By Colin Jenkins
The following is Part one of a multi-part series, “Applying Poulantzas,” which analyzes the work of Greek Marxist political sociologist, Nicos Poulantzas, and applies it to the unique political and economic structures found under neoliberalism and post-industrial capitalism.
Since the capitalist formation of relations between what is perceived as the ‘public sector’ and the ‘private sector,’ traditional nation-states and their governing bodies have played a major role as facilitators of the economic system at-large. This became a necessary supplemental component as localized economies, which were dominated by agrarian/plantation life, gave way to industrialization and subsequent mass migration into urban centers, thus introducing new industrial economies based in the manufacturing/production process. With the advent of wage labor came predictable outcomes of “capital accumulation” and a perpetually increasing polarization between the “owning class” and “working class.” And with this growing inequality came the notions of worker collectivization and unionism which, absent any equalizing measures taken by the State, were the only sources of hope for workers who quickly found themselves, their livelihood, and their family’s well-being at the mercy of a rapidly fluctuating and exploitative labor market. Work was often hard to come by and,when it was available, the wages “earned” were barely enough to cover basic necessities like food, clothing and shelter – provisions which had long been commodified to create expanding avenues of profit for the “owning class.”
The inherent instabilities created by this economic system – a system that exists for the sole purpose of creating or maintaining individual/personal wealth (as opposed to preserving collective/societal wealth) – require components that act solely as stabilizers. Despite its shunning, the existence of society – or “the aggregate of people living together in a more or less ordered community” – not only remains, but actually serves as the casing for which this system must rely on, or more aptly, capitalize from within. And because of this reliance, the instabilities and contradictions that simultaneously represent natural byproducts and threats become common growths as the result of this counterintuitive and inhumane arrangement; and must be kept in check through a delicate (though not necessarily intricate) balancing act.
In order to “balance” competing interests – in this case the “dominant” and “dominated” classes – the political sphere, a major element of the State apparatus, assumes a vital role. As such, Nicos Poulantzas, building upon earlier theoretical contributions from the likes of Antonio Gramsci, details the dynamic process whereas the state serves as a facilitator to the unstable equilibrium that is produced by the internally antagonistic capitalist system. Ultimately, through this act of facilitating, the state (by deploying its political power) negotiates a perpetual series of “compromises” in the form of economic “sacrifices” which are accepted as a necessity by the dominant classes; and which are precisely aimed at creating a limited equilibrium that ensures a minimal degree of social stability (maintained by the political superstructure) atop the inherently asymmetrical economic base.
“…political power is thus apparently founded on an unstable equilibrium of compromise. These terms should be understood as follows: 1) Compromise: in the sense that this power corresponds to a hegemonic class domination and can take into account the economic interests of certain dominated classes even where those could be contrary to the short-term economic interests of the dominant classes, without this affecting the configuration of political interests; 2) Equilibrium: in the sense that while these economic ‘sacrifices’ are real and so provide the ground for an equilibrium, they do not as such challenge the political power which sets precise limits to this equilibrium; and 3) Unstable: in the sense that these limits of the equilibrium are set by the political conjuncture.” 
Gramsci tells us, “The life of the state is conceived of as a continuous process of formation and superseding of unstable equilibria… between the interests of the fundamental group and those of the subordinate groups – equilibria in which the interests of the dominant group prevail, but only up to a certain point, i.e. stopping short of narrowly corporate interest.” In other words, as the capitalist system naturally bends toward a corporate-fascistic state of being through the simultaneous developments of capital accumulation and mass alienation – thus forming structures of domination that extend from the economic base and into the political, social, and cultural realms – there develops a need to stabilize the fragile nature (in the sense that such imbalance is a constant threat to the societal structure at-large) of this system.
The need to maintain this equilibrium exists as long as a wholly functioning society is requisite for capitalist expansion – or, as long as worker-consumers represent viable targets of exploitation. InPolitical Powers and Social Classes, Poulantzas identifies certain measures that represent embedded concessions on the part of the owning class, carried out by the state apparatus through a systematic process that is relatively fluid and effortless (though, as Poulantzas points out, competing interests exist even within this elite bureaucracy). In recognizing the function of the state and its role atop the capitalist formation of relations, Poulantzas explains, “The notion of the general interest of the ‘people’, an ideological notion covering an institutional operation of the capitalist state, expresses a real fact: namely that this state, by its very structure, gives to the economic interests of certain dominated classes guarantees which may even be contrary to the short-term economic interests of the dominant classes, but which are compatible with their political interests and their hegemonic domination.”
Political systems based on grand “democratic” narratives like “representative democracy” and “republicanism,” as well as Rousseau’s “social contract,” are ideal enablers for this societal arrangement. This is the very reason why liberalism and the modern adaptation of the “liberal politician” play such a crucial role in their opposition to the proto-fascist nature of “conservatism.” Their superficially adversarial relationship represents the ultimate stabilizer as its reach is limited to the confines of the political superstructure. And, because it deals primarily with “social issues” (including passive measures of economic redistribution), it is ultimately relegated to directing the aforementioned “compromises” of the dominant class. It does not and can not transform the economic base (the capitalist hierarchy) as these compromises, while representing “real economic sacrifices” that are necessary to provide the ground for equilibrium, “do not as such challenge the political power which sets precise limits to this equilibrium.”
“Democratic” systems which involve periodic elections of “representatives” to “public” office accomplish two important tasks in this regard. First, they create a façade of civil empowerment – a form of political compromise which gives the dominated classes the appearance of choice vis-a-vis universal suffrage. Second, they create a political sphere that, while completely fused with the long-term interests of the dominant classes (through its sole purpose as a facilitator), operates as a separate entity existing outside the economic base – a separation that is, as Poulantzas explains, both an exclusive and necessary element to the capitalist system. It reminds us of John Dewey’s claim that, “As long as politics is the shadow cast on society by big business, the attenuation of the shadow will not change the substance.” In the US, the two-party political system has proven extremely effective in this regard. Aside from differences on social issues like abortion and gay marriage, as well as socioeconomic issues like unemployment insurance and public assistance, both parties ultimately embrace capitalist/corporatist interests in that they both serve as facilitators for the dominant classes: The Republican Party in its role as forerunner, pushing the limits of the capitalist model to the brink of fascism; and the Democratic Party in its role as governor, providing intermittent degrees of slack and pull against this inevitable move towards a “corporate-fascistic state of being.”
The distinction made between ‘the political’ and ‘the economic’ is important to consider, though these boundaries have seemingly blurred in the age of neoliberalism and the intensification of the merger between “public” and “private.” And while Poulantzas insists this separation is inherent and theoretically unbreakable, he (along with Gramsci) may have underestimated the extent to which compromises may be reined in without destabilizing the equilibrium beyond repair. During the neoliberal era, there have been many developments which have pushed this long-standing balance to the verge of “narrow corporatism” and beyond, including factors related to technology and government surviellance, growth in the banking industry, the development of corporate media and intricate propaganda, financialization’s role in supplementing monopoly capitalism, and the maturation of the international economic system and all of its mediating components, to name a few; but that discussion is for another place and time.
For the purpose of this analysis, we are focused on national electoral politics and political parties, and the specific role they play in maintaining the status quo – in this case, not only the capitalist hierarchy, but also the stage of monopoly capitalism which has come to fruition over the past few decades. The distinction between base and superstructure allows us to see how the political apparatus, through the actions of political parties, exists solely as a tool for the “power bloc.” Furthermore, it allows us to divert from reductionist theories which attempt to highlight a singular cause, and move towards a more nuanced critique of the capitalist state, especially in the “pluralist” form that we see in the US and other “western democracies.”
“As far as the terrain of political domination is concerned, this is also occupied not by one single class or class fraction, but by several dominant classes and fractions,” explains Poulantzas. “These classes and fractions form a specific alliance on this terrain, the power bloc, generally functioning under the leadership of one of the dominant classes or fractions, the hegemonic class or fraction.” In this instance, even with a government that includes separate branches – legislative, executive, and judicial – and represents several interests, as in Robert A. Dahl’s “polyarchy,” the state still exists and operates on the foundation of a capitalist system that creates its own hierarchy. The members of this “political terrain” are not necessarily synchronized with one another when it comes to geography, special interests, localized interests, and priorities when maintaining the equilibrium, and they don’t have to be. Despite these various pieces which make up the power bloc, in its own formation the base forces the political “superstructure” to adjust accordingly. This is why modern practices like “blanket financing” of political campaigns, which consists of corporations or private interests providing monetary support to opposing candidates and political parties in a particular election, have become so prevelant. Politicians, despite what their personal beliefs or aspirations may be, are put into power by the very hierarchy that depends on the economic base. Their positions of power cater to and are reliant on not only the power bloc which put them there, but the maintenance of the very system that allows them to stay there. Therefore, while they may possess some leeway in terms of pushing superficial agendas, their ability to do so is granted by the hierarchy extending from the economic base. Ultimately, in order to maintain its own existence, the political apparatus must protect the base – and is essentially designed (or is ever-evolving) to do so despite its “relative autonomy” which is “inscribed in the very structure of the capitalist state.”
According to Poulantzas, by recognizing both the autonomy of the “state machine” as well as the existence of a “power bloc” which mimics society’s pluralist form, it will “enable us to establish theoretically, and to examine concretely, the way in which the relative autonomy of the capitalist state develops and functions with respect to the particular economic-corporate interests of this or that fraction of the power bloc, in such a way that the state always guards the general political interests of this bloc – which certainly does not occur merely as a result of the state’s and the bureaucracy’s own rationalizing will.” This understanding includes “firmly grasping the fact than an institution (the state) that is destined to reproduce class divisions cannot really be a monolithic, fissureless bloc, but is itself, by virtue of its very structure (the state is a relation), divided.” Poulantzas continues:
The various organs and branches of the state (ministries and government offices, executive and parliament, central administration and local and regional authorities, army, judiciary, etc.) reveal major contradictions among themselves, each of them frequently constituting the seat and the representative – in short, the crystallization – of this or that fraction of the power bloc, this or that specific and competing interest. In this context, the process by whereby the general political interest of the power bloc is established, and whereby the state intervenes to ensure the reproduction of the overall system, may well, at a certain level, appear chaotic and contradictory, as a ‘resultant’ of these inter-organ and inter-branch contradictions.
This “division,” and these “contradictions,” were never more evident than with President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell address and sobering warning against the rising “military industrial complex,” which publicly displayed a major fission within the power bloc. According to Poulantzas, this splitting is irrelevant in the capitalist scheme of things because it remains, by design, autonomous from the base; and, therefore, will naturally work itself out to accommodate that base, whether through conscious coordination or through inherent process. In the age of neoliberalism and monopoly capitalism, the state has become highly concentrated out of necessity. In this sense, C. Wright Mills’ assessment rings true:
As each of these domains becomes enlarged and centralized, the consequences of its activities become greater, and its traffic with the others increases. The decisions of a handful of corporations bear upon military and political as well as upon economic developments around the world. The decisions of the military establishment rest upon and grievously affect political life as well as the very level of economic activity. The decisions made within the political domain determine economic activities and military programs. There is no longer, on the one hand, an economy, and, on the other hand, a political order containing a military establishment unimportant to politics and to money-making. There is a political economy linked, in a thousand ways, with military institutions and decisions. 
This intertwined political economy exists within the superstructure. It’s increased centralization, coordination, and synchronization over the past half-century has undoubtedly pushed the US government to the brink of a “corporate-fascistic state of being.” In this development, the equilibrium has never been more delicate and fragile. The two-party system, thriving from the pluralist nature of both the electorate and power bloc, has proven efficient in carrying out trivial “concessions” that give “the economic interests of certain dominated classes guarantees which may even be contrary to the short-term economic interests of the dominant classes, but which are compatible with their political interests and their hegemonic domination.” The expansion of domestic militarization and the intensification of “austerity measures” have introduced a degree of “corporate-fascistic” torque unseen before from within a mature capitalist state. How far these embedded “compromises may be reined in without destabilizing the equilibrium beyond repair” remains to be seen.
 Poulantzas, Nicos (Timothy O’Hagan translating). Political Power and Social Classes. Verso, 1975, p. 192.
 Gramsci, Antonio. Prison Notebooks, p. 182.
 Poulantzas, Political Power and Social Classes, p. 191.
 Poulantzas, Nicos. Classes in Contemporary Capitalism (Translated from French version by David Fernbach). Verso, 1978, p. 93.
 The Poulantzas Reader: Marxism, Law and the State. Verso Books: London/New York, 2008, p. 284.
 Ibid, p. 285.
 Ibid, p. 285.
 C. Wright Mills. The Power Elite, New Edition. Oxford University Press: 2000, p. 76.
 Poulantzas, Political Power and Social Classes, p. 191