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Paul Mattick on the withering of the state today


In the new June issue of the Brooklyn Rail, Paul Mattick asks why governments across the world seem to have so much trouble today meeting the basic needs of their citizens, whether for affordable housing, a decent wage, quality healthcare, or a stable and fulfilling life. From Japan to Europe and the US, the state seems to be withdrawing from its purpose of providing essential goods and services that the free market alone cannot provide. But as Mattick argues, this is a historically inaccurate view of the function of the state, and understanding why the state emerged in the first place is essential to comprehending why its faltering today. Here’s an excerpt from Mattick’s piece:

Everything conspires to suggest that what we have here is not politics as usual, but something new. To begin to understand it we have to think back to the old normal—the workings of the state in modern capitalism.

To my mind, the best guide to a basic understanding of this is to be found in the first book of Hal Draper’s five-volume Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution. Here Draper discusses the tendency of governments—whose job is essentially to safeguard the existence of modern society by ensuring respect for private property and the special interests, national and international, of the dominant actors in the national economy—to develop a certain autonomy of action relative to the economic activities of its sponsors. This independence from the immediate concerns of businesspeople, Draper says, derives from the fact that “of all the ruling classes known to history the membership of the capitalist class is least well adapted, and tends to be most averse, to taking direct charge of the operation of the state apparatus.” Capitalists want to make money, not run the government (except, more recently, as a retirement hobby). Moreover, “no other ruling class is so profusely crisscrossed internally with competing and conflicting interest groups,” with regional interests, agriculture and industry, different industrial sectors, and many other subcategories of national business struggling against each other. As a result, the need arises for professional politicians, not unlike the need for managers in a large corporation, “to take the Long, High View of the system as distinct from the approach of the myopic money-grubber.”

This autonomization of the state could be seen clearly when the major industrial capitalist economies were emerging in the 19th century, when British entrepreneurs left much of the running of the government to members of the old aristocracy, and Bismarck oversaw the emergence of German capitalism and the disciplining of the superannuated Junker class with an iron hand. In the twentieth century, it became particularly visible in the face of economic crisis, when the capitalist state was turned over to strong managers like Hitler and Roosevelt, despite the distaste of many businessmen for aspects of their economic and political programs. In the U.S., the New Deal and, especially, the Second World War, bringing vast increases in government interference with the private-property economy, strengthened the tendency to state autonomy well into the postwar period.

Paradoxically, the very growth of the “public sector” led to the weakening of its independence. On the one hand, as Draper notes, “one of the consequences of the relative autonomy of the state is to permit the dominant sectors within the capitalist class to secure the main levers of power.” The clearest modern example of this in the U.S. was recognized as early as the 1950s by President Eisenhower under the name of the “military-industrial complex.” Over time it has been joined by the prison-industrial complex and the medical-industrial complex in whose interests President Obama and his party have labored so assiduously, along with the other industrial sectors—construction, finance, education—whose fate is increasingly intertwined with government largesse. One result of this is the penetration of government affairs by inter-sectoral business competition; another is the evolution of politics itself into a form of business, visible in the famous revolving doors linking industries and their governmental regulators, and culminating in such spectacular successes as Bill Clinton’s transformation from striving politico into international money-shifter and fixer for business-minded dictators. That the central activity of American politics seems to have become the collecting and disbursement of huge quantities of cash around elections, a matter of much dismay to those who still pine for a fair and democratic system, is only a symptom of this basic absorption of the state by big business.

Image by Jim Hubbard. See