The State

Anthony de Jasay, courtesy of the author
Jasay, Anthony de
(1925- )
Display paragraphs in this book containing:
First Pub. Date
Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, Inc.
Pub. Date
31 of 33

5. State Capitalism

What Is to Be Done?


State capitalism is the fusion of political and economic power. It ends the anomaly of armed force being centred in the state, while the ownership of capital is dispersed throughout civil society.


People will finally be stopped from claiming through politics what is denied them by economics.


When he laid down the agenda for the out-of-power elite in "What Is to Be Done?," Lenin wanted his party to conquer by professionalism, secrecy, centralization, specialization and exclusivity. Harsh and chilling, his programme was not the sort the seeker after power can openly lay out before a public he needs to seduce. Laying it out would have spoilt his chances, had they ever depended on broad public support or any manner of capturing supreme power, other than by the previous tenant's default, that is to say by the collapse, in the chaos of a lost war and the February 1917 revolution, of the defences of the regime he sought to replace. He was for taking society unawares, securing the essential instruments of repression and using them without much regard for popular consent. As he put it almost on the eve of the Bolshevik assumption of power in October 1917, "people as they are now" rather than as they are supposed to become in "anarchist utopias," "cannot dispense with subordination," which "must be to the armed vanguard of all the exploited and working people, i.e. to the proletariat,"*41 undiluted by petty-bourgeois cant about "the peaceful submission of the minority to the majority."*42 He thought it "splendid" of Engels to declare that "the proletariat needs the state, not in the interests of freedom but in order to hold down its adversaries."*43 Once in power, he scolded that "our government is excessively mild, very often it resembles jelly more than iron";*44 he called for the fiction of an impartial judiciary to be forgotten, stating ominously that as organs of proletarian power, "the courts are an instrument for inculcating discipline,"*45 and explaining that there is "absolutely no contradiction in principle between Soviet (that is socialist) democracy and the exercise of dictatorial powers by individuals."*46 (This truth must be treated as a powerful one, derived as it is from the "material base" of society, for "unquestioning subordination to a single will is absolutely necessary for the success of processes organised on the pattern of large-scale machine industry."*47 In effect, in its first six months, Lenin's government largely liquidated the Menshevik or just plain grass-roots nonsense about the decentralized authority of factory soviets, share and share alike, worker self-management and the proliferation of pretexts for endless discussions and "meetingism" at all levels in the name of direct democracy.)


This was all quite strong stuff, unpalatable and unashamed, fit for the victors' ears and not designed to reconcile the victims. The agenda for an incumbent state depending on the consent of more than a minute "vanguard," seems to me diametrically different. Excepting the case of taking over a state laid flat by defeat in a major war, a cynical minority is as likely as not to spoil its own chances by its very cleverness, so uncongenial to the rest of society. Instead of professionalism, the incumbent state at the start of the road to discretionary power needs amateurism; instead of secrecy and exclusivity, openness and broad co-option.*48


A consent-dependent incumbent state must not talk or act too knowingly and professionally about power, how to get and how to use it. It must not for a moment appear, nor even see itself, as (an albeit benign) conspiracy, about to take in society while pretending to stay subjected to its mandate. It must, indeed, sincerely feel that it is obeying the popular mandate in its own way (the only way in which it can be "really," "wholly" obeyed). If the effect of its policies is to entrap its subjects and to deprive them of the independence of livelihood they need for withholding their consent, this must take place as a slowly emerging by-product of constructive state actions, each of which they find easy to approve. Entrapment, subjugation should no more be the consciously set aims of the state than monopoly profit the aim of the innovating entrepreneur.


The state's tenure is precarious to the extent that its power remains one-dimensional, merely political power. This is largely the case in historical settings where economic power is dispersed throughout civil society, conforming to the inherently dispersed nature of the institution of private property. Such settings may look natural to us, but they are by no means the historical norm. From an analytical point of view, too, they are a freak, an anomaly.


In the face of the state's monopoly of organized armed force, it is an illogical oddity to find economic power lodged, as it were, in other places. Is it not an oversight, a strange lack of appetite on somebody's part for the duality of these two sources of power to persist for any length of time? For the emphasis, by modern historians of various persuasions, on the possible causal relations running both ways between capital ownership and state power, merely deepens the mystery of why money has not yet bought the gun or the gun has not yet confiscated the money.


One type of political theory, not without twisting and turning, defines away this anomaly by flatly denying the separateness and autonomy of political power (except for "relative autonomy," which is too conveniently elastic a concept to merit serious attention). Political and economic power both cohabit in the metaphysical category "capital" and jointly serve the "objective" need of its "expanded reproduction." However, if we deny ourselves the facility of such a handy solution, we are left with what looks like a remarkably unstable system.


A tilt of the system toward anarchy or at least a measure of ascendancy of civil society vis-à-vis the state, would correspond to the dispersal of hitherto centralized political power. Once it got going, such dispersal could easily gain momentum. In a full-blown process to disperse political power, private armies, by keeping the tax collector away from their territory, would bankrupt the state, contributing to the atrophy of the state army and presumably to the further spread of private armies.*49 There is not the least trace at present of a tendency for social change to take any such turn. The eventuality of a dispersal of political power to match dispersed economic power looks a purely symbolic "empty box."


A tilt the other way, towards state capitalism with the ascendancy of the state over civil society, corresponds to the centralization of hitherto diffuse economic power and its unification, in one locus of decision, with political power. The summary answer to the incumbent's rhetorical "what is to be done?" is "fuse political and economic power into a single state power" and "integrate citizenship and livelihood" so that the subject's whole existence shall be ruled by one and the same command-obedience relation, with no separate public and private spheres, no divided loyalties, no countervailing centres of power, no sanctuaries and nowhere to go.


In the consciousness of state and public alike, this apocalyptic agenda must take on a prosaic, quiet, down-to-earth and anodyne aspect. It should, and quite easily does, translate itself into some formula which the ruling ideology has rendered largely inoffensive, such as "the strengthening of democratic control over the economy" so that "it should function in harmony with society's priorities."


When I say that contrary to the ruthless cleverness stipulated by Lenin, the state can best maximize its power over civil society by being at the outset somewhat amateurish and candid, the benefit of transparent confidence in the painless and benign character of economic and social engineering is foremost in my mind. It is positively good for the state to believe that the measures found necessary to establish "democratic control" over the economy will in due course have, as their principal effect, an enhanced say by the people in the proper use of the country's productive apparatus (or consequences of a similar description). It is good for it sincerely to consider voices which assert the exact opposite as obscurantist or in bad faith.


It is conducive to the state's ultimate purposes to substitute conscious direction of the social system for automatism, for every such "voluntarist" step is likely, by cumulative systemic changes, to induce a need for more guidance in some of the most unexpected places. The less efficient (at least in the sense of "the less self-sustaining," "the less spontaneous" and "the less self-regulating") the workings of the economic and social system become, the more direct control the state will have over people's livelihoods. It is one of the numerous paradoxes of rational action that a degree of well-intentioned bungling in economic and social management and the usual failure to foresee the effects of its own policies, are peculiarly appropriate means to the state's ends. It is government incompetence which, by creating a need for putting right its consequences, steadily enlarges the scope for the state to concentrate economic power in its own hands and best contributes to the merging of economic with political power. It is very doubtful whether government competence could ever get the process going from a democratic starting position.


Stressing the paradox, we might go a little further and argue that the spirit which best helps the state emancipate itself from its ungrateful role of democratic drudge is one of confident innocence and uncomprehending sincerity. In my choice of adjectives, I am inspired by the example of a tract by a socialist theorist on the programme of the united French Left prior to its 1981 electoral victory. In this work, it is explained in manifest good faith that nationalization of large-scale industry and banking would reduce statism and bureaucracy, provide an additional safeguard for pluralistic democracy and create a really free market.*50


Schematically, the state would find itself advancing, by small and steady degrees, towards discretionary power by first merely following the standard liberal prescription. It should at the outset "rely on prices and markets" for the allocation of resources "and then" proceed to redistribute the resulting social product "as justice required."*51 The inconsistency between an allocation and a distribution arrived at in this way, should alone suffice to bring about partial imbalances, false signals and symptoms of waste. In the face of the emerging evidence that "markets do not work," industries fail to adapt to changes in time, unemployment persists and prices misbehave, support should build up for the state to launch more ambitious policies. Their intended effect would be the correction of malfunctions induced by the initial policy. One of their unintended effects may be to make the malfunctions worse or cause them to crop up somewhere else. Another is almost inevitably to make some existences, jobs, businesses if not whole industries, wholly dependent on "economic policy," while making many others feel some partial dependence.


This stage—often approvingly called the "mixed economy," suggesting a civilized compromise between the complementary interests of private initiative and social control—has, however, merely pierced, without razing to the ground, the maze of obstacles, ramparts and bunkers where private enterprise can in the last resort, and at a cost, shelter the livelihood of those, owners and non-owners alike, who have occasion to oppose the state. Only the abolition of private capital ownership ensures the disappearance of these shelters. A "mixed economy" needs to go to extreme lengths in terms of state controls in order for private enterprise to cease being a potential base of political obstruction or defiance. Planning, industrial policy and distributive justice are promising yet imperfect substitutes for state ownership; the essential, almost irreplaceable attribute of the latter is not the power it lends to the state, but the power it takes out of civil society, like the stuffing you take out of a rag doll.


The transition to socialism, in the sense of an almost subconscious, sleep-walking sort of "maximax" strategy by the state, both to augment its potential discretionary power and actually to realize the greatest possible part of the potential thus created, is likely to be peaceful, dull and unobtrusive. This is its low-risk high-reward approach. Far from being any noisy "battle of democracy... to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the state"; far from involving some heroic revolutionary break with continuity; far from calling for the violent putting down of the propertied minority, the transition to socialism would probably be the more certain the more it relied on the slow atrophy of initially independent, self-regulating subsystems of society. As their free functioning was constrained, the declining vitality of successive chunks of the "mixed economy" would eventually lead to a passive acceptance of a step-by-step extension of public ownership, if not to a clamour for it.


In a section of his Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy devoted to the sociology of the intellectual, Schumpeter makes the point that intellectuals (whom he defines, a shade severely, as people "who talk and write about subjects outside of their professional competence" and "have no direct responsibility for practical affairs"), "cannot help nibbling at the foundations of capitalist society." They help along the ideology that corrodes the capitalist order which is notoriously impotent at controlling its intellectuals. "Only a government of non-bourgeois nature... under modern circumstances only a socialist or fascist one—is strong enough to discipline them." With private ownership of capital and the autonomy of particular interests (which they are busy ideologically to undermine), the intellectuals can to some extent hold out against a hostile state, protected as they are by "the private fortresses of bourgeois business which, or some of which, will shelter the quarry."*52 State capitalism offers greater (and in terms of such intangibles as social status, being listened to at the top and having a captive audience at the bottom of society, incomparably greater) rewards to compliant, non-nibbling intellectuals than does private capitalism. Such rewards may or may not compensate them for the latent risk, in a world of no "private fortresses," of having nowhere to shelter should they find themselves nibbling at the system after all. Why intellectuals, of all groups, strata, castes or whatever, should have a privileged relationship with the socialist state, why they are solicited and rewarded, is a puzzling question;*53 that it is "strong enough to discipline them" seems to me, if anything, a reason for not soliciting and rewarding them. That the socialist state attracts the intellectual is understandable enough, given the role of reason in the formulation and legitimation of activist policy. (I have argued the natural leftward bias of the brainy in chapter 2, p. 102). What is less obvious is why this love does not remain unrequited, why the socialist state accepts the intellectuals at their own valuation—a strange position to take on the part of a monopsonist, the sole buyer of their services.


Even if there were some hard-to-fathom yet rational reason for pampering them, nobody else need be pampered. The above and regrettably inconclusive digression about intellectuals was to provide sharper relief to this thesis. Trotsky's deduction in the Revolution Betrayed, that once the state owns all capital, opposition is death by slow starvation, perhaps overstates the case. It is nonetheless right in sensing the potent constraining force that comes down on bread-winners when the political and the economic, instead of broadly cancelling each other out, are amalgamated and encircle a person. The subsistence wage needed to reproduce labour may or may not have an ascertainable sense. (I would certainly argue that at least in Marx's theory of value, it is a tautology. Whatever wage happens to be paid, no matter how low or high, it is identically equal to the subsistence wage.) But if the subsistence wage did have objective meaning, only state capitalism would have the assured ability to keep everybody's actual wage down to subsistence level.


Recourse by the dissatisfied wage-earner to the political process and appeals to the state for distributive justice are, of course, absurd in a world where the state is both party and judge, i.e. where it has successfully merged economic and political power. The point for the state in achieving such a merger is not primarily that opposition to it becomes slow starvation, though that is a valuable enough result. It is rather that it can obtain non-opposition in return for mere "subsistence," or if that term is too fluid to serve, in return for less than it would have to pay for consent in a competitive political setting.


In what is for some reason regarded as a substantial contribution to the modern theory of the state, the American socialist James O'Connor considers that if its surplus were not spent on social investment, or dissipated in the interest of such privately owned "monopolies" as may survive, state-owned industry could lead to the "fiscal liberation" of the state.*54 By implication, if there are no, or only few, "private monopolies" left to dissipate the surplus on, and the state is under no competitive pressure to undertake more "social investment" than it sees fit, it will have achieved its rational purpose, for which "fiscal liberation" is a perhaps narrow but evocative label. Not only is it maximizing its discretionary power by making the most of a given social and economic environment (for instance, the environment defined by democratic politics and a "mixed economy"), but it has improved the environment itself by cleansing civil society of the economic power that was diffused within it. In such an environment, far more discretionary power is potentially available for the state to maximize, so that in creating it and making the most of it, it has, so to speak, maximized the maximum.


Is, however, its success complete? A crucial link seems to be missing for state capitalism to be a workable system. For if the state is the sole employer, it can liberate resources for its own discretionary use by telling people what to do, without overpaying them for their obedience. But what is to prevent a rival from spoiling all and bidding for political power by promising higher wages—as he would bid for political power under private capitalism by promising more distributive justice? What is to stop politics from undoing economics? Can we, to be more specific, take it for granted that once economic power is fully concentrated in the state, democratic political forms ipso facto lose their content and, even if piously preserved, become empty rites?


For all his pragmatism, J. S. Mill was, for one, quite categoric on this point: "if the employees of all these different enterprises were appointed and paid by the government, and looked to the government for every rise in life; not all the freedom of the Press and the popular constitution of the legislature would make this or any other country free otherwise than in name."*55 What he describes is, substantially, the socialist position (though presented with the seamy side up). For fully fledged socialists the idea of the owner of capital voluntarily surrendering his dominance by bowing to the caprice of the ballot box is, at best, comic. For them, the replacement of bourgeois by socialist democracy entails safeguards of one sort or another against the ballot box producing retrograde results. Electoral outcomes must respect the realities of the new "relations of production" and the question of the state losing tenure to some demagogic rival must not arise.


All states, however, do not first acquire a socialist consciousness and then set about nationalizing capital. Doing things in that order is a distinctly third-worldly scenario. Elsewhere, it is not necessarily the most feasible. The state of an advanced society may both want and have to embark on its self-emancipating, "maximizing" course while still committed to the "bourgeois" democratic rules. Though their competitive aspect may have reduced it to drudgery, it will submit to these rules both because it has, at least as yet, no power to do otherwise, and because it has at the outset no convincing reason for taking the risk of bending them. It can advance—or should we say sleep-walk?—some way towards the goal of "maximax," and perhaps pass the point of no return, without first transforming "bourgeois" into "people's" democracy. Electoral politics is in fact a natural promoter of state ownership, once the "mixed economy" has lost enough of its capacity (and willingness) to adapt to change for nationalization to become the obvious saviour of industries and jobs in jeopardy. The state can with advantage let itself be carried some way down this social democratic road, where the continuing operation of the competitive politics of consent serves as a spur to the growing concentration of economic power in its own hands.


Popular sovereignty and competitive politics with free entry, however, are ultimately inconsistent with the raison d'être of state capitalism and would in fact break it up as a working system. Under democracy, people are encouraged to try and get, by the political process, what the economic one denies them. The whole thrust of chapter 4 was to isolate and present the awkward consequences, for state and civil society, of this contradiction. Though awkward and in their cumulative effect malignant, however, they are not lethal for a system where political and economic power and responsibility are reasonably separate. On the other hand, when these are united, the contradiction becomes much too powerful. Multi-party competition for tenure of the role of sole owner of the economy and employer of the entire electorate, would be combining mutually destructive features in one system. It would be tantamount to asking the wage-earners to fix, by voting, their own wages and workloads. An effort of imagination is needed to visualize the result.*56 Social democrat or democrat socialist, the state cannot for long live with rules which inexorably produce a self-devouring social system.


Owner and employer, it now has sufficient power to start bending the democratic rules to escape demagogic and incompatible outcomes, adapting the old political process to the functional requirements of the new social system with its new "relations of production." Possible solutions available to it are of two basic types. One is to retain bourgeois democracy with multi-party competition, but progressively to restrict the scope of popular sovereignty, so that the winning party is not awarded tenure of all state power, but only power over areas where decisions cannot produce incompatibilities with the planned functioning of the economy. (Whether such areas can be found at all depends, of course, in part on how hard you look for them.) The hiring and firing of people, command over the army and the police and matters of income and expenditure, must be reserved to a permanent executive not subject to election and recall, for (as responsible citizens can readily see) otherwise demagogic overbidding would rapidly lead to breakdown. The non-elected permanent executive would in time find that to ensure consistency of the sources and uses of all resources, it is obliged to assert its leading role over all areas of social life including the educational and the cultural, although it may (at some risk to public calm) admit the consultative role, in non-critical matters, of some elected multi-party assembly.


The other type of solution is to restrain and reform political competition itself, notably by regulating entry, to the effect that while an elected assembly continues technically to dispose of state power as a whole, it becomes difficult and eventually impossible to elect people who would dispose of it inappropriately. For instance, the state executive in place could screen prospective candidates adhering to several parties from such a point of view. Since all are state employees (as are their parents and children, spouses, relatives and friends), it could discourage the candidature of those who might not respect its necessary leading role. Such screening would permit the free democratic election of responsible, non-demagogic representatives. Caring as much for the well-being of their families as for that of the country, they could be relied upon to support (in informal consensus, formal coalition or "national front" and purged of petty party rivalry) the responsible, non-demagogic government of the state—affording it the security and continuity of tenure which it needs for the steady, unhurried realization of its ends.


There may well be other, more insidious and unobtrusive ways for competitive democratic rules to bend, lose their content and become empty rites so that competition for state power ceases to be a genuine threat to the incumbent. In no way a "historical necessity," nor something which happens of itself "untouched by human hand," this result is yet the logical corollary of preponderant state ownership and a necessary condition for the functioning of the social system of which such ownership is a part.


Recall, then, is abolished in practice. One way or another, people are stopped from using the political process for dismissing their own employer. Failing such prevention, the employer-employee relation would assume farcical shapes: would-be employers would have to ask the employees to employ them, work would become round-the-clock consultation and pay would be self-assessed (to each according to what he says he deserves).


With the abolition of recall, revolution moves up on the scale of political alternatives. From last resort, it is transformed into the first and in fact the sole recourse of the disappointed political hedonist, the non-conformist, the man hating to be lied to, as well as the man hating his job. For the really deep, all-pervading change brought about by the Gleichschaltung of economic with political power is that as dispersed, autonomous structures of power are flattened, all strain becomes a strain between state and subject.


Little or nothing can henceforth be settled in bilateral negotiations between subjects, owners and non-owners, employers and employees, buyers and sellers, landlords and tenants, publishers and writers, bankers and debtors. Except clandestinely and criminally, there is little give and take where, at least by rights, only the state can give. Bargaining and contract are largely displaced by command-obedience relations. Independent hierarchies disappear. Groups between man and state become, at best, "transmission belts" and at worst false fronts with emptiness behind.


This may well be a great facility for the state. However, it is also a source of danger. Everything now is the state's fault; all decisions that hurt are its decisions; and tempted as it may be to blame "bureaucracy" and "loss of contact with the masses" for smelly drains, boring television programmes, uncaring doctors, overbearing supervisors, shoddy goods and apathetic shop-girls, it is in a cleft stick. As a state it must not admit to being at fault, yet it can disavow its servants and proxyholders only so often.


Thus, totalitarianism is not a matter of fanatical minds and bullying wills "at the top," nor of the terrifying naivety of their ideologists. It is a matter of self-defence for any state which has played for high stakes and won, exchanging one predicament for another. Having gathered all power to itself, it has become the sole focus of all conflict, and it must construct totalitarian defences to match its total exposure.


What is to be done to protect state capitalism from revolution? It may be that the danger is largely academic, an empty box, a mere matter of logical completeness, for revolutions have been made obsolete by technical progress. Quick-firing weapons, armoured vehicles, water-cannon, "truth drugs" and, perhaps above all, central control of telecommunications, may have made the position of the incumbent state much easier to defend than to attack. Not for nothing is the successor state of Kathedersozialismus called that of Panzersozialismus. Lately it is being said that the computer has reversed the technical trend in favour of the incumbent state. Though it is hard for the layman to grasp why this should be so (the contrary looks prima facie more likely), we must leave the question for more qualified minds to resolve. In any event, if modern revolutions are at all conceivable, there is a presumption that for the very reasons that oblige it to be totalitarian, state capitalism runs greater risks and needs stronger defences against revolt than states that do not own, but merely redistribute what others own.*57


Terror and state television sum up the commonplace conception of what is needed for state security. No doubt they both have their roles in obviating recourse to actual repression, rather in the manner of preventive medicine reducing hospital and medical costs. However, the best defences start at a deeper level, in the moulding of character and behaviour, in inculcating the belief that certain basic features of social life, the "leading role," the non-recall and continuity of the state, its monopoly of capital and its primacy over individual right, are immutable. The state's determination to use its subjects should never waver, never wax and wane. Their lot must be preordained, stable; it should not worsen significantly yet should improve only with deliberate slowness; rapid change either way is bad, but of the two, rapid change for the better is more dangerous. As in economics "it is all in Marshall," so in sociology "everything has been said by Tocqueville." Three chapters in his Ancien régime et la révolution tell it all: how rising prosperity and the advance toward equality brought on revolution (Book III, ch. IV); how bringing solace to the people made them rise up (Book III, ch. V); and how the royal government prepared the ground and educated the people for its own overthrow (Book III, ch. VI).


Prospects of change for the better make people excitedly unhappy, fearful of missing out, aggressive and impatient.*58 "Safety-valve" type concessions and reforms, whether great or little, early or late, nearly always turn out to be too little too late, for as a matter of historical experience they raise expectations of change more than in proportion to the actual change. If this possible feature of social psychology has a high probability of being the case in any given conflict of interest between state and society, it must always be wrong for the state to yield. Even if it was a mistake to start off with the reins too short, it is yet better to hold them steady than to loosen them too perceptibly.


Except for the paroxysm of indiscriminate terror in 1937-8 and the few years of haphazard experimentation after 1955, both of which came close to endangering the tenure of the regime and were ended none too soon, Soviet practice since about 1926 seems to me a successful application of these prescriptions. The stability of the modern Soviet state, despite the many good reasons why it should have collapsed on its clay feet before now, is at least consistent with the hypothesis that reform, relaxation, social mobility, dynamic striving for innovation and decentralized initiative, whatever they may do to a society's efficiency and material well-being, are not the ingredients needed to keep it calm, docile, enduring and submissive in the face of totalitarian demands upon it.

Notes for this chapter

V. I. Lenin, "The State and Revolution," in Selected Works, 1968, p. 296.
Ibid., p. 279.
Ibid., pp. 306, 325. The quotation is from Engels's 1875 "Letter to August Bebel."
V. I. Lenin, "The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government," in Selected Works, p. 419.
Ibid., p. 421, italics in text.
Even Lenin's own creature has come a long way towards affecting this sort of consciousness: in the 1977 Soviet Constitution, it calls itself "the state of the entire people," serenely unworried by the absurdity, at least for Marxists, of a state being everybody's state!
Weak medieval kings and strong territorial lords both exercised near-sovereign political power only over the land they "owned" (though this was but a quasi-ownership), the patterns of dispersed political and dispersed economic power coinciding as they have never done since. On the other hand, centralized political and economic power have often coincided. They still tend to go hand in hand in "second" and "third world" countries.
Jean Elleinstein, Lettre ouverte aux Français de la République du Programme Commun, 1977, pp. 140-51. Like the gentleman in the Park who mistook the strolling Duke of Wellington for a certain Mr Smith ("Mr Smith, I believe?"—"If you believe that, Sir, you will believe anything"), Elleinstein manifestly believed that nationalization would do these things rather than their opposites. It is this trusting simplicity that best suits the state (and of course its leaders) in the difficult transition from democracy to socialism.
To readers of J. Rawls's Theory of Justice, 1972, and of chapter 3 of this book, these phrases will have a familiar ring.
Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, 5th edn, 1977, pp. 146-51.
If only it bore more lightly the burden of the influence of György Lukács, whose hermetic and foggy style its authors tend to follow, The Road of the Intellectuals to Class Power, 1979, by the Hungarian sociologists G. Konrád and I. Szelényi, would be a very worthwhile contribution to an eventual answer to this question. Their original ideas can only be approximately discerned through the swirling Lukácsist obscurity.
James O'Connor, The Fiscal Crisis of the State, 1973, ch. 7.
J. S. Mill, On Liberty (ed. by A. D. Lindsay), 1910, p. 165. It is edifying to reflect that it was none other than the Levellers who, in their democratic fervour, proposed to withhold the franchise from servants who, "depending on the will of other men," could not be trusted with the vote. Cf. C. B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, 1962, pp. 107-36.
Free entry, secret ballot and majority rule, combined with preponderant state ownership of capital, means that tenure of state power and hence the role of universal employer, is awarded to the party offering higher wages and shorter hours than its rival. Productivity, discipline on the job, consumption, investment are all determined on the hustings. Political competition ensures their greatest possible incompatibility, resulting in a total shambles.

The "Yugoslav road to socialism" can be interpreted as an attempt to get round the contradiction between state capitalism and bourgeois democracy, not by the obvious method of suppressing all political competition, but by taking it out at the level of the state and putting some of it back at the level of the individual state enterprise. Employees cannot elect the government, but they elect a workers' council and have some indirect say in the choice of the enterprise manager, the level of wages and profit-sharing bonuses and, hence, more indirectly still, in output and prices.

To the extent that this is so, the enterprise tends to maximize value added per employee, i.e. it will generally try to use more machines and materials and fewer people, than are collectively available. The resulting tendencies to chronic inflation accompanied by unemployment, are fought with complex administrative means. Politically, the system breeds insider cliques, caucuses and deals. Economically, it is prevented from being a total shambles by individual enterprises having, at least in principle, to compete for a living with each other and with imports on a spontaneously operating market; there is "commodity production for exchange."

Capital is said to be in social rather than in state ownership. It is impossible to find out what this means. It does not mean syndicalism, cooperative ownership or municipal socialism. It seems to me that it is intended to mean "good state ownership" in opposition to "bad state ownership" (in much the same way as "social" planning means good and "bureaucratic" planning means bad planning). Most of the owner's prerogatives are in practice exercised by state bureaux calling themselves "banks" rather than, as in orthodox socialist countries, "ministries" or "planning offices."

If this hybrid system is less suffocatingly totalitarian than the thoroughbred state capitalist world to the northeast of it, this is perhaps due as much to history, character and accident as to "systemic" differences.

One of the weakest of several weak reasons advanced by Trotsky why there is not and "there never will be" such a thing as state capitalism, was that "in its quality of universal repository of capitalist property, the state would be too tempting an object for social revolution" (Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed: What Is the Soviet Union and Where Is It Going?, 5th edn, 1972, p. 246). He has, however, a more compelling reason: in his order of ideas, state capitalism must be privately owned; the state, like some giant corporation, must belong to shareholders able to sell and bequeath their shares. If they cannot sell and their sons cannot inherit, the system is not state capitalism. (While being sure of what it was not Trotsky had some changes of mind about what it was. See also A. Ruehl-Gerstel, "Trotsky in Mexico," Encounter, April 1982.)

It is sad to see a Marxist reduced to such a position. For Trotsky it ought to be "commodity production," the alienation of labour, its domination by capital and the mode of appropriation of surplus value which define the "relations of production," not whether shares are sold or inherited.

It must be added that Lenin's use of "state capitalism" to designate a system of private enterprise under close state control, was no worthier of socialist respect. In particular, it is hard to see how the state, which (despite some "relative autonomy") must, by virtue of the relations of production, be controlled and dominated by private enterprise, nevertheless controls it.

Some of these and related ideas are formalized in the powerful essay "La logique de la frustration relative" by Raymond Boudon in his Effets pervers et ordre social, 2nd edn, 1979. Prof. Boudon seeks to establish that the good observed correlation of discontent and frustration with improved chances, need not depend on some particular psychological assumption, but can be deduced from rationality alone, along the lines of utility-maximization in the face of risk.

At the other, non-rational end of the spectrum of human motives, Norman Cohn's classic work on medieval revolutionary mystics finds the same correlation between better conditions and prospects and revolutionary action. See his account of the German Peasant War of 1525: "The well-being of the German peasantry was greater than it had ever been... [the peasants] far from being driven on by sheer misery and desperation, belonged to a rising and self-confident class. They were people whose position was improving both socially and economically" (Norman Cohn, Pursuit of the Millennium, 1970, p. 245).

There is by now a sizeable body of literature in support of the thesis that revolutions typically follow the relaxation of pressures, the brightening of outlook, reforms. It seems to me important to stress that there may well be other good reasons for this than the supposition that reform is a symptom of the state being "on the run," getting weaker, hence becoming fair game for prudent revolutionaries who calculate risk-reward ratios.

End of Notes

31 of 33

Return to top