previous sub-section
Chapter 6 Class Struggle, Political Power, and the Capitalist State
next sub-section

Pertinent Effects, Class Power, and the Predominance of Politics

By means of his concepts of social class and social relations, Poulantzas has demonstrated how class struggle exists in political and ideological relations typically viewed as unrelated to class conflict or at best related to it by historical accident (elective affinity). He has also reformulated the traditional Marxist thesis of primacy of class relations without slipping into reflectionism or essentialism. However, the fact that economic relations are always already social class relations does not vitiate the fact that it is as economic class relations that they exert their modes of determination within the social formation. It is in this sense that Poulantzas does acknowledge a kind of reflection or "presence" of the economic within the other instances. The presence of economic class interests may be discerned in what Poulantzas calls the pertinent effects of economic relations on political and ideological structures and relations.

The "bearers" of pertinent effects are non-class relations and functions—for example, state bureaucracy, academia, media journalism—which Poulantzas defines as social categories. The concepts of social categories and pertinent effects make it possible to distinguish, within political or ideological fields, between relations and functions that are generically political or ideological and those that "reflect" the presence of economic class interests within the political or ideological instances. Pertinent effects reflect the primacy of economic modes of determination and their externality, the fact that the political or ideological structure in question would not in and of itself produce these effects. "The reflection of the place in the process of production on the other levels constitutes a new element which cannot be inserted in the typical framework which these levels would present without this element. This element thus transforms the limits of the levels of structures or of class struggle at which it is reflected by 'pertinent effects,' and it cannot be inserted in a simple variation of these limits" (Poulantzas 1973, 79).

Poulantzas also distinguishes between economic classes and class fractions . Whereas economic classes are distinguished by the predominant relation of exploiter-exploited, class fractions are defined as "sub-strata" of classes distinguishable by a combination of secondary economic criteria (for example, the size or nature of enterprises) and the


different political and ideological effects produced by such combinations. In other words, secondary economic distinctions produce class fractions precisely insofar as they generate pertinent effects. The capacity of agents acting as members of class fractions to produce and reproduce pertinent effects constitutes class relations of power and class fractions as "social forces."

Since all social relations are overdetermined by the matrix effect of the dominant mode of production, all power is indirectly class power. The classic Weberian definition of power is thus redefined by Poulantzas as "the capacity of a social class to realize its specific objective interests" (Poulantzas 1973, 104). Economic class relations are relations of power, Poulantzas argues, not in the sense that one is the foundation of the other but in the sense that they are constituted in a "homogeneous field," the field of social relations or simply the class struggle. Moreover, as the specific effectivity of each instance is organized by the matrix effect of the mode of production that gives it a place and a function, so power is, in the last instance, an effect of the intransitive complex whole of the social formation and not of the transitive effectivity of any particular instance intervening in the field of another.

Class relations are no more the foundation of power relations than power relations are the foundation of class relations. Just as the concept of class points to the effects of the ensemble of the levels of the structure on the supports, so the concept of power specifies the effects of the ensemble of these levels on the relations between social classes in struggle. It points to the effects of the structure on the relations of conflict between the practices of the various classes in "struggle. " In other words, power is not located in the levels of structures, but is an effect of the ensemble of these levels, while at the same time characterizing each of the levels of the class struggle. (Poulantzas 1973, 99-100)

The class power deployed by social subjects engaged in economic, political, or ideological practice is always already structured by the intransitive matrix effect of the mode of production such that the concept of power cannot be applied to any one level of the structure. Even in the case of state power, Poulantzas insists that the indirect, social class structure of power precedes and determines its direct deployment. "When we speak for example of state power, we cannot mean by it the mode of the state's articulation and intervention at the other levels of the structure; we can only mean the power of a determinate class to whose interest (rather than those of other social classes) the state corresponds" (Poulantzas 1973, 100).

If the foundation of power is intransitive, power is nevertheless


"globally distributed" throughout the social formation such that its deployment is always transitive. Each application of power directly or indirectly reflects the opposition of class interests and, therefore, an intervention in the field of class struggle. Because power always designates the capacity of a social class or class fraction to realize its objective interests, class power is always relational or differential: it can be defined only with respect to other relations of force constituting the class struggle. "The degree of effective power of a class depends directly upon the degree of power of other classes, in the framework of the determination of class practices in the limits set by the practices of the other classes. Strictly speaking, power is identical with these limits to the second degree" (Poulantzas 1973, 108).

Poulantzas provides a compelling alternative to both "voluntarist" and "reflectionist" views of political practice. Given that the state is the place where class struggle is "concentrated and reflected," Poulantzas argues that political struggles have a predominant place and function within the field of social relations. However, the predominance of the political is itself determined by the primacy of the economic as refracted through the matrix effect.

To the extent that the political superstructure is the overdetermining level of the levels of the structure by concentrating their contradictions and by reflecting their relation, the political class struggle is the overdetermining level of the field of class struggles (i.e., social relations), concentrating their contradictions and reflecting the relations of the other levels of class struggle. This is so to the extent that the political superstructure of the state has the function of being the cohesive factor in a formation, and to the extent that the objective of political class struggle is the state. (Poulantzas 1973, 76-77)

At this point it is perhaps useful to summarize Poulantzas's brilliant but admittedly difficult argument. Poulantzas, following Althusser, argues for economic determination "in the last instance," the primacy of the economic function and economic relations that is always already there in the matrix effect of the complex whole. The primacy of economic modes of determination within the ensemble is no more a function of the economy alone than the condensation of power in the political apparatuses of the state is a function of politics alone. With respect to political power, Poulantzas argues not for the primacy but the predominance of politics. Power is not so much monopolized by the state as assigned to it by the matrix effect of the mode of production. Poulantzas insists not only that all power is relational but also that the field of


power, the social space, is always already a field of social class struggle. Given the central place and function of the political instance with respect to the concentration and deployment of power, struggles for political power are not only social class struggles: they are the predominant form of social class struggle. At the same time, because the predominance of political practice within the field of social class struggles is determined by the matrix effect, conventional political practice tends to reproduce existing class relations, not bring them into question. Because the state is not the source of the power it deploys, Poulantzas's insistence on the predominance of political practice cannot be equated with political voluntarism. If the contradictions between the political and the economic instance become critical, it can only be as a result, in the last instance, of developments within the economy. No less than its conventional counterpart, revolutionary politics is the art of the possible, and even revolutionary practice, which must have state power as its objective, can never succeed by means of state power alone.

previous sub-section
Chapter 6 Class Struggle, Political Power, and the Capitalist State
next sub-section