Global capital, crony capital and the centre-left

Writing in the New York Times, Elizabeth Bruenig makes the case against an alliance of convenience between liberals and “woke” corporations against the threat posed to democracy by Trumpism . After acknowledging how desperate the situation has become, she presents the argument, to which I’ll respond bit by bit

Capital is unfaithful. It can, and does, play all sides. Many of the courageous businesses that protested North Carolina’s 2016 “bathroom bill,” for instance, also donated to political groups that helped fund the candidacies of the very politicians who passed the bill.

This is the nature of alliances of convenience. When the Western Allies joined Stalin to fight against Hitler they had no (or at least few) illusions about him, and didn’t rely on him to keep his word any longer than necessary, or to refrain from undermining them in other quarters

It isn’t possible to cooperate with capital on social matters while fighting them in other theaters; capital can fight you in all theaters at once, all while enjoying public adulation for helping you, as well.

This simply isn’t correct as the Biden Administration is showing. Despite co-operating with capital on social matters,. Biden has proposed substantial increases in corporate tax rates and global action against corporate tax avoidance. In this context, it is the position of capital that has been weakened by the toxicity of its usual allies, the Republicans.

Setting aside the fact that capital can in a single moment be both heroic and diabolical — Amazon wants you to be able to vote, but it would prefer if you didn’t unionize — it is, incredibly, even less democratic, accountable and responsive than our ramshackle democracy. Capital rallies to the defense of democracy while aggressively quashing that very thing in the workplaces where its workers labor.

Again, this is what happens in an alliance of this kind. Fights over unionization go on, in parallel with an alliance over the right to vote. Once again, it’s the corporations who face the bigger problem here, with opportunistic Republicans pretending to back the rights of the workers.

I have no idea what to do about this other than know it for what it is. If it were ever the case that knowledge was power, it certainly isn’t so anymore: Knowledge is more widely dispersed than ever; power remains notably concentrated. But knowledge confers a certain dignity. It’s worse to be powerless and unaware than to be powerless and perfectly clear on where you stand.

This is a counsel of despair, without any real basis. Bruenig gives no reason to suppose that the fight for democracy can’t be won, even if it requires alliances between groups with interests that are otherwise opposed. But if the Republicans can be held at bay long enough to allow the passage of strong voting rights law, they will have to reform themselves or face permanent minority status. Getting to that point (for example, by winning bigger majorities in both Houses of Congress in 2022, then scrapping the filibuster) will be difficult, but not impossible

An important limitation of Bruenig’s analysis is that she treats “capital” as a unitary force. There is a sharp division between global corporations, with a long-run interest in the preservation of the rule of law under a democratic government, and the crony capitalists, epitomized by Trump himself, for whom the object is to extract as much as possible from the US economy, as quickly as they can.

Someone with more expertise than me could interpret all this in terms of the “fractions of capital” idea put forward by Poulantzas and others in C20. A search on those terms produced this piece in The Guardian, which covers some of those points.

10 thoughts on “Global capital, crony capital and the centre-left

  1. “There is a sharp division between global corporations, with a long-run interest in the preservation of the rule of law under a democratic government, and the crony capitalists, epitomized by Trump himself, for whom the object is to extract as much as possible from the US economy, as quickly as they can.”
    Quite so. I would add a third sector, representing the great majority of capitalists everywhere, if not of capital: patrimonial SMEs, the dominant form ssince he Phoenicians. See here for a Roman example and musings: Like the global corporations, SMEs are supportive of he rule of law and social order, take a long view, and are even more dependent on honest government for public goods like education they can’t replace in-house. They are however more conservative culturally than the tycoons: harmlessly in the case of the German Mittelstand, toxically in the loyalty to Trump of its American counterparts.

  2. “If it were ever the case that knowledge was power, it certainly isn’t so anymore,” seems like a comically arrogant thing to say. It indicates that the writer has never considered the possibility that they’re not as smart as they think.

    The follow-up, “Knowledge is more widely dispersed than ever; power remains notably concentrated,” sheds a depressing light on things, though, as it highlights the fact that a thought leader like Breunig hasn’t even attained the level of insight to understand the distinction between knowledge and information, never mind wisdom.

    On top of all that, she capitalises the first word after a colon, which is a bad habit I have myself and which I can’t stand. The fact an editor didn’t fix it is worrying, or is it legal in the US?

  3. JQ said “Someone with more expertise than me could interpret all this in terms of the “fractions of capital” idea put forward by Poulantzas…”

    Someone called Bob Jessop. 

    2 relevant quotes from article:

    #1 “This extension in state intervention intensifies tensions and fissures among different fractions of capital and also accentuates inequalities and disparities between the subordinate and dominant classes.”#1

    #2 “Thus he continued to argue that this state serves to organize the dominant classes and to disorganize the dominated classes; but he also put greater emphasis on the necessarily fractured, disunified nature of the state apparatus and how this problematizes the imposition of an overall strategic line on the exercise of state power.”#2

    Poulantzas’s State, Power, Socialism as a Modern Classic

    …” Poulantzas claimed that State, Power,  Socialism, his last major work, completed the theory of the capitalist type of state that Marx and Engels had left unfinished (1978a). While this immodest but provocative claim certainly merits discussion, it cannot be seriously evaluated in a short essay. Instead I will advance four main arguments. First, Poulantzas developed a major original contribution to the theory of the capitalist type of state that goes well beyond most conventional Marxist analyses and contrasts markedly with studies of the state in capitalist society. Second, he developed a broader approach to the state as a social relation that holds for the capitalist type of state, diverse states in capitalist social formations, and statehood more generally. Third, he adopted both approaches in his own theoretical and historical analyses. And, fourth, his analysis of the current form of the capitalist type of state was highly prescient, with ‘authoritarian statism’ far more evident now than when he noted this emerging trend in the 1970s. After I have advanced all four arguments, I will also note some basic limitations to Poulantzas’s approach to materialist state theory, concluding that State, Power, Socialism should be regarded as a modern classic.
    #2.”Thus he continued to argue that this state serves to organize the dominant classes and to disorganize the dominated classes; but he also put greater emphasis on the necessarily fractured, disunified nature of the state apparatus and how this problematizes the imposition of an overall strategic line on the exercise of state power.(end #2.) 

    This is particularly important as he now recognized that the dominated classes and their struggles are present in the state system itself as well as at a distance from it. This meant that he could provide a better account of the relational nature of power whilst still grounding it in the social relations of production and the institutional materiality of the state – thereby rejecting a generalized theory of power and resistance in favour of a revolutionary materialist account of class power and its overdetermination.”
    …” In a third analytical step, moving towards the concrete-complex in a particular period, Poulantzas analyzes the changing relationship between the economic and extra-economic conditions of capital accumulation in the contemporary phase of capitalism. Here he built on arguments from Classes in Contemporary Capitalism (1975, hereafter CCC) to develop four themes: first, the state’s economic functions now occupy the dominant place among its functions (with inevitable repercussions on its structures and the possibility of maintaining its hegemony); second, the boundaries between the economic and the extra-economic have been redrawn, with previously extra-economic elements now being seen as directly relevant to valorization and competitiveness; third, this means that the state’s economic interventions are increasingly focused on the social relations of production themselves and on the attempt to increase labour productivity, especially through increased relative surplus-value; and, fourth, even those policies most directly concerned with economic reproduction nonetheless have an essentially political character and must be carried through in the light of their broader political significance for maintaining social cohesion in a class-divided society. 

    #1.This extension in state intervention intensifies tensions and fissures among different fractions of capital and also accentuates inequalities and disparities between the subordinate and dominant classes. (end #1)

    The state is therefore assuming some of the features of an exceptional state but on a continuing basis and, in this sense, it must be seen as the new ‘democratic’ form of the bourgeois republic in contemporary capitalism. This is why, according to Poulantzas, ‘intensified state control over every sphere of socio-economic life combined with radical decline of the institutions of political democracy and with draconian and multiform curtailment of so-called “formal” liberties, whose reality is being discovered now that they are going overboard’ (1978b: 203-4).

    “Indeed politics is increasingly focused in the staff office of a president or prime minister. 
    [PMO Gajens]
    Standing at the apex of the administrative structures, this office appears as a purely personalistic presidential-prime-ministerial system. But it actually condenses many contradictory pressures and works to re-balance conflicting forces and popular interests still surface in the form of contradictions inside the administration (1978b: 221-4, 226-9, 233, 236-8; cf. 1974: 311-14).

    “Poulantzas related this ‘irresistible rise of the state administration’ mainly to the state’s growing economic role as modified by the political situation. For state intervention means that law can no longer be confined to general, formal, and universal norms whose enactment is the preserve of parliament as the embodiment of the general will of the people-nation. The rule of law is weakened because legal norms are increasingly modified and elaborated by the administration to suit particular conjunctures, situations, and interests and because the initial formulation of laws is also now largely undertaken by the administration rather than parliament (1978b: 218-19; cf. Scheuerman 2005). This change is the product of the permanent instability of monopoly hegemony within the power bloc and over the people as well as of changing economic imperatives. Indeed the decline of the rule of law also affects the political sphere. One sign of this is the increasing emphasis on pre-emptive policing of the potentially disloyal and deviant rather than the judicial punishment of clearly defined offences against the law (1978b: 219-20)”…
    …” His analysis of the distinctive political character of authoritarian statism also draws explicitly on contemporary studies of the state in metropolitan capitalist social formations as well as careful theoretical generalization from the case of fascism as the most flexible form of exceptional regime, updated from the interwar period to the current stage of capitalism and suitably modified to allow for the ‘normality’ of authoritarian statism.”

    … “This said, Poulantzas’s account of authoritarian statism is problematic”…

    ….”Notwithstanding these closing criticisms, Poulantzas remains a crucial figure in the development of a materialist theory of the state. His insight that the state is a social relation not only invigorated his more abstract-simple form-analytical account of the capitalist type of state but also provided a powerful approach for dealing with the concrete-complex features of actually existing states in capitalist societies. “…

  4. Fascism arises out of capitalism via corporatism. The Monthly Review writers understand these matters well.

    It is worth reading the entire essay but here are some gems of sections with my interpolated headings acting as commentary.

    1. Fascism is One of the Natural Forms of Capitalism.

    “Here it is vital to understand that fascism is not in any sense a mere political aberration or anomaly, but has historically been one of two major modes of political management adopted by ruling classes in the advanced capitalist states.17 Since the late nineteenth century, capitalist states, particularly those of the major imperial powers, have generally taken the form of liberal democracy—representing a kind of equilibrium between competing social sectors and tendencies, in which the capitalist class, by virtue of its control of the economy, and despite the relative autonomy accorded to the state, is able to assert its hegemony. Far from being democratic in any egalitarian sense, liberal democracy has allowed considerable room for the rise of plutocracy, i.e., the rule of the rich; but it has at the same time been limited by democratic forms and rights that represent concessions to the larger population.18 Indeed, while remaining within the boundaries of liberal democracy, the neoliberal era since the 1980s has been associated with the steepest increases in inequality in recorded history.

    Liberal democracy is not, however, the only viable form of rule in advanced capitalist states. In periods of systemic crisis in which property relations are threatened—such as the Great Depression of the 1930s, or the stagnation and financialization of recent decades—conditions may favor the rise of fascism. Moreover, then as now, fascism is invariably a product of the larger context of monopoly capital and imperialism, related to struggles for hegemony within the capitalist world economy. Such a crisis of world hegemony, real or perceived, fosters ultra-nationalism, racism, xenophobia, extreme protectionism, and hyper-militarism, generating repression at home and geopolitical struggle abroad. Liberal democracy, the rule of law, and the very existence of a viable political opposition may be endangered.”

    2. Fascism Promotes Privatization

    “The complete development of a fascist state, understood as a historical process, requires a seizure of the state apparatus in its totality, and therefore the elimination of any real separation of powers between the various parts, in the interest of a larger struggle for national as well as world dominance.22 Hence, upon securing a beachhead in the government, particularly the executive, fascist interests have historically employed semi-legal means, brutality, propaganda, and intimidation as a means of integration, with big capital looking the other way or even providing direct support. In a complete fascist takeover, the already incomplete protections to individuals offered by liberal democracy are more or less eliminated, along with the forces of political opposition.

    Property rights, however, are invariably protected under fascism—except for those racially, sexually, or politically targeted, whose property is often confiscated—and the interests of big capital are enhanced.23 The political forces in power aim at what Nazi ideology called a “totalitarian state,” organized around the executive, while the basic economic structure remains untouched.24 The fascist state in its ideal conception is thus “totalitarian” in itself, reducing the political and cultural apparatus to one unitary force, but leaving the economy and the capitalist class largely free from interference, even consolidating the dominance of its monopolistic fraction.25 The aim of the state in these circumstances is to repress and discipline the population, while protecting and promoting capitalist property relations, profits, and accumulation, and laying the basis for imperial expansion. As Mussolini himself declared: “The fascist regime does not intend to nationalize or worse bureaucratize the entire national economy, it is enough to control it and discipline it through the corporations…. The corporations provide the discipline and the state will only take up the sectors related to defense, the existence and security of the homeland.”26 Hitler likewise pronounced: “We stand for the maintenance of private property…. We shall protect free enterprise as the most expedient, or rather the sole possible economic order.”27

    Indeed, an often overlooked Nazi policy was the selling-off of state property. The concept of privatization (or “reprivatization”) of the economy, now a hallmark of neoliberalism, first gained currency in fascist Germany, where capitalist property relations remained sacrosanct, even as the new fascist state structure dismantled liberal-democratic institutions and instituted a war economy. At the time of Hitler’s rise to power, much of the German economy was state-owned: sectors such as the steel and coal industries, shipbuilding, and banking had been largely nationalized. Under Hitler, the United Steel Trust was privatized in just a few years, and by 1937 all of the major banks were privatized. All of this increased the power and scope of capital. “The practical significance of the transference of government enterprises into private hands,” Maxine Yaple Sweezy wrote in a major 1941 study of the Nazi economy, “was thus that the capitalist class continued to serve as a vessel for the accumulation of income. Profit-making and the return of property to private hands, moreover, have assisted the consolidation of Nazi Party power.”28 As Nicos Poulantzas noted in Fascism and Dictatorship, “Nazism maintained juridical regulation in matters of the protection of the capitalist order and private property.”

    I am not sure the MR writers would agree with all of my analysis from this point. The highest stage of capitalism is fascism. That is where capitalism truly tends. China has raised its amalgam of state capitalism and crony party-and-oligarchic capitalism to a new level and flipped essentially to fascism. Russia has done the same. In each case the leader has staged an autocoup, taking personal dictatorial power from the wider one-party dictatorship. As in Animal Farm, but extending the idea a little, we now look from Communist to Corporate Capitalist to Fascist and we can no longer see any real essential difference. They are all dictators. Biden’s electors saved the USA from a Trump dictatorship.

    My overall view is that homo sapiens is incapable of truly moral and equitable conduct at the sufficient and sustained level necessary to develop a wise, free and sustainable civilization. Power will always corrupt homo sapiens and absolute power corrupts them absolutely (as Lord Acton wrote). This is not a complete counsel of despair. Yes, the extinction of homo sapiens is now a possibility. However, another possibility is available through biological evolution. Humans in creating tools, technologies and civilizations and in altering the earth and climate (even for the worse as is currently the case) have ensured that human biological evolution continues. Humans of today are not the same as humans 100,000 years ago and not even the same as humans of 10,000 years ago in certain ways.

    If pockets of humans survive, evolution will continue. If it continues long enough our descendants will no longer by homo sapiens but a new species which could not even produce viable offspring from homo sapiens. Only in that way could we possibly escape a nature so poorly adapted to intelligent and moral survival. A propensity to mindless violence mixed with significant intelligence is a poor and maladaptive mix. Let us hope that in an evolutionary sense we eventually adapt out of the severe biological limitations of our current evolved nature. It’s the only hope for intelligent, civilizational life on planet earth.

  5. J.Q.,

    Marx has already analyzed it. Where’s the puzzle?

    1. Capital is unfaithful, yadda, yadda.

    The idea of competing capitals is already well developed in Marx. The idea that capitalists owe allegiance to nothing and no-one, except to expanding their own, capital is also well developed in Marx.

    2. Not possible to cooperate with capital.

    Marxist theory predicts and empirical history shows that reforms of capitalism always fail sooner or later. Accommodations with capital are always of a temporary nature. In the end, capitalists perforce must revert to type and must roll reforms back to expand their capital faster than other capitals. Only differential accumulation (faster accumulation than rival capitals) guarantees the survival of a given “lump” of capital in the longer term. There is always the pressure to force all workers into precarity. The Keynes era reforms failed to neoliberalism. Reformism of capitalism is not possible. Capitalism must be abolished in total.

    The last two points in italics are simply incoherent; “not even wrong” as the saying goes. Hence they need no rebuttal. It’s only a counsel of despair if you believe capitalism must always survive in some form. It’s only a counsel of despair if you believe revolutionary and/or evolutionary change is impossible. The latter point refers to the issue that humans may need to evolve more, quite literally in the biological evolutionary sense, to be capable of genuine democratic socialism and genuine ethical treatment of other humans and the biosphere. Such an evolutionary change is possible though not necessarily likely. It could take place in as little as 1,000 to 1,250 years, or about 50 generations, under the very strong evolutionary pressures which will certainly occur over the next several centuries.

    Of course, there is no absolute guarantee we would evolve to get wiser and kinder. It could go the other way. However, the feminisation inherent in taming wild animals, and thus also inherent in taming humans, which latter process is performed by civilization and its processes, appears likely to continue in humans. This process is referred to as the self-domestication of humans. There is no reason to supposed our evolutionary self-domestication is over yet, unless we foolishly extinct ourselves in the next hundred years.

  6. JQ, yes, the longest most qualified paragraphs. I emailed Bob Jessop to thank him and ask for study notes or updates. His blog has no updates since 2014 and no tweets since 2017. You may find referenced papers below less verbose. 

    If you look at the header, the article has several forms and one in German.

    Perhaps Ernestine may do some interpreting… “this is the long version of a chapter published in German”?

    From header at article:
    “Note: this is the long version of a chapter published in German as ‘Kapitalistischer Staatstyp und autoritärer Etatismus. Poulantzas’s Staatstheorie als moderner Klassik’, in L. Bretthauer et al., eds, Poulantzas Lesen: Zur Aktualität marxistischer Staatstheorie, Hamburg: VSA, 65-81; …
    …and retranslated in its short version in 2011 as ‘Poulantzas’s State, Power, Socialism as a modern classic’, in L. Bretthauer et al., eds, Reading Poulantzas, London: Merlin, 42-55.

    “Poulantzas’s state, power, socialism as a modern classic
    January 2011
    In book: Reading Poulantzas (pp.42- 55)Publisher: MerlinEditors: L. Bretthauer et al's_state_power_socialism_as_a_modern_classic

    Citations (5)
    References (15)

    “What can sociologists of globalization and development learn from Nicos Poulantzas?
    Aug 2019
    Progr Dev Stud
    Jason C. Mueller

    “State Power, the Politics of Debt and Confronting Neoliberal Authoritarianism
    Nov 2018
    Law Critiq
    Chris Butler

    “Monetary integration in the Eurozone and the rise of transnational authoritarian statism
    Sep 2018
    Compet Change
    Etienne Schneider
    Sune Sandbeck

    “Trump and American Fascism
    Dec 2017
    Jerry Harris
    Carl Davidson
    Bill Fletcher
    Paul Harris

    “The transnationalisation of the state: a neo-Gramscian perspective
    Conference Paper
    Jan 2009
    Andreas Bieler

    Not many other papers with such qualifiers ‘ Poulantza, fractions of capital etc. Fractions of capital saw garden var capital swamp results. I did find ‘balls in boxes’ physics / biology / econ crossover tho. Another day.

    C’mon you super commenters, a dummies guide to above. I had access to journals – 20yrs ago.

    And I seriously liked Bob Jessop’s graphic timeline and subject matrix change over time. “At a glance” topics vs time. I’d like to see yours please. After TECotP.

  7. i’m way out of my depth here.


    why doesn’t any attention go towards the activities of those who individually control so much financial power that they can ideologically move whole populations?

  8. J.Q.,

    Here is another angle which might help you understand. It helped me. In another post on this blog I referred to a group I called “tepid social democrats”. Writing that post also got me thinking about the petite bourgeoisie once again. Next, I found an article which coined the phrase “radical left petite bourgeoisie”. It seems almost oxymoronic but it makes a real kind of dialectical sense. It contains antinomies which attempt but fail to come to a synthesis.

    In all self-honesty I must own of course that I am an “armchair socialist”, a “tepid social democrat” or a “tepid democratic socialist”. But even these constructions fail to capture something essential and this is that I am one of the “radical left petite bourgeoisie”. This article says a lot of interest about the failure of the “radical left petite bourgeoisie”.

    “Greece: Another Failure of the Radical Left Petit Bourgeoisie”

    Read the article first and then here is my take on it.

    It demonstrates why we who are of the “Radical Left Petit Bourgeoisie” fail and must perforce fail. Our failure is structural and inbuilt. Our sympathies and even most of our analyses and prescriptions are radical left (though also unavoidably flawed in purist terms [1]) but our social positions and financial interests are petty bourgeois. It is hard for a man or woman to act radically in accord with his/er sympathies and analyses when his/her income depends on the privileges and sources of petty bourgeois status and income.

    To be consistent, a member of the “Radical Left Petit Bourgeoisie” would have to renounce his/her advantages of status and income (like a monk making a vow of poverty and a renunciation of all previous social identity and wealth) and living directly and fully with the oppressed classes. To be honest and (hopefully useful) he or hse would have to do that when young. The odds are enormously in favor of this attempt being a failure and the waste of a life as we who are realists know.

    Who among us has the kind of self-honesty and moral fortitude to make this kind of commitment, to live a hard grind and fail miserably? Even the most searingly self-honest, like Lev Tolstoy, only make that renunciation when close to death, when age has turned all Joie de vivre to ashes in the mouth. Then Lev walked out of his mansion and aristocratic life, and into the snows of winter, to join the “Holy Fools”, the homeless wanderers for Christ (yurodivy – Holy Fool). He made it as far as Astropov Station where the station master housed him. There he died of pneumonia attended by a doctor and a few acolytes. The unkind “in the know” said he did it to escape his wife’s tirades. His was one of those patriarchal marriages (despite the once-happiness, intelligence and good intentions of both parties) which turn into bitter hatred in old age.

    One can only be truly revolutionary if one is one of the oppressed, suffers mightily and is willing to rebel mightily – risking death in the process. Otherwise one is just playing at politics and social responsibility. What can the “Radical Left Petit Bourgeoisie” offer the oppressed? I am not sure. Theory perhaps but theory without praxis, without empirical testing in particular, is useless. I don’t think we can offer anything. We are useless, in the way, using up scarce resources and we do not understand what is happening in classes and regions to which we do not belong.

    I do not possess hope in the “proletariat” either. That is where I part company from the writer of the article. (I guess that makes me decadent, “faithless” and worthy of being executed by a true radical.) There is no neat, large and coherent proletariat class anymore, if there ever was. There is certainly no indigent or native intellectual vanguard in that class anymore, if there ever was. The vanguard always seems to come from the Intelligentsia of the petit bourgeoisie and they have to be radicalized and made savage by persecution. If this is true, a cogent and coherent revolution could thus only arise when the elites and their reactionary populists and puppets burn the books and the universities and begin shooting students and intellectuals. Then a cure arises that is worse than the disease.

    We will have to stand and wait and see what the inevitable collapse (driven by climate change etc.) delivers… or hope to die before such horrific times.

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