Academic journal article World Review of Political Economy

Clearing the Minefield: State Theory and Geopolitical Economy

Academic journal article World Review of Political Economy

Clearing the Minefield: State Theory and Geopolitical Economy

Article excerpt


Four recent books on competition and crisis in the 20th century have contributed to renewed interest in Marxist theory and stimulated wide-ranging and vigorous debate. Harvey (2003) and Callinicos (2009) review and seek to reformulate Marxist approaches to imperialism, while Brenner (2006) and Desai (2013) provide detailed accounts of global capital accumulation, competition and crisis during the post-war period. While central to all four books, the nature and role of the capitalist state is not theorised systematically, partly because, as Callinicos (2009) observes, "[t]he Marxist theory of the state is a minefield in which many unresolved problems and unfinished debates lurk" (73). These four authors nevertheless identify mechanisms relating to accumulation, competition and the interstate system which are of central importance to state theory.

Marxists must arguably return to this "minefield," as the development of a satisfactory theory of the state is essential to the wider development of Marxist theory. The question of the capitalist state cuts across numerous debates, from economic crisis and welfare systems to political corruption and industrial struggle. The aporias of Marxist state theory have left a trail of unresolved issues; conversely, a renewed effort to clarify these can make a valuable contribution to ongoing debates about capitalism, international relations and geopolitical economy.

One of the principal challenges when theorising the state is that the latter must be situated within a complex set of relationships involving accumulation and competition that are articulated across different levels of the social order. As Harvey (2006, xxix) observes, "It is both a virtue and difficulty in Marx that everything relates to everything else. It is impossible to work on one 'empty box' without simultaneously working on all other aspects of the theory." I argue that the state should be theorised in relation to multiple determinations within a stratified social ontology, characterised by emergence and complexity (Bhaskar 1998; Callinicos 2009, 32; Marx 1973, 100-101). This implies that it is not possible to theorise the state in relation to a single mechanism, process or relationship. The challenge is thus to integrate these determinations within broader Marxist theory, maintaining a coherent account of competition, crisis and the state at the national and international levels.

The four books discussed here were chosen for a number of reasons. Firstly, while each author accords a central role to the capitalist state, there are striking gaps in their theoretical treatment of this topic. Two of the books provide concrete historical analyses (Brenner and Desai), while the other two (Harvey and Callinicos) provide a more abstract theoretical treatment of Marxist theories of competition, crisis and imperialism. As I will show, all four offer a strategic vantage point for theorising the state, as they emphasise the dimension of the international, which has often been ignored in Marxist state theory (Barker 1978), but is arguably of crucial importance.

I will begin by outlining how the authors approach the state and theorise its role, highlighting any difficulties or lacunae in relation to this aspect of their analysis. I will then describe three determinations which together can make a useful contribution to explaining state decision making and help to define the limits to this process. Once developed in an appropriate manner, I believe that these determinations can yield a powerful account, grounding a distinctively Marxist theoretical approach to the capitalist state.

Competition and the State: Brenner and the Long Downturn

Robert Brenner's work on the causes and consequences of economic crisis during the post-war period has been widely discussed (Clarke 1999; Dumenil, Glick, and Levy 2001). This discussion has centred on his approach to economics and the role he assigns to overproduction in explaining the "long downturn" in capital accumulation since the 1960s, while his treatment of the capitalist state has not been analysed in detail. …

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