22 March 1996
The Coming General Election and the Question of State Power
The following Living Marxism statement was released for the conference The
Myth of Empowerment and the Reality of State Power on Sunday 24 March:
For the first time in many years it seems plausible that there could be
a change of government in Britain. After years of reactionary, Conservative
rule, it would be difficult not to look forward to a change. However, in
real terms the differences between the parties are so slight that a Conservative
defeat would hardly change anything in the way that we are governed.
Moreover, the political trajectory of New Labour suggests that a Blair administration
would in many ways be even worse than the Conservatives. New Labour's determination
to stay within the budgetary constraints of British capitalism means that
a vote for Blair would be a vote to lower our expectations still further.
And New Labour's conservative social policy would lead to ever-greater regulation
and control of people's lives.
The first problem posed by the election is that we will be spectators at
the changing of the guard, with less actual control over events than ever
before. With no real differences of principle to divide the parties, the
choices that we are invited to make will be emptier than ever before. Clearly,
one question that is not posed in this election is the question of who wields
the power of the state - for anyone but a handful of New Labour placemen,
Our problems do not end there. The exhaustion of the party political system
has consequences beyond the palace of Westminster. As the official political
process atrophies, new kinds of state authority are being developed to take
its place, what Living Marxism has called 'the new authoritarianism'. Today's
conference looks at some of these new forms of social control, from the
'peace process' in Northern Ireland to regulating cyber-porn. In this month's
issue of Living Marxism, we look at the growing trend for judges to dictate
the terms to parliament.
The danger posed by these changing forms of capitalist rule are profound.
Increasingly, questions of social regulation are removed from any public
arena or debate. Presented in the form of health guidelines, safety rules
and environmental protection, these new ways of controlling our lives are
placed beyond question. What ought to be a matter of debate, where authorities
are accountable to ordinary people, is instead seen simply as a technical
question, to be decided by experts. Our role in deciding how we are governed
is diminished beyond recognition. The authorities will respond to us only
in so far as we present ourselves to them as the vulnerable, in need of
The consequences of an increased role for official intervention and social
regulation are debilitating. The ever-greater reliance on official and semi-official
institutions to resolve social problems robs people of confidence in their
own actions. Again and again we are invited to cast ourselves in the role
of supplicants and victims, and generally to lower our horizons. The possibilities
of independent action are diminished. Even the most commonplace human relations,
like raising children or talking to our neighbours becomes a trial, best
presided over by a judge, a local authority or a government agency.
To counter these trends we need to impose an entirely different agenda on
the coming election campaign. Living Marxism and the Revolutionary Communist
Party are committed to exposing and challenging the new face of state power.
We want to make sure that democratic control is not trashed without a challenge,
and that people's rights to decide their own future are defended. But we
will not succeed on our own. Only if we can convince more people to support
this project will it succeed.
Most people will be affected by the election. Even the most critical people
will be tempted by the prospect of a change in government. But anyone who
believes in the possibility of real change will be readily frustrated by
the narrow parameters of the choices available.
All of us here need to work out how to resist the trend towards apolitical
and authoritarian rule. That means taking every opportunity to expose the
empty choices we are offered, and the growing trend towards regulation and
control that is supplanting real choice. By shedding light on the changes
that are taking place behind the election posters, we can reach the thousands
who are not satisfied with picking between John Major and Tony Blair.
The range and extent of the changes in British social life reach wider than
the readership of Living Marxism. Any real attempt to impose a new agenda
on the election will have to call on the resources of everyone here, and
many others. Our first step in this project after today's conference will
be in the form of a book, about the new authoritarianism, that will pull
together many of the themes of the conference. In July, our conference THE
WEEK will explore these issues further, and debate how we can proceed.
We want as many people as possible to help us with the project of exposing
the new face of capitalist domination. We need to take new arguments to
new places. Health centres and aid agencies are just as much the places
where the new authoritarianism will have to be challenged as election meetings
and TV studios. We need some courageous people who are prepared to stir
up a row in the kind of places where questions are not usually asked. More
than that we need people who can develop the arguments and work out the
problems in a new environment where political decision-making is rarely
even acknowledged as such.
The challenge might be daunting, but the prize is worth it. Control over
our own lives and control over the society we live in is something worth
fighting for. Join us.
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