Anarchist FAQ/Why do anarchists oppose the current system?/2.3

B.2.3 How does the ruling class maintain control of the state?Edit

In some systems, it is obvious how economic dominant minorities control the state. In feudalism, for example, the land was owned by the feudal lords who exploited the peasantry directly. Economic and political power were merged into the same set of hands, the landlords. Absolutism saw the monarch bring the feudal lords under his power and the relative decentralised nature of feudalism was replaced by a centralised state.

It was this centralised state system which the raising bourgeoisie took as the model for their state. The King was replaced by a Parliament, which was initially elected on a limited suffrage. In this initial form of capitalist state, it is (again) obvious how the elite maintain control of the state machine. As the vote was based on having a minimum amount of property, the poor were effectively barred from having any (official) say in what the government did. This exclusion was theorised by philosophers like John Locke—the working masses were considered to be an object of state policy rather than part of the body of people (property owners) who nominated the government. In this perspective the state was like a joint-stock company. The owning class were the share-holders who nominated the broad of directors and the mass of the population were the workers who had no say in determining the management personnel and were expected to follow orders.

As would be expected, this system was mightily disliked by the majority who were subjected to it. Such a "classical liberal" regime was rule by an alien, despotic power, lacking popular legitimacy, and utterly unaccountable to the general population. It is quite evident that a government elected on a limited franchise could not be trusted to treat those who owned no real property with equal consideration. It was predictable that the ruling elite would use the state they controlled to further their own interests and to weaken potential resistance to their social, economic and political power. Which is precisely what they did do, while masking their power under the guise of "good governance" and "liberty." Moreover, limited suffrage, like absolutism, was considered an affront to liberty and individual dignity by many of those subject to it.

Hence the call for universal suffrage and opposition to property qualifications for the franchise. For many radicals (including Marx and Engels) such a system would mean that the working classes would hold "political power" and, consequently, be in a position to end the class system once and for all. Anarchists were not convinced, arguing that "universal suffrage, considered in itself and applied in a society based on economic and social inequality, will be nothing but a swindle and snare for the people" and "the surest way to consolidate under the mantle of liberalism and justice the permanent domination of the people by the owning classes, to the detriment of popular liberty." Consequently, anarchists denied that it "could be used by the people for the conquest of economic and social equality. It must always and necessarily be an instrument hostile to the people, one which supports the de facto dictatorship of the bourgeoisie." [1]

Due to popular mass movements form below, the vote was won by the male working classes and, at a later stage, women. While the elite fought long and hard to retain their privileged position they were defeated. Sadly, the history of universal suffrage proven the anarchists right. Even allegedly "democratic" capitalist states are in effect dictatorships of the propertariat. The political history of modern times can be summarised by the rise of capitalist power, the rise, due to popular movements, of (representative) democracy and the continued success of the former to undermine and control the latter.

This is achieved by three main processes which combine to effectively deter democracy. These are the wealth barrier, the bureaucracy barrier and, lastly, the capital barrier. Each will be discussed in turn and all ensure that "representative democracy" remains an "organ of capitalist domination." [2]

The wealth barrier is the most obvious. It takes money to run for office. In 1976, the total spent on the US Presidential election was $66.9 million. In 1984, it was $103.6 million and in 1996 it was $239.9 million. At the dawn of the 21st century, these figures had increased yet again. 2000 saw $343.1 spent and 2004, $717.9 million. Most of this money was spent by the two main candidates. In 2000, Republican George Bush spent a massive $185,921,855 while his Democratic rival Al Gore spent only $120,031,205. Four years later, Bush spent $345,259,155 while John Kerry managed a mere $310,033,347.

Other election campaigns are also enormously expensive. In 2000, the average winning candidate for a seat in the US House of Representatives spent $816,000 while the average willing senator spent $7 million. Even local races require significant amounts of fundraising. One candidate for the Illinois House raised over $650,000 while another candidate for the Illinois Supreme Court raised $737,000. In the UK, similarly prohibitive amounts were spent. In the 2001 general election the Labour Party spent a total of £10,945,119, the Tories £12,751,813 and the Liberal Democrats (who came a distant third) just £1,361,377.

To get this sort of money, wealthy contributors need to be found and wooed, in other words promised that that their interests will be actively looked after. While, in theory, it is possible to raise large sums from small contributions in practice this is difficult. To raise $1 million you need to either convince 50 millionaires to give you $20,000 or 20,000 people to fork out $50. Given that for the elite $20,000 is pocket money, it is hardly surprising that politicians aim for winning over the few, not the many. Similarly with corporations and big business. It is far easier and more efficient in time and energy to concentrate on the wealthy few (whether individuals or companies).

It is obvious: whoever pays the piper calls the tune. And in capitalism, this means the wealthy and business. In the US corporate campaign donations and policy paybacks have reached unprecedented proportions. The vast majority of large campaign donations are, not surprisingly, from corporations. Most of the wealthy individuals who give large donations to the candidates are CEOs and corporate board members. And, just to be sure, many companies give to more than one party.

Unsurprisingly, corporations and the rich expect their investments to get a return. This can be seen from George W. Bush's administration. His election campaigns were beholden to the energy industry (which has backed him since the beginning of his career as Governor of Texas). The disgraced corporation Enron (and its CEO Kenneth Lay) were among Bush's largest contributors in 2000. Once in power, Bush backed numerous policies favourable to that industry (such as rolling back environmental regulation on a national level as he had done in Texas). His supporters in Wall Street were not surprised that Bush tried to privatise Social Security. Nor were the credit card companies when the Republicans tighten the noose on bankrupt people in 2005. By funding Bush, these corporations ensured that the government furthered their interests rather than the people who voted in the election.

This means that as a "consequence of the distribution of resources and decision-making power in the society at large . . . the political class and the cultural managers typically associate themselves with the sectors that dominate the private economy; they are either drawn directly from those sectors or expect to join them." [3] This can be seen from George W. Bush's quip at an elite fund-raising gala during the 2000 Presidential election: "This is an impressive crowd -- the haves and the have-mores. Some people call you the elites; I call you my base." Unsurprisingly:

"In the real world, state policy is largely determined by those groups that command resources, ultimately by virtue of their ownership and management of the private economy or their status as wealthy professionals. The major decision-making positions in the Executive branch of the government are typically filled by representatives of major corporations, banks and investment firms, a few law firms that cater primarily to corporate interests and thus represent the broad interests of owners and managers rather than some parochial interest . . . The Legislative branch is more varied, but overwhelmingly, it is drawn from the business and professional classes."


That is not the only tie between politics and business. Many politicians also have directorships in companies, interests in companies, shares, land and other forms of property income and so forth. Thus they are less like the majority of constituents they claim to represent and more like the wealthy few. Combine these outside earnings with a high salary (in the UK, MP's are paid more than twice the national average) and politicians can be among the richest 1% of the population. Thus not only do we have a sharing of common interests the elite, the politicians are part of it. As such, they can hardly be said to be representative of the general public and are in a position of having a vested interest in legislation on property being voted on.

Some defend these second jobs and outside investments by saying that it keeps them in touch with the outside world and, consequently, makes them better politicians. That such an argument is spurious can be seen from the fact that such outside interests never involve working in McDonald's flipping burgers or working on an assembly line. For some reason, no politician seeks to get a feeling for what life is like for the average person. Yet, in a sense, this argument does have a point. Such jobs and income do keep politicians in touch with the world of the elite rather than that of the masses and, as the task of the state is to protect elite interests, it cannot be denied that this sharing of interests and income with the elite can only aid that task!

Then there is the sad process by which politicians, once they leave politics, get jobs in the corporate hierarchy (particularly with the very companies they had previously claimed to regulate on behalf of the public). This was termed "the revolving door." Incredibly, this has changed for the worse. Now the highest of government officials arrive directly from the executive offices of powerful corporations. Lobbyists are appointed to the jobs whose occupants they once vied to influence. Those who regulate and those supposed to be regulated have become almost indistinguishable.

Thus politicians and capitalists go hand in hand. Wealth selects them, funds them and gives them jobs and income when in office. Finally, once they finally leave politics, they are often given directorships and other jobs in the business world. Little wonder, then, that the capitalist class maintains control of the state.

That is not all. The wealth barrier operates indirectly to. This takes many forms. The most obvious is in the ability of corporations and the elite to lobby politicians. In the US, there is the pervasive power of Washington's army of 24,000 registered lobbyists—and the influence of the corporate interests they represent. These lobbyists, whose job it is to convince politicians to vote in certain ways to further the interests of their corporate clients help shape the political agenda even further toward business interests than it already is. This Lobby industry is immense—and exclusively for big business and the elite. Wealth ensures that the equal opportunity to garner resources to share a perspective and influence the political progress is monopolised by the few: "where are the desperately needed countervailing lobbies to represent the interests of average citizens? Where are the millions of dollars acting in their interests? Alas, they are notably absent." [5]

However, it cannot be denied that it is up to the general population to vote for politicians. This is when the indirect impact of wealth kicks in, namely the role of the media and the Public Relations (PR) industry. As we discuss in section D.3, the modern media is dominated by big business and, unsurprisingly, reflects their interests. This means that the media has an important impact on how voters see parties and specific politicians and candidates. A radical party will, at best, be ignored by the capitalist press or, at worse, subject to smears and attacks. This will have a corresponding negative impact on their election prospects and will involve the affected party having to invest substantially more time, energy and resources in countering the negative media coverage. The PR industry has a similar effect, although that has the advantage of not having to bother with appearing to look factual or unbiased. Add to this the impact of elite and corporation funded "think tanks" and the political system is fatally skewed in favour of the capitalist class (also see section D.2).

In a nutshell:

"The business class dominates government through its ability to fund political campaigns, purchase high priced lobbyists and reward former officials with lucrative jobs . . . [Politicians] have become wholly dependent upon the same corporate dollars to pay for a new professional class of PR consultants, marketeers and social scientists who manage and promote causes and candidates in essentially the same manner that advertising campaigns sell cars, fashions, drugs and other wares."


That is the first barrier, the direct and indirect impact of wealth. This, in itself, is a powerful barrier to deter democracy and, as a consequence, it is usually sufficient in itself. Yet sometimes people see through the media distortions and vote for reformist, even radical, candidates. As we discuss in section J.2.6, anarchists argue that the net effect of running for office is a general de-radicalising of the party involved. Revolutionary parties become reformist, reformist parties end up maintaining capitalism and introducing polities the opposite of which they had promised. So while it is unlikely that a radical party could get elected and remain radical in the process, it is possible. If such a party did get into office, the remaining two barriers kicks in: the bureaucracy barrier and the capital barrier.

The existence of a state bureaucracy is a key feature in ensuring that the state remains the ruling class's "policeman" and will be discussed in greater detail in section J.2.2 (Why do anarchists reject voting as a means for change?). Suffice to say, the politicians who are elected to office are at a disadvantage as regards the state bureaucracy. The latter is a permanent concentration of power while the former come and go. Consequently, they are in a position to tame any rebel government by means of bureaucratic inertia, distorting and hiding necessary information and pushing its own agenda onto the politicians who are in theory their bosses but in reality dependent on the bureaucracy. And, needless to say, if all else fails the state bureaucracy can play its final hand: the military coup.

This threat has been applied in many countries, most obviously in the developing world (with the aid of Western, usually US, imperialism). The coups in Iran (1953) and Chile (1973) are just two examples of this process. Yet the so-called developed world is not immune to it. The rise of fascism in Italy, Germany, Portugal and Spain can be considered as variations of a military coup (particularly the last one where fascism was imposed by the military). Wealthy business men funded para-military forces to break the back of the labour movement, forces formed by ex-military people. Even the New Deal in America was threatened by such a coup.[7] While such regimes do protect the interests of capital and are, consequently, backed by it, they do hold problems for capitalism. This is because, as with the Absolutism which fostered capitalism in the first place, this kind of government can get ideas above its station This means that a military coup will only be used when the last barrier, the capital barrier, is used and fails.

The capital barrier is obviously related to the wealth barrier insofar as it relates to the power that great wealth produces. However, it is different in how it is applied. The wealth barrier restricts who gets into office, the capital barrier controls whoever does so. The capital barrier, in other words, are the economic forces that can be brought to bear on any government which is acting in ways disliked of by the capitalist class.

We see their power implied when the news report that changes in government, policies and law have been "welcomed by the markets." As the richest 1% of households in America (about 2 million adults) owned 35% of the stock owned by individuals in 1992—with the top 10% owning over 81% -- we can see that the "opinion" of the markets actually means the power of the richest 1-5% of a countries population (and their finance experts), power derived from their control over investment and production. Given that the bottom 90% of the US population has a smaller share (23%) of all kinds of investable capital that the richest 1/2% (who own 29%), with stock ownership being even more concentrated (the top 5% holding 95% of all shares), its obvious why Doug Henwood argues that stock markets are "a way for the very rich as a class to own an economy's productive capital stock as a whole," are a source of "political power" and a way to have influence over government policy.[8]

The mechanism is simple enough. The ability of capital to disinvest (capital flight) and otherwise adversely impact the economy is a powerful weapon to keep the state as its servant. The companies and the elite can invest at home or abroad, speculate in currency markets and so forth. If a significant number of investors or corporations lose confidence in a government they will simply stop investing at home and move their funds abroad. At home, the general population feel the results as demand drops, layoffs increase and recession kicks in. As Noam Chomsky notes:

"In capitalist democracy, the interests that must be satisfied are those of capitalists; otherwise, there is no investment, no production, no work, no resources to be devoted, however marginally, to the needs of the general population."


This ensures the elite control of government as government policies which private power finds unwelcome will quickly be reversed. The power which "business confidence" has over the political system ensures that democracy is subservient to big business. As summarised by Malatesta:

"Even with universal suffrage -- we could well say even more so with universal suffrage -- the government remained the bourgeoisie's servant and gendarme. For were it to be otherwise with the government hinting that it might take up a hostile attitude, or that democracy could ever be anything but a pretence to deceive the people, the bourgeoisie, feeling its interests threatened, would by quick to react, and would use all the influence and force at its disposal, by reason of its wealth, to recall the government to its proper place as the bourgeoisie's gendarme."


It is due to these barriers that the state remains an instrument of the capitalist class while being, in theory, a democracy. Thus the state machine remains a tool by which the few can enrich themselves at the expense of the many. This does not mean, of course, that the state is immune to popular pressure. Far from it. As indicated in the last section, direct action by the oppressed can and has forced the state to implement significant reforms. Similarly, the need to defend society against the negative effects of unregulated capitalism can also force through populist measures (particularly when the alternative may be worse than the allowing the reforms, i.e. revolution). The key is that such changes are not the natural function of the state.

So due to their economic assets, the elites whose incomes are derived from them—namely, finance capitalists, industrial capitalists, and landlords—are able to accumulate vast wealth from those whom they exploit. This stratifies society into a hierarchy of economic classes, with a huge disparity of wealth between the small property-owning elite at the top and the non-property-owning majority at the bottom. Then, because it takes enormous wealth to win elections and lobby or bribe legislators, the propertied elite are able to control the political process—and hence the state—through the "power of the purse." In summary:

"No democracy has freed itself from the rule by the well-to-do anymore than it has freed itself from the division between the ruler and the ruled . . . at the very least, no democracy has jeopardised the role of business enterprise. Only the wealthy and well off can afford to launch viable campaigns for public office and to assume such positions. Change in government in a democracy is a circulation from one elite group to another."


In other words, elite control of politics through huge wealth disparities insures the continuation of such disparities and thus the continuation of elite control. In this way the crucial political decisions of those at the top are insulated from significant influence by those at the bottom. Finally, it should be noted that these barriers do not arise accidentally. They flow from the way the state is structured. By effectively disempowering the masses and centralising power into the hands of the few which make up the government, the very nature of the state ensures that it remains under elite control. This is why, from the start, the capitalist class has favoured centralisation. We discuss this in the next two sections.

(For more on the ruling elite and its relation to the state, see C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite [Oxford, 1956]; cf. Ralph Miliband, The State in Capitalist Society [Basic Books, 1969] and Divided Societies [Oxford, 1989]; G. William Domhoff, Who Rules America? [Prentice Hall, 1967]; and Who Rules America Now? A View for the '80s [Touchstone, 1983]).


  1. Bakunin, Bakunin on Anarchism, p. 224
  2. Kropotkin, Words of a Rebel, p. 127
  3. Chomsky, Necessary Illusions, p. 23
  4. Chomsky, On Power and Ideology, pp. 116-7
  5. Joel Bakan, The Corporation, p. 107
  6. John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, Toxic Sludge is Good for You, p. 78
  7. Joel Bakan, Op. Cit., pp. 86-95
  8. Wall Street: Class Racket
  9. Turning the Tide, p. 233
  10. Anarchy, p. 23
  11. Harold Barclay, Op. Cit., p. 47