As part of the Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien argument that the state is not essentially a capitalist one they state that society is more complicated than it once was. Implicitly they must be arguing that it is less fully capitalist since the state now performs functions that workers should be defending. Indeed they go much further than this:
“A further reason for not smashing the existing state is that we need it. . . . The modern state is needed for the simple reason that it performs socially necessary functions without which a technologically advanced, densely populated society would collapse. And compared to the pre WW I state, today’s one runs vastly more essential services like healthcare, education, food and pharmaceutical safety regulation, environmental controls, provision of infrastructure, and a civil and criminal justice system.”
“If those functions go unfulfilled by a future socialist polity, the day-to-day experience of life for everyone will quickly degrade leading to an erosion of support for the socialist government (or polity). Court summonses for drink driving, to take just one example, will have to be issued under a socialist administration just as much as they would under a capitalist one. In theory, the state justice system can be replaced by popular tribunals but rules of procedure, expertise in summarising and arguing the law, administrative clerks and the like cannot just be recreated at will. The legal norms are the product of a long, messy, and less than edifying social evolutionary process. Limited as they may be, they have the under-appreciated virtue of actually existing — not a trivial accomplishment.”
The last part of this long quote is particularly bad, with it having more in common with Edmund Burke than Karl Marx. It is also amusing that they choose what might seem an everyday and unremarkable state function such as enforcing road traffic laws since we have just seen how the Irish State through the Garda have torn up thousands of penalty points. Even in performing such a humdrum function the state exhibits its propensity to bias and corruption.
As for the response to their overall argument, it is not the point that certain state functions, or rather certain functions currently carried out by the state, should not be done. The question is how and by whom and for what purpose?
When we look at how the current state performs these roles we can see how it does so in subordination to the capitalist economic system.
We shall do this ‘logically’ but it should not be forgotten that the historical evolution of the state shows how it acquires its capitalist character. So for example, as Marx pointed out, the growth of the state and the debts of the state became a powerful means of developing capitalist accumulation.
When capitalists turn money capital into productive capital they need to buy labour power capable of carrying out certain tasks effectively and efficiently. Workers need to be healthy and with increasing levels of education to carry out increasingly complex tasks. Even routine and boring tasks are not completely devoid of training.
The capitalists could try to pay for the health and education of their own workforce by themselves. Unfortunately if some capitalists did this other capitalists would not and would then poach the healthy and skilled workers educated and kept healthy by competitors. Such is one of the contradictions of capitalism. Much better then to socialise the cost by getting the state to provide health services and education.
The market provided by the health and education services can then be milked by capitalist providers of health and education products such as drugs, medical equipment and hospitals and schools built through Private Finance Initiatives.
This then costs the health and education services more than necessary and results in either poorer quality services or higher taxes. And although these taxes are paid overwhelmingly by workers, who pay for the welfare state, the capitalists prefer cheaper and effective health and education services so that the value of labour power they pay for does not decline by higher taxes on workers’ income putting pressure on them to raise wages to compensate.
So the contradiction within capitalism isn’t removed, it is just displaced. Getting the state to carry out functions doesn’t resolve the contradiction between seeking healthy and skilled workers and keeping down the costs while trying as much as possible to make these services easily exploitable commodities subject to direct capitalist provision.
The capitalist system doesn’t find it easy to negotiate through these requirements so, for example, it constantly reorganises the NHS in Britain, boosts then restricts private finance, changes school governance one way and then another and seeks to make working class children more suitable for employment while trying to limit the costs of educating them.
But all these changes of policy and seemingly confused changes of direction within state provided services are not direct examples of struggle between a progressive state and private capital but expressions of the contradictions of the capitalist system itself.
They do not reflect the pressure of the working class as against that of capitalists, although the working class will have its own views and interests bound up in such issues.
In Ireland and in Britain the working class has not been so weak for a very long time and while welfare is being tightened it is not being abolished. Were welfare states the simple result of the balance of forces between capitalist and workers we would have expected much greater changes.
When the capitalist has bought labour power the state does not generally intervene in their prerogatives or that of their managers and then only if these are challenged by workers. Factories and offices however generally don’t work without infrastructural facilities such as roads, transport, water and power and sometimes the state provides these or regulates the private companies that do.
Again the desires the private companies that do can often conflict with the needs of the private companies that use their services.
When production has ceased and the goods and services need to be sold to workers or to other capitalists the state intervenes by setting minimal standards, including contract laws and customer protection legislation, and supporting trade through tariff reductions, provision of insurance and sponsoring trade promotion.
When money is recovered from sales it goes into the financial system in one way or another and once again the venality of this system is a problem not just for workers but also for certain capitalists who would like the state to increase credit to business, reduce charges and make the financial capitalists less privileged. Opposition to ‘parasitic’ finance is not the monopoly of the left but has been a theme of the most reactionary movements in history.
In summary the main functions of the state as it has developed both reflects the needs of the growing capitalist system and reflects its contradictions.
An historical analysis also undermines the view that such aspects of the state as welfare, the ‘welfare state’, are examples of working class influence on what the state does. The first steps in welfareism were taken by Bismarck in Germany, by the Liberal Party and Conservatives in Britain and a welfare state exists in the Irish State where there has never been a social democratic government of any type.
The argument that state functions have to be carried out for society to function is true but this does not support the Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien argument but exposes their strategy, for it is not technical aspects that define state functions but the social relations of production that define the roles that are performed.
Were the state to start to carry out the economic functions currently performed by the capitalist class and on an international basis it would undermine the functioning of the capitalist system itself and would lead to economic dislocation and collapse.
This would happen because of the sabotage of the capitalist class itself, because of the internationalisation of capitalist production which the nation state cannot substitute for without enormous economic regression and because the state cannot carry out the economic functions of capitalism without either being the capitalist itself or it beoming the sort of society we saw in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
This sort of society proved unviable. It collapsed almost everywhere and is no model to emulate where it has not. The inability of the state to substitute itself for capitalism both shows that it is not the road to socialism, or socialism would also be unviable, and that it is workers’ owned means of production that is.
In other words the functions carried out by the state that are recorded above are necessary for society to work without severe economic regression but only in so far as the society is a capitalist one. Too little state intervention and the economic system will regress but too much and it invades what are more properly tasks of private capitalists. The contradictory nature of capitalism, the bureaucratic rationality of aspects of state functioning and ideological disputes all mean that the concrete operation and role of the state is constantly in dispute.
The working class has an interest in who wins (temporarily) in this struggle but it does not take sides but advances its own powers to impose its own solutions upon the system and its state by ultimately replacing both.
The functions of the capitalist state are therefore performed because of the way the capitalist system works and are performed in a way determined by that system. Just as the way the capitalist system works seems natural so does the workings of the state and the respective roles that they both have. All seem natural.
The economic system produces what Marx calls commodity fetishism where the attributes of people become the attributes of things. The productive relations formed by people to produce the things they need become requirements of ‘the economy’, which has demands which people can’t control but can only accede to.
The actions of the state are complimentary to this economic system so that what it does not do – the activities of the capitalist class – also seems natural. Just as capitalism delivers economic growth the state is seen to distribute the fruits of that growth.
The need of the former for the services of the latter become, as in the argument of Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien, mere technical functions that must be performed regardless so that the class character of the state is not at all fundamental.
These technical requirements however only exist because of the capitalist nature of the mode of production and would not exist as they do in another mode of production. For example under a socialist mode of production health services, education, product safety and infrastructure provision would not be carried out by the state or any state-like body.
The capitalist character of the state is therefore reflected in a number of ways.
So for example, the claim that the state is autonomous is also held to be proof that it is not capitalist. But to the extent it is not autonomous it directly reflects particular (capitalist) interests and for socialists the fact that it does in general exist autonomously from society is also demonstration that it exits separate and opposed to it, including from the vast majority of society, particularly its working class. Under the new society no body autonomous from society with any political powers would exist. The powers of society would be wholly integral to it under socialism.
We have seen that what the state does and does not do demonstrates its capitalist character. Under a new society it will disappear and no coercive body above or autonomous from society would exist. The state, as Marxists have claimed, will wither away.
The personnel of the state are carefully selected, vetted and trained. In Britain the most important forces declare loyalty not to the people but to the Queen. In Britain and Ireland and elsewhere there is no greater crime than those committed against the armed forces of the state. Witness the media coverage of killings of Garda for example.
The most senior positions in the state are almost invariable held by members of the most privileged classes and their rank and position within the state cements this where it does not create it. Many can make a lucrative career on the Boards of capitalist corporations when they leave state employment.
The bureaucratic and hierarchical structure of the state reflects its need to insulate itself from democratic control and accountability. When it needs to enforce its wishes it acts with force and decisively, it is hard. When it evades accountability it appears as a blancmange, a maze and an impenetrable system in which no one appears to know how things work and no one is responsible. One may as well try to pick up mercury with tweezers or cut through water. Excuses are offered that we have asystemic failure but no one in this system made up of people is responsible. Once again the actions of people become the property of things.
Laws are broken by the state so we have an enquiry. When laws are broken by workers they are put in jail. In no other country in Western Europe more than Ireland is it less credible to believe that the state is a neutral upholder of the law. A cursory examination of the actions by state forces in the North of the country would explode the most ingrained prejudices, except of course the North of Ireland is always held up as a place apart. And so the state always upholds the law except when it doesn’t.
The state is also a nation state so right from the start loyalty to it immediately involves division, the division of the working class, even when the workers belong to the same firm and would be out of work were their fellow (foreign) workers to fail to carry out their labour as they should. The state teaches dependency on it not on the cooperative labour of the working class of all countries without which “a technologically advanced, densely populated society would collapse.”
The symbols, rules, hierarchies, uniforms, traditions and ideology of the state all make it inimical to working class self-emancipation from the rules symbols, rules, hierarchies, uniforms, traditions and ideology that oppress it.
In the final part of this post I will look at the argument that the state is, on the contrary, the mechanism of working class liberation.