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This new fashion, originally nourished in France and California, is often based on the cynical plagiarism of Marx, Hegel and particularly Marcuse, usually in the guise of original radical thought. The adherents of this fashion pretend to offer an anti- or postmodern examination of capitalism. But unlike the early critical theory of the Frankfurt School, the posture of this literature is largely anti-socialist, and its methods derive, often directly and consciously, from the intellectual depths of Nazism.11 Although ground-breaking in its insight into the cultural dimensions of capitalism, the critical theory of the Frankfurt School had one glaring deficiency: it had given up on the ‘economy’. Since the economic laws that Marx identified were supposedly ‘politicized’ and therefore annulled as an ‘objective’ force, and since the very possibility of objective social facts was put into question, there was really little that critical theory could say on the systematic patterns of capital accumulation.
This original bias has been amplified many times over by the postists. The latter have been only too happy to abandon the systematic study of capitalist reality altogether and instead delve into the deconstruction of post-structuralism, identity, race and gender.12 The capitalists, for their part, have been keen on subsidizing this promising line of ‘critical research’. And why wouldn’t they? The investment carries hefty dividends.
As capitalism spread throughout the world and the rule of capital grew into a truly universal force, so did their potential negation. This negation is the counterforce that the young Hegel was perhaps the first to write about, if only opaquely: the possibility of democratic opposition, of democratic sharing, of democratically planning the good life. For capitalism to remain dominant, this potential negation had to be fractured, ridiculed and defused.
And the best way to achieve these ends was to make capital itself invisible.
By spreading ignorance, the postists have helped keep the central power relations of capitalism unknown and therefore difficult to oppose. And with the intellectuals neutralized and the laity stupified, there has been little to prevent the wholesale spread of capitalism. Since the 1970s, the public autonomy of the welfare state, limited as it was to begin with, has been signifiFor a scathing critique of this anti-philosophy, see Castoriadis (1991a).
12 For a critical survey of this transition, see Eagleton (2003).
Deflections of power 55 cantly diminished. Large chunks of the public domain have been privatized and handed over to the capitalists. And oppressive regimes around the world have been legitimized in the name of ‘cultural pluralism’ and ‘post colonialism’.
Statism The third fracture of neo-Marxism focuses on the state. The need for such a focus became evident early in the twentieth century. It was clear that a new statist reality, totally unknown to Marx and his contemporaries, had emerged. First, the state not only grew to unpredicted proportions, it also became deeply integrated with – indeed, seemingly embedded in – the capitalist process. Second, the scale of military conflict had changed, with war becoming both total and global. And third, war seemed to have become endemic and permanent – whether in the guise of an arms race between the superpowers, local ethnic conflicts, civil wars, wars of culture or clashes of civilization.
Neo-Marxists, of course, were not the only ones to grapple with this new reality. In the twentieth century, we could speak of three basic ideologies of power, all focused more loosely or more tightly on the state. One ideology is the techno-bureaucratic state associated with Comtean positivism, Weberian institutionalism and twentieth-century managerialism. A second speaks of an autonomous state that allegedly seeks power for its own sake. And a third, dealing with the capitalist state, criticizes and complements neo-Marxist economism.
Although these three ideologies have had different beginnings and purposes, their progressive academization has drawn them closer together – so close, in fact, that it is often difficult to differentiate their methodologies and sometimes even their conclusions. All three views – with the possible exception of some Marxist variants – tend to see the state as the centre of social power and the dominant force in human history. Some go even further to consider the state as the ‘unity’ or ‘totality’ that contains and shapes its inner economic and social components. And whatever their inclination, all seems to agree that, by the twentieth century, the state – regardless of its origins – had become the key force in domestic and international developments.
Given these overlaps, it seems useful to broaden the vista here beyond the Marxist analysis of the capitalist state and to consider, if only cursorily, also the mainstream approaches to the techno-bureaucratic and autonomous state.
The techno-bureaucratic state During the Cold War, the debate was dominated by technological determinism. Key contributors such as Ralf Dahrendorf (1959), John Kenneth Galbraith (1967) and Daniel Bell (1973), although starting from different 56 Dilemmas of political economy perspectives and using distinct terminologies, all speak of technological– bureaucratic imperatives. Modern societies, they argue, require massive research and development, complex planning and social stability, and therefore necessitate giant organizations and intricate bureaucracies.
During the nineteenth century, these requirements were only beginning to take shape and hence were easy to misunderstand. What political economists mistakenly referred to as ‘capitalism’ was in fact the unorganized precursor of a coming industrial – and, eventually, post-industrial – order. By the early twentieth century, the unplanned market system was beginning to wither, together with the class conflicts and social struggles that socialists erroneously considered inherent. The capitalists and bankers were demoted, replaced by managers and technocrats.
The move from anarchic market coordination to industrial and postindustrial society, went the argument, necessarily gives rise to bureaucratic statism, a system ruled by rationality and governed by technostructures. In
the words of Daniel Bell:
If the dominant figures of the past hundred years have been the entrepreneur, the businessman, and the industrial executive, the ‘new men’ are the scientists, the mathematicians, the economists, and the engineers of the new intellectual technology.... In the post-industrial society, production and business decisions will be subordinated to, or will derive from, other forces in society; the crucial decisions regarding the growth of the economy and its balance will come from government, but they will be based on the government’s sponsorship of research and development, of cost-effectiveness and cost-benefit analysis; the making of decisions, because of the intricately linked nature of their consequences, will have an increasingly technical nature.
(Bell 1973: 344) From this post-capitalist perspective, power can no longer be seen as possessed by private owners. Even social democrats such as Ralf Dahrendorf and radicals like Charles Wright Mills succumbed to Weberianism, seeking to replace an analysis of class division with a broader theory of statist–bureaucratic power.
According to Mills (1956), the class-based approach of Marxism had become insufficient; specifically, it was unable to explain the apparent ascent of governmental-military organizations in the post-war United States. Mills’ own solution, partly influenced by the managerialism of James Burnham and the institutionalism of Thorstein Veblen, was to abandon the notion of a capitalist ruling class in favour of three-way power structure. There are three basic scarcities, he argued – a scarcity of power, a scarcity of wealth and a scarcity of prestige – to which there corresponds a tripartite ‘power elite’.
Each segment of this elite leverages its power through the effective control of
key organizations and institutions:
Deflections of power 57... the elite are not simply those who have the most, for they could not ‘have the most’ were it not for their positions in the great institutions. For such institutions are the necessary bases of power, of wealth, and of prestige, and at the same time, the chief means of exercising power, of acquiring wealth, and of cashing in the higher claims for prestige. By the powerful we mean, of course, those who are able to realize their will, even if others resist it. No one, accordingly, can be truly powerful unless he has access to the command of major institutions, for it is over these institutional means of power that the truly powerful are, in the first instance, powerful. Higher politicians and key officials of government command such institutional power; so do admirals and generals, and so do the major owners and executives of the larger corporations.
(Mills 1956: 9) This view provided fertile ground for empirical research, primarily by sociologists, such as William Domhoff, who have laboured to meticulously document the structure and behaviour of the power elite, the operational arm of the ‘higher circles’ (see for example Domhoff 1967, with four subsequent editions, the latest of which was issued in 2005; earlier editions include 1970 and 1979).13 The techno-bureaucratic approach, however, still treats the state (or the overlapping networks of power in Mann’s formulation) mostly as an arena, a framework that organizes and governs society. This perspective started to change during the 1970s, with new studies that emphasized the state as an autonomous institution and a personated actor.
The autonomous state The instrumental and class-based approaches, some writers now argued, serve to conceal the true nature of the state. The state, they maintained, is not a capitalist means or a social instrument. Rather, it is an actor that stands in its own right, having its own logic and, indeed, its own interests.
The conceptual framework of this view contains three basic entities: (1) the state, (2) economic resources, and (3) an amorphous collection of individuals 13 An outlier of the techno-bureaucratic approach is Michael Mann’s work on The Source of Social Power (1986; 1993). Mann rejects the notion of a ‘unitary totality’. Society, he argues, is not a well-defined system that can be divided into subsystems such as state, culture and economy, or a clearly bounded entity that has dimensions, levels and factors.
Instead, he offers to think of societies and their histories as an overlapping network of interactions between four sources of social power: ideological, economic, military and political.
The focus of his inquiry, though, is still Weberian. His concern is the organizational means associated with each source of power, and how these develop and change in relation to each other. Earlier in history, he says, political and sometimes military means were primary, whereas in recent times economic power, along with its ‘class’ relations, has become paramount.
58 Dilemmas of political economy
and groups, called society. In this structure, the state holds a unique position:
it monopolizes the organized means of violence. The state mobilizes economic groups – be they industrialists, merchants, rentiers, or farmers – in order to obtain economic resources. And it then uses these resources to organize and control its society, as well as to fight and defend itself against other states.
This view is evident in the historical account of Charles Tilly (1975; 1992).
The origin of the autonomous state, he argues, goes back to the twilight of feudalism in the second millennium AD. The state was invented not by the bourgeoisie to serve capital accumulation, but by political elites who sought to consolidate their power. The key purpose of the state – from its princely feudal beginnings, through its absolutist and monarchic phase, to its present national form – has been twofold: to organize and finance increasingly expensive wars and to discipline tax payers. Capitalism from this viewpoint is merely the economic means that supplies the military and strengthens the state apparatus.
A similar history is told by Theda Skocpol (1979; 1985), who argues that the European and American revolutions were the result not of class struggles but of political weakness in the face of inter-state conflicts. Her argument, although rich in historical detail, boils down to fiscal–organizational determinism. The anciens régimes, she notes, were burdened by excessive and inefficient taxation that strained their access to material resources and limited their ability to finance organized violence; therefore, they were replaced by more rational states with streamlined tax structures and superior war-making capabilities.
In the final analysis, then, history is the cunning of the state. The liberal and Marxist theses, according to which the state serves its citizens, the bourgeoisie, or capital accumulation more generally, are mere fantasies. The state develops in its own right and for its own sake. It inevitably grows and centralizes. It is driven not by an external economic determinism, but by its own statist determinism.
The capitalist state Marxists began to re-evaluate the role of the state in capitalism around the same time as the ‘autonomists’.14 The post-war era brought new developments – from the ascent of social democratic parties in Europe, through the student movements, to the rise and demise of Keynesianism – and these developments called for new explanations. It was no longer possible to treat the state as a simple extension of the ‘capitalist interest’. The state had clear limitations, it had a concrete history, and it was being heavily dissected by competing bourgeois theorists. It was time for Marxists to re-examine their own views.
14 For critical reviews of Marxist state theory, see Holloway and Picciotto (1978b), Block (1987), Jessop (1990; 2002), Clarke (1991), Mann et al. (2001–2) and Anievas et al. (2007).