The state’s main function has always been to set up tollgates between labor and consumption, between our skills and the ability to transform them into use-value for ourselves, so that a privileged minority could live off the rents on artificial scarcity. Under chattel slavery, that meant “owning” the actual producers themselves with legal title to all their labor, and providing them with bare subsistence out of their labor product, while their owners appropriated the surplus.
Over time the privileged classes have experimented with various expedients for determining the share of the product left to the laborer in order to maximize the rentiers’ total income in absolute terms. They’ve been quite willing, for the most part, to increase the producers’ relative share and with it the incentives for making a larger pie — so long as the absolute size of the slice appropriated by the rentiers didn’t decline. But when increasing the size of the pie has meant a smaller slice for them, they’ve never wavered in choosing productive inefficiency as a condition of efficient exploitation.
Under serfdom and other medieval labor regimes, the ruling class politically appropriated the land and forced its rightful owners — those who cultivated it and mixed their labor with it — to pay a portion of their labor product as a condition of access to the land. Producers were given a fixed rent, either as a percentage or in absolute terms, and left with the remainder of their output for themselves.
In the capitalist era, in both its early modern agrarian variants and the later industrial system, the ruling classes allowed market mechanisms to operate within a framework of medieval property forms and class monopolies. Throughout the capitalist era, the state has encouraged as much market activity, within the framework of state-enforced monopoly, as was compatible with maximizing exploitation. Under the classic form of capitalism, as it existed through the mid-19th century on, the market applied mainly to consumption. The realm of production was still governed by power, with the propertied classes controlling access to opportunities to produce.
Under the monopoly capitalism which arose in the late 19th century, exploitation extended to the realm of consumption, with the rentier classes using artificial scarcities like “intellectual property” and assorted regulatory cartels to extract surplus from consumers via unequal exchange.
Today, in the dying days of monopoly capitalism, the state’s role in surplus extraction is specifically to protect the rentier classes against competition from the technologies of abundance. A good example is public library ebooks, designed to self-destruct after 20 readings.
Another way of protecting the rentiers from abundance is compelling us to purchase waste output as condition of buying what we actually need. For example, as recounted by Jessica Mitford in “The American Way of Death,” at one time the law in many states required the purchase of a casket even for cremating a body, thus compelling grieving families to support an industry they had no need of as a condition for burying their dead.
At all times and all places, since the beginning of the state and of class stratification, it has been the same basic idea: By erecting a tollgate between labor and consumption, to force us to support a parasitic rentier class in addition to ourselves, as a condition for being allowed to support ourselves at all.
This is what the state does. This is what the state always does. The state is the political means to wealth. Every state has been, and every state will be, a class state that enforces transactions in which one privileged party benefits at the expense of an unprivileged other. The state puts a majority of us in a position of accepting exchange on terms which nobody would willingly accept absent restrictions on the alternatives available to us.
The state, in short, forces us to feed a monkey on our backs in return for the right to live at all, in return for the right to feed ourselves.
And if you think the agenda promoted by Social Democrats, liberals and “Progressives” the past century or so has been a fundamental departure from this principle, don’t delude yourselves. Capitalists have been at the heart of liberal and Social Democratic coalitions. Liberalism, Social Democracy, is still capitalism. All the modifications of capitalism that make exploitation less harsh and unpleasant, from the perspective of the exploited, are equivalent to adaptive modifications in a parasite that stabilize and enable its parasitism in the long run by making it more tolerable for the host organism.
The only real alternative is to dump the monkey off your back altogether — to eliminate the state and the system of class exploitation it enforces, so that all exchanges and relationships are mutually beneficial ones between equals.
Categories: Economics/Class Relations