Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Terrifyingly real: Poulantzas and the capitalist state

The theory of politics and the politics of theory
This is part II of the long delayed Poulantzas series, this time on the problem of the capitalist state.  Poulantzas made several distinctive, ground-breaking contributions to state theory.  Or, I should say, to capitalist state theory since in his view a generic theory of the state was impossible.  One can derive some "general theoretical propositions" about the state from the study of its types, but they "can never be anything other than applied theoretical-strategic notions".   The two major works of his dealing with the capitalist state are Political Power and Social Classes (1968 - hereafter PPSC), written within an althusserian problematic, and State, Power, Socialism (1978 - SPS), which advances a relational view of the state and dispenses with some of the earlier althusserian themes.

I will disappoint some people by not immediately treating in detail the politics of each theoretical phase, but I do intend to return to this in a later post.  Suffice to say for now that the two major works cover a shift from 'Marxism-Leninism' of a more or less critical variety (PPSC, finished days before the occupation of the Sorbonne and the beginning of the May 1968 uprising in France) to a left variant of Eurocommunism (SPS, published during a crisis of marxism, especially of althusserian marxism, and containing passages aimed at the nouveau philosophes).  Strategically, and with regard to the capitalist state, this involved a shift from a nominally revolutionary approach to a 'centrist' approach - centrism, in the terminology of the Third International, being a position suspended between reform and revolution.

In each case, Poulantzas was arguing for a strategy commensurate with the politics of the communist formation (the Greek Communist Party of the Interior - KKE-I) that he was a member of.  This breakaway from the Greek Communist Party (KKE) was active in the resistance to the colonels from 1968-1974, and represented the non-Stalinist wing of the party.   It was initially one of the more left-wing communist parties, but moved to the right throughout the 1970s.  Confounding expectations, this did not improve its standing among Greek voters.  In the 1977 elections, it was the party advocating hardline Stalinism (the KKE) that reaped the lion's share of the communist vote, while the KKE-I's modernising Eurocommunist position received a derisory vote.  The KKE-I was famed among the intelligentsia, but never broke out of its ghetto of less than 3% of the vote, with membership in the region of 12-14,000 in contrast to the KKE's votes of 9-11%, and membership of between 100-120,000. The fact that Poulantzas' major Eurocommunist text followed the 1977 result suggests that even if he had been aware of the historic failure awaiting the Eurocommunist project, he would have continued in the same direction as he saw no future in orthodox alignments, and expected Stalinism be superseded by some form of 'democratic socialism'.

Before delving into Poulantzas' theoretical innovations, I must make a note on his method.  As he said in his critique of Miliband, any historical materialist approach to the capitalist state must clearly state its epistemological criteria in order to properly situate the concrete historical data it works with.  Absent this, it becomes an exercise in empiricism.  His own works, particularly PPSC, are to a very large extent concerned with outlining these protocols.   His approach, as such, has been taxed with the stigma of 'formalism' and (pace Miliband) 'hyper-abstractionism'.  The burden of this criticism is that Poulantzas spent more time parsing texts from the marxist canon and arguing through their implications, than examining concrete state formations.  This is not entirely unfair, and to the extent that it is true, Poulantzas was being typically althusserian: a close, symptomatic scrutiny of texts being the modus operandi of the Althusser Circle.  But the point is overstated.  The survey of the typologies of the capitalist state in PPSC, for instance, largely draws on current sociological and historical research.  The argument about the ambiguous role of state personnel in SPS draws from the immediate experience of May 1968 in France.  Moreover, there is something praiseworthy in Poulantzas' re-evaluation of first principles, the painstaking clarification of concepts.  Though this responded to concrete political problems, usually crises - of Greek communism, of democracy, of marxism, etc - his response was far from intellectually defensive.  He took theoretical risks in order to make marxism adequate to the present.  Only by doing so is it possible to make any sort of progress.


'Relative Autonomy', the 'effect of isolation', and the regional theory of the capitalist state
In PPSC, Poulantzas' approach to the capitalist state was, as I have suggested, conducted within the problematic of althusserian marxism.  That is, he sought to understand the state in terms of the specific role of the political 'instance' or level within the capitalist mode of production.  Recall that for Althusser, the mode of production is a 'structure of structures', an articulation of political, ideological and economic levels in which the economic level indirectly determines the content of the political and ideological levels 'in the last instance'.  At the same time, the political and ideological levels intervene in the economic in an 'overdetermining' fashion - that is, the effects and 'contradictions' that accumulate at one level of the structure are condensed in each point of the whole.  (I hope this explanation makes some sense - a lot is being omitted here.)  For Poulantzas, therefore, to understand the capitalist state was to understand: i) the role of the political instance in the capitalist mode of production; ii) the specific way in which the political intervenes in the economic, and is determined by the economic in the last instance, and iii) the relationship of the state to the field of class relations, and thus class practices.

Under capitalism, the political has a certain 'relative autonomy' from the economic and ideological levels.  (Please bear in mind in what follows that the term 'relative' is as important as the term 'autonomy'.)  One way of arguing this might be to claim that capitalism is distinguished by an extrusion of politics from direct relations of production and surplus extraction.  Whereas under feudalism, the levels are 'mixed', with those appropriating surplus labour also wielding direct political power, they are separated out under capitalism.  But Poulantzas rejects this.  Rather, his analysis rests on the so-called 'effect of isolation'.  That is, under capitalism the labour process is subject to both collectivization and separation.  On the one hand, labour processes are carried out in a more dependent, cooperative manner than ever before; on the other hand, they are within certain limits carried out independently of one another, in a competitive fashion, "without the producers having to organize their cooperation to begin with".  At the level of politics, this results in the setting up of agents in the productive process as 'individuals/subjects'.  This is not merely an ideology but a real juridical relation, which intervenes in and structures the productive process so that agents actually experience socio-economic relations as fragmented and atomised processes.  The 'effect of isolation' is thus "terrifyingly real".  It "has a name: competition", and it affects not just direct productive relations but "the whole ensemble of socio-economic relations".

The capitalist state in this sense appears as the "strictly political unity" of these relations.  "It presents itself as the representative of the 'general interest' of competing and divergent economic interests", whose class character is concealed precisely by the isolation effect.  The state thus systematically conceals its own political class character, representing itself as a popular-national state, with "the people-nation" "institutionally fixed as the ensemble of 'citizens' or 'individuals' whose unity is represented by the capitalist state".  The effect of isolation is the "real substratum" of this state.  But it is precisely in "putting itself forward as the representative of the unity of the people-nation" that the state assumes this relative autonomy with respect to class relations.

Another way to put this is that if the effect of isolation on economic struggles tends to impede class unity, resulting in sectional struggles, it is at the level of political practice that this unity must be created.  Thus, the political class struggle operates in a relatively autonomous fashion with respect to economic class struggles.  The capitalist state has to be seen in light of the political practice of the dominant classes, whose purpose is to produce class unity out of the isolation of their economic struggles, and at the same time constitute their political interests as the "general interest of the people/nation".  The relative autonomy of the capitalist state enables it to better organise the unity of the dominant classes, and to represent their interests as those of the society as a whole: this, the organisation of the dominant classes, and the disorganisation of the dominated classes, is the primary political function of the state.  It is the indispensable 'factor in unity', without which the bourgeoisie's political dominance is unthinkable.  This leads us to the question of hegemony, and the 'power bloc'.


The capitalist state, hegemony and the 'power bloc'
Alongside Althusser, Gramsci is one of the major influences in Poulantzas' thought.  Even where Poulantzas felt compelled to upbraid Gramsci's 'historicism' in his earlier work, a tendency which Peter Thomas notes is "essentially discontinuous with or rhetorically external to his concrete analyses of Gramsci's theses", the trend is toward a growing articulation of his research project with that of Gramsci.  Concessions to althusserian fashion obscured this.  (In fairness to Althusser, his own later writing on Gramsci was far less schematic, and far less driven by the dismissive typologies of his earlier work.)  In PPSC, he takes over the concept of 'hegemony' and seeks to develop it with specific reference to its role in the political dominance of the ruling classes.

In Gramsci, hegemony has several senses.  In one sense, it refers to the hegemony of the proletariat within a wider anticapitalist class alliance incorporating peasants.  To this extent, the concept is continuous with its useage in the Russian context.  In another sense, it refers to a particular state of ruling class dominance.  In this perspective, hegemony is a brief historical moment, which has to be constantly worked on and constructed, in which the ruling class does not merely rule, but actually leads politically and ideologically.  In such moments, the bourgeoisie, or a fraction thereof, sets itself up as the leading class/fraction in a world-historic mission, and uses a combination of repressive, ideological and material means to incorporate subordinate classes and fractions into a system of class alliances supporting this mission.  But aside from these exceptional moments, one can also speak of hegemonic political practices - practices through which a dominant class or fraction aspires to hegemony.  This is the sense in which Stuart Hall argues that the coalition government is pursuing a hegemonic project, attempting to fundamentally alter the popular 'common sense' in a reactionary direction.

Poulantzas is at this stage solely interested in developing the concept of hegemony in so far as it accounts for "the political practices of dominant classes in developed capitalist formations".  The concept of hegemony is thus used in two senses.  First, it indicates the relation of the dominant classes of a capitalist formation to the state, and the constitution of their interests as the 'general interest'.  This reinforces the concept of the state as the factor in unity, transposing struggles from a corporate to a universal plane.  Second, it specifies the specific form in which the dominant classes unity is secured: through an alliance of classes and fractions, in which one class or fraction (usually a fraction) is dominant, or hegemonic.  This alliance, Poulantzas calls the 'power bloc'.

The need for a power bloc derives from the nature of capitalist production relations, which ensures that the ruling class is "constitutively divided into fractions" (financial, commercial, industrial, rentier, and so on).  The isolation effect, moreover, is not compensated for by any other factor - such as the factor of 'collective labour' in the working class.  This means that the dominant fractions and classes are incapable of raising themselves to the hegemonic level through their own parties: they need some other basis for unity. The power bloc comprises a "contradictory unity of dominant classes or fractions" under the leadership of a hegemonic class or fraction.  But the relation of this bloc to the state is not one of a 'sharing out' of power among the fractions.  "In the last analysis," says Poulantzas, "it is always the hegemonic class or fraction which appears to hold state power in its unity". As such, it is the hegemonic class or fraction that assures the unity of the power bloc and acts as its protector.

Returning to the argument about the relative autonomy of the state ‘machine’ from class relations, it seems here that the 'Caesarist' tendencies discussed in Marx's Eighteenth Brumaire are immanent to the capitalist type of state. Far from the state being dependent on any one of the fractions of the dominant classes, far from it securing its unity from an already unified hegemonic class or fraction, it is "the factor of the political unity of the power bloc under the protection of the hegemonic class or fraction. In other words, it is the factor of hegemonic organisation of this class or fraction". The state does not arbitrate between already constituted social forces. Rather: "Everything happens precisely as if the state permanently played the role of political organizer of the power bloc".

Poulantzas goes on to argue that the play of institutions within the state apparatus is directly related to the relations of power within the power bloc.  Though it functions as a "centralised unity", it has a set of formal separations - between legislative, judicial and executive power.  Setting aside the judicial branch, the distinction between legislative and executive power is here treated as a power relation and not merely a juridical separation: "it corresponds both to the precise relations of political forces and to real differences in the functioning of state institutions". Depending on the state in question, one of the branches always dominates, usually either the executive or legislative branch, and thus constitutes the nodal point where unitary institutionalized power is concentrated within the state organization.  The formal separation of powers reflects an internal index of subordination, inasmuch as the hegemonic class or fraction controls the dominant branch of the state.  Here, Poulantzas is drawing on Althusser's reading of Montesquieu, who coined the doctrine of the separation of powers.  In this reading, the relations between executive and legislative branch (separated into lower and upper chambers) of the French state immediately following the revolution, relates to a certain conception of the relations between social forces. The royalty controlled the executive, the nobility the upper legislature, and the ‘people’/bourgeoisie the lower legislature.  The interplay between these institutions reflected a struggle for power among these dominant classes, with the less powerful branches playing the role of allowing certain resistances on the part of subordinate fractions within the power bloc: but the centralised unity of the state remains, and power, far from being actually separated out or distributed, continues to be concentrated in the dominant branch.* 

The relational approach: the state traversed by class struggle from top to bottom
Thus far we have encountered the capitalist state as a relatively autonomous force; a class state in a 'popular-national' form, organising the hegemonic struggles of the dominant classes; and a centralised unity acting as the factor in the unity of the power bloc, and by extension the disunity of those excluded from power.  This approach has been taxed with functionalism, and this is not the only place where a functionalist problematic can be detected in the formulations used by Poulantzas.  To describe the state as the 'factor in unity' of the dominant classes implies a degree of internal unity and consistency that would make destabilisation and disintegration hard to imagine.  But we don't have to read it in that way.  It's possible to see this 'function' of the state as, if you like, a necessary condition for bourgeois rule, which may or may not be adequately fulfilled at any given moment.  The only way to redeem the insight, though, would be to separate from the functionalist problematic and incorporate it into a new epistemological framework.

In his later work, SPS, Poulantzas made several adjustments along these lines.  In place of the focus on the regional autonomy of the political, Poulantzas came to argue that "political-ideological relations are already present in the actual constitution of the relations of production".  Therefore, the position of the capitalist state vis-a-vis the economy was not to be resolved by declaring its 'relative autonomy', but rather by showing that this position was just "the modality of the State's presence in the constitution and reproduction of the relations of production".  Poulantzas did not deny the relative separation of economic and political regions, but rather laid a different emphasis, stressing their "mutual relation and articulation - a process that is effected in each mode of production through the determining role of the relations of production".  This mutual relation and articulation, incidentally, explains why there can be no general theory of the state.

So, rather than start from a 'regional' analysis of different 'instances' in the capitalist mode of production, he re-energised his whole approach with a 'relational' analysis of the state as a strategic field brought into existence by the intersection of ruling class power networks.  In breaking with Althusser's "legalist image" of the state as a sovereign legal subject guarding the perimeters of economic sphere that otherwise reproduced itself independently, he held that the state was a set of relations that actively constituted and reproduced the economic sphere.  Far from being a juridico-political organisation standing over the economy, it concentrated within itself the political and ideological relations already present in the relations of production; it incarnated those relations, inscribing them (thus, the political and ideological dominance of the ruling class) in the "institutional materiality" of the state itself.

The "strategic field" of the state, in Poulantzas' terms, is defined quite broadly.  While Foucault and Deleuze charged marxists with ignoring the political power relations in institutions beyond the state, such as asylums, hospitals, sporting apparatuses etc., for Poulantzas these were "included within the strategic field of the state".  This is not to say that these were constituted as sites of power by the state: power in the marxist sense goes well beyond the state even in the broad sense understood here.  It is to say that these sites of power "do not stand in an external relationship to the state", which increasingly penetrates every sphere of social reality, "dissolving thereby the traditionally 'private' texture".  This understanding of the "strategic field" brings into focus one of the problems for the analysis of state forms, that of 'parapolitics'.  Take, for example, the Ku Klux Klan organisations of the 1950s.  These were not bodies with an explicit, codified relationship to any public authority.  Yet, their illicit hierarchies and relations (with governors, police commissioners etc), their protection of explicit hierarchies through the administration of racial violence, and their relation to the political class struggles of the Southern ruling classes, all place them firmly in the "strategic field" of Southern state forms.  They were partially, but not wholly, constituted as political powers by the state.  They did not occupy privileged sites of political power, but power was delegated to them by those who did occupy them.  This ambiguous position does not only manifest itself in the case of covert political violence.  One of the ways in which neoliberal statecraft manifests itself, for example, is the proliferation of so-called 'quangos' which perform state-like functions within a remit defined by the state.  There is a whole ensemble of institutions, stretching out well beyond the public kernel of policemen, bureaucrats, armies etc which are not understood to be part of the state but which nonetheless fall into its strategic field.  And beyond that, there is no social reality that does not in some way constitute itself in relation to the state.

Without further spelling out what forces are at play in this "strategic field", however, the phrase risks becoming a mere incantation.  The major forces at work in any society are class forces.  The positioning of these forces in the strategic field of political power depends on the relations of production, and the social division of labour that emerges from it.  For Poulantzas, the latter mainly manifests itself in the form of a division between mental and manual labour.  The state constantly re-constitutes this division, through the education system and by other means, and is itself the distinctive embodiment of intellectual labour.  By reproducing this division, moreover, it deprives the popular classes of the intellectual skills necessary to penetrate its bureaucratic discourses.  This case is simply unconvincing in its original form, and leads to unsustainable conclusions about the formation of classes.  (See the previous post on Poulantzas' thinking about the division of labour and classes in contemporary capitalism).  Given the proletarianisation of occupations that involve intellectual labour, I would suggest that we might better think of the division as one between executive/managerial and menial/subordinate labour.  With that adjustment, we can then return to the relationship between the state and the dominant classes.

In SPS, Poulantzas held to his previous argument regarding the primary political role of the state, viz. the organization of the dominant classes, and disorganization of the dominated classes.  It does this by unifying a power bloc politically, while linking fractions of the dominated classes to the power bloc in various ways so that they are unavailable for counter-hegemonic struggles.  But his new methodological approach required a different understanding of this role.  For, if the power relations that were condensed in the state were primarily class relations, it followed that the strategic field of the state must be traversed by class struggles.  Rather than merely allowing for resistances by fractions within the power bloc, he laid a great deal more emphasis on strategies pursued by dominated classes either within the state, or impacting on the state.  He allowed for beach-heads of resistance on the part of popular classes within different layers of the state.  These were by no means equivalent to the centres of power within the state occupied by the dominant classes: this would imply a permanent state of dual power within the capitalist state itself.  But the strategic calculations of the latter could be modified by the struggle of popular classes.  We might add that the divisions mentioned earlier, between menial and executive labour, are reproduced within the state apparatus.  (It would be difficult to understand the public sector strikes otherwise - unless, like Zizek, you maintain that they represent the revolt of a salaried bourgeoisie struggling for privileges and a share of rent extracted from the proletariat.  In which case, you're easily gulled.)  So the state is riven with class struggles.  But it is also exceeded by them.  For though it attempts to incorporate class relations on terms favourable to the power bloc, because these relations are characterised by struggle they always exceed the capacity of apparatuses to incarnate them.  This is certainly some distance from a 'functionalist' treatment of the state, and it helps us to understand more precisely certain aspects of our own situation.  After all, one of the weaknesses (far from the major one) of the anti-cuts movement in the UK is the weakness of political representation of the working class, the absence of footholds in the state at most levels, including the lowest council chamber.  We cannot be indifferent to the fact that only Caroline Lucas and a few Labour lefts even try to conduct such representation in the commons.  We need only look at the Linke to see the difference that such representation, such footholds, can make to class struggles outside of parliament.  At the same time, such an understanding does not, to my mind, lend itself to the substitution of parliamentary struggles for all others.

Poulantzas also refined his thinking on the state's role in the production of hegemony, arguing that the distinction between repressive and ideological state apparatuses in Althusser was misleading (we know from our own experience that repressive institutions such as the police and courts have a strong ideological role).  In addition, I have said that the linking of different subaltern fractions to the power bloc is a role of the state, but in SPS Poulantzas clarifies that this is not only a political or ideological operation: the state must constantly produce a material substratum for mass consent: "even fascism was obliged to undertake a series of positive measures, such as absorption of unemployment, protection and sometimes improvement of the real purchasing power of certain sections of the popular masses, and the introduction of so-called social legislation. (Of course, this did not exclude increased exploitation through a rise in relative surplus-value - quite the contrary.)"  Again, this is an advance on PPSC, and in those accounts which overestimate the power of the 'ideological state apparatuses'.

One of the problems that remains was hinted at by Goran Therborn.  Therborn, writing before the publication of SPS, contended that for all of Poulantzas' innovations in state theory, he paid remarkably little heed to the internal organisation of the state, and specifically the state apparatus.  But with SPS and its reflections on the "institutional materiality" of the state, its argument that the institutions-apparatuses of the state concretise the relations of political-ideological dominance in the wider society, we can no longer substantiate that claim.  Yet there remains an aporia, as far as I can tell: that is, the implications of the state's internal organisation for political strategy are drawn out incorrectly.  So, for example, when Poulantzas writes on the possibility of a transition to democratic socialism, he focuses on the differing class locations of state personnel.  In normal situations, the state is so organised that a general 'line' will emerge from the interplay of strategies and tactics of the dominant classes with the institutions of the state itself, and that 'line' will successfully be imposed on dissident and antagonistic elements within the state.  But during a crisis, he argues, of a scale like that which shook France in May 1968, the diverging class positions will result in a fracturing of the state personnel which, if sensitively handled, can help effect the transition.  I think this places far too much weight on the strategic significance of such divisions, and doesn't follow through on the correct (to my mind) understanding that he has earlier developed, the implication of which is that the dominant classes would continue to command the most strategically important positions within the centralised unity that is the state.  

Now, this doesn't result in a straightforwardly reformist position on Poulantzas' part. He still maintains that the working class must build structures of rank-and-file self-government to challenge liberal democratic forms of representation.  But this is as much to apply pressure to the capitalist state as to develop alternative, socialist forms of democracy.  The strategic perspective that follows from this mediates between reform and revolution.  Perhaps it says something that the only place where something like this strategy has been implemented and yielded some gains - not socialism, of course -  is the highly exceptional case of Venezuela where the struggle of the popular classes really has traversed the state right to the top with no serious reversal as yet in sight.  (Poulantzas as a co-author of "21st Century socialism" - anyone?)  But I think that if Poulantzas' superior insights are taken seriously, their logic is revolutionary.


*Analyses of this sort suggest themselves for the British state system, with its crown-in-parliament, its commons, its lords spiritual and temple, and its judiciary centralised in the executive.  Alas, barring a few beach-heads of popular resistance in the commons, the whole thing is bourgeois all the way down.