Norm has chastised me for endorsing Marx’s claim that "the executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie." This raises the question: what counts as evidence here?
Norm is entirely right to say that there are “important functions of contemporary democratic states that are of more general benefit than to the bourgeoisie.” But this does not refute Marx’s claim. Because the interests of workers and capitalists coincide to at least some (large?) extent, the state can provide such general benefits whilst at the same time promoting capitalists interests. Take some examples from Norm’s list:
- Capitalists require infrastructure such as roads and sewage systems, and an educated and healthy workforce. Public goods problems mean they won’t provide these themselves, and that they cannot exclude others from them.
- Capitalists want their lives and property to be protected. The easiest way to do this is for everyone’s basic rights to be so protected, whether they have property or not.
- Capitalists need to protect themselves from ruinous competition. Some regulations, such as health and safety laws, work to the benefit of larger capitalists by imposing costs upon smaller firms. As Marx wrote of the Factory Acts, “Owing to the necessity they impose for greater outlay of capital, they hasten on the decline of the small masters, and the concentration of capital.”
- Capitalism requires that there be social order and little threat of revolution. The state helps provide this through a welfare state, the provision of basic justice, laws to prevent excessive exploitation and so on.
In this context, I think Norm makes a leap too far when he says:
If 'the executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie', then democracy is no more than a facade and a pretence.
I disagree. Given that there’s (for now) no alternative to capitalism, it’s in all our interests that the “common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” be well managed. Democracy, then, matters - not least because it allows us to choose (within limits!) between efficiency and justice.
But this brings me to my problem. In interpreting the “common affairs of the bourgeoisie” so widely, am I not in danger of making Marx’s claim unfalsifiable, in the sense of being consistent with any act of the state?
No. Falsifying evidence would be state policies which deliberately attack the interests of capitalists. (I say “deliberately” because policy mistakes are common). How many of these are there?
One example I can think of would be the high marginal tax rates we had in the 1970s - though these, as we’ve seen this week, do not survive for long against capitalists’ attacks.
This example alone suffices to suggest that Marx overstated the case when he said the state was “but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”. But was it really much of an overstatement? By the standards of social sciences - where any glib statement fails to fully capture the messy reality - I‘m not sure it scores so badly.