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Capital & Class
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DOI: 10.1177/030981680107500107
2001 25: 83 Capital & Class
Bob Jessop
State theory, regulation, and autopoiesis: debates and controversies

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83 State theory, regulation, and autopoiesis
This contribution briey reviews the role of various
debates in Capital & Class and its predecessor, the
Bulletin of the Conference of Socialist Economists, in
the development of my own work over the last years.
These debates concern Marxist state theory; Fordism
and post-Fordism; the regulation approach; the
relevance of autopoiesis to Marxist analysis; and, most
recently, critical realism. Other issues and problems
have also inuenced my work, of course, but several
important theoretical turns have been prompted by
challenges raised by CSE members.
cNiN claimed there were three major sources
of Marxism: German philosophy, English economics,
and French politics. Althusser added that Marxs
ability to synthesize them derived from his commitment to
proletarian revolution. My work takes Marxs critique of
political economy as a primary reference point and is
therefore imprinted by its three sources too. But it also has
its own secondary set of sources. These can be described,
only half-jokingly, as German politics, French economics,
and Chilean biology. This is certainly how they have been
(mis)perceived by some critics in Capital & Class. Moreover,
alongside the various intellectual issues that drew me to these
State theory, regulation, and
autopoiesis: debates and
Bob Jessop
Capital & Class #75 84
particular sources, I also used them to address the
peculiarities of postwar Britain. For much of my work over
o years has been driven by the attempt to understand issues
such as Britains awed Fordism, its Keynesian welfare
national state, Thatcherism, and New Labour (for a rst
attempt to address most of these issues, see Jessop 18o).
The inuence of German politics began indirectly in
the mid-1;os through the Bulletin of the Conference of Socialist
Economists and the csc seminars on state theory, in which
John Holloway and Sol Picciotto introduced the German
state debate to anglophone comrades. From 1;;, I also
pursued this source more directly through German-language
texts and contacts with German theorists. Their inuence is
clear in my work on the changing forms and functions of
the capitalist state but it co-existed with the inuence of
Gramsci and Poulantzas (Jessop 1;;, 18z). It was Poulan-
tzass inuence that prompted some csc critics to attack my
work for its politicism. This allegedly accords primacy to
the state without grounding politics in the capital relation
and/or the unceasing class struggles around that relation.
Politicism is said to derive from the reication of the various
fetishised institutional forms of capitalism and to lead to
voluntarism in theory and practice. Simon Clarke (1;;)
argued that the Poulantzasian interest in the relative power
of dierent fractions of capital in the power bloc tended
towards instrumentalism and voluntarism and ignored the
underlying objective, contradictory dynamic of capital
accumulation. Werner Bonefeld (18;) and John Holloway
(188) also criticised treatments of the state as an institutional
ensemble that is (relatively) autonomous. In particular they
claimed theories of relative autonomy neglected the deter-
mining role of the capital relation and failed to see that the
economic and political actually comprise a dialectical
separation-in-unity rather than two distinct institutional
These were important challenges and, whilst not wholly
convinced, I did wonder how to analyse the economy
consistently with my strategic-relational approach to the
state. Initially my ideas developed through reading debates
on the value form and re-reading Gramscis work on
Americanism and Fordism. This led to my account of
accumulation strategies as means of imposing substantive
unity on dierent forms of value (Jessop 18). At the time I
thought these reections could oer a neo-Gramscian
85 State theory, regulation, and autopoiesis
analysis of the economy corresponding to the insight that
the state is a social relation. With hindsight, these reections
were also politicist, however, because they focused on the
national states role in formulating accumulation strategies
and ignored other political scales as well as the role of rms,
fractions of capital, and other economic, political, and social
forces. These problems have been addressed in more recent
work (see below).
I rst formulated these ideas by developing analogies
between Gramscis account of lo stato integrale (the integral
state) and leconomia integrale (the integral economy). Thus,
if Gramsci dened the state in its inclusive sense as political
society + civil society and saw state power in western
societies as based on hegemony armoured by coercion, a
regulationist account might interpret the economy in its
inclusive sense as comprising an accumulation regime +
social mode of economic regulation and capital
accumulation as involving the self-valorization of capital
in and through regulation. Shortly after formulating these
neo-Gramscian ideas, I became interested in French
economics in the guise of the Parisian regulation school.
This is reected in my work on the crisis of Atlantic Fordism
and the transition to post-Fordism and the possibilities of
delineating a post-Fordist form of state analogous to the
Keynesian welfare national state. Michel de Vroey, who
provided the rst extended overview of this school in Capital
& Class (18(),
reinforced this interest in French economics
when he invited me to join the organizing committee of the
International Conference on Regulation (188). More
generally my work on regulation has evolved in dialogue
not only with French economics but also with some West
German state theorists whose work on the changing forms
and functions of the state has also been informed by the
regulation approach. This engagement with the German
debate once again provoked the wrath of Holloway and
Bonefeld, this time for its alleged reformist reformulation
of Marxist state theory and for naturalizing rather than
resisting the transition to post-Fordism (Bonefeld 1a;
Holloway 188).
Whilst working on regulation I continued to reect on
the relative autonomy of the state and the question of
politicism and began to consider the apparently autonomous
logic of market forces. This posed interesting issues about
how the economic and political orders come to be
Capital & Class #75 86
structurally coupled to produce an historic bloc (Gramscis
term for the mutually reinforcing correspondence of
economic base and politico-ideological superstructure) as
well as about the conditions, if any, under which they can be
coordinated strategically by a power bloc. As I was attempting
to combine German politics and French economics I came
across Chilean biology, if not directly, at least by way of
German social theorists, especially Niklas Luhmann,
Gunther Teubner, and Helmut Willke. From them I took
the concept of autopoiesis or self-production. Transposed
(some would say illegitimately) from cell biology to
sociology, autopoietic theory suggests that major societal
sub-systems (such as law, politics, the economy, and science)
can be studied as self-referential, self-reproducing, and self-
regulating. Such systems constitute their own boundaries,
re-create the conditions for their internal operations, and
develop according to their own operational logic rather than
obeying an external logic. Drawing on these ideas suggests
that historic blocs could be understood in terms of the path-
dependent structural coupling of two operationally autonomous
but substantively interdependent subsystems, the path-shaping
eorts of economic and political forces to inuence (or
govern) the nature and direction of this co-evolution, and
the ecological dominance of the market-mediated, self-
valorising capitalist economy.
Needless to say, this irtation
with Luhmannian theory incurred the ire of open marxists,
most notably in Werner Bonefelds critique of the eclecticism
and conservatism involved in critical realism, Luhmannian
theory, and work on Fordism and post-Fordism (1b,
1(). As my colleague, Colin Hay (1() wrote an eective
counter-critique, I decided not to reply directly. Instead I
chose to respond indirectly in my later work.
Thus, during the last 1 years, my theoretical work has
developed in three main directions. First, further rounds of
theoretical and empirical work have led me back to the value
form to reground regulationism in Marxs critique of
political economy. This is my latest attempt to develop state
theory in response to the problem of politicism and, in
particular, to reintegrate the analysis of economics and
politics without conating them or subsuming them under
a generic logic of accumulation (see below). Second, I have
become more interested in problems of scale in analyzing
the changing economic and political dynamic of capitalism
especially in the dialectic of globalization-regionalization
87 State theory, regulation, and autopoiesis
and the future of the national state in an era of globalizing
capitalism. This is reected in work on cross-border regions,
urban politics, the entrepreneurial city, globalization, and
the post-national state (see Jessop 1;, 1a, 1b, zoooa,
zooob). This attempts to redress the national focus of my
previous work on accumulation strategies and to address
the rescaling of economics and politics. Third, I have explored
the changing forms and modalities of state intervention in
reproducing the economic and extra-economic conditions
for accumulationespecially the shift from imperative
coordination to public-private partnership, networking, and
other forms of self-organization and self-regulation. This is
reected in work on the emerging signicance and limitations
of governance (self-organization) and the enhanced role of
states (on dierent scales) in meta-governance, i.e.,
organizing the conditions for self-organization. This work
is a further development of concerns with autopoiesis applied
on an institutional level to the complexities of the globalizing
economy (Jessop 1b, zooob, zoooc, zoo1b).
Given the limited space available here, I concentrate on
the rst set of developments. Marx identied a fundamental
contradiction in the commodity form between exchange-
and use-value. On this basis he unfolded the complex nature
of the capitalist mode of production and its dynamic; and
showed both the necessity of periodic crises and their role
in re-integrating the circuit of capital as a basis for renewed
expansion. In turn I have suggested that all forms of the
capital relation embody dierent but interconnected versions
of this contradiction and that they impact dierentially on
(dierent fractions of) capital and (dierent strata of) labour
at dierent times and places. These contradictions are
reproduced along with capitalism but do not keep the same
weight or signicance. In addition, the reproduction of these
contradictions with their contradictory eects and their
impact on the historical tendency of capitalist development
depends on the class struggle (Poulantzas 1;, (o-1, italics
in original). This is the vector that realizes contradictions
and dilemmas in specic conjunctures. Indeed, as Holloway
argues, there is no distinction to be made between contradiction
and struggle: all social contradictions are relations of struggle,
and therefore undetermined, uncertain, wide open (1a:
Drawing on these arguments, I have argued that
capitalism needs regulating because of the indeterminate
Capital & Class #75 88
but antagonistic nature of the capital relation. This has three
key aspects: (a) the constitutive incompleteness of the capital
relation such that its reproduction depends, in an unstable
and contradictory way, on changing extra-economic
conditions; (b) the various structural contradictions and
strategic dilemmas inherent in the capital relation and their
forms of appearance in dierent accumulation regimes,
modes of regulation, and conjunctures; and (c) conicts over
the regularization and/or governance of these contradictions
and dilemmas as they are expressed both in the circuit of
capital and the wider social formation. The rst point refers
to the inherent incapacity of capitalism to reproduce itself
wholly through the value form. For accumulation depends
on an unstable balance between three moments: the extension
of commodity relations, the reproduction-regulation of
ctitious commodities (notably land, labour power, money,
and knowledge), and the maintenance of capitals key extra-
economic supports. This rules out the eventual com-
modication of everything and poses major problems of the
regularization of the capital relation. This is reected in
cycles of commodication, de-commodication, and re-com-
modication as the struggle to extend the exchange-value
moments of the capital relation encounters real structural
limits and/or increasing resistance and seeks new ways to
overcome them. It is also reected in less frequent but more
radical crises of specic accumulation regimes and their
spatio-temporal xes emerge in and through social struggles
over the basic forms of the capital relation.
Second, the various structural contradictions and strategic
dilemmas inherent in the capital relation all express the basic
contradiction between exchange- and use-value. For example,
productive capital is both abstract value in motion (notably
in the form of realized prots available for re-investment)
and a concrete stock of time- and place-specic assets in the
course of being valorized; the worker is both an abstract
unit of labour-power substitutable by other such units (or,
indeed, other factors of production) and a concrete individual
with specic skills, knowledge, and creativity; the wage is
both a cost of production and a source of demand; money
functions both as an international currency exchangeable
against other currencies (ideally in stateless space) and as
money circulating within national societies and
subject to state control; land functions both as a form of
property (based on the private appropriation of nature)
89 State theory, regulation, and autopoiesis
deployed in terms of expected rents and as a natural resource
(modied by past actions) that is more or less renewable
and recyclable; knowledge is both a source of prot in the
form of intellectual property rights and a collectively
produced intellectual commons. Likewise, the state is responsible
for certain key conditions for the valorization of capital and
the social reproduction of labour power and also has overall
political responsibility for maintaining social cohesion in a
class-divided social formation.
Such contradictions and dilemmas can assume dierent
forms and primacies. They often nd expression in dierent
agents, institutions, and systems as the prime bearers of one
or other of their aspects. They can also prove more or less
manageable depending on the specic spatio-temporal xes
and institutionalized class compromises with which they
may be linked. However, insofar as these compromises
marginalize forces that act as bearers of functions or
operations essential to long-run accumulation, the emergence
of signicant imbalances, disproportionalities, or disunity
in the circuit of capital will tend to strengthen these
marginalized forces and enable them to disrupt the
institutionalized compromises associated with a particular
accumulation regime, mode of regulation, state form, and
spatio-temporal x (Clarke 1;;). Such crises typically act
as a steering mechanism for the always provisional, partial,
and unstable re-equilibration of capital accumulation.
Third, modes of regulation and governance vary widely.
This follows from the constitutive incompleteness of the
capital relation and the variety of accumulation regimes and
modes of regulation. There are dierent ways to seek to
close the circuit of capital and compensate for its lack of
closure. Which of these comes to dominate depends on the
specic social and spatio-temporal frameworks within which
these attempts occur. Indeed, notwithstanding the tendency
for capital accumulation to produce a single world market,
there are important counter-tendencies and other limits to
globalization. Specic accumulation regimes and modes of
regulation are typically constructed in specic social spaces
and spatio-temporal matrices. This justies work on
comparative capitalisms and their embedding in specic
institutional and spatio-temporal complexes; it also justies
exploration of the path-dependent linkages between
di erent economic trajectories and broader social
Capital & Class #75 90
Early debates in Capital & Class have continued to shape my
work for almost o years in four main ways: they introduced
me to state theory, they posed the issue of politicism, they
challenged me to justify my irtation with theories of
autopoiesis, and they have prompted me to justify the critical
realist approach that informs my analyses (on the last of
these issues, see Jessop zoo1c). The biggest challenge has
been to respond to the charge of politicism and, in this regard,
my Capital & Class critics have been constant critical
members of my imagined intellectual community as I have
developed my work. I have obviously continued to disagree
with many of their criticisms but I have not ignored them.
Without such criticisms I doubt that I would have arrived at
my current interpretations of: (a) the states role in regulari-
zing the conditions for accumulation through providing an
improbable, provisional, and unstable spatio-temporal x
for specic accumulation regimes; (b) the many dierent
contradictions in the capital relation that are reproduced
and inected in specic ways and with specic weights through
class struggle and institutionalized in specic accumulation
regimes and modes of regulation; or (c) the ecological
dominance of the capital relation as a way to rethink the
problem of economic determination in the last instance.
These current interpretations have also involved debates and
discussions in other contexts too (most notably with Stuart
Hall on the nature of Thatcherism in New Left Review and,
indirectly, with Laclau and Moues post-Marxist discourse
analysis). They also depend on several other theoretical
turnsincluding an institutional turn, a narrative turn, a
governance turn, and a scalar turn. But, in the spirit of an
open Marxism that I understood rather dierently from my
critics, an often subterranean inuence has continued.
1. De Vroey is not himself a Parisian regulationist but a Flemish
institutional economist.
2. Ecological dominance refers to the capacity of a given system in a self-
organising ecology of self-organising systems to imprint its
developmental logic on other systems operations through structural
coupling, strategic co-ordination, and blind co-evolution to a greater
91 State theory, regulation, and autopoiesis
extent than the latter can impose their respective logics on that system.
I argue that the self-valorization of capital makes the capitalist economy
ecologically dominant in contemporary societies and that neo-liberal
globalization reinforces this tendency (Jessop 2000a).
3. Plurinational monetary blocs organized by states could also be
included here.
Bonefeld, W. (1987) Reformulation of State Theory, Capital & Class,
33, pp.96-127.
_______ (1993a) Some Notes on the Theory of the Capitalist State,
Capital & Class, 49, pp.113-21.
_______ (1993b) Crisis of Theory: Bob Jessops Theory of Capitalist
Reproduction, Capital & Class, 50, pp.25-48.
_______ (1994) Aglietta in England: Bob Jessops Contribution to
the Regulation Approach, Futur antrieur, special issue, pp.299-
Clarke, S. (1977) Marxism, Sociology, and Poulantzass Theory of the
State, Capital & Class, 2, pp.1-31.
_______ (1988) Overaccumulation, Class Struggle and the
Regulation Approach, Capital & Class, 36, pp.59-92.
_______ (1991) New Utopias for Old: Fordist Dreams and Post-
Fordist Fantasies, Capital & Class, 42, pp.131-53
Hay, C.S. (1995) Werner in Wunderland, Futur antrieur, special issue,
Holloway, J. (1988) The Great Bear, Post-Fordism and Class Struggle:
a Comment on Bonefeld and Jessop, Capital & Class, 36, 93-104
_______ (1994) Global Capital and the National State, Capital &
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_______ (1993a) Open Marxism, history and class struggle. Some
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_______ (1988) Regulation Theory, Post-Fordism, and the State: More
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