April 2017


Looks like it is the year of the state. I have written two articles, one on the nature of the socialist state, and another on the transition between bourgeois and socialist states. Currently, I am completing an article on the absolutist ‘Christian state’, which was the (Prussian) context in which Marx and Engels began their early work. I am taken with Marx’s argument that the secular, bourgeois state is the full (dialectical) realisation of the absolutist Christian state.

Meanwhile, a snippet of what life was like for an absolute monarch, with a focus on France:

The king of France was thoroughly, without residue, a “public” personage. His mother gave birth to him in public, and from that moment his existence, down to its most trivial moments, was acted out before the eyes of attendants who were holders of dignified offices. He ate in public, went to bed in public, woke up and was clothed and groomed in public, urinated and defecated in public. He did not much bathe in public; but then neither did he do so in private. I know of no evidence that he copulated in public; but he came near enough, considering the circumstances under which he was expected to deflower his august bride. When he died (in public), his body was promptly and messily chopped up in public, and its severed parts ceremoniously handed out to the more exalted among the personages who had been attending him throughout his mortal existence (Poggi, The Development of the Modern State, pp. 68-69).

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Way back in 1945, Stalin was told of the first nuclear test in the USA. He was sceptical. Why? You may have all the firepower in the world, he pointed out, but it is the quality of ground troops that makes all the difference. Stalin’s insights are still very relevant. The USA loves firing missiles and dropping bombs – more bombs were dropped in North Korea in the early 1950s than in the whole of the second world war. But as soon as ground troops go in, they are clearly inferior. The recent history of failures reveals this all too clearly: Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya … One wonders how long the US war machine can keep on failing.

And – as a footnote – I am afraid I was wrong about Trump on the international scene. He is no different from the Bushes, Clinton and Obama, acting like drunken cowboys, trying to provoke one country after another.

Might it possibly be the case that we will begin to hear more of the DPRK’s view? Perhaps it is the recklessness of that rogue state known as the USA, perhaps it is the destabilising drive from South Korea’s conservative government, perhaps it is a newly belligerent Japan – all of these may be forcing a few people to ask: what is the DPRK’s position?

A hint may be found in an extraordinary interview on the BBC, of all places. In response to some rather aggressive questions, the Vice-Foreign Minister of the DPRK, Han Song-ryol, offers carefully considered and calm responses. It is worth watching.

Apart from the obvious point that the DPRK has been forced into a weapons program to defend itself from external aggression, especially by the USA, I am taken with the point that the DPRK has taken a particular path of socialism and they do not appreciate being told by others how to live. So also have you taken a path, says Han to the journalist, and you would not take kindly to someone else telling you what to do.

Since the DPRK (North Korea) is in the corporate news, and full of the usual misrepresentation, I thought I would reprise a section of an article I wrote a couple of years ago on Korean reunification – from the perspective of the north.

Reunification been a consistent policy of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea since its earliest days. But on what terms? A northern takeover of the south? Not at all. The policy is that reunification would be undertaken without outside interference, peacefully and in terms of a federal system, socialist in the north and capitalist in the south. This position was made explicit in the Communiqué of 1972, after the leaders of both countries had secretly met. In 1973 and again in 1980, Kim Il-sung reiterated this position, proposing a Democratic Confederal Republic of Koryo.

However, the most significant movement happened after the June 15th North–South Joint Declaration of 2000, between Kim Jong-il of the north and Kim Dae-jung of the south. Given that reunification has been a core northern policy, the change was obviously in the south. Here more progressive governments became open to the idea and agreed to the declaration. The change began with Kim Dae-jung’s ‘Sunshine’ policy of 1998. The result was the opening of borders, family reunions, a series of meetings between leaders of north and south, sports, cultural and economic exchange, and even the two Olympic teams marching together at the opening ceremonies in 2000, 2004 and 2006.

But as is the way with the vagaries and uncertainties of bourgeois democracies, the south changed its tune in 2008 with the new president, Lee Myung-bak. His right-wing policies led to a hard-line approach more in tune with United States foreign policy. Cooperation ended and tensions once again escalated – the situation in which we find ourselves now. Perhaps an opening up from the south may be possible once again if Moon Jae-in wins the elections this year. Who knows.

But the north Koreans I have met continue to hope ardently for an eventual reunification along federated lines.

With increasing news that US border bureaucrats are asking travellers to hand over electronic devices and provide access (passwords etc.), so they can check your social media, email and so on, it is time either to give the USA a miss (there are better places to visit) or to leave all devices at home. A simple ‘dumb’ or ‘burner’ phone, with a couple of numbers on it may be all that you want to bring with you. Then again, you may be denied entry with these as well, since they may be a signal you are trying to hide something.

In all this, the one I like best is that one may be subject to ‘ideological’ questioning upon arrival at the border.

As part of my research on the socialist state, I have found that many indeed cite, rely upon and try to modify the influential definition given by Max Weber: ‘the state is the form of human community [Gemeinschaft] that (successfully) lays claim to the monopoly of legitimate physical violence [Gewalt] within a particular territory’ (The Vocation Lectures, p. 33). From Charles Tilly, through Norbert Elias, to Pierre Bourdieu, many assume that Weber inaugurated the modern tradition of the analysis of the state – in contrast to the classical tradition (Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau) that saw the state in quasi-theological terms as arising from a state of nature and providing the necessary limits on human society for the sake of the common good.

There is profound problem with this assumption. Weber is actually dependent on an even more influential definition that was first proposed by none other than Friedrich Engels. In a crucial section of The Origin of the Family, Engels writes of the state arising from within the dynamics of a society riven with class conflict (a point that would be taken up by Lenin) and that the state divides its subjects ‘according to territory’ and ‘establishes a public power [Gewalt]’ that is separate from the population organising itself as a military force (Origin of the Family, p. 269). Here are two crucial terms in Weber’s definition: power (or violence) and territory.

For some strange reason, Weber neglects to mention Engels. Is this a Foucault moment, when an influential thinker prefers not to refer to sources of thought since people will simply assume that the thought is new? Or did Weber forget, or perhaps even not know, that Engels had proposed this position first. Given the influence of Marxism at the time, Weber’s ignorance is really not an option.

The conclusion: the modern tradition of reflection the European nation-state (the limitation is deliberate) begins with Engels, as indeed does the Marxist tradition via Lenin.

By and large the Social-Democratic parties (and I include here the ‘socialist’ parties) in Europe support the EU. The reasons vary, but the underlying justification is that the EU is in part a social-democratic project. It seeks to encourage liberal economic policies, while trying to ameliorate some its worse effects – largely to keep the system running.

This position has certain implications in relation to Eastern Europe and ‘former’ communist countries.

  1. A wholesale denial that the economic situation in many Eastern European countries has become worse since 1989 rather than better. This entails a denial of systematic deindustrialisation and the resultant large-scale unemployment.
  2. A perverse suggestion that the EU’s free market means the free movement of manufactured products but not the commodity of labour power. That is, you call sell products on the capitalist market of the EU, but workers should not move to other countries. Why perverse? First, the movement of labour power is one of the commodities in a capitalist market. Second, one of the main aims of the EU is to drive down the cost of labour in Western European countries by employing lower-paid workers from Eastern Europe. This is to counter the law of the falling rate of profit.
  3. So you find social-democratic parties targeting ‘foreign’ workers so as to secure the wavering votes of workers in their ‘own’ countries.
  4. But why would workers from Eastern Europe move elsewhere for jobs? The only position remaining is the weak suggestion that ‘everyone seeks a better life’. Implicit in this suggestion is the agreement that matters have become worse in Eastern Europe since 1989.
  5. And you must – if you are of this persuasion – blame Putin, Trump and the ‘stupid’ Brexit voters in the UK for Europe’s current ills.