The Nature of the State after the Meltdown of Neoliberalism

The state does crowd out. It does make us dependent and powerless. The left was stronger when it relied on a range of autonomous, civil-society, none-state organisations such as mutuals, friendly societies and trade unions. But the state is also a crucial means of ensuring a degree of protection for all citizens through universal guarantees, and facilitating redistribution in the interests of greater equality. This is why the Cameron project is clever – under the banner of offering autonomy it can much more easily roll back the frontiers of the state, which as the Tories know is a key institution in building the good society. And this remains a central project of the right – to undermine collectivist forms of social and economic provision. They have already begun to residualise formally universal benefits via means testing – a classic tactic for reducing support for public services.

* Article: Neal Lawson. Labour needs to think more carefully about the nature of the state. From: Labour’s Future. Soundings Journal & Open Left. Lawrence Wishart, 2010

In a book available online, about rethinking a new policy for UK Labour in the context of the Big Society and the UK Conservatives’ assault against the social state, Neal Lawson proposes a new attitude to the state, being both “in and against it”.

I also strongly recommend Stuart White’s proposals for “fair reciprocity, in the same volume.

Excerpted from Neal Lawson:

“As the government increasingly failed to intervene to manage the economy, there was a proportionately greater need to manage the consequences of free markets. If the economy was not to be regulated, then people would have to be. In part this was needed to deliver social order amongst those whose lives didn’t benefit from globalisation. But it also served as a rationalisation for the government’s political existence. People were being regulated by the state: look at us, we are being tough on people because we are no longer tough on profits. This is what led to the rise in the prison population, ASBOs, the surveillance state and the rest.

But as well as this growth in authoritarian management and greater centralisation, the nature of the state was also changed through the government’s drive towards the marketisation of the public sector, in its efforts to drive up performance in the global economic war of all against all. In this climate good initiatives such as the New Deal and Sure Start gradually lost their radical intent of local participation and became tools of a centralised state operating to meet the demands of global competitiveness.

The prospect of a Big Society, following on the heels of Labour’s unpopular take on state interventionism, is now jeopardising the very existence of an activist state. And Labour has no one to blame but itself for this major threat to the state.

Instead of maintaining its benign view of the state, Labour has to quickly develop a much healthier and more sceptical view. The state is a contradictory entity. It can be a force for good and bad, as it reflects the wider forces and power relationships in society. It is neither the executive committee of the bourgeoisie nor a hollow entity that Labour can inhabit and use at its will.

The start of a new left project for a new state has to determine two things: what the state should and should not do, and how it should operate. The left has to develop a better understanding of which state functions are critical for a politics of greater equality, sustainability and democracy, and which functions would be better carried out by civil society or individuals. That is where the Big Society is onto something. The state does crowd out. It does make us dependent and powerless. The left was stronger when it relied on a range of autonomous, civil-society, none-state organisations such as mutuals, friendly societies and trade unions. But the state is also a crucial means of ensuring a degree of protection for all citizens through universal guarantees, and facilitating redistribution in the interests of greater equality. This is why the Cameron project is clever – under the banner of offering autonomy it can much more easily roll back the frontiers of the state, which as the Tories know is a key institution in building the good society. And this remains a central project of the right – to undermine collectivist forms of social and economic provision. They have already begun to residualise formally universal benefits via means testing – a classic tactic for reducing support for public services. This is in many ways a much more serious threat than Thatcherism ever posed; it is more subtle and a less obviously direct attack on the functions of the state.

The struggle over the coming years over public services will be critical. Though the state has unpopular aspects, and sometimes seeks too much control over individuals’ lives, it remains critical to the survival of a humane society. Only massive state intervention kept the lights on during the crash; only the state can act as a vehicle for redistribution through taxes and benefit payments; only the state can provide the level of investment needed for research into sustainability and alternative sources of energy; only the state can build the houses our communities need so desperately. We should be much more critical of the state, but equally we should not let the right detach us from its crucial functions.

Once we have a better idea of what the state should do, we will be able to think more creatively about how it should operate. After 1945 the state was run as a bureaucracy, and from the 1980s onwards it became a mix between centralism and the market. We need to supersede both the bureaucratic state model and the market state and put the emphasis instead on the establishment of a democratic state; one that is made responsive and accountable through democratic engagement, and through people having a voice rather than expressing themselves only through exit or loyalty. It should be ‘our state’, doing things with us and not just to us. From the parliamentary executive down to the local GP, we need innovative ways of holding power in check, with the greatest possible number of people determining the rules about how the state operates and in whose favour. This includes a much greater role for workers and users of state services in the co-production of those services.

We are opposed to state fundamentalism as well as market fundamentalism. There is now much thinking and work to be done to get our relationship to the state right. In and against the state remains just about the best strategy.”

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