Reclaiming the State

Posted on February 1, 2011 by

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Across the Atlantic, American pundits are recognizing an emerging European trend that has been a feature of the US from its inception: fear and distrust of centralized state power. “There’s a long history of that in the U.S., but not in Europe, and particularly not in Northern Europe,” says Cas Mudde, an expert on populism interviewed by Newsweek. “For most of the post-war period, what stood out there was that people actually trusted the state, and trusted it to do a lot. That has really been lost.”

Mudde is quoted in the context of rising ‘open source’ protest in opposition to the austerity measures currently sweeping across European states. While he may be right about this newfound sense of betrayal, Europe is not quite there yet. The fundamental difference with these protests is that Europeans are asking for something that Americans rarely wish for: a bigger state. What the protests show is that many Europeans still believe in the state as an organ for the collective administration of our resources as a people, democratically and for the public good. If we go the American way, that means giving up on the state, retreating to the private sphere.

What is central in the US is the role of political rhetoric in conceptualizing the proper notion of the state – for many Americans, taxation amounts to theft, an unacceptable imposition on liberty. Conservative politicians in the UK are attempting a similar reframing – and what the American example shows is that, once this has become ingrained in the public imagination, it may not be possible to go back.

Distrust of centralized state power was a key rhetorical feature of the founding of the United States. ‘No taxation without representation!’ was the infamous rallying cry of the American Revolution, protesting against Royal taxes on the British colonists who were not represented in parliament.Taxation was the tool of the oppressor, and that idea remains strong in the US today. Back then they demanded more control – representation. These days, the cry is more likely to be ‘No taxation. Period.’ as President Obama has extended tax cuts to wealthy and middle class Americans alike, while increasing spending on social services, in a fruitless bid to please everyone despite its unaffordability.

From its outset, America (in rhetoric if not in fact) has been an anti-state project, cemented and made extreme by the Cold War, where a large state become synonymous with Russian Communism. For Americans, anti-state rhetoric has historically been a rhetoric of liberation and self-determination. The corollary being that those who collect and/or benefit from taxation, are against liberty.

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Anti-state rhetoric is extremely powerful in American politics. It is the language of liberty, America’s raison d’être. Because of this, it is abusively and skillfully deployed by the American Right to manipulate public opinion. This is how the debate about healthcare (to most Europeans, an absolute no-brainer) was turned into a debate about liberty instead of a debate about access to life-saving services. A ‘public option’ was reframed as a ‘government option’ and broadcast nationwide through the right wing media. More egregiously, making advice available for end of life care planning was reframed (to be fair, this was a downright lie, not just a reframing) as ‘death panels’ – the idea that a bunch of unaccountable doctors would decide whether old people should be allowed to live or die. Anti-state rhetoric, by deploying the notions of liberty that Americans rightly hold so dear, transforms debates about access to public services into unwinnable debates about oppression and entitlement, thereby derailing any chance that the state can be used for greater social justice. Meanwhile, when cash is short, public servants become the enemy. Their very existence is a greedy imposition on Americans’ hard-earned tax dollars; standing up for better working rights and conditions the very epitome of selfishness, particularly in a time of crisis.

Let’s think about that for a moment. What that means, when public service, serving for and on behalf of the public, means selfishness, entitled parasitism, simply because your wages come from taxes. It’s hard to see how you could argue for more public services if that is what the majority believes.

A similar phenomenon is rising across the pond, in my very own Britain, though it holds a different rhetorical guise: the guise of responsibility. Prime Minister David Cameron’s use of such rhetoric mirrors the ways in which anti-state libertarian rhetoric is deployed in the United States – to turn issues of social justice and ideological debates about the nature of society into unwinnable and extremely divisive arguments about entitlement and selfishness.

A big state, he argues, erodes personal responsibility. He compares the relationship between state and society to that of parents and children, weaning the public off dependence. Students are portrayed by the right wing as spoilt entitled middle class brats leeching off the hard-working taxes of workers and throwing tantrums at parliament, like teenagers who’ve had their pocket money stopped. Public spending itself is portrayed as irresponsible; indeed, it is Labour’s profligate public spending that caused this debt crisis in Cameron’s vision of the world. Firing public sector workers is, in this context, the only responsible thing to do. And as responsible adults facing up to the harsh realities of our time, we must all responsibly take on the sacrifice.

What’s important in this framing is that, like the American Right, he puts state and society in opposition to one another; as separate entities. This is a transformation from the post-war role of the British state as an agent of service to the public, a means to pool and administer our collective resources for the greater good. And similarly, just as you cannot argue with liberty, you cannot argue with responsibility. Both rhetorics are successfully deployed against asking more from the state. For those who would dare do such a thing, you are either an oppressive socialist or an irresponsible child, depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re on.

Of course, like all abuses of rhetoric, it is a selective deployment based on lies. While Republicans and Tea Partiers argue that state-run services are an inherently inefficient, oppressive and wasteful use of hard-earned American tax dollars when it comes to healthcare, education or social security, they are silent on America’s prison system, which has the highest documented rate of incarceration in the world. Must cost a dollar or two, hey? Or the military, for that matter. Both of which extend to epic and outrageous proportions. A big public sector is a wasteful infringement on liberty, an unjust misuse of American taxpayer dollars, and its workers? Economic parasites on the wealth creating private sector. Unless it’s for stuff right wingers want, of course.

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Similarly, Cameron tries to make the public sector and public spending the locus of irresponsibility in the debate, suggesting the only noble and responsible thing to do is cut public service. While in fact it was private sector, financial sector irresponsibility that caused this crisis, yes, the debt crisis. Cameron’s selective lie here is that there is no alternative, while organisations such the the New Economics Foundation,Compass, Tax Research LLP and the TUC have shown this to be otherwise. What these organizations have shown is that this debt crisis was not caused only by high public spending, it was caused by a mismatch between income and expenditure, something the coalition seems allergic to mentioning. It is an income crisis caused by the loss of tax revenue from our declining economy. Severe because our economy was so dependent on the roaring success of the financial sector which so catastrophically collapsed under the weight of its own irresponsible practices. While spending obviously played a role, the point is that it is notonly about spending, and the public sector does not have to be the bad guy.

In the conservative viewpoint, the entrepreneurs are the heroes of our economically blighted nation, be you in America or Britain: for they are the ones who drive the economy, create wealth. The private sector is once again idolized as the locus of all goodness and efficiency, despite the fact that it was the private sector and free market policies which caused this crisis. Perversely, our governments’ and peoples’ response to the failures of capitalism is to ask for more of the same. This, I believe, is in no small part due to this manipulative and dishonest rhetoric.

Cameron cynically abuses our better nature by deploying lies about what it means to be a responsible citizen. He preaches fiscal responsibility in government, living within our means, while at the same time saddling students with a lifetime of debt. So ironic it’s almost funny. And while he waxies lyrical about responsible civic action, participation, he is fundamentally undemocratic when it comes to public involvement in central policy.

Regarding the student protests, he states that the ‘right place for the debate and argument to take place is in parliament.’ In his speech to the conservative party conference, he makes it clear where he sees the locus of participation in the Big Society:

‘It takes two to build that strong economy. We’ll balance the budget, we’ll boost enterprise, but you start those businesses that lead us to growth.

It takes two to build that big society. We’ll reform public services, we’ll devolve power, but you step forward to seize the opportunity.

In other words, central government policy is not for you. Stick to your localism. Responsible civic action, in Cameron’s terms, means shutting up about what the central government is doing. Bizarrely, Cameron has managed to make taking responsibility and ownership synonymous with doing what his government tells you, and not questioning.

And that is what Big Society really means – they’ll create the game, and we have to step up and play it by their rules. And with budget cuts of 1.1 billion to English councils, it’s hard to see how the ‘freedom’ to organize local public services can be effective. Because without capacity to enact, that freedom doesn’t mean very much.

Both rhetorics are a tragic manipulation of values that we desperately need in society, and this manipulation may mean that we lose the capacity to define them for ourselves. It may be unlikely that Cameron’s rhetoric of responsibility will ever hold the same power as American libertarian rhetoric – for a start, it does not have the historical backing that liberty holds in the American psyche. But if it does, we can say goodbye to the notion of the state as ours.

If we, as a people, want the power to decide which game we play, and not just how we play someone else’s game that is imposed upon us, we need to reclaim the state as an organ of the people. Social action in the private sphere cannot replace the state, which commands resources unimaginable to most private citizens or even civil society . We need to define our own notions of societal responsibility – and that must include the possibility of greater democratization of central policy. We need to reclaim this deficit as ours; for it is the people’s deficit. It us who will pay for it; we have to make it us who controls it.

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Posted in: Politics