The Specificity of the Political

In the “Specificity of the Political,” Ernesto Laclau addresses the debate between Nicos Poulantzas and Ralph Miliband on the Marxist theory of the State in order to develop its critical implications. Broadly speaking, Laclau agrees with Poulantzas that Miliband has not done enough work to theorize the concepts he uses. He is equally critical of Poulantzas, however, for his tendency to become more abstract, producing circular arguments about the nature of State power. In addition, Poulantzas ignores the question of why there is a theoretical difference between the questions posed by him and those posed by Miliband. Laclau notes that Miliband wants to understand how, empirically speaking, the ruling classes influence State bureaucrats, while Poulantzas attempts to theorize politics as a regional domain within capitalism (p. 67). They not only have different questions, but different methods.

Laclau borrows heavily from the French structuralist language employed by Poulantzas, referring constantly throughout his essay to the differences in their “problematic:” the theoretical question that precedes an explanation. Laclau agrees that concepts must be theorized first in order to verify “facts” within a theoretical paradigm (p. 60). Laclau critiques, however, what he sees as Poulantzas’s tendency toward “structuralist abstractionism.” He agrees with Miliband on this point, but he applies Poulantzas’s own method to develop more radical conclusions in the latter’s analysis. According to Laclau, the problem with Poulantzas’s analysis is two-fold: his definition of the State is ambiguous, because he fails to differentiate between the economic and production.

In terms of the State, Laclau shares Miliband’s concern that Poulantzas (and Althusser) try to incorporate any practice that maintains “social cohesion” into their definition of the State. Althusser originally used the concept of the Ideological State Apparatuses, to describe the various organizations and institutions that he thought helped reproduce the capitalist system, but which don’t usually fall under the official political science definition of what constitutes a State. Althusser famously argued, for example, that schools and even the family are Ideological State Apparatuses. Laclau, however, agrees with Miliband that the concept of the ISA becomes a vague concept encompassing any aspect that appears to reinforce the power of the capitalist system. This move ends up destroying the State as a category to analyze an objective structure (p. 69; see also the previous note on Therborn’s taxonomy of State apparatuses).

Laclau goes further than Miliband in his critique of Poulantzas, however, by attempting to ask why the latter’s attempt to theorize a new concept of the State ends up becoming incoherent. Laclau says Poulantzas does not explain why he and Miliband differ in their respective assumptions because he fails to distinguish between the economic and the concept of production (p. 76). Poulantzas assumes there are three basic categories for analyzing a given mode of production: the economic, the political, and the ideological. The latter two are typically distinguished at the level of the superstructure, while the economic is the base. The problem with using these categories, however, is that they only apply specifically to the capitalist mode of production.

Instead, Laclau argues, non-capitalist modes of production entail different ways of extracting surplus value, including “extra-economic coercion.” The latter undermines the distinction between the economic and the political. In feudalism, to use the classic example, lords may extract tribute from serfs, but they do so by literally threatening the serfs with violence. In contrast, in capitalism the process of manufacturing is concealed by the sale of commodities. A worker is paid a “fair wage,” hiding the fundamental fact that they create the value which the capitalist appropriates by selling the finished product on the market.

Laclau points out that the resulting distinction between the economic and the political is thus specific to the capitalist mode of production, and cannot be generalized as a theoretical principle. Laclau avoids the usual framing of the debate, that Miliband only acknowledges the autonomy of the State in exceptional cases such as fascism while Poulantzas erases the difference between bourgeois democracy and fascism. Rather, Laclau agrees with the tone of Miliband’s critique of Poulantzas, but adopts Poulantzas’s focus on concepts, to understand the real questions that the latter hints at without making explicit in his theory.

In sum, Laclau points to an area of analysis of the State that recognizes the changing definition of what constitutes the “political” in modes of production.

The State and Corruption

To take Laclau further in the context of Sri Lanka, we could argue that the critique of political “corruption” hints at the intersection between the economic and political in capitalism. Neoliberals frequently criticize bureaucrats for interfering with economic production, arguing that they create networks of patronage that appropriate the surplus of hard-working entrepreneurs. There is a blind-spot, however, insofar as the neoliberal experts ignore the original mode through which workers are exploited for their surplus value. Instead, we can use Laclau to think through the question of what the intersection between the economic and the political tells us about the nature of capitalism in Sri Lanka and in general.

While neoliberal experts may criticize rent-seeking, they also acknowledge capitalists must pay tax revenue in order to ensure the effective functioning of the institutions that guarantee their right to property and its enforcement, including the law. What makes one accumulation stream legitimate and another illegitimate? Neoliberals may respond that crony capitalists use the State to protect their businesses, whereas in the supposedly more advanced capitalist West, the State is the product of an impersonal set of rules and regulations. This distinction, however, doesn’t hold up. During the financial crisis, it became clear that even Western democratic institutions could be effectively lobbied by bankers to undermine regulation, thus ensuring their ability to accumulate massive profits through unrestrained speculation.

If the common-sense view that only States in developing countries are corrupt doesn’t effectively capture the full taxonomy of the State’s intervention in the economy, what is the alternative? Perhaps instead of arguing that the State should stay out of private business, we can look at networks of power that reflect how bureaucrats and capitalists divide up the surplus generated within production. In this sense, there is a shared space among elites, whether State or capitalist. The question is not whether appropriation of surplus value is “legitimate” or not, but how it’s distributed. Regardless of how it’s divvied up among elites, it’s clear that the masses do not benefit from the specific form of appropriation of the surplus they create.

The entire system may face a crisis of legitimacy in situations where it becomes obvious that the State is simply bailing out banks, or otherwise using public revenue to support businesses while forcing austerity on the masses. Accordingly, the political target could be State-sponsored mega infrastructure projects, multinational corporations, or a combination of both. We must return to what Laclau has identified as the specificity of the political and, to extend his theory, the specific form of its intersection with the economic in capitalism. Though often narrowly framed as the question of “corruption,” this is in fact an argument between State and capitalist elites over how to divide up the social surplus.

5th September 2016