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Poulantzas and the Juridical Constitution of the Subject

Rafael Khachaturian on the political and legal thought of Nicos Poulantzas

Rafael Khachaturian 7 November 2017

Poulantzas and the Juridical Constitution of the Subject

Although Nicos Poulantzas is rightly regarded as one of the most innovative Marxist theoreticians of the state, most analyses tend to focus on his account of the relative autonomy of the capitalist state in the organization of the hegemonic bloc of the capitalist class. As a result, an equally important aspect of his theorization of the state is sometimes forgotten: its role in disorganizing and isolating dominated classes through the deployment of juridical institutions and ideology.

Given contemporary interest in both neo-Althusserian and neo-Foucauldian approaches to ideology and disciplinary practices in the formation of juridical subjectivity, it is worth revisiting Poulantzas’ description of this process. In particular, Poulantzas’ own changing views in the decade between his two best known works, Political Power and Social Classes (1968) and State, Power, Socialism (1978), allow us to pose a question: does Poulantzas account for the possibility that the formation of individuals as juridical subjects within the capitalist state can also aid in challenging and transforming these power relations? [1]

In Political Power and Social Classes, Poulantzas posited the dual function of the capitalist state in relation to class struggles as “to disorganize the dominated classes politically, and at the same time to organize the dominant classes politically”. [2] By virtue of its juridical and ideological structures, the capitalist state conceals from its subjects their socio-economic relations as agents participating in a socialized form of production. Through this “effect of isolation”, they experience these relations as a “specific fragmentation and atomization”. [3] To individuals constituted in this manner, the capitalist state then appears as a political unity representing the general interest, as the “incarnation of the popular will of the people/nation”. [4]

Here it is important to note that atomization is not merely an ideological mystification at the level of the individual. Instead, Poulantzas was clear that this subjectivity is perpetuated through concrete state institutions and practices, including parliamentary representation and universal suffrage. Through these practices, as well as pronouncements of popular sovereignty and the collective will, the state-nation came to represent a collective unity.

By State, Power, Socialism, however, Poulantzas’ critical treatment of the juridico-political level gave way to a qualified support for the above elements of the modern Rechtsstaat. On the one hand, there is a continuous thread between the two books’ arguments. If anything, the law, with its repressive and productive capacities together making it a “constitutive element of the politico-social field”, takes on an even greater prominence in State, Power, Socialism. [5] In the capitalist mode of production, law replaces religion as the dominant discourse for the reproduction of ideology. In the context of the capitalist state, “abstract, formal, universal law is the truth of subjects: it is knowledge (in the service of capital) which constitutes juridical-political subjects and which establishes the difference between private and public”. [6] The productive processes of modern capitalism, and the corresponding social division of labor, require the law to individualize agents, once again constituting them as juridico-political subjects and re-aggregating them within the unity of the people-nation-state.

However, Poulantzas also modified this account with an emphasis upon how the abstract and general norms of the law allowed it to act as a mechanism by which the exercise of state power could be regulated. In particular, since the capitalist state serves as a kind of shock absorber for class struggles, the “material concessions imposed on the dominant classes by popular struggle” become inscribed within the law. [7] Treating the institutions of representative democracy and human and civil rights as the historic gains of the oppressed classes, Poulantzas argued that these concessions were the means by which popular struggle and resistance were inscribed into the materiality of the capitalist state. Rather than rejecting outright the “formal” and “abstract” liberties of the Rechtsstaat, Poulantzas now reinterpreted them as victories of the popular masses. As a result of these gains, modern law could “set the limits of the exercise of power and of intervention by the state apparatuses”. [8] While he acknowledged that there remained a constant gap between their codification and their application in practice, he nevertheless insisted that these rights of the dominated classes were real, insofar as they were embedded as practices within the material structures of the state itself.

I have set aside other elements of Poulantzas’ discussion of the law, including his pre-1968 writings, his critique of Pashukanis’ rival conception of bourgeois law [9], and his discussion of the exceptional forms taken by the capitalist state. However, even this brief overview reveals that Poulantzas’ changing account of juridical subjectification and ideology had practical implications for popular struggles vis-à-vis the capitalist state.

In Political Power and Social Classes, tellingly written prior to May 1968, the atomizing effects of the capitalist state and its relative autonomy are so pervasive as to exclude the possibility of a struggle on the terrain of the state; only a revolutionary political party external to the state could act as a hegemonic counterweight to this structural imbalance.

By contrast, in State, Power, Socialism, the (relative) permeability of the capitalist state enables the advancement of collective rights claims not only by the working classes, but also by the “new” social movements advocating feminist and ecological concerns. During this period, Poulantzas especially maintained that (substantially transformed) institutions of representative democracy and a plurality of political parties would remain key elements of a successful transition to socialism alongside institutions of self-management and rank-and-file democracy. [10]

Considering Poulantzas’ later support for formal liberties and representative democracy, we may conclude that, according to his framework, juridical subjects could potentially leverage rights claims and appeals to the rule of law in order to exploit the internal contradictions of the capitalist state and thereby wrest concessions from it. The success of these attempts depends largely upon the historical conjuncture and the balance of forces that would allow these subjects to overcome limits to their collective organization. Rather than being substitutes for militant popular struggles, Poulantzas conceived these tactics as necessary supplements to a broader, pluralistic political strategy directed toward the establishment of a democratic socialism.

This treatment of liberties and representative institutions might seem purely instrumental to advocates of the rule of law as an end in itself. However, Poulantzas’ treatment of the law as a sphere in which the historic gains of collective struggles could be preserved turns juridical subjects into something more than passive objects of ideological interpellation and disciplinary regimentation. Extrapolating from Poulantzas’ account, we see that the law’s productive character constitutes juridical subjects on the basis of specific subject positions within the capitalist mode of production, and as bearers of particular identities of citizenship, nationality, gender, and social status, among others. Engaging the capitalist state on the terrain of its juridical institutions, as subjects claiming the collective and universal rights nominally guaranteed (but frequently neglected) by the state, could be an effective way of reclaiming and redirecting juridical subjectivity toward more egalitarian ends.


[1] Nicos Poulantzas, Political Power and Social Classes (London: Verso, 1973 [1968]); Nicos Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism (London: Verso: 1980 [1978]).

[2] Poulantzas, Political Power and Social Classes, 189.

[3] Poulantzas, Political Power and Social Classes, 130.

[4] Poulantzas, Political Power and Social Classes, 133.

[5] Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism, 83.

[6] Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism, 89.

[7] Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism, 84.

[8] Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism, 92.

[9] See Sonja Buckel, “The Juridical Condensation of the Relations of Forces: Nicos Poulantzas and Law”, in Alexander Gallas, Lars Bretthauer, John Kannankulam, and Ingo Stutzle (eds.), Reading Poulantzas (London: Merlin Press, 2011) 154.

[10] See “The State and the Transition to Socialism” and “Interview with Nicos Poulantzas”, in James Martin (ed.), The Poulantzas Reader: Marxism, Law, and the State (London: Verso, 2008) 334 and 387 respectively.

Rafael Khachaturian recently completed a PhD in political science at Indiana University. He is currently Research Associate at the University of Pittsburgh, where he is affiliated with the Global Studies Center and the Center for Russian and East European Studies.

[book-strip index="1" style="display"]
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