Andy Blunden 2004

Letter to the Editor of D!ssent

Mark Latham in government will lay a huge challenge before the Left, which could either see the Left disappear from sight for the next generation or stimulate a significant resurgence. It all depends on how the Left respond to him. I think Christopher Lloyd’s proposal that we should march with the battle cry of Restoration (Chris’s emphasis) is exactly the kind of response which Latham is looking for and would be a disaster.

Formally, everything that Professor Lloyd says about the state as a vehicle for welfare delivery and norm-creation is true, but it misses the point, in my view. This is connected to the relatively uncritical acceptance of the concept of “social capital,” arguing only for the state, rather than capital, as the most effective builder of “social capital.”

Historically, the welfare state originated from the objectification of working class mutual aid; for the early trade union and socialist movement, the “distress fund” was just another account alongside the “strike fund,” integral to the very formation of the working class as a class for itself; solidarity with members in their time of need was inseparable from solidarity on the picket line. The objectification of this solidarity in the form of state-guaranteed rights was a victory for the early workers’ movement, but separated these functions from the voluntary class-struggle organisations that created them. Once the state was mediating between individual welfare recipient and the organs of class-subjectivity which created both the substance of the benefits and the rights to receive them, then we have a new situation. Only to the extent that the organised working class can control the state, and the individual worker can see the expression of their own will in the activity and personality of the state, expressed through their own participation in the workers’ movement or other forms of self-organisation exercising influence in the state, can welfare be enjoyed as an honourable right.

And not only that, those who are excluded from participation in capital and excluded from participation in the state are not only going to feel excluded, they are going to be excluded.

It is a great irony that the failure of the state to resolve the problems of poverty and exclusion, the decline in public education, health, housing, etc., is a direct result of decisions by governments. But if the political class is complicit in the disabling of the state as a force capable of expressing and meeting the needs of the mass of people, if the state has instead become hostage to capital, what does it achieve to implore the political class to stop doing this? What have we learnt from a century of looking to the state as guardian and distributor of working class solidarity?

This brings us back to the idea of “social capital.” The term was coined by Jane Jacobs in her 1961 Death and Life of Great Americans Cities. Jane Jacobs — a resident of a poor neighbourhood and an activist, not a politician or academic — used the term just once, referring to those social conditions which contribute to the people of a neighbourhood getting organised and able to repel the attacks of hostile strangers, government and big business. She specifically rejected the notion that it could be added up or quantified or that there was any hope that governments or business would contribute to building it. She referred to it as “self-government.” That is, according to Jane Jacobs, what poor neighbourhoods needed was the capacity to get organised and get more political clout.

When the state or welfare agencies are relied upon to “build social capital” in a poor and fragmented neighbourhood, then the best that can result is a kind of benign subordination. Latham’s neo-liberal proposal is to replace these welfare agencies with “social entrepreneurs.” He places quite literal interpretation on “social capital,” aiming to subsume the social life of neighbourhoods under capital by assisting people form themselves into companies.

This is a proposal. By participating in companies, people do participate in a form of subjectivity which can express their will. However, it is by no means the only way for poor communities to go and most likely not the best way to go. Not the best way to go, because it is the action of capital which separated people form their means of production in the first place, but it is fair to say that the formation of companies like this will be part of the solution in the medium term.

I believe that the key route to building social solidarity and the formation of subjectivity (self-government, leadership, social cohesion) are those forms of self-organisation which express the norms usually associated with the public sector. Government can of course contribute to this, but we have a chicken-and-egg problem. Poor neighbourhoods and other groups of people who are excluded by reason of their gender, social class, ethnicity, language, religion, etc., etc., have to get organised in order to place their demands and get control over their own destiny. It is for people to decide themselves, but it may be better to take functions away from the state, rather than hand them over to a state which they cannot control.

Unless and until those who are currently excluded can gain an effective political voice of their own, it is not a good idea for them to give more power to the state. Benign subordination is the best that could result. What the social capital research has proved is that only those communities who get organised can climb out of poverty; but this is not primarily an economic problem; it is a political problem, which can be solved only by political means. Extending economic methods into the preserve of politics can only make the situation worse.

Andy Blunden
April 2004.