Capitalist Control – How do they do it

From the Kingston Socialist Workers Party – Smarter than your average swappys.
Capitalism, as we have seen, is a class divided society based on exploitation. Under capitalism a tiny highly privileged minority rules over the large majority and lives off their labour. How do they get away with it ?

The answer, as the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci pointed out, is by a combination of force and consent. In reality force and consent are very closely intertwined and mutually reinforce each other, but for the moment I shall discuss them separately.

The element of force is primarily exercised by the state, that network of interlocking institutions – armed forces, police, judiciary, prisons, government bureaucracies etc – which stands over society and claims general authority, including a monopoly of legitimate force.

This state apparatus claims, at every level of its operation, to represent society as a whole – the so-called national or public interest. Hence the perennial assertion by police, judges, generals and so on that they are politically neutral. But the idea of a common national or public interest is a myth. The nation consists of classes, exploiters and exploited with opposed interests, and the society which the state represents is not society as such but specifically capitalist society, based on capitalist property relations and capitalist relations of production. The first duty of the state is to secure the preservation of this capitalist order. and since this order embodies the supremacy of the capitalist class, the state is, in the words of Marx ‘ but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie’.

The class character of the state is reflected in its composition. The upper ranks of the military, the police, the judiciary and the civil service are drawn overwhelmingly from the bourgeoisie and retain economic, family and social ties with that class. But the intrusion into this milieu of the occasional individual from the lower orders changes nothing. On the one hand the actual class position of such an individual is changed by the fact of their promotion and their outlook will tend to change accordingly. On the other hand acceptance of the capitalist mode of operation of the state is the condition of such promotion.

The consequence of the capitalist nature of the state is that force, or the threat of force, underpins almost every aspect of daily life. Consider some examples: a worker goes to work and makes some products. At the end of the day he or she tries to take all or some of them home. The worker will, of course, be forcibly arrested and forcibly detained in a police cell. Or the workers at a factory decide to go on strike, but only ninety per cent of them come out while ten per cent try to continue working. The law, in the shape of a substantial number of police, will immediately arrive at the factory to ensure the scabs’ ‘right to work’. But if the factory bosses decide to close down and make all the workforce redundant, the police will also arrive, this time to ensure that everyone goes home and no amount of appeals to the ‘right to work’ will move them in the slightest.

In all these cases the police will say they are ‘only doing their job’, but that is the point – their job is the enforcement of capitalist exploitation. The examples I have given may seem slightly strange precisely because they are so obvious, so taken for granted, but that is also the point. Capitalist exploitation would not last five minutes without state law, backed by state force, to sustain it.

Most of the time state force remains as far as possible low key and in the background but it comes to the fore the moment there is a real challenge to the interests of the capitalist class. If the challenge comes from abroad this takes the form of war; if the challenge is internal it is met with repression. If the challenge comes from an elected government it can take the form of organizing a military or fascist coup, as happened, for example, with General Pinochet in Chile in 1973 or as has been attempted recently against the Chavez government in Venezuela.

This last point – the potential use of state power on behalf of the bourgeoisie and against the government of the day – is very important. First it completely undermines the official constitutional view (and the view promulgated by political science and taught in the education system) that the state apparatus is subordinate to the elected government. Secondly it raises a key issue in Marxist theory which was ignored or distorted by most supposedly socialist or Marxist parties in the twentieth century.

The strategy of these organizations, beginning with German Social Democracy before the First World War, was to win ‘power’ by means of parliamentary elections, thus acquiring control of the state apparatus which would then be used to construct socialism. But Marx, on the basis of the experience of the Paris commune, had argued that it was not possible for the working class to take over the existing state machine and use it for its own purposes. The existing state was organically tied to the bourgeoisie and could not be used for socialism; rather it had to be broken up – smashed – and replaced by a new state apparatus created by the working class.

Marx’s genuine theory of the state was rediscovered and vigorously reasserted by Lenin in his great book, The State and Revolution. More than that it was put into practice in the Russian Revolution by means of soviet power, i.e. the power of workers’ councils. Later, however, the international communist movement, under the direction of Stalinism reverted to the idea of a parliamentary road to socialism and taking over the existing state apparatus.

But, the objection is often raised, the modern state, with its armies, tanks, bombs, planes etc is too powerful to be smashed, even by the largest mass movement of the working class. This, however, leaves out of the equation the crucial weakness of the state and of all the power of the ruling class which is the fact that for all its operations it depends on the collaboration of a section of the working class. Every gun needs a soldier to carry it, every tank a driver, every plane a team of mechanics. Almost the entire apparatus of the state is staffed, at its lower levels by workers and what happens in a mass revolution is that the pressure leads to many or most of these workers breaking from their officers and joining the people. This is how the state is broken. What this makes clear however is that the final analysis the rule of the bourgeoisie depends not just on force but also on a kind of acceptence.

The Role of Ideology
As we have seen the dominance of the ruling class rests fundamentally on force, exercised first and foremost through the state. However, if it rested on force alone it would be highly vulnerable to overthrow by the working class who constitute the large majority of society. The power of the capitalist class and its state is greatly strengthened by the fact that most of the time it is able to secure an acceptence of its rule from the majority of the very people it oppresses and exploits.

It is the role of ideology to obtain and maintain this consent. Every society has a dominant ideology – a set of ideas, a worldview, which serves to explain, justify and sustain the existing social order and its institutions. It is part of the strength of the dominant ideology in modern capitalist society that, generally speaking , it does not name itself or even acknowledge its own existence . It does not say to people this is ‘capitalist ideology’ and you must believe it all. Rather it presents itself as a series of individual ‘common sense’ propositions which are supposed to be either self- evident or definitively proved by history, like: ‘ Management and workers should work together for the benefit of all’, or ‘ Nobody is above the law,’ or ‘ Obviously, firms have to make a profit’ or ‘There will never be complete equality, it’s against human nature.’

In reality these are not separate ideas but parts of a systematic ideology which, like the state apparatus, serves the interests of the capitalist class. Its basic principle is to depict capitalist relations of production as eternal and unchangeable, and every challenge to capitalism as hopelessly unrealistic and/or downright wicked. But why do those who are disadvantaged by these ideas, namely working people, frequently accept them, at least in part ?

Marx gave a clear answer to this question:
The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force in society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. ( The German Ideology)

The means of mental production – the schools, universities, publishers, press and media generally – are today enormously expanded (mass education, TV, radio, film etc) compared to Marx’s day, but they remain almost entirely in the hands of the capitalist class and its state. This means that for the large majority of people almost every item of news, almost all their knowledge of history, of economics, of science, and most of the teaching they receive on morality and religion is brought to them within the framework of capitalist ideology. This cannot fail to have a massive effect on their thinking.

In addition to this bourgeois ideology has the advantage of long tradition and of often appearing , at least on the surface, to reflect reality. For example, firms that fail to make a profit do go out of business and their workers do lose their jobs. And, crucially, just as capitalist ideology legitimizes the state, so the physical force of the state backs up the ideology. As I stated in the last column force and consent interact and reinforce each other. Put this way the real question becomes not why do so many working people accept bourgeois ideas but how can the hold of these ideas be broken?

The great weakness of capitalist ideology is that it fails to correspond to workers’ experience – their experience of exploitation, poverty, unemployment, injustice etc. As a consequence the grip of the ruling ideas is never total. Most working people develop what Gramsci called ‘contradictory consciousness’; they reject some parts of the dominant ideology while continuing to accept other parts of it. For example a worker may display a clear understanding of the class struggle in the workplace but hold reactionary attitudes towards women or migrant workers. At the same time there will be a small minority who break with capitalist ideology as a whole and adopt a coherent socialist and Marxist outlook. This minority is extremely important because in certain circumstances it can win the leadership of many or even the majority of workers whose consciousness remains mixed.

What are these circumstances? First, when the objective conflict of interest between the classes turns into an open struggle such as a strike, especially a mass strike. Second, in conditions of serious economic and/or political crisis, such as a major slump or disastrous war, when the gap between the dominant ideology and reality becomes so wide that its hegemony starts to disintegrate. But above all when these two sets of circumstances coincide. Then it becomes possible for the coherent minority not only to lead the majority of the workers in struggle – on the basis of the progressive side of their consciousness – but also to start to transform the consciousness of the majority into all out opposition to the system.

The element of mass struggle is crucial because the level of workers’ consciousness is closely related to their confidence. The less confidence workers have in their ability to challenge and change the system the more they are likely to accept the dominant ideology, especially those aspects of it , such as racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia etc, which divert their anger and bitterness onto scapegoats. The higher their confidence, the more their horizons widen and they become open to new ideas. In mass struggle they get a sense of their collective power and the advantages of solidarity prove themselves in practice.

Then what becomes decisive is the size, influence and organization of the coherent minority and its ability to give a clear political focus to the anger and aspirations of the masses. It is this combination of circumstances, ideas and action that break both the hold of capitalist ideology and the power of the capitalist state.