Offe, C. (1974) 'Structural Problems of the Capitalist State. Class Rule and the Political System. On the Selectiveness of Political Institutions', in German Political Studies, 1: 31 - 57.
In what sense is the state a capitalist state? It cannot simply act collectively for capitalists, partly because it clearly features competing factions of capital. Nor does the state simply do what a capitalist does. The problem then is to explain its capitalist character, even though it is not itself a capitalist. Two flawed theories need to be dealt with first:
(1) 'Influence Theories' assume that the state is an instrument of the ruling class, dominated by the ruling class. As well as theoretical reasons, there are a number of empirical arguments to support this view too -- (a) capitalist groups promote their interests, 'by means of threats and blackmail made possible by their strong market position' (32); (b) particular capitalists evade controls imposed by the state; (c) capitalists exert indirect influences, for example by threatening to transfer abroad; (d) commercial mass media form political opinions and threaten anti-capitalist interests; (e) financing of elections and parties can make sure that there is 'a basic ideological affinity... between the interests of capital and the political elites' (32).
(2) 'Constraint Theories', which offer the reverse. Here capitalist interests resist the activities of the state and render them ineffective if they embrace any non-capitalist interests.
Both of these theories assume that the state is an instrument. Neither can be used to show that the state is inherently capitalist, however, since they describe specific political processes. Empirical study can confirm that capitalist interests tend to predominate, but this may not be structurally necessary. Moreover:
(a) Specific interests need not necessarily combine to pursue class interests. Class interests assume that some kind of rational perspective of the interest of the class exists beyond specific interests. It is unlikely to arise spontaneously given the competitive relationship between capitalist units, especially given the largely short-term interests which specific units pursue. There is a 'structural narrow mindedness' rather than a rational class consciousness (34). An empirical convergence may be detectable, but this is not the same as evidence of long-term interest of a whole class. It is also the case that specific interests arising from within the state generate policy, and sometimes these are 'manifestly contrary to the definitions of capitalist interests encountered empirically' (34). As will be argued below, it is more often the case that policies initiated by 'neutral' interests serve the long-term interests of the capitalist class best.
(b) The models above lack an adequate account of power, which must be a relationship, and which depends on a certain amount of consent. [The argument here is that power, as opposed to force, works best when specific interests are not fused together]. Specifically, the state needs to be relatively autonomous to be an effective agent for the pursuit of capitalist class interest. Relatively autonomous apparatuses obviously do not guarantee success by a capitalist class out to influence them.
One way of addressing the issue is to look at how the state selects or sorts interests to pursue -- do these predominantly favour ruling class interests? The question is not easy because the state can also decide to exclude interests altogether, and this exclusion may be 'social - structural, accidental, and "systematic"' (36). Social structural exclusions arise because social structures and cultures remove issues from state activity -- such as religion. Accidental exclusions could have been included without threatening the political system. Systematic exclusions are generated by the political system itself. It is only with the latter that we may be able to understand the class character of the state.
It may be that the state itself 'distills' a class interest from specific activities (37). It is in this sense that the state may indeed be a committee of the ruling class -- the ruling class requires a committee to focus its interests. In this view, the state must supervise and tutor capital, again implying some distance from capital, even occasional opposition to isolated fractions of capital. The state must also police anti-capitalist interests. Selections and exclusions are therefore essential.
Can these elections and exclusions be actually identified? Some political theorists have tried to do this by looking at selection mechanisms at four levels: (a) the structural level, which determines which issues are a matter for state action -- for example the guarantee of private property -- or which matters can be resourced; (b) at the ideological level, norms and conventions serve to restrict what the state should do; (c) formal state bureaucracies also have rules to guide the processes which permit state action, including 'the concept of "non decision"' (40), which eliminate challenges before they are even voiced [compare this with Lukes's famous stages of power]; (d) the state can actually marshal legitimate violence and repress activities using the police or the army.
The state still needs to be shown to be acting in class interest in its general selectiveness. In order to show that opposing interests have been suppressed, perhaps via 'non decision', for example, we need to know what possibilities have actually been negated. There are problems with this, 'How can evidence of what is non-existent, the very thing that is excluded, be established sociologically?' (40). Simply examining explicit exclusion rules would limit the analysis and not touch the inexplicit restrictions
One possibility is to consider all abstract possibilities. Here, however, we encounter systems theory as in Luhmann, who says that all complexity must be reduced in any organisation if it is to operate [Luhmann draws a lot on Parsons to make this point]. Non-events may be important, but which ones? There is an infinite number of possible non-events. Yet non-events should be studied in order to fully understand the exercise of power, especially how the state systematically represses some possibilities -- this is the 'mobilisation of bias' (41). All is well if we are aware of specific processes of repression, but this is only a small sample of cases. We want to address political domination as a specific form of the reduction of complexity, avoiding both Luhmann's abstraction, and the [behaviourist] demand that we only address specific and recognisable examples.
It may be that [bourgeois] political science can never pin down this issue. One approach is to operate with some general idea of human needs which must be realised, and then point to those that have not been realised in a repressive political system [Marcuse's idea of 'surplus repression'. Also Habermas's idea of the ideal speech act which is asserted 'counterfactually' to show how undemocratic existing political processes are?]. However, there is always an arbitrary element in describing real needs, and a tendency to end in utopian thinking. Another approach would be too openly embrace a specific interest [the interests of the working class, say, or of women] and show how these interests have not been realised in the state. Again, it is difficult to generalise to examine systematic selectiveness, as opposed to other kinds, such as accidental, or temporary. Further, non-decision may act to squash these interests before they even develop, or privatize them. The same goes for marxist theorists to claim to be able to detect the objective interests of the working class -- this runs the risk of theoreticism rather than concrete investigation, and may be ineffective politically.
It might be possible to undertake some comparative analysis, comparing the relative democratization of different political parties or systems. However, this may overlook selections and exclusions which both systems have in common, and it would be easy to show how various other contextual matters intervened to limit rigorous comparison (different kinds of resources, for example).
A final alternative is to pursue an immanent approach, contrasting promise against reality. Again the problem is to show that promises are denied systematically, and not just accidentally. It also risks nostalgia, and it is always hard to base claims unambiguously on traditions.
Offe's own suggestion is to examine '"misunderstandings" and over-interpretations' produced systematically by the state. As an example, whenever democracy or participation is mentioned, there seems to be a systematic difference between the way managers and politicians interpret the terms, and the ways in which ordinary members of the public do. There may be some deliberate semantic manipulation going on to maintain this difference in order to 'make up... [a]... legitimation deficit' (45). There are also hints of a contradiction here in that deploying such terms is likely to lead to pressure on the political system itself -- the system encounters 'a "credibility gap"' (45). This is exacerbated by the 'forced production of sociological information and its dissemination through the mass media' (45). Even here, it is possible to identify the class character of the state only after it has acted and developed political practice. Nevertheless, empirical demonstration is likely to be more effective than theoretical prediction alone, which can easily be explained away as the ideology of a political movement.
Difficulties arise because the state itself is complex. It must pursue class interests, but conceal this pursuit in modern democracies. Concealment is essential in order to retain legitimacy. The state cannot rely on institutional mechanisms like the market, which seems to neutralise class domination, but must use power openly, in a democratic form for modern capitalism. Capital cannot exist in any other way, because it would risk immediate 'class polarisation and a politicisation of the class struggle' (47). Thus the state both co-ordinates and represses and necessarily must pursue a third activity -- disguising its selectivity. Other writers have agreed that the state must be dualist, acting substantively, but also symbolically to maintain a democratic system.
Even Luhmann agrees with this point [rather as in the functions of social conflict]. Thus institutionalised political conduct, including elections, is essential to express dissatisfaction without threatening the system. Elections cannot focus specific interests, nor do they simply choose the best representatives of the people, but must have another function -- to offer a particularly vague expression of interests which can then be remoulded by political parties. This also maintains operational autonomy for the state.
However, this is not just functional, a necessary means of reducing complexity. The state has to manage contradictory imperatives, both to serve the interest of the capitalist class and maintain democracy. It can only do this by concealment. Etzioni discusses the problem in terms of 'inauthentic structures', or false consciousness. Again, there are problems for any empirical investigation, however.
It could be established that the state must develop both contradictory goals at the same time. It might be possible to show how there has been equal and parallel development of state instruments to do both -- say, organising economic change and at the same time trying to procure a broader consensus. Contradictions also have to be shown empirically -- that policies of equality have led to the growth of real inequalities, for example. It might also be possible to show that social reforms are only pursued when the economy is in need of them -- expanding educational opportunity, for example, or humanitarian intervention in the third world only when markets need to expand.
On occasion, expansion of both goals may 'generate interference and political crisis phenomena' (50). The credibility gap can open. [An example affecting the social democratic states in Europe in the 1970s follows]. Policies of full-employment were necessary to secure the agreement of trade unions in the capitalist reconstruction of [West] Germany, but, as a consequence, any spells of unemployment were seen as directly the fault of the state. The state then finds itself having to commit more and more to maintain an acceptable level of employment, in exchange for less and less loyalty. Such crises are useful to point to the underlying class nature of the state.
Fragile as the strategy is, it seems the only alternative. The state constantly attempts to widen the basis of consensus, and avoid revealing contradictions. One strategy involves relieving the state of responsibility and lowering expectations -- demands to roll back the state, or to blame the international level [both big in the neo-conservative turn that dominated politics in Europe and America in the 1980s]. Intensity of conflicts can also be reduced, by extending welfare to victims of economic change. Here, however, things can be made worse as demands increase. Depoliticisation, and increasing repression seem to be the responses [as in the drift towards authoritarianism in the neo-conservative turn].
Fascism does not seem to be a workable alternative. The State loses complexity and thus contradiction, but encounters additional problems. Democratic rules seem essential to fulfill the needs of capitalism. Fascism involves either a complete hijack of the state by one fraction, which breaks the link with the collective needs of capital, or the serious loss of legitimacy. Offe thinks that the old myths and symbols which used to mobilise the masses in Nazism would no longer work. To revitalise them would involve a return to the early days of fascism, which did indeed take an anti-capitalist stand. Overall, bourgeois democracy seems essential to the maintenance of modern capital. The democratic state is the only one that can establish collective capitalist interests systematically. Generally, the concealment of this interest is successful -- although crisis tendencies are inherent.
[Interesting to look back on this old classic now. The social-democratic state with its contradictions has been through the neo-conservative turn, which did indeed reduce expectations and challenge with a combination of ideological and repressive measures. What of the post neo-conservative state, the 'Third Way' of Blair and Clinton? Here the mechanisms of legitimation seems different again -- a technical 'non-dogmatic' populist approach to the economy and to non-party politics backed up by new mechanisms of finding what the public wants short-term (opinion polls, focus groups and all the other paraphernalia). Lots of blame levelled at 'globalisation' for economic crisis, lots of emotionalism, sympathy, symbolic gestures and support domestically, heavily endorsed by a much more populist mass media. What of Bushism ( partly shared by Blair in his latest manifestation)? A return to the open pursuit of class economic interests (including overseas adventures) backed up by a neo-fascist mobilisation of popular opinion around patriotism and the fear and hatred of foreigners? Lies can now be told in the national interest but with no legitimation crisis except where there is no majority anyway. No apparent alternative party to unite the opposition. However -- apathy is now the deadly opponent, as in Baudrillard?]
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