NEPD home

focal point


Reclaim the State, Experiments in Popular Democracy
Review of Hilary Wainwright's book by Patrick Ainley

Verso 2003, ISBN 1-85984-689-0, 252 pages, 15 (hb)

Several recent titles feature The State. Books like George Monbiots Captive State show how the state has changed. There is though a peculiarly English tendency to assume that The State remains unchanged because there has been no revolution here for nearly 400 years and no invasion for nearly 1000. Bob Jessops The Future of the Capitalist State is an honourable exception but his description of a Schumpeterian workfare postnational regime is never going to catch on! It is appropriate therefore that an American, Phillip Bobbitt, has found a widely acceptable term to identify the changes that have taken place in what he calls the new market-state.

Whereas Jessops approach is theoretical and Bobbitts historical, Hilary Wainwright takes a personal and journalistic approach in her easily read account of visits to four places East Manchester, Luton, Newcastle and Porto Alegre in Brazil where she finds experiments in popular democracy to reclaim the new market-state. Her encounters with the reality of struggles in and against the new market-state generate new theory in practice.

For these are not purely defensive struggles to return to the former welfare state. As a public sector trades unionist tells her: If we are actually going to defend services then just arguing for the status quo is not going to engage the public. Instead, Hilary explains, the aim is to redirect market-state forms of contracting out public services and community development towards reforms that pave the way for further transformation in a steady, cumulative process towards participatory democracy as the basis for both economy and state. This means rejecting the old left mantra only solution, revolution, while recognising with the Exodus Collective on Lutons Marsh Farm Estate the reality that many people dont want to attend endless meetings.

It points toward not only new forms of democratic organisation, as in participatory budgeting for the city of Porto Alegre or the popular management of East Manchesters New Deal for Communities, but a new public sector trade unionism which differs from the more fundamental conflict that divides management and unions in a private company.. workers defending not just their wages but the public nature of their work. The battle is not only against privatisation but for a more effective service than that previously delivered by top-down welfare-state bureaucracy. As Hilary points out, This very redistributive element of public services makes possible their distinctive form of efficiency.

In producing alternative plans to Newcastle Councils Private Public Partnership proposals, the Public Services Alliance there brought together as many organisations as possible to defend the public sector. This in turn points to new realities with which academic theory has yet to catch up in a new class alliance between the formerly-manual working class and white-collar, non-manual employees, reflecting the formation of a new working-middle class in society as a whole. At the same time, it also becomes important for success to engage and sustain a section of the traditional working class that has been increasingly relegated to underclass status.

As Hilary writes, The old systems of local government have failed partly through their own mistakes, partly through forces beyond their control. The only alternative to escalating chaos, followed in all likelihood by the authoritarianism of either the state and/or the far right, is an organised democratic participation in the management of public funds backed by real redistribution of resources to the poorer communities.

As well as new public service trades unionism building new class alliances in and against the new market-state, Hilary describes A new kind of party that consciously rejects the idea that it has a monopoly of correct ideas. Or that it could have a monopoly of power even if it ever seized the commanding heights of the new market state because power has been devolved to global capital. As a result, Across the world, from Scotland to South Korea, an increasing number of parties are emerging that are in effect the electoral voice of coalitions of social movements. For instance, the Akbayan in the Philippines or the Brazilian Workers Party.

These are just some of the theories in practice that emerge from Hilarys search for more vigorous forms of democracy through which to struggle for the new Utopia of human survival. But as she adds in a footnote, Concepts alone can never achieve institutional change, though they can help to clarify the practice of the movements with whom they share their origins. This relates to her introductory discussion of what she calls the underlying issue how to bring forward what Tom Paine called the normally dormant mass of sense.. which never fails to appear in revolution.

Hilary Wainwright shows how such a revolution against the unsustainable new world order of the new market-state can begin.


Bobbitt, P. (2003) The Shield of Achilles, War, Peace and the Course of History, London: Penguin.

Jessop, B. (2002) The Future of the Capitalist State, Oxford: Polity.

Monbiot, G. (2000) Captive State, The Corporate Takeover of Britain, Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Patrick Ainley

back to top




Reclaim the State, Experiments in Popular Democracy
Review of Hilary Wainwright's book by Patrick Ainley


A peoples' Parliament

A new European Constitution by Laurence Keeley


Defending public services means defeating New Labour

George Galloway expulsion condemned

contact us | e-mail me site updates | comment on this page | privacy policy
show(); ?>