Monday, 26 August 2013

In which I get a little Marxist in the cause of minimum government


This is quite a difficult thing for me to write - partly because I'm stepping out from the areas where I'm comfortable with my knowledge but also because it challenges a more or less universal misunderstanding. And it begins with this quote from Engels:

The interference of the state power in social relations becomes superfluous in one sphere after another, and then ceases of itself. The government of persons is replaced by the administration of things and the direction of the processes of production. The state is not “abolished,” it withers away.

Setting to one side the vast (and largely incomprehensible) corpus of Marxist thinking, it strikes me that there is nothing to disagree with in the idea that the state will become superfluous. And those of the right (or at least the freedom-loving bit of the right) should share the objective - or is it the consequence - of Marxism.

Now I take the view that Marx's historical determinism - that the process from the hypothetical cave to a free socialist life is inevitable - is a load of nonsense. But this doesn't negate the ambition to which Engels alludes - that a perfectly just society would not need government. It is an admirable liberal aim.

The problem - and all the disagreement - comes from the route that Marxists (or rather 'communists', which I understand is a slightly different thing) choose to reach the shared objective of a free society, by which I mean one that does not require governing. Here's another Engels quote:

At the same time we have always held that in order to arrive at this and the other, far more important ends of the social revolution of the future, the proletarian class will first have to possess itself of the organised political force of the state and with this aid stamp out the resistance of the capitalist class and re-organise society.

The contradiction - an acknowledged contradiction - here is that in order to create a world free of the oppression of government it is necessary to seize control of government and through those means 'oppress' any people or organisations ('the capitalist class' is a conveniently broad concept) that stand between today's society and that perfectly just society we desire.

The problem here isn't that Marx's ideas were wrong but that the programme developed with Engels and operationalised by Lenin, Mao and others was wrong. This was a failure of strategy not a mistaken ambition - if we agree that, in part, this ambition is a just society free from the inevitable oppression that comes with government.

What is most bizarre however isn't that some people still adhere to the failed prescription of Engels (although this is somewhat odd) but that Marxists make common cause with Fabian Socialists, who had - and have - a very different view of the state. Here's Mark Bevir:

Fabian economic theories, unlike those of the Marxists, almost required their adherents to call for an interventionist state. The Fabians believed that rents could not be eliminated since they arose from the variable productivity of different pieces of land and capital.  The only solution was for the state to collect rent and use it for the collective good.

We have -on "the left" as we like to call it - an alliance between people whose end game is a free society without government and those who, in a manner reminiscent of Plato's 'guardians', believe that a (courageous) state is necessary for the just society to operate. It seems to me that Marxists are making common cause with people whose ideology is not simply different but diametrically opposed to what they believe. Those who want Marx's end game (and who could argue with that - other than Fascists and Fabians) need to make common cause with people who share the same broad objective but embrace a different strategy, who think making government smaller now makes more sense than trusting to those controlling government rejecting power.

Clinging to a failed strategy is daft. Yet that is what many on the Marxist left are doing - clutching to a belief that controlling the state is what matters rather than joining with those who wish to see a smaller state now. The principles of cooperation, collaboration and coproduction that Marxists applaud are shared but the means to the end are not.

I may misunderstand Marx here, in which case tear what I say to shreds, but if a free, just society is the end - and surely it is - then Marxists, rather than sneering at libertarians, Randians and anarcho-capitalists, should spot the shared ground and see that a society where the state directs or controls over half of human activity is not the sunlit uplands that Marx imagined.

Or maybe not...



singapore sling said...

Duncan said...

I'm not sure that their idea of a "free" society is in any way like yours or mine. If you read the full Engels paragraph this becomes clearer, but basically, he's saying that the state is a symptom of class division. Therefore, when the proletariat seize power, class division disappears and the state is no longer necessary because we're all destined to live in peace and harmony.

Because under capitalism ("our present anarchy in production") there is competition over resources, the state is necessary to ensure that that competition is won by a dominant class. Engels' ambition (or expectation) is that the end of capitalism leads to the end of class dominance and so the state can be reduced to simply "the administration of things".

This is not the argument that "the state" disappears and people are freed, but that the end of class conflict results in its merging with society. The state no longer needs to repress any part of society because it just does its work "by the conduct of processes of production". The individual will just align with their part in the process of production, because they are now all loyal parts of the proletariat. Marxist hopes of a society of collaboration and cooperation are similarly achieved by assuming away the problem of people wanting to participate - once we're all the same class, we'll stop being selfish and do our bit.

As James Madison put it: "If men were angels, no government would be necessary." If (as I'm sure you do) you see freedom as important because of our capacity for moral agency, and if (again, I'm sure you do) you have a realistic view of human nature, you have to conclude that the practice of a free society brings conflict. If (ditto) you think that we're made up of our loyalties and interests, and those always have the potential to divide as well as unite, then those conflicts will often be social (class) in nature.

Barring the perfection of human nature or the end of loyalty to particular social groups, those conflicts mean that a free society needs government. Partial progress on those conditions, through greater character and voluntary cooperation, results in self-government reducing the need for government by the state. But paradoxically, full achievement of those conditions wouldn't be desirable: if we were all selfless, morally perfect angels with no difference and no loyalties, freedom wouldn't really mean anything, would it?