When the main business of government is business itself, don’t be surprised when sleaze, political favours, dodgy contracts and the rest surface on a regular basis. The UK capitalist state, with its immense power and resources, is inherently open to misuse.
Rules and regulations introduced down the years – often following a scandal – to prevent open abuse for personal gain or to favour personal contacts with government contracts have had a distinct aim: to sustain voters’ trust in the state’s claim to rule “for the common good”, “the national interests” or even “the people”.
Erosion in people’s confidence in government generally has continued its decline. Sleaze allegations will reinforce that trend and make it more difficult to sustain the spurious claim that government and state have our best interests at heart.
Covid-19 has not only ruthlessly exposed society’s deep inequalities, it has also revealed a state apparatus that neglected to prepare for a pandemic, failing to order or distribute PPE in a systematic way, for example, and running down the NHS.
As for the Tory government, it has put business and profits before the health of the nation. Johnson’s reluctance to act swiftly at the start of the pandemic and then again in the autumn undoubtedly cost more lives than would have otherwise been lost to Covid-19.
Erratic and unclear lockdown policies were taken advantage of by one Dominic Cummings, who single-handedly put Barnard Castle on everyone’s map after an unbelievable 200 mile, non-stop drive from London with his family during the first lockdown.
So Cummings calling out Johnson, who is without a shadow of a doubt cavalier about rules and regulations designed to prevent abuse, is the tale of two political snakes in the same sack.
Which brings us to what this state is all about and to ask whether pressure for change can make it more equitable so that it actually operates for the “common good”. The authorised view is just that. The state is indeed a neutral body, which can be pressured into doing the right thing.
This view, which frankly is the dominant outlook, is championed and articulated by supporters of an imagined liberal capitalism that could include a democracy made to work for the people. This pluralist “theory” neatly keeps us tied into capitalism as a social system.
As leading social scientist Bob Jessop writes in his ground-breaking 2016 book The state, past present & future:
“Plain Marxists tend to assume that all forms of social power linked to class domination are fragile, unstable, provisional, and temporary and that continuing struggles are needed to secure class domination, overcome resistance, and naturalize or mystify class power.”
In Britain, capitalism came into existence before the modern state was fully formed. The state was historically established between 1800 and 1850 to accommodate, support and in turn come to depend on the new economic system for its own projects.
Capitalism needs a sympathetic state because competing corporations and investment banks are incapable of delivering education, infrastructure, legal structures, a currency, a continuous source of labour, minimum health standards, protection of markets and so on.
So the state and capitalism are in a social relationship and operate as a kind of division of labour. In turn, the state will protect private property, compel people to enter the labour market or lose benefits and, where necessary, compensate for market failures such as the UK state did with bailouts in the 2008 financial crash.
The state depends on taxation of various kinds and an economy that constantly expands to provide resources for policies that offset some of the harshness that flows from economic exploitation. This social compromise further obscures the real, class purpose of the state.
This has become clearer during the neoliberal period, which we could date from the early 1980s and the Thatcher government. Traditions of probity have given way to a state that is so close to corporate and financial interests that sometimes it seems there’s hardly a cigarette paper between them.
More than a third of all public spending – nearly £300 billion annually – goes on goods, works and services from external suppliers. This is the government and state officials acting as enablers of the neoliberal project, feeding the market economy with taxpayers’ money.
Ending social and racial injustice, tackling the climate crisis and gross inequality therefore begins with developing a strategy to achieve a reconstructed, political system – a true democracy – which would then act to end the economic model that is at the heart of all that’s wrong with modern Britain.