Charles Post: The Separation of the 'Economic' and the 'Political' under Capitalism: 'Capital-centric Marxism' and the Capitalist State


Ellen Meiksins Wood passed away on 13th January 2016 after a long battle with cancer. 

Verso held a symposium last year to celebrate the republication of her seminal works The Pristine Culture of Capitalism and Peasant-Citizen and Slave (full audio of the symposium can be found here).

'The Iron Rolling Mill' by Adolf Menzel

Here is Charles Post's presentation from the symposium, 'The Separation of the 'Economic' and the 'Political' under Capitalism: 'Capital-centric Marxism' and the Capitalist State'. Charles Post is Professor of Sociology Social Sciences, Human Services & Criminal Justice at Borough of Manhattan Community College and the Graduate Center-City University of New York and the author of The American Road to Capitalism. His talk analyses the 'Political Marxist' or 'Capital-centic Marxist' approach to the bourgeois state, against critique of this approach, which characterise it as merely a 'Hayekian' or minimalist conception of the state in capitalist society.

One of the central claims of Capital-centric Marxism is that capitalism is the first mode of production in human history whose social property relations are reproduced through market competition. Capitalism’s unique laws of motion/rules of reproduction—the law of value which compels producers to economize labor-time through productive specialization, labor-saving technical innovation and the accumulation of surplus-value—operates through the mechanism of price competition. Put simply, capitalism is reproduced through the “dull compulsion of the market place” rather than through varied forms of extra-economic coercion.

The capitalist state, from this perspective, is distinguished from all previous forms of political domination by its relative separation from the capitalist economy. The capitalist state constitutes what Heidi Gerstenberger has called a public sphere of “impersonal power;” while exploitation is privatized in individual units of production. In the words of Ellen Meiksins Wood in her seminal essay “The Separation of the ‘Economic’ and the ‘Political’ in Capitalism”:

To speak of the differentiation of the economic sphere…is not, of course, to suggest that the political dimension is somehow extraneous to capitalist relations of production. The political sphere in capitalism has a special character because the coercive power supporting capitalist exploitation is not wielded directly by the appropriator and is not based on the producer’s political or juridical subordination to an appropriating master. But a coercive power and a structure of domination remain essential… Absolute private property, the contractual relation that binds producer to appropriator, the process of commodity exchange—all these require legal forms, the coercive apparatus, the policing functions of the state.2

While the capitalist state provides the ‘general conditions of accumulation,’ it does not direct the distribution of labor-power and means of production within and between branches of production. Instead, it is the law of value operating through real market competition that insures the reproduction of this mode of production. The unique dynamism of capitalism—the constant development of the productive forces—and its crisis tendencies—falling profits as a result of the increasing mechanization of production—operate independently of the desires and goals of either individual capitalists or its “Executive Committee,” the capitalist state. Again, as Wood argued:

… the social functions of production and distribution, surplus extraction and appropriation, and the allocation of social labor are, so to speak, privatized and they are achieved by non-authoritative, non-political means. In other words, the social allocation of resources and labor does not, on the whole, take place by means of political direction, communal deliberation, heredity duty, custom, or religious obligation, but rather through the mechanisms of commodity exchange.3

Many critics of “Political Marxism” have labelled this approach a “Hayekian Marxism” that limits the “general conditions of production” to the provisions of certain infrastructure that individual capitalists cannot produce profitably. This perspective, it is argued, cannot account for the key features of the concrete history of capitalism. Specifically, Capital-centric Marxism cannot explain the role of the capitalist state in creating capitalist social property relations, the persistence of legally coerced labor under capitalism; or the growth of capitalist state economic intervention in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In this essay, we will attempt to sketch the barest outline of a Capital-centric account of the roots and limits of capitalist state policies that attempt to shape social relations and the course of accumulation. In this task, I draw not only on Marx’s Capital—the most important of Marx’s mature, scientific works—but on a variety of works in or close to the tradition of “Political Marxism.”

Michael Zmolek’s excellent new book, Rethinking the Industrial Revolution4, directly addresses, from an explicitly Capital-centric perspective, the role of the capitalist state in the creation and consolidation of capitalist social property relations in England. Brenner, Wood and others have been quite insistent that the operation of capitalist rules of reproduction—specialization, innovation and accumulation—cannot explain the origins of capitalist social property relations. Put simply, the process of ‘primitive accumulation’—the establishment of capitalist social relations of production—is not the result of the spread of markets or the development of the productive forces. Instead, it is the unintended consequences of attempts of pre-capitalist classes to reproduce themselves in periods of crisis that produce capitalism. In this process, the state plays a crucial role. Zmolek’s discussions of enclosures and the expropriation and sale of monastery lands in Tudor England give new historical depth and sophistication to Marx’s discussions in the section on “primitive accumulation” in Capital.

Zmolek’s discussion of the role of the post-1688 British capitalist state in the creation of an industrial working class is especially important. Marx was quite clear that the ‘dull compulsion’ of the market was not sufficient to discipline propertyless wage workers when capital had not yet conquered the labor-process. As long as capital’s subsumption of labor was formal and the actual labor-process was in the hands of skilled artisanal wage earners—legal-juridical forces was necessary to ensure the sale of labor-power and capital’s ability to command production. The majority of workers can be “dually free”—free from possession of objects and instruments of production; and free of non-market legal-juridical compulsion to labor—only when capital has achieved real subsumption of labor. Only when capitalists both face a mass of workers without non-market access to the means of production and are able to constantly reproduce a reserve army of labor through the mechanization of production, can capital effectively secure an adequate and reliable supply of labor power without legal and juridical restrictions on workers. Zmolek’s discussion of the central role of the British capitalist state in destroying artisanal wage workers’ resistance to the real subsumption of labor to capital again concretizes these insights.

Legally coerced wage labor also persists in capitalist agriculture, where the disjuncture between production and labor time5 makes non-market coercion necessary to secure adequate supplies of labor power during crucial periods like planting and harvesting. Legally coerced wage labor is also found in situations where capital has command of industrial labor-processes, but where workers are only partially separated from landed property. For example, in apartheid South Africa, workers were not “free” to enter or leave labor contracts at will.6 The specific forms of capitalist social property relations that emerged in the South African countryside and urban centers after the 1913 Natives’ Land Act—the partial separation of the African population from the means of production—necessitated this legal coercion. Africans were able to partially reproduce their labor-power outside of the wage-relation either in the “Reserve Areas” or on plots of land provided by capitalist farmers. This “partial proletarianization” required the “pass laws” that legally restricted geographic mobility of labor-power in order to ensure steady supplies of ‘cheap’ African labor power to capital.

Today, millions of non-market coerced wage workers—often mislabeled ‘slaves’—are compelled to sell their labor-power often for less than the cost of their reproduction, and are prevented from leaving employers to seek better wages and conditions. As David McNally and Susan Ferguson7 have argued, most of these workers are migratory workers who do not enjoy the legal rights/freedom of citizens. The extra-economic coercion they face is crucial to supplying inexpensive labor-power to labor-intensive sectors—sex-work, domestic servants, landscape workers, hotel cleaners, janitors, home construction, garment production, and certain branches of agriculture. Real capitalist accumulation and competition compels capitalists in labor-intensive industries to pay low wages—wages often below the costs of reproduction—in order to earn the average rate of profit.8 Legal coercion in the form of the denial of civil and political rights is often required to provide such “cheap” labor-power.

The reality of capitalist competition through the “artillery of fixed capital” also explain the role of the capitalist state historically in attempting to protect “infant” capitalist industries. Anwar Shaikh, in his seminal essay “Foreign Trade and the Law of Value,”9 has argued out those capitalist classes that entered the world market after the consolidation of industrial capitalism in Britain were faced with a dilemma. Whether in Germany, Italy, Japan or the US in the nineteenth century, or in the global South in the twenty and twenty-first centuries, “late industrializers” found they were unable to compete directly with the older, more capital-intensive producers. “Free trade” meant remaining exporters of agricultural goods, raw materials and low-end, labor-intensive manufactured goods. Only those ruling classes that succeeded in establishing protective tariffs and selective state subsidies for capital-intensive export industries succeeded in carving out a place for themselves in the capitalist world economy. As Vivek Chibber points out in Locked in Place: State-Building and Late Industrialization in India10, protective tariffs as part of “import substitution industrialization” programs were insufficient, allowing inefficient manufacturing in many parts of the global south to survive for decades. However, “export led industrialization” programs had a very different impact. When capitalist classes were ready and willing to compete globally, usually in social formations where the capitalist transformation of agriculture had created a competitive home market, forms of capitalist state intervention and protection were necessary preconditions for successful industrialization.

Finally, Joaquim Hirsch’s essay “The State Apparatus and Social Reproduction: Elements of a Theory of the Capitalist State”11 provides important insights into the roots and limits of capitalist state intervention in the advanced capitalist countries in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The state-derivation school, of which Hirsch was a prominent figure, shared with “Political Marxism” the goal of providing a Marxist analysis of the form of the capitalist state—of a “public power” separate from the private sphere of exploitation and accumulation. Like Wood, Hirsch rooted the separation of the political and economic in the specific social property relations and rules of reproduction of capitalism. The “state derivation” school also sought to counter various neo-Keynesian and neo-reformist arguments that capitalist state fiscal and monetary policy, combined with forms of ‘indicative planning’ and limited nationalizations, had finally created a crisis-free form of ‘managed’ or ‘state monopoly capital.’ Put another way, Hirsch’s arguments point to how the separation of the political and economic that characterizes capitalism essentially limits the capacity of capitalist state personnel to alter the rules of reproduction of capitalism through the construction of institutional frameworks—the Regulationists’ “regimes of accumulation”—to regulate the economy. Instead, it is the dynamics of accumulation, competition and profitability that place strict limits on the actions of capitalist state personnel, as we have seen time and again in the past forty years beginning with the Mitterand regime in France in the early 1980s through, most recently, the capitulation of Syrizia in Greece to the austerity agenda of the European Union.

Starting from an account of the separation of the political and economic that is essentially the same as that of Capital-centric Marxists, Hirsch concludes: 

… that the bourgeois state, by reason of its essential character [its formal separation from the economy—CP], cannot act as regulator of the social process of development, but must be understood in the determination of its concrete functions as a reaction to the fundamentally crisis-ridden course of the economic and social process of reproduction. The developing state interventionism represents a form in which the contradictions of capital can temporarily move; but the movement of capital remains historically determining… These can be condensed in terms of value theory in the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, which also means that this law must be the conceptual point of departure for an analysis of state functions, to be developed out of the concrete course of capital accumulation and class conflict.12


Put simply, other than the extension of political rights to workers and the expansion of the welfare state which were temporary concessions to working class struggle that never undermined labor-market discipline, the logic of capitalist state economic policy is driven by attempts to mobilize the counter-tendencies to the falling rate of profit.13Whether the use of fiscal and monetary policy to stimulate demand, manipulate interest rates or provide tax subsidies to various capitals; incomes policies and restrictions on trade union rights; or the mechanisms of indicative planning and nationalization (usually of less productive capitals), capitalist state economic policies aim facilitate increasing the rate of surplus-value and destroying redundant capitals—without the collapse of accumulation that comes with crises.

The abandonment of Keynesian policies in the late 1970s and early 1980s reflected the limits of capitalist state policy and the necessity of periodic capitalist crises.14 Despite the massive expansion of ‘state intervention,’ capitalist state policies operated at a distance from accumulation and could not prevent a new crisis of profitability. The shift to neo-liberalism facilitated the revival of profitability and accumulation between 1982 and 2007 because it was effective in facilitating the increased exploitation of labor and the destruction of inefficient firms. However, neo-liberalism—like all other capitalist state policies—could not prevent a renewed crisis of profitability beginning in 2008. These crises are rooted in the operation capitalism’s most fundamental laws of motion/rules of reproduction—the operation of the law of value through specialization, innovation and accumulation under the whip of market competition—which are beyond the ability of capitalist state managers to effectively regulate.

Ultimately, the Capital-centric understanding of the place of the capitalist state in the ensemble of capitalist social property relations points to the need to radically disrupt the separation of the political and economic in order to transcend capitalism. Because capitalist state policies are ultimately limited by independent dynamics of profitability, the capitalist state institutions cannot be utilized in some instrumental fashion to abolish capitalism in some piece-meal manner, as strategies of “non-reformist reforms” argue. Instead, working people will have to confront the capitalist state and build their own organs of political and social power—which will abolish the separation of the political and economic—in order to build a new, democratic socialist order.


1 “The Bourgeois State Form Revisted,” in W. Bonefeld, et al. (eds.) Open Marxism, Volume I: Dialectics and History (London: Pluto Press, 1992); Impersonal Power: History and Theory of the Bourgeois State, (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2009)

2 “The Separation of the ‘Economic’ and the ‘Political’ in Capitalism,” in Democracy Against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 29-30.

3 “The Separation,” p. 29.

4Rethinking the Industrial Revolution: Five Centuries of Transition from Agrarian to Industrial Capitalism in England (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014).

5 Susan Archer Mann, Agrarian Capitalism in Theory and Practice (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1990), Chapter Two.

6 This argument is detailed in Martin J. Murray and Charles Post, “The 'Agrarian Question,' Class Struggle and the Capitalist State in South Africa and the United States," Insurgent Sociologist, Volume 11, Number 3 (Winter 1984).

7 “Precarious Migrants: Gender, Race and the Social Reproduction of a Global Working Class,” in L. Panitch and G. Albo (eds.), Socialist Register 2015: Transforming Classes (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2014).

8 Howard Botwinick, Persistent Inequalities: Wage Disparities under Capitalist Competition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

9 Part I, Science & Society 43, 3 (Fall 1979); Part II, Science & Society 44, 1 (Spring 1980)

10 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003). See also “Development from Below,” Jacobin 19 (2015) []

11 In J. Holloway and S. Picciotto (eds.), State and Capital: A Marxist Debate (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1978)

12 Hirsch, “State Apparatus and Social Reproduction,” p. 97.

13 For a similar argument see G. McCormack and T. Workman, The Servant State: Overseeing Capital Accumulation in Canada (Blackwood, NS: Fernwood Press, 2015)

14 See David McNally, Global Slump: The Economics and Politics of Crisis and Resistance (Oakland, CA, PM Press, 2011) and Anwar Shaikh, “The First Great Depression of the 21st Century” in L. Panitch, G. Albo and V. Chibber (eds.), Socialist Register 2011: The Crisis This Time (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010).