The Centrality of the State in Neoliberal Times: Gramsci and beyond

By Peter Mayo:

One of the greatest myths being propagated in this contemporary neoliberal scenario is that the nation state is no longer the main force in this period characterized by the intensification of globalization. Deregulation was brought in by governments to expedite the process where various forms of provision, private and formerly public, were left to the market. And yet the credit crunch starkly laid bare the folly of this conviction as new forms of regulation are being put in place with the state, the national state, intervening to bail out banks and other institutions in this situation. I consider this an opportune moment to look at the function of the state and assess its role within the contemporary scenario of ‘hegemonic globalization’, to adopt the term used by the Portuguese sociologist, Boaventura de Sousa Santos (…)


The neoliberal state has a set of important roles to play. It provides the infrastructure for the mobility of capital, and this includes investment in Human Resource Development as well as the promotion of an ‘employability- oriented’ Lifelong Learning policy, with the onus often placed on the individual or group, often at considerable expense. We witness a curtailment of social oriented programs in favour of a market oriented notion of economic viability also characterized by public financing of private needs. Public funds are channeled into areas of educational and other activities that generate profits in the private sector. Furthermore, attempts are being made all over the world to leave as little as possible to the vagaries mentioned by Dale in his 1982 paper, a point he himself recognized as far back as that year when he referred to the onset of standardization, league tables, classifications and, I would add, more recently, harmonization. This is to render agencies of the state, or those that work in tandem with the state through a loose network (a process of governance rather than government), more accountable, more subject to surveillance and ultimately more rationalized. And, as indicated at the outset, the state, in certain contexts, depending on its strength, can have no qualms about its role in bailing out the banks and other institutions of capital when there is a crisis. This very much depends on the kind of power the particular state wields.


The state organizes, regulates, ‘educates’ (the ethical state), creates and sustains markets, provides surveillance, evaluates (‘the evaluator state’ as Pablo Gentili (2008) calls it), legitimates, forges networks, and represses. One should underscore the role of the repressive factor as manifest by the state during this period, one of Macchiavelli’s twin heads of the Centaur (coercion and consent). The state also provides a policing force for those who can easily be regarded as the victims of neoliberal policies as well as related ‘structural adjustment programmes’ in the majority world. These victims include blacks, latino/as and those regarded by Zygmunt Bauman (2006) as the ‘waste disposal’ sector of society. Imprisonment rates have risen in the US which has witnessed the emergence of the ‘carceral state’(Giroux, 2004). The prison metaphor can be applied on a larger scale, and in a different manner, to the situation of migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa knocking at the gates of ‘Fortress Europe’ and who are contained in veritable prisons referred to as detention centres. The same applies to latinos/as attempting to cross la frontera, in this context.


In Gramsci’s view, the institutions of civil society function behind the state as a “powerful system of fortresses and earthworks” that assert themselves whenever the state “tremble[s]” (Gramsci, 1971: 238). Civil society, as used by Gramsci, is therefore not conceived of primarily as an arena of popular oppositional politics. On the contrary, it is conceived of as a domain comprising institutions which serve as sources of ideological influence as well as sources of repression. For example, the press is a form of ‘public pedagogy’, a vehicle for ideological influence (providing the illusion of freedom of expression) and contestation (once again, none of these institutions are monolithic, as stressed by Gramsci) but which can also serve as a means of repression: Who gets aired and who is silenced? What gets edited out and what is included? Who is hounded? Whose character is assassinated? Civil society also contains spaces, often within the ideological institutions themselves, where these arrangements can be contested and renegotiated (Hall, 1996: 424).

Education, the state and hegemony

Gramsci attributed great importance, in this regard, to education conceived of in its largest context and not simply confined to institutions such as schools and universities, even though these two play their part. For Gramsci, it is partly in this sphere that the prefigurative (anticipatory) work (Allman, 2010) for a transformation of power must take place. Of course, the process of ideological influence cannot be completed, according to Gramsci, prior to the conquest of the state. As Jorge Larrain explains, “class consciousness cannot be completely modified until the mode of life of the class itself is modified, which entails that the proletariat has become the ruling class” (Larrain, 1983: 82). In Gramsci’s own words, expressed in his tract ‘Necessita` di Una Preparazione Ideologica di Massa’ (Necessity for the Ideological Preparation of the Masses), the working class can become the ruling class through “possession of the apparatus of production and exchange and state power.” (Author’s translation from Gramsci, 1997: 161).

This having been said, there is important prefigurative work that, according to Gramsci, involves working both within and outside existing systems and apparatuses to provide the basis for an “intellectual and moral reform” (Gramsci, 1971: 132). This work occurs primarily in the context of social relations, which, according to Gramsci, are established through the process of hegemony. Gramsci follows Marx in holding a very expansive non reified notion of the state, emphasizing its relational aspect and, one can add, its being firmly positioned within the cultural politics of power configurations. This is very much evident in his major contribution to workers’ education (Mayo, 1999), namely his Factory Council Theory, and the notion of hegemony itself which is also conceived of as relational and as standing for a wide-ranging, all pervasive set of pedagogical relationships.

Hegemony, an ancient Greek word, is described by Livingstone (1976: 235) as a “social condition in which all aspects of social reality are dominated by or supportive of a single class” or group. Hegemony thus incorporates not only processes of ideological influence and contestation but, as Raymond Williams (1976: 205) argues, a “whole body of practices and expectations”.

Gramsci (1971: 350) regarded every hegemonic relationship as an ‘educational‘ one, hence education in its broadest context is central to the working of hegemony itself (Borg, Buttigieg and Mayo, 2002: 3). Hegemony, therefore, entails the education of individuals and groups in order to secure consent to the dominant group’s agenda (Buttigieg, 2002). Engagement in a war of position to transform the state similarly involves educational work throughout civil society to challenge existing relations of hegemony. For Gramsci, ‘intellectuals’ are key agents in this war of position, this ‘trench’ warfare (Gramsci, 1971: 243). And we can include, in this context, critical educators and other social justice oriented cultural workers. Gramsci did not use the term ‘intellectual’ in its elitist sense; rather, Gramsci saw intellectuals as people who influence consent through their activities. The ‘organic intellectuals’ which Gramsci writes about are cultural or educational workers in that they are “experts in legitimation” (Merrington, 1977: 153). They can be organic to a dominant class or social grouping or to a subaltern class or grouping seeking to transform relations of hegemony. In the latter case, their ‘intellectual’ activities take a variety of forms, including that of working within the state and other capitalist-oriented institutions, or to use the one-time popular British phrase, working “in and against the state” (possibly also because of what Eric Olin Wright calls their ‘contradictory class location’) and other dominant institutions (see London and Edinburgh Weekend Return Group, 1980).

Despite a very strong difference in its underlying politics, Gramsci’s theorization of the state seems to have affinities with some of the modern managerial technical-rational conceptions of the state regarding policy formulation and action. The state and its agencies are nowadays said to work not alone but within a loose network of agencies – governance rather than government in what is presented as a ‘heterarchy’ of relations (Ball, 2010) and therefore what Martin Carnoy and Manuel Castells call the ‘network state’(Carnoy and Castells, 2001). A Gramscian perspective would nevertheless underline that, despite appearing prima facie to be heterarchical, such relations under capitalism are, in actual fact, hierarchical and less democratic than they might appear to be. This certainly applies to relations between state and NGOs or labour unions characterized by the ever- present threat of cooptation, often within a corporatist framework (Panich, 1976; Offe 1985 in terms of disorganized capitalism). On the other hand, one encounters situations when NGOs, especially those based in the west, are powerful enough to have leverage over certain states. Structured partnerships between state and business as well as between ‘public’ and ‘private’ tend to emphasize the link between the state and the imperatives of capital accumulation. For Gramsci, the agencies, constituting bourgeois civil society (burgherliche gesellschaft), buttressed the state and, while Gramsci focused primarily on the ideological institutions in this network, one must also mention the point made by Nicos Poulantzas (1978) when underlining that the state also engages in economic activities which are not left totally in the hands of private industry. Poulantzas stated that, under monopoly capitalism, the difference between politics, ideology and the economy is not clear. It is blurred. The state enters directly into the sphere of production as a result of the crises of capitalist production itself (Poulantzas in Carnoy, 1982: 97). One might argue that this point has relevance to the situation today.7 In the first place, industry often collaborates in policy formulation in tandem or in a loose network with the state just like NGOs or labour unions do. Nowhere is the role of the state as economic player more evident that in higher education (see Giroux and Searls Giroux, 2004), an area which, though traditionally vaunting relative autonomy as most education institutions do, constitutes an important domain of hegemonic struggle. The division between public and private in this sector is increasingly blurred. So-called ‘public universities’ are exhorted to provide services governed by the market and which have a strong commercial basis. Furthermore the state engages actively through direct and indirect means, and, in certain places, through a series of incentives or ‘goal cushions’ (see Darmanin, 2009), to create a Higher education competitive market as part of the ‘competition’ state (Jessop, 2002). Jane Mulderrig (2008: 168), drawing on Jessop, states that the competition state was already conceived of in the 1980s with, for instance, OECD documents “on the importance of structural competitiveness for government policy.” Here the focus is “on securing the economic and extra-economic conditions for international competitiveness” in a globalising knowledge based economy (Fairclough and Wodak, 2008: 112).


All this goes to show that the state, the nation state, is an active player and has not receded into the background within the context of hegemonic globalization. On the contrary, in its repressive, ideological and commercial forms, the state remains central to the neoliberal project.

Read full document at International Gramsci Journal No. 3 March 2011




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