Politics without enough economics

Issue: 119

Adrian Budd

Bob Jessop, State Power: A Strategic-Relational Approach (Polity, 2008), £17.99.

State Power presents the most recent developments in Bob Jessop’s three decades long research project on state theory. Inspired by his reading of Marxism, Jessop has become one of the world’s most influential writers on state power and state theory. His prodigious output is illustrated by the inclusion of no less than 69 articles and books either written or co-written by Jessop in the bibliography of State Power.

The first two parts of this work explore the evolution of what Jessop calls his “strategic-relational approach” to state theory and the ideas of key influences on his thinking (including Karl Marx, Antonio Gramsci, Nicos Poulantzas and Michel Foucault). Part three applies this approach to important contemporary debates on the state—including the relations between states and neoliberal globalisation, and the emergence of the European Union and its implications for state theory.

Following Poulantzas, and echoing Marx’s argument that capital is not a thing but a social relation, Jessop’s starting point is that the state is a social relation. Furthermore, while much political theory sees the state as external to the economy and social relations, Jessop argues that it is centrally involved in their constitution and reproduction. Conceiving the state as a social relation, and like all such relations subject to change and development, allows us to recognise the historical fluidity of its forms and functions—captured in Max Weber’s argument that “there is no activity that states always perform and none that they have never performed” (p3).

Whether or not this is strictly accurate (for all states have maintained juridical and coercive instruments to defend ruling class interests), Jessop insists that the state is “just one institutional ensemble among others within a social formation” (p7). Nevertheless, the state has particular powers and a specificity that derives from the fact that this ensemble alone has “overall responsibility for maintaining the cohesion of the social formation of which it is merely a part” (p7).

Mobilising these basic principles in the analysis of capitalist states, Jessop is concerned to avoid two opposed problems in Marxist state theory. First, he rejects the structuralism of “capital-logic” theory, whereby the state automatically supports the interests of capital and promotes a single logic of capital accumulation and capitalist reproduction at any particular stage of development.

But if capital-logic theory produces a closed, non-dialectical image of state power, the alternative “class-theoretical” approach is equally problematic. For here the state is purely the result of the contemporary balance of class forces, which can be assessed empirically with no reference to capitalism’s overall systemic properties. Put simply, Jessop’s alternative approach combines elements of structuralism with a recognition of the significance of the actions and intentions of social actors. As such, it represents a sophisticated engagement with the structure-agency problem of Marxism and wider social theory.

For Jessop, structural constraints are real but not absolute and, rather than simply foreclosing political choices, operate strategically and selectively. Since the state is not a homogeneous structure but can only be activated by actual people and forces acting in specific ways in specific conjunctures, it is strategically selective in the sense of privileging certain actors and identities and encouraging particular strategies among those “seeking to control, resist, reproduce, or transform them” (p46).

Meanwhile, social actors always operate reflexively and pursue strategies that, while operating within the limits of the structural, may nevertheless stretch those limits and thereby give states and state power a certain elasticity. For the strategic-relational approach, then, state structures frame the strategies pursued by political forces, simultaneously enabling and setting limits to their strategic calculations.

One strength of this approach is that, despite Jessop’s abstract presentation and apparent disdain for concrete evidence to illustrate his arguments, it provides theoretical resources to explain institutional variations between capitalist states, and policy differences between countries and parties. Only in part three, where Jessop applies his model to contemporary problems, does he seek to make his approach concrete.

The chapter on globalisation is one of the strongest in the book and provides a number of important insights that challenge the thesis that transnational economic integration entails the straightforward transcendence of state power. Jessop insists that there is no easy spatial contradiction between economic globalisation and the nation-state. While in the last few decades states have become increasingly linked to global processes and so “interiorise the interests of foreign capital”, they have also engaged in measures to “project the interests of national capital abroad” (p189).

In any case, economic globalisation should not be overstated, for “the specificity of many economic assets and their embedding in extra-economic institutions mean that much economic activity is place and time-bound” (p189). And, with the persistent intertwining of the state with wider social relations, capitals and states remain locked in relations of “reciprocal interdependence”.

Even under economic transnationalisation, “bourgeois reproduction is still focused on the nation-state” (p136). This is not only generally true, but is also the case in the region where integration between and across states is most developed, the European Union. The development of the EU, Jessop argues, does not represent the transcendence of the nation-state but “multilevel governance in the shadow of national government(s)” (p200).

Nevertheless, while Jessop has a healthy scepticism towards the thesis of the decline of the nation-state held by many who write on globalisation, there are problems with his analysis of the role of states under globalisation. For, where many Marxists, including those writing in this journal, emphasise the role of the world’s major states in the establishment of globalised capitalism, Jessop underplays state power. He regards globalisation as a “multicentric, multiscalar, multitemporal, multiform, and multicausal process” (p178).

What Jessop’s approach overlooks is the hierarchical organisation of the capitalist world order and, in particular, the centrality of the power of the US. Certainly, US power is contested in various ways (by other states, by regional groupings of states such as the EU, and by the global anti-war and anti-capitalist movements). But the US remains the world’s dominant imperialist power and continues to spearhead the reordering of the global political economy along neoliberal lines. Part of its purpose, as transnationalist international theory one-sidedly emphasises, is to make the world safe for transnational capital. But the US is also driven by another imperative—to retain its position in the international pecking order of capitalist states.

There is, then, an international dimension to state power that is relatively under-explored in Jessop’s work. This gap, and in particular the relative neglect of US global power, leads Jessop into a series of unsupported assertions. How, and under what circumstances, might the US’s neoliberal political-economy model be so challenged that “the European model in particular may regain ground in the coming decade” (p193)? Similarly, short of a dramatic challenge to capitalist power, and that of the US in particular, how might restraints on international capital, such as the Tobin Tax on international financial transfers or an energy tax on fossil fuels (p195), be brought about?

Other international dimensions of state power are also under-explored by Jessop, including war and nationalism, which are barely mentioned in State Power. Jessop is right to note that state theorists who place war at the centre of their analysis generally treat it as separate from, and unexplained by, wider social relations. But the corollary of the rejection of this approach should not be to marginalise war from Marxist approaches to state theory.

A more general criticism of Jessop’s strategic-relational approach concerns his treatment of capitalism as a mode of production, a concept that he notes but which is not central to his approach. The capitalist mode of production—defined primarily by the dominant social relations of competition and exploitation, which themselves entail law, politics and other extra-economic relations—does not impose particular state policies in every detail. States, therefore, may have different tax regimes, different welfare structures, and a host of other particularisms. In this respect Jessop is right to argue that strategic actors have some room for manoeuvre.

Nevertheless, capitalism does impose boundary conditions for state policy and the behaviour of social actors, such that, whatever their differences, in a capitalist world order the world’s states are all capitalist. It is not clear why Jessop understates the powerful determining constraints of the mode of production, but his emphasis on the strategic choices of political actors is surely a contributory factor.

He argues that “a state could operate principally as a capitalist state, a military power, a theocratic regime, a representative democratic regime answerable to civil society, an apartheid state, or an ethico-political state” (p8). In reality, capitalist states have at various times assumed these particular forms while remaining capitalist. He goes on to argue that there “is no unconditional guarantee that the modern state will always (or ever) be essentially capitalist” (p8). The opposite is true. While there is no guarantee that the state will be apartheid, etc, under capitalism the state must always be a capitalist state, whatever the formal character of its politics.

The under-developed analysis of the mode of production as a structural constraint also leaves Jessop open to the criticisms that his approach results in an over-politicised view of the state and presents a reformist model of political change. Jessop acknowledges both criticisms.

This does not mean that, within the limits implied by my criticisms above, his approach is incapable of providing important insights into the operation of state power, particularly in periods of relative stability. For, given capitalism’s underlying dynamism—involving class struggle, conflicts between capitals, the rhythm of booms and slumps, international competition, etc—states do privilege certain accumulation strategies over others and engage in periodic strategic reorientation. In this sense the state can be seen as relatively autonomous in the narrow sense of standing above the interests of individual capitals and concerned with the long-term reproduction of capitalism as such.

Nevertheless, the over-politicisation of the strategic-relational approach and its neglect of the structural constraints on state power imposed by the capitalist mode of production come at the major cost of marginalising those forces whose interests and strategies may clash with the strategic selectivity of the state. As for many academic Marxists in recent decades, class struggle remains a background assumption but discussions of class agency focus almost entirely on capital. As a consequence, the activities of socialist parties, trade unions and radical social movements barely figure in Jessop’s book.

More broadly, Marxism’s emancipatory vision is glaringly absent from State Power. One expression of this is the extremely academic, opaque and convoluted language Jessop uses. This is academic Marxism of the kind that requires a dictionary to navigate its thickets, and a memory sufficient to remember how a sentence started when you reach its conclusion. There is something deeply ironic in Jessop’s use of Gramsci to argue that state power is not merely material but also concerns linguistic elements designed to marginalise subordinate dialects and the language of resistance.

The contradiction between an approach to state theory inspired by Marxism and a language designed to alienate all but the hardiest of workers is illustrative of the ultimately enigmatic nature of Jessop’s book. It draws upon extensive reading to provide some useful methodological pointers for analysing states and challenges crude approaches to state power, including simplistic oppositions of state and civil society, politics and economics, global and national. In its own way it is an optimistic book, and it highlights the strategic spaces available for the potential elaboration of radical policy programmes. Nevertheless, to develop socialist strategy, to push against the limits of the possible, requires us to take what is useful here and move decisively beyond it.