Leo Panitch, the state & capitalist social relations

by · March 8, 2013

Introducing AN INTEGRAL STATE, the new blog by Elizabeth Humphrys

Recent years have seen a big increase in Marxist theorising on the state and its relationship to the capitalist system. These discussions have gone through several phases, from debates over the nature of globalisation in the late 1990s, to renewed interest in imperialism in reaction to the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, to the connections between capitalist interests and state agencies as governments dropped their “free market” pretensions to bail out the financial sector after the GFC.

Today questions about the state are at the forefront of discussions on Left strategy, especially as post-GFC crises of sovereign debt unleash a new “fiscal crisis of the state” that provokes resistance to austerity politics. Beyond this, the rise of new radical Left formations has re-raised the long dormant question of Left entry into government, perhaps most starkly illustrated by the international debate about SYRIZA’s strategy in Greece. State theory has been a major theme at Left Flank since we started posting in 2010.

It seems, therefore, like a perfect time to promote the new blog by Left Flank’s Elizabeth Humphrys, An Integral State. The blog is based on Liz’s PhD work, which is a Gramscian analysis of the implementation of neoliberalism by the Labor government of 1983-96, and the incorporation of the trade unions in this project through the Accord.

The second post on An Integral State is in the form of notes towards a critique of the state theory of Leo Panitch, looking at the theory’s roots in the work of Ralph Miliband and Nicos Poulantzas. Panitch (together with Sam Gindin and Greg Albo) has recently written an enthusiastically-received but controversial book analysing the dynamics of the post-WWII state system, The Making of Global Capitalism, on Verso.

Among other considerations, Liz looks at the concept of “relative autonomy” of the state from capital that figures prominently in Panitch’s work, and whether it is compatible with Marx’s understanding of any given society as being constituted by a complex of social relations of production:

In separating state analysis from the commodity form and the capital relation, Panitch is unable to explain why the state takes the form it does in contemporary capitalism. His approach also fails to illuminate why states differ in their form (including amongst the economically advanced West). In this way, the concept of ‘relative autonomy’ equivocates on the specific form of the state. Further, his focus on how the state apparatus ‘authors’ change also obscures rather than clarifies. It does not tell us how and through what processes such changes come about, and it relies on the idea that the actions of the state are both relatively autonomous from accumulation and the result of bourgeois political dominance over it — he in effect merges Miliband and Poulantzas. He implies the state is capitalist because of who has political authority, and in doing so does not make clear how capitalist competition and exploitation shapes the limits of the state in a given moment. So, for example, in his discussion of the British state ‘authoring’ changes under Margaret Thatcher he implies neoliberalisation was a solution to the crisis of the 1970s that was proposed and enacted via people (politicians and members of the state apparatus) who had been intellectually convinced of such a course. He doesn’t envisage that Thatcherism (as a global phenomenon) spread because it was both an emulation of successful ‘neoliberal’ projects elsewhere, such as in the Global South, and because competitive pressures forced other national capitalisms to themselves emulate the example set by Thatcher in the UK.

Click here to visit An Integral State and read the whole post…