by Daphne Liddle
AS LONG AS the state machine has existed there have been ideas about how it came into being and why it was necessary. The predominant ideas have always reflected the views of the ruling class and have been an attempt to justify why they need to control the behaviour of other classes, using force and punishment. They have always tried to convince us they are doing it for our own good.
In the slave societies of Greece and Rome the views of Socrates and Plato predominated. They claimed that humans are definitely not equal, that someare born with superior qualities and abilities and it is in everyone’sinterests if they are put in charge of society and allowed to run it withoutinterference from the rest of us.
The democracy they advocated was based on a small elite of the population –freeborn men from native (patrician) families only. Their society required absolute obedience and loyalty from the slave working classes and offered in return to keep the slaves fed, housed and clothed in the same way as domestic working animals.
Feudal states in Europe were based on the Christian Catholic concept of a pyramid of power with the king at the top who ruled over different grades of lords – dukes above earls above barons above knights – and all above commoners. This was supposed to reflect the heavens – “as in heaven, so onearth” – with God at the top ruling over various grades of angels, seraphim,saints and so on.
This society again required obedience and loyalty; serfs were not allowed to leave their home village but were required to keep their own family houses and grow their own food, make their own clothes. In return the feudal lords guaranteed their right to access to the land to farm and gave them protection from thieves, bandits and invading armies.
Early bourgeois societies had a quite different idea about the state. Their Protestant views backed personal freedom and choice but held everyone responsible for their own fortune: the rich were rich because they had worked hard and saved; the poor were poor because they were lazy and stupid and did not deserve charity. They saw life as a battle of each person against the rest to make as much money as possible to buy their own security and comfort and that of their children. They saw the state as necessary as a sort of referee between these contending individuals, or the human race was likely to wipe itself out in wars of greed and acquisition.
The new philosophers put forward ideas of a model state based on reason. Hobbes saw the state as a rational power to the problem that while men depended on each other and had to live together, they were by nature selfish and greedy and the state was needed to suppress these natural tendencies andprevent war. He described life as “nasty, brutish and short”.
Later, just before the French revolution, the philosopher Rousseau also advocated a state based on reason and saw the state as a social contract between each man and society. Each individual agreed to abide by rational social laws in order to receive the benefits that came with living with other people.
Both Rousseau and Hobbes were rationalists but accepted private property as a natural law of society. On the other hand the model societies advocated by Thomas More (16th century) and Gerard Winstanley (17th century English revolution era) both advocated collective ownership of the means of production. They had a more optimistic view of human nature and believed that greed and selfishness grew out of insecurity and fear of poverty. They believed that in a society where all property was held in common, and everyone had the means to make a living, human nature would graduallychange. They were both religious, in different ways, rather than rationalist.
Our understanding of the state is that it is an apparatus that arises within a society divided into different classes. Such classes have an economic basis in that members of different classes have different relations to the means of production. In other words the ruling class has effective control through private property or some other mechanism over the way in which any member of that society can gain a living; that the natural raw materials of the earth cannot be worked on to produce the necessities of life without ruling class consent. In such a position of power the ruling class is able to expropriate for itself all the wealth produced by labour,only allowing the workers to have as much of that wealth as is necessary to keep them fit enough to keep working, producing wealth, and producing a next generation of workers.
Within such a society the interests of the workers and rulers cannot be identical. In the distribution of the products of labour the loss of oneclass is the gain of the other. Their interests are diametrically opposed and cannot be reconciled except by force exerted by one class upon the other. And it is for this purpose that the state machinery came into being.The state machinery includes the armed forces, civil administration, judiciary, courts, police and so on.
“The state is therefore, by no means a power imposed upon society from without; just as little is it ‘the reality of the moral idea’, ‘the imageand reality of reason’, as Hegel maintains. Rather it is a product of society at a particular stage of development; it is an admission that this society has involved itself in insoluble self-contradiction and is cleft into irreconcilable antagonisms, which it is powerless to exorcise.
“But in order that these antagonisms, classes with conflicting economicinterests, shall not consume themselves and society in fruitless struggle, a power apparently standing above society, has become necessary to moderate the conflict and keep it within the bounds of ‘order’; and this power,arisen out of society but placing itself above it and increasinglyalienating itself from it, is the state.” (From The origin of the family, private property and the state by Frederick Engels).
“The state is a product and a manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms. The state arises where, when and insofar as class antagonisms objectively cannot be reconciled. And, conversely, the existence of the state proves that the antagonisms are irreconcilable.” (From The State and Revolution by Lenin.)
Turning to the development of the state we now have in Britain and starting with the feudal state of the Middle Ages: it was an agrarian society and the chief means of production was the land. It was not held as private property but in fee or feu – hence the term feudal. In theory it all belonged to the Crown. The King delegated his great lords as dukes, viscounts, earls and so on to govern large estates on his behalf; they in turn delegated orsub-contracted to lesser lords – barons, knights and so on. Under them were the local squires and under them the commoners, villeins or serfs. There were different arrangements whereby serfs paid their dues to the lords above them. Some worked their own land (held in fee from the lord) and paid a portion of their crop to the lord. Others worked their own land on some days and also worked on the lords own fields – his demesne – on other days.
The feudal system already existed before the Norman Conquest in Anglo-Saxon society but in a bewildering variety of forms, with different duties and obligations including the remnants of slavery. The Norman regime standardised the relations between serfs and lords and among the different ranks of lords. Each lord owed taxes to the one above them. This could take the form of food produce, money or armed service. These lords were supposedto provide a certain number of trained and equipped fighters to keep orderi n their own patch and in time of war to be available to the lord above them, who in turn had to supply the king with armed men.
As the system developed sometimes this duty could be converted to a cash sum – a tax known as scutage – paid to the superior lord or king so he could hire mercenaries.
The local lords were supposed to dispense justice and keep the peace in their domain and provide welfare for the sick and elderly, widows and orphans. Many orphans and people with disabilities ended up being taken on as domestic servants in the manor house.
Alongside all of this was the church – almost a parallel state structureand supported by a 10 per cent tax – the tithe – on everyone’s income. The local priest would also have a glebe – a patch of land to grow food. In return the church was supposed to provide a variety of social services. For a significant donation the local lord could transfer his own duties to the sick and destitute to the local church or monastery. The church also provided what scant formal education there was to the sons of the rich and of course delivered religious services and teaching that informed the peasantry that humble obedience in this world would bring entrance to heaven in the next.
This began to break down when the Black Death plague hit Britain in the mid14th century. It wrought havoc throughout Europe, wiping out about one third of the population. This led to a labour shortage and local lords tempting the surviving peasants away from their home villages with wages, undermining the rules that tied the peasants to the village they were born in.
Then some lords, bereft of serfs to work the land, started keeping flocks of sheep to produce wool for sale. They thrived in Britain’s damp climate producing high quality wool that was saleable all around the then-knownworld.
Italian merchants were willing to pay so much for it that other lords were tempted to throw their peasants off their land and turn everything over to sheep and wool production. This was known as the enclosure movement and it happened on and off from 14th century. It still goes on today whenever publicly-owned land is transferred to private ownership through the privatisation of public utilities and facilities.
Thomas More, in his book Utopia, written mid 16th century, wrote, describing the contemporary situation in England: “Sheep … these placid creatures which used to require such little food, have now apparently developed a raging appetite, and turned into man-eaters. Fields, houses,towns, everything goes down their throats.
To put it more plainly, in those parts of the kingdom where the finest, and so the most expensive wool is produced, the nobles and gentlemen, not tomention several saintly abbots, have grown dissatisfied with the income that their predecessors got out of their estates.
“They’re no longer content to lead lazy, comfortable lives, which do no good to society – they must actively do it harm, by enclosing all the land they can for pasture, and leaving none for cultivation.”
The king decided to get in on the act by imposing a tax, known as the woolstaple, on wool exports, levied at ports which now bear the word staple or stable as part of their name (for example Barnstaple and Whitstable).
This pushed a lot of peasants off the land, forcing them to wander as beggars or seek work in the towns and creating a problem of disorder – and the beginnings of a working class that had no property rights and dependedentirely on wage labour for survival.
It coincided with the end of the Wars of the Roses and Henry VII curtailing the power of the great feudal lords. His son Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church and confiscated its vast landed estates in England and parcelled this land out to his friends and supporters. The pattern of feudal land tenure began to break down in favour of private landownership, with a new breed of enterprising landowners eager to break old traditions in order to extract maximum profits from their land.
At the same time the New World had been discovered with vast wealth to be seized and looted. Fortune favoured the bold and the wealthy of Italy, Spainand later France and England were clubbing together to finance bold explorers – the beginnings of capitalist companies.
The Stuart King, Charles I, tried to put a brake on the slide from feudal property relations to private entrepreneurship and ended clashing with Parliament, which then represented mostly the growing class of private landowners and their mercantile adventurer allies. The English revolution or civil war was a triumph of the power of these private landowners, allied with the mercantile adventurers and the small but growing urban workingclasses over feudalism. Large scale industrial capitalism did not then existbut the revolution created the conditions for it to happen.
But the revolution also created the beginnings of class awareness among the workers and farm labourers who had been dragged into the war to support the parliamentarians. The Putney debates of the ordinary soldiers of theParliamentary Army threw up ideas and concepts way ahead of their time and created the movement of the Levellers.
This was alarming to the new private-property-owning ruling class and after the death of Cromwell, they back-tracked and Charles II was invited to take the throne in a new kind of state – a constitutional monarchy. Charles IIwas happy to go along with the growing economic boom that arose from trade in slaves and sugar and not to challenge the power of Parliament.
His successor James II was not so wise; he tried to reassert the old powerof the monarchy and was thrown out for it in the “Glorious Revolution” of 1668. Mary Stuart and her husband William of Orange were brought from Holland to replace James II under a compromise agreement between the monarchy and Parliament that is the basis of our modern state.
At that time the state structure was fairly simple. Power resided in the army and Parliament. The armed forces, the judiciary and the church were answerable to the monarch and the monarch was subservient to the will of Parliament. Parliament was entirely controlled by landowners, those who owned no land had no vote and the big landowners controlled the elections –which were anything but secret – in their boroughs.
The very wealthy aristocratic families, represented by the Whig party, benefited from inheritance laws that differed from those in the rest of Europe. On the death of the owner the estate went in its entirety to the eldest son; younger sons had to set out to make their own way in the army, the church and the law – the higher echelons of which were dominated – and the armed forces still are – by the big landowning families.
It meant that by careful marriages to wealthy heiresses, the landowners could within a few generations accumulate huge estates. Virtually all of them were also making fortunes in the slave and sugar trade.
This gave them the huge economic power to invest in the beginnings of the industrial revolution – the creation of canals, coalmines and iron foundriesand later in factories and railways.
Meanwhile their European counterparts had a different system where, on the death of a landowner the estate was divided between all the sons; they saw their estates grow smaller with each generation. As their incomes dwindled in real terms, honour forbade them to seek paid work so they gravitated tothe royal courts to become idle, hard-up parasites on their respective monarchs – until the French revolution.
The British Navy played a big role in making the industrial revolution possible – it can be looked on as the armed wing of British entrepreneurship in the same way that MI6 is now the armed wing of the Confederation of British Industry. The navy protected British ships while attacking those of other countries, securing British mercantile acquisition of raw material andmarkets around the world for British manufactured goods.
Its need for cannons helped to foster the expanding iron and steel smelting industry. Later it helped Lancashire’s cotton industry by using militarymight to wipe out India’s Calcutta-based cotton industry. They even cut the hands off India’s spinners and weavers.
The rise of British capitalism, funded by the great Whig landowners, produced enough wealth to keep them happy by and large and also the new class of bourgeois capitalists this process was spawning, so there was little strain on the coalition of landowners and bourgeoisie.
But there were a few areas of conflict. There was some antagonism between the big Whig landowners and the smaller landowners, the squirarchy, who did not have the resources to join in this bonanza – and the self-employed craftsmen and artisans such as weavers and spinners who found themselves put out of work with the rise of manufacturing industry. The squirarchy tended to support the Tory party – later the Conservatives – and generally opposed the rapid economic and social changes.
The Whigs were also bringing industrial innovations to agriculture, employing methods promoted by the chief minister "Turnip Townsend". Farm workers were now paid wage labourers – and very low paid at that. They lived in tied cottages and could be hired and fired at will and lose their homes as well as their jobs. The new farming methods called for wholesale enclosures – taking access to common land away from farm labourers and their little plots that they used to raise a bit of food and graze a few animals. The loss of this little bit of side income had a devastating effect on their diet and health.
They went from a wide and varied diet to living on just tea and potatoes. Those who indulged in illegal smuggling or poaching – on the land that had been stolen from them – stood more chance of survival than those who tried to scrape by on their less-than-subsistence diet.
Each enclosure required an Act of Parliament and as Parliament was entirely controlled by landowners it churned them out in a kind of mass production. This was early privatisation and direct theft of public property – but was made legal by the ruling class state. The idea that MPs should be impartial and not gain any personal advantage from the laws they passed had not dawned; they believed that only those who had a direct economic interest were qualified to know what it was all about.
And they claimed to be progressive rationalists who were rescuing the land from old fashioned, unproductive methods and using science to produce so much more wealth from the land. (The same argument is used today by giant transnational companies seizing land in the Third World). The workers who were in the way could bugger off to the towns and get jobs in the new factories.
The landowners and the new industrialists did clash over the Corn Laws. The process of industrialisation led to a large increase in the population, which in turn increased the demand for food – especially corn for bread – and corn prices rose in the late 18th century. The extra demand created by the Napoleonic Wars also increased prices. This led to a rise in rents that the big landowners charged to the tenant farmers. At the end of the war there was a sudden deflation of the economy and prices fell sharply. New methods of factory production led to an all round lowering of prices, especially in rural areas where self-employed spinners were being put out of business and whose income and spending power were reduced.
When corn prices fell many tenant farmers could not keep up with their rents; the landowners could not extract money that was not there. But corn prices in Britain were still above those in Europe and the landowners feared that imports would further reduce corn prices.
So the landowner-dominated Parliament, under the premiership of Tory leader Lord Liverpool, in 1815 introduced the Corn Laws, which forbade the import of foreign corn as long as the price of corn in England was below 80 shillings (£4) a quarter.
This was very unpopular with merchants and traders who wanted the freest possible trading conditions; it was not popular with the new growing working classes because it kept the price of bread high and it was not popular with the manufacturing industrialists because they had to pay their workers higher wages and this added to production costs.
So there grew up a popular movement to abolish the Corn Laws led by Whig politicians Cobden and Bright. It coincided with agitation among the new industrial bourgeoisie for them to have a voice in Parliament, along with the new ideas of equality, liberty and brotherhood that started with the French Revolution and were influencing liberal entrepreneurs throughout Europe.
Parliamentary democracy at the time was about as low as it can get. Constituencies had been mapped out centuries before and populations had shifted leaving some constituencies with about six people eligible to vote while huge new towns like Manchester and Birmingham had virtually no representation at all. Many constituencies were "rotten boroughs" – completely under the control of the local big landowner who could hand out a safe seat in Parliament to any of his friends.
In the late 1820s this threatened to unite the workers and manufacturers in agitation for electoral reform and the abolition of the Corn Laws. The big landowners reluctantly conceded – intimidated by the example of the French revolution and calls for similar revolution in Britain. This led to the 1832 Reform Act, which tidied away the rotten boroughs and broadened the electoral base to let in the better-off bourgeoisie – but the working class was still excluded. It was followed throughout the next century by other reform acts that gradually brought the right to vote to all adults over 18 by 1969. Thus total control of Parliament was wrested from the landowners.
The Corn Laws were eventually repealed in the 1840s by Tory/Conservative Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel – Britain’s first prime minister from a manufacturing-industrial family. He was strongly influenced by the devastating effects of the potato famine in Ireland and the need to bring down the price of bread for the starving. It was too late to prevent the deaths of millions of Irish people who starved while the English owners of Irish estates were still exporting food from Ireland to England to benefit from the high corn prices.
The bourgeois presence in Parliament began to grow but at the same times other parts of the state came into being, diminishing the relative importance of Parliament, and the bourgeoisie were in the forefront of creating and dominating these new parts of the state.
These included the growing civil service, which went from a handful of very rich young men being dished out sinecure jobs by the King to a small army of clerks and administrators to tackle the newly-introduced income tax, customs and excise and other state affairs.
The civilian police force was introduced by Sir Robert Peel – after trials in Dublin and London. This was seen as desperately needed in the new big towns and industrial conurbations to keep law and order at all times. It replaced a system of lone night-watchmen who had little power except to raise an alarm and the county militias – para-military forces under the control of local aristocratic landowners. Needless to say some of those landowners resented their power being usurped by a civilian police force.
The growth of new giant industrial towns brought public health problems: overcrowding, lack of access to clean water and sewage disposal problems – leading to epidemics of diseases like typhoid and cholera. The ruling classes recognised what was needed: piped clean water, sewerage systems and street lighting. But the bourgeois ideologues among them at first trusted to market forces to supply the obvious needs.
But while the great and powerful entrepreneurs had been willing to spend fortunes on creating canals, coalmines and factories that would bring them direct profit, no one was willing to spend the necessary sums to provide clean water, sewerage and lighting that would not bring a direct profit.
So the ruling classes gradually conceded that these things must be provided by the state from taxation – and at a local level. The old boroughs and parishes had to be incorporated to allow them to levy local taxes on residents (rates) to provide these essentials. An Enabling Act of 1835 allowed new towns the right to vote to become corporations. Once again there was resistance from local landed aristocracy that their powers as traditional lords of the manor were being eroded.
When campaigners, including Richard Cobden, for incorporation met for a debate in a large public hall in Manchester they were surprised at the end of the meeting they were presented with tickets for a "court leet" dinner from the local Lord Oswald Moseley (ancestor the 1930s fascist leader), who was reminding them that he was still in charge.
"Well what in the world does this mean?" asked Cobden. "Is it that in this great town of Manchester we are still living under the feudal system? Does his mandate down here for us to come into this dingy hole to elect a government for Manchester, and then go and get a ticket for soup at his expense? Why now I will put an end to this thing."
A Tory propaganda counter offensive said: "Working men beware! We must have no Middle-Class Government. No Whig Corporation – No New Police – No Turtle-fed Aldermen – No Cotton Lord-Mayors – No Civic Banquets – No Golden Mace – Collars and Orders – No Wine Cellars stored out of a New Borough Rate … The Whigs are not our Friends, their Reform tends to establish a Shopocracy to rule over and grind down the Poor."
In many areas the big landowners still had a predominant influence over local government – but now it was by tradition and not by automatic right; the power of the "Shopocracy" was growing.
One part of the state the landowners did keep for themselves was the army and they did this through structural changes to the army to keep the sons of the bourgeoisie out of leading position. Up to then anyone with enough money could by themselves a commission to be an officer in the army and it was mostly the younger sons of aristocrats and of local squires who did so. Officers would be expected to supply their own horses and uniforms.
They needed little in the way of military skills – just a natural ability to "lead men". The study of military skills was somewhat frowned upon as the study of killing. Only officers in the Royal Artillery needed some mathematics to work out where their canon balls were likely to land – if they did not want to hit their own side in battle, so the Royal Artillery Military Academy in Woolwich pre-dated Sandhurst.
In Europe there were many more military academies but these were largely a way of providing board and lodging for the sons of destitute aristocrats.
But as industrialists grew wealthier, some of them wanted to by commissions for their sons and from 1830 the percentage of officers from the landed gentry began to decline in favour of the middle classes.
This prompted the Cardwell reforms, which introduced the military college, which in theory was democratic. It stopped the sale of commissions and made it compulsory for all aspiring officers to attend the college – the main one being Sandhurst – to learn military skills and leadership. But effectively it kept the rising middle classes out because the criteria for acceptance in the college were less about skill and intelligence and more about "the right sort of attitude". This meant feudalistic paternalism towards the troops and any taint of commercialism or enterprise was frowned on. The Royal Navy underwent similar changes.
But the industrialists were compensated by the growing demands for guns, other weapons and uniforms for the professional army that ruled an empire around the globe – and secured markets and raw materials for the industrialists. By the end of the 19th century Frederick Engels wrote that where once it might have been possible to obtain socialism through Parliament that was now impossible because of the power and strength of the military industrial complex outside of Parliament.
As more and more working people won the vote, so its value as a means of changing society declined. Marx described Parliament as nothing more than "a talking shop".
Marx also foresaw, in his Grundrisse that there is still a fundamental conflict of interest between landowners and industrialists in that rents paid for workers’ housing, for factory land, for shops – indeed for access to land for any economic activity – all add to the costs of industrial products and so reduce profits. He predicted a day when the industrialists would want to nationalise all land to eliminate these costs. It has not happened in Britain – yet – because both parts of the landowner/capitalist coalition are still doing very nicely and because the landowners are still very strong within the state machine.
Lenin pointed to a clash between the British Parliament and the landowner-dominated army in 1914 over the Curragh Mutiny in Ireland. Prime Minister Lloyd George had just successfully steered a Home Rule Bill for Ireland through Parliament when the Ulster Loyalists in the north of Ireland rebelled under Sir Edward Carson. He led an Ulster Volunteer Force of 200,000 men in an armed rebellion to keep Ireland as part of Britain.
The Government in Westminster ordered the army stationed at the Curragh in Kildare to put down the rebellion but the officers – but they sympathised with Carson and mutinied; they refused to leave their barracks. Parliament had no power to compel them to obey and it was Parliament that was forced to back down. The result was the division of Ireland into the Free State in the south and the British-occupied Six Counties in the north – a source of conflict ever since.
Lenin was disgusted and wrote: "The Liberal government was completely overwhelmed by this rebellion of the landlords, who stood at the head of the army. The Liberals are accustomed to console themselves with constitutional illusions and phrases about law, and closed their eyes to the real relation of forces, to the class struggle."
Later in the 1920s Lloyd George tried to curb the power of the landowners when he introduced swingeing death duties on Britain’s huge landed estates. He hoped this would gradually reduce the size and power of these estates as they were handed from one generation to another. It worked up to a point – and the landed gentry howled about being persecuted. But many of them soon found ways around it by turning their vast estates into companies and making themselves technically employees of the companies.
In recent years they have regained everything they lost under Lloyd George and more under the European Union Common Agricultural Policy, which pays huge subsidies and grants to big landowners.
Currently the landowners prefer to remain in the background of the political arena but their wealth and power remain formidable. Many town centres are still owned by the old landed aristocrats who make fortunes from the rents of high street shops, offices and factories without lifting a finger.
There is no comprehensive land register in England and Wales, though there is in Scotland. This makes it difficult to asses the real power and wealth of the landowners. They are still in a mutually lucrative coalition with Britain’s bourgeoisie.
The main changes to Britain’s state machine are now coming from international bodies, like the European Union, Nato, the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. These influences are dominated by the class of global industrialists and finance companies, who are happy to tolerate the anachronism of the feudal elements remaining in the British state so long as they are ready to trot out the British army to support global capitalism’s adventures in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.