Posted by rflacks on:
Karl Marx: "The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie."
Marx's pithy formula is not a bad starting point for understanding the limits of the capitalist state as a vehicle for genuine democracy. It's usually read of course as a powerful critique of capitalist democracy; he was saying that even if the majority-the vast majority-are not capitalists, the state in a capitalist society must be principally concerned with the ‘common affairs' of the capitalist class as a whole. The most important such concern is an economic framework that enables profitable investment. And contrary to infantile rightwing thought, there can't, in fact, be capitalism (a ‘free market' society) without government to provide the infrastructure, make the rules, regulate conflicts, protect property rights and pacify the masses whose demands might infringe on profitability.
Notice subtle implications in Marx's famous statement.
First-the words "common affairs", and ‘whole bourgeoisie". Subtext: a government that favors particular interests at the expense of the whole is dysfunctional.
Second-there are common affairs that the capitalists need to acknowledge and be disciplined by. Pursuit of private greed at the expense of the shared class interest is bad for capitalism as a whole. Capitalists may find regulations, reforms, taxes of many kinds to be onerous, and will typically resist anything that restricts their freedom of action. But the Marxian hypothesis suggests, and actual history indicates, that at least some ruling elite members must propose or back measures deemed crucial for preserving the system-even if some of the wealthy and some firms lose something in the process. So, in the New Deal era, when many such reforms were advanced (including legal protection for labor unions, a minimum wage and federal job programs) FDR was able to get support from some key members of the power elite. This was even more true when LBJ was pushing the Great Society program, proposing major reforms in education, healthcare, urban development, poverty. We new leftists called that kind of reform "corporate liberalism". Work by analysts of power in America like C. Wright Mills, Bill Domhoff, and James Weinstein helped demonstrate in detail the degree to which liberal reforms were designed by and for the maintenance and enhancement of corporate capitalism.
But one trouble with corporate liberalism as a model for maintaining capitalism is its cost. It's a model that assumes for instance that workers in advanced capitalism should be able to be eager consumers-and that means good wages and benefits, and societal support for those unable to work. It assumes that the government should be an active partner with the private sector, providing investments that private capital can't or won't make but are necessary for economic growth. In the US, the biggest partnership is through the military budget, which underwrites many large corporations, and provides a great deal of research (including for example the internet) that can serve as a source of profitability. It also includes public investment in higher education and scientific research, government subsidies of many kinds for energy, and so forth. The corporate liberal model accordingly requires fairly high levels of taxation to help finance itself.
By the 1970s, as the profitability and competitiveness of US manufacturing corporations was threatened by the emerging global economy, both the wage bill and the tax bill for that model was being resisted. Reagan and Thatcher were the political agents for demolishing corporate liberalism, seeking to replace it with the so-called' neo-liberal model.
IN the neo liberal model, government regulation that restricts corporate aggreandizement is removed; rules promoting corporate expansion are encouraged. Taxes on the rich investment class are cut and every means are used to depress the wages and the hopes of working people. A problem with fully implementing the neo-liberal model is the unfortunate voting power available to the working population. A lot of the neo-liberal agenda was enacted nevertheless. It was helpful to that agenda that it was largely endorsed by Clinton and Blair, although their regimes provided some continuing support for what is now called the ‘middle class' (somehow the working class vanished in the midst of all this).
So now we are living in the steadily expanding wreckage inherent in a society dominated by the greed of investors and corporate managers. That kind of domination breeds government fiscal crisis, chronic joblessness, environmental disaster, and a world defined by increasing and profound inequality.
The main hope is to forge a progressive political agenda and strategy that can transform the corporation.
A current definition of such an agenda is suggested in a recent message from MoveOn:
The first step is to bring together millions of people who share our frustration with business as usual in Washington. Change this big will require an honest-to-God people's movement, and this is the right moment for it. There is overwhelming voter anger right now, and the number of people who believe that lobbyists and special interests hold sway is literally without precedent.
The next step is to start kicking out the politicians in both parties who are carrying water for the big banks, the insurance companies, and other lobbies. This election will be a key moment for that, and we've already begun with the Senate primary in Arkansas. But politics is too warped by big money for this strategy to work on its own.
So we're also going draw up a bold blueprint for renewing our democracy: a sweeping set of new rules to limit the influence of big money, corporations and lobbyists. We'll use the approaching election as a lever, to get candidates committed to these reforms-or publicly shame them for siding with Wall Street and other special interests (something few can afford, in this political climate).
We'll make the influence of corporations and lobbyists a key issue in the election and emerge with a mandate to rewrite the rules of our democracy to put regular people back in charge.
As if the biggest problem is corporate lobbying; as if campaign finance rules are the key to change. Such assumptions are very debatable, but we'll need much more far-reaching vision if democracy is to be renewed. I'd like to provoke us to think about a new social model that we might call economic democracy. At the center of that model would be a revisioning of the corporation as a democratic institution. The BP disaster alone hits us with an unrecognized social reality: this company is not a private institution; its investors are hardly its main stake holders; its decisions and actions affect the very lives and future of so many-and these many have no voice in those decisions and little control over those actions.
It is possible to re-imagine the governance of corporations so that workers, communities, consumers would have voice in it. A recent article in the Nation-‘Europe's Answer to Wall Street' by Steven Hill-provides a stimulating introduction to such a re-imagining. We learn that workers elect large numbers of representatives to the board of major European corporations, and that worker ‘co-determination' at the plant level and in the corporation as a whole is now a routine part of corporate decision making. He asks us to imagine the consequences if Wal-Mart were legally required to have a third to a half of its corporate board elected by its employees. In Germany, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, co-determination has made a real difference in terms of workers interests and their productivity.
Below the radar in the US there is in fact a growing movement to redefine the corporation to enable social responsibility. To find out a lot about this please go as soon as you can to the website called ‘community wealth". I don't know how you'll see it, but I was intrigued and inspired by learning about some significant new corporate reforms recently adopted in placed like Maryland and Philadelphia, not to mention the surprising range new economic institutions that are described.