david's Reviews > Critical Theories of the State: Marxist, Neomarxist, Postmarxist

Critical Theories of the State by Clyde W. Barrow
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Jul 07, 2010

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Read from August 02 to 05, 2010

Some of the principle critical and marxist theories of the modern (welfare) capitalist state are outlined by Clyde Barrow. The theories that he designates are:
1. Instrumentalist theories of the state suggest that the modern capitalist state serves the interests of capital because the agents who dominate the state are of the capitalist class. This theory while containing lots of truth does not account for some of the internal contradictions of the capitalist class. What happens when the there are struggles over planning the future of capital accumulation? This question takes on specific importance for research into the tensions between Keynesian capitalists and neoliberal capitalists within the federal government.
2. Structuralist theories of the state focus on how the state’s politics and institutions are best understood by their function to maintain the capitalist mode of production. This theory also has interesting resonance with some of the questions above about the instrumentalist theory regarding short-term versus long-term planning for capital accumulation. The Deep Water Horizon oil spill and the role of the capitalist state in producing capitalist space has interesting implications with regard to the structuralist perspective especially as it relates to how the state does or does not plan to respond to protest movements. Who will externalize the costs of production when it comes to environmental catastrophe, both long and short-term? Another interesting case study about trying to find the value of a pelican can be found here http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2010/0...
3. The derivationist theories are identified by Barrow as more methodological tendency to look for what the state has been asked to do for capital and deduce from that reality, the role of the state. A lucid example of this might be in Fall of 1945 during strike of oil refinery workers, President Truman seized the factory and ordered the workers back on the job (Lipsitz, 114). As Barrow puts it, “the tasks…define the general interests of the capitalist class” (Barrow, 78). Looking to the structuralist perspective, this also suggests how capital externalizes costs of production onto the state. But also understanding this method can elucidate how the state can respond to labor and other contestations with repression, but also with reform. Hall is useful here for understanding the growth of the welfare state as a historic compromise. “If we cannot mobilize a full-scale popular agitation around the limited demands of maintaining and expanding ‘welfare state reformism’, on what grounds could we conceivably conceptualize the political conjuncture as one likely to lead to an ‘irreversible shift of power’ towards immediate working-class power?” (Hall: 1983, 123). The rise of the welfare state in the US is also important here to understand the racialization of the welfare state for example Clyde Woods’ writing on the Agricultural Adjustment Act elucidates how the white plantocrats (who were also chief actors in government—an instrumentalist perspective could be useful here) were able to get capital from the federal government in order to displace the Black workers in the Delta through turning to mechanization by investing in upgrades to their constant capital. Likewise, Bob Jessop would also question this method to suggest that we can’t reduce the state simply to its determinations. (Jessop, 13)
4. The systems analytic approach investigates the relatively autonomous subsystems of the capitalist order: the political system, the economic system, and the socialization system. This tendency is particularly interested in the crisis of late capitalism created by the myriad hypocrisies in its internal logic, for example between democracy and capitalism. This approach investigates the limits of the policy–making capabilities of government to smooth the contradictions between capital and labor.
5. The organizational realist approach suggests that government managers are self-interested maximizers mainly interested in increasing their own “power, prestige, and wealth” (Barrow, 125). While there are certainly too many examples that would prove this point, it strikes me as more a theory of government agents under capitalism, than a theory of the capitalist state. However, it also opens into an analysis of the whole strata of government and quasi-government elites and their rule. It is very useful for understanding the relative autonomy of government agents to make decisions and policies; this is a key piece to the importance centralization of government for the state. However, it is the whole majesty of labor power that puts such policies into motion and brings the paper its life; this is where a theory of the state is also crucial as coupled with a theory of government. Of course, a point of friction here might be the government workers who are not of the elite, for example, teachers, nurses, prison guards, sanitation workers etc.
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