Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday, 28 January 2021

PROLEGOMENA TO A MARXIST THEORY OF THE CAPITALIST STATE-FORM

 

The concept of ‘statality’ means that a particular form of social relation requires the intervention of an overriding social force, a State, which either through violence or authority possesses the power to establish or regulate that social relation at the social level. The reason why Marx did not recognize the statality of capitalism , or the necessity of capitalist social relations of production to be enabled by a specific “state-form”, is that he saw capitalism as the historical-materialist evolutionary product of “civil society”, (burgerliche Gesellschaft) - that is to say, of a set of natural material relations of production independent of the will of human individuals. For Marx, civil society constituted a state of nature For Marx, civil society constituted a state of nature (status naturae) or economic base for which the political state (societas politica) was a purely ideological or “superstructural” appurtenance that under certain conditions would “wither away” or be jettisoned.

Of course, the capitalist state-form is implicit in Marx’s entire analysis of capitalist social relations of production, as we shall demonstrate presently; but he failed to recognize this paramount aspect of his social theory in large part because of the peculiar historical circumstances in which he developed this theory. Marx had to avoid prosecution, escape persecution, and evade imprisonment in continental Europe at the hands of highly repressive autocratic states, the Prussian and the French, that were violently busy crushing endemic revolutions in the period between 1789 and 1848. And to do so, he was forced to flee to England where the liberal and democratic state allowed him a freedom of movement and expression unimaginable on the continent. It is quite understandable, then, why in his political theory Marx came to associate the repressive power of the State with economies like those of continental Europe where capitalism was only in its infancy and severely underdeveloped, whereas advanced capitalist economies such as those of Britain and America enjoyed very liberal parliamentary regimes in which the State, far from being violent and repressive, was a “night-watchman state” (in the Lassallean simile) which either hid away or even did wholly without the explicit use of physical violence. In other words, because of his personal experience, Marx came quite reasonably to associate the political State with the less advanced stages of capitalism and to extrapolate its gradual withering away as capitalist industry advanced and progressed. (I owe these insights to Mario Tronti, Preface to Sull’Autonomia del Politico.)

What we are arguing here is that Marx’s failure to develop an adequate political theory stems from his insistence on assigning a scientific status to his critique of political economy through the quantification of the notion of “socially necessary labour time” as the centrepiece of his labour theory of value. It was the presumed quantifiability of labour values that induced Marx to believe that capitalism could operate by means of impersonal market forces entirely independent of political factors. Quite clearly, such a scientistic approach ran entirely counter to the intrinsically and incontrovertibly political character of his critique of capitalism and of the theoretical categories he developed for its analysis. Yet it is equally undeniable that in some respects his analysis, especially in Das Kapital as distinct from the Grundrisse, can lead to the conclusion that the capitalist system is inherently unstable without resorting to political antagonism. This is true particularly of the Marxian “law of the tendential fall of the rate of profit” expounded in Volume Three of Capital according to which the capitalist development of the forces of production in the systemic search for profits leads inevitably to the suppression of the necessary labour portion of the labour day until it reaches the zero bound. This gradual suppression must result in the fall of the rate of profit as the portion of constant capital (equipment and materials) overwhelms the portion of variable capital (wages). Here the eventual decline of capitalism can be attributed to purely “automatic” quantitative factors independently of more political or sociological elements. (For a superb review of these matters, see P. Sylos-Labini, “The Problem of Economic Growth in Marx and Schumpeter” where, according to the author, Schumpeter emerges as the more “political” theoretician of the two!)

Let us examine now in detail how the capitalist State-form arises from the Marxian categories of analysis of capitalism. We saw earlier that capitalism can be theorized as the coercive, violent “exchange” of living labour for dead labour or as the reduction of concrete (experiential) labour to abstract (measured) labour by capitalist employers (Arbeit-geber or labour-givers) on working employees (Arbeit-nehmer or labour-takers) who are formally legally “free” to accept the exchange. Here immediately we notice two salient matters: one is that “formally legally free” means that workers have been separated or torn apart from all social and economic bonds with one another and with the rest of society, from their means of production and from self-sustaining property, so that in the absence of the “offer of abstract labour” from the capitalist they would be “free as a bird” (Vogel-frei, was Marx’s expression). Essentially, this implies that workers have been expropriated from all social and economic bonds and sustenance so that their only source of livelihood is their living labour. And the second matter is that the living activity of workers now assumes a double character (Doppelcharakter) in the hands of capitalists: - a “use value” because the living labour of workers is what allows the capitalist to be a capitalist by accumulating social wealth in the form of exchange values produced by workers; and an “exchange value” because the capitalist can treat the living activity of workers as “abstract labour”, as “labour-power”, as a commodity or good like any other to which a market value can be assigned inferior to the value of the goods produced by the worker. Here is how Engels valiantly summarizes what was perhaps Marx’s greatest discovery, namely, that of the Doppelcharakter of living labour in capitalism:

What the economists had considered as the cost of production of "labour" was really the cost of production, not of "labour," but of the living labourer himself. And what this labourer sold to the capitalist was not his labour. "So soon. as his labour really begins," says Marx, .. it ceases to belong to him, and therefore can no longer be sold by him." At the most, he could sell his future labour, i.e., assume the obligation of executing a certain piece of work in a certain time. But in this way he does not sell labour (which would first have to be performed), but for a stipulated payment he places his labour-power at the disposal of the capitalist for a certain time (in case of time-wages), or for the performance of a certain task (in case of piece-wages). He hires out or sells his labour-power. But this labour-power has grown up with his person and is inseparable from it. Its cost of production therefore coincides with his own cost of production; what the economists called the cost of production of labour is really the cost of production of the labourer, and therewith of his labour-power. And thus we can also go back from the cost of production of labour-power to the value of labour-power, and determine the quantity of social labour [m.e.] that is required for the production of a labour-power of a given quality, as Marx has done in the chapter on the "The Buying and Selling of Labour-Power." (Introduction to K. Marx, Wage-Labour and Capital)

There is a difference in market value therefore between the “embodied labour” in goods and the “commanded labour” for which the capitalist pays the worker with wages. This “difference in market value” is where the capitalist derives a profit and is afforded to the capitalist because the use value of living labour is precisely to ensure that the embodied labour of the final product is superior to the commanded labour purchased by the capitalist. The essential point where we diverge from Marx-Engels here is that this “inferior value” of commanded labour to embodied labour cannot be measured as “the quantity of social labour” because the “difference” is not quantitative because it is not quantifiable but is instead qualitative because it is political in that it bestows upon the capitalist, the owner of embodied labour in goods, the ability to command “future living labour” by exchanging these goods with fresh living labour. If by “value” we mean a practical political power to command living labour through its “exchange” for dead labour, then the Marx-Engels definition of labour-power is correct; if instead we mean an objectively measurable quantity, then we are falling into error.

Therefore, - this is a point of cardinal importance – not only is labour-power not measurable in any other way than in a political sense, in terms of the ability of less of capitalists being able to persuade workers that the “exchange” of their living labour with dead labour is legitimate; but also, as a result and as a consequence, the products of living labour, objectified or dead labour, cannot be homologated or compared, their “values” or “embodied labour” cannot be homogenized except politically because neither the living labour nor the labour-power that went into their production are measurable or quantifiable except politically! This means that the only homologation and homogenization or “pricing” of the “value” of living labour and labour-power and products or goods that is at all possible must take place through a series of political and institutional steps and measures that ensure (a) the reproduction of the society of capital, and (b) the reproduction of capitalist social relations of production (the wage relation).

Furthermore, there is a third salient matter: in reducing the living labour of workers to abstract labour, the capitalist also reduces the sociality of their living labour – the fact that the co-operation implied by social labour is very different from the segmentation of work into individual “labours” – the capitalist arrogates for himself the sociality of living labour, its ineluctably and indispensably “co-operative” nature. This is why we should never speak of “the social division of labour”, as if social labour consisted of the sum of individual labours, but we should use instead the very different phrase “the division of social labour”, because human co-operative living activity cannot be “measured” or “quantified” in any objective manner aside from political evaluations and choices – and above all because social labour cannot be partitioned into separate individual “labours” or labour-power that belongs to isolated individuals!

Hence, it ought to be evident by now where the need for a capitalist “State-form” is utterly essential to the very existence of capitalist social relations of production right from the outset of our theoretical analysis of capitalism. The indispensable requirement of a State-form of capital or for the statality of capitalism arises from the following conceptual and historical pre-requisites for the existence and subsistence of capitalism itself:

First, the creation of a proletariat (employed workers plus reserve army of unemployed) through the expropriation of a part of the working population existing before the formation of capitalism such that this proletariat is formally legally free, free from all prior status and property bonds and from legal ownership of their means of production. This “formal freedom” ensures that the proletariat has only its living labour to survive so that the capitalist may offer them employment in the form of “labour-power”, of wage labour.

Second, the social labour of workers must be presented to them as the sum of individual “labours” that can be measured or priced (but only politically in reality) individually as wages. Again, this is a form of expropriation of the proletariat for which the capitalist does not “pay”.

Third, a political and institutional pricing system or “markets” must be put in place whereby individual capitalists are able to produce goods that allow them to employ more workers at the end of production, either from new “markets” or else from the reserve army of the unemployed.

It is quite obvious that each of these conditions for the formation and reproduction of the wage relation in capitalism require the existence of a “State-form” compatible with and adequate to their reproduction.

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