Laissez-faire IS State Regulation

There is a certain persistence of arguments, just as there is the persistence of a symptom1. While ceaselessly making the argument for what our opponents sneer at as a ‘planned economy’, and despite it being planned for equality, universality and justice, we are just as ceaselessly bombarded with the market-liberal claim that we should ‘just let human nature take its course’: that deregulation is the key to a fair and equitable society. Like me, you will have been deeply suspicious of ‘deregulation’, and probably doubly so at the invocation of ‘human nature’. You will have found a means to argue that deregulation is precisely an organised process in which society is actively mobilised in multiple compositions, varying forms and functions to bring about consensus.

You may have turned to Nicos Poulantzas’ or Bob Jessop’s State Theory in elaborating how the overzealous libertarian position (that ‘the State is the enemy of freedom’), and the instrumentalist-Marxist position (that ‘the State is the tool of the Capitalist class’), are both of them dead wrong. You might have pointed out that while the State in its overall function indeed smooths the operation of Capitalist society, Capitalism in itself is far too divisive to ensure any kind of permanent social stabilisation, and therefore it is only with a significant degree of autonomy from the short-term goals of Capitalism that the State manages to mediate with some degree of regularity.

You will have argued, with your usual critical acumen, that the State is not a power bloc but a differentiated series of relations. And finally, if you were up to the job, you would have nailed the argument with what might be called the factum civili, the fact that whatever form a socio-economic order takes, it takes this form because it is this form which is organised, propagated, and reproduced by the relational complex we call ‘the State’. Our lives are already regularised, legislated, educated, disciplined, oriented, shaped, coerced and deliberately normativised in particular forms, through manifold means, before we even consider the State as something standing ‘over there’. We are permeated by it.

Naturally, our adversaries (and even many of our friends and allies) consider the State in far narrower and impoverished terms deeply coloured by the disconnect between parliamentary politics and contemporary life, a deep fracture which it is the perpetual preoccupation of the media to confront us with. This is the picture they like to paint: We, the people, immersed in our daily lives, and on the other side of the insular moat, Westminster, with its many bureaucratic tributaries and tendrils encroaching on our lives with a creeping insidiousness. There is a certain terror in this image, a certain traumatic truth. But this image is not the State, and we must not reduce the meaning of the State to this. The fact that our lives are already organised, taking certain forms within historically defined choices, our selectivity, a certain degree of moral independence within a certain series of acceptations—the fact that our lives have, collectively, a certain disposition in advance of being ‘encroached upon’ by any particular governmentality—is due to the existence of the State proper. The State as a relation is society in relation to itself, it is in fact the whole of civil society in all its differentiated complexity and historical depth.

So now you’ve made this argument, this argument that there is, effectively, no escape from State, no elaboration of the modern society into a form that would exist without this broader sense of State as State-relation, and that the idea of ‘the withering’ or disparition of the State can therefore at best only mean the end of the Capitalism-smoothing State, that is to say, the end of the existing social order insofar as it serves to reproduce the Capitalist relation. You’ve taken your cues from state relational theory, which you see as an advance on a vulgarly instrumentalist form of Marxism, and in that respect you’re a Thoroughly Modern Millie. Well done. But as is often the case, the argument has been going on longer than you have. Antonio Gramsci, for example, was already honing a position on this in his prison notebooks:

The approach of the free trade movement is based on a theoretical error whose practical origin is not hard to identify: namely the distinction between political society and civil society, which is made into and presented as an organic one, whereas in fact it is merely methodological. Thus it is asserted that economic activity belongs to civil society, and that the state must not intervene to regulate it. But since in actual reality civil society and state are one and the same, it must be made clear that laissez-faire too is a form of state ‘regulation’, introduced and maintained by legislative and coercive means. It is a deliberate policy, conscious of its own ends, and not the spontaneous, automatic expression of economic facts. Consequently, laissez-faire liberalism is a political program, designed to change—in so far as it is victorious–a state’s ruling personnel, and to change the economic program of the state itself, in other words the distribution of the national income.2

Basically, you’re in good company with this argument. It’s not that ‘we on the left’ favour a planned economy as against an economy that ‘just happens’, as if it somehow spontaneously emerges as an evolutionary best-fit to the human profile. The point to be made, in fact, is that there is no such thing as an unplanned economy—the very term oikonomia, ‘rule of the household’, attests to that—just as there is no unplanned life. Major advances in many fields of our knowledge about ourselves in recent history have discovered that our lives are deeply regulated and codified on every level, especially including those moments in which we believed we were at our most spontaneous. This is not to say that outcomes are always planned, far from it. Neither is it to say that we always know what we are doing, or even that if we do know, that we always know that we know it. But it does mean that any dream of leaving things alone and letting nature take its course are the worst kinds of bad faith imaginable.


[1] The accompanying images are taken from the film Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) Dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, based on a play by Tennessee Williams.

[2] Antonio Gramsci in Forgacs, D. (ed.) VI Hegemony, Relations of Force, Historical Bloc: Some Theoretical and Practical Aspects of Economism, Part Two: Prison Writings 1929-1935, An Antonio Gramsci Reader: Selected Writings 1916-1935, Schocken Books, New York

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