the capitalist state and the debate over cuts

by David Broder

The Labour Party’s pre-election budget has focussed attention on ‘the recovery’. In his speech to the House of Commons last Wednesday Chancellor Alistair Darling outlined a plan of government action to restore economic growth and reduce the British state’s borrowing.

The Tories and Liberal Democrats have somewhat different plans to Labour about the best means of achieving these objectives. However, what is rarely challenged, or even discussed, is the underlying consensus which structures the whole debate: the very idea of ‘the economy’ and a collective national interest. So how should communists relate to this debate?

In response to the crisis in the capitalist economy, much of the left raised slogans blaming ‘bankers’ for the financial collapse and asserting ‘we won’t pay for their crisis’ as the Labour government moved to bail-out the banks. At the same time they pointed to the hypocrisy of free-market advocates now asking for hand-outs from the British state, and demanded more widespread nationalisations to shield the working class from the damage caused by the crisis.

This was a non-sensical reaction. The understanding that the state wanted to divert spending to protect British finance because it is a guarantor of the interests of the ruling class is in utter contradiction to the argument that the state is the instrument of progressive social change and should intervene further.

The state is not a politically neutral body run by whichever party has the most popular policies. Nor is it simply an “armed body of men”, a repressive apparatus. Rather, it is a cartel, the ‘executive committee of the ruling class’, a vast array of institutions whose overriding purpose is to maximise the long-term success of British capital. As Rob Kirby has explained, it must furthermore “supply those services necessary to the reproduction of society as a whole that no individual capitalist can make a profit from doing; building roads to transport goods, healthcare to maintain the working class, and police to maintain social order. This state spending, whilst needed by capital in general, becomes an increasingly heavy drag on the profits of individual capitalists. Whilst this is a bearable burden during the good times, during a recession, when capitalists can’t produce sufficient surplus value to turn a profit, this becomes a crippling and potentially bankrupting outgoing.”

The low level of class struggle today means that ‘big politics’ are off the mainstream agenda and the differences between the parties’ economic plans are very marginal: both are for a 50% tax on those who earn £150,000 a year, both agree on an increase in capital gains tax, whereas the Tories propose an increase in National Insurance 1% less than Labour’s plans. The Tories opposed the bail-out of Northern Rock in autumn 2007, but it is implausible that in government they would have allowed the major banks to collapse the following autumn, given that all G20 economies, ruled by ‘left’ or right, supported the bailout plans.

The speed of cuts is a far more important issue for the interests of British capitalism. Today the threat in the minds of the ruling class comes both from mass resistance to these cuts and furthermore the risk that slashing state spending will jeopardise confidence in the markets and lending to business. Even today the establishment is not straightforwardly pro-Conservative or in favour of the sharpest possible cuts – George Osborne, Tory contender for Chancellor, has had a far from easy ride in the press. The Tories may, historically, have been the major party of British capital, but at times the ruling class have also preferred Labour to qualm social tensions (1945, 1974) or when the Tories have been straightforwardly incompetent (1997).

But that whole debate is within the terms of what is best for ‘the economy’ – which means, British capitalism. It is hardly credible that the party leaders themselves subjectively think ‘this is a great opportunity to really hammer the poor’: rather, they identify the national economy with the collective interest and thus want to defend Britain’s pre-eminent economic position, including in particular its AAA credit rating. The parties have similar plans because there are few alternative means of doing that. As has been well-publicised, Alistair Darling pressured Gordon Brown not to adopt a ‘cuts vs. investment’ election theme, since this would ensure Labour were sunk as the ruling class would not think them credible.

Moreover, not only does the media push voters one way or the other, but many people who identify their own interests with those of ‘the economy’ in general will cast their vote accordingly. Capitalism forces people to sell their capacity to work in order to survive, and thus many will identify their own interests with those of capitalism: the need to ‘protect the recovery’ and so ‘create jobs’ appears to be of material benefit to the working class. In reality, not bailing out the banks would have sunk the British economy and seen the British state go bankrupt and made the cuts even more ‘necessary’.

Within the framework of capitalism this is indeed true because capital is a totalising social system, not just a collection of bosses and rich people. The laws of the system are self-fulfilling: ‘the bankers were wrong, yes, but not supporting the banks would have destroyed the whole economy’; ‘the US invasion was wrong, yes, and may have encouraged the growth of Islamist militias in Iraq, but the troops mustn’t leave because then the Islamists would take over’… This is evidently hypocritical and presents us with only unpalatable choices, unless we stop this vicious circle altogether by abolishing entirely the social relations which create it.  Advocating a communist alternative is in this sense much more ‘realistic’ than looking for a nicer form of capitalism.

Those on the left who argue that the cuts are ‘unnecessary’ from the point of view of the state, and of ‘the economy’, are therefore clearly wrong. The problem is that they take as their starting point what is possible within the structures of capitalism rather than what is desirable or necessary for human beings. Socialist Worker opposed the bail-out of the banks, arguing the money should be invested in public services instead, but now argues ‘there’s no need for cuts – the money’s there‘. This is a utopian defence of social democracy, with no grounding in reality, much as with the claim that British Airways is in fact profitable.  This way of thinking seeks to blame individual bankers and bosses for being bastards, ‘greedy’ or ‘irresponsible’ rather than showing the unviability of capitalism as such.

We should not fight the cuts on the understanding that the capitalist state ‘really’ can afford high quality public services for all, or with the argument that living standards could be raised by a ‘real’ Labour government with suitably progressive policies. Suggesting to the ruling class another way of exiting the crisis is a dead end: we want to overthrow the capitalist social relations which make the cuts ‘necessary’, not to sustain illusions that capitalism could be run in our interests.

12 thoughts on “the capitalist state and the debate over cuts

  1. Great article. Leftist critique of bourgeois politics without pandering to puerile social democrat populism.

    The false binary supplied should be seen as such; ‘Would you like cuts or investment? Would you like to be a happy slave or an unhappy one?’

    I never understood this ‘Labour would be alright if only they had a socialist leader again’ crap my leftie friends come out with – when have they ever had a ‘socialist’ leader? Harold Wilson? Ramsay Macdonald? Tony Blair? Not exactly great friends of the working class by any stretch.


  2. Why is it utopian to point out the money’s there? The money is there. If the whole narrative of bourgeois politics and justification for the cuts is the poverty of the capitalists, its entirely reasonable to point out that the capitalists are very rich and that this justification is therefore false.


  3. “the capitalists” have money, but the state does not. the article says it is utopian social democracy to say that the state has the money to pay.

    Could the state raise the money through taxation? Obviously the general health of profits is another, bigger debate, and I’m aware that you have a horse in that race…


  4. The state does have the money. They have nationalised the banks which make billions of profits that could easily pay for public services. What’s more as the SWP article points out by taxing the rich they could raise the money even if they do not have it.
    Is it utopian to think that you need a horse to win a horse race? No its a blindingly obvious statement of fact. So why not say it then?


  5. Perhaps ‘utopian’ refers to the belief that the capitalist state, controlled by capitalist factional interests to facilitate profit through a capitalist mode of production, might suddenly decide it wants to cut into those tasty profits and put them in the wallets of honest, hard-working, class-concious wage workers for a nice warm glow. Whilst it is possible, it seems a trifle unlikely.


  6. Good article. Fully agree that the only realistic option is advocating non-capitalism/communism. All this claptrap about diverting capitalist’s money to public services really is utopian. The state faces a massive deficit and any party, whether conservative or social-democratic, would be forced–within the political-economics logics of capitalism–to cut deeply to balance the books. Criticising this logic gets us nowhere and only makes us look stupid.


  7. So if its possible then its not utopian is it? Honestly, its utopian to think that we might win some better public services, but advocating non-capitalism/communism is realistic?
    Not so much claptrap is silly. As for whether it makes you look stupid, why try it out down the pub? There’s nothing like testing your ideas out in struggle after all.


  8. I think that if there’s any evidence about the effect that “the pub” has on debate, it’s that last post.

    However, I would be interested to see a response from David on the question of whether funding public spending from cuts is utopian, possible, or worth advocating.


  9. My perspective on this is that I feel oppressed by capitalism and want to escape it. From this point of view I am not interested in any increases of my social wage or going back to welfare state. Ok, maybe there are resources to build it again, so what? I still will be oppressed by the commodified relations, by competition, money, billboards, cars, environmental destruction, dying populations which capital deems ‘excessive’. After studying various alternatives and history of working classes it seems to me that the only chance is in the working class struggle, more precisely in the communistic tendency militating inside this struggle. That’s why I agree with David’s conclusions. Instead of endlessly arguing with defenders of welfare state/nationalisations, we should start discuss more how concretely we could link struggles against cuts with the communist tendencies in society, trying to get beyond the system of wage labour. Thanks for the article!


  10. Presumably c0mmunard means to ask whether it is possible to fund public services with ‘alternative cuts’?

    In the article I argued that saying they should spend money on hospitals rather than bank bailouts is basically utopian in that it is social-democratic. We should not put forward a programme for government of the capitalist state.

    As workers, service users etc. we should argue against e.g. hospital cuts and for free public services: but there is no reason why we should ‘cost’ these within a capitalist framework. We demand what we need, not what they can afford to give us. Such questions as Britain maintaining her AAA credit rating are necessary for its capitalist economic success but not for us.

    The whole debate on the budget, cuts etc. is based on the fictions of debt, borrowing, even money itself, which are reflections of existing social relations rather than real forces governing humanity. They have no essential meaning.

    Our argument is that capitalism is not a social system fit to meet human needs, not that our rulers are just ‘wankers’ etc. For sure here are real debates among every ruling class in the world – investment vs. cuts, interventionism and building infrastructure versus the free market. Arguing for lots of investment and no cuts and no bailout may well be a radical variant of this type of argument but does not adequately demonstrate the systemic question: that there could be no benign capitalism, that the state cannot be run in the interests of the working class, that capitalist social relations and the world market etc., etc. structure this whole question.

    Of course, Bill, I am not saying that we should not demand better and free public services. The argument is that saying the government could afford this by not bailing out banks doesn’t make sense and isn’t a necessary support for the demands on the NHS etc.


  11. I agree with that, though perhaps Bill J is right that utopian is not the right word for it.


Comments are closed.