Offe, C and Ronge, V. 'Theses on the Theory of the State', in Giddens, A and Held, D. (eds) (1982) Classes, Power, and Conflict. Classical and Contemporary Debates, London: the Macmillan Press Ltd
[I am not going to follow the precise structure of this piece with its eight formal theses. The authors claim to have placed this work on case studies of State policies].
The older debates turned on the difference between instrumental views of the state, that the state represents the interests of a specific class, but the state actually acts in the interests of collective capitalism itself.
The state must be relatively autonomous, since property is private in capitalism, and civil society must act in 'freedom'. Any powers the state exercises depends on the revenues raised from capitalist accumulation -- so the state must have an interest in preserving capitalist accumulation. Democratic elections disguise this real dependence of the state by focusing on institutional forms. The state attempts to make participation in commodity relationships universal as one way to try and square the conflicting demands of democratic participation and real interest. The commodity relationship seems to act autonomously and to generate wealth fairly. Thus both State and economic organisations 'depend on the universalisation of this [commodity] form for their viability' (251).
However, the state must also operate in a way which contradicts the commodity form. This is more than the constant adjustments that markets require, which may reward or penalise particular producers and consumers, but which do not threaten the fundamental commodity form. There may be some long-term threats to this form identified by classical marxism [such as the famous law of falling profit], but there are some new ones as well: 'there is plenty of everyday evidence to the effect that both labour and capital are [frequently] thrown out of the commodity form' (252).
The state generally tries to guard the commodity form. Policies to develop education and training are really about this. Nobody really knows about the precise nature of the skills required for the future economy, so what the state really does is 'provide a maximum of exchange opportunities to both labour and capital, so the individuals of both classes can enter into capitalist relations of production with each other' (252). Policies designed to increase research and development similarly have a general role -- 'to open up new markets, to shield the domestic economy against the intrusion of foreign competitors -- briefly, to create and maintain the commodity form of value' (252). [This point can be supplemented by some work on youth unemployment schemes in the UK which suggest that their real role is not to provide skills as such, but more to produce a disciplined workforce rehearsed in market forms. Perhaps you could see new wars in the light of the latter point? The USA takes on non-commodity-form politics like Islam or nationalism?].
Considerable activity by the state in these areas is still relatively new, and there is a tendency for some national states, like the USA, to just hope that capitalism will recover from challenges like unemployment [domestically that is?] . Another alternative is to produce subsidies as in welfare states -- but these can become so costly that they produce a fiscal crisis in the state [that is, the state cannot balance its books -- the classic problem of UK Labour governments]. The most effective and most likely option is to recreate ['reproduce' in more conventional marxist terms?] the commodity form -- increase the saleability of labour power through education and training, social mobility and flexibility; increase the saleability of capital through policies designed to restore markets; abandon subsidies for old fashioned sectors that can never modernise. In this way the state takes on a new function -- '"administrative recommodification"', as a further step from laissez-faire and welfare state variants (253).
The state involves itself increasingly in trying to protect [some] weaker parties in markets. It engages more and more in public investment, usually in infrastructure -- schools, transport, energy. It also attempts to introduce joint decision-making and joint financing [presumably, corporatism in Germany in the 1970s -- maybe the 'private finance initiative' in modern-day Britain?].
However, new contradictions with the possibility for new conflicts and struggles to rise as a result. The state requires taxation to pursue its policies, and this diminishes both the return to private capital and the freedom of private capitalists. In some circumstances, 'the cure turns out to be worse than the illness' (254), and such policies are often vigorously resisted by the capitalist class. The welfare and public sides of the economy tend to expand, lacking control by market mechanisms. Paradoxically, the State attempts to reconstruct the commodity form by developing institutions that do not operate in that way themselves.
Teaching is one example. Teachers 'produce such use values... which put commodity owners... in a position to actually sell their commodities' (255). The services of teachers are not distributed according to the commodity form. Nor are the services of hospitals, housing or transportation. There may be fees involved [and other attempts to simulate markets], but 'prevailing mechanism is by no means sale, but... legal claims, legal compulsion, acknowledged need or simply free use' (255). Politicians periodically debate the need for some alternative mechanism to manage production and demand in these areas [the strange combination of massive bureaucracy and simulated market forces in the UK case]. Paradoxically then, maintaining a commodity form requires the development of institutions which are exempt from it. This can lead to social conflict and political struggle, and most of the most important ones have indeed been over control of service organisations -- 'schools, universities, prisons, military organisations, housing authorities and hospitals' (256).
At the ideological level there are contradictions as well. The commodity form depends on the development of possessive individualism as the basis of behaviour for individual actors. However, non-commodity forms subvert this norm. It becomes obvious that the value of property or activity can depend also on various political measures, the results of state policies. The same applies to capitalists, who also depend on policies of taxation, regional development, [exchange rate policies], and the like. This can produce 'the structural weakening of the moral fibre of the capitalist commodity society' (256).
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