It is a matter of considerable irony, as well as a cause for concern, that the otherwise valuable and exciting development of Marxist theorizations of the capitalist state in the past decade have only tangentially noted, and have largely failed to address systematically, one of the most significant political developments pertaining to the working class in the modern period: the emergence within the democratic capitalist state of new political structures which articulate trade unions with state administration and business associations in a broad range of economic policy-making. The fact that this development has occurred in a period of trade-union industrial strength, and of increasing expression of class conflict via official and unofficial trade-union struggles, has only served to underline the relative weakness of Marxist theorizations of the nature of trade unionism in advanced capitalism and its relationship with the bourgeois-democratic state.footnote Over the course of what might be called ‘the decade of the theory of the state’, Marxist theorists clearly attempted to move beyond the abstract formalism and high level of generality that tended to characterize earlier work.

In particular, texts such as Therborn’s, What Does the Ruling Class Do When It Rules?, and Poulantzas’, State, Power, Socialism, explicitly concerned themselves with tracing and delineating the changing patterns of bourgeois-democratic rule in the monopoly capitalist era. The significant changes were broadly seen to entail: a shift in the locus of decision-making from parliament to the technocratic/executive apparatus of the state; the fusion of the state at this level with the top echelons of capitalist enterprise; and the general breaking down of the public-private boundaries that previously characterized bourgeois democracy. Although these observations, taken in themselves, were by no means new, either within or without the Marxist problematic, their systematic location within a Marxist theory of the state was much to be applauded.

Nevertheless, the pivotal role of trade-union integration within the network of policy-making apparatuses linking the state executive and bureaucracy with private corporate management was either elided or merely treated in passing as a subsidiary aspect of the general development of an interventionist state under monopoly capitalism. At most, we saw a rather mechanical extension of the dynamics that connect the state with monopoly capital to the integration of working-class organizations. The specific dynamics and the particular importance (for the attenuation of liberal democracyfootnote1) of the incorporation of trade unions, and the contradictions (for both unions and the state) of this incorporation, were not elucidated. However important the general attention that has been paid to what Poulantzas called in his last work, ‘the statization of social life’ overcoming the ‘institutionalized dissociation between public and private which is the cornerstone of traditional representative democracy’,footnote2 this is a phenomena which cannot be examined only in terms of its implications for parties and civil liberties, while leaving aside the specificity of trade-union structures. A distinction surely needs to be drawn between the statization of bourgeois-dominated spheres of civil society and the statization of working-class organizations. For Marxists, the latter process might be thought to be a matter of central strategic importance requiring separate and extensive theoretical disquisition and empirical research.footnote3

Unfortunately there has been a traditional failure amongst Marxists to address the relationship between trade unionism and the state in a rigorous dialectical fashion. Therborn’s valuable perception, for instance, that as a collective mass organization, ‘the labour movement is organized in a fundamentally different way from the state bureaucracy or a capitalist firm,’ was not carried over to examine the contradictions that arise when trade-union representatives join state personnel and capitalist management in ‘institutionalized joint bodies’.footnote4 For his part, Poulantzas made little attempt to clarify the significance of his passing observation that ‘“reformist” trade unions are now directly inserted in the (state) administrative structure’.footnote5 Particularly in light of his generic definition of the capitalist state as already including (as ‘state ideological apparatuses’) the trade-union movement, and given his simultaneous belief that even a reformist organization remains a ‘working-class phenomena, with its own special links to the working class’,footnote6 one might have expected an elaboration of this tension and its implications for the development of the class struggle. In fact I think Therborn’s and Poulantzas’ attitudes are symptomatic of a broader ‘politicist’ syndrome which has characterized Marxist theorizations of the state, and which has tended to see trade unions as ‘less important’ because they are geared to short-term demands which are neither explicitly political or revolutionary.footnote7 Particularly in a period when the class struggle has been increasingly industrial in form, and when industrial military has accompanied the incorporation of trade unions in the state apparatus, this ‘politicist’ syndrome forecloses the possibility of a full analysis of the balance of class forces in the contemporary conjuncture and of an assessment of the contradictions arising from changes taking place in the bourgeois-democratic state.

Despite the weakness of Marxist theories of the state in dealing with the contradictory phenomena of trade-union incorporation in the contemporary phase of capitalism, this question has not gone totally unexamined by Marxist writers. In particular, an increasing number have sought, under the rubric of the concept of ‘corporatism,’ to examine both the ‘statization of civil society’ in general and, more specifically, the dynamics of trade-union integration and the contradictions to which it is subject.footnote8 Since ‘corporatism’ is conventionally associated with state forms specific to fascism or its authoritarian varients, it is essential to establish the grounds for applying the term to contemporary bourgeois-democratic regimes. As a minimal definition, I suggest that corporatism should be seen in this context as a political structure within advanced capitalism which integrates organized socio-economic producer groups through a system of representation and cooperative mutual interaction at the leadership level and mobilization and social control at the mass level. Corporatism is understood here as an actual political structure, not merely an ideology. The etymological origins of the term certainly are to be found in the history of ideology, above all in those currents of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century thought which decried class conflict and individualist competition, and promulgated schemes for ‘class harmony’ and ‘organic unity’ through functional (often vocational) representation at the political level.footnote9 But while certain ideologies (and not necessarily explicitly corporatist ones—social democracy, for example) may be facilitative to the establishment of corporatist structures, ideas need to be distinguished from actual forms and processes. The political structure in question may be characterized in terms of an actual linkage between the state and functional interest groups (especially trade unions and business associations) constituted by institutionalized representation in economic policy making; interaction among the groups themselves in this process (in contrast with the one-to-one relationship between interest groups and the state normally constitutive of pressure-group politics); and an element of state control over the groups whereby their autonomy is limited and they are employed as agencies of mobilization or administration for state policy.

The employment of corporatism in the above sense certainly marks a break with conventional Marxist discourse, which has tended to define corporatism in three quite different ways. It has, first of all, been commonly employed to characterize, in Gramscian fashion, a certain ideological condition of the working classes, whereby a defensive, sectionalized class exhibits a subordinate ideology and practice in polar contrast to a hegemonic orientation. Alternatively, the term is often employed to connote an actual political structure, but one confined exclusively to fascist regimes.footnote10 Finally, corporatism is often treated by Marxists entirely as a (false) ideological construct, which cannot be dissociated from its origins in corporatist ideology. In this last usage, any attempt to employ corporatism as an analytical tool to capture the reality of a given society is seen as inevitably tainted by corporatist ideology, carrying with it the assumption of the desirability and possibility of securing class harmony under the aegis of a neutral state within capitalism. This would rule out the possibility of employing the term within Marxist discourse to denote an actual process or structure which reproduces class domination on these premises.

In so far as recent theorizations of corporatism mark a significant break with the past, and employ the term descriptively or analytically, there is no necessary normative connection between the use of the concept in Marxist analysis and those aspects of corporatist ideology which originally constituted the term. The questions of whether, why and with what consequence corporatist structures develop within the bourgeois-democratic state becomes a matter not of definitional fiat, but of concrete historico-empirical investigation. To be sure, such questions need not be inserted into a Marxist problematic: just as ‘democracy’ and ‘class’ are contested concepts in social science, so too with ‘corporatism’. Thus, although corporatism has been universally contrasted with pluralism to emphasize the weakness of the latter’s assumptions of multiple group competition vis-mvis a neutral state, it has remained encumbered in various bourgeois theorizations with assumptions of equivalence of power and influence between labour and capital in corporatist political structures. More recently its use has involved the argument that state intervention in the economy entails the actual replacement of capitalism with a corporatist economic system defined by ‘state control over profit.’footnote11 Obviously, as located in such approaches, the concept of corporatism is incompatible with a Marxist problematic. But it will be noted that the definition of corporatism offered above (which is proximate to, although not identical with, the approach of other Marxist writers) does not assume equivalence of power or influence between the groups or the classes based on them, nor the neutrality of the state vis-mvis them. Nor does it assume that corporatist political structures are in any sense desirable, or even stable. On the contrary, by situating corporatism explicitly within the parameters of advanced capitalist society, it invites investigation of the manner in which corporatist structures reflect, mediate or modify the class struggle.