This is a chapter from the book:
The Democratic State
Chapter 1: Freedom and equality — Private property — Abstract free will
The bourgeois state (i.e., the modern democratic state) is the political power over a capitalistic society. It forces its rule on all of the competitors in this mode of production without regard to their natural and social differences, thereby allowing them to pursue their conflicting particular interests. This is what equality and freedom are, nothing else. The state obliges its citizens to respect private property in their economic competition. It forces them to recognize that some people have the wealth of society at their disposal while others are excluded from it, and to base their economic actions on this principle. In pursuing their individual advantage the members of a capitalistic society inevitably harm each other, so that they require a power removed from economic life to guarantee respect for person and property. They supplement their negative, competitive relation to each other by jointly submitting to a power that curtails their private interests. As they go about their economic business, they are at the same time political citizens. They want state rule because they can pursue their private interests only by simultaneously abstracting from them. The bourgeois state is thus the abstract free will of its citizens that has taken on a form independent of them.
a) How competitors become free and equal citizens
This first determination of what the state is, its conception in the abstract, contains the central reason why this authority exists, and thus also the central purpose that it pursues. Before turning to the specific ways in which the state relates to its citizens, one can already see from this abstract formulation that freedom and equality are hardly an idyllic matter. Firstly, they owe their existence to economic conflicts and, secondly, they are aimed at maintaining these conflicts by means of the state’s monopoly on force. The state uses its power to keep the capitalist economy running, but even without examining this mode of production one can see that this state is a class state. By subjecting everyone equally, it perpetuates the differences that exist between them. There is consequently no doubt about how it benefits the various competitors of a capitalist mode of production.
By treating citizens equally the state guarantees their freedom, which consists in nothing but the not-so-kind permission to try to get hold of some part of the wealth of society with whatever economic resources they may or may not have, while respecting all the other citizens who are doing the same thing at their expense, against them. It is for the sake of this freedom that they need the state, since without it they could not make use of their resources at all. From their practical point of view, state power is the condition for free competition. They thus want to be recognized as citizens of a state because their economic interests force them to.
The bond between all citizens of the state, their common political will, is the result of a forced act of volition on the part of each individual who, in order to reach his or her goal of private advantage, also participates in an abstract and general will. “The separation of bourgeois society and the political state necessarily appears as a separation of the political member of bourgeois society, the citizen, from bourgeois society, his own actual, empirical reality, because as an idealist of the state he is a being who is completely distinct, different from, and opposed to his own reality” (Marx, Critique of Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of Right’, Cambridge University Press 1970, p.79). It is no secret how this effort in abstraction has different results for the various characters involved in the capitalist mode of production, how and for whom the state acts forcefully as an instrument. The subjection of everyone to state power is necessarily to the advantage of those citizens who are already advantaged economically. The following chapters will therefore show what the state demands from and allows the various economic classes as a consequence of making free competition its business.
b) How the state keeps competition in tune with private property
If economic competition is to take place at all, the state must regulate it by force. And this fact sheds some light on the nature of the economy the state is maintaining. The interdependence of the individuals involved in producing the wealth of society is organized in such a way that they contest each other’s participation in this wealth when pursuing their own interests. Since, in such a system, the satisfaction of one individual’s particular interest negates the interests pursued by other individuals, everyone submits to the power of the state, and this submission has a negative, excluding effect for each person. This of course does not make their collisions disappear. Rather, the state regulates them by limiting each individual’s freedom by the freedom of everyone else.
Since economic competitors exclude each other from the resources necessary for their subsistence, competition is a rather nasty fight for survival. The state responds to the fighting by making this exclusion obligatory while prohibiting assaults on property and life. Everyone must make do with his or her own resources while being generally dependent on everyone else, who use their own resources as they see fit. Newly produced goods also may only be acquired by respecting property and person. Private property, the exclusive disposal over the wealth of society which other individuals require for their subsistence and must therefore utilize somehow, is the basis of individual advantage, and naturally also of disadvantage. It is the source of the modern form of poverty, whereby people must sustain themselves as instruments for other people’s property (whose growth is naturally of some concern to the state.)
Finally, it should be mentioned that private property is not a matter of toothbrushes and lemonade, although it does show its effects in the sphere of individual consumption too. The real dependency on things which belong to other individuals exists in the sphere of the production and reproduction of the wealth of society. When there is exclusive disposal over the means of production and therefore over the products themselves, wealth acquires the power to deny people their existence.
c) Historical remarks
The state idealism practiced by antagonistic classes, their submission to a political power out of self interest, is no pastoral picnic. Likewise, the “establishment of the state” was never a harmonious affair, although it is considered a cause for celebration in every nation when its anniversary comes around. Bourgeois states are the product of choice terror. This tends to be forgotten by their proponents, and not only when it comes to the glorious French and American Revolutions. Antagonistic classes joined forces to abolish pre- bourgeois forms of state power for fairly different reasons. One class regarded the old state and the estates supporting it as a hindrance to its business. The other class was fighting for its existence, which it had to secure by its labor. Of course once their common goal was reached, it did not turn out to the satisfaction of both classes, since what the democratic state protected, the possibility of sustaining oneself in the service of other people’s property, quickly became a bitter necessity. The fact that the workers who fought for the bourgeois republic had to get rid of the old state in order to live, does not mean that they created an instrument for themselves when they helped create the new state.
Discontent with the hard world of private property is a source of most persistent ideologies.
Leftists tend to interpret the many disagreeable consequences of freedom and equality (which will come up in the next chapters) as evidence that these two goals of the French Revolution have not yet been fully realized. In view of the evident differences in society, they doubt the reality of equality under state power. They turn equality into an ideal and demand that the state make it come true. It somehow never occurs to them that there must be something wrong with a kind of freedom that is maintained by force.
The foolish vision of a society which has abolished, not the economic conflicts between people, but their individual differences is a favorite theme for utopian novels and movies. It is also cited by politicians, who like to fend off all criticism of the state by magnanimously rejecting all nonsense about making everyone equal. This kind of repudiation of demands on the state is supposed to drum up the right kind of enthusiasm for the state. Fatuous comparison with the ancient past (the Soviets were once also useful for this game) has the same purpose, by revealing an idiotic “conflict between freedom and equality.” To get more of one you supposedly have to give up some of the other, so that you can’t have everything anyway, so stop complaining and start practicing the third basic value, fraternity (which is known as “solidarity” or “unity” nowadays). One can see that discontent with other people’s discontent is also fertile soil for false ideas about the most abstract determination of the state.
Those who take a positive stance towards the state proclaim that the state is “in everyone’s interest.” They attempt to make the obvious disadvantages of state actions acceptable by explaining the state as a necessary evil. The proof that the state is necessary because of human nature is part of the standard repertoire of every enlightened teacher and professor, who in this case cite the conflicts of a capitalistic society, for a change, instead of the lovable differences. This proof only works if one ignores the necessity to compete that the state imposes, along with all the economic peculiarities this involves, and declares that gratuitous mutual hostility is human nature. Man is a wolf to man, ergo some wolves have to make sure the other wolves keep quiet. This is supposed to be why it is necessary for the state to maintain order.
In everyday life, any criticism of the state’s actions which points to a discrepancy with one’s own interests is refuted simply by the remark that there must be order. Where would we end up if everything belonged to everyone? This expresses the willingness to contend against other individuals in pursuit of one’s own interest and at the same time to defend the limits that the political order forces on oneself and everyone else, a self-contradictory will which thrives in a democracy. It also flourishes in its fascist variation that disapproves of competitive self-interest, requiring in the name of true freedom that all individuals subordinate their endeavors entirely to the community.
Public speakers on equality and freedom, who claim to have discovered in their own particular state the kind of order appropriate to mankind, can fall back on scientific literature for a detailed and well-prepared elaboration of this brazen lie. None of the social sciences or humanities (true to their name) can pass up the chance to provide a definition of man. The slight variations they offer on the theme, “Man is by nature an animal, but usually proves capable of higher things!” are due to the interest the particular discipline has in contributing to these “higher things.” All these sciences concern themselves with the two sides shown by citizens, their materialism of competition and their idealism of the state dictated by their dependence on it. And they proceed to transform this historical product, the bourgeois state, into an anthropological constant, making the bourgeois contortions of the will appear to be a confirmation of human nature, whether in terms of psychology, educational theory, economics, political science or theories of literature and language. As if these disciplines did not all owe their existence to the fact that individuals resist the need to abstract from themselves!
Marx has written all that must be said about the fable that a group of individuals entered into a social contract, as well as about the role of Robinson Crusoe in intellectual history! Evidently, academics just have to pay homage to human dignity, especially since they feel compelled to come up with criteria for distinguishing which deeds, of all those performed by humans taking the bourgeois state for granted, are in fact “inhuman.”