Marx and the state (#marxtheory)

bread-line-nycI recently argued that there is a common thread that connects (1) Marx’s analysis of material world and superstructure, (2) his prediction of the inevitability of communism, and (3) his underdevelopment of subjective political strategy. Now I want to suggest that these three themes are connected to a fourth: Marx’s treatment of the state as an incontestable apparatus.

Marx’s view of the state is complex, inconsistent, and in a process of development over the course of his writing. Above all, though, he sees the state as the bourgeois state. The state emerged to serve the interests of a particular economic class (the bourgeoisie) and it is folly to entertain hope of it serving the proletarian class or ameliorating the inequality, exploitation and suffering caused by capitalism.

To understand this assessment of the state, we must examine Marx’s treatment of bourgeois and proletariat as neatly bounded categories. He details complexities and contradictions within each class, but he mistakenly believes that as capitalism proletarianizes more and more people, their conditions will become increasingly similar and, as a result, proletarians will come to recognize their structural commonality and begin to act self-consciously as a united class. As Cihan Tuğal explained, “The general trend in capitalism, according to Marx, is this increasing simplification of polarized classes. [my notes from a recent talk]” Contra Marx, history has instead shown how capitalism often achieves the opposite: a continuum of stratification within “the proletariat” and between classes, a popular orientation toward upward mobility, and fragmentation of class identity. Continue reading

Marx’s promise of a glorious hereafter (#marxtheory)

20130906-163437.jpgMarx (in Marx Later Political Writings) poses the observable revolutionary transition within industrializing societies from feudalism to capitalism as analogous to a predicted revolutionary transition from capitalism to communism. Where he does not discuss this analogy explicitly, it nonetheless serves as a foundational concept for his various descriptions, critiques, polemics, and predictions. Looking back, we can now access a century and a half of history in our examination of whether, or to what extent, the analogy holds up. But how much evidence was there to support the analogy’s validity during Marx’s time? Marx fancied his analysis scientific, but to what extent is his analogy a scientific theory or hypothesis, as opposed to an article of faith attached to a political agenda (dressed up in propagandistic signifiers of scientific thinking)? Might greater scrutiny of the analogy have opened up pivotal questions concerning how the particular content of a political system could alter the form—hence the “inevitability”—of revolution (e.g. from feudalism to capitalism vs. from capitalism to communism)?

Perhaps because of his deterministic theory/belief, Marx is able to maintain a long-haul optimism in the wake of the crushing defeat of the Paris Commune — even trumpeting the episode as the “glorious harbinger of a new society.” However, despite the inevitable eventuality of a dictatorship of the proletariat followed by communism that Marx’s structural determinism suggests, these essays still brim with an engrossing sense of subjective agency. Marx did not advocate waiting passively for underlying economic forces to accomplish the predestined. Indeed, most of his writing (in this collection) speaks to contingencies, especially in his polemical detailing of the incompetencies of opponents and allies alike. The details of particular actions and missteps, and their history-altering consequences, are of great concern to him.

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cooperative societies with state aid (#marxtheory)

That the workers want to create the conditions for co-operative production in all society, and hence first of all on a national scale, means only that they are working for the overthrow of present-day conditions of production, and has nothing in common with establishing co-operative societies with state aid! But as far as present-day co-operative societies are concerned, they are only of value if they are independent creations of the workers and not creatures of the government or the bourgeoisie.

Marx Later Political Writings (p.221)

Here Marx is criticizing the German Workers’ Party for its demand of “state aid for setting up producers’ co-operatives under the democratic control of the working people.” I am no expert on the historical context to which Marx was speaking, but his critique strikes me as almost purist — and less than instructional concerning the relationship, practical or ideal, of a workers’ party to the state. Is Marx here suggesting an all-or-nothing contest between the proletariat and bourgeois classes for full control of the state apparatus? Ultimately, that is what Marx is advocating (e.g. with the phrase “dictatorship of the proletariat”), but is Marx conceding all concessions from the state in the interim? Is he suggesting that (bourgeois) state funding for worker-demanded cooperative projects is beneath the dignity of a true workers’ party — or that such an outcome is not a realistically attainable possibility? Must everything worth winning be seized? Can nothing first be conceded (by the bourgeois state, as it is, in the interim)? Could not the winning of such concessions be utilized by organizers as stepping stones — as tangible evidence of what collective action can accomplish, in order to whet workers’ appetite for larger victories? To what extent does Marx view the state as a contestable space?

“Counter-hegemony” and Left Ambivalence Toward Power

I’m reading Cihan Tuğal’s Passive Revolution: Absorbing the Islamic Challenge to Capitalism. I’m still working my way through it, but so far I’ve found it very insightful. There are so many things in the book that I’m looking forward to digging into, so I feel a little bad that I’m about to start with the one thing that I’m ambivalent about: Tuğal’s use of the term counter-hegemony. I’m not usually one to nitpick about terms—especially esoteric terms like counter-hegemony—but here I go…

Dr. Tuğal did not invent the term, of course. Moreover, I suspect that because I agree so much with his descriptions and assessments (of patterns of political engagement, in the case of Islamist movements in Turkey), it stands out all the more when I do take issue with something. His book has got me thinking more specifically about what I don’t like about the term generally. To be clear, I introduce his work here as a jumping off point for this blog post, rather than as the object of my critique.

Here’s my problem with the term counter-hegemony: it is unclear whether (1) it implies an opposition to the idea of hegemony itself, or (2) it notes an opposition to a particular hegemony — opposition by a challenger force (i.e. an alternative, aspiring hegemony). I want to be careful to not put words in his mouth, but I suspect that Dr. Tuğal intends something closer to the latter interpretation of counter-hegemony. I had the pleasure of meeting him this past weekend at the UC Berkeley sociology open house. At the end of one of our conversations, we briefly discussed my ambivalence about the term. This ambivalence was reinforced later that same day by a discussion with another person who subscribed to the first interpretation, i.e., that to be counter-hegemonic is—and should be—to be against all hegemony.


This is how I define hegemony only some of the time.

To me, particular actors and political alignments maintain particular hegemonies. Their political challengers are not counter-hegemonic—insofar as the term may imply being against the idea of hegemony itself—but are themselves aspiring hegemonies. They want their ideas to win.

My concern is about power and the US Left’s ambivalence toward it. Rather than framing a conversation about how a Left might build and wield power, the term counter-hegemony may suggest inherent opposition to—or at least confusion about—power itself. The “counter” part reinforces our eternal outsider status and casts doubt on whether we even want power. It’s similar to how the term counter-culture suggests the creation of sideshow alternative subcultures, rather than a seizure of the main stage — i.e., a contestation of the meanings, symbols, narratives, and institutions of the popular culture. Continue reading