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The historicity of ‘the state’

by Joel Griggs on August 22, 2016

The historicity of concepts is as unintuitive to our reason as it is fundamental for Marxist analysis. That Marx regarded analytical categories as historically specific is a key assertion of the internal relations approach. In this blog post I will argue that ‘the state’ is a distinctly bourgeois concept that can only be considered within its specific social relations, and thus, only an internal relations approach can reveal this to be the case. The first section will examine the inextricable relationship between analytical categories and their historical context, specifically with regard to the state, class, and the division of labour. The second section will argue that only under bourgeois social relations is the state successfully reified as separate from civil society, and that this apparent separation is key to the form of surplus expropriation uniquely characteristic of capitalism.

SayerIn his seminal book, The Violence of Abstraction, Derek Sayer argues that categories and ideas are but abstract expressions of the social relations they embody, and are therefore “no more eternal than the relations they express”. A ‘violent abstraction’, then, is the spectacular misunderstanding of this premise, and according to Sayer, empties analytical categories of their internal historicity. While the historicity of concepts is evident throughout Sayer’s work, and indeed, is integral to internal relations itself, Sayer elsewhere demonstrates this most explicitly through his essay on the state, The critique of politics and political economy: Capitalism, communism and the state in Marx’s writings of the mid-1840s. Quoting Marx from one of his regular letters to Engels, Sayer laments that the apparent focus on what Marx referred to as the ‘economic shit’ of Capital I, has led to the all-too-often abstraction of the economic from the political. Worse still, argues Sayer, is that the political, the juridical, the state, and ethics, have all been relegated to a secondary analysis, as the economic is regarded as the tour de force of Marxist critique. For Sayer, this mistake can only be undone by reasserting that the state is intimately bound up with the apparent economic categories of capitalist private property and the division of labour.

Let us briefly examine the division of labour. Sayer shows how Marx often used the term to describe a number of seemingly different categories. We must take this to mean that either Marx was exceedingly stupid, or that he saw these descriptions as fundamentally the same thing. If we take the latter to be the case – and we should – then it means that the division of labour provides the basis for the legal rights that are expressed as concepts of property, and not the other way around. However, on this understanding alone, we might be led to conclude that the division of labour determines the form that the state takes. But Sayer insists that the state is the division of labour. The interesting corollary is that the division of labour is a more fundamental category than class. This is indeed a position that Sayer concedes but adds the qualification that “the division of labour is itself a process of class formation”. To borrow a line from Henri Lefebvre in The Sociology of Marx, it is “social relations … that account for the state [and] not the other way around” (Lefebvre 1969, p. 123). We can surmise then, that the reification of the state as separate from the economic begins with the division of labour – or more specifically, begins with the historical process of the division between capital and landed property. This forces us to admit that the abstract category of ‘the state’ can only belong to the contemporary lexicon; it is a bourgeois category born of the bourgeois historical process.

The state, then, is as much an abstraction as is civil society. The two are reified in appearance but are inextricably and internally linked in essence. Sayer insists that Marx is quite clear on this reification in The German Ideology. Marx argues that the term ‘civil society’ emerges in the Eighteenth Century only after social relations had been reified from the production relations they embody. Moreover, Marx insists that “civil society as such  only develops with the bourgeoisie”. This is crucial for internal relations as it validates that there is no ‘civil society’ as such – there is only society – but the bourgeois division of labour obfuscates this totality by concealing the relations of production internal to the totality. Bourgeois society successfully reifies itself to appear as an actual separation of the civil, political, and the economic. The inescapable conclusion is that ‘the state’ is an historical category specific to the bourgeois social form; the state is not a synonym for any and all forms of government.

WoodSayer rightly argues that what is apparently a purely economic set of relations only crystallise out with the rise of so-called civil society. If we contrast this with feudalism where property relations appear as a direct relationship of lordship and servitude, production under feudalism is not fetishised; it is clearly visible, and surplus expropriation happens by something other than economic pressure. We need not digress into a long preamble of the difference between feudalism and capitalism to know that the bourgeoisie is the first ruling class in history to rule on the basis of apparent economic relations, rather than direct forms of personal domination. This is precisely the crux of Ellen Meiksins Wood’s argument that only under capitalism does surplus expropriation happen within the process of production and that it happens through economic means. It is this difference between the appearance of economic and extra-economic coercion that places Wood firmly within an internal relations approach. More still, this clearly establishes that both state and class are historical categories and that reading them back into pre-capitalist epochs is anachronistic.

It is important to note that this reading of the state does not make abstraction impossible. But we must be aware that it is only one vantage point of internally related categories and to remove the state out of historical specificity renders it too general to be included in the laws of motion necessary for historical materialism. Perhaps falling victim to the bourgeois categories of which he implores us to be on our guard, Sayer potentially abstracts too far by conflating capitalism with laissez-faire. Acknowledging the initial conditions of the state’s role in capital accumulation, Sayer in his 1985 essay is perhaps mistaken in arguing that the bourgeoisie necessitate a state “which guarantees that the private transactions of the bourgeois economy can proceed unimpeded”. While not fatal to the overall argument of internal relations, this is an unfortunate misstep in what is an otherwise sophisticated argument. It does, however, demonstrate the difficulty in transcending our natural inclination to abstract what we perceive, even when we are aware of our misinformed proclivities.

Ultimately, the historicity of concepts must not be ignored if we are to enhance our reading of historical materialism. Ironically, the categories of our analysis are given to us by the very bourgeois constraints we are attempting to transcend. Nonetheless, the internal relations approach provides the lens with which we can reveal these violent abstractions and come to meaningful understandings of the categories we seek to explain. ‘The state’ is just such a reified category that only becomes coherent once it is placed within its historical, and distinctly bourgeois, context. The inextricable and internal relationship between the economic, the civil, and the political is thus concealed by bourgeois society itself. Upon this concealed division of labour rests the legitimacy of the capitalist state and the mode of surplus expropriation key to its existence.

Reveal this violent abstraction and revolution might just be possible. Then again, revealing the violent abstraction might just be the revolution itself.

Joel Griggs

Joel Griggs completed a Bachelor in Political, Economic, and Social Sciences in 2015. Currently, Joel is completing his honours thesis on the technological dimensions of class composition in the twenty-first century, working within a Marxist framework with a particular focus on information-communication technologies.

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