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Chapter 6 Class Struggle, Political Power, and the Capitalist State
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Poulantzas: The Specificity of the Political Instance

In Political Power and Social Classes , completed on the eve of the events of May 1968, Poulantzas sets out to develop a "regional theory" of the political instance in capitalist social formations. In particular, he seeks to resolve one of the most perplexing theoretical problems of Marxist social theory: how the capitalist state can be both a class state yet at the same time formally distinct from the economy and the direct control of the capitalist class—in other words, how class power, the product of a vast network of social struggles that are in the last instance economically determined, is concentrated in and deployed by the political apparatuses of a capitalist state that is typically popular-democratic. The key to Poulantzas's solution to this important and difficult problem, indeed, the central insight on which his entire body of work is built, is a creative application of Althusser's concepts of structural causality, overdetermination, dominance, and economic determination in the last instance, reformulated by Poulantzas as the concept of the "matrix effect" of a mode of production, "the articulation of social instances on the basis of a dominant mode of production" (Poulantzas 1973, 15).

By the term mode of production , Poulantzas refers essentially to what I have previously defined as an extended mode of production, that is, not only the forces and relations of production proper (what I have called a restricted concept of a mode of production) but also those political and ideological relations indirectly determined by the economic instance and essential for the reproduction of the latter. "By mode of production," Poulantzas explains, "we shall designate not what is generally marked out as the economic (i.e., relations of production in the strict sense), but a specific combination of various structures and practices which, in combination, appear as so many instances or levels, i.e., as so many regional structures of this mode. . . . The type of unity which characterizes a mode of production is that of a complex whole dominated, in the last instance, by the economic. The term determination will be reserved for this dominance in the last instance" (Poulantzas 1973, 13-14).

Although he does not himself use the term extended mode of production , Poulantzas clearly distinguishes the structure of the forces and relations of production and their specific effectivity (the transitive mode of determination exercised by the economy on the political and ideo-


logical instances) from the combined or overdetermined effectivity of the articulation of the economic, political, and ideological instances peculiar to the capitalist mode of production (the matrix effect that constitutes the intransitive determination by the structured whole on the specific effectivity of each instance). Moreover, both the forces and relations of production proper to the economic instance and their matrix effect on the social whole are necessary for an adequate concept of a mode of production. "What distinguishes one mode of production from another and consequently specifies a mode of production is the particular form of articulation maintained by its levels: this articulation is henceforth referred to by the term matrix of a mode of production. So to give a strict definition of a mode of production is to lay bare the particular way in which determination in the last instance by the economic is reflected inside that mode of production: this reflection delimits the index of dominance and overdetermination of this mode" (Poulantzas 1973, 15).

Thus when Poulantzas refers to the concept of the political as a "regional instance" that is "specifically political," he is speaking not only of the relative autonomy of the political, that is, what distinguishes political practices and apparatuses from those that are economic or ideological, but also, and with even greater emphasis, of the "place and function [of the political] in the particular combination which specifies [the] mode of production" (Poulantzas 1973, 17). Because the matrix effect of a mode of production "governs the constitution of its regional instances" and "defines the extension and the limits " of each regional instance (Poulantzas 1973, 17), Poulantzas's well-known emphasis on the "relative autonomy" of the state in capitalist social formations—the formal separation of political from economic apparatuses characteristic of capitalism—must be understood not in terms of the independence of the state from the capitalist mode of production but rather as the particular place and function assigned to the state by the structure of a capitalist mode of production.[2]

The specificity of the political instance is defined by Poulantzas in terms of its "global function" of maintaining (or transforming) the unity of a social formation. "The state has the particular function of constituting the factor of cohesion between the levels of a social formation." The state is "a factor of 'order' or 'organizational principle' of a formation," Poulantzas maintains, "in the sense of the cohesion of the ensemble of the levels of a complex unity, and as the regulating factor of its global equilibrium as a system" (Poulantzas 1973, 44-45). The


state is able to exercise this function (which I have further broken down into the modes of determination of reproduction/non-reproduction, selection, and limitation) by virtue of the fact that the political instance is the central "nodal point" where power is "condensed," that is, formally concentrated and legitimized, and the site from which power is deployed throughout the entire social formation.

While the state is the site where power is formally concentrated, it is not the source of the power that flows through it. Poulantzas defines power not in terms of a function located in a particular institutional apparatus but rather as a relation of forces, a structured force field that is the product of social struggles overdetermined, via the matrix effect, by economic class relations' and practices. All social struggles, and thus all power relationships, have a class character that is both explicit and implicit, directly and indirectly determined by the mode of production. The condensation of power in the state apparatuses in no way alters the class nature of power and its economic taproot. Even though the state cannot be said to have any power of its own, Poulantzas insists that political power is "primordial" insofar as the institutionalized power of the state "constitutes the field" where the unity of the formation is either maintained or transformed.

The fact that power originates in social struggles overdetermined by economic class relations and practices means that the condensation of power in the political apparatuses of the state cannot be a neutral process. Whatever the degree of formal separation between political and economic apparatuses, in class societies state power is always class power. In a given mode of production the state may exercise apparently representative or technical economic, administrative, judicial, and legislative functions, but these "local" functions are always overdetermined by the matrix effect and by the "global" function of the political instance, which organizes and maintains the unity of the social formation. Because cohesion always reflects the political interests of the dominant class, this global political function marks the class character of the state in all class societies, including those dominated by capitalist modes of production:

the state's economic or ideological functions correspond to the political interests of the dominant class and constitute political functions, not simply in those cases where there is a direct and obvious relation between (a) the organization of labor and education and (b) the political domination of a class, but also where the object of these functions is the maintenance of the unity of a formation, inside which this class is the politically dominant class.


It is to the extent that the prime object of these functions is the maintenance of this unity that they correspond to the political interests of the dominant class. (Poulantzas 1973, 54)

That they constitute the point where power is condensed and deployed, as well as the site where the cohesion of social formation is maintained or transformed, is another way Poulantzas expresses the fact that the political apparatuses of the state reflect the articulation of a social formation as "the nodal point where the contradictions of the various levels of a formation are condensed in the complex relations governed by overdetermination and by their dislocation and uneven development" (Poulantzas 1973, 41). Because the state constitutes the "strategic point where the various contradictions fuse," political practice, whose object is to maintain or transform the unity of a formation, must have the political structures of the state as its point of impact and specific strategic objective: "the specificity of political practice depends on its having state power as its objective" (Poulantzas 1973, 43). Given the place and function of the political instance, political practice must be considered "the motive force of history."

[The political instance is] the place in which we find reflected the index of dominance and overdetermination which characterizes a formation or one of its stages or phases. The state is also the place in which we can decipher the unity and articulation of a formation's structures. . . . It is from this relation between the state as the cohesive factor of a formation's unity and the state as the place in which the various contradictions of the instances are condensed that we can decipher the problem of the relation between politics and history. This relation designates the structure of the political both as the specific level of a formation and as the place in which the transformations occur: it designates the political struggle as the "motive power of history" having as its objective the state, the place in which the contradictions of instances (dislocated in their own time sequences) are condensed. (Poulantzas 1973, 45)

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Chapter 6 Class Struggle, Political Power, and the Capitalist State
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