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I have been trying to wrap my head around the CasP concept of ‘the state of capital’. There are a few points I want to hash out that I’m hoping will clarify things for myself, based on reading in Capital as Power (2009) and this response to Sean Starr in Dissident Voice:
1. Nitzan and Bichler’s concept of state seems to refer not to a political form per se but a general, non-governmental meaning of state as “a condition of being in a stage or form, as of structure, growth, or development” (Merriam-Webster). In other words, ‘state’ simply describes the organization of elements in a given space at a given time. The state of capital is then the overall state of capitalized power in a given social space at a point in time. The state conventionally conceived as ‘governmental power/logic/institutions’ is something conceptually independent of this insofar as those elements can theoretically operate according to another logic or ‘mode of power’.
2. Whether an element ‘counts’ as part of the state of capital rests on two conditions: first, the extent to which an element can be confidently assumed to act (or be acted upon) according to the logic of differential accumulation; and second, the ability to measure this confidence with some reliability through capitalization. These two conditions are closely related, and second may be a facet of the first, but I believe it is useful to distinguish them for two reasons:
a. First, resistance to or autonomy from capital can also be capitalized, in so far as it is can be represented in capitalization (for instance, through the risk coefficient). Thus, it is not simply that an element is more or less subjugated to the logic of differential accumulation. The totalizing nature of capitalization is such that it attempts to measure the ‘total’ situation, and in so far as it does this, elements autonomous from capital can still be implicitly capitalized.
b. Second, the measurement itself plays a dual role in representing and acting upon capitalized power, insofar as it also governs the behaviour of elements within the state of capital. In this way, it can also act as a lever to impose power, especially on those elements which attempt to resist. An example: when leftist political leaders are elected, the ‘market’ tends to react by selling off stocks, bonds, and currency holdings and in general revising measurements of capitalization downward:
Usually, the newly elected leader rushes to reassure the ‘market’ of their government’s commitment to ‘fiscal responsibility’. In other words, these ‘adjustments’ both reflect the changing capitalization of government power (for instance, through currency valuations) and simultaneously enforce, in the same way the threat of violence extends power far beyond the force of the blow, the extent to which an element, like a national leader, feels they must conform their policies to the logic of capitalization and differential accumulation.
3. Because the future is uncertain, capitalization as a representation of reality is highly fallible. It is in fact, almost certainly always wrong – not only because it reduces infinitely complex and constantly fluctuating power dynamics to a single number, but also because, as noted above, every adjustment itself acts on the state of capital, immediately undermining capitalization’s claim to accuracy. What this means is that when using ‘the state of capital’ as a framework, one must bear in mind the large and insurmountable gap between the unknowable actual ‘state’ of capitalist power and its nominal representation. In doing this, Nitzan and Bichler’s future-oriented and intersubjective conception of capitalist power as “confidence in obedience” is helpful. As an aside, this is I think where many people who are in general skeptical of the CasP framework get hung up. They assume that the CasP researcher thinks that capitalization is a ‘true’ representation of ‘all’ power, mistaking an empirical observation about the ritual of capitalization for the theory itself.
4. Finally, the most difficult aspect, and perhaps the most unsatisfying, for me at least, is that the concept of the state of capital does not inherently explain particular behaviours or events. In their piece in Dissident Voice, Nitzan and Bichler write:
“The definition of the ‘state’ as the mode of power of society is a broad framework, not a particular theory. Taken on its own, the notion of the capitalist mode of power, just like Marx’s mode of production, is not meant to account for any specific entity, occurrence and process: it cannot explain a particular war, a particular set of gender relationships, a particular ethnic context, or a particular cultural trait.”
It seems to me that what makes other conceptions of the state appealing (for better or worse) is that they do attempt to explain these things. In framework of ‘the state of capital’, on the other hand, power processes are to be understood mainly (but not entirely) at the level of dominant capital formations which always include government power, but to varying extents. This raises a whole host of analytical complexities. For instance, when private actors capitalize many different facets of government power, they partially collapse the analytical distinction between government power itself and their own power over or within said government. And: the state of capital encompasses any number of disparate power processes, all of which are differential, but each of which is differential between a variety of dynamic and interrelated groups: preferential treatment of some capitalists and not others; preferential labour laws for some workers and not others; preferential treatment for some foreign governments and not others. And: the state of capital today encompasses both the confidence that governments will abide by international trade agreements and their ability to preferentially violate them.
If I were to advance one criticism of the framework of ‘the state of capital’, then, it is that it supplants an explanatory concept (however flawed) for a descriptive one – one might say (perhaps reductively) in Hegelian terms that the concept is simply the name for the unity of its parts. On the other hand, this may be a benefit: if the state of capital increasingly permeates all aspects of societies and the distinction between corporations and governments is becoming ever more blurred, then a reset of our fundamental categories may be the most useful way forward. In any case, I think the concept deserves further attention and elaboration.
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