In, Against (and Beyond?) the State

Women at the Cutting Edge 20th October 2010
#AntiAusterity #EndAusterityNow #WomenAgainstTheCuts #ToriesOutNow

Report back from workshop at Women At the Cutting Edge and suggestions for how to further pursue the questions it raised.

Aims of the Workshop

Has David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ rhetoric tapped into a genuine dissatisfaction/ desire for more control over our state services?

How do people experience the contradictory nature of the state – as an instrument of social control and as the provider of essential services?

That a simple ‘defend public services position’ is inadequate to inspiring working-people to fight and responding to their real needs

What the workshop came up with…

Many people did not have time to use public services because they had to work full time – a teacher said she hadn’t been to the dentist or dental studio for years, a civil servant never got to her local library, a charity worker couldn’t take time off to visit her GP.

They were all public sector workers and public service users, but these two different roles were completely separated. People also suggested that their own stresses and work pressures as public service workers made them more demanding about the service provision they received from other public sector workers.

People spoke positively about their experiences of the NHS – a life saving service. They also commented on the long waiting lists, and sometimes grumpy and over-worked staff that came with this, though this did not stop them from strongly endorsing the service. One participant felt strongly as a result that our first and foremost position had to be to defend these services, not to critique them.

This connected to a point about there being great potential in all our public service institutions which was often stifled because workers were prevented from doing the job properly. One positive arising from this was that the fury and frustration that it provoked might be effectively channelled into fighting management.

Going on strike might be seen (and argued for) as the ultimate experience of workers taking control of these services.

Guilt of state workers providing essential services such as education or public transport when they either had to limit their work in order to protect their own health or withdraw their labour during strikes. In this context it was useful to point out to service users that management, who force workers into these positions, are NOT running the service for the benefit of the public.

This was a clear example of the paradoxical/ dual nature of these services – in whose interests they are run and how they are run depends on who runs them?

Higher education provided another useful example of the multiple ways in which the state operated in this context. On the one hand higher education could be a liberating and transformative experience for working class people. Yet the higher education establishment is currently structured to operate as a border, benefitting a chosen few and deliberately excluding the majority, and it is upon this exclusion that it derives its prestige. So now higher education, or lack of it, is also a way of ensuring that people who don’t have a degree will be trapped in minimum wage jobs. One participant felt strongly that as a result is was not possible to simply defend higher education (despite his positive experience of it), we need to imagine a different system altogether[?].

Important to ask who is empowered to access state services and who is not.

State services and the housing system were even more explicit examples of ‘gate-keeping’ public resources – dividing working class people and making them see each other as the enemy.

Case Study: Taking over the local library

What would happen if we took over a local library earmarked for closure? Would we just be providing this service for free?

Lets the state off the hook – providing a vital service for free.
Where would the money come from? Voluntary service provision unsustainable. Would it encourage further privatisation, insist that it be run for a profit?
Who would the volunteers be? Middle-class retired people or unemployed people on workfare – both scenarios highly problematic.
Would undermine librarians both in terms of arguing that this is important work that should be waged but also that they are highly skilled workers.
Important that we don’t romanticise current public service provision. Libraries for example use a lot of volunteer labour, untrained workers, and also are supposed to be ‘self-funding’ (eg fund themselves through fines and DVD rentals.[/callout]

Would depend greatly on how it was run, but possibility of running it in an antagonistic way which was less about service provision and more an educative experience in what these services are/ who controls them and why we need them?Could you use the library also as space for political meetings, could people’s involvement in helping to run it be a politicising experience, could its inevitable ‘failure’ be used to highlight the impossibility of Cameron’s voluntary vision?

Case Study: ESOL Classes

Free ESOL classes provided by volunteers in a migrant resource centre are being used to fill in the gap in provision created by under-funded FE college and closure of ESOL courses there.

Sets precedent that it is ok to provide services on the cheap. How is quality guaranteed in a voluntary service?
How do you support yourself if working unpaid?
Tensions created between FE teachers and volunteer activists.
How do the students needs and desires fit into this?
Will funding for migrant resource centre impose restrictions and regulations?
Important to question whether ESOL really is just a service – also a means of disciplining migrants and forcing them to conform to a standard of ‘integration’ which supports a racist logic. When are ESOL classes empowering and when are they not?.

ESOL teachers and volunteers need to join forces, communicate, understand each other’s position.
Potential to build a stronger campaign hat defends existing services (for documented migrants) and demands better ones (for undocumented migrants).
ESOL teachers could refuse to ask for proof of documentation, to resist division between legal and illegal migrants that created the need for the voluntary lessons in the first place.

Questions/ Issues to Pursue Further…
Do we need to go back to basics? To ask why these services exist in the first place? What is their function? What are people’s needs? Why do people need them?
How can we challenge fragmentation between workers and services users as well as breaking up of these services themselves?