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Capital & Class

Crisis of Theory: Bob Jessop's Theory of Capitalist Reproduction

Werner Bonefeld Capital & Class 1993 17: 25 DOI: 10.1177/030981689305000103

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Werner Bonefeld

Crisis of Theory: Bob Jessop’s Theory of Capitalist Reproduction

During the 1980s a new word—Thatcherism—entered

the political lexicon. For many on the left Thatcherism came to signify a broad-ranging programme of post-fordist trans- formation. One of the major contributors to a post-fordist interpretation of ‘Thatcherism’ has been Bob Jessop. His contribution has focused on the ‘reformulation of state theory’. This reformulation aims at a conceptualisation of an ‘intermediate’ concept of ‘state’: the fordist or post-fordist states as distinctively different modes of capitalist regulation. The reformulation of state theory has been criticised by various authors, 1 particularly for its disarticulation of structure and struggle. In this paper, it will be argued that Jessop’s reformulation destroys the Marxian notion of ‘social relations’ in favour of a combination of system theory and conflict theory. In his analysis of Thatcherism, Jessop has made an important and original contribution to the perennial theme of Marxist controversy, namely that of the relation between structure and struggle. This contribution is his ‘dialectic between structure and strategy’ which he elaborated in his theoretical work. 2 Jessop explores his ‘dialectic’ in terms of ‘strategic selectivity’ of structures and the structurally transforming role of strategies. In the simplest terms, Jessop’s


Bonefeld assesses and criticises Jessop’s dialectic between structure and strategy. He argues that Jessop equates class struggle with capitalist strategies, thus destroying the Marxian notion of a contradictory constitution of social relations.

26 Capital & Class 50

approach is concerned with the mutual articulation of structure and strategy which for him transcends the polarity between approaches which privilege either structure or strategy. The outcome of this articulation is historically contingent. This article assesses and criticises Jessop’s dialectic between structure and strategy. I shall argue that Jessop equates class struggle with capital strategies and, thereby, destroys the Marxian notion of a contradictory constitution of social relations. The outcome, rather than supplying a clear and coherent conceptualisation, is a theoretical maze. The casualty in this is not only the critical dimension of Marxism but also Jessop’s own approach which, as will be argued, is tautological. Jessop’s approach reifies structures by dismissing class struggle. It might appear that all that is at issue is the definition of concepts with little practical importance. That is not so. The issue is an understanding of the driving force of capitalist development. Is the replacement of Fordism by Post-Fordism driven forward by the objective tendencies of capitalist development, or by a process of constant, hard- fought struggle? If the former, we are confronted with a closed structural-functionalist world which we are powerless to change. If the latter, we are faced with the ‘reality’ of a constant struggle (see Holloway, 1988; 1991). The theoretical suppression of class struggle leads to a deterministic under- standing of social development in which obeisance may be paid to class struggle, but what really counts is the dynamic trajectory established by the inescapable lines of capital’s projects. The thrust of the assertion that capitalist develop- ment follows some ‘inescapable lines of development’ is that an understanding of the struggle-to-exploit is not of primary importance. Instead, it becomes more important to under- stand the institutional logic of capital because capitalist domination is ‘realised through an emergent, impersonal and quasi-natural network of social connections’. (Jessop, 1991 p.173). The result is that the focus of analysis shifts from a conceptualisation of class struggle to a conceptualisation of the structural framework of struggle. This paper is in three parts. The first part introduces Jessop’s notion of an ‘accumulation strategy’. I shall then turn to his ‘dialectic between structure and strategy’ and finally to the theoretical implications of Jessop’s approach.

The Notion of Accumulation Strategy

Crisis of Theory


Jessop’s approach is premised on the notion that social reality is constituted by the confluence of multiple chains of causality generating from different social sub-systems such as the economic and the political. The link between different subsystems is established theoretically by the ‘method of articulation’. According to this ‘method’, any single event is determined by a distinctive conjuncture of different causal processes. As Jessop (et al, 1988 p.53) puts it, historical phenomena ‘are best analysed as a complex resultant of multiple determinations’. Social events cannot be understood by privileging one determination at the expense of others. Jessop seeks thus to overcome the structuralist emphasis on the economic as determining in the last instance. For example, the political and the economic are thus understood to be both determining and the causal processes stemming from the political and the economic engage with each other in a contingent way. This is the basis for Jessop’s notion of ‘determinism without reductionism’, that is, without the economic reductionism of structuralist Marxism. In order to grasp the dynamic of social change, one has, according to Jessop, to follow the strategic line of capital in the face of ‘various dilemmas, risks, uncertainties and complexities’, emergent strategies, trial and error techniques etc. (ibid., p.8). He claims that the interplay of the laws of capitalist develop- ment with the hegemonic struggle of different capital ‘logics’ melts different social systems together, so permitting a corresponding social cohesion of ideological, political and economic patterns. Jessop advocates the Poulantzarian distinction between a theory of the capitalist mode of production and the theory of the capitalist state ‘region’. Such an approach to the capitalist state denies an internal relation between the political and the economic on the basis of the labour theory of value (as in Jessop, 1982). In the face of criticism, Jessop sought to make this good by supplying a link between the economic and the political. 3 The link is the concept of ‘accumulation strategy’ (Jessop, 1983). Jessop supplies a list of different accumulation strategies which range from Hitler’s Groß- raumwirtschaft to Japan’s ‘rich country and strong army’ and to Germany’s ‘Modell Deutschland’ (ibid., p.94). The list is

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arbitrary because of his failure to integrate it into a theoretical concept. His attempt to incorporate the labour theory of value into his argument is conspicuous for its eclecticism. As argued by Psychopedis (1991 p.189), an accumulation strategy ‘is understood as a “subject” which, in

Jessop’s [1983] own words, “must take account” of the circuit

of capital, international conjunctures, the balance of power

and which “must consider” the relation between the classes, etc. (In other words, we have here a reappearance of the

Hegelian idealistic subject so disliked by the structuralists.)’.

A successful accumulation strategy stands above class

relations because it takes into account different modes of calculation and gives a particular coherence and political direction to the multiplicity or forces operating in the real world of competing subjects. An accumulation strategy gives rise to a mode of regulation in which the multiple determin- ations of the real world combine. He calls a mode of regulation a ‘contingent necessity’.

The term ‘accumulation strategy’ is used as a means of articulating the contingent unity between the economic and the political. Since there ‘is no substantive unity to the circuit

of capital nor any predetermined pattern of accumulation’

(Jessop, 1983 p.91), sustained accumulation requires an extra power in order to impose regulative mechanisms. This power is the state. The pattern of accumulation is determined by the accumulation regime adopted by the state. However, no unique accumulation strategy is available to the state, but rather a range of alternative strategies, expressing different classes and fractional interests and alliances. Any viable accumulation strategy has to reconcile the pursuit of sectional interests with the sustained accumulation of capital. The determination as to which accumulation strategy will be adopted by the state requires an analysis of political conflicts through which strategic issues are resolved (Jessop, 1983). Jessop sets himself the task of showing the way in which the formal character of the state unfolds in specific historical conjunctures. This task is bound up with an understanding of

the structural selectivity of the political terrain. For example,

if it is the case that the political has its own logical causal

processes and distinctiveness, it becomes important, as argued by Ling (1991), to show how the ‘political’ can remain open to changes in its environment whilst at the same time

Crisis of Theory


retaining its ‘closed-ness’ from that environment. However, if the political shapes the social environment how can it retain its distance to causal mechanism stemming from, for example, the economic? Jessop supplies three overlapping answers. Firstly, the state stands above a plurality of competitive conflicts and class struggles and so provides the functional integration of a ‘regime of accumulation’. The state operates, secondly, on the basis of a ‘strategic selectivity’. This means that the state favours some demands and marginalises others. As a result, the state is both open to, and closed from, its environment. This is the basis for Jessop’s characterisation of his work as a ‘strategic relational’ approach. Lastly, Jessop offers his ‘dialectic of structure and strategy’ as a means of integrating social relations into the analysis.

The Dialectic between Structure and Strategy

For Jessop, Marxist theorising is not predicated on the real movement of class antagonism and the constituting movement of class struggle but, rather, on the contention that the real world is a world of contingently realised natural necessities (Jessop, 1988 p.8). The notion of ‘contingency’ allows Jessop to define a structurally complex world of systems and institutions within which social actors pursue their interests. Capitalist development is said to be dependent upon the actions of competing social subjects who occupy a particular position vis-à-vis ‘structure’ and whose actions comprise distinct modes of calculation, patterns of strategic conduct and forms of struggle. Jessop uses the phrase the ‘dual perspective of structural determination and class position’ to thematise this. The restructuring of a ‘mode of articulation’ is determined by class and non-class struggles and these struggles are in turn determined by the ‘strategic selectivity’ which is incorporated in structures. The limits imposed upon the field of struggle by the facilitating and constraining operation of structures entail that the dynamic of capitalism is a complex outcome of two intersecting mechanisms. The causal mechanisms of the capitalist ‘system’ generate a potentiality for change which constrain and

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facilitate the strategies of different social groups. Secondly, the transformation of a mode of articulation depends on subjective mechanisms like hegemonic projects which push the system from, for example, Fordism to Post-Fordism. The success of any competing strategy depends on its complementarily to all other relevant strategies within the overall structural ensemble (Jessop, 1988 pp.42 and 44). Thus, structures dominate. Their inherent ‘strategic selectivity’ decides which strategy is allowed to reproduce the system. Structures connote a system of causal mechanisms which provide social spaces for human activities. While these activities are vital for the reproduction of structures, the structural framework is not limited to human activities. The world of structures is said to be complex because of its division into different regions, each having its own causal powers and liabilities. Further, these regions are said to involve hierarchies, with some regions emergent from others but reacting back on them. Each region is itself stratified, comprising not only a level of ‘real causal mechanisms and liabilities’ but also the levels on which such ‘powers are actualised and/or can be empirically examined’ (ibid.). Jessop takes for granted the separation of social relations into distinctive structural systems and proliferates these structures by dividing ‘basic structures’ into ‘stratified’ subsystems. Jessop does not deny that there is an internal relation between different ‘social systems’. However, and in contra- distinction to approaches predicated on the notion of an antagonistic constitution of social relations, Jessop thematises this unity in terms of a positivist social theory. The unity between different ‘systems’ is founded on the notion of ‘natural necessities’. As Jessop (1988 p.8) puts it, ‘the real world is a world of contingently realised necessities’. Jessop avoids giving an answer to the question as to the constitution of these ‘necessities’. The necessities are assumed to be ‘natural’ necessities. The determination of ‘natural’ remains unexplained. And yet, the notion of ‘natural necessities’ is of crucial importance for what Jessop describes as his ‘realist ontological approach’ (see Jessop, 1988). 4 This approach is premised on the idea that the real world of capitalism is subject to change through the sui generis operation of different regions whose articulation is dependent on, but not limited to, the action of social subjects. Reality is thus ‘made up of

Crisis of Theory


deep structures which condition and make possible the “events” we observe in everyday experience’ (Lovering, 1990 p.39). Social actions are thus deeply structured. Jessop incorporates Critical Realism into his approach in an attempt to contextualise the ‘non-necessary correspondence’ (Jessop, 1986) between different social systems. His approach focuses on the constraints imposed on human agency by ‘definite’ structural contexts. He sees social strategies and processes as constrained by the strategic selectivity embodied in structures (Jessop, 1988). 5 As will be argued below, Jessop’s ‘realist ontology’ is predicated on the notion that the real defies analysis. Before explaining this further, however, Jessop’s dialectic between structure and strategy needs to be clarified. Jessop has to account for the fact that the capitalist system moves. This leads him to introduce, on an empirical level, the notion of many subjects (Jessop, 1988/1991). We are thus confronted with the notions of, on the one hand, a sui generis operation of different regions (Jessop, 1986), and, on the other, of a plurality of empirically observable subjects. The notion of ‘many subjects’ is obscure because it is premised on the concept of natural necessities. These necessities exist independently from human relations (Jessop, 1988). The positivist concept of ‘natural necessities’ connotes a structure which determines social relations. The concept ‘natural necessities’ seems to be conceived of in terms of system properties which are contingently reproduced: The sui generis operation of the system produces ‘social effects’ which define the—empirically observable—actions of different social actors. The relative success or failure of a strategy is seen as depending on unrecognised structural conditions of action. 6 Jessop’s pluralist reformulation of the Marxist notion of ‘class’ is not uncommon in the Marxist tradition. In the days of the DIAMAT-style Marxism of the Stalin years, social development was seen as being determined by technological development. The irony of Jessop’s approach is that his updating of ‘Marxism’ reintroduces an understanding of history in terms of an adaptation of social relations to the functional requirements of the productive forces. 7 While Jessop proclaims against such an interpretation of his views, his dualism between natural necessity and many subjects is complicit in the reintroduction of old-style orthodoxy.

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Closure and

Jessop’s approach dwells on the idea of ‘intermediate


concepts’. 8 These are seen as being necessary if the gap between the generic level of abstract laws and the analysis of specific historical conjunctures is to be bridged. What is taken for granted here, is a separation of the generic from the specific, since, otherwise, there would be no ‘gap’ to ‘bridge’. However, the net result of this ‘reformulation’ is not sufficient. This is because the conjunctural approach has to identify key variables, such as technological development from mass assembly lines to ‘new technology’ or shifting articulations of the ‘economy’ and ‘politics’, which make everything clear. The identification of key variables borders on determinism and by doing so marginalises class. For example, the state-system can adopt specifically ‘fascist’ or ‘authoritarian’ or ‘bourgeois-liberal’ or ‘fordist’ or ‘post-fordist’ forms. The idea of ‘form’ as a species of something more generic has underpinned both DIAMAT-style conceptions of general laws which have to be applied to specific social instances and the conjunctional approach which focuses on intermediate concepts to bridge the gap between the abstract level of general laws and their concrete application. In Jessop’s approach the concrete is not seen as a mode of existence of social relations but, rather, as a specific articulation of more general laws of natural necessity. The consequence of this understanding is that the approach can identify static structures only because human relations appear merely as a social effect of structural laws. Further, the identification of key variables not only reinforces the idea of structural laws but provides, also, a sociology of interconnected features without being able to specify the theoretical relationships between the various elements of the supposed concrete articulation of structures in, for example, the form of Post-Fordism. Theory becomes non-binding and arbitrary. This is because the dualist separations of a fetishised world—the separations of struggle from structure and of one ‘region’ of society from another—are not called into question but taken for granted, as the principle of social thought. The separation between structure and struggle entails a deterministic conceptualisation of capital in that capital becomes a structure of inescapable lines of development which stand above social relations. Jessop’s approach is characterised by the attempt to derive social

Crisis of Theory


conflict from pre-formed, ahistorical categories. The historical constitution of these laws is presupposed in terms of a logical construct. In the face of criticism, Jessop reasserts that his approach includes the class struggle and that proper attention is given to its movement. At the same time, he insists emphatically that capital is not class struggle (Jessop, 1991). How can one understand these conflicting statements? For Jessop, the structure-strategy-dialectic does not separate struggle from structure but shows their complex forms of interaction. Jessop’s conception of social development indicates a degree of voluntarism which, however, is limited by the dualist conception of structure and struggle: that is, it is restricted by the existence of objective laws and thus by a given range of options. Jessop uses the term ‘strategy’ as a concept with which to grasp the subjective notion of decision taking and the importance of subjective action within history. Jessop’s voluntarist approach is a product of his disarticulation between structure and class struggle. Voluntarism and determinism have always been happy enough to see structures as constraining action and action as the limit of the ‘effectivity’ of social structures. As a consequence, there is, in Jessop, a dichotomy between a determinist conception of capitalist development and a voluntarist conception of social action. 9 Jessop seeks to resolve the contradiction between determinism and voluntarism by conceptualising capital as a transhistorical subject. Before dwelling on this conception of capital in more detail, attention is focused on Jessop’s destruction of the Marxian notion of class antagonism.

If one were to follow Jessop’s notion of the sui generis


operation of different systems founded on ‘natural necessities’,

mechanisms and

how would one be able to understand the ‘contingent’ realisation of capitalist reproduction? The first answer to this question is that this realisation cannot be conceptualised because the notion of ‘contingency’ prohibits any grasp on the real movement of capitalist development. The conditions of a mode of articulation remain indeterminate and contingent because a mode of articulation is a ‘chance discovery’ (Fundsache) (Jessop, 1988). The ‘real’ is understood to be indeterminable since it is the outcome of an infinite number

social conflict

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of empirical factors which make capitalist development contingent and relative. This, however, means that, contrary to Jessop’s intention to sensitise concrete analysis to the real structures which constrain agency and strategy, the real world of social conflict is beyond theory’s grasp. In Jessop, ‘reality constitutes itself as an arbitrary, empiricist combination of abstract laws’ (Psychopedis, 1992 p.2). It seems that the contingent character of abstract laws defies an analysis of the empirical conditions of the capitalist exploitation of labour. According to Jessop one can, nevertheless, reveal tendential causal mechanisms whose ‘outcome depends on specific initial conditions as well as on the contingent interaction among tendencies and countertendencies’ (Jessop, 1988 p.9). For example, in his analysis of Thatcherism, Jessop (et al., 1988 p.9) asserts that there are ‘many Thatcherisms’. This view is correct with regards to Jessop’s approach. The notion of many causes and an infinite number of factors goes hand-in-hand with the idea that reality is open to different interpretations (see Ling, 1991). However, Jessop destroys the interesting notion or ‘many Thatcherisms’ by declaring that Thatcherism has adopted a strategic line. If there are many Thatcherisms, how can one depict Thatcherism’s strategic line? A strategic line evolves from the strategic vision of Thatcherism (Jessop et al., 1988 p.11). This vision has given direction and coherence to the development of the British state during the 1980s. The notion of a multiplicity of diverse factors is further undermined by Jessop’s economic determinism. He argues that Thatcherism’s vision is determined economically. This is because one needs to have an understanding of the decisive economic nucleus of hegemony in order to see the structural source of power (ibid., p.16). Jessop contradicts himself. On the one hand he declares that there are many determinations and that one cannot privilege one at the expense of others and, on the other hand, he insists that the economic nucleus of power is decisive. However, the results of capitalist reproduction do not follow the unfolding of economic laws because these laws need to be activated by human agency (Jessop, 1988). Thus, while there are causal mechanisms, the actual results of these mechanisms depend on empirical conditions which, as was reported above, defy conceptualisation. Jessop denies that there is a ‘single objective logic of capitalist development

Crisis of Theory


which transcends all particularities’ (Jessop, 1988/1991). He deduces from this denial the separation of abstract theory from real results, that is, from empirical data. He insists that ‘the development of capitalism is always mediated through historically specific institutional forms, regulatory institutions and norms of conduct, such as the wage relations, forms of competition, monetary emission, the state, the international commercial and financial system and the norms of conduct and modes of calculation which correspond to these institutional forms, etc.’ (ibid., p.151). He fails to show how this list can be integrated conceptually and how it can be applied to ‘concrete analysis’.

Jessop understands the Marxian notion of capitalist social


relations as a means of articulating different laws of motion.

Determinism and

The distinction between different laws is, as argued by Psychopedis (1991), already problematic since it destroys the notion of the inner relationship between different phenomena. The ‘laws’ of capitalist accumulation are conceived of as a structural framework which determines the empirically observable class conflict in the real world. Jessop argues that capitalist domination is realised through an emergent and impersonal and quasi-natural network of social connections. This network is reproduced by human agents and, according to Jessop, could never be understood without referring to their actions. He insists, however, that it would be wrong to conceive of class struggle as the starting point because class struggle is one mechanism amongst others in and through which capital accumulation is analysed. The understanding of class struggle as a mechanism of capitalist reproduction calls for objective sociological criteria with which to establish the class relevance of social antagonism (Jessop, 1991). The class character of social subjects is defined in terms of their relation to the value form. For Jessop, the key to deciphering the structural framework of class antagonism is the concept of surplus value (ibid., p.148). It is the dominance of the value form in a system of generalised commodity production which is seen as determining the conceptual identity of classes, the nature of class relations, the forms of class struggle and the totalising dynamic of class struggle and competition within the capitalist mode of production (ibid.).


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For Jessop, the value form is better understood as a meta- form (ibid.). This notion is founded on his genus-species distinction. The value meta-form describes the structural framework within which different forms of value, such as productive, financial, commercial capital, compete with each other. Their competition unfolds within the circuit of capital whose structure is abstractly defined by the value meta-form. Within the circuit of capital we find, according to Jessop, different logics of capital. These logics connote different accumulation strategies of competing capital fractions. The value meta-form does not fully determine the course of accumulation but only the institutional logic and directional dynamic of capitalism, in itself indeterminate. It needs thus to be overdetermined by an ‘economic class struggle in which the balance of class forces is moulded by many factors beyond the value form itself ’ (Jessop, 1983 p.90). The value form is understood not as a process in and through which ‘social relations appear in the form of relations between things, but as

a thing-like structure which determines social relations. This inversion underlies the empiricism of Jessop’s approach, according to which it is contingent institutional forms and

political conflicts which determine the development of value relations and the course of accumulation’. (Clarke, 1991 p.49 fn.24). The value-meta form defines the coherence of the capitalist mode of production, a coherence which is achieved, in practice, through the contingent forces of social conflict in the real world. The value meta-form is seen merely as constraining, externally, the room for manoeuvre of different capital logics. The conception of the value form as a value meta-form is tautological. This is because the determination of the value meta-form in the real world of contesting social forces presupposes the practical existence of the value meta- form, and vice versa. In Jessop’s approach, the value meta-form

is seen as external to its own determination.

Jessop destroys an understanding of the capital-labour relation as an exploitative relation because he construes class antagonism as external to the ‘trajectory dynamic of capitalism’. Both capital and labour are conceived as human bearers of structural laws which stand above the social conflict. By putting his argument in this way, Jessop treats capital and labour as both victims of structural laws and as creative powers. However, this is not to say that the notion of

Crisis of Theory


the ‘real power’ (Jessop, 1988) of competitive struggle and class conflict is conceived of in terms of an equilibrium between the social contestants. The combination of structural laws and sites of contest reintroduces ‘capital’ as a transhistorical subject whose dynamic logic is theoretically presupposed and whose realisation is empirically observable. Within the relation of capital and labour, the class struggle is subordinated to the basic forms and dynamics of capital as the dominant force (übergreifendes Subjekt) (Jessop, 1991 p.165). What this, however, means is that the social conflict is understood merely in terms of a theory of capital regulation. As Jessop puts it, the ‘multiplication of institutional forms and regulative mechanisms …actually create significant barriers to a general attack on the capital relation by fragmenting and disorganising opposition and resistance and/or channelling it along particular paths where it threatens less harm to the core institutions of capitalism’. (Jessop, 1988 p.43). Class conflict ‘does not as such create the totality nor does it give rise to [capitalism’s] dynamic trajectory’ (Jessop, 1991 p.154). This is because the ‘conceptual identity of classes is given by the capital relation itself rather than being constrained by classes which shape the capital relation’ (ibid.). The capital relation stands above class relations. For Jessop, ‘it would be more accurate to conclude that class antagonism arises because of the inherent quality of the capital-labour relation than that this relation is antagonistic because of the contingent occurrence of class struggle and/or competition’ (ibid., pp.150–1). He thus insists that ‘capital’ is not an antagonistic social relation and that the antagonism of classes arises only in the real world of multiple determinations. As a consequence, the concept of class dissolves into the pluralist notion of interest-groups, each of which relates to emergent structural ensembles in its own way. The Marxist notion of class antagonism is thus destroyed in favour of a sociological conception of empirically observable modalities of a multitude of social conflicts. What sense can be made of Jessop’s concept ‘capital-labour-relation’? The capital relation defines the natural necessity of capitalism in terms of capital as an ideal subject. Jessop thus treats the structural selectivity of structures and capital’s projects as equal. The understanding of capital as an übergreifendes Subjekt means, fundamentally,

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that the articulation of causal mechanisms in the real world of multiple determinations is achieved by the subjectivity of capital. While the world is conceived of as a world of contingently realised natural necessities (Jessop, 1988), the notion of ‘contingency’ relates only to the ability of capital to achieve sustained reproduction on the basis of a successful accumulation strategy. According to Jessop (1985; 1998/1991), the dynamic of the real world of capitalism is achieved through a process without a subject. For Jessop, this does not mean that there are no active subjects. On the contrary, ‘any natural necessity of capitalism must be reproduced through social practices which are always (and inevitably) definite social practices, articulated more or less closely as moments in specific modes of regulation’ (Jessop, 1988 p.34). Jessop seeks to resolve the contradiction between the notion of a process without a subject and the subjectivity of capital (‘capital is the subject’:

Jessop, 1991 p.150) by differentiating capital, as mentioned above, into a series of ‘logics’. Each of these logics is in competition with the others, permitting a pluralist struggle between different capital interests. There is ‘no logic’ of capital but a ‘series of logics with a family resemblance, corresponding to different modes of regulation and accumulation regimes’ (ibid.). The family resemblance mentioned by Jessop connotes the notion of capital as the subject. The different logics of capital entail a contest between ‘alternative accumulation strategies’ seeking to establish a ‘specific’ regime of accumulation within the limits of the value meta-form. The ‘dual perspective of structural determination and class position’ (Jessop, 1985 p.344) connotes the power of social subjects to modify the abstract tendencies of capitalism ‘in and through a stable articulation between the invariant elements of capitalism and the variant elements’ emergent in different specific forms such as Fordism and/or Post-Fordism (see Jessop, 1988 p.34). The value meta- form plays the role of an external economic structure which passively defines the limits within which social subjects and historical contingency can determine the course of accumulation. Jessop’s approach fails to explain how social conflict and structures interrelate. His equation of class struggle with capitalist strategies is an unsatisfactory response to this problem.

Crisis of Theory


According to Jessop, a mode of regulation is a ‘contingent

Conflict Theory

necessity’. Jessop’s theoretical project is to show in concrete analysis how structures constrain social conflict. Structures are seen as explicit reference points for strategic calculations and as comprising partly recognised and partially unacknowledged sets of structural constraints and conjunctural opportunities (Jessop, 1988/1991). In order to gain purchase on the systemic conditions of ‘action’, Jessop distinguishes four structural levels. These levels are, first, the empirically observable regularities in social relations; second, the basic forms of social relations which together comprise a social formation; third, the network of institutions and organisations comprising a social order; and, lastly, the structural constraints and conjunctural opportunities provided by structural development for social actors (Jessop, 1988 p.38). According to Jessop, the first level, i.e. the empirically observable regularities in social relations, does not offer much purchase on the systemic conditions of action. This is because it does not provide direct evidence concerning the basic structures as they result from changing combinations of real mechanisms and contingent circumstances. The second level, i.e. the basic forms of social relations, is too abstract to give much purchase on strategic conduct. The third level, i.e. the network of institutions, gives purchase on strategic conduct but needs to be specified further so as to bring out its strategic relevance. It is the fourth level which is crucial. Structures need to be examined relationally, that is, in terms of their structural constraints and conjunctural opportunities which emerge from the strategic orientation of social forces (ibid.). The strategic selectivity of structures impinges on social forces through a set of ‘conjunctural moments’. These moments involve elements which can and elements which cannot be altered by a given agent (or set of agents). According to Jessop (1988 p.38), ‘the same structural element can operate as a structural constraint for some agent(s) at the same time as it presents itself to other agent(s) as a “conjunctural opportunity” ’. In order to assess the strategic relevance of social agents or groups of agents, one has to concentrate, according to Jessop, on the ‘need’ of capital. The ‘need of capital has to be assessed strategically in relation to complex conjunctures rather than formally in terms of an abstract, purely economic, circuit of capital’ (Jessop, 1988/1991 p.155). How can one define the need of capital in conjunctural terms?

and Empiricism

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Since the concrete cannot be theorised (see above), the ‘need of capital’ can only be assessed in terms of a preformed conception of the natural necessities of the capitalist system. In order to understand the realisation of capital reproduction in the real world, Jessop seeks to assess the need of capital, a need which is already presupposed abstractly. As a consequence, Jessop’s notion of the action of social subjects is not only predicated on a sort of individualistic reformulation of the Marxian notion of class struggle but also, and as a matter of entirely distinct theorising, on a sort of idealist reformulation of capital as a transhistorical subject. All social subjects are seen as mere participants in the global capitalist subject. Social conflicts are thus seen as facilitating forces which reproduce the capitalist system. The social conflict is constrained by, and forced to reproduce, capital as the transhistorical subject. Social conflict is thus construed as a creative force which articulates structural opportunities in practical terms and so realises the dynamic direction and institutional logic of capital in the real world. Jessop’s ‘dialectic between structure and strategy’ is construed in terms of system theory’s conflict theory. The social conflict is construed in terms of its functionality, that is, as a means of reinforcing the status quo. Conflict is understood as a creative means of balancing and hence maintaining a society. It helps to create and modify norms, and assures the continuance of the system.

Theory: An end in itself

However, even if one were to accept Jessop’s approach, it remains unclear how the social body of pluralist struggles can be transformed into a definite strategy. The dictum that ‘we must examine the structural selectivity inscribed in structures’ (Jessop, 1988/1991 p.159) remains incomprehensible. How can one understand ‘structural selectivity’? Jessop tackles this problem by stressing that it would be wrong to reduce a structural category to, and/or derive it from, a strategic category, and to derive a single strategy from a given structure (Jessop, 1988 p.41). This is because structural categories belong to the realm of the system which is disconnected from the concrete realm of social practices and because there are always competing strategies (ibid.). Further, the relationship between different structural elements have only a relative unity

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(ibid.). Lastly, the outcome of the dialectic between structure and strategy is always contingent (ibid). What, then, for Jessop, constitutes ‘selectivity’? It seems that there is no answer to this question. This, however, means that theory loses its truth criteria. Jessop insists that structural constraints and conjunctural opportunities emerge from the strategic orientation of social forces (Jessop, 1988 p.38). In turn, however, this means that ‘structural selectivity’ is defined by— and remains at the mercy of—the contingently emerging transformation of social reality. This further implies that the notion of ‘structural selectivity’ defies conceptualisation and that it can be observed only empirically. As in Critical Realism (see Gunn), Jessop’s argument comprises a vicious circularity of presuppositions. He presupposes structural selectivity as conditioning the action of social subjects and then he presupposes that structural constraints emerge from the strategic conduct of social subjects. Each is supposed to make sense of the other. In other words, the real world lies outside theory’s grasp. Jessop’s ‘realist ontology’ turns against itself inasmuch as it offers no concept of the real. Jessop supplies a theoretical maze. On the one hand, there is no single cause, whilst, on the other, the economic is determining. On the one hand, Jessop isolates different phenomena from the social whole, and, on the other, he seeks to reconnect phenomena in an external way. On the one hand, Jessop proposes the separation of social existence into different structural regions, and, on the other, he seeks to articulate the specific interconnections of these regions. On the one hand, Jessop claims that there are underlying laws of motion, and, on the other, he introduces subjective mechanisms for these laws’ actualisation. Jessop urges that the real is indeterminable since it is mediated by an infinite number of factors. At the same time, he insists that capital is the subject. Jessop’s understanding of capitalist social relations is not only based upon a theoretical maze but also on a tautological description of social reality. First of all the outward appearance of reality is taken for granted (multiple causes), and then it is in the light of this outward appearance of reality that social development is assessed. By attempting to grasp the development of capitalism in this way, his analysis proliferates structures which are not only static and fetishised but whose theoretical status remains unclear.

42 Capital & Class 50

If one were to follow Jessop, all theory would be able to achieve is to say that the real world is changing within a framework of structurally defined parameters whose concrete implications defy conceptualisation. According to Jessop we know that there are different subjects whose activities are more or less coordinated, whose activities meet more or less resistance from other forces, and whose strategies are pursued within a structural context which is both constraining and facilitating (Jessop, 1988 p.43). We know also that there are significant barriers to a general attack on the capital relation (ibid.), that there is a real scope for class struggle and that the success of the ‘nth’ strategy depends on its complementarity to all other relevant strategies within the overall structural ensemble (ibid., pp.42, 43). This body of knowledge, however, is insubstantial because of the complex web of contingencies. Any conceptualisation of the ‘real’ is doomed to failure because the real world is a world of discovery and of contingently arising chance discoveries and of an infinite number of factors. ‘Regulation’ is consequently defined as a study of the ‘complex process of mutual adjustment and accommodation within and among different institutions’ (Jessop, 1988/1991 p.152). Jessop’s research project degenerates into an empirical study of institutional intersections; and a research project lacking a conceptual framework is a contradiction in terms.


Approaches such as Jessop’s, which are predicated on the disarticulation of structure and struggle, involve no internal connection between the political and the economic on the basis of the labour theory of value. The central methodological fault of such approaches is the separation of the social whole into different regions each of which is seen as having its formal structure, its own laws and logic. Such approaches cannot take account of fundamental historical developments in and through the category of labour, because labour plays no role in the internal logic of the different regions. Labour is separated from capital and is reduced to an empirical factor of an historical development which is both contingent and relative. Jessop’s approach is a common response to the methodological

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misunderstanding of structuralism. He aims at giving greater weight to historical analysis by combining abstract theory with a theory of historical developments. The combination of the ‘concrete’ with an abstract theoretical structure involves the modelling of social phenomena on to pre-formed concepts which for their part are placed at the mercy of the historical contingency they seek to render intelligible. In other words the concepts stand above historical developments. An analysis which takes the fragmented character of bourgeois society for granted and which seeks to trace the causal interconnections of such fragments cannot grasp their historical development because it refuses to risk the methodic assertion of ‘the real’ in and through abstraction. An approach such as Jessop’s, turning as it does upon structural integration, is an approach which runs the risk of conceptual collapse. This is because such an approach cannot justify its concepts. For example, the assumption that the real world is divided into different regions raises the question of the interdependence, that is, the structural adequacy of different regions such as the political. Firstly, to what is the political adequate; secondly, what determines the adequacy of the political; thirdly, what is the criterion with which to define adequacy? Only three solutions are possible. Firstly, the adequacy of the political is measured in terms of its output concerning the requirements of the economic. Such a solution opens the way for an economistic Marxism, concentrating on the economic as the determining structure, thus making the political merely attendant upon the inescapable lines of economic development. The second solution is to introduce a new set of concepts with which to justify the first level of concepts. However, the new set of concepts needs to be justified itself, leading to the introduction of new concepts and so on. This solution reproduces the problem it claims to resolve through an infinite regress of metatheories (see Gunn,


The third solution is to abnegate a conceptual under- standing in favour of a descriptive sociology of corresponding features among different subsystems. Such a solution sees the economic and the political as ‘autonomous’ systems which generate causal interrelations through a sui generis operation of their internal laws. As a consequence, theory must identify reciprocal elements which exist in different subsystems

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(e.g. mass production and demand management and the ideology of social consensus). No explanation can be given of how a reciprocal matrix of mutually supporting elements develops. The only possible explanation is to declare such a matrix to be a contingent articulation among different autonomous systems. This solution interprets historical development in terms of its more or less close approximation to a model whose elements are not conceptualised but presupposed. The problem of justifying concepts is thereby avoided only because the historical development is understood to be contingent, thus allowing the concepts to be contingent and arbitrary themselves. Further the concepts can be readily justified on the basis of the ‘real’: it is what it is. Since, for example, we can observe the hegemonic project of ‘Thatcherism’, the articulation between the political and the economic can be seen as a contingent articulation because it is real in practice. In the event, the ‘real’ is explained by what exists, hence tautology. First a model or norm (e.g. ‘Thatcherism’) is abstracted from disparate historical tendencies, and then it is in the light of this model that the significance of these same tendencies is assessed. The ‘reality’ of alleged historical tendencies—e.g. Post-Fordism—finishes up by being evaluated according to the model which was supposed to be derived from them. Jessop in other words presupposes what he intended to show. The fundamental weakness of theories which aim at understanding the structural adequacy of social forms is that they see contradictions only in terms of functional inadequacy. Such an approach destroys the Marxian understanding according to which structure and struggle, and concept and history, stand or fall together. The class struggle does not simply take place within the forms; the forms are themselves a moment of the class struggle and are at issue in class struggle, as capital and the working class confront them as issues at stake in social reproduction. The develop- ment of forms can be understood only on the basis of an internal relation between structure and struggle. 10 It seems clear that Jessop’s approach entails a systematic attempt to destroy the conceptual links which permit an analysis of the mode of existence of class antagonism. The political charge against Jessop’s work is that it fetishises social relations as relations of things. The conceptual charge against him is that he does so through a distinction between

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structure and struggle—each of which, however, is supposed to render the other term coherent. Structure is seen as escaping determinism because it is qualified by agency and agency is seen as escaping voluntarism because it is qualified by ‘structural constraint’. However the intelligibility of structure is seen as deriving from agency and vice versa. Jessop’s dualism is thus sustained only through a tautological movement of thought. Adding together, eclectically, two fallacious positions hardly amounts to a theorisation wherein either one of them can be redeemed.

I would like to thank R. Gunn, K. Psychopedis and L. Hills for their comments. The usual disclaimers apply.


1. See the collection of articles edited by W. Bonefeld and J. Holloway 1991.


2. See Jessop, 1983; 1985; 1986; 1988; 1988/1991; 1991. I shall not refer to Jessop’s recent (1990) contribution to state theory. This work is a collection of his earlier work. For an assessment of Jessop (1990) see Ling (1991).

3. The following part relies on Clarke (1991) and Psychopedis


4. The notion ‘realist ontology’ is taken from Bhaskar. For a seminal critique on Bhaskar see Gunn (1989; 1991 a,b; 1992).

5. The notion of ‘strategic selectivity’ derives from Offe (1972).

6. As in Rational Choice Marxism (see Elster, 1987 esp. ch.1), subjects operate and calculate rationally and individually within a framework of unrecognised rules which they seek to transform through strategic conduct so as to maximise their fortunes.

7. On the connection between technological determinism and the post-fordist debate see Peláez and Holloway 1990, and Clarke


8. The following section is taken from the introduction to Bonefeld, Gunn and Psychopedis [eds.] 1992a.

9. ‘Voluntarism and determinism are theoretically complementary, both are expressions of the separation between class struggle and capital’. (Holloway, 1991 pp.170/1; see also Bonefeld 1987/1991; 1992; Clarke 1983; 1991).

46 Capital & Class 50

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