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Chapter 6 Class Struggle, Political Power, and the Capitalist State
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The Crisis of Democracy and Authoritarian Statism

In retrospect, Poulantzas was one of a handful of commentators on the Left to grasp how profoundly the internationalization of capitalism was undermining the stability of the national Fordist-Keynesian state. Although he did not provide an economic counterpart to his masterful explanation of the political aspects of the crisis—for that one has to turn to Ernest Mandel's Late Capitalism (1975)—no one understood sooner or better the structural transformations that the global economy has wrought on the class structure and state apparatuses of the advanced capitalist social formations. Although Poulantzas cannot be said to have foreseen the magnitude of the crisis of Fordism, he certainly grasped the crisis of "democracy" that it produced and the contours of the right-wing reaction by which the crisis was to be "resolved." Although his views were formulated before the triumph of Reaganism and Thatcherism, it remains instructive to compare the drift toward "au-


thoritarian statism," which Poulantzas feared, with what has in fact come to pass, a regime that has been aptly described as "authoritarian populism."[11] The expression "crisis of democracy" has a bit of a hollow ring in the aftermath of the collapse of Stalinism. However, Poulantzas gives the expression a distinct twist and enduring theoretical substance by defining it functionally, by linking the contradictions of democracy as a structured political regime to those of capitalism as an expanding, imperialist mode of production. Furthermore, he gives it enduring political substance by virtue of his rigorous, realistic, some would say pessimistic assessment of the conditions for political class struggle.

Neo-conservatism has indubitably exacerbated the inherent contradiction between domination and execution within the capitalist state. Whatever else the attack on Fordism means, it entails an intensification of the economic activity of the state, which must manage, as best it can, the chaos created by internationalization. The neo-conservative state is still interventionist and still at the very heart of the reproduction of international capital, so much so, in fact, that it is hard to argue with Poulantzas's assessment that "the totality of the operations of the state are currently being reorganized in relation to its economic role" (Poulantzas 1978, 168). Similarly, Poulantzas is not wrong to contend that a political crisis has emerged that strains the structural autonomy of the capitalist state and that "certain major contradictions within the state are now located between its economic role and its role in maintaining order and organizing consent" (Poulantzas 1978, 168). The undiminished thrust toward privatization and deregulation, the reduction of government funding for social services, and the ongoing struggle against organized labor make it increasingly difficult to maintain the fiction of the representative character of the interventionist state. The decreasing separation between the state and the economy revealed by such interventions has resulted in an increasingly politicized attitude toward state activity. "The state has thus been transformed," Poulantzas argues, "from a buffer or safety valve on economic crises into a sounding-box for the reproduction of crises of social relations. . . . The state's subordination to the logic of monopoly capitalist reproduction, which is thus experienced as 'its' inability to respond to the needs of the masses, has never been more flagrant than it is at a time like the present, when the state is intervening in all domains in which these needs present themselves" (Poulantzas 1975, 172).

Poulantzas's contention that the growing contradiction between the state's functions of domination (organizing the hegemony of the power


bloc) and representation (legitimizing the regime by means of popular-democratic forms responsive to "the people") constitutes a structural crisis, a "crisis of democracy," expresses more or less adequately the political aspects of the crisis of Fordism by the mid-seventies. According to Poulantzas, the state's response to these tensions at the very source of its power follows an authoritarian pattern; state control over socio-economic life intensifies and combines with a relative decline of the institutions of political democracy. Within the state apparatuses the bureaucracy-executive gains at the expense of the parliamentary party system, and the decline of parliament parallels a "loosening of ties of representation" between the power bloc and political parties and between the legislative and executive apparatuses as well.

New plebiscitary and authoritarian political forms, which Poulantzas calls "dominant mass parties," subtly replace the classical parliamentary system and legal-formal bureaucracy. These organizations are characterized by their subservience to the executive, and within the state apparatus their major function is to "unify or homogenize the state administration; to control and propel (in the direction of general government policy) the cohesiveness of its various branches and sub-apparatuses" (Poulantzas 1978, 233). Simultaneously, new mechanisms, deployable by the executive alone (media manipulation and foreign policy adventures), displace the "interest-aggregatory" functions of older parliamentary parties. The dominant mass parties operate as transmission belts of the state ideology to the popular masses and as a means of manipulating consent from the electorate through plebiscitary tactics. The sum total of all these developments—state intervention in the economy, crisis of democracy, dominant mass parties—represents a shift, within the limits defining its relative autonomy, of the capitalist state from its democratic toward its authoritarian pole.

Such a political regime, which Poulantzas calls "authoritarian statism," attempts to preserve the formal separation of the political and the economic by progressively undermining its content. This aim is accomplished by several devices: "greater exclusion of the masses from the centers of political decision-making; widening of the distance between citizens and the state apparatus, just when the state is invading the life of society as a whole; an unprecedented degree of state centralism; increased attempts to regiment the masses through 'participation' schemes; in essence, therefore, a sharpening of the authoritarian character of political mechanisms" (Poulantzas 1978, 238). However, because the state remains formally separate from the private core of eco-


nomic power, its policies cannot really touch the causes of the conflicts that it faces. Thus Poulantzas sees the state caught in a trap largely of its own making: "from now on the state can go neither forwards nor backwards. . . . At one and the same time, it is driven to do both too much (crisis-inducing intervention) and too little (being unable to affect the deep causes of crises). The state is constantly oscillating between the two terms of the alternative: withdraw and/or get further involved. It is not an all powerful state . . . but rather a state with its back to the wall and its front poised before a ditch" (Poulantzas 1978, 191).

This, the more gloomy side of Poulantzas's prognosis, corresponds all too closely to the actual course of political restructuring during the eighties. Unfortunately, the more optimistic possibilities he describes have as yet failed to materialize. Poulantzas had hoped that the "crisis of democracy" created by the internationalization of monopoly capitalism might create new, and not necessarily unfavorable, conditions for the political class struggle. Because the class biases of the interventionist state are being more and more exposed, Poulantzas felt that its policies would become politicized and that this increasing political antagonism might weaken rather than strengthen the hegemony of capital. He had hoped that the economic policies of the state might bring into question its popular support, in particular the political alliance between the capitalist bourgeoisie and the "white-collar" middle class. Such a division, Poulantzas realized, would deal an incalculable blow to the legitimacy of the capitalist state and would also have cardinal significance for the state apparatuses themselves by polarizing the higher and subaltern layers of the bureaucratic administration.

However, Poulantzas, as the author of a brilliant analysis of fascism, was very much aware of the authoritarian potential of middle-class populism in the context of economic and political crisis. His thoroughly justified fear of plebiscitary politics was based on a profound assessment of the ideological gulf that separates the middle class (which Poulantzas defines, rather controversially, as a class fraction of the petty bourgeoisie)[12] from the working class and a grim recognition of the success with which Fordism deepened the structural roots of bourgeois hegemony. By creating and coordinating mass consumption and by directing the economy by means of Keynesian neo-corporatist policies, the Fordist state integrated and de-politicized labor; by internationalizing the class struggle and globalizing the capitalist mode of production, it rendered a national political struggle against the hegemony of multinational capitalism irrelevant.


Poulantzas exposed with uncompromising integrity the structural developments that created the crisis of Fordism and determined the course the crisis would take. Had he lived, he would hardly have been surprised by the plebiscitary politics of the New Right, which have belied his hopes and substantiated his fears. Far from becoming discouraged with the blatant class bias of the capitalist state, the middle class has torn the humanitarian veil from the face of the state in order to identify with it more strongly than ever. Faced with a traumatic loss of economic security and objectively declining life chances, the middle class has reacted savagely, not against the internationalization of capitalism, the real source of the problem, or even against the hegemony of monopoly capital, whose interest the neo-conservative state serves just as assiduously as its Fordist predecessor did, but rather against the working-class majority and their real or imagined political and ideological allies. In the eighties the middle and lower middle classes have emulated their European predecessors of the twenties and thirties and conducted a political and ideological pogrom against all classes and class fractions beneath themselves. If the result is not quite fascism, the family resemblance is unmistakable.


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