Welsh devolution as passive revolution.

Author:Evans, Daniel John
Position::Essay
 
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There is a dearth of critical, theoretical analyses of Welsh devolution (Goodwin et al. 2006). There has recently been a welcome return of critical works on state restructuring and rescaling, particularly within the field of economic geography (e.g. Cooke and Clifton 2005; Curtice and Seyd 2009; Goodwin et al. 2005; Hudson 2007; Jones et al. 2005a, 2005b; Morgan 2006, 2007; Rodriguez-Pose and Gill 2005). These works have successfully demonstrated that devolution was not accompanied by the transfer of any powers which might have facilitated the improvement of the Welsh economy, thereby rendering the notion of devolution as an 'economic dividend' (one of the main 'selling points' of devolution) rather ludicrous, as well as criticising the Welsh government's economic strategy, which has perpetuated Wales' position as a 'lumpen region'

within the world economy (Walker 1978). Yet, these sophisticated geographical analyses are primarily concerned with 'the territorial reconfiguration of state capacities' (Jones et al. 2005b: 338), that is, the 'interior' branches or state apparatuses which have altered with devolution (Poulantzas 1969: 248)--they do not analyse the political processes of devolution. This article offers a new theoretical lens through which devolution and subsequent political events in Wales (and indeed Scotland and Northern Ireland) may be approached.

This article argues that Welsh devolution is best understood as a process of passive revolution. Passive revolution is a moment within the history and development of the state, whereby seemingly radical changes to society are in fact carefully managed in a way which preserves capitalist hegemony. (1) The concept has recently undergone a fecund renaissance (e.g., Morton 2007a; 2010; Thomas 2009; 2013) and has been usefully applied to empirical case studies of state restructuring and modernisation across a diverse range of developed and developing countries, including Scotland (Davidson 2010), Turkey (Tugal 2009), Mexico (Hesketh 2010; Morton 2011), Bolivia (Hesketh and Morton 2014), Brazil (Del Roio 2012), South Africa (Satgar 2008), Russia (Simon 2010), Germany (Bruff 2010) and Venezuela (Brading 2014). The concept of passive revolution, underpinned by a re-reading of the post-war British state as a historic bloc, allows us to understand the political developments which have occurred in Wales since devolution.

Bruff (2010) importantly reminds us that passive revolution was conceived by Gramsci at least in part as a heuristic concept that enables Marxists to understand 'the history of modern states and class struggles ... in terms of both general trajectories and historical specificities' (Morton 2007b: 612). More than most, then, passive revolution is a living concept--like Marxism itself - which was meant to 'travel' (Said 1983). Yet, this is not to say that it is a 'one size fits all' concept which may be rigidly imposed onto diverse national experiences: like Bruff's analysis of Germany, this analysis of the Welsh experience uses passive revolution as a framework for understanding developments on the ground. While devolution fits the bill of a passive revolution in many ways, in others, the fit is clearly imperfect and incomplete.

Wales and the British state

Part of the reason that devolution has not been adequately theorised and understood in Wales is because popular understandings of the state in Wales tend to oscillate between a reading of the British state as either inherently exploitative (a position still commonplace among Welsh nationalists) or as essentially benevolent (a reading popular with the Labour party in Wales). The former interpretation is best associated with Michael Hechter's (1975) Internal Colonialism, which characterises Wales as standing in a 'classically' colonial relationship with England, with the state deliberately extracting a surplus from Wales, which is then locked in a state of dependency. Hechter argues that this process was also underpinned by a legitimating racist discourse which held that the Celtic nations were inferior, and that there existed a 'cultural division of labour', whereby English people occupied the dominant managerial positions within Wales, mirroring 'classic' colonial situations throughout the Empire. While it was criticised for empirical shortcomings (Day 1980; Evans 1991; Lovering 1978; Ragin 1976), the internal colonial model found favour with many Welsh nationalists and with some of Wales' radical left groupings (Miles and Griffiths 1979) for the way it confronted power inequalities and for its neat explanation of Britishness as a variant of false consciousness. Yet precisely because it called into question the legitimacy of the British state (and therefore the Labour party's entire political project), the work received, as Wyn Jones (2005) puts it, a 'hysterically hostile' reception from Wales' dominant 'traditional intellectuals' (Gramsci 1971: 204-205; also Aull-Davies 2005; Williams 2005)

The Internal Colonial thesis has many strengths. It remains useful in the attention it draws to unequal power relations and how these penetrate into discussions of national identity and culture, its awareness of the ways which powerful discourses penetrate everyday life and how they can condition the self/deixis, and the way power is institutionalised in the academy and within culture (Salter 2010: 130-132).

Yet, the internal colonial model of the British state and its relationship with the 'regions' is far too rigid, and cannot adequately explain devolution, which is the crystallisation of the British state's flexibility. A more sophisticated analysis of Wales' position within the state is put forward by Day (1980), who, Following Poulantzas (1973), argues that given the complexity of economic development and regional underdevelopment, 'we must abandon any notion of a polar opposition [i.e., ruling class/working class; core/ periphery] in which the state acts purely and simply as the agent of one interest against another' (Day 1980: 246). As Day notes, Hechter's conception of the British state as the 'managing committee of the whole bourgeoisie' ignores the complexity and sophistication of power within the capitalist state and its capacity to deal with the periphery. The intervention of the welfare state in regional policy, its job creation schemes and so on, problematises the notion that the state is perpetually driven to 'exploit' problem regions. Instead, Day argues that the state simply cannot afford to leave such areas 'to rot': it has to pursue an ameliorative regional economic strategy because (a) capitalism needs such peripheral regions as markets and (b) if it leaves the periphery to stagnate, it will lead to a political challenge from dissatisfied peripheral groups, frequently in the form of nationalism in peripheral areas. To maintain consensus, and to limit the appeal of counter-hegemonic forces, it is in the interest of the state to 'prop up' ailing regions. The state therefore 'seeks as far as possible to reproduce existing conditions of accumulation: basically to maintain capitalism in its contemporary form (Day 1980: 246).

The post-war British state as a Historic Bloc

Gramsci's reading of the liberal democratic state complements Day's reading and can help us better understand the historic nature of the British state, Wales' relationship to it, and its recent restructuring under devolution. The originality of Gramsci's conception of hegemony lies precisely in its relationship to the form of state. Indeed, Buci-Glucksmann (1980) argues that' the rejection of an instrumental conception of the state ... [central to the post-colonial view of the state] ... is the fruit of Gramsci's entire political practise (p. 274).

A successful hegemonic project may be thought of as a complex machine (such as a watch) dependent on a series of cogs. All the interrelated components need to run smoothly for a stable capitalist society to function. The vital 'cogs' include material concessions to subaltern groups provided by a flexible or 'elastic' (Hesketh 2010) 'integral state' which actively concerns itself with the interests of subordinate groups (Gramsci 1971: 182); a dominant ideology--normally nationalism (Pozo 2007)--which submerges class differences and creates' intellectual and moral unity' between classes (Gramsci 1971: 181-182); an collaborationist or 'policing' labour movement; and a successful economy underpinning it all, providing the state with the means to distribute such concessions. (2)

Gramsci called this situation the 'historic bloc' (blocco storico). The historic bloc represents hegemony achieved within a national political framework within historically and culturally specific national circumstances (Bieler and Morton 2006: 16; Gramsci 1971: 182). It is the 'hegemonic moment' (Gramsci 1971: 181-182)--a period whereby everything in society has clicked into place to successfully achieve a 'shared life' (Gramsci 1971: 418) between leaders and led. The historic bloc is central to understanding that hegemony has two interrelated facets: ideological and material, that is, it is not just the 'integral state', which in itself arguably presents a rewording of Bonapartism (Buci-Glucksmann 1980: 275-279). Hegemony also requires an ideological dimension to ensure the creation of a 'higher synthesis' which leads to a 'collective will' that transcends class interests (Worth 2009). The post-war British welfare state represents the exemplar of a historic bloc. Wales and Scotland were bound to the bloc through a combination of material concessions and the mobilisation of a national-popular will (Britishness) which was flexible enough to incorporate a host of 'alternative' identities within it.

The success of the historic bloc in getting regions and subaltern classes 'onside' was demonstrated by Wales' comprehensive rejection of devolution in 1979.

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