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What Does the Ruling Class Do When It Rules?: State Apparatuses and State Power under Feudalism, Capitalism and Socialism

The intricate practices of the elite and how they maintain their dominance.

In his new book, Göran Therborn – author of the now standard comparative work on classical sociology and historical materialism, Science, Class and Society – looks at successive state structures in an arrestingly fresh perspective. Therborn uses the formal categories of modern system analysis – input mechanisms, processes of transformation, output flows – to advance a substantive Marxist analysis of state power and state apparatuses. His account of these is comparative in the most far-reaching historical sense: its object is nothing less than the construction of systematic typology of the differences between the feudal state, the capitalist state and the socialist state. Therborn ranges from the monarchies of mediaeval Europe through the bourgeois democracies of the west in the 20th century to the contemporary regimes in Russia, Eastern Europe and China. The book ends with a major analytic survey of the strategies of working class parties for socialism, from the Second International to the Comintern to Eurocommunism, that applies the structural findings of Therborn’s enquiry in the ‘Future as History’. Written with lucidity and economy, What Does the Ruling Class Do when it Rules? represents a remarkable sociological and political synthesis.

Reviews

  • “Excellent ... With a dispassionate and erudite command of wide-ranging historical and comparative sources, this book is essential reading.”
  • “An extremely thought-provoking, wide-ranging book.”

Blog

  • Lenin's Three Theoretical Arguments About the Dictatorship of the Proletariat

    It is the contradictions of the dictatorship of the proletariat, as it was beginning to develop in Russia, that form the object of Lenin's analysis and of his arguments. If you forget this fact, you can easily fall into dogmatism and formalism: Leninism can be represented as a finished theory, a closed system — which it has been, for too long, by Communist parties. But if on the other hand you remain content with a superficial view of these contradictions and of their historical causes, if you remain content with the simplistic and false idea according to which you have to "choose" between the standpoint of theory and that of history, real life and practice, if you interpret Lenin's arguments simply as a reflection of ever changing circumstances, less applicable the further away they are in history, then the real causes of these historical contradictions become unintelligible, and our own relation to them becomes invisible. You fall into the domain of subjective fantasy

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  • Let’s lose interest in elections, once and for all!

    This text by Alain Badiou first appeared on the Mediapart blog. Translated by David Broder.



    I understand the bitterness of those remonstrating after the first round of the elections, particularly those left disappointed by Mélenchonism. That said, whatever they do, or say, there was no particular aberration, no swindle, in this vote.

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  • "Economic System" and "Theory of an Economic System"

    In An Economic Theory of the Feudal System, published in 1976 by Verso in a translation by Lawrence Garner, Witold Kula constructs a model of the Polish economy as it developed from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. Introducing the book, Fernand Braudel wrote:

    Kula's demonstration proceeds step by step. It analyses the very dynamic of the feudal economy, and its functional possibilities for the seigneurial economy oriented towards the export trade; for the peasant plots which sought to produce a surplus for the local market; for the craft guilds with their difficulties in a relatively unurbanized society. Numerous Polish monographs-studies of production and prices-provide documentation for Kula's hypotheses. His model is then submitted to the test of the "long-term dynamic.” The problem for it is to ascertain “the constant or recurrent phenomena whose cumulative action determined structural transformations.” For each of the parties to the system, nearly always unconsciously, by merely adapting their historical calculations to changing economic or political conjunctures, to their particular situation, to the resistances of the others, eventually falsified the inter-play of the system and altered the model so much that in the end it disintegrated. Thus from 1820 to 1860 the whole system was overthrown in a Poland that remained “feudal,” yet where the landowners had become capitalist entrepreneurs whose behaviour would have been aberrant and impossible in 1780 or so.

    Kula demonstrates the possibility of sudden ruptures in an economic model, once its resilience has been tried too repeatedly by a number of contradictions working in the same direction — contradictions some of which may be internal or inherent to the system itself, and others external and sometimes unpredictable (for example, the halt of European purchases of Polish cereals during the Continental System). His analysis of these is unerringly subtle and logical.

    Kula's work is thus an example of a Marxist problematic mastered, assimilated and elevated to the level of a lucid and intelligent humanism, and a broad explanation of the evolution of the collective destiny of men. All the findings of Polish and non-Polish economic and historical research are gathered here in an effort of objective and patient reflection, of unusual intellectual honesty. The subject of this book — in effect, underdevelopment in modern history — is of such great interest that this novel approach to it, at once very general in its analysis of a phenomenon of long duration, and very concrete in its account of the daily economic calculations of peasant, lord, magnate or squire, is an important event for historians.

    In the excerpt below, Kula defends the concept of an "economic system" and the theorization therof. 


    "Grain Doesn't Pay." Detail from the obverse of a two-sided Polish painting illustrating the falling profitability of agriculture over the course of the eighteenth century. via Wikimedia Commons

    In the preceding chapters we have studied the mechanism governing the operation of the Polish economy during the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. We, therefore, regard this work as contribution to the economic theory of the feudal system. Theoretical construction is not possible where there are no recurring phenomena, and traditional historical science denied on principle the existence of any such phenomena.

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Other books by Göran Therborn