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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 financiers and industry magnates. 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.”

Myths about the state

This is certainly not what 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. This idea of the state, peddled in sociology and political science textbooks, 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 social relations underlying them.

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.

Material roots of the state

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. The state played an economic role (such as building roads), an ideological role (promoting religious ideas 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 know that rich people call the shots. One needn’t be a radical to see that people with lots of money have a lot more influence in politics that those who don’t.

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—or, as is more likely, none at all—my voice in shaping government policy will be far fainter than the voice of a big billionaire banker who holds millions in government debt. You only need to look at the way crisis-torn Greece has been held hostage by European bondholders to see how this works.

How much democracy do we really have?

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 which gives more weight to rural over urban voters. Voting laws are rigged to deprive millions of ex-felons, many of them Black men, from voting.

Moreover, most government institutions, from regulatory agencies to the IRS, the treasury, the FBI, the CIA, and the military, are not subject to any electoral control; massive bureaucracies, whose upper echelons are closely intertwined with the wealthy elite, run them, and they are not accountable to the electorate.

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 and people of color; 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 than 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. These democratic rights had to be fought for to begin with, and are the basis on which we will be able to extend them. 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.”