“We state” (Universal competition, i.e., the praxis of capitalist society)

by Jehu

In part one of my post on the state and the abolition of labor, “We state”, I made six assertions regarding the relation between the two:

  • First, since historical materialism purports to be a scientific explanation of society, it imposes on us a requirement for proof that with the end of labor all forms of social domination come to an end.
  • Second, all forms of social domination, including sexism and racism, can be theoretically condensed into a single category, the state.
  • Third, condensing all form of social domination into the state broadens our definition of the state, so that the state is no longer a disembodied thing hovering over society, but becomes the actual praxis of its members, i.e., “We state”, meaning the state is first and foremost our activity.
  • Fourth, the state has a real history: it arises out of the actual praxis of society and conforms to this praxis, so that the specific character of the capitalist state conforms to the specific praxis of capitalist society. Capitalist society did not invent the state or commodity production, nor did it invent sexism, racism and other forms of domination.
  • Fifth, the capitalist state is first and foremost not a thing, but the praxis of capitalist society, it exists first in the activity of society and can be explained solely by this activity.
  • Sixth, the capitalist state is the first state in history that can be constituted solely by the activity of the exploited class itself.

Jim-crow-segregation-fepc-black-discrimination-employmentThe capitalist state, unlike all preceding states, requires no exploiter class and can be explained solely as the activity of the exploited class. The idea the capitalist state can be constituted by the exploited class alone will be repulsive to all of us, since it essentially blames the victim for their own oppression. If the existing state is in fact solely constituted by the activity of the proletariat, how is this horrific condition to be explained?

7. The constitution of the state in democratic republic

However repulsive this might be to us, it follows directly from a historical materialist analysis of the capitalist mode of production. According to the prediction of labor theory, the capitalists are progressively rendered superfluous to the mode of production by the development of the forces of production. On the other hand, the state is forced by the same development of the forces of production to undertake management of the national capital. Assuming we don’t live in 1930s Nazi Germany, but in the United States or the United Kingdom, and thus enjoy free democratic conditions and universal suffrage, how does the state continue to represent the interest of capital?

Engels emphasized that when the state undertook management of the national capital, this was not socialism. “The workers remain wage-workers — proletarians. The capitalist relation is not done away with. It is, rather, brought to a head.” According to Engels, even the capitalist class continues to exist, though it plays no role in production. The capitalist class has collapsed to a very small handful of individuals who end up as speculators. Thus, we cannot account for the democratic constitution of the existing state as ideal representative of capital based on the voting strength of what is now an insignificant sliver of the population.

To explain this bizarre fact of a capital state without a capitalist class, the Left typically relies on the idea that politicians of both parties are bribed by the capitalist class, who, because of their outsized wealth, are able to exert decisive influence on the functions of the state. But how does this explain racism or sexism? Well, explains the radical activists, the capitalists spread these ideologies among the working class to keep it divided. And wage slavery itself? How is this to be explained? Well, this is the influence of the labor aristocracy, which promotes the bourgeois point of view — trade unionism — among workers.

However, the funny thing about all of these explanations is that they appear nowhere in Capital, Marx’s definitive work on the capitalist mode of production. How is it that none of the explanations, which loom so high in importance to even Marxists explanations of the idiosyncrasies of bourgeois politics, never appear in that work? I think this is because Marx and Engels never thought the capitalist state expressed the interests of the capitalists; instead, it expresses the interests of capital, a social relation that is composed of two classes, not one.

8. Competition among the capitalists

Yes, it is true that these two classes are on irreconcilably hostile terms with each other, but if they were not irreducibly hostile to each other, they would not need the state in the first place. The state is the ideal representative of the capitalist relation; of the material conditions necessary for the continuation of this relation despite the utter hostility of the classes composing it. Moreover it is not just the two classes that are hostile to one another, Marx explicitly describes the capitalist class as “hostile brothers” The same irreducible hostility that characterizes the relation between the two classes also characterizes the relation among the capitalists. Marx describes this intra-class conflict this way:

“So long as things go well, competition effects an operating fraternity of the capitalist class, as we have seen in the case of the equalisation of the general rate of profit, so that each shares in the common loot in proportion to the size of his respective investment. But as soon as it no longer is a question of sharing profits, but of sharing losses, everyone tries to reduce his own share to a minimum and to shove it off upon another. The class, as such, must inevitably lose. How much the individual capitalist must bear of the loss, i.e., to what extent he must share in it at all, is decided by strength and cunning, and competition then becomes a fight among hostile brothers. The antagonism between each individual capitalist’s interests and those of the capitalist class as a whole, then comes to the surface, just as previously the identity of these interests operated in practice through competition.”

The antagonism among the capitalist class is a permanent feature of this class and erupts into the open in every crisis. Yet, it is precisely in crises that there is a call for state intervention and state economic management. The state intervenes not to protect individual capitalists from destruction — although it may do this, as in the case of GM, but not for Lehman Brothers — but to preserve the conditions necessary for the function of the mode of production as a whole. As Engels put it,

“[The] modern State, again, is only the organization that bourgeois society takes on in order to support the external conditions of the capitalist mode of production against the encroachments as well of the workers as of individual capitalists.”

9. Labor and competition among the proletarians

Even assuming relations within the capitalist class are characterized by competition among hostile brothers, and the relationship between the two class is also irreducibly hostile, what implications does this have for relations among the proletarians? Here, our Marxists appear to believe relations can be characterized by brotherhood and international solidarity.


Yeah. Not so much.


History confirms that actual relations among the proletarians are characterized by every sort of atrocity known to mankind. In fact, Marx and Engels from the first characterized capitalist society as universal competition, implying an unceasing and universal hostility between and among all classes.

What drives the hostility and competition among the proletarians? Many Marxists and other radicals will tell you this is intra-class fratricide is driven by competition over jobs or bourgeois ideology or capitalist tricks or the labor aristocracy or racist politicians or the Westboro Baptist Church or some other sophomoric agent. However, if you look at chapter 9 of Wage Labor and Capital, you will find that the answer given by Marx that is far more horrific. The proletarians creates their competition through their own labor:

“The greater division of labour enables one labourer to accomplish the work of five, 10, or 20 labourers; it therefore increases competition among the labourers fivefold, tenfold, or twentyfold. The labourers compete not only by selling themselves one cheaper than the other, but also by one doing the work of five, 10, or 20; and they are forced to compete in this manner by the division of labour, which is introduced and steadily improved by capital.

Furthermore, to the same degree in which the division of labour increases, is the labour simplified. The special skill of the labourer becomes worthless. He becomes transformed into a simple monotonous force of production, with neither physical nor mental elasticity. His work becomes accessible to all; therefore competitors press upon him from all sides. Moreover, it must be remembered that the more simple, the more easily learned the work is, so much the less is its cost to production, the expense of its acquisition, and so much the lower must the wages sink – for, like the price of any other commodity, they are determined by the cost of production. Therefore, in the same manner in which labour becomes more unsatisfactory, more repulsive, do competition increase and wages decrease.

The labourer seeks to maintain the total of his wages for a given time by performing more labour, either by working a great number of hours, or by accomplishing more in the same number of hours. Thus, urged on by want, he himself multiplies the disastrous effects of division of labour. The result is: the more he works, the less wages he receives. And for this simple reason: the more he works, the more he competes against his fellow workmen, the more he compels them to compete against him, and to offer themselves on the same wretched conditions as he does; so that, in the last analysis, he competes against himself as a member of the working class. “

Owing to the division of labor, the worker’s own labor is the ultimate source of the competition against him. He may attempt to drive illegal immigrants from his country, lock black workers and women out of production, insulate himself from all the myriad forms of competition which daily increase on all sides, but this is to no avail. Since it is his own labor that is the source of the competitive pressures he experiences, no effort to protect himself from competition from other workers and secure his wages can ever be successful. His own activity — labor — not his low wages or unemployment, impoverishes him; the more he labors, the more he drives down his own wages and increases the competition for his job.

10. Attempts on the part of the proletarians to insulate themselves from universal competition

Of course, the worker tries in vain to insulate himself from the pressures of competition; he combines with others in a union to stabilize their wages and secures their common position in production. But these early efforts are immature and themselves infected with the detritus of older conceptions. The first free workers band together to exclude black labor and immigrants and to assert the new competitors in industry don’t belong. In  turn as each new generation of workers finds their place in production, they turn to lock out the newcomers following them and to secure their position. (Hence, the long history of legislation and progroms by which free white labor sought to curtail competition from newly freed black labor.) Indeed, the first thing new immigrants learn when they enter the United States is to have disdain for African American workers, who can never move up owing to a long history of racist subjugation.

Racism and sexism are reproduced not because the black worker or woman worker is a threat to the job of the white male worker, but because labor of the white male worker turns every other worker into a threat to his job, into a competitor, driving his co-workers out of productive employment and thus forcing them to reduce the price at which each will sell his labor power. In this way the labor of the worker comes to reproduce anew “the whole mass of conditions of existence, limitations, biases of individuals” — white supremacy, male supremacy and, of course, the state itself.

As Marx and Engels show both with the capitalists and with the proletarians, social relationships within the division of labor take on an independent existence, an illusory community, which is, at the same time, the domination of one class over another. This illusory community of social domination, composed entirely of individuals acting in an environment of universal competition, is what we call the capitalist state.

To be continued