At last, maybe unconsciously, I don't know, I was prompted to read Ralph Miliband's The State in Capitalist Society because of the political debacle between his two sons, David and Ed Miliband for the leadership of the Labour party. The State in Capitalist Society was first published in 1969 making it some 42 year old. I first encountered it as a set book to a university BA degree course. I read extracts then but had promised myself to read it fully so perhaps there is nothing unconscious about my decision but rather it was definitely the Miliband brothers debacle that finally prompted me to read it fully. I think I am right in saying that the book is out of print, more's the pity. However, fortunately it is available through second hand outlets and it should be read by at least those interested in politics mainly because it is still relevant today.
The broad thrust of the book is a debate with liberal pluralism. Miliband points out that one purpose of the book is to show that: "the pluralist-democratic view of society, of politics and the state" in advance industrial capitalist countries is wrong. Briefly, pluralism holds the view that the state has to deal a number of competing interest groups and it does so on a fairly equitable basis. Miliband takes a Marxist perspective and holds the view that the state serves the interest of elites and capitalism more so than it serves the masses.
One of the things that must be pointed out right from the outset is that I found the book very captivating. Miliband's writing is clear and concise where it is possible to be concise. He begins the book with some bold assertions in the aphoristic style. For example, "more than ever before men now live in the shadow of the state" and "it is to an ever greater degree the state which men encounter as they confront other men". For me these statements have the effect of immediately engaging the reader in a debate with Miliband's contentions. That debate would dwell on some complex issues to do with class relations, economics, politics and psychology, but there is no uncertainty or ambiguity in the text.
It might be argued by some that the book is dated and therefore irrelevant. My reading of the book clearly suggests that it is not dated. On the contrary, many of Miliband's analyses still apply today. Take this statement: "the notion that capitalism is incompatible with or that it provides guarantee against authoritarianism may be good propaganda but it is poor political sociology." If there was ever any doubt about the statement, clearly what has happened in China, in recent years, indicates that Miliband's view was correct when he wrote as it is today. If we take the issue of share holdings even though more wide spread today, as the trend would have indicated when Miliband wrote, nonetheless his general point that: "the vast majority of shareholders hold very little, while a relatively small number have extremely large holdings is still true today.
To make his case that the state intervenes more on behalf of elites and in the interest of capital, among one of the many areas that Miliband explored was that of judges' impartiality. Although I am sympathetic to Miliband's case against the notion of judges' impartiality, I nonetheless have to admit that recent history has shown his case to be weak if not wrong. One only has to consider the number of judicial decisions that went against the previous labour government and what currently feels like a debacle between judges and the coalition government in respect of human rights issues.
In respect of the chapters that deal with the process of legitimation, I was keen to see how Miliband would explain how conservative parties had managed to gain continued support and electoral success more so that left leaning parties over long periods of time. Miliband's coverage of this area is comprehensive but for me where it becomes interesting is in his analysis of the media as a "means of mental production". What Miliband has to say on this issue is quite revealing - not just historically but more importantly for its contemporary relevance.
Whilst I agree with Miliband's analysis of the state in capitalist society and do not find the broad result of his analysis dated, I nonetheless do not agree with nor support his underlying ideological stance. This appears to be an extreme socialist ideology in which many aspect of industry and services would be nationalized. Of course, I have the benefit of hindsight to see what nationalized industry and services have led to over the years. I am afraid that Miliband's ideology has been found wanting. Having said that the State in Capitalist Society is a great book that should be widely read and to that effect I wish that some publisher would take it up and republish it.
This is Ralph Miliband's masterpiece. His purpose is to demystify the capitalist state - showing that it is not a neutral set of institutions, reflecting some 'general interest' by way of democratic practices, but that instead it is the state of the dominant interests (i.e. capitalist class) in a divided society.
The book is plainly written, allowing ease of readership, and sets out to explain complex social relations in a manner that may be understood by any student of social science. The capitalist state is examined in a very wide context - with examples provided from throughout the 'western-type' world (Britain, France, USA, Japan, Germany, etc). This provides for a sense of comprehensiveness on the part of the author.
Written in the mid-1960's, and first published in 1969, this book became a standard text in political science, sociology and the study of social policy for the next decade. Read today, the examples are - of course - dated; but the arguments are still sharp and insightful.
Miliband set out to provide a Marxist critique of liberal theories on the contemporary capitalist state, especially the leading theory of the time: pluralism. He succeeds in this. He exposes pluralism, and liberal theories generally, as ideological constructs serving to legitimise a state system that maintains an inherently divided society, thereby reproducing relations of domination and subordination.
What he does not do, however, is adequately engage with the nature of the state itself; rather, he demonstrates what the state is not (i.e. it is not as liberal-pluralists and democratic theorists have supposed). Miliband nowhere provides an in-depth examination of the state from a Marxist perspective; in fact, the theory of Marxist politics is virtually absent from the book. This limitation - highlighted by Poulantzas, in his seminal 'debate' with Miliband - does not detract from the importance of the book, since its main aim was to provide a critique of liberal conceptions.
This book remains useful: it provides students with a clearly posed critique of bourgeois ideology on the state; and it provides a series of historical examples of mid-20th century state activity in capitalist societies. I suggest that it is read alongside Miliband's later 'Divided Societies' (which explains how class analysis is a useful method for understanding capitalism), and in conjunction with Nicos Poulantzas' 'Political Power and Social Classes' and 'State, Power, Socialism' (which offer a significant contribution to Marxist theory).
I just loathed this book, which comes from a 'revolution is the only answer' perspective. Nobody much except Milliband is considered a real socialist, and almost anything suggested by anyone else is dismissed. Awful. I immediately went out and ordered Leslek Kolakowski, a skeptical Pole who deconverted from Marxism and saw through this kind of vicious nonsense.
There are practical ways in which we can increase equality, empower the deprived, reinforce community, and spread education and opportunity. The British Labour Party did quite a lot, especially during the Attlee years, but of course the Scandinavian socialists did things mostly more intelligently, which is why much of their work has survived. Milliband scorns all this, because revolution is the only answer. Well, actually, no, Ralph, didn't you notice that that way lies purges, torture and mass murder? Duh.
Milliband contributed absolutely nothing to the debate. This is a deeply boring, unoriginal work, which could have been written by any one of a hundred card-carriers. There isn't an interesting idea or observation in the whole thing.
My assumption is the David and Ed are the pragmatic politicians that they are, because they twigged, early on, what an unrealistic old loon their father was.