The relative autonomy of politics

Bill Woodrow, Chrome, 1994


The State's relative autonomy in relation to social classes allows it to eventually favor the interests of the dominated classes

In the preface of For the Critique of Political Economy, Karl Marx uses a metaphor to explain the links between production relations (structure) and legal, political and ideological relations (superstructure): “(…) in the social production of their lives, men enter into certain, necessary, independent relationships of his will, relations of production which correspond to a certain stage of development of his material productive forces. The totality of these production relations forms the economic structure of society, the real basis on which a juridical and political superstructure is built, and to which certain forms of social consciousness correspond”.

The demarcation of a political and legal superstructure refers to the State and its function in the reproduction of capitalist sociability. Although Marx did not develop a systematic theory of the state in capitalist societies, in some of his books, such as The 18 Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte e Class struggles in France, made important considerations about the political struggle in the French social formation from 1848 to 1851.

This conceptual pair – base and superstructure – led to simplistic interpretations, such as economism, which considers the superstructure as a mere appendix-reflex of the economic structure, demarcating a mechanistic relationship between both, as if there were no room for determinations arising from the political and ideological level. . This economistic conception was adopted by the Second Communist International and provoked reactions from theorists of the time. Even today we can see, in some so-called progressive circles, a conception of the State that sees it as a monolithic block without cracks, which will produce the same effects despite the class struggle.

Although the State has been addressed by classical Marxist authors, such as Engels, Lenin, Gramsci and Poulantzas, there is no consensus in Marxist theory on the concept of State. Nicos Poulantzas, a Greek author who lived in France, was one of the theorists who made a relevant contribution to what can be called Marxist political theory. The author was greatly influenced by Louis Althusser, whose work proposed a rigorous re-reading of Marx using certain basic concepts: (a) epistemological cut, separating the work of Marx from his youth from his mature work; (b) problematic, understood as a set of questions or problems that guide the investigation of a given object; (c) criticism of the Hegelian dialectic, differentiating primary and secondary contradictions, with the terms of determination and overdetermination.

Althusser developed the concept of an extended mode of production, which encompasses not only the economic structure, but also the legal, political and ideological structures. According to Althusser, Marx would have developed a regional theory of economics in the capitalist mode of production, but it would also be possible to develop a regional theory of other structures – political, legal and ideological.

Nicos Poulantzas departs from this conception of an expanded mode of production and develops his “regional theory of the political” in the work Political power and social classes, demarcating the legal-political level and the capitalist State as its objects of study. Although there is a relationship of reciprocal determination between the political level and the economic level, the capitalist mode of production has the economic element as its ultimate determination, that is, a complex whole with a dominant one. This does not mean adhering to an economic determinism, as there are determinations arising from the political and ideological level, known as overdeterminations.

The capitalist mode of production, according to Poulantzas, is formed by the specific combination of relatively autonomous instances – economic, political and ideological instances. Although such instances are part of a totality articulated in social materiality, it is possible to visualize them as a specific object of study for the purposes of a more precise theoretical treatment. In the capitalist mode of production (CPM) there is a separation of economic and political instances, as a result, among other issues, of the following reason: extra-economic reasons are excluded from the direct organization of capitalist production.

This specificity of MPC is better understood by comparing it with pre-capitalist modes. In the feudal mode of production, there was no clear separation between political and economic power, so that coercive power was mobilized for the organization of production relations. There was a relationship of direct dependence between the serf and the feudal lord, as the former was linked to the latter's property. In capitalist societies, the economy is not organized by coercive power, but operates under the domination of market forces.

Furthermore, the worker is not driven to production by the use of force, but for strictly economic and ideological reasons. If in feudalism and slavery individuals were impelled to work by physical force, in capitalism they are driven by ideology and, mainly, by material need. Coercive power, by not being mobilized for the direct organization of relations of production, can be concentrated in the general function of the State of maintaining social cohesion, even if, indirectly, coercion is functional to the reproduction of relations of production.

The previous statements do not indicate that there is total autonomy between the political and the economic in the MPC, as the economic needs established political and legal conditions for its functioning, as is the case of the employment contract and the legal relationship of private property. This relative autonomy between the economic level and the political level indicates the possibility of treating them as specific objects of analysis, since the political is not diluted in the economy. At this point, the notion of relative autonomy of the State is touched upon, a concept present in the work Political power and social classes, by Poulantzas.

Relative autonomy is developed in two main senses: (a) relative autonomy of the State in relation to social classes, as the capitalist State does not immediately represent any of the fractions, although it is functional to the interests that unify the bourgeoisie; (b) relative autonomy of economic and political instances in the capitalist mode of production. Regarding the last point, it should be considered that the different instances not only have relative autonomy among themselves, but also have different temporalities and unequal developments.

To illustrate this notion, it suffices to think that transformations and ruptures at the economic level do not occur at the same speed as changes at the ideological level. In other words, changes in social consciousness and ideology occur more slowly than ruptures in the economic level. Similarly, a change in the economic base of a given social formation will not mean an immediate transformation of the ideological level of this formation.

The State's relative autonomy in relation to social classes allows it to eventually favor the interests of the dominated classes. As long as such interests do not jeopardize the reproduction of capitalist sociability, such concessions may even go against the interests of the bourgeoisie, since the capitalist State does not directly represent the economic interests of the bourgeoisie, but its political interests. It should not be ignored that the concession of certain interests to the working class can even demobilize them politically. In addition, specific gains for the working class reinforce the view that the State represents the general interest.

Demarcating the relative autonomy of the political in relation to the economic can be useful not only for a more rigorous analysis from a theoretical point of view, but also to capture the reciprocal determinations between these two instances and to outline intervention strategies in reality that do not consider that the political class struggle is a pure reflection of economic relations. Although economics and politics are intertwined in concrete reality, understanding the specificity of the State in economic and ideological struggles is essential for the political dispute to occur not only in times of turbulence but, above all, in times of apparent tranquility.

*Matheus Silveira de Souza holds a master's degree in State Law from the University of São Paulo (USP).



ALTHUSSER, Louis. By Marx. Campinas: Editora Unicamp, 2015.

MARX, Carl. foreword by For the critique of political economy. São Paulo: Abril Cultural, 1978.

POULANTZAS, Nicos. Political power and social classes. Campinas: Editora da Unicamp, 2019.


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