On the Dispersal of Power from the State to Society

Excerpted from James Livingston:

“By now we can also see that Gramsci was right: as the relation between state and society changed in the twentieth century, so did the nature and scope of politics, and with these the meaning of revolution as such. Accordingly, we can adopt a new perspective on the transition from capitalism to socialism, one that corroborates Marx’s anti-apocalyptic narrative of this transition in Capital: Volume III.

Most informed and interested observers of early-twentieth-century politics, regardless of their affiliations, noticed three salient trends. First, and most obvious, the state’s regulatory power and authority grew remarkably, whether under revolutionary or reformist or reactionary auspices, but the sources of its sovereignty became questions rather than premises, as the inherited liberal opposition between state and society stopped being self-evident, and with it the boundary between the public sphere and the private sector. Second, and almost as obvious, the atomic particles of politics became groups, associations, collectives?–?in the US, corporations and labor unions, to be sure, but also cross-class organizations like the NAACP and the Women’s Trade Union League?–?rather than unbound individuals, those self-contained, omnicompetent bourgeois citizens of nineteenth-century lore. Third, and nowhere near obvious, even as the state’s powers grew, so too did the capacities of these new groups, associations, and collectives to regulate or administer the market, and to shape civil society, in their own interests. Think of them as local precursors of NGOs, those transnational organizations without diplomatic standing or immunity which nonetheless have profound economic and political effects.

Taken together, these trends made for what Gramsci (also Harold Laski, Mary Follett, Jessie Taft, G.?H. Mead, Horace Kallen, Georges Sorel, and Carl Schmitt, among others) identified as a dispersal of power from the state to society (pragmatists like Laski, Mead, and Kallen called it pluralism). On these empirical grounds, Gramsci suggested that the overthrow of the state by a vanguard party?–?a “war of maneuver” waged according to the Leninist blueprint?–?was, practically speaking, beside the point, and that a long-term ideological struggle for cultural hegemony?–?a “war of position,” which would effect a “passive revolution”?–?was the proper vocation of the organic intellectual. (Schmitt of course used the same empirical grounds to propose a redefinition and reassertion of the state’s sovereignty.)

Apart from any vocational agenda for intellectuals, Gramsci’s argument implied at the very least that revolution would hereafter be the cultural cause rather than the political effect of state power: the “war of position” he advocated was a theoretical forecast of the Popular Front, and what we have more recently come to know as cultural politics. Revolution in the name of socialism (or anything else) would have no headquarters, no mastermind, no center; it would be conducted not on many fronts, as with guerilla warfare, but from nowhere, because its advocates and participants?–?never the same thing?–?could honestly refuse the role and the designation of political opposition, dissidence, or exile. So conceived, the possession of state power, the holy grail of Leninists then and now, is neither here nor there; it’s an afterthought. Vaclav Havel was the epitome of this Gramscian attitude toward revolution until Occupy Wall Street did him one better in 2011.

In Gramsci’s terms, revolution in the name of socialism was not something to be measured by Jacobin or Bolshevik standards, as a function of state-centered politics animated by mass movements and organized by disciplined parties. The transition from capitalism to socialism would be as prolonged, boring, and mundane as the transition from feudalism to capitalism. But its secret history would begin in the twentieth century.

Marx said pretty much the same thing in Capital: Volume III. Here he suggested, without rhetorical flourish, that the late-nineteenth-century combination of modern corporations and modern credit, both predicated on a separation of ownership and control of assets, had created remarkable new realities. It signified “the abolition of capital as private property within the boundaries of capitalist production itself.” It also entailed the “transformation of the actually functioning capitalist into a mere manager, an administrator of other people’s capital.” In short, the combination of modern corporations and modern credit had inaugurated the transition to a new “socialised mode of production,” in other words, socialism. This volatile combination would inevitably create a “new aristocracy of finance”?–?promoters, speculators, and merely nominal directors?–?and “a whole system of swindling and cheating by means of corporation juggling, stock jobbing, and stock speculation.”

From this standpoint, the evidence of transition from capitalism to socialism might be found in yet another strange, unlikely, and regressive place: the socialization of private property effected by modern corporations and modern credit?–?the process we now call the “financialization of assets”?–?and its results, the economic crises caused by a new aristocracy of finance dedicated to stock jobbing and speculation.

Marx suggested, however, that the separation of ownership and control required by corporate enterprise is a revolution in itself, because when the mere manager performs all real functions, “the capitalist disappears from the process of production as a superfluous person.”

Let me stretch this insight to fit the economic history of the twentieth century, as a way of claiming that social relations of production have changed so fundamentally in the last hundred years that we can plausibly equate the coming of a postindustrial society with the emergence of a postcapitalist society?–?in other words, that we’re living through an evident yet unrecognized transition from capitalism to socialism which, if we’re lucky, will never ?be complete.”

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