The Civil Society/State Dichotomy Reply

By Chris Shaw

Gramsci rightly identifies that in the modern political environment, simply recognising actors as either public or private, in the realm of states or markets respectively, is problematic. Unfortunately the crux of international political economy has accepted this modernist doctrine, tacitly deifying the rationalist discourses of action and modernity which underlie such conceptions. For a large bulk of IPE, as well as other social sciences such as economics and political science, this is the held belief. Rationalism guides human action, which inevitably means a continuous desire for capital accumulation, the expansion of capitalist cultural doctrines, and the belief that the individual is entirely the scope of investigation.

But of course this public/private discourse is far too simplistic to truly understand the extent of social relations and arrangements which provide governance and institutionalisation. Gramsci noted that in the public sphere, there exists a dialectic of civil society (the collection of organic institutions that range from the mannerisms of society to the voluntary governance arrangements such as townhalls and churches) and the state (which is perceived as the mechanism of implementation, mainly reliant on coercion and top-down infrastructure). The way a functioning public government works is by reconciling these two (seemingly non-reconcilable) sides. Thus most modern states, particularly those in the Global North, rely on the combination of a coercive state framework and a civil society infrastructure which legitimises the coercive practices and top-down authority. Thus states, to a large degree, rely on not just pure monopolised violence, but also on legitimising ideologies which allow it to create discourses and frameworks that may well have been rejected by civil society in its capacity to be a separate sphere of public government.

Equally, the private side of this dialectical equation is in many ways constructed by these statist and domineering discourses. The development of a capitalist mechanism of accumulation, grounded in private property and the control of the means of production, came almost entirely from the state’s mandate of it. Large scale ownership of production outlets and the relations of wage labour, where artificial economic classes were created, are entirely developments of the state in its accumulation of land during the enclosures, its encouragement of state credit through the development of central banking, and its destruction of the organic feudal relations which preceded this capitalist construction. This is not to say that private property relations cannot exist without the state. A multitude of tribal forms of property as well as elements in the feudal system proves this to be false. However, the extent to which private property relations inform modern society, and the importance this is given, is a creation of statist dynamics, which is justified both through coercion (as seen in the enclosures) and the development of a justificatory doctrine (modernist concepts of rational human action and the deification of a business class) which brings civil society onside.

What becomes evident then is that much modern business practice, and the development of private property which underpins it, are public creations. When the vulgar libertarian defences come out, which justify what any company does to its employees or what it does the general public, they are entirely based on this separation of public and private, where the private is the realm of capitalism and thus not legitimately opened by public introspection. But as Gramsci shows, this ideologising is entirely false when taking the historical view. Thus in conceiving of a free society, in this case one based around voluntary relations of socio-economic activity, where governance is decentralised and pluralistic, many business practices, grounded in private property relations and subsidisation by the state, are entirely open to inspection by the organs of civil society, that voluntaryistic body of governance informed by common law and the organic history of the community. And in the civil society/state dialectic, it should become obvious that such a dialectical relation is untenable if freedom and liberty are valued.

One cannot have true freedom while living under the yoke of a private tyranny, as much as they cannot have it under a public tyranny. Libertarians go down the wrong path when believing in depoliticisation of the economy. Instead, they should support a bolstered demos, informed by the public governance which regulates and embeds the wider economy in the systems of the polity. Ignoring the constructed reality of modern markets will not free them. But recognising their construction, and attempting to embed them in systems of regulation which allow for the development of freed markets (in the DeLandian sense), may well move society forward to a voluntaryistic concept of society and economy.

Above all, people should be extremely critical of modernity and the ideologies which have legitimised and emplaced it. We should not fool ourselves into believing the Whiggish doctrines which suggest neverending progress. Instead, let us construct new economic realities, market-based or otherwise, which maximise economic security and the embedding of the self-ownership principle in the wider social prism of collective decision-making. Let us stop falling into accepting certain dichotomies (like capitalism/markets and states/civil society) while ignoring others (embeddedness/markets and regulation/private property). By recognising the failures of modern markets, libertarians and anarchists can potentially get out of the quagmire of making modernity a religion, and instead start focusing on real alternatives.

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