‘The State: Past, Present, Future’ reviewed by Patrick Ainley

The State: Past, Present, Future

Polity Press, Cambridge and Malden, MA, 2015. 248pp., £16.99 pb
ISBN 9780745633053

Reviewed by Patrick Ainley

About the reviewer

Patrick Ainley was Professor of Training and Education in the School of Education and Training (as …


As the lights go out on an English higher education recomposed to serve the globalised ‘knowledge-based economy’, survivors of the academic generation which pioneered its post-war expansion under the Keynesian welfare national state (KWNS) are freed to write books like this. Developing ideas he has elaborated throughout a lifetime’s scholarly engagement with first Gramsci and then the regulation school of economists, Bob Jessop’s book is an ambitious summa that makes an original contribution to an international literature on the state and its latest forms. This ‘affirming flame’ may find readers among new generations to temper often simplistic solutions – no withering away of the state here in what Jessop calls ‘the present future’ that is currently foreseeable with ‘the emergence of a world society’ only on the ‘horizon of action’ (241). In fact, the opposite tendency towards enlarged and strengthened state systems is all too evident, while at the same time individual states in capitalist societies, together with the global state system in which they are imbricated, are both increasingly friable. The book seeks to capture these contradictions in generalised definitions that readers can apply to particular cases but which make for successive lists carefully qualified to cover all possibilities. Consequently, as they say in the USA, ‘it ain’t no pork chop’ to be woofed down by your average denizen of today’s tertiary education.

As a ‘plain or nondogmatic Marxist’ (97), Jessop insists that the state is not a thing. The social relation of ‘state power’ cannot therefore be separated from ‘class power’. Rather, it is ‘a mediated effect of the changing balance among all forces in a given situation’ (96), including those from outside the state as well as within and between different parts of it, because ‘states exist at many sites and scales and undertake different (sets of) tasks in each context’ so that they are ‘both polymorphous and polycontextual’ (44). Threats to ‘the most general function of the state – maintaining social cohesion’ (177) in a divided society – are thus ‘not exclusively grounded in class relations’ (100). Accordingly, Jessop adopts a ‘strategic-relational approach to state power’ (39).

This comprises ‘a seemingly conventional “three element” approach oriented to the relationship between a state’s territory, apparatus, and population’, to which is added a fourth element, namely ‘“the idea of the state” or the state project, which defines the nature and purposes of state action.’ (10) This last element has changed with the replacement of the KNWS by the new state form that Jessop used to call the ‘Schumpeterian workfare post-national regime’ (mentioned in this book but not prominently featured, Schumpeter does not figure in the name index, for instance). The basic idea remains the same however, as in place of a social contract with citizens exchanging welfare for taxation, capital accumulation is to be maintained in Cameron and Osborne’s ‘high wage, low tax, low welfare’ hard working people’s paradise by the new consensus of all right-thinking citizens turned consumers. This excludes the not-hard working surplus population relegated to the workfare and precarity of a reconstituted reserve army of labour. That their numbers are growing under pressure of general downward social mobility is only one of the contradictions undermining the new market-state formation. ‘This fact plagues liberal prescriptions of an arms-length relationship between the market and the night-watchman state – since states (or at least state managers) are rarely strong enough to resist pressures to intervene when political advantage and social unrest are at stake.’ (178)

This tendency shows the limits to form analysis of the state in capitalist societies and is illustrated in one of several tables displaying and summarising the general categories that are defined and refined throughout. It points towards ‘another type of analysis, which relies less on the state’s formal constitution than on its historical constitution … a more historical and agent-centred account’ (114-5). It leads in Part II of the book to the genealogy of states past, while Part III looks to their future in a world market:

from the mutual recognition by nomadic groups of the boundaries of their respective roaming territories through chiefdoms to early states and city-states, and then on to ancient empires, feudal states, absolutist early modern states, the development of the Westphalian system, and the emergence of so-called postmodern state forms. (125)

As its processional nature indicates, Jessop’s account is not so different from that of Engels, though adding Weber’s emphasis on ‘technologies of long-distance transportation and communication as a crucial condition of state formation’, along with literate administrators and coinage (128). Even Foucault’s anatamo-politics feature in the nascent modern state’s shaping and disciplining of the Staatsvolk, compared with the ethnos, as opposed in other cases to shared culture in the confusions between National States and the Nation-State.

Considerations of ‘the European Union as a territorial state in a continuing, contested process of formation’ lead on to ‘the future of Government+Governance in the Shadow of Hierarchy’ (Chapter 7). This ‘fits well with Gramsci’s familiar definition of the state as “the entire complex of practical and theoretical activities with which the ruling class not only justifies and maintains its dominance, but manages to win the active consent of those whom it rules”.’ (176) ‘Meta-governance or colliberation’ takes this further, ‘rebalancing the different forms of governance within and beyond the state’, for example by redrawing the inherited public-private divide, to manage ‘a wider unstable equilibrium of compromise’ (177). As ‘intensified world market integration’ conflicts with ‘the still largely national architecture of many critical state apparatuses … capital’s acceleration undermines normal policy cycles’ (191).

Moreover, as capital is increasingly freed from the constraints of national power containers and increasingly disembedded from other systems, unrestrained competition to lower socially necessary labour time … and naturally necessary production time (ie., the reproduction of “nature” as a source of wealth) becomes an ever more powerful driving force in the dynamic of capital accumulation. (199)

It leads to the consolidation of ‘competition states’ that ‘not only promote economic competitiveness narrowly conceived but also seek to subordinate many areas previously seen as “extraeconomic”’, for example education, ‘to the current alleged imperatives of accumulation’ with an authoritarian statism that ‘strengthens executive authority, reinforces the mediatization of politics and extends the parallel power networks that connect state power to capitalist interests’ (200).

‘To interpret all this as state decline in the face of globalization is doubly misleading.’ (202) Even though there is a ‘Denationalization of statehood’ (202), a ‘Destatization of polity, politics and policy’ (203) and an ‘Internationalization of policy regimes’ (205), in fora such as the NAFTA, the EU, the G8, the G20 and the IMF’s free trade agreements like TPP , TTIP and TiSA, ‘the search for a new global financial and economic architecture proceeds apace’ (207). However, ‘prognosis has become more complicated – thanks to the declining hegemony of the US, the apparent political paralysis of the EU … the rise’ (and fall?) ‘of the BRICs and China’s’ (growing) ‘influence’ (210). There are in addition ‘failed states’, ‘kleptocracies’ or ‘predatory states’ and ‘rogue states’ that threaten the prevailing international order. Since bourgeois democracy is, as Lenin characterised it in State and Revolution, ‘the best possible political shell for capital’, the turn to authoritarian statism is presented as temporary or exceptional. Yet ‘permanent austerity’ (229) is fast becoming ‘the New Normal’ (Chapter 9), a recent Guardian front page headline confirms: ‘Terror alerts are Europe’s “new normal”’ (2 January, 2016). Jessop here closely follows Poulantzas’s description of this basic tendency, ‘marked by the conjuncture of the 1970s but … reworked for the current period’; for example, in ‘externally imposed neoliberal structural adjustment policies’ (228).

‘Transnationalization now involves not only exceptional measures at home but also the organization of an exceptional state across advanced capitalist states and in the vast majority of other states’. Despite this, ‘world market integration generalizes and intensifies contradictions of capitalism’. Nevertheless, ‘The postdemocratic, authoritarian state of political emergency that is being constructed in this conjuncture’ now presents itself as the new ‘best possible shell’ for ‘a predatory, finance-dominated accumulation regime, even if – and even when – the financial crisis is resolved … The longer it survives, the more harmful its effects on the “real economy”, human flourishing and the natural environment.’ (236) We face therefore

the intensification of global, regional, and local environmental crises … rivalries between national states or fractions of capital over how to address them, and North-South conflicts with repercussions on environmental security, resource wars, failed states, civil unrest, climate refugees, and so forth (244).

It remains to be seen whether the many fragmented forms of resistance can be linked up horizontally, vertically, and transversally to provide an effective challenge to this new bloc, its finance-dominated accumulation regime and its “new normal” state form by exploiting the bloc’s fragilities. This will require connecting economic and political power in ways that are “proscribed” by the democratic rules of the game but are realised continually, in nondemocratic ways, by the new transnational financial bloc. (237).

Instead of exploring these possibilities further, the book ends by inviting Jessop’s fellow state theorists to consider the implications of his masterly summary and its careful definitions and discriminations. Is state theory inherently Eurocentric, for instance, so that the possibilities of ‘Confucian capitalism’ are ignored, along with many Southern states discounted as ‘exceptional’? Certainly, ‘It is already clear that a third or fourth wave of democratization has not remedied this’, since ‘the various “colour” revolutions … promoted and guided by western powers … led in most cases to dependent capitalist development and … weak states. Likewise, popular uprisings … in the Middle East and North Africa … more often than not, have been blocked or reversed, or have ended … in failed states’ (239-40). Going back to the second or third waves, Jessop could have mentioned the Paris Commune, the Russian and Chinese Revolutions, including the Cultural Revolution, as part of an assessment that still needs to be made of previous attempts to establish states in societies of a new type. He does after all refer in his last chapter 10 on ‘The Future of States and Statehood’ to Marx’s 1875 Critique of the Gotha Programme. This announced ‘the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat’, drawing from the lessons of the Commune that had shown, as Jessop quotes Marx, ‘The “present-day state” is therefore a fiction.’

This ‘fiction’ has not been met with any convincing universalist response to Western ideas of polity and economy and alternatives to them have failed. Only ‘a stark utopia’ remains, as Karl Polanyi described the again dominant ideal of a self-adjusting market. ‘Such an institution,’ he wrote, ‘could not exist for any length of time without annihilating the human and natural substance of society; it would have physically destroyed man and transformed his surroundings into a wilderness.’ (1944, 3) This is what is now happening and something more is required than an academic commentary upon it – even as august and encyclopedic a commentary as this one.

26 February 2016


  • Karl Polanyi 1944 The Great Transformation, the political and economic origins of our time (New York: Beacon Press).


  1. I have not read this interesting book, but the reviewer quotes the author thus:
    >Threats to ‘the most general function of the state – maintaining social cohesion’ (177) in a divided >society – are thus ‘not exclusively grounded in class relations’ (100). Accordingly, Jessop adopts >a ‘strategic-relational approach to state power’ (39).

    I would say that the author is clearly correct to assert that the state is “not exclusively grounded in class relations.” However, the author must then show his awareness of the concept of a “rate limiting” relationship. This means that each relationship in a complex, dynamic system has a definite quantitative value for a given time and space. Thus far we all agree. This means, when push comes to shove and there is a crisis of any sort, it is always class and the class antagonisms which predominate in determining “state” decisions, that is decisions by the ruling class.
    And I would assert also that although there are other important relationships in addition to class, the class antagonism is preeminent and is always present, even in the rare occasions when it is not the determining factor.
    The current events in the Arab countries can only be understood when one starts with a class analysis and then adds on cultural and other ‘identity’ politics.
    I would be enlightened to hear from the author or the reviewer or indeed anyone else, of an example where the considerations of class and/or political economy are absent from a specific ‘state’ decision. I imagine that such examples exist, but I cannot off the cuff, bring to mind, a useful example.

  2. I said that Jessop ‘follows Poulantzas closely… reworked for the current period’ (altho I did say ‘here’, ie. in relation to states of emergency etc. but I think it would apply generally altho I am not familiar enough with Poulantzas to say.

    I also agree with Sydney when he writes about ‘push coming to shove’, or ‘in the last instance’ (!). This is almost by definition since these are, as he says, ‘state decisions… by the ruling class’. I don’t have the book by me to look, having lent it to a student, but I recall Bob giving some examples where a crisis originated in gender or ethnic relations, even in relation to sexuality, but as Sydney says, becomes quickly ‘overdetermined’ by class relations. I think his example of the Arab Spring is a good one!

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