This blog post raises some questions posed by the election of Kshama Sawant to Seattle City Council and related developments, questions for people who are pro- and who are anti- this kind of electoral effort.
Some of my friends and comrades have written about the election of Kshama Sawant to Seattle City Council and related developments, here and here. I wrote this because I want to think some more about this election and many leftists’ response to it. It seems to me there are two basic reactions by people on the left. Some people see important possibilities in efforts to elect candidates like Sawant - I’ll call these people electoral optimists, and some people don’t see such possibilities - I’ll call these people electoral pessimists. I have the pessimistic response. The normal functions of the capitalist state will only ever result in creating or maintaining some version of capitalism. As such, I think electoral optimists are mistaken in their belief that they can still use the state for worthwhile radical political purposes in a non-revolutionary time.
That said, I think we should discuss this across different positions on the left. One of the unfortunate aspects of the left is that it’s hard to have conversations about these issues across different political perspectives. A lot of people on the left tend to limit who they talk with about these issues, talking about this stuff mostly with people they agree with. In some cases, comrades are in organizations that deliberately restrict who and how their members discuss ideas like this, which is very unfortunate. (This is one of many problems with democratic centralism.) It’s also hard to discuss these issues because of the short term stakes: the need to win an election can crowd out any discussion of the issues involved. I know some of my friends who have expressed skeptical views have had people get frustrated with them for expressing the skepticism, because it can detract from the effort to win these elections. That’s very unfortunate, and we should discuss this stuff anyway.
For the electoral optimists, above all, I want to ask you: comrades, what are your goals? Where do you think all of this is going? And what do you think will accomplish aside from your goals? After all, as Marx put it, people make history but not in the manner of our own choosing: most human efforts produce effects beyond those we want and intend. How will you deal with those additional effects? What's your plan? I don't know the answer to these questions, and I would like to. I also am very interested in hearing what ideas and writings inform your thinking on these matters. We come from different experiences of political traditions and organizations, so some references that may be obvious to you are not obvious to me. So, if I want to understand your outlook, are there things I should read?
For my fellow electoral pessimists, I think we have some work to do as well, to better articulate the reasons for our pessimism and our arguments as to why others should share our pessimism. I should add, I’m a state pessimist generally. I’m suspicious of the idea that the state can be used for any emancipatory political purposes. At the same time, I’m not sure I know how to articulate this in a way that will convince people who are optimistic about the state. I also think that there are important differences in the particulars - being optimistic about elections in the capitalist state in non-revolutionary times is different from being optimistic about, say, seizing state power in revolution, or being optimistic about the possibilities for a good
society to exist after a revolution while still having a state. These are related issues, but different ones, and I would most like to discuss the issue of electoralism. I think too often some of us rely on criticisms of other scenarios in order to criticize elections, as if a criticism of the direct seizure of state power automatically does all the work of a criticism of electoral participation. (I should also add, I may mostly be reflecting the gaps in my own reading and thinking here and unfairly attributing those failures to others. If so - someone school me!)
Anyway, for my fellow electoral and state pessimists, I would like to know, how do you argue for your pessimism? What do you recommend people read on this? My own views on this are primarily informed by various marxists who are skeptical about the state (I particularly like the short discussion of the capitalist state in Michael Heinrich’s recently translated book) and by parts of volume 1 of Marx’s Capital. I’m interested in other comrades’ go-to ideas on how to understand the state. I also think we should gather up as many of the current and historical arguments we can find that argue in favor of radicals pursuing elections in the capitalist state as a tactic, in order to evaluate and respond to those arguments. (I touch on these themes in some other blog posts, like "Workers, the state, and struggle," and "Navigating negotiations.")
In the rest of this post, I lay out two general theoretical points about the capitalist state and the state in general. I argue first that people who try to make use of the state will find that they end up becoming different people as a result of their efforts. I then talk about what I think is the general role of the state in capitalist society.
As far as I can tell, the comrades I’ve called electoral optimists believe it is possible to make some kind of politically worthwhile use of the capitalist state at a time like today, when there's not a revolution happening. That's what I want to talk about, which means I'm not going to talk about the relationship between states and ongoing revolutions, ideas about revolutionary states, or ideas about states after the revolution. Those are important ideas that are worth discussing but they're not my topic here.
The State As Tool And As Activity
When politicians and state institutions use phrases like "we, the people" and "the public" and so on, those phrases are supposed to make it sound like the state represents everyone's interests and is basically neutral. People on the left are relatively good at seeing through those kinds of claims about the neutrality of the state. As Engels put it, the state is "the state of the most powerful, economically dominant class, which through the medium of the state, becomes also the politically dominant class." Leftists tend to agree with Engels's basic assessment, but tend to disagree on some important details.
A key area of disagreement among leftists is about using the state to accomplish political goals. The idea of using the state implies that the state is a tool people can use. It's a thing which can be picked up and put down, or a place which can be occupied. That understanding makes sense. At the same time, there is another important understanding of the state: the state is an activity, many activities, actually. That is, the state is a social practice, a social relationship. This phrasing sounds awkward, but in a way, the state is something people do: people do the state, people act the state, the state is a collection of processes that people do.
The idea that the state is a thing that can be used is sometimes called the instrumentalist idea of the state, the idea that the state is just a tool to make use of. From that perspective, the state is used by the capitalist class to accomplish its goals. In his recently translated introduction to Marx's Capital, Marxist economist Michael Heinrich writes that it is definitely true that parts of the capitalist class sometimes succeed in using the state for their purposes. "The question," Heinrich asks," is whether or not this gets at "the fundamental characteristics of the modern bourgeois state." Heinrich answers no. The idea of the state as an instrument focuses only on "the particular application of the state" but neglects the state as a kind of social relationship and social practice.
A narrow focus on what Heinrich calls the application of the state instead of thinking of the state as a social practice leads some leftists to neglect at least two important aspects of the state that I want to highlight here. First, it neglects the effects of doing state activity on the people who do that activity. Second, it neglects the relationship between state activities and the maintenance of capitalism.
Making Use of the State Makes You A Different Person
Doing state activity shapes the person doing that activity. Who we are is partly the result of what we do. For example, workers bodies are shaped by the work we perform, and our emotions and ideas are shaped by the experiences of taking orders and in some cases giving orders to others. (We are also shaped by our experiences of race, gender, sexuality, and other aspects of social life.) Capitalists are similarly shaped by being capitalists: their experiences and activities shape their consciousness and their way of being in the world - shape who they are as people.
Imagine that a sincere radical won the lottery, then used that money to buy a factory. Would that person's ideas and outlook change as a result of their new social position and their new experiences? It seems very likely. At the least, they would face pressures to be a different person and would face difficult decisions about what kind of person they want to be. If they prioritized their financial interests as a factory owner, they would become a different person. The same thing happens at a smaller level: workers who get promoted to positions at work where they are supervisors and managers begin to become different people as a result of their new experiences of giving orders and facing resistance to their orders. (Or, again, they at least face pressures to become different people, and hard choices about what kind of person they want to be, being pulled between their priorities and interests as a boss and their other values and commitments. This is part of why leftist bosses in union drives tend to act basically like any other boss. The realization that they are acting basically like any other boss, and so are not living up to the person they want to be, tends to be unpleasant for them and is a realization they often try to hide from.) The same thing happens to workers who become small business owners and/or landlords.
What do we expect will happen when leftists become part of the state? I think we can expect the same sort of results, and I think the historical record supports this. When leftists become state personnel, they eventually become different people. Or at least, when leftists become state personnel they face pressures and have to make decisions about what kind of person to be, and it is very difficult to not become at least a somewhat different person as a result. These dynamics are more intense the more decision-making power someone has within the state. I can imagine a response which says "Yes, when we become part of the state, we take these risks, because being a radical means taking risks and making unpleasant choices." That's fair. But I wonder, what is the plan, comrades, for those of you who seek to be part of the state or who seek to help another comrade become part of the state? How will you deal with these transformations or pressures to transform who you and your comrade are as a person? The idea that we can become part of the state without becoming different people strikes me as utopian, just as utopian as saying we can become capitalists or landlords or police without becoming different people. People who seek to use the state to accomplish radical goals will very likely find that they become different people as a result. Making use of the state eventually makes you a different person.
Capitalists And The State, Production and Reproduction
The idea of using the state to accomplish leftist political goals tends to involve some understanding that the current state favors some groups over others. Leftists efforts to use the state involve forcing the state to change how much it favors different groups. As Michael Heinrich puts it, "the instrumentalist conception of the state usually leads to the demand for an alternative use of the state: the claim of common welfare should finally be taken seriously and the interests of other class more strongly taken into consideration." The idea that the capitalist state can be used for radical political purposes outside of revolutionary times seems to involve this kind of understanding of the state: under the right circumstances, the state can be used for other purposes than just serving capitalists' interests.
Above all, the role of the state in capitalist society is to keep society capitalist. As Engels put it, the state is the "ideal personification" of the capitalist class. As Michael Heinrich puts it, this means the state serves the general interest in capitalist society, which means a specifically capitalist version of the general interest, or the general interest of the capitalist class. That does not mean all capitalists get what they want. That doesn't necessarily even mean that any capitalists get what they want. The capitalist class's most basic interest is that it continue to exist as a class, which is to say, the capitalist class's most basic interest as a class is that our society remain capitalist. That continued existence of capitalism explains why the state sometimes acts in opposition to the desires or interests of particular groups of capitalists.
Capitalists tend to focus on their own short-term interests. They are not automatically class conscious, nor are they automatically loyal to their class. Just as some workers will sometimes betray each other and their class by serving as scabs and police informants or by otherwise harming other working class people, similarly sometimes individual capitalists will harm other capitalists and the capitalist class as a whole. Indeed, capitalists have to compete with each other as part of their class position, and this competition pushes against capitalist class consciousness and class loyalty. This also means that individual capitalists or groups of don't necessarily seek to preserve capitalism as a whole. The current threats to our planet's environment illustrate this: if climate change gets too intense, we face some terrifying potential futures. This is in part the result of the petrochemical industries. Those capitalists profit greatly through actions that threaten other capitalists and perhaps the continued existence of the capitalist class as a whole.
The possibility of ecological devastation is an example of some capitalists threatening the conditions that make capitalism possible. One of the most basic conditions for capitalism to exist is the existence of the working class. Capitalists pay workers to produce goods and services which belong to the capitalists. Capitalists sell those goods and services. Workers get a portion of the value of what they produce. Workers' portion is smaller than what we contributed. That difference is what Marx called surplus value. Surplus value is key to capitalism, and our labor is what produces surplus value. No workers, no surplus value, and so no capitalism. Each capitalist enterprise is largely focused on the continued production of surplus value at their enterprise and is less focused on maintaing the overall conditions for the existence of capitalism. This is where the state comes in. The state's role is reproductive. The state helps maintain and reproduce capitalism. The state helps make sure that capitalist production can continue. The state's role is to prevent capitalist production from undermining the reproduction of capitalist society. The state is in part an institution for introducing some measure of planning into capitalist society.
If left unchecked, individual capitalists and groups of capitalists tend to threaten the reproduction of capitalism. And so, the reproduction of capitalism requires some control over capitalist production. This is part of the state's role, to govern capitalist production in the interest of the capitalist class as a whole and in the interest of society continuing to be capitalist society. This is part of why we have laws like social security, workers compensation, food stamps, limits on work hours, occupational safety and health regulations, and so on. As Heinrich puts it, these laws "limit capital's possibilities (…) but secure them in the long term." That is, these kinds of laws restrict individual capitalists and groups of capitalists, in order to preserve the existence of capitalism. Individual capitalists and groups of capitalists tend to see these kinds of laws as a limit on them and a cost for them, and they often oppose these kinds of laws. This is part of why it often takes social struggles to create these kinds of laws which improve aspects of workers' lives under capitalism. This does not mean such improvements are necessarily steps toward ending capitalism. In chapter 10 of Capital, Marx describes the English Factory Acts as greatly improving the lives of the English working class by reducing work hours. English capitalists greatly opposed these laws, and they lost. And these laws improving workers' lives pushed English capitalism into an even more profitable form. Marx describes these laws as helping cause a shift from capital accumulation based on what he called absolute surplus value, meaning extension of work time, to accumulation based on what he called relative surplus value, the intensification of labor productivity. That is, what may seem to individual capitalists like a limitation can eventually result in higher profits for capitalists over all, and not just a limitation imposed for the sake of capitalism’s long-term health.
I think this is one possible role that radical involved in efforts like the Sawant election could end up playing. Radicals don’t care about capitalists and their interests. This indifference to capitalists means that radicals are willing to push through limits on current capitalists. Which is to say, radicals in political office are willing to rise above the particular and current interests of individual capitalists and groups of capitalists and to act in line with a larger general interest. In my view, though, this larger interest is always and only going to be a version of the capitalist general interest, at least when exercised through legitimate political offices in the capitalist state. Mamos from Black Orchid Collective refers to “capitalism’s shock absorbers,” which refers to the institutions that govern society in the interests of capitalism. Mamos argues that what made the Sawant election possible is the thinning out of those shock absorbers. I agree with that. I also think, though, that the Sawant election and similar efforts could result in a renewal of existing shock absorbers or the creation of new ones. This is not because of the individual intentions or sincerity or political outlook of the people involved, it’s just what results from the state.
To put the point abstractly: the capitalist state is a set of institutions that organizes the capitalist class and the working class as interest groups within capitalism, that regulates the specific forms of social relations in capitalist society, and that maintains society as capitalist society. The capitalist state is only ever going to produce some version of capitalist society. Individual state personnel having radical ideas will not change that. If anything, state personnel with radical ideas might ultimately improve capitalism, because those radical ideas will help state personnel disregard any particular capitalists’ interests, but the result will
be only a different capitalism.