Art by Yousef Amairi

Art by Yousef Amairi
the struggle continues

October 18, 2016

The role and character of the state under capitalism

The role and character of the state under capitalism


As in all class societies, the role of the state in capitalist society is to defend the interests of the class that owns the means of production by suppressing any threat to its domination and by ideologically integrating the exploited classes.
The capitalist state differs, however, from all previous forms of class rule due to the unique character of capitalist relations of production. Because of the social conditions and the competition generated by generalised commodity production on the basis of private property, the interests of the capitalist class as a whole cannot be represented by individual capitalists, even the richest. The capitalist state therefore requires a certain autonomy in order to represent the collective interests of the capitalist class.

To the classical state functions of repression and ideological integration, the capitalist state adds the function of guaranteeing those general conditions for the development of capitalist production that do not spontaneously arise from private production and capitalist competition. These conditions include creation of a stable system of law that applies to all capitalists, a unified national market, and a national currency and customs system.

The formation of nations and of states based on nations is an inevitable product of the capitalist era of social development. With its generalisation of commodity production, capitalism overcomes the economic disunity that characterised pre-capitalist societies, creating unified conditions of production and exchange of commodities within a common territory, merging loosely connected communities of people within this territory into a stable, coherent community with a common national language and national culture.

Because the nation-state is the most advantageous political unit for the development of the productive forces during the rise of capitalism, nationalism is a basic feature of the outlook of the capitalist class. Nationalist ideology, which propagates the idea that all classes within a given nation have common interests opposed to those of other nations, is a powerful tool for subordinating the class interests of the labouring masses to those of the capitalist class and to the maintenance of capitalist political power.

In the imperialist epoch, the struggle of the oppressed nations for national liberation is reflected in the awakening of nationalist consciousness among the working people of oppressed nations. While socialists are advocates of working-class internationalism, which is based on the recognition of the identity of interests of the workers of all nations, and are therefore opposed to all varieties of nationalist ideology, they differentiate between the nationalism of imperialist, oppressor nations and the nationalism of oppressed nations. Unlike the nationalism of the oppressor nations which is a reactionary instrument for justifying imperialist exploitation and domination, the nationalism of oppressed nations has a democratic content that is directed against imperialist oppression, and it is this democratic content that socialists unconditionally support.

The autonomy of state power in capitalist society is a result of the predominance of private property and capitalist competition, but this same predominance also makes the state's autonomy relative. While transcending the conflicting competitive interests of individual capitalists, the decisions of the capitalist state also affect capitalist competition and influence the overall social distribution of surplus value to the advantage of one or another group of capitalists. All groups of capitalists are therefore forced to be politically active, not just to articulate their own views regarding the collective interests of their class, but also to defend their particular interests. For this reason, in the era of so-called free competition the function of the parliamentary state was to embody the common class interests of the capitalists in a form that gave each group of capitalists an opportunity to defend its sectional interests. From this point of view, parliamentary democracy was the ideal form of the capitalist state. It best reflected the dialectic of unity and struggle between the particular competitive interests of each capitalist and the collective interests of the capitalist class as a whole.

The transition from laissez-faire capitalism to monopoly capitalism altered both the capitalist class's subjective attitude towards the state and the objective role of the capitalist state. In the laissez-faire era, the capitalist class sought to keep the economic functions of the state to a minimum. Viewing the taxes needed to maintain the state as a waste of surplus value that could otherwise be used for capital accumulation, it sought to limit state expenditures. This policy was reflected in the doctrine of classical liberalism according to which unrestrained competition was the guarantee of individual liberty and social progress.

However, the emergence of monopolies generated a tendency towards permanent overaccumulation in the imperialist countries and a corresponding trend towards export of capital and division of the world into colonial empires. This led to a sharp increase in arms expenditure and the growth of militarism. These trends in turn led to a major expansion of the state apparatus, involving an increased diversion of social revenues to the state. Arms expenditure had a dual function: to provide the means to defend the special interests of each imperialist power against its rivals and against colonised peoples, and to provide an additional source of capital accumulation.

Also contributing to the expansion of the size and expenditures of the capitalist state in the era of monopoly capitalism was the development of social legislation and social expenditures as a concession to the increasing organisational strength of the labour movement. This was a defensive measure designed to buy social stability by ameliorating the worst effects of the capitalist private profit system upon the working people.

While the growth of social expenditures led to a significant redistribution of socially created value towards the state budget, it did not result in a redistribution of national income towards labour and away from capital. Social expenditures were financed by shifting the main burden of taxation onto the working class. At most, this resulted in some redistribution of income within the working class.

At the same time, the growth of social expenditures (expansion of the public health and public transport systems, universal elementary education, public housing projects, etc.) also served the general economic interests of the capitalist class by socialising some of the costs of reproducing labour power and providing workers with the basic skills needed to perform increasingly complex production tasks.

Under monopoly capitalism, the growing strength of the workers' movement in the advanced capitalist countries lent further urgency and scope to the integrative role of the capitalist state. Decisions to grant steadily wider layers of workers the right to vote in parliamentary elections reflected both the growing strength of the working class and a recognition by the capitalist rulers that parliamentary elections could perform an ideologically integrative function. To the illusion of equality of worker and capitalist under bourgeois law, the extension of the parliamentary franchise to wage earners added the illusion of equality as voters. But with the extension of the parliamentary franchise to the working class, parliament lost much of its role as the real centre of political power in capitalist society. It retained this role only so long as it was elected solely by the capitalist class.

With the extension of the franchise, real political power shifted increasingly to the unelected upper levels of the state machine — to the permanent secretaries of the state administration, the heads of the military forces and police, judges appointed for life, etc.
Its methods of recruitment, its selectivity and career structure, its hierarchical methods of organisation, all help to ensure that the state apparatus serves the interests of big capital. The capitalist state's top officials are either drawn from capitalist families or earn salaries that enable them to accumulate capital, giving them a personal interest in the defence of the private-property system and the smooth running of the capitalist economy.

The decline of parliament's role as the centre of political power in capitalist society also corresponded to the concentration of capitalist economic power in the hands of a small number of monopoly corporations with interlocking boards of directors. The major owners of capital no longer needed a representative institution to work out policies that suited their common interests. This task could henceforth be accomplished within the boardrooms of the monopolies, in business associations, in exclusive clubs, and in specialised policy-making councils.

For the working class, capitalist parliamentary democracy is the most favourable form of capitalist rule. Compared to more repressive forms of capitalist rule, the parliamentary form permits the freest development of the workers' struggle against capitalist domination. At the same time, during prolonged periods of capitalist prosperity, capitalist democracy is able to limit the development of workers' political consciousness by inculcating the liberal doctrine of reliance on gradual improvements to the workers' conditions of life achieved through parliamentary legislation and appeals to the supposedly impartial judicial system.

One of the major ideological campaigns of the capitalist class is its propagation of the myths that there can be no political freedom without capitalist parliamentary democracy, and that there can be no individual freedom without capitalist private property. Central to the socialist critique of capitalist parliamentary democracy and capitalist property is the understanding that both sharply restrict political and individual freedom for the vast majority.

In the first place, capitalist parliamentary democracy is based on exclusion of the working people from participation in the administration of the state. Under the parliamentary system working people participate as atomised and essentially passive individuals whose ``power'' is restricted to putting a voting paper in a ballot box every three or four years. Formally, decisions are made by a tiny number of elected persons (parliamentarians and local councillors). In reality, the actual power of administering the state is concentrated in the hands of unelected, permanent officials (the bureaucracy of the capitalist state).

Secondly, capitalist parliamentary democracy is based on formal equality in the exercise of legal and political rights. As the practical exercise of these rights presupposes access to powerful material resources, only the rich can fully enjoy them. The inequality of property under capitalism — the monopolisation of the decisive means of production and communication by the capitalists — ensures that the wage-earning majority are denied the material resources necessary for the practical exercise of their democratic rights.

Finally, even the most advanced capitalist parliamentary democracy does not permit the masses to have a say in the most decisive areas of their lives. There is not the slightest democracy within capitalist enterprises. For the greater part of their waking lives workers are subject to the despotic power of the owners of these enterprises, their appointed managers and supervisors. Within the hierarchically structured division of labour of capitalist businesses, the bosses give orders and the workers must carry them out. A corporation has the full legal right to shut down an enterprise or shift its location without consulting its workers and without regard to the adverse social effects of such decisions.
The existence and influence of the trade unions is the sole check upon the arbitrary power of the employers, who resist any encroachment on their managerial prerogatives.

The anarchic laws of the capitalist market and the fluctuations of the capitalist business cycle are far more powerful than parliamentary elections in shaping the daily lives of working people. While the capitalists run their businesses autocratically, they do not have control over their economic system, which operates blindly and convulsively. The capitalist system periodically deprives large numbers of workers of their livelihood, condemns a substantial section of the population to live in permanent poverty, and subordinates all aspects of the lives of the majority to the irrational and anti-social consequences of the capitalists' drive for private profit.

A system in which the vast majority of people have no control over the most important decisions and actions of the government, the economy, their material well-being, or the course of their lives, cannot be considered genuinely democratic. In reality, it is a dictatorship of the capitalists disguised by democratic forms.

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