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The State

Instrumentalism And Structuralism

Miliband's writings are most notable for reestablishing an instrumentalist theory of the state, which was subsequently adopted by many scholars conducting research on political institutions and public policy. Prior to Miliband, the instrumentalist theory of the state had been articulated cryptically by Paul Sweezy, who asserted the state is "an instrument in the hands of the ruling class for enforcing and guaranteeing the stability of the class structure itself" (p. 243). Miliband identifies the ruling class of a capitalist society as "that class which owns and controls the means of production and which is able, by virtue of the economic power thus conferred upon it, to use the state as its instrument for the domination of society" (p. 23). Both authors trace this concept of the state to Marx's famous dictum in The Communist Manifesto that "the executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the affairs of the whole bourgeoisie." Miliband identified the chief deficiency of Marxist political theory as the fact that nearly all Marxists had been content to assert this general thesis as more or less self-evident, but without proving it. Thus, Miliband's main objective in renewing state theory was "to confront the question of the state in the light of the concrete socio-economic and political and cultural reality of actual capitalist societies" (p. 6). Miliband suggests that Marx provided a conceptual foundation for the socioeconomic analysis of capitalist societies, Lenin provided guidance for a political analysis, and Gramsci supplied the conceptual apparatus for a cultural and ideological analysis of capitalist societies. Miliband was convinced that the central thesis and conceptual structure of Marxist political theory was effectively in place and therefore what Marxist political theory needed was more empirical and historical analysis to give concrete content to this thesis and its associated concepts.

The state, as Miliband conceives it, does not exist as such, but is a conceptual reference point that "stands for … a number of particular institutions which, together, constitute its reality, and which interact as parts of what may be called the state system" (p. 49). This state system is actually composed of five elements that are each identified with a cluster of particular institutions, including:

  1. The governmental apparatus, which consists of elected legislative and executive authorities at the national level, which make state policy;
  2. The administrative apparatus, consisting of the civil service bureaucracy, public corporations, central banks, and regulatory commissions, which regulate economic, social, cultural, and other activities;
  3. The coercive apparatus, consisting of the military, paramilitary, police, and intelligence agencies, which together are concerned with the deployment and management of violence;
  4. The judicial apparatus, which includes courts, the legal profession, jails and prisons, and other components of the criminal justice system;
  5. The subcentral governments, such as states, provinces, or departments, counties, municipal governments, and special districts.

One of the most direct indicators of ruling-class domination of the state is the degree to which members of the capitalist class control the state apparatus through interlocking positions in the governmental, administrative, coercive, and other apparatuses. Miliband emphasizes that: "It is these institutions in which 'state power' lies, and it is through them that this power is wielded in its different manifestations by the people who occupy the leading positions in each of these institutions" (p. 54). A similar concept of the state was also adopted by many non-Marxists, such as G. William Domhoff, who proposed a power structure theory of how "the owners and managers of large banks and corporations dominate the United States" (p. xi). Although indebted to Marx's writings, Miliband was also aware that Marx "never attempted a systematic study of the state" (p. 5) comparable to the one conducted by Miliband, but instead left a collection of political writings that are unsystematic, fragmentary, and sometimes self-contradictory.

This ambiguity in Marx's work quickly led to a disagreement with Nicos Poulantzas, who became the leading spokesperson for a structuralist theory of the state. Poulantzas claims that the basic structure of the capitalist mode of production generates contradictory class practices and crisis tendencies that inexorably disrupt the capitalist system at the economic, political, and ideological levels. These crisis tendencies and contradictions necessitate a separate structure to specifically maintain and restore its equilibrium as a system. Although Poulantzas modified systems analysis by introducing class conflict as a disequilibrating mechanism, he was nevertheless clearly indebted to the American functionalists and systems theorists in arguing that the general function of the state in the capitalist mode of production is its function as "the regulating factor of its global equilibrium as a system" (p. 45).

Whereas Miliband articulates an institutionalist conception of power, Poulantzas articulates a functionalist conception of power anchored by the methodological assumptions of structural functionalism. In direct contrast to Miliband, Poulantzas draws a sharp analytic distinction between the concepts of state power and the state apparatus. Poulantzas defines the state apparatus as: "(a) The place of the state in the ensemble of the structures of a social formation," that is, the state's functions and "(b) The personnel of the state, the ranks of the administration, bureaucracy, army, etc." (p. 116). The state apparatus is a unity of the effects of state power (i.e., policies) and the network of institutions and personnel through which the state function is executed. Poulantzas emphasizes the functional unity between state power and the state apparatus with the observation "that structure is not the simple principle of organization which is exterior to the institution: the structure is present in an allusive and inverted form in the institution itself" (p. 115, fn. 24).

Poulantzas defines state power as the capacity of a social class to realize its objective interests through the state apparatus. Bob Jessop observes that within this framework "state power is capitalist to the extent that it creates, maintains, or restores the conditions required for capital accumulation in a given situation and it is non-capitalist to the extent these conditions are not realised" (p. 221). In structuralist theory, the objective effects of state policies on capital accumulation and the class structure are the main objective indicators of state power.

Poulantzas's well-publicized methodological differences with Miliband were deeply influenced by the French structuralist philosopher Louis Althusser, but like Miliband, he also claims to draw on the work of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Gramsci and "to provide a systematic political theory by elucidating implicit ideas and axioms in their practical writings" (pp. 1, 42). Yet, while Miliband placed Marx and Engels's Communist Manifesto at the center of his political theory, Poulantzas identifies Capital as "the major theoretical work of Marxism" (p. 20). The chief difficulty in designating Capital as Marx's central theoretical treatise is that it is an unfinished work with no theory of social class and no theory of the state, but a text that is rife with lacunae, omissions, and stated intentions never fulfilled in fact, particularly in its latter volumes.

These disputes were aired in the New Left Review in a series of widely heralded polemical exchanges that became known as the Miliband-Poulantzas debate. The debate itself was symptomatic of unresolved epistemological issues within Marxism that had far-reaching methodological repercussions beyond state theory and even beyond Marxism. Their public debate set off a wide-ranging discussion among scholars throughout the world that stimulated renewed interest among social scientists in the nature of the state. The debate mainly revolved around Poulantzas's claim that Miliband's empirical and institutional analysis of the state in capitalist society constantly gives the impression that "social classes or 'groups' are in some way reducible to inter-personal relations … and the State is itself reducible to inter-personal relations of 'individuals' composing social groups and 'individuals' composing the State apparatus." Poulantzas insisted that this method of analysis failed to comprehend "social classes and the State as objective structures, and their relations as an objective system of regular connections, a structure and a system whose agents, 'men', are in the words of Marx, 'bearers' of it" (pp. 70–71).

Instrumentalists and structuralists were quickly divided into competing schools of thought symbolized by the fractiousness of the Miliband-Poulantzas debate. As the polemic between them and their supporters became redundant, state theorists began looking for ways to move beyond the methodological stalemate. Moreover, despite the ongoing methodological controversy, both theories of the state shared a common analytical postulate that the state successfully implements the long-term interests of the capitalist class by maintaining the equilibrium of the capitalist mode of production. This postulate was increasingly called into question in the later 1970s as a result of slow economic growth, high unemployment, high inflation, and the crisis of the welfare state. The growing disequilibrium of the welfare state was dramatically symbolized by the expenditure rollbacks of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain and President Ronald Reagan in the United States.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Spectroscopy to Stoma (pl. stomata)The State - Return To The State, Instrumentalism And Structuralism, Derivationism, Systems Analysis, Organizational Realism, Economics And The State