A tool for preserving class rule
The structures of the present government grew up under capitalism and are designed to protect capitalist rule.
-- From the ISO "Where We Stand"
"THE EXECUTIVE of the modern state," write Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in the Communist Manifesto, " is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie."
The modern state is the state of the dominant class--the big capitalists. In fact, Engels argues, the state since its origins was always the state of the dominant class, and its main purpose was to secure the rule of that particular class:
As the state arose from the need to keep class antagonisms in check, but also arose in the thick of the fight between the classes, it is normally the state of the most powerful, economically ruling class, which by its means becomes also the politically ruling class, and so acquires new means of holding down and exploiting the oppressed class.
The ancient state was, above all, the state of the slave-owners for holding down the slaves, just as the feudal state was the organ of the nobility for holding down the peasant serfs and bondsmen, and the modern representative state is the instrument for exploiting wage labor by capital.
This is certainly not the view we are taught in school. There we learn that constitutional government, with its elections, "interest groups," political parties and different branches of government are all there so that the opinions of the competing groups can be weighed and balanced.
These views of the state, peddled in sociology and political science departments, assume society to be nothing more than a jumble of competing interest groups, the aggregate of which constitutes "the people."
This approach is typical of the so-called liberal "social sciences," where analysts rarely go beyond the surface appearance of things in society to discover the more fundamental relations governing human behavior.
There are also those who argue that human behavior is rooted in our biological nature, and on those grounds come to a similar conclusion: Since people are by nature nasty, violent and competitive toward each other (an assumption they make simply by skimming the surface of existing society), the state exists to regulate those tendencies, so that society does not pull apart into a war by each against all.
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FOR MARXISTS, the state has roots in the material and historical development of human society. It arose as soon as society began to produce a surplus--usually based on the adoption of cultivation--but where the surplus was still insufficient to do more than release a tiny minority in society from hard daily toil. In other words, the state arose as a result of, and in conjunction with, the rise of class divisions.
The state arose to help sustain and develop the conditions most suitable for pumping the surplus out of the producers, be they peasants, slaves or wage workers. That meant both an economic role (such as building roads), an ideological role (developing religion that justifies the divine rule of kings, for example) and a coercive role (maintaining an armed force standing above or outside society that can be called on to restore "order" when necessary).
Prior, therefore, to the rise of class societies--when human beings lived in small bands and foraged for food--there was no need for a state.
"The state, therefore, has not existed from all eternity," writes Engels. "There have been societies which have managed without it, which had no notion of the state or state power. At a definite stage of economic development, which necessarily involved the cleavage of society into classes, the state became a necessity because of this cleavage."
The formality of voting in the United States doesn't alter the fact that the state is the state of the economically dominant class. Most people have some vague idea that it is the rich who call the shots, and they are right.
Engels once described the U.S. political system as consisting of "two great gangs of political speculators, who alternately take possession of the state power and exploit it by the most corrupt means and for the most corrupt ends--and the nation is powerless against these two great cartels of politicians, who are ostensibly its servants, but in reality exploit and plunder it."
It's as though Engels wrote this passage yesterday. We should add, however, that the two great gangs of speculators are in every way tied in with the gangs of speculators known as investors, bankers and industrialists. It is they who hold the government's purse strings, and who the government answers to.
It isn't simply that politicians get the bulk of their campaign funding and other forms of financial backing from wealthy capitalists; that the most powerful lobbyists are corporate lawyers; or that it requires millions of dollars even to consider running for high office; it is that the entire economic structure of society shapes the way the state functions.
Take, for example, the question of government debt. As Doug Henwood notes, "Public debt is a powerful way of assuring that the state remains safely in capital's hands. The higher a government's debts, the more it must please its bankers. Should bankers grow displeased, they will refuse to roll over old debts, or to extend new financing on any but the most punishing terms (if at all.)."
The fact is that if I own $1000 in government bonds, my "voice" in shaping government policy will be far fainter than the voice of a big billionaire banker.
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ON TOP of all this, the whole structure of democracy is designed to reduce the democratic factor to a minimum.
The electoral process by which presidents are chosen is not direct: between our vote and the final decision stands the Electoral College, a holdover from the days of slavery. Most government institutions, such as the various state agencies and the military, are not subject to any electoral control; massive bureaucracies, whose upper echelons are closely intertwined with the wealthy elite, run them.
The evidence that the state serves capitalism and, in particular, wealthy capitalists is revealed in many ways: how the judicial system punishes "white collar" crime far less severely than crimes normally committed by poorer people; how wealthier individuals and corporations bear a lower tax burden than poor and working-class people; how social welfare is always dwarfed by corporate welfare and military spending.
Ultimately, the state asserts itself as the defender of the capitalist system in that its various armed forces are used to prevent any challenge, whether by intervening against strikers, pummeling peaceful protesters, or imprisoning and murdering dissidents and left-wing organizers.
Other things being equal, socialists prefer a democratic republic over a monarchy or a military dictatorship, because a democratic republic affords better conditions (freedom of the press, of speech, of organization, within certain limits, are permitted) to organize and fight the capitalist system.
However, we understand that even the most democratic republic--with its bloated bureaucracy, police and military--is still an instrument for the maintenance of the exploitation of the many by the few.
That is why Lenin wrote that the essence of bourgeois democracy is "to decide once every few years which member of the ruling class is to repress and oppress the people through parliament--this is the real essence of bourgeois parliamantarism."
This article first appeared in the March 7, 2008, edition of Socialist Worker.