Political Realism

William Thatcher

There is no sense to politics when it is not examined from the standpoint of power.

At the most basic, there are only a few political categories:

  1. Rule—those with power control those without.
  2. Duty—those with power and those without have duties to one another.
  3. Autonomy—no one person or group has power over the rest.

Whatever their specific details, all political beliefs and practices fall into one of these three categories. All three are practiced throughout the world today, though the first is overwhelmingly the most common.

In the first category are obvious things like monarchies and dictatorships. However, today's nation-states should also be considered to be in this category. We may think to put them in the second category because we have elections, but in almost every instance of electoral politics, the only thing that one votes on is who gets the power to control them. Once power is given by the voters to their "representatives", the ruling class who represent a wealthy minority of society (and always have), the position of powerlessness is gradually solidified through the infiltration of police, surveillance, bureaucracy, and nationalism. And as we are seeing clearly in the United States in 2016, elections are rigged to begin with. They are manipulated by those already in power in order to preserve their status quo. Not even the ritual of choosing which hand to get slapped with is real.

Rule enjoys its greatest success when the powerless believe that what is really happening is in one of the other two categories. While governments do just about whatever they want to most of us, we are led to believe that the government has a duty to protect our rights or that we actually have a say in what happens to us. Previous governments were based on other myths that legitimized rulers, such as a cosmic hierarchy or royalty. Once people began to question those myths, they began to question everything that went along with it. What's important thereafter is the myth or reality that comes to replace it. After the downfall of feudalism, the prevailing social myth came to be liberalism. Whereas before people believed that the rules of society were just because it was how god made it, today people believe that the rules of society are just because it was how they made it.

Legitimization is important because it causes people to participate in their own subjugation. It prevents resentment and manufactures consent. Most people believe that it's moral to pay debts, even if they're predatory, immoral to steal even, when it's necessary, and their civic duty to pay their taxes & obey the law, even when they're unjust. When rule is legitimized, the dictates of the rulers are followed for the most part, and force need only be deployed on those who disobey.

Legitimization can fall into any one of the three political categories—as an example of legitimization through rule, the belief (or acknowledgement of fact) that a ruler will kill whoever rises up against them can cause people to stop resisting. Violence is the most basic and overt form of power, and fear is the most basic and overt legitimization of rule. In the second category, duty, we could place debt, tradition, and the social contract. These legitimizations are based on the idea that rulers and the ruled have some sort of mutualistic arrangement that best serves them according to their particular qualities. In the third category are autonomy, elections or the free market. These require quite advanced trickery, and involve making people believe that they are running the show, or that they formerly did and now the system has been corrupted by evil forces.

While most of us believe that the law affects us all equally, the ultra-rich are not actually subject to many, if any laws. Private services mean that the ultra-wealthy largely create their own rules. I don't only mean private versions of public services, but also services completely unavailable to the rest of us (lawyers, financial advisors, wealth managers, publicists), The enforcement of laws falls disproportionately on the most oppressed groups, while the wealthy can break laws with more or less impunity. It rarely comes back to hurt them except because they attract the ire of some equally or more powerful actor. Even when charged with a crime, the wealthy have lawyers to avoid conviction and plenty of money to settle suits out of court before they even happen. Thanks to their ability to freely travel and the existence of various political regions, the rich can shop around for the laws they want to follow.

Most importantly, wealth is itself a form of power. Money's value is not intrinsic; it is relational—the only thing that determines the value of money is what it can be used for. Its value is in commanding and controlling others. The focus by common political mythology and by academics such as economists on the good as the primary object of political economy is to obfuscate the true value of money. Even the purchase of goods is centered around the command of others. If you purchase a good, you are commanding its transference to you; if you sell a good, you are accumulating command over others. Purchasing a service is much more clearly the mere command of others using money. Most clearly is the command of wage laborers, especially those that are disorganized or without the backing of governmental power in upholding labor organization. A wage laborer is a servant rented hourly.

If we take the example of the illegal immigrant day laborer, it's clear that the laborer is essentially powerless: They are not protected by contracts or contract enforcement, so the conditions of their work are not fixed. They do not have the security of stable employment and if they object to their employer's demands, they can simply be replaced. They do not receive the benefits of minimum wage or poverty reduction programs, and must offer themselves for sale at a much lower rate than others. They have a very limited set of choices over where to work, and because of the previous facts, and their need to pay their way through existence, they need to take whatever is given to them. This describes the particular situation of the day laborer, but these conditions exist to some degree or another everywhere in society except its highest echelons. As the influential early political economist James Steuart notes, precarity is the precondition for rule:

By appropriating to themselves the fruits of the earth, [those with personal or political advantages] have the means of subsisting their offspring. The others, I think, will very naturally become their servants. [...] If we suppose all mankind be idle and fed, living upon the spontaneous fruits of the earth, the plan of universal liberty becomes quite natural: because under such circumstances they find no inducement to come under a voluntary subordination (Steuart 1770).

Faithful neoclassical economists attempt to force the provision of services into the narrative of markets being about the exchange of goods, treating servies as goods that are consumed immediately, then applying their pet myth of supply and demand equilibrium to them as usual. They do this for wage labor as well, treating as the "exchange of labor", and again applying supply and demand as the sole basis of analysis. However, as the example of the day laborer illustrates, the most important facts are political and power-based. The lack of contracts and stable employment is not because of supply and demand, but because the day laborer does not have the power to demand a contract or long-term employment. Freedom of choice does not make any real difference here, nor does pulling oneself up by the straps of their boots, because the unequal distribution of power remains. Your employer does not care whether you choose to work for them, as long as someone good enough works for them.

Money's uses are not even limited to market exchanges, which is one of the many absurdities of attempting to split society into "the state" and "the market" in the first place. Money is used in the operation of the government as well, whether through government programs, contracts, taxes, fines, fees, or just plain bribery. While those of us in the developed world tend to see bribery as something that only happens in "corrupt" countries, it is extremely widespread here; it simply hides in plain sight. In 2014, Glaxo-Smith Kline was fined half a billion dollars in China for widespread bribing of doctors to carry their medications (WSJ, 2016). "The market," considered by some to be a neutral domain of freedom which is interefered with by the state, is also intimately involved in the state and in statecraft. The common understanding of this idea by those who are not market fundamentalists, is that "the market" does exist, and is separate from the state, but enjoys a symbiotic relationship with the state. However, it goes much further: business is a direct outcome of statecraft.

The state creates business through the issuing of money and the demand of that money as taxes (see: Debt, Graeber 2011). Many of the functions of the state, today increasingly so, are carried out not by government institutions but businesses. This is not limited to some specific subset of functions or only "productive" activities. It includes activities that are normally considered to be part of the state and not "the market", such as policing, imprisonment, surveillance, intelligence analysis, creation of propaganda, military action, and administration. These activities are funded by money creation, and the businesses that are not directly funded through money creation are funded by those that are. Thus, the "non-state" activities of businesses are incidental to the state activities.

It should be noted that money creation is not an exclusive power of the nation-state. Money creation is a hallmark of statecraft, as every type of state from the religious oligarchy, to the monarchy, the socialist republic, the fascist dictatorship, the city state, to the multinational bank, all have the ability to create obedience by issuing money and demanding it back as taxes or debt. The volume of money created by and repaid to a given institution could be seen as a relative measure of their power. Money creation is effective because it comes with the self-sustaining morality of debt. Money creates a sleight of hand: Money is created ex nihilo, yet something real is demanded to repay the debt. Money creators get your obedience and labor in exchange for access to a small amount of the obedience they have exacted from others. They gain this authority ex nihilo. Money exchange appeals to our sense of reciprocal fairness, but in reality there is nothing reciprocal or fair about it.

The spread of capitalism has brought ever-greater proportions of human activity into a more or less unified system of obedience. Most things cannot be reasonably obtained without needing money. The control over things that are necessary for people to survive and thrive provides the leverage to force them into servitude, while the people generally believe that they are participating in a fair exchange. While the complex web of nation states and differing governments give the appearance of political diversity, nearly all of them participate in the global money system ruled by capitalist money creators. Today the number of participants involved in money exchange and the variety of things available for purchase is cited as evidence that we have autonomy. However, in the end, we don't have the meaningful choices of whether or not to use money, whether or not to repay our debts, or whether or not to pay taxes.

We cannot meaningfully refuse to participate in wage labor, unless we are willing to put up with a life of severe precarity, deprivation, and hardship, or we are willing and able to become an oppressor ourselves. We have the freedom to choose wage labor in the same sense that a medieval peasant had the freedom to choose to be a Christian, or to till the land. This is for the same underlying reason: The capitalists, like the church, hold in their hands the obedience of the vast majority of the population. Those that do not obey are punished by the capitalists or church itself, or by those who do obey. The rebellious few lack the numbers and organization to overcome the power that the state holds. Criminalization takes care of the truly rebellious activities, classifying them as an affront to society and legitimizing retaliatory violence towards the rebels. The most insidious part of capitalism, though, is that thanks to the primacy of money and commerce in socialization, most of the punishment is completely unconscious and invisible. We do not think of it as punishment for a failure to conform when we don't feed, clothe, and house the destitute, but in effect that is exactly what we are doing. As if it were an insurance plan, those who would do so require a personal sacrifice of money to help.

In all the forms of statecraft that have existed thus far, money and debt are some of the threads that string them all together. Whereas the society organized around the free market has never existed anywhere or anywhen in known history, statecraft through money, debt, and commerce have existed everywhere and everywhen since the rise of the civilization. For this reason, it seems trivial to conclude that markets do not have the liberatory potential that they are often attributed. Money is foremost a tool for accumulating power and obedience, and since the free market is not intended to distribute this money equally, it is thus founded on power imbalances and the obedience of some to others, not all to all.

With power as the primary unit of analysis of a political system, democracy emerges as the only known anarchist system of organization. Democracy, in this case, means the case where each person has equal political power. The alternatives, marketization, where those with money hold power over those who need money, or rule, where those in positions of rule hold power over subjects, cannot be anarchist, no matter the details of their implementation. If power is not equally held by all, or equally held by none, then it can be or is held by some over others, which means there is some form of rule.