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The Capitalist State as a Historically Specific Social Form

Part of the Political Philosophy and Public Purpose book series (POPHPUPU)


The critique of social forms best enables us to apprehend the capitalist state in its historical specificity. The capitalist state presupposes and is presupposed by the other essential determinations of generalized commodity production. Within capitalist society, however, the state is fetishized as separate from relations of production and exchange. A critique of the capitalist state as one of capitalist society's essential forms makes it possible to grasp its specificity, its relationship with capital, and its mediation of the abstract and impersonal domination experienced by all members of society. As the political appearance of capitalist society, the capitalist state cannot be described as dominated or captured by capital—but this does not entail that emancipatory struggle consists in the struggle to seize, or wield the power of, the capitalist state. Such a state is an appearance of a social reality that must be abolished.


  • Critical theory
  • Marx
  • State theory
  • Social form

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  1. 1.

    Fetishism is, inter alia, a social practice of treating determinate and historically specific categories as natural or trans-historical (that is, anterior to their own social constitution) (Murray 2016, 59). For an overview of the critique of the state as a contribution to the critique of fetishism, see Neupert-Doppler (2018). I explore the fetishism of the apparent separation of the political and the economic in Part 4, below.

  2. 2.

    ‘A theory of social forms is of central importance to a critical theory’ (Postone 1993, 179). An adequate account of value-form theory—and of social form theory more generally—is beyond the scope of this essay. For background see Elson (1979), Smith (1990), Clarke (1991a, 92–143), Postone (1993), Backhaus (1997), Bonefeld (2014, 79–137), and Murray (2016).

  3. 3.

    ‘The analysis of the the capitalist state conceptually presupposes the analysis of capital and the reproduction of capitalist relations of production, despite the fact that in reality, of course, the state is itself a moment of the process of reproduction’ (Clarke 1991b, 189). ‘While the commodity form is the economic form of society, the state is its political form’ (Bonefeld 2014, 179).

  4. 4.

    ‘“[V]alue” is neither a category of production, nor a category of exchange, but a category of mediation between the two, expressing the unity-in-difference of privately undertaken production and the exchange that establishes its social necessity’ (Smith 2017, 81).

  5. 5.

    For this claim see Bonefeld (2014, 79–95); for additional perspectives see Singh (2016), Roberts (2020), and Gerstenberger (2022).

  6. 6.

    Cf. Banaji (2010, 131–54) on debates about the extent of the variability in the forms of exploitation that can appear as wage-labour.

  7. 7.

    I am unable to dwell on two issues that are germane to this point. The first is the question of how the account presented here may be related to analytic category of ‘state capitalism’ as it is applied to development in the global periphery (Alami et al. 2022). The second is the contemporary existence of polities that do not conform to the model presented here. Here it must be emphasized that a theory of the capitalist state, like a theory of capitalist production, seeks to explain the specific and preponderant features of its object in order to apprehend it as a historically determinate social form. As such, the existence of states that do not conform (to lesser or greater degrees) to the contours of the account presented here does not by itself vitiate my overall account; nor does the abstraction necessarily involved in the elaboration of an explanatory model constitute evidence that that model is presumptively invalid. For an introduction to issues of abstraction and model-making in Marxian theory see Mattick (2018, 13–33, 50–71).

  8. 8.

    ‘The fact that the rule of economic abstractions benefits the owners of great wealth does not entail that they are in control’ (Bonefeld 2020, 161). On the limits of those conceptions of the state, according to which state power is either wielded on behalf of a class, or is the object of struggle between classes, see Clarke (1991b) and Sumida (2018).

  9. 9.

    On this point see also Kirstin Munro’s contribution to the present volume.

  10. 10.

    On this point see also Chris O’Kane’s contribution to the present volume.


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I am grateful to Matt Dimick, Nate Holdren, Rafael Khachaturian, Eva Nanopoulos, Paul Mattick, Chris O’Kane, and Dom Taylor for their feedback, suggestions, and critiques.

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Hunter, R. (2023). The Capitalist State as a Historically Specific Social Form. In: Hunter, R., Khachaturian, R., Nanopoulos, E. (eds) Marxism and the Capitalist State. Political Philosophy and Public Purpose. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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