Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Bad cops, bad cops posted by Richard Seymour

What is policing?  In a recent interview with the New Left Project, Robert Reiner argues that "in practice the police are primarily an instrument for regulating the lower orders".  Historically, police forces emerge as "a more urban and industrial ruling class" arises and requires "a more predictable, bureaucratic, legal and apparently universal means of maintaining order" than traditional agents of monarchy, armed forces, etc.  The "apparently universal" aspect of this has been reinforced by a misleading focus on the police's role in "routine crime prevention" which obscures its role in political policing, but the net effect is to protect a particular order, one based on inequality and hierarchy.  This is all very useful, and I expect readers will benefit from reading Reiner's book, Law and Order.  (For those looking for a marxist approach to the British police, the late Audrey Farrell's book Crime, Class and Corruption is a must read.)  

But this is merely to set up the problem.  In my opinion, it still doesn't satisfactorily answer the question as to what policing is.  We can agree that in a manner of speaking the police are "an instrument for regulating the lower orders", which is a part of the state's overall regulatory function in daily life.  Philip Corrigan and Derek Sayer's classic historical monograph on the English/British state, The Great Arch, covering its transformation from the high middle ages until the late 19th century, argues that the state is fundamentally a cultural form involved in "moral regulation": a "project of normalizing, rendering natural, taken for granted, in a word 'obvious', what are in fact ontological and epistemological premises of a particular and historical form of social order ... Centrally, state agencies attempt to give unitary and unifying expression to what are in reality multifaceted and differential historical experiences of groups within society, denying their particularity."  So, this supports two aspects of Reiner's analysis: the police in this perspective would have a regulatory function, and a unifying, apparently universalising function.  Moreover, the emphasis on moral regulation specifies something particular about police conduct which is that, as repressive institutions, they are deeply involved in ideological work.  The police have a role in maintaining a symbolic order, and deploy violence to that end.  Still, we haven't really moved very far forward from the most general of generalities here.


I think to take this analysis further it would help to outline what would seem to be a peculiar set of circumstances.  The government is introducing a series of substantial changes to policing structures and tactics in England and Wales (devolution in Northern Ireland and Scotland exclude these constituents of the UK from the reforms).  First, they are introducing a system of elected commissioners, drawing to some extent from the US model.  I think most police officers hate this, and the 'witnesses' before the Home Affairs Committee rejecting the idea - such as Sir Hugh Orde, Sir Paul Stephenson and numerous others - seemed to represent a big chunk of the policing establishment.  Coupled with this change is the abolition of the old police authorities in which the police were run by a selected committee made up of elected councillors and 'independent' appointees.  There was initially to be an elected committee that would oversee policing, but that was abandoned under pressure from police and previous committees.  Instead, the oversight of commissioners will be carried out by appointed panels, with appointees drawn from 'local communities'.  The government has made it clear that the main aim of these reforms is to change the relationship of police to the 'local communities' in which they operate.  This is a strategic rather than tactical reform: that is, it is less about operational issues than about organising the relationship of the police to society (or rather, to social classes) in such a way as to cultivate a basis for right-wing, populist 'law and order' politics. 

Second, the Tories are cutting police budgets.  Contrary to my own expectations, the cuts have not been substantially revised in response to the student protests, industrial militancy, or the riots.  This is one of the reasons why you will sometimes encounter low ranking officers policing demos etc, moaning that they too are public sector workers and no one cares about them.  (I've witnessed this sort of exchange numerous times, and I think it reflects a real anger being expressed in the rank and file.)  And it is in stark contrast to Mrs Thatcher's qualitative expansion and upgrading of police budgets, numbers, technology and legal powers, or indeed to New Labour's policy along similar lines.  I had thought this must reflect the degree of the Tories' complacency about the prospects for serious social conflict arising from their deep structural adjustment programme.  That certainly can't be excluded as a factor - their handling of union negotiations shows how arrogant they are.  It also probably manifests their belief that the technological and organisational re-tooling of the police can make up for the shortfall in central government spending.  The rationalization of the police bureaucracy - usually understood in ideological language as making it 'more responsive', filling a 'democratic deficit', 'professionalizing' the force, and so on - is consistent with the neoliberal theory of organisational efficiency in the form of 'public choice theory'.  The current Met Commissioner, to whom I'll return in a moment, makes the argument that the police are like every public monopoly in having no competition: they must therefore simulate the basic structures of competitive market efficiency within themselves.  But above all, the fact that the Tories are prepared to take such political risks over this - damaging their own public support, as well as their long-standing close relationship with the police - indicates that something fundamental is at stake.  That something is the budget, and reducing the burden of taxation on businesses, entrepreneurs, speculators and property owners over the long-term.  This is supposed to create an extremely favourable climate for investors, enabling a leaner British capitalism to remain competitive.  Rationalising the police force is part of the programme, like it or not.

Thirdly, the government went for the police following the riots, attacking their response as tactically timid.  Since the Police Federation had been warning the government of the likelihood of serious social unrest since its election, and since the Home Secretary dismissed these warnings as scaremongering, this was waving a red rag.  It was also politically weird when irrational police fetishism was the order of the day.  Then, the government announced that it was pursuing further reform along US lines, that it was bringing US 'supercop' Bill Bratton in to advise the government on 'gangs', and that it would be open to an application from him to head up a revamped Metropolitan Police, whose leadership had been taken out by Hackgate.  In the end, Bratton didn't work out for them - Cameron thought he was a tough guy advocate of 'zero tolerance' policing.  He isn't.  But the introduction of this worn out old nostrum pissed off UK police chiefs, who actually aren't very keen on the idea at all.  In the end, Bernard Hogan-Howe, who has seemed to be a tacit supporter of the government's reforms and champions something called "total policing", was appointed Commissioner of the Met and given a remit to fundamentally reform the capital's police service.

So, in a very politicised way, policing in the capital is being re-organised in a way that will presumably exert effects right throughout the chain of police authorities in the UK.  It is being done in a way that makes policing more confrontational, more explicitly political, and which alienates both the rank and file coppers and a great proportion of the police leadership. Inasmuch as there will be a critical response from social democracy to these developments, it will hinge on the cuts to 'a vital public service', on the inadequacy of the reforms, and on the need to bolster the crime prevention aspect of policing.  The Labour right has been most vociferous on the need to protect constabulary independence from politics (meaning, from democratic oversight).  Labour's left will have something to say about the politicization of policing, and the growth of authoritarianism alongside the reduction of necessary 'community policing', just as they did under Thatcher.  The limits of such an approach, however, become evident when you look at what 'total policing' involves.


"Total policing", as practiced by Hogan-Howe in Merseyside and now in London, is not necessarily "total policing" as advocated by some police experts.  They argue that it entails breaking down specialization in the police force to allow a more flexible response to emergent problems, whereas Hogan-Howe is committed to retaining specialized units.  But inasmuch as it does relate to that basic organizational motif, and Hogan-Howe is explicit in stating that it does, it seems to relate to a set of peculiar institutional and social problems created that arise in the context of austerity.  That is, for as long as the political opposition to the Tories is so weak, they can expect the opposition to emerge in a localised, spontaneous, unpredictable manner.  In this situation, having big battalions of police ready to fight on all fronts is less important than having a police force with the maximum adaptibility, able to suddenly surround an emerging confrontation and subdue it before it spreads.   In practice, and this is where the experts have reservations, it also seems to mean literally having a 'total' architecture of police control in the context of protests and rallies.  Rhetorically, Hogan-Howe sticks to the script about ensuring a 'balance' between rights and upholding the law, but even in his highly coded public discourse the emphasis is clearly on treating increased protest as a problem to be contained, demanding an escalated response.  The TUC march on November 30th in London was subject to the most extraordinary police restrictions, including the walling off of Trafalgar Square and routes around it with steel - this on a trade union march, where it was highly unlikely that anything was going to 'kick off'. 

'Total policing' also entails, of course, a 'total war' on crime, deploying a wide range of tactics - nothing illegal or aggressive, Hogan-Howe insists - to constantly frustrate criminals.  Here, the new Met Commissioner's technophilia and fondness for militarised solutions comes through.  Thus, instead of spending months surveilling drug gangs, just get a warrant and kick in the door, and reap some surprising rewards.  Or, instead of simply going after criminals directly, impound uninsured cars on the premise that 80% of them are owned by people with a criminal conviction, thus impeding the mobility of burglars, robbers etc.  (This sounds like something from a popular book expounding behavioural economics.)  Technology, Hogan-Howe argues, should also be reconfigured away from 'bureaucratic' apparatuses, toward preventive technology.  He contrasts computers which permit number-crunching and 'lists' - how many burglaries were committed in a given area last year - with numberplate-recognition technology which ostensibly allows one to stop crimes in progress, or before they happen.  

This is a false dichotomy, since any technology could feasibly be used in the development of prevention tactics.  But it illustrates the kind of thinking underpinning this 'total policing' approach.  If policing as such reduces complex social phenomena to bureaucratic problems to be resolved through the targeted application of violence, 'total policing' tries to reiterate these bureaucratic problems in the language of technology.  And as long as we understand 'technology' in its broad sense, as in a technical process, an ensemble of techniques related to governance, a technology of power, it makes complete sense.  Contrary to what one may be tempted to assume, this is policing at its most ideological.  For what has happened here is that the dominant ideology has already been materialized in the practices of the state.  The dominant ideology, we may say for the sake of brevity, is that which normalizes "ontological and epistemological premises of a particular and historical form of social order".  It is an ideology which arises directly from productive relations, from the division of labour and the labour process itself, and which constitutes a particular capitalist form of corporeality.

To elaborate.  It is not that the existence of "biological individuals" necessarily generates the ideology of individualism: this is plainly not true, historically, and the concept of "biological individuals" is itself question-begging, avoiding or suppressing the matter of our natural biological dependence.  It is that the capitalist mode of production presupposes the individualization of bodies.  We are all, in this sense, self-sufficient units engaged in a competitive, self-interested struggle for utility maximization, which is ultimately the aggrandisement of the self.  This is not simply a 'theoretical' proposition of capitalism, not a 'premise' in that sense, but a necessary material aspect of its development.  We carry out labour processes in relative independence from one another - our cooperation is not enacted by prior engagement and planning, but in the context of market competition.  We sell our labour power and purchase the means of its reproduction in this way.  In this process, the political, ideological and juridical relations which constitute us as autonomous (rights-bearing, contract-bound, property-owning) subjects are always-already present.  Every relation in the capitalist labour process presupposeses this possessive-individualism.  

In the practices of the state, specifically for our purposes the legal/juridical practices of the state, these relations are materialised.  In the discourses of crime, and law and order, certain social practices and the relations of dominance contained in these practices are normalized and legitimized, whereas practices which disrupt these relations of dominance are criminalized.  But in materializing these relations, the state also represents itself as the unifying agent, fusing these individuals, these capitalist bodies, together in a collective national body, the popular-national state.  And in so doing, it does not just normalize certain relations, but it universalises them.  The ideology of crime already effects this universalisation - mark the point in Hogan-Howe's speech where he says no one benefits from ongoing crime, it is in everyone's interests to stop crime, etc.  This 'naturally', in an entirely unforced way, obscures the existence of social interests seriously at odds with the dominant social order, at odds in such a way that they cannot be negotiated or resolved within the extant politico-legal framework.  

It is mistaken to think that this is always necessarily effective.  The whole field of social (class) relations is a field of struggle, and therefore the materialization of these relations will necessarily be riven with antagonisms.  This is clear if you look at how, historically, the police have been rejected in many working class communities - a pattern that has persisted to this day, in a way never quite captured in The Bill, but obvious enough in the context of the riots.  This is why the government feels the urgent need to re-organise the relationship between the police and 'local communities'.   It may also be one reason why Hogan-Howe feels the need to change the police's approach to 'stop and search', about which more later. 

Finally, in materializing the relations of dominance, the state also works to constitute them at every level, and this is where its practices form an ensemble of technologies of power.  The technology that we are invited to focus on, to think fondly about, to imagine in thrilling action, is nothing other than the technology involved in the production of i) social relations themselves, and ii) the capitalist bodies in which those relations are inscribed.


This helps to explain why the social democratic response is necessarily limited at best.  During the miners' strike, Paul Gilroy and Joe Simm published an article, brimming with embarrassing detail, which attacked certain Labour left mythologies on crime and punishment.  These commonplace myths held that Thatcher's very real augmentation and militarisation of the state's repressive apparatuses was a fundamental departure from the practice of the welfare state 'golden era'.  During the years of class compromise, it was held, policing was focused on clearing up crime in a civic fashion, while national bargaining institutions and parliamentary democracy resolved political differences.  Gilroy and Simm demolished this fairly comprehensively, showing that from the first post-war Home Secretary, James Chuter Ede, up to Merlyn Rees, Callaghan's Home Secretary, Labour administrations had always dealt with class conflict, crime, and of course political struggle in Northern Ireland, in a militarized, politicized and authoritarian fashion.  The 'golden age' never was.  

We will similarly have no difficulty in recalling the extraordinary authoritarianism of New Labour, from ASBOs to the threatened use of troops to break a firefighters' strike.  But the point of detailing all of this was and is to indicate the limits of an analysis of policing which treats it centrally as a 'public service' in which a municipal agency delivers 'law and order' to a tax-paying community.  Such was a contention not just of Labourites but of marxists such as E P Thompson.  That analysis is what led many on the left to blame Thatcher for police misconduct in the 1980s, and to demand more police on the beat.  In fact, and this is something I assume Cameron's reformers are well aware of, more police officers on the beat makes practically zero difference to crime rates.  This is something that Home Office figures, as well as academic research, constantly indicates.  By demanding more police, the left just played into Thatcher's strategy of beefing up capacity in anticipation of major social conflicts.

Policing is about something other than crime.  That something else is, to put it crudely, violence and coercion.  To put it less crudely, the police force contains within itself both 'legal' and 'illegal' forms of behaviour.  It's not just that there is well known corruption, the beating of suspects, harrassing activists, and so on.  It is that the apparent "gap between the democratic rhetoric of law and the actual practice of justice", as Gilroy and Simm put it, is expressive of the process of legality in itself.  This process supposedly involves the collection, presentation and assimilation of evidence, a set of procedures designed to evaluate the objective truth of a situation: a person broke the law, or they didn't.  But the process itself is constituted by power: the power of the police to determine, within limits, the laws and restraints applicable to them and their immediate relations with their subjects, to reconstruct events in a self-justifying way, to frame suspects; the power of judges to act arbitrarily, to sermonise, to unduly restrain solicitors, to (mis)instruct the jury, to inflict harsh punishments and thereby 'send a message'; the power of the media to identify crime 'scandals' or determine a person's guilt or innocence in advance; and so on.  The product, 'justice', is a resolution of antagonisms and conflicts in society, generally to the advantage of the dominant classes and to the particular disadvantage of the poorest sections of the working class.

To grasp the specific role of the police in this production process, let me just return to something Hogan-Howe said.  He referred to the disproportionate use of 'stop and search' powers by police against black and ethnic minorities.  This was a constant flash-point of struggle with the police in the twentieth century, more explicitly racialised in the post-war era.  Reducing its use would seem to be a plausible goal.  However, it is important not to get too swept up in the idea that there will be a reduction in racist harrassment by police.  Hogan-Howe favours a more targeted, smarter 'stop and search' policy - the technological solution again - and a more 'professional' manner of interaction between police and the subject of 'stop and search'.  Now, it is notable that this does not any specific legal or even necessarily administrative restraint.  Hogan-Howe mentions none, at any rate.  Rather, it involves discretion in the use of police powers.  And this discretion, coming under the rubric of 'professionalism', is something that actively undermines accountability, because it renders their conduct dependent on the immediate calculable variables of a given situation, for which no one can legislate or even dictate guidelines.  Gilroy and Simm point out that the logic of professionalization has always been to free the police from legal accountability.  

Moreover, and this is very far from the commonplace idea that the beat copper is an authentic proletarian, this freedom is one enjoyed in relation not just to suspects and courts, but principally in relation to senior officers and managers.  It doesn't matter what the official line is, the culture of rank and file policing, the officers' understanding of their role, based on training, ideology, the institutional matrix, the particular kinds of cop sociality, etc. determine far more than managerial edict how crimes are dealt with on a daily basis.  This is not to say that managers do not ultimately manage, that legal and political power over the police isn't ultimately centralised through a fairly inflexible hierarchy up to the executive.  It is not to say that the average police officer has complete freedom of action.  But the information on which policing is based, court judgements processed, and political decisions made, flows to a considerable extent up the chain from the police, giving them a degree of relative autonomy as professional managers of the social body.  In the context of techniques such as 'stop and search', this increases police freedoms to define situations as ones requiring intervention and coercion.  It empowers them to harrass, to brutalise, to demean, or to abstain from these if they see fit.  Reports, ethnographies, research, etc. all show where this leads.  The police in reality don't spend much of their time carrying out investigative work.  Most of the time, they do little.  They walk around, or drive around, or sit around.  But when active, they engage in routine confrontation with certain subaltern social groups, pursue vendettas or indeed criminal enterprises.  They work up 'results' based on certain tried and tested techniques, which may or may not coincide with actual crimes (of which they deal with a vanishingly small proportion at any rate).  And they do all this within their understanding of what their role is in relation to society, formed by racist and sexist occupational sub-cultures, hatred for the 'underclass', and so on.  What they're doing is exerting violence and coercion not only in defence of the legal and juridical forms of capitalist social relations, but in the defence of a moral and symbolic order, which expresses their own relationships to the dominant ideology, to the institutions they work in, the (professional middle) class they belong to, and to the social world they police.  And that is what policing is.

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Monday, January 30, 2012

Syria's revolution, and imperialism posted by Richard Seymour

The Syrian regime is fighting for its survival.  I have no sympathy for it, and will welcome its consumption in a revolutionary overthrow.  The struggle in Syria is fundamentally - not exclusively, and not in a crude, unmediated fashion - a class struggle.  It is an open war of movement between, for the most part, the most advanced sections of the popular classes and a narrow state capitalist oligopoly which has always dealt with the surplus of political opposition by jailing it or killing it.  In that struggle, inasmuch as it matters what I think, I situate myself on the side of the popular opposition.  Not in an undifferentiated manner, and not without confronting the political problems (of eg sectarianism, pro-imperialism etc) that will tend to recur amid sections of the opposition to any of these regimes.  But without conditions or prevarication.  

Yet imperialism has its own reasons, of which reason knows a little, for seeking a different kind of ending to the regime: one which does not empower the currently mobilised masses.  And I really think the chances of an armed 'intervention' in Syria under the rubric of the UN have noticeably increased.  And how we orient ourselves to that situation politically is, I suspect, going to be an important problem in the coming months.  The following pleonastic stream of head-scratching and arm-waving is my contribution to securing that orientation.


For what it's worth, this is how I read the international situation with respect to Syria at present.  The revolutionary wave that was unleashed over one year ago has reverberated through every major social formation in the Middle East.  Because it broke the Mubarak regime, which was a regional lynchpin of a chain of pro-US dictatorships, its effects could not be localised.  The response of the US was one of confusion and fright, followed by the bolstering of some of the ancient regimes and simultaneously a very cautious 'tilt' toward some mildly reformist forces (in general the most right-wing and pro-capitalist forces).  The Saudi intervention in Bahrain was an instance of the former.  The invasion of Libya was an improvised policy along the latter lines.  And the position within Yemen has been somewhere between these two, with the US attempting to manage a replacement of the leadership without empowering the actual popular forces calling for its downfall, some of whom were conveniently vaporised by US bombing raids.  

In general, I think the liberal imperialists have won the ideological argument that the US must be seen to be on the side of reform, because today's insurgent forces are potentially tomorrow's regimes, and the US will have to deal with them on oil, Israel, and so on.  However, the political argument as to what concretely to do about it is much more in the balance.  The realpolitikers have dominant positions in the Pentagon, while the lib imps seem to have a strong voice in the State Department.  It's schematic, but nonetheless a reasonable approximation of the truth to say that the former are very cautious about any Middle East wars, especially wars fought on a liberal (rather than securitarian) basis, while the latter are much more bellicose.  Obama's 'state of the union' address, which undoubtedly had its share of theatrical sabre-rattling, made it clear that he would see the overthrow of the Syrian regime as a logical corollary to the overthrow of Qadhafi, which he boasted was made possible by ending the occupation of Iraq.  Moreover, his administration has continued to ratchet up pressure on Iran, through sanctions, and we are beginning to hear serious arguments in the bourgeois media in favour of a war.  I am not saying that an attack on Iran is likely in the short or medium term.  But any escalation regarding Syria could not but be linked to the escalation against Iran.

Obama and Clinton are also highly responsive to pressure from the European Union and particularly France.  Sarkozy is naturally leading the EU's response to the Middle East crisis.  He may not have a triple A credit rating, but he does have nuclear weapons, a large army with extensive imperialist experience, and a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.  (Merkel, who has none of these, is taking a much more passive role.)  And since the Sarkozy administration has been embarrassed and damaged by the extent of its relations with dictatorships in the Middle East, its 'tilt' toward potentially pro-EU reformist forces has been all the more pronounced.  Britain, consistent with its imperial past in the Middle East, its adjusted but continuing role as a subordinate partner of the US, and the warmed over 'liberal interventionism' embraced by Cameron and Hague, has tended to align with France over both Libya and Syria.


Another important actor is the Arab League, and within it the prominent figure of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).  In the latest Socialist Register, Adam Hanieh points out the strategic centrality of the GCC to the region as far as imperialism is concerned, due to its pivotal role in the region's capitalist development, its hold of enormous oil resources (a quarter of future production), and its articulation with the world economy.  Three GCC states have experienced their own uprisings - Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Oman - all of which have been repressed with military force and marginalised in the ideological apparatuses.  Even so, it is the GCC monarchies which have been most stable in the context of the global recession, and the most active in managing the fall-out.  So, while the Arab League has not adopted a single, coherent policy response to the regional uprisings, GCC states have played a key role in manouevering the League to support selective interventions, monitoring missions, sanctions and so on against regionally awkward regimes.  The League's support for the intervention in Libya was a decisive factor in enabling it to come about.  Saudi Arabia, which has coordinated many policy initiatives to contain the region-wide uprisings, has involved itself deeply in the Syrian context.  The involvement of Arab League monitors, received with some scepticism by the Syrian local co-ordination committees, was driven by Saudi Arabia; their recent withdrawal has also been triggered by Saudi Arabia.  The subsequent lobbying for a UN resolution calling for the Assad regime to step down and supporting some form of UN intervention, has been led by Britain and France, but strongly supported by the Arab League.  Russia is at present the only obstacle to the resolution, due to its long-standing relationship with Assad.  

Finally, there is the Syrian opposition.  The pro-imperialist bloc, the Syrian National Council (SNC), largely led by exiles based in France and Turkey, has not thus far been representative of the sentiment among the rank and file of Syrian opposition members.  There is a left and nationalist contingent to the revolt, moreover, that complicates any attempt to simply annexe the revolt to the wider regional strategies of imperialism.  Further, even in Libya, where no left or labour movement existed prior to the overthrow of Qadhafi, and where the revolt was quickly disfigured by a racist component, the opening of the political space subsequent to that overthrow has created a window in which germinal popular forces have been able to assert themselves.  A political strike in the oil industry took out a pro-Qadhafi chairman, while unrest in Benghazi has resulted in a serious rift with the governing 'transitional council'.  The ongoing struggles in Egypt, which is strategically central to the whole region, can also swiftly make calculations made on an ad hoc basis, moot.  Nonetheless, complications and problems in a line of development do not necessarily mean that the line will be impeded.  Were the Syrian opposition sufficiently crushed, I think it would be more likely that a pro-intervention 'line' could gain ground, and this would tend to divide the left-nationalist contingent.  This has to be the assumption because, as Bassam Hassad has pointed out in his critique of the SNC and various pro-Assad types, the existing support for imperialist intervention is itself already the result of brutalisation, mediated by certain types of politics, (generally both liberal and Islamist).  

There is also the problem of sectarianism.  As far as I can tell, the majority reject any explicit political appeal along sectarian lines.  The banners saying 'no to sectarianism' reflect a popular sentiment.  The local co-ordination committees have explicitly opposed sectarianism in the movement.  Every substantial report I have encountered indicates the strength of the determination to overcome sectarian politics.  Nonetheless, the regime has a sectarian basis and has reinforced sectarian divisions as a technique of statecraft - not fundamentally dissimilar to a protection racket.  Even though many of the Christians and Alawites supposedly protected by the regime are among the protesters, it would be astonishing if some sections of the opposition were not themselves driven by sectarian politics.  It is noticeable that commentators dismissing the revolt as mere sectarian intrigue tend to focus on the role of the salafists.  They exist as a subordinate stratum in the revolt, and they are among a number of forces which are against the regime on sectarian grounds.  Far from constituting the main political current in the uprising, they nevertheless represent a problem and a weakness for the opposition.  Such divisions are, moreover, always manipulated and amplified whenever imperialism is involved - Iraq, anyone?  

Finally, there are divisions over the use of armed force against the regime.  The Free Syrian Army (FSA) is a large army of defectors from the regime's armed forces, perhaps including tens of thousands of soldiers - at least 15,000 on recent estimates.  This exists, to put it crudely, because the Israeli occupation exists.  These soldiers, trained to defend Syria from Israeli aggression, are now defending Syrians from state aggression.  But their remit has expanded.  While their initial rationale was to defend communities against the security forces, they have consistently engaged in military attacks on the regime's infrastructure.  The risk of doing so, of course, is that it brings down the regime's repressive apparatus.  There is gossip and speculation to the effect that the FSA represents an imperialist conspiracy.  I see little proof of this.  Despite representing a layer of military defectors, it looks to have gained real support among the oppressed and exploited.  The problem is that most of the movement's organised core has insisted on keeping it peaceful, on tactical grounds: the terrain of violent struggle is not where the regime is weakest.  Yet, in some parts of the country, particularly the poorest, the regime is not leaving that option open.  So, tactical divisions underpinned by geographical disparities and the regime's tactics of selectively striking out at opposition strongholds, are also a potential weakness.  Now since the FSA is loyal to the Syrian National Council, which supports an imperialist intervention, there's an obvious dynamic that could come into play here.  That is that in the event of the popular movement being crushed or at least severely set back, the armed component comes to the fore and substitutes for the masses; and in the event of a UN-sanctioned intervention, the FSA becomes an auxiliary of NATO, and alongside the SNC forms the nucleus of a post-Assad regime that is not representative of Syrians. 

There is not an immediate move to bomb or invade Syria.  There is, however, mounting external pressure to create the conditions that would allow this to happen fairly quickly and expediently.  It would be a mistake to assume that because such a path would be riddled with problems, it would not be pursued.


With all that said, I intend to elaborate further in an abstract manner before coming up for air.  From a marxist perspective, the most fundamental antagonism in the capitalist world system is class antagonism.  These, of course, cut through the dominated regimes in the imperialist hierarchy just as much as they do in the dominant regimes.  As such, in a popular struggle against these regimes, marxists start from the position of supporting those struggles.  To be more specific, in various direct and indirect ways, these antagonisms are amplified by imperialism, inasmuch as the ruling classes of the imperialist chain benefit from the exploitation of workers and popular classes in the dominated societies.  This is a fundamental cleavage which, arising from the outward extension of capitalist productive relations from the core, separates the dominant from the dominated formations. As a consequence, marxists also start from an axiomatic position of opposing imperialism.  It is not simply that imperialism retards the social development of these societies, but that it constitutes an additional axis of exploitation and oppression.

Within the class and state structures of such societies, moreover, the domination of imperialism is reproduced in various ways, such that the modes of domination within those states cannot be extricated from the question of imperialism.  As a consequence, popular movements arising against them will tend to have two targets: a domestic and international opponent.  Their struggles will also have a tendency to be internationalized, and to have global effects.  By the same token, where you have a national bourgeoisie that has developed in resistance to imperialism, that resistance will also be inscribed in its forms of class rule and in the state through which its political domination is secured.  Its legitimacy will depend in part on the national bourgeoisie's promise to organise the society in its self-defence.  It follows that where there is a break-up of the regime's social control, the issue of imperialism will be to the fore in its ideological and political strategies for retaining its dominant position.  This isn't merely manipulation, nor can it be wished away.  It poses a particular challenge to popular movements aiming to depose the regime, which is why the role of the anti-imperialist pole in the Syrian uprising is so critical.

But the reality is that these dying regimes can't effectively resist imperialism.  The republics organised under the rubric of Arab nationalism have rarely, even in the rudest health, fared much better against Israeli aggression than the old monarchies, and have often been available for opportunistic or long-term alliances with imperialism.  This is even true of partially resistant regimes.  Hafez al-Assad's support for Falangists against the Palestinians provided the occasion for Syria's initial invasion of Lebanon.  Assad senior was also a participant in the Gulf War alliance against Iraq.  His son, Bashar al-Assad, has always notched up plaudits from Washington as a neoliberal reformer - the liberalisation of the economy along lines prescribed by the IMF has been one of the causes of the polarisation of Syrian society, and the narrowing of the regime's social base - and leased some of his jails to Washington during the 'war on terror' to facilitate the torture of suspects.  The Islamic Republic has a similarly chequered record with regard to imperialism.  So, if the regime's raison d'etre is partially that it is an anti-imperialist bulwark, the obvious answer is that it isn't even very good at this.

So how do we orient to this situation, politically?  It seems obvious enough that the greatest bulwark against imperialist intervention in societies like Syria is the fullest and most active mobilisation of the masses themselves.  Their defeat at the hands of their regime would represent a green light to those pressing for intervention.  This is not the main reason why I think marxists should support these rebellions, but it is a very strong reason for doing so.  Second, the organised opposition are for the most part, the most politically advanced sections of the popular classes in both Syria and Iran.  They are the ones who, however they represent it, are responding to the class antagonism in a way that we would want the most radical workers in Europe, the United States and beyond to do.  For this reason, arguments along the lines that both regimes continue to have a popular base and shouldn't be written off are fundamentally wrong.  They do have a popular base, but it is not predominantly organised around any claims or values that the left, especially the revolutionary left, has a stake in.  So, one must hope for that base to erode, and rapidly.  Third, the same basic political grounds on which one opposes an undemocratic capitalist regime and supports its downfall are those on which one must oppose the regime of US imperialism, and work toward its downfall.  Anti-imperialism is an indispensable and not merely occasional aspect of emancipatory politics.  

These problems cannot, of course, be resolved with such abstract formulae: but such formulae have a role in reminding us of our political coordinates.  In concrete struggles, socialists in the imperialist societies would be trying to maintain relations with the opposition to these regimes, linking with exile groups and supporting their protests.  But at the same time, they would be the first to oppose military intervention, and would try to assemble the broadest coalition of forces to stop it.  Even if the deep political logic of events suggests that there is a confluence of these positions, in the real time in which such practices are developed it means negotiating some potentially fraught alliances.  Serious disagreements over the issue of imperialism are bound to emerge in any solidarity campaign; just as there will be sharp disagreements over the regime in any anti-imperialist campaign.  Socialists would have to manage these tensions carefully, while being the ones to consistently argue that the two goals are mutually necessary, rather than opposed.

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Sunday, January 29, 2012

Salaried bourgeois on "revolt of the salaried bourgeoisie" posted by Richard Seymour

Zizek's latest for the LRB is proof of that old adage that those who attack multiculturalism in the name of class instantly forfeit their probity on both subjects.  Actually, that isn't an old adage.  I just made it up.  But it is nonetheless true.  To explain: Zizek has expended a lot of polemical energy attacking a certain kind of poststructuralist and post-marxist politics for its abandonment of class.  But this critique was bound up with a simultaneous attack on 'political correctness', 'multiculturalism', and so forth, in the name of a 'leftist plea for Eurocentrism'. Of course, it was possible to appreciate the former critique without subscribing to the latter.  (And if you want a serious critique of post-marxist fashion, you must read Ellen Wood's The Retreat from Class.)  But it was never very clear what Zizek understood by 'class', apart from a structuring discursive principle: it was always invoked somewhat dogmatically.  If one doesn't expect from Zizek a scientific analysis of social classes, one would at least expect him to know what he thinks classes are.  It's quite clear from his latest piece, which re-states some of the theses earlier expounded in Living in the End Times, that he either has no idea, or has a novel theory of classes that he has yet to explain.

Rent, surplus value and the "general intellect"
Zizek's main argument is that the current global upheavals comprise a "revolt of the salaried bourgeoisie" in danger of losing its privileges.  He begins by making an argument about the source of ruling class wealth in advanced capitalist formations.  Taking the example of Bill Gates, he asserts that the latter's wealth derives not from exploiting workers more successfully - "Microsoft pays its intellectual workers a relatively high salary" - but "because Microsoft has imposed itself as an almost universal standard, practically monopolising the field, as one embodiment of what Marx called the ‘general intellect’, by which he meant collective knowledge in all its forms".  In other words, Microsoft doesn't extract surplus value but rent, through its monopolistic control of information.  This is paradigmatic of "the gradual transformation of the profit generated by the exploitation of labour into rent appropriated through the privatisation of knowledge". The influence of post-operaismo in all this is clear: Zizek accepts and expounds the idea that intellectual labour is "immaterial" labour, which he maintains has a predominant or "hegemonic" role in late capitalism.  On this basis, he asserts that orthodox marxist value theory has become problematic, as "immaterial" labour simply cannot be appropriated in the way that "material" labour can.

Before going any further, just note that this whole line of argument is a red herring.  Even accepting the narrow focus on Microsoft's "intellectual workers" as a paradigm of 21st century work, their "relatively high salary" has no direct bearing on whether they are efficiently exploited. Or rather, if it indicates anything, it would tend to be that they are likely to be far more efficiently exploited than other workers. Globally, this is the trend: the higher the wages, the higher the rate of exploitation.  It is also the trend historically: the famous high wages offered by Ford were possible in part because the techniques of Taylorism allowed the more effective extraction of relative surplus value.  (The distinction between relative and absolute surplus value would be a fairly basic one for anyone claiming to operate within a marxisant radius.)  This is not to say that all of Microsoft's "intellectual workers" are therefore diamond proletarians.  Classes are formed in the context of class struggle, and the extent to which these workers are 'proletarianised' or 'embourgeoised' will depend on how successfully managers have subordinated the labour process, etc.  Nor does it strike me as a wholly unreasonable proposition that Gates' main source of added value is monopoly rent - it is arguable, at least.  But Zizek's argument in support of this idea is simply a non-sequitur.

Marx, the sock puppet
Zizek goes on to explain how his approach differs from that of orthodox marxism, and much of his argument hinges on how he sets up Marx as a foil.  Thus: "The possibility of the privatisation of the general intellect was something Marx never envisaged in his writings about capitalism (largely because he overlooked its social dimension)."  Setting aside the curious claim that Marx "overlooked" the "social dimension" of capitalist productive relations, it is worth re-stating what Zizek undoubtedly already knows: the writings on the 'general intellect' are part of an exceptionally brief fragment in the Grundrisse, and would thus be hard pressed to 'envisage' anything; nonetheless, the description of the "general intellect" in the Grundrisse as a "direct force of production" manifest in the "development of fixed capital" assumes that the "general intellect" is already privatized.

What Zizek means, I assume, is that Marx did not anticipate the monopolization of "general social knowledge", and therefore did not anticipate that the major class struggles in an advanced capitalist formation might be over the share of rent rather than over the direct extraction of surplus value.  This is clear in the way that he treats the example of oil.  For, according to Zizek: "There is a permanent struggle over who gets this rent: citizens of the Third World or Western corporations. It’s ironic that in explaining the difference between labour (which in its use produces surplus value) and other commodities (which consume all their value in their use), Marx gives oil as an example of an ‘ordinary’ commodity. Any attempt now to link the rise and fall in the price of oil to the rise or fall in production costs or the price of exploited labour would be meaningless: production costs are negligible as a proportion of the price we pay for oil, a price which is really the rent the resource’s owners can command thanks to its limited supply."  So, this raises two questions: i) did Marx really not anticipate in his theory the possibility that rent extraction would be a source of major class struggles?; and ii) as a corollary, does the example of oil and its absurdly high prices undermine the labour theory of value?

This is fairly straightforward to establish.  First of all, the evidence of Marx's writings is that he understood that there could exist a class or fraction of people whose income depended on rent extraction.  Marx discussed two main types of rent.  These were, differential rent, and absolute ground rent.  To explain the first type of rent, it is necessary to specify some implications of the labour theory of value, which Zizek maintains is outmoded.  First of all, if the value of goods is determined by the socially necessary labour time invested in them, it would tend to follow that if less labour time is needed to make the goods then over time the exchange value of these goods would decline.  But the fact is that producers are in competition with one another for market share, so will tend to invest in labour saving devices so as to reduce their labour costs.  And even if, over time, the replication of this tendency throughout the economy - enforced by imperative of competition - the result is to reduce the total profit on the goods, the immediate effect is to enrich whoever temporarily has a more efficient firm as a result.  They obtain a differential rent because their investment enables them to obtain a larger share of a diminishing pool of surplus value.  The second type of rent, absolute rent, needs no lengthy exposition here, but can be said to be that type of rent that would most naturally arise in monopoly situations.  At any rate, it's reasonable to suppose that Bill Gates' wealth must embody some of both types of rent, alongside an unknown quantity of direct surplus labour.

Secondly, Marx's labour theory of value is not rebutted by the fluctuations of oil prices.  The theory is not supposed to explain price fluctuations, which respond to supply and demand.  The exchange value is an average across the productive chain; there is no mathematically fixed relation between the price of one particular commodity and the exchange value that exists as an average over the whole class of commodities which changes over time.  Nor is the theory endangered by the fact that the relation between supply and demand can be manipulated in monopoly situations to drastically increase the actual price of a good.  I am well aware that there are valid controversies regarding the labour theory of value.  Nor do I imagine that Kliman's heroic work will completely save the orthodox theory from its doubters, many of whom aren't even operating on the same theoretical terrain.  But Zizek's challenge is, purely on theoretical grounds, ineffectual.  It is a straw man that he dissects to such devastating rhetorical effect in this article.  For the sake of concision, I omit other instances in which he travesties Marx, both in this and other articles - we'd be here for a long, tedious time.

The "salaried bourgeoisie"
Zizek uses terms extraordinarily loosely.  Take the "salaried bourgeoisie", whose "revolt" apparently motivates this piece.  They are said to be leading most of the strikes taking place.  Zizek thus presumably includes in this groups like the public sector workers who have struck in most European countries.  Yet, he doesn't say what makes them a "salaried bourgeoisie".  His useage implies a novel class theory, but the closest he comes to defining this term is where he specifies that he means those who enjoy a 'privilege', being a surplus over the minimum wage.   Now, it's not at first clear what he means by the minimum wage.  There are, of course, legally enforced minimum wages in a number of advanced capitalist societies, but he doesn't mean that.  That would be arbitrary and would tell us nothing directly about productive relations.  But mark what he does mean by the 'minimum wage': "an often mythic point of reference whose only real example in today’s global economy is the wage of a sweatshop worker in China or Indonesia".  This no less arbitrary, as Zizek himself acknowledges.

Now, while the manner of his exposition implies a critical distance from such concepts, he nonetheless deploys them, arguing that they are themselves constitutive of a politically and discursively constructed division of labour: "The bourgeoisie in the classic sense thus tends to disappear: capitalists reappear as a subset of salaried workers, as managers who are qualified to earn more by virtue of their competence (which is why pseudo-scientific ‘evaluation’ is crucial: it legitimises disparities). Far from being limited to managers, the category of workers earning a surplus wage extends to all sorts of experts, administrators, public servants, doctors, lawyers, journalists, intellectuals and artists. The surplus takes two forms: more money (for managers etc), but also less work and more free time (for – some – intellectuals, but also for state administrators etc).  The evaluative procedure used to decide which workers receive a surplus wage is an arbitrary mechanism of power and ideology, with no serious link to actual competence; the surplus wage exists not for economic but for political reasons: to maintain a ‘middle class’ for the purpose of social stability."

In this sense, the "surplus wage" that characterises the exploitation of the proletariat by the "salaried bourgeoisie" is a discursive fiction, unanchored in real productive relations.  Still, having thus qualified his terms, it is nonetheless clear that it corresponds to some material processes.  After all, if the labour theory of value no longer adequately captures the workings of surplus extraction, and if the 'hegemonic' pattern of accumulation is the extraction of rent, then the 'surplus wage' has some material basis as that which is paid out of a share of the rent (largely extracted by Western corporations from the citizens of the Third World).  Further, Zizek goes on to maintain that the efficacy of such 'classes' is not the less real for their being political and discursive.  It explains current political behaviour, he says (and here I must quote at length):

"The notion of surplus wage also throws new light on the continuing ‘anti-capitalist’ protests. In times of crisis, the obvious candidates for ‘belt-tightening’ are the lower levels of the salaried bourgeoisie: political protest is their only recourse if they are to avoid joining the proletariat. Although their protests are nominally directed against the brutal logic of the market, they are in effect protesting about the gradual erosion of their (politically) privileged economic place. Ayn Rand has a fantasy in Atlas Shrugged of striking ‘creative’ capitalists, a fantasy that finds its perverted realisation in today’s strikes, most of which are held by a ‘salaried bourgeoisie’ driven by fear of losing their surplus wage. These are not proletarian protests, but protests against the threat of being reduced to proletarians. Who dares strike today, when having a permanent job is itself a privilege? Not low-paid workers in (what remains of) the textile industry etc, but those privileged workers who have guaranteed jobs (teachers, public transport workers, police). This also accounts for the wave of student protests: their main motivation is arguably the fear that higher education will no longer guarantee them a surplus wage in later life."

Zizek goes on to qualify this observation - each protest must be taken on its own merits, we can't dismiss them all, etc. - but is clearly arguing that the general thrust of the strikes and protests is in defense of relative privilege.  This is especially true of the "special case" of Greece, where "in the last decades, a new salaried bourgeoisie (especially in the over-extended state administration) was created thanks to EU financial help, and the protests were motivated in large part by the threat of an end to this".  So far the only evidence offered for the existence of this 'salaried bourgeoisie' is in its ostensibly discernible, concrete effects in the political behaviour of social layers affected by crisis.  Yet this behaviour can be explained far more efficiently by the class interests of fractions of the proletariat who, due in part to superior organisation vis-a-vis their employers, have obtained a degree of job security and in some cases relatively high wages.  In which case, the concept is useless.

As is typical with Zizek, each step in his argument is characterised by an astonishing lack of precision, a slipshod and loose useage of terms, straw man attacks, sock puppetry and so on.  There are lots of fireworks, but little real theoretical action: all show, no tell, an empty performance of emancipatory politics.  And I just thought I'd spell that out because so many people messaged, prodded and otherwise cajoled me into criticising this latest from Zizek.  I hope you're satisfied.

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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Terrifyingly real: Poulantzas and the capitalist state posted by Richard Seymour

The theory of politics and the politics of theory
This is part II of the long delayed Poulantzas series, this time on the problem of the capitalist state.  Poulantzas made several distinctive, ground-breaking contributions to state theory.  Or, I should say, to capitalist state theory since in his view a generic theory of the state was impossible.  One can derive some "general theoretical propositions" about the state from the study of its types, but they "can never be anything other than applied theoretical-strategic notions".   The two major works of his dealing with the capitalist state are Political Power and Social Classes (1968 - hereafter PPSC), written within an althusserian problematic, and State, Power, Socialism (1978 - SPS), which advances a relational view of the state and dispenses with some of the earlier althusserian themes.

I will disappoint some people by not immediately treating in detail the politics of each theoretical phase, but I do intend to return to this in a later post.  Suffice to say for now that the two major works cover a shift from 'Marxism-Leninism' of a more or less critical variety (PPSC, finished days before the occupation of the Sorbonne and the beginning of the May 1968 uprising in France) to a left variant of Eurocommunism (SPS, published during a crisis of marxism, especially of althusserian marxism, and containing passages aimed at the nouveau philosophes).  Strategically, and with regard to the capitalist state, this involved a shift from a nominally revolutionary approach to a 'centrist' approach - centrism, in the terminology of the Third International, being a position suspended between reform and revolution.

In each case, Poulantzas was arguing for a strategy commensurate with the politics of the communist formation (the Greek Communist Party of the Interior - KKE-I) that he was a member of.  This breakaway from the Greek Communist Party (KKE) was active in the resistance to the colonels from 1968-1974, and represented the non-Stalinist wing of the party.   It was initially one of the more left-wing communist parties, but moved to the right throughout the 1970s.  Confounding expectations, this did not improve its standing among Greek voters.  In the 1977 elections, it was the party advocating hardline Stalinism (the KKE) that reaped the lion's share of the communist vote, while the KKE-I's modernising Eurocommunist position received a derisory vote.  The KKE-I was famed among the intelligentsia, but never broke out of its ghetto of less than 3% of the vote, with membership in the region of 12-14,000 in contrast to the KKE's votes of 9-11%, and membership of between 100-120,000. The fact that Poulantzas' major Eurocommunist text followed the 1977 result suggests that even if he had been aware of the historic failure awaiting the Eurocommunist project, he would have continued in the same direction as he saw no future in orthodox alignments, and expected Stalinism be superseded by some form of 'democratic socialism'.

Before delving into Poulantzas' theoretical innovations, I must make a note on his method.  As he said in his critique of Miliband, any historical materialist approach to the capitalist state must clearly state its epistemological criteria in order to properly situate the concrete historical data it works with.  Absent this, it becomes an exercise in empiricism.  His own works, particularly PPSC, are to a very large extent concerned with outlining these protocols.   His approach, as such, has been taxed with the stigma of 'formalism' and (pace Miliband) 'hyper-abstractionism'.  The burden of this criticism is that Poulantzas spent more time parsing texts from the marxist canon and arguing through their implications, than examining concrete state formations.  This is not entirely unfair, and to the extent that it is true, Poulantzas was being typically althusserian: a close, symptomatic scrutiny of texts being the modus operandi of the Althusser Circle.  But the point is overstated.  The survey of the typologies of the capitalist state in PPSC, for instance, largely draws on current sociological and historical research.  The argument about the ambiguous role of state personnel in SPS draws from the immediate experience of May 1968 in France.  Moreover, there is something praiseworthy in Poulantzas' re-evaluation of first principles, the painstaking clarification of concepts.  Though this responded to concrete political problems, usually crises - of Greek communism, of democracy, of marxism, etc - his response was far from intellectually defensive.  He took theoretical risks in order to make marxism adequate to the present.  Only by doing so is it possible to make any sort of progress.

'Relative Autonomy', the 'effect of isolation', and the regional theory of the capitalist state
In PPSC, Poulantzas' approach to the capitalist state was, as I have suggested, conducted within the problematic of althusserian marxism.  That is, he sought to understand the state in terms of the specific role of the political 'instance' or level within the capitalist mode of production.  Recall that for Althusser, the mode of production is a 'structure of structures', an articulation of political, ideological and economic levels in which the economic level indirectly determines the content of the political and ideological levels 'in the last instance'.  At the same time, the political and ideological levels intervene in the economic in an 'overdetermining' fashion - that is, the effects and 'contradictions' that accumulate at one level of the structure are condensed in each point of the whole.  (I hope this explanation makes some sense - a lot is being omitted here.)  For Poulantzas, therefore, to understand the capitalist state was to understand: i) the role of the political instance in the capitalist mode of production; ii) the specific way in which the political intervenes in the economic, and is determined by the economic in the last instance, and iii) the relationship of the state to the field of class relations, and thus class practices.

Under capitalism, the political has a certain 'relative autonomy' from the economic and ideological levels.  (Please bear in mind in what follows that the term 'relative' is as important as the term 'autonomy'.)  One way of arguing this might be to claim that capitalism is distinguished by an extrusion of politics from direct relations of production and surplus extraction.  Whereas under feudalism, the levels are 'mixed', with those appropriating surplus labour also wielding direct political power, they are separated out under capitalism.  But Poulantzas rejects this.  Rather, his analysis rests on the so-called 'effect of isolation'.  That is, under capitalism the labour process is subject to both collectivization and separation.  On the one hand, labour processes are carried out in a more dependent, cooperative manner than ever before; on the other hand, they are within certain limits carried out independently of one another, in a competitive fashion, "without the producers having to organize their cooperation to begin with".  At the level of politics, this results in the setting up of agents in the productive process as 'individuals/subjects'.  This is not merely an ideology but a real juridical relation, which intervenes in and structures the productive process so that agents actually experience socio-economic relations as fragmented and atomised processes.  The 'effect of isolation' is thus "terrifyingly real".  It "has a name: competition", and it affects not just direct productive relations but "the whole ensemble of socio-economic relations".

The capitalist state in this sense appears as the "strictly political unity" of these relations.  "It presents itself as the representative of the 'general interest' of competing and divergent economic interests", whose class character is concealed precisely by the isolation effect.  The state thus systematically conceals its own political class character, representing itself as a popular-national state, with "the people-nation" "institutionally fixed as the ensemble of 'citizens' or 'individuals' whose unity is represented by the capitalist state".  The effect of isolation is the "real substratum" of this state.  But it is precisely in "putting itself forward as the representative of the unity of the people-nation" that the state assumes this relative autonomy with respect to class relations.

Another way to put this is that if the effect of isolation on economic struggles tends to impede class unity, resulting in sectional struggles, it is at the level of political practice that this unity must be created.  Thus, the political class struggle operates in a relatively autonomous fashion with respect to economic class struggles.  The capitalist state has to be seen in light of the political practice of the dominant classes, whose purpose is to produce class unity out of the isolation of their economic struggles, and at the same time constitute their political interests as the "general interest of the people/nation".  The relative autonomy of the capitalist state enables it to better organise the unity of the dominant classes, and to represent their interests as those of the society as a whole: this, the organisation of the dominant classes, and the disorganisation of the dominated classes, is the primary political function of the state.  It is the indispensable 'factor in unity', without which the bourgeoisie's political dominance is unthinkable.  This leads us to the question of hegemony, and the 'power bloc'.

The capitalist state, hegemony and the 'power bloc'
Alongside Althusser, Gramsci is one of the major influences in Poulantzas' thought.  Even where Poulantzas felt compelled to upbraid Gramsci's 'historicism' in his earlier work, a tendency which Peter Thomas notes is "essentially discontinuous with or rhetorically external to his concrete analyses of Gramsci's theses", the trend is toward a growing articulation of his research project with that of Gramsci.  Concessions to althusserian fashion obscured this.  (In fairness to Althusser, his own later writing on Gramsci was far less schematic, and far less driven by the dismissive typologies of his earlier work.)  In PPSC, he takes over the concept of 'hegemony' and seeks to develop it with specific reference to its role in the political dominance of the ruling classes.

In Gramsci, hegemony has several senses.  In one sense, it refers to the hegemony of the proletariat within a wider anticapitalist class alliance incorporating peasants.  To this extent, the concept is continuous with its useage in the Russian context.  In another sense, it refers to a particular state of ruling class dominance.  In this perspective, hegemony is a brief historical moment, which has to be constantly worked on and constructed, in which the ruling class does not merely rule, but actually leads politically and ideologically.  In such moments, the bourgeoisie, or a fraction thereof, sets itself up as the leading class/fraction in a world-historic mission, and uses a combination of repressive, ideological and material means to incorporate subordinate classes and fractions into a system of class alliances supporting this mission.  But aside from these exceptional moments, one can also speak of hegemonic political practices - practices through which a dominant class or fraction aspires to hegemony.  This is the sense in which Stuart Hall argues that the coalition government is pursuing a hegemonic project, attempting to fundamentally alter the popular 'common sense' in a reactionary direction.

Poulantzas is at this stage solely interested in developing the concept of hegemony in so far as it accounts for "the political practices of dominant classes in developed capitalist formations".  The concept of hegemony is thus used in two senses.  First, it indicates the relation of the dominant classes of a capitalist formation to the state, and the constitution of their interests as the 'general interest'.  This reinforces the concept of the state as the factor in unity, transposing struggles from a corporate to a universal plane.  Second, it specifies the specific form in which the dominant classes unity is secured: through an alliance of classes and fractions, in which one class or fraction (usually a fraction) is dominant, or hegemonic.  This alliance, Poulantzas calls the 'power bloc'.

The need for a power bloc derives from the nature of capitalist production relations, which ensures that the ruling class is "constitutively divided into fractions" (financial, commercial, industrial, rentier, and so on).  The isolation effect, moreover, is not compensated for by any other factor - such as the factor of 'collective labour' in the working class.  This means that the dominant fractions and classes are incapable of raising themselves to the hegemonic level through their own parties: they need some other basis for unity. The power bloc comprises a "contradictory unity of dominant classes or fractions" under the leadership of a hegemonic class or fraction.  But the relation of this bloc to the state is not one of a 'sharing out' of power among the fractions.  "In the last analysis," says Poulantzas, "it is always the hegemonic class or fraction which appears to hold state power in its unity". As such, it is the hegemonic class or fraction that assures the unity of the power bloc and acts as its protector.

Returning to the argument about the relative autonomy of the state ‘machine’ from class relations, it seems here that the 'Caesarist' tendencies discussed in Marx's Eighteenth Brumaire are immanent to the capitalist type of state. Far from the state being dependent on any one of the fractions of the dominant classes, far from it securing its unity from an already unified hegemonic class or fraction, it is "the factor of the political unity of the power bloc under the protection of the hegemonic class or fraction. In other words, it is the factor of hegemonic organisation of this class or fraction". The state does not arbitrate between already constituted social forces. Rather: "Everything happens precisely as if the state permanently played the role of political organizer of the power bloc".

Poulantzas goes on to argue that the play of institutions within the state apparatus is directly related to the relations of power within the power bloc.  Though it functions as a "centralised unity", it has a set of formal separations - between legislative, judicial and executive power.  Setting aside the judicial branch, the distinction between legislative and executive power is here treated as a power relation and not merely a juridical separation: "it corresponds both to the precise relations of political forces and to real differences in the functioning of state institutions". Depending on the state in question, one of the branches always dominates, usually either the executive or legislative branch, and thus constitutes the nodal point where unitary institutionalized power is concentrated within the state organization.  The formal separation of powers reflects an internal index of subordination, inasmuch as the hegemonic class or fraction controls the dominant branch of the state.  Here, Poulantzas is drawing on Althusser's reading of Montesquieu, who coined the doctrine of the separation of powers.  In this reading, the relations between executive and legislative branch (separated into lower and upper chambers) of the French state immediately following the revolution, relates to a certain conception of the relations between social forces. The royalty controlled the executive, the nobility the upper legislature, and the ‘people’/bourgeoisie the lower legislature.  The interplay between these institutions reflected a struggle for power among these dominant classes, with the less powerful branches playing the role of allowing certain resistances on the part of subordinate fractions within the power bloc: but the centralised unity of the state remains, and power, far from being actually separated out or distributed, continues to be concentrated in the dominant branch.* 

The relational approach: the state traversed by class struggle from top to bottom
Thus far we have encountered the capitalist state as a relatively autonomous force; a class state in a 'popular-national' form, organising the hegemonic struggles of the dominant classes; and a centralised unity acting as the factor in the unity of the power bloc, and by extension the disunity of those excluded from power.  This approach has been taxed with functionalism, and this is not the only place where a functionalist problematic can be detected in the formulations used by Poulantzas.  To describe the state as the 'factor in unity' of the dominant classes implies a degree of internal unity and consistency that would make destabilisation and disintegration hard to imagine.  But we don't have to read it in that way.  It's possible to see this 'function' of the state as, if you like, a necessary condition for bourgeois rule, which may or may not be adequately fulfilled at any given moment.  The only way to redeem the insight, though, would be to separate from the functionalist problematic and incorporate it into a new epistemological framework.

In his later work, SPS, Poulantzas made several adjustments along these lines.  In place of the focus on the regional autonomy of the political, Poulantzas came to argue that "political-ideological relations are already present in the actual constitution of the relations of production".  Therefore, the position of the capitalist state vis-a-vis the economy was not to be resolved by declaring its 'relative autonomy', but rather by showing that this position was just "the modality of the State's presence in the constitution and reproduction of the relations of production".  Poulantzas did not deny the relative separation of economic and political regions, but rather laid a different emphasis, stressing their "mutual relation and articulation - a process that is effected in each mode of production through the determining role of the relations of production".  This mutual relation and articulation, incidentally, explains why there can be no general theory of the state.

So, rather than start from a 'regional' analysis of different 'instances' in the capitalist mode of production, he re-energised his whole approach with a 'relational' analysis of the state as a strategic field brought into existence by the intersection of ruling class power networks.  In breaking with Althusser's "legalist image" of the state as a sovereign legal subject guarding the perimeters of economic sphere that otherwise reproduced itself independently, he held that the state was a set of relations that actively constituted and reproduced the economic sphere.  Far from being a juridico-political organisation standing over the economy, it concentrated within itself the political and ideological relations already present in the relations of production; it incarnated those relations, inscribing them (thus, the political and ideological dominance of the ruling class) in the "institutional materiality" of the state itself.

The "strategic field" of the state, in Poulantzas' terms, is defined quite broadly.  While Foucault and Deleuze charged marxists with ignoring the political power relations in institutions beyond the state, such as asylums, hospitals, sporting apparatuses etc., for Poulantzas these were "included within the strategic field of the state".  This is not to say that these were constituted as sites of power by the state: power in the marxist sense goes well beyond the state even in the broad sense understood here.  It is to say that these sites of power "do not stand in an external relationship to the state", which increasingly penetrates every sphere of social reality, "dissolving thereby the traditionally 'private' texture".  This understanding of the "strategic field" brings into focus one of the problems for the analysis of state forms, that of 'parapolitics'.  Take, for example, the Ku Klux Klan organisations of the 1950s.  These were not bodies with an explicit, codified relationship to any public authority.  Yet, their illicit hierarchies and relations (with governors, police commissioners etc), their protection of explicit hierarchies through the administration of racial violence, and their relation to the political class struggles of the Southern ruling classes, all place them firmly in the "strategic field" of Southern state forms.  They were partially, but not wholly, constituted as political powers by the state.  They did not occupy privileged sites of political power, but power was delegated to them by those who did occupy them.  This ambiguous position does not only manifest itself in the case of covert political violence.  One of the ways in which neoliberal statecraft manifests itself, for example, is the proliferation of so-called 'quangos' which perform state-like functions within a remit defined by the state.  There is a whole ensemble of institutions, stretching out well beyond the public kernel of policemen, bureaucrats, armies etc which are not understood to be part of the state but which nonetheless fall into its strategic field.  And beyond that, there is no social reality that does not in some way constitute itself in relation to the state.

Without further spelling out what forces are at play in this "strategic field", however, the phrase risks becoming a mere incantation.  The major forces at work in any society are class forces.  The positioning of these forces in the strategic field of political power depends on the relations of production, and the social division of labour that emerges from it.  For Poulantzas, the latter mainly manifests itself in the form of a division between mental and manual labour.  The state constantly re-constitutes this division, through the education system and by other means, and is itself the distinctive embodiment of intellectual labour.  By reproducing this division, moreover, it deprives the popular classes of the intellectual skills necessary to penetrate its bureaucratic discourses.  This case is simply unconvincing in its original form, and leads to unsustainable conclusions about the formation of classes.  (See the previous post on Poulantzas' thinking about the division of labour and classes in contemporary capitalism).  Given the proletarianisation of occupations that involve intellectual labour, I would suggest that we might better think of the division as one between executive/managerial and menial/subordinate labour.  With that adjustment, we can then return to the relationship between the state and the dominant classes.

In SPS, Poulantzas held to his previous argument regarding the primary political role of the state, viz. the organization of the dominant classes, and disorganization of the dominated classes.  It does this by unifying a power bloc politically, while linking fractions of the dominated classes to the power bloc in various ways so that they are unavailable for counter-hegemonic struggles.  But his new methodological approach required a different understanding of this role.  For, if the power relations that were condensed in the state were primarily class relations, it followed that the strategic field of the state must be traversed by class struggles.  Rather than merely allowing for resistances by fractions within the power bloc, he laid a great deal more emphasis on strategies pursued by dominated classes either within the state, or impacting on the state.  He allowed for beach-heads of resistance on the part of popular classes within different layers of the state.  These were by no means equivalent to the centres of power within the state occupied by the dominant classes: this would imply a permanent state of dual power within the capitalist state itself.  But the strategic calculations of the latter could be modified by the struggle of popular classes.  We might add that the divisions mentioned earlier, between menial and executive labour, are reproduced within the state apparatus.  (It would be difficult to understand the public sector strikes otherwise - unless, like Zizek, you maintain that they represent the revolt of a salaried bourgeoisie struggling for privileges and a share of rent extracted from the proletariat.  In which case, you're easily gulled.)  So the state is riven with class struggles.  But it is also exceeded by them.  For though it attempts to incorporate class relations on terms favourable to the power bloc, because these relations are characterised by struggle they always exceed the capacity of apparatuses to incarnate them.  This is certainly some distance from a 'functionalist' treatment of the state, and it helps us to understand more precisely certain aspects of our own situation.  After all, one of the weaknesses (far from the major one) of the anti-cuts movement in the UK is the weakness of political representation of the working class, the absence of footholds in the state at most levels, including the lowest council chamber.  We cannot be indifferent to the fact that only Caroline Lucas and a few Labour lefts even try to conduct such representation in the commons.  We need only look at the Linke to see the difference that such representation, such footholds, can make to class struggles outside of parliament.  At the same time, such an understanding does not, to my mind, lend itself to the substitution of parliamentary struggles for all others.

Poulantzas also refined his thinking on the state's role in the production of hegemony, arguing that the distinction between repressive and ideological state apparatuses in Althusser was misleading (we know from our own experience that repressive institutions such as the police and courts have a strong ideological role).  In addition, I have said that the linking of different subaltern fractions to the power bloc is a role of the state, but in SPS Poulantzas clarifies that this is not only a political or ideological operation: the state must constantly produce a material substratum for mass consent: "even fascism was obliged to undertake a series of positive measures, such as absorption of unemployment, protection and sometimes improvement of the real purchasing power of certain sections of the popular masses, and the introduction of so-called social legislation. (Of course, this did not exclude increased exploitation through a rise in relative surplus-value - quite the contrary.)"  Again, this is an advance on PPSC, and in those accounts which overestimate the power of the 'ideological state apparatuses'.

One of the problems that remains was hinted at by Goran Therborn.  Therborn, writing before the publication of SPS, contended that for all of Poulantzas' innovations in state theory, he paid remarkably little heed to the internal organisation of the state, and specifically the state apparatus.  But with SPS and its reflections on the "institutional materiality" of the state, its argument that the institutions-apparatuses of the state concretise the relations of political-ideological dominance in the wider society, we can no longer substantiate that claim.  Yet there remains an aporia, as far as I can tell: that is, the implications of the state's internal organisation for political strategy are drawn out incorrectly.  So, for example, when Poulantzas writes on the possibility of a transition to democratic socialism, he focuses on the differing class locations of state personnel.  In normal situations, the state is so organised that a general 'line' will emerge from the interplay of strategies and tactics of the dominant classes with the institutions of the state itself, and that 'line' will successfully be imposed on dissident and antagonistic elements within the state.  But during a crisis, he argues, of a scale like that which shook France in May 1968, the diverging class positions will result in a fracturing of the state personnel which, if sensitively handled, can help effect the transition.  I think this places far too much weight on the strategic significance of such divisions, and doesn't follow through on the correct (to my mind) understanding that he has earlier developed, the implication of which is that the dominant classes would continue to command the most strategically important positions within the centralised unity that is the state.  

Now, this doesn't result in a straightforwardly reformist position on Poulantzas' part. He still maintains that the working class must build structures of rank-and-file self-government to challenge liberal democratic forms of representation.  But this is as much to apply pressure to the capitalist state as to develop alternative, socialist forms of democracy.  The strategic perspective that follows from this mediates between reform and revolution.  Perhaps it says something that the only place where something like this strategy has been implemented and yielded some gains - not socialism, of course -  is the highly exceptional case of Venezuela where the struggle of the popular classes really has traversed the state right to the top with no serious reversal as yet in sight.  (Poulantzas as a co-author of "21st Century socialism" - anyone?)  But I think that if Poulantzas' superior insights are taken seriously, their logic is revolutionary.

*Analyses of this sort suggest themselves for the British state system, with its crown-in-parliament, its commons, its lords spiritual and temple, and its judiciary centralised in the executive.  Alas, barring a few beach-heads of popular resistance in the commons, the whole thing is bourgeois all the way down.

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Friday, January 20, 2012

The state of the 18th Brumaire posted by Richard Seymour

You have been penned in, kettled, assaulted and arrested.  You have had your protest broken up, your occupation invaded, your picket line disbanded.  Now you're facing something called 'Total Policing'.  Wherever you try to organise, you confront the state as the constant factor in your disorganisation.  Whether 'personated', as Marx puts it, by the riot cop, the senior civil servant, or the coalition minister, you find it is always there, resourceful, organised, centralised, almost always one or two steps ahead, almost always with a monopoly on political initiative.  Of course, the state represents itself as a popular, democratic institution, upholding the general will, maintaining law and order as the condition for the full participation of each in the political community.  Yet your experience suggests that something else is at work, and you have to ask: what sort of thing is the state?  Is it even a thing?  Is it an autonomous power over and against society, or does it 'represent' sectional (class) interests within it?  Is it an 'instrument' of the powerful or a venue of contestation?  What are its boundaries?  Where are its weaknesses?  How does its power accumulate, and disintegrate?


I was talking to Dan Hind several years ago over a fried lunch, and he explained his interest in what he termed "the mystery of the state".  I said, rather crudely, that I thought there was no mystery.  I invoked Lenin's famous de-mystification: the state is special bodies of armed men, prisons, bureaucracy, and so on.  He looked at me like I was a mad monk reciting arcane scripture.  It was a fair cop.  My answer was question-begging, rather like defining a football game as special bodies of uniformed men, balls, goalposts, etc.  I hadn't resolved the mystery at all, merely listed the obvious clues.  After all, football also consists of relations between its uniformed men, and between those and their managers, and in turn between those and their owners and shareholders, and between all of these and media companies, and shopping outlets, and paying fans.  It consists of a social-structural 'script', a set of codified rules with definite social origins, class-based cultural forms, political antagonisms (Rangers v Celtic etc), mass spectacle, commodity production, and so much more.  The "mystery of football", aside from its popularity, could only be resolved by disclosing the complex, mediated relations between all of these aspects.  I returned to my fried egg, dejectedly poking holes in the disgustingly glutinous texture of the solidified white.  In fairness, my summary of Lenin was rather... summary.  The widely recited phrase from State and Revolution is an extremely bowdlerised version of the argument if left at that.  Lenin was interested in the relationship between the state and social classes, its origin and development, its strategic role in class struggles, and so on.  His engagement with the marxist tradition - in what is, after all, intended to be a rousing pamphlet, a guide to action rather than a monograph or treatise - is extraordinarily sharp, even if he ultimately cleaves to an instrumentalist account of the state, which I think marxists must reject.  But enough about my namesake.

The mystery of the state would not go away, because the state would not go away.  Far from retreating to the perimeters of the 'economic', guarding its boundaries but otherwise allowing 'civil society' to go about its business in laissez-faire fashion, it was everywhere, pro-actively formulating and implementing agendas and strategies, domestically and overseas.  War, sanctions, special forces operations, internment, deportation and special rendition are only the most brute, mail-fisted manifestations of the state.  What about the coordination of ideological agendas on 'Britishness', 'integration', 'culture' and so on?  What about the coordination of bank bailouts, and subsequent austerity programmes?  What about 'workfare' and privatization?  In fact, it seemed increasingly apparent that whereas the capitalist class itself was constantly divided, constantly at its own throat, rarely capable of sustained class initiatives by itself, the state was always there doing something that in one way or another furthered the reproduction of capitalist relations in new ways.  And insofar as it did this, it seemed to be not just a state but a capitalist state.

Part of the mystery dissolved there and then.  It had been a mistake to try to penetrate the core of the state as a sui generis form.  There can be no general theory of the state.  The state is not an eternal form that recurs through successive ages, modes of production and social formations, and to read it as such tends to lead to a Hobbesian view of the state as an instrument for the suppression of 'anarchy' (social conflict).  At most, one can have a general, descriptive outline of what distinguishes a state apparatus (special bodies of armed men, etc), or a genealogy of types of state, noting the factors that recur (though even these factors will have an entirely different content, and stand in different relations to one another, depending on the historical epoch in which they are embedded).  But it is possible to have a theory of the capitalist state, and the best way to approach it seems to be confront the state in its setting, the social formation.


This is what the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte does, among other things.  Its refined lapidary style and mordant ironising also make it a literary classic.  This is a strange thing in a way, but what pomo theorists would call its 'mode of emplotment' is deployed with a deliberate pedagogical purpose.  The satirical deflation is intended to show how potentially world-historical events were always doomed to be reduced to low farce, how the movement of forces under various banners constituted a hollow pantomime of revolution.  The essay surveys the political circumstances of Louis Bonaparte's coup d'etat on 2nd December 1851.  This is where the title comes from: because, for Marx, this coup is a farcical repetition of Napoleon Bonaparte's tragic putsch on the 18th Brumaire VIII (9th November 1799).  From tragedy to farce - you see how literary parody is already inscribed in the first words of the text.  In its parodic appropriation of French history and bourgeois literary traditions, the 18th Brumaire penetrates layers of appearance - not so as to dispose of these layers as so much subterfuge (aha, behind the iron mask of Napoleon lies the unheroic, icy calculation of the bourgeois!) but to show their necessity and efficacy; not to dismiss them but to enact them, to show them at work.

Now, the 18th Brumaire is an extended analysis of a political situation.  But from that comes a subtle diagnosis of the French social formation, and particularly the French state, in its conjuncture.  The text's elegant movements between different levels of analysis, mediating between the abstract and the concrete (or, if you will, the concrete-in-thought), shifting from the political to the ideological to productive relations, its extremely subtle and suggestive analysis of masks and decoys, and the movements between semiosis and performance, discourse theory avant la lettre and strategic class analysis, make it an exceptionally rich study.  Though Marx was writing very shortly after the events, moreover, he did so in a determinedly historical, rather than journalistic, mode: the complex periodisation, the way Marx maps the temporal structure of events and charts the strategic possibilities in each phase, is indicative of how seriously he takes the historical aspect of his purpose.  He is determined to relate these events to deep historical dynamics, even before the dust has fully settled, and moreover to do so in a way that grasps their singularity.  That is why those marxist theorists most concerned with the idiographic, above all Gramsci, have continually returned to the 18th Brumaire.  This lengthy preface is by way of explaining and justifying the focus on one text by Marx to examine the question of the state.


In assessing the grotesqueries of 1848-51, Marx developed the elements of a theory of the state for the first time, a project he intended to continue in a sequel to Capital.  For while Louis Bonaparte would seem to have simply reversed the gains of the bourgeois revolution, reinstating the absolute monarchy and "the shamelessly simple domination of the sword and cross", Marx insisted that his regime was in fact something new.  And to understand it, one had to understand the social interests that had driven the struggle between the political forces and their situation in relation to one another that made it possible for Napoleon le Petit to take power.  There had been a failed revolution: somehow the French bourgeoisie and popular classes had been unable to repeat the monumental achievement of 1789.  The first difference between the two situations was that the era in which the bourgeoisie played the progressive historical role was being superceded.  The development of capitalist relations and the opposing interests of capital and labour meant that the bourgeoisie was becoming an increasingly conservative class.  The second was the growing fractionalisation of the ruling class, the major fractions being finance-capital, industry and landlords.  The latter were represented as rival monarchist factions in the Party of Order.  The Legitimists were allied to the landlords, while the Orleanists were allied to high finance.  In principle, these were supporters of different monarchic dynasties, but organised within this rivalry was the sectional struggle of competing class fractions for hegemony within the state.  And in that struggle, they waged a war for the support of subordinate classes: for example, the Legitimists sometimes posed as defenders of the working class against the exploitative industrial and financial capitalists.  Once again, the layers of appearance, the pageantry of ancient intrigue and birthright, codify and represent very modern conflicts.  The question of political representation, in its many senses, is at the centre of Marx's analysis here.   In this connection, note also that the landlords are included as a fraction of the capitalist class, because "large landed property, despite its feudal coquetry and pride of race, has been rendered thoroughly bourgeois by the developments of modern society".

At any rate, if the bourgeoisie was thus divided and weakened, the weakness of the proletariat, its youth and lack of development, meant that it was unable to take the leadership of national politics.  Nor was it able to form the class alliances that would be necessary for the left of the revolution to prevail.  Marx had written in 1848 of how it would be necessary for the urban workers to unite with rural proletarians and revolutionary peasants.  But in the end the urban working class was isolated.  So, there was a sort of stand-off between classes, a stasis that no one class is able to resolve.  The resolution of the stand-off fell to Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, a dim gaffeur who nonetheless managed to channel a multitude of social interests in his person.  Napoleon le Petit, as Victor Hugo named him, had been the candidate of the monarchist right because he was seen as an exponent of order; of the industrialists, because of his liberal economic views; and of the passive majority of the rural classes, for whom the name of Bonaparte meant something (national greatness) as opposed to nothing.  "The most simple-minded man in France," Marx said, "acquired the most multifarious significance."  His main opponent, Cavaignac, was opposed by a similarly broad range of forces, including the socialists for whom he was tainted by his military career and his involvement in the massacre of workers.  The 'democratic socialist' Ledru-Rollin was distrusted by the urban working class for the same reason.  Bonaparte, meanwhile, also summoned the support of the so-called 'lumpenproletariat', consisting of declassed peasants and workers, soldiers, adventurers, crooks and so on.  It was on this social basis that the Society of 10 December, a pro-Bonaparte faction, rested.  But Bonaparte did not 'represent' all of these classes in the same way, an important point to which we'll return.  He took the presidency in alliance with the party of Order, before eventually disposing of the latter and declaring himself Napoleon III, and Emperor of the French.

Before launching into the issue of 'Bonapartism' and its relation to state theory, though, it is important to see in motion: the jostling of massed forces; the shifting of masses under different political banners; the fractionalisation of the ruling class; the complex and sudden changes in representative techniques; and the way in which the state is contested and occupied.  Using Marx's periodisation without attempting to imitate his style (which would be a severe discourtesy to the original), I will describe a loose schema of this process.


Marx begins with the First Period: "From 24 February to 4 May 1848. February period. Prologue. Universal brotherhood swindle."  The February revolution of 1848 had disposed of the monarchy, and brought into being the Second Republic.  The social forces united in the creation of this republic were, at first, bourgeois liberals and workers.  The 'swindle' was the bourgeoisie's promise to defend the interests of workers, the struggling petty bourgeoisie (particularly the artisans whose way of life was in crisis), and the educated for whom there were few posts of status available.  Thus bourgeois republicans promised to create a democratic and social republic.  They extended the franchise to millions of male workers, and relaxing repression and censorship.  Hundreds of newspapers flourished that spring.  In principle, Marx argues, the democratic republic is an ideal form of class rule for capital - in a phrase, the democratic republic is the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.  But it also creates the political terrain in which the bourgeoisie's contest with the proletariat becomes open, and the 'swindle' of universal brotherhood melts into air.  The bourgeoisie initially honoured its social commitments by adding a proto-welfare state to the democratic republic, with National Workshops (effectively nationalised businesses) giving work to the unemployed. 100,000 were thus employed by the end of May.  All this, the better to consolidate their dictatorship under the banner of universal brotherhood: but this was where the 'swindle' began to break down.

The second period was that during which the republic and Constituent National Assembly are convoked, and is broken up into three sub-phases: "1. From  4  May  to  25  June 1848.  Struggle of  all  classes  against the proletariat. Defeat of the proletariat in the June days."  The bourgeoisie had already started to resent the taxes it had to pay to support the Workshops, and the growing pressure mounted by workers through the new democratic institutions.  It led a generalised shift to the right among an alliance of classes against the proletariat, and the April elections were won by conservatives and moderates.  By June, the workshops were being closed down.  The barricades were once more erected in the capital, and the bourgeois republicans became outright reactionaries.  Working class resistance in the capital was crushed by the National Guard, with 1500 killed during the suppression, 3000 murdered afterward, and 12000 deported to labour camps in colonial Algeria - or, in the familiar refrain of the bourgeoisie, order was restored.

The second sub-phase of the second period:  "From 25 June to 10 December 1848. Dictatorship of the pure bourgeois-republicans. Drafting of  the Constitution. Proclamation of a state of siege in Paris. The bourgeois dictatorship set aside on 10 December by the election of Bonaparte as President."  The defeat of the left and the working class left the state apparatus under the leadership of a "pure" bourgeois-republican bloc that was still moving to the right, albeit with a small opposition from radicals and the social democratic Montagne.  The constitution was revised in a highly conservative manner, striking out clauses supporting a 'right to work', and leaving education in the control of the Catholic church among other things.  Sub-phase 3: "From 20 December 1848 to 28 May 1849. Struggle of the Constituent Assembly with Bonaparte and with the party of Order in alliance with him. Passing of the Constituent Assembly. Fall of the republican bourgeoisie."  During this phase, the conservative Party of Order was increasingly dependent on Bonaparte, and increasingly at odds with the 'pure' bourgeois republicans.  The rule of the latter came to an end in the legislative elections of 28 May 1849, when the Party of Order won a substantial victory.  This reflected, as much as anything else, the continued right-ward swerve of the bourgeoisie, and its rejection of the republicans.

The third period is the most complex, punctuated by three sub-phases, the last of which is itself broken down into four parts. Sub-phase 1: "From 28 May 1849 to 13 June 1849. Struggle of the petty bourgeoisie with  the bourgeoisie and with Bonaparte. Defeat of the petty-bourgeois democracy."  While the right had won the elections, a radical minority of republicans and socialists, known as the Montagne, had been elected to the legislature with 25% of the vote.  For Marx, they represented a kind of petty bourgeois socialism which consisted mainly of the reform and perfection of capitalism: the big bourgeoisie exploits us through finance, so we want credit institutions; it crushes us through competition, so we want protection from the state; etc.  The Montagne continued to resist the Party of Order in parliament, and were expelled from the Assembly for their trouble.  Sub-phase 2: "From 13 June 1849 to 31 May 1850. Parliamentary dictatorship of the party of Order. It completes its rule by abolishing universal suffrage, but loses the parliamentary  ministry."  The Party of Order held the ministry in alliance with Louis-Napoleon, and held together a more or less stable government until elections were held again in 1850.  During these elections, the left swept the board in Paris.  In response, the Party of Order decided to get rid of universal male suffrage and cut about 30% of voters off the rolls. 

Sub-phase 3 contains the most complex and compressed sequence of movements.  Marx begins: "From  31  May  1850  to  2  December 1851.  Struggle between the parliamentary bourgeoisie and  Bonaparte."  This is the decisive movement that makes Louis-Napoleon's coup d'etat possible.  Marx breaks down the period into four discrete steps.  First, in the period until 12 January 1851, parliament lost "the supreme command of the army" to Louis-Napoleon.  Second, in the time until 11 April 1851, the weakness of the Party of Order in the Legislative Assembly forced it to form a coalition with the radicals it had previously expelled. Third, in the period until 9 October 1851, the Party of Order "decomposes into its separate constitutents", with growing antagonism between the executive (Louis-Napoleon) and parliament, and a "breach between the bourgeois parliament and press and the mass of the bourgeoisie".  Finally, in the period until the coup d'etat, the breach between parliament and executive power became more open.  Parliament was abandoned "by its own class, by the army, and by all the remaining classes".  Bourgeois rule passed away, with no resistance.  Foreknowledge of the coup and the ineptitude of its leadership did not prevent its success.  Thus:  "Victory of Bonaparte.  Parody of restoration of empire."

    As mentioned, the "parody" of imperial restoration here is in fact a modern tale of a failure of class capacities, a collapse in bourgeois initiative and leadership, the bathos of slogans betrayed before the ink has dried.  It is about a particular from of bourgeois state in which the bourgeoisie does not rule.  Prior to the revolution, the bourgeoisie had not ruled, merely "one faction of it: bankers, stock-exchange kings, railway kings, owners of coal and iron mines and forests, a part of the landed proprietors associated with them—the so-called finance aristocracy."  Also excluded were, of course, workers, the "petty bourgeoisie of all gradations" and the peasants.  Even the industrialists were in opposition.  "On the other hand, the smallest financial reform was wrecked due to the influence of the bankers."  At the end of the farce of 1848-51, the bourgeoisie was once again out of power.  In fact, no class had been able to take power: in power was the state apparatus itself, the increasingly powerful bureaucratic and military machinery, which had obtained a degree of autonomy from the contending social classes.  It was powerful enough, independent enough, that a drunken adventurer supported by the lumpenproletariat and smallholding peasants could suffice for its head.  This was, in a word, the 'Ceasarist', or the 'Bonapartist' regime. 

    There are three immediate elements to this kind of regime.  The first is the autonomy of the state apparatus from the contending classes; the second is the existence of a passive popular base for the regime; the third is that the bourgeoisie, by surrendering its political dominance, has retained its dominance at the level of productive relations.  The concept of Caesarism has since been developed in many directions.  Gramsci notably used the concept as a basis for the analysis of fascism, though it has also been a habitual recourse wherever populist governments of one sort or another have appeared.  Other theorists, often influenced by Althusser, have argued that the analysis confirms a more general 'relative autonomy' of the state apparatus.  These are leads that I do not intend to pursue at the moment; I merely list them to indicate that the theoretical (and thus political) consequences of this study, the Eighteenth Brumaire, are profound and contested.

    What I instead want to do is draw out some implications of Marx's survey.  First is the extraordinary power of the state as an apparatus in itself, the sort of power that could enable it to act as a more or less autonomous force in society.  This is far more evident today than in the period Marx was describing.  Second is the relation to social classes.  It is not merely the occupation of the state that determines its class role: the structure of the state itself is not class-neutral.  This is not to say that the class basis of a particular state can be read off from its various features.  After all, if a democratic republic is ideal for a bourgeoisie in rude health, a dictatorship of some sort (not necessarily a Caesarist dictatorship) may be its saviour in crisis.  The question, as Goran Therborn suggests, is what role the state plays in advancing, allowing or inhibiting the further reproduction of capitalist social relations.  Third is the relation between the state and civil society.  Although the state is not class-neutral - and for this reason, Marx takes the view that it must be dismantled rather than perfected - it is nonetheless a terrain which is traversed by contesting classes in representational struggles.  It is impossible to be indifferent to the forms of representation that take place.  Not because these are 'reflections' of 'real' class struggles taking place outside of the political system, but because they are highly mediated forms of class struggle in themselves.  And because the representation of classes within the state has a formative effect on the behaviour of classes within civil society.  When representation breaks down, the political forces in parliament become useless, unmoored: but the class forces they have tried to represent are thereby also disenfranchised.  Fourth, the state has a particular role in relation to the fractionalisation of the ruling class.  Such fractionalisation is an inevitable aspect of capitalist development, and is merely one of the ways in which a 'general' bourgeois interest is only possible under the hegemony of one of its fractions.  In addition to fractionalisation is the individuation of and competition between members of the capitalist class.  The result is that were it not for the state's ability to act as a unifying factor, organising the power of social classes within the apparatus itself, the capitalist class might be constantly, as I suggested earlier, at its own throat.  Poulantzas suggested that the separation of powers - executive, legislative and judicial - could be understood in terms of a distribution of power in which the hegemonic class or fraction controls the executive.  Either way, the state must play a pro-active role in securing the unity of the dominant classes; and by extension the disunity of the dominated classes.

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