The State in Capitalist Society, by Ralph Miliband: A Review

First Published: 14/10/2020

Author: Alexandria Thurnherr

[Note: All page references from the work refer to the 2009 reprint by Merlin Press Ltd.]

“A week is a long time in politics.”

So went the words of Harold Wilson, Labour prime minister, abolisher of the death penalty, and occasional supporter of Chilean coups d’état. But if a week is a long time, then fifty years ago must prove positively prehistoric. And yet, there are still quotations and documents from far older times than the 1970s which ring as true as when they first were made public, if not more so. Given the quantity of hand-wringing that came about from commentators and MPs when the statue of Edward Colston came down, who know can seriously doubt that “The bourgeoisie of the whole world, which looks complacently upon the wholesale massacre after the battle, is convulsed by horror at the desecration of brick and mortar!”? The age of a work cannot be considered a reliable guide its usefulness, only an important piece of context to its analyses. How useful, then, can we consider Ralph Miliband’s 1969 book The State in Capitalist Society to be to the struggles of workers and the working class today? After all, there has been much in the intervening half-century that might plausibly make the theses and the reasoning of this book obsolete. The postwar consensus of Keynesianism has totally collapsed, giving way to decades of neo-liberalism and monetarian economics. The internet and the world wide web have become embedded in both the affairs of state and people’s everyday lives in a way Miliband would never live to see – no prediction of the uses of mobile phones to track individual protestors is to be found within, and the environment, what must be one of the most pressing political, economic and social questions at this moment in history, does not get so much as a look in. To totally misappropriate the words of Friedrich Engels, the state can be said to have in many ways withered away. How, then, does the work hold up? Can it be said that Miliband has made “a contribution to remedying that deficiency [of detailed Marxist analysis of the state]?” (7) Or must we treat the book instead as historically significant but nonetheless obsolete, as one might view the Trabant, or coal power in general?

There are some minor points in which the work seems at least a little outdated. Being from the 1960s, a significant proportion of the language is pointlessly gendered (e.g. “More than ever before men now live in the shadow of the state” (3)), it is difficult to assert that “...these [i.e. bourgeois democracies] are countries in which the other end of the social scale is occupied by a working class mostly composed of industrial workers, with agricultural wage-earners forming a steadily decreasing part of the labour force” in the light of Graeber’s analysis of the modern workforce, wherein proportion of the population that is both substantial and increasing is engaged in work that even they cannot justify the existence of. The ‘soulful corporation’, both the term and the broader idea, seems to have totally collapsed outside of marketing gimmicks, and even brands which construct an entire identity out of stealing leftist rhetoric and imagery are no strangers to union-busting and inhumane working conditions. One habit of Miliband’s is not so much obsolete as it is utterly infuriating both in its tendency to derail the point under discussion and in its unjustifiability is his habit of inserting entire sentences or more of untranslated French into the work, made worse at the time given that online translation services did not exist. At times, this renders part of the argument incomprehensible, and for what? If Miliband understands the passages in question well enough that he is able to integrate them into his argument, surely it would follow that he is perfectly capable of translating them into English for the people he wanted to read that argument, and put the exact phrasing into a footnote or endnote, of which there are no shortage. I do apologise if this seems irrelevant, tangential, or rambling, but knowledge has forever been a horribly restricted thing (albeit better than it used to be in that regard), and to contribute to the problem in such a manner is deeply disappointing behaviour.

Perhaps the most laughably out-of-date assertion made by Miliband is that the American military and Department of Defense more broadly is not, in the grand scheme of things, that powerful. This statement is rather difficult to take seriously, given that it appears to have functionally infinite amounts of money, used for purposes that even the American government cannot appear to nail down. Certainly, no other branch of any other capitalist government comes to mind which could spend so much money in a country that the latter cannot absorb it without repercussions, or at least some thorough inspection of how its budget is being used.

With all that having been said, the vast majority of this book has withheld the test of time almost eerily well. One might expect that Thatcherism and its aftermath (in particular one Anthony Charles Lynton Blair) might have altered in some significant way how well the book applies to the present day, but the most consistent change is that things have grown worse rather than different.

Take, for example, the fifth chapter: “Servants of the State”, dealing with the behaviours and practices of the Civil Service and its agents. By its nature, the civil service is (in Britain and elsewhere) a notionally neutral and impartial body – the operative word here being notionally. Indeed, a number of people have made significant interventions to defend this image of the Civil Service as some blind enforcer of the will of a democratic government. Quoth the Civil Service Code:

You must

  • serve the government2, whatever its political persuasion, to the best of your ability in a way which maintains political impartiality and is in line with the requirements of this code, no matter what your own political beliefs are
  • act in a way which deserves and retains the confidence of ministers, while at the same time ensuring that you will be able to establish the same relationship with those whom you may be required to serve in some future government
  • comply with any restrictions that have been laid down on your political activities

You must not:

  • act in a way that is determined by party political considerations, or use official resources for party political purposes
  • allow your personal political views to determine any advice you give or your actions.

One of the most valuable pieces of theoretical work Miliband provides is the exposure of the Civil Service as a deeply, (and more importantly, necessarily) partial collection of institutions. Even in March of 2019, we were receiving pseudonymous warnings from senior civil service members about the deep hostility and resistance that the British Civil Service would have acted upon in the event of a Corbyn government, owing to an ethos of “a choice-based consumer-focused enterprise” and a general obsession with mirroring the structure and – crucially – the assumptions and thought associated with for-profit corporations. One of the premier tasks of every civil service is to ensure ‘continuity’ in government – both from minister to minister and between changes in government. Thus, any government wishing to act in a manner incompatible with the desired continuity – that is to say, in a manner incompatible with the paradigms and assumptions of the Civil Service, must be undermined, sabotaged, and disposed of in as rapid and non-disruptive a manner as can possibly be accomplished. Even when, as has been particularly prominent since the 2019 General Election, the government does not fall into blatant cronyism, the upper levels of the Civil Service tend to have shared points of reference, certain common assumptions about how the world works.

It may be worthwhile at this point to discuss two sections of the Civil Service which in particular bring dynamite to the fallacy of their impartiality: the military (including the police force) and judges. Whilst we could point out examples of police and military forces acting as blatant breeding grounds for hard-line-reactionary sentiment (for example, the German police force housing neo-Nazi terrorist networks, British soldiers using a cut-out of then-Labour-leader Jeremy Corbyn for target practice or any number of incidents involving connections between American police forces/law enforcement and explicitly fascist groups or obvious failures of priority within the same), this would raise in some minds the deeply misguided possibility that reform is in some way possible – heavy handed, perhaps even “fundamental” reform (whatever that would mean before or after ten thousand inevitable dilutions), but nevertheless a reformable system. Miliband commits no such error, instead cutting like a surgeon to why the police and military (it must be noted that the brunt of Miliband’s focus falls upon the military, although much of the commentary is equally applicable to the police), in the sense that the term is understood, is necessarily a reactionary motion within the society in which it is embedded. Observe the structure of every state military: hierarchical in the extreme, having an active interest against peace settlements (lest they be released into regular civil society, to which they are often unable to adjust), and focussed on order for reasons that are perfectly justifiable in the context of combat, but nonetheless shape one’s perceptions of the possible and the desirable, politically, socially, and (to a lesser extent) economically speaking. Likewise, there is constant nationalist propaganda weaved into military training courses – of course there is. Who would fight, who would kill, who would die for a nation-state in which they had no faith? The end result of this is that the military is deeply entrenched in serving anti-egalitarian and imperialist interests.

As for the judges, examination of the backgrounds of judges should certainly lead one to suspect that certain viewpoints and interests will tend to come out ahead in judicial decisions (a system in which more than 84% of the actors are over the age of 50 is going to have immense difficulty understanding the generational circumstances and needs of those much younger, even where they do try). In Miliband’s own words: “In thus interpreting and making law, judges cannot fail to be deeply affected by their view of the world, which in turn determines their attitude to the conflicts which occur in it.” (101) Few judges any country have ever wondered whence their next meal would come, and fewer still do so whilst serving. Class background is particularly important here: many judges seek to defend ‘society’ writ large, which as a matter of practice leads to the defence of a deeply unequal and generally conservative society, and this is more likely the lesser the distance the judge had to rise.

There is much of great worth to be found in every part of this book, and any proper analysis of the whole text could easily come to fill seven times seven pages or more. But let us, in the interests of brevity, come to a finale of sorts, and determine if we can use Miliband’s theories to devise an explanation of why the Labour Party under Starmer has been so consistently uninspired and uninspiring—remembering, of course, that he is not yet holding the reigns of the state. The obvious place to begin is with the human person Keir Starmer. It is well known that before joining the P.L.P. in 2015, he worked as a barrister and as the Director of Public Prosecutions (henceforth D.P.P.) – a job that has involved interesting decisions with regards to torture cases under Starmer’s tenure, we might add. The question to be asked then, is as follows: what kind of person receives the promotions necessary to become the D.P.P., and what attitudes will they hold? We may deduce a number of things about that person, the first of which is that that they will subscribe to what David Graeber refers to as “proceduralism” – what he considers to be the “core value of the professional-managerials.”

The rules and regulations, flow charts, quality reviews, audits and PowerPoints that form the main substance of their working life inevitably color their view of politics or even morality. These are people who tend to genuinely believe in the rules They may well be the only significant stratum of the population who do so. If it is possible to generalize about class sensibilities, one might say that members of this class see society less as a web of human relationships, of love, hate, or enthusiasm, than, precisely, as a set of rules and institutional procedures, just as they see democracy, and rule of law, as effectively the same thing.

The second deduction we can make is that a person who acts well enough within the system as it currently exists to rise to as illustrious a position as the D.P.P. is going to be much more willing – and, as a result of their experience, more able – to confront individuals and individual policies than the system as a whole. The Director of Public Prosecutions is many things, but the job is, in its essence, a bureaucratic one. And, in the very wise words of K. Mannheim: “The fundamental tendency of all bureaucratic thought is to turn problems of politics into problems of administration.” This accounts not only for the lack of fire with which the government has been opposed (when it has been opposed at all), but also on what basis he chooses and does not choose to bring fire to them. “The assertion of such profound differences [in views etc. between major parties] is a matter of great importance for the functioning and legitimation of the political system, since it suggests that electors, by voting for one or other of the main competing parties, are making a choice between fundamental and incompatible alternatives, and that they are therefore, as voters, deciding nothing less than the future of their country… one of the most important aspects of the political life of advanced capitalism is precisely that the disagreements between those political leaders who have generally been able to achieve high office have very seldom been of the fundamental kind these leaders and other people so often suggest.” (49-50) [Italics in original] The kind of person who acknowledges the fundamental moral illegitimacy of laws passed by governments without popular mandate and without public consultation is unlikely in the extreme to serve to enforce those same laws for years.

Perhaps the clearest illustration of this point is Starmer’s (non-)opposition to two bills, both of which recently passed their second reading in the House of Commons: the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill and the not-even-slightly-worringly-named Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill, which had 18 and 20 (of 201) “no” votes from the Labour Party. One would surely expect that a former human rights lawyer to oppose bills which make it substantially more difficult to prosecute literal war crimes or which would “give legal cover to illegal undercover actions”. Apparently not. But Miliband gives us an excellent explanation as to why this decision was made: namely, that on questions of foreign policy in particular, the views of Labour and of the C.U.P. are near-identical (even Corbyn’s Labour would have stayed in the N.A.T.O.). To quote Anthony Eden, a man who served as a Conservative Prime Minister, “I was in agreement with the aims of his [i.e. Ernest Bevin’s] foreign policy and with most of what he did, and we met quite frequently.” Take the most disastrous Labour policy of this century: the Iraq war. 146 Conservative M.P.s voted in favour of this motion, and only two against. Had each one of these voted the other way, the proposal would have been voted down. But they did not, because there was no significant split between Conservative desires and official Labour policy. And so it is again in the present nightmare.
There is much else we could discuss here. We could probe Miliband’s decapitation of the myth of Marxist indoctrination in universities, or expand on the manner in which hegemony is perpetuated throughout the schools and the media, but the best advice I could give you would simply be to read the book. The State in Capitalist Society is one of the finest Marxist analyses ever published on the state, full of flares to dispel the darkness which surrounds us, and we cannot successfully resist the powers of the state on a large scale without understanding the wisdom within.