Most of the major problems and issues we face – here and in the rest of the world – boil down to a few simple propositions:
- • the majority are powerless, lacking a decisive say in their workplaces, communities, towns and cities
- • democracy is now a sham, a shell despite the efforts of generations of struggle to make it work
- • policies are shaped and determined by market forces, the major corporations and banks that are driven by profit
- • the economic and political system as a whole is unstable, rapidly losing legitimacy, and has entered a dangerous phase.
There is little doubt that humankind could, redeploying existing resources and technologies, build affordable housing, improve health care, tackle disease and meet the dramatic challenges presented by runaway climate change. So what is preventing us from doing just that, from living in a society that works for all?
Real (and some imaginary) barriers stand between the majority and society’s ability to find sustainable, democratically-arrived at solutions. The obstacles are actually to be found inside ‘the system’. So what is ‘the system’? Can we pin it down? Can we identify where the power to make decisions in society lies? It is really important to do this so that we know what we are up against and what strategies and plans will help us turn things round or, better still, right side up.
When people talk about the ‘system’ more often than not they mean the way politics works (or doesn’t). But it is reasonable to suggest that the ‘system’ also includes the way the economy operates because without the production of food, clothing and shelter society would not function. Taken together, the political system and the economic system form the heart of, and shape, a social system as a whole, which goes by the name of capitalism.
The present political process may be rejected and held in contempt by many people for a variety of reasons but this is the arena where binding and enforceable decisions are made on a daily basis that affect our lives and our futures. This is where laws are made, wars declared and banks bailed out, to list just a few functions of what is referred to as the state (see end of chapter).
So what is the nature of this political process? In the UK, there is no single document that brings together the constitution of the country, the rules which set out how the state is supposed to work and how it relates to the people. Nevertheless, it is possible to show how government works and how it interacts with other bodies like the legal system, the police, the armed forces, intelligence agencies, the Parliaments of other nations within the UK, local government and things like the BBC or the Arts Council.
Taken as a whole, these bodies represent more than government – they represent a state system of rule with its own turbulent history. As we drill down deeper into the system, the crisis of democracy outlined in Chapter 1 can equally be seen as an historic crisis of the present. How citizens are ruled over and decisions taken by others that shape our lives and futures is at the heart of the matter.
In the UK, the state’s nature and form has changed over many centuries, during which it made the transition from an absolute monarchy to a parliamentary, capitalist type of state with a constitutional monarchy. This process has frequently been tumultuous, despite the attempt by conservative historians to paint a picture of smooth, inevitable, evolutionary progress that has more or less finished.
The revolt of the barons in 1215, leading to Magna Carta which established the principle of the rule of law and the beginnings of accountable rule led to civil war before it was enforced. In the 16th century Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries and broke the power of the church as landlords with their own courts and laws.
Then, in the 17th century, the people were decisive in the Civil War against the absolute monarchy of Charles I. They flocked to the New Model Army led by Oliver Cromwell and defeated the king, who was executed for crimes against the nation. For an all-too-brief period, England was a republican commonwealth. The political revolution of 1688 finally consolidated parliamentary sovereignty.
The great struggles for the vote that began in the late 18th century and continued into the 1920s, the fight for free trade unions, for a welfare state, for a free health service and many other episodes are examples of where the state’s power has been challenged both from within and from below.
These immense, sometimes openly revolutionary struggles – which are only a fraction of our shared social history – in themselves show the importance of the state for people of all classes who have struggled for control, influence and for access to the levers of power itself.
Why? Because it is through the institutions of the state that political power is organised and put into effect throughout society, by force when and where it is considered necessary. Significantly the state, as we shall see in Chapter 3, creates the framework for capitalism to place profit and providing for shareholders above all other considerations.
Mystifying the state
Mystification of the nature of the state is common in part because the state assumes the form of a neutral body, acting as a kind of umpire, seemingly standing above society and yet with immense power over its citizens.
The absence of a codified constitution, which virtually every other country possesses, adds to the problem of identifying the ‘state’ as such. This problem is magnified by the fact that state power is not to be found in any single place but is in practice expressed through the actions of officials and politicians operating in an ensemble of institutions that together constitute the state. Of course, these institutions are often at odds with each other. The Supreme Court, for example, ruled in January 2017 that the executive did not have the power to trigger Article 50 to exit the European Union without the approval of Parliament.
These institutions and their relation to the people exist within a constitutional framework that in the UK is scattered in various pieces of legislation, rulings, precedents, customs and even traditions. It is a very British constitution that enables the ruling classes to duck and dive, adapt and manoeuvre as circumstances demand.
Historically, the state has come to perform some key roles and today:
- • provides a framework for economic activity (e.g. currency, company law)
- • makes decisions and acts in the name of the ‘people’, the ‘nation’ etc.
- • funds and organises the education of future generations of the workforce
- • moderates conflicts between social classes and other interests
- • secures and defends the territory claimed by the UK state
- • maintains political relations with other states
- • establishes and sustains a framework of law that is applied uniformly
- • facilitates the creation of infrastructure like transport
- • reserves to itself the lawful use of physical force within and without its territory (through the police, armed forces etc)
- • contributes significantly to the dominant narrative and vision of society – that there is no alternative to capitalism, that democracy and free markets are equivalents etc. (see Chapter 4)
Professor Bob Jessop, who has made a lifetime study of the state and its role in society, notes that ruling in the “common interest or general will” is weighed down with contradictions because it is “always asymmetrical, marginalizing or defining some interests at the same time as it privileges others. There is never a general interest that embraces all possible particular interests.”
Over to you
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