A Marxist Critique of 'Third World

Postmodernism': Part Two

- Keith Rosenthal

The Decadent Nation-State?

The main function of the nation-state was the administration of the national economy. Now the nation-state becomes and obstacle for the expansion of capital, and in a sense the nation-state and traditional sovereignty are being demolished. --Gustavo Esteva, May 2001, Interview with Z Magazine
In 21 of the country's [Mexico] 31 states, active duty or retired military officers command civilian police forces. Under the guise of combating drug trafficking and guerillas, Mexican troop strength has swelled to more than 200,000 a 15 percent increase from 1994.
--Cited in "Mexico After the Zapatista Uprising"22

For Maoists, the goal for Third World peoples was the struggle for national liberation. The consolidation of the nation's own state-its own autonomous space-was seen as a way in which the capitalists of a given Third World country would be able to compete on the global market with the much more powerful advanced capitalist economies of the First World. By centralizing the nation's wealth and capital, and by using the state as a means with which to arbitrate trade deals between international capital and one's own market, it was hoped that one could improve the living standards of ones own country, as well as accumulate capital for the nation's capitalist elite.

The nation-state, then, would be the (rather Hegelian) cross-class expression of the collective will of the "civil society". As the epoch of post-war national liberation began to wane, and newly-independent countries became integrated into the world market, two dramatic things happened: the masses and middle-class intellectuals of those countries became increasingly disillusioned with the promises of 'modern state-hood'; and the capitalist classes within those countries began to use the state more and more to further their own economic interests (as well as the interests of international capital) against their own people. This process was repeated in India, Vietnam, Cuba, throughout Africa, and Latin America.

As control of the nation-states of these so-called Third World capitalist economies began to be wrenched from the hands of "the people" (if there ever even was this control) and more clearly coming under the control of the national capitalist class, simultaneously as whole sections of these economies were being privatized, sold, and de-regulated (to the benefit of the national capitalist class), ex-Maoist and still-Maoist intellectuals became demoralized with the project of statehood, and fell into a more vague, abstract, and "postmodern" national provincialism:

A great many intellectuals who renounced their formal ties with organized Maoism nevertheless continued to function through those same categories of thought-now as 'independents'; by the early 1980s, quite a few of them were joining what now came to be known as 'social movements'. The upshot was that while the politics of Maoism declined, its social and cultural impact among the middle-class intelligentsia remained, in many versions. 23

To identify the nation-state with the 'welfare state' or with social security would be a complete mistake. These social programs did not emerge hand-in-hand with the modern bourgeois state, but were concessions won from the capitalist class by struggles of workers, with the state merely being the mechanism through which these concessions were doled out. Therefore, to identify the deterioration of these programs and the increasing privatization of the economy with the decline of the nation-state, rather than simply an offensive by the capitalist class to regain control over their state in order to more freely wield it in their interest, would be to make the same mistake that Hegel made centuries ago!

The idea that the nation-state is in decline, empirically, simply proves to be an illusion. Military budgets are bloating throughout the world; the prison population of America alone has double over the past decade; nation-states are playing a bigger role in the 'globalized' economy-applying the proper austerity measures, attempting to manage currency values through interest rates, negotiating trade deals on behalf of the capitalist classes (think NAFTA, FTAA, etc.) The role of the nation-state is surely apparent in the post-9/11 world: the USA PATRIOT ACT, billions of dollars in tax cuts for the capitalist class, chronic interest rate cuts, the mobilization of the armed forces. But it is not merely the U.S. nation-state that is operational; the U.S. is demanding that the governments of the world, from Pakistan to Syria to Germany, play a bigger role in using their repressive powers to fight "terrorism", and using their economic sway to "privatize" their economies.

If one does not understand the historic role of the state under class societies, it would be easy to feel that the increasing "de-stateification" of workers' say in government at the behest of international capital represented some sort of decline in the nation-state. But this quote from Frederick Engels in The Origin of Family, Private Property, and the State-which deserves to be quoted at length-reveals that the current epoch is not one of the decadence of the nation-state, but its increasing zenith:

The state is, therefore, by no means a power forced on society from without; just as little is it "the reality of the ethical idea", the "image and reality of reason", as Hegel maintains. Rather, it is a product of society at a certain stage of development; it is the admission that this society has become entangled in an insoluble contradiction with itself, that it is cleft into irreconcilable antagonisms which it is powerless to dispel. But in order that these antagonisms, classes with conflicting economic interests, might not consume themselves and society in sterile struggle, a power seemingly standing above society became necessary for the purpose of moderating the conflict, of keeping it within the bounds of "order"; and this power, arisen out of society, but placing itself above it, and increasingly alienating itself from it, is the state.

As the state arose from the need to hold class antagonisms in check, but as it arose, at the same time, in the midst of the conflict of these classes, it is, as a rule, the state of the most powerful, economically dominant class which, through the medium of the state, becomes also the politically dominating class, and thus acquires new means of holding down and exploiting the oppressed class. Thus, the state of antiquity was above all the state of the slave owners for the purpose of holding down the slaves, as the feudal state was the organ of the nobility for holding down the peasant serfs and bondsmen, and the modern representative state is an instrument of exploitation of wage labor by capital. By way of exception, however, periods occur in which the warring classes balance each other so nearly that the state power, as ostensible mediator, acquires, for the moment, a certain degree of independence of both (my italics). 24

This understanding, or lack thereof, of the interrelation between economics and government-what some call "political economy"-determines how one views power and liberation in the modern world. It also provides one with an analysis of why we have so little democracy today, and who is to blame for this. Because Esteva and Prakash apparently fail to see the true role of states in class societies, they are left grasping at all sorts of reasons for why there is no democracy in the modern nation-state. Either, it is impossible for a large group of people to govern themselves; or all democracies based on voting will see 'interest groups' with the most power controlling; or that "state power tends towards arbitrariness." 25 In such a way, devoid of a concrete economic, materialist conception of the historical role of the state, pure tautologies replace hard analysis:

It becomes more and more evident every day that the modern nation-state, in which contemporary democratic regimes operate, is being transmogrified into a conglomerate of "anonymous" corporations, each dedicated to promote their own products and to serve their own interests. The conglomerate produces "welfare" (education, health, transportation, jobs, etc.). In time, the political parties convene the stakeholders of all corporations to elect a board. And now the dominant corporations are not only gigantic multinational companies, but also the gargantuan professional associations and workers' unions working for them or for the state, instead of offering countervailing power. Defending their own interests, they strengthen the system from which they derive their dignity and income; but which also keeps them under others' control (as the French workers' strikes aptly demonstrated).26

This is the best description that I could find in the book of the modern nation-state, yet it still remains incredibly abstract and hazy. During no time in history do corporations ever simply "produce 'welfare'"; and while it may be true that the upper, bureaucratic layers of the unions are bought off by the bourgeoisie, it certainly isn't the case that the rank-and-file workers have any interest whatsoever in being ruled by a state constructed around the interests of the class that exploits them!

At this point, one can almost feel Nietzsche oozing out of the crevices of this grassroots postmodern ideology. Governments aren't constructed around this or that economic class which may come to power through a revolutionary process in which a new mode of production is unfettered from the political structures governing an old form of production (Nietzsche would argue). What we are merely seeing is various, unintelligible forms of domination, with one group or clique gaining power over the rest-there is no rhyme or reason to revolutions which usher in new governmental forms. Revolutions are nothing more than people seizing power and imposing their narrow worldview upon the many-it is the will to reason, the will to power. Thus Esteva and Prakash admiringly offer us this passage:

Unlike a class or a party, civil society does not rise up and seize the power of the state; rather, in rising up, it empowers itself. It does not take over the state or replace it, but rather stands against it, marginalizes it, controls it. Unlike mass society, civil society is not a herd but a multiplicity of diverse groups and organizations, formal and informal, of people acting together for a variety of purposes . . . Because of its small-group organization, civil society is unlikely to fall prey to the danger of the "tyranny of the majority" . . .27

As if this weren't enough however, we are told, "acquiescence to the assumption that 'global forces' have the power only serves to clothe their nakedness, thereby supporting them; feeding and strengthening them . . . they have no more power than the power people give to them by 'believing' in what they offer." 28 The logical conclusion of all the foregoing-that we live in a multiplicity of realities, that if we try to govern ourselves we will be imposing our will on others, that 'global forces' are no more real than 'tooth fairies' who we 'believe' in-is that we must stay completely localized, and not attempt to understand or have a say in that which reaches beyond our limited experiences, lest we impinge upon another's space. Rather than centralization, which causes the problems of the modern world, we need complete decentralization. Rather than "tyranny of the majority" (the same phrase used by Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers to argue against real democracy in the U.S.), we need-what-tyranny of the minority? Rather than 'democracy', which creates 'conglomerates' and 'anonymous corporations', we need 'radical democracy'! Aesthetically, this is all very pleasing. Politically, it is debilitating.

Credulity Toward Metanarratives?

The centralization of capital is essential to the existence of capital as an independent power. The destructive influence of that centralization upon the markets of the world does but reveal, in the most gigantic dimensions, the inherent organic laws of political economy now at work in every civilized town. The bourgeois period of history has to create the material basis of the new world-on the one hand universal intercourse founded upon the mutual dependency of mankind and the means of that intercourse; on the other hand the development of the productive powers of man . . . Bourgeois industry and commerce create the material conditions of a new world in the same way as geological revolutions have created the surface of the earth. When a great social revolution shall have mastered the results of the bourgeois epoch, the market of the world and the modern powers of production, and subjected them to the common control of the peoples, then only will human progress cease to resemble that hideous pagan idol, who would not drink the nectar but from the skulls of the slain.
--Karl Marx, Collected Works, vol. 12, pp. 217-218, 221, 222.

The history of revolutions has not been simply this or that group randomly ruling over this or that people-revolutions have been conducted by specific economic classes with specific historical interests. They have demarcated society's passing from one mode of economic production to another-pre-class to feudalism to capitalism to (it is presumed) socialism. States, therefore, have been constructed around whichever economic class emerges as the most dominant in society at any given time. 'Dominance', is not determined solely by military might or intellectual wit, either. The defining characteristic of the history of human progression has been ownership of the means by which people reproduce themselves (food, housing, clothing, etc.) Under hunting and gathering societies, the state-in its limited form-was quite egalitarian, as no one in the society had economic leverage over anyone else: everyone was living hand-to-mouth.

With the advent of agriculture, humans began to be able to produce a surplus for the first time-more than what one immediately needed for subsistence. However, this surplus was still limited by the (historically) low level of productivity associated with primitive agriculture, so one saw a sort of mixed and uneven development: general scarcity with a small surplus accruing in the hands of a minority who control the most land and tools. This eventually evolves into the feudal order, with those controlling the surplus using it to gain more-either through tributes or through land-rents.

A state is constructed-armed bodies of hired men-to protect that surplus which becomes the owner's private property, and which he fears losing lest he own nothing but scarcity again. The surplus grows over time; you begin to have wealthier peasants emerging with their own small surpluses that they begin to trade with those around them or with neighboring villages in order to make a larger surplus. Their prime occupation becomes less and less dependent on their land and more and more dependent upon the sale of their goods. They begin to accrue capital as an exchangeable currency for various goods. They cease to produce the commodities they are selling with their own hands, but use their capital to employ the labor of others, whom they exploit in order to extract even more surplus.

The pressure put upon each capitalist by competing capitalists, poses them with only two options: expand or contract. As this emerging capitalist class grows in power and wealth, it puts them into conflict with the feudal landowners and their state, who compete over control of the peasants' labor and the ability to use the state for the expansion of the national economy. This leads to all of the bourgeois revolutions that struck the world in the 17th and 18th centuries, in which the capitalist class dissolved the feudal order, and paved the way for their free access to the labor of peasants who were to be employed wholesale in their mills and factories.

This brings us to the 'modern' world. Capitalism has developed into a completely global system-it has also almost completely developed a global working class. This latter class stands precariously at the foot of the immense wealth and power wielded by their rulers and made possible by the immense productivity of the capitalist mode of production. But history awaits the next economic revolution: the one that places the lower class, the vast majority, a class with common interests, in a position of power in society by displacing the rule by a minority capitalist class. A revolution that eliminates privately-driven competition and places communal production in its stead-a revolution that redistributes the vast amounts of wealth in our society back to those who were enslaved, colonized, and exploited in order to create it. A revolution that is not conducted by a minority who attempt to run society from the top-down, but rather a revolution led by the working class itself, who construct their power from the bottom-up, in the interest and with the say of the vast majority. The working class is in a unique position in all of history to be able to carry out such a task.

But we will not reach such a plateau by simply ignoring the corporations or the state that they use to repress us. And we mustn't dissolve our forces and unity out of some fetishization of provincial localism, where abstract invocations of "solidarity" replace real organizing. The ruling class tries at every turn to divide us in order to conquer us; to isolate us from one another; to de-centralize us; atomize us. The capitalist elite of our society wields an entire state. With such a powerful opposition, it would be pure foolery to let our postmodern mistrust of collective organizing with a clear set of goals (unity!) get in the way of our ability to smash their state, expropriate their control of the means of production, and establish workers' power, based on the collective, bottom-up, decision-making of locally-based, but centralized, workers' councils. Ignoring a disease does not make it go away-pretending that it has no effect, no power, over you, does not make you healthier. This postmodern fear of true workers' revolution, where the vast majority make the decisions themselves-this fear that by uniting and working out our strategies and goals through collective discourse and argumentation we may somehow 'colonize' each other-means that we will remain colonial subjects under the current order indefinitely.

Throughout the course of human history, all societies have evinced certain similarities-despite their cultural differences-in their evolution, whether in ancient Mesopotamia, Africa, Latin America, or Europe. All of the various societies located in these regions underwent a process similar to the one outlined above: moving from hunting and gathering, to a form of class-based feudalism, and increasingly to a form of commodity trade and production, without having undergone any inter-cultural intercourse. Capitalism developed first and most rapidly out of European feudalism for reasons that I could not fit into the scope of this paper, although I again recommend the book Theories and Narratives, by Alex Callinicos (pp. 165-179).

European capitalism was the first to spill over and subsequently dominate the global realm-not for pathological reasons, but for economic ones, with ideologies such as racism and Orientalism being used to justify their economic brutality. But it is the fact that all of these societies followed a generally-systemic economic course of development that gives us a glimpse of the possibility for some sort of grand historical narrative to describe the human condition at any given moment in history. This course of development does not always move forward in a linear line (to wit: Fascism, Stalinism, etc.), but it dialectically proceeds towards some end.

The postmodernists (and especially the ones with Maoist-leanings) would like us to believe that as cultures, and even as individuals, we are so far removed from each other-we are so entirely subjective-that we cannot even come up with global solutions to our global problems. We must hold tight to an autonomy that we will never have under the current economic arrangement-though it would be attainable in a world of abundance, free of production for profit. The postmodernists, who so desperately want a world where they may simply live in peace, forget that humans can create their own lives, just not in the conditions of their own choosing. That we do not live in an abstract history, but one defined by the specific concrete conditions bequeathed to us by larger historical processes.

In the words of Aijaz Ahmad, unlike the Third World postmodernists,

. . . [We] could start with a radically different premise: namely the proposition that we live not in three [or more] worlds but in one; that this world includes the experiences of colonialism and imperialism on both sides of [the] global divide; that societies in formations of backward capitalism are as much constituted by the division of classes as are societies in the advanced capitalist countries; that socialism . . . is simply the name of a resistance that saturates the globe today, as capitalism itself does; that the different parts of the capitalist system are to be known not in terms of a binary opposition but as a contradictory unity-with differences, yes, but also with profound overlaps.

The world [is] united not by liberalist ideology [or humanistic universalism] but by the global operation of a single mode of production, namely the capitalist one, and the global resistance to this mode, a resistance which is itself unevenly developed in different parts of the globe. 29

This is not about imposing a Western mode of thought upon anybody. This is about survival. Whether we like it or not, all of our lives are severely impacted by global capitalism today-a global system which cannot but grow or die. It is unlike any other force to have affected human history in its scope and power-simultaneously incredibly productive and destructive. If we, as the oppressed majority of the world, the workers of the world, don't come to control it, it will forever control us. If that means that we must learn new ways of thinking-both within the so-called "social minorities" and the so-called "social majorities", then we must adapt to the modern world. History itself, not individuals with particular ideologies, is imposing this world upon us. We too must grow or die.

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Keith Rosenthal is an activist in Burlington, Vermont. He can be reached at keithmr81@yahoo.com.


22. Selfa, p. 17.

23. Ahmad, p. 308.

24. Frederick Engels, "The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State," in The Marx-Engels Reader (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978) pp. 752-3.

25. Esteva and Prakash, p. 161.

26. Ibid, p. 157.

27. Ibid, p. 12.

28. Ibid, p. 31.

29. Ahmad, p. 103.

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