Corporate muscle and state power

Has corporate power distorted 'true' democracy? Can protest 'reinvent' the state? Mike Fitzpatrick presents his defence of Marx's theory of the state and takes issue with the fashionable anti-globalisation ideas of George Monbiot and Noreena Hertz

Kicking off a discussion about the state, it is worth considering the dominant view in the anti-globalisation movement, a major political influence at the moment. Two currently influential books are by George Monbiot and Noreena Hertz. In fact they are two remarkably similar books, as if the same rather limited brain got together to write them both. Two very similar titles: Captive state: the corporate takeover of Britain; and The silent takeover: global capitalism and the death of democracy. Their central theme is the way the state has been captured by the corporations. To quote Monbiot's introduction: "The government will reassert control over corporations only when the people reassert control over government." Noreena Hertz asks rhetorically in her concluding chapter: "Can protest reinvent the state? Can protest force politicians to put people first and return to true democracy?" This is an idealised view of the state as true democracy - from which it has been diverted by the influence of the corporations. You see a set of simplistic notions of the relationship between the state, the people and capitalist enterprise expressed in those two quotes, which sum up the outlook of the contemporary anti-globalisation movement. This is a useful point of departure from which to go back to the Marxist theory of the state, which emerged in the 1840s amid notions not dissimilar to this. We can see the anti-globalisation movement as a regression to theoretical ideas often characterised in previous left discussions as 'going beyond Marx'. This kind of discussion of the state has a very strongly pre-Marxist character. In his twenties, Marx was working in Cologne - an advanced area economically, socially and politically of the emerging Germany. It was a moment of political liberalisation that did not actually last very long. He was involved in writing for a periodical at the time and one of the main controversies was about the freedom of the press. This was not an academic issue: the paper he wrote for was suppressed within months of the controversy starting. The dominant theoretical influence on discussions of the state at that time was Hegel and the radical Hegelian movement out of which Marxism emerged. The concept of the state widely held by the Hegelians was not merely of the state as a narrowly political institution, but something which represented the totality of humanity's communal concerns. The state was something elevated over conflicts concerning other kinds of issues. There was a conception of a rational, ethical state against which other states could be compared, and that society was attempting to move towards that ideal. Hegel grasped the notion of a distinction between the state and civil society - the latter being the sphere of private economic activity of capitalist enterprise and conflict with workers. For the Hegelians civil society was the sphere of economic activity rather than the sphere of political activity. In the controversies around the freedom of the press that Marx was engaged in, there were a number of developments that took place. The first was that pursuing democratic demands to their logical conclusion brought Marx and his collaborators into conflict not just with the regime, but with the liberal bourgeois democratic forces who were around at the time. These liberal forces were not prepared to go as far as the radical wing of the movement and constantly tried to restrain it. The recognition grew that, if freedom was to mean democratic control from below and the advance of liberties generally coming from the popular movement, that would have consequences not only in politics, but also in the sphere of civil society, the economic sphere. These liberal bourgeois democratic elements began to get cold feet about it. Marx had started off with this Hegelian idea of the state as ideal entity. First of all, it was thought that external forces were distorting the rational, ethical character of the state, strikingly echoed in George Monbiot: "Corporations, the contraptions we invented to serve us [did we?], are overthrowing us. They are seizing powers previously invested in government and using them to distort public life to suit their own ends." Marx's recognition was that the state was these distortions. They were not externally imposed - they were the very essence of the state. The metaphor used was like peeling the layers of an onion - the layers were actually the onion itself. The gradual result of this process was that the radical character of the movement acquired a more socio-economic content. The struggle for democracy became a struggle for social transformation. An inversion of Hegel took place. Hegel was based on a lie: that the state was the people's interests or that the people is the interest of the state. This is precisely the confusion articulated by Monbiot and Hertz. The consequence was a recognition that outright revolution, not gradualism through existing state structures, was required. From a very early stage in Marx's political development came the recognition that fundamental social change required the dissolution of the political state itself. As Marx summed it up somewhat later in A contribution to the critique of political economy, "My investigations led to the result that the legal relations as well as forms of the state are to be grasped neither from themselves nor from the so-called general development of the human mind, but rather have their roots in the material conditions of life. The sum total of which Hegel, following the example of the Englishmen and Frenchmen of the 18th century, combines under the name of civil society. That, however, the anatomy of civil society, is to be sought in political economy." That is the central theme of my Revision, imperialism and the state: the method of capital and the dogma of state monopoly capitalism. Rather than go through that in a lot of detail I will draw out three essential elements of that theory, in order to grasp the particular nature of capitalist domination which is the basic problem mystified and misunderstood by so many of the radical opponents of capitalism. These are (1) the concept of capital as social power; (2) the separation of the political and the economic spheres; and (3) the apparent autonomy of the capitalist state. Capital as social power According to the anti-globalisation movement, all the problems and evils of society - the exploitation and the oppression - can be put down to fat cats, corrupt politicians, greedy corporations and spineless governments giving into them. This is a trend that goes back to the 1840s. The real problem that Marx focused on was the domination of capital exercised through the process of capital accumulation. In capitalist society, those who own capital are able to invest in labour power and means of production in the process of producing and expanding value and producing surplus value. The drive to accumulate is the essential feature of capitalist society and it is a drive which imposes itself as an external necessity on capitalist and worker alike. The whole character of capitalist social relations takes the form of apparently external forces which impose themselves on individuals. This compulsion is obscured and mystified - a product of the fetishisation of commodities. Individuals are reduced to personifications of social relations. The capitalist is an agent of capitalist production; the worker is a functionary within the process of capital accumulation. Political and economic spheres This follows on from the notion of capital as social power. Something that has always been misunderstood in the whole reformist tradition is that the nature of capitalist control through the accumulation process is spontaneously reproduced; it does not require on a day-to-day basis external forms of compulsion and coercion. Workers go to work every day; capitalists continue the process of capitalist exploitation in a way which follows their own volition. When the domination of capital does require, as it may do in particular situations, some external political interference, such as at a time of social conflict, it appears as an external political act rather than something which arises from the capitalist system itself. It seems to be an abuse or a corrupt policy, a distortion of the use of power. Because the coercive character of capitalism is mediated through economic relations, politics appears to be a separate and autonomous realm. The apparent autonomy of the capitalist state From this separation arises the particular character of the capitalist state. A number of its features are detailed in this article. For one thing, some form of state is common to all forms of pre-capitalist society. The particular functions of the state in capitalist society are: * to provide the preconditions for capital accumulation; * to maintain the conditions for capital accumulation, in the sense of providing services to capital that perhaps could not be done profitably in terms of infrastructure; * a role in reproducing capitalist social relations where there appears to be some threat as a result of class antagonisms in some form or other, while accepting that this is exceptional rather than routine. So the apparent autonomy of the state emerges out of the separation of the political and economic spheres: it appears that the state operates autonomously from the process of capital accumulation. Indeed, that appearance of autonomy is reinforced by the activities of the state. It seems occasionally that the state makes concessions to the working class or takes actions which seem against the interests of at least sections of the capitalist class. All those actions reinforce the idea that the state can play an autonomous role or act according to the subjective wishes of some section of society. That indeed is the basis of the idea that the state can stand above society acting as a convention between, traditionally, different class forces and all sort of competing social forces. The policy that the state pursues seems to be the outcome of contending forces and subjective influences. This idea is pithily summed up by Noreena Hertz: the problem of the Silent takeover is a silent nullification of the social contract. The corporation is king, the state its subject, its citizens consumers. What is interesting in the discussion of reformism in that article - which seems like ancient history now - is that a century after Marx was working and writing, the dominant notion was of the state having the potential to regulate and organise production, and that was the strategy of reformism. This was given particular encouragement by the transformation of the relationship between the state and the economy in the imperialist epoch and different stages of it. Today we see a rather different picture, where it is not so much a case of the state directing the economy as the state being taken over and its autonomy being crushed, subordinated to corporate power. The theoretical substance is the same: it is just a question of where the balance of forces lies and the sense of the balance of forces today lies very far in the direction of corporate power over the state. I will conclude with another common theme that struck me in reading Monbiot and Hertz, which expresses the contemporary attitude to the state very well. Both of them in their final chapters make the following points. Monbiot: "The corporations are powerful only because we have allowed them to be. Their power is the artefact of our acquiescence." I have not come across this formulation quite so blatantly before. It is our individual responsibility: we have allowed this to happen; it is down to us to do something about it. In remarkably similar terms, Hertz writes: "If we do nothing, if we do not challenge the silent takeover, do not question our belief system, do not admit to our own culpability in the creation of this new world order, all is lost." You can almost feel the call for counselling taking shape! What this expresses is a sense of unmediated confrontation between the very isolated and vulnerable individual and what Monbiot calls the giga-corporation, the corporation that is emerging through mergers and acquisitions and world domination to become an all-powerful force. The whole thing is expressed in the context of an emerging globalisation movement but expresses a tremendous sense of individual vulnerability before these forces. What really comes through forcefully is an expression of despair rather than a real political strategy. You can see the consequences of the disappearance of any notion of political agency in challenging the state. This leads to a theoretical regression and a sense of impotence in the face of the state which is in a way superficially covered up by the bravado about rather insignificant protests.