For prior to the invention of writing, societies were nomadic, organised in tribes, each tribe made of less than 100 individuals. There was hardly any division of labour, other than sexual. The tribe would designate a chief, and modern ethnology tells us the chief had very little power. His main function was to defuse any conflict among tribesmen, not as a judge, he had no power to judge, but more by using his charisma to talk people out of their quarrels. His authority would be limited to leading the hunt and, of course, the war. That?s all. In his essay, The Origin of Property, Family and the State, Engels describes social life in these primitive tribes very much as something like “anarchy”.
I would like to add here that modern anthropology supports Engels? analysis. Primitive societies did not know anything that resembles political power, let alone a state. They had no use for it. Pierre Clastres, in his fascinating book, Society Against State, notes that the only distinctive feature between “primitive” and “modern” societies is not agriculture, it is not sedentary life, it is the institution of a state. A modern society is a society that is subject to the power of a state. So called primitive societies were not.
In economic terms, nomadic tribes (which Engels calls gens) do not accumulate a lot of goods. The only capital they use is what people can carry on their back or on the back of an animal. Not much. Thus, between tribes, violence is limited, there is not much to conquer and to loot, and war is considered more like a sport, a rough athletic competition. Note that war was a game played by all tribesmen. All valid men went to war, when called for, there were no professionals.
How did the state come about ? With agriculture began a process of capital accumulation. In order to farm, one needs first to clear the land. Trees have to be uprooted, fields have to be irrigated, tilled and planted. Granaries have to be built to store grain for the year, pending the next harvest. All this preparation and construction may take many months, and it is hard work. So people started to think : “Why should we do it?? When we go at war, we take prisoners, let the prisoners do the hard work”. And so, says Engels, society experienced its first division into classes, between a class of masters and a class of slaves, between exploiters and exploited.
Of course, the society which has accumulated this capital becomes the envy and the target of its neighbours. War is no longer a sport, it can pay, and pay big, because if you conquer the enemy?s land that has already been cleared and irrigated, with a year or more supply in storehouses, it is saving you the investment and hard work. So each society had to organise some sort of permanent defence against marauders and invaders. Each society took out of its surplus enough food to pay for a group of people who would have no other function than protection, i.e., a professional army.
Now once the rulers had an armed force at their disposal, the temptation was there permanently to use it against their own people, to consolidate the rulers? power. Thus, says Engels, there emerged a new institution, which would maintain “order” in society, and of course an order favourable to the dominant class. This institution is called “the state”.
Let me quote directly from Engels :
“In order to maintain this public power, contributions from the state citizens are necessary — taxes. These were completely unknown to gentile society [the so-called "primitives"]. We know more than enough about them today ! With advancing civilisation, even taxes are not sufficient ; the state draws drafts on the future, contracts loans, state debts. Our old Europe can tell a tale about these, too.”
[Engels was writing this in 1867. What would he have to say about our modern Europe, with states plundering a full 50% of all wealth created in society and running debts equivalent to two years of GNP?!]
“In possession of the public power and the right of taxation, the officials now present themselves as organs of society standing above society? Representatives of a power which estranges them from society, they have to be given prestige by means of special decrees, which invest them with a peculiar sanctity and inviolability.”
“The state is therefore by no means a power imposed on society from without… Rather, it is a product of society at a particular stage of development…”
The first point I wish to emphasise here with Marx and Engels is that the state is a human construct ; it is not inherent to mankind, as the queen is to an ant colony or a beehive. Human societies existed historically without a state, and there is no reason why we could not organise ourselves again in the future without a state.
Now, the dominant class amounts to only a fraction of the population, sometimes as low as 10-20%. Surely, 10% cannot exploit 90%. How come therefore this small minority manages to stay in power??
For controlling the state is not enough. Maintaining an army of professional warriors to keep in check citizens who very often do not have the right to bear arms is indeed a way of enforcing your power over society, but it is not a guarantee. An insurrection, a massive taking to the streets, a general strike, can overthrow any government, even supported by the military, as history has witnessed so many times. So the ruling class always used another mean of wielding its power, it is ideology, and understanding how ideology works may be Marx’s greatest contribution to the study of history.
Ideologies are the changing ideas, values, even feelings, through which individuals experience their society. Ideologies present the dominant ideas, the beliefs and values of the ruling class, as being the ideas of society as a whole. Thus individuals, because they are thinking by using the concepts, the words and the references of others, are prevented from grasping how society actually functions, and they cannot even suspect that they are exploited. Marxists thinkers, like Gramsci, Lukacs and Althusser, have expanded greatly on Marx’s concept of ideology, and it goes further than Ayn Rand’s sanction of the victim. For Marx, and especially for Gramsci, I would say ideology achieves the perfect crime. A perfect crime is not when the criminal remains unknown, it is one that nobody even suspects to be a crime, where death is declared purely accidental, and no one will look for a criminal. For Marx, the victims have nothing to consent to, they do not see themselves at all as victims. Quite the reverse. They say “the master is good, he feeds me every day, he does not beat me more often than I deserve to be.”
The production of ideology is the intellectuals? job, and up until recently, intellectuals were part of a clergy. You know the famous definition given by Marx of religion as being the “opium of the people.” Religion was perceived as a sort of sedative of the mind. So even when people might have become conscious of their oppression, there came the ruling class? second line of defence : “Yes, my friend, you are right, God placed you at the bottom of society, but it is for your own good, you will be all the happier in a later life”; “it is God?s plan for society that there exists lords and servants, sorry, old chap, you are one of the servants, but you wouldn?t want to rebel against God?s will, would you ?”.
Armed with such powerful tools as the state police and ideology, the dominant class never gives up its power gracefully. Why would it ? It seems it has the means to rule forever. Yet, history shows us that changes did take place. Marx identifies two such transformations in human history, from slavery to feudality, and from feudality to capitalism.
So what caused these momentous changes ?
The answer is : technical innovations, which forced changes in the production process. Marx is often interpreted as a technological determinist on the basis of such isolated quotations as: “The windmill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill gives you society with the industrial capitalist.” It is of course more complicated than that. But basically, what we can say is that the dominant class? power base is the control over certain commodities, over certain sources of wealth. But the dominant class cannot predict, let alone control, the emergence of a new technology. When this technology emerges, it may be in the hands of a group of people who are not members of the dominant class. And suddenly these pioneers generate a transformation in the means of production, in the way society is organised, and therefore in the way society thinks, how it apprehends itself, because, says Marx, the way we work, the function of production, what we do, influences who we are. And the growing number of people who are involved in the new technology see society with new eyes, they start questioning whether the power of the dominant class is legitimate.
This is exactly what happened throughout history, of course. For instance, new inventions in the 18th century, including the steam engine, were both a consequence and a cause of the philosophy of Enlightenment, which exposed the arbitrary of the “divine right of Kings”, and hence of all aristocratic privileges, and led to the American and French revolutions.
It is difficult to dispute the relevance of Marx?s and Engels? analysis of history. I concur with all they say about class struggles and the function of ideology – prior to the Enlightenment. Quite obviously, the slave is dispossessed, he may not own anything, he is clearly exploited. The feudal serf is hardly in a better condition. He is tied to the land, he cannot leave it and is sold with it.
But when Marx goes on to say that workers under the capitalist regime are dispossessed as the serfs were, I have a problem following his reasoning. Marx believes that the new dominant class after the Industrial Revolution is the one made up by the owners of capital, it is the bourgeoisie. But this deduction is wrong, plain wrong. There is a logical fallacy here.
The logical fallacy is to posit that if two events occur simultaneously, one must be the consequence of the other. This logic reminds me of one of Husserl?s favourite anecdote : There is this guy who drinks whisky and soda, and he gets drunk, then he takes gin and soda, and he gets drunk, then he takes vodka and soda, and he gets drunk, and he concludes that he gets drunk on soda. I don?t want to denigrate Marx?s vast intelligence, but he is telling us that slave masters had political power, they exploited their slaves and they got rich. Feudal lords had political power, they exploited their serfs and they got rich. Capitalists are rich, therefore they must exploit their workers, right ? Hang on. Capitalists have no political power. This surely must make a difference. Unlike feudal lords and slave masters, capitalists cannot coerce anybody to work for them, to consume their products, nor to finance their endeavours. Marx feigns to ignore that with the emergence of the industrial revolution came another revolution, which redistributed power within society. It was the classical liberal revolution in the 18th century and it changed radically the political and legal environment. People were free to work where they wanted, for whomever they wanted.
Marx pooh-poohs the achievement of that revolution and what he refers to as “formal freedom.” You know the argument, that Marx will belabour in The Capital : We say the worker “agrees” to work for the capitalist because no policemen are dragging him from his home to the factory, but this means only that “he is compelled by social conditions”. In his treatise, ‘The Poverty of Philosophy’, Marx writes “Indeed the individual considers as his own freedom the movement no longer curbed or fettered by a common tie or by man, the movement of his alienated life elements, like property, industry, religion?” And Marx adds : “In reality, this is the perfection of his slavery and his inhumanity.” This is rather poor philosophy on Marx?s part. Freedom is “the movement no longer curbed” by other men, freedom is freedom of property, of industry, of religion.. There is none other. Take it away and you get Stalinism.
The wealth of kings, slave masters, feudal lords and all their lackeys, was acquired through the exertion of violence, by way of military conquest, tax, confiscation, enslavement.. But not necessarily the capitalists? wealth. The capitalist makes money, indeed, and for a few of them, that money may be numbered in billions, but he is not an exploiter. The ownership of the means of production by itself does not make anyone an exploiter. This is where Marx got it wrong. Making money in a trade between consenting parties is not exploiting anyone, how could it be??
Marx was a believer in property rights. It is because his work is the worker?s property that Marx may conclude the worker is dispossessed of his remuneration. But Marx?s crude materialism blinds his vision and prevents him from seeing that it is not work that is remunerated, what is remunerated is work that is of service to someone, and to someone who values this work enough to pay for it. Work by itself is destructive. The Bible already taught us that work is a malediction. Paradoxically, the record of Marxist states proves my point. Armies of workers toiled literally like slaves during dozens of years, not creating any wealth, actually destroying it. They extracted perfectly good copper mineral and crude oil, and turned it into unusable electric wires and plastics. Many economists calculated that if all the people in the Soviet Union had stopped working and had been content to sell their vast commodity resources without attempting to transform them, they would have been far better off. Work has no value by itself. The value is in the service you render to somebody. It so happens that in most instances you cannot be of service to somebody without performing a certain amount of work, but Marx confuses the end and the means. If someone could bring me clients whilst sleeping, I would pay that someone to sleep.
So it is not work that the capitalist pays, it is the service the worker is rendering. There are people who for whatever reason are able to render a great service to a great number of buyers, and they make bundles of money, and there are others who have not found a way to prove their usefulness, resulting in differences of revenues, sometimes very substantial ones. But the capitalist pays all services exactly the fair price, or the worker, in a politically free society, would immediately check the classified ads to see whether another employer offers a higher price for the same service, and if that other employer cannot be found, then it is evidence that the salary paid is exactly the fair and present value of the service rendered.
So if capitalists pay fair wages, and if workers are not exploited by their employer, who are the exploiters?? Who makes up the dominant class today ? This question will become clear if we bear in mind there are two ways to move goods in society, by the use of violence, which is the political way, by trade and gifts, which is the economic way. Capitalism is the use of trade and gifts, not the use of politics, to distribute goods in society. All other regimes resort to violence. Marx and Engels emphasise the point themselves. Feudalism and slavery are based on state coercitive powers. The results of their work are simply confiscated from the workers, and if they do not like it and try to escape, policemen and soldiers will drag them back to where they belong, so they may continue to be exploited. Now, is there not a class today, who uses the powers of police and the army to confiscate the results of our labour ? Is there not a class today, who resorts to political constraint to acquire its means of living ?
Those who resort to violence today to get their revenues, as the feudal lords did three hundred years ago, are, of course, all state employees. They do not make money in exchange for a service people find useful enough to pay for. State employees simply collect the means they need through the use of violence, coercion, racket, taxes (all these words being synonymous here). They form the new ruling class. We are the oppressed. So it is obvious, my friends, that the class struggle is not over. We are still face to face with our exploiters, class against class,
The mystery is why this exploitation by the ruling class of state employees and their lackeys is not obvious to everyone. How come does it last, how come the vast majority of the population does not become conscious of the oppression it is subjected to??
For it is true that most people in Europe do not perceive taxation as robbery and government-imposed regulations and controls as coercion. You meet people nowadays who would take out a gun and shoot a youth who is stealing a cassette player from their car, and these same people allow the taxman to walk away with 50% of what they earn, every month, year after year, during their entire lifetime. Furthermore, when you assess how much you are robbed by the taxman, it is not just what you pay today that you should take into account, but the compounded value of all what you have paid since the VAT you incurred on your first ever purchase and the income tax on your first salary, plus the opportunity cost of all the projects and desires you could not fulfil with that money because it was taken away from you. Try to figure out what these numbers add up to for yourself, you?ll be staggered.
The Ruling Class
Now the first answer to the question of why we allow ourselves to be exploited seems to be that the dominant class does not appear to be the wealthiest in society, and the fact is it is not. So how come they exploit us, if they don?t make more money than the richest amongst us??
Some people in the new ruling class may not be rich, it is true, but neither were many slave owners or feudal lords. Many lived no better, even were much poorer, than commoners, who were active in trade and other businesses. It is not the amount of wealth that makes you a member of the ruling class, but the way this wealth, however modest, is acquired. It is not how much you earn, but how you earn it, that qualifies exploitation. Do you make your money by political means or economical means?? Is it earned or is it extorted??
Madonna makes 1,000 times more money than a secretary in the European Union Brussels bureaucracy, but no one is forced to buy Madonna records or attend her concerts. Every single penny, therefore, that Madonna gets is given to her, often enthusiastically, by her fans. Every single penny the EU secretary gets in salary is extorted from taxpayers.
I grant you that some people who acquire their revenues through coercion may still render a useful service. I am sure one finds learned professors in state universities and dedicated practitioners in state hospitals. The feudal lord too offered the services of justice, police and defence to his serfs, the official church provided education and social services.. The question is : there is no way to know how much these services offered by state employees are really worth : are they rendered in an optimal fashion?? Do they correspond to the true needs of the people?? Because you are not free to pay for them (and often the provision of these services is a monopoly protected by law), no one can tell how useful the service really is, how much of this service would be needed and at what price. More importantly, the end never justifies the means. As Albert Camus used to say : “A political assassination is not a political act, it is an assassination”; likewise we may say : “Robbing the rich to assist the poor is not assistance, it is robbery”.
You can test by yourself how useful a profession is by the way you would like those engaged in it to practice it. You want an airline pilot, a hairdresser, a lawyer, a cook, a prostitute?, to be hard working, dedicated, and creative in their job, but now think of customs officials. If you have to pay them at all, pay them for doing nothing, you would get better value than paying them for interfering with your affairs. This is how useful these exploiters are to society.
I must confess that, among exploiters, I nourish a special aversion for customs officials, and if I may make a pause here, I would like to tell you a story. It is about this tourist who is visiting a foreign city. He notices a shop, like that of an antique dealer, and a very odd small statue of a cat in the window. The tourist walks in and asks for a price. “The statue is only $100, says the antique dealer, but the story that goes with the statue is $1,000″. “I don?t need the story, the tourist shrugs, I want to bring a souvenir home, and this statue will do just fine.” “I?ll sell it to you, but believe me, warns the antique dealer, you?ll soon come back for the story”. The tourist leaves the shop, with the statue in his pocket. As he is returning to his hotel, he notices a cat is following him. This is unusual. He looks back again, and now four cats are on his tails, and soon twenty cats. The tourist realises he cannot walk into the hotel with a herd of cats behind him, so, as he was crossing a bridge, he throws the statue into the river. Immediately, the whole army of cats jump from the bridge into the water and drown. Flabbergasted by what happened, the tourist pauses for a long moment ; then he takes a sudden decision and traces his steps back to the shop. The antique dealer wears an indulgent smile : “I see you are already coming back for the story.” “No, replies the tourist, I would like to buy a statue of a customs official.”
With the transformation of society, the face of oppression changes to reflect different circumstances. This is why we don?t readily recognise exploitation for what it is. For instance, in most European countries, government bureaucrats are employed for life. It is the rule in France. When a talented young Frenchman is recruited by a state agency, the whole French society finds itself saddled with a legal obligation of 7 to 10 million dollars towards this new employee. This is how much it will cost society on average to fund this person?s useless activity from the first pay-check through retirement and until she dies. This 7 to 10 million dollars is the capital the exploited class is forced to guarantee by law each member of the state exploiters? class. And in France, there are more than 5 millions of them, some 20% of the active population.
“Drowning By Numbers?”
This figure of about 20% of the active population, by the way, is at the high end of the proportion of feudal lords and the official clergy to the total population during medieval times.
There seems to be a natural law that prevents the ruling class from growing above that number of 20%. Ecology offers us many examples of such a fixed ratio between exploiters and exploited, between the number of predators and their preys. Wolves, for instance, feed on caribous. When the wolves population increases, they kill off too many caribous ; they start to go hungry, the weakest starve to death, and their total population settles back to where it was.
This analogy tells us there is no difference in nature between socialism and social-democracy. The difference is only in degree. In the USSR, in Cuba and elsewhere, the predators exterminated their preys, at least those who did not manage to flee the country, so the predators ended up starving. Social-democratic states were clever enough not to scare off all the “caribous” and keep enough of them alive, so that the ruling class could prosper.
The environment however is changing before our eyes. Social-democratic economies are not growing as steadily as they did, and joining the predators? class is seen as the short and safe way to make a living. Families want their daughters to land a job at a Ministry, farmers demand subsidies, industrialists beg for tariff protections, the elderly want higher pensions?
Every dominant class throughout history faced this demand from outsiders to participate in the loot. At first, the exploiters found ways to restrict entry. For instance, participation in the class of feudal lords came by birth only. But sooner or later, the dominant class had to give in to allies? and dependants? pressure. Athens had to integrate its meteques, its resident aliens ; too many colonials became Roman citizens (think of the Apostle Paul) ; in France, under Louis XV, as state coffers were emptying, the King was simply auctioning off access to the noble ranks?
The present ruling class is even more vulnerable. It finds it impossible to restrain the number of predators, as new entries are conferred not by birth, but by an exam. This method of selecting predators on the basis of expertise was what the Enlightenment considered its highest achievement : “La carri?re ouverte aux talents..” Not the scions of ancient families, but the ablest citizens, whatever their social origin, would rule the country. Of course, these new rulers, as they became in charge of public education, would make sure the curriculum would favour their own kin. You seldom see an ambassador?s son working on a factory line, and they are not many factory worker?s sons who make it to an ambassadorship. It is a defining characteristic of a ruling class that it perpetuates itself through generations. The problem for the present ruling class, however, as Marx anticipated, is again technological innovation. As the economy evolves from the Machine Age to the Information Age, it requires better qualified people, not illiterate factory line workers. Information Age workers are people who have the capacity to pass all the barriers for admission into the ruling class. So the number of predators is swelling. It is the ruling class? “internal contradiction.”
Of course, this is not the only problem the exploiting class is facing. Its other worry is that the ideology which comforts its legitimacy, the Enlightenment philosophy, also supports the political regime known as democracy.
Democracy?s perversity is that it turns all of us into accomplices of the violence exerted against society. We accept this violence inasmuch as we hope to become the oppressors ourselves. In a feudal society, it is clear who the oppressors are, and who are the victims, because you are born into one camp or into the other, as I was mentioning earlier. You are born a slave or a serf, and all your life, you remain an innocent victim of your oppressors.
Democratic society blurs this line between villains and victims. It gives everyone an easy chance to take part in oppression. Every time we cast our vote, we are signifying that we wish to take control over part of the population, that we want to impose upon these men and women our ideas and values and we want to extort from them the financial means to achieve our own goals. Democracy is the system that perverts every individual?s soul and turns every man and woman into a racketeer.
With the conjunction of democratic racketeering and an inflating ruling class, the burden on the exploited masses is getting unbearable. Exploitation is naked and brutish. Even ideology soon will not be able to explain away why we are ransomed.
The Big Lie
Yet the ruling class? ideology has done a good job so far, when you think of it. It made us believe that without the state, roads would not be built, the poor would agonise in the streets, hospitals would not be funded, and no one would write theatre plays any more? On radio and television channels, in the newspapers, at schools and in universities, at churches, everywhere, we are told that democracy is the only viable regime ; that “social justice” is the common good ; that it is morally acceptable to coerce any individual if it is for the good of the collective ; that the end justifies the means ; that there are experts up there in government, who are taking care of our well-being, who know better than we do what is good for us, if only we would let them?
Conservative ideologues maintain that class struggle does not exist any longer, we are all middle-class now? Leftist ideologues still believe in this idea that we are exploited, but exploitation, they say, comes from the rich, from multinationals, from Wall Street financiers and Swiss bankers… No one ever mentions that the exploiters are the state bureaucracy and its lackeys, the military-industrial complex, subsidised farmers and industrialists?, living off funds extorted from the productive masses.
Such blindness is amazing. On my left, you have a class of people with guns. They run the army, the police, justice, they control the media through broadcasting licenses, they exert censorship. All the means at their disposal come from taxation, your revenues and savings extorted literally at gun point. On my right, you have multinationals and small entrepreneurs, productive workers and creators… They bring you the food you consume, they build your houses, they connect you to telephone networks and television channels, they supply you with clothes, they manufacture your automobiles and your computers ; they are so afraid that you would stop buying their goods, which you can do at any time, that they spend zillions advertising them on glossy paper and video clips.
Now, who are the exploiters ? The people with guns, right, the people who don?t offer you anything you wish to have, or they would have no need to confiscate your money in order to produce it, the extortionists?? Wrong. The exploiters are the capitalists. Isn?t a feat of genius on the ideologues? part that they have us believe the exploiters are the producers, the creators, the providers, of the goods you enjoy to buy ?
The bigger a lie, the more faithfully it is believed. In a Fran?ois Truffaut film, there is this schoolboy who arrives late in class. He knows the teacher won?t believe any story about trains running late, bus accidents, and the usual excuses. So he makes a sad face and declares : “My mother just died”. The whole school assembles immediately and offers sympathy ; no one suspects this tragic death could be a lie. Political lies have to be so gross as to be believed.