Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 4 March 2024



No paradox of contemporary politics is filled with a more poignant irony than the discrepancy between the efforts of well-meaning idealists who stubbornly insist on regarding as "inalienable" those human rights, which are enjoyed only by citizens of the most prosperous and civilized countries, and the situation of the rightless themselves. Their situation has deteriorated just as stubbornly, until the internment camp—prior to the second World War the exception rather than the rule for the stateless—has become the routine solution for the problem of domicile of the "displaced persons."

Even the terminology applied to the stateless has deteriorated. The term "stateless" at least acknowledged the fact that these persons had lost the protection of their government and required international agreements for safeguarding their legal status. The post-war term "displaced persons" was invented during the war for the express purpose of liquidating statelessness once and for all by ignoring its existence. Nonrecognition of statelessness always means repatriation, i.e., deportation to a country of origin, which either refuses to recognize the prospective repatriate as a citizen, or, on the contrary, urgently wants him back for punishment. (H.Arendt, OT, p.279)

With enviable and characteristic perspicacity, in this striking passage from her magnum opusThe Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt encapsulates the main categories and the leading themes that surround the theory of the modern State and simultaneously identifies the frightening faultline that traverses the political reality of the State and threatens its very existence and that of its polity.

The “well-meaning idealists” who clamour for the “inalienable human rights” make the appallingly astounding mistake of assuming or perhaps pretending that there exist in life “human rights” that are “inalienable”. In its crude and starry-eyed stupidity, this belief amounts to the pretence that somewhere in the firmament of stars or in the blue vault of the sky there exist real and indestructible objects called “human rights” that no human force can “alienate” or remove, negate and even obliterate from the reality of human existence! Utter and contemptible folly! Where is it written? In what shoal of land or on what sea shore, in what deepest cave or highest mountain can I find such a “thing”, such a tangible reality as not just “human rights”, but also human rights that are – “inalienable”! Show me or anyone where such a reality or object actually exists – or even simply why and it should actually exist and how it could exist! (This is Schopenhauer’s contemptuous yet irresistible chastisement of Kant’s categorical imperative and even of Voltaire’s “enlightened” credulity or Leibniz’s Panglossian fantasies.) This utopian humanistic fantasy is enshrined, of course, in the American Constitution – “We hold these truths to be self-evident…”, but if they are “self-evident”, why then “hold” them to be so? – and reprised in typical Gallic grandiloquence in the French Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man.

In hard stone-cold reality the only “rights” that exist are those legal rights that can be enforced by a political entity called the State by means of the twin weapons of legal monopoly over the use of violence in a given delimited national territory and through the legitimate assertion of its authority over the citizenry or polity of humans living within those national boundaries or domain.

This, then, must be the task and end-goal of all realistic political action: - the erection of a State that can impose on its subjects or citizenry, its constituency or polity, the observance of legal rights that arise from the political will of that polity! The tragedy of all “displaced people” or “refugees” (economic or political) is not that their “human rights” have been denied or trampled upon – because no such abstract lunacy exists in reality -, but rather that they suffer the indignity of “state-lessness”. Not the presence or absence of chimeric “human rights”, then, but rather the protection of human beings by a “State” able, willing and ready to protect whatever legal rights it is able to enforce within or even without its domain or territory bounded by national borders – this is the crucial question that must be tackled by all of us who are concerned about the fate of human freedom and welfare. The problem is not that refugees or displaced people have their human rights denied – because these do not exist; the problem, the tragedy is that there exist human beings on Earth who are “state-less”. The crucial problem here, the crux of the biscuit, as it were, is the State – and to the theory of the State we must turn now.

We begin by drawing a crucial distinction between a State and a Nation. A State is the political institution or apparatus that administers the essential functions of a Nation. It follows that a State can have varying degrees of control over a Nation through the exercise of violence, power and authority – depending on its increasing levels of legitimacy over the Nation. By contrast, a Nation has varying degrees of cohesion and solidarity that affect the legitimacy and sometimes even the legality of the State. It may happen therefore that a State rules over a broken nation and that a nation is ruled over by a failed state. It is obvious then that the expression nation-state con-fuses by conflating them the distinct concepts of state and nation.

Our cardinal contention here is that Western liberalism has weakened democratic states in favour of dictatorial states principally by seeking to dissolve the political concept and the reality of nationality and its related pursuit of patriotism.

Even in its highest, most sophisticated expression, liberalism pointed to its own dissolution. It was Benjamin Constant who best summarized the historical process whereby the State had been transformed from Antiquity to Modernity. To be sure, Constant fails to identify the specific role of the social production of wealth – from slave labour to serfdom (feudalism) through to wage labour (capitalism). Nonetheless, he catches admirably the key “political” difference between the ancient polity and the modern nation-state. The reason that he fails to identify the crucial difference between the capitalist mode of production and that of Antiquity is, of course, that from within his liberalist theoretical perspective, the economy is scientifically separate from the Political – and therefore the Political transformation of the State can be traced independently of the process of production.

Yet there is one aspect of economic activity – that of “commerce” – that Constant isolates as the crucial catalyst in this transformation. According to him, what has made possible the transfer of political power from the associated citizen to the liberal State is the rise of commercial activity whereby individual citizens have been induced to focus on their own private gain rather than on the standing of their nation against other nations and on the daily conduct of public administration.

Because commerce has made possible the overcoming of war over scarce resources through the exchange of goods, individuals within nations have preferred to pursue commercial activities rather than support their nation-states in wars aimed at wresting control over wealth from other nations by military means. Because of this, all individuals within nation-states have an interest in preserving social and international peace and indeed they have as great an interest in ensuring that their nation-state does not interfere with their private property as they have in ensuring that other nation-states do not confront their own State. Thus, commerce works in two ways – internationally, by ensuring that commerce replaces war as a means of obtaining and maximizing individual wealth, and nationally by limiting the power and function of the State to preserving private property. It turns out therefore that it is the market economy that ensures both the national liberties of individual citizens and international peace.

But commerce also has one essential function: by turning the energies of individual citizens inward toward the maximization of their personal wealth, it also favours the transfer of the exercise of political freedom from the direct involvement of individual citizens to “elected representatives” who are entrusted with running the machinery of State and, in turn, appropriate the political power and energy of citizens in exchange for the granting of maximum “liberties” to each citizen.

Thus, first of all, commerce replaces exchange with war, both nationally between individuals, and internationally between nation-states. Second, because of its emphasis on exchange and wealth maximization, commerce involves “calculation” and therefore it encourages citizens to require a rational State and also to delegate their freedom to the State through representatives because commerce and its calculation require much more complex social relations and services that individual citizens cannot oversee directly – hence the need for “bureaucracy” (cf. Weber’s cognate theory of the State as the product of capitalist Kalkulation and Rationalisierung in Parlament und Regierung).

Two developments, then, have conspired to remove democratic control by citizens over the State since Antiquity: the first is the rise of commerce which has reduced the power of nation-states in military conflict whilst at the same time it has turned citizens “inward” toward protecting their individual “private property” and to entrust the “elected representatives” and the State bureaucracy with the power to administer society and protect their “rights”. The second is the sheer size of nation-states which, unlike the ancient republics from Athens to Rome to Geneva, no longer lend themselves to individual citizen involvement in day-to-day politics.

Thus, from “active freedom” in the sense of participatory democracy, modern-day citizens have moved to minimizing their engagement in Politics but at the same time maximizing their “passive liberties” that the State is called to guarantee.

But what happens if the State fails to maintain such guarantees over the liberties of individual citizens? Two problems immediately arise in Constant’s theory of the liberal State. And these are problems that show conclusively why liberalism and democracy, far from being synonyms or even cognate terms, are in fact contradictory concepts, and why therefore “liberal democracy” is an oxymoron. The first problem that the liberal State, far from being neutral, is in fact bound to act to protect the private property of individuals – and therefore its social role is functional to the protection of the “rights” of wealthy citizens. As George Orwell might have put it, all citizens are equal under the law; but some are “more equal” than others – depending on their property holdings.

The second and related problem is that, depending on the “type” of property held by individual citizens, some citizens might find it easier to escape the control of the State – or, obversely, they may have more control over the State – simply by virtue of the fact that these citizens may hold the State to ransom as against other States! This danger is particularly acute and virulent in capitalist societies because the widespread existence of money and markets makes wealth particularly “liquid” and “mobile”. Here is Constant acknowledging in his own ideological liberalist terms the tremendous importance of this point!

Le commerce rend l'action de l'arbitraire sur notre existence plus vexatoire qu'autrefois, parce que nos spéculations étant plus variées, l'arbitraire doit se multiplier pour les atteindre; mais le commerce rend aussi l'action de l'arbitraire plus facile a éluder, parce qu'il change la nature de la propriété, qui devient par ce changement presque insaisissable. Le commerce donne à la propriété une qualité nouvelle, la circulation: sans circulation, la propriété n'est qu'un usufruit; l'autorité peut toujours influer sur l'usufruit, car elle peut enlever la jouissance; mais la circulation met un obstacle invisible et invincible à cette action du pouvoir social. Les effets du commerce s'étendent encore plus loin: non seulement il affranchit les individus, mais, en créant le crédit, il rend l'autorité dépendante.

L'argent, dit un auteur français, est l'arme la plus dangereuse du despotisme, mais il est en même temps son frein le plus puissant; le crédit est soumis à l'opinion; la force est inutile; l'argent se cache ou s'enfuit; toutes les opérations de l'État sont suspendues. Le crédit n'avait pas la même influence chez les anciens; leurs gouvernements étaient plus forts que les particuliers; les particuliers sont plus forts que les pouvoirs politiques de nos jours; la richesse est une puissance plus disponible dans tous les instants, plus applicable a tous les intérêts, et par conséquent bien plus réelle et mieux obéie; le pouvoir


menace, la richesse récompense: on échappe au pouvoir en le trompant; pour obtenir les faveurs de la richesse, il faut la servir: celle-ci doit l'emporter.

Par une suite des mêmes causes, l'existence individuelle est moins englobée dans l'existence politique. Les individus transplantent au loin leurs trésors; ils portent avec eux toutes les jouissances de la vie privée; le commerce a rapproché les nations, et leur a donné des moeurs et des habitudes à peu près pareilles: les chefs peuvent être ennemis; les peuples sont compatriotes.

In other words, as Constant’s wily analysis makes plain, it is the very spread of capitalist industry and therefore also of finance – it is the “world market” of capitalism that allows capitalists to play off, to establish a competitive tension, between different nation-states for investments so as to subtract themselves from any sort of “political” control, regardless of whether this control is democratic or not!

So in his own words, Constant is saying that the capitalist world market allows capitalists to elude the checks and balances that nation-states can impose on them by establishing a coalition of capitalist interests that run counter to the interests of the individual nation-states!

[L]e commerce a rapproché les nations, et leur a donné des moeurs et des habitudes à peu près pareilles: les chefs peuvent être ennemis; les peuples sont compatriotes.

The utterly and devastatingly anti-democratic bearing of Constant’s liberalist position could not be any more frightfully evident! The kind of “freedom” or “liberties” that Constant champions are to be subjected not to the “neutral” political control of the nation-state but rather to the control of capitalists by means of the nation-state! It is not the democratic nation-state that controls private property; instead, it is private property that controls the nation-state in accordance with “liberal” principles: liberalism and democracy could not be more starkly opposed! This is the true and devastatingly terrifying implications of Constant’s liberalism, and therefore the theoretical endpoint of all liberalist political theory. Here is Constant again:

Que le pouvoir s'y résigne donc; il nous faut de la liberté, et nous l'aurons; mais comme la liberté qu'il nous faut est différente de celle des anciens, il faut à cette liberté une autre organisation que celle qui pourrait convenir a la liberté antique; dans celle-ci, plus l'homme consacrait de temps et de force a l'exercice de ses droits politiques, plus il se croyait libre; dans l'espèce de liberté dont nous sommes susceptibles, plus l'exercice de nos droits politiques nous laissera de temps pour nos intérêts privés, plus la liberté nous sera précieuse.

De la vient, Messieurs, la nécessité du système représentatif. Le système représentatif n'est autre chose qu'une organisation à l'aide de laquelle une nation se décharge sur quelques individus de ce qu'elle ne peut ou ne veut pas faire elle-même. Les individus pauvres font euxmêmes leurs affaires: les hommes riches prennent des intendants. C'est l'histoire des nations anciennes et des nations modernes. Le système représentatif est une procuration donnée à un certain nombre d'hommes par la masse du peuple, qui veut que ses intérêts soient défendus, et qui néanmoins n'a pas le temps de les défendre toujours lui-même. Mais a moins d'être insensés, les hommes riches qui ont des intendants examinent avec attention et sévérité si ces intendants font leur devoir, s'ils ne sont ni négligents ni corruptibles, ni incapables; et pour juger de la gestion de ces mandataires, les commettants qui ont de la prudence se mettent bien au fait des affaires dont ils leur confient l'administration. De même, les peuples qui, dans le but de jouir de la liberté qui leur convient, recourent au système représentatif, doivent exercer une surveillance active et constante sur leur représentants, et se réserver, à des époques qui ne soient pas séparées par de trop longs intervalles, le droit de les écarter s'ils ont trompé leurs voeux, et de révoquer les pouvoirs dont ils auraient abusé.

Notice how in the quotation above, Constant constantly and surreptitiously shifts from “les hommes riches” to “les masses” and “les peuples” as if these entities were one and the same thing! In reality, of course, the interests of the wealthy (capitalists in a capitalist economy) and those of “the masses” (mainly wage labourers in capitalism) hardly ever coincide – and certainly they cannot coincide where the democratic operation of Constant’s “representative government” is concerned: because such a government will obviously represent the interests of “les hommes riches” (capitalists) well before it protects those of “les masses”! And the interests of capitalists and workers cannot coincide for the very reason that Constant himself reveals – that “les individus pauvres” (workers) are too busy “working” for a living to be able to oversee and monitor the work of their “representatives”! As we have argued again and again here, the essence of capitalism is the violent enforcement of the wage relation whereby capitalists force workers to give up their political freedom as living labour “in exchange for” the product of their living labour – what we call “dead labour” or “wages” which are the monetary equivalent of dead labour.

We have argued repeatedly here that liberalism and democracy are conceptually contradictory and, therefore, they have been shown historically time and time again to be incompatible. A liberal regime aims exclusively to preserve, protect and enhance individual property rights: as such, therefore, it is incorrect to identify it with “individualism”, except perhaps as a contrast to “collectivism”, because in championing the rights of individuals who own property, liberalism quite obviously will crush the rights of individuals who do not own property or who own less property. Evidently, the paramount protection of property rights and therefore the free exchange of claims to property - which, together, form the essence of liberal doctrine and practice -, is entirely inconsistent with the exercise of political freedom and decision-making by all members of society in a manner that is not tainted by the ownership of property.

Two of the biggest fallacies in Benjamin Constant’s oblique championing of liberalism are, first, his assertion that the ability of property owners to remove their property from a nation-state is an exercise of democracy; and second that, by removing their property to other nation-states, property owners actively discipline their nation-state and establish “competitive tension” between nation-states to foster democratic principles and institutions worldwide. This is perhaps the biggest non sequitur in Constant’s entire otherwise most valuable oeuvre: - because quite clearly, as the history of western liberalism and capitalism reveals, the bourgeoisie removes property from a nation-state and places it in another nation-state not at all to promote democratic rights, but rather to ensure that private property rights are protected! There is a vital difference between the protection of property rights and democracy that Constant clearly missed! On the contrary, history reveals that the bourgeoisie is indeed quite willing to move capital to authoritarian and even dictatorial regimes so long as it can reasonably expect that such regimes will protect and enhance its property rights! Even under Hitler, under no less than the Nazi dictatorship, the German bourgeoisie was entirely happy to keep its property under the protection of that most brutal regime.

Thus, far from enhancing democracy, the free movement of capital has more often than not enhanced dictatorship. Perhaps the most colossal example of this in capitalist history is the huge transfer of capitalist investment to the Chinese dictatorship from 1980 until our present day! And this occurred in large part not because the bourgeoisie could be sure of the protection of its rights – though that was reasonable given the ability of the Chinese dictatorship to enforce them against its own people -, but rather because the Communist Chinese dictatorship was willing to subject its population of over a billion people to the exploitation on the part of the Western capitalist bourgeoisie and, in the process, to turn itself into a powerful capitalist bourgeoisie in its own right!

As we have argued repeatedly here, it was Carl Schmitt who perhaps most systematically and coherently demolished the rationale and ideology of liberalism, precisely by evincing the theoretical-historical inconsistency of democratic parliamentary institutions and the institutions of private property. Of course, Schmitt’s aim was manifestly anti-democratic; yet this does not diminish the potency of the arguments he advanced against Western bourgeois parliamentary regimes. The false identification of liberalism with democracy is the reason why every critique of liberalism is immediately denounced by the bourgeoisie as an assault on “democracy” – by which it means “liberalism”.

In the present day, aside from the Western bourgeois transfer of resources to the control of the Chinese dictatorship without first exacting peremptory guarantees for the democratic representation of its oppressed workers and wider population, perhaps the worst example of how liberal principles can demolish democratic institutions is the championing of liberal economic principles and practices by the German bourgeoisie – what is widely known as Ordo-liberalism -, a practice that is rapidly leading to the unravelling of the European Union and its lurching into authoritarian, if not openly dictatorial, waters. So strident and harmful has this practice been, that even the most prominent commentators of bourgeois publications have inveighed against it, to no avail.


No comments:

Post a Comment