“The interference of the state power in social relations becomes superfluous in one sphere after another, and then ceases of itself. The government of persons is replaced by the administration of things and the direction of the processes of production. The state is not “abolished”, it withers away” – Fredrich Engels
The withering away of the state has been a cherished ambition of the left for as long as there has been a left. The final removal of bureaucratic control over our lives. Liberty at last. Even the great Marxist-Leninists believed it in their own backwards way – the dictatorship of the proletariat was a theoretically temporary measure in order to accelerate the conditions needed to have no rulers at all.
But we’re not Marxist-Leninists. We’ve learned the dark lessons of history. Not for us the utopia building of the old left, for whom the struggle to create a good life for all would remove it permanently from millions. Not for us either is the petty nationalism of the right, the small town jingoism that makes us feel dirty just listening to it, in which mislike of foreigners takes the place of real self worth.
We want free movement for all, with economic prosperity to be so widely and equally spread that it gives us all of the pop-up restaurants and world music we can consume, but none of the wage depression and culture wars.
We want those opportunistic politicians to get their hands out of our personal and commercial lives (all too often when our consumption defines our identity, those are the same thing anyway). We certainly don’t want them pressing down with heavy handed authority from above.
And yet, as we watch our democracies transfer more and more power away from the institutions of state into the hands of supranational organisations and corporations, we’re horrified to realise our votes mean less and less, because there’s less and less that the people we vote for are able to actually control.
Those of us that have a relatively high level of control of our lives, often because of our own privilege, can read the words “take back control” without really feeling anything. But one of the first things a lack of means takes away from people is their feeling of control over their own lives. But how do you regain a feeling of control in your life without an excess of material wealth? One way is political agency. That the society around you responds to – and is accountable to – your voice and your vote. That the corridors of power are only a short step away.
And for this, that arbitrary line in the sand – the national border – has meaning. It gives you a sphere within which your decisions can be implemented. A point at which you can clearly say “this is firmly my responsibility”. A space to create mechanisms which can maintain the fabric of society, build unity and solidarity.
Many of the people in Great Britain today who reject nationalistic sentiment are Londoners. Cosmopolitan, liberal urbanites with access to the greatest centre of opportunity and prosperity on the globe. And how do they react to the deepening cultural chasm in our country? By creating an idea of London as a separate city state. “Things are different here” they say. London has its own institutions (a publicly owned transport system for one), its own social values and even its own border (the god damn M25). In rejecting the nationalism of the country at large, Londoners have created their own post-modern brand of it.
To some degree, the Tory obsession with the dignity of home ownership has a truth at its core, but the relationship between the citizen and their sense of ownership should extend further than their own four walls. Everyone should be a stakeholder in the whole of the nation, and for that they need a clear idea of what the nation is, and what is inherent to it.
In the past, this has been expressed by the left as an uncompromising commitment to public ownership of essential industry and services and a clear sense of the two way contract between citizen and state. In this age of post-privatisation, with nothing to cling onto in the national sphere, the left has elevated itself to the status of an occidental crusade, hanging on the coat tails of international capitalism, trying to preach and moralise it into a more ethical form. In the meanwhile not only parties of the far right, but also relatively progressive separatist movements have been managed to co-opt the space that operates within national borders.
Platforms long ago abandoned by social democrats as electoral poison are suddenly winning elections again while the left sticks its head in the ground. Trump’s promise to repatriate industry is almost Bennite in tone and it’s been pointed out repeatedly that Steve Bannon’s stated desire to usurp the machinery of state, dismantle it and reassemble it in his own ideological mould is positively Leninist.
How sad that we’ve abandoned so much territory to the right that we’ve left ourselves with little more than disapproving from the sidelines as evidence of our political worth.
What is to be done?
Being “not as bad as the other guy” is not an electoral platform that’s working well for anyone right now (if it ever did), and simply sitting on the moral high ground isn’t a strong enough position to entrust with the actual levers of power. Priests claim the moral high ground, but they aren’t put in charge of the town.
The left needs a clear, material pitch that not only “listens to people’s concerns” about their national identity, but actively makes them an offer based upon it. Somewhere in its heart, the Labour Party knows this, which is why “our” NHS is always a central platform for its campaigning, but it needs to offer more than defence of the remains of a decimated welfare state. It needs to offer something more assertive than just a fairer hand on the tiller, it needs to threaten to take over the whole god damn boat.
Technology will make the world smaller whether we like it or not, but control over the commanding heights of the economy will give us that ship to sail in, rather than keeping us floundering in the treacherous current of the unrestrained global market. The right have already sensed this sea change, and have started using the state to build their new kleptocracy, the left need to demonstrate that they have not only principles, but the ideas and total confidence to seize it from them.