Towards a New State Theory Debate — Chris O’Kane

[This is the first in a series of posts comprising a symposium on the Marxist tradition of state theory and its contemporary lineages. Authored by Chris O’Kane, who has written on state theory for Legal Form on previous occasions (see here and here), this first post introduces the questions with which the symposium as a whole will grapple and offers an argument about how to think of the state from a Marxist standpoint under current conditions.]

We live in turbulent times. The long decade following the 2007 crisis has been marked by a series of movements: the Arab Spring, Occupy, and the UK student movement arose in the immediate aftermath of 2007 in opposition to government bailouts, austerity packages, and persistent economic misery. So too did the Tea Party, Italy’s Five Star Movement, the UK Independence Party, and Austria’s Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs. While the former tried to address their grievances outside institutions of representative government, the latter experienced increased electoral success, culminating in the election of figures such as Jair Bolsonaro, Rodrigo Duterte, Narendra Modi, Viktor Orbán, and Donald Trump. Such success has been met with growing interest in social-democratic theory and strategy, as well as increased membership in social-democratic organizations and some notable electoral victories (e.g. Jeremy Corbyn, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez).

The Social-Democratic Turn

While undeniably preferable to the political projects of Trump and Orbán, Macron and May, I contend that social-democratic theories, policies, and strategies, like other radical theories and practices cultivated during the first wave of reaction to the crisis, have not fully considered the question of the state. And interestingly, while such social-democratic theories did not consider the obstacle of the state, today it seems that the state is not considered to be an obstacle.

The format of this intervention prevents me from demonstrating this at length. So let me indicate how a few notable theories, political strategies, and public policy proposals share a traditional conception of capitalist political economy which assumes that the state is a neutral instrument. [1] On this account, the social problems we face today are attributable to the misrule and misuse of the state, which can be rectified by electoral strategies and policies developed in social-democratic theory.

We can see these assumptions reflected in a shared narrative that informs these prevalent approaches. This narrative characterizes our current malaise as one of rampant inequality and looming ecological catastrophe. It assumes that these social problems were created by neoliberal political economy. Neoliberal political economy is largely based upon neoclassical economics and was implemented in the late 1970s and early 1980s by the elite-driven, anti-democratic withdrawal of the state from the regulation of the market by way of rampant privatization and deregulation. This led to forty years of maldistribution, inequality, and runaway, ecologically damaging production. However, this approach to political economy has now lost its legitimacy. Right-wing populism and democratic socialism are vying to fill the vacuum. Right-wing populism is deceitful and only offers solutions that will help some white working-class citizens suffering at the expense of other non-white, non-citizen workers. Social democracy promises to remedy these problems through the democratic and socialist management of “the economy” by the state, which will represent the will of “the people”, especially workers, by regulating industries and introducing redistributive policies while also developing green technology that allows production to continue or even ramp up. This will restore the livelihood of citizens and workers, and act as a lever for further reforms, pushing social relations toward a new, social-democratic politico-economic order. (In some cases, social-democratic management of the state must also be supplemented with organizations of worker power outside the state. I leave this issue aside at this juncture.)

There are certainly important points of emphasis within this narrative. I also cannot deny that many of these reforms would alleviate suffering. They would certainly be preferable to the right-wing alternatives. Yet they cannot realize their own ambitious goals. Nor are some of these goals desirable. Finally, the absence of a theory of the capitalist state in these approaches has led to misdiagnoses of and erroneous “solutions” to the problems of the current conjuncture.

In this post, I contend that Marxian critical theory of the state sheds light on why this is the case. Those who champion the social-democratic approach often criticize such theory for its putative pessimism, quietism, and lack of policy prescriptions. I contend that it should nevertheless be considered, even if it is not necessarily the starting point of contemporary theories of emancipation.

In what follows, I distinguish between the traditional theory of the state and the Marxian critical theory of the state. I then provide an overview of the Marxian critical theory of the state before applying this perspective to a critique of Keynesianism, neoliberalism, and the latter’s crisis. I thus substantiate a markedly different conception of capitalism, the state, and emancipation than most of those which currently happen to enjoy widespread circulation. I do not, of course, claim that I have the “right” theory, policies, and strategies, and that others have the “wrong” ones. Instead, I seek only to help facilitate an important comradely debate on these issues.

The Marxian Critical Theory of the State

Marxian critical theory distinguishes itself from what it terms “traditional theory” and “constructive criticism”. The traditional theory of the state criticizes state management of “the economy” from the standpoint of “the people” or the working class, and does so by appealing to general norms of democracy, equality, and freedom. Constructive criticism is concerned with how such norms may be implemented through redistributive state policies and regulations so as to achieve and consolidate popular rule or workers’ power. Traditional theory thus conceives the state as a neutral instrument wielded by anti-democratic elites, but capable nonetheless of being wielded by “the people” or workers on the basis of norms of equality and freedom, thus producing a genuinely free, equal, and democratic society. The social-democratic narrative I outlined above is thus a form of traditional theory; however, its policy prescription and strategies are constructive criticisms.

Traditional theory and constructive criticism both pass over the social organization of production and the question of the state form. Critical theory, by contrast, conceives the capitalist state not as a neutral instrument but as a form-determined set of institutions within the world market–a set of institutions which, by virtue of their structural separation from “the economy” under capitalism, are integral to the crisis-ridden process of capital accumulation. Thus, rather than arguing for one or another approach to the relation between state and “the economy”, critical Marxian theory of the state offers a critique of political economy from the perspective of the negation of state institutions and the creation of a society of human flourishing.

I will outline this critical theory by bringing together the work of Johannes Agnoli, Werner Bonefeld, and Simon Clarke. Each of these scholars’ critiques of the state were developed in the context of issues that are mirrored in today’s conjuncture. [2] Taken together, on a theoretical level, they offer a critique of how the antagonistic social relations of the historically specific capitalist social form constitute the capitalist economy and state, money, and law, and how this facilitates the reproduction of class relations and capitalist society. In an historical sense, they offer an account of how Keynesian and neoliberal state forms have managed processes of accumulation and reproduction in ways that have only temporarily counteracted general crises but foreclosed autonomy and human flourishing.

A Theoretical Critique

The theoretical perspective I am outlining draws upon the approach that oriented the Conference of Socialist Economists state debate, which is also useful for distinguishing the approach I take here and the traditional or social-democratic theory of the state. “The theoretical conclusion of the CSE contribution”, observes Clarke, “was that we have to look behind the institutional separation of economics, law and politics to see money, law and the state as complementary economic, legal and political forms of the power of capital”. [3] The “underlying unity of these differentiated, and complementary, forms of capitalist power”, he adds, “was explained by Marx’s theory of value, the three aspects being united in capitalist property, money representing the most abstract form of capital, whose power is institutionalized in the law and enforced by the state”. [4] In other words, this approach draws upon an interpretation of Marx’s theory of value, which critiques capitalist political economy as a negative totality. This negative totality is constituted by the historically specific antagonistic organization of the capitalist social form, and perpetuated by the crisis-ridden process of capital accumulation and social reproduction that plays out in a dynamic interplay of economic relations and the state–a dynamic interplay in which the actions of those bound by the capital-relation are expressed and mediated through property, money, and law.

Bonefeld’s account of “primitive accumulation” can be drawn on to provide an account of the constitution of capitalist political economy as a negative totality–a unity in separation. [5] For Bonefeld, the separation of workers from the means of production and the accumulation of private property by capitalists is mirrored in the constitution of the separate yet related spheres of the capitalist economy and the capitalist state.

In the capitalist economy, production is organized in privately run firms by owners of the means of production (land, machines, raw materials, etc.). Production is performed by a class of individuals who do not own the means of production and are compelled to sell their power to produce on the labour market in exchange for a wage. Both the products of production and the ability to produce are sold on the market. Money, the means by which these commodities are exchanged, subsequently comes to be endowed with social power over individuals on both sides of this class relation. More importantly, since profit is achieved by selling commodities for a quantity of money greater than that required to pay wages, procure requisite materials, and otherwise maintain the means of production, the dynamic of capitalist accumulation is an exploitative, antagonistic, and crisis-ridden process. This is because the group of individuals who own private property–capitalists–organize production and hire the group of individuals who have nothing to sell but their ability to perform labour–workers. And they do so with the sole intent of generating and appropriating surplus value. Yet the capitalist class does not possess a common consciousness that collectively conspires against workers. Rather, capitalists are compelled to accumulate capital and compete against each other.

As Clarke explains, this process of accumulation and reproduction dominates both capitalists and workers, driving their antagonism. Further, it is crisis-ridden. Capitalist production develops the “productive forces without limit”. [6] Yet the ability to sell commodities is ultimately dependent upon the market. Individual capitalists try to maximize profits by opening up “new markets by commercial expansion and by displacing backward forms of production”. [7] They likewise try “to reduce costs by lengthening the working day, forcing down wages, intensifying labour and, above all, by transforming methods of production”. [8] This dynamic underlies the tendency for “capital, from its earliest stages, to develop the world market and and to generalise capitalist social relations of production on global scale”. [9] This ultimately leads to over-accumulation crises and uneven development. Crucially, for Clarke, this tendency toward over-accumulation “appears in its most dramatic form” in the eruption of a “general crisis of overproduction”, but it is also “the everyday reality of accumulation, as the pressure of competition leads to an intensification of class struggle, the devaluation of backwards capital, the destruction of production capacity and the displacement of labour”. [10]

This exploitative, antagonistic, and crisis-ridden dynamic is “mediated by the form of the state”, which is separate from yet related to “the economy” by virtue of its separation. [11] Crucially, the state is not a neutral instrument, to be ruled in one way or another by “progressives” or “conservatives”, social democrats or even communists, each of which implements its own economic and political agenda. Instead, the capitalist state secures the reproduction of capitalist society by sustaining the accumulation of capital, upon which the state itself is reliant. In Bonefeld’s pithy phrase, Marxian critical theory thus conceives the state not as an institution that is “accountable to capital”, but as “the political form of the capitalist social relations”. [12] As such, the “cohesion, organization, integration and reproduction” of the capitalist economy “are matters of state”. [13] This is because, “crudely put, the purpose of capital is to accumulate extracted surplus value, and the state is the political form of that purpose”. [14] Contra the traditional theory of the state, the capitalist state’s purpose is achieved “not by overriding the rule of the market, but by enforcing the rule of the money and the law, which are the alienated forms through which the rule of the market has imposed not only on the working class, but also on all particular capitals”. [15] Consequently, the very institutions that are meant to represent or implement the will of “the people” or the working class–the constitution, representative democracy, the judiciary, and the Central Bank–are the means by which the capitalist state secures the reproduction of the capitalist economy by “enforcing the rule of money and the law, which are at the same time its own presupposition”. [16]

Agnoli argues that a democratic constitution “guarantees the predominance of the capitalist mode of production and, at the same time, satisfies the demand for mass political participation by the population”. [17] By simultaneously protecting private property, contract rights, and civil rights, class relations are decomposed and replaced by democratic relations between formally equal citizens. This process of “statification” is presupposed in the separation of the economic and political spheres that is codified in the constitution. Consequently, class antagonism and anti-capitalist politics are displaced onto the political sphere, where different parties compete for the support of the citizens whom they ostensibly represent. The policies these parties support are themselves already limited by the constitution, which guarantees that “all opportunities, beyond the democratic virtue of ‘voting’, of active meddling in politics are excluded from the ‘liberal democratic’ principles of government”. [18] But Agnoli likewise argues that even progressive reformist movements are absorbed into the state. The citizenry’s active participation is transformed into an electoral platform extolled by a single representative. As a consequence, “[e]ach parliamentary reform that is realized within states … serves not to expand the possibility for the masses to take part in decision-making processes, but rather to contain that possibility by intensifying parliament’s function of domination”. [19]

From this critical-theoretical perspective, the ends of the state are achieved by means of state policies, especially fiscal, monetary, public, and social policies. These are enacted through the medium of law, and they realize the state purpose of perpetuating capital accumulation and social reproduction. State laws and policies are thus inherent in the very purpose of the capitalist state. No matter how they redistribute the proceeds of capital accumulation, or how they regulate industries, they ultimately reflect the capital-relation by protecting private property, structuring and preserving markets, and thus facilitating capital accumulation, thereby contributing to the reproduction of capitalist society.

In sum, as Bonefeld puts it, the capitalist state facilitates an order of economic freedom by means of the force of “law-making violence”, sustains the capitalist relations of production and exchange by depoliticizing “socio-economic relations”, guarantees “contractual relations of social interaction”, upholds the system of free labour by facilitating the “cheapness of provision”, and extends “free and equal market relations”. [20] The “strong state” thus utilizes the form-determined capacities of “law-making violence” in an instrumental manner, organizing, integrating, sustaining, and extending the antagonistic social relations at the heart of the process of producing and extracting surplus value. Indeed, the capitalist state is inseparable from these tasks.

The inherently antagonistic and crisis-ridden dynamic of accumulation can only be ameliorated–never entirely overcome–by the capitalist state. General crises of over-accumulation are typically staved off or lessened by fiscal, monetary, public, or social policies, which also help sow the seeds of recovery. Successively larger general crises lead to transformations in how states approach fiscal, monetary, public, and social policies. This leads to new attempts to manage accumulation and reproduction with new policies and through the “development of new social institutions though which it could respond to the material aspirations of the working class while reinforcing the social reproduction of the working class in its subordination to the money power of capital and the constitutional authority of the state”. [21] To see how recent history is analyzed from this perspective, let us now turn to its account of Keynesian and neoliberalism.

Economic History: Keynesianism and Neoliberalism

According to Marxian critical theory, the Keynesian golden age cannot be understood independent of the historical developments that preceded it. The general world crisis of over-accumulation that led to the Great Depression, the industrial growth and bureaucratic consolidation of the Soviet Union, the organizational growth of fascism, and the neutralization of class struggle with state-driven growth programmes of the New Deal variety, followed by the military Keynesianism of the Second World War, were hardly ideal. Yet they were necessary preconditions of the Keynesian compromise that followed, which involved state management not only of “the economy” but also of social reproduction through the integration of the working class into the state bureaucracy. This led to unprecedentedly high standards of living for some, but certainly not for most. And it was achieved through persistent domination and exploitation, the loss of autonomy to bureaucracies, and the stultifying forty-hour work week.

Moreover, the very means by which Keynesianism attempted to manage the crisis-ridden dynamic of accumulation and reproduction led to its own crisis. [22] As Clarke shows, “Keynesianism expressed the belief that the contradictory form of the liberal state could be overcome”. [23] Economists, politicians, and critical observers all held that a “generalised rise in wages and public expenditure would both maintain the dynamism of the boom and integrate the working class into advanced capitalism”. [24] But “Keynesianism provided no means of securing the sustained accumulation of capital by overcoming the tendency to the overaccumulation and uneven development of capital”. [25] In fact, Keynesian policies “accentuated” these “crisis tendencies”. [26] Full employment and rising wages soon led to over-accumulation and a falling rate of profit. Consequently, “the institutions of the Keynesian welfare state appeared as a barrier to capital”. [27] They were “progressively eroded from within as pressure on profitability forced capitalists to resist wage claims and the state to hold down public expenditure”. [28] This often led to divisions within the working class, between rank and file and union leaders. Coupled with the growth of transnational corporations and a rise in the power of financial capital, this led to the crisis of Keynesianism in the late 1960s and early 1970s and the rise of monetarism in the mid- to late 1970s. Yet it is overlooked that governments initially tried to use Keynesian measures to redress these imbalances. This only made things worse. In addition, monetarist measures were often taken first by social-democratic parties. Crucially, these policies were implemented only after the Keynesian compromise had been eroded, politically, economically, and financially.

Neoliberalism was thus not implemented through the withdrawal of the state and the disembedding of “the economy” by conservative governments at the behest of free-market fundamentalism. Rather, the capitalist state was active in implementing neoliberal laws and policies, and these neoliberal laws and policies enforced the rule of money, but by means other than “Keynesianism”. The neoliberal “rule of money, despite the monetarist rhetoric”, did “not involve a withdrawal of the state in favour of the rule of the market”. [29] Nor did it lead to “the dismantling of the systems of industrial relations and social administration, nor, in the metropolitan centres, the abolition of electoral representation”. [30] Rather, a new wave of globalization of capital led to the imposition of the neoliberal rule of money on states, governments, and national economies by banks and financial institutions and the rise of transnational corporations. This was mirrored in the provision of public services on the basis of financial rationality rather than actual need, the transformation of industrial relations into human-resources management, and the development of “incentive payment systems, that tied pay more closely to the profitability of the enterprise”, coupled with the imposition of the neoliberal rule of law by “market police”. [31] The result, then, was not the withering away of the state, but the growth of a coercive bureaucracy in tandem with social policies premised on personal responsibility and individual entrepreneurship. A growing portion of state budgets was devoted to the militarization of the police and the construction of new prisons.

Yet neoliberal political economy could not overcome the crisis tendencies of accumulation. The last several decades have been marked by boom-and-bust cycles that have engendered rising inequality and increased levels of debt. 2007 did not rupture these tendencies; it only magnified them. Bailouts laid the foundations for an official recovery, yet austerity measures led to pronounced misery and a decade of weak and uneven recovery. Indeed, it could even be said that the past decade is the closest we have ever come to satisfying some key neoliberal precepts, at the same time that it is widely said to be in crisis.

As a consequence, Marxian critical theory does not understand Keynesianism and neoliberalism to be antithetical, nor even distinct approaches to political economy. Instead, both are understood to be ways in which the form-determined institutions of the state manage capitalism’s crisis-ridden dynamic of accumulation and reproduction. The former may have achieved a higher standard of living for some, but it does not represent a golden age to which we ought to aspire. Nor was the latter an elite-driven market-fundamentalist policy of deregulation. Rather, Keynesianism represents one failed attempt to overcome capitalism’s crisis-ridden dynamic. In both cases, domination, antagonism, and misery persisted.

From this perspective, the current crisis being bandied about as a crisis of capitalism, a crisis of neoliberalism, or a crisis of neoliberal legitimacy is a contest over the way in which the state should manage the world economy. Democratic socialism and right-wing authoritarianism are simply different ways to manage the crisis-ridden process of accumulation and reproduction. The former is certainly more desirable than the latter. But even, against all odds, if social democracy somehow manages to achieve electoral success worldwide, it will do so by co-opting a progressive social movement. If it likewise, against further odds, is able to drive a government agenda and implement successful redistributive and regulatory policies, this will also broaden the scope of the state and diminish people’s autonomy and solidarity. What is more, it will not abolish exploitation, antagonism, or domination. Nor will it be effective. Another crisis will arise.


The Marxian critical theory of the state amounts to a critical conception of capitalist political economy. It does not conceive the state as a neutral instrument for managing “the economy” on the basis of progressive, socialist, capitalist, or authoritarian policies. Nor does it put forward constructive criticisms as part of a movement to govern the state with these ends in mind. Instead, it critiques the capitalist state as embedded in capitalist political economy. Rather than a constructive socialist political economy, it provides a destructive critique of political economy. From this perspective, the state is the political form of capital and the apparatuses of the state are integral to facilitating capital accumulation and social reproduction while perpetuating exploitation, antagonism, and domination. This approach provides a different perspective on recent economic history and the current rise of socialism. It points to a notion of emancipation premised on the abolition of power and work and the realization of free time and human flourishing.

[1] By “notable theories”, I mean, for instance, Axel Honneth’s The Idea of Socialism: Towards a Renewal (trans. by Joseph Ganahl; London: Polity, 2007), Nancy Fraser’s numerous interventions on the crisis of capitalism, “inclusive” initiatives in heterodox economics, and the core theoretical commitments of social-democratic organizations such as the Democratic Socialists of America. A good example of the kind of “policies” I have in mind is the Green New Deal.

[2] Agnoli was a libertarian communist and the lead theoretician of the extra-parliamentary left in Germany in the 1960s. He critiqued West Germany’s ascendent social-democratic movement, democratic constitution, and fascism. Clarke was a participant in the CSE state debate, which concerned questions of Marxian state theory in the context of the crisis of Keynesianism, the rise of monetarism, and European integration. Bonefeld developed his critique of the state during the course of debates over prior crises of the neoliberal management of capital and the nature of the neoliberal state.

[3] Simon Clarke, Keynesianism, Monetarism, and the Crisis of the State (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 1988), 15.

[4] Clarke, Keynesianism, 15.

[5] Werner Bonefeld, “Primitive Accumulation and Capitalist Accumulation: Notes on Social Constitution and Expropriation”, (2011) 75 Science and Society 379.

[6] Simon Clarke, Marx’s Theory of Crisis (Houndmills: Macmillan, 1994), 132.

[7] Simon Clarke, “The Global Accumulation of Capital and the Periodisation of the Capitalist State Form”, 3, available at

[8] Clarke, “The Global Accumulation”, 3.

[9] Clarke, “The Global Accumulation”, 3.

[10] Clarke, “The Global Accumulation”, 3.

[11] Clarke, “The Global Accumulation”, 3.

[12] Werner Bonefeld, Critical Theory and the Critique of Political Economy: On Subversion and Negative Reason (London: Bloomsbury, 2011), 11, 165.

[13] Bonefeld, Critical Theory, 182.

[14] Bonefeld, Critical Theory, 168.

[15] Clarke, Keynesianism, 124.

[16] Clarke, Keynesianism, 127.

[17] Johannes Agnoli, “The Market, the State, and the End of History”, in Werner Bonefeld and Kosmas Psychopedis (eds.), The Politics of Change: Globalization, Ideology and Critique (Houndmills: Palgrave, 2000) 196, at 200.

[18] Agnoli, “Market”, 201.

[19] Chris O’Kane, “State Violence, State Control: Marxist State Theory and the Critique of Political Economy”, 4 (2014) Viewpoint, available at

[20] Bonefeld, Critical Theory, 160, 183, 185.

[21] Clarke, Keynesianism, 136.

[22] Here it should be noted that the use of Hobsbawm’s term “the golden age” to refer to Keynesianism misses Hobsbawm’s ironic and tragic sense. For, as he argues, the very conditions that enabled “the golden age” led to its undoing.

[23] Clarke, Keynesianism, 353–54.

[24] Clarke, Keynesianism, 354.

[25] Clarke, Keynesianism, 354.

[26] Clarke, Keynesianism, 354.

[27] Clarke, Keynesianism, 354.

[28] Clarke, Keynesianism, 354. Indeed, as Clarke points out, this strategy was pursued by the conservative Heath government in the United Kingdom in the early 1970s with disastrous consequences.

[29] Clarke, Keynesianism, 355.

[30] Clarke, Keynesianism, 355.

[31] Clarke, Keynesianism, 137, 143.

Chris O’Kane is Adjunct Assistant Professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York.