Is the State merely a Committee for Managing the interests of Elites?

The ‘State’ is somewhat of a nuanced term in the literal sense, yet the term is widely used to describe the role and actions of the government in power. The role of the state is something that has divided theorists across the traditional ‘left/right’ spectrum with regards to its role and its members (executive, legislature and judiciary). This essay will discuss Locke’s view on the state of nature and how it lead to the formation of the commonwealth, it will also look at how its purpose is for the protection of liberty and property. The essay will also examine Marx’s theory on the state, who viewed the state as a committee that merely promotes and manages the interests of the elite.  The essay will draw attention to the differences between the two philosophers.

In order to comprehend the genesis of the state according to Locke, we have to first briefly explain Locke’s view on the State of Nature. Locke explains that during the ‘state of nature’ people are in a state of “perfect freedom to order their actions” (Locke, ch2).  All are subject to ‘natural law’ and if an individual’s liberties or rights are threatened then “every man hath the right to punish the offender, and be executioner of the law of nature” (Locke, ch2). As society naturally progresses, the concept of natural law is not adequate to protect an individual’s freedoms and property. Upon reaching this junction, people consent to enter civil society with the intention of protecting themselves. Locke discusses the concept of private property and how it is intrinsically tied to the state and what the role of the state should be with regards to property among other things.

By joining civil society, its members relinquish the right to freedom to do what they want as well as their right to implement the law how they see fit (Locke, ch7). In order to settle disputes between people a judicial power is set up, this power is arbitrary and this is the foundation of the judicial system enjoyed today. This marks the transition from the state of nature to the commonwealth, the commonwealth being the group of people who have consented to join civil society. “Though every man who has entered into civil society, and is become a member of any commonwealth, has thereby quitted his power to punish offences” (Locke ch7). This power implements a series of laws that all members must obey in order to maintain harmony and peace. This nexus between the state of nature and the commonwealth leads to the discussion around Locke’s views on the state and its role.

According to Locke, entering civil society thus establishing the state, was vital for the protection of property. Property not just in the literal sense, but property of oneself (Locke secs. 85). Therefore Locke alludes to the idea that even if a person doesn’t have actual property in his name, by being alive and a part of society he has property within him. Therefore it is the state’s responsibility to preserve and protect him.  This sets out the role the state should be play in civil society and according to Locke, the state was “set up for the protection, and preservation of the people, their liberties and properties” (Locke, secs. 227). The government created by civil society serves its purpose by primarily protecting property and individual liberties and therefore its role and responsibilities according to Locke are confined to the protection property, individual liberty and life. Locke does place certain restrictions on the activity of ‘the state’ and claims that joining the commonwealth does not equate to the surrendering of property and property rights; Locke says “…the supreme power cannot take from any man any part of his property without his own consent: for the preservation of property being the end of government” (Locke, secs.138). With property being the focal point for Locke, the state according to him was not just about managing the affairs of the ‘elite’ or a certain section of society. Instead the state was established with consent from the people, with the intention that the state would guarantee the protection of property, individual liberties and their lives in general. The state would also act as an intermediate between any disputes within the commonwealth. Locke’s views on the state and its role focusses primarily on the protection of property followed by social liberties and life. He has been influential in shaping modern liberal thought as his ideas correspond with certain people who believe the state should be small, yet they should serve the purpose of protecting fundamental property rights and liberties.

Locke’s ideas on the state differs completely to Marx. In order to analyse Marx’s view on the state, we have to look at how society is structured according to Marx. Marx divided society into two groups: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The bourgeoisie were the ruling class who controlled the means of production and possessed most of the wealth therefore acquiring more capital. The ruling class, bourgeoisie, exploits and supresses the proletariat who carry out labour on behalf of the proletariat. The state is used by the bourgeoisie to promote their own personal interests. Simultaneously the state falsely claims to emancipating man politically, yet binding him economically. Marx argued that the bourgeoisie “assert their common interests and the state acts as an intermediary in the formation of all communal institutions and gives them a political form” (Easton, p470).

Marx traced the origin of the state back to the divisions in labour. In order to disguise the real interests of the bourgeoisie the state was created and it would serve as an illusion of ‘community’ and belonging to the proletariat. This allows the bourgeoisie to conceal the real struggles between the classes (Marx, p209). McLellan argues that methods of production allowed a certain class of people to dominate economically and therefore attracted the services of the state. The monopolisation of the means of production created their own political organisation; this organisation according to Marx would be “dependent on the bourgeoisie for taxes and public credit” (McLellan, p.209). Marx went further and discussed how the state should be created as an institution that served a select group of people and was dependent on that group of people for political backing (bourgeoisie). Marx argued that the proletarian revolution would turn the state into an organ that was “completely subordinate” (Marx, p546) to society; rather than an organ that serves the interests of the bourgeois. From this we can see that Marx viewed the state as an extension of the bourgeoisie and its main purpose was to manage their economic interests by creating a false consciousness among the proletariat.

Marx challenged the notion of the state being fundamentally an institution to protect property, liberty and life itself. Marx answers the essay question and bluntly proclaims it in the Communist Manifesto: “the executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” (kmsw, p.223). An example of this could be the financial crisis in 2008 and the banks being bailed promptly. Banks such as Goldman Sachs, Northern rock etc were bailed out by governments even though they were partly responsible for the crash. Therefore this showed that the state managed the financial and economic interests of the elite as banks collapsing would have worldwide repercussions. Marx argued that the state was formed as an intermediary in communal institutions and therefore created an illusion of ‘people power’ thus giving the people a political form. Marx viewed the state as merely “an empty ideal sphere which created the illusion of belonging to a community” (McLellan, p.206). This means that the state was a superficial structure created to dupe the populous into thinking they have political power. This reinforces the idea that the state is merely a committee for managing the interests of the elite. Marx does argue that the state can be transformed into a political organisation that manages the interests of the workers. This can be achieved through revolution and would eventually lead to “dictatorship of the proletariat” (kmsw, p.565).

To conclude, political theorists have disagreed on the function of the state. Locke doesn’t specifically mention elites, rather he argues that the state is established consensually by the people relinquishing their natural rights in favour of a body to settle disputes. He argues that the fundamental role of the state is to protect property, liberty and life itself. Locke’s views on the state revolve around property ownership and individual rights. This contrasts with Marx’s view on what makes an ‘elite’. Elites in a Marxist context could mean the bourgeoisie who control the means of production and/or private property owners. Marx argues that the state is a mere extension of the bourgeoisie and is a tool that helps the ruling elite supress the proletariat. As well as suppression, the state serves the more economically powerful classes and so they favour and manage the interests of the so called ‘elite’.

Ibrahim Seedat

BA Politics and International Relations (Hons.)


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