Monday, May 30, 2005

Jessop on the Capitalist State

I've just completed a draft of a chapter on (neo-) structuralist approaches to the analysis of the capitalist state. I had to take out a small section on Bob Jessop, since it didn't really add anything to the argument. So, since I'm not using it, I thought that I might as well post it on this site.

What I write, here, only refers to what Jessop writes in the final chapter of his book The Capitalist State (1982) and to comments in the final chapter of his book on Poulantzas, Nicos Poulantzas: Marxist Theory and Political Strategy (1985). I don't refer to what Jessop has written in his more recent books (cos I 'aven't read 'em!) - this is partly why I've decided to remove the section from my work.

I should also add a little health warning - much of what I've written about Jessop, here, is, quite possibly, completely wrong (another reason I've removed it!).

Jessop's Approach to the Analysis of the Capitalist State.

Jessop suggests that all social analysis must, in effect, start from the assumption of a kind of radical indeterminacy inherent in all social relationships. Jessop claims that when attempting to explain social phenomena, theorists should acknowledge ‘the multiplicity of possible points of reference in social analysis’ and ‘the multiplicity of possible causal mechanisms or principles of explanation’ (Jessop, 1982: 228)[1]. It is a mistake, Jessop suggests, to seek a single causal explanation for any social phenomena or to imagine that any phenomena can ever be explained entirely – any conclusions we draw can only ever be partial, incomplete and conditional. Jessops’s approach seems to be motivated by a desire to purge Marxist analysis of all economist and functionalist elements.

Jessop’s approach to the state, of course, reflects his wider views about the way in which social analysis, in general, should be carried out. He claims that it is impossible to develop any general theory of the capitalist state - to specify what its relationship with the dominant class is, and, indeed, what its relationship to the capitalist economy is, across time and space. That is, we cannot develop a theory of capitalist state power which is applicable to all capitalist states throughout history. Instead, Jessop argues that it is only legitimate to develop an understanding of power in particular states in specific historical conjunctures. Furthermore, even after attending to the specific circumstances of a particular state at a particular time, it is essential to realise that any understanding we develop of the functioning of that state and its reproduction of capitalist social relationships, can be only partial and incomplete. The functioning of capitalist states and the ways in which bourgeois hegemony is reproduced in and through them is so radically complex that no single theory or principle of explanation – and certainly no simple, linear account of cause and effect – can encapsulate it.

Now that I have set out the general line of Jessop’s approach to social analysis the way in which this is reflected in his treatment of state power, it is possible to take a closer look at the details of Jessop’s analysis of the capitalist state. Jessop bases much of what he has to say about the state on Poulantzas’ analysis in State Power Socialism (SPS) – indeed Jessop’s approach seems to be founded, largely, on a conscious and deliberate attempt to refine and develop Poulantzas’ ideas. Like Poulantzas, Jessop characterises the capitalist state as ‘the material condensation of a relation of forces among classes’ (Jessop, 1985: 336) and as ‘a complex social relation that reflects the changing balance of social forces in a determinate conjuncture’ (Jessop, 1982: 221). Like Poulantzas, too, Jessop also points out that, bound up in this material condensation of a relation of forces, is a dialectical relationship between structure and struggle. That is, just as we must conceive of the state as the institutional crystallisation of past class struggle, so we must understand that the structures of the state feed back into the process of class struggle and shape its course of development. Jessop is clear that, as a corollary of the conception of the state as a social relation, we can make ‘no absolute ontological distinction’ (Jessop, 1985: 359) between structure and class practice – the two are so intimately related.

Furthermore, Jessop argues, just as Poulantzas does, that the state consists of a plurality of apparatuses – Jessop refers to it as an ‘institutional ensemble’ (Jessop, 1985: 337) – rather than as a body with some pre-given unity. Similarly, Jessop also claims that the bourgeoisie are not, a priori, a unified force and neither do they have any pre-given control over the state. Instead, the unity of the state apparatus as a whole, the unity of the bourgeoisie (organised under the hegemony of a particular fraction), and the domination of the (unified) bourgeoisie over the (unified) state must be constituted through struggle. Further, this struggle for hegemony and power is a continuous process – the specific form of class domination must be continually renegotiated, modified and renewed. Just as for Poulantzas, state power (class power, constituted by and mediated through the state) for Jessop, consists of an “‘unstable equilibrium of compromise’” (Poulantzas, in Jessop, 1982: 244).

Though Jessop follows Poulantzas in his conceptualisation of the state as a social relation which the bourgeoisie must struggle to shape and control, Jessop rejects Poulantzas’ seeming affirmation that the ruling class is, in some way, destined to establish hegemonic control over the state (and therefore, over society). Unlike Poulantzas, Jessop argues that the domination of the bourgeoisie over the state apparatus is not somehow guaranteed and neither is there any necessary correspondence between the activity of the state and the requirements of the capitalist economy. Jessop is clear that, though:

capitalist relations of production may be a basic precondition of existence of the so
called “particularisation” or structural differentiation of the state form, it does not
follow that the state form is therefore essentially capitalist nor that it will necessarily
serve in turn to reproduce capitalist relations of production
(Jessop, 1982: 222).

Jessop’s position, here, it can be argued, is one which, logically, follows from Poulantzas’ conceptualisation of the state as a fractured terrain and the site of struggle between contradictory class interests – it is a position that Poulantzas would (or should) have arrived at, had he not lapsed into determinism and asserted that the certain domination of the bourgeoisie was somehow guaranteed and inscribed within the structure of the state.

For Jessop, the unification of the bourgeoisie, the unification of the state under their class domination and the cohesion of society more widely (the subordination of the dominated classes to the rule of capital) is established through the successful development and application of a hegemonic project on the part of a particular class fraction. This hegemonic project must win the support of other class fractions, and legitimise the domination of the ruling class over the dominated classes. Hegemonic strategies function, largely, through the coupling of the specific interests of a particular class fraction to the general interest of the ruling class more widely and through the presentation of this interest as the interest of the (de-classed) ‘people-nation’. In order to successfully develop and implement a hegemonic project, the class fraction behind this project must take into account the interests of other classes and class fractions, the projects developed by those other parties and the particular structural constraints within the state apparatus. The project is continually, re-negotiated and modified. The hegemonic project which emerges from the almost chaotic plurality of competing class fraction projects and strategies will be the one which has taken into account, most effectively, the interests of other fractions, and is best adapted to the structural constraints of the state. Of course, this is similar to Poulantzas’ account of the perpetual collision of micro-policies within the state – although, perhaps, Jessop puts much greater emphasis on deliberate strategy driving these projects and their continual adaptation, whereas Poulantzas tends to suggest that the emergence of the overall state line, develops, somehow beyond the conscious control of any particular subject. However, in marked contrast to Poulantzas, Jessop argues that there is a real contingency inherent within this process[2]. Unlike Poulantzas, Jessop is clear that, theoretically, a project developed by any particular class fraction could be successful, that there is no guarantee that any hegemonic project which emerges will successfully provide for the smooth operation of the capitalist system and, indeed, he is clear that there is nothing, in fact, to ensure that any hegemonic project will actually emerge from the competition between micro-policies.

For Jessop, then, the successful reproduction of capitalism through the working of the state is in constant peril. The class domination of the bourgeoisie is always in question and there is necessary reason why the state should function in such a way as to ensure the accumulation of capital - the state is not, of necessity, a capitalist state. Indeed, Jessop suggests that the state could, conceivably, reproduce some non-capitalist mode of production.

If the process of class struggle within the state is so radically open-ended how is it, then, that capitalist states (clearly) tend to reproduce the CMP? This is a question, however, about general tendencies in the functioning of capitalist states. As such, it is not a question, for Jessop, which it is legitimate for us to seek to answer – as we have seen, he does not believe that it is possible to develop any meaningful general theory of the state. As George Taylor comments, for Jessop, ‘there is no abstract theoretical solution to the question of how the political class domination of capital is secured’ (Taylor, in Marsh and Stoker (eds.), 1995: 262). Jessop suggests that we can only seek to build (partial and incomplete) accounts of how a particular instance of bourgeois hegemony is achieved in specific states, in specific conjunctures – ‘we must’, he writes, ‘engage in an analysis of the many determinations that are combined in a concrete conjuncture and show how they are interrelated as necessary and/or sufficient conditions in a contingent structure of causation’ (Jessop, 1982: 213).

There are, it seems to me, some deep problems in Jessop’s approach, however. The first problem is one of logical consistency in Jessop’s argument. Jessop’s approach is clearly influenced by postmodern theorists, such as Foucault, who focus on contingency and indeterminacy in social relationships and who oppose the construction of ‘totalising’ narratives and ‘reductionist’ accounts of social phenomena which privilege certain causal mechanisms while failing to acknowledge the reality or possibility of others. However, just as Jessop’s argument mirrors certain postmodern claims, his argument also reproduces a central paradox of postmodern thought. Briefly, in claiming that there are no final truths or principles of explantion, postmodern theorists are, precisely advancing a kind of final-truth and principle of explanation themselves. Postmodernism swallows its own tail. It abolishes itself.In a similar way, Jessop claims to be advancing a kind of anti-theory - he rejects the idea that we can make meaningful generalisations about capitalist states in general - but this, of course, is a generalisation and a full- blooded theory in itself. [Note this para is crap. I was going to re-write it. But you get the drift]

It seems to fair to point out that Jessop’s claim that we can only analyse state power effectively if we attend to the multiple, contingent determinations that have come together in any particular conjuncture in a particular state and that the conclusions we draw here cannot be generalised, seems (to say the least) rather impractical. This would, surely, constitute an impossibly complicated and, furthermore, an endless task. Moreover, if the conclusions we draw from our analytical focus on the intricate minutiae of the workings of a particular state in a single, specific conjuncture cannot be formulated into a set of wider conclusions about how the capitalist state in general functions then, if this analysis was conceived of as a Marxist endeavour, there would seem to be little point to this Sisyphean labour. One of the hallmarks of Marxist analysis is that it is designed to be of use in, or serve as a guide to, political action (at least potentially). As such it must be able to generate general maxims about social reality which can be formulated into some kind of testable and predictive framework that can help to guide agents in struggle. Jessop’s research methodology – and it is, of course, a methodology he outlines, rather than a substantive set of conclusions about the state – can generate no such thing. It is, as a Marxist approach, of little or no value.

Furthermore, Jessop’s position on the radical contingency of the process of struggle for class hegemony – his argument that ruling class domination and, further, the reproduction of the CMP through state power is in constant jeopardy – seems, in itself, rather unconvincing. Of course, Jessop is right to claim that ruling class hegemony and the rule of capital is not, somehow, absolutely guaranteed – to think otherwise, as Poulantzas does, would be to adopt a functionalist, determinist outlook. However, it is obvious that capitalist states tend to reproduce capitalist social relations – they clearly do not reproduce modes of production haphazardly or at random. A brief glance at the world around us and a passing knowledge of modern history should be enough to convince us that bourgeois class domination and the correlation between capitalist states and the CMP are not brittle, unstable phenomena, just as liable to collapse or disintegrate as they are to persist for any significant length of time. In fact, capitalism seems, on the whole, a remarkably resilient mode of production. It is both legitimate and necessary, I argue, to advance a set of arguments about the capitalist state(in general)'s
tendency to reproduce capitalism. A general theory of the capitalist state has to be central to any socialist political strategy. blah de blah...

[1]In my summary of Jessop’s theory I refer to what he argues in the last chapter of The Capitalist State and to comments in the final chapter of Nicos Poulantzas: Marxist Theory and Political Strategy. What Jessop argues in these two chapters is so similar that it seems legitimate to refer to them both as an articulation of the same theory.
[2]As opposed to what we might call the ‘pseudo-contingency’ of Poulantzas account. Any contingency present in Poulantzas' discussion of the development of state policy is cancelled out by his insistence that the outcome is, somehow, pre-determined.

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