Examining the entire spectrum of the ‘left’ reveals a multitude of sectarian differences of ideas and organisation but they are linked by one common thread of unity. That link is with regard to the continued existence of the state. From the liberal left, through to the radical left all these, except perhaps the anarchist left and revolutionary-humanists, accept the existence of the state in one form or another. Some may advocate a more democratic form of state, others a more pluralist state, some perhaps an egalitarian state and yet others – a workers state. The state, or rather the modern welfare state – with some modifications and adjustments (radical or otherwise) – is the model which a majority of the current left cannot see beyond. This is despite the fact that human beings and their communities for thousands, if not millions of years, have managed their affairs without being regulated by an institution called the state. There was life before the state and there can and will be life after the state has been finally abolished.
Indeed, the modern capitalist state is relatively new. The welfare state is an even more recent invention. Before that, apart from the city-states of the militarised Greek and Roman world, which were very different institutions, people in the main sorted themselves out in their local communities. Despite the physical domination of feudal overlords and burdened by a plethora of Priestly tithes, there was a large degree of local self-reliance and self-governance. It was only later with the breakdown of feudal local and kinship ties effected by the domination of capital that the state in its proper sense developed. The state as now constituted could not exist without the development of the bourgeoisie mode of production and the division of society into classes, based upon their relationship to the means of production. A state is only necessary where there are irreconcilable class differences and under the capitalist mode of production there are such irreconcilable differences. The social organisation of the capitalist mode of production therefore forms the basis of modern ‘civil society, with its private ownership of the means of production and this in turn constitutes the economic and social basis of the state. As Marx noted;
“To this modern private property corresponds the modern state , which, purchased gradually by the owners of property by means of taxation, has fallen entirely into their hands, through the national debt, and its existence has become wholly dependent on the commercial credit which the owners of property, the bourgeoisie, extend to it…..it is nothing more than the form of organisation which the bourgeoisie are compelled to adopt both for internal and external purposes, for their mutual guarantee of their property and interests.” (Marx. German Ideology. In Marx Engels Collected Works Volume 5 page 90.)
Yet despite this clear analysis of the function and purpose of the modern state, – the internal and external guarantee of capitalist property and interests – much of the left cannot resist placing requests and demands upon the current state to rectify all the inconveniences and oppressions attending the bourgeois capitalist mode of production. It seems that because the modern state in the last 100 years, has taken on elements of public service and welfare provision, the left has blindly accepted its continued existence. Many of them now seriously look to it – under alternative politicians – to correct all that is evidently wrong with capitalism. This is despite the fact that under alternative politicians, left, right and centre, the state is still demonstrably the organ of bourgeois rule and cannot and will not go beyond capital. Even under the so-called revolutionary anti-capitalists of the Bolsheviks, the state was viewed as ‘the’ most important and necessary element of liberation for the ‘oppressed’. And look what happened there!
It is interesting in this regard, that on the question of the state some 21st century pro-capitalists have gone much further than most of the ‘left’ in questioning the fundamental nature of the state and the need for its continued existence. This has been fluently, if only partially, expressed in a recent book with the title ‘Life after the State‘ by Dominic Frisby. This pro-capitalist book provides and substantiates a whole litany of the failings of the bourgeois state. Chapter after chapter lists in substantial detail the self-serving nature of state governance, its utter failure to sort out the mess it has itself created and its expensive interference in the lives and well being of ordinary people. In its analysis of the shortcomings and oppressive nature of the state it shames many contributions from the left. In the next section I shall highlight just a selection of the many criticisms levelled at the state by this particular pro-capitalist author.
Life under the State.
In the prologue to the above referenced book, the author presents a long abbreviated list of the social problems we have witnessed which have been orchestrated by the modern state. What follows is just a short selection from that list to give a flavour.
“…a financial crisis that almost brought down the entire global banking system. Youth unemployment in Greece at 62.5%, Spain at 57%, Portugal at 43%, Italy at 40% and an EU average of 24%…..36 million people across the globe taking part in 3,000 protests against the war in the Middle East – and the UK and US governments ignoring them and going ahead with it anyway…..The UK currently owes..just under £1.2 trillion. That’s almost £40,000 per working person…..President Barack Obama has overseen an administration that, in its first term, increased the national debt by 60%, adding $6 trillion, on top of the $5trillion Bush added in his two terms.” (‘Life after the State’. Dominic Frisby. Prologue.)
The list of offences produced by this author and committed by the state could well appear in any radical left publication. Indeed, these parts of his book could outshine many recent so-called revolutionary ‘left’ contributions on the question. In the chapter which follows the prologue, the author discusses the demise of the city of Glasgow and goes on to quote at length from the historian A.J.P Taylor’s book ‘English History 1914 – 45.’ It is worth considering a short extract from this long quotation for it emphasises from a bourgeois point of view the recent nature of the state.
“Until August 1914 a sensible, law abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state beyond the post office and the policeman….The Englishman paid taxes on a modest scale…All this was changed by the impact of the Great War….The state established a hold over its citizens which, although relaxed in peacetime, was never to be removed and which after the Second World War was again to increase.” (AJP Taylor. quoted in Frisby chapter 1.)
The progressive hold over its citizens was achieved through the mechanisms of state imposed regulations and restrictions over citizens movements, increased taxation, compulsory military enlistment, food regulations, news censorship and an ever increasing list of does and don’ts. All these regulations, restrictions, militarisations and even the few benefits come at a considerable cost. In this regard this author relies upon a Conservative MP’s research to suggest that ‘$36 of every $100 dollars an America earns now goes to support the US government. In Europe £46 of every British workers; 59 euros out of every 100 for French and German workers. The author further estimates that since 1900 the resources collected by the state from its citizens has increased by a magnitude of 30 to 40 and asks the rhetorical but pertinent question; have the services provided by the state risen this much?
Before considering this question of the ‘state’ further it is worth pointing out that the radical bourgeois viewpoint presented by this author, has typically missed the most important point about the capitalist mode of production and the reason for the state. It is that the main ‘means’ of production have been appropriated by a certain elite class and that elite plus its supporters control the state. Although at another point he describes himself as a socialist (so did Hitler and Mussolini for a time) he clearly is a champion of capitalism, and this is reflected by the authors he chooses to include in his research and those he does not. The main omission given his discussion of economics is that of Karl Marx. He does mention Adam Smith, but this disclosure only exposes his failure to understand the origin of profit. For example he asserts that; “Profit need not necessarily entail exploitation.” Yet Smith was clear upon the origin of profit derived from the surplus-labour provided free by workers – and which as developed by Marx – clearly revealed they are forced by circumstances to work beyond the time required to replace their wages.
Profit does indeed entail exploitation – in two ways. Capitalists exploit both the workers lack of their own means of production and exploit the difference between the labour-time they are required to work for a wage and the productivity of that labour during that period. He could have avoided that glaring mistake had he read Marx on the question or even if he had fully understood Adam Smith’s analysis of productive and unproductive labour in book 2 chapter 3 of ‘An enquiry into …Wealth of Nations’. His additional failure is to understand the importance of the restriction that the private ownership of the means of production, its size and complexity, creates to the exchange of commodities, leads him to superficial conclusions.
Yet on the question of the state he is largely correct. Also missing from his attention, therefore, is an understanding of the consequent commodification of labour-power at the beck and call of capital. All this unfortunate lack of knowledge, leads him to posit the current problems with the capitalist mode of production as being because of ’crony-capitalism’ which has increased the barriers to ‘self-interested’ ‘greedy’ ‘free’ exchange. Like others among the radicalised bourgeoisie he is in a form of denial. Powerful capitalists rigging the system IS the system of capitalism – there is no other – and there never was!
This ‘greed is good’ philosophy is prompted by his understanding of aspects of human nature as they have developed under the capitalist mode of production. He takes the culture developed under the domination of capital as the ‘natural’ one valid for all time. Instead of recognising the limited historical nature of capitalism, and the values it promotes he assumes that capitalism is based upon what he claims is ‘Natural Law’. So even when he ventures into positive remarks about altruism and co-operation he cannot let go of his bourgeois prejudice of the need for a ‘free market’ which is itself a self-imposed illusion for there has never been a ‘free market’ under the capitalist mode of production. The term was merely invented to assert the freedom of capital to rig or distort the market when and where it could when it was advantageous to do so – which it has always done. His idealised illusions about the capitalist mode of production abound throughout the book and in a good example he asserts;
“But capitalism in its most ideal form does not necessarily exalt material gain above spiritual success. It exalts peaceful co-operation between producers and suppliers without coercion, theft and rent-seeking.” (ibid chapter 3.)
At no time does this idealised vision of capitalism match the history or the present reality of capitalist mode of production in any part of the world. This idealised belief system even clouds his judgement on practical observations. At another point he asserts that because of the natural greedy desire to exchange goods ‘wonderful things get done‘ when, “Detroit assembly-line workers get up at the crack of dawn to produce the car that you enjoy.” Such simplified and idealised abstractions ignore the harsh reality of assembly-line work and how people are forced by circumstances to work on mechanised assembly lines.
It also ignores the fact that when profitability is reduced car-production in Detroit and elsewhere disappears to countries where other workers robbed of their own means of production and livelihood are pressed into wage-slavery. Detroit was reduced to practically a ghost town by the capitalist ownership and control of the means of production in pursuit of their ‘greedy’ desire to exchange at a profit. He argues, “Evil though the word may be to some, profit – not planning – is what makes the economic eco-system function.” Of course it is profit which makes much of the present economic eco-system function, but there are other serious alternatives as demonstrated by the public sector and other non-profit projects.
Returning to the question of the state it becomes evident that we need to consider two conflicting but popular viewpoints which have emerged in relationship to the growth of the state. This is crucial now that the state, as it is presently constituted, is unsustainable due to the massive imbalance between its expenditure and income. The current systemic ‘fiscal crises’ of all states upholding the capitalist mode of production, requires a serious consideration – for they are all about to fiscally implode. On a smaller scale even the city-state institutions of the advanced capitalist world, particularly in the USA, are beginning to collapse under the weight of their misnamed ‘public’ debt.
Two conflicting views of the state and an alternative.
So at the level of mainstream ‘popular’ left and right discourse there appear to be two main views of the state which conflict. The first viewpoint is held by those who see the state as essentially ‘good’ and support the need to strengthen it – particularly in areas of direct or indirect interest to them. The second is those who view the state as essentially ‘bad’ and wish to downsize it or remove it altogether in areas that are of direct or indirect concern for them. The interesting thing about this divergence in opinion regarding the state is the way this is currently reflected in politics.
The left in general favour the strengthening of the state particularly in its ability to tax and regulate capital, prohibit speculation, penalise misconduct and prevent corruption. In addition the left – again in general – favour the strengthening and use of the states powers to re-distribute wealth from the rich to the poor. Even the anti-capitalist revolutionary left often have this perspective as their main operating paradigm in the daily class struggles that take place within the capitalist mode of production. This much was in evidence by the Socialist Resistance support for the Left Party Platform at the UK’s Left Unity Conference in November 2013. This and other campaigns are initiated or joined by the ‘left’ urging the state to defend this or that, to increase or decrease one thing or another. This is despite the fact that the state, supported by the capitalist classes is the most oppressive force in the lives of ordinary working people. This is a huge contradiction which remains unresolved by the left reformists.
Economically, the state officials along with capitalists extract every portion of value and surplus-value they can wring out of the working classes by keeping wages low, taxes (income and purchase taxation) for those who cannot dodge them – high. Politically, the state inhibits the freedom of the organised working classes to organise, demonstrate and strike against the exploitation experienced by workers. The state colludes with capital in the exploitation of its own workforce and those of foreign lands. The state severely controls and regulates the movement of its non-elite citizens, whilst internationalising the elite. It institutes wars in which working-class soldiers and working-class non-combatants are slaughtered indiscriminately, whilst capitalists make profits out of destruction and subsequent re-construction. It allows large capital to disrupt working class communities and appropriate spaces and resources utilised by local people. Unquestionably, the state is an organ of oppression and exploitation.
But the state under capitalism – powerful as it is – is collapsing from its own internal contradictions. It is the institutional organ of the dominant economic and financial interests in their human personifications. The elite who control and influence it have used it to pursue their interests and this pursuit has led them to undermine the very thing which supports their rule. They have used the state to create huge, costly and unproductive military capabilities, to allow themselves the freedom to move their production to the cheapest location and avoid taxes, to award themselves lucrative state contracts and grant themselves huge tax-breaks. These state ‘benefits’ to capital have created a massive system of state insolvency and despite the current expensive loans they take on, all current capitalist states are heading for collapse and bankruptcy. Remember the £1.2 trillion UK debt and the $11 trillion US noted above? The present captains of industry, commerce, finance and politics, are sinking their own battleship – which in view of this and other things deserves to go down.
But in contrast to the anarcho-capitalists who with regard to the state, also think that way, much of the current left – as the traditional Labour Movement before them – wish to captain the rusting, top-heavy hulk themselves. Some have recently formed a new party to do just that. If successful, they will urge the workers to continue to patch up the boilers, keep the engine room running, staff the pumps in the bilge, scrub the decks, cook the on-board meals and do all the other menial jobs which keep this rotting vessel afloat. To demonstrate their bourgeois liberal aspirations, they are properly insisting that when they become captains of the rotting hulk there will be just as many women as men employed in the exploitative positions on this class-divided, elite-controlled journey to what they elastically classify as – socialism. For they have no plans to end exploitation – merely to even it out – whilst navigating their imaginary course to future parliamentary elections. Meanwhile, the course currently plotted by those who will definitely not give up the vessel easily is leading toward the fiscal and ecological iceberg which will finally send the capitalist mode of production to its graveyard.
Revolutionary-humanists on the other hand will continue to advocate that the crew will eventually be compelled by developing circumstances to recognise that they will have to rebel and dismantle the state, replacing it with self-regulating, self-governing egalitarian, humanist, ecologically-minded productive communities. The fact that the present state employs workers does not mean that these workers in education, health etc., will cease to have employment under a post-capitalist stateless mode of production. They will simply be responsible to their respective communities rather than some distant axe-wielding state official or local delegated elite boss. So in activist campaigns why not argue for this from the outset?.
If this perspective seems idealistic, then be comforted (or discomforted) by the fact that the state cannot continue in its present form – anyway! Many of these jobs are already going and more will follow! Change is going to happen – one way or another! If the evidence for this is, or becomes, compelling, then it just requires the rest of us to decide what kind of change is preferable. In such situations I am often guided by the following saying; it is better to struggle for something you want and not get it, than to struggle for something you do not want and get it. And of course, there is more chance of getting what we want if we struggle for that, than if we struggle for some dubious elite-driven alternative which by definition envisions their control of a ‘state’.
Roy Ratcliffe (December 2013.)