Friday, 1 May 2020

THE STATE IN ECONOMIC THEORY - Part One


“Property is theft.” – Proudhon, Philosophie de la Misere


“They say that patriotism

Is the last refuge

To which a scoundrel clings.

Steal a little and they Throw you in jail,

Steal a lot and They make you King,” 

– Bob Dylan in What’s a Sweetheart like You doing in a Dump like This.

 

Property, as we are learning increasingly now that it is concentrated in ever-fewer hands, is the exclusion of others from what are unavoidably “social” human resources. Resources or “use values” are “social” not in the sense that they are shared by “individuals” – by human beings understood as “atoms” – but rather in the sense that they affect single human beings in their very “being human” – just as the Ebola virus does not afflict “individuals” but attacks us as specimens of the one species. Marx’s discovery of the Doppelcharakter of production in capitalism, contrasting the “use value” of human production with its “exchange value” under capitalism, was meant to highlight the fact that “use values” point well beyond the uni-verse of “economics” with its “exchange value” toward the multi-verse of human being as Gattungs-wesen, “species-conscious being”. That is why Marx thought Proudhon’s famous motto about “property” (more than just an aphorism encapsulating Rousseau’s thesis in De l’Inegalite’) was so worthy of approbation – La propriete’, c’est le vol! (Property is theft!). Yet even though the notion of property is so obviously “legal” and requires of necessity the existence of a State apparatus to enforce it, even Marx could conceive in his own “critique of political economy” that it was possible to isolate the role of the State from that of “property” or “the market” or “the economy” as an object of “scientific” inquiry.

 

In what could only be the heightened perceptiveness of a poet, Bob Dylan reprises Samuel Johnson’s saying that “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel” to bring together the existence of the State, of the “re-public” or “public thing”, which is shared by all “citizens”, which should be the acme of our sense of duty and devotion to it as the objectification of our social existence – hence of our “patriotism” – and to show how this becomes in reality “the last refuge of scoundrels” who end up being made “kings” or members of Congress or Parliament because they own the most “property” and therefore “steal a lot”, whereas it is those with the least property – those who “steal a little” – who end up in jail! What this reveals is that only “scoundrels” have every right to be “patriotic” – because the rest of us have very little stake in the defence of the “public thing”, of the “republic”, and therefore of the State!

 

The twin crises of the Ebola virus and of the ISIS – two most virulent diseases that threaten our very humanity from opposite ends, the microscopic and the macroscopic -; these twin crises bring prepotently before our eyes what is the real “disease” of capitalist society: the utter and devastating impossibility of true “patriotism” for those living under the rule of the capitalist State. It is this collapse of the legitimacy of the capitalist State as “re-public” that requires imperiously a re-assessment of its role in economic theory so that we may elaborate a strategy of attack against a “machine”, an “apparatus” that grows with its by-product monster Frankenstein – the evil Chinese Dictatorship - more leaden and obsolescent, corrupt and corrosive with every passing hour – and that finally, as in Hong Kong right now, threatens our most basic needs for freedom and fulfilment or, as in Mexico with the obscene hecatomb of our student comrades at the hands of corrupt police and gangsters, threatens our very lives!

 

 

THE ROLE OF THE STATE IN ECONOMIC THEORY has rarely been examined owing to the mistaken notion that the State is a political structure or institution that is wholly “adventitious” or epiphenomenal or superstructural and so entirely extraneous to the reproduction of society, albeit not to its “foundation”. This seems incongruous if not contradictory because, if indeed the State is essential to the establishment of a society – indeed, of the “re-public” -, then it seems odd that it should not play also an essential defining role in the constitution of the most basic “economic” categories and relations of that “society” or “republic”.  This peculiar theoretical lacuna is due in part to the approach of classical political theory to the State which sees it as simply being the collective noun for its constituent building blocks such as the individual or the family household or the tribe or the city and finally “the people”.

 

Because economic theory is exclusively concerned with the production and exchange of goods and services between “individuals” or individual “units” and not with the “reproduction” of society as a whole – that is, not with the metabolism of a society with its “environment” which would entail the analysis of “economic” relations in the broader context of the “choices” selected by a society and its members from virtually limitless options and possibilities -, for this very reason economic theory has universally neglected the role of the State in the economy.  Yet, whereas economic theory sees Politics as an intrusion in Economics, in reality it is economic theory that wrongfully extrudes Politics from what it claims to be its “scientific” ambit. By contrast, the notion of metabolism serves to restore the ineluctable element of “choice” and “project”, and therefore of the Political, in the selection of alternative social relations of production.

 

Owing to these twin misconceptions, aided and abetted by the political interests and outright violence of the bourgeoisie, economic theory has always emarginated the role of the State in “the market economy” to that of mere “Police” – to that of a purely “administrative” body that preserves or conserves and regulates the autonomous “natural rights” obtaining between individuals historically and analytically in a societas naturalis that existed prior to the establishment of the societas civilis and the State, as in the Lockean jusnaturalist version, - or else, as in the Hobbesian version, to one where the State is instituted wholly contractually for individuals to exit the anarchy, lawlessness and civil war of a hypothetical state of nature. In the former case, the Lockean, the State acts merely as an arbiter – as an independent judge – to adjudge and enforce the respective natural rights of individuals, which are thought to be historically prior to and analytically independent of the State. In the latter, Hobbesian case, the State is the actual founder of human society; it undertakes a restauratio ab imis of human society or erects a “total constitutional order” - so much so that State and civil society are indistinguishable as status civilis as against the lawless state of nature or status naturae that preceded its contractual foundation (v. Hobbes, De Cive, X, I; or Rousseau, Le Contrat Social, or consider Pufendorf’s “extra rem publicam nulla salus”).

 

Yet even in the Hobbesian version of jusnaturalism, where the State is actually the fons et origo of these “rights” (the status civilis of legal positivism), it is still not considered to determine the substantive content, the “essence”, of economic categories. Thus, in both versions, the State enforces these “rights” without actually determining their content, which supposedly arises from an autonomous “economic” sphere consisting of the utilitarian needs and wants of individuals. In both cases therefore - and this is the decisive point –, the economic sphere exists independently of the State in a fundamental historical and analytical sense. Indeed, even the mechanistic Hobbesian state by institution that could never be said to have existed historically on account of its extreme suppositions threatens to become a state by acquisition in the Lockean sense because once a civil society descends into civil war of the kind hypothesised by Hobbes, then it will be impossible for humanity to escape or exit from that State. Therefore, even for Hobbes there must have been a natural society that preceded his omnipotent State.

 

Whereas in classical political theory the State was identical with society itself, either as the ethical dimension of being human (as with Aristotle’s zoon politikon, for which Politics is the continuation of Ethics) or as the worldly embodiment of a divine or transcendental Reason (as in Thomas Aquinas’s notions of animal sociale or animal rationale), in modern theory the State is quite distinct from society either historically as postdating a primordial pre-statal society or analytically by virtue of the assumption that such a society devoid of all “statality” – either a state of complete “anarchy” (Hobbes’s bellum civium) or a societas naturalis  (Bodin, Locke, Rousseau) – is indeed possible.

 

The “science” of economics became imaginable only once the triumphant capitalist bourgeoisie seriously set up its central political aim to confine the role of the State precisely to the perpetuation of this false separation of the Political from the Economic. This in turn required the identification and isolation of a sphere of social life that is not contaminated by “values” other than the Value of economic theory – “exchange value”. The cardinal point to consider is that this “technical neutrality” of the State had to proceed hand in hand with the destitution of “individuals” of all Ethico-Political values and their reduction from “citizens” to economic atoms whose activities could be calculated and measured in isolation from one another so as to lend “scientific” economic Value to the utilisation and production of social resources. But in fact and in reality, this reification of human living activity – its reduction to “measurable” labour-power - is a specific form of social violence perpetrated by the capitalist bourgeoisie.

 

Even Marx, in his critique of political economy, sought to establish that in the process of commodity production and therefore of economic value the capitalist derives a profit by extracting surplus value from the labour-time “socially necessary” to produce those commodities. But one source of surplus value that Marx specifies arises from the fact that the capitalist does not pay workers for the sociality of their “individual labours” – for the fact that what are supposedly “individual labours” are in reality indivisible aspects of social labour. Thus, in his effort to present his theory in a scientific guise, Marx neatly obscures what he clearly recognizes, that is to say, that it is impossible to specify and calculate economic Value independently of the “sociality” of human living activity – which therefore leads us inevitably to ethico-political values as the real matrix of economic value.

 

Marx’s discovery of the Doppelcharakter of production in capitalism, contrasting the “use value” of human production with its “exchange value” under capitalism echoes the ancient Aristotelian distinction between the oikonomia (the laws of the household) and the chrematistike (the speculation of finance). It was meant to highlight the fact that “use values” point well beyond the uni-verse of “economics” with its “exchange value” toward the multi-verse of human values. That is why Marx thought Proudhon’s famous motto - “property is theft” (more than just an aphorism encapsulating Rousseau’s thesis in De l’Inegalite’) - was so worthy of approbation. Yet even though the notion of property is so obviously “legal” and requires of necessity the existence of a State apparatus to enforce it, even Marx could conceive in his own “critique of political economy” that it was possible to isolate the role of the State from that of “property” or “the market” or “the economy” as an object of “scientific” inquiry. There are two senses of the social category Value which reflect the Doppelcharakter of social resources identified by Marx. On one side, we have Ethico-Political Value, and on the other we have Economic Value. Our thesis in this review of the role of the State in economic theory is that these two meanings of Value are indeed inseparable – and that their separation is only the product of the modern distortion of social and political theory that comes with the rise of the capitalist bourgeoisie and of its “science” par excellence – “economic science”.


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