How do we deal with the State?

The huge wave of anti-war protests on 15 February were an astonishing demonstration of just how formidable a movement of resistance to imperialism is now developing around the world. But we should have no illusions about the power of our enemies. Politically, Tony Blair has never been weaker. But he still presides over a state that has formidable coercive power.

The Metropolitan Police may have been on their best behaviour on 15 February, but the tanks at Heathrow were a piece of political theatre designed both to frighten and to intimidate. Elsewhere the message has been less subtle. Anti-war activists in Egypt have been arrested and tortured. In New York on 15 February the police penned the demonstrators in and beat them up when they protested. These were just small glimpses of the concentrated violence that every state can deploy against those who challenge it.

Reformism: the state as ally

So how do we handle the state? Within the anti-capitalist movement two approaches are popular. The first sees the state as potentially an ally that can impose controls on capital and humanise the system. Such an approach is implicit in the emphasis on the Tobin Tax on international financial transactions that is the starting point for ATTAC in France and its affiliates elsewhere in Europe.

For this, broadly speaking reformist wing of the movement, the coming to office of left governments in Latin America – and above all the election to the Brazilian presidency of Lula, leader of the Workers’ Party (PT) – is a turning point. ‘Viva Brasil!’ ran the headline in the January issue of Le Monde diplomatique, the left-wing Parisian monthly that launched ATTAC. Though he has been more cautious in writing, Walden Bello of Focus on the Global South, speaking at a meeting in London last November, expressed qualified support for Lula’s commitment to an economic programme imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that requires his government to achieve a budget surplus of 3.75 per cent of national income during his first year in office.

For anyone on the British left, this commitment has strong echoes of Gordon Brown’s acceptance of strict spending targets inherited from the Tories during New Labour’s first two years in office – a decision that goes a long way towards explaining the disastrous state of public services in Britain today. There are other parallels between Lula and New Labour. For example, his government intends to grant the central bank autonomy – a standard neo-liberal measure that was, of course, Brown’s first action on taking office in May 1997.

Lula has justified these measures by saying that his government is a ‘transitional’ one: he wants to move away from neo-liberalism but has initially to make compromises. But it’s much more likely that the commitments that he has undertaken will lock his government into the same sort of neo-liberal prison that has prevented the African National Congress in South Africa from fulfilling its promises of economic reconstruction for the benefit of the majority since the end of apartheid in 1994.

Underlying this pattern is, of course, the economic power of international capitalism. In the months before the presidential elections last autumn, the steady downward fall of the Brazilian real on the international currency markets squeezed concession after concession from Lula. Whereas in the past – say, under Harold Wilson in Britain during the 1960s and 1970s or François Mitterrand in France during the early 1980s – social-democratic governments caved in under the effect of capital flight and currency crises, today the mere fear of such pressures is enough to get the contemporary centre-left to surrender to the Washington Consensus even before they take office.

Should, quite exceptionally, reformists stand firm in the face of these attacks there are other ways of stopping them. The rebellion of the rich against Hugo Chávez’s radical nationalist regime in Venezuela is an indication of the sort of forces that can be deployed against a left-wing government that sticks to its guns. In September we will commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the military coup that destroyed Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government in Chile.

Recent historical experience thus confirms the judgement long ago made by Marx and Lenin that the state can’t simply be used as an instrument of social transformation. It is part of the capitalist system, not a means for changing it. The economic pressures of international capital – reflected particularly in the movements of money across the globe – push states to promote capital accumulation. Moreover, in the core of the state itself is a permanent bureaucratic apparatus centred on control of the means of coercion – the armed forces, police, and intelligence services – whose ultimate allegiance is not to elected governments but to the unelected ruling class.

This doesn’t mean that movements should be indifferent to what government holds office. Lula’s government, for example, is an uneasy compromise between the pressures of global capitalism and the social movements – particularly of organised workers and landless labourers – that form the mass base of the PT. War with Iraq poses a more serious political crisis for Tony Blair than for his right-wing allies Silvio Berlusconi in Italy and José Maria Aznar in Spain because even under his leadership the Labour Party is still bound up with the left, particularly through its link with the trade unions. Mass movements should put pressure and make demands particularly on the governments that they helped to make, but they should retain their independence of them.

Autonomism: evading power

Counter-posed to reformism within the anti-capitalist movement is a position that is apparently its opposite, renouncing not only a reliance on the existing state, but the very objective of taking power from capital. This is the position taken by the autonomist wing of the movement whose most famous representatives are the Italian disobbedienti. This takes its inspiration from some of the remarks of the Zapatista leader Subcommandante Marcos. For example, he writes; ‘Perhaps, for example, the new political morality will be constructed in a new space that will not require the taking or retention of power but the counterweight and opposition that requires and obliges the power to “rule by obeying”.’

One might regard this strategy as a pragmatic adaptation to the plight of the Zapatistas, whose 1994 rising in Chiapas (south-eastern Mexico) was rapidly surrounded by the federal military. Its survival has therefore come to depend on using the pressure of national and international opinion to constrain the Mexican state from mounting an all-out attack on the guerrillas of Chiapas. But more favourably placed autonomist intellectuals elsewhere in the world have championed a similar politics of renunciation.

For example, Toni Negri, co-author of Empire, in a widely circulated interview given soon after 11 September, argued for a strategy of ‘exodus and desertion’. Negri has long advocated such an approach. He wrote in an in Italian prison in the early 1980s, summarising his own previous development: ‘Power was now seen as a foreign enemy force in society, to be defended against, but which it was no use “conquering” or “taking over”. Rather, it was a question of its reduction, of keeping it at a distance.’

The most fully developed version of this theory has been put forward by John Holloway, a British autonomist Marxist based in Mexico, in a book whose name sums up its content: Change the World Without Taking Power. Holloway espouses an extreme form of Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism. All the apparently objective structures of capitalist society are simply alienated expressions of human activity, based on the separation of subject and object, or, as Holloway puts it, doer and done.

From this starting point Holloway draws two main conclusions. First, any attempt to understand capitalism as a set of objective structures implies the abandonment of Marx’s original conception of socialism as self-emancipation. Accordingly, virtually the entire subsequent Marxist tradition is dismissed as ‘scientistic’ and authoritarian.

Secondly, dissolving the fetishistic structures of alienated human activity is ‘a movement of negation’, the assertion of what Holloway calls ‘anti-power’. He tends to present this as the liberation of qualities that are denied by capitalism: ‘That which is oppressed and resists is not only a who but a what. It is not only particular groups of people that are oppressed (women, indigenous, peasants, factory workers, and so on), but also (and perhaps especially) particular aspects of the personality of all of us: our self-confidence, our sexuality, our playfulness, our creativity.’

But what does this mean more concretely? The answer is very confused. On the one hand, Holloway says that labour seeks to flee capital: ‘flight is in the first place negative, the refusal of domination, the destruction and sabotage of the instruments of domination (machinery, for instance), a running away from domination, nomadism, exodus, desertion,’

This takes us back to the slogans put forward by Negri, who associates them with the idea of running alternative forms of cooperative production within the framework of capitalist economic relations. In Argentina, for example, his and Holloway’s ideas have been used to justify the idea that the small network of factories abandoned by their bosses and taken over by the workers represents the beginning of a new post-capitalist economy.

On the other hand, Holloway remembers enough Marx to know that this strategy is fatally flawed, since it leaves most productive resources still controlled by capital, which can thus dictate the basis on which cooperatives can get access to credit and markets. ‘As long as the means of doing [i.e. the means of production – AC] are in the hands of capital then doing will be ruptured and turned against itself. The expropriator must indeed be expropriated.’

But when it comes to spelling out how this should be achieved Holloway disappears into speculative reveries about ‘the dissolution of the thing-ness of the done, its (re)integration into the social flow of doing’. This fog of metaphysics can only be dispersed if ones recognises that, even if they depend on human labour for their existence and reproduction, the structures of capitalism have an objective reality that has to be analysed and understood if we do want to change the world.

This is not because analysis is an end in itself. On the contrary, the point of taking seriously capitalism’s objective structures is to identify the torsions and points of weakness they involve. Holloway at several points makes the good point against Negri that capital is vulnerable because it depends on the labour that creates it. But properly pursuing this insight requires a theoretical and practical engagement with concrete forms of working-class struggle and organization. Instead Holloway declares that ‘we do not struggle as working class, we struggle against being working class, against being classified’ – as if one can abolish capitalist relations of production by running away from them or pretending they aren’t there.

Revolution as the triumph of democracy

Common to reformism and autonomism is despair. Both currents share the belief that the power of capital and its state cannot be defeated. So either we seek to treat the capitalist state as a benevolent agent of social transformation or we try to evade and constrain it. Revolutionary socialists do not think capital and the state are too strong to overthrow. There is an alternative source of power in capitalist society. This is to be found in the extraordinary capacities of democratic self-organisation possessed by the mass of ordinary people.

The most important case of these powers is provided by workers, who are compelled to organise themselves collectively in order to defend their most basic interests. Workers’ self-organisation is particularly significant because it mobilises the power to paralyse capitalist production and therefore to cut off the supply of profits that fuels the system. The significance of trade unionism is that it provides a framework within which workers organise to resist their exploitation on a daily basis at work.

Self-organisation is not, of course, workers’ exclusive possession. The contemporary movements against global capitalism and war, which still only very partially overlap with the organised working class, have shown astonishing capacities of coordinated action across national borders – at summit protests, the Social Forums, and, above all, on 15 February.

A marked feature of the new cycle of struggle since Seattle has been a number of other movements not based on the workplace – for example, in Latin America small peasants and landless labourers, as well as the Argentine piqueteros. These movements, however, have all sorts of connections with the organised working class (the piqueteros, for example, are led by unemployed trade unionists). None, in case, have the economic power that workers have by virtue of the fact that capitalism runs on their labour.

At high points of struggle in the past, workers broke out of the limits imposed by conventional trade unionism. They mounted mass strikes for political as well as economic demands. To prosecute these struggles they developed new forms of organisation that united the entire class at a local and national level on the basis of councils of workers’ delegates. These forms emerged anew in the great popular upheavals of the twentieth century – in the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917, the Spanish Revolution of 1936, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the Iranian Revolution of 1978-9, the rise of Solidarność in Poland in 1980-1.

These workers’ councils embody a more advanced form of democracy that is practised in liberal capitalist societies. They are based upon rank-and-file participation, decentralised decision-making where people work and live, and the immediate accountability of delegates to higher bodies to those who elected them. Though workers have reinvented them again and again to meet the practical needs of their struggle, the councils represent an alternative way of running society to the centralised and bureaucratic forms of power on which capitalist domination depends.

It is through this workers’ democracy that the oppressed and exploited majority can mobilise the power needed to taken on the capitalist state. Indeed, one pressure behind the formation of workers’ councils is the need to take over the functions of local government from state agencies when ‘normal service’ breaks down during mass strikes. But there is no reason for workers’ councils to stop at supplanting the local representatives of the state. Once they embrace an entire national society, they have the organisational capacity and the economic power to replace the state as a whole.

To achieve this objective depends on the developing workers’ state concentrating its forces on overcoming – by force if necessary – the resistance of the core apparatuses of capitalist state power. This is fundamentally a political and not an organisational problem. It requires a political struggle within the new forms of workers’ power to win the majority to the recognition that, unless the capitalist state is dismantled, sooner or later it will use its coercive power to crush the mass movement. This is the supreme function of a mass revolutionary party: not to seize power for itself, but to win the argument that the new democracy should storm the last strongholds of capitalist power.

In the classical Marxist tradition, then, revolution isn’t about a minority coup. It’s about extending the forms of workers’ democracy that develop during mass strikes from being simply means of prosecuting the struggle or a ‘counter-power’ to the main institutions of capitalist domination to becoming the organs through which the masses actually govern society for themselves. Revolution has to be about seizing power, because otherwise the capitalist state will survive to become the launching pad for counter-revolution. But overturning the existing state is the culmination of a process of self-emancipation, in which the mass of ordinary people take over the running of society and begin to build a new world.

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