Monday, June 21, 2010
The left and the state posted by Richard Seymour
The question of the left's relationship to the state is far more complex than one might gather here. For example, the Left has long championed - to varying degrees, admittedly - liberal anti-statist positions with respect to gender rights, crime, immigration, sexuality, political protest, religion, recreational drugs, etc. Notably, the Left made far more advances in these terrains in the 20th Century than outright liberals - though liberals within the Labour Party such as Roy Jenkins certainly deserve credit in this regard. In fact, though Frances Klug charges that the problem is the left's illiberality, counterposing to such left-wing statism a tradition of liberal egalitarianism deriving from the 18th Century Enlightenment, it is at least worth noting in passing that liberalism has a far more ambiguous relationship to the state and authority than this picture allows. After all, for all that Thomas Paine was an admirable chap, the mainstream of British liberalism is and always has been Hobbesian in its foundations - consequently, all to often authoritarian, imperialist, racist, and decidedly inegalitarian.
More importantly, this debate on the Left has a venerable pedigree. Barnett's critique of the imperial state emerges from his time in the New Left which - prompted by some of the limitations of Labourism in office - sought to understand why achieving radical reforms, even where they had demonstrable support, was so difficult. Their attention turned inevitably to the nature of the state that Labour had attempted to use to deliver said reforms. This produced a variety of critical analyses of the state, of the post-war compromise, and of the corporatist managerialism that has become synonymous with social democracy.
In response to the failings of corporatism, Labour left-wingers such as Tony Benn and Michael Barratt Brown began to subject the old forms of undemocratic statism, which they ultimately blamed for repressing workers' wage claims, holding down living standards, and serving the interests of capital. Others such as Brian Sedgemore encountered serious difficulties with the alleged 'neutrality' of the civil service, whom they accused of obstructing radical reforms. In this period, much of the Labour Left began to re-articulate a critique first outlined by Harold Laski, who maintained that the British constitution was so vague that it allowed serious abuses and repression, up to and including the effective suppression of parliamentary democracy, with no breach of the law taking place. Given the social relations in which the state was embedded, he argued, such repression would usually work to the benefit of capital. Any reforming government would have to work fast to outflank the inevitable attack on the government's legitimacy from the right, prevent the possibility of capital flight and an attack on the currency, resist media pressure, etc. They might have to pass emergency legislation permitting them to act hastily, outwith the usual domesticating, procrastinating procedures. In the long term, they would also have to challenge the undemocratic nature of the state itself. But here, constitutionalism prevailed. The Labour Left, from Laski to Benn, was never revolutionary: ultimately, there was nothing wrong with the state that could not be fixed by what was right with the state.
Perry Anderson, Tom Nairn and Ralph Miliband provided different responses to this question. For Anderson and Nairn, the British state was a unique amalgamation of modern capitalist bureaucracy, and ancient feudal privilege. This was a result of a compromise between the aristocracy and the "supine bourgeoisie" in the 'Glorious Revolution' of 1688. This resulted in bizarre anti-democratic contraptions such as royal prerogative, the crown-in-parliament, . It was also connected to the special influence enjoyed by the City of London. Put crudely, Anderson's thesis consisted of the following assertions: Britain had the first, but most mediated and least pure "bourgeois revolution" of any major European country; England had the first industrial revolution, and created a proletariat before the emergence of mature socialist theory, and the polarisation of industrial bourgeoisie and aristocracy was attenuated by the fear of this class, particularly in the wake of the French revolution and the Napoleonic wars; Britain had, by the end of the 19th Century, siezed the largest Empire in history, qualitatively distinct from other European powers, "which saturated and 'set' British society in a mould that it has retained to this day, with the consequence that most major figures of the British Left were vocal imperialists; among European nations, England alone emerged from the two world wars, unoccupied and without major exogenous shock or discontinuity to its social structure. This peculiar nature of the British state - a semi-feudal, imperialist state - held back the labour movement's progress, and stymied even moderate forms of social democracy, such that Britain's left performed poorly compared to continental counterparts.
Miliband's critique was more ecumenical - the problem with the state was not that it had feudal remnants, which were ultimately of secondary importance. The British state was not markedly different from other capitalist states in how it functioned. But its major institutions, from the civil service to the judiciary, saw their role as reproducing the society as it existed, and were resistant to reforms. Its elite personnel were interpenetrated with elite layers in private industry - the way in which nationalised industries were run by a combination of private capitalists and senior civil servants working with administrative models derived from their experience of ruling India, was a case in point. The state could be reformed in more democratic ways, and could be compelled to redistribute wealth and power, but the animus for the reform had to arise from constituencies outside the state - civil society. Notably, Klug acknowledges Miliband's critique but, oddly, not the fact that it draws on the a priori anti-statism of one Karl Marx whom she unfairly traduces as the source of left-wing statism, including that of opponents such as the Fabians - apre Marx, l'etat. This is crude. Has anyone, for example, read Marx on the Paris Commune?
At any rate, such is the New Left intellectual lineage that people like Barnett have drawn from - or rather, it's a potted history of the same. The milieu around Charter 88, of which Barnett was a founding member, were immersed in this stuff, and its demand for profound constitutional reforms were taken up by relatively moderate social democratic commentators such as Will Hutton. This debate, I repeat, is not new. If most on the Left differ with the diagnosis of Barnett and the Open Democracy liberals, it is not because their egalitarian commitments lead them to underestimate the problems with the state. It is because they disagree on the nature of the problem, and on the importance of the role played by such institutions as the monarchy, the Lords, the electoral system, etc.
The authoritarian tendencies in New Labour do not, I think, emerge from the left's ambivalent relationship to the state viz. redistribution and nationalisation. After all, Labour has previously been able to deliver decent liberal reforms *and* social democratic corporatism. Indeed, for as long as it was able to moderately redistribute wealth and maintain a decent welfare state, it was easier for Labour to pass what were sometimes unpopular pieces of liberal legislation. The source of New Labour's authoritarianism is, I think, two-fold.
Firstly, as Ross McKibbin argues in the London Review of Books, Labour has a Tory conception of the state - it accepts feudal privileges (the monarchy, the royal prerogative, etc); it accepts an undemocratic intelligence service; it accepts nuclear weapons; and it has always accepted the imperialist capacity of the state, from the Boers to Basra as it were. Secondly, it has accepted neoliberal dogma and the doctrine of meritocracy, which holds that the poor are in their position because of their own inadequacies, or because of the inadequacies of their parents. They are crime-prone, anti-social, feckless, and lazy. Hence, to combat social exclusion and create a more egalitarian society, it is necessary to control the poor with tougher sentencing, ASBOS, fines for parents of truant kids, witch-hunting "benefit scroungers", surveilling and intervening in potential problem families as soon as the child is born. In that way, the poor will become more productive, more responsible, more educated, and more skilled. From a supply-side perspective, this will reduce the "non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment" (a doctrine that formed the basis of Brown's economic policy), thus reducing the margin of the 'socially excluded', the 20% of households with no one in employent and thus with no access to the ladder of meritocratic competition. Ironically, it is neoliberalism - which is held to be in some sense an anti-statist doctrine - that is responsible for New Labour's hardline statism.