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Poulantzas’s state, power, socialism as a modern classic

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Abstract

I would like to advance three theses on Poulantzas’s State, Power, Socialism (SPS 1978). First, Poulantzas formulated a contribution to the theory of the capitalist type of state that goes well beyond conventional Marxist analyses of the state in capitalist society. Second, he conceived the state as a social relation, a concept that holds for the capitalist type of state, diverse states in capitalist social formations, and statehood more generally. Third, his analysis of the current form of the capitalist type of state was highly prescient, with ‘authoritarian statism’ far more evident now than when he noted this emerging trend in the 1970s. Despite some basic limitations, SPS should be regarded as a modern classic.
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Poulantzas’s State, Power, Socialism as a Modern Classic (English version of
the German translation)
Bob Jessop (6180 words)
The printed version can be found here: ‘Poulantzas’s State, Power, Socialism as a
modern classic’, in L. Bretthauer et al., eds, Reading Poulantzas, London: Merlin, 42-
55.
I would like to advance three theses on Poulantzas’s State, Power, Socialism (SPS
1978). First, Poulantzas formulated a contribution to the theory of the capitalist type
of state that goes well beyond conventional Marxist analyses of the state in capitalist
society. Second, he conceived the state as a social relation, a concept that holds for
the capitalist type of state, diverse states in capitalist social formations, and
statehood more generally. Third, his analysis of the current form of the capitalist type
of state was highly prescient, with ‘authoritarian statism’ far more evident now than
when he noted this emerging trend in the 1970s. Despite some basic limitations, SPS
should be regarded as a modern classic.
The Capitalist Type of State
In Political Power and Social Classes (PPSC, 1968) as well as in SPS, Poulantzas
aimed to develop a form-analytical theory of the capitalist type of state. Both texts
seek to answer question initially posed by Pashukanis: 'why in order to assert its
political domination, does the bourgeoisie dispose of the quite specific state
apparatus which is the capitalist state – the modern representative State, the
national-popular class state' (SPS 49; cf. PPSC: 123). In both cases, Poulantzas
argued that, whereas direct class rule would be regarded as illegitimate, the modern
representative state offers a flexible framework to unify the long-term political
interests of an otherwise fissiparous power bloc, disorganize the subaltern classes,
and secure the consent of the popular masses.
In PPSC, Poulantzas proceeded in three steps. First, he argued with Althusser that
the institutional separation between economics and politics typical of the capitalist
mode of production (hereafter CMP) required an autonomous theory of the political
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region. Second, he drew on concepts of juridico-political theory to describe the
institutional matrix of the capitalist type of state: a hierarchically organized, centrally-
coordinated, sovereign territorial state based on the rule of law and, in its ideal-typical
‘normal’ form, combined with bourgeois democracy. This form addresses political
subjects as individuated citizens rather than as members of opposed classes and
thereby disguises exploitation and class power. Third, referring to Gramsci, he
argued that political domination depends on the capacity of the dominant class to
promote a hegemonic project that linked individual interests to a national-popular
interest that also served the long-term interests of the capitalist class and its allies in
the power bloc.
SPS also has a tripartite structure. Poulantzas’s argument moves from general
propositions about the state through a theory of the capitalist type of state to a more
concrete-complex theory of this type of state in the current phase of capitalism. The
steps in the argument are articulated respectively to general propositions on
production in general, on the capitalist social division of labour, and on the current
stage of capitalism. Here Poulantzas described the state not only as an integral
element in political class domination but also as a central instance for securing
important economic and extra-economic conditions for accumulation. He also
stressed the centrality of class powers and struggles to the labour process, social
relations of production, and the state.
Poulantzas combined two types of analysis: an account of the capitalist type of state
and the state in capitalist societies (PPSC: Pt II, chs 2-4). The former begins with an
abstract-simple analysis of the formal adequacy of a given type of state in a pure
capitalist social formation, argues that its form typically problematize its functionality,
and examines how and to what extent political practices may overcome such
problems in specific periods and conjunctures (Jessop 1982, 1990). In contrast, the
latter focuses in relatively concrete-complex terms on ‘actually existing states’ in
capitalist societies. It examines whether their activities are functionally adequate for
capital accumulation and political class domination and how this functional adequacy
is achieved (or not) in specific conjunctures through specific strategies and policies
promoted by particular social forces.
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In his theoretical studies, Poulantzas used form analysis to identify the historical
specificity of the capitalist type of state. This is exemplified by PPSC, Classes in
Contemporary Capitalism (1974), and SPS. His historical work prioritized the analysis
of the changing balance of forces. He showed how political class struggles and their
outcomes are mediated and condensed through specific institutional forms in
particular periods, stages, and conjunctures regardless of whether these forms
corresponded to the capitalist type of state. This approach is illustrated by the
concrete analyses in PSSC, by his periodized analyses of exceptional regimes in
Fascism and Dictatorship (1972) and Crisis of the Dictatorships (1976).
While both approaches proved productive for their specific purposes, it is not clear
whether Poulantzas wanted to combine them to produce a coherent relational
account of the capitalist state or whether they simply reflect different approaches to
different analytical objects without being fully reconcilable. While both approaches
are clearly compatible with his claim that the state is a social relation, the former
prioritizes form-analysis and the latter privileges social forces. Moreover, missing in
his work are more detailed studies of the mediating role of the institutional and
organizational forms of politics and their strategic-relational implications for the
balance of forces. If he had delivered these it would be easier to assess whether the
two approaches can, as I suspect, be adequately reconciled.
The state as a social relation
Poulantzas’s studies are based on his claim that the state is a social relation. He
explicitly rejected the view that the state is an entity – whether a docile instrument or
rational subject. Instead, 'like "capital", it is a relationship of forces, or more
precisely the material condensation of such a relationship among classes and class
fractions, such as this is expressed within the State in a necessarily specific form'
(SPS). By analogy with Marx's analysis of capital as a social relation, this claim can
be reformulated as follows: the state is not a thing but a social relation between
people mediated through their relation to things (cf. Marx, Capital I, ch 23); or, again,
the state is not a subject but a social relation between subjects mediated through
their relation to state capacities. More precisely, state power (not the state apparatus)
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as a form-determined condensation of the changing balance of forces in political and
politically-relevant struggle.
To translate this account into concrete-complex analyses of specific political
conjunctures requires the study of three interrelated moments: (1) the state’s
historical and/or formal constitution1 as a complex institutional ensemble with a
spatio-temporally specific pattern of ‘structurally-inscribed 'strategic selectivity';2 (2)
the historical and substantive organization and configuration of political forces in
specific conjunctures and their strategies, including their capacity to reflect on and
respond to the strategic selectivities inscribed in the state apparatus as a whole; and
(3) the interaction of these forces on this strategically-selective terrain and/or at a
distance therefrom. With this approach to state power, Poulantzas implicitly rejected
a general theory of the state in favour of form-analytical historical analyses of the
agency-mediated expanded reproduction (or transformation) of the capital relation.
He recognized that the state’s historical and formal constitution is not pregiven but
results from past struggles and is also reproduced (or transformed) through struggle.
He also refused to treat the balance of forces as fixed and explores how it is modified
through shifts in the strategic-relational terrain of the state, economy, and wider
social formation as well as by changes in organization, strategy, and tactics.
The Contribution of Staatstheorie
Poulantzas developed the strategic-relational character of the state in SPS. Part One
deals with the institutional materiality of the capitalist type of state and its impact on
class struggle. Poulantzas first shows that all of the state apparatuses (including the
economic and repressive apparatuses and not just the ideological apparatuses) are
the expression of the separation of mental from manual labour. He then traces the
consequences of this for political struggle. Next he explores the significance of
individualization for the forms of political struggle and, drawing on Gramsci, noted
how the modern democratic state, grounded in individual citizenship and a national
sovereign state, encouraged normal politics to take the form of a struggle for
national-popular hegemony. He also developed powerful arguments on the roles of
force and law in shaping the strategic terrain of the capitalist type of state and on how
resort to them is shaped in turn by class struggles. After this sketch of the institutional
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materiality of the state, Poulantzas showed how it operates to modify and condense
the balance of forces in political struggles. He continued to argue that this state
serves to organize the dominant classes and to disorganize the dominated classes
but argued, in this context, that the state is fractured and disunified and how this
poses problems for the exercise of state power. This is particularly important as he
now recognized that the dominated classes and their struggles are present in the
state system itself as well as at a distance from it. Thus he could show how state
power was grounded in the social relations of production and the institutional
materiality of the state thereby rejecting a generalized theory of power and
resistance in favour of a revolutionary materialist account of class power and its
overdetermination.
In a third analytical step, moving towards the concrete-complex in a particular period,
Poulantzas analyzes the changing relationship between the economic and extra-
economic conditions of capital accumulation in the contemporary phase of capitalism.
Here he built on arguments from Classes in Contemporary Capitalism (1975) to
develop four themes: first, the state’s economic functions are growing more
important, which is reflected in the structure and organization of the state; second,
the boundaries between the economic and the extra-economic have been redrawn,
with previously extra-economic elements now being seen as directly relevant to
valorization; third, the state's economic interventions are increasingly focused on the
social relations of production themselves and on the attempt to increase relative
surplus-value; and, fourth, even those policies most directly concerned with
economic reproduction nonetheless have an essentially political character and must
be carried through in relation to social cohesion in a class-divided society. This
extension in state intervention intensifies tensions among different fractions of capital
and also accentuates inequalities and disparities between the subordinate and
dominant classes. The state is therefore assuming some of the features of an
exceptional state but on a continuing basis. In this sense, it must be seen as the new
'democratic' form of the bourgeois republic in contemporary capitalism.
Exceptional Regimes
Before I come to the particular forms of the exceptional state, I want to look briefly at
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Poulantzas’s early work. This largely ignored two issues that would become
important for his later: the periodization of the capitalist state and the distinction
between normal and exceptional regimes. PPSC focused on the capitalist type of
state in its generic normal form (liberal bourgeois democracy). Later studies
investigated exceptional forms of the capitalist state, particularly fascism and military
dictatorships, and the interventionist state. SPS combined these concerns in the
claim that the capitalist type of state is now 'permanently and structurally
characterized by a peculiar sharpening of the generic elements of political crisis and
state crisis' rather than showing intermittent signs of short-term, conjunctural crisis.
The basis of this claim was elaborated in an essay on ‘The Crisis of the State’ (1976).
Poulantzas argued that, while the generic elements of crisis are constantly
reproduced in capitalist societies, crises only emerge when these elements condense
into a distinct conjuncture and develop according to specific rhythms (1976: 21-2,
28). They must therefore be related first to the field of political class relations and
only secondarily to specific political institutions (1973: 63; 1976: 23, 28).
Only one type of political crisis produces an exceptional form of state, namely, a
crisis of hegemony within the power bloc. This occurs when no class or fraction can
impose its 'leadership' on other members of the power bloc, whether by its own
political organisations or through the 'parliamentary democratic' state (1973: 72, 100-
1, 124-5). Symptoms include: a crisis of party representation, that is, a split between
different classes or fractions and their parties (1973: 73, 102, 126); attempts by
various social forces to by-pass political parties and influence the state directly; and
efforts by different state apparatuses to impose political order independently of
decisions coming through formal channels of power (1973: 74, 102-3; 1976: 28).
Even when the state can continue functioning, such phenomena can undermine the
institutional and class unity of the state (1973: 334). The state may also lose its
monopoly of violence (1973: 335).
The outcome of political crises always depends on class strategies and struggles.
Fascism emerged because a political crisis coincided with an offensive step by the
bourgeoisie and a defensive step by the working class (1973: 78-82, 107-8, 130-1,
139-47). Class struggles not only contribute to the genesis of political crises but also
determine whether they are resolved by restoring democracy or resorting to an
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exceptional state. Economic crises do not directly cause political and state crises but
they do shape the conjuncture in which such crises emerge (1973: 53; 1976: 25, 34).
When crises affect all social relations rather than one particular field of relations they
become 'organic' or 'structural' crises (1976: 26).
Poulantzas’s analysis of the exceptional state derives from his view that the definitive
features of the normal form of the capitalist type of state are democratic institutions
and hegemonic class leadership. Normal states correspond to conjunctures in which
bourgeois hegemony is stable and secure; and exceptional states are responses to a
crisis of hegemony (1974: 293; 1973: 11, 57-9, 72, 298, 313; 1977: 92-3). Thus,
while consent predominates over constitutionalized violence in normal states,
exceptional states intensify physical repression and conduct an 'open war' against
dominated classes (1974: 226; 1973: 152, 316-18, 330; 1977: 9, 92, 129). This basic
contrast is reflected in four sets of institutional and operational differences between
the two forms of state.
Whereas the normal state has representative democratic institutions with universal
suffrage and competing political parties, exceptional states suspend the electoral
principle (apart from plebiscites and/or referenda closely controlled from above)
and end the plural party system (1974: 123, 230; 1973: 324-7; 1977: 42, 91, 114).
The transfer of power in normal states follows constitutional and legal rules and
occurs in stable and predictable ways. Exceptional states suspend the rule of law,
however, to facilitate constitutional and administrative changes allegedly required
to help solve the hegemonic crisis (1974: 226-7, 311; 1973: 320-4; 1978a: 87-92).
Ideological state apparatuses in normal states typically have 'private' legal status
and enjoy significant autonomy from official government control. In contrast, ISAs
in exceptional states are generally subordinated to the repressive state apparatus
and lack real independence. This subordination serves to legitimate the increased
resort to coercion and helps overcome the ideological crisis that accompanies a
crisis of hegemony (1973: 314-8; 1977: 113-4).
The formal separation of powers within the RSA is also reduced through the
infiltration of subordinate branches and power centres by the dominant branch
and/or through the expansion of parallel power networks and transmission belts
cutting across and linking different branches and centres. This produces greater
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centralisation of political control and multiplies its points of application in the state.
This serves to reorganise hegemony, to counteract internal divisions and short-
circuit internal resistances, and to secure flexibility in the face of bureaucratic
inertia (1973: 315-6, 327-30; 1977: 50, 92, 100-1; 1978a: 87-92).
Poulantzas argued that representative democratic institutions facilitate the organic
circulation and reorganization of hegemony and thereby inhibit major ruptures or
breaks in social cohesion. However, if political and ideological crises cannot be
resolved through the normal, democratic play of class forces, democratic institutions
must be suspended and the crises resolved through an open 'war of manoeuvre’. But
the act of abolishing democratic institutions tends to congeal the balance of forces
prevailing when the exceptional state is stabilised. This makes it harder to resolve
new crises and contradictions through routine and gradual policy adjustments and to
establish a new equilibrium of compromise. Thus Poulantzas concluded that the
alleged strength of the exceptional state actually hides its real brittleness. These
make exceptional states vulnerable to sudden collapse as contradictions accumulate.
Conversely, apparently weak democratic states bend under the strain and therefore
provide more flexible means to organize political class domination (1977: 30, 38, 48-
50, 90-3, 106, 124).
The opposite holds for exceptional regimes. They lack any specialized politico-
ideological apparatuses to channel and control mass support and are thereby
isolated from the masses. They display a rigid apportionment of state power among
various distinct political ‘clans’ entrenched in each apparatus. And they lack an
ideology that can forge the necessary state unity and can establish an effective
national-popular cohesion. This produces a muddle of inconsistent policies toward
the masses as the exceptional regime attempts to neutralize their opposition. It also
leads to purely mechanical compromises, tactical alliances and settling of accounts
among ‘economic-corporate’ interests among the dominant classes and fractions. In
turn this intensifies the internal contradictions of the state apparatus and reduces its
flexibility in the face of economic and/or political crises (1977: 49-50, 55-7, 79-80, 83-
4, 91-4, 112-13, 120-1, 124-6).
Poulantzas saw important differences among exceptional forms of state. He seemed
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particularly struck by fascism’s flexibility and manoeuvrability. In contrast, military
dictatorship is the least flexible type; and Bonapartism is located halfway between
these extremes (Jessop 1985). Poulantzas nonetheless insisted that no exceptional
regime can secure the sort of flexible, organic regulation of social forces and the
smooth circulation of hegemony that occurs under bourgeois democracies (1977:
124). Accordingly, just as the movement from a normal to an exceptional state
involves political crises and ruptures rather than taking a continuous, linear path, so
the transition from an exceptional to a normal form will also involve a series of crises
rather than a simple process of self-transformation. This places a premium on the
political class struggle to achieve hegemony over the democratization process.
Indeed Poulantzas insisted that the class character of the normal state will vary
significantly with the outcome of this struggle (1977: 90-7, 124, and passim).
Authoritarian Statism
These reflections are developed in Poulantzas’s account of the new ‘normal’ form of
the capitalist type of state, i.e., ‘authoritarian statism’. Its basic developmental
tendency is described as ‘intensified state control over every sphere of socio-
economic life combined with radical decline of the institutions of political democracy
and with draconian and multiform curtailment of so-called ‘formal’ liberties’ (SPS:
203-4). More precisely, the main elements of ‘authoritarian statism’ and its
implications for representative democracy are: first, a transfer of power from the
legislature to the executive and the concentration of power in the latter; second, an
accelerated fusion between the legislature, executive, and judiciary, along with a
decline in the rule of law; third, the functional decline of political parties as the leading
channels for political dialogue with the administration and as the major forces in
organizing hegemony; and finally, the growth of parallel power networks cross-cutting
the formal organization of the state and holding a decisive share in its various
activities (1974: 303-7, 310-15; 1975: 173; 1976: 55-7; 1978a: 217-31; 1979: 132).
These changes are a permanent, structural feature of the modern state. They
correspond to a sharpening of the generic elements of political and state crisis
accompanying the long-term economic crisis that is supposedly besetting the entire
current phase of the CMP. Among the most important crisis-tendencies in this phase
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are: the politicization of working-class resistance to capital’s attempt to resolve the
economic crisis; the politicization of the new petty bourgeoisie because of the
deepening of the social division of labour within the ranks of intellectual labour itself;
the decomposition of the traditional alliance between the bourgeoisie and the old and
new petty bourgeoisie; the ideological crisis accompanying the growth of new social
movements on erstwhile ‘secondary’ fronts; and the sharpening of the contradictions
within the power bloc because of the tendential division of labour between the
comprador and interior fractions of capital (1978a: 210-14, 219, 221).
Moreover, whether the state disengages or intervenes to moderate a given crisis-
tendency in one area, it aggravates other crisis-tendencies in other areas. Thus the
postwar state’s ability to moderate the ‘wilder’ aspects of capitalist crises (as evident
in the 1930s) requires it to assume direct responsibility for the purgative effects of
crisis. This can threaten its legitimacy and stability. This occurs because it has
become much harder for the dominant fraction to sacrifice its short-term economic-
corporate interests in order to promote its long-term political hegemony. Yet failure to
act against economic crisis-tendencies will undermine capital accumulation.
Likewise, the state’s growing involvement politicizes the popular masses – especially
as postwar social policy commitments exclude spending cuts, austerity, and
recommodification. The resulting legitimation crisis leads the masses to confront the
state directly and threaten its stability. But any failure to intervene in these areas
would undermine the social reproduction of labour power. The state’s growing role in
promoting the internationalization of capital also provokes problems for national unity.
This is especially clear in its impact on less developed regions and national minorities
(1978a: 141-2, 154-3, 210-14, 219, 221, and 245-6).
Poulantzas used to argue that exceptional regimes are always temporary and occur
in response to specific conjunctures. Thus, because these crisis-tendencies are
permanent features of contemporary capitalism, authoritarian statism must be seen
as normal. For significant ‘exceptional’ features co-exist with and modify ‘normal’
features of the capitalist type of state. This involves a constant symbiosis and
functional intersecting of normal and exceptional structures under the control of the
commanding heights of the state apparatus and the dominant party (SPS: 208, 210,
245; cf. 1979: 132). Real power is concentrated and centralized at the summits of the
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governmental and administrative system, which seals itself off from the
representational role of parties and parliaments. The latter are now simple electoral
‘registration chambers’ (Laski). The state administration has become the main site for
developing state policy, guided by the political executive. This massively politicizes
the administration and risks its fragmentation behind a formal façade of bureaucratic
hierarchy and unity (1978a: 236). Indeed politics is increasingly focused in the staff
office of a president or prime minister. Standing at the apex of the administrative
structures, this office appears as a purely personalistic presidential-prime-ministerial
system. The pressure of many contradictory forces is condensed here so that the
fragile configuration of forces becomes evident in contradictions inside the
administration (SPS: 221-4, 226-9, 233, 236-8; cf. 1974: 311-14).
Poulantzas related this ‘irresistible rise of the state administration’ mainly to the
state’s growing economic role. For state intervention means that law can no longer
be confined to general, formal, and universal norms whose enactment is the preserve
of parliament as the embodiment of the general will of the people-nation. The rule of
law is weakened because legal norms are increasingly modified and elaborated by
the administration (SPS: 218-19; cf. Scheuerman 2005). This change is the product
of the permanent instability of monopoly hegemony within the power bloc and over
the people as well as of changing economic imperatives. Indeed the decline of the
rule of law also affects the political sphere. One sign of this is that pre-emptive
policing grows at the expense of judicial punishment (SPS: 219-20). More generally,
the crisis of monopoly hegemony means that the state administration becomes the
central site at which the unstable equilibrium of compromise between the power bloc
and the popular masses is elaborated within the power bloc itself. It also transforms
the parties of power (or 'natural parties of government' in contrast to those parties
destined for a permanent oppositional role) into a single (or duopolistic) authoritarian
mass party whose task is more to mobilize mass support for state policies in a
plebiscitary fashion than it is to directly articulate and represent popular interests and
demands to the state. This is also related to an increasingly dense network of
crosscutting ties between big business and the central administrative apparatuses of
the state (especially the economic apparatuses) and to a general increase in political
and administrative centralism. A further aspect here is the increased personalism of
power at the top of the executive. This does not involve a genuine Bonapartist
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dictator who concentrates despotic powers in his hands but rather involves the
search for a charismatic frontman who can give a sense of strategic direction to the
complexities of politics both for the dominant classes and in more plebiscitary fashion
for the popular masses (cf. Grande 2000).
Despite this centralization of administrative power, Poulantzas emphasized the
relative weakness of the authoritarian state. This is faced, according to Poulantzas,
with the growing incompressibility of economic contradictions and new forms of
popular struggle. There are also changes among the parties in power (SPS: 220).
Their ties of representation to the power bloc become .looser because monopoly
capital finds it harder to organize its hegemony through parliamentary parties. It
therefore concentrates its lobbying on the administration (PPSC: 171; 1974: 313,
313-14n, 320; SPS: 221-3). Thus the parties no longer fulfil their traditional functions
in policy-making and in political legitimation through elections. They are now little
more than transmission belts for official decisions and merely differ in the aspects of
official policy that they choose to popularize (1978a: 229-30, 237). In turn political
legitimation is redirected through channels based on plebiscitary and manipulative
techniques that are dominated by the executive and channelled through mass media
(SPS: 229).
Nonetheless the activities of the state administration continually run up against limits
inherent in its own structure. This is particularly clear in the internal divisions between
different administrative coteries, clans, and factions and in the reproduction inside the
state system of class conflicts and contradictions. Thus we must ask how the
administration overcomes these tensions so as to act effectively on behalf of
monopoly capital. Exceptional states achieve this through a political apparatus (such
as the fascist party, the army, or the political police) that is distinct from the
administration. In the ‘normal’ form of representative democracy, it is achieved
through the organic functioning of a plural party system located at a certain distance
from the central administrative apparatus (1978a: 231, 232-3; cf. 1973: 316-17, 332,
340-1, 353; 1974: 318-20, 335-7, 345-6, 348, 353-5; 1977: 33, 104-7). But how does
this occur under authoritarian statism?
Poulantzas suggested that the dominant mass party functions as a parallel network
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and acts as a political commissar at the heart of the administration, developing a
material and ideological community of interest with key civil servants. It must also
transmit the state ideology to the popular masses and organize legitimation of
authoritarian statism in a plebiscitary manner (1978a: 236-7). Hence the dominant
mass party actually functions as the dominant state party insofar as it represents the
state to the masses rather than vice versa. Such a mass party is most likely to
develop during a long period without alternation among the governing parties. But
similar functions can be performed by a single inter-party ‘centre’ that dominates the
alternating parties of power (1978a: 232, 235-6).
The irresistible rise of the state administration cannot prevent a further sharpening of
the generic elements of political and state crisis. Examples include: (a) politicization
of the bureaucracy, especially among its lower ranks, in opposition to the dominant
‘state party’; (b) the greater difficulties facing the administration than a flexible plural
party system in organizing hegemony and managing the unstable equilibrium of class
compromise; and (c) the growth and impact of mass struggles precipitated by new
forms of state intervention with potentially major dislocating effects within the state
itself (SPS: 240-7). Thus the rise of ‘authoritarian statism’ involves a paradox. While it
clearly strengthens state power at the expense of liberal representative democracy, it
also weakens its capacities to secure bourgeois hegemony (SPS: 241, 263-5).
Authoritarian Statism today
Poulantzas’s analysis of authoritarian statism was remarkably prescient. The various
trends that he identified in SPS have become even clearer. They are reactions to the
growing political crisis in the power bloc, the representational crisis in the political
system, the legitimacy and state crises associated with the twin failures of the
postwar interventionist state and the neo-liberal turn, and the growing challenge to
the primacy of the national territorial state in the face of globalization. We should
particularly note the continued decline of parliament and the rule of law, the growing
autonomy of the executive, the increased importance of presidential or prime
ministerial powers, the consolidation of authoritarian, plebiscitary parties that largely
represent the state to the popular masses, and, something neglected by Poulantzas,
the mediatization of politics as the mass media play an increasing role in shaping
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political imaginaries, programmes, and debates. An increased emphasis on issues of
national security and pre-emptive policing associated with the so-called war on terror
at home and abroad, has also reinforced the attack on human rights and civil
liberties. New Labour is a particularly compelling illustration of these tendencies but
the same trends are also starkly evident other metropolitan societies.
Poulantzas’s success in this regard can be explained in terms of his commitment to
combining theoretical and historical analyses rather than engaging in crude
Staatsableiterei or reducing every form of capitalist state to a simple dictatorship of
the bourgeoisie.3 For Poulantzas, an adequate periodization of the capitalist type of
state should consider the changing forms of articulation of its economic, political, and
ideological functions linked to the different stages of capitalism. Combined with his
more sophisticated analysis in SPS of the economic, political, and ideological
moments of social relations of production and the changing spatio-temporal matrices
of capital accumulation, this enabled him to theorize the ‘transformed form’ of the
economic functions of the ‘strong state’ in its latest phase (SPS: Part III, chs 1-2). In
addition he made careful generalizations from the case of fascism as the most
flexible form of exceptional regime, updated from the interwar period to the current
stage of capitalism and suitably modified to allow for the ‘normality’ of authoritarian
statism. Poulantzas also seems to have extrapolated key features of authoritarian
statism from French experience, with its strong étatist tradition and postwar history of
Gaullism. He was probably also influenced by the character of the CDU-Staat in
Germany and its subsequent transformation into a Sicherheitsstaat (Hirsch 1980).
What distinguishes Poulantzas’s analysis from contemporary libertarian, liberal, and
leftist critiques of creeping authoritarianism is his ability to locate these tendencies in
a form-analytical analysis of the capitalist type of state combined with a distinctive
interpretation of contemporary imperialism and a neo-Gramscian analysis of the
political crisis of the power bloc. Thereby he showed that the intensification of generic
features of exceptional regimes involved both a strengthening and a weakening of
the capitalist type of state. This illustrates well the heuristic and explanatory power of
his key thesis that the state is a social relation.
This said, Poulantzas’s account of authoritarian statism is problematic. First, relative
to the weight allotted to it in explaining the genesis of authoritarian statism,
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Poulantzas hardly discusses the nature of hegemony and its crisis in contemporary
capitalism. Second, he did not show how the exceptional features of authoritarian
statism are articulated under the dominance of the normal elements. This would be
crucial for his claim that this new form of the capitalist state is a normal democratic
state. Third, while he argued that the rise of 'authoritarian statism' entails a break or
rupture in the political process (since it involves a transition to a new state form), he
admitted that it results from the gradual accentuation of tendencies coeval with
monopoly capitalism and thus typical of interventionist states. He could extrapolate
some of these tendencies into the most recent period of state monopoly capitalism
but failed to predict the dominance of the neo-liberal turn in the transition to a
globalizing, post-fordist accumulation regime. In particular, he seems not to have
anticipated the success of monopoly capital’s offensive step and the weakening of
organized labour in response to the crisis of Atlantic Fordism and its Keynesian
welfare national states. Fourth, despite his recognition in SPS that the spatio-
temporal matrices of capital accumulation were being radically re-organized, his
analysis of authoritarian statism was still heavily imprinted by the assumption that the
national state would remain the dominant scale for organizing political class
domination. In short, even if we accept Poulantzas’s basically descriptive account of
‘authoritarian statism’ as a normal form of capitalist state, he is less convincing in
explaining its emergence and future development.
Moreover, despite his amazing theoretical acuity and astonishing prescience in some
respects, he missed three other important trends in contemporary capitalism. First, in
focusing on the changing forms of state economic intervention and highlighting its
role in redrawing the boundaries between the economic and extra-economic, he
missed the changes in the overall dynamic of capital accumulation that are
associated with the transition from Atlantic Fordism to a globalizing knowledge-based
economy. Second, in focusing on the role of national states in contemporary
imperialism, he failed to note how far the growing multi-scalar interpenetration of
economic spaces that he identified in Classes in Contemporary Capitalism also
implied a major re-scaling of state apparatuses and state power. Although he
correctly insisted on the continued importance of the national state in securing social
cohesion, he did not anticipate how the reallocation of other functions would weaken
its capacities to fulfil this crucial general function. And, third, although he recognized
16
the vital role of networks in the state’s operations, he did not realize how far this
would shift the exercise of state power away from top-down planning and hierarchical
rule towards decentralized context-steering and other forms of governance in the
shadow of hierarchy.
Notwithstanding these closing criticisms, Poulantzas remains a crucial figure in the
development of a materialist theory of the state. His insight that the state is a social
relation not only invigorated his more abstract-simple form-analytical account of the
capitalist type of state but also provided a powerful approach for dealing with the
concrete-complex features of actually existing states in capitalist societies. He can be
acknowledged for his role in providing subsequent theorists and militants with a rich
and sophisticated theoretical and conceptual framework with which to analyze the
contradictory and conflictual process of expanded reproduction from the viewpoint of
the key strategic-relational contribution of the state (and interstate system) in
organizing a power bloc and disorganizing subaltern classes. In short, Poulantzas’s
texts can be considered as modern classics in the sense that they pose important
questions and provide answers that, even if they are no longer regarded as fully
adequate, nonetheless point us in the right direction. Continued recognition as a
'classic' text is not guaranteed. Indeed, 'in order for a text to achieve the accolade of
a classic, it must typically overcome a variety of cultural hurdles; while to survive as
one, it must be subjected to continual critical engagement, its concepts reformulated
to meet new problems and trials' (Baehr and O'Brien 1994: 127-8). As the current
volume shows, fits Poulantzas well. His work is critically discussed and there can be
no doubt that its concepts can be redeployed and reformulated to enable us to meet
new problems and trials in the contemporary period.
1 Poulantzas discussed both the historical formation and functioning of the capitalist
state as a hybrid form (1973: 144-6, 154-6, 161-6, 168-183) and its formal
constitution as a capitalist type of state (148-51, 189, Part 4, chs 3-5).
2 On strategic selectivity, see Jessop (1982, 1985, 1990, and 2007)
3 On the importance of this approach, see section 5 of his introduction to PMGK.
17
Literature
Baehr, P., and O'Brien, M. (1994) ‘Founders, classics and the concept of a canon’,
Current Sociology, 42 (1), 1-151.
Grande, E. (2000) ‘Charisma und Komplexität. Verhandlungsdemokratie, Medien-
demokratie und der Funktionswandel politischer Eliten’, Leviathan, 28 (1), 122-
41.
Hall, S., Critcher, C., Jefferson, T., Clarke, J., and Roberts, B. (1978) Policing the
Crisis: ‘Mugging’, the State, and Law and Order, Basingstoke: Macmillan.
Hirsch, J. (1980) Der Sicherheitsstaat. Das ›Modell Deutschland‹, seine Krise und die
neuen sozialen Bewegungen, Frankfurt: VSA.
Jessop, B. (1982) The Capitalist State, Oxford: Martin Robertson.
Jessop, B. (1985) Nicos Poulantzas: Marxist Theory and Political Strategy,
Basingstoke: Macmillan.
Jessop, B. (1990) State Theory, Cambridge: Polity.
Jessop, B. (1999) 'Globalisierung und Nationalstaat. Imperialismus und Staat bei
Nicos Poulantzas – 20 Jahre später', Prokla, 116, 469-495.
Jessop, B. (2002) The Future of the Capitalist State, Cambridge: Polity.
Jessop, B. (2007) State Power: a Strategic-Relational Approach, Cambridge: Polity.
Jessop, B. and Sum, N. (2006) Beyond the Regulation Approach: Putting Capitalist
Economies in their Place, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.
Marx, K. (1967) Capital, Volume One, London: Lawrence & Wishart.
Poulantzas, N. (1972) Fascism and Dictatorship, London: Verso.
Poulantzas, N. (1973) Political Power and Social Classes, London: NLB.
Poulantzas, N. (1975) Classes in Contemporary Capitalism, London: Verso.
Poulantzas, N. (1976) ‘Les transformations actuelles de l’État, la crise politique et la
crise de l’État’, in idem, ed., La Crise de l’État, Paris: Presses Universitaires de
France, 19-58.
Poulantzas, N. (1976) Crises of the Dictatorships: Portugal, Greece, Spain, London:
Verso,
Poulantzas, N. (1978) State, Power, Socialism, London: Verso.
Scheuerman, W.E. (2005) Liberal Democracy and the Social Acceleration of Time,
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
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Founders, classics and the concept of a canon
  • P Baehr
  • M Brien
Baehr, P., and O'Brien, M. (1994) 'Founders, classics and the concept of a canon', Current Sociology, 42 (1), 1-151.
Der Sicherheitsstaat. Das ›Modell Deutschland‹, seine Krise und die neuen sozialen Bewegungen
  • J Hirsch
Hirsch, J. (1980) Der Sicherheitsstaat. Das ›Modell Deutschland‹, seine Krise und die neuen sozialen Bewegungen, Frankfurt: VSA.