State Violence, State Control: Marxist State Theory and the Critique of Political Economy

Joachim Sperl, 2014

In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, a number of movements arose which in different ways, opposed the status quo.1 At the time, many of us in our exuberance thought these events signaled the end – or at least the beginning of the end – of capitalism. Yet from London to Oakland to Madrid to Athens to Cairo, each of these movements were met and outmaneuvered by an institution which was generally neglected in analyses of the final crisis, and the calls to communize everything by abolishing the value-form: the state.

This was doubly surprising, for the crisis was also said to be a crisis of neoliberalism, a new regime of financialized accumulation that had emerged in the 1970s and had transformed capitalist society through what Jamie Peck, Nik Theodore, and Neil Brenner have described as “post-1​970s ​patterns​ of ​institutional​ and​ spatial​ reorganization” consisting in “the tendential ​extension ​of ​market-b​ased​ competition​ and ​commodification​ processes​ into​ previously​ relatively​ insulated ​realms ​of ​social​ life.”2

While many explanations of how and why this process of neoliberalization occurred abound, Philip Mirowski perceptively notes that “many authors of a Marxist bent want to portray neoliberalism as the simple deployment of class power over the unsuspecting masses, but encounter difficulty in specifying the chains of causality stretching from the elusive executive committee of the capitalist class down to the shopper at Wal-Mart.”3 As Mirowski indicates, much of this explanatory gap in prominent “traditional” and “critical” Marxian accounts of neoliberalism thus centers on the lack of sophisticated analyses of the capitalist state.

Chris Harman, for instance, provides a “Classical Marxist” interpretation of the state in Zombie Capitalism.4 For Harman there is little need to consider the structure of the capitalist state, how it relates to the capitalist economy, its peculiar capacities, its means or its ends, or to provide a detailed investigation of how the state participated in regimes of accumulation; for him, the state is a formless instrument of capital, which the ruling class uses to stall the Law of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall. In this view, the state’s “autonomy” does not consist in its separation from the capitalist economy or its separated interrelation with it, but in “a limited degree of freedom as to how it enforces the needs of national capital accu­mulation, not in any choice as to whether to enforce these or not.”5 Consequently, a political class is not separated from the capitalist class, nor is it beholden to a particular political rationality implicated in the overall social logic of capital; rather, “state appointees behave as much like capitalists – as living embodiments of capital accumulation at the expense of workers – as do private entrepreneurs, or shareholders.”6 Harman thus argues that the crisis of the 1970s represented “the limits of state capitalism’s ability to maintain accumulation” in the face of this tendency, leading to a new phase of accumulation in which individual states act in the interest of global capital.7 Consequently, Harman’s explanation of neoliberalism treats the capitalist ruling class as the prime mover and the state as its mere instrument, while his definition of neoliberalism is precisely the one that Mirowski criticizes: “Neoliberalism is an ideology primarily used to justify attacks on workers.”8

Despite their opposition to these traditional interpretations of Marx, some of the most prominent proponents of “value-form theory” who address neoliberalism echo Harman’s analysis, albeit in a different register.9 Moishe Postone’s “Theorizing the Contemporary World” parallels Harman by characterizing the historical trajectory of neoliberalism as “the weakening of national, state-centered economic sovereignty and the emergence and consolidation of a neo-liberal global order.”10 Postone’s intervention – which consists of critical remarks on how analyses of neoliberalism by Robert Brenner, David Harvey, and Giovanni Arrighi fail to grasp Marx’s theory of value – makes the case that properly understanding Marx’s theory of value can provide a full picture of the dynamic of capitalist, and thus neoliberal, society. Although Postone remarks in passing that the state should be analyzed as a historically-specific form, he does not say why this is particularly important, how this would change his analysis, or how it relates to his interpretation of Marx’s theory of value. Like Harman but on a different theoretical basis, he ultimately reduces the state to an incidental instantiation of capital.

Taken together, Harman and Postone’s analyses are representative of the type of Marxist theory that has underlaid approaches to the crisis. Unfortunately, they can also be said to represent the general theoretical paucity of state theory in much of the Marxian tradition, where the state is often treated as a formless instrument or a supraindividual form that merely reflects a given characterization of the dynamic of valorization. The explanatory capacities of these approaches are called into question not only by the quashing of these post-crisis movements by the state, but also by the underlying character of the neoliberal project itself, which Mirowski and Peck both show to be a state-driven enterprise that became more extensive in the wake of periodic global economic crises since the 1970s.11

Nonetheless, Mirowski and Peck have their own limitations. They treat neoliberalism as a political project or as a political rationality, but they do not consider how such a political rationality relates to the social logic and corresponding behavioral rationality of capital. This means they do not consider how this perspective could provide a conception of the capitalist state that might help us further understand neoliberalism, the neoliberal state and the neoliberalization of global society in relation to global capitalism.

These omissions not only raise the question of whether the state can be brought back into Marxist accounts of neoliberalism, but if a Marxist theory of the state can be devised that the treats the state as integral to the dynamic of accumulation – in a way that explains the development and pervasiveness of neoliberalism, sets the stage for an understanding of the recent waves of state-backed repression, and in so doing contributes to a more sober analyses of the overcoming of capitalist society. This once again raises the vexed question of the Marxist theory of the capitalist state – is a theory available which can explain the relation between the capitalist state and the capitalist economy, the means and ends of the capitalist state, which overcomes the one-sided approaches of Harman and Postone?

Such a conception would view the state as a historically specific entity, separate from yet interrelated with the capitalist economy, endowed with form-determined capacities that are integral to the process of valorization and social reproduction. Moreover, while these capacities would have certain instrumental uses, their utilization would not be deduced from the direct subordination of the state apparatus or its functionaries to capital or the capitalist class, but from a perspective which shows how the state’s role in this overarching social dynamic instantiates a political rationality that compels such a utilization, in order to reproduce the state and capitalist society. This theory would also seek to explain the nature and the purpose of the capitalist state and its capacities, providing a framework for the analysis of state policies as the instrumentalization of these form-determined abilities. In order to determine the possibility of advancing such a theory, we will start by reviewing important moments in the history of Marxian state theory.

Marx’s theories of the state

As Bob Jessop and others have noted, Marx himself did not present “a definitive analysis” of the capitalist state.12 Instead, a variety of conceptions of the state can be drawn from his work. In early texts such as “On The Jewish Question” (1843) and “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” (1844), written prior to his first engagement with political economy, Marx conceives of the state as the alienated representation of a human community premised on the separation between the state and civil society. Following Marx’s initial criticisms of political economy, The German Ideology (1845) conceives of the state as a class entity that represents particular class interests as universal. However, Marx’s most influential comments on the state in this period are the famous lines from The Communist Manifesto (1848) – “The executive of the modern state is nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” – which describe the state as an instrument in the playing out of the history of class struggle.13 Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1851) provides a more complex analysis of the relationship between the state and class struggle, in his account of the intra-state conflicts between class fractions in Bonaparte’s coup of 1851.

While Jessop and others treat these moments in the development of Marx’s thought as distinct, or even antithetical, Michael Heinrich notes they are also indicative of the period before Marx fully developed his critique of political economy.14 Despite their differences, these “pre-critical” conceptions of the state do not investigate its historically specific form, and thus lack an account of how such a form participates in the peculiar dynamic of capitalist valorization.

Marx had planned to provide such an account as part of his critique of political economy. Unfortunately, it was never completed. Nevertheless, he made scattered references to such a form-analytic conception of the state in Volume 3 of Capital (1863-1883), calling it “the specific political form” that corresponds to the “specific economic form” of capitalist social production. He also noted that such a “specific economic form” grows directly out of the particular manner in which “unpaid surplus labour is pumped out of direct producers,” which “determines the relationship of the rulers and the ruled.” The “specific political form” of the state, in other words, is constituted by the historically specific relations of production, possessing a “political relation of sovereignty” that is separate but also embedded in this determinate economic form. Finally, he noted that these forms appeared in “infinite variations and gradations” in different empirical circumstances:

The specific economic form, in which unpaid surplus-labour is pumped out of direct producers, determines the relationship of rulers and ruled, as it grows directly out of production itself and, in turn, reacts upon it as a determining element. Upon this, however, is founded the entire formation of the economic community which grows up out of the production relations themselves, thereby simultaneously its specific political form. It is always the direct relationship of the owners of the conditions of production to the direct producers – a relation always naturally corresponding to a definite stage in the development of the methods of labour and thereby its social productivity – which reveals the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social structure and with it the political form of the relation of sovereignty and dependence, in short, the corresponding specific form of the state. This does not prevent the same economic basis – the same from the standpoint of its main conditions – due to innumerable different empirical circumstances, natural environment, racial relations, external historical influences, etc. from showing infinite variations and gradations in appearance, which can be ascertained only by analysis of the empirically given circumstances.15

Taken in tandem with the parts of his critique of political economy that Marx did complete, this would imply that the “specific political form” of the capitalist state corresponds to and reacts upon the specific economic form of capitalist social production.

But what is this economic form? For Marx, “capital is not a thing, but rather a definite social production relation, belonging to a definite historical formation of society, which is manifested in a thing and lends this thing a specific social character.”16 Succinctly put, this definite social production relation is manifested in the social character of a thing because the capitalist mode of production is characterized by an atomized social division of labor in which production occurs for the purpose of exchange. This, in turn, means that some type of general equivalent is necessary to facilitate exchange. Money is this equivalent. But because money is the only equivalent that facilitates exchange, it acquires what Marx refers to as a “social power,” this “thing’s” social character. This also means, as Marx shows in the course of his further presentation in Capital, that since the capitalist mode of production consists in a class antagonism in which a class of workers are compelled, in order to reproduce themselves, to sell their labor-power to a class of capitalists who are then compelled to pump out unpaid surplus-labor in order to sell commodities and valorize capital, that the capitalist process of valorization occurs through the medium of money for the sake of acquiring more money. Money thus becomes the sole aim of production, “the self-sufficient purpose of the sale,” and thus the ends of the process of valorization, which is simultaneously one of reproduction.17 Surplus value, as “the specific economic form in which unpaid surplus-labour is pumped out of direct producers” in order to valorize capital, is the means of this process. This “definite social production relation” – the “specific economic form” of capitalism – is thus manifest in money’s social character, which in the process of valorization serves as the subject of a social dynamic that reproduces these relations by determining the actions of capitalists and proletarians.18 It finds its presuppositions in conditions of separation, and is marked by an antagonism of exploitation and domination.

In conjunction with such a conception of this “specific economic form,” Marx’s fragmentary account of the state thus implies that a form-analytic theory of the capitalist state would consist in an explication of a historically specific “political form that corresponds to these peculiarities of the capitalist social form.” It further implies that the relation of sovereignty, which characterizes this “specific” political form, corresponds to the ends of this economic form: the process of valorization, which “determines the actions of the rulers and the ruled.” Such a notion shows that at this stage in his work, Marx does not conceive of the state as a formless entity in a decontexualized history of class struggle, while the reference to its “hidden basis” shows that Marx does not see it as an impersonal form extraneous to it. Rather, it indicates that he conceived of the state as a form-determined instrument in which the specific form of the state and its political relation of sovereignty correspond to and serve the ends of the capitalist process of valorization. This would seem to indicate that the state as a form is separate from, yet also corresponds to, the capitalist economy, and that “the political form” it possesses by virtue of this separation consists in a “relation of sovereignty” in which its form-determined abilities are utilized as instruments by its functionaries, who are compelled to reinforce and react upon the peculiar antagonisms of exploitation, domination, and separation that are the premise and the result of capitalist process of valorization.19

Elements of such a theory can be seen in the instances in Capital where the state is shown to enforce laws on the basis of formal freedom and equality, codifying private property and the sale of labor-power and thus functioning as integral to the process of valorization. It can also be seen to utilize these form-determined capacities in an instrumental manner, in the sections on the length of the working day and primitive accumulation, where the impersonal entity of the state acts as the “concentrated and organised force of society” by implementing the separation of the worker from the means of production and modifying the length of the working day – thus aligning political rationality with the social logic of capital in order to assure valorization and reproduction.20 While the incomplete status of Capital means that Marx never aligned the state with the world market, these comments imply that Marx’s critique of political economy conceives of the state as an entity which is separate yet integral to the capitalist social form; a form-determined instrument for the purpose of perpetuating and extending capitalist social production.21 Yet it is also the case that fragments such as these are few and far between in the extant manuscripts that make up the unfinished project of the critique of political economy.

Classical Marxism

Engels’s transformation of these manuscripts into volumes 2 (1885) and 3 (1894) of Capital provided an invaluable service under impossible conditions. However, the hegemonic logico-historical interpretation he played an essential part in formulating, in conjunction with the reception of the pre-critical Marx and Engel’s own remarks on the state, formed the basis for the most prominent theories of the state in classical Marxism and Western Marxism.22

This is particularly the case for the Classical Marxist theories of the state, which would continue to be of influence in the evolution of “Classical Marxism” in the 20th century: the Social-Democratic and Imperialist theories of the state.23 As Ingo Elbe notes, Engels’s “content-based” conception of the state as “the mere instrument” of the ruling class “paved the way” for these theories.24 The Classical Marxist theory of the state followed a logico-historical reading of Capital and Engels’s notion that the state acted as “real total social capitalist”25 to argue that that the state had been used as an instrument by the ruling class to take “on many of the functions of capital, in the attempt to avert an economic crisis and to stabilise the class struggle,” thus ushering in the new historical stage of monopoly capitalism.26 Although this theory, which is echoed in Harman’s work, can be said to offer an account of the state’s role in accumulation, it lacks a form-analytic dimension. Instead of explaining how the state comes to exist as a separate entity serving the ends of the particular social dynamic of capitalist valorization, a dynamic that compels the actions of the rulers and the ruled, this formless theory conceived of the state as a neutral instrument which was used by the capitalist class to direct the capitalist economy – and which could also be used by proletarians to direct the communist economy.

The Frankfurt School

Despite their mutual animosity, the Althusserian and Hegelian-Marxist strands of Western Marxism both embedded this classical account in more complex social theories. This was notably the case with the theories of the state promulgated by those associated with the Institute for Social Research, which, in spite of their variation, can be seen to have married such an instrumentalist account of the state to an analysis of social institutions, drawing on the Weberian elements of Lukács’s theory of reification.

Friedrich Pollock and Max Horkheimer’s theory of the state-capitalist “Authoritarian State” proposed a particular logico-historical social theory, with a formless conception of the state as a rationalizing instrument. In their analysis of state capitalism, which they posited as the latest stage of capitalism’s historical development, the authoritarian state was said to have taken on the role of total social capital, with the “new ruling class” using the state to “totally administer” society. In Pollock’s succinct summarization, this “new state openly appears as an institution in which all earthly power is embodied and which serves the new ruling class as a tool for its power politics.”27 The new ruling class uses the state to “control everything it wants to” including “the general economic plan” of production and circulation, “foreign policy, rights and duties,” and the “life and death of the individual.”28

While Postone rightly criticizes the “Traditional Marxist” conception of the capitalist economy upon which Pollock and Horkheimer rely, for conceiving of value as a trans-historical mode of market allocation that has been superseded by the state’s management of distribution, his paradigmatic treatment of these figures discounts the more complex theories of the state and the capitalist economy that were formulated by associates of the Frankfurt School.29 Franz Neumann’s account of the Nazism argued, contra Pollock and his analysis of a state-controlled economy, that an ensemble of monopolies had aligned to use the German state as “the power instrument of a new ruling group” in order to institute a “totalitarian form of state capitalism.”30 Marcuse’s notion that the “National Socialist state” was “the government of hypostatized economic, social, and political forces” lies somewhere in between Pollock and Neumann.31 Finally, Adorno’s “Reflections on Class Theory” posits that as a result of the outcome of the dynamism of reified social relations, the state could be used as a rationalizing instrument under the monopoly rule of the capitalist class.32

Aspects of Neumann’s and Adorno’s analysis are brought together in Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s The Economy and Class Structure of German Fascism. In many ways this often neglected work offers the most complex theoretical and historically-embedded account of the state in this generation of Frankfurt School critical theory.33 Echoing Adorno, Sohn-Rethel conceives of the state on a theoretical level as a rationalizing instrument that enforces capitalist valorization. This is reflected in a historical analysis that supplements Neumann’s account of the German fascism by arguing that a constellation of monopoly forces aligned with the Nazi Party in order to institute a new accumulation regime. In such an accumulation regime, the German fascist state acted as the managerial apparatus of monopoly capital by implementing coercive labour policies that rationalized the valorization of absolute surplus value.34

By providing an account of how a sector of German capital was compelled to enter into an agreement with the Nazi Party in order to utilize the institution of German state to implement and enforce policies that spurred valorization, Sohn-Rethel provides a sophisticated theoretical account of the state as an instrument of rationalization that is utilized in class struggle for the purpose of valorization. He also argues that the class fraction that wields this instrument is compelled by the overarching imperatives of valorization. Yet, despite a deeper socio-theoretical account of the state, Sohn-Rethel’s and other Frankfurtian theories of the state lacked the explanatory dimensions of a form-analytic account. Indeed, this is perhaps why its most influential proponents relied on Weberian notions of rationalized administration to explain the anonymous and impersonal instrumental function of the state, rather than aligning these properties with an account of the capitalist social form of production.

Althusser

Louis Althusser, like the theorists of the Frankfurt School, also added a sophisticated socio-theoretical dimension to the formless instrumentalist conception of the state. Yet in pointed contrast to the Frankfurt School, the Althusserian theory of the state developed out of Althusser’s reinterpretation of the topology of base and superstructure, which in its classical version held that Marx’s social theory asserted the primacy of economic base, and the subordination of the political-legal and ideological superstructure. Althusser’s notion of the state as an instrument emerged from a multi-level reframing of the relation between base and superstructure, characterized by complex relations of overdetermination, rather than form-analytic social theory.

This was notably the case in “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” which sought to make the Classical Marxist theory of the state less descriptive and “more precise” by elaborating on the complementary relation of the repressive and ideological functions of state apparatuses in the reproduction of the relations of production.35 Although the majority of this essay focused on how ideological apparatuses contributed to reproduction, Althusser would later fill out and amend his theory of the state in the remarkable “Marx in His Limits.” Like Sohn-Rethel’s contribution, this work offers a sophisticated theoretical formulation of the repressive function of the instrument of the state. It also offers a formulation of the peculiar structure of the state that revises the earlier theoretical architecture of the levels of the base and superstructure, for the more reciprocal notions of separation and interrelation. Finally, it even revises Althusser’s earlier criticisms of fetishism.

These points are brought together in a conception of the state as a repressive instrument by virtue of its structural separation from class struggle:

what makes the state the state… is the fact that the state is made in order to be, as far as possible, separate from class struggle… in order to serve as an instrument in the hands of those who hold power. The fact that the state “is made for this purpose” is inscribed in its structure, in the state hierarchy, and in the obedience (as well as the mandatory reserve) required of all civil servants, whatever their post.36

Consequently, the state is “separate” and “above classes” only in order to ensure that the dominant class can ensure the reproduction of the conditions of domination, with the “ensemble of elements” that make up the state working “together to the same end.” For Althusser, the goal of reproduction “does not consist solely in the reproduction of the conditions of ‘social relations’ and, ultimately, the ‘productive relations’; it also includes the reproduction of the material conditions of the relations of production and exploitation.”37 The emphasis, for Althusser, lay in the way that the state obscured the reality of the class antagonism by virtue of its structural separation from the economy: “the circle of the reproduction of the state in its functions as an instrument for the reproduction of the conditions of production, hence of exploitation, hence of the conditions of existence of the domination of the exploiting class’, constitutes ‘in and of itself’, the supreme objective mystification.”38

Such a theory of the state clearly draws on the late Marx, to conceive of the state as a specific entity that is structurally separate from but still connected to the dynamic of class struggle qua social reproduction. Yet for all of its advances on his earlier account, as with Sohn-Rethel, the structural-instrumental role the state plays in this process of reproduction is not linked to an account of the specific economic form that Marx discloses in his critique of political economy. This diminishes Althusser’s account of how this process of social reproduction comes about through the specific dynamic of the valorization process, thus preventing him from explaining the form-determination of the state’s structural-instrumentality. It is the state theories that came in wake of the “New Reading of Marx” that would emphasize these form-determined elements.

New Readings

What is known as the “New German Reading of Marx” emerged in the 1960s in West Germany. As pioneered by Hans-Georg Backhaus and Helmut Reichelt, this new reading consisted in a reinterpretation of Marx’s theory of value which brought the form-analytic element of Marx’s critique of political economy to the forefront. Backhaus and Reichelt’s interpretation of this dimension rested on “reconstructing” what they termed the “esoteric” theory of value, which they argued had been obscured in the published volumes of Capital. In contrast to traditional interpretations of Marx’s theory of value, Backhaus and Reichelt argued that this esoteric theory, which centered on their understanding of the dialectic of the value-form, consisted in a supraindividual type of social rationality that compelled individuals on both sides of the class relation.

This conceptual and methodological focus was an influence on the West German “State Derivation Debate,” which took place over the course of the 1970s. The approach that characterizes this debate also echoed, and at a certain point explicitly drew on, the state theory of Soviet legal theorist Evgeny Pashukanis. As early as 1923, Pashukanis had criticized Marxist theories that simply focused on the content of the state. In contrast, Pashukanis’s theory focused on why the dominance of the capitalist class takes “on the form of official state domination,” by deriving the form of capitalist law and the capitalist state from commodity production.39 Drawing on a form-analytic interpretation of Marx’s theory of value, he argued that the social relations of capitalist society constitute capitalist laws and a capitalist state which codify and enforce the social form of capitalist social relations as relations between things. For Pashukanis, capitalist law and the capitalist state were thus “forms” logically derived from the commodity-form.

As John Holloway and Sol Picciotto point out, the Derivation Debate emerged in the context of the first significant recession in postwar West Germany; the election of a social-liberal coalition, which posed the issue of reformism; and the eclipse of the student movement.40 These developments called into question Classical Marxist state theories, which held that the state management of the economy would prevent economic crises, and also raised questions about the structure and limits of the capitalist state.

Many aspects of this political context had already been addressed by Johannes Agnoli. Although Agnoli was adamant that the state could not be “derived,” since it was already there, his influential essay in Die Transformation der Demokratie (1967) held that the state’s role in maintaining freedom and equality through law contributed to the reproduction of capitalist society, not only by enforcing property rights, but also by transforming class relations into social relations between abstract and atomized individuals. His idea of “statification,” moreover, also provided a historical account of how the student movement and attempts at reformism were subsumed by these overriding political structures. Agnoli’s work as a whole thus provided an analysis of the capitalist state that focused on how the political capacities of the state ensure the economic processes of valorization and reproduction, and how the structure of the state compels functionaries, no matter what their ostensible “political” orientation, to instrumentalize these capacities.41

These methodological influences and contextual developments can be seen in the work of Wolfgang Müller and Christel Neüsuss, who launched the debate, and can thus be seen to lay out the contours of its approach to Marxist state theory. In opposition to instrumentalist theories, especially those of the Frankfurt School, they stated that “the definition and criticism of state institutions as the instruments of manipulation of the ruling class, does not enable us to discover the limits of that manipulation.”42 Rather, they held that Marxist state theory should provide “a critique of the development of the various functions of the modern state.”43 As a result, mirroring Pashukanis, Müller and Neüsuss argued that these functions “can only be revealed by an analysis which shows in detail the needs for and the limits to state intervention, arising from the contradictions of the capitalist process of production as a labour-process and a valorization-process.”44 The contributions to this debate which followed thus centered on explaining the necessary function of the capitalist state, and its limits, by deriving the form of the state from the dynamic of valorization.

Following John Holloway and Sol Picciotto, we can identify three main approaches to this problematic. The first took issue with theories such as those of Pollock and Horkheimer and argued that the state’s institutional separation from the capitalist economy was key to understanding its role in the valorization process. This approach held that form of the state was necessary for the continued existence of capitalist society, since it stood above the competition of individual capitals in order to assure the system’s reproduction.”45 The second centered on providing a more sophisticated logical derivation of the state form from the order of presentation in Capital, while also establishing its necessity on this basis. This approach systematically derived the necessity and possibility of the state from the forms of appearance of capitalist social relations, in which all members of society, as owners of various sources of revenue, seem to have common interests, thus rendering an autonomous state necessary in order for these common interests to be realized outside of the sphere of competition. The third moved from these forms of appearance to capitalist social relations themselves. In contrast to the first two approaches, which can be seen to establish the necessity of the state as an ex post facto functional supplement to a fully articulated account of the valorization process, Joachim Hirsch’s contribution argued that a “theory of the bourgeois state” is “a matter of defining the bourgeois state as the expression of a specific historical form of class rule and not simply as the bearer of particular social functions.”46 This led Hirsch to derive the “possibility” and “general necessity” of the state from the capital relation, arguing that the particular form of the state abstracted “relations of force from the immediate process of production, thus constituting discrete ‘political’ and ‘economic’ spheres,” which were integral to reproducing this relation.47 In so doing, Hirsch’s “elements of a theory of the bourgeois state” also addressed the shortcomings of the other types of contributions – namely the separation of the state-form from the capital-relation – while also pointing to the importance of analyzing the state and social reproduction in the context of the world market.48

Despite these different points of emphasis, as a whole, the State Derivation Debate thus put forward a theoretical conception of the state that broke with instrumentalist interpretations. The participants convincingly argued against a conception of the state as a formless instrument that directed the economy, to conceive of the state’s impersonal form and separation from the capitalist economy as necessary for the reproduction of capitalist society. This foregrounding of form-determination in state theory was taken up by a number of the German state theories that followed.

The World Market Debate

Drawing on and advancing elements of Hirsch’s work, the German “World Market Debate” revolved around placing a form-analytic conception of the state in the concrete context of the world market. Christel Neusüss’s, Klaus Busch’s, and Claudia von Braunmühl’s contributions to this debate thus drew on Marx’s comments in the Grundrisse that the “tendency to create the world market is directly given in the concept of capital itself,” and developed accounts of how the law of value operated through the world market. In so doing, they relied on the value-theoretic conception of valorization as a process that “imposes a particular logic upon people,” while also echoing insights from the State Derivation Debate that capitalism’s crisis-prone tendencies can only be regulated if “the capitalist state is able to form and survive as a separate and relatively autonomous” entity.49 Yet in contrast to these approaches, the contributions to the World-Market Debate started from the methodological premises of a plurality of states in “multipolar” world capitalism.

Neusüss’s and Busch’s theories attempted to apply their interpretation of Marx’s theory of value to the world market by conceiving of it as a “combination of different nationally delineated spheres.” In contrast to the Derivation Debate, they held that that “an analysis of the world-market motion of capital could not be derived seamlessly from the inner nature of capital,” but had to occur in “modified forms.” Of the two, Neusüss provided a particular focus on the state, as an entity “that rests on a capitalist base, but is also ‘beside and outside it.’” She argued that the state was responsible for creating the “general material preconditions for production” and an “internal sphere of circulation” for national total social capital by enabling primitive accumulation, capitalist legal relations, thus guaranteeing the movement of capital and labor and facilitating the imposition of the law of value.50

Von Braunmühl attacked Neusüss’s and Busch’s ideas of “modified forms,” contending that value always appears in such a manner. She also held that the state could not be regarded as external to value theory:

The form of the bourgeois nation state, of the world market organized as nation states, acquires, as a bounded, legally sovereign centre of a capitalist complex of exchange and production, the function of securing, both inter­nally and externally, the politico-economic power of the bourgeoisies competing in the “international system.” The form, however great its economic significance… is ultimately not com­prehensible without recourse to the political moment of domination which is implicit in the economic relation of force between wage labour and capital, and without reference to the competing claims to rule advanced by rival bearers of authority.51

Von Braunmühl thus argued that the world market was “the appropriate level from which to observe the motion of capital and the effect of the law of value in general,” and that it was not the capitalist state as such that should be conceptualized but “the specific political organisation of the world market in many states.”52 Consequently, in opposition to the Derviation Debate, von Braunmühl made the case that “the form of the state as a political organisation of ‘separate and distinct relations of reproduction’” cannot be “derived from the merely internal dimensions of a commodity-producing class society alone – the role of the state in question in its specific relationship with the world market and with other states must always be included in the analysis from the outset.”53

These premises led von Braunmühl to argue on a theoretical level that the state should be conceived from the perspective of the internal dynamic of national capital and the external one of the world market. The fact of “political and economic rule by internationally competing ruling classes” was achieved through the political functions of a sovereign state, which could secure the necessary conditions within the nation state framework.54

While Nachtway and Brink point to a number of shortcomings in the World-Market Debate, and its premature dissolution, it did point out the importance of conceiving of form-analytic interpretations of the state from the perspective of the world market and a plurality of states, building on dimensions of Marx’s incomplete work and pointing to the shortfalls of deriving the form of capitalist state as such.

Weaving the strands

The Althusserian and critical-Marxian theories that followed took aspects of these German contributions on board, while also trying to integrate them with an account of social struggles. This was particularly the case in the Conference of Socialist Economists (CSE) debate, in which Open Marxists, such as John Holloway and Simon Clarke, stressed the dimensions of class struggle that were articulated in the internal relation between the state and the economy. It was also the case for other participants, such as Bob Jessop, who followed Poulantzas and integrated elements of the form-analysis into a theory of the state’s relative autonomy, within a broader multi-level social theory. The work of Werner Bonefeld and John Milios can be seen to weave these strands, reuniting Frankfurt School critical theory and Althusserian theory respectively with more complex theories of the state that draw on value-form theory, Pashukanis, Agnoli, the State Derivation Debate and the World Market Debate.

However, these contributions bring us back to the question of neoliberalism. As we have seen, Peck and Mirowski show that neoliberalism was inextricably linked with the state, which is an an explanatory dimension that is absent from prevalent Marxist accounts. Yet at the same time, Mirowski and Peck both refrain from considering what explanatory dimensions a more rigorous Marxian theory of the neoliberal state and neoliberalism would offer: linking neoliberal rationality to the social logic of capital by aligning the strong neoliberal state with the process of valorization. As I show in closing, Bonefeld’s and Milios’s recent writings can be brought together to lay the groundwork for such an explanation, providing a basis for an understanding of the strong capitalist state’s role in the development and continued reproduction of neoliberal capitalism, and of the way that neoliberal rationality corresponds to the political rationality of capitalism.

Neoliberalism and the strong state

Werner Bonefeld’s account of the social constitution of the form of the capitalist state holds that the capitalist economy and the capitalist state are a “contradictory unity” that is created by the “substantive abstraction of class antagonism,” with the capitalist state utilizing its form-determined political capacities to reproduce this class antagonism. The specific antagonism of capitalist class struggle is the “historical result” of primitive accumulation. As a result, the world market is derived from “the contradictory existence of abstract labour as the social form of wealth founded on exploitation,” which in turn determines the form of the state: “the development of the state needs to be seen as one in which the contradictory unity of surplus value production is processed in a political form, as a moment of the same process of class struggle: social reproduction as, and in and against, domination.” Bonefeld argues that this antagonism is also at the heart of “the harmonies of formal equality and formal freedom,” which are in fact systematic with political domination. The form of the state “concentrates the social reality of exploitation in and through the guarantee of formal freedom and formal equality of property rights.” Drawing on Agnoli, Bonefeld also focuses on how these legal and political forms are instrumentalized to assure reproduction. As he sees it, “the political guarantee of the right of property determines the state as a strong state” which “imposes the rationality and equality of the right of property over society in the attempt to contain the social antagonism of capital and labour by the force of law.”55 This theory of the state can thus be seen to align a number of insights from the form-analytic conception of the state with an account of class struggle, in order to understand the strong state as a separate yet interrelated entity, by virtue of the form-determined role it plays in reproducing the capitalist class antagonism.

Bonefeld’s recent work, written following the 2008 crisis, can thus be seen to provide a theoretical rebuttal of analyses of neoliberalism that ignored or diminished the role of the state, by theoretically elaborating how the neoliberal state is exemplary of the form-determined instrumental capacities of the capitalist state. This is a theory of political economy as a political practice, which shows how its “cohesion, organization, integration and reproduction are matters of state.”56 Following Agnoli, Bonefeld succinctly formulates the ends of such a political practice: “crudely put, the purpose of capital is to accumulate extracted surplus value, and the state is the political form of that purpose.” He provides an account of how this purpose is achieved by the instrumentalization of the form-determined capacities of the state for purpose of valorization. As he argues, the state “facilitates the order of economic freedom by means of the force of law-making violence”; sustains the capitalist relations of production and exchange by depoliticizing “socio-economic relations”; guarantees “contractual relations of social interaction”; seeks the further progress of the system of free labor by facilitating the “cheapness of provision”; and extends these relations by “securing free and equal market relations.”57 The “strong state” thus utilizes its form-determined capacities in an instrumental manner, to organize, integrate, sustain, and extend the social relation at the heart of the peculiar dynamic of valorization for the purpose of accumulating surplus value.

Bonefeld also enumerates how the “market-facilitating” coercive force of the strong neoliberal state achieves these ends in the three areas of political-legal form-determined instrumentality outlined above. He argues that capitalist relations have been sustained and extended “over the past 30 years” by “the accumulation of potentially fictitious wealth” – through “the coercive control of labour, from debt bondage to new enclosures,” and from “the deregulation of conditions to the privatization of risk.”58 Thus, in contrast to prevalent characterizations of the neoliberal state as a weak state that is separate from the market, unwilling and unable to guard it, Bonefeld argues: “The conventional view that neoliberalism has to do with the weakening of the state has little, if anything, to do with the neoliberal conception of the free economy.”59 Rather, since “the free market requires the strong, market-facilitating state, but it is also dependent on the state as the coercive force of that freedom,” the “neoliberal demand for the strong state is a demand for the limited state, one that limits itself to the task of making the economy of free labour effective.”60 This means that “the capitalist state is fundamentally a liberal state” and that the neoliberal state is typical of these fundamental qualities, because “the neoliberal state functions as a market facilitating state.”61

The social violence of capital

Like Bonfeld, John Milios also provides a theory of the capitalist state that draws important elements from form-analytic state theory.62 He also aligns these insights with the constitutive social dynamic of class struggle, but he does so from an Althusserian perspective. Although Milios rightly notes that Althusser’s “approach to value theory” was, at best, “ambiguous,” he also identifies several points of compatibility between Althusser’s work and form-analysis:

the predicative and categorical manner in which Althusser declares Marx’s rupture with Political Economy, as well as the basic parameters of his analysis, i.e. his approach to materialist dialectics, the epistemological break, the eccentric conception of social totality, the primacy of class struggle, the relative autonomy and interpenetration of the various practices, point to the theoretical potential implicit in the comprehension of Marx’s monetary theory of value, a key-issue of which is the insistence on the significance of the concept of value-form.63

This approach also draws on Milios’s interpretation of Pashukanis, who provided an account of the “process of simultaneous formation of the interacting elements” of the capitalist mode of production, “comprising among other things the formation of the (bourgeois civil) law and the ideology/philosophy which accompanies it.”64 Following the Althusserian conception of the “primacy of class struggle,” Milios contends that the capitalist mode of production (CMP) is constituted by two contradictions. The “principal contradiction” is the “contradiction” of the relations of production, which “divides society into two fundamental (and unequal) classes: the capitalist and working classes.”65 Yet in the CMP, these “agents of production embody other secondary power relations (contradictions)” because “certain relations of production presuppose the existence of specific legal-political and ideological relations: the so-called superstructure.”66 Therefore, while these “secondary contradictions are not the pure expressions of the principal contradiction,” they are “actually constitute its condition of existence, just as the principal contradiction constitutes their condition of existence.”67 Thus, rather than a one-way determinism, for Milios, the relationship between these contradictions is reciprocal; for, while in the “last instance” the relations of production ultimately “determine the general form of the superstructure,” these secondary determinations also possesses “relative autonomy” and act on the base.68 Consequently, “the (capitalist) mode of production is not exclusively an economic relation. It applies at all levels of society (social instances). It also includes the core of (capitalist) political and ideological relations of power, that is the particular structure of the capitalist state.”69

As a consequence, while Milios derives the state from class struggle, he also draws on accounts for the constitution of the form of the state, as a structural entity that is a separate yet interrelated aspect of the CMP. The “particular structure of the capitalist state” thus consists in “economic and political” powers, all of which possess “impersonal structures that function to ensure the overall preservation and reproduction” of the CMP.70 Since this structure corresponds to class domination, Milios argues, like Bonefeld, that these legal and political capacities are also used as instruments to ensure the preservation and reproduction of the class antagonism: “the state, as the centre for the exercise of capitalist class power, is the mechanism for concentrating the generalized social violence of capital.”71

Following the Althusser of “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” Milios argues that this form-determined instrumentalization occurs at two levels. The “economic level” is where “the state makes a decisive contribution to creating the overall material conditions for reproduction of capitalist relations.” It formulates politico-legal policies “for managing the workforce, interventions for an increase in the profitability of aggregate social capital, the national currency and state management of money, the institutional and legal framework safeguarding the “freedom” of the market, mechanisms for disciplining labour power and institutions of social pacification.”72 At the “political and ideological-cultural level,” the state has the important function of legitimating “the exercise of bourgeois political power” – it provides a national framework for the ideology of capitalist power, constituting capital as “socio-national capital.” As a whole, “capitalist exploitation is rendered possible, and appears as a ‘natural order,’ by virtue of the functioning of the state.”73

Mirroring Bonefeld, Milios’s account of the state thus aligns important form-analytic concerns with an account of the constitutive properties of class struggle. In this theorization, the state is not merely instrumental, nor is it simply an autonomous form.74 Rather, for Milios, the capitalist state is, “in reality: the political condensation of class relations of domination, the factor that underwrites the cohesion of capitalist society.”75

Milios provides an account of the neoliberalization of capitalist society that also reflects the “market facilitating” properties of the neoliberal state that Bonefeld identifies. He defines neoliberalism as a “historically specific form of organization of capitalist power on a social-wide scale, wherein governmentality through financial markets acquires a crucial role.”76 This leads Milios to argue that this historically specific organization consisted in the “recomposition” of the CMP, a “reforming all components involved, in a way that secures the reproduction of the dominant (neoliberal) capitalist paradigm.”77 As the mechanism for concentrating the generalized social violence of capital, the capitalist state facilitated this process of neoliberalization.

This is relayed in Milios’s account of the four basic elements of recomposition that constituted the neoliberal model, which the state was instrumental in instituting. The first consisted in repressive methods and monetarist policies that deregulated the job market, boosting unemployment, squeezing wages, and lessening the power of wage-earners. The second, which is linked to the first, entailed outsourcing in order to devalue “non-competitive” capital and further discipline labor. These were complemented by the third, the privatization and recomposition of state activities, which created a “basis for an increase in the debt of households,” generating the potential for debt in other privatized areas. Finally, consent to this model was secured by the possibility of “access to cheap loans” and a variety other financialized entities.78

Consequently, contra Harman and Postone, for Milios, neoliberalization did not erode the state, because it did not diminish its form-determined purpose. Rather, he holds that the capitalist state’s neoliberal recomposition strengthened the state’s ability to facilitate these ends. In neoliberalism, the capitalist state’s organization and reproduction of “the economic and political dominance of capital” is recomposed and extended to the historically specific governmentality of financialization, which has engendered “new kinds of rationality for the promotion of exploitation strategies based on the circuit of capital that presume compliance with the laws of the capitalist system.”79 Neoliberalization has thus led to “embedding” a “particular form of capitalist state power, of class governance, undoubtedly more authoritarian, crude, and violent” in neoliberal valorization and social reproduction.80 We are not far from Bonefeld’s theory of the market-facilitating purpose of the strong neoliberal state.

Vital politics as capitalist rationality

This brings us to the second productive affinity of Bonefeld’s and Milios’s recent work: both align phenomena that Foucauldian analyses of neoliberalism separate from capitalism with their form-analytic interpretations of the strong neoliberal state. They are thus able to conceive of neoliberal rationality as a political rationality of capital. Bonefeld’s work on ordoliberalism81 holds that ordoliberal theory not only exemplifies policies such as the Cameron government’s handling of the 2008 crisis, but that it also captures the “economic rationality of capitalist social relations” manifesting the “theology of capitalism.”82

The key is the emphasis on extending political rule into purportedly private arenas, in order to perpetuate the reproduction of the capital relation. For Bonefeld, “ordoliberal social policy is thus not only a policy towards and of society. It is fundamentally a policy in and through society, governing its mentality from within.”83 Consequently, the strong ordoliberal state “restrains competition and secures the social and ideological preconditions of economic liberty” by developing “the technique of liberal governance as a means of ‘market police.’”84

In Bonefeld’s view, such a technique consists in the moralizing social policy of “vital politics” (Vitalpolitik), which acts a “market-facilitating and -embedding policy, which has to be pursued relentlessly to sustain and maintain the moral sentiments of economic liberty in the face of the destructive sociological and moral effects of free economy.”85 Vital politics thus acts as a “market police” by instrumentalizing social policy in order to “eliminate the proletariat by means of a ‘market-conforming’ social policy,” which facilitates “freedom and responsibility” in a way that transforms “recalcitrant workers into willing entrepreneurs of their own labour power.”86 Ultimately, this “social element of the market economy… connects market freedom with individual responsibility, sets out to reconcile workers with the law of private property, promotes enterprise, and delivers society from proletarianised social structures.”87 In this way, the social policy of vital politics exemplifies the extended political practice of the strong neoliberal state, complementing its coercive use of legal and political policy. Neoliberal rationality is thus the political rationality of capital.

Milios’s account of financialization aims at a parallel explanation. For Milios, financialization does not represent privatization or the rolling back of the state, but an incorporation of “a range of institutions, procedures, reflections, and strategies that make possible the accomplishment (not without contradictions) of fundamental targets in the context of existing social relations.”88 Moreover, in contrast to narratives that interpret financialization as a desperate attempt to forestall the erosion of capital in response to the falling rate of profit, Milios argues that it represents a “strong and deeply established capitalism.”89 This is because Milios controversially contends that financialization is a sui generis form of fictitious capital which produces value, on the basis of his monetary interpretation of Marx’s theory of value.90 He also argues that financialization represents the main instance of the recomposition of the state’s form-determined role. The state embeds itself in this technology of power, which facilitates the market by reproducing the power relations of capitalist society.

For Milios, financial markets thus “have the dual function of assessing and effectively organizing individual economic actors and at the same time promoting a particular form of financing.”91 In so doing, they “monitor and control the terms and reproduction trajectories of the contemporary capitalist relation.”92 His analysis of financialization thus repurposes Foucault’s notions of neoliberal governmentality and biopolitics, in a way that mirrors Bonefeld’s analysis of vital politics – providing an explanation of how financialization serves political ends by consisting in a type of rationality that governs individual behaviour, compelling individuals to act in an entrepreneurial manner that assures the reproduction of the capital relation.93

Milios links these Foucauldian concepts to financialization primarily through an account of the normalization of risk. In his view, not only has risk become a commodified component of neoliberal valorization, as a result of the composition of neoliberal capitalism, but by virtue of these very same factors, it is utilized as a governmental technology of power to assure the reproduction of capital on the world market:

Attaching a risk profile to an agent (a capitalist firm, a state, or a wage earner etc.) means accessing and measuring their ability to conform in a docile manner to roles within a complex world that is underwritten by power relations. Risk calculation involves systemic evaluation on the part of every market participant of the efficiency with which particular targets (norms), as defined by social power relations, have been achieved. Every market participant lives risk as their reality and becomes caught up in a perpetual effort to improve their profile as a competent risk-taker, in this sense conforming to what is required by the “laws” of capitalism.94

This is particularly the case for workers who have been left most vulnerable by the composition of neoliberalism, with their “households… more reliant on risk management for their social reproduction.” Here, in what Milios describes as the “most important moment of financial innovation as a social process,” risk management “shapes and disciplines social behavior under the norms of capital,” making labor “hostage to its own fortune, that is to say, hostage to the demands of capital.”95 Financialization is thus representative of the recomposition of the state, rather than its retreat. As an instance of neoliberal rationality it serves the political purpose of reproducing neoliberal capitalism.

Conclusion

Since the capitalist state is a strong state, and the neoliberal state is a capitalist state, the neoliberal state is a strong state that has used its form-determined political capacities in an instrumental manner for the purpose of instituting the neoliberal regime of surplus value extraction, in order to guarantee the perpetuation of the capital relation. Rather than the erosion of the state, it is these state capacities that drove the neoliberalization of society, and have perpetuated it in its strengthened and recomposed form – in which even financialization is a form of governmentality. The neoliberal state exemplifies Marx’s account of the political purpose of the capitalist state, and the ordoliberal social policy of vital politics is paradigmatic of capitalist political rationality.

Taken together, these accounts align neoliberal rationality with the social rationality of capital. By conceiving of the neoliberal state as a strong capitalist state, they provide a basis for understanding how such a strong state, and its “biopolitical” social policies, serve the political purpose of assuring capitalist reproduction. These perspectives could be further strengthened by drawing on theoretical insights discussed above. For instance, the World Market Debate could prove helpful in understanding how the development of neoliberalism was driven by a plurality of states in the context of deindustrialization and restructuring on the world market.96 The empirical accounts of reactions to previous crises in neoliberalism, by Clarke and other members of the CSE, could also contribute to understanding how the strong neoliberal state responds to crises.97 Finally, Agnoli’s theory of statification, in tandem with Bonefeld’s theory of vital-political social management, could illuminate the steps taken by states that contained the counter-hegemonic movements that emerged after 2008. Further developing this account of the form-determined instrument of the capitalist state will be essential in generating theories that can grasp its overcoming.

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vicent
Feb 17 2016 07:29

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