The problem of the state is often posed as the problem of reconciling the class character of the state with its institutional separation from the bourgeoisie: what are the mediations through which the state is, despite its apparent neutrality, subordinated to capital? This is usually presented as a problem peculiar to the capitalist state. However, it needs to be stressed that the state is not a peculiarly capitalist institution, it is an institution common, in different forms, to all class societies. Moreover, the institutional separation of the state from the exploiting class is a feature of all class societies, whence, for example, the confusions in recent discussion of the asiatic mode of production and of the absolutist state, in which the apparent subordination of the exploiting class to the state apparatus, in the one case, and the apparent independence of the state, in the other, have been taken as signs of the inadequacy of Marxist analysis. The mediations between class and state have to be developed in every form of class society, for in every class society the state is institutionally separated from, and ‘external’ to, the exploiting class. This point is very important to the extent that recent accounts have explained the particularisation of the state on the basis of properties peculiar to capital, rather than as a general characteristic of the relation between class and state.
The reason for this confusion has been the tendency to treat the two aspects of the problem of the state at the same level of abstraction, because the concept of the ‘state’ is treated at the same level of abstraction as the concept of ‘class’: the problem is posed as a problem of explaining at one and the same time how the state is both a class state and appears institutionally separated from the cap- italist class. The basic argument of this paper is that this is to conflate levels of abstraction in the analysis of the state. The problem is not one of reconciling an immediate relationship between class and state with a manifest separation of the two, a problem that is irresolvable. It is the problem of explaining how a form of class rule can appear in the fetishised form of a neutral administrative apparatus, just as the rule of capital in production appears in the fetishised form of a technical coordinating apparatus. The apparent neutrality is not an essential feature of the state, it is rather a feature of the fetishised form in which the rule of capital is effected through the state. It is, therefore, something that should emerge at the end of the analysis, and not something that should be inscribed in the analysis from the beginning. This means in practice that the state has to be derived from the analysis of the class struggles surrounding the reproduction of capital, instead of being derived in some way from the surface forms of appearance of capital. The essential feature of the state is its class character; its autonomy is the surface form of appearance of its role in the class struggle. In the end, this is because the concept of ‘class’ as the concept appropriate to the social relations of production in their most general and abstract form, and the concept of the ‘state’ as the institutional form appropriate to one aspect of class rule, are concepts that have to be developed at different levels of abstraction.
Read the rest of Simon Clarke’s perceptive paper here.