gained the illusion it might consolidate post-war aspirations without having to fight for them. Then came the cold shower of Thatcher and the attempt to divert and disarm our class – from within as well as from outside.
Struggle by workers for wages, conditions and a better life has not disappeared, though it is less frequent and our organisation is constantly under threat. But the reasons driving such struggles are as present as they ever were.
That process has continued from 1979 right up to today. Common provision of health and education is being broken up; the carpet baggers are moving in. Governments have abandoned any pretence that the state should secure industrial infrastructure like energy, transport or water. Even more destructive has been the policy of breaking up industry and the skills that underpin it.
The current failures of the capitalist state and its government are evident and insoluble. They cannot manage the economy. Brown the “brilliant” academic could not; Osborne the trust child can't either. Both revere “the market” because the alternative is control and limitation on capitalists. The only answer excluded is to make more goods that people need and provide more services they want to use.
There is little to choose between parliamentary parties on the key issues for Britain – how to avoid an economic depression, getting out of the EU, regulating financial markets, creating jobs, stopping migration, maintaining health, education and other essential services. All potential governments fear organised workers, and fear the decisions we’d make on these questions. Likewise they fear any revival of a planned economy.
When the capitalists want to roll back whatever we’ve achieved in the past, we go into defence of the local, and look to parliament to put it right. We don’t question the power that enables the ruling class to make those decisions. Nor do we, for the most part, claim the right to work not benefits, and assert that it is workers who create the wealth Britain needs.
Our class has the same dilemma over the state as ever. Without a fight for wages and conditions, attempts to retain public sector provision will not succeed. We must make the state come to us, not chase the illusion that we can reform it. ■