What is the state and how does it organize the capitalist economy? Ruthless Criticism

Rule based on the will of the ruled —
Freedom and Property — Equality —
Management of the conflicts of competition

What is the state
and how does it organize the capitalist economy?

Introduction: Nationalism

The state, the political power, is the real institution which organizes this society, controls it, or if you will: keeps it running. It dictates to the citizens the general living conditions under which they have to get by.

Nationalism, and actually the nation, is an ideology, an image of the overall whole where the state and the society are thought of as one; where the individual thinks: I am a member here, and because I am a member here, I am for it. So the nation is an ideology and nothing else. Nationalism is the partisan stance of being in favor of this order and its state and commited to the hope that this order functions, that this community prospers, because as a member of it one depends on it. So it is better to talk first about the state and then about what nationalism is, what kind of a stance it is, and what’s so wrong about it.

On the state

A definition: The state is the political force of bourgeois society. This sounds like a simple declarative sentence: it is the political power of bourgeois society.

The first part is: the state is a force. There is not much to prove here. What else would it be? The state itself says that a monopoly on force is reserved for the state. The state is not only a force, but the only force; it is the only legitimate force in this society. It says so itself, so we don’t need to repeat that it governs by force.

In what form? In the form that the political authorities in parliament make political decisions, i.e. laws, and these are enforced in the society in the form of the police and the judiciary. All this is not in need of further proof. In a society in which there is a police and a justice system, where there are prisons, it is clear that this order is based on force.

It is a relationship of rule when a community of people is organized by force. A power forces something on people that they themselves don’t want. In other words, put the other way around: if state power only exists so that people do what they themselves want, they could save themselves the trouble of rule. Rule isn’t needed merely so that people do what they want. So in some way rule demands something different from people than what they themselves want.

So this is a relation of rule. If this means that force must be used so that people deal with each other peacefully, if the state protects the peace between people with force, law and order, then this shows that it is a quite strange way of governing the interests of the citizens because it assumes that people in their dealings with each other will automatically always be non-peaceful. However, to follow this would soon lead to the capitalist economy and we must keep away from this for the moment because the subject is the state and not the economy.

The bourgeois state is a power; it is a relationship of rule. That is the the first point. The second point – and this is crucial and the bigger stumbling block: it is a relationship of rule based on the will of the subjects. This is a tricky thing. Yes, it can be said that things were simpler during the times of princes and imperial rulers, at least in retrospect. Everyone knows: there was a king who had power and he forced living conditions on people which were not to the benefit of these people, but to him. He forced people into an order. And in this order, they had to provide him with the basis for his power and finance his courtly life. They were exploited. The king wielded power over people in order to exploit them for his benefit. That is clear. These people had to somehow put up with the king. In feudalism and slave-holding societies, it can’t be said that the state power was based on the will of the subjects. Slaves were just at the mercy of the superior power of the slave holders. If they attempted an uprising, they were massacred.

However, the modern state is based on the will of the people. First, look at how the phenomenon appears: if you ask the citizens in our society, they are for this state. When the government holds elections, 90% turn out. And it is only 90% because some of them don't show up. Otherwise, it would be nearly 100%. They opt for one or the other of the people’s alternatives who promise to administer this state. Including the Left Party; they also want to administer this state. Of course, everybody in these rival electoral organizations says: I want to administer this state better than the other parties. They want to administer this state, take it into their care and shape it better than the others; each promises this to the voters. And to the extent that the citizens agree with this, they really are in favor of this state.

Those who still remember can tell the young about the reaction in Germany to the attacks by the Red Army Faction. In this case, armed attacks against state institutions and representatives were taken by the citizens as attacks on them. In this society, propaganda of the deed doesn’t have any success. It only works when people think they are oppressed and exploited and where they only obey because they don’t think anything can be done against the state power. If they think they can’t defend themselves against the state and someone comes along and says: I’ll shoot a representative and then it will die; and they say: oh if it’s that easy we’ll join you.

But in this society, that’s not the case. In this society, if a politician is shot, there is a demonstration of a million people and all the well-behaved citizens say: that bullet was aimed at me; not at the rule which oppresses me. This fact must be faced before it is criticized. We live in a world where people are persuaded that they need a state which forces them to live together in peace. Notices how absurd this is: The state forces them to live together in peace; this is what that they want, but it is not something they would ever do unless it was forced on them.

This is the stance of the citizen towards the state. He knows it is an authority, that it will pass laws which must be obeyed. He knows that anyone who breaks the law will get whacked by a billy club. And he doesn’t see himself oppressed by this, but rather sees his social existence allowed and protected by it.

This rule is accepted and desired by the subjects. The extraordinary stability of this society is based on the fact that rule is desired by the subjects. This fact makes the syatem a tough nut to crack for leftists. If you want to overthrow the system, you are opposed not only by the state authorities, but also by the people themselves. This contradiction is not only a practical hurdle, it is a theoretical stumbling block for many.

Rule for freedom; a rule over people which is affirmed by the ruled; this is a difficult contradiction. If we listen to what the bourgeois have to say about it, meaning the social studies teachers, the political science professors, and so on, they deny rule in the name of freedom. They say: if the people are free, you can’t say there is rule. If people want rule, then you can’t say that they are ruled and oppressed.

Surely, the group gathered here today is not in danger of making this mistake. Here the view is widespread [among anarchists – trans.] that the state is force; the state is rule. You are not so easily taken in by this. And this is correct. If there is a problem here, then it is more the opposite: in the name of the judgment that rule exists, freedom is denied. It doesn’t help to reverse this contradictory thought – a rule for freedom. The common people deny there is rule in the name of freedom. The left is more in danger of saying, in view of the rule they see: true freedom does not exist. They think that freedom is unrealized because of rule. Then they declare freedom is only formal freedom, a sham, a deceptive trick. They do not understand their bourgeois fellow citizens. They think they have a servile nature and call to them: don’t you want to be free at long last? To which everyone says: but we are free!

Dictated freedom: what kind of an odd fish is this? In this context, I would like to address yet another ideological point. Whenever someone talks ideologically about the bourgeois order by praising it, they make a comparison. This praise isn’t a simple matter of saying: everything is so good here. Instead, bourgeois society is praised by enthusiastically comparing it with backward societies. Yes, before we were citizens, we were serfs and slaves; today we are free people. Once, the king could take virgins as he pleased. Today, this no longer happens with chancellors, or this chancellor. Etc., etc.

The comparison – freedom is a good thing when we compare it to pre-bourgeois conditions – is a cheap way of praising a system about which one doesn’t have much good to say. One merely has to say: well, it was even worse before. This is of little use. But it is also of little use when the left tries to criticize bourgeois relations by borrowing from pre-capitalistic relations. The modern individual, including the modern proletarian, the wage laborer, is not a slave. He doesn't want to be a slave, but he isn’t one either. Modern conditions are not grasped by using metaphors of master and slave to characterize the modern world. Here one must distance oneself from these intellectual gimmicks and say what’s really going on in this country.

Freedom is a relationship of rule; this is a heavy thought. What does freedom mean? Freedom means: I can do what I want. So a person is really free when he lives like a hermit in the wild. There, in his vast environment, he doesn't run into any other will and can do whatever he wants without having anything to do with anybody. Freedom then means: whatever comes into your head, whatever your will is, just do it.

In a society, it is quite a strange thing to say: I do whatever I want. If people in a society call for freedom, this is reminiscent of the old saying: Sire, grant freedom of thought! (Schiller) If people call for freedom, then it is obvious: this is not a free will in the wilderness alone by itself. Freedom, if one shouts for it, is granted to a person, even when workers say: we want the freedom to organize; we want to form a union. It is noticeable that this is a demand for a license which the authority should grant. Grant freedom of thought, sire: this is directed to the sire. Whoever says “we want the freedom to organize” is addressing the authorities and saying: permit us. Freedom in society first of all always means that something is permitted; something is approved. It is a license that is granted. And when one shouts for freedom, one shouts for a license.

In this respect, freedom is a relation to a ruling power from the get-go. And freedom is not a condition in which there is no rule. In society, freedom can’t be anything but approval from above. What then is approved when one gets approval? If one lives in a modern state like ours and has been granted freedom, what does one then have? What may one then do? You may is always said, but what may you do?

You can do and not do what you want, as long as you don’t infringe on the freedom of others. This is the basic bit of wisdom that everybody has to learn at some point in social studies. Do and don’t do what you want, as long as you do not tread on others’ freedom. This is defined from above by the state – maybe this is getting a little philosophical now – by the one who grants freedom. It decides: in the area in which you come across nobody else, your will counts absolutely. But wherever you run into others, you reach the point where your freedom ends and the freedom of others begins; your will is generally no longer valid, but the will of others is absolutely valid.

It should be clear that freedom defines a relation in which humans live together. The relation which is defined is: you can and may be inconsiderate as far as your license reaches, and you don’t have anything more to say past the borders of your license. And the law regulates the license’s borders. What may a teacher do with a student: can he slap him in the face? No. Can he humiliate him? Yes. Give him bad grades? Yes. May he …? All this is nit-pickingly regulated; everything in life is packed with laws which always say how far your freedom reaches and where it stops.

Freedom is a life comprehensively regulated by laws. This is not denying freedom in the sense that freedom does not exist. The argument is not that freedom is a deception or a sham. No, freedom is an exhaustively regulated life in which licenses are granted and set limits. We’ll be philosophical again and say that freedom in everyday life is not how loud I may turn up my music, although it is also this. May I do this? Yes, you may, up to the level where you are disturbing the peace and your neighbor’s freedom. Real freedom requires an object, a material. Free decisions and doing what one wants needs an object. In this respect, the grant of freedom is generally not separate from and nothing different than the institution of private property. The material which is freely decided over is always pieces of the world, produced and unproduced parts of it, over which I as an owner have an exclusive right of disposal. And nobody else has anything to say about it because it belongs to me. The world is subdivided into that which belongs to somebody or other. And if it belongs to someone, they may do whatever they want with it, and others can’t do anything at all with it.

Freedom – not merely as: which will is permitted here? but as really practiced, the freedom of private property – is disposal over portions of the world moderated by private property.

A country which grants freedom grants private property. Here it is noticeable how stupid leftist parties are to say that socialism without freedom would be shit. If one understands what freedom is, it is completely clear that socialism is not compatible with freedom. Freedom is something completely different than people rationally organizing their affairs. Freedom is the opposite of this. Freedom means: I command exclusively over myself and that which is mine. All this is solely for my benefit. What belongs to someone else is none of my business.

To make this clear again: with the decree of freedom and private property, a certain form of social life is defined. This is capitalism when further developed. But first consider what is prescribed to people here. They no longer live in the woods and nobody is alone by themselves any more, but living in a society and surviving in a division of labor. What does the division of labor of private property owners look like? Work is still divided. Big factories are a type of division of labor. The fact that the baker only bakes bread and the plumber only fixes pipes and everything is then exchanged – this is also a form of division of labor. But what does the division of labor of private owners look like? Here people do not divide the necessary labor in order to deal with it as appropriately as possible. In this form of division of labor, everybody shows up with his property, with the private contribution he can make to the total labor, either because he owns something that is needed for the total labor or because he can work. And he fights with his exclusive right of disposal over either himself as a person or that which belongs to him. He uses it to try to extort others so that they transfer as large as possible a part of the total product generated with the help others to himself. Everyone runs riot with their property.

A form of collaboration takes place, but it is a cooperation which consists of mutual extortion. Everybody tries to use the dependence of others on his contribution for their own enrichment. So the dependence of others on my contributed labor is a weakness of theirs which I take advantage of when I say: you will get my contribution only when you give me this and that.

Then it is also clear that the others’ degree of dependence on my contribution decides how much I can make others my servants. Those who have something to contribute which everybody is able to contribute do not benefit much from this fight – that’s clear from the start. But those who contribute something everybody needs and nobody else has are able to make others their servants.

Respectable private property owners meet and extort each other according to: how badly do you depend on my contribution, on my assistance?

The bourgeois world nevertheless always considers property a good thing because it gives one a guaranteed utility. According to the example: it is good that there is property because my bicycle is outside and if there wasn’t property, it wouldn’t be there when I want to ride it. Property is good because it is a precondition of utility. On the one hand, this is true in this society. In a society where everything is property, the legal title to ownership really is the precondition for me to ride the bicycle. But the institution of private property does not exist so that I can ride the bicycle. The concept that property is a good condition “because I can use a thing” evades the issue to the extent that property unfolds its real economic charm – when I own something that I do not want to use myself, but which others need.

Something I want to use myself, i.e. a sausage sandwich, can only be eaten by one person. It lies in the nature of the use value that it excludes others from using it. But this exclusion does not require a legal system to watch over it. Vice versa, in a world where everything is property, even a sausage sandwich is sometimes contentious. In situations of absolute need, there are a lot of disputes. But in and of itself property does not exist so that someone who wants to use something can use it. Property exists because somebody has an exclusive right of disposal over the things he doesn’t want to use himself. Because he personally does not use them, he can make an economic use of them.

Hegel had some wonderful passages about how people think a field should belong to the person who grows crops on it. This may be nice and good, but this has nothing to do with the reality of property. Because the joke about property is that the field belongs to somebody who doesn’t grow crops on it. Property unfolds an economic efficacy. Namely: I will let others who need my field onto my field when they work for me in the first place and only work for themselves in the second place. If they enrich me first, only then can they start doing the labor they need for themselves.

In this respect, the concepts now combine: freedom is the political and juridical form of property. And private property is the legal form in which citizens are defined as capitalisticlly competing subjects and seek to use their property to make others serve them; to extort their servitude.

So its clear that anybody who owns a lot of property, who owns means of production which everyone needs to use if they want to do useful work for themselves, can make others serve his own enrichment before they can work for themselves. And anybody who is able to offer only his own labor, like millions of others on whom the opposite side may depend in principle but less so in the individual case, is truly taken for a ride, one which never amounts to anything, even though he works all day long.

This is the world of freedom, property and capitalism. They are one and the same.

So a quick look at the invitation leaflet: it is a shortcoming that it says the state furnishes the basic conditions of capitalistic society and then talks about the commodity economy and further down says: and freedom was another reform in capitalism. This doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. You can’t say that the state furnishes the commodity economy and later freedom in addition as well. Freedom, economic freedom, is nothing but disposal over property and the commodity economy.

The second great principle of the bourgeois state is the equality of the citizens.

Equality also has to be taken seriously. Its no good to say that it is a fraud, or not true equality. Here too it must be said: equality – the only equality that there is – is established by the state. It defines its subjects as free citizens who are equally subject to the law. Here everybody thinks: but of course there are poor people and rich people. Clearly, its a joke; the state abstracts from this. But equality in any other respect is always an abstraction. You understand this when I say: there is a redhead, there is a brunette, if they are equal, I have abstracted from their hair color. There is a man and there is a woman, there is a short person and a tall one, a weak one and a strong one; if these people are equal for me, I have abstracted from their differences. If I do not care about the differences, they are equal. It can’t be any other way: equality is an abstraction.

When the state treats its citizens as equals, it abstracts from their social position and from their ownership of property and their power of disposal over it. Someone who has nothing at all is a free citizen just like someone who has millions of dollars and sits on the board of a big corporation. As I said, equality does not mean that a fraud is taking place, but this is the legal form in which the state deals with its citizens. It abstracts from their differences and says: you are legally equal and it is your private affair whether you are poor or rich. This does not interest the state. This type of abstraction which equates the richest capitalist with the poorest bum, which simply says that the state does not get mixed up in this, is especially tough.

The state has the task of merely treating everybody as equals before the law. Everybody has their license and the limits to their license. So what the capitalist may do with the worker is also regulated. He is permitted to let him work for him. He is not permitted to have him work 24 hours a day for him. He is permitted to pay him a low wage. He is not permitted to pay a wage he didn’t agree to. And so on ... What the workers get is also regulated. They are equally subject to the law. And just by equally subjecting them to the law and not getting involved in whether they are poor or rich, the state sets free property’s economic power of extortion. Precisely in this way, it relegates everyone to economic dependence on the ruling interests.

In this respect, something interesting happens with equality. It is a modern achievement of the state. A hundred years ago in Germany equality among the citizens was not yet realized. Maybe a pauper could go to court; there might be the problem of affording the costs of going to court, but equality was not realized in regards to the vote. The propertied had 3x, 5x, 17x the voting weight of the common folk. The state was still the state of the propertied class. Now the modern state is really the state of all its citizens. All citizens are equal before the law and there is “one person, one vote.” The joke is that in the modern state the propertied, the capitalists in the narrow sense, are a vanishingly small minority. Politically, they really don’t stand a chance of asserting their interests. They assert them in a quite different way.

It is precisely by directing all ctiziens through the freedom of private property to the economic power that the interests of capital become the general interests of the society. Not because the capitalists have more power in politics, but just because the capitalists too are merely a few citizens, although every citizen knows that their income depends on the capitalists needing their labor power.

We now live in a world that doesn’t care that a labor party can be voted into office. The dependence on capital is the basis for the interest of capital being recognized as the general interest in this society. And this is completely recognized by those who are not capitalists. That means if a labor party is elected, they say – what? Without an upswing in the economy, there won’t be any jobs or wages. So dear voters, dear proletarian voters, you have to recognize that nothing is more important than promoting the business of the capitalists.

And this does not take the form of the capitalists exercising total control over the political system. Once freedom and equality have been established, everything in politics is tied to capital’s economic power of extortion and that makes the interest of capital the general interest of the society, even though for most people the interest of capital is not in their interest, but the interest they must serve. To their detriment, certainly.

The political power relies on this type of extortion; this is the political side of freedom. Anyone can establish a party and say: I would like to manage the state in a different way. The state relies on the citizens recognizing their dependence on the economy. And on the fact that the only political alternatives are those which revolve around the question: how do we best organize this dependence? How do we best promote the nation, the whole? Politics relies on the fact that these questions are debated by every alternative.

Only in states where the working class has recognized their dependence on capital as their general lving condition is there freedom and democracy in the perfect version. Otherwise, capitalist society can function only as a dictatorship; then, however, as a party instrument of those who have economic power and buy state power for themselves. But from the standpoint of our state, the EU, the Americans, that happens in weak states which aren’t functioning well.

Important final point.

The citizens’ consent to being governed does not generally make force from above superfluous. If everyone says: we are ok with this, then the state doesn’t need to exercise force. But force rules the everyday life of bourgeois society. Not in the form that rebellions are going on everywhere and liberation movements have to be kept down. This happens relatively rarely. When that happens, it is done. But the normal use of force, the everyday force of bourgeois society, is necessary and never becomes superfluous because the state, by bringing property into the world, creates the right for people to run riot with the power they can exercise over others with their property.

With this license, or right, the state instigates a fight. A competitive struggle where one person’s benefit is directly connected to another person’s damage. This is visible in the fight over prices. The fight over price is always: I want to sell as expensively as possible. And the other side is: I want to pay as little as possible. I benefit more, the more I damage the other. If I can make somebody pay a high price, then I have done good business. And the other guy has to fork it over.

The fight over the price of labor is the fight over how people live. And setting loose a hostile fight between rivals, liberating the pursuit of profit which consists in damaging others, simultaneously requires the supervision of every step of the competition between rivals. Because in damaging others, each oversteps the restrictions which are necessary in order to maintain this fight of everyone against everyone. If these free private subjects were left without supervision, nothing would be left but civil war.

The story of the blackouts in New York in the 1960s is well known. The ability of the police to act went out with the electricity, as did the presence of the state power in general. So it was a night of looting. Order collapsed. If it is not constantly maintained, it simply breaks down. The force which is always necessary is not force to suppress insurgents, or only in the rarest of cases. In general, force is so that the citizens don’t go too far in exercising their freedom; when they fight each other more than is functional for the community.

The state sets limits and says: you may exploit the workers. But after 8 hours, its over. Except there’s overtime, and then more rules for after 12 hours. Except in special cases, it is over after 24 hours. And so on ... But everything is regulated, and there is one order for all. And vice versa there is also one price for all.

This force is the normal force which appears and takes effect every day in all the transactions between the citizens. Rights are involved in everything; anything people do together always has a legal form. Even sex, which falls under the private sphere and shouldn’t concern anybody else, has detailed juridical regulations. You don't even have to be married. There is a law for everything. And the state always pays attention to whether people keep within the limits. And the state with its informers and police overseers doesn’t always have to be behind it. This view doesn’t see that it is the everyday life of the citizens themselves: everybody clamours for the state. The life of the citizens, their interactions with each other, is one they know to be regulated by state power. Everybody tries to get the help of the state power on his side against the others.

The citizens in their interactions with each other try to make use of the state power. The landlord says: I must raise your rent – he says: I must. Not: I want to raise it so I’ll get more money – he says: I must raise the rent. Other landlords are raising rents, so I must too. The tenant’s question is the same: is he allowed to do this? Right away its the question: what does the law say? Is he allowed? Yes, if he is allowed, I have to pay it. If he is not, then I’ll go to the state. The tenant association is there to regulate this for me. And it says: he may do this or he may not do this. This is how state force exists in everyday interactions.

In the last instance, every skirmish, regardless whether the police have to be deployed or not, is decided by power. Namely, by the granting of rights, how far the license of one to damage the other goes and where it ends. Again: the continual necessity of force is not a sign that the citizens are insurrectionary. Nor is a thief a critic of private property. A thief takes something for himself that does not belong to him – because he wants to appropriate it for himself. He approves of private property when it is his. A criticism of property is something completely different than taking something from somebody else.

Most force in our society is used to avenge violations of the law and to thereby maintain respect for the legal system. Not to keep down insurrections. Rule and the force that backs it up are necessary, but are used against the will to revolt only in the rarest of cases. One shouldn’t assume from the fact that force is exercised that this is due to a slumbering, emerging, or ongoing rebellion. Force is part of everyday life. Not: force is only when people defend themselves against representatives of the system.

[Translation of a lecture presented at the Seminar on the Analysis of Fascism, Berlin, October 4, 2008]