Novelty retains work incentive

The Future of the Capitalist State
June 6, 2003

Talk of globalisation can encourage reductive images of capitalism as an inexorable, self-expanding force that, like the Borg, assimilates society without much (futile) resistance. So-called globalists and anti-globalists alike have something to gain from this view, assuming - as it does - that market forces must be met with either open arms or fierce opposition. Either way, nation-states appear as helpless wrecks in the face of the intense storm of global competition.

Bob Jessop offers a corrective to these views in his theoretically sophisticated, rigorously conceptualised analysis of the contemporary capitalist state. The state, he explains, is a vital component in the constitution of capitalism. For capitalism is an essentially incomplete system that relies on extra-economic conditions it cannot guarantee. In particular, it requires human labour to produce its profits.

Though bought and sold as a commodity, labour is produced through non-market relationships such as the family and the wider community. To understand the new course of capitalism, Jessop argues, we must grasp how the state secures and shapes these extra-economic preconditions.

To thrive, capitalism must be embedded in a social order that limits its tendencies to crises and coordinates its various branches and circuits.

Jessop calls this a "spatio-temporal fix" and stresses the contingent, reversible and never entirely successful nature of the task. The state's role in shaping a capitalist society is a complex trial-and-error process of assembling institutions, designing interventions, reaching new political compromises and scripting new languages to stabilise an otherwise unwieldy system. This premise established, Jessop's analysis focuses on the unsteady formation of a new type of state for a new form of capitalism.

Postwar capitalism was dominated by the mass-production, mass-consumption model of "Atlantic Fordism" exported by the US. Fordism found stability through states that coordinated production and consumption, and sought national class compromises through "demand management" and the provision of welfare.

Recently, however, Fordism has evolved into "post-Fordism". Demanding greater international competitiveness through product innovation and flexibility in skills, this prompts the search for new forms of social embedding. Jessop labels the state that aims to accomplish this task the Schumpeterian Workfare Post-national Regime (SWPR).

Thankfully, the terms of this peculiar appellation are clearly explained in separate chapters. Jessop explains the emergence of states obsessed with economic competitiveness (hence "Schumpeterian", replacing Keynes with the theorist of entrepreneurial capitalism, Joseph Schumpeter): that provide welfare primarily as an incentive to work - and that subordinate social policy to economic policy (hence "workfare"); that function on a number of scales - local, national and international; and that regulate less hierarchically and more through public-private partnerships or via networks of self-organising agencies. Paradoxically, this new state is just as active in shaping economy and society as the one it supplants.

Jessop admits this is a tendential model or an "ideal type". Post-Fordism has yet to find - indeed, may never find - its long-term state form. There are plenty of caveats, too, concerning the contradictions, variations and failed experiments on the way, serving to remind us of the continued importance of politics in shaping capitalism's future.

Jessop's immense feat is to have mapped the contours of a bewilderingly complex relationship between economy, society and the state. Elegantly combining analyses of political economy, social policy and economic geography, this work is an excellent resource for studies in a variety of disciplines.

James Martin is lecturer in politics, Goldsmiths College, University of London.

The Future of the Capitalist State

Author - Bob Jessop
ISBN - 0 7456 22 0 and 23 9
Publisher - Polity
Price - £55.00 and £17.99
Pages - 330

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