Tuesday 23 February 2016

Poulantzas and Marxist Approaches to the State

Beginning our reading of State, Power, Socialism, Poulantzas turns his attention to established Marxist understandings of the state. He argues these fall into two broad categories: the instrumentalist (or expressive) and the economist.

The former has an impeccable orthodox pedigree. Lenin in his State and Revolution described the capitalist state as an instrument of the bourgeoisie, of the owners and directors of capital. Therefore regardless of the appearance a state forms, whether liberal/social democratic, authoritarian, or fascist, they share a universal inner core as guarantor of class power and capital. Following from Marx and Engels's observations about the revolutions of the 1840s, and against the revisionist positions of German SPD thinkers like Eduard Bernstein and Karl Kautsky, Lenin felt compelled to bend the stick in this direction to clearly bring out the class nature of capitalist states against those who would obscure it. This was exported into the official communist movement, and from there found itself informing the theologies of Trotskyists, Maoists, anarchists, and assorted libertarian Marxist currents. The state is a class dictatorship and the job of Marxists is to work for its overthrow and replacement by the democratic organisation of the workers.

As far as Poulantzas was concerned, this viewpoint was too simplistic and cannot account for immediately obvious phenomena. Such as why the political representatives of the various fractions of capital compete politically to keep social democratic parties, regardless of how institutionalised and integrated into the established order they are, from office. It's almost as if the right has an instinctive distrust of state power lest it be used against them, a fear that shouldn't be there if the state was a straightforward organ of capital. The second observation touches social security. In the late 1970s prior to the assault on the social wage, conservative and social democratic governments alike expanded the welfare state. Adherents of the instrumentalist view have usually explained this in terms of concessions to the labour movement, but that suggests pressure can be exerted over the state for it to act against the interests of capital. Both therefore point to the necessity of a more complex and nuanced approach to the state.

The economist approach to the state comes back to our old friend the base/superstructure metaphor from the 1859 Preface. Oft interpreted in a mechanical, strictly undialectical manner in which 'the economy' is positioned as the active element and the rest of society, its 'superstructure' (and therefore the state) as the passive recipient of its instructions and imperatives. This kind of interpretation of Marxism was a key prop cited by various Post-Marxist types in their jettisoning of historical materialism while, interestingly and contemporaneously, politicians of the centre and the right couched their market fundamentalism in terms not far removed from affirming a crude, unidirectional relationship of determination. Poulantzas however notes an alternative economist reading of the arrangement. Here, again, the economy is an active element, but one with its own terrain and specificity. Supposing it a discrete set of social relations with their own rhythms and tendencies, we're but a hop, skip, and a jump away of treating the rest of society as sets of autonomous spheres, levels, and practices.

Both kinds of economism and the expressive view are crude and wrong. Rather, there is a certain, mutually constitutive fusing between economy and state. As he puts it, "The political field of the state (as well as the sphere of ideology) has always, in different forms, been present in the constitution and reproduction of the relations of production" (p.17). This presence of the state in the economy, and the reverse, the economy's presence in the state is always conditioned by the relations of production. I.e. not just private property in the means of production, but also the state of the class struggle at any given moment. Lastly, in capitalist societies proletarians are formally separated from the labour process. They do not own the means of work, rather they are employed to give up an agreed quantity of time working for an employer in return for a wage or salary. This separation is mirrored in the relative degree of separation that exists between the state and economy (in terms of function) and in how the institutional structure of the state works (more on this in a future post).

What this means is, contrary to the expressive and economist schools, one can put forward certain theoretical propositions about the state, which is what State, Power, Socialism does. But we cannot advance a serious position about the transition from one state to another. For instance, just as Lenin's waxy corpse has been preserved for gawping tourists, so those who lay claim to his politics have been quite content to let his approach lie there without thinking about the method behind it, and so are in the habit of applying the Russian Revolution as if it's a model appropriate to every time, every place. As far as Poulantzas is concerned, the issue of transition, of socialist change, is always contingent and depends on analysing the concrete circumstances - the conjuncture. The Marxist approach to the state then is not to have a model of the state-in-general and apply it ideal-typically, but to analyse afresh in light of the experiences of our organisations and our activism. That is the Marxist approach.

More Poulantzas here.


Speedy said...

Fair enough, but isn't Marxism long on analysis and short on answers?

"suggests pressure can be exerted over the state for it to act against the interests of capital." Not if it is in the interests of Capital to act?

I don't know much about these things, but it seems Marxism provides a good analysis of the evolution of things, but like evolution, it is unwise - if not highly damaging - to try and impose an alternative version of what has happened naturally in real-life. Hence the bloodshed and ossification of the USSR - this was not a "mistake" but what happens when theory hits reality.

Phil said...

You're supposing that there are snappy answers. Unfortunately, that isn't the case.

Consider the problem. We want to transform our society. We want to displace private property in the means of production and build a different kind of society. How do you do that?

I don't know about you, but I haven't the foggiest. Though I suspect looking at past attempts, identifying forces tending in this direction, and looking at the balance of power at any given time might be a start. Which is why I'm writing this series of posts in the help to get people to think seriously about this problem rather than relying on glib formulas and trying to force human behaviour to conform to some utopian plan.

BCFG said...

You cannot analyse the state from a purely economic position to explain every single one of its actions, you have to accept that when you do this you are abstracting in order to highlight certain things. But in reality the actual working and composition of the state are a mix of political, cultural, historical, economic factors and probably a whole host of other things.

But by highlighting the economic factor you blow away some of the bullshit. So if you want to explain the state in general then use economics, if you want to explain specifics then trace its dependents. So fundamentally I think you can directly link the general workings of the state to the idea that Joan Robinson put forward, namely the state keeps the show on the road. The show being capitalist relations.

Though I am not sure how I would analyse Donald Trump other than to say the US Empire may have fond its Caligula! And that would be a fitting culmination of a nearly two decades of war mongering and liberal left decency!

On that note the state should not be analysed in isolation from the world imperialist system.

The question for speedy is what is natural and what isn’t? You have to infer from what speedy says that everything that exists is the result of natural events except those things speedy says are not natural, and anything that tries to tamper with these natural events is unnatural. Am I the only one who sees a black hole size paradox here? Or does everyone see speedy’s idiocy?

It is as if we can list every event in human history and put into either the natural or unnatural category.

Battle of Waterloo – natural
The killing of unarmed protestors during Black Sunday – natural
The unrest as a result of the Black Sunday massacre – unnatural
The Cheeky girls – natural
Billy Bragg – unnatural

Am I close?

Speedy said...

Close but no cigar BCFG!

We're talking about macro things here. As I said I'm no expert, not even a student, of this area, which is why I enjoy reading Phil's posts, and indeed do learn quite a lot in the process, but I was simply providing my observation - that from a historical perspective, the principal impulse that appears to drive human relations is scarcity and the battle for resources, along with the hard-wired selfishness of the human animal.

In ancient days, this led to slave economies (and indeed, even much more recently capitalists had no hesitation in using slaves) and this system of trade has continued to the common day. Human beings are intrinsically selfish, presumably for evolved reasons, and it was clear in how not only the USSR had to make concessions to capitalism, but also created its own elites in effect little different from the capitalist world.

However, I do not think this cannot be mitigated - and here I think the likes of John Gray go too far - because the social democracies of Europe are probably the best and fairest places to live ever, but they have still been created by the power of organised labour (recognising) and pursuing its interest, not out of the milk of human kindness.

And we see this now, for example over the Scottish and Europe debates, which will see the economic argument trump all, the way that the mass of Britons more often choose Tories over Labour, despite only Labour seemingly explicitly representing their interests, etc. Or the massive indifference the rich world pays to the poor, which it relies on for its cheap goods. So i agree with Phil - it's complicated, but I don't think it is necessarily doomed - but I doubt people respond to the idea of the collective (unless, as I suspect, many politicians see it as a way of coming into power, just as the rich support the Tories) rather to identify one's individual well-being with the well-being of others, which was the genesis of Labour, as opposed to now when people associate others well-being (say refugees) with their own loss.