What is the State? A Public Autonomy View

By S. D’Arcy

Anti-austerity protesters in Athens, outside the Parliament, 2011.

The concept of democracy as “public autonomy” stands directly opposed to its counter-concept: the state, the great dissolver, usurper, and corrupter of the democratic impulse.

Of course, this suggests that, lurking behind the concept of public autonomy, there must be an implicit “state theory,” or at least some rough conception of the core features of the state form, which is taken for granted. Indeed there is (a rough conception, although not a theory). Here I want to spell out the basics of that conception, in the simplest possible terms.

In broad outlines, the state consists of four main types of structures, and four further types of processes:

  1. structures of representation, such as parliaments or legislatures;

  2. structures of bureaucratic administration, such as the ministry of education, or any one of many regulatory agencies;

  3. structures of judicial decision-making and judicial review, such as courts and tribunals;

  4. structures of armed coercion, such as the police, the prison system, and the military;

  5. processes of policy-formation, such as backroom lobbying, the production of reports, and public hearings;

  6. processes of ideology-propagation, such as government campaigns of ‘civic education’ and ‘national unity’ cultivation;

  7. processes of system-steering, such as the use of monetary policy to affect aggregate demand in the economy, or the deployment of tax incentives to encourage people to purchase houses; and finally,

  8. processes of service-provision, such as employment counseling, public education, and government- organized (not just funded) healthcare delivery.

(The four processes are spread out across the four structures, especially the first two.)

On one level, calling all eight of these diverse structures and processes “the state,” as if this were the name of a unitary entity, is intellectually questionable. No doubt, there is much to be said about what differentiates these eight state functions. But what all these structures and processes share is a joint commitment to the insulation of nominally “public” decision-making authority from the direct and unfiltered influence of actual public participation.

If there were an “essence” of the state, it would be this: the establishment of structures and processes that institute and/or defend forms of nominally public authority that are protected from actual popular power, either because they establish conditions for participation that are inherently disempowering (like voting for a representative, or filling out a form), or because they block entry to all but the few who can pass through a forbidding filtering system, or because they ensure that power flows from the top down, but not the other way, or (as in the case of service-provision by the state) they encourage the re-definition of social problems as personal or psychological rather than as politico-economic.

If there are democratic aspects to the way the “liberal” state operates, these would have to be understood as, at best, a type of rigidly indirect democracy, that is, democracy in which popular influence can be exerted only indirectly upon the direct decision-makers. For the most part, though, it seems best to acknowledge that the whole thrust of the state is toward protecting key systems of power (in and out of the state) from the perceived threat of public empowerment.

All of these are points about modern states as such. Even a post-capitalist state would — as Marx pointed out — serve as a direct barrier to the extension of democratic control over society. But what makes the capitalist state so particularly effective at performing the disempowering function of the state is that it adds to the above eight elements a further, decisive constraint: the imposition of constitutional limits on the scope of public authority over the exercise of “private” power. In short, it constructs and defends a “private sector” beyond the reach of public decision-making.

The capitalist state disempowers, therefore, both because it is a state in general, hence inherently disempowering of mobilized publics, and because — through its liberal constitutionalism — it institutes and enforces a sharp protective barrier that limits the scope of public decision-making authority in such a way as to insulate the huge concentrations of private power at the centre of modern society, the Corporations, from even the pretence of accountability or responsiveness to the public interest or the popular will. This idea that the state may not intrude on key decisions about investment and the allocation of social labour and resources, but must instead defer such decisions to “the private sector,” underlines the uncompromisingly anti-democratic nature of capitalist states, regardless of what party is “at the helm” of them at any given time.

With their power thus protected, corporations can always wield the threat of shifting their investment capital toward jurisdictions that prioritize private profits over the public interest, and away from jurisdictions that threaten to experiment with public policies that are responsive to considerations of social or environmental justice. The imperative is always in play: give the corporations what they want, and no one has to lose their jobs (although they may do so anyway). Threaten their bottom line, however, and there will surely be a price to pay in lost jobs and reduced tax revenues. This familiar dynamic, a standing system of blackmail, ensures that the capitalist state not only dissolves or precludes public autonomy; it also actively establishes corporate power over the whole policy-making process, including (perhaps especially) the process of making policies that ostensibly “regulate” or “constrain” corporate behaviour. The power of the energy industry is nowhere greater than in the energy regulatory system itself. The same goes for the banking industry, and the food industry: the regulations that supposedly rein them in are in fact direct expressions of their own power, dictated unilaterally, for the most part, by hand-picked industry functionaries in and out of government.

What does all this tell us? Mainly, that Marx was right. The problem with the state is not that the wrong people are in charge of it. No, “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes,” he insisted. On the contrary, by its nature the modern state is “a public force organized for social enslavement…, an engine of class despotism.” He was right to conclude that, rather than expending our energy on getting hold of the engine, or trying to redesign the engine, we were better off trying to “smash” [zerbrechen] it. This is so, even if (as he also says) some “social functions will remain in existence…that are analogous to present day state functions.” For instance, public services will still be provided after the breaking of the state form. The insulation of such service provision from participatory-democratic oversight, and deliberative-democratic input, would certainly have to end, however. So, too, would the stranglehold that private concentrations of power now wield to steer public policy decisions in the interest of business elites.

Under modern conditions, Marx said, “the precondition for every real people’s revolution” was ”no longer, as before, to transfer the bureaucratic-military machine from one hand to another, but to smash it” (Marx’s italics; Letter to Kugelmann, 1871).

In his book, Changing the World Without Taking Power, John Holloway calls Marx’s idea, “refraining from taking power.” To be more precise, he distinguishes between two kinds of power, and he favours not taking power of only one of these kinds. There is, first, power-over others, public heteronomy, which is what the state is constructed to generate. But there is also, second, power-to (“changing the world,” in Holloway’s idiom), or humanity’s capacity for creativity and cooperation, which in politics finds expression in public autonomy or collective self-governance. This form of “power,” this “anti-politics” of power-to, Holloway wants us to liberate and expand. However, we do that not by seizing the state, but by refusing to allow our creativity and cooperation to be expropriated by the state. Our power-to-do can retain its liberating power as potentiality only in the form of community-based popular self-organization, which is exactly what the state is designed to reject.

To confuse the empowerment of popular self-liberation with some sort of “taking over the state” is the gravest error that a socialist can make. It is to choose as one’s favoured political vehicle a social form that Marx rightly identified as “an engine of despotism.”

2 thoughts on “What is the State? A Public Autonomy View”

  1. “a joint commitment…”; “If there were an “essence…”; “the whole thrust…” This language suggests a telos of state functions, and I’m wondering if you can say more about why you believe the prevention of participation to be ingrained, rather than a tendency to be contested.

    What about the example of participatory budgeting in its stronger versions? Where does that fit in the control/redesign vs. smash dichotomy? I’d add that the participatory budgeting was won in Porto Alegre partially through the electoral victory of the PT.

  2. Participatory budgeting has various forms, but is not exempt from critique.
    Many have critiqued the process for creating a class of decision makers who work in proximity to municipal gov. Where those selected delegates (due to their social capital) may get in close with the municipality at the expense of the general pop. There are other nuanced critiques of participatory budgeting such as partner funding, municipalities having more clout then the community or their delegates etc…However, a marxist critique would be to ask, what does having the community get imput on a small percentage of their municipal budget do towards eliminating private owners of the entire communities means of life-production.

    I see participatory budgeting much the same as I view raising the minimum wage…people deserve these things but that doesn’t make them the ideal. Means of production or else….

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