The role of state in social transitions

We are thus entering a world that is very different from the one in which Poulantzas lived – together with us. Thus, many of his/our former analyses do not apply to new historical realities. But this is not a major flaw for social theories. Only metaphysics pretends eternal validity. Social theories are not supposed to provide answers forever. Instead, their value is tested on the relevance of the questions they allow us to ask. That we are tentatively able to explore the state at the turn of the millennium by asking questions inspired and conceptualized by Poulantzas’ theory is a tribute to the perennial value of his thought. Nicos Poulantzas lives in our minds, and he will continue to live in the minds of political theorists during the twenty-first century

In terms of my own personal reading, 2011 is the year of reading and thinking about the state. My Greek friends strongly recommended the last book by Nikos Poulantzas, ( State, power, socialism, London: Verso) published in 1980, as the most p2p-like approach to envisioning such transition, and I did indeed appreciate much reading this classic.

However, lots has changed in that time, and this is what the following text addresses: what has changed for the state from 1980 to 1999?

The following is a 1999 commentary on the seminal book on state theory by MARTIN CARNOY and MANUEL CASTELLS:

* Globalization, the knowledge society, and the Network State: Poulantzas at the millennium.

We’re only excerpting the last part, on the ‘network state’, of this long and interesting essay:

‘Excerpt: Crisis and reconstruction of the state: the Network State’

“Towards the end of the twentieth century the state was confronted with a series of challenges: the process of globalization; the transformation of the work process, and its consequences for the welfare state, one of the pillars of state legitimacy; the centrality of knowledge in economy, and society, thus affecting the education system, a key source of control for the modern state; and a deep crisis of legitimacy, resulting from all the above, plus the damage inflicted upon the state by the rise of identity politics (Castells 1997/2000; Guehenno 1993). Let us briefly review these different dimensions of the contemporary crisis of the state without reiterating the arguments already presented in this paper.

Globalization limits the sovereignty of the state. But it also does something else: it redefines the social boundaries of the state (Held 1991). If nations are intertwined, the community to which the state is accountable becomes blurred. How can a strictly national state respond to transnational communities? The classic nation state requires a bounded national community as its frame of reference. When globalization forces the state to redefine this frame of reference, then national communities lose their channel of political representation. What follows is the development of nationalism against the state. The separation between nation and the state is a fundamental process characteristic of our time (Calhoun 1998).

The individualization of work, the development of networking and flexibility as forms of economic activity, the instability of employment, all undermine the institutions of the welfare state that were built on stable partnerships between representatives of capital, workers, and the state. The state reduces its role as a guarantor of social protection, and individualizes its relationship with most citizens. The ensuing crisis of the traditional welfare state undermines the legitimacy of the state because it loses its appeal as the provider of last resort.

The centrality of knowledge in the new economy enhances the role of schools as productive forces. Consequently, the role of the school as a national ideological and domination apparatus recedes, undermining one of the key elements of social control and ideological reproduction on the part of the state.

The rise of identity politics challenges citizenship as the sole source of political legitimacy. The state has to respond to a series of cultural demands, often contradictory, from a plurality of sources that supersede the individual citizen as the basis of political representation.

In addition to structurally induced crisis of legitimacy, the state also suffers from the crisis of legitimacy of the political system. This crisis is induced by the practice of media politics, closely associated to the politics of scandal. This is, the widespread use of character assassination and diffusion of damaging information as the main weapons in a political competition simplified into snap shots, and sound bites in the media, as media become the decisive space of politics (Castells 1997/2000; Rose- Ackerman 1999).

States, however, react to this multidimensional crisis. They react by reconfiguring themselves to try to accommodate to new pressures and new demands. This recon- figuration develops, primarily along two axes. First, nation states build international, supra-national, and co-national institutions, in order to manage together the process of globalization that threatens to overwhelm individual states. Let us take, as an example, the European states as the clearest expression of this new historical trend. They have constituted the European Union, with the historical project of incorpor- ating the whole of Europe, minus Russia. The 15 member European Union is already a new co-national state. It is co-national because the decision-making power is in the hands of the Council of Governments, in which all member states are represented, with veto power over key decisions. But this is not the extension of the member nation states. It is a new instance of shared sovereignty. As European states they have also created supranational institutions – institutions that, while ultimately dependent upon the member states, have their autonomy (European Commission, European Parliament), and even their independence (the European Central Bank). They have also trusted their defence to a supra-national organization with a high degree of autonomy in the conduct of the war: NATO.

A similar process is taking place at the world level, with institutions overlapping across areas of the world in key areas of policy making. The G-7 group (a co-national, informal institution) takes major decisions in managing the global economy. The execution of these decisions is entrusted to the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization. But these institutions also have a large degree of autonomy vis-à-vis their member states at large, although they work in close cooperation with the US government. International institutions also play an increasing role in handling social, environmental, and political problems around the world. These are institutions created by the nation states, with no real power, but with considerable influence in public affairs, as they become the space of negotiation and co-intervention for governments. They are the United Nations agencies, the regional associations (such as the Organization of American States, Organization of African Unity, Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation, ASEAN, the Arab League etc.). These organizations are half a century old, but their role is increasing, as shown by the growing number of military interventions and the observation of political processes under their flags. Besides, critical questions for humankind, such as environmental problems, public health, human rights, and emergency relief, are being treated internationally by a complex web of ad hoc agreements and organizations.

The other axis of the nation state’s reconfiguration is its attempt to regain legitimacy and to represent the social diversity of its constituency through the process of decentralization and devolution of power and resources. This translates primarily into revitalizing sub-state national governments (such as Scotland or Catalonia), regional governments, local governments, and non-governmental organizations. Indeed, the dramatic expansion of non-governmental organizations around the world, most of them subsidized and supported by the state, can be interpreted as the extension of the state into civil society, in an effort to diffuse conflict and increase legitimacy by shifting resources and responsibility to the grassroots. In the 1990s, Europe has seen an extra- ordinary development of regional and local politics, together with the expansion of citizen participation, and the growing recognition of national cultures and specific identities. These movements can be observed throughout the world (Borja and Castells 1997).

The two trends of supranationality and devolution go hand in hand. Nation states are surviving, and indeed strengthening, their position by going global and local at the same time and by trying to found their legitimacy both in citizenship and cultural plurality. In the process, they assure their historical continuity, but they contribute to the demise of the nation state as it was constituted during the Modern Age, and exported to the postcolonial world (Guehenno 1993; Hoogvelt 1997). This is because the modern nation state was based on the twin principles of national representation of citizens, and territorially-based national sovereignty. With shared sovereignty, and shared sources of legitimacy, the social foundations of the classic nation state are irreversibly undermined by supranationality from above, and transnationalism from below (Smith and Guarnizo 1998).

What emerges is a new form of the state. It is a state made of shared institutions, and enacted by bargaining and interactive iteration all along the chain of decision making: national governments, co-national governments, supra-national bodies, international institutions, governments of nationalities, regional governments, local governments, and NGOs (in our conception: neo-governmental organizations). Decision-making and representation take place all along the chain, not necessarily in the hierarchical, pre-scripted order. This new state functions as a network, in which all nodes interact, and are equally necessary for the performance of the state’s functions. The state of the Information Age is a Network State.

Can this Network State accommodate the pressing demands of adapting the welfare state to the new work process, and ensuring knowledge-production through the school system? Here is where Poulantzas’ teachings become invaluable. Let us conceptualize the state as on the one hand performing the functions of facilitating accumulation of capital and reproduction of labour power and on the other hand ensuring domination (of social interests), and legitimation (of state institutions). Based on this conception, we can hypothesize a set of new historical modalities of fulfilling this complex set of tasks via the Network State. Accumulation and domination are facilitated globally by co-national and supranational institutions. Legitimation and reproduction are ensured primarily by regional and local governments and NGOs. New, global dimensions of legitimation (human rights), and reproduction (environment, health) are fulfilled by international institutions, under the hegemony of accumulation-oriented supra-national institutions. The welfare state is downsized by supra-national, accumulation-oriented institutions (e.g. the International Monetary Fund), thus lifting the burden of responsibility from the nation state. The school system is gradually pushed away from national ideological domination toward generating knowledge based on global, not national values. The ideological functions of schooling are increasingly localized and customized to subsets of the national collective. Thus, the state diversifies the mechanisms and levels of its key functions (accumulation, reproduction, domination and legitimation), and distributes its performance along the network. The nation state becomes an important, coordinating node in this interaction, but it does not concentrate either the power or the responsi- bility to respond to conflicting pressures.

Now, who is ‘the state’? Does the state react by itself and reconfigure itself in full consciousness of this process, independently from social classes and other social actors? Here is where Poulantzas’ concept of relative autonomy becomes essential. Governments acted and reacted under the pressure of economic forces and social actors in the 1970s–1990s period. They made key decisions that induced global- ization, and allowed the emergence of a knowledge economy, and they reconfigured state institutions. Thus, states acted on their own. However, they acted under pressure from dominant capitalist groups within the framework of preserving/expanding capitalism and accepting liberalism as the hegemonic ideology. The ideological battle had been won in society by cultural libertarianism and by the demise of statist ideologies, associated with the collapse of Communism in the minds of people around the world. States that did not join this global network were increasingly marginalized. Governments which tried sharply different, nation-oriented policies were compelled to change course (e.g. France under Mitterrand in 1981), or were pushed aside by crisis (e.g. Peru under Alan Garcia in 1986). The Network State was integrated into global networks of accumulation and domination, while responding to pressures and demands from national/local societies. State policies were selected by dominant interests and legitimized by citizens in various degrees. The process of trial and error determined the course of political transformation. The Network State resulted from the outcomes of social struggles and geopolitical strategies fought in the transition period from the industrial era to the information age in the last lap of the millennium.

Conclusion: the theory of the state at the turn of the millennium

The theory of the state must tackle the issues posed by the history of the state. At the turn of the millennium, the three major issues concerning the state are the following: how social domination is enforced; how legitimacy is established; and which kind of autonomy the state has vis-à-vis dominant classes and social actors at large.

Because of the individualization of the work process, the state’s role in disorgan- izing class struggle has changed. The state is no longer required to individualize workers as citizens to undermine class consciousness, as Poulantzas brilliantly perceived to be the case in the era of industrial mass production. The production process does the job for the state. Class domination is now enforced at two fundamental levels. Vis-à-vis dominant classes (that is the collective capitalist), class domination is ensured by managing and spreading globalization. The capitalist state is the globalizing state. Thus, in order to represent the interests of capitalism, the state has to overlook the interests of the nation and of its national citizens. Still, it will have to deal with legitimacy problems arising under this new pattern of domination. But domination is exercised through globalization, and through the networking of nation states that become syndicated in defense of globalization. Vis-à-vis domestic social classes, the state exercises domination through the education system. In a society where education, information, and knowledge are the critical sources of wealth and influence, class formation takes place in the classroom. Who gets what in the education system determines who gets what in capital, communication, and political influence. But as we have argued, class domination through education is increasingly passed to more localized political units.

Domination cannot survive for long without legitimacy. People must feel some degree of allegiance to the state, or domination will become synonymous with dictatorship. The betrayal of national interests, the rise of media politics, and its close associate the politics of scandal, all contribute to undermine the legitimacy of the nation state. Its strategy to escape de-legitimation is two-pronged: it strives to stimulate economic growth, national employment, and domestic consumption; and, simultaneously, it decentralizes political responsibility by increasing local/regional autonomy.

For most people in the world, fully aware of what is going on, and ready to stay home, the critical matter is personal security. Security ultimately translates into economic growth and improving living standards. In this sense, even social inequality is not a major issue. If people see their lives improving, they will not be ready to lose what they have only to correct the injustice of the rich getting richer. So, steady improvement of living standards for the large majority of the population, via informational productivity, and globalization-induced economic growth, is the main axis for building state legitimacy. We are not saying this will work. We are simply observing that this is a widespread state practice, and is, in fact, the only option once the choice has been made to adapt to the rules of global financial markets. In addition, redistribution through welfare, pensions, taxation, and other efforts to equalize income, whenever and wherever possible, would increase legitimacy. But this is an afterthought for the Network State. Redistribution is only implemented under substantial pressure from social movements.

The second way to establish legitimacy in the new historical context is decentral- ization of state power to sub-state levels: to sub-national groupings, to regions, and to local governments. This increases the probability that citizens will identify with their institutions and participate in the political process. While nation states cede power, they also shift responsibility, in the hope of creating buffers between citizens’ disaffection and national governments. Legitimacy through decentralization and citizen participation in non-governmental organizations seems to be the new frontier of the state in the twenty-first century.

Still, the state will have to respond to social movements’ demands to avoid a legitimacy crisis. Some of these demands may not be easy to accommodate within the existing state institutions. This is particularly the case with demands emerging from the women’s movement, as the crisis of patriarchalism as a hegemonic institution will lead to the calling into question of the patriarchal dimension of the state.

The greatest historical change for the state is the dramatic decline in its autonomy. The state becomes dependent on the collective capitalist represented by global financial markets. It becomes dependent on the process of globalization of production, trade, technology, and communication. It becomes dependent on other states, as it links up with state institutions to constitute the new, network state. It becomes highly dependent on the ideological apparatuses constituted around global media. It is dependent on lower levels of the state, as these levels increasingly perform key legitimation functions previously in the hands of the nation state. And it continues to depend on the institutions of patriarchalism, and particularly on the patriarchal family, the corner stone of ideological hegemony (‘family values’). When and if captured by specific interest groups, states become predatory states (like in Russia, Mexico and Nigeria, among so many others), losing all autonomy. Last, but not least, when captured by fundamentalist identity movements, be it religious or nationalist (as in Iran or Serbia) they lose all autonomy vis-à-vis religions or ideologies. Overall, the relative autonomy of the state is fading away, to a large extent because relatively autonomous states chose their own historical demise.

At the same time, the legitimacy of the nation state and its capacity to enforce the underlying rules and regulation of national market economies through democratic means and smoothly running political apparatuses, as well as to support a well- developed market information system, are important to global finance capital. They lower risk for capital and raise profit/risk ratios (World Bank 1999). Global capital’s ‘co-dependence’ on smoothly functioning civil-political societies offsetssome of the decline in national autonomy we have described; it provides even those nation states in supranational arrangements some leverage vis-à-vis both global capital and pressures for more local autonomy.

We are thus entering a world that is very different from the one in which Poulantzas lived – together with us. Thus, many of his/our former analyses do not apply to new historical realities. But this is not a major flaw for social theories. Only metaphysics pretends eternal validity. Social theories are not supposed to provide answers forever. Instead, their value is tested on the relevance of the questions they allow us to ask. That we are tentatively able to explore the state at the turn of the millennium by asking questions inspired and conceptualized by Poulantzas’ theory is a tribute to the perennial value of his thought. Nicos Poulantzas lives in our minds, and he will continue to live in the minds of political theorists during the twenty-first century.”

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