On Twitter yesterday, a friend put up a tweet carrying this quotation from Adam Smith:
"Civil government...is in reality instituted for the defence of the rich against the poor" [Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, bk 5, ch 1, pt 2]
It's an idea that's probably more familiar to many in its Marxist variants, amongst the best known of which is this one from the Communist Manifesto:
The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.
Whatever the truth about the origins of civil government, an issue I set to one side, it is worth considering - both in general and in the context of the recent riots - a claim to the effect that the modern democratic state, is 'in reality for the defence of the rich against the poor' or 'but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie' (both emphases mine). In this post I shall argue that it is true that the state defends the rich against the poor, but that this is a partial truth and that other parts of the truth matter that are in the same ballpark, so to say.
That one of the functions of the modern democratic state is a defence of the rich against the poor is obvious. This is true whether you think that the function in question is the principal function of the state or merely amongst its functions. For one of the things the state does is to uphold - including by the deployment of force when necessary - the whole system of property, and therefore the distribution of property, and therefore, further, the inequalities of wealth and income, that that system of property embodies. This doesn't mean that governments can never intervene to mitigate inequalities, or even to institute reforms which lessen them. They can. Nonetheless, in so far as the governments of contemporary democratic states act as the guarantors of economic relations which entail great differentials of wealth and of well-being, these states function to defend the rich against the poor.
The truth of the latter proposition, however, would be misleading if we didn't also note the other functions of the state, or if, following the emphases I added to the Smith and Marx/Engels quotes above, we were to imply that these other functions are negligible or unimportant. Without aiming for comprehensiveness, I list some of them below.
1. The defence of individuals, irrespective of their economic situation or status, from one another - since it is a function of the state to police the relations between citizens and prevent them aggressing against one another and breaching the most basic individual rights.
2. The provision of public amenities, such as roads, parks, sewage systems, and so forth.
3. The provision of education and laying down of educational standards.
4. Some provision of welfare.
5. The defence (in this manner of speaking) of the poor against the rich, as for instance in labour legislation laying down minimum standards of health and safety at work.
6. The defence of the autonomy of the national community against threats from other states.
7. The defence of individuals and civil organizations by some parts of the state against other parts - as when the courts rule against the executive branch.
8. The defence of the property of people who are neither rich nor poor (on whatever are the going definitions of these notions) but somewhere in between.
9. The specification of standards of gender equality, and legislation aiming to further it.
10. The specification of norms of racial, ethnic and religious equality and legislation to protect people against hate crimes.
11. Protection of the interests of children.
12. The provision of humanitarian aid.
13. The defence, where necessary, of the interests of citizens travelling in other countries.
14. Some level of health provision.
15. Subsidizing cultural activities of one kind and another.
Whatever may have been omitted from or be in need of amendment or correction in this list, it should suffice to show that democratic states do a lot more, and different, than just defending the rich against the poor. And this is so even if (as is the case) this particular function sometimes skews and distorts some of the state's other functions. The state in its modern democratic forms is not merely an instrument of the rich. It also represents something of the common life of the society over which it presides, and the common needs and wishes of its members.
In any context, therefore, the attempt to present the institutions of the democratic state as an empty pretence, as no more than a figleaf for class rule, is wrong-headed. In the particular context of the recent looting and disorder, to present the government and/or police as merely looking out for the interests of rich people is equally so; there has been worry and revulsion in the public at large. The fact that democratic governments in this and other capitalist countries stand by more or less untroubled to practices by the rich that are deeply unjust and a proper cause of outrage doesn't change that.