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Vol. 78/No. 2      January 20, 2014

(feature article)
Growth of ‘administrative state’
feature of modern US capitalism

Aspect of growing government apparatus is increasing numbers of federal regulations.

Number of U.S. government employees has grown from about 4 million in 1939 to nearly 22 million today. Most of them are employed in government’s administrative, regulatory, police and military departments, whose function is to maintain capitalist order and social relations of exploitation and oppression.

The propertied ruling families in the U.S. and other imperialist countries exercise their state power — the dictatorship of capital — not only through a centralized military and police apparatus but also a large and growing state bureaucracy, with a myriad of agencies, institutions, departments, regulatory boards and enforcement corps, propped up by a second tier of so-called Non-Governmental Organizations and non-profit foundations.

The seeds of what is often termed the modern “administrative state” were planted in Europe and America with the rise of imperialism in the early 1900s and grew at an accelerated pace following the end of World War II.

One measure of this is the growth of federal outlays in the U.S., which were relatively tiny until the early part of the 20th century. They rose during World War I, increased moderately to cover concessions like Social Security won through working-class struggles in the 1930s and soared to cover the costs of World War II. Ever since the late 1940s, they’ve been rapidly rising.

For the first half century or more U.S. government annual expenditures, adjusted for inflation, remained at roughly $30 per person. In 1910 it was about $129 per person. By 2004 it was $7,100. Once state and local expenditures are included this figure comes to more than $12,000.

Another measure is the number of U.S. government employees, which has increased from about 4 million in 1939 to nearly 22 million today, a more than five-fold rise, during a period when the population increased less than two and a half times. While this includes postal, transportation, hospital and other workers who produce goods and services of some value to working people, most are employed by government administrative, regulatory, police and military departments, whose function is to maintain and defend social relations of exploitation and oppression.

According to the official website, there are 510 federal departments and agencies, 50 of which were created over the past 15 years. Among those with the largest number of civilian employees: 718,000 at the Department of Defense; 302,000 at the Department of Veteran Affairs; 240,000 at the Department of Homeland Security; 114,000 at the Department of Justice; 100,000 at the Department of Treasury; and 98,000 Internal Revenue Service agents.

Another aspect of the capitalists’ administrative state is the increasing numbers of federal regulations and bigger staffs to enforce them. From 1949 to 2005 the listings of federal regulations grew by 600 percent to 134,000 pages, six years later it was nearly 170,000. While expanding under the George W. Bush administration, they’ve shot up further under the Obama administration. The 144 new major regulations pending in the second half of 2011 is double the figure from the same period in 2006.

The growth in government agencies has been accompanied by a rapid growth in Non-Governmental Organizations, “think tanks” and foundations. Approximately 1.5 million U.S. and foreign-based NGOs operate in the U.S., according to the State Department, most formed in the past 30 years. Of the more than 75,000 foundations in the U.S., about two-thirds of the largest were established after 1989.

NGOs tied to gov’t bureaucracy

Non-Governmental Organizations, despite their name, are anything but. The overwhelming majority are linked in one way or another to government policy or the maintenance of social relations of capitalist exploitation, often under the rubric of charity. Many operate as government contractors and are used to advance U.S. rulers’ foreign policy goals that are more effectively carried out in an indirect manner. As tax-exempt organizations, they’re financed by individual capitalists, ruling families, corporations and their government.

Since World War II, the function of NGOs and the U.S. government have grown closer. In 1961 the U.S. Agency for International Development, which now operates in more than 150 countries, was created within the State Department. In 2000, “USAID directed about $4 billion of its $7.2 billion assistance funding to nongovernmental organizations,” according to the Government Accounting Office.

Hand in hand with the growth of the administrative state bureaucracy and particularly its various appendages has been a social layer of self-styled “meritocrats” to run them.

“This expanding layer of the comfortable middle classes,” writes Jack Barnes, national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party, in Malcolm X, Black Liberation, and the Road to Workers Power, “is composed of the handsomely remunerated staffs of so-called nonprofit foundations, charities, ‘community organizations,’ and ‘nongovernmental organizations’ (NGOs) — in the United States and worldwide; of well-placed professors and top university administrative personnel; of attorneys, lobbyists, and others. The lives and livelihoods of these growing foundation- and university-centered strata in capitalist society — who, along with bankers and businessmen, cycle back and forth into and out of government positions — are themselves largely unconnected to the production, reproduction, or circulation of social wealth. Their existence is more and more alien to the conditions of life of working people of any racial or national background. …

“Its members truly believe that their ‘brightness,’ their ‘quickness,’ their ‘contributions to public life,’ … give them the right to make decisions, to administer society on behalf of the bourgeoisie — what they claim to be on behalf of the interests of ‘the people.’”

Growing executive powers

One political trend connected to the growth of the administrative state is a shift of power from the legislative branch of government toward the executive office of the president, an erosion in the “checks and balances” of bourgeois “democracy.” One apparent contradiction is that the very administrative agencies Congress itself has created and delegated powers to have in effect undermined its power relative to the executive branch.

The growing use of executive power — by both Democratic and Republican administrations alike — can be seen in the increase in presidential decrees and decisions made and implemented by nonelected regulatory agencies that answer to the executive office alone.

During his first four years in office President Barack Obama issued 170 executive orders. They include putting into effect a wide variety of policies, from prohibiting certain imports of Burmese Jadeite and Rubies to authorizing implementation of stiffening sanctions against Iran to establishing the White House Homeland Security Partnership Council. During his eight years, from 2001 to 2009, George W. Bush issued 287 executive orders. William Clinton issued 308 in his two terms from 1993 and 2001.

To pay for its expanding state apparatus the U.S. rulers have imposed steeper and steeper taxation on the population. Federal income tax was first set up by constitutional amendment in 1913. But it was not until World War II that workers had to pay them. The number of those paying into government coffers jumped from 4 million in 1939 to 43 million by 1945 — more than 10-fold in six years. And it has been rising ever since, together with regressive Social Security payroll taxes and other add-ons.

Big government bad for workers

Contrary to popular misconception, the revolutionary communist movement is not for “big government,” whether it’s a government representing the state power of the capitalist exploiters or a revolutionary government of workers and farmers.

The false view has developed as a result of the massive, repressive state that was put in place in the Soviet Union following the counterrevolutionary usurpation of power by a privileged bureaucratic layer led by Josef Stalin in the 1920s.

Writing on the lessons of the 72-day Paris Commune where the working-class in 1871 held political power for the first time, communist leader Karl Marx said, “The Commune made that catchword of bourgeois revolutions, cheap government, a reality by destroying the two greatest sources of expenditure — the standing army and the state functionarism.”

The goal of the revolutionary workers movement is to overthrow and dismantle the rulers’ repressive apparatus and administrative bureaucracy. The political power of the working class and its allies that will replace this state will have no need for some big central government to administer society.

Through the revolutionary struggle for power and without the fetters and stifling conditions of capitalist rule, working people will transform themselves into self-confident men and women capable of organizing to meet the material and cultural needs of humanity and solve what had been insurmountable social problems. And they will do this starting at the most basic local level, not through top-down administration.

In this sense the communist view is also the opposite of that put forward by the liberal meritocracy, which seeks to promote greater dependency among working people on a supposed benevolent government and its administrative agencies.  
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