The Ruling Class Does Not Rule

In his article, “The Ruling Class Does Not Rule: Notes on the Marxist Theory of the State,” Fred Block explains why the state supports capitalist interests, even without the conscious direction of the ruling class. According to Block, the “capitalist rationality” that guides the state is an effect of the three-sided relationship between capitalists, workers and state managers. Ultimately, the state depends on “business confidence” in order to obtain a steady stream of revenue, which means state managers are often biased toward capitalists. Nevertheless, working class struggles in areas such as education and skills development push the state in a reformist direction, although these changes too are eventually accepted as part of the normal development of the capitalist state.

Block outlines existing Marxist understandings of the state. He says that the “instrumentalists” view the state as a simple tool or instrument that represents the ruling class’s interests. In contrast, authors such as Nicos Poulantzas proposed a “relative autonomy of the state” in order to suggest that while the state may play a key role in guaranteeing the functioning of the capitalist system, it also is autonomous from direct ruling class control (p. 9). Block claims, however, that there is a fundamental problem in the “relative autonomy” theory, because it still requires that at least a part of the ruling class is class-conscious enough to recognize the need to maintain capitalist system as a fundamental goal, despite competition between individual capitalists. The problem then, according to Block, is that this approach collapses back into a type of instrumentalism that state policies are continuously directed and guided by the inputs of a class-conscious ruling class (p. 9).

Block’s way out of this theoretical bind is to reject the idea of a class-conscious ruling class and replace it with the concept of a division of labour between those who accumulate capital and those who manage the state apparatus. Referring to Marx’s thoughts on why the bourgeoisie supported Napoleon Bonaparte III’s coup d’etat during the Eighteenth Brumaire, Block emphasizes that political representation is an objective relationship wherein representatives may not be typical members of the capitalist class. We can draw a parallel with the current situation in Sri Lanka. Some members of the “Old Left” believe, for example, that the Rajapaksa regime challenged the capitalist class, because of the social and territorial background of the leading figures in the Rajapaksa regime, including the fact that they came from a rural background and supported state intervention. Block enables us to disconnect people’s social situation and upbringing in order to highlight their role as “representative” of the ruling class, regardless of where they came from.

Block then moves on to analyze why the state rationalizes capitalism (p. 15). Block refers to two “subsidiary mechanisms” and one fundamental mechanism for reinforcing state support for capitalism. The first two include direct influence by business people through lobbying, and the second being the more general influence of bourgeois cultural hegemony based on ideas such as the proper role of the state. The core mechanism according to Block, however, is a more subtle but pervasive need to maintain “business confidence” so that the state can attract revenue. The state’s role then is to maintain political stability for investors. These include factors such as whether the working class is under control or not, the nature of taxation, and government involvement in the market and determining the price of labour (p. 16). In a capitalist economic system, the level of economic activity is largely determined by private business people. Hence state managers are afraid of taking actions which can decrease the business confidence of private investors.

Reforms and Political Stability

In our discussion, we drew a distinction between revolution and reformism. According to Block, certain working class struggles and demands may reinforce and rationalize the capitalist system. For instance, the demand to expand the educational system will produce more skilled labour that is essential for the expansion of capitalism. Granting concessions to workers when working class pressure is mounting can also be recognized as a reformist action which maintains the capitalist system. A revolutionary demand in contrast might similarly involve expanding social services, but placing them under the control of the working class. This is related to our discussion of Therborn, particularly his belief that the purpose of the labour movement is to put pressure on the state, and to break down the division of labour, including persistent assumptions about state managers’ “expertise.”

Finally, at the end of our discussion, we turned to the implications of Block’s article for theorizing the Rajapaksa regime during the wartime and post-war reconstruction period. Following Block’s conceptualization of investor needs, it is obvious that most business people are scared away by war and an unstable political climate. In contrast, the authoritarian nature of the Rajapaksa regime, especially during the post-war reconstruction period, ensured the stability of the system, though its methods contradicted accepted norms of democratic governance, similar to Napoleon Bonaparte III’s regime in France.

Eventually, however, we could argue that capitalists became fed up with the regime, despite state managers’ claims that mega infrastructure projects such as the Hambantota Port and the highways supported stability. The frictions between state managers and capitalists should not be ignored, and we wish to avoid reducing the Rajapaksa regime to neoliberalism. While the Rajapaksa regime maintained the functioning of the capitalist system, it is clear it over-extended, which eventually led to push back from capitalists. Moreover, there are many other factors such as global political trends and the ideological implications of the war victory that should be considered further. These can help us theorize the Rajapaksa regime’s relationship to the capitalist class, and its role in our understanding of the state.

6th June 2016