The left & the state
In the twittersphere Bella Gerens claims to be confused about the left’s attitude to the state. “They blame the bankers for the country's economic crisis, and yet they don't seem that pissed off at the state for handing the bankers massive wads of cash” she says.This draws attention to a debate the left should be having - but isn’t - namely: to what extent can the state be a means of achieving leftist ideals?There is abundant evidence that the state, as it has been used in the past and present, is not a great tool for the left:- efforts to tax the rich or companies either fail or end up falling upon workers- despite huge parliamentary majorities, New Labour did very little to reduce inequalities of wealth or power- semi-nationalization of the banks did little to curb bankers’ pay, or make banks act in the public interest- fiscal policy and big government haven’t reliably improved the fortunes of workers relative to capitalists- public ownership in the 1980s was used by Thatcher as an instrument of class war, whilst social housing was sold off to buy her votesIn such ways, the state either fails to advance the left‘s goals, or actively fights against them.Now, I don’t want to deny that state intervention has done some good for the left; one could easily argue that things would have been worse for ordinary people without its influence. But, surely, the history of using the British state to reduce inequality consists largely of 100 years of disappointment, punctuated by Clement Attlee.Responses to this fall into two camps. The dominant camp, associated with the likes of Richard Murphy and Polly Toynbee, seems to take a “one more heave” view; if only we could try harder, the state will succeed. The other camp, which includes me and other Marxists, thinks we should infer that there are strict limits upon what the state, at least as conventionally used, can do to ameliorate the inequalities generated by capitalism. In this sense, we have something in common with right libertarians, except that we say in sorrow what they say in joy.You’ll note, though, a qualifying clause in that last paragraph: “as conventionally used.” Too often, the left has viewed the state as a means for doling out favours to its passive clients. There is, though, an alternative way of viewing the state - as a means whereby ordinary people can be empowered to take more control over their own fate. To use Marx’s phrase - “force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one” - we should ditch the nanny state and have instead a midwife state. For example, bank nationalization could have been used as a means for putting banks under genuine democratic control. This, though, raises two questions: what would the state’s midwifery skills consist in? And: is capitalist society really pregnant with a new one? I don’t know. But I wish the left would at least ask more. A counter-argument: is the increasing economic power of women since the 60s an example of how the state has successfully pursued leftist goals? Or is it instead an example of my midwife role? The state responded to feminist movements,- sexist society was "pregnant with the new egalitarianish one" and provided a framework in which women could narrow the inequality with men via their own efforts.