State Theory, Regulation, and Autopoiesis: Debates and Controversies

By Jessop, Bob | Capital & Class, Autumn 2001 | Go to article overview
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State Theory, Regulation, and Autopoiesis: Debates and Controversies


Jessop, Bob, Capital & Class


This contribution briefly reviews the role of various debates in Capital fH Class and its predecessor, the Bulletin of the Conference of Socialist Economists, in the development of my own work over the last 25 years. These debates concern Marxist state theory; Fordism and post-Fordism; the regulation approach; the relevance of autopoiesis to Marxist analysis; and, most recently, critical realism. Other issues and problems have also influenced my work, of course, but several important theoretical turns have been prompted by challenges raised by CSE members.

LENIN claimed there were three major sources of Marxism: German philosophy, English economics, and French politics. Althusser added that Marx's ability to synthesize them derived from his commitment to proletarian revolution. My work takes Marx's critique of political economy as a primary reference point and is therefore imprinted by its three sources too. But it also has its own secondary set of sources. These can be described, only half-jokingly, as German politics, French economics, and Chilean biology. This is certainly how they have been (mis)perceived by some critics in Capital & Class. Moreover, alongside the various intellectual issues that drew me to these particular sources, I also used them to address the peculiarities of postwar Britain. For much of my work over 30 years has been driven by the attempt to understand issues such as Britain's flawed Fordism, its Keynesian welfare national state, Thatcherism, and New Labour (for a first attempt to address most of these issues, see Jessop i98o).

The influence of German politics began indirectly in the mid-i97os through the Bulletin of the Conference of Socialist Economists and the csE seminars on state theory, in which John Holloway and Sol Picciotto introduced the German state debate to anglophone comrades. From 1977, I also pursued this source more directly through German-language texts and contacts with German theorists. Their influence is clear in my work on the changing forms and functions of the capitalist state but it co-existed with the influence of Gramsci and Poulantzas (Jessop 1977, 1982). It was Poulantzas's influence that prompted some CSE critics to attack my work for its 'politicism'. This allegedly accords primacy to the state without grounding politics in the capital relation and/or the unceasing class struggles around that relation. Politicism is said to derive from the reification of the various fetishised institutional forms of capitalism and to lead to voluntarism in theory and practice. Simon Clarke (1977) argued that the Poulantzasian interest in the relative power of different fractions of capital in the power bloc tended towards instrumentalism and voluntarism and ignored the underlying objective, contradictory dynamic of capital accumulation. Werner Bonefeld (1987) and John Holloway (1988) also criticised treatments of the state as an institutional ensemble that is (relatively) autonomous. In particular they claimed theories of relative autonomy neglected the determining role of the capital relation and failed to see that the economic and political actually comprise a dialectical `separation-in-unity' rather than two distinct institutional spheres.

These were important challenges and, whilst not wholly convinced, I did wonder how to analyse the economy consistently with my `strategic-relational' approach to the state. Initially my ideas developed through reading debates on the value form and re-reading Gramsci's work on Americanism and Fordism. This led to my account of accumulation strategies as means of imposing substantive unity on different forms of value (Jessop 1983). At the time I thought these reflections could offer a neo-Gramscian analysis of the economy corresponding to the insight that the state is a social relation. With hindsight, these reflections were also politicist, however, because they focused on the national state's role in formulating accumulation strategies and ignored other political scales as well as the role of firms, fractions of capital, and other economic, political, and social forces.

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