When crossing the street, the vast majority of us are accustomed to pressing the crosswalk button. It’s the natural thing to do, of course; there’s a button there, and instructions to press it in order to cross. For some, just one press often isn’t enough; I myself frequently press the button at least a dozen times while I’m waiting for traffic to stop. Most of us who do this probably don’t actually believe that repeatedly hitting the button will speed up the process, but it’s become a persistent habit. In any case, the general idea remains the same: you press the crosswalk button, which sends a signal to the traffic lights, bringing the rush of cars to a halt in order for you to safely traverse the street. The fact of the matter, however, is that most of these buttons aren’t functional. In New York City, for example, more than three-quarters of pedestrian buttons don’t do anything. In reality, traffic lights follow the same patterns regardless of what you press, only being adjusted by officials in response to changing circumstances. Despite any flashing lights and sounds that may activate with touch, most of these buttons amount to little more than placebos.
The bourgeois system of representation that constitutes elected government can be said to be the political equivalent of a crosswalk button. It reflects patterns outside the control of those who fill out a ballot every few years, predisposed to obey the logic of the economy, rather than the wishes of voters. Indeed, just as with the crosswalk button, the reality of government is an inversion of what is commonly understood to be the system’s functional logic. Rather than operating reactively in response to directives issuing from the participant, both systems actively regulate her behavior by setting and enforcing certain parameters for movement. She thus becomes conditioned to allow herself to be manipulated by an apparatus that cares little for her own well-being, entrapping her in an ideological prison. It is through this process that the state obscures the fact that the power it exercises over us is much greater than that which we exercise over the state.
The state’s primary function is to ensure the reproduction of the social relations that characterize capitalism. These are relations of structural inequality, in which the majority of people lack direct access to the means of production, and are thus deprived of their means of subsistence. The latter are in the control of a small minority, who claim them as their property. In order to survive, then, most people sell their labor-power (i.e., their ability to do work) to those who own the means of production. Workers are at a distinct disadvantage with regard to capitalists (i.e., the owners of the means of production), as they are dependent on them for employment, without which they cannot obtain their means of subsistence. They are bound to them by the wage-labor relation, itself predicated on the existence of private property relations. Since the means of production are the private property of a minority, the products of labor can only circulate via exchange. In other words, private labor can only become social labor through the intermediary of the market, which coordinates these disparate spheres, ensuring the efficient allocation of resources. When production is oriented towards exchange, the products of labor become commodities, which confront each other, not as qualitatively distinct use-values, but as comparable economic values that can be interchanged on the market. Within this system, human labor, too, is commodified. The centrality of the commodity-form means that the driving force in society is profit (i.e., the extraction of surplus-value through the exploitation of labor), not the well-being of people (especially that of workers). These interconnected social relations constitute what can be referred to as the relations of production, whose existence is dependent on the institutions of a state designed to reproduce them.
To put it more succinctly, the state provides the medium by which capitalist interests exert power over society in order to reproduce their conditions of existence. This was essentially Marx’s point when he argued that the legal and political structures of a society correspond to its mode of production. All superstructural (or non-economic) practices occur within the context of the productive relations that form the basis of a given society. Thus, the political and the economic are inextricably bound together, and it is impossible to attempt an accurate treatment of capitalist politics without examining their relationship to the economic base, as the state is both the product of capital and its guardian.
In order to fulfill its function, the state applies two basic types of power: repressive and ideological. The state’s repressive power is expressed via institutions of organized violence, such as the military and police. Their objective is to force people to follow established rules out of fear of reprisal. Obviously, breaking the law appears much less attractive when such an action comes with the possibility of incarceration, injury, or even death. Ideological power, on the other hand, is more subtle. It attempts to produce an internalized accommodation to these rules without applying (or threatening) direct force. Instead, ideology situates individuals within a system of imaginary relations in such a way that they perceive themselves as belonging to certain social roles or identities. These relations are generated by the material practices that constitute a given society, producing external forces that shape the consciousness of its members. Hence, an individual becomes a subject. By constructing certain subjectivities that limit people’s understanding of themselves and the world to the horizon of capitalism, the state’s ideological apparatuses protect the status quo. Among the most complex and expansive of these apparatuses is the political system of liberal democracy.
It is important to understand that this system is one of representation. The institutions of capitalist democracy are grounded in, and perpetuate, the assumption that a relatively small group of individuals, often coming from similar social backgrounds, can adequately express and carry out the wishes of “the people.” The delegation of decision-making tasks to this group strips those whom they claim to represent of any real power. This political division of labor results in the development of a whole class of specialists who claim to be the only group qualified to assume leadership roles. So, while democracy claims to be an extension of the autonomy of the masses, the truth is that it is built around an ideology that views them as incapable of making their own decisions. As the Dutch communist Anton Pannekoek put it,
parliamentary activity is the paradigm of struggles in which only the leaders are actively involved and in which the masses themselves play a subordinate role. It consists in individual deputies carrying on the main battle; this is bound to arouse the illusion among the masses that others can do their fighting for them.
Pannekoek argued that the working class cannot come into its own as a political force if its struggles become subsumed by this matrix of representation, as it frames things in such a way that independent, self-organized action seems unnecessary. Instead, the workers become accustomed to relying on politicians to advance their interests within the government. This much is apparent in the leftist electoral campaigns recently mounted in the Anglo-American world. Resistance to neoliberalism was built around individual public figures (i.e., Sanders and Corbyn), rather than taking more direct and collective forms. With all hopes riding on these individuals, the focal points of resistance appeared to exist in a realm inaccessible to the general population, except through the limited medium of the ballot box.
The basic assumption that underlies the “pro-worker” electoral approach is that the state exists as a sort of neutral political space, which can be successfully contested by any group in society. Such a theory would hold that among these warring parties is the working class, and that the workers, given the opportunity, could capture governmental institutions and use them in their own interests. The major flaw of this approach is that it neglects the structural position of the state relative to the larger overarching system of capitalism. If we hold to Marx’s theory of the relationship between politics and the economic, then the absurdity of such a theoretical and practical approach is obvious. The task of a revolutionary movement is not to seize the existing state, but to seize power by displacing the existing apparatus with the political organs of an independent proletariat.
The falsified “Marxist theory” expounded by today’s so-called socialist parties attempts to read away the basic foundations of Marx’s theory of the state, in order to justify their own social-democratic agendas. The proletariat cannot capture state power without first destroying the bourgeois state, and this much is quite evident from even a cursory reading of the Communist Manifesto. Hence the famous line: “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” And yet it is that very state which the partisans of parliamentary communism hope to win over.
Amadeo Bordiga, in his defense of Marx, correctly pointed out that the political struggles of the working class to free itself from the yoke of capitalism cannot take place within the halls of bourgeois power. He recognized, as Marx did, that the overthrow of capitalism will by necessity be a violent occurrence, as social change revolves around and is driven by conflict.
By “politics” we don’t mean a peaceful ideological contest, or worse still, a constitutional debate. We mean “hand-to-hand conflict,” “total revolution.” Or as the poetess George Sand put it: Le Combat où la mort!
It is only through this battle to the death that the proletariat can escape capitalist subjectivity, by transforming itself, over the course of its struggle, into a class “for itself”, in Marx’s words. Instead of being defined merely by its structural position within capitalism, the working class must forge a new revolutionary collectivity, mediated by forms of autonomous organization that emerge from various points of rupture. It is only through its direct confrontation with the tyranny of capital that the proletariat can recognize itself for what it is, the potential agent for radical change. It will not, on the other hand, be roused by the exhortations of those who raise themselves above the masses in order to broadcast to them a representation of their “own” interests. No “war of ideas” waged via the spectacular imagery of the electoral circus will produce the necessary energy to move beyond the current state of affairs.
And yet there are some who maintain that there is strategic value in the “peaceful ideological contest” that Marx and Bordiga rejected. For these groups, electoralism is a way to spread their message and bring more people over to the cause of socialism. Thus far no candidates representing any of these organizations have gotten close to winning any significant positions in government, but even if they did, what then? In the process of building and maintaining an electoral base, communism would become just a slogan, ceasing to be an actual goal, as the formerly “revolutionary” party becomes integrated into bourgeois politics. Despite the constant harping of Socialist Alternative, city councils do not provide a useful tool even for the purposes of propaganda. Becoming increasingly entangled in capitalist ideology is not a sign that one is building a revolutionary movement. Of course, many on the parliamentary left claim that they understand that elections aren’t inherently revolutionary, but argue that they nonetheless serve as a useful tool. As he pounds the crosswalk button, a pedestrian turns to his friend and smiles, “I know these things don’t really work, but I like to press them anyway.”
If ideology is a product of material practices, then it must follow that it can only be overcome through practice. Only over the course of their struggles can the working class come to terms with the reality of state power, and the need to challenge it through direct action. Strategies that shy away from this reality, clinging to bourgeois idealism, can only prove detrimental to the revolutionary practices of the proletariat. Political power can only be built outside of the realm of what capitalist ideology defines as “politics.” The discussions necessary to engage people in a dynamic critique of our present mode of social existence will not take place in the Capitol, but in the workplace, at home, and in the streets. Instead of seeking hope in the ballot box, working class people should look to themselves as a source of emancipatory potential. As Herman Gorter proclaimed in his 1920 letter to Lenin: “The liberation of the workers must be the work of the workers themselves.”