A Marxist Concept of Politics

Under capitalism, political violence is not constantly required for the extraction of surplus-value and the maintenance of capitalist social relations. The separation of direct producers from the means of production in capitalist social formations means that surplus-value can be appropriated by economic mechanisms without the repeated deployment or threat of deployment of politico-military force in the battle between classes. In Mute Compulsion: A Theory of the Economic Power of Capital, Søren Mau writes: “The characteristic thing about the power of capital is precisely that it has an ability to reproduce itself through economic processes, or, put differently, that the organization of social reproduction on the basis of capital gives rise to a set of powerful structural mechanisms which ensure its reproduction all by itself, as it were.” Capitalism constructs a new social relationship between the employer and the employed, one that allows the former to gain full control over the immediate environment of the latter. It needs workers to be “free” in a double sense: “free” to sell their own labor-power (not legally tied to a landlord or master) and “free” of any possession of the means of production, so that their material survival is dependent on becoming a wage-laborer. It is important to note here that the “freedom” to sell labor-power is rooted in “the mystified/mystifying moment of the wage contract and the freedom-of-contract rhetoric of nineteenth-century liberal individualism.” Such a notion of “freedom” refers not to the ¬ actual independence of workers but to the ideological concealment of the coerciveness of the wage contract through a discourse of legal voluntarism. It denotes the process whereby proletarianized masses – separated from the means of production – are given the legal ability to enter the abstract sphere of bourgeois-juridical formalism and participate in the capitalist labor market. Thus, the economic power of capitalism exists as a form of exploitation that appears as the agential and self-driven decision of the individualized worker. This appearance is supported not only by the ideology of liberal contractualism but by the operational modality of economic power, which involves the application of indirect, structural pressures upon the material environment of subaltern classes. As Mau comments: “Whereas violence and ideology directly address the subject, economic power addresses it only indirectly through the manipulation of its socio-material environment. Economic power thus has to do with the way in which social relations of domination reproduce themselves by being inscribed in the environment of the subject.”

Insofar that the economic power of capital renders superfluous the need for political coercion in the labor process, there emerges a separation of the economic from the political. This concept of separation, while analytically true, applies to the individual labor process of capitalists, not to the social totality of the capitalist social formation. At the level of the individual capitalist, the need to simply survive, to avoid starvation, surely impels subalterns to join the rank of the proletariat. However, when we look at this issue from the collective standpoint of the capitalist totality, the process that institutes wage slavery as the only economic way of ensuring subsistence is brought about by a political closure of alternative employment options. This situation differs significantly from the one that prevails in pre-capitalist societies. In these societies, direct producers are not yet deprived of the means of production. Given this fact, the surplus labor of the exploited classes has to be appropriated in a form other than the economic coercion of the market found under capitalism. This form is provided by the political power and naked violence of pre-modern ideologies, which use religious prejudices and primitive attitudes to ensure subservience to the exploiters. What is evident here is the fact that in pre-capitalist societies, individual owners of property have to continually use political violence to maintain control over property, a situation that is different from capitalism, where individual capitalists as capitalist property-owners do not have to use extra-economic force for the reproduction of their class status. But the capitalist class as a whole – in the form of the capitalist state – does utilize political and ideological violence to perpetuate the monopolization of the means of subsistence of the masses and the forcible destruction of non-capitalist livelihoods that may weaken the economic power of capital. Hence, both pre-capitalist and capitalist social formations are dependent upon political violence for their social reproduction. What differentiates the one from the other is the fact that capitalists, unlike pre-capitalist exploiters, don’t have to use violence at the individual level to ensure their dominance since that role is served by the economic compulsion of the market. However, the absence of violence at the individual level is propped up by the presence of violence at the collective level, embodied in the capitalist state. The systematic construction of public apparatuses that can perform repressive tasks for the bourgeoisie ensures that the working class has no choice not to work for a wage, being unable to choose between capitalist and non-capitalist employers. This state of structural oppression – brought about through the political subjugation of non-capitalist subsistence options – demonstrates that in capitalism, what emerges is not so much the separation of the economic and the political but their functional division wherein individual capitalists possess economic power and the capitalist state possesses political power. Raju J Das writes:

the capitalist state and the capitalist class…are two arms of the social relationship called capitalist class relation. One arm signifies the exploitation of the majority and its (near) separation from property, and wealth-accumulation in the hands of the capitalists. Another arm signifies the political oppression/subjugation of the majority by the state. In other words, one arm signifies the capitalist class as a whole, and another arm signifies the state which is, above all, the coercive instrument to reproduce the capitalist class relations.

The capitalist relationship of dialectical mediation between the economic power of capital and the political power of the bourgeois state – distinguished from the sole presence of political power in pre-capitalist social formations – means that the immediate capitalist labor process appears to be free from violence and coercion. This appearance has a material basis in social reality because it reflects how the economic power of capital is structurally imbricated with the political power of the state. When acting as exploited workers in the capitalist civil society, it is only natural for proletarian human beings to perceive their engagement with the labor process as an economic one, as one that allows them to receive wages and satisfy monetary requirements. Viewed from the perspective of the human imagination, which concerns itself with the affective workings of the senses, the capitalist civil society is a representation of the act of economic exchange and nothing more. The interconnection of this economic sphere with the coercive logic of the state is ignored because the ideas of the proletariat are interwoven with the material practice of wage slavery to such an extent that they are strongly limited by the horizons of the latter. Workers experience the economic mechanisms of capitalism as the immediate apprehension of objective forms that lie outside their subjective being, as mere methods of subsistence to which one has to conform. In this way, the proletariat’s material relation with the economic logic of the capitalist civil society is transformed into an ethereal relation to external forms. The visibility of the capitalist economy arises out of the structural invisibility of the political violence that generated its foundational framework, as well as of the overarching network of socio-cultural relations that serves the bourgeoisie through its manifold cruelties. This inability of human imagination to understand the interdependence of capitalist economy on the political violence of the state is part and parcel of the way in which ideology operates. It limits the mental capacities of human beings by socially constructing a collective sensorium that carries out processes of routinized sense-making and shapes comprehension, interaction, and practice. Gabriel Rockhill and Jennifer Ponce de León elaborate:

Rather than there being a real, given world outside of ideology, that is then simply distorted through inversion, the world materially delivers itself to us upside down, and this is the primary datum of our ideological experience…material practice formats our perceptual matrix in such deep and fundamental ways that the world is “naturally” delivered to us through the lens of ideology. Instead of simply being a set of illusions or false ideas, ideology operates as an all-encompassing sensorium that emerges from the actual life-processes of homo faber. It composes an entire universe through the collective and historical production of a shared world of sense that is at one and the same time physical and mental. It is the collective historical life-process (der historische Lebensprozess) that forges this sensorium in such a seamless fashion that it is largely rendered imperceptible.

The human imagination is thus essentially entwined with an ideological imaginary i.e. “a collectively produced practical mode of intelligibility that assembles self-evident givens, being at one and the same time a way of thinking, feeling, being, perceiving, and acting. Far from remaining purely conceptual, it is affective, practical, perceptual, and axiological. An imaginary is thus the anchored modus operandi of social agents, which is flexible and varies across the social field depending on the agencies involved in its precise configuration.” In contrast to the ideological nature of human imagination, the rational faculties of human beings interact with reality by constructing adequate ideas that theoretically totalize the given facts through their contextualization in a historical movement of fluid social relations. This means that reason will comprehend the bourgeois political society as a necessary component of capital in which its essence as an exploitative dynamic is expressed, reinforcing the conditions of possibility of surplus-extraction through the repression of non-capitalist possibilities in the realm of civil society. Furthermore, reason understands that the one-sided representation of the capitalist civil society as a sphere of “free”, non-political wage contracts is essential for the continuous expansion of capital, for without this ideological illusion – that relationships in bourgeois civil society are representations of strictly economic exchanges – the commodity-form will fail in forcing subalterns into the entire circuit of capitalist reproduction that generates surplus-value. Now, taking into account that the separation of the economic and the political under capitalism is primarily an ideological one, we need to examine what impact this separation has upon the logic of politics in a capitalist social formation. From the bourgeois viewpoint, politics actually functions as the invisible background of capitalist economics, as the violent underside of the abstract legalism of the market. The centrality of political violence to the field of economic production demands that it be ideologically mystified so that the dialectical linkages between the political power of the state and the economic power of capital can be broken and the character of the labor process can be normatively described as non-coercive and voluntary. This act of normative description is carried out by taking the capitalist separation of economics and politics at face value, without questioning the essence that lies beneath this appearance. As I have already noted, economic capital, unlike the ideological deployment of violence in pre-capitalist social formations, interpellates the subalterns in a matrix of subordination that works indirectly through the molding of their socio-material surroundings and conditions. Once the proletariat has been politically separated from the preconditions of its sustenance, the realization of its life can be carried out only through the presence of capital as a mediator. Thus, instead of an external power, the working class’s own interests with regards to survival force it to sell its labor-power. Todd McGowan writes: “In the capitalist epoch, a bizarre inversion occurs: one’s obedience occurs through one’s isolated particularity…One obeys not by submitting to the domination of an authority’s command but by following one’s own self-interest…Capitalism does not eliminate obedience, though it does eliminate the act of submission to a structure of mastery. Individuals continue to participate in a structure that guides their existence, but they cease to experience it as a structure of mastery.” The coincidence of the proletariat’s individual interest for sustenance with capital’s profit-driven interest for surplus extraction – rooted in the political separation of the immediate producers from their means of production – means that the economy comes to assume a veneer of depoliticized neutrality, with the state’s function of political violence in the capitalist market fading into the background. As soon as the appearance of the capitalist market as a technocratic arbiter of individual interests emerges, bourgeois ideologists discursively entrench this appearance by reconfiguring political society, so that it no longer signifies the coercive complement of capital’s economic power but a synthetic zone of abstract legalism that aids the ostensible market rationalism of bourgeois civil society. Politics no longer refers to the inner component of extra-economic violence that inevitably accompanies the economic power of capital but to a juridified political society that speaks only through the language of the formal equality of otherwise unequal citizens – a language that is itself a reflection of the capitalist market that organizes commodity exchange in terms of the abstract equivalence of qualitatively unequal market actors. The juridical concept of the equality of all citizens before the law, the equal respect for the life and property of each citizen, the equal freedom of association and contract, forms a necessary legal-institutional basis for a system of commodity production that posits materially unequal social agents as abstractly equal “rational” actors that are pursuing their individual interests through the medium of the market. Under a social structure of capitalist accumulation, the representative liberal state enforces this formal contractual equality only to cloak the very real inequalities that exist between the propertied capitalists and the property-less wage-laborers.

For the proletariat, the natural-law contractualism that undergirds politics in a capitalist society – founded upon the ideological depoliticization of the economy and the technocratic erasure of the violent antagonistic social relations inherent to the field of production – results in the systemic delimitation of politics: in its status quoist version, politics sets its boundaries of intervention in an external fashion with regards to the field of production. It considers its area of operation to be the juridified political society of capitalism – a sphere of political existence that is wholly internal to the constraints of the bourgeois state and its institutional apparatuses, functionally bounded by the field of reproduction of the strategic political and social interests of the bourgeois class. Here, we can observe how the apparent alienation and separation of this sphere of bourgeois politics from the material intercourse that takes in bourgeois civil society actually facilitates their ever close intermeshing. The claims of bourgeois political society to a juridical status of an abstract entity that can’t interfere with the market rationalism of civil society leads to a paradoxical non-interventionist stance: state-supported political violence consistently intervenes against opposition to the scientific pretensions of the market so that it can maintain the space within which the ostensibly non-political and self-sustaining mechanisms of the market can work. Political intervention creates the conditions of possibility for a supposedly non-political market that is touted as an entity capable of sustaining itself without further intervention. The lack of intervention of the capitalist state in the free market is based upon political interventions that create the conditions of possibility for that non-interventionism through the elimination of any form of opposition. Bourgeois ideologists want to drive out the paradoxical character of the political state by forgetting the political coercion that constitutes the condition of possibility for the self-regulating market and ideologically consecrating the bourgeois state as a legal guarantor of the rationalism of capitalist civil society. The proletariat demolishes this façade by showing how the rationalism of the market requires as its dialectical counterpart the irrationalism of the political state, how the realization of working class survival through market exchanges is produced by the destruction of non-capitalist options, how the juridified political society’s respect for the so-called scientific nature of the market is actually a mask for coercively eliminating the class antagonisms found in the capitalist labor process. From this, it is clear that the bourgeoisie’s hegemonic project is conflictual: to gain consent, the ruling class has to interact with the proletarian hostility arising from the class conflicts that are constitutive of capitalist society. In this process, the collective structures of civil society are given a bivalent character. On the one hand, they serve as the instruments through which the elite exercises economic and ideological power. On the other hand, insofar that the bourgeoisie has to maintain a power equilibrium through the creation of apparatuses that deal with subaltern opposition, the organisms of civil society also function as the principal vehicle for the actions of these oppressed classes. The existence of this duality causes the emergence of two different conceptions of politics: bourgeois politics, which revels in the abstractness of legal contractualism, and proletarian politics, which constantly overflows the barriers of bourgeois politics to highlight the violence that forms an essential substratum of economic exchange. While the former resides in the realm of political society, unwilling to explore how the state is not a legal guarantor of juridical equality but a capitalist enforcer of material inequality, the latter resides in the connective terrain between political society and civil society, constantly highlighting the internality of the bourgeois state’s political violence to the supposedly “neutral” economic power of capital. This form of proletarian politics understands that the enrichment of the political equality promised by the bourgeois state cannot lead to the eradication of exploitation from the economic arena of bourgeois civil society. On the contrary, it reinforces the social legitimacy of the state institutions that are responsible for hiding the essentially violent and oppressive nature of the capitalist economy. Bourgeois ideologists have combatted the counter-hegemonic thrust of proletarian politics by portraying it as an unscientific remainder of pre-capitalism that attempts to politically disrupt the non-political stability of the free market’s invisible hand. As Etienne Balibar notes:

The fundamental point is that from Adam Smith onwards, ‘economic’ discourse, by presenting itself as science and radically divorcing itself from ‘politics’, represented as a remnant of pre-capitalism, and thus instituting the distinction of civil society and the State, provides the different factions of the bourgeoisie with the means of considering, and thus of organizing the unity of their interests as just so many conditions of the accumulation of capital. Everything opposing their mutual interests is called ‘politics’, and everything which leads back to the logic of accumulation, that is, to the command of capital (or money) over labour, is called ‘economics’ At last this provides the means, albeit theoretical, of preventing the interests of labour, or rather of workers, from entering into the conflict of interests between different bourgeois factions, so as to disturb its ‘arbitrations’ (as we say nowadays) and to undermine the mass bases of the State.

To summarize, from the standpoint of the bourgeoisie, there are two definitions of politics: one is the legalistic one that ideologically reflects the apparent alienation of political society from civil society and the other is the revolutionary one that emphasizes their real interdependence and interpenetration. While the former is based on legal respect for the market rationalism of supposedly scientific bourgeois economics, the latter is based on radical hostility to the scientific and rationalist pretensions of capitalist surplus extraction, highlighting their irrational interrelation with the coercive logic of state-sponsored political violence. These two forms of politics, however, don’t exist in neat separation from one another. To be more precise, revolutionary politics itself has suffered the ideological invasion of bourgeois elements, taking from the latter the notion of the separation of economics and politics under capitalism and radicalizing it in an anti-capitalist direction. This ideological hybridity manifests itself in the form of ultra-leftism, which opposes any form of participation in the movement for reforms. Such opposition emerges from the specific discursive order of that ideology. The appearance of the division of the extra-economic state from the economic labor process – embodied in the ideological mystification of juridical abstractness – is accepted with a radical twist: the separation is now construed no longer as the juridical respect for market rationalism but as the violent subjection of civil society to the dictates of political society. In the case of bourgeois ideologists, the separation of economics (civil society) and politics (political society) is affirmed to maintain the hierarchical subjection of the former to the latter. In the case of ultra-leftwing ideologists, the same separation is affirmed in favor of civil society. It is said that the hegemonic perpetuation of the power of capital over labour requires a state machinery which is divorced from the mass of the people and beyond their democratic control, so the working class, in order to remove the bourgeoisie from their position of dominance and set up a Communist order, requires a form of government through which political society can be reabsorbed into civil society. The privileging of civil society produces a form of anti-politics that regards as futile any kind of participation in the political system of capitalism. In both the bourgeois and ultra-leftwing cases, the terms – economics and politics, civil society and political society – continue to exist in their static state of separation, only their relational ordering is changed. Unlike these two ideologies, Communism destroys the strict isolation of state and society and points out how it is their particular dialectical nexus that constitutes the essence of the capitalist arrangement. Contrary to the propositions of ultra-leftists, capitalism does not involve the separation of civil society and political society, and the subjection of the former to the violence of the latter. Instead, it involves the inextricable intermeshing of the political power of the state and the economic power of capital – the former ensuring the preconditions for the continued existence of the latter. The role of proletarian politics consists in advancing a class struggle in such a way that the working class comes to expose the essential violence of the labor process, showing how it is tethered to the coercive closure of non-capitalist alternatives and is full of irreconcilable class antagonisms. In the normal conditions of bourgeois hegemony, the civil war between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie remains latent, or invisible, unavailable to the consciousness of the subaltern, which continues to think of economics and politics in terms of market rationalism and juridical equality, respectively. When the normal exercise of bourgeois hegemony breaks down, when the apparent separation of economics and politics weakens, the confrontational edge of class struggle comes to the fore, with the proletariat openly criticizing political society and civil society as two moments of a dialectical whole, geared towards their exploitation. Politics in the Marxist sense refers precisely to the transition that is effected by the proletariat from one phase of class struggle to the other, the becoming visible of the latent struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat through the destruction of the antinomies of politics and economics. To use the words of Balibar, for the workers’ movement, the reality of politics “is nothing other than the development of the contradictions of the economy…To transgress the limits of the recognized – and artificially separated – political sphere, which are only ever the limits of the established order, politics has to get back to the ‘non-political’ conditions of that institution (conditions which are, ultimately, eminently political). It has, in other words, to get back to the economic contradictions, and gain a purchase on these from the inside.” This “pattern of referring back to the material conditions of politics, which is in turn required for the internal political transformation of those conditions,” means that the proletariat cannot refrain from engaging with the political dynamics of capitalist society. On the contrary, to destroy the separation of economics and politics, the working class has to consistently build a mass movement that defends the living standards of workers and activates the latent class antagonisms in the field of economic production. As part of this, the Communist Party has to also participate in elections so that it can displace the ostensible neutrality of bourgeois political society from within that sphere. Expressed in more general terms, while ultra-leftism privileges civil society and attempts to voluntaristically proclaim a space of proletarian autonomy within that sphere, Marxism recognizes the structural embeddedness of subalterns in the dialectical nexus of political society and civil society and thus builds proletarian autonomy through a concrete movement of political practices that can dissolve that nexus. Bearing in mind how the apparent separation of economics and politics under capitalism weakens the independence of the proletariat, the Communist Party always tries to overcome this separation through all possible means. Insofar that Communism has as its goal the unification of economics and politics, it is both hyper-political, highlighting the intense antagonisms found in both political society and civil society, and anti-political, overcoming bourgeois restrictions to articulate an expansive notion of politics. Once this separation has been overcome, class struggle can replace the capitalist totality, whose dialectical moments are political society and civil society, with Communist totality, whose dialectical moments are formed by the free association of human beings working toward their self-actualization through democratically managed production.

Yanis Iqbal is a student and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India. Read other articles by Yanis.