Understanding Power and the Role of the State
The upsurge of social struggle around the world heralds a developing revolutionary process rooted in a fundamental change in the economy. It begins to raise the possibility of reorganizing society on a new framework. This challenges leaders to confront the question of power — who has it, where it comes from, how they hold on to it, and how it can be challenged. Political thinkers since Machiavelli have considered the roles of both force and persuasion in the prescription for power.
Beliefs and prejudices and manipulation have always functioned among social beings. The cohesive tribes or clans of early human societies organized themselves into self-acting armies for protection. But when production advanced to the point that a surplus was created, the section of society that controlled this surplus was in a position to exploit the rest. Over time, society split into classes with conflicting economic interests. The possibility of exploitation had made coercion necessary.
At that stage of development, special bodies of armed men became indispensable for the dominant class to maintain control over the exploited class. To keep the opposing classes from consuming themselves and society in fruitless struggle, a necessary power then arises out of society, seemingly placing itself above society, so that the clash between conflicting classes is kept within the bounds of “order.” This power is the State: police, a standing army, prisons and, institutions of coercion of all kinds. To finance this special power, taxes and an administrative apparatus are required, the officials of which also stand “above society,” protected by special laws and immunity.
The class nature of the U.S. State — its role in society is to protect the class interests of the capitalists; its purpose is to maintain control and to keep the struggle within the bounds of capitalist relations — is clear throughout U.S. history. When violence was necessary, there was the State: to expand U.S. territory, to remove a native population, to hold slaves in captivity, to put down rebellions, to gain and maintain colonies, to enforce gender divisions, and to advance U.S. (capitalist) economic interests in general. When working class struggles threatened (or were thought to threaten) private property, they were crushed. Reform followed only when changes were necessary to allow the system to expand. If struggles at home or abroad challenged capitalist control, the State was there to protect private property at whatever cost.
Based on the wide-spread ownership of land and small farms, which characterized the early economic life in the U.S., the democratic republic proved to be the optimum form to allow the “free market” to operate and the capitalist class to manage its affairs. A growing economy, colonial exploitation and success in war made possible a rising standard of living and a workable social contract. And it dulled people’s perception of the power of the State in their lives.
But times are changing. People have to fight for demands that cannot be met under an economic system of production for private profit. Though they may not realize it yet, the only way to achieve these demands is the step-by-step political struggle, which goes through stages that ultimately lead to a struggle to put power in the hands of the class that can reorganize society in the interests of the vast majority.
This suggests three main points for today’s revolutionaries.
First, all aspects of State power (e.g., law, police, military, surveillance, courts, legal and extra-legal violence) protect the existing relations between the classes.
The State is not a neutral mediator between the interests of the corporate elite to protect its wealth, property, and maximum profit, and the interests of the masses of people for the necessities of life.
Many people think of power as “incremental power,” the clout or influence to win a concession or accommodation from those “in power.” They hope that a legislative victory, a successful negotiation, or a change in policy will alleviate some suffering or make life a little better.
Remembering concessions and reforms won during economic expansion, some believe the movement can reform its way to power. But what may seem to be a possibility of a balance of power with the ruling class has not and will not change the basic class positions in society. And victories, often deceptive or temporary, are becoming more limited, fewer and farther between.
The struggles to change the economy and class relations, and to resolve problems of inequality and poverty, are going to have to confront basic issues of power in society. Revolutionaries cannot ignore the broader issue of State power without leaving the struggle open to being disillusioned by empty victories and vulnerable to the brutality of the state’s force.
Second, people’s thinking and understanding can prepare them for — or divert them from — the fight for their class interests.
People’s ideas and beliefs — their ideology or social consciousness — come from their life experience and relations in society. The way a member of a group or social class thinks and understands the world does not necessarily reflect his or her true interests. History has poorly prepared the workers of the United States, for example, to understand the political fight ahead of them.
They’ve had drummed into them that the “free market” system of production and distribution benefits everyone; no system could be better. The expansion of U.S. capitalism and imperialism materially supported this “American Dream” and the idea that anyone can make it in America — that “we are all in this together.” But as electronics and laborless production begin to destroy the “American Dream” and call into question this ruling class ideology, the door opens for the introduction of new ideas and ways of thinking.
The isolation and oppression of women has supported their exploitation throughout most of human history. The idea that skin color determines a person’s worth is an essential prop of capitalism. In no history or culture is this idea more deeply engrained than in our own. The ubiquitous tentacles of the ruling class ideology penetrate, influence, and shape culture, morality, and every institution in society. Ideas that buttress capitalist class rule are spread and infused throughout society through the institutions of education, the media, popular culture, and religion.
Our revolutionary work is to bring consciousness to our class in its strategic struggle against the power of the corporate State for the necessities of life. As the economy undermines the material and social privilege used for so long to divide workers by color, gender, region, nationality, etc., a growing equality of poverty presents opportunities to bring consciousness to our class on every front of struggle.
The clearer revolutionaries are about how capitalism works and who the State protects, the more successful we will be in bringing a consciousness of common class interests.
Third, the current political moment demands that our class become conscious of its historic role.
We are seeing alarming changes in the State — merging corporations and government, limiting democracy and civil rights, expanding police powers — all of which prepare for maintaining private property under new economic and social conditions.
Today’s irreversible economic crisis and collapse, ecological and social destruction, intensifying political attacks and the threat of fascism, repression and war have their roots in changes in production. Globalization and the technological revolution using labor-replacing electronic tools (computers, automation, robotics) are making workers more and more superfluous to production, undermining the very ties of the workers to the capitalists in production. This creates a systemic rupture in capitalist relations and accumulation.
A corporate/market state exists to enforce austerity and the destruction of last century’s social contract. Thus the growing unity of the corporations and the government moves toward a full-blown police state and fascism.
Concessions, accommodations and relief for our needs are less and less forthcoming on every front. The fight for housing, health care, education, protection of the environment, jobs and a livable future all face the reality of a broken economic system that can no longer provide.
Our struggles will have to move from economic demands that take existing power relations for granted, to a political struggle that aims to make the government responsible for the needs of society. This common political unity against a power that serves a miniscule class of multi-millionaires and billionaires provides the objective motion within which revolutionaries can bring consciousness to the class of its power to transform society.
Life is teaching us that their system no longer works. History and experience have taught us that power in the hands of the capitalist class is the power to dominate, oppress and exploit. But arising from the wreckage of the past is a class in whose interest it is to build a cooperative and egalitarian society. Only power in the hands of that class can reorganize the economy and society to meet the needs of the masses of humanity and protect the planet.
With a vision for the future and consciousness of our role in history, we are readying ourselves with a strategy for the struggle to transform the world.
This article originated in Rally, Comrades!
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The age-old vision of a world without scarcity, without exploitation, class domination, organized violence, and stultifying labor has been the dream of millenia. The new completely socialized labor-eliminating means of production ... sets the basis for its realization. Now human history can begin, the light of the individual shining in the full brightness of liberated life, that can only be realized within true equality and cooperation: communism, a cooperative society.'Without Vision, the People Perish'
Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011