Social state without class struggle?

Image_Paulinho Fluxuz


The current situation highlights the urgency of mobilization with grassroots projects, despite setbacks in the institutional field

For some scholars – so-called progressives – social advances are the product of insights of conscience that affect the state bureaucratic elite and convince them to realize some rights to individuals. Even more: the political and social progress of the country depends only on the improvement of institutions and their legal arrangements, more than political training and continuous engagement of social classes. In short, politics is made from the top down.

It is evident that social struggles cross the State, constituting a central field of dispute for the reduction of social inequalities. However, for left-wing institutionalists, the State is an autonomous legal political structure, little influenced by the class struggle, operating independently, almost apart from social disputes. According to this view, class struggle is even an outdated XNUMXth century word that has nothing to do with the problems we face today.

Here is a note to the reader. The structural change that took place in the Brazilian productive sector, with the shrinkage of industries and the expansion of jobs in the service sector – added to the weakening of unions and the rise of the infoproletariat – is not synonymous with the absence of class struggle, but with its reconfiguration.

In order to dress such ideas with a scientific veneer, categories of analysis without any material ballast are used, such as the notion of people. It doesn't take much effort to say that the people is a mere abstraction if disconnected from the different social classes that constitute it.(1)

For this worldview, the ruler that measures social advances and setbacks should reach only the centimeters of the institutionality of the State, regardless of the social and political engagement of the population to obtain such measures. The normative horizon that social classes have, for example, is just a detail that does not enter into the calculation. The population's perception that the improvement in their material living conditions was the result of political advances or just a divine blessing does not seem so important either.

To illustrate the discussion, it is useful to look at the formation of the Unified Health System (SUS), whose creation did not occur from a perceptive idea of ​​some political manager, but rather through the engagement and struggles of the Brazilian health movement. Evidently, it is necessary to emphasize that the hand could find a glove, since the political context of redemocratization and the National Constituent Assembly of 1987-1988 ensured that the claims of the sanitary movement were permeable to institutional policy and could crystallize in the text of the Constitution. However, one of the greatest advances of the State and social policies in Brazil – wide open with the context of the pandemic – would be unlikely without the participation of social movements.

The mistake of neo-institutionalism is to take the part for the whole, creating an analysis of institutions apart from the economic and social context and granting, once again, a kind of autonomy to State institutions. It is as if the creation of a strong institutional framework was capable of being effective on its own, regardless of the political situation that crosses it and the political and economic agents that are in power. A kind of state without people. When they speak of people, they refer to a homogeneous block, that is, a people without social classes.

The implementation of a Basic Income in Brazil also shows that changes in the political situation impose certain guidelines, creating windows of opportunity, which can be taken advantage of or neglected. Even though Eduardo Suplicy has been discussing the importance of a Citizen's Basic Income for more than 20 years, it was only with the social and economic changes resulting from the pandemic that this agenda was able to enter the public agenda. For those who have a fetish for the law, just remember that although there was already a norm regulating the Basic Income for more than 15 years – Law 10.835/2004 – it was never widely implemented in the country.

If the analysis of institutions is highly important for understanding the political dynamics of Brazil, it does not seem so effective to do it formally, disconnecting it from other social determinations.

After the criticisms above, can we ask how to build a more accurate view of the State, which does not fall into the trap of taking the part for the whole? According to Poulantzas, the State, as a cohesion factor in the unity of a social formation, would be a “structure in which condense the contradictions of the different levels of training”.(2)

The State's cohesion factor can be understood by its function of political order, by preventing class political conflicts from occurring directly. In other words, “the State prevents the annihilation of classes and “society”, which is a way of saying that it prevents the destruction of a social formation”.(3)

But the State is not an autonomous structure, as some jurists want, but crossed by social disputes and the political struggle of classes. Although I have a technical-economic function and a ideological function, such functions are overdetermined because of its political role.

Even if some insist on looking at the State in a purely technical way, as a space that should contain bureaucrats capable of managing and maintaining institutions, the capitalist State does not have a relationship with an abstract social context, but with a society divided into classes, a division that reflects the political domination of classes.

However, the law, by characterizing individuals in society as formally equal and as subjects of law, makes it difficult to recognize them as belonging to different social classes. People recognize themselves as citizens, belonging to the nation-state, without visualizing their class interests. The openness of institutions under capitalism, which theoretically can recruit members of all social classes, also guarantees the veneer of formal equality in the face of material inequality. Thus, although necessity obliges the individual to sell his work force, it is the ideology that guarantees the legitimacy of the exploitation of his work.

These characteristics of the capitalist State show that the state entity is not a neutral structure, which, when occupied by progressive individuals, will mold itself to the conceptions of its occupants. In short, the State does not cease to be capitalist when occupied by working class individuals, considering the subsistence of its institutional materiality.

Observing such relational characteristics of the state structure allows us to see the naivety of those who want to build a Welfare State based on a consensus that comes from above, as if social functions could be opposed to political functions. The public sphere, although crossed by institutions, does not produce all its results exclusively from them.

It also does not mean that institutionality is not important for the outcome of social and political struggles, an importance already demonstrated in detail in the classic text by Ellen Immergut(4). However, looking at institutions apart from economic and social relations, giving them complete autonomy, is looking at the part and believing that you are seeing the whole.

If the broad party front seems like a forgotten project – due to interests that are apparently more urgent than facing fascism – the discussion of a broad popular front is necessary, formed by neighborhood leaders, organized supporters, popular leaders, CUFA, social movements and several spontaneous initiatives that emerged during the pandemic. The importance of engaged institutional policy for social transformations is evident. However, the current situation shows the urgency of mobilization with grassroots projects, despite setbacks in the institutional field.

*Matheus Silveira de Souza Master in State Law from USP.


[1] PACHUKANIS, E. General Theory of Law and Marxism. Translation: Paula Vaz de Almeida – 1st ed. Boitempo: Sao Paulo, 2017

[2] POULANTZAS, Nicos. Political power and social classes. Campinas, SP: Editora da Unicamp, 2019, pg. 46.

[3] POULANTZAS, Nicos. Political power and social classes. Campinas, SP: Unicamp Publisher, 2019,

[4] IMERGUT, Ellen. The Rules of the Game: The Logic of Health Policy-Making in France, Switzerland and Sweden. In Thelen and Steinmo, eds., Structuring Politics: Historical Institutionalism in Comparative Perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992

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