An extremely lively and promising pluri-disciplinary research agenda has coalesced around the rubric state capitalism, demonstrating its potential for focusing scholarly efforts on an important set of transformations in the morphology of present-day capitalism, and particularly on the changing role of the state. As such, it deserves the attention of critical political economists. Yet, state capitalism as a categorical label is far from perfect. In a previous contribution to this blog based on a survey of the scholarly and policy-making literature, we noted significant theoretical and methodological difficulties in deploying the category state capitalism, and concluded that much work remains to turn it from an umbrella term – harsher commentators might even say a mere buzzword or slogan – into a powerful heuristic tool capable of helping us make sense of the changing political geographies of capital and of the polymorphism of state intervention.
We contributed to this task by offering a theoretically oriented and programmatic intervention in an (open access) article recently published in Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space. We bring analytical clarity to the field of state capitalism studies by offering a rigorous definition of its object of investigation, and by demonstrating how the category state capitalism can be productively construed as a means of problematising and critically interrogating the current aggregate expansion of the state’s role as promoter, supervisor, and owner of capital across the spaces of the world capitalist economy, and especially the combined expansion of state-capital hybrids (including sovereign wealth funds, state enterprises, policy and development banks) and the concomitant development of muscular forms of statism (encompassing industrial policy, spatial development strategies, and economic nationalism).
We develop the category state capitalism by firmly locating it within a set of logical relations with other fundamental political economic categories, such as the capitalist state and capital accumulation, instead of juxtaposing it to other (conventional) varieties of capitalism. Drawing upon materialist state theory, we argue that state capitalism is an immanent potentiality, an impulse which is contained in the form of the capitalist state and built into its genetic code. This invites reflection as to what factors lead to the actualisation of this potentiality at the current historical juncture. This double theoretical move allows understanding the current advent of state capitalism as a process of self-transformation of the state as it politically mediates the historical-geographical mutations in the material forms of production of (relative) surplus-value on a world scale. Simply put, rather than the negation of an abstract model of free-market capitalism, or the rise of a nationally scaled and relatively coherent variant of capitalism, we posit contemporary state capitalism as a process of restructuring of the capitalist state, including in its liberal form.
Importantly, we show that this process of state restructuring is not merely a historically contingent form of reconstruction of the capitalist state. It is determined by secular transformations in the materiality of surplus-value production, such as the consolidation of new international divisions of labour driven by automation and labour-saving technologies, secular stagnation, the multiplication of surplus populations, and the extension of speculative financial activities, which we explore in the article. Our argument is that the political mediation of these capitalist transformations and their crisis tendencies has both been predicated upon, and has resulted in, four tendencies towards state capitalist impulses: a ‘productivist’, ‘absorptive’, ‘stabilising’, and ‘disciplinary’ state capitalist impulses (see Figure).
Characterising the nature of this process of state restructuring at the present historical juncture not only allows substantiating claims that the new state capitalism is qualitatively different from previous modalities of state capitalism, it also opens up space for a theoretical reflection concerning the relation between present-day state capitalist impulses and other forms of statecraft (such as neoliberalism), as well as concerning the general place and role of the state in the uneven and combined development of contemporary capitalism: What if contemporary state capitalism signals a permanent transformation in the form and nature of the capitalist state, or the beginning of a phase of capitalist development where states centralise and concentrate increasing amounts of capital?
Analytically, and while much remains to be done to fully reconstruct a theory of the contemporary advent of state capitalism, the programmatic agenda we call ‘uneven and combined state capitalism’ focuses our attention on the interweaving of spatialised social relations underpinning and connecting the various repertoires of state action, as a means to scrutinise contemporary state capitalism as a variegated and dynamic world-historical totality. This also holds implications for research engaged in the comparison of different instantiations of state capitalism, which it reorients from a focus on analytical model-building towards greater self-reflexivity with respect to methodological and theoretical choices and their irreducibly political nature. This in turn opens space for greater emphasis on what Ian Bruff calls ‘the politics rather than merely the analytics of comparison’. For instance, it encourages us to make explicit and legible the political-geographical imaginaries that underpin the act of comparison; it pushes us to reflect on (what passes as) the normal separation between the state qua public and the private sphere in capitalism (without the ‘state’ qualifier), and on the normative orientations of these assumptions; it also encourages us to become more attuned to some of the blindspots of state capitalism studies, interrogating, for example, the absence of class in contemporary debates (as noted by Nathan Sperber) and the invisibilisation of working class struggles.
Our argument has implications for how we understand the (geo)political repercussions of state capitalism. Uneven and combined state capitalism is unlikely to lead to patterns of institutional and political convergence or divergence, which have been central lenses in state capitalism studies and discussions of changing world orders (as, for instance, in the recent books of Robert Boyer and Branko Milanovic). State capitalism may well beget state capitalism, but the future of the global political economy will not be one where a ‘model’ has prevailed over another. Such future is more likely to be characterised as a sort of ‘polycentric restructuring’ (to use Jamie Peck’s expression) of the landscapes of state capitalism, catalysed by the dialectical and cumulative unfolding of more muscular state prerogatives and the proliferation of state-capital hybrids across territory and scale, via recombinant and contradictory pathways fraught with class, geopolitical, and ideological tensions.
Finally, future research may further scrutinise the imbrication of contemporary state capitalism in processes of capitalist restructuring and geographical remaking in the post-COVID-19 environment. An important issue is the extent to which various forms of struggle and resistance from workers and populations rendered surplus will shape the future of state capitalism. For instance, labour and civil society organisations are increasingly calling for governments to expand their role as owners of capital. This includes calls for Green New Deals, vast democratic state ownership, or the creation of social wealth funds. Will these demands push state capitalism in a more progressive direction?
Image: Equinor oil rig, North Sea