Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Paul Costello

Capitalism, the State and Crises


First Published: Theoretical Review No. 20, January-February 1981
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

The 1980 elections represent more than a mere changing of the guard in the nation’s capitol. They symbolize a basic shift in the strategy of monopoly capital for dealing with the unfolding capitalist crisis. The new administration and its supporters in Congress are talking about fundamental structural changes in the State’s economic intervention and its prevailing social programs; its advisors are even raising the possibility of a basic revision of the US constitution itself.[1]

In order to adequately analyze the changes which are occurring in American politics we need a clear and concrete conception of the nature and functioning of the State in the present period of advanced capitalism. The Theoretical Review is presently working on such an analysis; we hope to have some preliminary results ready for publication in the next issue. The purpose of this article is to briefly discuss the necessary theoretical framework for taking up this problem.

Instrumentalism and Other Errors

Since the 1930s the world communist movement has been dominated by a number of erroneous approaches to State analysis which have both retarded the development of its theory and negated its political effectiveness. To correctly understand the problems of the capitalist State it is first of all necessary to demarcate ourselves from these erroneous views.

(1) The most common error is the abandonment of the concrete analysis of historically specific capitalist States for the endless repetition of abstract phrases about the State in general: every state is a class state, all political domination is a form of class dictatorship, the capitalist state is a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, etc., Not only does the simple repetition of these generalities not help us to understand why a historically specific state–the US capitalist state in 1981–has taken the specific forms which it has, but it also functions to block the development of the many new concepts which such a concrete analysis requires. Effective political practice can only be the product of concrete theoretical analysis, based on advanced theoretical concepts and methodology.

(2) Another common error is instrumentalism, which conceives of the state as a simple, or complex, machine or tool, the instrument wielded by the dominant class against the others. As one text recently put it: “the modern bourgeois state is nothing but an instrument of class rule.”[2]

Instrumentalism fails to see the State and the bourgeoisie as social processes which are constantly united and divided by class struggle. Therefore it cannot grasp the complexity of the contradictions within the State itself, nor those between the State and the dominant class. Inevitably it also involves a form of voluntarism: the State, like the bourgeoisie does not develop as a result of the class struggle, rather a pre-existing bourgeoisie “creates” the State and manipulates it as an expression of its own “will.” As the above quoted text states: “the bourgeoisie brought into being the modern nation state.”[3] (emphasis added.)

(3) Yet another common error is frequently linked to instrumentalism. Since the State is nothing but an instrument used by the ruling class, the State is not a site of class struggle, rent with contradictions, but a thing above class struggle, a monolithic weapon in the hands of the ruling class. According to this view, the struggle for state power, the class struggle, can only go on outside the State and against the State. Needless to say, the existence in class society of a powerful and expansive social structure which is immune to internal class struggle is a unique discovery of our instrumentalists.[4]

(4) A final consequence of instrumentalism must also be mentioned. It defines the state as the instrument employed by the ruling class to implement some pre-established political decision. Thus it is a theory of the state which is unable to explain how the political decision making process within the ruling class is conducted or how the political unity of capital is produced and maintained, before it is implemented by the State, two questions which are decisive for any study of the workings of capitalism and its State.

Against this sterile and dogmatic conception of Marxism and the State it is necessary to pose a revolutionary theoretical and political alternative which is founded not only on advanced concepts and methodology, but also on the concrete investigation of the actual States of contemporary capitalism.

Locating the State

Our first problem is to locate or situate the state in relation to the rest of capitalist society. We begin, as always, with the primacy of class struggle.

While the class struggle is international in scope, it also unfolds within definite spatial limits: most frequently, the modern nation. In fact the creation and evolution of the nation form is pre-eminently the product of class struggle. As Poulantzas explains: “the modern nation is not the creation of the bourgeoisie, but the outcome of a relationship of forces between the ’modern’ social classes–one in which the nation is a stake for the various classes.”[5]

Within a nation, class struggle goes on at all levels: economic, political and ideological. Power in such a class-divided society is primarily class power. Class power is founded on the objective position which various classes occupy in the social division of labor; “it designates the capacity of each class to realize its specific interests” in relation to the capacity of other classes.[6] Class power is materialized in certain definite apparatuses and practices. The class power of the workers is materialized, for example, in the apparatus of the trade unions and exists in the various class practices such as strikes and ultimately, revolution.

Class power is considerably broader than political power, although politics is never absent from it. For example, capitalist relations of production give to capital the capacity to set into motion the means of production and to dispose of the resultant products for its own ends. Of course this capacity is ultimately backed up by capitalist political power, law and the courts, but it cannot be reduced to this political power alone. This capacity can also be traced to the definite relations of domination and subordination which are reproduced in the educational system, the mass media and most religious groups.

Having discussed class power it is now necessary to look at political power. Politics can be defined as the strategic field of class struggle in which the overall social relations between classes are either preserved and reproduced (as when one class holds political power) or transformed (when another class seizes political power). “The political power of a class, its capacity to realize its political interests, depends not only on its class place... with regard to other classes, but also on the position and strategy it displays in relation to them . . .”[7]

Although political power is broader than the State, nonetheless it is primarily concentrated and materialized in the State which is the primary site of the organization and exercise of power by the dominant class in its relationship to the dominated classes. This is why Lenin said: “The key question of every revolution is undoubtedly the question of state power. Which class holds power decides everything.”

But what is the state itself? Above we have argued that the state, like capital, is not a thing, an instrument, wielded at will by the ruling class, as in the instrumentalist model. Instead the state is a relationship among forces, or more precisely, the specific material condensation, at the political level, of the relationship among the classes and class fractions which constitute a given society at a given moment in time. The state is the material condensation of this relationship, by which we mean that it exists in a complex system of state apparatuses and state practices.

Let us draw out several of the more important implications of this definition.

(1) Since the state is founded on the relationship (struggle) of classes and class powers, the capitalist state represents the interests of the dominant capitalist class. But the fact that the state is the result of a relationship of forces also means that these class contradictions express themselves within the state itself; the state is not above class struggle or immune from its effects. As Poulantzas explains the state is “through and through” constituted and divided by class contradictions. How this process occurs we shall see in a moment.

(2) The state cannot be reduced to “repression plus ideology.” This is not to say that these two elements, also called force and consent, are unimportant. “State-monopolized physical violence,” Poulantzas reminds us, “permanently underlies the techniques of power and mechanisms of consent: it is inscribed in the web of disciplinary and ideological devices; and even when not directly exercised, it shapes the materiality of the social body upon which domination is brought to bear.”[8]

This does mean, however, that the couplet “repression plus ideology” all too often can mystify complex reality, particularly if one tries to mechanically divide all the state apparatuses into one or the other of these categories. The state repressive apparatuses (police, courts, etc.), for example, do more than simply proscribe and prohibit forms of conduct (repression). They also play a prominent ideological role as well.

More importantly, it should be seen that the state does more than proscribe conduct and organize consent. It also performs an active role in shaping and transforming material reality. This can be seen in the interventionist role which the state plays in the economy. It can also be seen in the material measures which the state has historically taken which are of positive significance for the masses: legalization of the trade unions, social security, unemployment insurance, school desegregation, affirmative action programs, etc. Of course, these measures were taken as a result of social struggles and were relatively minor concessions granted to forestall basic changes. They are nonetheless very real and demonstrate that the scope of state activity goes far beyond repression plus ideology.

With this definition we can go on to examine the role and function of the state under capitalism.

The Functioning of the State

In general we can say that the decisive place of the state in class-divided societies is expressed through its function of helping to constitute and reproduce class power and class struggle to the benefit of the dominant class. In the process it codifies property relations and the social division of labor, it secures political domination and it reproduces ideological hegemony.

The modern capitalist state is a case in point. Let us first examine its political function. With regard to the dominant class or classes the state’s principal role is one of organization. The bourgeoisie, by its very nature, is divided into different fractions with different and often conflicting interests: monopoly capital (banking and industrial); non-monopoly capital in its commercial, banking and industrial fractions; the internationalized fractions of capital, etc. The contradictions among these fractions at the economic level must be overcome at the political level if the capitalist class is to maintain its domination and develop a united strategy with regard to the dominated classes. The state constitutes the political unity of the dominant class by providing a set of state apparatuses and practices within which these contradictions can be struggled out.

The organizational form which this struggle takes and through which state power is actually exercised is termed the power bloc which unites the various fractions of capital under the hegemony of one dominant fraction–currently, monopoly capital. The concept of the power bloc enables us to break not only with the notion of a monolithic capitalist class which uses the state as its passive instrument, but also with the notion of a monolithic state immune to internal class contradictions.

At the same time the concept of the power bloc enables us to understand the way in which the dominant class can rise above its own internal contradictions to arrive at a unified policy. For although the state has to represent the long term interests of the entire bourgeoisie, each fraction participating in the power bloc (and the state bureaucracy which is a force in itself) seeks to shape the state and state policy to its own agenda. Since no one group entirely gets its own way, the final policy is different from what each of the originally contending forces desired. State policy, while primarily reflecting the interests of the hegemonic fraction in the power bloc, nonetheless corresponds in some measure to the specific interests of each fraction and to the general interests of the class as a whole.

This is the true meaning of the relative autonomy of the state: ultimate policy is relatively autonomous of any given fraction in the power bloc because it is the product of the collision and compromise of conflicting interests. This is also what Poulantzas meant when he said that the state was constituted and divided by class contradictions. The state provides the means by which the unity of the dominant class can be constituted, but at the same time, the objective contradictions within the dominant class and between it and the dominated classes which are present in the state constantly, work to divide it.

The existence of these real contradictions shows that it is a serious error to see in the US national elections only a charade to dupe the masses. The election process, from the choice of candidates through the primary elections, the selection of delegates to conventions, up to the conventions and the general election itself, does more than shape and reflect popular consciousness. It also provides one structure, among others, within which national, state and local power blocs can organize the resolution of their own contradictions and produce a unified political strategy.

The State and the Dominated Classes

The state regulates not only the relationship of forces between fractions of the power bloc, but also the relationship between the power bloc and the dominated classes. Moreover these two processes are closely related since the formulation of power bloc policy is as much shaped by its relationship to the masses as by its own internal contradictions. This relationship to the dominated classes, this domination or hegemony, is not simply imposed on the masses from above. Rather hegemony is a complex two-fold process of integration and disorganization.

On the one hand, the state draws the masses into forms of participation in the state system through a series of policy compromises and concessions. On the other hand, the state helps further organize and unify the power bloc by permanently disorganizing and dividing the dominated classes, co-opting their leaders, and physically and ideologically disrupting their forms of political organization.

This process of integration/disorganization can take many forms in addition to the more obvious ones of co-optation and disruption. In many instances, particularly at the local or city level, the power bloc can allow the participation within it of sections of the petty bourgeoisie. In Europe this is important to the dislocation of their alliance with the workingclass. Or, as a result of mass struggle, the state can impose certain short term sacrifices on the dominant classes in order that their long term domination may be perpetuated. As Poulantzas elaborates:

“In the long run, the State can serve class hegemony by itself granting certain material demands of the popular masses–demands which, at the moment of their imposition, may assume a quite radical significance (free and universal public education, social security, unemployment benefits, etc.). Once the relationship of forces has changed, these ’popular gains’ can be progressively stripped of their initial content and character in a covert . . . [or overt] fashion.”[9]

A good example of this is the history of labor legislation in the United States. The passage of the Wagner Act during the height of industrial unionist activity in the 1930s was a radical step, but as soon as the wave of struggle began to ebb the gains were progressively withdrawn by court action, culminating in the Congressional passage of the Taft-Hartley Act. Finally, as we all know even concessions such as unemployment benefits, food stamps and welfare have their negative side: they are accompanied by an entire administrative apparatus in which “legal-police control” is exercised over the masses.

As noted above, the state is the condensation of the relationship between classes. As such the state does not totally exclude the dominated classes from its system, but includes them within it precisely as dominated classes, constantly reproducing this relationship of domination/subordination. The masses are present throughout the state system which “serves” them, in all the mechanisms of the social welfare apparatuses, those pertaining specifically to the workingclass (unemployment compensation, workers compensation, National Labor Relations Act, etc.), and education. In Europe communists and social democrats occupy many positions in different national and local state apparatuses (parliament, city councils, etc.). The masses are also present in the state because of the many members of the petty bourgeoisie and the workingclass who are state employees. Even where the masses are not physically present in the state their presence is felt by the effects of their struggles: the precise shape and direction of state apparatuses and policy is directed as much by the role which they must fulfill with regard to the masses as by the struggles within the power bloc itself.

It is important to recognize the fact of the existence of the masses within the state, but it is more important to draw the correct conclusions from it. As Poulantzas argues: “the popular classes have always been present in the State, without that ever having changed anything of its hard core.” The dominated classes exist in the state not by means of apparatuses concentrating a power of their own, but essentially in the form of centers of opposition to the power of the dominant class.”[10]

And he warns, no doubt recalling the Chilean tragedy:

“The action of the popular masses within the State is a necessary condition of its transformation, but is not itself a sufficient condition .... It would be an error fraught with serious political consequences to conclude from the presence of the popular classes in the State that they can ever lastingly hold power without a radical transformation of the State.”[11] (italics in the original)

The lessons of this line of analysis for the development of a revolutionary strategy in the United States require the most serious attention.

The State’s General Functions

In addition to its specific functions with regard to the dominant and dominated classes, the State also performs general functions vital to the maintenance and production of capital as a whole. These general functions, both technical and social in nature, are chiefly determined by the class struggle. They are shaped by the requirements of capital itself, and as a response to the struggle of the masses.

The capitalist State assures the general-technical preconditions of the production process through its supervision and regulation of many aspects of this process: means of communication and transportation, energy, activity abroad to insure the continued flow of raw materials to the United States, labor laws, etc. It also assures the general-social preconditions of capitalist production through the maintenance of an integral territorial state, a national market, stable “law and order,” and the requisite force to back it up, the reproduction and regulation of the mass media and other ideological apparatuses, the school system, etc.

Given the determination in the last instance of the economy under capitalism, the State’s economic functions are of special significance, particularly in the modern period. In fact the contemporary State’s economic functions are directly related to the specific rhythm of accumulation and reproduction of capital. In this sense the role of the State is not merely of economic importance, assisting capital accumulation and exploitation, but also of political importance, corresponding to a political strategy of the power bloc.

In terms of this economic function under capitalism, the maintenance of a “sufficient” rate of profit is vital to capital’s expansion. The rate of profit is therefore a key site of the class struggle; the struggle of the popular masses against exploitation leads to the well-known tendency of the falling rate of profit. By way of response, “state intervention in the economy should be essentially understood as the introduction of counter-tendencies to this tendency.”[12] The debate within the bourgeoisie over the most effective strategy to respond to the present economic crisis is essentially a debate over the nature and extent of the structural changes required to ensure the conditions (economic, political and ideological) which will increase the rate of profit.

The Capitalist State Through History

As we noted in the beginning of this article, abstract platitudes about the State in general will not help us to analyze its concrete forms. What we need is a theoretical framework which will enable us to grasp concretely the ways in which the class struggle has produced the historical transformation which the capitalist State has undergone, and the precise forms which it has taken in the course of these changes.

The first form of the capitalist state was the Absolutist State which dominated Europe from the middle of the 15th to the middle of the 17th centuries. The Absolute Monarchies in Britain, France and Spain were essential for the victory of the capitalist mode of production because of their strongly centralist and interventionist character. Their centralizing function subordinated all other power in the emerging territory-nation to their control. By directly controlling all major financial undertakings, through Royal charters and grants, they shaped the direction of development of capitalism. At the same time they aided capital in its struggle against the vestiges of the feudal mode of production.

Once capitalism’s victory was assured, the Absolute State with its interventionist role became a fetter on the free development of capitalist production and interfered with capitalist competition. The great bourgeois revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries gave rise to a new kind of state: the “weak” classical liberal state of laissez faire competitive capitalism. By “weak” we do not mean that the State was lacking the force with which to protect capitalism. Rather we mean that the role of the State in the economy and society was strictly limited. The State was to leave business to the businessmen and any legislative efforts to the contrary were generally viewed as an intolerable interference with the ”freedom of contract.” At this point capitalist society was characterized by the relative separation of public and private spheres of activity (the State and civil society). The economy was allowed to operate relatively freely, on the basis of its own laws of production and exchange. The State intervened only where the interests of capital as a whole could not be adequately served by the outcome of the competition between individual capitalists. A good example of this are the Factory Acts in England in the 19th century discussed by Marx in Capital.

The most effective form of the classical liberal state was parliamentary democracy which developed in the advanced capitalist countries, Britain, France and the United States in the 19th century. In fact we can say that parliamentary democracy is the basic State form of the capitalist mode of production. It provides the most open and flexible means with which to politically organize the various fractions of capital, disorganize and integrate the masses, and insure the overall reproduction of relations of exploitation and domination. Only in circumstances of acute class struggle did this State form prove inadequate for the maintenance of bourgeois hegemony. Out of such conditions a form of the exceptional State aroseóBonapartism–whose character Marx sketched in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. This State form is termed exceptional because it is an exception to the general form of the State under capitalism: parliamentary democracy.

Capitalism is a mode of production which never remains static. At the turn of the century competitive capitalism began to be transformed into monopoly capitalism (imperialism). This development was accompanied by the increasing internationalization of capital and the intensification of inter-imperialist rivalry, economic crises and the class struggle. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that these economic changes were automatically translated into changes in politics and the State. The effects of the economic transformations of capitalism had a definite effect, but it was an effect which was mediated through the State’s own processes of evolution and the class struggle, which cannot be reduced to simple “reflections” of the economy.

The concentration and centralization of capital which is an important feature of imperialism found its echo in the State in a process of political centralization. But centralization at the State level was also a response to the unfolding class struggle and the explosiveness of economic crises. The State was increasingly compelled to intervene in the economy by means of social and labor legislation, and to find extra-economic means to moderate the effects of the economic laws of capitalism.

Politically, the gradual acquisition of universal suffrage led to the growth of the political influence of the workingclass. Under imperialism Europe experienced the rise of mass social democratic, and later, communist parties. As socialist and communist deputies began to take their seats in European parliaments the center of power within the States was shifted away from parliament to the upper levels of the State administration. Because the Social Democrats never understood this ability of the State to shift the center of power out of the democratically elected parliament to the authoritarian State apparatus, the mistaken view continued to persist that the simple election of a majority of socialist deputies would put State power in the hands of the workingclass. A similar error was made in Chile where illusions were widespread upon Allende’s election, that somehow control over the Executive branch of the government could be equated with State Power.

These processes of State transformation were enormously accelerated by the onset of the long wave of capitalist contraction and economic and political crisis which followed the First World War, particularly the period known as the Great Depression. This new period in the history of world capitalism put an end once and for all to the classical liberal State form and ushered in a new era: that of the Interventionist State.

The Interventionist State

The Italian communist leader Antonio Gramsci was the first to recognize this qualitative change, to characterize the new Interventionist State in its many forms, and to draw out its implications. In the Gramscian view, unlike the mechanical economic catastrophism of the Third International,[13] the economic crisis of the 1930s was not automatically being transformed into a revolutionary crisis. Rather the economic crisis, coupled with the inability of the Liberal State to find solutions to it, was producing what Gramsci called an organic crisis. Bourgeois hegemony was threatened, social classes and strata were detaching themselves from the political parties they had traditionally supported and looking for alternative political leadership, new forms of struggle were emerging.

The organic crisis in the developed capitalist countries manifested itself in specific State crises. The old classical liberal States were no longer capable of effectively unifying the power bloc whose composition had radically changed with the rise of imperialism and monopoly capital. Nor could it adequately integrate the masses under its hegemony nor facilitate the economic recovery of the capitalist economy. New State forms were required, new ways of constituting and unifying the dominant class through the construction of new hegemonic apparatuses.

The precise nature of these new forms of the capitalist State and hegemony which actually emerged in different countries depended upon the concrete balance of class and social forces within them. In some the new forms were modified variants of parliamentary democracy. In others, new forms of the exceptional State emerged: fascism and military dictatorship.

In the years 1929-1935 the Third International greatly underestimated the ability of capitalism to pull itself out of the international crisis. Failing to understand the specific conditions operating in the developed capitalist countries it sought to mechanically superimpose upon them the Russian revolutionary experience. Gramsci on the contrary, understood the strength of capitalism and the bourgeois state. As early as 1926 he wrote:

“In the advanced capitalist countries, the ruling class possesses political and organizational reserves which it did not possess, for instance, in Russia. This means that even the most serious economic crises do not have immediate repercussions in the political sphere. Politics always lags behind economics, far behind. The state apparatus is far more persistent than it is often possible to believe; and it succeeds, at the moments of crisis, in organizing greater forces loyal to the regime than the depth of the crisis might lead one to suppose.”[14]

If the Third International viewed capitalism in those years as a decadent and moribund system, incapable of handling its own contradictions so as to pull itself out of the depression, Gramsci saw, in its response to the crisis, its revolutionary role. He characterized the emergence of Interventionist States as a process of passive revolution which would give to capital the means with which to restore its hegemony. He used the term passive revolution because it was a revolution from above, a structural transformation directed by the State, which fundamentally altered the character of capitalist society, all the while reinforcing capital’s domination.

On the one hand, the State became a permanent and vital force in the accumulation and reproduction of capital through its extensive and intensive intervention at all levels of the economy and society. On the other, it proceeded to neutralize the struggles and initiatives of the masses through their integration into the vastly expanded State system and the slow satisfaction of certain popular grievences by means of State action. Social security, unemployment insurance, collective bargaining, minimum wage, all appeared to be a “gift” from the State rather than what they were in fact: by-products of class struggle.

The growth of the Interventionist State abolished the distinction between public and private spheres; its tendencies now extended into all areas of social life. As a result every class and social struggle found itself increasingly in direct confrontation with the State in one or more of its many facets; the State more and more was becoming not merely the object of these struggles, but a site within which they were being fought out.

The New Deal, with its Keynesian policies and its broad conception of the “welfare state” was the foremost example of the passive revolution within the limits of parliamentary democracy. Massive state spending and the integration of the labor movement and other popular forces within the New Deal coalition re-established bourgeois hegemony on a new foundation. This radical restructuring could be carried out without an abandonment of the bourgeois democratic form because of the specific balance of class forces in the US at this time. Capital, although weakened, had not lost the capacity to rule and the workingclass had not yet acquired it. Francis Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward in their book, Poor People’s Movements, provide an excellent example of the process of passive revolution in the US in their chapter on the mass struggles of the unemployed in the 1930s which were coopted and integrated into the state system through the establishment of federal relief programs under the New Deal. The negative consequences of the inability of the Communist Party, USA to understand this process and prevent its own cooptation within it is a major, if little known, lesson of this period.[15]

German fascism (Nazism) was the outstanding example of an Interventionist State which was obligated to break with the framework of bourgeois democracy, a form of the exceptional state which corresponds to the era of monopoly capitalism the way in which Bonapartism corresponded to the era of competitive capitalism. Nazism is a qualitatively different form of the passive revolution than the New Deal in response to a fundamentally different balance of class forces. Fascism triumphed in a situation in which, to use Marx’s words: the bourgeoisie had already lost, and the workingclass had not yet acquired, the capacity to lead the nation. Capital allowed the Nazis to occupy the heights of the State apparatus in order that it might maintain its own hegemony, economically and politically.

Forms of the exceptional state such as fascism are not the simple tools of the ruling class, as the instrumentalist view would have it. Rather they are one possible outcome of a conjuncture of acute class struggle. Fascism came to power with its way paved by the defeat of the workingclass, while the bourgeoisie and its State were too weak to continue governing by traditional means. Forms of the exceptional state become a viable option for the power bloc only when it is faced with an organic and state crisis in which fundamental structural changes are required in the relations both within the power bloc itself, and between it and the dominated class if capitalist hegemony is to be maintained, and the prevailing democratic structure is an obstacle rather than an aid to this process. This was the case in Germany in 1933; it was the casein Chile in 1973. This was not the case in the United States during the depression because the flexible structure of bourgeois democracy, the lack of workingclass consciousness and the extent of bourgeois ideological domination were all capable of being adjusted to serve the structural transformations capital and the Interventionist State required.

From the Interventionist State to Authoritarian Statism

The Second World War put an end to the major exceptional states which had arisen in the inter-war years, although others continued to persist for many years in Portugal and Spain and reappeared more recently in others (Greece, Chile). In a number of Latin American countries they have been a permanent feature of political life because of that region’s place in the hierarchy of world imperialism and the structural effects of that location on their internal class struggle. The triumph of the western allies in World War II insured that the dominant form of the post-war State would be an interventionist one of the bourgeois democratic type, in its many varieties: that of the United States, Scandinavian social democracy, British Laborism, etc. The long wave of capitalist expansion from 1946 to the mid-1960s saw the full flowering of this State form.

True, the State could not eliminate the uncertainties inherent in the laws of the capitalist economy. But a relative expansion of the world market, armaments production, the skillful manipulation of the credit cycle, government spending and social programs, and an international currency system enabled the developed capitalist countries to simultaneously enjoy both a high rate of profit and a rising standard of living of the masses. In the eyes of its apologists capitalism had entered into its “Golden Age.” Nothing seemed beyond its capabilities.

By the mid-1960s, however, the bubble was beginning to burst. World capitalism was entering into a new long wave of economic contraction accompanied by fundamental structural crises. Inter-imperialist rivalries, which had been muted by the long years of undisputed US hegemony, began to reassert themselves as Japan, Germany and Western Europe began to catch up to and even surpass the United State in a number of fields. Where previously economic difficulties had been largely national in scope, affecting countries one at a time, now the whole system was being drawn into an international crisis. For example: the worldwide recessions of 1974-75 and 1979-80.

The efforts of the Interventionist State to counter the tendency of the rate of profit to fall and to moderate the extremes of the business cycle which were so effective in the post-war long wave of expansion, have now taken on a life of their own in the present wave of contraction: run-away inflation and chronic unemployment are a permanent feature of contemporary capitalism. The Keynesian chickens are coming home to roost: where previously State action helped to postpone crises, now it has become a major aggravating factor.

The effects of these new conditions on the class struggle are significant. The political contradictions within the ruling class have intensified as its economic situation has become less stable. In the US this includes the contradictions between internationalized capital and other fractions, between monopoly and non-monopoly capital and within monopoly capital itself. It also includes the contradictions within capital which flow from the uneven development of capitalism within the United States itself, namely regional differences between the East, West and South. In Europe it has also involved the division between those fractions of the bourgeoisie which are entirely dependent on foreign capital and the domestic bourgeoisie. The countries of the so-called “Third World” are faced with the contradiction between the comprador and the national bourgeoisies.

Since the workingclass has had to bear the brunt of the crisis together with speed-up, increased job insecurity, changes in the labor process, and a decline in real wages and living conditions, it is not surprising that its response has been one of resistance, however tentative and confused its forms. At the same time the crisis has also sharply effected other social categories: minorities, women, old people, the youth. Sections of the petty bourgeoisie too, are facing a new situation: declining living standards, diminished possibilities for upward mobility, diminished job security, increased proletarianization.

Given the nature of the State as the material condensation at the political level of the balance of class forces and its constitutive role in reproducing the hegemony of the ruling class, the present economic and political crises have given rise to a distinct State crisis in the developed capitalist countries. With traditional forms of intervention and mass integration weakened and/or discredited a new State form is emerging out of the crisis of the Interventionist State. Poulantzas has called this new State form “Authoritarian Statism.”[16]

Authoritarian Statism

To avoid any confusion we should be clear from the onset that the strengthening of authoritarian features in politics and in the State have been features of the modern bourgeois state since the rise of monopoly capitalism (in some countries, for example Germany, Japan, even longer).

Authoritarian Statism is a qualitative intensification of this process in the specific conditions of the contemporary state crisis and the political struggles and transformations of which it is a product. A significant new response to the sharpening of the elements of this state crisis, it is not a new form of the exceptional State, but a specific form of bourgeois democracy in this period of late capitalism.

This is not to say that exceptional States will not emerge out of the present crisis. Indeed, the tendency toward fascism and/or military dictatorship present in the forms of the Interventionist State are strengthened by Authoritarian Statism. Poulantzas argues that the rise of Authoritarian Statism is accompanied by the crystallization of a permanent structure of fascist and ultra-reactionary forces running parallel to the official state in the developed capitalist countries. The resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazis in this country in the last few years would appear to be striking confirmation of this assessment.[17]

Whatever the tendencies toward a form of the exceptional state, the present reality is that Authoritarian Statism has been able to emerge within the limits of presently existing bourgeois democratic structures, however much these structures have been modified, in the United States and Western Europe. Its major features may be summed up as follows. It is characterized by “intensified state control over every sphere of socio-economic life,” an austerity offensive against the workingclass and other popular forces, a tendency to dismantle many of the social and institutional forms of the Keynesian welfare system, “combined with a radical decline of the institutions of political democracy,” and intensified concentration of power within the State’s executive branch and the all-sided curtailment of civil liberties and rights.[18]

All these features are not new to Authoritarian Statism. What is new is the way they are being combined in the specific context of the present crisis which requires a strengthened State to deal with the weakening of capitalist hegemony and legitimacy.

The theory and practice of the Thatcher government in England is illustrative: a strict application of monetarist policies without concern for the effects of unemployment and inflation on the masses, a vigorous campaign against the workers’ movement, reprivatization of previous nationalized industries, wholesale cuts in social services, increased racist attacks on immigrants, increased repression in Northern Ireland.

Reagan promises to follow in Thatcher’s footsteps: the new administration appears to be committed to similar structural changes in the United States. In this country Authoritarian Statism gets its economic theory from Milton Friedman and the monetarists, its political theory from those who advocate a strong executive branch and the limitations on democracy envisioned by the Trilateral Commission. Just how far they will go depends on the totality of factors, the decisive one, of course, being the class struggle.

In Place of a Conclusion

In this brief article, intended only to provide a general theoretical framework for taking up a conjunctural analysis of the development of US capitalism in the 1980s, we cannot go into more detail. That we leave to a future article. By way of conclusion we would like to emphasize the following tentative points.

(1) While previous administrations, particularly Nixon’s, have displayed aspects of Authoritarian Statism, the victory of the right in the 1980 elections symbolizes the extent to which a far-reaching Authoritarian Statism has become the political-economic strategy of US capital.
(2) The American left must mobilize all its forces to theoretically and politically understand and explain this new development to the workingclass and the popular masses as it unfolds.
(3) In this process we must wage an earnest struggle against all vestiges of instrumentalism and voluntarism, and against all conspiracy theories of the State. At the same time we must critically examine, deepen, and rectify our theoretical framework for State analysis.
(4) We must begin now to develop the mass strategy and tactics necessary to defend the gains won in the course of the last fifty years, while at the same time preparing to take a more offensive posture should conditions warrant it. This requires principled unity and struggle with a wide array of forces. It also requires a qualitative break with our tradition, the tradition of the New Communist Movement, and its legacy of sectarianism and opportunism.

A Bibliographical Note

Anyone familiar with his work will recognize in this article my debt to Nicos Poulantzas, particularly in his last book State, Power, Socialism (NLB, 1978). I recommend it to anyone interested in taking up the study of State analysis and particularly the development of Authoritarian Statism. Also of value are his previous books, particularly Classes in Contemporary Capitalism (Verso, 1978). Also of inestimable value is Manuel Castells’ book, The Economic Crisis and American Society (Princeton, 1980). Finally, I would mention the chapter entitled, “The State in the Age of Late Capitalism,” in Ernest Mandel’s Late Capitalism (Verso, 1978) and his book The Second Slump (NLB, 1978).


[1] See John Judis’ article, “Reconstituting Power in America,” in In These Times, December 17-23, 1980.

[2] Line of March, Oct.-Nov. 1980, p. 15.

[3] Ibid., p. 11.

[4] Ibid., p. 22.

[5] Nicos Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism, p. 115.

[6] Ibid., p. 36.

[7] Ibid., p. 147.

[8] Ibid., p. 81.

[9] Ibid., p. 185.

[10] Ibid., p. 142.

[11] Ibid., p. 143, 142. Poulantzas’ statements here show clearly that the view attributed to him by Line of March in the above quoted article, namely that the question of state power can be settled at the ballot box, is not only not his position, but one he has specifically criticized.

[12] Ibid., p. 173.

[13] For a critique of economic catastrophism, see my article “Leninist Politics and the Struggle Against Economism,” in Theoretical Review, No. 15.

[14] Quoted in Christine Buci-Glucksmann, Gramsci and the State (Lawrence and Wishart, 1980), p. 46.

[15] Francis Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, Poor People’s Movements (Vintage, 1979).

[16] State, Power, Socialism, pp. 203-17.

[17] Ibid., p. 210.

[18] Ibid., p. 203.