The capitalist state and the question of power

Image: Cyrus Saurius


If the mobilization of forces and the construction of strategies requires an understanding of material reality, it is important to abandon some narrow conceptions of State and law.

Our coexistence in society is crossed by power, so that social relations – public or private – are filled by it on a daily basis. The patriarchal relationship between man and woman, the subordination between worker and employer, father and son, religious and spiritual leader, in short, wherever we look, it is not difficult, if we pay attention, to find relationships of domination.

In this way, some questions can serve as a guideline for our reflection: is power largely diluted in social relations, or is there a central core of articulation and reproduction of power relations? What is the relationship between the State and power in the structuring of domination relations?

The State is the place of condensation of power relations and the space of production and reproduction of a society divided into classes. Although it does not present itself this way – due to the separation between economics and politics in the capitalist system – it is fundamentally a field crossed by class contradictions. Therefore, it is no use having a theory of power without having a theory of the State.

Although part of the power is spread throughout society, even outside the state apparatus, the state is the fundamental locus that performs the condensation of these relationships. In other words, the State articulates and reproduces power relations, often crystallizing them as political power. To illustrate the idea, we point out that even though there are domination relations outside the State, it is common for these relations to reconfigure and reproduce themselves based on the mediations carried out by the State and by the legal form. Marx writes something close to this when he states that: “every class struggle is a political struggle”.[I]

The State has a visible apparatus and an, shall we say, invisible apparatus. The visible part can be visualized by the set of state institutions, specialized officials and bureaucrats, laws and normative regulations. Its invisible part concerns the State as a social relationship, that is, “the material condensation of a correlation of forces between social classes and their fractions”[ii]. These parts designated as visible and invisible are not dichotomous but, on the contrary, form a unity.

Thus, “political power relations redefine the set of other forms of power, such as gender, ethnic, family, school,”[iii] whether through state bureaucracy or through repressive and ideological apparatuses. This does not mean ignoring the specificities of social relations, but on the other hand, looking at the way in which parastatal relations are reconfigured by the State itself.

From a legal point of view, the State makes it difficult to recognize the class interests that bind individuals by categorizing them as citizens. Making collective problems exclusively individual – such as access to employment, income, housing – is one of the key points of neoliberal ideology. Margareth Thatcher's phrase that “there is no society, but only individuals” is just a reflection of this dominant rhetoric, which makes it difficult to recognize the economic and social roots that link individuals and groups together.

A dialogue held a week before the municipal elections can illustrate this rhetoric. A worker, when asked who he would vote for in the elections in São Paulo, replied that “he would not vote no, he would go to work and run after his things”. Well, the guy wasn't saying that he was going to work on a Sunday, it was another speech. The phrase makes it understood that all successes and failures are the result of merely individual conduct and that politics does not matter much for such matters. The job opportunity, access to health, housing, income, are issues that are resolved in the personal field and not collectively. The famous phrase resounds, once again: “there is no society, but only individuals”.

The institutional materiality of the capitalist State allows the interests of a certain social class to be presented to the rest of the population as if they were the interests of the entire society, clothed in the mantra of the “general interest”. There are many times that a law student hears from his professors explanations of the concept of general interest, embodied in the principle of supremacy of the public interest over the private interest. Perhaps it is more didactic to ignore the fact that the public interest carries a good deal of private interest behind it. The framework of this institutional materiality is precisely the separation between the political and the economic in capitalism. While the State guarantees economic exploitation between classes, it presents itself as a neutral third party in this relationship.

However, we must remember, as Poulantzas points out, that the State cannot be reduced to its role of political domination, as it is directly related to production relations and the social division of labor.

In order to see more precisely the relationship between political power, the State and social classes – a central concern in the work of Nicos Poulantzas – it is necessary to distance two conceptions of the State, widely disseminated, the first known as the State as an instrument-thing and the second as the State. as subject.

The first sees the State as a neutral field, without specific materiality, which can be conducted as an instrument by the group that will occupy it. Thus, the state apparatus occupied by conservatives would create conservative policies and the state occupied by progressives would become a progressive state. However, we know that the State remains bourgeois even if occupied by individuals against the bourgeoisie, as Marx had already demonstrated in The 18 Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. The second position sees the state entity as the mere emanator of the interests of the bourgeoisie, a monolithic block without cracks, which will produce the same results despite the class struggle.[iv] This conception must be discarded so that we can visualize the State as a field crossed by social disputes, because although it has a class nature, it also has contradictions that open spaces for political struggle.

If the mobilization of forces and the construction of strategies requires an understanding of the material reality, it is important to abandon some narrow conceptions of State and law, in order to reach their complexity and have a useful conceptual background for the elaboration of intervention plans.

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



MARX, K.; ENGELS, F. Communist Party Manifesto. Lisbon, Avante, 1975.

OSORIO, Jaime. The State at the center of globalization: civil society and the theme of power. São Paulo: Popular Expression, 2019.

POULANTZAS, Nicos. The state, power, socialism. São Paulo: Peace and Land, 2015



[I]MARX, K.; ENGELS, F. Manifesto of the Communist Party. Lisbon, Avante, 1975.

[ii]POULANTZAS, Nicos. The state, power, socialism. São Paulo: Peace and Land, 2015

[iii]OSORIO, Jaime. The State at the center of globalization: civil society and the issue of power. São Paulo: Popular Expression, 2019.

[iv]POULANTZAS, Nicos. The state, power, socialism. São Paulo: Peace and Land, 2015

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