Wednesday, 18 December 2013
Book review – The State in Capitalist Society by Ralph Miliband
The Daily Mail last year criticised Ralph Miliband, the father of Labour leader Ed, calling him, because of his Marxist beliefs, “the man who hated Britain.”
The Belgium-born Polish Jew fled with his father to Britain in 1940 after Nazi Germany invaded Belgium. He served in the Royal Navy during the Second World War and gained British citizenship in 1948. He became involved in left-wing politics and made a personal commitment to socialism at the grave of Karl Marx.
Miliband published a number of books during his lifetime. His first in 1961, Parliamentary Socialism, found the Labour Party lacking radicalism and obsessed with retaining the confidence of business and financial interests. This led to an intolerance towards extra-parliamentary actions and failing to offer an alternative to capitalism.
In 1969, Miliband’s The State in Capitalist Society was published. It is generally considered his finest piece of work. It is based on how we all live in the shadow of the state and increasingly depend on its sanction and support.
Miliband’s book challenged the prevailing political orthodoxy that power in Western societies was competitive, fragmented and diffused. As such the state – consisting of the government, the administration, the military and the police, the judiciary, sub-central government (such as regional assemblies) and parliamentary assemblies – could not fail to respond to the demands of competing interests during the decision making process. The notion of a ‘ruling class elite’ was seen as absurd. Consequently capitalism had been radically – and democratically – transformed since its inception during the industrial revolution.
Miliband demonstrated the reverse, highlighting how the increasing concentration of private economic power had already transformed all states into instruments of the giant corporation’s bidding, bringing in its wake massive and growing inequalities. A tiny number of children from working class backgrounds may make it to the very top of society, but the overall structure remains intact as this does not pose a serious challenge to capitalism.
The state, argued Miliband, is partisan when industrial disputes occur and governments – of all political persuasions – will seek to place inhibitions upon organised labour and leave wage-earners in a weaker position compared to employers. ‘Democracy’ also requires ensuring left-wing dissent plays as weak a role as possible. Trade unions are only ‘good’ when they don’t raise excessive wage claims or seek to radically alter society on behalf of working people. Miliband feared that even in advanced capitalist societies such demands would increasingly be met by conservative authoritarianism and the state surveillance and harassment that accompanies it.
Miliband was frustrated because he recognised that productive and technological advances had revealed a material capacity for human liberation but ‘advanced capitalist societies cannot achieve this within the confines of an economic system which remains primarily geared to the private purposes of those who own and control its materials resources……
He sought instead ‘societies with a spirit of sociality and cooperation from their members, a sense of genuine involvement and participation’ and in which ‘the state will be converted from an organ superimposed upon society into one completely subordinated to it.’
Written 44 years ago, the State in Capitalist Society, remains, in the wake of the current neoliberal austerity project, valuable reading today.