Form and content: Simon Clarke’s ‘State, Class Struggle, and the Reproduction of Capital’

A few weeks ago, I posted a summary of Postone’s Notes on the German Reaction to ‘Holocaust’. What has always impressed me about Postone’s analysis in that article is how he argues against a functionalist explanation of the holocaust and argues for the need to adopt a dialectical method which aims to reveal the way that the abstract nature of the commodity form is fetishised in the personification of the Jew. As a result, the power and threat of capital was, he argues, given a biological interpretation identified with Jews, who became the real, concrete victims of a historical form of anti-capitalism (i.e. anti-semitism).

Methodologically, Simon Clarke’s approach in State, Class Struggle and the Reproduction of Capital, is very similar to Postone’s. Both writers examine their subjects in terms of the duality of the commodity form: abstraction and concreteness; value and use-value; the form of the state and its political content; the abstraction of International Jewry and the personification of capital in the Jew. For Clarke, “questions of form are more fundamental than questions of content” and for Postone, it is vital to understand “the distinction between what modern capitalism is and the way it appears.” Both writers deem a retreat into the concrete as misguided as it misunderstands capital and its contradictions. Consequently, opponents of capital frequently experience a demoralised sense of political impotency – a sense of helplessness. At the other extreme, this fetishisation of the concrete can result in the horrors of holocaust.


Any “anti-capitalism” which seeks the immediate negation of the abstract and glorifies the concrete – instead of practically and theoretically considering what the historical overcoming of both could mean – can, at best, be socially and politically impotent in the face of capital. At worst it can be dangerous, even if the needs it expresses could be interpreted as emancipatory.


The need to mobilise resistance to reactionary governments has led many on the left to acquire a renewed faith in the parliamentary system, seeking to democratise working-class parties and to broaden their appeal in order to secure electoral victory and a reversal of past defeats. But such a response is to focus on the content of politics at the expense of its form. For many of us the lesson of the 1960s and 1970s was precisely that questions of form are more fundamental than questions of content.

For both writers, a dialectical approach which reveals the fetishised forms of capital is fundamental to their respective critiques. Just as Postone argues the need for “qualitative specificity” in order to understand the relationship between anti-Semitism, anti-Jewish prejudice and Nazism, Clarke also argues for an understanding of the state which sees beyond its surface appearance as a neutral, autonomous, administrative apparatus, to reveal its essential characteristics, rooted in class struggle, labour and the capitalist mode of production. In this way, Clarke’s method of analysis is complementary to Postone who limits his otherwise powerful analysis of anti-Semitism to commodity fetishism and does not seek to undertake an analysis of the German state and what Clarke considers the state’s “essential” class character.

Clarke examines the state from the point of view of its historical re-production through class struggle. As an abstract social totality, the capitalist mode of production creates an antagonistic relationship with the working class and this gave rise to the historical development of the state, which exists to help regulate labour for the purposes of capital.

What currently interests me about this approach to analysing the state is that it clearly identifies the state’s role in regulating the capital-labour relation for the purpose of the reproduction of capital and therefore its own self-reproduction. At the same time, it reveals the contingency of the capital-labour-state relationship which produces class struggle and the possibility of agency.

More specifically, it provides an analytical framework for examining the historical role of the state in the development of higher education and the various initiatives aimed at the valorisation of scientific research (e.g. land grants, patents, consultancy, public funding, venture capital). Whereas some writers refer to the ‘triple helix’ of state, industry and university relations, while others refer to the ‘iron triangle’ or the ‘military-industrial-academic complex’, none of these common analytical frameworks offers an adequate analysis of the capital relation, of which the state, military, higher education and industry are historically developed forms.

Using Clarke’s approach to the critique of the capitalist state provides us with a more adequate framework and methodological approach for understanding the recent subversions of and opposition to capital’s mode of production in higher education. With this approach, the ‘recursive public’ (Kelty, 2008) of Open Access, Open Data, Open Source, Open Science, etc. can be understood as a form of class struggle for control over the means of production in the face of the overwhelming imperatives of the capitalist mode of production. In doing so, such an analysis also underlines the limits of such a struggle which appeals to the ‘public good’ and parliamentary representation as a method of achieving its aims. On the other hand, the apparent success of Open Source, Open Access, etc. points to real potential for the socialisation of science and democratic control over the means of knowledge production: an ‘actually existing social science’.

Clarke’s article is structured in eight parts, which I attempt to summarise below.


Clarke distinguishes his approach from previous analyses of the state. The state is not simply a “mere tool of capital” nor a “neutral institution standing outside and above the class struggle.” A major weakness of previous analyses of the state is that they have oscillated between being extremely abstract and formalistic and extremely concrete and empirical. There has been a failure to integrate form and content. This has both theoretical and political implications. “The state cannot be derived conceptually.” The article examines how the state is derived historically from class struggle.

The Problem of the State

The state is not peculiar to capitalism. “It is an institution common, in different forms, to all class societies.” The state is separate from the exploiting class. The problem of the state is that the concept of the ‘state’ is treated at the same level of abstraction as the concept of ‘class’. The problem, therefore, is how the state is both a class state but appears institutionally separate from the capitalist class.

“It is the problem of explaining how a form of class rule can appear in the fetishised form of a neutral administrative apparatus, just as the rule of capital in production appears in the fetishised form of a technical coordinating apparatus. The apparent neutrality is not an essential feature of the state, it is rather a feature of the fetishised form in which the rule of capital is effected through the state.”

Understanding the state is something that must be derived from an analysis of class struggles surrounding the reproduction of capital, rather than being derived from the surface forms of appearance of capital. “The essential feature of the state is its class character; its autonomy is the surface form of appearance of its role in the class struggle.” The concept of ‘class’ and the concept of ‘state’ have to be developed at different levels of abstraction.

The Autonomy of the State

In this section, Clarke argues against three different assertions that the state is essentially autonomous: 1) the state represents the general interests of capital; 2) the state is an abstraction of force; 3) the state is an abstraction of the commodity form.

He quickly dismisses the first assertion, referring to Marx’s critique of Hegel:

The ‘general interest’ of capital as something standing outside the particular interests of particular capitals does not exist as a condition for the state. It is rather the result of a particular resolution of the conflicts between particular capitals and of the contradiction between capital and the working class.

He regards the second assertion to be false, since the state does not have a monopoly on the use of violence. He regards the force which reproduces capitalist social relations of production on a daily basis as capital, existing as a social totality “that cannot be reduced to one of its forms.”

Although expressed in property rights and enforced by law, the social relations of production are not constituted and reproduced by the threat of state violence; rather, the social reproduction of capital and of the working class is the other side of the material reproduction of society. Thus, workers can violate capitalist property rights by occupying a factory, by liberating supermarkets, or by burning down banks. But this does not transform capitalist social relations of production; for capital is a social relation that exists as a totality and that cannot be reduced to one of its forms. Capitalist property is founded not on the rule of law or on the supposed state monopoly of the means of violence, but on capitalist social relations of production. … While it may be true that under capitalism, as in all class societies, the state codifies property rights and regulates the use of force, it is by no means the case that the state constitutes property rights or monopolises the use of force.

Clarke regards the third assertion as a confusion between the abstract character of the commodity form (i.e. that social relations between people appear as relations between things), and the abstract character of the state (i.e. the relations between apparently free and equal commodity producers). Adopting this view, makes the state appear neutral and its class character as non-essential. In this view, its class character is contingent, rather than essential. However, Clarke regards the essential feature of the state to be its class character and its apparent autonomy as “a characteristic of the surface forms in which its subordination to capital appears.”

The Necessity of the State

Reflecting on earlier debates about the state, Clarke asks whether the reproduction of capital necessitates a state or instead, “is capital, in principle, self-reproducing?”

Drawing on Marx, he argues that capital is self-reproducing. I regard this as a key passage in his article:

The conditions for the self-reproduction of capital are a sufficient degree of development of the forces of production, that is the historical basis of capitalist social relations, on the one had, and the subordination of the individual to the social relations of capitalist production, on the other. This subordination is possible, once the capitalist mode of production is established, on the basis of purely ‘economic’ mechanisms, although there is no reason to expect capitalists to deny themselves the opportunity of developing collective institutions to supplement the force of imposed scarcity and necessity in securing their domination. However, the implication of Marx’s analysis is that the state is not, in the strictest sense, necessary to capitalist social reproduction, so that none of the concepts developed in Capital presuppose the concept of the state while, on the other hand, the state cannot be derived logically from the requirements of capitalist social reproduction. The necessity of the state is, therefore, not formal or abstract, it is the historical necessity, emerging from the development of the class struggle, for a collective instrument of class domination: the state has not developed logically out of the requirements of capital, it has developed historically out of the class struggle.

The development of the state as such a class instrument, and the institutional separation of the state from particular capitalist interests, is also a historical development as ‘private’ institutions acquire a ‘public’ character, and as ‘public’ institutions are subordinated to ‘private’ interest. This does not, however, mean that it is a purely contingent development; it is a development that is governed by historical laws that have to be discovered on the basis of Marx’s analysis of the historical laws governing the development of the capitalist mode of production.

I suppose that those ‘historical laws’ are what Postone elsewhere refers to as the ‘determinate logic’ of capital and Marx refers to as the ‘general formula for capital‘: M-C-M or self-valorising value, ‘value in motion’. Although capital does not presuppose the state and therefore it is not strictly necessary, the historical role of the state is to help guarantee the circulation of capital and commodity production by mediating between capital and labour as an outcome of class struggle.

The Reproduction of Capital and the Class Struggle

The state does not constitute the social relations of production. It is essentially a regulative agency. Therefore, its analysis presupposes the analysis of the social relations of which it is regulating. Such analyses cannot be undertaken at the same level of abstraction.

It is possible to analyze the process of capitalist reproduction through the production, appropriation, and circulation of commodities in abstraction from the state, as Marx does in Capital. The state is not a hidden presupposition of Capital, it is a concept that has to be developed on the basis of the analysis already offered in Capital.

Clarke argues that it is the concept of class struggle that “makes it possible to make the transition from the level of abstraction of the concepts of Capital to their historical application to the real world. If there were no class struggle, if the working class were willing to submit passively to their subordination to capitalist social relations, there would be no state.

As such, the state is “an essential aspect of the development of the class struggle, and has to be seen as an essential form of that struggle.” Class struggle mediates between the abstract analysis of capitalist reproduction and the concept of the state. “The problem of conceptualising the problem of the state is then the problem of conceptualising the class struggle.” The starting point is Marx’s analysis of the contradictions inherent in the capitalist mode of production, out of which class struggle develops.

The capitalist mode of production is not a structure, but rather “a process whose reproduction depends on its reproducing its own foundation.” It is a contradictory process in that the reproduction of capital necessitates the reproduction of the working class. The working class is not passive, but rather “the barrier to its own reproduction. This is the fundamental contradiction of the capitalist mode of production, whose concrete unfolding constitutes the history of capitalism.”

Next, Clarke discusses the reproduction of the class relation between capital and labour through the production and reproduction of surplus value. The purpose of doing so is to enquire into what the foundation of this class relation might be. “Does the reproduction of capital require some external agency to guarantee that foundation?” No. Marx demonstrated in Capital that this is not the case. However, although it is conceivable for capital to be self-reproducing, in practice “capitalists use every weapon at their disposal” to conduct the class struggle towards the creation of surplus value. One such weapon is the power of the state. Capital can never overcome the contradictory barriers it creates, only temporarily suspend them. “As a result, the state is not a functional agency that can resolve these contradictions. It is rather a complementary form through which capital attempts to pursue the class struggle in a vain attempt to suspend its contradictory character.”

The Reproduction of Capital, Class Struggle, and the State

The capitalist state developed historically through class struggles that accompanied the development of the commodity form, on the basis of the feudal state form.

Clarke states that the “crucial question is how to define the mediations through which political struggles are, nevertheless, determined as moments of the class struggle.”

The development of the capitalist state form is not a spontaneous unfolding of the logic of capital, it is something arrived at through trial and error in the unfolding of the class struggle, conditioned to a considerable extent by the direct agency of sections of the capitalist class and so, incidentally, conditioned by the outcome of struggles within that class.

Capital produces use-values as the means to produce surplus value. The reproduction of the state as a material force dependent on use-values therefore depends on the reproduction of capitalist social relations. A threat from the working class to the capitalist mode of the production of surplus value results in a threat to the historical role of the state.

the state is not simply a tool of capital, it is an arena of class struggle. But the form of the state is such that if the political class struggle goes beyond the boundaries set by the expanded reproduction of capital, the result will be not the supersession of the capitalist mode of production but its breakdown, and with it the breakdown of the material reproduction of society.

The capitalist class (which exists as a minority) has historically represented its own interests as the interests of ‘society’ or the ‘nation’ (the majority). Its ability to do this is due to the “dominance of capitalist social relations of production and on the material relations between capital and the state that together determine that the condition for the material reproduction of the state and of society is the expanded reproduction of the capitalist mode of production.”

Appeals to the ‘national’ interest reflect capital’s interest “in the material reproduction of society and of the state. “The dominance of capital is concealed as the silent presupposition.”

The state, therefore, appears as neutral and autonomous for the same reasons as capital appears as a mere technical factor of production, on the basis of the identification of the conditions for the material reproduction of capitalist society with that of its social reproduction (an identification that, incidentally, becomes more precarious as the internationalisation of capital is not matched by a breakdown of the nation state).

The basis of class struggle is the contradictory nature of capitalist production. Capital establishes its own barriers to reproduction and expansion:

Thus, for example, the subordination of the working class to capital contradicts its active role in production; the homogenisation of labour-power as a commodity contradicts the need for a differentiated working class and contradicts the conditions of the reproduction of labour-power; the socialisation of production contradicts the private appropriation of the product; the restriction of resources contradicts the inflation of workers’ needs; the subordination of the daily life of the worker to the reproduction of labour-power as a commodity contradicts the human aspirations of the worker.

Likewise, the needs of capital are contradictory.

The need to force down the value of labour-power contradicts the need to reproduce labour-power; the need to educate the working class contradicts the need to reduce to a minimum the drain on surplus value; the need to break down all non-capitalist social relations contradicts the need to sustain the family as the unit for the reproduction of labour-power; the need to introduce administrative regulation contradicts the need to maintain the discipline of the market; in short, the need to secure the material reproduction of society contradicts the need to secure its social reproduction.

The state is both a form of class struggle and a form of capital. It is therefore “a form through which the subordination of the working class to capital is reproduced.” Overcoming the state (i.e. a political revolution) requires the overcoming of the capitalist mode of production (i.e. a social revolution), “through which the working class expropriates the expropriators and transforms the social relations of production.”

The Working Class and the State

The historical tendency of the capitalist mode of production has been to incorporate working-class resistance into the state through political representation. This is intended to replace direct resistance of the working class to state power through the mediation of political representatives. This method developed historically as both capital and the state faced being overwhelmed by the collective power of the working class, gradually incorporating more and more franchises of the working class.

The framework of parliamentary representation is one in which social power is expressed as an abstract collectivity of individual interests, not as the concrete expression of collective power, so that the development of the aspirations of the working class is not matched by the development of any power to satisfy those aspirations — but this occurs so long as the working class is prepared to subordinate its challenge to the power of the state in the parliamentary form.

Pressure on the state to improve the conditions of the working class can only be met by an increase in the rate of accumulation. This is because the subordination of the state to capital “dictates that the only means the state has of improving the workers’ conditions of life is by intensifying the subordination of the working class to capital and intensifying the rate of exploitation — with the result of advancing one section of the working class at the expense of another.”

The parliamentary form of representation divides the working class by divorcing the interests of individual workers from the interests of the class. Workers come into conflict with one another as they compete on the labour market and again as they are organised hierarchically by the labour process.

The parliamentary form of representation “demobilises the working class in substituting the state for their own collective organisation as the means proffered for realising their class aspirations.”

The parliamentary form of representation “serves to divorce the political representation of the working class from the source of its [collective working-class] power and to deflect the opposition of the working class from capital in order to turn it against itself.”

The development of parliamentary representation for the working class, however much scope it may provide for improving the material conditions of sections of the working class, far from being an expression of collective working-class strength, becomes the means by which it is divided, demobilised and demoralised.

The illusory form of parliamentary politics should not be identified with political class struggle. Class struggle continues day-to-day through various other channels as it directly confronts state power.

The working class does not simply accept the division between economic demands, to be pursued legitimately through trade unions which mobilise the collective power of workers, and political demands, to be channelled through the political party and parliament. The boundaries of the ‘economic’ and the ‘political’, the definition of the ‘rights’ of capital and of the working class, and the forms of class mobilisation are a constant object of class struggle, with the working class constantly pressing beyond the limits accorded to it by capital and the state. Thus, workers occupy factories; encroach on the rights of management; mobilise against state policies as workers, as unemployed, as women, or young people, as tenants; and they take to the streets to confront the repressive arm of the state directly. Moreover, the inadequacy of the parliamentary form to the aspirations of the working class has meant that the state has to concede a growing political role to the collective organisations of the working class, as expressed in the political role played by the trade union movement and by a wide range of other working-class organisations.

Conclusion: The Capitalist State, the Class Struggle, and Socialism

Quoting Clarke:

Marxist discussion of the capitalist state has failed to integrate form and content sufficiently to achieve an adequate account of the state.

A better integration of form and content might be achieved by developing Marx’s analysis of the contradictory character of capitalist reproduction as the basis of an analysis of the developing form and content of the class struggle.

Several features that some have seen as essential to the capitalist form of state — in particular its autonomy, its externality and its particularity — turn out to be features of the form of appearance of the state and not its essential determinants.

The state cannot be isolated from other moments of the class struggle, for those different moments are complementary to one another, and the relationship between them is itself determined in the course of the class struggle.

The distinctiveness of the New Right lies in its attempt to alter the balance of the class struggle in the opposite direction, replacing state regulation by regulation through the commodity form and removing the working class from its ‘privileged’ political position.

It is a strategy that is firmly rooted in the class struggles of the 1980s, and in particular it is one that capitalises on the divisions, the de-mobilisation, and the demoralisation of the working-class movement that has been the price paid for decades of sheltering under the wing of a paternalistic state.

The activities of the working class’s self-proclaimed representatives make many sections of the working class — blacks, women, the young and the old — reluctant to identify themselves with their class at all. The relative success of reaction throughout the capitalist world can be put down as much as anything else to the demobilisation of the organised working class that developed as the workers were first lulled into trusting their political representatives to achieve their liberation and then, losing faith in its leaders, the working class was left demoralised and divided.

The need to mobilise resistance to reactionary governments has led many on the left to acquire a renewed faith in the parliamentary system, seeking to democratise working-class parties and to broaden their appeal in order to secure electoral victory and a reversal of past defeats. But such a response is to focus on the content of politics at the expense of its form.

Socialism is not simply about such quantitative matters as the distribution of income and wealth, pressing as such matters are, it is most fundamentally about the creation of an alternative society…. It is about making qualitative changes, about transforming social relations, about replacing the alienated forms of capitalist political and economic regulation by new forms of collective self-organisation and democratic control; and it is only on the latter basis that the state, and the power of capital, can be effectively confronted.

A socialist response to the rise of the New Right cannot be reduced to a defense of statism and welfarism; it can only involve the building and rebuilding of collective organisation. This means not only organisations such as trade unions, which organise workers at work, but also organisations of tenants, of young workers, of black and migrant workers, of women workers, so that the divisions within the working class and the fragmentation of working-class experience can be broken down through the development of a united movement. In the last analysis, as the experience of the ‘socialist’ countries shows only too clearly, the building of socialism can only be on the basis of the self-organisation of the working class .