Thursday, October 13, 2011
I should make it clear that Poulantzas' views evolved and altered in ways I can't properly summarise. Suffice to say that there is an important shift between an early historicist phase, which I won't go into, a structuralist phase, evident in books such as Political Power and Social Classes and Classes in Contemporary Capitalism, and a later phase where he gradually abandoned some of his Althusserian commitments, which can be seen in Fascism and Dictatorship and his final book, State, Power, Socialism. (Althusser's maligned influence deserves some recuperation - fortunately, Gregory Elliot's superb revision of his legacy has been reprinted recently). I should also say upfront that many of the criticisms that follow are 'immanent', taking Poulantzas' marxist framework for granted and faulting him for not following his precepts through to their logical conclusion. This isn't to attack Poulantzas for departing from revealed wisdom in "some holy text" as he might have put it, but simply to judge his writing by standards he himself adopts.
Part I: Classes, the 'new petty bourgeoisie' and class alliances
According to Poulantzas, socialist strategy is weakened by a failure to properly grasp changes in the class structure of contemporary capitalism: "it was on this question, among others, that, as we now know, the socialist development in Chile came to grief." The major development that warranted attention was the growth of "nonproductive wage-earners, i.e. groups such as commercial and bank employees, office and service workers, etc., in short all those who are commonly referred to as 'white-collar' or 'tertiary sector' workers". (Classes in Contemporary Capitalism, NLB, 1975, pp. 193) There was a tendency at the time to assess this in terms of the 'embourgeoisement' of the working class and thus the dissolution of hard class boundaries. Others, like the French Communist Party (PCF) to which Poulantzas adhered, theorised this group as an 'intermediate stratum' within a series of strata that exist independently of either the proletariat or the bourgeoisie.
Poulantzas holds that it isn't sufficient to describe this layer as a strata: the "class specificity" of this group had to be grasped. It could not just be subsumed into the wider categories of bourgeois and proletarian either, because the effect of this was to dissolve both categories by compelling theorists to introduce new theoretical determinations that weakened their explanatory power. Theorising them as simply part of the extant middle class tended toward the same conclusion, since such accounts regarded the middle class as a "stew in which classes are mixed together and their antagonisms dissolved, chiefly by forming a site for the circulation of individuals in a constant process of 'mobility' between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat." The result was that classes simply ceased to exist as classes. (Classes in Contemporary Capitalism, NLB, 1975, pp. 194-9)
The starting point for his own analysis was the structuralist framework that he took over from Louis Althusser. Thus, he explained that the concept of class refers to "the overall effects of the structure on the field of social relations and on the social division of labour". (Classes in Contemporary Capitalism, NLB, 1975, p. 199) This structure comprises several distinct regions: "everything happens as if social classes were the result of an ensemble of structures and of their relations, firstly at the economic level, secondly at the political level, and thirdly at the ideological level". (Political Power and Social Classes, NLB, 1975, p. 63) This draws from Althusser, who holds that the capitalist mode of production comprises an articulation of distinct economic, political and ideological levels. Classes must be determined by all three levels - at least, so the early Poulantzas claims. Importantly, however, the economic level bears the strongest freight of determination here. It is in the structures of 'economic exploitation' (the appropriation of surplus value by the bourgeoisie), 'economic ownership' (the power of the bourgeoisie to dispose of economic resources for various uses), and 'economic possession' (the power of the bourgeoisie to organise and determine labour processes), that class is determined first and foremost.
Poulantzas draws an important distinction between class determination and class position. The former is an objective determination: the working class is such due to its situation within the matrix of the capitalist mode of production. The latter is relational and partly subjective. A class can adopt a position that converges with that of another class, without altering its objective class determination. For example, a section of the working class (Poulantzas cites the fabled 'labour aristocracy') may take a position identifying with the bourgeoisie, but "the adoption of bourgeois class positions by a certain stratum of the working class" would not "eliminates its class determination". Class position has some bearing on class determination, however. Classes are "reproduced according to the reproduction of the places of social classes in the class struggle". This, of course, leaves open the possibility that the class struggle will fail to reproduce the places of social classes, or will radically disrupt their efficient reproduction. (Classes in Contemporary Capitalism, NLB, 1975, pp. 201-3)
Poulantzas chooses to define non-productive wage earners as the "new petty bourgeoisie", asserting that "they belong together with the traditional petty bourgeoisie". (Classes in Contemporary Capitalism, NLB, 1975, p. 204) Defining the petty bourgeoisie correctly, he argues, is "the focal point of the Marxist theory of social classes" because it shows that "relations of production alone are not sufficient, in Marxist theory, to determine the place a social class occupies in a mode of production ... It is absolutely indispensable to refer to ideological and political relations". (Fascism and Dictatorship: The Third International and the Problem of Fascism, NLB, 1974, p. 237) So, it's clear that in identifying a "new petty bourgeoisie", he is making both a strategic political intervention which will have profound consequences for the elaboration of class alliances and hegemonic manouevering, and a theoretical intervention in the sociology of classes.
But on what basis does he identify this "new petty bourgeoisie" as a class apart from the working class and akin to the "traditional petty bourgeoisie"? Poulantzas asserts that the layers that Marxists have traditionally identified as petty bourgeois - small property owners who do not exploit wage labour, or only very occasionally - are actually transitional elements proper to pre-capitalist modes of production: this is why Marx expected them to be subsumed over the long-term into the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. (This has in fact been an observable trend.) Yet, the "new petty bourgeoisie" identified by Poulantzas seems to be very different - it is not a mass of small producers, but wage earners who do white collar work, mental labour, but do not contribute directly to the production of surplus value. Despite the fact that they are waged, Poulantzas says that their non-productive status excludes them from the working class. To explain this position, he cites Marx to the effect that the distinction between productive and unproductive labour is "not derived from the material characteristics of labour ... but from the definite social form, the social relations of production, within which the labour is realised." Thus, "productive labour in a given mode of production is labour that gives rise to the dominant relation of exploitation of this mode ... productive labour is that which directly produces surplus-value, which valorizes capital and is exchanged against capital" (Classes in Contemporary Capitalism, NLB, 1975, p. 211) Thus, those who perform non-productive labour do not produce surplus value and are thus not central to the reproduction of the dominant relation of exploitation under capitalism. This, for Poulantzas, excludes them from the working class.
Having said all this, their exclusion from the working class (and from the bourgeoisie) leaves them in a middling position. It doesn't automatically mean they are part of the petty bougeoisie and, as noted, they are very different from traditional petty bourgeois in terms of productive relations. The unity of traditional and new petty bourgeois layers is secured, Poulantzas argues, within the political and ideological regions where they have similar effects. That is to say, in the polarised situation created by the struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, they occupy an intermediate position. Their 'negative' definition, arising from their exclusion from the two' fundamental' classes, means that they are not a 'fundamental' class, have no long-term interests in this struggle, and will tend to vacillate as a consequence. They will also converge on certain basic ideological positions: their hatred of the rich combined with fear of proletarianisation will tend to lead them to "status quo anticapitalism" where they embrace property but oppose monopolies in favour of more opportunity and competition; this segues into the second position which is an aspirational faith in "the myth of the 'ladder'" of opportunity; the third is an unwavering belief in the class-neutral position of the state, "statolatry". Because of their shared political and ideological positions, then, they comprise a single class. (Fascism and Dictatorship: The Third International and the Problem of Fascism, NLB, 1974, pp. 237-44; Classes in Contemporary Capitalism, NLB, 1975, pp. 206-12; Bob Jessop, Nicos Poulantzas: Marxist Theory and Political Analaysis, Macmillan, 1985, pp. 169-70)
Critics of Poulantzas' class analysis point out that it involves a break with Marx's own method. The whole conception is built on what appears to be a non-sequitur: that is, an illegitimate extrapolation from certain arguments in Marx. It is not clear, even from Poulantzas' selected quotes, that Marx excluded 'non-productive' labour from the working class. Indeed, there are several passages that suggest that the division between mental and manual labour that Poulantzas focuses on is not central to Marx's definition of class. Poulantzas' analysis of the new petty bourgeoisie attributes to politics and ideology, more than one's objective situation within the productive matrix, a determining role in one's class position. Not only is this incompatible with Marx, it also contradicts Poulantzas' own statements to the effect that there is an objective class situation that is more important in defining classes than their orientation in any "concrete conjuncture of struggle". (Quoted, Bob Jessop, Nicos Poulantzas: Marxist Theory and Political Analaysis, Macmillan, 1985, p. 164). Even within a recidivist structuralism, Poulantzas' argument seems odd. Recall that in his early work he did insist on the idea that class should be determined at all three levels of the mode of production, but insisted that the economic level had the primary determining role; here, he not only puts the primary determining role at the level of ideology, but he denies any but an indirect economic input.
Lastly, some absurd conclusions appear to follow from Poulantzas' narrow definition of the working class: for example, assuming that the working class only includes those engaged in direct productive or extractive industries, some 70% of the US workforce would be petty bourgeois, and only 20% working class. (see Alex Callinicos, 'The "New Middle Class" and socialist politics', in Chris Harman and Alex Callinicos, The Changing Working Class: Essays on class structure today, Bookmarks, 1987, p. 19) Nonetheless, the strategic conclusions that follow from Poulantzas' class analyses are clear. Poulantzas took from Gramsci the idea that hegemonic struggle was the normal form of political class struggle in a capitalist society. He argued that the working class needed to build hegemonic alliances similar to those built by the bourgeoisie. But if the working class does not form a clear majority, then it is arguably in need of a particular kind of hegemonic cross-class alliance: the Popular Front. Thus, for Poulantzas, the need to win over the petty bourgeoisie was central to the anti-monopoly, anti-imperialist alliances behind Union de la Gauche in France, as well as the possibility of the anti-dictatorship alliance in Greece turning into an anti-imperialist and anti-monopoly alliance. (Bob Jessop, Nicos Poulantzas: Marxist Theory and Political Analaysis, Macmillan, 1985, p. 149) Given the outline of the petty bourgeoisie's political and ideological dispositions that he has given, this will tend to require the dilution of any agenda for socialist transformation. Poulantzas was operating on the left-most end of Eurocommunism, and did not go as far down the road of eschewing class politics and anti-imperialism as some did. Yet, concessions to the economic policies and political tactics of fractions of the bourgeoisie (the 'interior' or 'domestic' bourgeoisie, which may or may not exist), as well as to the purviews of the petty bourgeoisie, were essential to his strategic perspective.
Before leaving the subject of class, it's worth stating that one of Poulantzas' most telling insights concerns the way in which 'class interests' should be understood. Here, he rejects the idea the idea that such interests can be determined from the relations of production themselves. The historicist (Hegelian) problematic sees class as a subject of history, with interests that can be inferred from its role as a factor in historical transformation. This raises the problem of how a class becomes aware of those interests and moves from being a class-in-itself to a class-for-itself. It also raises the deeply problematic notion of "false consciousness", to explain how a class fails to grasp its own interests. Instead, Poulantzas argues that 'class interests' are not computable outside the field of 'class practises' in a given conjuncture. That is to say, at any moment in the development of the class struggle there will be a series of 'objective' and 'subjective' factors which limit the working class's possible range of actions. These form a 'horizon of action', defining the maximum possible advances against opposing classes at any given moment. One of the determinants of this horizon is the form of political representation that the class has, which means that the 'interests' of a class in a given moment are susceptible to modification by political intervention, even if the objective circumstances have not changed. (Political Power and Social Classes, NLB, 1975, pp. ; Bob Jessop, Nicos Poulantzas: Marxist Theory and Political Analaysis, Macmillan, 1985, pp. 153-4) As Jessop points out, this puts the emphasis on "strategic calculation" rather than objective, given facts. It also has certain political consequences, inasmuch as it avoids the potential elitism of parties or their intellectual cadres presuming to be the bearers of an objective, historically given truth.
The ensuing posts deal with Poulantzas' ground-breaking work on the state, his arguments on the power bloc, and finally his orientation toward Eurocommunism.