Eric Laursen Rejoinder:
I have to believe H-socialisms didn’t publish this review without expecting the author in question to respond! Here, in all modesty, are my somewhat disjointed comments. But first, thanks to my very esteemed comrade Wayne Price for paying me the compliment of reviewing my modest contribution to what I hope will be a renewed discussion of the nature of the State, and thanks to H-socialisms for publishing it.
I want to start by underscoring a slightly clunky distinction I make between the state, with a small s, and the State, with a large s, which I think Wayne glosses over a bit. This isn’t just a distinction between individual states and the model they all follow, more or less. Individual states have many things in common, and many important differences. But they all contribute to the formation of something larger, which I call the State and which is the global system that encompasses all of them. States with a small s have their own governments, police, economic systems, cultural institutions, etc. The State does provide a model, but it consists not just of individual states but of norms of international relations, commercial practices and conventions, diplomatic, elite, and commercial networks, modes of exploitation, international institutions from Interpol to the Red Cross, treaty systems like NAFTA and the WTO, multinational corporations and their cross-border activities, etc. It’s an aspiring universal monoculture that every state has been contributing to, despite all the conflicts between them (and between capitalists) since the advent of the modern State. (When people on the right talk about the New World Order, there’s a small grain of truth in it, although they infuse it with a lot of craziness and bigotry, and it’s not as “new” as they think.)
This is critical, because the vantage point we adopt makes all the difference in understanding what’s going on. From the perspective of an individual state or states, what we see is primarily conflict: between states and between capital and the state (with a small s). But from the perspective of the State, these conflicts become less important than the ways in which the parties cooperate and contribute over time to the common project of building the monoculture.
According to Wayne, I overstate the unity of society under the state and underemphasize the internal contradictions. Also, that I give short shrift to the working class and downplay class conflict. But the unity I emphasize is between the state, capital, the propertied class, and the Core Identity Group—the groups that are crucial to the development of the State; I don’t deny the existence of conflicts between these groups and the working classes (not just one thing), although there is some overlap here. What is this unity?
“The State therefore was the original capitalist, and it remains the greatest. Its fundamental aspiration is to incorporate every inch, every corner of the society over which it presides into a vast wealth-producing machine. The capitalist class (that is, the class of owners of property and other forms of capital) steadily emerged as its critical component because it served the State’s need to marshal resources for economic growth.”
The modern State is an economic unit, just as a corporation is (although with somewhat different specific functions). Capitalists of course have their own interests, which are sometimes at odds with the state, but never with the State since both are laser-focused on the pursuit of economic growth. What I’m saying is that capital functions within the system defined by the State, or it doesn’t function at all. Likewise, the State can’t pursue its project of creating a universal monoculture without the aid of capital.
It’s worth discussing here briefly who “runs” the State. Wayne notes that there was no distinction between state and economy before the modern era; afterward, the bourgeoisie began to see themselves as a separate class who ran business, not government. In fact, the modern era was typified by the gradual takeover of government administration (if not the military, diplomatic services, and the sovereign’s court) by members of the bourgeoisie. The representative figure here was Louis XIV’s finance minister, Colbert. The State (with a capital S) was, increasingly, the project of individuals from the business class working within government (including under Bismarck’s Germany).
Wayne notes that I only refer to the working class in one place in my book; actually, a quick search shows that I discuss the working class as such 18 times, including crucially, the failure of social democratic governments to resolve tensions between capital and the working class and the way sections of the working class are bought off and culturally coopted by recruitment to police forces, appeals to xenophobia, etc.
Wayne is certainly correct that the capitalist state’s failure to serve working people’s interests opens up the possibility of rebuilding an anarchist mass movement. I’m only suggesting that this is not a simple matter; the critical function of the modern State is to manage populations, including the cultivation of the Core Identity Group, in order to squeeze maximum surplus value out of them (we don’t disagree about this) but also to cement their loyalty or at least their acquiescence. Increasing exploitation and the creation of a widespread consumer culture are two sides of the same coin, not mutually exclusive. In recent decades, it’s been achieved through the exponential growth of the consumer credit system, such that poorly paid working people can continue to buy stuff (the small-s state plays a role too, through income subsidy programs like food stamps). Anyway, the State cand capital are very good at managing this tension. We, as anarchists, have to be better at exposing it and finding ways to move past it.
Many of the points Wayne raises have to do with tensions between my argument and Marx-Engels. Let me address some of these. First, I appreciate the comparison between my argument and Hegel’s analysis of the State in The Philosophy of Law. There certainly is a similarity, if one accepts that the State is not something I made up, but something that’s been developing for 500-plus years and that Hegel regarded as the highest level of human development.
Wayne says that I ignore Marx’s writings on primitive accumulation, and it’s true that I don’t use the term in my book. But I don’t disagree at all with this analysis—I just think that it wasn’t a phase, in fact it continues to this day. Capitalism began through State actions, but it never weaned itself from the State. It depends on the State just as much today to facilitate its activities, open up new territories for it (from the Arctic to high tech), and save its bacon when it overreaches.
I don’t disagree either that the state balances different class and factional interests. (This is the stuff of everyday Washington politics, as well as class conflict.) But again, this applies to the state, rather than to the State. So I take Wayne’s point that it’s possible to understand capitalism’s internal contradictions and class conflicts as a basic feature of society AND to understand the State as a developing entity with its own will and trajectory. In fact, that’s what I’ve tried to lay out in my book.
I also agree generally with Marx-Engels’s notion of Bonapartism (in the form of either Soviet-style state capitalism or fascist-era corporatism). But it’s worth mentioning, as a side note, that the historical success of these sorts of regimes hasn’t been great—they haven’t so far turned out to be the “next stage” of anything, but more of a digression. The one state today that I might describe as Bonapartist in some respects is China, which is a lot like the corporatist state that the likes of Mussolini, Salazar, and Peron tried to create.
Finally, Wayne argues that I downplay class conflict and am skimpy on alternative social systems. On the first point, my focus was on understanding how the State (and capital) work to neutralize class conflicts, which is not the same as glossing them over or implying that workers have less potential power in their hands than they do. But I would point out also that if we want to create a new decentralized, participatory and cooperative society (as we do), class struggle is not by itself a satisfactory answer to how we get there. A society forged by a revolution of a working class defined and conditioned entirely by the industrial and post-industrial capitalist economic system—and the State—may wind up recreating that system. What I’m arguing for is that as radicals, anarchists, and grassroots organizers, we have to work to bring about a social revolution that precedes the political revolution. That’s not easy and I don’t have a detailed roadmap to get us there—that wasn’t the objective of the book—but that’s the project. Prefiguration, and building new social structures outside the State, is the first step.
If these comments have gone on a bit long, that’s because Wayne’s given me a lot to think about, as always. I’m looking forward to continuing the conversation.
Response to Eric Laursen by Wayne Price:
Eric Laursen has graciously written a lengthy rejoinder to my lengthy review of his short book. Here are some responses:
Eric emphasizes the totality of the State (if not of states), encompassing every aspect of society. “The unity I emphasize is between the state, capital, the propertied class, and the Core Identity Group.” On a world scale, “The State…is the global system that encompasses all of them. …The State…consists not just of individual states but of norms of international relations, commercial practices and conventions, diplomatic, elite, and commercial networks, modes of exploitation, international institutions…, treaty systems…, multinational corporations and their cross-border activities, etc.”
I agree with certain key concepts being asserted here. Despite internal divisions and conflicts, society (nationally and internationally) is an interconnected “global system.” That system is everywhere authoritarian, hierarchical, and centralized, with divisions between order-givers and those who carry out orders.
Yet the ubiquity of authoritarianism is not the same as the State being everything. If the State is everything, then it is nothing. It is simply society. I prefer the anarchist and Marxist class analysis of the core of the State being a bureaucratic-military-police socially-alienated body which stands above the rest of society, backed up by ideological forces, and serving a ruling minority. The State is not everything, but it is essential for an exploitative society.
My point about Eric’s understanding of Marx and Engels was that Eric misstated Marx’s (and Kropotkin’s) views as simply seeing the state as a reflection of class influence. The issue was not about Marx (I am not a Marxist as such) but the validity of a class-based analysis for understanding the interaction of the State and capital. This was appreciated by Kropotkin, Bakunin, Malatesta, Guerin, and other anarchists.
Eric states that I overlooked the 18 times he mentioned the working class in his book. I accept that he must be right. But he still doesn’t seem to see that the whole of the “global system” rests on the work of the big majority, from whom a surplus is squeezed out of their labor. This is done in the process of production—through the market’s exchange of commodities, including the commodity labor power. It is only backed up by the power of the State.
Eric does refer to “crucially, the failure of social democratic governments to resolve tensions between capital and the working class and the way sections of the working class are bought off and culturally coopted by recruitment to police forces, appeals to xenophobia, etc…. My focus was on understanding how the State (and capital) work to neutralize class conflicts….” These are all negative references to how capitalism, its ideology, and its state, oppress and co-opt the working class (most of the population). They are all true. But they are not all that’s true. There are forces pushing in the other direction, as is shown by the increase in labor struggles or in the massive George Floyd demonstrations. It is not just that, as workers, the oppressed have “potential power in their hands.” It is also that as workers there are ways in which capitalism pushes the working class in the direction of struggle and possible eventual revolution.
However, Eric fears that “class struggle [and]…a revolution of a working class defined and conditioned entirely by the industrial and post-industrial capitalist economic system—and the State—may wind up recreating that system.” Thereby he proposes a “social revolution that precedes the political revolution.” I am not sure what he means by this. He did not go into this topic in his book and, of course, his comments did not have enough space for him to spell out his views.
I do not believe that the working class, or the population as a whole, is “conditioned entirely by the capitalist system and the State.” Capitalist society is conflictful and contradictory, producing all sorts of cracks in its authoritarian ideological unity. In the course of struggle, people can learn, change, and fit themselves for freedom. Like Eric, I am for “prefiguration,” but I do not emphasize “building new social structures outside the State,” if this means building co-ops and free schools. I am for that, as a side matter, but mainly prefiguration means learning participatory democracy in the course of building mass movements to fight the bosses, the police, the powers-that-be, the Democratic and Republican politicians, and the fascists.
Again, I appreciate Eric’s response as well as his original (in many ways) book. In our exchange we have focused on our disagreements, which is appropriate. But in most ways we are in agreement, I think.
Thanks again to Wayne for his further comments on The Operating System. And again, my apologies for not replying sooner. Many of the points Wayne raises here are not really areas of disagreement, I think. Here goes.
A problem, at least potentially, with my definition of the State, Wayne argues, is that it would seem to encompass everything in society, so that it runs the danger of losing all meaning: if the State is everything, then it is nothing. Of course I don't agree, but I can understand why he would think so, since I'm taking a more anthropological view of the State (and states collectively), looking beyond institutional labels to the State as a network or system. He prefers to think of "the core of the State being a bureaucratic-military-police socially-alienated body which stands above the rest of society, backed up by ideological forces, and serving a ruling minority." I agree with this so far as it goes, but it leaves out the one absolutely crucial element: the economic. The State is an economic actor, an active organizer and conductor of economic activity. "The State was the original capitalist, and it remains the greatest," is how I put it in my book. Leave this out, and the State is mainly a facilitator of the capitalist class, and we're forced to rely on this to explain aspects of the State's behavior that are more complex (and aspects of capital's behavior that are harder to understand on their own).
Wayne also argues that I fail to recognize "the validity of a class-based analysis for understanding the interaction of the State and capital." I think what he means is the validity of the class-based analysis for understanding the interaction between the State and capital on one hand and the rest of society (i.e,, the working class) on the other. He also says that I fail to see that "the whole of the 'global system' rests on the work of the big majority, from whom a surplus is squeezed out of their labor." I don't disagree with this at all. It isn't the focal point of my book, but I do note that "among the most dramatic features of the modern era are the dogged resistance of subject populations and the State’s relentless efforts to beat them into submission." Workers have always exercised their power with varying degrees of success, including through the general strike; indeed, their resistance is what's responsible for any and all progressive or humane measures we've enjoyed the past couple hundred years. (I would also point out, however, that the working class is not something monolithic; traditionally, in the modern era, substantial portions of the population have worked for the State, as civil servants, police, military, or indirectly dependent on these, and their forms of social identity are often quite different from those of other working people.)
I don't agree with Wayne's conclusion that the global system and its process of production are "only" backed up by the power of the State, because again, I see the State as itself an economic actor, that (among other things) promotes the global (capitalist) system of production for its own purposes.
I take Wayne's point about my statement (not in my book but in my last set of comments) that "a revolution of a working class defined and conditioned entirely by the industrial and post-industrial capitalist economic system—and the State—may wind up recreating that system." I should have left out the word "entirely." But I do think it's a concern with any class-based revolution that the forces that helped mold that class will reassert themselves when it seizes power (even though other forces mold it as well, and it plays a strong role in the development of its own identity). That's why I argue that a social revolution must be in motion before a political revolution takes place: otherwise, the revolution just ends in recreating the State. Wayne is unsure what I mean by social revolution: is it just "prefiguration," coops, free schools, learning to build mass movements? It's more than this. The examples I give are the Zapatista free zone, Rojava, and the councils that the Local Coordination Committees of Syria began setting up during the Arab Spring. The common denominator is that these movements sought to create new, non-state community forms in spaces that the State had abandoned or had little or no control of, to organize as many aspects of people's lives as possible outside the State and capitalism--not just primary school and buying groceries. On a large enough scale, a general strike can be the focal point of a social revolution as well (see Hannah Arendt's On Revolution for an interesting exploration of this topic). Also in each case, the line between prefiguration and mutual aid on one hand and insurrection on the other, blurs. If we want to organize a non-exploitative society without the State and without capital, these are the sorts of projects that have to precede a direct political revolution.
I certainly agree with Wayne on his last point: that we agree more than we disagree. When I wrote The Operating System, I was hoping that it would encourage more discussion of the nature of the State, its relationship with capital, and how we can challenge both of them. I'm happy to discuss further.