The local state and restructuring social relations theory and practice

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<ul><li><p>The local state and restructuring social relations theory and practice </p><p>by S. S. Duncan and M. Goodwin </p><p>I Introduction: problems and objectives </p><p>Despite the fact that the term local state has become quite fanuliar, not to say popular, since the publication of Cockburns book of that name in 1977, the concept still remains rather uncertain in its usage and application. The term itself could equally refer to autonomous local state or local institution of the central state, and both meanings are present in the literature. Confusion is not confined to the semantic level, but also results from conflicting and imprecise ideas of the status of the concept in relation to historical events and to theoretical interpre- tations of the capitalist state as a whole. Consequently, it is difficult t o apply the concept to empirical research except in a general, prescriptive way - the local state distinguishes a particular area of interest in the real world which can be subjected to analysis. Local refers to the importance of local variations in action and consciousness, state t o the links with national processes, and also to the style of analysis - traditional pluralist and positivist policy analysis rarely speaks of the capitalist state, still less does it overtly see the nature of the state as part of the problem. </p><p>However, the use of the concept in this way still begs the question: what is the meaning of local state over and above local government? In most discussions local state can easily be replaced by local government with little effect on the argument (and sometimes writers slip from one term to the other with little clear rationale). So why use local state at all, if the two terms are interchangeable? Or is this just another case of radical rhetoric? </p><p>Our contention in this paper is that more use can be made of the concept local state than just denoting a methodological approach or an area of social and political interest. In order to utilize the concept, however, it is necessary to relate the use of local state t o overall concepts of social relations and social change. Accounts often (if usually implicitly) see the local state as a static thing, more a set of physical institutions than a process of social relations. However, rather than concentrate on descriptions of things or structures which are essentially outcomes of social processes, we feel it is more profitable to focus on the social relations themselves. It should then become more possible to explain the nature </p></li><li><p>158 The local state and restructuring social relations: theory and practice </p><p>of state actions and changes in them. For rather than given, apparently autonomous and socially inexplicable changes in institutional things, state forms and actions become a part of changing relations between groups of people. (For a wider dis- cussion of the concept of social relations, especially capitalist state relations, see Duncan and Goodwin, 1982; Dickens et al., forthcoming.) </p><p>When used in this way, the concept of the local state should be able to provide an aid in the search for an adequate analytical understanding of local-central re- lations, and the problem of local government, in franchise democracies. We aim to evaluate this claim below, first by developing further the concept of the local state, and then by using it to look at crucial periods of change in central-local relations in Britain. Finally, we hope this will enable us to provide some historical and social explanation of current policy over and above description of legislative change alone. For just as the capitalist state is a historically formed social relation, so are state institutions at the local level; we cannot expect given and unchanging local state forms. Instead, local level state institutions are constantly being re- structured, and this change is not at all independent of changes in the form of capitalist social relations. Nor, as the term relations implies, is this process ne- cessarily functional for capital; still less is it merely the progress of an overall plan ordained by some supercapitalist - the state. Rather, as we shall see, local govern- ment and other subnational state institutions in Britain emerged as part of con- flict and compromise between intimately linked groups of varying interests, ideas, and powers. There may have been hbalance of power; passivity there was not. </p><p>We shall try to outline this process of restructuring, both conceptually and historically. This project seems particularly important in the present context. Current Conservative policy amounts to a major reorganization of both local government itself (greater than 1974), and of local-central relations (see Stewart, 1980). This has been recognized by political commentators both on the right and the left who have seen the threat of the complete abolition of local govern- ment (local autonomy?).l Moreover, this current body of legislation displays in </p><p>See Burgess and Travers (1980); Hird and heen (1980); McAllister and Hunter (1980) for detailed accounts of the Local Government, Planning and Land Act, which received royal assent on 13 November 1980 after considerable delay and opposition. But what better than to quote from parliamentary debates on the Bill, thus Lord Mishan (a Labour peer) said </p><p>If provisions like this are passed by Parliament, then one had better alter the name of local authorities because I do not know what authority they are left with. They ought to be called local agents for national government (quoted in me Guardian, 9 July 1980). </p><p>Or Geoffrey Ripon (a leading Conservative MP): </p><p>this Bill, and its financial provisions in particular . . . constitutes a threat to local de- mocracy (quoted in Cheetham, 1980). </p><p>A. Beaumont-Dark (a Conservative backbencher) can provide our conclusion: </p><p>It is unique to have a bill on which all local government associations of whatever com- plexion are sensibly united against the Governments measures. </p><p>It is also unique that no-one outside the Government has spoken up for the Bill (quoted in Jacobs, 1980). </p></li><li><p>S. S. Duncan and M. Goodwin 159 </p><p>an acute and overt manner some of the general contradictions of state policy and of state institutions. In the very same speech - speaking as Secretary of State - Michael Heseltine can say first: </p><p>Local government must be very clear about the implications of deciding either deli- berately to ignore or t o fight against measures which a democratically elected govern- ment wants to see achieved for the longer term interests of the nation . . . if individual authorities choose that path it must be open to me to take whatever action I feel is nec- essary to secure our essential ends. This is not intended as a threat. It is simply a reflec- tion of the importance of success (Secretary of State, 18 July 1979, para. 15, quoted in Stewart, 1980). </p><p>Seven paragraphs later, he continues: </p><p>We will sweep away tiresome and expensive controls over local government. Local councils are directly elected. They are answerable to their electorate. They do not need, they do not want, the fussy supervision of detail which now exists. I am determined to clear the way for local action at all levels (ibid., para. 22). </p><p>Description of legislative changes alone cannot explain why policy can be internally contradictory, even less how one facet relates, contradictorily, to the other. Both must be related to something else, the dimension of social relations underlying state action. This, perhaps, is where the value of the concept local state may lie. </p><p>11 The capitalist state and theorizing the local state </p><p>Our essential aim is to develop an abstract account of the local state in capitalist society, which can then be used in the analysis of real situations. A successful theory should be able to relate historical differences and changes to those social processes crucial in causing such specific situations. And, if these crucial processes are different for national and subnational state institutions, then we can talk about a theory of the local state. </p><p>In order to do this we need to carry out two major tasks. First of all, we need to indicate the nature of those social relations institutionalized in the capitalist state; why are relations of production, the family and the community not suffi- cient for the reproduction of society in advanced capitalism? We must understand the specificities of the state as a particular form of capitalist social relations. Second, given that some of the social relations of capitalist society do partly take place in - and change their form in - state institutions, we must clarify whether these transcended relations also have a local dimension. That is, do local social transactions take place in local state institutions, specific to local areas and auton- omous from those taking place in the national state. We are asking, in other words, if social relations and social consciousness (especially class relations and class consciousness) are unevenly developed and if so, does this matter to the develop- ment of a local level of state institutions? </p></li><li><p>160 l%e local state and restructuring social relations: theory and practice </p><p>1 Existing accounts of the local state </p><p>Our initial analysis of preexisting theories of the local state (see Duncan and Goodwin, 1982) concluded that the inadequacies of radical work in answering these questions largely stemmed from a concentration on things (such as functions or institutions) rather than the social relations that give rise to such things. Cockburn (1977) and Saunders (1979, chapter 4) seem alone in making explicit attempts to provide a theoretical account of the local state in capitalist society, and both show this inadequacy well. Others, whde talking about local state institutions, in fact, make no distinction between national and local states. The former is simply applied to the local level as if the two were interchangeable. </p><p>To return briefly to Cockburn and Saunders, two overall conclusions can be drawn whch are both important for the development of our argument. First of all, accepting that we should not expect a one-to-one correspondence between causation and hstorical outcomes (cf. Sayer, 1982), in virtue of what is the capi- talist state able, or caused, to carry out apparently given functions? (Such as social reproduction, or providing physical infrastructures.) Relative autonomy, however expressed, is no good answer. All this concept does is to replace empirical questions (e.g. What are the limits to particular state actions?) with a theoretical definition which at the same time lacks a theoretical basis. Such a basis might be, for example, a theory of those crucial processes which actually make capitalist states relatively autonomous. Rather, all that is designated by the term is a certain room for man- oeuvre within constraints. This is fair enough in itself, perhaps, but it completely lacks any reference to mechanisms actually enabling, or causing, the capitalist state to act or function in particular ways. This is why, in practice, relative auto- nomy often comes to depend on an economic determinism of the last resort. But usually either the links of this determination remain unspecified (so that it can only be rhetorical) or the determination actually becomes the simplistic deter- minism of the first resort. A firm basis for such claims can only be provided by analysis of the external and internal social relations of states. Second, why cannot the capitalist state institutionalize contradictory functions and processes? As Miliband (1 969, 49) pointed out in a crucial insight subcentral. government is at the same time both instrument of central control and obstacle to it. This essential perception, which has become lost in the more recent literature, becomes more possible to maintain if we begin with the analysis of social relations, rather than with a description of things. </p><p>Indeed, the contradictory nature of the capitalist state, summed up in the tension between democracy and control, is a major feature which runs throughout the paper. It was brought out clearly by Heseltines speech and appears promin- ently in later discussions on the restructuring of local-central state relations. If the local state is viewed as a dialectical process of social relations, rather than as a functional institution, it becomes possible to examine it as simultaneously agent and obstacle instead of reducing it merely to agent. </p><p>2 The capitalist state and class relations In this section we aim to sketch out those crucial social relations which produce </p></li><li><p>S. S. Duncan and M. Goodwin 16 1 </p><p>the capitalist state. Perhaps the essential preliminary idea is that capitalist states have developed historically as one part of the social relations between subordinate and dominant classes. They did not suddenly appear as an autonomous entity standing above society in order to regulate the squabbles of competing capitals, nor were states just called into being by dominant classes as a convenient tool in their subordination of other classes. Capitalist states might have these functions (among others), but, by definition, dominant class behaviour, and indeed its very existence, rests upon its relationship with subordinate classes. Similarly, capitalist states may well fail in carrying out these functions, or may indeed make a mess of things for capital. There is no guarantee whatsoever that British monetarism will be in any way functional for British capital, either in terms of relations with other capitals or with subordinate classes. Rather our theory should be able to problematize why state actions can be functional for capital, and why this is not guaranteed. </p><p>A linked idea is that class relations in the state should not be seen as somehow divorced from class relations elsewhere, such as those at work. This is partly be- cause production relations and economic changes themselves depend upon wider class relations, such as those of ownership and control. These wider relations also underly the development of states, and capitalist states are deeply involved in them, In this way an economic crisis can never just be economic. It is a crisis of class relations - not just in the workplace, but in the class relations of domin- ance, ownership and control in general. The present situation in Britain is a good example of this. The Conservative governments attempt to solve the economic crisis is overtly linked to the need to reduce the power of the unions, to reduce the autonomy of local government and, even, to send women back into the home. </p><p>Similarly, the reproduction of the economic (more accurately, the repro- duction of capital which is a social relation) depends on the reproduction of the working class and its relationship with dominant classes. This is a basic part of Marxs theory of capitalism, although such interlinkages are often neglected in marxist work. We might add, however, that this implies th...</p></li></ul>