B.2.3 How does the ruling class maintain control of the state?
In some systems, it is obvious how economic dominant minorities control the state. In feudalism, for example, the land was owned by the feudal lords who exploited the peasantry directly. Economic and political power were merged into the same set of hands, the landlords. Absolutism saw the monarch bring the feudal lords under his power and the relative decentralised nature of feudalism was replaced by a centralised state.
It was this centralised state system which the raising bourgeoisie took as the model for their state. The King was replaced by a Parliament, which was initially elected on a limited suffrage. In this initial form of capitalist state, it is (again) obvious how the elite maintain control of the state machine. As the vote was based on having a minimum amount of property, the poor were effectively barred from having any (official) say in what the government did. This exclusion was theorised by philosophers like John Locke — the working masses were considered to be an object of state policy rather than part of the body of people (property owners) who nominated the government. In this perspective the state was like a joint-stock company. The owning class were the share-holders who nominated the broad of directors and the mass of the population were the workers who had no say in determining the management personnel and were expected to follow orders.
As would be expected, this system was mightily disliked by the majority who were subjected to it. Such a “classical liberal” regime was rule by an alien, despotic power, lacking popular legitimacy, and utterly unaccountable to the general population. It is quite evident that a government elected on a limited franchise could not be trusted to treat those who owned no real property with equal consideration. It was predictable that the ruling elite would use the state they controlled to further their own interests and to weaken potential resistance to their social, economic and political power. Which is precisely what they did do, while masking their power under the guise of “good governance” and “liberty.” Moreover, limited suffrage, like absolutism, was considered an affront to liberty and individual dignity by many of those subject to it.
Hence the call for universal suffrage and opposition to property qualifications for the franchise. For many radicals (including Marx and Engels) such a system would mean that the working classes would hold “political power” and, consequently, be in a position to end the class system once and for all. Anarchists were not convinced, arguing that “universal suffrage, considered in itself and applied in a society based on economic and social inequality, will be nothing but a swindle and snare for the people” and “the surest way to consolidate under the mantle of liberalism and justice the permanent domination of the people by the owning classes, to the detriment of popular liberty.” Consequently, anarchists denied that it “could be used by the people for the conquest of economic and social equality. It must always and necessarily be an instrument hostile to the people, one which supports the de facto dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.” [Bakunin, Bakunin on Anarchism, p. 224]
Due to popular mass movements form below, the vote was won by the male working classes and, at a later stage, women. While the elite fought long and hard to retain their privileged position they were defeated. Sadly, the history of universal suffrage proven the anarchists right. Even allegedly “democratic” capitalist states are in effect dictatorships of the propertariat. The political history of modern times can be summarised by the rise of capitalist power, the rise, due to popular movements, of (representative) democracy and the continued success of the former to undermine and control the latter.
This is achieved by three main processes which combine to effectively deter democracy. These are the wealth barrier, the bureaucracy barrier and, lastly, the capital barrier. Each will be discussed in turn and all ensure that “representative democracy” remains an “organ of capitalist domination.” [Kropotkin, Words of a Rebel, p. 127]
The wealth barrier is the most obvious. It takes money to run for office. In 1976, the total spent on the US Presidential election was $66.9 million. In 1984, it was $103.6 million and in 1996 it was $239.9 million. At the dawn of the 21st century, these figures had increased yet again. 2000 saw $343.1 spent and 2004, $717.9 million. Most of this money was spent by the two main candidates. In 2000, Republican George Bush spent a massive $185,921,855 while his Democratic rival Al Gore spent only $120,031,205. Four years later, Bush spent $345,259,155 while John Kerry managed a mere $310,033,347.
Other election campaigns are also enormously expensive. In 2000, the average winning candidate for a seat in the US House of Representatives spent $816,000 while the average willing senator spent $7 million. Even local races require significant amounts of fundraising. One candidate for the Illinois House raised over $650,000 while another candidate for the Illinois Supreme Court raised $737,000. In the UK, similarly prohibitive amounts were spent. In the 2001 general election the Labour Party spent a total of �10,945,119, the Tories �12,751,813 and the Liberal Democrats (who came a distant third) just �1,361,377.
To get this sort of money, wealthy contributors need to be found and wooed, in other words promised that that their interests will be actively looked after. While, in theory, it is possible to raise large sums from small contributions in practice this is difficult. To raise $1 million you need to either convince 50 millionaires to give you $20,000 or 20,000 people to fork out $50. Given that for the elite $20,000 is pocket money, it is hardly surprising that politicians aim for winning over the few, not the many. Similarly with corporations and big business. It is far easier and more efficient in time and energy to concentrate on the wealthy few (whether individuals or companies).
It is obvious: whoever pays the piper calls the tune. And in capitalism, this means the wealthy and business. In the US corporate campaign donations and policy paybacks have reached unprecedented proportions. The vast majority of large campaign donations are, not surprisingly, from corporations. Most of the wealthy individuals who give large donations to the candidates are CEOs and corporate board members. And, just to be sure, many companies give to more than one party.
Unsurprisingly, corporations and the rich expect their investments to get a return. This can be seen from George W. Bush’s administration. His election campaigns were beholden to the energy industry (which has backed him since the beginning of his career as Governor of Texas). The disgraced corporation Enron (and its CEO Kenneth Lay) were among Bush’s largest contributors in 2000. Once in power, Bush backed numerous policies favourable to that industry (such as rolling back environmental regulation on a national level as he had done in Texas). His supporters in Wall Street were not surprised that Bush tried to privatise Social Security. Nor were the credit card companies when the Republicans tighten the noose on bankrupt people in 2005. By funding Bush, these corporations ensured that the government furthered their interests rather than the people who voted in the election.
This means that as a “consequence of the distribution of resources and decision-making power in the society at large . . . the political class and the cultural managers typically associate themselves with the sectors that dominate the private economy; they are either drawn directly from those sectors or expect to join them.” [Chomsky, Necessary Illusions, p. 23] This can be seen from George W. Bush’s quip at an elite fund-raising gala during the 2000 Presidential election: “This is an impressive crowd — the haves and the have-mores. Some people call you the elites; I call you my base.” Unsurprisingly:
“In the real world, state policy is largely determined by those groups that command resources, ultimately by virtue of their ownership and management of the private economy or their status as wealthy professionals. The major decision-making positions in the Executive branch of the government are typically filled by representatives of major corporations, banks and investment firms, a few law firms that cater primarily to corporate interests and thus represent the broad interests of owners and managers rather than some parochial interest . . . The Legislative branch is more varied, but overwhelmingly, it is drawn from the business and professional classes.” [Chomsky, On Power and Ideology, pp. 116-7]
That is not the only tie between politics and business. Many politicians also have directorships in companies, interests in companies, shares, land and other forms of property income and so forth. Thus they are less like the majority of constituents they claim to represent and more like the wealthy few. Combine these outside earnings with a high salary (in the UK, MP’s are paid more than twice the national average) and politicians can be among the richest 1% of the population. Thus not only do we have a sharing of common interests the elite, the politicians are part of it. As such, they can hardly be said to be representative of the general public and are in a position of having a vested interest in legislation on property being voted on.
Some defend these second jobs and outside investments by saying that it keeps them in touch with the outside world and, consequently, makes them better politicians. That such an argument is spurious can be seen from the fact that such outside interests never involve working in McDonald’s flipping burgers or working on an assembly line. For some reason, no politician seeks to get a feeling for what life is like for the average person. Yet, in a sense, this argument does have a point. Such jobs and income do keep politicians in touch with the world of the elite rather than that of the masses and, as the task of the state is to protect elite interests, it cannot be denied that this sharing of interests and income with the elite can only aid that task!
Then there is the sad process by which politicians, once they leave politics, get jobs in the corporate hierarchy (particularly with the very companies they had previously claimed to regulate on behalf of the public). This was termed “the revolving door.” Incredibly, this has changed for the worse. Now the highest of government officials arrive directly from the executive offices of powerful corporations. Lobbyists are appointed to the jobs whose occupants they once vied to influence. Those who regulate and those supposed to be regulated have become almost indistinguishable.
Thus politicians and capitalists go hand in hand. Wealth selects them, funds them and gives them jobs and income when in office. Finally, once they finally leave politics, they are often given directorships and other jobs in the business world. Little wonder, then, that the capitalist class maintains control of the state.
That is not all. The wealth barrier operates indirectly to. This takes many forms. The most obvious is in the ability of corporations and the elite to lobby politicians. In the US, there is the pervasive power of Washington’s army of 24,000 registered lobbyists — and the influence of the corporate interests they represent. These lobbyists, whose job it is to convince politicians to vote in certain ways to further the interests of their corporate clients help shape the political agenda even further toward business interests than it already is. This Lobby industry is immense — and exclusively for big business and the elite. Wealth ensures that the equal opportunity to garner resources to share a perspective and influence the political progress is monopolised by the few: “where are the desperately needed countervailing lobbies to represent the interests of average citizens? Where are the millions of dollars acting in their interests? Alas, they are notably absent.” [Joel Bakan, The Corporation, p. 107]
However, it cannot be denied that it is up to the general population to vote for politicians. This is when the indirect impact of wealth kicks in, namely the role of the media and the Public Relations (PR) industry. As we discuss in section D.3, the modern media is dominated by big business and, unsurprisingly, reflects their interests. This means that the media has an important impact on how voters see parties and specific politicians and candidates. A radical party will, at best, be ignored by the capitalist press or, at worse, subject to smears and attacks. This will have a corresponding negative impact on their election prospects and will involve the affected party having to invest substantially more time, energy and resources in countering the negative media coverage. The PR industry has a similar effect, although that has the advantage of not having to bother with appearing to look factual or unbiased. Add to this the impact of elite and corporation funded “think tanks” and the political system is fatally skewed in favour of the capitalist class (also see section D.2).
In a nutshell:
“The business class dominates government through its ability to fund political campaigns, purchase high priced lobbyists and reward former officials with lucrative jobs . . . [Politicians] have become wholly dependent upon the same corporate dollars to pay for a new professional class of PR consultants, marketeers and social scientists who manage and promote causes and candidates in essentially the same manner that advertising campaigns sell cars, fashions, drugs and other wares.” [John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, Toxic Sludge is Good for You, p. 78]
That is the first barrier, the direct and indirect impact of wealth. This, in itself, is a powerful barrier to deter democracy and, as a consequence, it is usually sufficient in itself. Yet sometimes people see through the media distortions and vote for reformist, even radical, candidates. As we discuss in section J.2.6, anarchists argue that the net effect of running for office is a general de-radicalising of the party involved. Revolutionary parties become reformist, reformist parties end up maintaining capitalism and introducing polities the opposite of which they had promised. So while it is unlikely that a radical party could get elected and remain radical in the process, it is possible. If such a party did get into office, the remaining two barriers kicks in: the bureaucracy barrier and the capital barrier.
The existence of a state bureaucracy is a key feature in ensuring that the state remains the ruling class’s “policeman” and will be discussed in greater detail in section J.2.2 (Why do anarchists reject voting as a means for change?). Suffice to say, the politicians who are elected to office are at a disadvantage as regards the state bureaucracy. The latter is a permanent concentration of power while the former come and go. Consequently, they are in a position to tame any rebel government by means of bureaucratic inertia, distorting and hiding necessary information and pushing its own agenda onto the politicians who are in theory their bosses but in reality dependent on the bureaucracy. And, needless to say, if all else fails the state bureaucracy can play its final hand: the military coup.
This threat has been applied in many countries, most obviously in the developing world (with the aid of Western, usually US, imperialism). The coups in Iran (1953) and Chile (1973) are just two examples of this process. Yet the so-called developed world is not immune to it. The rise of fascism in Italy, Germany, Portugal and Spain can be considered as variations of a military coup (particularly the last one where fascism was imposed by the military). Wealthy business men funded para-military forces to break the back of the labour movement, forces formed by ex-military people. Even the New Deal in America was threatened by such a coup. [Joel Bakan, Op. Cit., pp. 86-95] While such regimes do protect the interests of capital and are, consequently, backed by it, they do hold problems for capitalism. This is because, as with the Absolutism which fostered capitalism in the first place, this kind of government can get ideas above its station This means that a military coup will only be used when the last barrier, the capital barrier, is used and fails.
The capital barrier is obviously related to the wealth barrier insofar as it relates to the power that great wealth produces. However, it is different in how it is applied. The wealth barrier restricts who gets into office, the capital barrier controls whoever does so. The capital barrier, in other words, are the economic forces that can be brought to bear on any government which is acting in ways disliked of by the capitalist class.
We see their power implied when the news report that changes in government, policies and law have been “welcomed by the markets.” As the richest 1% of households in America (about 2 million adults) owned 35% of the stock owned by individuals in 1992 — with the top 10% owning over 81% — we can see that the “opinion” of the markets actually means the power of the richest 1-5% of a countries population (and their finance experts), power derived from their control over investment and production. Given that the bottom 90% of the US population has a smaller share (23%) of all kinds of investable capital that the richest 1/2% (who own 29%), with stock ownership being even more concentrated (the top 5% holding 95% of all shares), its obvious why Doug Henwood argues that stock markets are “a way for the very rich as a class to own an economy’s productive capital stock as a whole,” are a source of “political power” and a way to have influence over government policy. [Wall Street: Class Racket]
The mechanism is simple enough. The ability of capital to disinvest (capital flight) and otherwise adversely impact the economy is a powerful weapon to keep the state as its servant. The companies and the elite can invest at home or abroad, speculate in currency markets and so forth. If a significant number of investors or corporations lose confidence in a government they will simply stop investing at home and move their funds abroad. At home, the general population feel the results as demand drops, layoffs increase and recession kicks in. As Noam Chomsky notes:
“In capitalist democracy, the interests that must be satisfied are those of capitalists; otherwise, there is no investment, no production, no work, no resources to be devoted, however marginally, to the needs of the general population.” [Turning the Tide, p. 233]
This ensures the elite control of government as government policies which private power finds unwelcome will quickly be reversed. The power which “business confidence” has over the political system ensures that democracy is subservient to big business. As summarised by Malatesta:
“Even with universal suffrage — we could well say even more so with universal suffrage — the government remained the bourgeoisie’s servant and gendarme. For were it to be otherwise with the government hinting that it might take up a hostile attitude, or that democracy could ever be anything but a pretence to deceive the people, the bourgeoisie, feeling its interests threatened, would by quick to react, and would use all the influence and force at its disposal, by reason of its wealth, to recall the government to its proper place as the bourgeoisie’s gendarme.“ [Anarchy, p. 23]
It is due to these barriers that the state remains an instrument of the capitalist class while being, in theory, a democracy. Thus the state machine remains a tool by which the few can enrich themselves at the expense of the many. This does not mean, of course, that the state is immune to popular pressure. Far from it. As indicated in the last section, direct action by the oppressed can and has forced the state to implement significant reforms. Similarly, the need to defend society against the negative effects of unregulated capitalism can also force through populist measures (particularly when the alternative may be worse than the allowing the reforms, i.e. revolution). The key is that such changes are not the natural function of the state.
So due to their economic assets, the elites whose incomes are derived from them — namely, finance capitalists, industrial capitalists, and landlords — are able to accumulate vast wealth from those whom they exploit. This stratifies society into a hierarchy of economic classes, with a huge disparity of wealth between the small property-owning elite at the top and the non-property-owning majority at the bottom. Then, because it takes enormous wealth to win elections and lobby or bribe legislators, the propertied elite are able to control the political process — and hence the state — through the “power of the purse.” In summary:
“No democracy has freed itself from the rule by the well-to-do anymore than it has freed itself from the division between the ruler and the ruled . . . at the very least, no democracy has jeopardised the role of business enterprise. Only the wealthy and well off can afford to launch viable campaigns for public office and to assume such positions. Change in government in a democracy is a circulation from one elite group to another.” [Harold Barclay, Op. Cit., p. 47]
In other words, elite control of politics through huge wealth disparities insures the continuation of such disparities and thus the continuation of elite control. In this way the crucial political decisions of those at the top are insulated from significant influence by those at the bottom. Finally, it should be noted that these barriers do not arise accidentally. They flow from the way the state is structured. By effectively disempowering the masses and centralising power into the hands of the few which make up the government, the very nature of the state ensures that it remains under elite control. This is why, from the start, the capitalist class has favoured centralisation. We discuss this in the next two sections.
(For more on the ruling elite and its relation to the state, see C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite [Oxford, 1956]; cf. Ralph Miliband, The State in Capitalist Society [Basic Books, 1969] and Divided Societies [Oxford, 1989]; G. William Domhoff, Who Rules America? [Prentice Hall, 1967]; and Who Rules America Now? A View for the ’80s [Touchstone, 1983]).<.p>
It is a common idea that voting every four or so years to elect the public face of a highly centralised and bureaucratic machine means that ordinary people control the state and, as a consequence, free. In reality, this is a false idea. In any system of centralised power the general population have little say in what affects them and, as a result, their freedom is extremely limited.
Obviously, to say that this idea is false does not imply that there is no difference between a liberal republic and a fascistic or monarchical state. Far from it. The vote is an important victory wrested from the powers that be. That, of course, is not to suggest that anarchists think that libertarian socialism is only possible after universal suffrage has been won or that it is achievable via it. Far from it. It is simply to point out that being able to pick your ruler is a step forward from having one imposed upon you. Moreover, those considered able to pick their ruler is, logically, also able to do without one.
However, while the people are proclaimed to be sovereign in a democratic state, in reality they alienate their power and hand over control of their affairs to a small minority. Liberty, in other words, is reduced to merely the possibility “to pick rulers” every four or five years and whose mandate (sic!) is “to legislate on any subject, and his decision will become law.” [Kropotkin, Words of a Rebel, p. 122 and p. 123]
In other words, representative democracy is not “liberty” nor “self-government.” It is about alienating power to a few people who then (mis)rule in your name. To imply it is anything else is nonsense. So while we get to pick a politician to govern in our name it does not follow that they represent those who voted for them in any meaningful sense. As shown time and time again, “representative” governments can happily ignore the opinions of the majority while, at the same time, verbally praising the “democracy” it is abusing (New Labour in the UK during the run up to the invasion of Iraq was a classic example of this). Given that politicians can do what they like for four or five years once elected, it is clear that popular control via the ballot box is hardly effective or even meaningful.
Indeed, such “democracy” almost always means electing politicians who say one thing in opposition and do the opposite once in office. Politicians who, at best, ignore their election manifesto when it suits them or, at worse, introduce the exact opposite. It is the kind of “democracy” in which people can protest in their hundreds of thousands against a policy only to see their “representative” government simply ignore them (while, at the same time, seeing their representatives bend over backward ensuring corporate profits and power while speaking platitudes to the electorate and their need to tighten their belts). At best it can be said that democratic governments tend to be less oppressive than others but it does not follow that this equates to liberty.
State centralisation is the means to ensure this situation and the debasement of freedom it implies.
All forms of hierarchy, even those in which the top officers are elected are marked by authoritarianism and centralism. Power is concentrated in the centre (or at the top), which means that society becomes “a heap of dust animated from without by a subordinating, centralist idea.” [P. J. Proudhon, quoted by Martin Buber, Paths in Utopia, p. 29] For, once elected, top officers can do as they please, and, as in all bureaucracies, many important decisions are made by non-elected staff. This means that the democratic state is a contradiction in terms:
“In the democratic state the election of rulers by alleged majority vote is a subterfuge which helps individuals to believe that they control the situation. They are selecting persons to do a task for them and they have no guarantee that it will be carried out as they desired. They are abdicating to these persons, granting them the right to impose their own wills by the threat of force. Electing individuals to public office is like being given a limited choice of your oppressors . . . Parliamentary democracies are essentially oligarchies in which the populace is led to believe that it delegates all its authority to members of parliament to do as they think best.” [Harold Barclay, Op. Cit., pp. 46-7]
The nature of centralisation places power into the hands of the few. Representative democracy is based on this delegation of power, with voters electing others to govern them. This cannot help but create a situation in which freedom is endangered — universal suffrage “does not prevent the formation of a body of politicians, privileged in fact though not in law, who, devoting themselves exclusively to the administration of the nation’s public affairs, end by becoming a sort of political aristocracy or oligarchy.” [Bakunin, The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, p. 240]
This should not come as a surprise, for to “create a state is to institutionalise power in a form of machine that exists apart from the people. It is to professionalise rule and policy making, to create a distinct interest (be it of bureaucrats, deputies, commissars, legislators, the military, the police, ad nauseam) that, however weak or however well-intentioned it may be at first, eventually takes on a corruptive power of its own.” [Murray Bookchin, “The Ecological Crisis, Socialism, and the need to remake society,” pp. 1-10, Society and Nature, vol. 2, no. 3, p. 7]
Centralism makes democracy meaningless, as political decision-making is given over to professional politicians in remote capitals. Lacking local autonomy, people are isolated from each other (atomised) by having no political forum where they can come together to discuss, debate, and decide among themselves the issues they consider important. Elections are not based on natural, decentralised groupings and thus cease to be relevant. The individual is just another “voter” in the mass, a political “constituent” and nothing more. The amorphous basis of modern, statist elections “aims at nothing less than to abolish political life in towns, communes and departments, and through this destruction of all municipal and regional autonomy to arrest the development of universal suffrage.” [Proudhon, quoted by Martin Buber, Op. Cit., p. 29]
Thus people are disempowered by the very structures that claim to allow them to express themselves. To quote Proudhon again, in the centralised state “the citizen divests himself of sovereignty, the town and the Department and province above it, absorbed by central authority, are no longer anything but agencies under direct ministerial control.” He continues:
“The Consequences soon make themselves felt: the citizen and the town are deprived of all dignity, the state’s depredations multiply, and the burden on the taxpayer increases in proportion. It is no longer the government that is made for the people; it is the people who are made for the government. Power invades everything, dominates everything, absorbs everything.” [The Principle of Federation, p. 59]
As intended, as isolated people are no threat to the powers that be. This process of marginalisation can be seen from American history, for example, when town meetings were replaced by elected bodies, with the citizens being placed in passive, spectator roles as mere “voters” (see next section). Being an atomised voter is hardly an ideal notion of “freedom,” despite the rhetoric of politicians about the virtues of a “free society” and “The Free World” — as if voting once every four or five years could ever be classed as “liberty” or even “democracy.”
Marginalisation of the people is the key control mechanism in the state and authoritarian organisations in general. Considering the European Community (EC), for example, we find that the “mechanism for decision-making between EC states leaves power in the hands of officials (from Interior ministries, police, immigration, customs and security services) through a myriad of working groups. Senior officials . . . play a critical role in ensuring agreements between the different state officials. The EC Summit meetings, comprising the 12 Prime Ministers, simply rubber-stamp the conclusions agreed by the Interior and Justice Ministers. It is only then, in this intergovernmental process, that parliaments and people are informed (and them only with the barest details).” [Tony Bunyon, Statewatching the New Europe, p. 39]
As well as economic pressures from elites, governments also face pressures within the state itself due to the bureaucracy that comes with centralism. There is a difference between the state and government. The state is the permanent collection of institutions that have entrenched power structures and interests. The government is made up of various politicians. It’s the institutions that have power in the state due to their permanence, not the representatives who come and go. As Clive Ponting (an ex-civil servant himself) indicates, “the function of a political system in any country . . . is to regulate, but not to alter radically, the existing economic structure and its linked power relationships. The great illusion of politics is that politicians have the ability to make whatever changes they like.” [quoted in Alternatives, no.5, p. 19]
Therefore, as well as marginalising the people, the state also ends up marginalising “our” representatives. As power rests not in the elected bodies, but in a bureaucracy, popular control becomes increasingly meaningless. As Bakunin pointed out, “liberty can be valid only when . . . [popular] control [of the state] is valid. On the contrary, where such control is fictitious, this freedom of the people likewise becomes a mere fiction.” [Op. Cit., p. 212] State centralisation ensures that popular control is meaningless.
This means that state centralism can become a serious source of danger to the liberty and well-being of most of the people under it. “The bourgeois republicans,” argued Bakunin, “do not yet grasp this simple truth, demonstrated by the experience of all times and in all lands, that every organised power standing above and over the people necessarily excludes the freedom of peoples. The political state has no other purpose than to protect and perpetuate the exploitation of the labour of the proletariat by the economically dominant classes, and in so doing the state places itself against the freedom of the people.” [Bakunin on Anarchism, p. 416]
Unsurprisingly, therefore, “whatever progress that has been made . . . on various issues, whatever things have been done for people, whatever human rights have been gained, have not been gained through the calm deliberations of Congress or the wisdom of presidents or the ingenious decisions of the Supreme Court. Whatever progress has been made . . . has come because of the actions of ordinary people, of citizens, of social movements. Not from the Constitution.” That document has been happily ignored by the official of the state when it suits them. An obvious example is the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution, which “didn’t have any meaning until black people rose up in the 1950s and 1960s in the South in mass movements . . . They made whatever words there were in the Constitution and the 14th Amendment have some meaning for the first time.” [Howard Zinn, Failure to Quit, p. 69 and p. 73]
This is because the “fact that you have got a constitutional right doesn’t mean you’re going to get that right. Who has the power on the spot? The policeman on the street. The principal in the school. The employer on job. The Constitution does not cover private employment. In other words, the Constitution does not cover most of reality.” Thus our liberty is not determined by the laws of the state. Rather “the source and solution of our civil liberties problems are in the situations of every day . . . Our actual freedom is determined not by the Constitution or the Court, but by the power the policeman has over us on the street or that of the local judge behind him; by the authority of our employers; . . . by the welfare bureaucrats if we are poor; . . . by landlords if we are tenants.” Thus freedom and justice “are determined by power and money” rather than laws. This points to the importance of popular participation, of social movements, for what those do are “to create a countervailing power to the policeman with a club and a gun. That’s essentially what movements do: They create countervailing powers to counter the power which is much more important than what is written down in the Constitution or the laws.” [Zinn, Op. Cit., pp. 84-5, pp. 54-5 and p. 79]
It is precisely this kind of mass participation that centralisation kills. Under centralism, social concern and power are taken away from ordinary citizens and centralised in the hands of the few. This results in any formally guaranteed liberties being effectively ignored when people want to use them, if the powers at be so decide. Ultimately, isolated individuals facing the might of a centralised state machine are in a weak position. Which is way the state does what it can to undermine such popular movements and organisations (going so far as to violate its own laws to do so).
As should be obvious, by centralisation anarchists do not mean simply a territorial centralisation of power in a specific central location (such as in a nation state where power rests in a central government located in a specific place). We also mean the centralisation of power into a few hands. Thus we can have a system like feudalism which is territorially decentralised (i.e. made up on numerous feudal lords without a strong central state) while having power centralised in a few hands locally (i.e. power rests in the hands of the feudal lords, not in the general population). Or, to use another example, we can have a laissez-faire capitalist system which has a weak central authority but is made up of a multitude of autocratic workplaces. As such, getting rid of the central power (say the central state in capitalism or the monarch in absolutism) while retaining the local authoritarian institutions (say capitalist firms and feudal landlords) would not ensure freedom. Equally, the abolition of local authorities may simply result in the strengthening of central power and a corresponding weakening of freedom.
No social system would exist unless it benefited someone or some group. Centralisation, be it in the state or the company, is no different. In all cases, centralisation directly benefits those at the top, because it shelters them from those who are below, allowing the latter to be controlled and governed more effectively. Therefore, it is in the direct interests of bureaucrats and politicians to support centralism.
Under capitalism, however, various sections of the business class also support state centralism. This is the symbiotic relationship between capital and the state. As will be discussed later (in section F.8), the state played an important role in “nationalising” the market, i.e. forcing the “free market” onto society. By centralising power in the hands of representatives and so creating a state bureaucracy, ordinary people were disempowered and thus became less likely to interfere with the interests of the wealthy. “In a republic,” writes Bakunin, “the so-called people, the legal people, allegedly represented by the State, stifle and will keep on stifling the actual and living people” by “the bureaucratic world” for “the greater benefit of the privileged propertied classes as well as for its own benefit.” [Op. Cit., p. 211]
Examples of increased political centralisation being promoted by wealthy business interests by can be seen throughout the history of capitalism. “In revolutionary America, ‘the nature of city government came in for heated discussion,’ observes Merril Jensen . . . Town meetings . . . ‘had been a focal point of revolutionary activity’. The anti-democratic reaction that set in after the American revolution was marked by efforts to do away with town meeting government . . . Attempts by conservative elements were made to establish a ‘corporate form (of municipal government) whereby the towns would be governed by mayors and councils’ elected from urban wards . . . [T]he merchants ‘backed incorporation consistently in their efforts to escape town meetings.'” [Murray Bookchin, Towards an Ecological Society, p. 182]
Here we see local policy making being taken out of the hands of the many and centralised in the hands of the few (who are always the wealthy). France provides another example:
“The Government found. . .the folkmotes [of all households] ‘too noisy’, too disobedient, and in 1787, elected councils, composed of a mayor and three to six syndics, chosen among the wealthier peasants, were introduced instead.” [Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid, pp. 185-186]
This was part of a general movement to disempower the working class by centralising decision making power into the hands of the few (as in the American revolution). Kropotkin indicates the process at work:
“[T]he middle classes, who had until then had sought the support of the people, in order to obtain constitutional laws and to dominate the higher nobility, were going, now that they had seen and felt the strength of the people, to do all they could to dominate the people, to disarm them and to drive them back into subjection.
[. . .]
“[T]hey made haste to legislate in such a way that the political power which was slipping out of the hand of the Court should not fall into the hands of the people. Thus . . . [it was] proposed . . . to divide the French into two classes, of which one only, the active citizens, should take part in the government, whilst the other, comprising the great mass of the people under the name of passive citizens, should be deprived of all political rights . . . [T]he [National] Assembly divided France into departments . . . always maintaining the principle of excluding the poorer classes from the Government . . . [T]hey excluded from the primary assemblies the mass of the people . . . who could no longer take part in the primary assemblies, and accordingly had no right to nominate the electors [who chose representatives to the National Assembly], or the municipality, or any of the local authorities . . .
“And finally, the permanence of the electoral assemblies was interdicted. Once the middle-class governors were appointed, these assemblies were not to meet again. Once the middle-class governors were appointed, they must not be controlled too strictly. Soon the right even of petitioning and of passing resolutions was taken away — ‘Vote and hold your tongue!’
“As to the villages . . . the general assembly of the inhabitants . . . [to which] belonged the administration of the affairs of the commune . . . were forbidden by the . . . law. Henceforth only the well-to-do peasants, the active citizens, had the right to meet, once a year, to nominate the mayor and the municipality, composed of three or four middle-class men of the village.
“A similar municipal organisation was given to the towns. . .
“[Thus] the middle classes surrounded themselves with every precaution in order to keep the municipal power in the hands of the well-to-do members of the community.” [The Great French Revolution, vol. 1, pp. 179-186]
Thus centralisation aimed to take power away from the mass of the people and give it to the wealthy. The power of the people rested in popular assemblies, such as the “Sections” and “Districts” of Paris (expressing, in Kropotkin’s words, “the principles of anarchism” and “practising . . . Direct Self-Government” [Op. Cit., p. 204 and p. 203]) and village assemblies. However, the National Assembly “tried all it could to lessen the power of the districts . . . [and] put an end to those hotbeds of Revolution . . . [by allowing] active citizens only . . . to take part in the electoral and administrative assemblies.” [Op. Cit., p. 211] Thus the “central government was steadily endeavouring to subject the sections to its authority” with the state “seeking to centralise everything in its own hands . . . [I]ts depriving the popular organisations . . . all . . . administrative functions . . . and its subjecting them to its bureaucracy in police matters, meant the death of the sections.” [Op. Cit., vol. 2, p. 549 and p. 552]
As can be seen, both the French and American revolutions saw a similar process by which the wealthy centralised power into their own hands (volume one of Murray Bookchin’s The Third Revolution discusses the French and American revolutions in some detail). This ensured that working class people (i.e. the majority) were excluded from the decision making process and subject to the laws and power of a few. Which, of course, benefits the minority class whose representatives have that power. This was the rationale for the centralisation of power in every revolution. Whether it was the American, French or Russian, the centralisation of power was the means to exclude the many from participating in the decisions that affected them and their communities.
For example, the founding fathers of the American State were quite explicit on the need for centralisation for precisely this reason. For James Madison the key worry was when the “majority” gained control of “popular government” and was in a position to “sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens.” Thus the “public good” escaped the “majority” nor was it, as you would think, what the public thought of as good (for some reason left unexplained, Madison considered the majority able to pick those who could identify the public good). To safeguard against this, he advocated a republic rather than a democracy in which the citizens “assemble and administer the government in person . . . have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property.” He, of course, took it for granted that “[t]hose who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society.” His schema was to ensure that private property was defended and, as a consequence, the interests of those who held protected. Hence the need for “the delegation of the government . . . to a small number of citizens elected by the rest.” This centralisation of power into a few hands locally was matched by a territorial centralisation for the same reason. Madison favoured “a large over a small republic” as a “rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it.” [contained in Voices of a People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove (eds.), pp. 109-113] This desire to have a formal democracy, where the masses are mere spectators of events rather than participants, is a recurring theme in capitalism (see the chapter “Force and Opinion” in Noam Chomsky’s Deterring Democracy for a good overview).
On the federal and state levels in the US after the Revolution, centralisation of power was encouraged, since “most of the makers of the Constitution had some direct economic interest in establishing a strong federal government.” Needless to say, while the rich elite were well represented in formulating the principles of the new order, four groups were not: “slaves, indentured servants, women, men without property.” Needless to say, the new state and its constitution did not reflect their interests. Given that these were the vast majority, “there was not only a positive need for strong central government to protect the large economic interests, but also immediate fear of rebellion by discontented farmers.” [Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, p. 90] The chief event was Shay’s Rebellion in western Massachusetts. There the new Constitution had raised property qualifications for voting and, therefore, no one could hold state office without being wealthy. The new state was formed to combat such rebellions, to protect the wealthy few against the many.
Moreover, state centralisation, the exclusion of popular participation, was essential to mould US society into one dominated by capitalism:
“In the thirty years leading up to the Civil War, the law was increasingly interpreted in the courts to suit capitalist development. Studying this, Morton Horwitz (The Transformation of American Law) points out that the English common-law was no longer holy when it stood in the way of business growth . . . Judgements for damages against businessmen were taken out of the hands of juries, which were unpredictable, and given to judges . . . The ancient idea of a fair price for goods gave way in the courts to the idea of caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) . . . contract law was intended to discriminate against working people and for business . . . The pretence of the law was that a worker and a railroad made a contract with equal bargaining power . . . ‘The circle was completed; the law had come simply to ratify those forms of inequality that the market system had produced.'” [Zinn, Op. Cit., p. 234]
The US state was created on elitist liberal doctrine and actively aimed to reduce democratic tendencies (in the name of “individual liberty”). What happened in practice (unsurprisingly enough) was that the wealthy elite used the state to undermine popular culture and common right in favour of protecting and extending their own interests and power. In the process, US society was reformed in their own image:
“By the middle of the nineteenth century the legal system had been reshaped to the advantage of men of commerce and industry at the expense of farmers, workers, consumers, and other less powerful groups in society. . . it actively promoted a legal distribution of wealth against the weakest groups in society.” [Morton Horwitz, quoted by Zinn, Op. Cit., p. 235]
In more modern times, state centralisation and expansion has gone hand in glove with rapid industrialisation and the growth of business. As Edward Herman points out, “[t]o a great extent, it was the growth in business size and power that elicited the countervailing emergence of unions and the growth of government. Bigness beyond business was to a large extent a response to bigness in business.” [Corporate Control, Corporate Power, p. 188 — see also, Stephen Skowronek, Building A New American State: The Expansion of National Administrative Capacities, 1877-1920] State centralisation was required to produce bigger, well-defined markets and was supported by business when it acted in their interests (i.e. as markets expanded, so did the state in order to standardise and enforce property laws and so on). On the other hand, this development towards “big government” created an environment in which big business could grow (often encouraged by the state by subsidies and protectionism – as would be expected when the state is run by the wealthy) as well as further removing state power from influence by the masses and placing it more firmly in the hands of the wealthy. It is little wonder we see such developments, for “[s]tructures of governance tend to coalesce around domestic power, in the last few centuries, economic power.” [Noam Chomsky, World Orders, Old and New, p. 178]
State centralisation makes it easier for business to control government, ensuring that it remains their puppet and to influence the political process. For example, the European Round Table (ERT) “an elite lobby group of . . . chairmen or chief executives of large multi-nationals based mainly in the EU . . . [with] 11 of the 20 largest European companies [with] combined sales [in 1991] . . . exceeding $500 billion, . . . approximately 60 per cent of EU industrial production,” makes much use of the EU. As two researchers who have studied this body note, the ERT “is adept at lobbying . . . so that many ERT proposals and ‘visions’ are mysteriously regurgitated in Commission summit documents.” The ERT “claims that the labour market should be more ‘flexible,’ arguing for more flexible hours, seasonal contracts, job sharing and part time work. In December 1993, seven years after the ERT made its suggestions [and after most states had agreed to the Maastricht Treaty and its “social chapter”], the European Commission published a white paper . . . [proposing] making labour markets in Europe more flexible.” [Doherty and Hoedeman, “Knights of the Road,” New Statesman, 4/11/94, p. 27]
The current talk of globalisation, NAFTA, and the Single European Market indicates an underlying transformation in which state growth follows the path cut by economic growth. Simply put, with the growth of transnational corporations and global finance markets, the bounds of the nation-state have been made economically redundant. As companies have expanded into multi-nationals, so the pressure has mounted for states to follow suit and rationalise their markets across “nations” by creating multi-state agreements and unions.
As Noam Chomsky notes, G7, the IMF, the World Bank and so forth are a “de facto world government,” and “the institutions of the transnational state largely serve other masters [than the people], as state power typically does; in this case the rising transnational corporations in the domains of finance and other services, manufacturing, media and communications.” [Op. Cit., p. 179]
As multi-nationals grow and develop, breaking through national boundaries, a corresponding growth in statism is required. Moreover, a “particularly valuable feature of the rising de facto governing institutions is their immunity from popular influence, even awareness. They operate in secret, creating a world subordinated to the needs of investors, with the public ‘put in its place’, the threat of democracy reduced” [Chomsky, Op. Cit., p. 178].
This does not mean that capitalists desire state centralisation for everything. Often, particularly for social issues, relative decentralisation is often preferred (i.e. power is given to local bureaucrats) in order to increase business control over them. By devolving control to local areas, the power which large corporations, investment firms and the like have over the local government increases proportionally. In addition, even middle-sized enterprise can join in and influence, constrain or directly control local policies and set one workforce against another. Private power can ensure that “freedom” is safe, their freedom.
No matter which set of bureaucrats are selected, the need to centralise social power, thus marginalising the population, is of prime importance to the business class. It is also important to remember that capitalist opposition to “big government” is often financial, as the state feeds off the available social surplus, so reducing the amount left for the market to distribute to the various capitals in competition.
In reality, what capitalists object to about “big government” is its spending on social programs designed to benefit the poor and working class, an “illegitimate” function which “wastes” part of the surplus that might go to capital (and also makes people less desperate and so less willing to work cheaply). Hence the constant push to reduce the state to its “classical” role as protector of private property and the system, and little else. Other than their specious quarrel with the welfare state, capitalists are the staunchest supports of government (and the “correct” form of state intervention, such as defence spending), as evidenced by the fact that funds can always be found to build more prisons and send troops abroad to advance ruling-class interests, even as politicians are crying that there is “no money” in the treasury for scholarships, national health care, or welfare for the poor.
State centralisation ensures that “as much as the equalitarian principles have been embodied in its political constitutions, it is the bourgeoisie that governs, and it is the people, the workers, peasants included, who obey the laws made by the bourgeoisie” who “has in fact if not by right the exclusive privilege of governing.” This means that “political equality . . . is only a puerile fiction, an utter lie.” It takes a great deal of faith to assume that the rich, “being so far removed from the people by the conditions of its economic and social existence” can “give expression in the government and in the laws, to the feelings, the ideas, and the will of the people.” Unsurprisingly, we find that “in legislation as well as in carrying on the government, the bourgeoisie is guided by its own interests and its own instincts without concerning itself much with the interests of the people.” So while “on election days even the proudest bourgeois who have any political ambitions are forced to court . . . The Sovereign People.” But on the “day after the elections every one goes back to their daily business” and the politicians are given carte blanche to rule in the name of the people they claim to represent.” [Bakunin, The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, p. 218 and p. 219]
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