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What are the strengths and weaknesses of Marxist theories of the state Essay

The state is made up of a combination of major social institutions that organize and regulate British society “The state consists of that set of centralized and interdependent social institutions concerned with passing laws, implementing and administrating those laws and providing the legal machinery to enforce compliance with them. ” (Abercrombie and Ward, 2000) The state, consequently, is a central authority exercising legitimate control over a given territory and which can use political violence against either its own citizens or other states to enforce that control.

Marxism is a sociological perspective based on the ideas of Karl Marx (1818-1883). For Marxists, the system we live in (which he called capitalism) divides everyone up into two basic classes: bosses and workers. Marx called the bosses the bourgeoisie or ruling class – because they controlled society – and the workers he called the proletariat. The ruling class benefit in every way from how society operates, whilst the workers get far less than they deserve. The state, as it is today, is a result of a long historical process in which power has effectively transferred from the monarchy to the people.

Karl Marx (1876) described the state as a “committee for managing the affairs of the whole bourgeoisie. ” Marx has a structural view to the role of the state. I. e. it sees the individual as less important than the social structure of society. In particular, Marxism sees the economic organization of societies as responsible for the behavior of individuals. This is because Marxism claims that individuals are the products of the class relationships that characterize economic life. The state is seen to act as a long term guardian to the long term interests of the capitalist system.

Marxists argue that the state gives the illusion of serving the general will of the people, but in reality, they argue, it serves class interests. Althusser (1971) noted that agencies of the state are essentially ideological apparatuses that function to cultivate a picture of the state as being above any specific interests. However, the reality is that the state serves to maintain a legitimate ruling class interest and, consequently, class inequality. It is important to recognize, however, that there are variations within the Marxist approach to the state.

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Miliband (1970) and other “Instrumental Marxists” see the state as an instrument controlled both directly and indirectly by the ruling class. He argues that the view that the civil service and the judiciary are neutral institutions is an ideological one aimed at disguising their true function-namely to protect the economic interests of the ruling class. Structural Marxists like Poulantzas (1973) argue that the social background of those that occupy key positions doesn’t really matter.

The state is shaped by the economic structure of the capitalist society and therefore its actions will always reflect the class relations built into the structure of capitalism. However Poulantzas does argue that in order to fulfill its role unchallenged the state needs to be relatively autonomous from the direct control of the ruling class. Hegemonic Marxists point out that the mass of the population consent to the state managing capitalism, despite the fact that it mainly benefits the ruling class rather than society in general. Gramsci argued that the ruling class was able to manage the state in such a way that hegemony is achieved.

In a recent newspaper article referring to the recent legislation regarding university top up fees, President of the Dundee College Student Association, Morag Maich, stated, “It will be similar to a picket line, with a bar code theme. It will focus on our view that higher education has become a marketplace, like going to a supermarket and buying what you can afford and not what you really want.

She continued, “We will be standing up for the lower and middle income families who will be most affected by the new legislation. It is as if the attitude is ‘if you’ve inherited brains, tough, but if you’ve inherited money then you’re okay’. (Dundee Evening Telegraph – 3 Feb 2004) This Bill is a disaster for the future of higher education and for future generations of students. The plans for variable top-up fees will create a market in higher education where students from poorer backgrounds will be put off applying for the more expensive courses. The variable fees mean that the people who are neither “rich” nor “poor” will either not attend university, or will struggle their way through it. Marxists would argue that the imminent legislation for top up fees clearly demonstrates how the state is looking after the interests of the ruling class.

I. e. the rich who can afford the increased cost of university education. Students from less “well-off” backgrounds are going to be dissuaded from continuing to higher education Until recently there were no constraints on the hierarchy’s leisure pursuit of fox hunting. Popular opinion would appear to show that this “sport” is a dying anachronism. Whilst equally cruel sports such as dog fighting and cock fighting have been banned – these pursuits, in the eyes of the wealthy, are not to have a place in modern society – fox hunting, all be it a watered down version, remains legal.

This is a further example of the state being influenced by the ruling class. Whilst beinf of the opinion that outlawing cock and dog fighting is the correct step, there appears to be a clear inconsistency with regard to the state’s stance on fox hunting. In general there appears to be a greater majority of issues in the news at this current position in time which would suggest in fact that Marxist theories are both outdated and irrelevant now. As 2004 dawned, the dollar hit a rapid succession of all-time lows against the euro and an 11- year low against sterling.

The ruling class was unable to prevent this decline and it strikes them worst of all the population. “European finance ministers voiced fears last month that the dollar’s decline could hamper economic recovery in the euro-zone. ” Despite differences of interpretation all three Marxist positions agree that the state serves the interests of the dominant class. Concepts such as “ideology” and “hegemony” are difficult to operationalize and to use as means of measuring degrees of power. It is also unlikely that hegemony is experiences universally.

The state has consistently faced opposition in the form of urban riots by the powerless, strikes, new social movements and terrorism over the past thirty years and it has been forced to use coercion and force on a number of occasions. The view that the British state is an instrument of the capitalist class can also be criticised because a great deal of economic policy has been unsuccessful. The state has been unable to prevent events such as stock market crashes, devaluation of sterling and the decline of heavy industry and manufacturing.

If the state is an agent of the ruling class, it is a very unsuccessful one. Recent research (e. g. Abercrombie and Warde) suggests that the state and its power to act are under threat from a number of trends. As a result of increasing regional pressure, the Labor government has devolved some state powers to a Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Northern Ireland power-sharing assembly. The EU now has some legal authority over the British state especially in the fields of economic policy and trade.

There are some concerns that this is eroding the power of ordinary people to take part in the democratic process because agencies of the EU are not elected. In the aftermath of September 11 concerns were expressed that Britain had become a “poodle” of the US administration. Whether this regionalization, internationalization and globalization will favor the capitalist system or not is yet to be seen, however it would seem that the more globalize Britain becomes, the less attention will be paid to those things which may seem small and insignificant, but in fact affect the majority of people.

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