Political Theology Today A forum for interdisciplinary and interreligious dialogue

The False Dilemma of Big vs. Small Government

Ryan and Romeny

In the current, sad situation of politics in the bourgeois state, we seem to be trapped in the tired old opposition of big government versus small government. If one is a political-junky of the USA (I find it a snore), this issue has once again come to fore by the selection of Paul Ryan to be Mitt Romney’s Republican running mate in the elections of 2012. Ryan is a classic proponent of small government, trailing the dust of von Hayek, Friedman and the rest. Toss out government programs (national health scheme, age care etc.) and then savagely cut taxes to put more money in the pockets of the owners of capital so they can spend it to stimulate a failing economy. Elsewhere you encounter the slogan of ‘big society’, beloved of David Cameron’s Tories in the UK, with the assumption that the state should thereby be small. And you find it the standard move of ‘privatising’ state assets, assuming that the ‘private’ sector will run them better. In reality, of course, it is merely selling off state assets to one’s buddies in the business world. Through it all runs the mantra that the state should not be in business of, well, running businesses. It is supposedly inefficient, lax and corrupt.

Opponents, some of whom call themselves the ‘left’, argue strenuously against all this, urging some form of the welfare state (and lamenting is dismantling). They point out that the proponents of small government are anything but that; instead, those advocates want to use the state machinery to foster their own interests. Our mild lefties also argue openly that they are in favour of big government, in which the state ensures that those who fall through no fault of their own are not left to suffer. Invalid pensions, old age pensions, compensation schemes for workers, medicine, education, public transport, roads, insurance, immigration, banking, public housing, student support, low-income supplements … these and more are part of the parcel for proponents of the welfare state, of big government. What they fail to see is that this is a deeply fascist agenda. It is no surprise that the ‘national socialists’ (old and new) too are in favour of such measures, but only for their (mostly ethnic) own. The deep problem with such welfare agendas is that they are bound by the nation-state. This then breeds all manner of xenophobic lines about foreigners sneaking in to suck the welfare state dry. Social democratic governments are often the most vocal proponents of this type of xenophobia, seeking to protect the welfare project against its foreign threats.

Neither is particularly enticing, it seems to me. Why? They are both caught within the fundamental alienation of the bourgeois state. As Hegel already noted, the bourgeois, liberal state is an alienated one, for it operates with a distinction between the state and civil society (bürgerliche Gesellschaft, the realm of everyday relations, economics, religion and so on). These days it goes by the name of the ‘public sphere’. Each person bears this alienation within: we are both citizen of the state and private individual. We vote, carry passports, avail ourselves of what the state offers and also are subject to its strictures. And yet what we believe, or religious preferences, our loves and hates, our decisions as to what to buy and sell, our desire to generate new ideas and possibilities – these are outside the state, if not often opposed to it. The classic expression of this basic alienation is a common phrase I have heard in Norway: ‘the state will deal with it’.

Hegel’s attempt to deal with this alienation began with the state itself and its various appurtenances – sovereignty, law, constitution, political life, political estates, social estates, bureaucracy, executive, and Hegel’s quaint fascination with primogeniture. The problem, as Marx makes clear in his notes on Hegel’s philosophy of law, is that Hegel begins with an abstraction and then tries to make civil society, the realm of flesh-and-blood people, fit in. And if one begins with such an abstraction, then one is bound to perpetuate the alienation. Marx’s model is of course drawn from Feuerbach and developed further: just as religion is a projection from real human beings, so also is the political state a projection or abstraction. Marx sums Hegel’s notion of the state rather nicely: he calls it ‘the theological notion of the political state’ [der theologischen Vorstellung des politischen Staates].

For Marx, the key to overcoming that alienation, between state and civil society, is not to begin with the state and redefine it, but to overthrow the situation that produces such alienation. But what are the consequences for the big-small government arguments with which I began. This turns out to be a manifestation of the basic alienation of state and civil society characteristic of the bourgeois state. The proponents of small government want to foster ‘civil society’, the ‘public sphere’, or ‘big society’, or at least that is part of the ideology of supporting their business cronies; the advocates of big government feel that the state should a far greater role in civil society so that it functions more smoothly. Yet the more we argue for either side, the more we perpetuate the alienation itself. It is as useful – to pick up Marx’s analogy with theology – as trying to redefine theology by starting with theology itself. The solution, however, is a little more dramatic, for it lies not in the matter of size, or at least pretences to size, but in tossing out the system that produces such an alienating opposition in the first place.

One Comment

  1. I apologize if my questions simply reflect an ignorance of things you have written elsewhere, but I am curious what the alternative is since you leave it hanging at the end. I can’t see how, if alienation is caused by the existence of areas of my life outside the state, the solution does not have totalitarian implications. “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state,” as Mussolini said.

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