Archives for category: strategy
Class struggle and mental health: Live to fight another day

From The long-awaited and beautifully illustrated pamphlet bringing together accounts from anarchists around the globe about what it means to suffer from mental illness and what we, as individuals and a movement, can do about it.

CONTENT WARNING for suicide/self-harm.

First, a big thanks to all the contributors for their honesty and patience in bringing this pamphlet together. Further thanks goes out to the Edmonton Small Press Association for their assistance in layout and design.

An important note: while we hope this pamphlet will be helpful to comrades suffering from depression or emotional stress, we wish to emphasize that this is not a substitute for professional help. If you are considering hurting yourself or others, please speak to someone you trust, contact your health provider, or call one of these hotlines.

Also note that there are three versions attached below. The content is the same in each but, by request, the page layout varies.

Attachment Size
CS&MH_Libcom.pdf 5.84 MB
CS&MH – layout2.pdf 6.08 MB
CS&MH – layout3.pdf 6.1 MB
Leadership and the myth of apathy

From Why aren’t we rising up? Whether the ‘we’ in question is young people, the British people, or the poor, this is a question asked an awful lot by both mainstream and leftist commentators. Austerity, job cuts, pay freezes, workfare, poverty, food banks, police brutality, political corruption – it’s all the rage, so why aren’t we all enraged?

There are two standard answers on the left: apathy and the lack of leadership. Either people are too engrossed in their own little world of X Factor, I’m a Celebrity and ‘I’m alright Jack,’ or they just don’t have the right hero to lead them into battle. The left wing rabble rousers of the past are dead and gone and we need people to replace them and rally the workers.

The trouble is, both of these answers are wrong. Moreover, they play into a convenient myth that helps the pale, stale males of the authoritarian left sustain themselves while doing nothing at all to stop the world around us decaying into shit.

People are not apathetic

Well, sure, some are. Everyone knows at least one person who’s aggressively and proudly apolitical. They “don’t want none of that” if anything halfway substantial comes up in conversation, yet it always turns out that they’ve internalised the narratives of the right wing press on how immigrants and scroungers are to blame for everything.

These people do exist, but to tout them as an archetype for the public-at-large and that’s just wrong.

There’s a level of truth, as with any stereotype. But when the world’s full of problems and there’s no effective counter to the dominant narrative (we’ll get to that) then of course you take the answers available. Even if they’re racist, classist and built on a foundation of lies.

But speak to the vast majority of people, and they’re not apathetic. They have opinions on political issues. A great many have a fairly solid unconscious understanding of class and their lot in life. Where they have internalised ruling class ideology, they’re smart enough to realise and change their mind if you engage with them and talk to them.

This goes against the labels thrown around, particularly by crackerjack hacktivists such as Anonymous and batshit conspiracy theorists but also by some on the left, such as ‘sheeple’ and suggestions that everyone not already out on the streets protesting is brainwashed. In fact, they’re alienated, exploited and oppressed under capitalism and this kind of activist mentality is toxic and does nothing to advance the class struggle.

So what about the supposed ‘need’ for leaders?

Resistance doesn’t happen spontaneously. It happens when people organise, make conscious decisions and act upon them. This requires people to take the initiative, the sharing out of roles and responsibilities, and not a bit of education and agitation.

But while this could be considered a type of leadership – a ‘leadership of ideas,’ for want of a better term – it’s not leadership in the sense that most on the left mean it.

When the left’s kind of leadership emerges it’s easy to recognise – it involves representation by prominent spokespeople instead of empowering people to act for themselves. It involves executive power concentrated in the hands of a few. It involves a division of labour between ‘activists’ and ‘intellectuals.’ It involves a clear hierarchy with activity directed from above and disagreement of any kind condemned as ‘divisive’ or ‘sectarian.’

By and large, people don’t want this. When this kind of leadership emerges, if it fills a vacuum then it will attract people – at first. The vast majority of people will tire of being directed like pawns, treated as an expendable resource and having little to no say in decision making. This is not only why the leftist confessional sects such as the Socialist Party, SWP and so on have such a high turnover of membership, their cadres a minorrity next to their paper membership, but also why the fronts they set up lose momentum once the formulaic authoritarianism loses its novelty.

It’s also why movements which have arisen in the wake of the crisis have lacked this kind of hierarchical structure. UK Uncut and Occupy being the most commonly cited examples. In the fight against the Bedroom Tax, local groups acted for themselves and built up horizontal federations while the Trot fronts seeking to capitalise on the struggle floundered on the sidelines.

But there’s still a gap that needs filling. The Occupys of this world have their own flaws, the ‘tyranny of structureless‘ meaning that invisible hierarchies tend to emerge and those who seek to ‘represent’ others by imposing their own views on the collective don’t have to deal with formal representative democracy.

We need organisation and democracy, but it should be non-hierarchical organisation and direct democracy. Organisers should seek to give people the confidence to act for themselves, not merely to follow the organiser and keep them in their position for a long time to come. Officers should be mandated delegates with limited tenure, no executive power and the ability to be recalled by the mass. Democracy should mean making the decisions for ourselves, as in a strike ballot, rather than electing someone else to make decisions for us, as in a general election.

People as a broader whole are not apathetic, nor are they waiting for a leader. If we are led, then the destination is never freedom but a different kind of domination. If we want an uprising, then it requires hard work, patience, agitation and most importantly a desire to organise so that we can all fight for ourselves rather than being chewed up and spat out by any one of the myriad, toxic would-be leaderships that the authoritarian left has to offer.


This show presents an audiobook-ish experience, based on a talk by Silvia Federici about her book ‘Caliban and the Witch’. This book talks about how the development of capitalism is deeply entwined with processes of accumulation which needs to mold and domesticate the bodies of women in specific ways. The politics of reproduction at stake in this historical study is still very much at work today, and this book provides an invaluable background to developing struggles around reproduction and care today.

A must for anyone interested in the connections between capitalism, gender and colonialism.

Full book here:

From Cautiously Pessimistic. Whenever controversies around issues like race, gender or sexuality erupt in the left, they always seem to produce a fairly predictable set of responses. As if by clockwork, a certain set of male leftist writers spring into life to churn out another attack on “identity politics” and “intersectionality”, eager to defend what they claim is the purity of class politics against the dangers of contamination. What’s curious about this phenomenon is that the arguments of the diehard anti-intersectionalist warriors, when examined, don’t actually seem to offer that much in terms of practical suggestions for how to take the class struggle forward. Instead, in their eagerness to attack “identity politics”, they tend to abandon the basic perspective which antagonistic, materialist class politics is based on, and instead ground their arguments on a set of straightforwardly liberal principles.

For the benefit of readers who might not have encountered these arguments, a quick introduction to a few of the more noisy and visible anti-intersectionalists: there’s Ross Wolfe, a valiant opponent of identity politics who writes articles about subjects like “Marx called Bakunin fat, so that means that there can’t possibly be anything problematic about publicly shaming women for their weight” along with other weighty issues facing workers in the age of austerity, such as early Soviet architecture; James Heartfield, a member of Brendan “look at me look at me LOOK AT ME LOOKATME!” O’Neill’s bizarre Trot-turned-tory clique; and the CPGB, a small and almost entirely male group of Kautsky enthusiasts and leftist trainspotters with a knack for the fine art of unintentional self-parody, who regularly publish articles defending Marxism against the feminist menace, alongside other topics of pressing concern to workers everywhere, like how the Socialist Platform of Left Unity’s refusal to exclude the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty demonstrates their lack of principles, or attacking the Socialist Party and the Communist Party of Britain for their failure to write more articles about the Socialist Workers’ Party.

As representative examples of the genre, I’ll take James Heartfield’s rants against intersectionality and Charlie Winstanley’s article on a recent row about race and sexuality within the International Socialist Network, itself a recent, libertarian-leaning, split from the SWP. These pieces aren’t identical, but they share enough common ground that, taken together, they can be treated as fairly representative of the anti-identity camp.

These articles always tend to be a bit short on suggestions as to how to deal with the actual problems that intersectional approaches aim to address – most notably, the issue of people with certain privileges, and especially men, acting in ways which completely devastate the organising efforts they’re involved in. From Gerry Healy to Tommy Sheridan* to Julian Assange to Martin Smith, the behaviour of powerful men becomes an issue time and time again, and if the approaches suggested by intersectional feminists aren’t sufficient to deal with it, then we urgently need to find a more constructive alternative. Sadly, the anti-intersectionalist warriors don’t seem to have a huge amount of time or energy for this particular task, preferring to concentrate on other issues, like explaining why they think feminists are silly.

When dealing with critiques of “intersectionality” and “identity politics”, it’s important to address the truths that they’re based on. It is certainly the case that many people influenced by these perspectives tend to have a habit of getting into quite heated and vicious arguments on the internet, particularly on twitter (of course, this is to be contrasted with the behaviour of everyone else on the internet, where people just have calm, rational and respectful exchanges). Watching, let alone taking part in, these arguments is often quite tiring and depressing, and it’d be ridiculous trying to pretend that everything said in them is in any way justified. But if we’re to judge ideas by the behaviour of the people who hold them, then anarchism’s tainted by Proudhon’s anti-Semitism, Kropotkin’s support for WWI, and the CNT’s collaboration with the government, Marxism’s fatal flaws can be identified by looking at the jaw-droppingly stupid positions held by at least 99.9% of all Marxist groups that have ever existed, from defending the USSR as a workers’ paradise to insisting that it’s possible to reclaim the Labour Party in 2014, and intersectional feminism is discredited by the fact that some of its supporters are unnecessarily abrasive on the internet, so we might as well just junk all the ideas gained from past efforts to abolish exploitation and oppression and start over from scratch. For myself, I think that a society without government is still desirable no matter how many anarchists say stupid or embarrassing things, I think that historical materialism is still a useful way of trying to understand the world despite all the repressive dictators who’ve claimed to be inspired by Marx’s ideas, and I think it’s worth trying to understand how different forms of oppression intersect with each other even if some other people who share my ideas are unhelpfully rude when they get in arguments on the internet.

But the Heartfield/Winstanley camp aren’t just offended by the tone of the intersectionalists: they also seek to attack the intersectional project on a more basic level. For Heartfield, the problem “is a philosophy, the philosophy of anti-humanism… The main claim of the anti-humanist philosophy is a rejection of the assertion of a common human essence. All such claims to the anti-humanists are false and ideological supports to oppression. Claiming, for example, that men and women, or white and black are fundamentally the same, in this argument, is to hide the oppression of the one by the other under the appearance of equality.”

In his post-script to Heartfield’s article, Wolfe complains about people who  “hold the view that thought is not universal, but embedded, not true for all, but specifically attached to races and groups.” Similarly, Winstanley objects to “the intersectionalist assertion… that all intellectual disagreements sit within a broader system of oppressions, directly manifested by the ethnicity, sexuality, race or gender of the individual involved. In essence, within the context of any discussion in any environment, it is impossible for an individual to remove themselves from these characteristics.” In short, these gentlemen seek to object to the idea that people are shaped by their experiences, and that having different life experiences can lead people to form different ideas.

For the likes of Heartfield, Wolfe and Winstanley, individuals are not the products of their environments, and there’s no need to look for material factors to explain the course of human affairs: we’re all just pure, abstract citizens engaged in a reasonable discussion of ahistorical, universal truths. This is, of course, the classic position of liberalism, but it isn’t the only way of seeing of the world. Against the liberal position, there are those who believe that a genuine human community is possible and desirable, but it cannot exist within this society, so it needs to be created by the active, conscious destruction of all the structures that separate us from each other. This is the perspective on which intersectional feminism is based, but there’s an older name for it: this idea has gone by a number of names, but it has sometimes been referred to as  “communism”.

Antagonistic class politics always relies on the insight that the truth is not a simple, objective thing, but reality always looks different depending on the perspective you approach it from. The pyramids meant different things to the pharaohs and to their slaves, just as Britain today looks different depending on whether you’re viewing it from Downing Street or Benefits Street. Class politics is all about seeking out the perspectives of those who’ve traditionally been denied a voice. It’s about viewing World War I through the eyes of the soldiers who fought in it rather than the generals who ordered the slaughter, the USSR through the eyes of the Kronstadt sailors or the Hungarian rebels rather than the various ideologists and central committees, and the reality of free-market liberalism from the perspective of those who’ve always paid the price for it, from the slaves and industrial workers whose blood and sweat laid its foundations to those being exploited by neoliberalism today, not the abstract, free-floating individuals dreamt of by liberal theorists. And it’s this insight – both the project of seeking out and amplifying perspectives that have traditionally been repressed and ignored, and the realisation that these perspectives exist at all – that also defines the approaches that get labelled as “intersectionality”.

But my problem with the hard-line anti-intersectionalist approach isn’t just that I find its theoretical foundations to be questionable. I also find it difficult to work out how exactly this vision of a pure class struggle untainted by questions of race or gender plays out in practice. A note of humility here: I’m not claiming to be an unsung hero of anarcho-syndicalist organising. I’m not Big Bill Haywood or Lucy Parsons or Durruti: I’m a young(ish, even if not quite as young as I used to be) worker who, like most people of my generation, hasn’t taken part in any mass workplace struggles comparable to things like the Miners’ Strike, and I’ve spent most of my working life alternating between more-or-less insecure temporary work and periods of unemployment. But by now I’ve spent a reasonable amount of time within workplaces trying to think about how to strengthen my fellow workers’ sense of solidarity and self-organisation, and I’ve played a minor part in a few attempts at community organising: again, I’m not talking about campaign that beat the Poll Tax here, but I’ve tried my best to do what I can.

In my experience, it’s fair to say that, in most cases, workplace organising consists of trying to identify the informal groups and networks that always already exist, and then trying to strengthen their internal sense of solidarity and confidence to challenge management, as well as trying to break down barriers between the different informal groups that exist and bring them together. In other words, it’s about paying attention to other people, and thinking seriously about who they talk to, how they talk to each other, who they look out for, who’ll stick their necks out to protect other people and who they’re prepared to do it for, and who has whose back.

To me, it seems unimaginable that anyone could spend any time paying this kind of attention to their fellow workers and still think solely in terms of class, without at the very least taking gender into account. Depending on where you work, you might have an all-white workforce or a workforce with no workers who are openly, visibly not straight, but there is at least some gender mix in the vast majority of workplaces, and, in my experience, the composition and behaviour of these kind of informal social groups is always heavily gendered. To go into a workplace determined to only see workers and bosses, without seeing the way that gender intersects with these relationships and plays out in all kinds of ways, is to blind yourself to a crucial part of the ways that power operates within a workplace, and to ignore a whole set of challenges and opportunities that are deeply relevant to the task of building workers’ power at a grassroots level. If you don’t want to use the language of intersectionality to talk about these things, then that’s up to you, but these issues are worth thinking about for anyone seriously concerned with class struggle.

Likewise, let’s say that your organising project, whether in the workplace or the community, is going well, and starting to make some ground. You can more or less guarantee that, very early on, your opponent will seek to divide you by buying some people off. This may or may not take place along the lines of “identity” – divisions like permanent versus temporary workers are just as useful for the bosses – but if you’re interested in trying to build a movement that won’t just collapse at the first hurdle, you need to think about the potential faultlines that exist within the group you’re trying to organise, and the ways that your opponents can exploit these to turn people against each other by giving some of you access to limited benefits. In other words, to think about the kinds of questions that people who talk about privilege are talking about. Again, I don’t care that much about whether you find the language of privilege useful for discussing these questions, but if you display the kind of frothing-at-the-mouth hostility that some leftists do to even thinking about the idea of privilege, then you’re not going to be able to deal with these issues when they inevitably arise.

On closer inspection, the whole question of “serious class politics versus post-modern liberal identity politics” is a false one. The crusade against intersectionality means abandoning class politics for liberalism in theoretical terms, and it has nothing useful to say about practical questions of organising for class struggle. It’s not about class politics versus identity politics: it’s just a choice between an approach to the class struggle that starts from people’s lived experiences, which in turn means taking into account all the different identities which affect those experiences, or a toothless, abstract liberal universalism.

*to be clear, by including Sheridan in this list, I’m not trying to say that his behaviour is the same as that of Julian Assange or Martin Smith, but if we’re considering “powerful leftist men with big egos who act in damaging ways” as a category, then I think a strong case can be made for including him.

occupy the ballot?

A blog post by Nate from 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.