The Social State: The state as arena of struggle and lasting transformation

Imagine a village. There’s a strong sense of community in this village. The people work together to make sure that everyone has clean water and housing, health care, education, a vibrant cultural life and a space for debating and determining what the village needs and how best to provide it—in other words, a space for democracy.

Near the literal space assigned for democratic debate and deliberation at the centre of the village there is also a marketplace. So far, so good. It feels like this might be another good place to gather—a place full of colour and chaos and life, a place of new and needful things. A place that serves some of the needs of the people.

Imagine, though, that the marketplace kept growing in size—so much so that the village was no more; that the village square was completely taken over by the marketplace; that the provision of health, education, water, housing, even culture had been taken over by the market; that the entire village had become nothing more than a marketplace; that there was no longer a village, no longer a community, only a market.

This, as Wendy Brown explains, is the neoliberal project:

Neoliberalism … is best understood not simply as economic policy, but as a governing rationality that disseminates market values and metrics to every sphere of life … Neoliberalism thus does not merely privatise … it formulates everything, everywhere, in terms of capital investment and appreciation, including and especially humans themselves.

The village in the above thought experiment is, of course, not imaginary. It is emblematic, in the first instance, of those communities across the globe that have been subjected to the state-sponsored terrorism that begat the modern global marketplace and strict domination of private capital over the lives and lands of First Nations peoples. Therosy dawn’, Marx called it, in Capital:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the Aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation.

The state, especially as the instrument of colonisation, carved out space for the marketplace and then aggressively protected it, crushing and killing in the process. The development of the liberal democratic state is therefore deeply entwined with the development of the means of protecting and enhancing private capital. But we must also acknowledge that within this apparatus, and in the relations between the state apparatus, the labour movement and other progressive popular forces, we have seen historical moments of real advancement of a democratic trajectory—a trend that sees greater democracy in peoples’ lives, greater empowerment, greater solidarity and greater social protection.

Contrary to the strawperson arguments of the libertarian Right, including its recent populist manifestations, the pertinent story here is not that of the state vs freedom. It is the story of the protection of capital vs the protection of the people. The democratic trajectory, which embraces political, social and economic democratisation, is not predicated on the state having increased power in people’s lives. Indeed, this has been one of the most crucial lessons of the twentieth century for the labour movement and broader liberation movements. When the state, rather than the market, does the dominating and determining of people’s lives, it cannot expect the people to embrace it as their own. The democratic trajectory, on the other hand, is characterised, according to Marx and Engels, by the principle that ‘the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’.

Democracy cannot be achieved while people are structurally disempowered, whether on the basis of gender, class, ethnicity, culture, sexuality, disability, age or any other organised form of oppression. Democracy does not mean the market nestling inside our souls. Nor does it mean the state inside our souls. But if the apparatus of the state is to be used as a means of building more democracy in our society, our economy and our lives, then the issue we will need to focus on is not how to increase the state’s power in our lives but rather how to increase our collective power in the life of the state.

When we take steps in this direction, it comes at a cost to the power of capital. The argument that even modest gains made for the benefit of ordinary people can come only at the cost of economic crisis was trumpeted as the key reason for the state having to reorient its priorities back towards the protection and hyper-expansion of private capital following a period of social democratic compromise. The 2008 Global Financial Crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic served, therefore, not as setbacks but as obscene opportunities for profit growth, with generous state support, while working people across the globe, including those working in the informal economy or not in paid work at all—the majority of whom have no social protection—have suffered enormously.

Neoliberal capitalism was unleashed with a vengeance against the modest but not insignificant wins of the organised working class. While some of us may yearn for the period that preceded the systematic dismantling of the welfare state and its accompanying atomisation of the working class, that period was by no means a golden era of social and economic democracy. The gains made by the union movement and other progressive sections of society in reshaping the state were an important achievement, but it is a serious error, for example, to talk about ‘precarity’ as if it hardly existed in this period. As Eloisa Betti points out, it has long been the norm, especially for women in any part of the world and for workers in the global South. Isabell Lorey argues that sections of the white, male-dominated labour movement were in some ways complicit in this exclusion, particularly where there was a lack of consciousness of the meaning of solidarity. More progressive sections of the movement, however, were deeply aware of the normalised oppression of others, and took great risks to stand in solidarity with oppressed peoples across the globe.

There is much to be gained from the distinction made by Judith Butler between precariousness and precarity, which is key to re-imagining the role of the state. Precariousness, in Butler’s definition, is a universal human condition that comes with living socially—the fact that one’s life is always in some ways in the hands of the other’. Precariousness provides us with an urgent and long-term political imperative to put in place the social means to protect and look after each other—to make life liveable. But there is an opposing set of political forces that transform precariousness into what Butler calls precarity: ‘a politically induced condition in which certain populations suffer from failing social and economic networks of support and become differentially exposed to injury, violence and death’. While precariousness is something all of us experience, precarity is very unequally distributed.

The opposite of precarity is not prosperity but power. The state, by ensuring that no one goes without the essentials of life—a place to live, a place to learn, a place to heal and a place to work—can help build democracy in our society and collective self-empowerment in our lives. This means that in making sure that no one goes without a place to live we do not accept some of us being residualised as the cost of others treating housing as a speculative sport. It means that free, public early childhood education, school education, TAFE and universities are properly funded and treasured because, as Gough Whitlam famously put it: We are all diminished when any of us are denied proper education’. It means that a place to heal is freely accessible to all who need it. And it means that work is secure, well paid, safe and respectful, and that people who are not in paid work have access to proper income support. Importantly, the state is not only able to play a role in helping people over the walls that lock them out and lock them up; it can also help chip away at these walls until they are torn down.

When we talk about democratising the economy, this means reclaiming the village, rebuilding the democratic space that should exist and thrive at its centre and returning it to the ownership and control of the people who live and work there. It does not mean eradicating the marketplace. It does, though, mean insisting that the marketplace is not everything. For us right now, this means reclaiming space for civil society, for the union movement, for public institutions, for the public sector, for the public square. The pandemic has shown us how central to our survival these public institutions are—from the public health system to the social security system, and from public education to public housing. And it has also brought to the fore how vital the union movement has been in protecting workers in the workplace, in the economy and in society.

This is the hard work of hope. It is easier, much easier, to dismiss the role of the state in all of this and refuse to recognise the long-term significance, as well as the immediate impact, of measures such as the Secure Jobs Better Pay bill and ten days’ paid family and domestic violence leave as a right for all workers. The hard work of hope means engaging, as the union movement has with these legislative gains, in building collective support and organising collective activism, and reaching out to legislators and the broader community that elects them.

The state is not a static entity sitting atop an unyielding economic base, imprisoned within the impermeable socio-political, legal and cultural apparatus of an unforgiving ruling class. ‘Apparatuses, after all, are material condensations of relations’, as Nicos Poulantzas reminds us. The state is a site of struggle, a space where courage and imagination, wrought collectively, can bring about not only immediate social change (such as liberatory social infrastructure and measures to protect planet and people) but also the longer term gradual redirection of its energies and dispersion of power. This change in the shape and direction of the trajectory of change is, according to Étienne Balibar, what revolution looks like. It means not being limited to a program reactive to the ills caused by capitalism, colonisation or patriarchy. It encompasses the possibility of setting out an entirely new way of imagining the social: ‘a discontinuity, a reorientation towards different goals’. How better to describe what we need to address the climate emergency and the global disaster of growing inequality.

It is tempting for many to write off the role of the state on the basis that while it has been the means of remarkable social achievements it has also been the instrument of destruction and disempowerment. David Harvey notes in this regard the proliferation of NGOs as a substitute for the state and as the primary means for social change,

giving rise to the belief that opposition mobilised outside the state apparatus and within some separate entity called ‘civil society’ is the powerhouse of oppositional politics and social transformation. The period in which the neoliberal state has become hegemonic has also been the period in which the concept of civil society—often cast as an entity in opposition to state power—has become central to the formulation of oppositional politics.

Just asPoulantzos notes that ‘there is no “economy as such” and then the class struggle on another level’, we must also acknowledge, with Marx, that ‘the State and the system of society are not two different things. The State is the system of society’. We need to understand that neoliberalism is not just a collection of isolated incidents affecting the lives of working people, including those not in paid work. There is nothing isolated about such attacks. They are part of a systematic effort to use the power of government to discipline and control workers and others. They are a means of cutting what they call the cost of labour, but what we look upon as our livelihood.

Everyone deserves a fair crack at happiness. But happiness cannot be granted from on high by either the state or the market. Like the society it is constructed within, the state is a site of conflict between two overarching trajectories, between what Pierre Bourdieu calls the ‘Right Hand of the State’—the expression of the values and desires of the market—and the ‘Left Hand of the State’—the ‘trace, within the state, of the social struggles of the past’. We are right to engage in these social struggles and to carry them into the arena of the state, but it would be foolish to think that those traces are not erasable. The state is, above all, a collection of moving parts reflective of the relations between working people and those who own and control capital. We can fight for legislation that will make life better, but the struggle cannot be outsourced once the legislation has been won. It has to be defended: we cannot surrender our autonomy to the state in the belief it will always act in our interests. How can it, when it is by definition a site of conflict between the primacy of the common and the primacy of the commodified?

If you wander through one of those soulless mega-malls on a Saturday afternoon you’d be hard-put to imagine that we have any fear of the market. The market doesn’t terrorise us. It requires us, and we happily respond to its interpellation. It calls. We come running. And as per the mechanics of such interpellation, we say yes to what it makes of us, and yes to what it tells us that we are. The state has played a crucial role in ensuring that we are at home in the marketplace, systematically marshalling us to perform our crucial functions as consumers and providers of surplus labour. But no matter how well masked it is by the delights of the markets it protects, the state comes from trauma. Born of and infused with patriarchal violence and the violence of colonisation and capitalism, it is the site of those historical trajectories, in conflict with the collective efforts to resist and replace them.

From the prisons of fascist Italy, Antonio Gramsci famously wrote of the crisis facing the state that ‘the old is dying and the new cannot be born’. Today the neoliberal state, in the face of a series of global developments, is no longer able to fulfil its purpose as a protector and expander of private capital. As Paolo Gerbaudo argues, there are at least two paths forward. One is towards an authoritarian state that panders to the rhetoric of the libertarian Right and its discourse of sovereignty while reinforcing the very structures that have disempowered people and protected capital. The other is towards a social democratic framework of social protection and the systematic democratisation of power.

We cannot look to the past for a new configuration of how the state can best serve the needs of people and planet today. As Alain Badiou reminds us, ‘courage is never the courage to recommence as before’. We must engage concretely with where we are currently situated on that continuum between capital controlling society and society controlling capital, neither pining for an unrepeatable past nor waiting for an ideal future. I am reminded of the old joke about someone asking for directions to a certain town and being told Well, I wouldn’t start from here. It is the same with the struggle to build a new society. No matter what anyone tells us about the time not being right (another way of sayingI wouldn’t start from here’), ‘here’ is where we are and where we must begin.

We have the right and the duty, especially through our membership and activism in the union movement and other movements for social justice and social change, to change the parameters of the possible—to build the kind of state through which we might displace what Wilson Gilmore calls ‘organised abandonment’ with the steady creation of a new framework in which there are no surplus people—where no one is made to feel they have no value. As bell hooks writes:

true liberation leads us … beyond resistance to transformation … The moment we choose to love we begin to move against domination, against oppression. The moment we choose to love we begin to move towards freedom, to act in ways that liberate ourselves and others.

Love is a word we do not hear often in political discourse. It is all but absent in economic discourse. This is no surprise, as our efforts seem to be focused on building surplus value for the few. But imagine a future in which we decided to build, instead, for all of us—a surplus of education, a surplus of culture, a surplus of caring. A surplus of love.

I have elsewhere called for the development of a social guarantee that embraces housing, education and training, the social determinants of health, a full employment framework with jobs that are secure and well paid, a social security system that delivers not only the income adequacy that people need but also mutual respect rather than mutual obligation, a national employment service, a gender lens, a strong local and regional focus, self-determination for First Nations communities and the elimination of neopaternalistic practices as exemplified by the Northern Territory Intervention and the larger dismal armoury of punishments and income controls that have come to be the hallmark of our social security system:

Rather than measuring the success of the social guarantee by the number of us who no longer need it, which is how we tend to measure positive outcomes for people currently receiving income support, we should be measuring solid and significant trends in the reduction of poverty, homelessness, loneliness, and preventable morbidities and mortality. We should be re-imagining a social guarantee that is held in the same kind of respect and collective acceptance as Medicare, as a means to improving society as a whole rather than as a means of controlling and rehabilitating purportedly discordant lives.

A central demand of a reimagined state, then, would be a social guarantee framework that would counter the destructive logic of the market in the life of our communities—a framework that integrated as many forms of social and economic support as possible and treated all with dignity and respect. We all, at different times, need help from each other: we are social beings; we live in a society; and the state embodies the choices made and struggles engaged over time in the life of society. As a condensation of social relations, the state is a key arena for the struggle between the neoliberal manufacture of despair and the grassroots harnessing of hope in transformative practice. In the face of structural exploitation and exclusion, our task is to expand the limits of the possible while spelling out the practical. This is what our current concrete situation demands of us: to reconfigure power, redistribute resources and reignite that deeply human sense of the social.

About the author

John Falzon

John Falzon is a poet and sociologist living on unceded Ngunnawal land. He is the author of The Language of the Unheard (2012) and Communists Like Us (2017).

More articles by John Falzon

Categorised: Arena Quarterly #13

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