So once again the legislature of the United States of America (USA) has locked out the governmental functions they find non-essential as part of their own political plays. I will not go over the details of this, as it can be found in nearly every news source on the internet. I will however briefly address some of the issues this shutdown lays bare and how they relate to the perspective on the dictatorship of the proletariat:
- It shows the government and State as distinct – one is a way to organize society, the other is a way to control this organization.
- It shows that the government is expendable to the State in times of crisis, or if the political will of a section of the government is of that persuasion.
- This precarious existence of the government, is matched by a ruling class consensus on the need for stability of the State.
- It show the limits of reformist politics as a way to effect actual structural change – the seizing of government is in the final analysis irrelevant unless the State is also seized.
- The State is in the context of the USA is a bourgeois class dictatorship, which means no structural transformation is possible without seizing the State, and that the government is ultimately beholden to the State.
One of the fundamental confusions one sees in the commentary around this shutdown is that of the State and government. The two often overlap, but they are not the same – and this shutdown illustrates sharply their differences.
Simply put, almost all the functions of the government have been shutdown, and almost all the functions of the State remain functioning.
This shows – clearly – the dictatorship of the bourgeois class in action: all of those functions of government the bourgeois has elected to implement as part of their democratic consensus and as a response to the struggles of the people have been shutdown, but those functions that are fundamental for the continuance of the class dictatorship (and its property relations) continue to function pretty much as normal.
The best illustration of this phenomena is the bipartisan law passed to ensure that military personnel and military functions remain fully funded and that all salaries are paid. Another is the continuance of tax collection, entitlement payment, and other outlays not related to the functioning of government on the part of State. Even services that might be understood as being part of government – such as food inspections – remain in function, but these are actually part of the role the State plays as guarantor of the class peace: without such arbitration, the bourgeois order would collapse as it needs it as part of the capitalist property relations.
This difference has very concrete consequences for the pursuit of revolutionary politics. We posit, sharply, that one of the fundamental problems of the left and the proletarian class revolutionary movement is too much preoccupation with the matters of government, and not enough preoccupation with the matters of the State. This is not to say that government is without importance – to say so would be ridiculous – but it is to say the relationship that should be viewed as dialectical, with the the State as the primary dynamic force in the relationship.
We all need government, even under communism: government is the way infrastructure gets built and maintained, it is how disputes are resolved (generally) in socially constructive ways, it is how we process collectively the issues of health, education, safety, and security. Even the most technologically simple human societies have some form of government. The State, on the other hand is no necessary in the final instance: it is an expression of class dictatorship, in which one class directs government to its own ends, and utilizes repression and a monopoly on violence to do so. Now, we are not anarchists – we do not believe the State can be overthrown in one day, but we are historical materialists, and thus understand that for the State to be eliminated, the proletariat must seize it and establish its own class dictatorship.
What this shutdown shows, very clearly, is the limits placed upon government in the democratic-bourgeois State, and thus the necessity of this overthrow of the bourgeois dictatorship and its replacement . In this case, a law that benefits one camp of the bourgeois (the medical insurance industry), causes the shutdown of all government functions. This law is not a progressive law, and while it might have a palliative effect on the severe lack of affordable health care in the USA, it is far from something any socialist could support. Yet this very capitalist, very neo-liberal, law cause such a stir in the halls of government that it leads to it being shutdown.
Now, imagine if instead of Obamacare were an actual reform of the health care system. Something still moderate, but structurally significant, like a single-payer system. What would have been the response then?
This is a clear illustration of the very real limits of reformism as posit by many forces in the left. Somehow, they seem to think, the issue is a lack of votes: yet here we have a shutdown over a law that was approved by a majority of congress. If such a mild transformation of little structural effect meets with such destructive and disruptive opposition, what would be the response to a real reform of structural consequence? Definitely at least as harsh, most probably much harsher – including the actual disruption of the State functions. And there are plenty of examples, including in the history of the USA itself, of this happening – so it is not idle, abstract speculation to say so. A classic example, however, is the Allende government in Chile, which was overthrown violently by the organs of the State, in spite of being the constitutionally defined government. Those who think this scenario is impossible in the USA, need to heed the historical lesson: the Allende government suffered several shutdowns as a prelude to its overthrown, and then faced a coup attempt that was put down by Pinochet himself! A government shutdown is nearly always a show of strength on the part of the most reactionary sections of the State against its less reactionary sections. Of course, in the USA, these contradictions are much less sharp – Obama is a neo-liberal, Allende was a socialist – but the structural analogy lies in the possibility of a socialist or even a progressive coming to governmental power in the USA. If a neo-liberal faces such fierce opposition, what would a socialist or a progressive face?
The government shutting down shows very clearly the precarious position that those political forces that claim that government, and not the State, are the primary means of social transformation. The precarious existence is precisely why we need revolutionary politics: revolution is the only way the State – not government – can be seized. The only real government shutdown we can support and feel happy about is when we shutdown the bourgeois government and a people’s government emerges under the dictatorship of the proletariat. This doesn’t mean, of course, that the path is this easy, that we should stop doing politics until then – but we also have a responsibility to talk about and expose the structure of capitalism and this crisis provides us with a perfect opportunity to do so.
This is of course a brief note, and the topic is indeed a complex one, but lets not make this complexity obscure what is indeed simple: the need for proletarian dictatorship, and the need for a people’s government as a path towards the full emancipation of humanity from class and the State.