BOOTLICKER

The Capitalist State: Natural, or Conventional?

2020-08-03

This paper was rejected for presentation at the Murdoch Philosophy Seminar series.

In much the same way as Kant asks the question: “Experience is actual, what are the conditions for its possibility?”, in this paper, I ask the question: “the capitalist state is actual, what are the conditions for its possibility?”

In this paper I will argue that the widespread defence of the capitalist state in its social contractarian form has been misguided, and misled about the actuality of the modern capitalist nation-state. Where liberals in the tradition of Kant, Locke, and Hobbes take the actuality of the capitalist state to be a liberal democratic state, this defence of the state will be shown to be first, misled, and, second, misguided.

MISLED

I will introduce the first concept. I wish to show that the position that the capitalist state was established by convention is the result of ideological trickery.

The capitalist state, in this way that it is conceived by the contractarians, and indeed, also the way that it is popularly conceived–that it is an agreement between the governors and the governed–is in fact a deception by the governors over the governed. Whereas contractarians take the capitalist state to be a transparent, and therefore equitable transfer of individual freedoms in a compact to create a monopoly of violence, I will show that it is instead an almighty trick on the part of the ruling class of capitalist states.

The capitalist state as it actually exists is not a liberal democratic one. It is instead better represented by a Principality of the type of which Machiavelli speaks. Those who defend the position that capitalist states are created by convention wish to argue that the actuality of the state under which we currently live under is established by a pact which justifies its existence. Perhaps the states we live under were established by some form of assent or relinquishing of freedoms to establish awesome Leviathans, but it was not a free and fair exchange. We have been duped, and we would do well to dwell on the creation of a better society, one in which we do not experience suffering, corruption, one in which we can experience free association between peoples without racism, violence, or any other kind of bigotry.

So, when contractarians speak of the state being established by convention, they have been misled as to the nature of justice in capitalist society.

Chapter, or Section 27 of Machiavelli’s Prince describes with stunning clarity the proper historical function of the capitalist state is it currently actually exists. Machiavelli discusses elsewhere how principalities, for the most part, are established through what he terms ‘crime’ or ‘violence’, and we need not recount the establishment of the Australian capitalist state. This is well known. Section 27 is titled Cruelty and compassion; and whether it is better to be loved than feared, or the reverse.

This similarly famous passage from the pamphlet finds Machiavelli stating that “a prince must want to have a reputation for compassion than for cruelty; nonetheless, he must be careful that he does make bad use of compassion”.1

What follows is the psychotic reasoning that we have all come to expect from The Prince:

So a Prince must not worry if he incurs reproach for his cruelty so long as he keeps his subjects united and loyal. By making an example or two he will prove more compassionate than those who, being too compassionate, allow disorders which lead to murder and rapine. These nearly always harm the whole community, wheras executions ordered by a prince only affect individuals.2

Machiavelli then passes over into the main topic of the chapter, asking himself why it seems to be true that rulers are provided with exception from murder and oppression when they are successful–why the Leviathan capitalist state routinely gets away with killing and squashing the rights of individuals in the name of unity and loyalty. So long as princes are successful in their grabs for power, they are lauded and respected–when individuals take it upon themselves to wrong others, they have no such protection.

He answers: fear. Of course, the state would prefer to be loved and feared at the same time,

but because it is difficult to combine them, it is far better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both. One can make this generalisation about men: they are ungrateful, fickle, liars and deceivers, they shun danger and are greedy for profit; while you treat them well, they are yours. They would shed their blood for you … so long, as I said above, the danger is remote; but when you are in danger they turn against you. Any prince who has come to depend entirely on promises and has taken no other precautions ensures his own ruin; friendship which is bought with money and not greatness and nobility of mind is paid for, but it does not last and it yields nothing. Men worry less about doing an injury to one who makes himself loved than to one who makes himself feared. The bond of love is one which men, wretched creatures that they are, break when it is to their advantage to do so; but fear is strengthened by a dread of punishment which is always effective.3

Does this not remind us of the cynicism we so easily detect in the power plays of our own national, and international leaders? Isn’t this a better description of the actually-existing nature of the capitalist state? The contractarians have been misled when they argue that the formation of their so-called liberal democratic state ensures harmony and peace for all. All a contractarian can do is quietly assent to Machiavelli’s assumption that individual humans, when organised in their imagined stateless civil society, are self-interested and competitive. If they accept this beginning assumption–destructive individual self-interest–they are not entitled to then reason that a liberal democratic state does away with it.

This is because Macchiavelli perfectly explains the real function of the so called ‘liberal-democratic’ state. The state, or, using Machiavelli’s moniker, the ‘Prince’, has a perfect use for using harmony and orderliness as a powerful weapon at the level of mere appearance. The combination of rulers and ruled is achievable in part due to the appearance that our state has been harmoniously incorporated.

MISGUIDED

So much for the psychotic blinkers that our rulers have placed over our eyes. I disagree with both Machiavelli and the contractarians with their account of the creation of the state. The capitalist state was created, and is perpetuated through neither the extreme voluntary criminality of capitalist leaders, nor through the liberal utopian vision of a democratic incorporation of a social contract.

Machiavelli’s Prince is just as conventionalist about the creation of the state as, say, the left-liberal Rawlsians.

The conventionalists have also been misguided in their attempt to explain the actuality of the capitalist state. The capitalist state was not created by convention, but was established by a corruption of the natural course of human societal development. This is the second intervention I wish to make.

Correctly identifying the basis for the nature of the capitalist state will allow us to explain why human social life appears alienated and plagued by the oppression of a ruling class. It will also point to a way out of this mess. A pathway beyond the capitalist state, towards a free and equal society.

I hold to the view that human social formations are natural. But I absolutely reject the position that human societies are natural in terms of mere efficient causation. The idea that human societies are just and fair by mere dint that they evolved in this particular way is a centre-piece of Fascist political thinking. It is also a irrational tautology—human societies are just because this is how they currently exist, and they could not have existed any other way. Further, I also reject the idea that human history could not have evolved any other way, that this certain stage of human development of human civilisation was necessary merely in terms of efficient causation.

The late works of Marx and Engels demonstrate a third way between liberal, conventional contractarian defences for the capitalist state, and neo-Conservative, borderline Fascist exculpations for the present state of the global political hierarchy.

Marx and Engels rely on a richer conception of historical causation than the contractarians and what I will term the neo-Conservative efficient causationalists. Marx and Engels admit of, in addition to efficient causation, formal and final causation.

Both the Philistine neo-Conservative naturalist and standard conventionalist (say, a Rawlsian), rely on the historical cause of efficient causation alone to assemble their respective states of nature theses about what the nature of humans are as political agents.

But discussion about human nature as it relates to political philosophy admits of more than just efficient causation. I now turn to Frederick Engels to demonstrate why and how.

Engels, in his treatise The Origin of The Family, Private Property, and the State examines the history of the development of the capitalist state through its various historical, dialectical transformations from the neolithic era, through the ancient Greek and Roman states, and past the Christendom of the Middle Ages, to show that

The state is, therefore, by no means a power forced on society from without; just as little is it “the reality of the ethical idea”, “the image and reality of reason”, as Hegel maintains. Rather, it is a product of society at a certain stage of development; it is the admission that this society has become entangled in an insoluble contradiction with itself, that it has split into irreconcilable antagonisms which it is powerless to dispel.4

However, while Engels does argue that the capitalist state as it currently exists is the result of a human social history that he deems natural, Engels is at pains to dismiss the idea that just because the capitalist state, currently, is “natural”, it by no means is historically necessary:

The state, then, has not existed from all eternity. There have been societies that did without it, that had no idea of the state or state power. At a certain stage of of economic development, which was necessarily bound up with the split of society into classes, the state became a necessity owing to this split. We are now rapidly approaching a stage in the development of production at which the existence of these classes not only will have ceased to be a necessity, but will become a positive hindrance to production.5

To use the language of Spinoza, the capitalist state is real, but it is not true. Here we need to think teleologically, and not deterministically. The efficient causation of states may be explainable in terms of how it was indeed caused as a series of events, but it is also worth considering the structure and purpose of human social organisation. Why have governments of this particular mode? Why structure human social life around these sets of concepts?

I agree with Engels when he says we should reject the import of the final causation (the purpose, or overall holistic function) of capitalist states:

… on the whole, however, the entire period of civilisation [read: the period of the dominance of the capitalist state] has been dominated by these laws. To this day, the product is master of the producer; to this day, the total production of society is regulated, not by a collectively thought-out plan, but by blind laws, which operate with elemental force, in the last resort in the storms of periodic commercial crises.6

MISUSE AND MISBEHAVIOUR

The capitalist state has taken to be either natural, in a neo-Conservative, or Fascistic sense. It has also taken to be conventional. In its most famous guise, the convention that of the capitalist state is a social contract.

We would do well to dismiss the anxieties that both these views entail. The capitalist state stands as a mighty oppressive force that, in the case of both social contractarianism and Philistine naturalism, is attempted to be justified, first, on the basis of misidentification of the origin of the convention, and, second, on the basis of mere efficient causation–the fact that simply because this is where we have arrived, this is where we should stay.

~vidak

vidak@riseup.net


  1. Machiavelli, The Prince (translated by George Bull, 1961), page 95. ↩︎

  2. Machiavelli, The Prince (translated by George Bull, 1961), page 95. ↩︎

  3. Machiavelli, The Prince (translated by George Bull, 1961), page 96-97. ↩︎

  4. Frederick Engels, “The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State” in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Selected Works, Volume 3 (1973), pp 326-327. ↩︎

  5. Frederick Engels, “The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State” in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Selected Works, Volume 3 (1973), p 330. ↩︎

  6. Frederick Engels, “The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State” in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Selected Works, Volume 3 (1973), p 331. ↩︎

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