Thursday, October 15, 2015

The role of the state (2004)

Book Review from the October 2004 issue of the Socialist Standard

Consensus or Coercion? The State, the People and Social Cohesion in Post-War Britain. edited by Ross McKibbin (New Clarion Press. £12.95)

This is a collection of studies of various aspects of social and political life in Britain from 1945 to the end of the 1970s, covering such fields as television, immigration, housing policy, even the role of the defunct Communist Party.
But what is the state? To most people it will be the centralised administrative machine controlled by the government, which provides various services (health, education, social security, defence) for “the nation”. To Marxists, the modern state is indeed a centralised administrative machine controlled by the government, but one which is used to manage the common affairs of the national ruling class (today, the capitalist owners of the means of wealth production), including the provision of education, health care, etc for the subject class (the majority class of wage and salary workers), and whose ultimate weapon is force, coercion; hence Engels’s definition of the state as in the final analysis a body of armed men.
For the Oxford sociologist, Ross McKibbin, who has provided a foreword to this book, the state “represents the governing elites, both political and bureaucratic, but is distinguishable from (say) the ruling party and has an interest which, although influenced by party-political competition, stands above such competition”. To which the anonymous author of the introduction adds, its role is to ensure the social cohesion of the population of the “administratively defined community” that is the “nation-state”, ideally by consensus but otherwise by coercion.
Although Marxists see, even define, the state as a coercive institution at the service of a class, this does not mean that they are committed to the view that the ruling class rules only by coercion. That would be an absurd view since no “nationally administered political community” could survive if it was held together by coercion alone. A degree, in fact a fairly high degree, of consent is required: the subject class has to agree to being ruled by the class that controls the state. So, one of the important functions of the state is to actively promote such agreement. Obviously this wouldn’t work if the state tried to openly persuade people to be ruled by a ruling class; it has to be more subtle and is done by promoting the idea that all the subjects of a particular state form a national community and are in fact “citizens” rather than subjects. The state is then seen as the management committee, not of the ruling class which owns and controls the means of production, but of all the citizens, who elect the government.
Surprisingly in view of the book’s title, only two of the studies address this question directly, dealing with the question of immigration from the Caribbean and the problem this has presented the state in terms of integrating such and other “non-white” (to use the old Apartheid classification) immigrants into the British “national community”, given the previous definition of this community as being made up of “white” English-speakers. After passing racist legislation in the 1960s to stop “non-white” immigration, the British state opted for extending the definition of “British” to include “non-whites”. It appears to be working, but now their problem is the reaction of a signification minority of “white” people who don’t agree and who may well have to be coerced into accepting it.
A third essay, on the Labour Party’s attitude to Europe in the period 1945-50, does, it is true, touch on another such problem: how the British state is to get its subjects to agree to its policy – in the interest of its ruling class – of European integration. After having successfully inculcated the idea of a “British nation” this is now proving a barrier.
The other essays, even though off-subject, are still interesting in their own right, especially the one on the Labour Party’s opposition in the 1950s to the introduction of commercial television. Everything that was said would happen if this was introduced – dumbing down, commercialisation, the “idiot box” dominating the home – has come to pass, and worse. But it was always going to be a losing battle since, in a capitalist society, the capitalists are always going to get their way in the end.
Conspicuously lacking from the book are studies of how promotion of support for “national” sports teams and the teaching of history and civics in schools work towards sustaining the myth that all who live within the administrative boundaries of a particular state constitute a community with a common interest, whereas in fact in all states there are two classes: an owning, ruling class and the rest of us.
Adam Buick

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