the local state and restructuring social relations theory and practice

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  • The local state and restructuring social relations theory and practice

    by S. S. Duncan and M. Goodwin

    I Introduction: problems and objectives

    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.

    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?

    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

  • 158 The local state and restructuring social relations: theory and practice

    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.)

    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.

    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

    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

    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).

    Or Geoffrey Ripon (a leading Conservative MP):

    this Bill, and its financial provisions in particular . . . constitutes a threat to local de- mocracy (quoted in Cheetham, 1980).

    A. Beaumont-Dark (a Conservative backbencher) can provide our conclusion:

    It is unique to have a bill on which all local government associations of whatever com- plexion are sensibly united against the Governments measures.

    It is also unique that no-one outside the Government has spoken up for the Bill (quoted in Jacobs, 1980).

  • S. S. Duncan and M. Goodwin 159

    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:

    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).

    Seven paragraphs later, he continues:

    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).

    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.

    11 The capitalist state and theorizing the local state

    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.

    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?

  • 160 l%e local state and restructuring social relations: theory and practice

    1 Existing accounts of the local state

    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 institution


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