John Dewey once remarked that ‘government is the shadow cast by big business over society’. The state plays a key role in maintaining the domination of the capitalist class. In fact, without a state to regulate and coordinate the system of competition, market competitors would tear one another, and society, to pieces. The nation state thus functions as what Engels, in Anti-Dühring, called the ‘ideal collective body of all capitalists’, regulating the chaos that arises as capitalist interests compete. Liberals, leftists and ‘anti-globalisation’ activists often complain that the role of the nation state is being usurped by transnational powers such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Yet as the International Communist Current reminds us in its 2009 article ‘The Myth of Globalisation’, these organisations ‘were set up by American imperialism and have operated in its interest ever since. The World Trade Organisation has a slightly broader base but is still the tool of a small number of capitalist countries’. Indeed, despite the global nature of the capitalist market, the nation state form remains indispensable for capitalism. In her book Territory, Authority, Rights, Saskia Sassen has convincingly argued that the forces of ‘globalisation’, far from abolishing the nation state, operate within it – just as surely as the nation state exists within the global order. Thus, while elements of the nation state have been ‘denationalized’, the state retains its vital role in capitalist organisation. ‘No other institution’, as Ellen Meiksins Wood writes in Empire of Capital, ‘has even begun to replace the nation state as an administrative and coercive guarantor of social order, property relations, stability of contractual predictability, or any of the other basic conditions required by capital in its everyday life’.
Left-liberals typically translate the critique of capitalism into a concern about neoliberalism, that is, about the transference of certain economic and social responsibilities from the state to the market. Yet while the tag neoliberalism accurately names certain trends towards deregulation and privatisation in particular economic areas since the 1970s, capitalism’s very survival over the last century has been premised upon an increasing fusion of state and market. At the end of the nineteenth century, Kautsty observed in The Class Struggle that the state was being forced to ‘take into its own hands more and more functions’. In 1915, Bukharin noted in ‘Toward a theory of the imperialist state’ that capitalism had entered a statist phase and Trotsky observed in 1919 that the ‘statification of economic life’ made it ‘impossible to return […] to free competition’. This analysis was widely endorsed by communist groups and individual revolutionaries in subsequent decades and is borne out by economic data: both in the UK and US, government spending as a proportion of Gross Domestic Product, while largely static throughout the nineteenth century, began to grow massively the 1920s. It is sometimes assumed that this statist period came to an end in the 1970s and 80s. In our own time, however, large-scale banking bailouts remind us that states intervene constantly in the operations of the markets in order to maintain the conditions for capital accumulation, while massive standing armies are used to conquer new markets – a situation completely unknown in the nineteenth century.
From the latter point of view, the notion that the state has been 'rolled back' in recent years is a problematic one. In fact, from the perspective of the longue durée, the state can be seen to have significantly increased its scope and power since the early twentieth century, when, in the face of the proletarian threat and the difficulties posed by the relative saturation of global markets, the relatively laissez-fairecapitalism of the nineteenth century gave way to the statified planning regimes of Stalinism, fascism and social democracy.
So are we living in a neoliberal moment? Perhaps in some ways - but the evidence is hardly unambiguous. And wherever we come down on this question, we should be clear that the communist task involves the destruction of the capitalist state per se, rather than neoliberalism or some other supposed configuration of it. We shouldn't allow an obsession with neoliberalism to distract us from the real task at hand - ending the entire system of wage slavery.
As Mark Fisher points out in his book Capitalist Realism, capitalism today is widely understood as the only possible system, becoming, in the absence of visible alternatives, strangely invisible. This, of course, suits capitalism very well indeed (as Brecht once put it, 'capitalism is a gentleman who doesn't like to be called by his name'). For this reason, I think we should be wary of the tendency to substitute the term 'neoliberalism' for 'capitalism'. If we wish to identify and overcome the social ills of our time, we should, as Fredric Jameson advises at the end of his famous essay on postmodernism, 'name the system' that causes them. To focus on neoliberalism is to risk leaving the door open to leftist opportunists seeking not an end to capitalism, but merely the election of left-wing politicians claiming to represent a more 'progressive' version of it. Remember 1997, anyone?