We are often told that the state—that is the government, police, army, judiciary and so on—exists to benefit society as a whole.
We are told that without the state there would be chaos and that we would be more vulnerable. But the recent inquest into the death of Mark Duggan, who was gunned down by police, has led many to question the real role of the state.
The Russian revolutionary Lenin described the state as “an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another”.
He said the state uses “special bodies of armed men” to help keep the working class down.
The state hasn’t always existed. In pre-class societies, where production was based on cooperation, there was no state. The state arose at a particular point in history—the rise of class societies—and its role is to defend one class from another.
Capitalism is the latest of these class societies. It is based on competing bosses each trying to make more money than the rest. They make profit by exploiting workers—paying workers less than the real value created by their work and keeping the difference.
The exploiting class of the bosses has fundamentally opposed interests to those in the exploited class of workers. But the system constantly throws up struggle between these classes—and the ruling class knows it could be overthrown.
So it maintains its position partly by the constant threat of force and it needs to make sure that the state keeps the monopoly of force. It can sometimes seem that states take action that goes against the interests of bosses. But this is partly because bosses aren’t always united.
The capitalist class is united in its exploitation of the working class. Yet competition between firms and bosses also divides it. The revolutionary Karl Marx said capitalists were engaged in a “fight among hostile brothers”.
Divisions among bosses mean the state cannot possibly work in the immediate interests of the whole of the ruling class. Sometimes firms seem to go against the interest of their nation state.
They move money abroad, do deals with foreign firms, or sell arms to states that are fighting their own people. Firms can also leave one country and take root in another.
But bosses still rely on states to help provide structures in which they can operate and make money, wherever they are. The state enables businesses to function smoothly by
overseeing the regulation of commercial operations such as local currency. It also protects some local markets.
And it guarantees capital the supply of labour power to create profits by providing healthcare and meagre benefits for the workforce. This keeps the working class at a degree of contentment so they do not rise up and use their considerably larger power to defeat and overcome the bosses. Without a state to maintain its position, a firm can’t operate for any length of time in a meaningful way.
Under capitalism, firms and states can’t exist without each other. And there are limits to how independent each can be from the other.
For instance, during the 1970s Labour chancellor Denis Healey floated the idea of increasing taxes on the rich. But the bosses went on the offensive.
They organised an “investment strike” and openly caused financial panic to force the government to retreat. Labour caved in and ended up pushing through huge cuts to spending that hit ordinary people.
Capitalist states rely on money from functioning economies in order to operate—and they rely on bosses to help keep this supply running.
Sometimes states seem to break with those who control money and industry in their area. This can reflect divisions in the ruling class. One example is Britain’s decision to be part of the European Union.
Some bosses think this is the best way to defend their profits. Others would prefer to align with the US, and so the criticise the government. At other times the state can go against the short term interests of some bosses in order to protect the long term interests of capital in general.
The creation of the NHS in Britain, which nationalised health care, provided bosses with much a healthier and more reliable workforce. It also helped to calm widespread discontent among the working class after the Second World War.
As Tory MP Quintin Hogg put it in 1943, “If you don’t give the people social reform, they will give you social revolution.”
State reforms that snatched profits from some capitalists were seen as necessary to preserve the system as a whole. Crucially the state centralises within itself an armed force that can be used to defend and promote capitalist interests.
Our rulers are currently trying to whip up a wave of patriotism over commemorations of the First World War. But this was a war waged by nation states battling for access and power over resources.
The recent war in Iraq saw the US fighting to maintain its dominant position in the Middle East—and to ward off competitor states. Through imperialist expansion a state can expand the potential for businesses to make profits and gain access to more resources, labour and new markets.
The capitalist state uses the hired officials of the police, army and courts as the strong arm of capitalism. These claim general authority and the sanctioned ability to use legitimate force when the interests of capitalism appear threatened. We see this very clearly during strikes and protests.
When workers withdraw their labour during a strike it creates a serious problem for the ruling class. Disruption to the flow of profits and the power of the boss in a workplace challenge the logic of capitalism. During the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984-5 the working class felt the brunt of the state and saw very clearly in whose interests the state operated. Police were drawn from across Britain to line up with the bosses against picketing miners.
Pitched battles were fought with police mounted on horses battering strikers as they fought to defend their communities and jobs from bosses’ attacks.
The state is not neutral. Functionaries of the state such as the police, judges and army generals like to stress their political neutrality, but it is false. Those who took part in the uprising of rioting around the country after the death of Mark Duggan knew this.
And the way the state responded shows how it acts in the interests of maintaining capital. It was damaging for business to have an uprising against the authority of the state. After the riots sentences were handed down totalling more than 1,800 years.
Judges and magistrates were directed to ignore sentencing guidelines for those accused of involvement in the riots. Magistrates’ courts also stayed open through the night and held unprecedented Sunday sittings.
This tells us that the law acts in the interest of the ruling class and above all else will punish those who challenge the state.
Capitalist exploitation would not survive without the state and what the Russian revolutionary Lenin called its “special bodies of armed men” to sustain it. This is a crucial understanding for anyone seeking to end the exploitative, inequality ridden system of capitalism.
The state is weak, it depends on the consent of the working class to continue to exist. The capitalist state cannot be reformed. To get rid of capitalism means smashing the state that shares its interests.
The State and Revolution Education for Socialists pamphlet on this topic.
The State and Revolution by Lenin
The State and Capitalism Today by Chris Harman
All available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to bookmarksbookshop.co.uk