Friday, January 20, 2012

The state of the 18th Brumaire

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.