For a Renewed ‘State Debate’

After a few requests, I’m publishing my contribution to a roundtable on Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin’s book The Making of Global Capitalism delivered at Historical Materialism Australasia this week. The session at the conference was presented by Leo Panitch, Mike Rafferty, Dick Bryan, Martijn Konings, Mike Beggs and myself, based on a Jacobin Magazine Book Club Seminar published last year.


I’ll start by saying that while I will sharply disagree with Leo’s position on the nature of the state today, as articulated in The Making of Global Capitalism and his work elsewhere, more generally his analysis of corporatism is central to my research on the ALP and ACTU Accord of the Hawke-Keating era. So despite the potential sharpness of what I will say, I see this as largely a conversation between those who wish to push forward – or renew – a discussion on a Marxist theory of the state.

In outlining their conceptualisation of the nature of the state in The Making of Global Capitalism, Leo and Sam argue that states, classes and markets have been mutually constituted by capitalism. They reject what they see as a tendency to analyse the state as derivative of abstract economic laws. ‘What states do in practice’, the authors ask, ‘and how well they do them, is the outcome of complex relations between societal and state actors, the balance of class forces, and, not least, the range and character of each state’s capacities’. States consequently develop distinct institutions and capabilities to facilitate successful accumulation, and to deal with actual and likely interruptions.

It is within this framework the authors describe ‘the “relative autonomy” of capitalist states: not as being unconnected to the capitalist classes, but rather as having autonomous capacities to act on behalf of the system as a whole’. That is, what ‘states can autonomously do, or do in response to societal pressures, is ultimately limited by their dependence on the success of capital accumulation’. In Leo’s work elsewhere he cites Poulantzas’ well-known formulation that the capitalist state, in the long run, can only correspond to the interests of the dominant class or classes.

But how then do we explain the interdependence and relative autonomy of the state and production? For Leo and Sam, I believe the implication of their work is that the state and accumulation are two different logics tied up with each other; that they are separate but interacting sets of social relations determined in the last instance by the need to secure accumulation. While they note that the state’s function is to guarantee control to the ruling class in general, and not that capital directly rules through the state, this does not tell us why this is the case specifically. The implication of this is important, and it is not simply a question of academic interest. It is significant because how we understand the state underpins what strategies we develop to transform social relations.

I would argue that it is more accurate to understand the state and capitalist production as differentiated moments of the same set of social relations, and not as – chiefly – related to the balance of class forces. The nature of the state must be derived from the fundamental social activities of capitalist accumulation, both in terms of within a nation and the existence of an international system of states — which is presupposed by global capitalism. For when we talk of states we cannot talk of them in the singular, a point that Leo and Sam have often pointed out. Yet within each nation the state must be understood as an alienated expression of a civil society of competing individual interests. Thus, we need to understand the state and capitalist production at different levels of mediation and the state is best understood as the concentration of the whole in the form of the state.

In separating state analysis from the commodity form and the capital relation, Leo and Sam want to reject, correctly, the direct abstraction of the former from the latter. But we must also explain why the state takes the form it does in contemporary capitalism. Their focus on how the state apparatus authors change obscures rather than clarifies, as it does not tell us how and through what processes such changes come about. Leo said, at another event this week, that — rather than the balance of class forces being inside the state — state actors take an effective reading of the balance of class forces in informing what they do in practice. Such an approach argues that actions of the state are both relatively autonomous from accumulation and the result of bourgeois political dominance over it, in effect an amalgam of aspects of Poulantzas and Miliband. While I think this line of argument is worth exploring further, it risks seeing the state as reflective of an ‘outside’ in civil society. I sit more with Gramsci, when he talks of ‘the integral state’, and would emphasise the connection of production, civil society and the state in delineating the nature of states more specifically.

For Marx, the state is not simply an expression of the will or interests of the ruling class (be that of a fraction or of capital in general) but an integral part of capitalist social relations understood in their entirety. The state is not capitalist because the ruling class wills it to be so, but because the state was constituted as a necessary part of capitalist society in total.

More concretely, based on their analysis of the state as related to the balance of class forces, the authors conclude that the state needs to be transformed politically if it is to function to reflect a different balance of class forces. So, for example, Leo argued in his Wheelwright address on Wednesday that we need to rebuild the institutions — unions and labour parties — or create new ones, and to nationalise and ‘decommodify’ that which should be a collective right: public transit; water; the banks. He agued we need to reclaim the concept of state planning and argue for higher taxation in return for collective goods. Similarly, in the conclusion to the book Leon and Sam argue that ‘today’s revived demands for social justice and genuine democracy [can] only be realised through…a fundamental shift of political power, entailing fundamental changes in state as well as class structures’.

Yet such a perspective — of a series of dramatic transitions in the existing policies, functions and responsibilities of states needing to occur prior to genuine socialism being possible — seems to bear little connection to the wider structures of social class forces where capital remains dominant over labour. Consequently, the ability of collective agency to transform societies from below seems to rest on somehow converting states that have remained impervious to democratic transformation. It is not clear to me how the authors intend to resolve this paradox.

By instead seeing states as a concentrated subset of capitalist social relations as a whole, a quite different perspective emerges. The more likely path to social transformation would be a heightening of class struggle against the operations of states. While Leo and Sam are right to locate the focus of struggle as the capitalist state, I believe they are mistaken in presuming that the resolution of that class struggle can occur within or through that state. We are living through a time where the nature of states and social democracy has lost some of its mystified appearance; that is, the appearance that actually existing politics was ever ‘representative’. This has been predicated on the hollowing out of the institutional structures that supported such an illusion. Why would this be something we want to revive, then, through the rebuilding of the state and the institutions when they have been revealed as not operating in the interests of most people?

Demands for political institutions that look to a previous era — ‘we need to return to strong unions’, ‘we need new a new labour party’, ‘the ALP Left should fight for better policies like it was founded on’ — fail to fully appreciate the contradictory nature of the political parties of labour and their historic role in constraining the social interests and efforts of subaltern groups.

I do agree with Leo and Sam, however, and others such as Simon Clarke, that the question of the nature of the state cannot be progressed through theory and abstraction alone. The concrete examination of states is crucial to this project, and one of the important contributions of The Making of Global Capitalism is that it does precisely that.

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