The rise and fall of the private state

There are three characters in our play of politics:

  1. Capital (or the economy),
  2. Commonwealth (or the polity), and
  3. Culture (or the society).
Hobbes’s Leviathan: free from privatisation?

To privatise a state (Hobbes’s ‘commonwealth’), capital either:

  1. Weakens commonwealth, allowing culture to dominate (indirect privatisation); or
  2. Strengthens itself to such a degree that capital can dominate (direct privatisation).

Capital is the basis for privatising the commonwealth, where the state (Hobbes’s ‘commonwealth’) becomes captured by the private interests of leaders of the market economy (Marx’s ‘capitalists’). Either capital weakens commonwealth to allow for cultural privatisation (indirect capitalist capture of commonwealth), or capital strengthens itself to allow for economic privatisation (direct capitalist capture of commonwealth). There are, helpfully, cultural manifestations of each form of privatisation, allowing us to track the logic of privatisation in their cultural epiphenomena—particularly among intellectuals. Two traditions in particular help:

  1. The British materialist tradition, from Hobbes to Ricardo, emphasises the power of material and (in Smith and Ricardo in particular) economic factors—namely, capital—in shaping the configuration and calibration of commonwealth and its institutions; and
  2. The German idealist tradition, from Leibniz to Hegel, emphasises the power of ideal and (in Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel in particular) cultural factors in shaping the configuration, calibration, and legitimation of commonwealth to its citizens.

Commonwealth, in other words, can take on the character of capital (direct privatisation) or the character of culture (indirect privatisation). But it can also be torn between these two extremes. Indeed, before capitalism, following recent accounts of ancient Greece and Rome, there was a rough balance between capital and culture, allowing commonwealth to control each of these two extremes. With the rise of feudalism in post-Roman European Christendom, culture came to take on a greater role relative to capital and commonwealth. But with the rise of states in the late-feudal and early-modern period, commonwealths themselves took on a great power they hadn’t assumed since the Roman empire (Ertman 1997). But this time, culture had so taken over commonwealths that the church continued to hold back states from pursuing a European-wide commonwealth, for fear this would weaken the power of the papacy. Moreover, the growth of trade in late-feudal Europe meant capital was taking on a nascent role it had not fully taken on in ancient times, partly thanks to the expansion of commonwealths through colonialism and the opportunities this unleashed for capital (Pomeranz 2000). Competition among commonwealths fuelled the dramatic rise of capital in Britain, which was the first to industrialise using capital. While subsequent attempts at industrialisation involved more of a balance between capital and commonwealth, they were all directed at capital. In other words, they were calibrated to the needs of capital, not commonwealth.

Too much analysis, I think, has been focused on configuration—whether change is led by capital, commonwealth, or culture—and not on calibration: What are the functional explanations for said change? How is the commonwealth calibrated? The British materialist tradition and the German idealist traditions coincide in the thought of Karl Marx, for whom his contemporary commonwealth (in particular, Britain) was but an expression of the interests of capital. The role of capital in either weakening the commonwealth or strengthening itself explains cultural and economic privatisation respectively. The commonwealth becomes calibrated to the needs of capital when it takes on certain characters. These characters are either capital or culture. But both are ultimately explicable in terms of the economic base. Under capitalism, capital controls the commonwealth—that is to say, the commonwealth takes on the characters of economic and cultural capital.

But there is a third tradition of thought, beside German idealism and British materialism (including its Marxian variant), that challenges this interpretation of privatisation of politics through capital and culture. This third tradition is

  1. The French socialist, or republican, tradition, which emphasises the role of society, the state, and the politics of the commonwealth.

Is not France a counterexample to the logic of capitalist privatisation of collectivity? Insofar as it is, it is an exception that proves the rule, since France is able to take on the character of commonwealth to a greater degree than other states—that is to say, the French state has a role between economics and culture that has some relative autonomy from the capitalist base—since France is torn between the logics of direct and indirect privatisation. That is to say, the French state is neither too weak that culture can capture the commonwealth, and neither is capital too strong domestically to allow capital to capture the commonwealth. The French state in fact faces both these logics at once, pressured by the forces of capital and culture—of direct and indirect pressures for state privatisation. Are there any other states like France?

The only states which seem exempt from privatisation under global capitalism are those states which are either sufficiently central to the institutional architecture of capitalism or sufficiently materially powerful to resist capture by capital. No state is exempt from privatisation entirely. But some states are slower at privatising than others. These states include: 

  1. China,
  2. France,
  3. Russia,
  4. Germany,
  5. Scandinavian states,
  6. Pariah states, and
  7. Warlord states.

These states are important, but none of them are free from privatisation altogether. China since Deng Xiaoping has enthusiastically integrated itself into the neoliberal world economy (Harvey 2005; Klein and Pettis 2020). Germany has similarly integrated itself since the 1990s, with the revival of its domestic bourgeoisie (Klein and Pettis 2020). President Macron finally passed the long-awaited labour-market reforms to “flexibilise” French labour for the purposes of capital accumulation. Scandinavia has moved from its welfare model of strong social security to “flexicurity” to compromise with the encroaching forces of capital. Russia has a world-famous oil oligarchy which exercises considerable power over its privatised commonwealth. Pariah states like Iran and Saudi Arabia are hardly free from these resource imperatives, and have their own domestic bases of capital grounded in the rents flowing from oil. And warlord states are what Winters (2011) calls “warring oligarchies”, controlled by a certain form of military rather than economic capital. To sustainably resist the pull of economic privatisation, one of three conditions would have to obtain—either:

  1. One of these states would have to reach a position of sufficient power to change the world system to control capital;
  2. Multiple of these states would have to join together to form a sufficiently larger commonwealth, or at least a coalition, to challenge capital; or
  3. Global capital could have to collapse of its own accord, by virtue of the material contradictions it itself has unleashed on nature and the social realm.

The third logic seems obvious, but very much uncertain. The effects of climate change could vary dramatically, since the vary nature of the climate renders all speculations as to its long-term economic effects fallable. After a bout of coronavirus failed to topple global capital, but has instead seen financialisation proceed apase while trade in goods and labour waited for the moment to restart as soon as governments were ready, possibilities of “internal” contradictions ending capitalism are very much uncertain. Under such conditions, the capitalist tendency towards capture of commonwealth by capital and culture is set to continue. This is because states have difficulty forming coalitions due to their contradictory geopolitical and geoeconomic interests, since they are competing within the world economy for capital share, producing a race to the bottom on wages and general animosity and hostility, yielding trade wars which destabilise but fail to topple the global trade which underpins global capital (Buzan and Lawson 2015; Klein and Pettis 2020). The power of nationalism, meanwhile, makes possibilities for political integration culminating in a global commonwealth unrealistically utopian (Mearsheimer 2017). The first condition would only work plausibly if China became the global hegemon, a substitute for a global commonwealth. But America is the current global hegemon, and there is every reason to think it will try to stop China replacing it, through economic and other means (Mearsheimer 2014). These “other means”, however, could include violent war, beyond the current trade war. Even trade war, if extended more fully, could destabilise global capital accumulation. The collapse of world trade may occur for any combination of the above reasons. Would this end the logic of privatisation?

We should not be so sure. To replace the logics of capital and culture with the logic of commonwealth would require a return to the warring states of early modernity or, more terrifyingly, the first half of the twentieth century. While trade empowers capital and weakens particular commonwealths, thereby strengthening culture, war empowers commonwealths. But how much war it would take to end privatisation is uncertain. The twentieth century showed that capitalist states could fight in such a way that strengthens commonwealths, but firstly at a devastating and morally condemnable cost, and secondly for a fairly short term. The post-war “glorious years” lasted only thirty years, as the French adage, les trentes années glorieuses, shows. And this was one of the most devastating “great levellers” of all time (Scheidel 2017). Moreover, during this period, privatisation hardly ended. It was not even rolled back. It was merely restrained—that is to say, prohibited from expanding further, as it has under neoliberalism. The use of nationalist ideology during and following these devastating wars shows the strangehold of culture over commonwealth—while the presence of internal trade even within warring states striving for economic self-sufficiency resembles Fichte’s (1800) “closed commercial state”: a state captured by domestic capital and domestic culture. Such a state would have more power over capital and culture than a state embedded within a global economy would, since the state would have more power relative to the market with regard to investments. But such a state is not formally free from privatisation. Indeed, it is not clear whether it is any more free from privatisation than a normal capitalist state. In many respects, it is far, far less free.

So, what would it take? It is not at all clear. At this point in our analysis, it is worth asking the question: is there another way? Perhaps war and trade are not the only factors behind the alternating characters of the capitalist commonwealth—culture and capital. Perhaps there’s another selective pressure underneath. Perhaps Habermas’s (1988) model of “communicative action” can help. Speech alone, however, has not led to a challenge to capitalism. Calls for deliberative democracy are easily said, but even when they are carried out, they rarely lead to calls for post-capitalism. What would be needed would be the kind of channelling of speech that, perhaps, only a founder of a commonwealth could do—a person to personate the character of the commonwealth; a sovereign representative, in Hobbes’s parlance. Such a personifier of commonwealths must be a sufficiently contemplative actor to overcome their own context to some degree in order to reshape the characters of the capitalist state and perhaps replace them with a new character: the character of the collective commonwealth. Such an actor would have to be incredibly skilled. They would have to have the practical understanding of Rousseau’s legislator, the determination of Machiavelli’s founder of republics, and the theoretical understanding of Plato’s philosopher-king. Such a “philosopher legislator” may be our last realistic hope to rearrange the characters of capital to move beyond the logic of privatisation (or oligarchy) and the logic of interstate competition (or polarity) to the logic of true cooperation: the logic of social polity. After capital privatises the state, perhaps such a commonwealth could collectivise and socialise us to more fully realise than we have done heretofore what it means to be human. Then, the private state may fall just as the philosophical state rises, up from old, into the new.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s