[lbo-talk] Class nature of the state (Was: Socialist modelling)

Marv Gandall marvgand at gmail.com
Thu Dec 29 13:00:45 PST 2011

On 2011-12-29, at 12:20 PM, Wojtek S wrote:

> Marv: " the myth of the neutral state and the possibility of
> transforming it into an anticapitalist instrument by peaceful and
> gradual means"
> [WS:] I never claimed state is neutral or, for that matter, that any
> social institution is. They are instruments in political power
> struggle and their "nature" if this is an appropriate term depends on
> the balance of power.
> Alas, you and Shane and others seem to have a grand narrative
> different from mine. It seems to hold as an article of faith that
> capitalism and state are two faces of the same coin, and to get rid of
> one you have to get rid of the other as well. It is a valid point of
> view, i admit…

Not to get rid of the state, as such (an anarchist position) but to use it to relieve the big bourgeoisie of its political power and bring its huge store of private assets into public ownership. It's a lesson of history based on the Russian, Chinese, and other revolutions, not an article of faith, that you can't fundamentally transform a capitalist economy, without first depriving the large propertyholders of their political and military power. Since there are no historical examples of power having been taken away from the capitalists by parliamentary means in the face of their determined resistance, to believe in that possibility constitutes an act of faith.

> although I do not find it particularly useful in
> practice. It offers as much of a hope for real change than salvation
> myths and prayers. So this is where we part ways - and after that we
> can be looking at the same reality and see very different things.

Enough of nettlesome allusions to salvation myths and prayers. The disagreement we've been having is largely a theoretical one - how can the working class wrest power away from the capitalists. But the issue of working class power is not presently on the agenda, and has not been for some time, despite the overheated imaginations of some on the left. At best, we are only at the beginning of a process which will pose the question of power. At this stage, except for a small minority, all protest movements have as their aim to reform capitalism. We agree on this.

I've participated in and continue to support these reform struggles, both because their aims are just and because they contribute to the political consciousness of working people. But while we we can see that our differences our mainly theoretical, they can still have serious implications for practice where they are expressed in social movements. You'll recall that this thread began as a disagreement over whether the trade unions should currently be devoting their efforts to fighting the austerity drive, as they are doing, or whether they should, as you advocate, be redeploying their resources into union-sponsored start-ups to compete with the large retail chains. That discussion subsequently morphed into the more general question of what gains were possible under capitalism and the nature of the capitalist state.

> Re: "This is not in contradiction to what is stated above. Where
> private capital has been unable or unwilling to undertake necessary
> tasks, that role has fallen to the state or to cooperatives of
> affected producers and consumers."
> [WS:] This sounds terribly functionalist to me, almost like the
> invisible hand, only guiding to social bads rather than social goods.
> I prefer a different framework - that of power struggle and uncertain
> outcomes.
> Re: " Under the New Deal, which is the model you probably have in mind,"
> [WS:] Actually not. I was thinking more in terms of Europe and
> comparing different outcomes in states like Italy, Sweden, Norway,
> Germany, the Netherlands, even Russia. The Etats Unis is a very
> animal from those. I can summarize that difference in paraphrasing a
> Pakistani pun - In Europe all countries have business classes, but in
> the Etats Unis the business class has a country.

I am not a believer in American exceptionalism. When European and American capitalism were expanding, their respective social reforms, with the notable exception of health care, were not qualitatively different, and now that their economies are in crisis, they are engaged in a coordinated effort to roll back the the common features of the "welfare state" and impose austerity on the masses.

Within this overarching framework, there are more subtle differences of approach to state intervention between the US and Europeans, and within Europe, deriving from the history and current circumstances of the particular countries you go on to describe in your post. But I'm not prepared to get into a lengthy discussion of the specifics in each case, and don't think your observations have much bearing one way or another on the broader issues which we've been discussing.

> When I was talking about "labor friendly" states I was thinking about
> Sweden and Norway and contrasting them to Italy, Germany, or the
> Netherlands. The Scandinavian countries represent a case of effective
> labor organizing which resulted in shaping state policies to labor
> interest - whereas Italy the Netherlands and Germany represent cases
> ...here again we are talking about two different
> interpretative frameworks that divide us - economic determinism vs.
> contingentism of power relations. I do not think we are going to
> resolve that unless one of us is willing to abandon his interpretative
> framework for that of the other side. I am not married to mine, but I
> would certainly not buy economic determinism in any form.

I wouldn't describe myself as either an "economic determinist" or a "contingentist (?)" and have only a sketchy idea of what content you supply to each. So I can't evaluate whether these "frameworks" can be reconciled or are in conflict with each other.

> Have a happy and rewarding New Year.

You too, and thanks for the discussion.

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