The Separation of the Economic and the Political in Capitalism

In capitalist society, we generally assume that the “economic” sphere is separated from the “political” sphere. Economists argue that the separation occurs in order to maximize economic production. They claim that collapsing the economic into the political sphere would obstruct industrial production. This conceptualization underpins arguments against trade unionism and related activities, such as protests, strikes and other means of mobilizing and organizing workers.

The separation between the economic and political not only guarantees the power of the capitalist class, but shapes the understanding of its experts. Why are economic experts opposed to public involvement in the economic policy making process? How can we understand the promotion of academic and professional disciplines such as Human Resource Management that claim neutrality to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of the production process? We read Ellen Meiksins Wood’s article with these questions in mind.

Wood argues that Marx critiqued bourgeois economists, who developed ideas about the legal and political forms that facilitate the production process, especially the notion of private property. Wood argues that these economists do not explicitly recognize these legal and political forms as constituent aspects of the production process (p. 69).

Despite Marx’s critique, his intellectual heirs, particularly figures such as Karl Kautsky, developed the Orthodox Marxist tradition, which neglected the equal importance of the political compared to the economic. Kautsky and others elevated the economic to the determining role in the system, abstracting it from the concept of the mode of production. This deviation became the intellectual sin known as “economism” or “economic determinism.”

In her essay, Wood applies this critique to philosophers who continue to reduce production to the economic. Taking up G.A. Cohen’s formulation of the distinction between the “material” and the “social,” Wood argues that this becomes displaced from the level of argument to reality, and is conceptualized as a historically real separation and a causal relation (p. 70).

Cohen’s technological determinism assumes that the separation between the material and social is the product of a natural impulse, independent of social and historical conditions, grounded in human nature and the rational improvement of technological forces. According to Wood, Cohen proposes an “(economic) base/(political) superstructure” relationship in which the relations of production themselves become “superstructural” in their relation to the real base: the technical forces of production (p. 70).

Cohen defends his proposition by referring to Marx. Wood points out, however, that Marx did not try to generate abstract principles of social analysis, but rather analyzed the social forms that make such generalizations applicable to a given mode of production. This contrasts with mainstream economics’ belief in the inherent “utility-maximizing” behavior of atomistic individuals.

Wood summarizes her argument by claiming that Cohen resolves the Marxist base/superstructure diagram into a set of propositions, turning Marxist analysis into a positivist approach. In contrast, Wood articulates the “dialectical” relationship between the base and superstructure, in which the two spheres are reciprocally defined by each other. She adds that we must consider the politico-juridical relations that underpin economic concepts, such as the notion of private property, providing the economy with much of its content and political force.

As a theoretical alternative, Wood proposes Political Marxism, which recognizes the historical specificity of material production and productive relations. This version of Marxism insists that the base and superstructure cannot be envisaged as compartments or regionally separated spheres. Rather they constitute the social formation as an integrated structure of social relations and forms, with varying degrees of distance from the immediate processes of production and appropriation (p. 78).

Wood argues that unlike pre-capitalist societies, the economic and political are conceptualized separately in capitalism. However, that does not mean both spheres are not materially connected to each other. Rather, in the capitalist mode of production, appropriators do not possess the direct juridical or political powers to subordinate producers. Instead, juridical and political powers are vested in the State. The State employs extra-economic measures to ensure the domination of the appropriator over the producer.

Absolute private property rights, contracts, and the legal apparatuses to enforce such claims are the outcome of these State interventions into the production process, which aim to ensure the domination of the appropriator (p. 81). In other words, Wood argues that the moment of coercion is separated from the moment of appropriation. While extra-economic coercion recedes to the background in the day-to-day production process, however, it remains inextricably linked to the appropriation of surplus value. Violence is applied whenever necessary, especially when the system is under threat.

The Possibility of Consolidating Working Class Struggle

We may draw out several recent examples from Sri Lanka that exhibit the State’s role in implementing coercion in order to ensure the basic functioning of the system. These incidents include the murder of a factory worker and suppression of protests in Katunayake in 2011; the Rathupaswala incident in 2013; and the attack on fishermen in Chilaw in 2012; and, most recently, the assault on strikers in Hambantota. These incidents epitomize the State’s attitude toward popular protest, but are also a more general reflection of its role in implementing the basis for capitalist surplus extraction, from disciplining labor to displacing economic costs onto the masses.

However, although Wood insists on juridical measures that ensure the appropriators’ right to exploit the producer in the capitalist mode of production, the separation of the economic and political can be challenged. In addition to juridical measures mentioned above, there are others designed to ensure labour rights as well. These include the establishment of the International Labour Organization and other State/transnational regimes intended to protect labour rights, in addition to the legal and political measures taken through such organizations.

Some of the outcomes have included the implementation of an eight-hour work day, over-time payments and so on. In this context, the law can at times be engaged for the producers’ benefit. The question is how can we understand the dual nature of capitalist juridical measures and its implications for organizing the working class against their exploitation? What is the specific form of this tension when unionists’ appeal to the State to ensure workers’ protections through the law?

Finally, Wood’s article also helps us identify the localization of the class struggle as a strategy for containing working class dissent. In the context of the transformation of political antagonisms into mere “economic” conflicts and the concentration of the class struggle “at the point of production,” capitalism tends to particularize and domesticate such struggles. On the other hand, given the nature of the capitalist economy, its supra-national character, the interdependency of its constituent parts, and the homogenization of the capitalist labour process, it is both necessary and possible that a working-class consciousness and class organization on an international scale emerges (p. 93).

This contrasts with much of the postmodern analysis that claims there is a persistent tendency toward the fragmentation of workers’ identity in late capitalism, which allegedly undermines the creation of a homogeneous working class. Bearing these ideas in mind, we argue that the working class struggle in capitalism should be capable of effectively linking localized struggles with global struggles to challenge the capitalist system, insofar as it attempts to separate the economic from the political.

26th September 2016