Commentary on Political Economy

Monday, 11 January 2021



To revert to the simplest criticism we can make of Marx’s theory of capital, in his haste to reduce capitalism to a scientific formula, Marx forgot that “the forces of production” do not and cannot cover the entirety of “the social relations of production” and still less “social relations” overall, and that “the economic base” cannot be separated categorically from “the ideological superstructure” – because politics is not a concentrate of economics but instead it is economics that is a concentrate of politics – because capitalism is not reducible to “impersonal market forces” but is instead entirely dependent on specific social, political and historical agencies that cannot be reduced to a simple “scientific” or “economic” formula! Of course, anyone who has read Volume One of Capital, or indeed the section on “Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations” of the Grundrisse will know full-well that Marx was aware of how violent the transition from feudalism to capitalism was, what he called “primitive accumulation” (ursprungliche Akkumulation) where he describes how capitalism came into being “steeped in blood from head to toe” by expropriating the existing peasantry, especially in England, in what came to be known as “the enclosure movement”. Yet even from this potent historical perspective, Marx still sees the period of primitive capitalist accumulation whereby the bourgeoisie “formally subsumes” the existing agricultural and artisanal mode of production prevalent in the decaying feudal absolutist regime as the doings of “the bourgeoisie” – as a historical “class”, yes, but still as a collection of individual proprietors!

What Marx failed to see, even when it ought to have been so evident, is that the emerging bourgeoisie acted not as a collection of separate individuals but much rather through the agency of the reformed absolutist State – in England as in France! The insurmountable, almost unpardonable, problem with Marx’s theory of capitalism is that he always saw the bourgeoisie as a collective of individual proprietors and entrepreneurs and the capitalist State consequently as “a committee of management” (in the Communist Manifesto) acting not as an independent agency with its own political instruments extending over the entirety of society, including those elements not yet within the cycle of the circulation of capital, but rather as a simple elementary blunt tool of social repression against the proletariat. Yet, in its bluntly political and therefore “superstructural” role, Marx’s theory places not just the capitalist State, but political coercion itself, outside the scope of his entire theory and critique of capitalism! So keen was Marx to show that the capitalist mode of production could operate through “impersonal market forces”, that he forgot the very violently coercive “act of birth” of capitalist enterprise – that original sin of “primitive accumulation” – that not only lay the foundations for all future capitalist industry but also has remained to the present day an essential feature of the society of capital!

Let us look at this paramount deficiency in Marx’s theorization of capitalism from a slightly different angle, but one that does not change the substance of our review of the Marxian theory of capitalism and of our positing of a fresh Marxist theory of the capitalist State, one that builds on the solid foundations that Marx himself laid down. In his attempt to schematize his critique of the capitalist mode of production down to its most basic elements, Marx reduced capitalist society to its “productive” elements, and specifically to the monolithic conflict between workers and capitalists. By so doing, Marx neglected the undeniable reality that capitalist society involves conflicts not just between workers and capital but also conflicts within the working class and the capitalist class themselves, and then also between elements of society that are not included in the direct process of production yet are necessary parts of it because capital is value in motion, seeking to expand continuously so as to involve elements of society, potential use values, that do not yet form part of its process of valorization and realization, yet are essential to it as the “living space” needed for capital to expand, to accumulate itself as value.

Because he neglected the dynamic of conflict within and between classes and elements internal and external to the production, circulation and accumulation of capital, Marx failed to theorize the organic need of the capitalist class to erect a State that is not a mere appurtenance of capitalist social relations of production, one that is not a mere excrescence but is instead precisely what we have called it – the expression of an “organic need” of the capitalist class to preserve and expand its social relations of production, that is, its command over the working class in the direct process of production, but also its political domination and hegemony over those parts of society that are external yet essential to that process. The problem with Marx’s theorization of capitalism is that he reduced the society of capital to the pure antagonism over the process of production (ownership of the means of production) between workers on one side and capitalists on the other. These quintessential relations of production Marx encompassed under the concept of “civil society” (burgerliche Gesellschaft) which he adopted from Hegel’s Philosophy of Right and adapted for his own purposes.

Of course, the greatest Marxist theoretician to perceive this deficiency in the Marxian theory and critique of capitalism was the founder of the Italian Communist Party, Antonio Gramsci. (For the following sections, see N. Bobbio, “Gramsci e la concezione della societa’ civile”, now translated in C. Mouffe (ed.), Gramsci and Marxist Theory.) It was Gramsci who first perceived the subtle yet strong and pervasive links between the political coercion that obtains in the workplace and the broader bourgeois social domination through the apparatus of the State. Whereas for Marx the State was a pure blunt weapon of “the organized and concentrated power” of the bourgeoisie over the proletariat, emanating from the pure economic social relations of production obtaining in the workplace, for Gramsci workplace relations themselves formed only part of the overall “hegemonic dominance” of the bourgeoisie over civil society. In other words, whereas for Marx the concept of civil society was exclusively an economic category denoting the strictly productive aspects of social relations and excluding the superstructural ideological aspects embodied by the State, for Gramsci civil society was a broad social category that contained and therefore included and conditioned the social relations of production.

For Gramsci the struggle, conflict and antagonism between workers and capital was only a part of civil society, albeit the dominant because productive part, the part serving the most basic needs of society for its reproduction, at least for no other reason than the fact that civil society contained social relations that preceded capitalist industry as well as social relations that had not yet been absorbed by capitalist industry. Of course, we would add that capitalist industry requires the presence of a potential or reserve army of living labour for inclusion in the expanded reproduction that is the essence of capitalist accumulation – because surplus value, or profit, has no meaning outside of the extension of the wage relation to new populations of workers.

There are two ways, then, in which Gramsci altered and improved on Marx’s notion of civil society inherited from Hegel: the first is that civil society is now extended to social relations lying outside of the sphere of capitalist production and indeed defining and therefore conditioning those social relations of production which Marx had instead thought to be independent of broader “superstructural” social relations. And the second alteration effected by Gramsci is that now the capitalist State is not seen as a mere superstructural appurtenance or excrescence of capitalist social relations of production – indeed as a blunt tool or weapon for their violent imposition – but rather as an institutional expression of this expanded notion of civil society. Whereas Marx sees in the State an ideological dissimulation of the social relations of production represented by civil society as he understood it, Gramsci instead interprets the State as the political expression of a civil society that contains but is not confined to social relations of production.

The insuperable problem with Marx’s hermetic separation of State and civil society is that if indeed social reproduction depends ultimately on the social relations of production and the State is merely the violent imposition of these “social relations of production”, then there is absolutely no need whatsoever for the State to exist at all! As Norberto Bobbio has ably pointed out, in effect Marx’s notion of civil society as confined to social relations of production reduces Marx’s conception of these social relations of production to a Hobbesian state of nature in which individual is pitted against individual regardless of whether these individuals are then reclassified as members of the working or capitalist class! Given that for Marx the reproduction of capitalist society, whether simple or expanded, depends on social relations of production, and given that the State is only a blunt instrument for the imposition of these social relations of production or civil society, it is impossible to see why the capitalist class should ever require the services of any institution such as the State for any purposes whatsoever! If we agree with Marx that what makes a worker and what makes a capitalist can be reduced to mere social relations of production, that is, relations of force limited to the workplace, to the labour process, it is impossible then to see why a State structure is needed by the bourgeoisie to exercise a social power that it possesses already as part of its ownership of the means of production! Worse still, even the idea of “ownership” becomes meaningless or paradoxical because as a legal entitlement it presupposes the existence of a State!

No comments:

Post a Comment