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Speaking up for the state

The state should not be approached as something to sell off or shrink but rather something that the public needs to reclaim.

By Mgimelfarb via Wikimedia Commons

For almost four decades the state has been hollowed out from within and attacked from without. The term itself has become almost taboo, and not only on the political right. Instead, "society" is held up as the solution, whether "big", "civil", or in the shape of "community", as in much Labour Party thinking, where the long-established hold of ethical and mutualist sentiments has served further to feed the general lack of public reflection on what "the state" is, historically has been, and may yet become. It is time for this denigration of the state to stop and for serious discussion to begin. Time, in short, to start speaking up for the state. For, contrary to prevailing opinion, the state is the greatest and most necessary of all human inventions, and one likely to be around for some considerable time yet. Despite all attempts to "roll it back", in sophisticated societies and economies like that of Britain when pushed back in one direction it expands in another, even if that means currently that the welfare state contracts and the security state expands. Such are the ironies of neoliberalism, which do not however deter Britain's coalition government in its assault on the state.

Before we speak up for the state we should be clear what it is of which we speak. First, we need to get away from prevalent ideas of the state simply as Whitehall and the political class, collectively a political and bureaucratic “machine” that acts with a unified will over which we have at best limited control. In fact, the state is dispersed in all kinds of institutions and agencies, and operates locally just as much as nationally. It includes the political and bureaucratic systems, the “constitution” as a whole in fact, and overlaps with the legal system. "State" involvement also takes multiple forms, in between the public and the private realm, but it is still the state that shapes these forms. Historically we have come to call the tangled web of intentions and institutions that actually make up the reality of the state one single thing, namely "the state". However strong centralised power has become in Britain, and historically the established power centres of the British liberal state always have been immensely strong, this strength is bought at the price of dispersed power and muddled intentions and practices. Therefore, we have more reason than we often think that efforts to change the state will be successful: it is not the all-seeing Leviathan it is often taken to be.

Second, if the state is a highly dispersed entity it nonetheless survives as “the state” because it is held together at certain key sites and by certain key processes. What holds the state together in the first place? One short answer is that we do. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, and starting above all with the prototypical postal service and state involvement in the crucial area of communications, the state has grown to embrace so much of our existence that our daily life is inconceivable without it. This is not simply a matter of health, security, education and welfare, but "the state" regulates the air we breathe, the water we drink, the roads we walk on, the houses we live in, and much of what we do in our supposedly "private" houses. Indeed, it still directly supplies many of life’s essentials. 

Quite literally, we are the state and it is us: this is because the state is grounded in and reproduced through our daily experience, and is part of what sociologists call the "habitus", the realm of embodied and taken for granted experience that enables us, usually beyond words alone, simply to carry on in the world from day-to-day. The state is grounded in our bodies, our human relationships and in our links to the material, natural world. It is for example profoundly shaped by infrastructural systems we take so much for granted (until the machine stops). It is in the world of daily experience that the state exists as well as in Whitehall, so that the more this experience is given over to private and corporate capitalism the more we are imbued with the outlook and values of this rather than the collective and corporate. This is largely, though thankfully not completely, an unconscious process, even if the political right rather than the political left seems to have more of an inkling of it.  Because the realities of daily life still manage to hold the state together as the semblance of the common good there is time to act. For the recognition that because the state, in the most literal sense, is us and we are it, can lead us with the help of political imagination to reclaim what is rightfully ours and from which we are being wrongfully exiled. In saving the state we are saving ourselves.

Third, important as our unspoken habituation to power is, our spoken habituation matters too, and this is also the glue of the state (in practice the two are inseparable).  For the state provides us with identities, as citizens, members of communities, and members of nations (for states are historically on balance more important in creating nations than nations in creating states). The state confers rights on us too, and elicits obligations. In short it serves to make us moral beings. Central to this, and to rights and obligations, is the basic question of how we are to be governed, for this is the testing ground of morality. This is so because how we choose to govern our conduct and the conduct of others most directly defines who we are as moral beings. And, of course, this business of governing is in the end what the state is most about. The state is where sovereignty is grounded, so that the stark choice, particularly in Britain, becomes whether or not we allow that sovereignty to bleed away into the institutions of markets and corporations, a process by which sovereignty itself would become so splintered as to lead to the war of all against all from which the state was originally designed to deliver us. 

Above all, the state is interwoven in our being because it is interwoven in history.  The historical reality of the state is light-years away from far-right depictions of it as inherently a malign bureaucratic monster. Of course we can talk of the state in general terms, as I do, but one must be conscious that a state’s history and culture define it.  For instance, the Italian state cannot be separated from the salience of the family in Italian culture and history, and the Swedish from a culture in which “state” and “society” do not have the more oppositional meanings they have in ours. Likewise the British state, unlike the France of revolution and war, cannot be separated from the peculiar combination of the early development of capitalism and the long continuation not only of aristocratic mores but of real landed political and financial power. 

The result is the even more peculiar nature of our present post-aristocratic state, that of an unelected second chamber, and of the grossly limited democracy of our Parliamentary system, in which local and direct forms of democracy are denigrated.  Peculiarity is compounded by an established church, a monarchy, and the power and prestige of the leading public schools and Oxbridge as represented not only in the bureaucracy but the governing elites in general. These elements reflect astonishingly powerful continuities and complacencies in British history, so that the liberal state, for all its real achievements, has remained in the hands of elites and not democracy. Tremendous power is still vested in these hands, the long attack on the state notwithstanding. Reclaiming the state means therefore understanding its history not its mythology.

Now, in British minds the claims for the importance of the state that I have made may seem overblown and misguided, indeed distinctly Germanic in undertone. "The state" often has a peculiar ring to British ears, "government" less so, although that is of course the boo word in the USA. British minds are very often liberal minds. One characteristic expression of this particular caste of mind is the leader columns of The Observer. In a fairly recent edition (2/12/12) a leader writer quite rightly opines that Britain is not very good at distinguishing between the idea of the state and the public, particularly in the case of public discussion of "state" regulation of the press. The argument goes on: "Nobody would call a public footpath a state footpath and most people understood when the Daily Telegraph defended its publication of MPs’ expenses because it was in the public rather than the state interest. In the same vein, the BBC is not the state but a public broadcaster". Now, this is all very fine, and there is an obvious distinction between state and public. However, what we choose to call things, footpaths, the public interest, broadcasting and so on, is not necessarily what they actually are.

The public, and civil society so-called, do not exist somehow independently of the state. They are shaped and limited by the state in multiple ways, not merely by the legal system, itself configured by the state, but by educational and welfare systems among many other initiatives. "State" and "society", and that which is called the public, do not exist independently of one other as separate things, rather the line between state and society and how it is drawn is itself a political act. For instance, the banking system in Britain and elsewhere is usually conceived of as part of society and not the state. However, in practice in the regulation of contemporary finance the two are inextricably entangled, and the state is at least as major a force in the resulting governmental regime as the supposedly "private" sector. However, finance is defined as private and non-state, and the point is that this definition is a totally political act. It is true that the state is not the only actor in the process, but it is still probably the major one in Britain and worldwide. 

In short, the realities of the liberal state have to be recognised, namely the ways in which it actively governs through freedom (free "individuals", markets, societies, and so on, which are only “free” because the state makes them so). The other side of the liberal coin of freedom is authority. Therefore freedom is not so much a retreat from government as a mode of governing. And what is involved in shaping the public and society is the very idea that we have been considering as so important, namely that "the state" is a single unified actor, in fact a thing itself, Leviathan. This belief in turn elicits the illusory idea that state and society are two separate things. The liberal state wills this so, but it is not the essential political reality. This question of will is of the utmost importance if we wish to understand the state, for if we ask the question what it is that holds the state together then the will to power, the will to govern, is another essential answer to that question.

This will is historically located in the public schools and Oxbridge. It is in the public school especially that men, and it is still almost entirely men, are taught to govern themselves so that they may govern us. It is in the schools that boys are taught that privilege is natural, an integral part of their commonsense world. There has been change as well as continuity in British history, but what is striking is how the forces of continuity constantly adapt to change so that over many centuries, longest of all in the case of the major royal foundations of Eton and Winchester, there has been no force as close to the heart of the state as the public schools. For there to be any real change in British society these have to be abolished, appropriated, or enfeebled.  Abolition is one of the biggest elephants in the nation's living room, but we frequently legislate in a liberal society against social evils that curb the well-being of the majority at the cost of the freedom of the few. Oxbridge is more decidedly on the way to reform, but there too there is much to be done.

On the face of it, it is the Labour Party and progressive elements of the Lib Dems that are the only political elements that can do this. Likewise the wholesale reform of our peculiar post-aristocratic British state. In the twentieth century there was little sign of this happening. From its inception, unlike British radicalism before it, Labour took a highly positive view of the British state, so that the Labour Party and its leadership historically simply did not feel the need for wholesale institutional reform. The old working class leadership was in awe of British traditions, especially the glories of the "the British constitution". On the other hand the new post-Second World War middle-class party leadership were intent on fighting what they regarded as inefficiency and securing "modernisation". This limited view of the state, managerialist and undemocratic, has continued to shape that other current of Labour Party thinking not mentioned so far, namely Fabianism, the only current truly favourable to the state.  However, the Labour Party was a mirror of the widespread popular acceptance of the prevailing structures of social and political authority, serving only to magnify these.  The belief that a democratic state could be created by redistributing wealth but not real economic, social and political power is still a feature of all the major parties, right and left. Labour has always drawn back from attacking the fundamental institutions of the British state. The public schools have remained untouched, despite much bluster. 

The idea of a "golden age" of social democracy is in fact illusory, for what issued was neither particularly social nor particularly democratic, despite the very real achievements post-1945. Even though Labour did not achieve social democracy the aspiration to go beyond the prevailing social liberalism towards something that would challenge the underlying liberal tenets of the state was nonetheless present amongst intellectuals, voters and party workers. What they reached for, namely something truly social democratic, we have yet to achieve, so that the real state of affairs is not that social democracy has failed, but that it has yet to be truly tried. What is “social” and what is “democratic” differ as time goes on, and need constant vigilance and imagination in order to mean anything. In seeking to achieve real social democracy it is necessary to bear the historical limitations of the British and other democratic lefts in mind while at the same time recognising their undoubted achievements. This will also, inevitably in the British situation, draw upon what is good in the liberal inheritance, while recognising its grave limitations, limitations that are very much to do with the way the British see their history, which, with all current doubts and hopes in mind, is still more as a romance than as a tragedy, the romance of liberal values.  Of course it is neither, but it is decidedly nearer to the latter than the former, however hard this truth is to face.

The result of this history is that we now have a political system unable to accommodate real change, to achieve stability and credibility, and least of all unable to achieve equality and fraternity. As society has become more diverse and plural, the state and its institutions have remained rigid and are increasingly alienated from the public. For this to change the governed have to take on the work of governance themselves. It is time for those who are in reality in themselves, in their daily existence, the true practitioners of the state, to become its true guardians. They can only do this with political leadership that is daring and the imaginative. The task is huge, but the century is still new.

About the author

Patrick Joyce is a Professorial Fellow of the University of Edinburgh, and an Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Manchester. His book, The State of Freedom: A Social History of the British State since 1800 was published by Cambridge University Press, 2013.

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