Concept of Relative Autonomy Model of “State”

Although the instrumentalist approach to state occupies the prominent place in the domain of Marxian approach to state, the other approach the relative autonomy model is, nonetheless, of great importance.

Since this concept carries sufficient weight we shall devote enough space to its analysis. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, written between December 1851 and March 1852, offers a brief outline of this model.

Ralph Miliband says (Socialist Register) “The extreme manifestation of the state’s independent role is to be found in authoritarian personal rule, Bonaparteism.”

The pre-1789 French monarchy was not controlled by any class. The absolute monarchies of other European states were also not controlled by any powerful class. The first and second empires in France were also not states controlled by either the decayed nobility of the rising bourgeoisie.

Marx has said that the ruling class is not always well-organized and sufficiently assertive. Naturally, its extent of control over the state may not be far-reaching. The ruling class is also divided into various groups and factions.

Under such circum­stances it cannot fully control the state machinery. The ruling class is forced to make compromises with all other groups.

The lack of organization in the ruling class sometimes becomes a limiting factor in the way of its control over the working class. There is another limitation which comes from pressure group. In all the liberal democracies economically powerful class is under the influence of pressure groups. Homogeneity of attitude and approach between the ruling elite and pressure group may not be a normal feature.

Schwarzmantel in an Introduction to Power says “The idea of relative autonomy of the state was anticipated by a distinction which Marx made between the dominant class (herrschende klasse) and governing caste (regierende kaste). The holders of the state power who staff the state machinery and form the government are not normally the same people as those who control the means of production.”

The independent character of state, therefore, appears from the difference between the holders of power and holders of the productive forces.

In 1855 Marx wrote:

“The governing caste, which in England is by no means identical with the ruling class, will now be driven from one coalition to the next until it has given conclusive proof that it is no longer destined to govern.”

In liberal democracy the class state functions to protect the interests of the dominant class. Marx calls the government elite a “Committee”. The advocates of the relative autonomy model say that even the members of the committee are not always unanimous on all issues.

The members of the committee who manage the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie are not puppets who respond to every matter or whims mechanically.

As Miliband rightly says, the state may well act on behalf of the ruling class, but that is not to say it works at their behest. To understand the state as an immediately responsive instrument or tool of a class would be a very “vulgar” form of Marxism.

He further points out that the very notion of the state managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie implies a process of selection. The holders of the state power have to decide which measures would; in fact, further the interests of the property owning class as distinct from the interests of a section of that class.

The holders of state power are never the blind followers of the ruling class. They always give priority to stabilization of the ruling class and attainment of long-term benefit. In order to achieve these goals the state authority, if necessary, will contradict the ruling class. The central idea of the relative model is that generally the state power supports or protects the interests of the ruling class, but it is not always correct.

The state authority sometimes maintains apparent or so-called neutrality among the various groups who are on the one hand powerful and on the other fight for capturing power.

The role of the state appears to be of an umpire. The ruling authority wants to prove its neutrality, stability in politics and to establish that it is not done at the hands of powerful groups.

The persons in power sometimes adopt such measures as shortening of working hour, paid holidays and social legislation. All these measures benefit the working class, but the raison d’etre of all these is to stabilize the capitalist system.

The New Deal measures of the thirties of the 20th century USA were promulgated mainly to preserve the interests of capitalists.

As Schwarzmantel writes:

“The govern­ment regulations were denounced by some spokesmen for industry as “creeping socialism”. Nevertheless, the action of the state was in the long-term interest of American capitalism enabling it to recover from the recession without in any way imperilling the basic system.” Same independence of state action is to be found in Britain.

The coup d’ etat, Marx wrote, was the victory of Bonaparte over parliament, of the executive power over the legislative power, of force without phrases over force of phrases. The nation made its general will the law, that is, it made the law of the ruling class its general will. Before the executive power it renounces all will of its own and submits to the superior command of an alien will, to authority.

The executive power, in contrast to the legislative power, expresses the heteronomy of a nation, in contrast to its autonomy. France seems to have escaped the despotism of a class only to fall back beneath the despotism of an individual, and what is more, beneath the authority of the individual without authority.

The struggle seems to be settled on such a way that all classes, equally important and equally mute, fall on their knees before the rifle butt Marx then goes on to speak of this executive power with its enormous bureaucratic and military organization, with its ingenious “state machinery, embrac­ing wide strata, with a host of officials numbering half a million, besides an army of another half million, this appalling parasitic body which enmeshes the body of French society like a net and chokes all its pores”.

This bureaucratic power which sprang up in the days of absolute monarchy had first been the means of preparing the class rule of the bourgeoisie.

While under Restoration, under Louis Philippe, under the parliamentary republic it was the instrument of the ruling class, however much it strove for power of its own. But the coup d’etat changed its role. Only under the Second Bonaparte does the state seem to have made it completely independent. As against the civil society, the state machine has consoli­dated its position so thoroughly that the chief of the society of December 10 ( i. e., Louis Bonaparte) suffices for its head.

The above is the brief picture of the independent functioning of state. This he has portrayed in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. The two models instrumentalist and relative are opposite to each other. But one should not forget to note that both these models depict the true character of capitalist state that prevailed in his time.

A number of recent scholars are of opinion that the relative autonomy model is of great significance. It proves how Marx was sensitive to the functioning of the state. It also proves the piquancy of his observation. Miliband says, “This (analysis in Brumaire) would appear to suggest the complete independ­ence of the state power from all social forces in civil society”.

It is to be noted here that though Miliband claims full independence of state authority, in capitalist system the state authority can never be fully independent because the most powerful class or group will never allow the state authority to function independ­ently.

If the state does so the vital interests of the dominant class would face erosion or danger. In one way or other the powerful class would prevail over the state authority.

Reasons of the Relative Autonomy:

In the opinion of Schwarzmantel there are two main reasons of why the state must have relative autonomy. For the “ruling class cohesion” the autonomy of the bourgeois state is essential. There are numerous divisions within the capitalist class. Sometimes they fight against each other. Persons managing the state affairs are well aware of it.

If this is allowed to continue, the rulers apprehend, the interests of the capitalist class will be seriously jeopardized. The authority must not be responsive to each and every attitude and demand of the economically dominate class.

Administration will be a separate entity. If the members of the dominant class interfere with the process of administration conduct of government will be impossibility. Moreover, the government must publicly show that it is neutral in the midst of various classes.

That is, the image building purpose leads the state to pursue an independent policy. Peace in society is also an important precondition for uninterrupted growth of capitalism. Blatant partiality simply antagonizes other classes. This is to be shelved. Again, class cohesion means integration of conflicting interests. This is also essential.

Speaking of the nature of capitalist class Draper says, “No other ruling class is so profusely crisscrossed internally with competing and conflicting interest groups. Competing national groups are split by regional group interests, different industrial interests, antagonism within an industry.”

Schwarzmantel’s another reason is “The state, in a liberal democratic system, must have some autonomy in order to preserve its legitimacy. If the state was seen to be too closely bound up with and dominated by one set of interests, it would not be able to maintain the belief that it represents the general interests.”

Liberal democracy does not believe that the working class will have no influence on the policy and affairs of the state. The elites are very clever and understand the nature and functioning of state. This enables them to acquire control over the state affairs.

The liberal democracy permits the free political activities of all groups of persons. It the powerful class wants to capture power the active support of the working and middle classes are a must. Naturally the holders of power do not want any alienation of the working class from the ruling class. They want to establish a rapprochement between the classes. This necessitates independent functioning of state.

In Marx’s time the state was not so much autonomous as it is today. Why? The increasing democratisation and rising political consciousness have created mount­ing pressure upon the state to follow an impartial policy.

It the ruling class follows an uncompromising policy that will lead to an explosive situation detrimental to the general interest of the body politic. So in Marx’s time there was autonomy and it still exists though in greater amount.

Is the State Really Autonomous?

The liberal democratic state or the autocratic state of Marx’s time maintains an autonomous status even in the midst of divergent forces does not lead one to think that the state is absolutely autonomous and it is not an instrument of class rule.

Under pressure of circumstances the ruling class may amend its policy or modify its attitude. But the leitmotif remains in all circumstances unaffected, to safeguard the class interest. Sometimes the ruling class pleads for a “strong state” and concedes to the erosion of its power.

Military organ of state enjoys precedence in all cases. This naive concession is not to be treated as a permanent arrangement. When the state appears to be powerful the ruling class switches its allegiance from traditional bases or agencies to new elements.

In every capitalist system there is an unholy alliance between the powerful class and the state structure and this alliance benefits both. As a result, if situation demands the powerful class utilizes the state machinery in its favour which finds no resistance from state. Marx never assumes that the state power always maintains neutrality.

In the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte he has said “And yet the state power is not suspended in mid-air. Bonaparte represents a class, and the most numerous class of French society at that, the small holding peasants.”

Engels was well aware of the issue of relative autonomy of state and he has said that the state maintains its neutrality in some cases.

He is conspicuous in the following comment made by him:

“By way of exception 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. Such was the absolute monarchy of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which held the balance between the nobility and the class of burghers. Such was the Bonaparteism of First and still more the Second French Empire, which played off the proletariat against the bourgeoisie, and the bourgeoisie against the proletariat.” Commenting upon Engels’s conception of relative autonomy Ralph Miliband says in Socialist Register.”

But the independence of which he speaks would seem to go much further than anything Marx has in mind.

The vital point is that though Engels admits of the autonomy of state he never gives it too much importance. He says that the autonomy of state is a rare occurrence. It is never the primary character of the stale.

He calls the autonomy an exception. The instrumentalist model is general. In the Origin of Family, Private Property and State Engels remarks that the fact is that the state is an organization of the possessing class for its protection against the non-possessing class. Everywhere wealth plays the vital role in the political affairs of the state.

This role is sometimes directed sometimes indirect. Both the relative and instrumentalist models are correct, but they do not offer the last words about the nature of bourgeois state. Such a state is always sensitive to prevailing situation.

We have already noted that every bourgeois state wants peace and stability within its geographical boundary and for that purpose it is forced to make compromises with all prevailing forces.

Up to the end of the nineteenth century the state was controlled by powerful class. But after the First World War (1914-1918) the situation began to change and today no capitalist state is absolutely controlled by any powerful class.

Recent Observations on Relative Autonomy Model:

Fyodor Burlatsky, a renowned critic of Marxian politics, deals with the concept of relative autonomy of state. It is interesting to note that he admits the existence and working of the autonomous bourgeois state. But he points out that to what extent a bourgeois state will admit the autonomy that depends upon the ability of autonomy to serve the purpose of bourgeoisie.

There is a tendency on the part of the state to acquire autonomy. Burlatsky investigates the working of the American capitalist system and on the basis of investigation he says that enormous expansion of state’s economic function, pressure on the state of class forces opposing and fighting against monopolies, increasing complexities of state’s public administration, mass activism in social conflicts and international factors are responsible for the autonomy of state in capitalist society.

He concludes:

“The does not mean that the bureaucracy is becoming an intermediary force in bourgeois society. Under any conditions, it takes a stand in defence of the economic and socio-political system of bourgeois society”.

United States is the most prosperous, powerful and reactionary bourgeois state. Its administration is so complex and policy making system is so much connected with numerous departments that both these require a heavy dose of specialization.

The ruling class as a whole cannot shoulder the entire responsibility of the complex system. Autonomy of state apparatus is, therefore, a natural consequence. But we must be alert about the fact that the policy makers and administrators never betray the capitalist class.

The ruling class is forced to take assistance of numerous pressure groups and interest groups and this it does reluctantly. It is true that the leaders of the ruling class give final touches to all policies but behind every policy or decision their work large number of experts. Naturally we cannot say that the powerful class is all in all. In every state various forces are quite active in numerous sections of state administration.

During the 19th century the economic, political and social conditions of all the capitalist states have undergone radical changes. What was simply capitalism in past, now it has assumed the character of State Monopoly Capitalism.

Hence the economic functions of state have increased enormously. On the other hand, rise of people’s demands are mounting upon the state authority at an increasing rate.

The authority of state is busy in arriving at a compromise between the contending forces of the society and in doing this it maintains autonomy. Whatever may be the extent of the power of the ruling class, the holders of power try to bypass some of the demands of the dominant class. The relative autonomy of the state under present circumstances is not a myth; it is a reality, a stark reality. Modern bourgeois state will proceed to disintegration if it neglects the interests of other classes, but it does not sacrifice the interests of the ruling class.

The present position of the relative autonomy of the state can be illustrated by several recent experiences. Hitler, with the help of capitalists, came to power. But he consolidated and strengthened his position with the help of bureaucracy and military and simultaneously he suppressed all elements of opposition.

The German state became the most powerful totalitarian state. Dictatorship of Hitler was strengthened and autonomy of the party state and military mechanism considerably grew. Of course, there were crises in the ruling classes in Germany.

However, in the thirties the German state under the leadership of Hitler became the most powerful autonomous state. In the late fifties of the 20th century General de Gaulle captured power in France to tide over the rapid deteriorating conditions.

He was the symbol of national power and was determined to pursue an independent policy both in national and international fields. He snapped relations with USA and other NATO states and established cordial relations with the then Soviet Union.

All these measures considerably enhanced the prestige and image of France in international arena. Needless to say General de Gaulle wanted that.

What is the exact picture of the relative autonomy of state in the developing countries of the Third World? In spite of the autonomy of state, the dominant class enjoys certain amount of influence in administrative and policy-making affairs. But in developing countries the picture is quite different. In these countries it is very difficult to locate an economically dominant class.

A number of classes vie with each other to capture power and this ultimately leads to political instability.

The state as a balancing force exercises its power to settle the disputes. The state, in the last analysis, enjoys autonomy. This is relative autonomy of state. Kandai Seshadri in his Studies in Marxism and Political Science has said – “The administration of colonial and semi-colonial countries representing a nebulous state may exercise a certain measure of independence. This is what could be called the relative autonomy of state”.

Base (production relations) and superstructure (state) are not mechani­cally related. It is a feature of the developing countries that economic base is backward, while the superstructure that is law, courts and bureaucracy are not backward, rather quite developed. The influence of pressure group and political consciousness of masses are not of high standard. State gets ample scope to discharge its functions independently.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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