The Strategic Selectivity of the State: Reflections on a Theme of Poulantzas

This on-line version is the pre-copyedited, preprint version. The published version can be found here: 

‘The strategic selectivity of the state: reflections on a theme of Poulantzas’, Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora, 25 (1-2), 1-37, 1999.

[State, Power, Socialism] takes a distance from a certain conception that I held earlier, i.e., the relative autonomy of the state, which considered social reality in terms of instances or levels. This was, in sum, the Althusserian conception. Here I offer a series of criticisms, because it was a conception that did not succeed in exactly situating the specificity of the state, which did not succeed in grasping the relations between state, society, and economy in a sufficiently precise fashion. …. For example, it is true that for some time, I tended to consider the state (even in its broad sense, including ideological apparatuses) as the (almost) exclusive site of the institutions of power. This was an error: there are a whole series of other power centres that are extremely important in society. … In this book I have tried both to break with a conception which considers the state as the totality of power and another conception which neglects entirely, or almost entirely, the state’s role: that of Foucault or, ultimately, that of the Revue Libre (sc. edited by Castoriadis, Lefort and Gauchet) (1978b: 27-8).

Poulantzas was an innovative thinker who was always capable of surprising us with his new insights into the state and his shifts in political stance on major issues. This is evident in the above judgement offered in an interview on his last major work, State, Power, Socialism (1978a). Whilst remaining faithful to the basic tenets of Marxism, he was always seeking to develop his ideas and refine them in the light of new theoretical currents and political events. His approach to the state, as to other issues, was influenced both by shifts in theoretical fashion and by changes in his principal political concerns. Thus, theoretically, he was initially inspired by Sartrean existentialism, then Althusserian structuralism, and, in his later work, Foucault’s more methodological remarks on the relational nature and ubiquitous dispersion of power. Likewise, politically, Poulantzas was initially committed to democratic politics, then to Marxism-Leninism, then left Eurocommunism, and, eventually, a radical democratic politics that was pluri-partiste, committed to cross-class alliances, and favourable to an independent role for social movements. But these shifts were always conducted within a continuing commitment to Marxism both as a theoretical programme and as a guide to political action. It was through his concern to understand Greek and French politics that he eventually arrived at his insight that the state is a social relation. It is this insight and its elaboration that Poulantzas presented as the long-awaited realization of the Marxist theory of the state (see his comments in three interviews: Poulantzas 1976c, 1977, and 1980). The present paper elaborates this insight and traces its implications for current theoretical and political work.

Marxist Theory and Political Strategy

I have noted elsewhere that Poulantzas’s work, for all its often criticized ‘hyper-abstractionism’ and theoretical obscurities, was primarily motivated by his deep-felt political commitments to working class and popular-democratic struggles in contemporary Europe (Jessop 1985). Thus, in addition to his concern with the theoretical positions advanced in classic texts by Marx, Engels, and Lenin, Poulantzas consistently engaged in trenchant critiques of other Marxist analyses of imperialism. Among the alternatives he criticised were theories of state monopoly capitalism, the view that an ultra-imperialism had now been organized under the hegemony of a US super-state or the domination of stateless monopoly capital, the claim that contradictions among national states still survived as they mobilised to defend their own national bourgeoisies, and the view that the European Economic Community was becoming a supra-national political apparatus to serve European capital in its struggle against the hegemony of American capital. Poulantzas’s concern with political strategy is especially clear in his analyses of changes in imperialism and their implications for national states and class struggles in Europe; in his interest in the pressing problems of a democratic transition to democratic societies after the crisis of the Greek, Portuguese, and Spanish dictatorships in the mid-1970s; in his reflections on the emerging crisis of state socialism; and in his concern with the prospects of radical democracy in north-western Europe in the face of an increasing shift towards authoritarian statism.

It was in grappling with these issues that Poulantzas integrated his long-standing interests in state theory and political strategy more closely and more coherently with traditional Marxist economic themes. These latter had largely been ignored in his early state-theoretical work on the grounds that the capitalist economy was not only separate from the capitalist state but also largely capable of self-valorization once the ‘external’ political and ideological framework for accumulation is secured through the state (1973a, 32-3, 55-6; for his own subsequent critique of this classic error in liberal political economy, see Poulantzas 1975, 100-101; 1978a, 15-20). Substantive concern with economic themes first became prominent in his work on the internationalization of capital (see, for example, Poulantzas 1975, hereafter also CCC). They were later integrated relatively effectively with his own state theory in State, Power, Socialism (1978a, hereafter also SPS).

Poulantzas also brought new insights to the traditional Marxist critique of political economy. In particular, he analyzed the labour process in terms of a complex economic, political, and intellectual division of labour in which the constitutive effects and actions of the state were always present; and, in similar vein, he studied social classes from the viewpoint of their ‘extended reproduction’ rather than from the ‘narrow’ economic perspective of their place in production, distribution, and consumption. The idea of extended reproduction refers to the role of economic, political, and ideological relations within the circuit of capital and non-capitalist relations of production – including not only the technical division of labour but also changing forms of managerial control and ideological relations. Marx had already indicated this, as Poulantzas himself notes, in his discussions of factory despotism and the role of science in the capitalist production process (1978a: 55). But Poulantzas developed this analysis in terms of the changing articulation between economic, political, and ideological relations within capitalist production (1975: 109-138); and in terms of the changing forms of capitalist state and mental-manual division and their role in reproducing the social relations of production as a whole (1975: 165-68; and 1978a: 26-27, 55-57, 80-82, 166-94). Overall his approach rests on the central claims that ‘politico-ideological relations are already present in the actual constitution of the relations of production’ and that ‘the process of production and exploitation involves reproduction of the relations of politico-ideological domination and subordination’ (1978a: 26, 27). Thus Poulantzas put the social relations of production in this expanded, or integral, sense[1] at the heart of his analysis of class struggle. And he examined the social reproduction of these relations in terms of the reproduction of the inter-related economic, political, and ideological conditions bearing on accumulation within and beyond the circuits of capital (see especially 1975, 1978a).

New Methodological Considerations

Poulantzas set out a broad agenda in his last major work. His concerns ranged from the nature of actually existing socialism through changes in contemporary capitalism and the rise of a new form of capitalist state to questions of political strategy and radical democracy, Before he discussed these crucial issues, however, he presented some basic theoretical guidelines and arguments. Most of these can be found in his earlier work but some are presented for the first time in SPS. In particular he developed his own relational approach to the ‘institutional materiality’ of the state and also engaged in a partial and critical rapprochement with Foucault’s work. The key ideas are presented in the ‘Introduction’ to SPS. As always Poulantzas rejected instrumentalist and voluntarist approaches to state power but he also presented his own approach in a new light. In particular he argued that political class domination is inscribed in the material organization and institutions of the state system; and that this ‘institutional materiality’ is grounded in its turn in the relations of production and the social division of labour in capitalist societies (1978a: 14). He then elaborated some implications of this approach.

In discussing the relations of production and the social division of labour, Poulantzas drew more heavily on his analyses in Classes in Contemporary Capitalism than his earlier, more structuralist work, Political Power and Social Classes (1968/1973, hereafter PPSC). For he focused on the interpenetration of the economic, political, and ideological moments of the social division of labour rather than the structural matrix constituted by the economic, political, and ideological regions of the capitalist mode of production. He argued that the production process is based on the unity of the labour process and relations of production organized under the dominance of the latter. These relations are not purely economic (let alone merely technical) but also involve specific political and ideological moments. Thus power has precise bases in economic exploitation, the place of different classes in the various power apparatuses and mechanisms outside the state, and the state system itself. This means that class power is firstly determined by the contrasting positions occupied by different classes in the social division of labour. But it is further determined by their different modesof organization and their respective strategies in the different fields of class struggle (1978a: 147; cf. 1973: 95, 105-7). For the process of production and exploitation also embodies and reproduces relations of politico-ideological domination and subordination (1978a: 26-7). In other words, politics and ideology are not limited to reproducing the general, external conditions in which production occurs: they are also present in the heart of the labour process as constitutive moments of the social relations of production. Thus the relations of production are expressed in specific class powers organically articulated to the more general political and ideological relations that concretize and legitimize them (1978a: 26-7).

Clearly, in presenting his new, relational approach, Poulantzas no longer employs Althusserian categories.[2] But he still castigates the view that the economy and the state are immutable, transhistorical fields of social relations with unchanging boundaries and functions. For the economic and political regions ‘are from the very beginning constituted by their mutual relation and articulation – a process that is effected in each mode of production through the determining role of relations of production’ (1978a: 17). This rules out any general theory of economics or the state and indicates the need for particular theoretical analyses of specific types of economy or state. Poulantzas also repeats that the relative institutional separation of the state in the CMP entails a distinct object for analysis. This is no longer the political as a distinct, relatively autonomous region within the overall articulation of the capitalist mode of production (as it was in PPSC). Instead it is now redefined as ‘nothing other than the capitalist form of the presence of the political in the constitution and reproduction of the relations of production’ (1978a: 19). Accordingly this distinctive presence is the new focus for Poulantzas’s regional theory of the capitalist state and its relation to social classes and class struggle (1978a: 14-22, 25-7; cf. 1973: 13, 17-8, 22).

After these, and other, brief methodological remarks, Poulantzas considered the general nature of the capitalist state. He emphasized that it involves more than the exercise of repression and/or ideological deception. It does more than negatively delimit and protect the rules of the economic game and/or inculcate ‘false consciousness’ among subordinate classes. For it is actively involved in constituting and maintaining the relations of production and the social division of labour; in organizing hegemonic class unity within the power bloc; and in managing the material bases of consent among the popular masses. In short, the state’s role in reproducing class domination is a positive one and by no means reducible to the simple couplet of repression-ideology.

Poulantzas emphasized that the cornerstone of power in class-divided formations is class power. This is grounded in economic power and the relations of production rather than the state. However, notwithstanding the ultimately determining role of the relations of production, he also argued that political power is primordial. For changes in the character of state power condition every other essential transformation in both class and non-class relations. Thus Poulantzas continually stressed the state’s positivity and ubiquity in constituting and reproducing the relations of production. He regarded the state as ‘the factor which concentrates, condenses, materializes and incarnates politico-ideological relations in a form specific to the given mode of production’ (1978a: 27). This means that the state is everywhere. Indeed, Poulantzas argued that ‘we cannot imagine any social phenomenon (any knowledge, power, language or writing) as posed in a state prior to the State: for all social reality must stand in relation to the state and to class divisions’ (1978a: 39). Thus every social reality must be conceived as maintaining constitutive relations to the state. This involves class and non-class relations alike. For the state intervenes in all relations of power and assigns them class pertinence and enmeshes them in the web of economic, political, and ideological powers of the dominant class (1978a: 40, 43). Since class relations are always and necessarily relations of struggle, however, they resist integration into apparatuses and tend to escape all institutional control. In this sense, indeed, the mechanisms of power are self-limiting. For these mechanisms always incorporate and condense the struggles of the dominated classes without necessarily fully integrating and absorbing them. The class struggle always has primacy over the institutions-apparatuses of power (1978a: 149-52). And, because both class and non-class struggles escape state control, state power is always provisional, fragile, and limited (1978a: 43-5).

The State and Political Class Struggle

Poulantzas argued that the nature of the state is closely related to the social division of labour and that the nature of the capitalist state is closely related to the specifically capitalist form of this division (especially that between mental and manual labour) (see below). But he immediately added that a theory of the capitalist state could not be developed merely through relating it to the social division of labour and the class struggle in general. For this runs the risk of reducing all its forms to an indifferent ‘dictatorship of the bourgeoisie’ (1978a: 158). Instead the capitalist state must be considered as a sui generis political phenomenon and related to the specificities of political class struggle in different conjunctures (1978a: 123-6). Thus Poulantzas also discussed how political class struggle is reproduced and transformed within the state apparatus so that bourgeois political domination is secured.

In general terms Poulantzas repeated the arguments first extensively developed in PPSC. Thus he defined the principal political roles of the capitalist state as organizing the power bloc and disorganizing the popular masses. But he went beyond his initial arguments in both respects and also qualifies his comments on the role of the state personnel. In particular he gave greater weight to class conflicts and contradictions and to the particular strategies pursued by different classes, fractions, and categories in the struggle over political class domination. In this sense Poulantzas emphasized that the state is neither a monolithic bloc nor simply a sovereign legal subject. Instead its different apparatuses, sections, and levels serve as power centres for different fractions or fractional alliances within the power bloc and/or as centres of resistance for different elements among the popular masses. It follows that the state must be understood as a strategic field formed through intersecting power networks that constitutes a favourable terrain for political manoeuvre by the hegemonic fraction (1978a: 136, 138). It is through constituting this terrain that the state helps to organize the power bloc.

The state is also involved in disorganizing the masses. It prevents them from forming a unified front against the state and links them severally to the power bloc through its management of material concessions. In particular it mobilizes the petty bourgeoisie and the rural classes in support for the power bloc (either directly or through their support for the state itself) so that they are not available for alliances with the proletariat. It should be noted here that different fractions in the power bloc adopt different strategies towards the popular masses. This is reflected in their preference for different state forms with different social bases and/or in attempts to mobilize the popular masses behind their own fractional struggles (1978a: 140-2). Moreover, even when the popular masses are physically excluded from certain state apparatuses, these are still affected by popular struggles. This occurs in two ways. Popular struggles can be mediated through state personnel, who have different class affiliations at different levels of the state system. This can be seen in the discontent within the police, judiciary, and state administration in contemporary France. Popular struggles can also be effective at a distance from the state. For they have clear political implications for the strategic calculations of fractions within the power bloc. This is well illustrated by the circumstances surrounding the collapse of the military dictatorships in Greece, Spain, and Portugal (1978a: 143-4).

Overall this ensures that popular struggles traverse the state system from top to bottom. This does not mean that the popular masses have their own power centres within the state in exactly the same way as the different fractions of the power bloc. For this would suggest that there was a permanent situation of ‘dual power’ within the capitalist state such that it represented the political class power of labour as well as capital. Instead Poulantzas claimed that the popular masses merely have centres of resistance within the state. These can be used to oppose the real power of the dominant class but not to advance their own long-term political interests. Lastly, he noted that the popular masses can also pressurize the capitalist state through their activities in establishing movements for rank-and-file democracy, self-management networks, etc., which challenge normal liberal democratic forms of representation (1978a: 144-5).

Finally, Poulantzas also considered the distinctive role of the state personnel themselves. He noted that the dominant ideology could help to unify the functions of the state system. But he also argued that it could not eliminate the internal quarrels and divisions that occur within the state owing to the differential class affiliation of the state personnel. Nonetheless, since the state personnel allegedly live their revolt through the dominant ideology, they rarely question the social division of labour between rulers and ruled or between mental and manual labour. Hence they are not inclined to support rank-and-file initiatives and self-management. Instead they would seek to maintain the continuity of the state apparatus during any transition to democratic socialism – not simply to defend their own ‘economic-corporate’ interests but also because of their more general statolatry, views about the national interest, etc.. This means that the socialist movement must deal ‘gently’ with the state personnel during the transitional period when it is necessary to radically reorganize the structures of the state system (1978a: 154-58).

The reproduction of class struggles in internal divisions, fractures, and contradictions among and within each and every branch of the state system is reflected, according to Poulantzas, in the prodigious incoherence and chaotic character of state policies when seen from the viewpoint of what Foucault calls the ‘microphysics of power’ (1978a: 132, 135-6, 229; cf. 1974: 329-30; 1976a: 49-50, 84). Yet Poulantzas also argued that the state’s organization as a strategic terrain ensures that a general line is imposed on these diversified micro-policies (1978a: 135, 136). This general line emerges in a complex fashion from the institutional matrix of the state and the clash of specific strategies and tactics. It is not reducible solely to the effects of the state as an institutional ensemble since this is always crosscut by class contradictions and conflicts. In this sense, in contrast to the term ‘structural selectivity’, which he borrowed from the structural account of the state’s selectivity proposed by Claus Offe (1972), Poulantzas’s approach might better be described as concerned with the state’s ‘strategic selectivity’. Nor is the emergent general line reducible to the more or less successful application of a coherent, global[3] strategy established at the apex of the entire state system (1978a: 135-6). For it is only the interaction of the state’s structural matrix and the specific strategies pursued by different forces that accounts for the general line.

In short, Poulantzas emphasized that political domination is inscribed in the state’s institutional materiality, i.e., its institutional matrix. He argued that only this approach could clarify the conjoint impact on the state produced, ‘on the one hand, by changes in the relations of production and social division of labour and, on the other hand, by changes in class struggles, especially political struggles’ (1978a: 158). This relational perspective would enable one to comprehend (a) how each national state system develops in a distinctive way according to the material condensation of the specific political relations which have developed in a given nation-state, and (b) how the state changes according to each stage and phase of capitalism, according to normal and exceptional periods, and across diverse forms of regime (1978a: 158-60).

The Relational Approach and Strategic Selectivity

This part of my contribution develops the theoretical framework underlying Poulantzas’s claim that the state is a social relation. Poulantzas argued that the state is a social relation in exactly the same way as capital is a social relation.[4] This approach excludes any treatment of the state either as a simple instrument or as a subject. Thus, although Poulantzas obviously stressed the importance of the changing balance of class forces in his approach to state power, he equally emphatically rejected the idea that the state is somehow neutral as between classes. Instead it should be seen as the material condensation of the balance among class forces, for the state actually helps to constitute that balance and does not simply reflect it. At the same time, Poulantzas rejected the view that the state can be seen as a subject. It should be seen as an institutional ensemble rather than a unitary political subject. It is shot through with contradictions and has no political power of its own. The power of the state is the power of the class forces that act in and through the state. Now the diacritical value of this argument is clear. Less obvious is what its positive theoretical content might be.

The simplest explication is Poulantzas’s claim that the capitalist state should not be regarded as an intrinsic entity: ‘like “capital”, it is rather a relationship of forces, or more precisely the material condensation of such a relationship among classes and class fractions, such as this is expressed within the State in a necessarily specific form‘ (1978a: 128-9, italics in original). By analogy with Marx’s analysis of the capital reIation, I suggest that this claim can be reformulated as follows: state power (not the state apparatus as such) should be seen as a form-determined condensation of the balance of forces in political and politically-relevant struggle. This reformulation combines the themes of a necessarily specific form, material condensation, and balance of forces. Exploring this theme involves two interrelated aspects of the state system. We need first to examine the state form as a complex institutional ensemble with a specific pattern of ‘strategic selectivity’ which reflects and modifies the balance of class forces; and, second, to consider the constitution of these class forces and their strategies themselves, including their capacity to reflect on and respond to the strategic selectivities inscribed within the state apparatus as a whole.

In short, if we accept that the state is a social relation, we can analyze its structure as strategic in their form, content, and operation; and analyze actions, in turn, as structured, more or less context-sensitive, and structuring. This involves examining how a given structure may privilege some actors, some identities, some strategies, some spatial and temporal horizons, some actions over others; and the ways, if any, in which actors (individual and/or collective) take account of this differential privileging through ‘strategic-context’ analysis when choosing a course of action.[5] In other words, one should study structures in terms of their structurally-inscribed strategic selectivities and actions in terms of (differentially reflexive) structurally-oriented strategic calculation. Some accounts of discourse adopt a similar approach to the ways in which discursive paradigms privilege some interlocutors, some discursive identities/positionings, some discursive strategies and tactics, and some discursive statements over others (for example, Hay 1996; Jenson 1995).Combining structural and discursive concerns in a more inclusive strategic-relational analysis would help develop a reflexive analysis (concerned with extra-discursive and discursive structures, transformative and self-transformative capacities, and individual and collective learning) well suited to the study of structurally-inscribed selectivities in the state and other fields of action.

The dialectical logic behind the strategic-relational approach is represented by the various arrows in Figure 1 (see next page). The first row of the figure presents the inadmissible dichotomy between (absolute) external constraint and (unconditional) free-willed action – the two terms that serve as the initial thesis and antithesis of the theoretical movement leading to a strategic-relational analysis of structured coherence (including that of the state). The second row then presents the orthodox structure-agency duality, which sublates both thesis and antithesis by treating structure as an emergent effect of action and agency as a structurally constrained mode of skilful action. But this retains a dualistic form owing to its resort to the bracketing at any given point in the analysis of one or other aspect of the resulting duality. The core themes of the strategic-relational approach occupy the next two rows of the figure and disclose its radical ‘methodological relationalism’. The concepts presented in the third row refer to the strategic-relational aspects of particular conjunctures; the concepts presented in the fourth row refer to the strategic-relational aspects of successive conjunctures.

E-1999c Hellenic Figure1

Figure 1: A Strategic-Relational Approach to Structure and Agency

The concepts from the second row onwards preserve the admissible elements of the preceding row(s). Thus the scope for the reflexive reorganization of structural configurations is subject to structurally-inscribed strategic selectivity (and thus has path-dependent as well as path-shaping aspects); and the recursive selection of strategies and tactics depends on individual, collective, or organizational learning capacities and on the ‘experiences’ resulting from the pursuit of different strategies and tactics in different conjunctures. Insofar as reflexively reorganized structural configurations and recursively selected strategies and tactics co-evolve over time to produce a relatively stable order out of a potentially unstructured complexity, we can talk of the structured coherence of this co-evolving, self-organizing order. This involves a structurally-inscribed strategic selectivity that differentially rewards actions that are compatible with the recursive reproduction of the structure(s) in question. Nonetheless, from the viewpoint of the strategic-relational approach, this coherence is always multiply tendential. For, first, since the reproduction of structures is only ever tendential, so too are their strategic selectivities; second, since structures are strategically rather than structurally selective (see above), there is always scope for actions to overflow or circumvent structural constraints; and, third, since subjects are never unitary, never fully aware of the conditions of strategic action, never fully equipped to realize their preferred strategies, and always face possible opposition from actors pursuing other strategies or tactics, failure is an ever-present possibility (see, from a strategic-relational perspective, Jessop 1990; from an anglo-Foucauldian perspective, Malpas and Wickham 1995; and, from a discourse-analytical viewpoint, Scherrer 1995).

Viewed in these terms, the state is neither a neutral instrument (equally accessible to all forces and useful for any purpose) nor a rational calculating subject (with a pregiven unity and clear purposes). Instead, as Poulantzas deduced, the exercise and effectivity of state power are the contingently necessary material condensations of the changing balance of forces in political struggle. State power results from a continuing interaction between the structurally-inscribed strategic selectivities of the state as an institutional ensemble and the changing balance of forces operating within, and at a distance from, the state and perhaps, also trying to transform it.

More specifically, in analyzing the strategic selectivities of the state as a social relation, its bias as a strategic site of political action must be connected to specific strategies pursued by specific forces (or specific sets of such forces) with specific identities in order to advance specific interests over specific spatial and temporal horizons relative to specific other forces, each advancing their own interests through their own strategies over their own spatial and temporal horizons. Particular forms of state privilege the access of some forces over others, some strategies over others, some interests over others, some spatial and temporal horizons of action over others, and some coalition possibilities over others. This suggests in turn that a change in the self-identity of political forces, the pursuit of different interests, the development of different strategies, the adoption of different spatial and/or temporal horizons of action, or the building of different blocs, strategic alliances, or temporary coalitions could well lead to different outcomes, making it easier or harder to achieve specific objectives in and through a given type of state, a given state form, or a given form of regime. It also suggests that reorganizing the state – its modes of representation, its internal articulation, its modes of intervention, its social bases, the currently dominant state project or mode of political legitimation, or, where relevant, the state’s broader hegemonic project for the wider society – will change its strategic selectivities.

Continuing interaction over time between the reflexive reorganization of the state’s strategic selectivities and the recursive selection of specific strategies and tactics oriented to those selectivities can result in a relatively durable degree of ‘structured coherence’ (or stability) in the operation of the state and its wider political system (see figure 1). It is this emergent coherence that justifies talking about specific structures of state power and their dynamic (for example, liberal parliamentary states, authoritarian interventionist states, military dictatorships, or dependent developmental states; or, to give another example, male breadwinner and dual breadwinner welfare regimes). It also offers a basis for identifying the weaknesses and strengths of a given type of state, state form, or political regime, their crisis tendencies as well as their capacities to counteract these tendencies, and so on.

As an institutional ensemble, the state does not (and cannot) exercise power: it is not a real subject. Indeed, rather than speaking about the power of the state, one should speak about the various potential structural powers (or state capacities), in the plural, that are inscribed in the state as an institutional ensemble. The state is an ensemble of power centres that offer unequal chances to different forces within and outside the state to act for different political purposes. How far and in what ways their powers (and any associated liabilities or weak points) are actualized depends on the action, reaction, and interaction of specific social forces located both within and beyond this complex ensemble. In short, the state does not exercise power: its powers (always in the plural) are activated through the agency of definite political forces in specific conjunctures. It is not the state that acts: it is always specific sets of politicians and state officials located in specific parts and levels of the state system. It is they who activate specific powers and state capacities inscribed in particular institutions and agencies. Moreover, as in all social action, unacknowledged conditions influence the success or failure of their actions and there are always unanticipated consequences.

The strategic-relational approach insists that the state’s structural powers or capacities and their realization cannot be understood by focusing solely on the state as a juridico-political apparatus – even assuming its institutional boundaries could be precisely mapped and would also prove stable. Although the state apparatus has its own distinctive resources and powers, which are the basis of its relative autonomy, it also has distinctive liabilities or vulnerabilities and depends on resources produced elsewhere. This is why the state’s powers are conditional and relational. The nature and extent of their realization depends on structural relations between the state and its encompassing political system, strategic ties among politicians and state officials and other political forces, and the complex web of structural interdependencies and strategic networks that link this state system to its broader social environment. The state’s effectiveness is always shaped by capacities and forces that lie beyond it. Indeed, as Poulantzas notes, class struggles have primacy over, and stretch far beyond the state; and, in addition, far from being exhausted by class relations, power relations may also go beyond them (1978a: 43).

Re-Reading Poulantzas

I now reconsider some of Poulantzas’s arguments in the light of this reconstruction of their underlying theoretical framework. I will first re-examine his views on the state’s ‘structural selectivity’ (sic); and then re-examine his views on strategy and tactics. In exploring his ideas on the institutional materiality of the state, I will proceed from some of its more abstract determinations to more specific determinations. Likewise, in exploring his ideas on strategy, I begin with general comments on the constitution of the power bloc and hegemony and move to more specific, conjunctural analyses.

Poulantzas related the distinctive form of the capitalist state to its foundations in capitalist relations of production. These must not be understood in the narrow sense of exchange relations nor in the more general sense of purely economic relations with their own distinctive laws of motion or ‘capital logic’ (1978a: 51-2). Instead the social division of labour must be grasped in all its complexity. This means looking at the articulation of production, distribution, and exchange under the dominance of the social relations of production. But it also means looking more generally at the division between mental and manual labour – which extends far beyond the economic region and penetrates the state and ideological region as well. In this context, Poulantzas argued that the state is directly involved in constituting and reproducing the mental-manual division. Indeed he claims that the state itself is the distinctive material embodiment of intellectual labour in its separation from manual labour (1978a: 55-6). This can be seen in the relation between knowledge and power within the capitalist state. Thus the state establishes a distinctive national language and forms of writing and is also involved in reproducing the mental-manual division through such institutions as education. In general these links, which occur in the state’s core (so-called repressive) apparatus as well as its associated ideological state apparatuses (whether inside or outside the socially constructed distinction between the public and private spheres, or political society and civil society) serve to exclude the popular masses from full and effective participation in political power (1978a: 56). Particular intellectual skills are required for participation and official discourse and bureaucratic secrecy obscure the realities of political power. In addition these links provide the institutional and ideological matrix within which state-enrolled intellectuals and functionaries can unify the power bloc and secure its popular hegemony (1978a: 57-62).

Within this framework, the structural selectivity of the state consists in a complex set of institutional mechanisms and political practices which serve to advance (or obstruct) particular fractional or class interests. Included here are: selective filtering of information, systematic lack of action on certain issues, definition of mutually contradictory priorities and counter-priorities, the uneven implementation of measures originating elsewhere in the state system, and the pursuit of ad hoc and uncoordinated policies concerned with specific conjunctural problems affecting particular branches or sections of the state system (1978a: 132-4, cf. 1977: 75; 1976b: 40). Thus the state system is characterized by complex, crosscutting, decentralized, non-hierarchical, and antagonistic relations among the different branches of the state system. Yet Poulantzas also insisted that ‘the state does not constitute a mere assembly of detachable parts: it exhibits an apparatus unity which is normally designated by the term centralization or centralism, and which is related to the fissiparous unity of state power‘ (1978a: 136). This clearly poses problems in explaining the institutional and class unity of the state. We must ask how such micro-diversity culminates in the macro-necessity of a unified system of bourgeois domination.

Unity cannot be explained, as Poulantzas recognized, in terms of constitutional and administrative law. Even if spheres of competence were strictly delimited and a precise hierarchy of formal authority were defined, this would not affect the real structures of power (1978a: 134). Thus Poulantzas turned instead to the latter structures. He explained institutional unity in terms of the dominance of the branch or apparatus that represents the interests of the hegemonic fraction. This occurs in two ways. For the hegemonic fraction can establish the dominance of the state apparatus which already crystallizes its interests; and any apparatus which is already dominant can be transformed into a privileged centre of its interests (1978a: 137).

But this argument is supplemented by reference to strategic practices. For Poulantzas also accounted for the class unity of the state in terms of the political practices that are pursued by the dominant apparatus. It is not due to any formal, juridical unity that might be established through legal codes. It depends instead on the capacity of the dominant apparatus to shift real power around without due regard for constitutional formalities. Thus the dominant apparatus will duplicate subordinate branches, establish its own ‘parallel power networks’, penetrate the personnel of other apparatuses, short-circuit decision-making elsewhere in the state system, reorganize the traditional hierarchies of power when appropriate, and switch the relays and circuits of power to suit the global interests of the hegemonic fraction (1978a: 137; cf. 1976b: 41-2). This can be accomplished in various ways and the dominant ‘mass’ party (sic) plays a crucial role here in authoritarian statism (1978a: 232-40). But these mechanisms must be examined in relation to state strategies and tactics.

Sometimes the state does openly formulate and express (albeit through an opaque and diversified official discourse) the strategies and tactics required for political class domination. But the most appropriate strategy more often emerges only ex post through collision among mutually contradictory micro-policies and political projects formulated in different parts of the state system. Thus, although the general line of the state’s policy is ‘certainly decipherable in terms of strategic calculation’, it is ‘often not known in advance within (and by) the state itself’ (1978a: 136, 33). It should not be seen as ‘the rational formulation of a coherent and global project’ (1978a: 136; corrected translation) and, indeed, ‘it is not always susceptible to rational formulation’ (1978a: 33). In this sense Poulantzas resorted, not to a purely structural causality à la Althusser, but to a strategic causality. The latter explains state policy in terms of a process of strategic calculation without a calculating subject.

Thus Poulantzas argued that the unity of political class domination must be explained through the strategic codification of power relations. The state is

‘a strategic field and process of intersecting power networks … traversed by tactics which are often highly explicit at the restricted level of their inscription in the state: they intersect and conflict with one another, finding their targets in some apparatuses or being short-circuited by others, and eventually map out that general line of force, the state’s policy, which traverses confrontations within the state’ (1978a: 136).

No power can be exercised on this field without a series of aims and objectives. Yet no individual, group, or class subject can be said to have chosen or decided the final outcome of conflicting micro-power plays. Thus political class domination is both intentional and nonsubjective.

This argument is developed on a number of different levels. For Poulantzas did not develop a general theory of the capitalist type of state that could then be applied unmodified to any and all of its various instantiations. Instead he offered a series of methodological guidelines for state theory starting from the first principles of the Marxist critique of political economy (1978a: 18-20; see also 1973: 123-156). This can be seen in the extensive range of concepts that Poulantzas deployed in exploring the structural (or strategic) selectivity of the state. Among the concepts that can be mentioned here are: (a) the capitalist type of state; (b) the stages of the capitalist type of state – transitional, liberal, interventionist, authoritarian statist; (c) the normal and exceptional form of the capitalist type of state – distinguished in terms of the presence-absence of an institutionalized mechanism for national-popular representation within a bourgeois democratic framework; (d) a range of ‘normal’ political regimes, differentiated in terms of the relative dominance of different representative apparatuses – the legislature, the executive, the authoritarian mass party – and a range of ‘exceptional’ political regimes, differentiated in terms of the relative dominance of other state apparatuses – the military, the bureaucracy, the political police, the fascist party, and so forth; (e) a further differentiation of political regimes in terms of the specific mechanisms of political representation – parliamentary vs presidential, types of party system, relationship between different tiers of government, and so on – and/or different forms of articulation between parts of the state apparatus. All of these analyses are intended to specify the strategic selectivities of the state’s institutional materiality in increasingly fine-grained accounts.

This argument can be illustrated with two middle-range examples drawn from SPS: first, the state’s role in organizing the body-politic and atomizing individual citizens and, second, the role of law as the ‘code of organized public violence’. Thus Poulantzas argued that the state ‘atomizes’ the ‘body-politic’ into individual juridico-political ‘citizens’ whose unity it then represents as a ‘national-popular’ state. His argument here went well beyond that in PPSC.[6] For Poulantzas accepted that Foucault could add something to his own arguments about the ‘isolation effect’. Thus he no longer sees the latter exclusively as a product of specific juridico-political institutions and ideologies but also argues that they derive from those institutional practices that Foucault defined as ‘disciplines’. These are specific mechanisms of social control which operate in multiple, dispersed micro-sites, involve specific forms of scientific knowledge, establish individual and societal norms, survey and manage the deviations around these norms, and elaborate flexible tactics for social control (Foucault, 1979: 135-230).

Regarding the law, Poulantzas’s earlier work noted that law sanctions capitalist relations of production and exploitation through their juridical representation as rights attached to private property, organizes the sphere of circulation through contract and commercial law, and regulates the state’s economic intervention (1973: 53, 163, 214, 228; 1974: 320, 324). He also discussed the role of law and juridico-political ideology in securing the institutional unity of the state as well as in providing the matrix for the ‘isolation effect’ and its corresponding ‘unifying effect’ in the political class struggle (1973: 216, 226-7, 332, 247-50; 1975: 186; 1974: 320-30). And he noted that the dominant position of juridico-political ideology (at least in liberal capitalism) legitimate political domination in terms of legality and adherence to the rule of law as well as framing the struggle for ideological hegemony (1973: 195, 211-15, 221-3, 310-2, 356-7; 1974: 76-8, 143-7, 151, 240-3, 302, 306-9; 1975: 286-9).

Most of these arguments were also repeated in SPS but greater weight is now given to the role of constitutionalized violence. Thus Poulantzas wrote that ‘state-monopolized physical violence permanently underlies the techniques of power and mechanisms of consent: it is inscribed in the web of disciplinary and ideological devices; and even when not directly exercised, it shapes the materiality of the social body upon which domination brought to bear’ (1978a: 81). Unsurprisingly in this context, he also argued that the monopoly of violence modifies the forms of class struggle. This no longer takes the form of a permanent civil war involving periodic conflict between regularly armed forces; instead it moves towards syndical, electoral, and other forms of organization against which open violence is less effective. These new organizational forms develop within the ‘isolation effect’ and thereby serve to reproduce bourgeois political domination. Yet they presuppose the right to contest and resist state power and so also serve to limit bourgeois domination (1978a: 82). Thus law should not be seen as pure negativity and repression. It provides the dominated classes with real rights and liberties through which to pursue their economic-corporate interests. In this way, it helps to organize consent (1978a: 82-4). Moreover, in setting up abstract, general, formal, and strictly regulated norms of private and public conduct, it also stabilizes social relations, permits forecasting, regulates state power, and dampens political crises (1978a: 90-1).[7]

Such analyses of strategically-inscribed strategic selectivity are complemented by the periodization of the state in terms of conjunctures in the class struggle. These ideas are most fully developed in Poulantzas’s accounts of fascism in pre-war Italy and Germany and of the evolving crisis of the military dictatorships in Southern Europe during the 1970s. The key point in both cases is that the significance of state structures changes along with the class struggle. Thus Poulantzas rejected any blanket generalizations about the fascist role in the class struggle and insisted on a careful periodization according to the successive steps of a complex war of position and manoeuvre. There are two issues at stake here. On the one hand, given that the state is a social relation (or, better, that state power is a form-determined condensation of forces in struggle), the significance of particular strategies pursued by particular agents will vary with the nature of the state. Different types of state and political regime selectively reward different types of actors and strategies. On the other hand, given that the state is a social relation (or, better, that state power is a form-determined condensation of forces in struggle), the state apparatus and its capacity to act depend heavily on the capacities and aims of forces represented within the state, struggling to transform it (or prevent its transformation), and operating at a distance from it. Social forces are not mere Träger (bearers) of pre-constituted class identities and interests but active agents, reflecting on their identities and interests in specific conjunctures with all that this implies for changing horizons of action. Thus different types of state and political regime will be more or less vulnerable to different types of strategy pursued by different blocs or alliances and this vulnerability will change with the overall balance of forces in a complex war of manoeuvre and tactics.

We can generalize this approach to periodization by distinguishing a strategic-relational analysis of changing conjunctures from a simple chronology in the following terms. First, a chronology is essentially one-dimensional in its time-scale, ordering actions and events in unilinear time according to clock time (ranging from nano-seconds through calendrical to glacial time and beyond) or some other relevant marker (such as business cycles or intervals between elections). Conversely, a periodization operates with several time scales. It orders actions and events in terms of multiple time horizons (e.g., the event, trends, the longue durée; the time frame of economic calculation vs the time frame of political cycles; or past futures, present pasts, and the future present). Second, its narrative classifies actions and events into successive stages according to their occurrence in one or another time period. A periodization focuses on conjunctures. It classifies actions and events into stages according to their conjunctural implications (as specific combinations of constraints and opportunities) for different social forces over different time horizons and/or for different sites of social action. And, third, the sort of historical explanation given in a chronology is a simple narrative, i.e., the emphasis falls on the simple temporal succession or coincidence of a single series of actions and events. In contrast, a periodization presupposes an explanatory framework oriented to the contingent necessities generated by more than one series of events. A concern with multiple time horizons and conjunctures leads to consideration of how diverse actions and events are generated as the result of multiple determinations or overdeterminations (cf. 1974; 1976a; and Jessop et al., 1988).

Two brief illustrations must suffice here, drawn from Poulantzas’s analysis of Italian fascism and his comments on the democratic transition to democratic socialism respectively. First, during the step of working-class offensive, the fascist movement primarily consisted in armed bands that were financed by big capital, large landowners, and rich peasants to wage their counter-attack. During the phase of relative stabilization, the fascist bands were abandoned by the power bloc and fascism attempted to transform itself in to a mass party. Starting with the launch of the bourgeois offensive, the fascist movement increasingly assumed the character of a mass party and was once more openly maintained by big capitalist circles. Initially the fascist party genuinely represented the short-term political interests of the petty bourgeoisie and established organizational and ideological ties with this class at all levels from voters to higher party cadres. Subsequently fascism gained the support of monopoly capital as a whole and attempted to build organizational ties with other elements in the dominant classes. Poulantzas identified this crucial step in the rise of fascism as the ‘point of no return’, that is, the point in its growth after which it is difficult to turn it back. This coincided with a conjunctural coincidence of the interests of the power bloc and the petty bourgeoisie, mediated through the fascist party, which juggled concessions in securing compromises among their demands. When fascism came to power, there was an initial period of instability as the fascist party pursued policies favourable to big capital whilst seeking to consolidate popular support. Finally, there was a period of fascist stabilization. This arrived when the fascist party was subordinated to the state apparatus, the petty bourgeois members of the state apparatus broke their representational ties with their class of origin, and monopoly capital combined the position of hegemonic fraction and ruling class (see 1974 passim).

Second, in analyzing the political conjuncture after the crisis of the dictatorships in Southern Europe, Poulantzas insisted that the horizon of action was limited in that period to the problem of democratization – and did not extend to an immediate transition to socialism. It was therefore important strategically to intervene in order to stabilize forces committed to bourgeois democracy (understood in terms of the current authoritarian statist form of state, not in terms of a nineteenth-century liberal parliamentarism) rather than to adopt a more radical socialist programme that might polarize the balance of forces towards an anti-democratic, conservative reaction (see 1976a and interviews given at the time).

The Spatio-Temporal Matrix of the State

In addition to these general remarks Poulantzas also commented on the spatio-temporal selectivity of the state. His comments in this regard were primarily concerned with the nation-state, which he saw as the typical form of the capitalist type of state. His work in this regard owes much to the arguments of Henri Lefebvre and, regarding national identity, Otto Bauer.

Poulantzas considers the state’s role in constituting and reproducing the capitalist forms of nationhood and nationalism. Nationhood is a crucial element in the institutional matrix of the capitalist state. Historically the latter tends to encompass a single, constant nation; and modern nations have a corresponding tendency to establish their own states (1978a: 95). The capitalist type of state establishes a distinctive national language and forms of writing; it also reproduces the mental-manual division of labour through education and other institutions. Overall these features tend to exclude the popular masses from participation in political power (1978a: 56). Thus it is important to explore the national modality of the bourgeois state, including its implications for the relationship between knowledge and power.

In particular, this type of state establishes a specific spatio-temporal matrix within which the territorial identity and socio-cultural tradition of the nation are crystallized. Although Poulantzas grounds modern notions of time and space in the organization of capitalist production, he also argues that the modern state systematizes these conceptions and extends them to the political field. Thus he discusses the state’s role in demarcating frontiers, integrating the national space within these boundaries, unifying the internal market thus constituted, and homogenizing the ‘people’ living within the national territory. At the same time Poulantzas notes that, once these frontiers, internal markets, and nations are constituted, they become the nodal points for the transnationalization of production, territorial wars of redivision, and even genocide (1978a: 99-107, 117). Poulantzas also refers to the state’s role in constituting time and historicity. In particular he notes how it establishes temporal norms and standards of measurement, tries to master the different temporalities and rhythms of social development, represses the traditions of subordinate nations, monopolizes the national tradition, charts the nation’s future, and so forth (1978a: 107-15, 119).

For both spatial and temporal organization, Poulantzas stresses that the state always modifies the supposedly ‘natural’ pregiven elements of nationhood. Thus it always integrates elements such as economic unity, territory, language, tradition, etc., into the basic spatio-temporal matrix of capitalism. Indeed Poulantzas is careful to contrast the spatial and temporal organization of capitalist societies with those in ancient and feudal systems and to trace its implications for the divisions between nations, between civilized peoples and barbarians, and between believers and infidels respectively. In this respect he emphasizes that the modern nation is always a product of state intervention and should not be considered as pre-political or primordial (1978a: 94, 96-103, 108-110, 113).

Poulantzas also stresses that conceptions of time, space, and nationhood are overdetermined by class struggle. There are bourgeois and proletarian variants of the capitalist spatio-temporal matrix and also contrasting class versions of the nation. Thus the modern nation is not the creation of the bourgeoisie alone but actually reflects a relationship of forces between the ‘modern’ social classes. It is still pre-eminently marked, however, by the development of the bourgeoisie. Indeed, even when capitalism is undergoing transnationalization, bourgeois reproduction is still focused on the nation-state. Thus the modern nation, the national state, and the bourgeoisie are intimately connected and all are constituted on the same terrain of capitalist relations. Poulantzas concludes that ‘the modern nation is written into the state, and it is this national state which organizes the bourgeoisie as the dominant class’ (1978a: 117).

Poulantzas’s views on the spatio-temporal matrix of the state are quite consistent with the strategic-relational approach. As Ed Soja puts it in his commentary on SPS, ‘[s]patiality exists ontologically as a product of a transformation process, but always remains open to further transformation in the contexts of material life. It is never primordially given or permanently fixed. … spatial fragmentation as well as the appearance of spatial coherence and homogeneity are social products and often an integral part of the instrumentality of political power’ (Soja 1989: 122, 126).

But we can go further and argue that all the strategically selective aspects of the state have spatio-temporal moments. This is so for at least two reasons. First, all structures have a definite spatio-temporal extension. They emerge in specific places and at specific times, operate on one or more particular scales and with specific temporal horizons of action, have their own specific capacities to stretch social relations and/to compress events in space and time,[8] and have their own specific spatial and temporal rhythms. This requires that we pay attention both to the genealogy of the production of space (and time) and to the history of their appropriation (1978a: 100). As Poulantzas puts it:

‘In reality, however, transformations of the spatio-temporal matrices [sc. in the transition and development of capitalism] refer to the materiality of the social division of labour, of the structure of the State, and of the practices and techniques of capitalist economic, political and ideological power; they are the real substratum of mythical, religious, philosophical or “experiential” representations of space-time. Just as these changes are not reducible to the representations which they occasion, so they cannot be identified with the scientific concepts of space and time which allow us to grasp them’ (1978a: 98)

Second, qua institutional ensemble, the state privileges the adoption of certain spatial and temporal horizons of action by those trying to access the state, influence it from a distance, or transform its structural selectivities. In these terms we can say that the spatio-temporal selectivity of the state refers to the diverse ways in which spatial and temporal horizons of action in different fields are produced, spatial and temporal rhythms are created, certain practices and strategies are privileged and others hindered according to their ‘fit’ with the temporal and spatial patterns inscribed in the state’s structures. This is reflected not only in the generic forms of spatiality and historicity associated with the capitalist national state, which have their own distinctive implications for forms of economic, political, and ideological struggle as compared to pre-capitalist formations (1978a: 99-106, 116), but also in the specific forms of de- and re-territorialization, time-space distantiation, and time-space compression that are associated with different stages of capitalism and different phases in the class struggle (1978a: 116-120). Many of these ideas are developed in Lefebrve’s analysis of the strategic selectivity and power relations inscribed within the abstract space of capitalist societies (Lefebrve 1991: 278-82). It is reflected above all in Poulantzas’s conclusion that ‘only a national transition to socialism is possible … in the sense of a multiplicity of original roads to socialism, whose general principles, drawn from the theory and experience of the workers’ movement, cannot be more than signs on the road’ (1978a: 118).

E-1999c Hellenic figure 2

 Figure 2: A Strategic-Relational Approach to Spatio-Temporal Selectivities

Moreover, once one allows for reflexivity on the part of individual actors and social forces as well as the recursive selection and retention (or evolutionary stabilization) of actions through structures over time, one can study the changingdialectic betweenreflexively reorganized spatio-temporal matrices (which are always differentially distantiated and differentially compressed) and recursively selected strategies and tactics (oriented to the most appropriate spatio-temporal horizons, to changing the forms of chronotopic – or time-space – governance, to the reflexive narration of past and present to change the future, etc.). This is reflected in Poulantzas’s argument that ‘the State is also the result of the national process of class struggle – that is to say, both the struggle of the bourgeoisie against the working class, and the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie. Just like

thenational culture, history or language, the State is a strategic field ploughed from one end to the other by working-class and popular struggle and resistance; these are inscribed in the State, albeit in a deformed manner, and they always break through the wall of silence with which the State hems in the workers’ memory’ (1978a: 119).

Nonetheless, for all his brilliance in developing these arguments about the spatio-temporal selectivities of the state as a social relation, there are still difficulties with Poulantzas’s analysis. He drew attention to some of these himself in his closing remarks on the institutional materiality of the state (1978a: 119-120). But they also go deeper than this insofar as Poulantzas remained wedded to the primacy of national formations associated with earlier stages of capitalism (up to and including Atlantic Fordism) and failed to anticipate the relativization of scale that is associated with the current stage of globalization-localization. New forms of time-space distantiation, time-space compression, and the emergence of cyberspace and nano-second temporalities are transforming the national matrices of capital accumulation so that it is no longer so self-evident that the national state is the primary scale of economic, political, and ideological struggles. This does not mean that the national is redundant, that the national state is dead, or that national struggles no longer matter (whether for the bourgeoisie or other classes). Indeed Poulantzas himself provided compelling reasons in his analysis of internationalization and the nation-state why the national mattered so much in these regards (1975: 70-84). But the continuing development of the spatio-temporal matrices of capitalism has altered their role in shaping the forms of struggle and this needs further analysis.

The Gender Selectivity of the State

This section offers some brief comments on how the strategic-relational approach can be applied to the state’s gender selectivities. This is an issue merely hinted at in SPSbut never fully developed. Indeed it is one illustration of the continuing class reductionism of this text – something that Poulantzas began to move away from decisively only in work and interviews that appeared after its publication. The problem is well illustrated in his comment that, although ‘relations of power do not exhaust class relations and may go a certain way beyond them, they still have class pertinency, continuing to be located, and to have a stake, in the terrain of political domination’ (1978a: 43). Thus, although Poulantzas recognizes that such relations do not rest on the same foundation as the social class division of labour – something which is most evident in the case of relations between men and women, he nonetheless argues that these relations are invested in class relations, and mediated and reproduced as class relations by the state and the company or factory’ (1978a: 43). One could regard Poulantzas’s views here as incredibly class reductionist, patriarchal, and naïve (especially from an equally essentialist feminist standpoint) or as a sophisticated attempt to break with class reductionism whilst insisting on the continued primacy of the class struggle (an interpretation that would be supported by recent third wave marxist-feminist theorizing, which recognizes the importance of the intersection of different identities and positionalities and refuses the essentializing implications of treating men or women as undifferentiated categories). But neither interpretation does justice to the full complexities of the gender selectivity of the state. Thus this part of my contribution briefly explores the implications of a strategic-relational approach of the kind developed by Poulantzas for the analysis of gender as a social relation and its relation to the state.

Adopting this perspective would lead one to examine the manner in which the state transforms, maintains, and reproduces modes of domination (or institutionally and discursively materialized, asymmetrically structured power relations) between men and women. The strategic-relational approach is premised on the contingent, relational nature of all identities, interests, strategies, and spatio-temporal horizons; and it allows for, without taking for granted, their reflexive transformation. These core premises problematize the state’s gender selectivities by highlighting the contingency and the variety of gender identities and interests that might serve as reference points for assessing these selectivities. One cannot simply assume ‘the abiding existence of a homogeneous collectivity called “women” upon which measurable experiences are visited’ (Scott 1999: 78). These core premises also indicate a broad range of possible explanatory factors. For an adequate strategic-relational analysis of gender relations would refer to the constitution of competing, inconsistent, and even openly contradictory identities for both males and females, their grounding in discourses and fantasies about masculinity and/or feminity, their explicit and/or implicit embedding in different institutions and material practices,[9] and their physico-cultural materialization in human bodies. It is particularly important for a strategic-relational approach, of course, how specific constructions of masculinity and feminity, their associated gender identities, interests, roles, and bodily forms come to be privileged in the state’s own discourses, institutions, and material practices.

This approach is very useful in contesting the recurrent tendency to ‘naturalize’ gender and gender relations rather than to analyze them as social and/or discursive constructs. This tendency is not confined to ‘malestream’ analyses – it also occurs in much feminist work – especially in first and second wave feminisms. Several theoretical and political strategies have been suggested to overcome this tendency. Two are worth noting here. First, according to ‘queer theory’, sexual and/or gender identities (and, by analogy, all other identities) tend to be ambivalent and unstable and sexual orientations and practices are ‘polymorphous’. Second, whether or not they share this rejection of ‘heteronormative’ analyses, a wide range of other approaches also emphasize the differential articulation (or intersection) of gender with class, ethnicity, ‘race’, disability, and so on. A radical deconstruction of gender and sexuality on these lines reveals the complex overdetermination of the state’s gender selectivities, their inherently relational – including spatio-temporal – nature, and their variable impact on political strategies and practice. Such an approach denies that the state is a simple expression of patriarchal domination and even casts doubt on the very utility of ‘patriarchy’ as an analytical category. It takes us beyond the recognition that there are multiple structures of patriarchy, that these are liable to transformation, and that any changes within and across interlocking forms of patriarchy are contingent and overdetermined. For it suggests that the significance of such patriarchal structures and their articulation to produce specific ‘gender regimes’ can be adequately grasped only through a further round of deconstruction inspired by third wave feminism, ‘queer theory’, and similar modes of analysis of other sites and forms of domination.

A strategic-relational approach would enable one to analyze and explain not only the gender selectivities of the state and the overall political system but also the contradictions, dilemmas, and paradoxes with which the selectivities are associated. It indicates that there are various forms of gender regime and gender selectivity and that these can have markedly differential effects on different social categories or social forces according to their identities, interests, and strategic orientations towards maleness-femaleness, masculinity-feminity, or sexual orientation. The specific configuration of selectivities associated with a specific gender regime in particular conjunctures is a product of a complex set of path-dependent interactions. Among the factors involved are the operational logics of modern functional systems, the legacies of pre-modern patriarchy, current modes of domination in the lifeworld and the struggles around them, attempts to colonize the lifeworld by specific systems and resistance thereto, and the hegemonic struggles to secure an overall balance between system integration and social cohesion. If one accepts this approach, then there is no transhistorical inevitability about patriarchy. The strategic-relational approach challenges accounts of patriarchy that treat it as monolithic and/or inertial and, instead, it highlights the polymorphy and contingency of gender regimes. It also suggests that any impression that patriarchy (whether seen as monolithic or polymorphous) is necessarily inscribed into capitalism and/or the state probably results from the structural coupling and contingent coevolution of the market economy and the liberal democratic state with modes of domination rooted in the lifeworld or civil society. Any such inscription is ‘contingently necessary’ (Jessop 1982: 212-19). This does not mean, of course, that gender domination is less real because it is far from transhistorical. But social forces might be better placed to challenge, modify, and eliminate gender domination if they recognize its contingency and search for its vulnerabilities as well as its strengths.

This approach can be illustrated on different levels. For example, one might explore three key features of the formally rational modern state, each of which has quite specific gender as well as class biases. These are its constitutionalized monopoly of violence vis-à-vis the economy and civil society and its territorialized sovereignty vis-à-vis other states; its nature as a Rechtsstaat that is based on a clear demarcation between public and private; and the nature of statecraft, statistics, and other aspects of official discourse as forms of power/knowledge. On a more concrete level, one could also explore the gender bias in the relation between citizenship and the national state. Relevant aspects here would include: (a) the ‘isolation effect’ and its implications for political struggles – an issue raised more generally by Poulantzas; (b) the relationship between the ‘sexual contract’ and social contract; and (c) the role of gender relations in reproducing the nation during the period of national states and in a possible future post-national era – something neglected by Poulantzas in his own comments on the genealogy and struggles around the modern capitalist nation. Likewise, at yet more concrete levels of analysis, one could explore the gender- as well as class-specific biases inscribed in different forms of representation (e.g., parliamentary or corporatist), different forms of securing the apparatus unity of the state (e.g., the impact of ‘femocracy’), different modes of intervention (e.g., the politics of redistribution associated with the Keynesian welfare national state or the politics of recognition associated with the politics of identity or multi-culturalism), and so forth.

Although Poulantzas did not discuss these issues, I am convinced that his general approach to the state as a social relation has much to offer in addressing them. It is unfortunate, therefore, that his potential contributions in this regard have been more or less wholly ignored. Indeed, if one breaks with essentialist accounts of patriarchy and undertakes a differential analysis of gender relations, then a strategic-relational of the kind developed by Poulantzas would appear particularly fruitful. This holds both for the analysis of the structurally inscribed selectivity of state structures and for the undertaking of strategic context analyses as a necessary step in developing effective strategies for social transformation.

Concluding Remarks

This paper has attempted to draw out the implications of Poulantzas’s claim that the state is a social relation. He had already emphasized that power is relational in PPSC and continued to argue throughout his work that class power depends on the balance of class forces. But this view acquired new significance in his comments on the crisis of the dictatorships and on democratic socialism (Poulantzas 1976a, 1978a). He argued that the state is not a subject that acquires power for itself by depriving various classes of power; nor is it an instrumental depository of the power held by a dominant class subject located beyond it. Instead it is a strategic site of organization of the dominant class in its relationship to the dominated classes (1978a: 146-8). His last major work is an attempt to explore the implications of this insight across a wide range of aspects of the institutional materiality of the state and to actualize his earlier studies of the contemporary form of the capitalist state.

This relational approach leads to distinctive strategic conclusions. Poulantzas disagrees with Foucault and Deleuze that resistance is doomed to failure because it will always be re-absorbed as soon as it elaborates a general strategy. He also rejects the radical libertarian view that resistance will only be successful to the extent that it remains external to the state and subverts it from outside. For Poulantzas claims that it is impossible to locate oneself outside (state) power since popular struggles have an effect on the state (and other power mechanisms) even when the masses are physically excluded from (political) participation. He also claims that an abstentionist strategy could well simply clear the path to an enhanced statism. Instead Poulantzas advocates participation within the mechanisms of power to intensify their internal contradictions and conflicts. This need not result in complete absorption and loss of autonomy. For whether or not the dominated classes are integrated into these mechanisms depends on the specific strategies they pursue rather than on the mere fact of adopting a strategy of involvement. Provided that these strategies are designed to maintain the autonomy of the masses they will never be fully integrated. But Poulantzas also adds that the masses should also pursue struggles at a distance from the state. They should develop direct, rank-and-file democracy and introduce self-management networks. In this way resistances can provide the basis for a democratic transition to democratic socialism (1978a: 153). Whether or not one shares this particular strategic conclusion, I would argue that it is only through a strategic-relational analysis that one will be able to develop an alternative strategy suited to the task of securing a democratic transition to democratic socialism in the current conjuncture.

Although there is certainly some evidence of intellectual exchange between Poulantzas and adherents of the well-known Parisian regulation approach (who often cited his work as exemplary), it is nonetheless unfortunate that the full extent of his potential contribution to the revival of a critical political economy have been ignored (for an appreciation, focused on changing forms of competition, state intervention, and globalization, see Jessop 2000).


[1] This phrase derives, of course, from Gramsci’s analysis of the state: he defined the state in its integral sense as ‘political society + civil society’ (Gramsci 1971). Likewise Poulantzas analyzed classes from the viewpoint of their expanded reproduction (CCC, SPS). Indeed, with the exception of his overly politicized and ideologistic view of the petty bourgeoisie in Fascism and Dictatorship (1974), he always defined classes in terms of the social relations of economic exploitation, ownership, and control. At the same time, however, he stressed that other institutional orders (notably the state) were deeply involved in reproducing the social relations of production.

[2]  This can be seen clearly in the contrast between the residual structuralism of Poulantzas’s comments on extended reproduction in CCC (14-35) and the explicit relationalism of his analysis in SPS (e.g., 26-27, 60, 163, 166-70).

[3]  It is worth noting that ‘global’ in this context implies relatively comprehensive rather than world-wide: this reflects the French distinction between ‘global’ and ‘mondial’.

[4] The principal reference is Capital volume III, where Marx explicitly notes that capital is a social relation in his commentary on colonialism.

[5]  On strategic context analysis, see Stones (1991).

[6]  Moreover, in contrast to Poulantzas’s earlier views in PPSC as well as Foucault’s ideas about disciplinary normalization, Poulantzas now claims that individualization is actually rooted in the relations of production.

[7] This does not mean that Poulantzas ignored the negative, repressive, and extra-legal, or, downright illegal, activities of the state.

[8] Implied here is a distinction between space-time distantiation (the stretching of social relations over time and space) and space-time compression (the conquest of space by time through increased velocity of movement and the social “production” of more events within a given time period). They provide different bases for the exercise of power (see Jessop 1999).

[9]  In distinguishing between discourses, institutions, and material practices, I am not trying to deny the materiality of discourses nor suggesting that institutions or material practices are non-discursive. I am simply noting that not all discourses are translated into institutions and material practices with emergent properties that are irreducible to the content of these discourses.



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Stones, Rob (1991) ‘Strategic Context Analysis: a New Research Strategy for Structuration Theory’, Sociology, 25(4), 673-96.

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