revolutionary reflections | Value, force, many states and other problems: part 2

In the second part of his essay on how violence and coercion are written into the core of capitalist social relations, Colin Barker explores how states modify the law of value.

Frontispiece for Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651). Engraving by Abraham Bosse.

This posting forms the second instalment of a three-part article that remained in a draft form at the time of Colin Barker’s death, though it was his wish to share it in its current form, in the hope of stimulating further debate and to encourage others to take up the baton. See the first part here. The final part will be published on this website in a fortnight’s time, along with a full list of references.

The full essay can be downloaded in PDF, MOBI and EPUB formats.

Violence and commodity producing societies

Club-law (Faustrecht)

At this point in the argument, most readers would probably expect us to turn to ‘the state’. This is the normal mechanism for securing ‘right’ on which both classical political theory and Marxism alike have mostly focused. There is, however, an under-discussed alternative, which has some claims to logical priority.

Every property owner has to be vigilant, before, during and after any passage through the circuits of commodity exchange. The exclusion of others from access to one’s own property without one’s consent is a necessary precondition of commodity-legal production, and material means are necessary to achieve this. One solution potentially open to commodity owners is to secure for themselves their own means of ‘self-defence’. Pashukanis’s term for this is ‘self-help’. Indeed, as he comments, ‘Law and self-help, those seemingly contradictory concepts, are, in reality, extremely closely linked’.[1] For Pashukanis, the foundation of all legal forms, the social expression of legal relations arising from private property, is ‘the duel’.[2]

The principle of ‘self-help’ is simple. Producers either provide and deploy their own means of force to defend themselves and/or to wage war on others, or ‘hire’ others to carry out this function for them. In the real world, the ‘hiring of others’ may shade over into the paying of tribute to a ‘protection agency’ (a.k.a. ‘security specialist’). Self-armament was a vital political principle of the feudal ruling class; it was also a necessity for much early merchant activity. In the (mythical?) Wild West, the hired gun played this part before the arrival of the full panoply of state power; every pioneer carried a gun, and not just for hunting meat. Even in the developed world of state monopoly capitalism, ‘self-help’ continued to play its part. Just as Henry Ford hired a private army of ‘goons’ (as well as ‘social workers’) in an effort to keep the unions out of his auto-plants, so ‘hired goons’ find plenty of work today across the world. Private security agencies proliferate, along with store detectives, video cameras and electronic detection devices. Many householders kit themselves out with burglar alarms in the minimal hope that marauders will go next door.

This tendency has proliferated in the years following 9/11, but even in the 1990s there was evidence of this burgeoning industry. A former head of the London police, Sir Robert Mark, told a security conference that the police were incapable of protecting people’s property. Duncan Campbell reports:

As recession breeds crime, crime has, in its turn, stimulated a remarkable growth in the security industry… While other industries have withered, the indications are that security has not only survived but prospered in the recession. In 1989, the turnover of member companies of the British Security Industry Association was £1,107 billion. Last year, it had increased by 19 per cent to £1,163 billion and is estimated this year to reach £1,148 billion. In 1989, there were 59,000 employed in BSIA companies and this year the figure is likely to be 62,500. Closed circuit television companies, who sell to garages and shops, have seen their turnover increase from £236 million to £304 million since 1989…. Dr Olinga Ta’eed, of Molynx, the company developing the IDS tracking system which can follow a burglar round a building and zoom in on his face, says that there has been a great increase in demand for proper security. ‘People are looking for much more sophisticated equipment now. We have had a lot of interest both from industry and the police.’ … It is not just hardware that is being promoted. Role Management, based in Milton Keynes, offers advice to victims of bank robberies and even produce a newsletter called Trauma Counsellor with details of the effects of trauma suffered – ‘low libido, shivering, shaking, numbness and disbelief.’…. Traditionally the police have been opposed to the growth of security firms carrying out private street patrols; such firms charge between £3 and £10 a month per household to patrol in areas where there has been a high rate of burglary. But there are now signs that police resistance is softening…. There is an even faster growth among the ‘cowboy’ companies who provide everything from bouncers for pubs to nightwatchmen for warehouses. Some firms of bouncers have shrewdly realized that they can give a discreet form of protection; pubs that don’t pay find trouble-makers on their doorsteps.[3]

‘Self-help’ is associated with a particular form of law. Marx’s term for it is ‘club-law’ (Faustrecht)[4]:

… every form of production creates its own legal relations, forms of government, etc. The crudity and shortcomings of the [bourgeois economists’] conception lie in the tendency to see but an accidental reflective connection in what constitutes an organic union. The bourgeois economists have a vague notion that it is better to carry on production under the modern police, than it was, e.g. under club-law. They forget that club-law is also law, and that the right of the stronger continues to exist in other forms even under their ‘government of law’.[5]

Under ‘club-law’, or the right of the stronger, those with property to defend must spend to defend themselves, to engage in ‘self-help’. Means of violence and exclusion – however they are produced, marketed, controlled, enforced – are inherent requisites of everyday exchange and circulation, and necessary elements in the costs of production. Locks and keys, alarm systems from dogs and geese to modern electronic systems, knives, guns, bombs, tanks, warships, multiple-targeted re-entry vehicles are all part of the real economic necessities of commodity production in its modern (i.e. capitalist) form. So are all the means for protection against fraud, or covert theft.

The expenses of maintaining private means of defence fall, strictly, under the head of ‘unproductive labour’. This does not, however, exempt them from the same socio-economic necessities associated with the ‘law of value’. No more, of course, are banks, insurance companies, merchant and retail enterprises, and so forth – centres par excellence of unproductive labour – exempt from the law of value.

In his preparatory materials for Capital, Marx offers some comments, semi-satirical in tone, on the connection between crime and the development of the productive forces:

The effects of the criminal on the development of productive power can be shown in detail.  Would locks ever have reached their present degree of excellence had there been no thieves?  Would the making of bank-notes have reached its present perfection had there been no forgers?  Would the microscope have found its way into the sphere of ordinary commerce (see Babbage) but for trading frauds?  Doesn’t practical chemistry owe just as much to adulteration of commodities and the efforts to show it up as to the honest zeal for production?  Crime, through its constantly new methods of attack on property, constantly calls into being new methods of defence, and so is as productive as STRIKES for the invention of machines.  And if one leaves the sphere of private crime: would the world-market ever have come into being but for national crime?  Indeed, would even the nations have arisen?  And hasn’t the Tree of Sin been at the same time the Tree of Knowledge ever since the time of Adam?[6]

The world of ‘crime’ and ‘crime-prevention’ has its own rapidly developing technologies, its own rising organic composition of capital, and its own tendencies to concentration and centralization. Like productive, commercial and financial capital, it too spills across national boundaries. Here too, living labour plays a diminishing part in relation to dead labour, whether among the poachers or the gamekeepers, the people who design sages, and those who crack them.

‘Self-protection’ too is subject to the law of value, both in respect of the cost of the technologies it employs and its own labour processes. As in the productive sphere, socially necessary labour time also rules here. The costs and effects of ‘defence’ in a world where the means of self-protection are wooden clubs or bows and arrows are very different from those in a world with thermic lances and ram-vehicles, computer fraud, tanks and Multiple-Targeted Re-Entry Vehicles…. Just as, in competition within the sphere of productive labour, the development of new means of production by one producer has profound consequences for all other producers, so too in the inter-connected fields of robbery and self-defence: means of force must match means of force, whether directly or reciprocally. In sum: although the field of legal-political defence of private property is not itself, directly, a sphere of exchange or of productive labour, it is nonetheless also subject to the law of value, whose effects are just as real here as in the directly ‘economic’ processes Marx and the political economists explored. It is by no means only in the sphere of exchange proper that human beings relate to each other through things, and are indeed dominated by the properties of those relations between things.

What does the ‘law of value’ dictate? Here we should remind ourselves that the law of value is not merely a ‘scientific law’, a statement of the general principles underlying processes of production and exchange in commodity-producing society; it is also a coercive force operating on all producers. Adapting a term Marx uses elsewhere, we can fairly say that coercion is the ‘Moses and all the prophets’, that is – the law of value as command. To buy, you must have adequate commodities at your own disposal to exchange, and the social adequacy of these is shaped by the socially necessary labour-time they embody. To sell, your own production must not only satisfy a need in others, but also be undertaken within socially necessary labour-time if you are to obtain, through free exchange and contractual relations, the means to continue reproducing yourself and your means of production. Now we must add that the means of ‘defence’ must also be adequate to the conditions in which you find yourself, and these depend on what those who threaten you are capable of.

It is, thus, not only via ‘price competition, monetary competition’ that the law of value is able to transmit itself. ‘Defence competition’ is also a vital transmitter.[7] It is true that the sphere in which this is most open to demonstration is indeed the sphere of international relations, where the principle of ‘self-help’ (or ‘club-law’) still reigns supreme, as Pashukanis himself noted, almost in passing.[8] But commodity production always implies and involves the development of means of ‘self-help’ or ‘defence’, and these are also subject to the law of value. Matters to do with ‘defence of property rights’ are not somehow extrinsic to the analysis of commodity production, and thus of capitalist production, but are essential aspects of the very social form itself.[9] [10]

States and force

One possibility open to those who need to defend their property, we noted, was not to provide direct ‘self-help’, but to turn to some kind of ‘protection agency’, possessing the means of violence, to perform this service for them. The most developed form of such protection agencies are states.[11] States form an inherent part of capitalist society, yet their analysis and understanding have proved troublesome to Marxism.

Classical liberal political thought, from Hobbes to Hegel, connected the necessity of states with the existence of private property. Indeed, a key strength of liberal theory was its insistence on this link. Characteristically, liberal thinkers construed a fundamental distinction within modern society between two spheres: on one side, the private sphere of ‘civil society’ (Hegel), ‘commercial society’ (Adam Smith) or the ‘state of nature’ (Hobbes, Locke, Paine and others), and on the other side and the public realm of the state (Adam Smith’s ‘civil magistrate’). Civil society remains the sphere of the egoistic pursuit of self-interest. Corresponding to civil society, but over and above it, there needs must exist a distinct sphere, that of the state.

In liberal theory, modern states have a dual function. On the one hand, they protect private property rights. On the other, they represent a larger, communal interest than any actors in civil society can achieve – precisely because of their pursuit of essentially private and selfish interests. Hobbes offers perhaps the most extreme and uncomfortable version of the theory. He presents a society brutally characterized as living in a condition of ‘war of all against all’, which must end in common ruin unless obedience be demanded by and given up to Leviathan, an independent state power which rules and protects society ‘for its own good’. Later liberal thinkers were to soften the presentation, but the heart of the vision remained the same: a competitive civil society requires a state to govern and protect its members from each other, and to resolve partly some of the internal contradictions of that society.

This vision, in turn, generated its own specific series of practical, moral and theoretical problems, which constitute the heart of the agenda of liberal political theory. How should such states be composed, and how controlled? What allegiance (‘obligation’) is owed to such states, and when is rebellion justified? How far can and should the dangerous power of such states be permitted to develop? What activities is it proper for states to undertake, and what matters are better left to the autonomous self-regulating process of competitive wealth-creation? The problems faced by liberal political thought multiplied to the degree that its practitioners recognized the contradictions generated by the free pursuit of private greed: class division, poverty, ignorance, vice, exploitation, inequality, hypocrisy and the like. Classical liberal theory was forced to wrestle with, and to attempt a resolution of the paradoxes posed by such a society and such states: ‘private vices and publick benefits’; wealth for some founded on poverty for many; the inherent generation of popular class discontent; equality before the law allied with practical inequality; the dissociation of individual and common morality, the contradiction between the particular and the general. The greatest thinkers – among them Rousseau, Kant and Hegel – could represent the problems with brilliant acuity, but offer nothing but essentially ‘tragic’ resolutions.[12]

What is involved in the state ‘solution’ to the problems of providing the necessary force to secure private property? At the most general level, as we remarked above, the necessity and possibility of states arises from the inability of civil society’s members, divided and fragmented as they are by special and antagonistic interests, to govern themselves directly. States, in this sense, provide a political analogue to Adam Smith’s ‘hidden hand’ or Marx’s ‘law of value’. That is, states develop, in connection with private property, as integrating and socializing mechanisms, which are out of the direct control of the members of civil society. States, quite as much as money, bear the birthmark of human alienation.

The formation of states is an inherently ‘dangerous’ enterprise for all concerned. For states constitute themselves with a monopoly of legislative, armed and judicial power over the societies they rule. Their establishment enables them to ‘interfere’ and ‘intervene’ in and to ‘supervise’ the everyday conditions of social reproduction. If, like the American cop, states ‘serve and protect’, they have the character of a protection racket: they demand ‘respect’, they collect ‘contributions’ from those they protect, and they enforce submission from those unwilling to cough up. Like the Mafia, states do make offers we can’t refuse. The emergence of modern states involves the constitution of the members of civil society as ‘legal subjects’ capable of owning and exchanging via property rights. But, they are constituted by states as ‘subjects’ beneath themselves.

States must themselves subsist, and they have the means to enforce their subsistence costs upon society. Liberal theorists may have presented states’ existence as the result of a ‘social contract’, but states’ relations with their subjects are not themselves contractual. Unlike the ‘commercial’ relations of civil society, states’ transactions with their subjects are not first and foremost conducted according to the rules of the market, those famous principles of freedom, equality, property and Bentham. The freedom of the subject is always conditional; states may declare their subjects free, but they also constitute them as their creatures.[13] Between state and subject there is no final presumption of equality: there is command and obedience. Property rights may be protected by states, but they are by that fact no longer ‘absolute’: states make their own claim, in principle, on all property (even including the famous ‘property in oneself’ which state conscription overrules.) The pursuit of naked self-interest may be licensed by states, but only on condition that the ‘general interest’ whose definition the state arrogates to itself is always borne in mind. Raison d’état is a final argument against all resistance: states, once constituted, develop their own specific interests. The interests of states may conflict with what mere private individuals consider to be their interests, yet those states possess the violent power to prevail in such a contest.

Both to ‘protect their subjects’ and to pursue what they determine to be the ‘general interest’, states must develop ‘policies’ for the management of society. Those policies carry costs as well as benefits for different groupings in society, which they may prefer not to meet or to have provided. The very existence of states may be a necessity for the preservation of ‘free’ commerce and the working of the law of value; but the existence of states simultaneously contradicts, in principle, the workings of that law. States live above society and live off the fruits of ‘extra-economic’ surplus extraction. The necessary product of contradiction in commodity-producing society, they also contradict that society directly. They may stiffen the framework of legal relations in society through their judicial and police apparatuses, but the first decree of states is strictly extra-legal: their own safety and security, their own majesty.

As already indicated, the development of states effects a significant transformation in the content of socio-economic relations. Initially, when we consider contractual exchange relations, it appears that every contract has two parties, each free and independent of and equal in status to the other. But the introduction of a state as guarantor of contract law, and indeed as a formative element in the very constitution of the parties to contracts as free and equal legal subjects, involves the practical introduction into every contractual relation of a ‘third party’. This ‘third party’ itself stands over the contracting parties, ruling and taxing them, giving them legal definition as members of civil society. Thus the development of the category of ‘state’ also involves the modification of a theoretical assumption which underlies the development of the economic categories in Capital as we have it. Commodity production presumes equivalence of exchange as its normal and average basis; this is the starting point of Marx’s exposition. As is well known, Marx went on to show that, in practice, this principle is already subverted once the concepts of capital and surplus value are introduced and developed (see below). So too, in the development of the concept of states out of the legal-political exigencies of commodity production, we find that it is necessary to introduce another, competing logic, that of state tribute and taxation. Within capitalism, these two forms of surplus extraction – ‘economic’ and ‘extra-economic’ – are not simply separate and opposed, but are each mutually entailed and complementary features of the other.

As a commodity is at the same moment both a ‘thing’ and a social relation, so states are both organized collections of people and a relation to society. The form of that relation is, in Marxist terms, a ‘class-like’ one: states appropriate for their own purposes a share of the surplus produced within society. States live, in that direct sense, by exploitation: either directly or through the forcible appropriation of surpluses produced elsewhere.[14] In Volume 3 of Capital, Marx discusses the various phenomenal forms that surplus-value takes within capitalist society: industrial profit, commercial profit, interest on financial capital, rent on land. Interestingly, he quite ignores one form: tax.[15] Any further development of the critique of political economy most decidedly requires the development of that category, for tax collection is the presupposition of all state intervention.

‘Property’ is not only something which is exchanged, or which represents the means to produce commodities for exchange. It is also, while it remains in the hands of those who possess it, something ‘managed’ and ‘directed’ by those with an ‘interest’ in it. From the standpoint of states, civil society itself appears as ‘their property’. There is more to the role of states than simply that of guardian of the civil law, protector of the rights of property owners within civil society. From its beginning, states develop a ‘managerial’ or ‘administrative’ capacity in relation to ‘their subjects’; they formulate and execute ‘policies’,[16] deploying their own armed power and their own tax-collecting and distributing powers in pursuit of what they come to define as the ‘social’, ‘general’, ‘common’ or ‘national’ interest. Far from being merely passive guardians, states are active organizers and shapers of society beneath themselves. Thus, in the modern period (certainly from the 16th century onwards), the development of states is much more than the development of civil law: it is a process of ‘state-building’, of the formulation and re-formulation of ‘state policy’ and of the instruments for its pursuit.[17]

In all of the foregoing, there has been a degree of conscious stick-bending on my part. On the whole, Marxist theorizing about states and capitalist society – including most of Marx’s varied and interesting remarks on the subject in the 1840s – has stressed, usually descriptively rather than analytically, the ways in which states are subordinated to the imperatives of capital accumulation, to the interests of the bourgeoisie, etc. This particular side of the concrete functioning of capitalist states undoubtedly requires extensive emphasis and development. But the problem with much of this style of theorizing, taken by itself, is that it is one-sided: it ignores the specific character of states themselves.[18] The need for a Marxist theory of ‘politics’ and ‘law’ which is more than simply ‘economistic’ and ‘derivationist’ disappears; the ‘class-like’ nature of states’ power over society is played down, and a way is left open for a ‘reformist’ politics alien to Marx’s spirit.[19]

For the present, the stress falls on the way in which states – through their very existence and through their activities and policies – modify the law of value. Obviously, a more systematic account would be preferable; here I just note a few aspects of the question in very general terms.

Some key state functions

States collect and spend taxes; they recruit and may conscript personnel whom they deploy to their various apparatuses; they pay and may otherwise feed and provide subsistence to their personnel; they purchase and may commandeer land[20], goods and services; they shape the supply of currency and, to the degree they borrow, affect the pattern of interest rates; they directly organize the production of some goods and services; they may subsidize the prices of some of their own products or others that are ‘commercially’ produced while equally they may inflate the prices of other products by imposing a variety of taxes at the point of their production and/ or sale; they enforce processes of economic ‘redistribution’ through a variety of specific policies, from investment promotion to ‘welfare’. By these and other mechanisms of ‘policy’ states give a kind of direction to the overall economic process among their subjects, whether consciously or otherwise. All these forms of ‘intervention’ by states involve, in greater or lesser measure, modifications of the operation of the law of value which are backed by state power. A society where ‘commodity production’ is the predominant form cannot be characterized, solely, by the predominance of the law of value, but only by the simultaneous co-existence of that law with its practical negation.[21] If ‘generalized commodity production’ provides a possible starting point for the consideration of the concept of ‘capitalism’, other necessary aspects of that starting point turn out to include the armed and tribute-collecting power of states, their ‘interventions’ and ‘policy-formations’. They have been universal and necessary aspects of the whole of capitalist history.

One further point needs to be made at this stage. If states in some sense represent the general interest of a community which is both associated but also divided by commodity production relations, and if they deploy their various powers in support of that general interest, how do they determine what that interest is? Which of many possible versions of the communal interest do states express? Given the competitive diversity within society, any given policy will tend to advantage some interests and hurt others. When states collect revenues and resources from their subjects, the actual pattern and level of tribute-exaction they follow will have significant consequences for all or some of their subjects. The very existence and activities of such states, with their various extra-economic powers, necessarily makes them objects of both fear and desire for their subjects. The politics of their control, their steering and their limitation becomes a vital matter for their various subjects. How far can this or that state be lobbied, diverted, persuaded, corrupted, resisted, captured, overthrown? State-society relations become, inherently, objects of political struggle.

Against the state

The power of states is the reverse of the powerlessness of their subjects, their lack of control over, not simply the means of production, but the conditions of their social activity: social rules, laws, the allocation of resources to different needs, etc. In different forms of social production (modes of production or cooperation), the roots of this alienation of their powers to entities standing over them are different. In the capitalist form of society, where social wealth takes the form of an immense collection of commodities, and where their products rule over them, states take their place as vital parts of the larger machinery of human alienation. The struggle against capitalism is necessarily also a struggle to do away with states.

Capital and commodity production

In Marx’s presentation in the early chapters of Capital, commodity production and exchange contains the possibility of capital, developed as a category through the exploration of the circulation of commodities and money. It is only when capital takes hold of production that the conditions are created for commodity production and exchange to become general, fundamental features of human social cooperation. And the condition for capital taking hold of production is the creation of a class of workers, lacking direct access to the means of production, who must hire out their labour-power in return for wages. Although he begins his exposition with the social relations of commodity production and exchange, Marx’s argument is that these themselves only become dominant where capital has seized control over the process of production itself: ‘only where wage-labour is its basis does commodity production impose itself upon society as a whole’.[22] As Jorge Larrain notes: ‘One cannot derive the capital-labour contradiction from the contradictions immanent in commodities; on the contrary, the emergence in history of the capital-labour contradiction is the precondition for the actualization of the potential contradictions inherent in commodities’.[23] The flowering of commodity production and its social assumptions are dependent on the development of capital, not the reverse: capital is cause not consequence. The order of presentation is not the same as the order of significance.

Commodity production and exchange, it turns out, are not ‘self-subsistent’ social relations, capable of their own reproduction without other, distinct and necessary social relations.[24] On the one hand, as argued above, the application of force in some form is a necessary entailment of commodity production and exchange. On the other hand, the generalization of the production of ‘value’ (and its associated pattern of social relations) requires the generalized production of ‘surplus value’. Only on the basis of the development of the exploitation of wage-labour do the social relations that Marx, Pashukanis and others decoded as underlying commodity production and exchange become general features of social production and social cooperation. It turns out that the social and legal implications we have been exploring under the heading of commodity production and exchange are those of capitalism. Only we have been looking at these in a one-sided way.

The further exposition of the social relations of capitalist production and circulation also involves transformations and further developments in our understanding of the social and legal relations inherent in this mode of production. The freedom of producers, the equalization of their products, their mutual indifference, their property rights and so on all now take on additional features, and appear in a new light. So too do the figures who populated the landscape of commodity production and exchange. The relation between commodity producers offers what turns out to be a complex and contradictory starting point for conceptualizing capitalism, but it is by no means the terminus. By itself, the analysis of commodity production enables us to grasp, in the dimmest outline, a world of ‘private property’ where producers buy and sell, where they meet as free and equal contracting agents, where some force is required to reproduce their relations with each other and where, although very abstractly, it is possible to perceive that ‘crises of reproduction’ can occur.[25]

But what the more precise content of these relations is, we do not yet know. Nor do we know under what circumstances these relations of commodity production become dominant. We know that there are ‘subjects and things’, and socially determined relations of ‘control’, ‘ownership’ and ‘possession’ between these ‘subjects’ and these ‘things’, and that there are likewise relations of exclusion, but we know nothing of the social roles of these subjects or the character of these things. Who or what counts as a ‘subject’ and what or who as an ‘object’? We may, at the level of the analysis of commodity production, be able to construe an outline theory of ‘exchange-value’ and of the relationship between commodity values and money; but many of the immediate forms in which we come across these matters – ‘wages’, ‘profit’, ‘interest’, ‘rent’ and the like – are still quite inexplicable. We can deduce that some kind of organization of ‘force’ is needed to keep property ‘privatized’, but not how it is organized; if a state form exists, we know little about it. It is not apparent what, if any, pattern of inequality exists in society, nor whether society has any marked pattern of development or ‘laws of motion’.

Once, however, we turn to established capitalist social relations, the normal functioning of the capitalist unity of production and circulation can be seen as reproducing many of its own preconditions. The process of production, circulation and distribution is one, through which, simultaneously, goods in the social form of commodities are produced and reproduced, but what is also produced and reproduced is a basic shape of society. For at the end of every period, the labour-force has earned sufficient wages to enable them to continue as workers, but without overcoming their basic propertylessness, so that they are faced again with the necessity of offering their services for hire; and the capitalists have enlarged their capital and remain capitalists. ‘Production’ and ‘reproduction’ refer not only to the making of needed things, but also at the same time to the making of society, its relationships and the individuals who compose it. Marx’s famous remark – ‘Men make their own history but not under conditions of their own choosing’ – applies with full force not simply to moments of revolutionary change but equally to the everyday and ordinary making and remaking of the social world and our own places within it. Those who make, say, Microsoft software are involved through the same activity in reproducing themselves as workers, but also in making Bill Gates and his expanding wealth. The making of things embodies the making of (class) society; these are not distinct activities, but the same process considered from different aspects.

The development of specifically capitalist production relations, founded upon the exploitation by capital of wage labour, not only provides the conditions for the complete generalization of ‘commodity production’, but it also transforms its inner drives.

First, the formation and reproduction of a class of propertyless workers enormously expands the field of action of commodity production and exchange. Now, the majority of society can no longer subsist on their own direct production. Not only must they hire out their labour power in ‘labour markets’, but they must spend their wages on obtaining the necessities of life. As producers and as consumers alike, their everyday life is now necessarily involved in the world of market exchange. All aspects of their lives are now, directly or indirectly, mediated through monetary relations.

Second, the interdependence associated with the particular form of the social division of labour found within commodity production now has a more definite shape. Those denominated previously as ‘producers’ are now identifiable as capitalist enterprises. Each one, separately, is still ‘independent’ and yet part of an interdependent system of social production. Each, necessarily, is compelled by the logic of that system to produce under conditions it does not itself determine. ‘Socially necessary labour time’ remains a governing principle, for each enterprise taken as a unit must, as a condition of its survival, keep up with or catch up with all other enterprises with whom it struggles for a market. Capitalist commodity production demands ‘efficiency’ in the use of productive resources, and condemns the ‘inefficient’ to destruction or absorption by the more efficient.

Under conditions of capitalist production, the pursuit of ‘surplus value’ becomes an unavoidable imperative for those who control and own capital. Capital’s endless self-expansion is a condition for its survival. The competitive relations between capitals compel each, separately, to search constantly for means of cutting the costs of production, of improving and speeding up the methods of production, and thus of reducing the average ‘socially necessary labour time’ embodied in the commodities it produces. One effect is to distinguish the capitalist class from all previous exploiting classes in one crucial respect. While a part of the surplus value extracted from the labour of its workers continues to be devoted to the capitalist class’s own consumption and enjoyment, such ‘unproductive’ or ‘luxury’ consumption plays a proportionately smaller part than was the case with all previous exploiting classes. Rather, those who play the part of ‘modern capitalist’ find themselves compelled to re-invest the greater part of the surplus value that comes their way back into the renewal and development of the forces of production. What compels them to such ‘productive’ consumption of surplus value is the competition between them all. The ideal capitalist is thus indeed one who conforms to such patterns as those prescribed by the Protestant Ethic: living an austere personal life, spending no more than is necessary on enjoyment and decoration, and wisely ploughing wealth back into the field of capitalist production and circulation to be further fructified and expanded. This happens not out of any ideal or religious conviction, but out of simple necessity. Those who ‘waste their substance’ are doomed to destruction.

The effect, though, is considerable. As capital ‘took hold of production’, it launched that convulsive drive to expand the productive forces of society and extend their global scope which has so marked the history of the past two or three centuries.

Capitalism: subjects and objects

The transition to discussion of capitalism also involves a transformation in the nature of subjects and objects. So long as we remain at the starting point of Marx’s presentation in Capital, namely commodity production and exchange, it is sufficient to assume that the property relation is one, as Geoffrey Kay and James Mott put it, consisting of ‘persona-res’.[26] That is, the ‘owner’ of property is a person, or perhaps a family group, and the ‘object’ of property is a material ‘thing’: a physical commodity, a tool or machine, a piece of land, etc. The ‘rights’ of property are attached to persons.

At the level of capitalism, however, these simple assumptions must be modified. For one thing, thanks to the concentration and centralization of capital, ‘ownership’ becomes dissociated from ‘natural persons’ (that is, individual human beings) and increasingly held in the hands of corporate entities (limited liability companies and corporations, and indeed states). ‘Rights’ now attach not simply to individual human beings, but to collective forms – ‘the company’, ‘the estate’, ‘the crown’, ‘the state’ and the like – which lack the real attributes of personality but are nonetheless endowed by law with all the attributes of ‘person-hood’.[27] ‘Natural rights’ are attributed to ownership in the abstract, to the ‘fictional individuals’ that comprise these entities. These corporate forms may and do assert their legal ‘rights’ against mere real persons. Abstract persons and real persons may each have their day in court, though such abstract persons can usually afford better lawyers.

Such developed forms of capital as the modern corporation (or indeed state-owned capitalist property)[28] involve a further significant transformation. We might have assumed that the functions of ‘ownership’ and ‘management’ of property are combined in the same person or group, and thus that the function of ‘capitalist’ is always associated with direct personal ownership. But the development of capitalist property forms allows and involves a dissociation of functions, as numerous commentators have noted – even if they have read the significance of the development in different ways. In some theories of ‘managerial revolution’, it is assumed that once salaried managers with less immediate ‘ownership’ interests take the helm within business enterprises, they become less concerned with ‘profit’ and more open to the pursuit of other, and more ‘socially aware’ goals. Rather than review a whole literature on this, it is sufficient to recall that, regardless of the individuals who head and manage enterprises, those enterprises themselves, as ‘collective subjects’, are still enmeshed in a world of competitive relations with each other. That world of competition itself constrains managerial behaviour, irrespective of the persons who occupy decision-making positions within enterprises – and irrespective of whether they are ‘private’, ‘corporate’ or even ‘publicly owned’. Occupancy of a ‘directive’ role within capitalist enterprise, with the responsibilities that carries, is normally sufficient – quite independent of any ‘personal stake’ – to ensure adherence to the rules of the capitalist game. The ‘agents’ of capitalist production and competition need to be understood, first, in terms of the field of constraints they occupy, and the compulsions they find themselves under, rather than the particular routes by which they acquired their ‘agencies’. Rather as the young Marx remarked that, under primogeniture, the Prussian estate inherited the eldest son, one might say of ‘managers’ that their relation to property is that it owns them rather than the reverse.[29]

Further, it is not only the ‘subject’ of the property relation which is inwardly transformed through the development of capitalism, so too is the ‘object’. For now labour-power, the essential human capacity for transformative creative activity, also becomes a commodity for hire. The assumption of liberal thought that property may exist in a ‘thing’ but not a ‘person’ (for that would deny the postulate of equal freedom) is now also subverted.

Or, rather, it is both subverted and not subverted. Workers retain ownership of their powers, but allow the use of them to pass into the control of another for the period of the working day. One might say that they ‘hire them out’. But, whereas the owner of a lorry may hire out the use of the vehicle, both retaining its ownership while spending the day in bed, the unfortunate owner of labour-power has to accompany the ‘commodity’ if it is to be used by the hirer. No one has yet solved the trick of hiring out their labour-power while staying in bed. Real human powers are inseparable from their bearers. To hire the capacity to labour is unavoidably also to hire the self.

For the period of the working day, the worker’s capacities pass into the effective possession of the hirer. The only way in which the hirer can, in practice, obtain the use-value of labour-power is by directing the worker’s activities. That is, workers necessarily void their freedom of activity for the period of the working day, and work under another’s command. They hand over property in themselves and their powers. For the period of the working day, the worker is a double entity: in formal terms, a free, equal and self-possessing agent,(as opposed to a slave or a serf); in real terms, the worker has become a servant, one who submits to another’s will and does what they’re told, as much another’s property as a horse. Wage-workers are both free and not-free, both equal and unequal, both a property-owner and dispossessed of their property, both a Benthamite chaser after their  own interest and one who is chased to do another’s bidding.

At the end of the working day, workers slip their arms back into the sleeves of freedom and equality, and recover control of their property. The whole situation has an element of paradox about it, for the ‘unemployed’, would-be workers who cannot find an employer, maintain their freedom all day long. In their own way, they too discover what a formal thing their freedom is. Need drives them to seek a way out of their condition of freedom, to turn to every corner of the labour market with pleas to all they meet: ‘Please, won’t you exploit me? Please take command of my inherently human freedom of will in return for some wages!’

Limits to liberalism

The transition from understanding modern society from one side, as based on the principles of commodity production and exchange, to a view of modern society as capitalist, and founded in exploitation, has more than simply ‘economic’ implications. Marx provides the basis for a critique of the ‘legal-political’ assumptions of the same essentially liberal doctrines which underpinned classical political economy. Many commentators have paid attention to the general ‘philosophical’ categories with which Marx attacked the assumptions of capitalist society in his early writings of the 1840s on such matters as ‘alienation’ and ‘estrangement’, and have argued (in my view, correctly) that these same issues continued to motivate his later writings. Less attention has been paid, however, to the way in which Marx’s Capital directly attacks the basic assumptions of liberal political and jurisprudential thought.

So long as we remain at the level of exchange relations, Marx suggests, liberal assumptions retain an important element of validity. But the social relations embodying these principles by no means exhaust the essential constitutive relations of capitalist society. Liberalism’s account of capitalism is not so much ‘wrong’ as grossly one-sided. It mistakes a part of the reality of capitalism for the whole.

In a marvellous passage, Marx sums up the lessons of Enlightenment thought as to the legal and political principles of market exchange relations in what Adam Smith termed ‘commercial society’ and Hegel called ‘civil society’:

The sphere of circulation or commodity exchange… is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. It is the exclusive realm of Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, let us say of labour-power, are determined only by their own free will. They contract as free persons, who are equal before the law. Their contract is the final result in which their joint will finds a common legal expression. Equality, because each enters into relation with the other, as with a simple owner of commodities, and they dispose equivalent for equivalent. Property, because each disposes only of what is his own. And Bentham, because each looks only to his own advantage. The only force bringing them together, and putting them into relation with each other, is the selfishness, the gain, and the private interest of each. Each pays heed to himself only, and no one worries about the others. And precisely for that reason, either in accordance with the pre-established harmony of things, or under the auspices of an omniscient providence, they all work together to their mutual advantage, for the common weal, and in the common interest.[30]

In terms of economic theory, political economy had difficulty explaining the sources of capitalist profit and the other forms of surplus value – indeed, it characteristically lacked a general concept of ‘surplus value’. It is just at the corresponding point in legal and political theory that its formulations also begin to break down. As Marx suggests, liberal theory rests on a series of assumptions: that the individual possesses the freedom to determine his own existence; that individuals are equal in status and rights; that individuals possess certain property rights, and not least the right to property in themselves; and that individuals have the right to pursue their own self-interest so long as that pursuit does not damage others. Liberalism as a general doctrine thus stands opposed to political despotism, inequality of legal status, and slavery. Much of modern liberalism, indeed, goes further and advances – on something like the above basis – the notion that individuals therefore have the right to an equal share in determining the legislation governing their interactions (some kind of political democracy).

All of the above is compatible with, and may be read as a legal and political underpinning of the assumptions of market exchange. Capitalism and freedom, capitalism and human rights, are regularly taken to be somehow essentially correlated. And to the degree that ‘capitalism’ is taken to mean no more than the intrinsic relations of contractual exchange, the position is indeed supportable. The advance of capitalism has, historically, been associated with the practical advance and extension of just these kinds of values. The consistent liberal has grounds to celebrate the progress made over the past several centuries towards the theoretical and practical development of ‘human rights’. But the same liberal has grounds too for concern at the many places and social situations in which such rights still remain unfulfilled – political regimes which rob, torture, silence and oppress their citizens; inequality of status and treatment for particular ethnic groups, migrants, women, children, the LGBT community, and so forth; the practical continuation of actual enslavement of parts of the labour force. However, in the face of the still only partial achievement of their values, liberals may remain cautiously optimistic that historical progress sides with them, and that these problems remain in principle soluble. As the Wealth of Nations flourishes, so too surely does and will their freedom grow.

Marx’s critique, however, throws all of this in question. The very development of capitalism, he insists, not only promotes liberalism’s core values, but also systematically denies them. The key turning point in Marx’s exposition of these matters occurs just as the seller and buyer of labour-power meet and freely bargain the terms of their contract with each other in the market – the moment of the passage cited earlier on Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham. That ‘liberal moment’ initiates the transition to another social world inherently constituted on quite different principles: the world of the workplace and of exploitation. As Marx takes his buyer and seller over the portals of this other domain of capitalist life – over whose doors is written, in ironic remembrance of the entry to Dante’s Hell, ‘No Admittance Except On Business’ – they undergo a transformation:

When we leave this sphere of simple circulation or the exchange of commodities, which provides the ‘free-trader vulgaris’ with his views, his concepts and the standard by which he judges the society of capital and wage-labour, a certain change takes place, or so it appears, in the physiognomy of our dramatis personae. He who was previously the money-owner now strides in front as a capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his worker. The one smirks self-importantly and is intent on business; the other is timid and holds back, like one who has brought his own hide to market and now has nothing to expect but – a tanning.[31]

Once inside the ‘hidden abode of production’, liberalism’s legal and political presuppositions suddenly cease to apply. The equals of the market place are now ‘master and servant’, ‘boss and hand’, ‘manager and managed’. One rules over the other, commanding his or her activity.[32] Here workers do not determine their own life-processes, but act according to the plans of others. Here, there is not ‘freedom’ but ‘despotism’. Here the property of the worker in himself or herself has become the property of the capitalist in its use. The world of immediate exploitation, where surplus value is produced, and where the essential distinctions of class society are reproduced, reverses the ‘public’ assumptions of the sphere of exchange. Here workers pursue, not their own self-interest, but the interest of those who stand over them. The capitalist workplace subverts liberalism’s core principles. Here there apply the principles of slavery – conditioned by the limits of its duration to ‘wage-slavery’, but nonetheless operative – rather than of freedom and equality. And the more that capitalism develops, the more developed is this despotic relation.

The seeming free exchange between capitalist and worker turns out to be illusory, even if a necessary illusion is involved:

The exchange of equivalents, the original operation with which we started, is now turned round in such a way that there is only an apparent exchange since, firstly, the capital which is exchanged for labour is itself merely a portion of the product of the labour of others which has been appropriated without an equivalent, and, secondly, this capital must not only be replaced by its producer, the worker, but replaced with an added surplus. The relation of exchange between capitalist and worker becomes a mere semblance belonging only to the process of circulation, it becomes a mere form which is alien to the content of the transaction itself and merely mystifies it.[33]

Or, as Marx expressed the matter in the Grundrisse:

In present bourgeois society as a whole, this positing of prices and their circulation etc. appears as the surface process, beneath which, however, in the depths, entirely different processes go on, in which this apparent equality and liberty disappear.[34]

These non-exchanges between capital and labour nonetheless provide the founding conditions for the generalization of commodity production and circulation, and its socio-legal assumptions. Marx’s analysis of exploitation, that is, offers more than a purely ‘economic’ analysis, but involves a fundamental critical assault on the one-sidedness of liberal jurisprudence and politics. Liberalism’s own values can never be adequately realized within the framework of the capitalism which itself produced them. Capitalist society rests upon, at best, a contradictory combination of freedom and unfreedom, democracy and despotism, equality and inequality of status, self-determination and totalitarian rule. The contradiction between them runs through the heart of this mode of production, and is intrinsic to its character.

If we could stop the analysis at the level of commodity production and exchange, then it would appear that the motive of production and exchange is, in however peculiar a form, the satisfaction of mutual material need, i.e. of consumption, via the indifferent pursuit by each participant of their own self-interest. But the continuation of the argument to capitalism transforms the character of the predominant ‘need’ that drives this form of social cooperation. Now it is the limitless hunger of capital for surplus value that is the ruling motive of production and exchange.

At the level of commodity production and exchange, we have a multiplicity (or ‘plurality’) of commodity-producers, whose mutual need for each others’ products draws them into relations of exchange. But the greater concreteness we attain once we deal with capitalism gives these abstract figures new definition: on the one hand, a class of capitalists, still interdependent as mutual exchangers, but now understood as engaged in a perpetual scramble to expand their capital, to accumulate, and on the other hand a class of workers hiring out their labour-power to capitals in return for wages which they spend on their material consumption necessities. The self-seeking and mutual indifference of commodity producers is translated into competition between capitals for surplus-value, along with competition among workers for opportunities to hire out their capacities.[35]

Capital, as Marx remarked, can only exist as many capitals. Each part of ‘capital’ must struggle with its fellows for survival, and must seek to expand itself as a condition for its own survival. The capitalist class is thus an inherently divided class, a band of ‘hostile brothers’.[36] Each part of that class is compelled to struggle to accumulate, to produce and realize more surplus value which it must re-invest in producing and realizing still more.

Since the source of that surplus value is labour, each ‘production capitalist’ is thus also compelled to struggle with the section of the total labour-force of society that it hires, to maintain and raise the rate of exploitation. Every facet of the relations of capital with labour is a potential issue of practical confrontation between the opposed interests of either side: hours of work, intensity of work, organization of the workplace, managerial power, wages, provision for health and safety, numbers and make-up of the workforce, etc. The dynamic and restless competitive energy of capitalist production, its constant cycles of reshaping, expansion and crisis, mean that these relations can never ‘settle down’ into a long-term pattern of ‘customary activity’ in which either capitals taken together in their mutual competition or capital and labour can achieve a settled modus vivendi. Social disturbance and class conflict – manifested, of course, in a thousand and one different patterns of activity and interaction – are inherent properties of this system of social relations.

It is also this which accounts, fundamentally, for the enormous leaps in human productivity which mark the capitalist era. The drive to innovation is not a property arising from the nature of factories, machines, or even technically educated personnel, but is a product of the competitive relations obtaining between capitals. Growth and innovation are not optional for those who direct rival capitals, they are a condition of survival in the struggle for markets. The drive to ‘growth’ is a coerced and compulsive behaviour characteristic of capitalism, a direct expression of its inner social nature. Where, when considering commodity production, Marx already recognized that this is a form of social production in which humanity’s products rule them, this condition is at once transformed and magnified in a capitalist world where the development of humankind’s productive forces takes on terrifying new aspects of a socially destructive character: over-work and threats to life and health in capital’s work-places, convulsive economic crises, famine and starvation in the midst of plenty, war and destruction on a scale never before dreamed of, and a looming prospect of the most extraordinary devastation as the poisoning effects of capital’s industry on the very climate are slowly dinning themselves into popular consciousness.[37]

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels recorded that the class struggle in previous modes of production had ‘each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes’. In the era of global warming, which threatens the lives and livelihoods of millions upon millions of human beings, that ‘either-or’ question takes on a new kind of meaning and urgency. It is difficult to conceive how, within a capitalist framework, the necessary global reorganization of production, distribution and consumption required by today’s threats can even be conceived. The ‘general interest’ of humanity demands that such a reorganization be undertaken. But in capitalism there is no general interest, only the antagonistic war of all against all.

Continue to part 3.



A full list of references will appear at the end of the final part of the article.

[1] Evgeny Pashukanis, Law and Marxism: A General Theory, tr. Barbara Einhorn (London: Ink Links, 1978), p. 134. On the Bolshevik legal scholar Evgeny Pahsukanis, see part one.

[2]  See also: China Miéville, Between Equal Rights. A Marxist Theory of International Law (Chicago: Haymarket, 2006).

[3] Duncan Campbell, ‘Security firms find the recession is a safe bet’, The Guardian (14 January 1993). Former Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Ian Blair (interviewed in The Guardian 2 November 2009) expressed the view that the police cannot handle everything, and that private security companies will tend to take up still more of the slack….

[4] Editor’s note – an alternative translation of Faustrecht would be ‘law of the jungle’ or ‘law of the street’, its literal translation is ‘fist justice’, which has no English counterpart.

[5] Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy [1859], trans. Nahum Isaac Stone (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 1904), pp. 273-4. In the Penguin edition of Marx’s Grundrisse [1861], trans. Martin Noclaus (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973), p. 88, the same passage appears as follows:

… every form of production creates its own legal relations, form of government, etc. In bringing things which are organically related into an accidental relation, not a merely reflective connection, they (the bourgeois economists, CB) display their crudity and lack of conceptual understanding. All the bourgeois economists are aware of is that production can be carried on better under the modern police than, e.g. on the principle that might makes right. They forget only that this principle is also a legal relation, and that the right of the stronger prevails in their ‘constitutional republics’ as well, only in another form.

The Marx/ Engels Collected Works translation (volume 28, p 26) returns to the more felicitous ‘club-law’ phrasing.

[6] Karl Marx, Capital. A Critique of Political Economy [1863-83], vol. 3, ed. Friedrich Engels, trans. David Fernbach (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981), pp. 309-10.

[7]  My thanks to Emma Bircham for forcing me, in 2002, to clarify my thinking on this matter.

[8] Pashukanis, Law and Marxism, pp. 134, 162.

[9] There has been some dispute among Marxist economists about whether ‘military competition’ can be placed alongside ‘economic competition’ as two forms of the same relation. On one side, John Weeks treats the two forms as merely different means:

Over no other issue is the difference between neo-classical and materialist theory more unmistakable than for competition. The former theorists laud it as the mechanism for harmony and social welfare gains; in the analysis of the latter competition is the source of instability and uneven development, which can provoke armed conflict among capitalist states. In materialist theory, warfare is the continuation of market competition by other means.

(John Weeks,  ‘The law of value and the analysis of underdevelopment’, Historical Materialism: Research in Critical Marxist Theory, 1 (1997), 99).

On the other hand, Geert Reuten and Michael Williams think it’s a category mistake to equate rivalry between states for power and influence (or even for economic hegemony) with competition among ‘competition subjects’, especially capitalists: Geert Reuten and Michael Williams, Value-form and the State: The Tendencies of Accumulation and the Determination of Economic Policy in Capitalist Society (London: Routledge, 1989). I am inclined to agree with Weeks, but at the same time to insist that the mechanism that links the two forms is not the same: competition through the price mechanism is different from that through property defence, although the one presupposes the other – and both express the same underlying form of social relations.

[10]  In the production and exchange of commodities, what is to count as socially necessary labour-time is determined ‘post factum’, in the unity of production and circulation. Only after commodities have actually been exchanged do producers discover whether they met the demands of social necessity. Of course, they have to produce in anticipation of what they expect to receive for their commodities. Getting this wrong is very painful in its consequences. The same principle applies also in relation to the production and deployment of means of ‘defence’. Householders barricade their property against thieves – at whatever ‘socially necessary’ cost – in anticipation of the possibility of being burgled. They find out, after the fact, whether they did enough. Military commanders and managers of defence budgets develop their armed power in anticipation of what they may need to do. They discover in battle if their anticipations were accurate. Hitler thought (anticipated) that he could conquer Stalin’s Russia, with what he thought would prove to be a satisfactory mixture of good tactics, military morale and superior productive-cum-military strength. He proved wrong.

[11]  One writer who stresses the predatory, Mafia-like characteristics of the state form is Charles Tilly: ‘War making and state making as organized crime’, in: Peter Evans, Dietrich Rueschmeyer, and Theda Skocpol (eds.), Bringing the State Back In (Cambridge: CUP, 1985), pp. 169-91.

[12] On the ‘tragic’ element at the apex of bourgeois thought, see: Lucien Goldmann, The Hidden God (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1964); also, respectively on Rousseau, Kant and Hegel: Lucio Colletti, From Rousseau to Lenin: Studies in Ideology and Society (London: New Left Books, 1976); Martin Barker, ‘Kant as a problem for Marxism’, Radical Philosophy, 19 (1978): 24-9; Schlomo Avineri, Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State (Cambridge: CUP, 1972).

[13] The duality of meaning in the term ‘subject’ is a notable case of the dialectical unity of opposites. In grammar and epistemology, the ‘subject’ is the active agent in action. In politics, the ‘subject’ is first true to its etymological origin (Latin: subjectus = cast beneath) and appears as the object of state property and policy, but then in the hands of liberal and later liberal-democratic theory strives, not with full success, to overcome its subjection and to become again subjective.

[14] Marshall Sahlins notes the mythic awareness among Hawaians that kings and chiefs eat people, that ‘a chief is a shark that travels on land’: Islands of History (Chicago: UCP, 1985), p. 27.

[15] Not through ignorance, of course. At various points in his preparatory materials Marx mentions ‘tax’. But the matter clearly could not be properly discussed unless Marx proceeded to a systematic discussion of The State, a matter which he had reserved to ‘a continuation of the work’ – which continuation, of course, he never seems to have begun drafting out, even in outline. (The early ‘outlines’ for a work on the state from the 1840s are quite insufficient for the purpose that would be required of a ‘Book on the State’ which would form an integral part of Capital.)

[16] The eighteenth-century term was ‘police’ (German Polizei). Charles Tilly describes the effect of the growth of the food market on European states through the 16th to 19th centuries:

…the managers of states were balancing the demands of farmers, food merchants, municipal officials, their own dependents, and the urban poor – all of whom caused the state trouble when it harmed their particular interests. State and national officials developed the theory and practice of Police, in which the detection and apprehension of criminals played a minor part. Before the nineteenth century proliferation of professional police forces as we know them, the word Police referred to public management, especially at the local level; regulation of the food supply was its largest single component.

(Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital and European States AD 990-1990 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990)).

[17] Gramsci reminds us that ‘laissez faire… is a form of state “regulation”, introduced and maintained by legislative and coercive means. It is a deliberate policy, conscious of its own ends, and not the spontaneous, automatic expression of economic facts. Consequently, laissez-faire liberalism is a political programme, designed to change – in so far as it is victorious – a State’s leading personnel, and to change the economic programme of the State itself….’: Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971), p. 160.

[18] Marx’s emphasis on the state’s dependence on civil society cannot be separated from his insistence on the incapacity of the state, however reformed, to resolve the contradictions of modern society: this stress in Marx was essential, given the battle that he was conducting both against Hegelian state theory and against the remnants of the Jacobin tradition in the European revolutionary movement of his own day. In the 20th century, the dominance in the international working-class movement of reformist ideas – regularly associated with illusions in national states – also requires a continual de-bunking of the pretensions of state-centred activity, and the specification of the decided limits of state power. At the same time, the Marxist tradition has always insisted on the necessity of the revolutionary overthrow of the existing state; it is rather necessary that the character of the object to be overthrown be identified!

[19] In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Marxist debate around the state was dominated by the argument between Ralph Miliband and Nicos Poulantzas. It turned out that both their ‘instrumentalist’ and ‘structuralist’ theories were equally capable of assimilation to reformist theory and practice. In the end, for all the heat of the argument between them, their political prescriptions were remarkably similar: Colin Barker, ‘The state as capital’, International Socialism, Second Series, 1 (1978): 16-42; available at; id., ‘A “New” Reformism?—A critique of the political theory of Nicos Poulantzas’, International Socialism, Second Series, 4 (1979): 88-108 (also at

[20] In American jurisprudence, the law of ‘eminent domain’ allows the state to compulsorily obtain such land as it thinks necessary.

[21] For some modern writers, there has been a recent tendency to ‘de-commodification’ of socio-economic transactions in conditions of monopoly capitalism, as seen in phenomena like the development of ‘welfare states’: Jürgen Habermas, Legitimation Crisis (London: Heinemann, 1976); Claus Offe, Contradictions of the Welfare State (London: Hutchinson, 1984). But there is nothing ‘recent’ about the tendency to ‘de-commodification’ associated with the capitalist state: it is inscribed, ab initio, in the state’s very character.

[22] Karl Marx, Capital. A Critique of Political Economy [1867], vol, 1, trans. David Fernbach (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976), p. 773.

[23] Jorge Larrain, Marxism and Ideology (Houndmills: Macmillan, 1983), p. 155.

[24]  This is but one reason why it is a mistake to speak of ‘simple commodity production’ as if it were a historical stage preceding capitalism.

[25] For each and every individual producer, this possibility exists all the time. They may fail to meet the standard of ‘social necessity’ in their production, and thus be unable to obtain the means to keep producing and reproducing. The dark side of the ‘independence’ of the producers is the risk of economic collapse if their productive and self-defensive activity fails to respond to the (always unclear) signals coming out of the process of social interchange. The complexity of that process is such that its ‘demands’ can never be fully known or predicted. But ‘crises of reproduction’ are also possible at the level of the whole system. Since reproduction requires the continuous circulation of goods and money through an endless sequence of sales and purchases mediated by money, it is always possible that the chain of exchanges could be broken or could get into some kind of ‘disequilibrium’. Those who sell may not purchase, but rather hold on to their money.

[26] Geoffrey Kay and James Mott, Political Order and the Law of Labour (Houndmills: Macmillan, 1982).

[27] In the US, by what Joel Bakan terms ‘a bizarre legal alchemy’, the notion of ‘personhood’ had by the late 19th century been practically extended to corporations, which were endowed with the same kind of ‘rights’ as the ‘persons’ whose protection had been guaranteed, within the United States, by the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. Anti-slavery legislation came to benefit private capital: business interest invoked the 14th Amendment before the courts 288 times between 1890 and 1910, compared with 19 such invocations by African-Americans: Joel Bakan, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power (London: Constable, 2004), pp. 172-3.

[28] Marx recognized such a category already in the second volume of Capital (p 97), in his ‘Notes on Adolf Wagner’: Terrell Carver, Karl Marx: Texts on Method (Oxford: Blackwell, 1975), p. 200; as did Engels: Anti-Dühring. Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1959).

[29]  Karl Marx, ‘Critique of Hegel’s doctrine of the state’ [1843-4], in: Karl Marx, Early Writings, trans. Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975), p. 175. Recall Marx’s observation that the capitalist is also alienated, even if he is ‘happy in his alienation’.

[30] Marx, Capital, vol. 1, p. 280.

[31] Marx, Capital, vol. 1, p. 280.

[32] John Commons, the American legal theorist, correctly defined the real basis of the labour contract as ‘the sale of a promise to obey’: The Legal Foundations of Capitalism (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1968), p. 284.

[33] Marx, Capital, vol. 1, pp. 729-30.

[34] Marx, Grundrisse, p. 247; see also pp. 509-10.

[35]  This competition among the ranks of those who are compelled to hire out their capacities in wage-labour is politically significant, not least for any Marxist theory of ‘class struggle’ and ‘social movements’. But this poses questions beyond the scope of this article.

[36] In a good deal of ‘radical sociology’ this is often forgotten, and the capitalist class is presented as if it conformed to the prescriptions of ‘elite theory’. That is, it appears to be a unified, coherent actor with a common consciousness and interests. On elite theory generally, see, e.g.: Tom Bottomore, Elites and Society (Harmondsworth: Pelican, 1966). On the basis of that kind of account, it is then not difficult to draw a picture of the politics of capitalist society as something akin to a ‘conspiracy’ – a breathing together – of a set of economic and political actors, capitalists and state personnel. The real problems of forming a common interest among the members and sections of a class that is inherently divided against itself by competition thereby disappear. For an example of this kind of ‘elite theory’ which has often been misrepresented as ‘Marxist’, see, e.g.: Ralph Miliband, The State in Capitalist Society (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1969).

[37] Joel Kovel, The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World? (London: Zed, 2007); Jonathan Neale, Stop Global Warming, Change the World (London: Bookmarks, 2008).


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