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Chapter 6 Class Struggle, Political Power, and the Capitalist State
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The Relative Autonomy of the Capitalist Class State

Poulantzas also seeks to explain how the capitalist state directly serves the interests of the capitalist class while being formally separated from the economy and from the direct control of the capitalists. Poulantzas's concept of the capitalist state is premised on its relative autonomy with respect to the economy and the fact that "it is this autonomy which, as a constant invariant, regulates the variations of intervention and non-intervention of the political in the economic, and of the economic in the political" (Poulantzas 1973, 143). The general concept of a class state, Poulantzas reminds us, does not require that the state be the direct instrument of the dominant class but only that it legitimize and reproduce the conditions and relations of domination and exploitation by which the ruling class is constituted. In capitalist social formations these conditions are defined by the existence of surplus value and the irresistible impetus to accumulate it that occurs when private property exists and labor power is completely commodified. Furthermore, in capitalist social formations, the members of the dominant class are in economic competition with each other, and their competing interests render them incapable of governing directly or with unanimity. Their only common


interests, Poulantzas concludes, are that the exploited class be politically fragmented and that the existence of propertyless laborers "free" to sell their labor power be perpetuated.

Poulantzas argues that the peculiar characteristics of the capitalist mode of production do not require a state that directly represents the economic interests of the ruling classes; rather, they require a state that represents their political interest. However democratic a capitalist state may appear to be, Poulantzas maintains that it always functions as "the dominant class's political power center, the organizing agent of their political struggles" (Poulantzas 1973, 190). The state accomplishes this function by redefining agents of production, distributed in classes, as political subjects, distributed as individuals. The result is an effect of "individual isolation" that is then projected back, via the legal system, from the political realm into the economy to mask the existence of class relationships. The capitalist state is both the source and guarantor of the "rights" of isolated political subjects and thus of its own function of representing the unity of these isolated relations, that is, the body politic of "the people" and "the nation." In other words, "the state represents the unity of an isolation which because of the role played by the ideological, is largely its own effect. This double function of isolating [individuals] and representing [their] unity is reflected in the internal contradictions in the structure of the state" (Poulantzas 1973, 134).

By means of its isolation effect on class struggles, the capitalist state provides the dominant classes with a unique mechanism, the national-popular state, capable of constituting their political interests as general interests and organizing their hegemonic power over the masses:

By its effect of isolation on the socio-economic relations, this state presents itself as the strictly political public unity of the particular, private, economic antagonisms of the ensemble of society. The institutionalized power of the capitalist state presents its own unity in its relations to socio-economic relations (the economic class struggle) in so far as it represents the unity of the people/nation, composed of agents set up, as subjects, as individual/political persons, i.e., in so far as it represents the political unity of an economic isolation which is its own effect. On the level of the relations of the state to the political class struggle, this leads to a result which seems paradoxical but which in fact constitutes the "secret" of the national-popular class state: the institutionalized power of the capitalist class state presents its own class unity , precisely in so far as it can pose as a national-popular state, i.e., as a state which does not represent the power of one or several determinate classes, but which represents the power of the political unity of private agents. (Poulantzas 1973, 276)


While it is clear enough how the capitalist state, by means of its national-popular form, functions to disorganize the dominated classes by denying their existence as classes and relating itself to them as their representative, it is less clear, at least to many of Poulantzas's commentators, how the capitalist state necessarily acts in the political interests of the dominant class.[3] Such critics contend that the very concept of the relative autonomy of the state precludes a necessary or "reflectionist" relationship between the state and the dominant class. Poulantzas has responded that his critics have misunderstood him by mistakenly emphasizing the notion of the relative autonomy of the state while ignoring the concept of the matrix effect and the view of class power that accompanies it. The autonomy of the capitalist state, Poulantzas insists, is relative to its place and function in the ensemble of instances, and the power it deploys is only the "condensation" of struggles between the different social classes. At the same time, however, the indirect and intransitive determinations of the matrix effect on the political instance make it impossible to say that the dominant classes directly control the actions of the state. Thus the autonomy of the state must be viewed "as a 'resultant' [of the] relations of power between classes within a capitalist formation—it being perfectly clear that the capitalist state has its own institutional specificity (separation of the political and the economic) which renders it irreducible to an immediate and direct expression of the strict 'economic corporate' (Gramsci) of this or that class or fraction of the power bloc, and that it must represent the political unity of the power bloc under the hegemony of a class or fraction of a class" (Poulantzas 1976, 73).

The capitalist state is a class state because it is the condensation of social class relations and social class power. It is in this sense that the very existence of state power necessarily corresponds to the interests of the hegemonic class or class fraction. With respect to the ruling classes, the capitalist state is a class state insofar as it organizes their class powers into a political unity and insofar as it creates and maintains their political hegemony over the dominated classes. "With regard to the dominant classes and fractions, the capitalist state presents an intrinsic unity , combined with its relative [specific] autonomy, not because it is the tool of an already politically unified class, but precisely because it is the unifying factor of the power bloc. . . . The unity of state power is, in the last analysis, to be found in the state's particular relation to the hegemonic class or fraction, i.e., in the fact of the univocal corre-


spondence of the state to the specific interests of that class or fraction " (Poulantzas 1973, 300-301).

Poulantzas defines the "participation of several classes and class fractions in political domination" by the concept of a power bloc . There are two noteworthy things about this concept. First, Poulantzas defines the power bloc as a "contradictory unity of dominant classes or fractions" whose interests are antagonistic rather than monolithic. Second, the power bloc is dominated internally by a hegemonic class or fraction that politically polarizes the economic interests of the other classes or fractions of the bloc in order to establish its own economic interest as the least common denominator in the political field and to make itself the representative of the general common interest of the power bloc as a whole. From this privileged position within the power bloc, the hegemonic class or fraction indirectly reproduces its own privileged place within the relations of economic exploitation and political domination pari passu with the exploitation and domination of the masses by the power bloc as a whole.

Poulantzas defines the hegemony of the dominant class or fraction in terms of "class alliances" and the "unity of state power." Following Gramsci, he maintains that the hegemonic class or fraction exercises class leadership and holds political power: political power is neither shared nor distributed within the power bloc. The non-hegemonic elements of the power bloc are "incapable (through their own organizational means) of transforming their specific interests into the political interest which would polarize the interests of the other classes and fractions of the power bloc" (Poulantzas 1973, 297-98). Because the classes and fractions that make up the power bloc have contradictory interests, they cannot "raise themselves" to the level of a political "unity," where power is shared among the various classes and fractions, but only to the level of a political "alliance," where power is held as a unity by the hegemonic class or fraction. In short, the relations between the various classes or fractions of the power bloc "cannot consist of a sharing out of institutionalized political power, such that the hegemonic class or fraction simply possesses a more important share than the others" (Poulantzas 1973, 297).

By means of the concept of the power bloc, Poulantzas has established the class basis of the capitalist state. However, his description of hegemony and the political power of the hegemonic class or fraction comes very close to eliminating the relative autonomy of the state altogether. By referring to the state as the "univocal expression of the dom-


inant fraction within the power bloc," for example, Poulantzas seems to have reduced the specific effectivity of the state to the pertinent effects of economic class. In Political Power and Social Classes , everything of importance seems to occur outside the state and, perhaps even more significant, independently of the practices of the exploited and dominated classes. This latter point is clearly brought out in the distinction Poulantzas draws between political practice (a concept pertaining to the power bloc) and the political scene (a concept pertaining to the state apparatuses, that is, political parties and the state bureaucracy).

The concept of the power bloc is so important for Poulantzas that for all practical purposes its practices exhaust the field of state power: "the concept of the power bloc is related to the political level and covers the field of political practices , in so far as this field concentrates within itself and reflects the articulation of the ensemble of instances and levels of class struggle in a determinate state" (Poulantzas 1973, 234). The power bloc exists outside the state, yet its pertinent effects seem to determine the very structure of the state; the two are so strongly identified that the dissolution or transformation of the power bloc necessarily entails the transformation of the form of the state itself. The power bloc constitutes the field of political practice and political power, while the state proper, that is, the actual state apparatuses and their structured relationships, exists as a distinct yet distinctly secondary field of political representation: "It [the state] is covered by a series of concepts which indicate class relations in parties, situated in that particular space generally described by Marx as the political scene , in which the direct action of classes operate. We can precisely delimit the dislocation between (i) the field of political class practices (the power bloc) in a form of the state and (ii) the representation of classes by parties in a form of a regime" (Poulantzas 1973, 234).

Despite its tendency to devalue the political scene, Poulantzas's notion that the class power of the power bloc limits the particular rhythms of the political scene (political parties and organizations of class representation) has undeniable explanatory power. Among other things, it explains why political regimes may change in capitalist societies without a significant change in the power bloc and perhaps more important, why the dominant fraction of the power bloc need not correspond to the class (or fraction) that is actually the "ruling" class on the political scene (for example, how a petty bourgeois movement occupies the dominant place in the political scene under the Nazi regime while monopoly capital is nevertheless able to organize itself as the new hege-


monic class).[4] By means of his concept of the power bloc and its pertinent effects on the political scene, Poulantzas is able to explain how agents on the political scene (politicians and bureaucrats) may end up acting in the interests of the power bloc even when such actions run counter to their own objective class interest (if they are not themselves members of the hegemonic fraction).

Having posited the power bloc as separate from the political scene and yet hegemonic within the field of political practice, Poulantzas is able to explain the existence of contradictions between political positions taken at a given conjuncture and objective class interests without slipping into either reflectionism or voluntarism. Because of the way the dominant class or fraction projects its interest as the interest of the power bloc as a whole, because of the pertinent effects exerted by the power bloc within the political scene, and because of the isolating effect and unifying function of the state within capitalist social formations, Poulantzas insists that a distinction be made between class interest (the objective effect of the ensemble of structural determinations) and class position (the conjunctural place defined by a specific instance or practice, in this case the political scene):

A social class, or a fraction or stratum of a class may take up a class position that does not correspond to its interests, which are defined by the class determination that fixes the horizon of the class's struggle. The typical example of this is the labor aristocracy, which in certain conjunctures takes up class positions that are in fact bourgeois. This does not mean, however, that it becomes, in such cases, a part of the bourgeoisie; it remains from the fact of its structural class determination, part of the working class. . . . In other words its class determination is not reducible to its class position. (Poulantzas 1975, 15)

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