It is often difficult talking about the nature of government and how we should relate to it within our organizing work. How do we talk about the contradiction of both relying on and fighting to transform government and the realities of the harm, violence, and alienation that comes at the hand of government?
-An Earnest Comrade
We’re six months into a public health crisis and our government still can’t provide frontline healthcare workers with masks. Meanwhile, masked and armored agents of the state are tear-gassing peaceful citizens protesting a criminal justice system that continues to wage war on Black life. We spend over $115 billion on state and local law enforcement, and barely $7 billion on the Centers for Disease Control. This is a hard moment in which to speak positively of government.
And yet, now more than ever, it is critical that Leftists call in a positive vision of a government that works for all of us—even as we call out the massive failures of our existing one.
Why? Because the explicit, coordinated project of the radical right over the past four decades has been to discredit the very possibility of good government. Environmental regulations, workplace protections, social spending—all these functions of the public good pose obstacles to the unfettered accumulation of private wealth. So wealthy interests have set out, very intentionally, to dismantle them, using a “starve the beast” strategy as pernicious as it is clever: cut taxes, in order to deprive the government of revenue, in order to forcibly slash budgets, in order to undermine and discredit public services, in order to create the illusion that government “doesn’t work,” which in turn justifies further tax cuts. Repeat ad nauseam.
So, let me frame my point as sharply as possible: when the only way we talk about government is negatively, we are advancing the agenda of our enemies. To advance our agenda, we need to consciously articulate (and fight for) a positive vision of a government that works for all of us.
This is hard because our government is complicated. You rightly note the “harm, violence and alienation” that has often come at the hands of government. But the role of government is and has always been contradictory and complex. Our government both codified chattel slavery and passed the amendments that abolished it; enforced racial segregation and created unprecedented opportunities for Black people to advance into the middle class; protected private property and defended the right of workers to organize and collectively bargain. From the perspective of social justice, the history of our government has been full of both setback and advance.
That’s because “government” is neither a neutral entity, nor an unmitigated force for evil and/or good, but rather a reflection of the balance of forces in ongoing social, political, and economic struggles. When our movements have triumphed, we have been able to win key elements of governing power and use them to advance our agenda. When our movements have been defeated, government has been seized as a tool of our opponents (or, occasionally, maintained as our last line of defense against them).
This nuanced understanding of the role of government took time for socialists to develop. Marxism long lacked a robust theory of politics and government, and neither Marx nor Engels offered a sustained examination of the topic; as the Manifesto dismissively put it, “the modern state is nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” This rather offhand comment has had an unfortunate afterlife among many socialists (and anarchists), leading to a one-dimensional and economically reductionist understanding of the role of the state that was only corrected through prolonged theoretical and practical development. The history of that process is too extensive to cover here, but the principal point is, I think, fairly intuitive: good government is possible, but we have to fight for it.
That is in contrast to a force that is exclusively one of “harm, violence and alienation,” namely capitalism. Because government is the outcome of collective struggle, its role can be both good and bad. As socialists, however, we understand that there is no such thing as “good capitalism” and “bad capitalism.” Capitalism is inherently predicated on violence, dispossession and exploitation, inextricably intertwined with white supremacy and cisheteropatriarchy, and objectively unsustainable for our planet. Our task is to defeat it.
In this moment, government—and governing power—has a critical role to play in advancing that struggle. I began by talking about the failures of our current government. But we are also in a moment of incredible opportunity. As I write, years, if not decades, of struggle by Black and Brown movement forces are leading to a sea change in public opinion about police and policing. Meanwhile, the realities of COVID19 are both intensifying the breakdown of our (already broken) healthcare system and rendering ever more visible, compelling and urgent the need for a universal public healthcare system. In the months and years to come, we will see dramatic shifts in the role of government. The nature of those shifts is still uncertain, the outcome up for grabs, the struggle contested. Now, more than ever, it’s time for us to name, fight for and win a government for all.