In the seventh chapter of The Eighteenth Brumaire, Marx turns his sights to the character of the capitalist state in France—a state that had recently crushed a workers’ uprising (1848) and consolidated itself in the 1851 coup led by Louis Bonaparte (Napoleon Bonaparte’s grand-nephew). Marx points out how this state massively concentrates power in the hands of the executive. Marx then denounces this “enormous bureaucratic and military organisation, with its ingenious state machinery, embracing wide strata, with a host of officials numbering half a million, besides an army of another half million.” These troops and bureaucrats, he observes, are subject to no authority other than that of the president and his executive officers.
Ah, but what of all the public works undertaken by this state—from schools and universities to bridges and publicly-owned railways? Surely Marx saw these as progressive? On the contrary. He argues that all these were formed by severing them from the common interests of the people–alienating them from the people by ensconcing them in the hands of the state bureaucracy. As a result, “Every common interest was straightaway severed from society, counterposed to it as a higher, general interest, snatched from the activity of society’s members themselves and made an object of government activity, from a bridge, a schoolhouse and the communal property of the village community to the railways, the national wealth and the national university of France.”
Rather than romanticise these “public” services and enterprises, Marx is scathing about their alienated form. These state operations have been “snatched from the activity of society’s members themselves.” Rather than communally-operated lands, schools, and universities—public services subject to democratic, community control—all these have been severed “from the common interests of the people.” Marx is here radically distinguishing between state ownership and communal ownership. The latter represents social property belonging to and regulated by the people. “Public” services and enterprises administered by the modern state, on the other hand, are merely controlled by a bureaucracy that chokes off the democratic life-blood of real communities of people.
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