should we be looking at states or the capitalist system?

by Dan Jakopovich

The primary unit of social analysis has to remain the global capitalist system vis a vis the state. Although a crude base-superstructure model is inadequate for the purpose of serious analysis, it is necessary to oppose statist, technocratic, and functionalist discourses which undervalue the external dynamics induced by the global capitalist system.

This short overview will deal with enquiries into one of the basic social issues, the conclusion to which induces a complex multiplicity of repercussions for the fields of sociology, international relations and practical politics, repercussions which are often difficult to demarcate.

It is the question of what should be the primary unit of social analysis – the state (and states) or the global capitalist system. I will mostly deal with basic Marxist theories, which offer the principal challenge to various currents that are sometimes characterised as forms of “statist fetishism”, where the theorist is seduced by the deceptive semblance of state autonomy. This is especially attributed to many international relations approaches, because it is largely through states that international relations are expressed. Sometimes it is argued that the manifestation is put before the underlying root-causes.

Marxists, endorsing the systemic level of analysis, define the state as a basic instrument of class domination and class rule whose impulse and dynamic is largely created from the outside. (1)

In order to understand the Marxian argument, it is necessary to take into account its classical (materialist) “base-superstructure” model – the seminal idea that the economic structure (the “base” – consisting primarily of production forces and relations of production) conditions the existence and nature of states and social consciousness, culture, ideology and so on (the “superstructure”).(2)

It directly follows that the capitalist state is a product of the capitalist system, and that it ultimately functions to defend the long-term interests of the ruling class.

It is possible to categorise two basic Marxist assessments of the state’s position in global, i.e. international, supranational and transnational relations (which we can unrigorously and conventionally subsume to “international” here for the sake of brevity).

The dominant (“Classical Marxist”) current accords the state low domestic agential power (low autonomy) and (partly paradoxically) moderate international agential power (moderate, rather than low, ability to conduct policy free of international constraint).(3) This is reminiscent of Lenin’s appreciation that the imperialist conflict between national bourgeoisies is largely expressed through state policies and states themselves, which are acknowledged to have a constituent role in international politics.

However, imperialist relationships and inter-state wars have to be put in the general (domestic and international) context of capitalist social and economic relationships, most notably the social dictates of capital in its procurement of profits. “World-systems analysis” (in the works of Andre Gunder Frank, Immanuel Wallerstein, Christopher Chase-Dunn, Samir Amin, Giovanni Arrighi etc.) is a modern version of this systemic analysis approach. These theoretical currents share a perspective that states are primarily protecting their national and transnational elites. It is, however, an often mistake to recognise only private capitalists (admittedly the fundamental beneficiaries) as being the sole elite element in society. Marxist approaches can gain a lot by paying more attention to intra-state bureaucratic power structures (4), and the radical critique and criticism of bureaucracy should remain the core element of all Marxist strategies that take the ideas of grassroots democracy, self-management and self-emancipation seriously.

The second basic approach, notably propagated by the neo-Marxists, accords the state moderate overall autonomy (and the “superstructure” in general), which is described as a reaction against mechanistic notions and the charge of economic reductionism in classical Marxist thought. It is also a reaction against Stalinist determinism, and the development of a non-rigid alternative analytical model was a major political incentive for attacking the base-superstructure paradigm, although this rejection is usually political in its own right.

This new approach, which stresses the relative autonomy of the “superstructure” as a whole, and is a basis for Gramscian politics through the notions of hegemony and counter-hegemony, has also given the foundation for Eurocommunist strategies which sometimes perceived the possibility of state’s autonomy in domestic and foreign affairs as essentially a vindication of the national road to socialism.

The postulation of state’s relative autonomy is especially applicable not only to absolutist and despotic states, mostly a thing of the past, but also to the “Bonapartist state”, an “ideal model” of the state which                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 in its more common actual variations, such as the Keynesian state, negates short-term particularistic interests (almost as a seemingly “neutral” mediator between warring classes) in order to preserve long-term general interests of the ruling minority in times of systemic crises. In the process, the state bureaucracy doesn’t shy away from attaining inordinate amounts of power for itself, developing a dynamic and interests of its own. (5) Furthermore, the ”Keynesian state” (primarily through its corporatist internal structure) increases domestic agential power.

A modified, attenuating and somewhat conciliatory response to the antireductionist approach was developed by the Marxist structuralists – especially Althusser, Balibar and Poulantzas, who have argued that the “economic level ‘assigns’ the other levels certain functions and powers” (6), defending the determination of the economic in the last instance. Structuralist Marxists (notably Althusser) have identified a difference between “determination” and “dominance” – while the economy is ultimately determinant, it does not always play a dominant role, as “superstructural” elements can assume the position of dominance at certain times, but have to be observed as parts of the social totality. “(D)etermination by the base does not reduce politics and ideas to economic phenomena.” (7) Engels himself, although he saw state autonomy as an “exceptional” occurrence (8), acknowledged the co-determining influences of non-economic factors, and their interaction between each other and the “base” (9), while Marx stressed the importance of praxis, particularly in The German Ideology, but elsewhere also.(10)

For Cox, in a Gramscian tradition, the “historic bloc” (11) is of central importance (rather than the means of production). “The juxtaposition and reciprocal relationships of the political, ethical and ideological spheres of activity with the economic sphere avoid reductionism. It avoids reducing everything either to economics (economism) or to ideas (idealism)…ideas and material conditions are always bound together, mutually influencing one another, and not reducible one to the other”. (12) Neo-Marxists (for example the Praxis school) often attack Althusser and the structuralists for what is considered to be a structural-deterministic denial of the role of agency in history. In fact, the old subject vs. object, voluntarism vs. determinism dichotomy has to be resolved and transcended dialectically, for it is a complex interplay of different reciprocal factors which usually cannot be usefully grasped on such high levels of abstraction.

Globalisation and the State

Globalisation is one of the contexts in which the role of states is most fiercely debated. There are several basic arguments which could be brought forward into this topic, some of which more contentious than other.

Firstly, and this is a widely supported claim, globalisation is fundamentally a capital driven process, induced by the falling rate of profit and capital exporting itself, adequate development of the productive forces, production and distribution which made globalisation possible (transport and communication technologies etc.). There do exist different interpretations, especially among liberal institutionalists who stress the role of conscious state, inter-state and institutional actions in developing interdependence, but even for most of them the question is basically of degree to which both deregulated capitalist economy and institutions have contributed to this process.

The really contested terrain in globalisation debates deals with the question to what extent have transnational institutions/regimes and transnational companies appropriated the old economic, political, social and military functions and capabilities of the state, or whether (i.e. in which particular sectors) that can be said to be true at all.

Undoubtedly, the structure of world governance is still derived from nation states (be it the veto powers of the leading states in the UN’s Security Council or the EU governing structure, still more based on the European Council than the European Commission for instance). Additionally, while the social/welfare functions of the state have been declining, the repressive state apparatus – be it the military or the regulation of cross-border activity for instance – is actually increasing in scope and intensity. “Collective security systems”, while experiencing an evolution in the case of the European Union, have generally proven to be far more diffident and precarious, lacking the linearity expected by many liberal institutionalists (NATO being a case in point).

Some, on the other hand, argue that “national governments are relegated to little more than transmission belts for global economic change” (13), and they emphasize the importance of global (particularly economic) repositioning processes that are taking place.  Threats to state sovereignty such as transnational corporations, institutions and regimes, global impersonal market forces and financial flows etc., but also regionalisation tendencies for instance, are often stated.

Furthermore, it could be argued that clearly the hegemon (currently perhaps still the US, or “the Triad” also including the EU and Japan, partly also China…) has moderate international agential power – even a Marxist would admit it enhances its own economic interests and the interests of the dominant transnational ruling classes.

Therefore, the degree of state’s strength and international autonomy (agential power) is determined by its position in the Capitalist World Economy. (14) Smaller and less powerful nation states, especially those on the periphery, have a mostly subservient position in various global regimes and processes.

For many Marxists, however, although they differ in their power, all states have the same basic function, which is ultimately to preserve and augment the power of the ruling classes. All states have to conform to the basic demands of the global capitalist system, and it could therefore be said (like Immanuel Wallerstein did – 15) that they have no international agential power in any meaningful sense of the word, outside of “business as usual”. From this systemic perspective, different forms of state rule are secondary to their basic class content. However, this view is challenged by some Marxists who stress the strategic role of “breaking the weakest link in the imperialist chain”, most notably Lenin. (16)

Obviously, both state weakening and strengthening tendencies can be identified. A wider and more detailed examination of the conflicting arguments is beyond the scope of this essay.

Final musings

Delineating functions in the global system is often a dubious and unrewarding affair. It remains not entirely clear, for instance, whether more “structuralist” or “Gramscian” interpretations of the role of the state are more appropriate for the concrete analysis of the current system (the emphasis has to differ on a case by case basis), but it becomes a less controversial and provocative debate as long as the constituent roles of both agency and the pre-determinant factors are adequately acknowledged, and understood as mutually corresponding “interlocutors”.

However, whatever the extent to which we want to acknowledge the existence of the relative autonomy of non-economic elements, it would still seem necessary at least to elucidate the position of economy as being “primus inter pares” (first among equals), unless we were to abandon the materialist method altogether.

It should also be clear that only a systemic and class-based approach can guard us from statist, technocratic, and functionalist discourses which focus on naked interests of the elites and preserve bureaucratic, oligarchic corporatist and nationalist sensibilities while cloaking the package as a genuinely public affair.

Moreover, it is necessary to oppose postmodernist tendencies which mystify certain objective factors – especially the class nature of society – in order to further esoteric and “apolitical” concepts, which often clog the academic arena and deepen the status quo atmosphere among the intelligentsia. “You can’t be neutral on a moving train”. This modern strand of “critical theory” shouldn’t be confused with the original, emancipatory impulses despatched by the Frankfurt School.(17)

Both statist fetishism and disengaged academism are crippling “worlds of ideas and worlds of practice”.  There is a desperate need for a systemic analysis, a radical critique and a global, structural and integral response to capitalist savagery.


(1) Ralph Miliband, The State in Tom Bottomore (ed.), A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 2003.

(2) “In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of  in David McLellan (ed.), Karl Marx Selected Writings, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2004,  p. 425.) their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general.”(Karl Marx, Preface to A Critique of Political Economy)

(3) John M. Hobson, The State and International Relations, Cambridge University  Press, Cambridge, 2001, p.110-120.

(4) “The proletariat of each country must, of course, first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie.” (Communist Manifesto, p. 78 in David Boucher, Political Theories of International Relations, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998, p.365.)

(5) “This executive power with its enormous bureaucratic and military organization, with its ingenious state machinery, embracing wide strata, with a host of officials numbering half a million, besides an army of another half million, this appalling parasitic body, which enmeshes the body of French society like a net and chokes all its pores…” (Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon in McLellan, op.cit., p.345)

(6) John M. Hobson, op.cit., p.125.

(7) Jorge Larrain, Base and Superstructure in Tom Bottomore (ed.), op.cit., p.46. For a seminal discussion of these issues as they pertain to the nature of the capitalist state, see the Miliband-Poulantzas debate in the 1969-70, 1973 and 1975 issues of New Left Review.

(8) John M. Hobson, op.cit., p. 123.

(9) See especially letter by Engels to Franz Mehring, 14 July 1893 – and letter to W. Borgius, 25 January 1894 –

(10) “…We are aware of the importance that must be accorded to the institutions, customs, and traditions of different countries…” (Marx’s speech in Amsterdam, 1872 in McLellan, op.cit., p.643).

(11) Defined in this case as “…the complex relationship between the political, ideological and economic spheres.” (John M. Hobson, op.cit., p.129.)

(12) Robert W. Cox, Approaches to World Order, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996,  p.131 in John M. Hobson, op.cit., p.129.

(13) David Held & Anthony McGrew,  The Global Transformations Reader, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2004, p.122.

(14) “The relations of various nations with one another depend upon the extent to which each of them has developed its productive forces, the division of labour and domestic commerce…(T)he relation of one nation to others…depends on the stage of development achieved by its production.”

Karl Marx, The German Ideology (1845) in  Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society, Garden City, New York, 1967, p.410 in Hobson, op.cit., p.117.

(15) Hobson, op.cit., pp.136-137.

(16) See also for instance Samir Amin, Delinking: Towards a Polycentric World, Zed Books, London, 1990.

(17) For an example, see the well-meaning but very disoriented, relativistic and politically pacifying essay Richard K. Ashley and R.B.J. Walker, Speaking the Language of Exile: Dissident Thought in International Relations, International Studies Quarterly 34 (3) September 1990, 259-268.