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On the problem of leaders as stupid as oneself

Back in 2008, my mom asked her right-wing best friend why she supported Sarah Palin. “I feel like she understands me, that she’s just like me,” my mom’s friend said. To which my mom replied: “What? But you’re an idiot! Why do you want to be ruled by someone just as stupid as you?”

Mom voted for Obama, who turned out to be far less clever than she imagined, but nevertheless she was making an interesting point. Now to conduct the discussion intelligently, we have to move it away from the sphere of psephology and into the science of class analysis; for if the average American were truly as dumb as the average American politician, I would rather espouse cannibalism than socialism (to paraphrase an old joke from Tony Cliff). The President of the United States is in fact the President of the Ruling Class of the United States, and likewise for the Senate, the House of Representatives, the Supreme Court, and so on. That’s true in any state. What’s curious about the state today–ie, the neoliberal state–is that its politicians and functionaries are an unusually faithful reproduction of the class it serves. This is worth thinking about.

Probably the outstanding single work on Marx’s theory of the state in all its complexity is the first volume of Hal Draper’s magisterial Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution. Here Draper makes the remarkable but true assertion:

Of all the ruling classes known to history, the membership of the capitalist class is least well adapted, and tends to be most averse, to taking direct charge of the operation of the state apparatus. The key word is: direct. It is least suitable as a governing class, if we use this term in its British sense to denote not a socioeconomic ruling class but only the social circles from which the state machine tends to derive its personnel. (§14.4, p. 320) [emphasis in original]

The most obvious proof of this hypothesis is the “professional politician,” a species unknown to humanity before the advent of bourgeois society.

As much as I think Draper (and Marx) are right, to a modern-day reader the account must seem a little off–and not because it’s too radical, but because it’s not radical enough. These days one would be hard-pressed to disagree with the statement that American politics is run directly by corporations; it’s not strictly, formally true, but only just barely, as we observe with the role of money in our elections, the infamous “revolving door” between government and corporate office, the literal drafting of legislation by lobbyists, and other noble aspects of our democracy.

I think the solution lies in reading the Draper/Marx formulation not as a rigid and timeless “declaration,” but as a dialectical formula mediated by the historical development of the class struggle. Which is, I believe, how it’s intended: Marx was the last person to think that there was only one form of the bourgeois state (eg, parliamentary republic) any more than he thought there was only one form of the bourgeois revolution (eg, France 1789-93). Even more: Marx and Draper are identifying a permanent contradiction in capitalism, one that is constantly arising and being resolved, yet can never be entirely overcome while remaining on the plane of capitalism.

The neoliberal mode of American politics was launched as a fairly self-conscious capitalist reaction combining both an “economic” attack–the instinct of capital to resolve a crisis by taking more from labor–and a “political” attack–the desire to check, contain, and reverse the social movements. This was, as we know, quite successful, especially since the unions proved to be entirely incapable of defending themselves. Finally, the “Volcker Shock” of the early 1980s, initiated to break chronic inflation, had the much deeper consequence of reorganizing American capital, with inefficient “old” industrial firms going under while Wall Street rose to extraordinary prominence on a tide of usurious interest.

So by the mid-1980s at least, you had the following three factors:

  1. A capitalist class with a fairly cohesive economic and political agenda vis-a-vis the working class.
  2. A working class that was increasingly disorganized economically and disarticulated politically.
  3. Reorganization and concentration of capital, with finance in the clear leading role.

It seems reasonable to suggest that, given these (and probably other) factors, American capital could and did exert a far more direct intervention in politics. The most important factor was (and is) surely the weakness of the working class response.

This is where I might quibble a bit with Draper, who tends to stress that the bourgeois politician’s role is to take the “Long, High View of the system.” Perhaps that’s what he’s “supposed” to do–maybe it’s even what he thinks he’s doing–but it begs the question: how does a bourgeois politician get any less myopic than the bourgeois class in general?

The answer is class struggle. By dint of his role as the suppressor of the working class–the capitalist state is, first and foremost, its police–the bourgeois politician is compelled to deal with the working class a political entity; and if the class is well-organized, it becomes too expensive and ineffective to rely entirely on main force. Hence the British parliament of the 19th century did not reduce the length of the working day because they realized that the physical and mental deterioration of the proletariat threatened the viability of the system, although that was indisputably true; nor did they do it because it compelled capital to invest in mechanization, to the great benefit of productivity and profit, although that was also true; rather, parliament acted because the working class organized a huge movement.

Now surely it was the case that certain bourgeois politicians or ideologists “discovered” that reform was the wisest path, and managed to convince themselves that they found this path through their own moral excellence, humanism, foresight, etc. That is all rather unimportant (except to the extent that they get workers to believe it). The important point is that any capacity for the bourgeois state to think “long-term” comes about because the working class has transformed a “long-term” issue into a “short-term” political crisis.

This brings us back to our situation today, where an extraordinary spell of weakness in the US (and international) working class had degraded the political quality of bourgeois leadership considerably. The behavior of capital during the debt ceiling fiasco is a nice illustration. For months it sat back dull-wittedly observing parties get nowhere, confident that the longer the squabble, the more savage the spending cuts would be, and all the greater the number of tasty morsels thrown to the rich.

Only in the week before a threatened US default–a literally unthinkable event for international finance–did capital begin to panic; yet having been so lackadaisical during the debate, it did not know which side to back, and simply thundered: “Get it done!” The president then got on TV and helpfully suggested: “Get it done!” Which they did, eventually, at the last minute. Capital then celebrated by…crashing the stock market. Why? Because the economy sucks, and spending cuts make it worse, as everyone knows.

This almost comic indecision and vacillation is typical of the capitalist, but the interesting thing about our times is that the capitalists no longer have leaders that are any better. The political problem of the capitalists today can therefore be summed up as such: their leaders are as stupid as themselves.

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  1. August 14, 2011 at 12:38 pm

    Excellent piece!
    It really captures the sort of self-advancing emptiness that seems characteristic of bourgeois politicians – they are (in one sense) objects floating in space, waiting for forces to act upon them. Naturally, of late the business lobbyists have been the force that’s acted first, but that may be beginning to change.

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