Why would I be surprised to read Marx being quoted in an article discussing the Colombian state’s complicity in the human rights violations of the rightist paramilitary ‘self-defence’ death squads in that country? Last night while burning the midnight oil finishing off an essay on US foreign policy in Latin America I found myself entranced by Jasmine Hristov’s 2010 article, ‘Self-Defense Forces, Warlords, or Criminal Gangs? Towards a New Conceptualization of Paramilitarism in Colombia.’ It’s dense and rather depressing, but well worth the read, and she doesn’t hold her punches. Considering why a democratic government would enlist the help of murderous thugs against impoverished and defenceless people, most – I think – would refer first to the social and political realities within modern Colombia. Not Hristov. Drawing us straight back to classical Marxist analysis, she says that this is simply a natural consequence of bourgeois hegemony;
The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.
~ Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto
That was refreshing. I was under the impression that such blatant references to Karl and Frederick were out of fashion. It would seem not – at least not in South America. Equivocation has become all the rage, especially when it comes to our discussions about those in power; a development that suggests we have bought into the idea that we actually have a say in what is going on in the world around us. Perhaps it is the growing awareness of our powerlessness that drives more and more of us to bury our heads in the sand and pretend it’s not happening.
Marx’s razor-sharp observation on the state as a mutual help society for the powerful decision-makers is echoed beautifully in the description of the Town Council in The Brigand’s Cave chapter (Chapter 38 if you’re interested) of Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. Every member of the Council is a local “shining light” with a controlling stake in one or other of the local business concerns or one of the municipal utilities (sound familiar?). Every decision they make – a conspiracy by definition – is worked towards their own benefit and the screwing of the workers who by their work only dig deeper graves for themselves and their families. Why wasn’t it obvious to me that states would operate in exactly the same way? Kudos to Hristov.