Logics of State and Representative Democracy
By the term state, we refer to a form of societal organisation defined by the rule over a rigidly defined geographical area by interconnected institutions which are outwardly distinct.
The geographical demarcation (by borders) of a state is typically legitimised by referring to a shared identity of its citizens. This is especially the case with modern nation states that are characterised by claiming to represent a nation, a people with “their” land. In this sense, citizens of the Federal Republic of Germany are then regarded as “Germans” with certain distinctive characteristics.
After defining state in a general sense and calling attention to the specifics of nation states, we want to introduce two criteria relevant for our intentions; a state can be considered a capitalist state if the capitalist mode of production is the dominant form of economy within it. If its legislative and executive organs are controlled by democratically elected representatives, we call its political form that of a representative democracy.
System and Logics of State
Because different states form institutionally and geographically demarcated units, contradictory interests between them are common. Similar to how capitalist companies within a capitalist state economy are subject to systemic constraints which they have to submit to if they want to avert falling from competition into their demise, capitalist states are also subjects to constraints, not resulting from the interests of their population’s capitalist elite or politicians, but rather the structure of the global system of states. The competition of states among each other is not caused by the capitalist mode of production but rather reinforced by it – it results from the system of states itself. As long as no superior institution exists that can solve existing conflicts in a way that is binding for all participants, a Hobbesian state of nature persists among states – a no-holds-barred free-for-all battle. Maximising one’s power and the weakening of geopolitical competitors become maxim for all states. An arms race can function as an easy example: should one state increase its armament, its geopolitical competitors must do the same if they do not wish to lose their global position of power. Observed from an outside perspective, the armament is collectively irrational for all parties while posing an absolute necessity from the perspective of an individual state.1
Geopolitical competition resulting from individual statehood is the outcome of the logic of the state itself. It consists not in its entirety in armament and wars but also shows in the struggle for political allies and spheres of influence. The accumulation of power is in many ways analogous to the accumulation of capital: the expansion of its sphere of influence secures the diplomatic, economic and military resources a state can employ to strengthen and improve its geopolitical position of power.
In a system of states primarily consisting of capitalist states, the competition and resulting constraints are magnified: in order to stand its ground, a state is dependent on tax revenue, technology and available jobs. To secure these necessary conditions for its persistence the state must act as an ideal personification of the total national capital ; it must create those conditions for a functioning of capitalism that private actors cannot because it is not profitable for them or because only the state can do so with its armed organs. Which specific services a state must provide is dependent on diverse economic and technological factors and is therefore subject to constant change. While for example there has recently been a tendency to further privatise in the education and health sectors, the core of the function of the state is the guaranteeing of legal and contractual security.
A consequence of this is the state’s function of not only protecting the capitalist economy against attempts to change it from below (by popular movements) but also to force it’s basics on individual capitalists.2 While in capitalist competition everyone wants to be protected by a commonly binding ruleset, there is also an individual interest to circumvent these rules to ones own benefit. Competitors should pay the taxes the state needs to raise an adequate workforce and upkeep sufficient armed forces to defend itself, while the individual has the interest to pay the minimum amount of taxes possible. When a state does not act as State of Capital (as termed by Johannes Agnoli) like described above, but rather as state of some individual capitalists (e.g. by certain sectors or actors being privileged because of personal relations), it no longer acts in terms of the capitalist mode of production that acts as its fundamental basis, and therefore undermines its position in global market competition in the long run. In addition such a politics damages the state’s source of legitimacy as a seemingly neutral mediating and balancing institution as supposedly results from the formal equality before the law of all citizens.
However, the state does not only have to secure basic conditions for the management of capital. It must also stay competitive as a location for businesses, otherwise it can suffer from both the exodus of capital into other countries, as well as the ruin of national businesses, which are themselves constantly competing for market shares. Should a given state X dismantle its social services to allow lowering taxes for businesses, it achieves an advantage on the world market as capitalists can operate with lower cost if their business is located within the borders of state X. Goods can therefore be sold with equal profit at a lower price – selling at equal price would generate more profit. To keep their economies competitive, other states would now be forced to enact similar measures to the benefit of capital. Constant competition of business locationsis a necessary consequence of the economic system and creates a quiet constraint to direct economic policy according to the interest of capital. This systemic constraint exists independently of interests and personal convictions of members of parliaments and governments. Assuming the role of ideal personification of the total national capital is not a question of conscious intent but one of existential necessity.
The State as Expression of the Societal Balance of Power
The system of states produces constraints for individual states, forcing it to act in a certain way or face dire consequences to the point of its very own demise. Regardless, existing states do not exclusively act according to these constraints. Minor economic disadvantage is often tolerated if it means political problems of the interior can be solved. In a number of cases this goes as far as states adapting purposes that cannot be inferred from the system of states or capitalism – be it the privileging of a certain group or spread of a certain worldview. There are fields of politics existing independently from systemic constraints of capitalism and the system of states.
What leads to the real actions of states? Why are some policies in the interest of economic competitiveness enacted swiftly in some states, while others delay them or never enact them at all? The radical left has often regarded the state as merely an instrument of the ruling class. The state, according to that idea, acts unfailingly in the interests of the bourgeoisie – as though it were a tool in their hands. We dispute such a crudely oversimplifying theory of the state, as it clearly goes against empirical observations. It simply cannot explain why certain states establish social services while others don’t. The same goes, for example, for issues of gender: Why are there state-financed programs working towards gender equality in Scandinavian states, while states like Saudi Arabia oppress women politically to a massive extent? Were the state exclusively an instrument of the ruling class, these differences would simply not exist.
Greek political scientist Nikos Poulantzas, wrote of the state not as a monolithic block but rather a strategic field. Different classes and factions with diverging interests battle for hegemony – actions of the state acting as an expression of the balance of power within its society. If it is possible to lower wages more significantly in Germany than in France this is mainly due to the German working class being in a weaker position than the French working class. Its ability to exert pressure from outside the parliament is less and its representation within the parliament is weaker. In the 1980s, both Germany and France were under constraint to improve international economic competitiveness, but due to the balance of power within Germany favouring the ruling class more heavily, policies against the interests of the working class could be enacted more swiftly.
Representation, Democracy, Post-Democracy
The political system of a state greatly influences which interests can eventually prevail, the constitution and voting rights playing a decisive role. If for example the poor and women are excluded from suffrage (the right to vote) as was common throughout the 19thcentury the interests of these groups never come to the forefront. Hence the universal and equal suffrage for all classes and sexes is to be understood as a great political advancement. This advancement is on the one hand an expression of a certain societal balance of power but is on the other hand itself influencing this balance. People who have the right to vote can more easily enforce their interests within the state whose governing bodies or policies they are able to vote on.
But even in the most advanced capitalist industrial states no complete democracy has been realised. So called “representative democracy” is not based on citizens being able to vote on policies or laws but rather representatives organised in parties being elected into office for a given period – without an option to control or impeach them until the next relevant election. Politicians and parties in representative systems form the link between populous and governing power. However this link is not neutral:
1) Once elected representatives are not bound by promises made during election campaigns, party programs or the will of their voters. This does not constitute a control of the state by the populous – rather approval of voters is inquired every four years (or however long the election cycle may be in a given state). This allows many acts of state in representative democracies to be against the will of the majority of the population.
2) Since the population has no direct influence on politics it does not have to concern itself with the actual political questions. As it is not their input put merely their approval that plays a role, the act of voting becomes a matter of trust. As long as people are in approval of the politics of government and parliament, they don’t have to concern themselves with political subject matter. Should they be in disapproval, they are quickly overwhelmed by a feeling of powerlessness. Representative democratic systems cause depoliticisation and demobilising of the population.If the populous does not keep an active watch on political authorities, examining and discussing their actions, the purpose of democracy can never be fulfilled.
3) Political parties are subject to the push of a fatal dynamic. Johannes Agnoli describes in his essay, “Theses on the transformation of democracy”, how the party system undermines democratic principles: while multiple parties, according to power relations ideally two in number, compete for a share of power they equalise continuously in broad areas. They even abstain from specifically representing group or class interest and enter into an undiscerning exchange with all real groups and ideal positions – excluding those striving for deep structural change and revolutionary ideas. Such parties separate themselves from a societal base and become state-political organisations: the office incumbents of stately balancing.
4) Bribery, corruption, secret agreements and lobbyism are possible in systems of representative democracy while bribing the entire populous would be necessary to reach the same ends in a system of direct democracy.
5) Political and economic elites are codependent in capitalist states. Therefore an entanglement of parties with capitalists and other elites happens automatically. If the political balance of power shifts significantly in favour of the working class the rise of new parties and politicians to political power is possible, however the constraints of international competitors sooner or later forces them to build tight relations to economic actors.
The decay of political communication and metamorphosis of parties into technocratic parties with no political profile (apart from acting according to state logic) are necessary outcomes of parliamentarism, posing as the “appeal to democracy without its risks”. Only extra-parliamentary actors like political theory and cadre groups, think tanks, NGOs, grassroots initiatives, social movements and trade unions infuse life into political culture from time to time. We must not forget that the decay of political legitimacy brings with it political disappointment and consequently fascism as can be observed currently in both Europe and the United States.
1. A contradiction between collective and individual rationality is also called a rationality trap. Game theory deals with the theoretical investigation of rationality traps; an example of this is the famous prisoner’s dilemma.
2. As described in our text on Classes and their Conflicts, there is a difference between the collective interests of a class and the interests of its members as individuals.