In a previous post, I pointed out how Professor Noonan idealized the nation state. This post will expand on this view by showing that Professor Noonan’s proposal to nationalize the economy by means of the modern state does the same thing–idealizes the modern state.
Professor Noonan makes the following claim:
The alternative is to use this crisis as a basis of legitimacy for the state– under the control of democratic political forces acting in our shared life-interest– to assume control over the productive basis of society and re-orient production to serving life-needs. Nationalization can prefigure democratic socialization, and democratic socialization can re-focus economic life on collective work to provide each and all that which we really need, and freeing our time for the– real-life, multidimensional– experiences, actions, and interactions that make life worth fighting for, protecting, and living.
The call for nationalization of industry by means of the modern state has been typical of many leftists for at least a century and a half. Marx, before, during and a couple of years after the 1848 revolutions, called for the centralization or the appropriation of the conditions of life (factories and other productive facilities, banks, utilities and so forth) by the modern state. Ironically, Professor Noonan, who considers that his view is superior to the Leninist view of the modern state, follows in Leninist footsteps. From Paul Thomas (1994), Alien Politics: Marxist State Theory Retrieved (New York: Routledge), pages ix-x:
Since the 1960s, fierce but turgid [pretentious or windy or laboured or strained] have raged among scholars about Marxist state theory. Participants in these debates were in some respects bitterly opposed. Yet they tended, by and large, to agree on one basic assumption: that the state, or the state as Marx thought of it, is class determined or shaped by the play of class forces outside its boundaries. Disagreements duly proceeded about what this ruling class theory means. (It might mean, for instance, that the state is the instrument of the capitalist class, or that it is an agency structurally tied to ruling class interests or imperatives.) But the theory, in the main, was itself accepted–accepted, in my view, rather too readily and uncritically.
But what did its acceptance involve? It involved, in practice, the often impatient conflation or running-together of understandings of the state that are, in principle, separable: that of the state as being class-determined, and that of the state as an “object,” an instrument, a “finished thing” that is capable of being “seized” and turned to good account once it is seized by the right hands. Theorists–among them Marx himself, for a while, as well as Lenin–can be seen to be given to such impatience under the impress of revolutionary urgency.
But by now, such impatience can be seen to have invited dangerous illusions about what can be accomplished by seizing the state. Seizure of the state can be seen, for that matter, as a dangerous illusion in its own right.
The modern state, as a separate institution, is itself characteristic of the nature of a society dominated by a class of employers and is hardly something external to it. From Thomas, page x:
Because common action and democratic potential find no place in civil society, these are alienated and represented away from its orbit. Common action and collective concern, which in civil society are subsumed beneath self-assertion and the play of competing self-interests, are fused and concentrated at the level of the state, which arrogates them to itself.
The modern state is similar in some respects to modern money. Modern money emerges as a monopolizer by being the only social object that is immediately exchangeable. The modern state is a monopolizer of the so-called public sphere by being the only social object that immediately constitutes political subjects (citizens). From Geoffrey Kay and James Mott (1982), Political Order and the Law of Labour, page 6:
The political nature of money is evident in its appearance —it always bears the head of the prince, or some other emblem of state. On the side of subjectivity the same
applies: just as money is immediately exchangeable as a universal object whose credentials do not have to be chocked, so every individual is accepted at face value as a persona bona fide. Money is accepted because it is a universal objcct on account of its being political: the individual is universally recognised because he is a
political subject – a citizen.
Just as money is a production relation despite being external to the production process, so too is the modern state a production relation despite being external to the production process.
The call for nationalization and state centralization independently of working-class consciousness of its own general interests may be merely the expression of the immediate interests of workers under specific circumstances without leading anywhere except the absorption of such nationalization into the folds of the capitalist system itself; in other words, such nationalization may be co-opted by the modern state and by certain sections of the class of employers.
Isabelle Garo (2000), Marx: Une Critique de la Philosophie argues that Marx did oppose, at least later in life, state centralization as a socialist measure (I give my rather freely translated version, followed by the original French. If anyone has a better translation, feel free to make a comment), pages 233-234:
Marx insists on the fact that the Commune [the Paris Commune, an organization that arose in 1871 in the face of, on the one hand, the defeat of France by Prussia during the Prussian-French war and, on the other, the attempt by the French class of employers to take away the arms held by the National Guard in Paris] aims in the first place the emancipation of work. It is the established unity between political tasks and economic organization, “the political form finally found that permitted the realization of the economic emancipation of work.” From this point of view, the idea of a separated political instance is indeed an illusion that masks the functional subordination of the State to the mode of production to its criteria and to its needs. The overthrow of this logic is not the temporary reuse of the State, followed by its suppression: as functional representation, it [the State] concentrates in itself the nature and contradictions of the economic and social formation in general. The withering away of the State is a radical redefinition of politics, its reappropriation by the associated producers as an instance of democratic decision-making and rationalization of a production that cannot possess in itself its own ends. Said in another way, the valorization of value [the increase of money for the sake of the increase of money by way of using human beings and their conditions of life as means to that end–see The Money Circuit of Capital) and its absurd spiral must cede place to the redefinition of social and individual activity. Political representation, modified in its definition, is turned upside down in its function: far from being a means for dispossession that makes universal suffrage the right to designate who are to be our “masters,” is the occasion of a specifically political action precisely because it concerns local tasks of organization.
Marx insiste sur le fait que la Commune vise en premier lieu l’émancipation du travail. Elle est l’unité instaurée entre tâches politiques et organisation économique,
« la forme politique enfin trouvée qui permettait de réaliser l’émancipation économique du travail79». De ce point de vue, l’idée d’une instance politique séparée est bien une illusion qui masque la subordination fonctionnelle de l’État au mode de production à ses critères et à ses urgences. Le renversement de cette logique n’est pas la réutilisation momentanée de l’État, suivie de sa suppression: en tant que représentation fonctionnelle, il concentre en lui la nature et les contradictions de la formation économique et sociale dans son ensemble. Le dépérissement de l’État est une redéfinition radicale de la politique, sa réappropriation par les producteurs associés comme instance de décision démocratique et de rationalisation d’une production qui ne saurait posséder en elle même ses propres finalités. Autrement dit, la valorisation de la valeur et sa spirale absurde doivent céder la place à la redéfinition de l’activité sociale et individuelle. La représentation politique, modifiée dans sa définition, est retournée dans sa fonction : loin d’être le moyen d’une
dépossession qui fait du suffrage universel le droit de désigner ses «maîtres3», elle est l’occasion d’une action spécifiquement politique, précisément parce qu’elle
concerne des tâches locales d’organisation.
This does not mean that there would be merely local cooperatives; there could be a federation of cooperatives that united not just economic functions but political functions, under the rule of the producers and the local communities and, at the same time, connected to each other in a cooperative national structure initially (see the description of a possible scenario in the series Socialism, for example, Socialism, Part Six: What It May Look Like, or Visions of a Better Kind of Society Without Employers). Universal suffrage would be preserved and control of the executive (state personnel, election of the judicature and other changes in the nature of the state would be required. From Richard Hunt, The Political Ideas of Marx and Engels: Classical Marxism, 1850-1895, volume 2, page 133:
By way of contrast Marx emphasized that “nothing could be more foreign
to the spirit of the Commune than to supersede universal suffrage
by hierarchic investiture.”18 Not only were judges to be elected but, most
of all, administrators at all levels. Marx had always made executive power
his prime concern and set forth its radical democratization as the foremost
political objective of any popular movement. Thus in the First Draft
he declared that the Communards had adapted universal suffrage “to its
real purposes” when they used it to choose “their own functionaries of
administration and initiation.”19 Such functionaries and indeed all the
elected public servants of the Commune would also work under much
closer control by their electors, because of the additional safeguardsencountered
but infrequently in bourgeois democracies- of mandat imperatij,
the right of recall, and open executive proceedings with subsequently
published transcripts. Marx had no patience with any institutional
devices, checks, or balances whose purpose was to curtail popular
influence; he favored a maximum of mass participation in and control
over all branches of government. “Freedom,” he would write four years
later, perhaps thinking of the Paris Commune, “consists in converting
the state from an organ superimposed upon society into one completely
subordinate to it, and today, too, the forms of state are more or less free
to the extent that they restrict the ‘freedom of the state.”’20 Just as bourgeois
democracy could be judged much freer, by this yardstick, than
Bonapartist despotism, so the Commune could be judged much freer
than bourgeois democracy.
Professor Noonan’s implicit assumption that nationalization is somehow socialist definitely needs to be criticized. From Hunt, volume 2, pages 226-227:
Marx made it clear that such leisure included at least the following:
(1) time to be idle (rest, etc.); (2) time for artistic endeavor; and
(3) time for scientific pursuits. Most science was done in leisure time during
Marx’s day, including the social “science” he did himself. A continuing
development of scientific knowledge would have obvious return
benefits in rationalizing the processes of production. The growth of leisure
time in general would produce a more knowledgeable and versatile
work force: “Free time- which is both idle time and time for higher
activity- has naturally transformed its possessor into a different subject,
and he then enters into the direct production process as this different
subject. ” 34 Marx’s last commentary on these matters is to be found in the
Critique of the Gotha Program, written in 1875, a decade after the third
volume of Capital. Here we find the striking passage which confirms
that the radical vision of The German Ideology remained consistent in
Marx’s mind to the end-under communism work will be attractive
(“life’s prime want”), and the division of labor will be totally overcome:
In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination
of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith
also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished;
after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want;
after the productive forces have also increased with the all-round
development of the individual, and all the springs of cooperative wealth flow more abundantly- only then can the narrow horizon
of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on
its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according
to his needsf35
For Marx and Engels, then, communism was never equated simply
with nationalization of the means of production. From beginning to end,
their writings stress the transcendence of the division of labor as integral
to the classless society. It was not some queer, extraneous, or easily discardable
part of their system of ideas. It was the division of labor, after
all, that first created private property- not vice versa- along with social
classes, the state, the antagonism between the sexes, alienated labor,
and the separation of town and country. If the dividing of labor was
original sin, its Aufhebung alone would mark the redemption of mankind.
Nationalization of the means of production, in and of itself, overcomes
none of the aforementioned evils, but only enhances the power
of the state, making it a single giant monopoly corporation. Later generations
of Marx’s followers, Communists and social democrats alike, increasingly
misunderstood, trivialized, or simply forgot this aspect of the
masters’ teaching, surrounded as they were by a world in which occupational
specialization gained ground every day in every sphere, quite regardless
whether the local economic system was communist, socialist, or
capitalist. The relentless dividing of labor tasks seemed as inevitable as
death and taxes. Only quite recently have some radicals begun to reconsider
this whole issue seriously.
If we inquire where Marx got the idea of transcending the divison of
labor, at one level it appears to be his reinterpretation of the general liberal
call for “the free development of the individual personality,” especially
in its specifically German incarnation as the ideal of Bildungmaximum
cultivation of the talents of the individual, especially the
“higher” faculties and sensibilities, into a well-proportioned whole. 36 Marx
reinterpreted this ideal first by reminding the liberals that the free development
of the individual personality does not occur on a desert island:
“Only within the community has each individual the means of cultivating
his gifts in all directions; hence personal freedom becomes possible
only within the community.” But mainly he democratized the liberal
ideal which had always tacitly presupposed the existence of “lower orders”
to look after the “lower” needs of each free personality. By transcending
the division of labor in society at large, “the genuine and free development
of individuals ceases to be a mere phrase. “37 In the renowned words of the Manifesto, “the free development of each is the condition for the
free development of all. ” 38 Of course the Bildung ideal itself was based
on Renaissance models and above all on the Greek ideal of personal
well-roundedness, suggesting once again the extent of Marx’s underlying
debt to the values of classical antiquity.
This does not mean that there may be no role for parliamentary institutions in some form. Universal suffrage and some form of central national institution would probably be necessary, and nationalization of key industries may make some sense–but in order for universal suffrage to be an expression of working-class democracy, the working-class itself would have to engage, consciously, in opposing the class of employers. From Hunt, volume 2, page 70:
In 1852 Marx wrote of universal suffrage, as Engels had done so often before, as the very touchstone of proletarian victory in Britain:
Universal Suffrage is the equivalent for political power for the working
class of England, where the proletariat forms the large majority
of the population, where, in a long, though underground civil
war, it has gained a clear consciousness of its position as a class [my emphasis],
and where even the rural districts know no longer any peasants,
but only landlords, industrial capitalists (farmers) and hired laborers.
The carrying of Universal Suffrage in England would, therefore,
be a far more socialistic measure than anything which has been
honored with that name on the Continent.
Its inevitable result, here, is the political supremacy of the working
It is possible that a dual movement of the working class, becoming conscious of itself as a class, could institute nationalization of key industries while simultaneously engaging in the restructuring of the modern state to link political and economic change that expresses its own interests.
Such a situation, though, requires that the working-class becomes conscious of itself as a class. Professor Noonan provides no evidence that this is the case. In fact, part of the purpose of this blog is to demonstrate in many ways that this is not the case–ranging from the silent indoctrination that working-class students receive for at least 12 years in schools (see, for example, A Case of Silent Indoctrination, Part One: The Manitoba History Curricula and Its Lack of History of Employers and Employees) to the claim by the social-democratic left that there is such a thing, within an economic, political and social system characterized by the class of employers, as “fairness, a “fair share” or “fair contract” for workers (see, for example, The Canadian Labour Congress’s Idealization of the Collective-Bargaining Process.
What is ironic in Professor Noonan’s position is that he accuses some leftists of being Leninists, which he implies is out-of-date. I had a debate–if you can call it that–some time ago. In his reply, he stated:
“I think we need to forget about revolution/reform as a fundamental and meaningful political difference today and start to think about working out a common agenda of structural change that can take us from where we are to a democratic life-economy (where we need to be) The social-reformist left has problems, but the ‘revolutionary’ left suffers from the problem of not existing as in any sense a meaningful political force, and has no model (save archaic Leninist ideas) about how to build. If nineteenth and early twentieth century ideas about revolution were going to work they would have worked 100 years ago. Historical materialism requires new political thinking in new times. The organizational forms that will attract and unify people have yet to be found. Most times I worry they never will be.
Professor Noonan, as a self-proclaimed member of the social-reformist or social-democratic left, has more in common with the Leninist view of the modern state than he realizes. (I leave it open whether Lenin in theory advocated a centralized socialist state. Thomas argues that he was whereas Kay and Mott seem more sympathetic to his views of the modern state.)
Instead of preparing the working-class for real control over its own lives by criticizing the inadequacies of the modern state, Professor Noonan engages in utopian fantasies about the magical world of nationalization.
The immediate question is what can workers and their representatives do to prevent the capitalist state from obliging them to return to work for employers when it is still unsafe to do so. The next question is, once the coronavirus pandemic recedes, what can be done to prevent a rush by the class of employers and the modern state or modern government–a purely political state that arises with the ripping of the conditions of life of workers from the control of the workers themselves–from foisting payment of the crisis on the backs of workers, the unemployed, immigrants and the disabled. These diverse groups of civil society, if they are to resist this and to win more than just temporary gains, need to begin to organize for the overthrow of the alienated, exploitative, oppressive and coercive state or government, along with the alienated, exploitative, oppressive and coercive class of employers–a movement which Professor Noonan considers to be outdated. After all, the magic words “democratic” and “nationalization” take the place of real democracy, with a class conscious working-class explicitly fighting to end the alien power of the modern state and the alien power of the class of employers.
which is will be criticized in a further post
but of course there is an opportunity for
The claim that the nation state can “override capitalist market forces” fetishizes the nation state by treating the nation state as somehow external to those market forces. But how does the nation state override market forces? By, force? The nation state as a focal point of political power is hardly independent of capitalist market forces. Just as money is money only because commodities do not have the capacity of being exchangeable in their immediate form, so the nation state has the power that it does because citizens do not have the capacity to represent their own interests except in an alienated form, via the alienated state, a state that is representative in an atomized fashion that dissolves class relations into the homogenous situation of being a “citizen.”
Professor Noonan makes the further following claim:
As powerful as capital is, it has proven no match for the virus, on the one hand, and state power, on the other. The danger, of course, is that the state is currently acting under emergency powers, but will revert to its standard function of enframing and protecting capital, if we let it. The alternative is to use this crisis as a basis of legitimacy for the state– under the control of democratic political forces acting in our shared life-interest– to assume control over the productive basis of society and re-orient production to serving life-needs.
Professor Noonan’s analysis is rather vague. Firstly, Professor Noonan does not specify how “capital … has proven no match for state power.” Perhaps he means closing borders to non-citizens and non-permanent residents. Such a situation, however, has existed for a long time, and control of “foreigners” became more systematic with the emergence of passports (which did not exist in any systematic way for some time despite the existence of the capitalist state and a class of employers)–and such a move is hardly independent of the power of capital or of employers; passports are a means of control over workers throughout the world (see an earlier post What’s Left, Toronto? Part Six).
to achieve their goals (in the case of private corporations, profit, and in the case of government organizations, their mission statement and the overall operations of government). If employees start dying on mass, the interests of employers are jeopardized. Professor Noonan simply ignores this basic fact of “capitalism.”
His theory of the state (some may find this term confusing. You might prefer to substitute “government” for it in order to make more sense of the following) is contradictory when we compare the above with some of his former writings.
Above, Professor Noonan presents the state as neutral and somehow independent of
without Professor Noonan simply ignores for example, in Canada, providing $2000 a month for four months via the
Garo, page 231: