So Long as Government Exists, a Governing Class is Inevitable

by Kevin Carson

It was inevitable, argued English liberal Oliver Brett in his 1921 work A Defence of Liberty, that so-called “state socialism” would become simply another class society — this time with the state bureaucracy in the position of privilege. “So long as Government exists at all” — so went his brilliant quip on the principle — “a governing class is inevitable.” Just as everyone who attended Eton — regardless of their class of origin or what rustic access they originally spoke — “bore the stamp of Eton,” everyone who exercises state power bears the stamp of that power. Government molds everyone who wields its authority into a governing type.

What’s more, Brett argued, it was questionable whether the state bureaucracy would really be a new ruling class at all:

“English history is full of the chameleon qualities of the rich. How quickly the feudal Baron is metamorphosed into the landed aristocrat, and the landed aristocrat into the mine owner and the railway director. We find often the same family names cast for these varied parts across the centuries. And these people will control the new bureaucracy. They know which way the wind is blowing, and they are preparing for the change of direction.”

Brett was part of a larger current, in the early years of the 20th century, of writers who applied Pareto’s “circulation of elites” theory to the state socialist movement. It included writers on the Left, like Robert Michels and William English Walling, who drew pessimistic conclusions from the socialist parties’ growing tendencies toward authoritarianism and collusion with the state and capital.

Michels argued that genuine majority or rank-and-file control of a large hierarchical institution was impossible, because it would be subverted by the “Iron Law of Oligarchy”: Representatives or delegates would transform their full-time inside control over information and agenda-setting to reduce the de jure authority of those they represented into a mere rubber-stamping function.

Walling argued (as did the Distributist Hilaire Belloc in “The Servile State”) that state socialist parties like the Social Democrats and Fabians were being coopted into the service of capital. Democratic socialist movements would by and large give up on the herculean political task of actually seizing control of industry, and would instead choose to leave the industry in capitalist hands while regulating it “in the popular interest.”

In practice, those “progressive” regulations would serve mainly to stabilize the economy in the long-term interests of big business, and use a minimalist welfare state and labor regulations to clean up the worst (and most politically destabilizing) forms of destitution left by the capitalists. As Belloc put it, if only the Fabians’ lust to manage and regiment the underclass were satisfied, they would be quite accommodating about capitalist ownership. So the de facto role of the “democratic socialist” state would be to oversee the economy on behalf of big business.

The historic continuity of the ruling class is another theme that has appeared in many guises. Immanuel Wallerstein and Christopher Hill, both Marxists, argued that a significant minority of the landed ruling class under the late Medieval political economy managed to reinvent itself as agrarian capitalists and negotiate the transition to capitalism, where they survived in such forms as the Whig landed oligarchy in Great Britain. The persistance of bastard feudal forms of concentrated land ownership, through such expedients as large-scale enclosure of the Open Fields, common pasture and waste, and the mercantile system of state finance and chartered monopoly, ensured a great deal of structural continuity between the medieval and early capitalist systems.

A similar continuity bridged agrarian and industrial capitalism, as silent partners in the landed classes provided much of the capital for industrialization and the most successful capitalists bought titles or married into noble families. That continuity between the European landed nobilities and industrial capitalists in the modern era was the thesis of Arno Mayer’s book The Persistence of the Old Regime.

Wallerstein, like Brett, feared either that the giant finance-capitalists would manage to install themselves as the new ruling class in control of the postcapitalist state, or that the bureaucratic apparatus would use its control over the economy to live in privilege. The same has been true of left-libertarian critics like Emma Goldman and the post-Trotskyist Frankfurt School, who used terms like “bureaucratic state capitalism” and “bureaucratic collectivism” to dismiss the USSR as a new form of class society.

If there’s anything to such analyses — and I believe there is — we should take a long, hard look at whether state socialism (i.e., a system in which genuine working class political and economic power is exercised through the state) is even possible.

Murray Bookchin, in his multivolume work The Third Revolution, presented a historical typology of revolution in which, in the course of a revolution, popular struggle by working people themselves gave birth to all sorts of decentralist, self-managed, liberatory institutions like soviets and workers committees. But in every case, once a revolutionary party had firmly established itself in the capital and purged the state of its rivals, it proceeded either to suppress working class organs of self-management or to coopt them as top-down transmission belts for state policy.

That’s what happened when Lenin liquidated the other parties of the Left in his governing coalition, suppressed the Workers’ Opposition, and put down the Kronstadt mutiny. It’s what happened in Spain, when the Communist-dominated government in Madrid set up its own Soviet-trained OGPU unit and showed its willingness to lose to Franco in preference to tolerating anarchists in Catalonia.

In essence, it’s the cyclical phenomenon described by Orwell’s fictional “Emanuel Goldstein”: The high and middle eternally jockeying for power over the low, with the middle in each revolution enlisting the help of the low long enough to oust the old ruling class and set themselves up as the new one.

Since the rise of the state as an instrument of economic exploitation on behalf of a ruling class, there have been endless attempts to achieve justice through revolutionary seizure of the state — each one ending in failure and disillusionment. Ending injustice and exploitation through machinery which purpose-built for injustice and exploitation is doomed. To repeat Brett’s observation: “So long as government exists, a governing class is inevitable.”

So maybe we need to do it different this time.

4 responses to “So Long as Government Exists, a Governing Class is Inevitable

  1. decentralist, self-managed, liberatory institutions like soviets and workers committees.

    The problem I have here is that I don’t see any such structures as “liberatory”. I have come to realise that my definition of government, or “governance”, is far broarder than that of many libertarians, and anarchists, and the like. I have often found myself arguing with anarchists, for instance, because their proposed social structures do not look at all free to me; they are governance under other names. That is, I am not saying that those systems will not work (e.g. “communism will really be a tyranny”), I am saying that even if they work precisely as described they are not anarchist or without governance. There may be no official government stamped notepaper, but the proposed institutional arrangements will have the form of government.

    The worker’s committee may sound liberatory but it is, I would argue, another form of anti-liberty. Individuals find themselves obligated to follow “democratically” made decisions, and the committee itself will be dominated by some alpha-characters, and politics. The smallest such committee- a parish council, a golf club management board, any such thing- will become a nest of politics and petty backbiting. Power struggle occurs at every level of life- husbands and wives, football teams, even collectives of bloggers. It seems inescapable.

    I think my libertarianism is most of all individualism. I hate organised things. Many libertarians heap praise on “civil society” institutions like the Boy Scouts- “this is what we want,” they say, “organisation without government!”. Such libertarians are simply anti-anything with HM Government written on it, but warmly embrace control mechanisms in notionally “civil” society. But when I see children in uniforms giving salutes, my blood runs cold. For me, the search for liberty is the quest for a way of living as free as possible of what we may call “hegemonic institutions”, and that includes “civil society”. So what we should be seeking, in my view, is a society in which nobody has to join anything, including a “workers committee” or a “cooperative”. Thus, working arrangements should be as loose as possible. It is most hard for power to accumulate when nobody is bound into institutional arrangements. The basis of power is “you can’t walk away from this”. You can’t walk away from the government. But, neither do you want a situation in which you can’t walk away from your co-operative, or your worker organisation.

    The best form of freedom for a worker is not employment regulation- which binds her to the employer. It is not workplace democracy. It is the chance to easily walk out and get another job or means of supporting themself. So the answer to our question is, in part, that a libertarian society will have the greatest social flexibility, including in terms of working and trade. We don’t want workers bound to workplaces by institutional systems and contracts, committees and formal systems. The libertarian solution is the real ability to just walk away from an oligarchy, brandishing a single finger as you leave.

    That’s my perspective anyway.

  2. “That’s what happened when Lenin liquidated the other parties of the Left in his governing coalition, suppressed the Workers’ Opposition, and put down the Kronstadt mutiny. It’s what happened in Spain, when the Communist-dominated government in Madrid set up its own Soviet-trained OGPU unit and showed its willingness to lose to Franco in preference to tolerating anarchists in Catalonia.”

    I think we could also throw in the Soviet’s hostility to the Solidarity movement in Poland and Stalin’s ruthless oppression of the Kulaks in the Ukraine. One can look into the Stasi files of the GDR and see how much pressure they put on themselves to look deeply into the personal lives of the people that they nominally represented–the workers and farmers. They needed more people employed, after all, than Heinrich Himmler did to monitor Hitler’s Third Reich!

    Just some idle thoughts, a very good read!

  3. I agree with Ian B, that many libertarians seem to be more interested in getting rid of the State than in promoting freedom. A most interesting comment.

  4. Without gainsaying Ian — I agree with him that the divide he describes exists — my thoughts on that divide:

    “Governance” /= “the state.”

    Any time two or more people try to do something together, there will be governance.

    What separates political government (the pinnacle thus far of which is the modern Westphalian nation-state) from other forms of governance is its claim to a legitimate power to use non-defensive force and to monopoly (usually geographic, but increasingly less so) on that power.

    Google “pizzacracy” — you’ll find an L. Neil Smith essay about four people ordering a pizza.

    When they get together for the purpose of doing so, they establish ad hoc rules of governance (“we all have to agree to the toppings, and Bob can’t abide anchovies, so …” “The pizza is ten bucks. Three of us will pay three bucks apiece and Bill will pay one buck, because he’ll only want one slice;” and so on and so forth). Maybe if they get together for pizza every week, they’ll make those rules permanent, amend them as time goes on, etc.

    The difference between that kind of governance and a state is that if the other three decide that Bob can stuff it because they want anchovies, or that Bill needs to pony up a full share even though he eats less, Bob and Bill are 100% free to walk away and not do the pizza thing with that group any more.

    I think most left-libertarians envision forms of governance emerging — to displace the state in the present and replace it when it’s gone — that look as much as possible like “pizzacracy.”

    Obviously coming up with such forms of governance and making them work gets more complicated as the property relations become more complex and the value of property involved increases.

    It’s easy for Bob and Bill to just leave with their wallets and for the remaining two to re-work the pizza split; but what if it was about what crops to grow and the four each had an undivided equal interest in the farmland — who gets the flat acreage covered with fertile soil, and who gets stuck with the 50-degree slope covered with rocks? Or what if they’d all gone in on expensive machine tools and then fallen out over what to manufacture with them?

    It can be a pickle. I feel fortunate that things have worked out so well at my “day job” of the last ten years. That “day job” is governed as a unanimous consent cooperative of five people, and somehow we’ve managed to get along quite well with each other … but I could see it getting messy if we came to hate each other and had to figure out how to split things up.