Istvan Meszaros on the State and Civil Society

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Contextual Citation

István Mészáros:


"The magnitude of the task presents itself as the need to radically change the social reproductive metabolism as a whole from an order of substantive inequality into one of substantive equality." (


"The greatest and most perilous irony of modern history is that the once championed “productive destruction” has become in the descending phase of capital’s systemic development an ever more untenable destructive production, both in the field of commodity production and in the domain of nature, complemented by the ultimate threat of military destruction in defence of the established order." (


"Transition, Mészáros thus argues, requires the creation of an alternative system of communal production, social consumption, and collective control: a whole new structure that must be built floor by floor from the ground up while living in the house itself, and replacing the rotten capitalist building materials." (


Excerpted from an interview of István Mészáros conducted by Leonardo Cazes for the newspaper O Globo:

"The road that we must follow in the interest of survival and advancement is barred by the giant obstacle – many Himalayas on top of one another – represented by the overall decision making power of the state. And we cannot avoid or bypass this mountain. The perilous fact is that a mere handful of nation states have the power to destroy the whole of humanity, jealously guarded by them as their “security” and “self-defence” in their real and potential confrontations with each other. And the overwhelming majority of humanity can do absolutely nothing against that for as long as the states and their necessary rivalry survive. Nothing could be more absurd than that.

The idea that in their attempt to overcome the structurally entrenched inequities and remedy their grievances in a lasting way the people could use “civil society” against the power of the state is extremely naïve, to say the least.


The state is the overall political command structure of the capital system in any one of its known or conceivable form. Under the present conditions it cannot be otherwise. That is because the societal reproductive order of capital is antagonistic to its inner core, and it needs the problematical corrective function of the state in order to turn into a cohesive whole the conflictual constituent parts of the system’s incurable centrifugality.


The allegedly less and less power of the nation states is a great exaggeration, voiced by Governments in the interest of justifying their failure to introduce even some of their thoroughly limited and once solemnly promised social reforms.


The overwhelming historical failure of capital was – and remains – its inability to constitute the state of the capital system as a whole, while irresistibly asserting the imperatives of its system as the material structural determination of societal reproduction on a global scale. This is a massive contradiction. Inter-state antagonisms on a potentially all-destructive scale – as presaged last century by two world wars still without the now fully developed weapons of total self-destruction – are the necessary consequence of that contradiction. Accordingly, the state that we must conquer in the interest of humanity’s survival is the state as we know it, namely the state in general in its existing reality, as articulated in the course of history, and capable of asserting itself only in its antagonistic modality both internally and in its international relations.


The state as such cannot remake capital’s social reproductive order because it is an integral part of it. The great challenge for our historical time is the necessary eradication of capital from our social metabolic order. And that is inconceivable without eradicating at the same time also the state formations of capital as historically constituted in conjunction with the system’s material reproductive dimension and inseparable from it.

The fact that the state as the necessary corrective to capital’s incurable centrifugality can superimpose itself on the systemically harmful conflictual constituent parts of the given social order does not mean that the state can impose anything arbitrarily fancied by the political personifications of capital. On the contrary, corrective state-imposition is objectively mandated by the self-expansionary imperative of capital’s material reproductive order. An order utterly incapable of recognizing any limit to its self-expansionary interest, generating thereby a fateful contradiction. The ultimate untenability of this contradiction is revealed by the fact that what is internally – within the given national framework – a self-expansionary requirement and achievement, in its international drive becomes most problematical and potentially even all-destructive. The repressive reality of monopolictic imperialism and its wars is not intelligible without this perverse self-expansionary dynamism instituted by the most powerful states.

* Q: in the book, you seem to believe that the so-called “withering away of the state” is inevitable. What makes you believe that?

In this matter there can be no question of inevitability. Saying that the “withering away of the state” is necessary only means that it is a vital condition required for solving the problems at stake. But it makes no claim that the indicated requirement will be inevitably realized. On the contrary, by underlying the danger that the sate, with its overwhelming power of destruction, can put a catastrophic end to all transformatory and emancipatory effort, it counters all illusion of so-called “historical inevitability”.

There can be no such thing as “historical inevitability” in the direction of the future. History is open-ended, for the better or worse. Highlighting the requirement of the state’s “withering away” was meant in the first place in order to counter the wishful/anarchistic illusion that the “overthrow of the state” can solve the disputed problem. The state as such cannot be “overthrown”, in view of its deep-seated social metabolic embeddedness. The Private Capitalist property relations of a given state can be overthrown, but that is no solution by itself. For everything that can be “overthrown” can also be restored, and indeed had been, as the fate of Gorbachev’s “Perestroika” amply demonstrated it. Capital, Labor, and the State as such are deeply intertwined in the organic whole of the historically constituted social metabolism. None of them can be overthrown on their own, nor indeed “reconstituted” separately.

To make the required change calls for the radical transformation of the social reproductive metabolism in its entirety and in all of its deeply interconnected constituent parts. And that can only be successfully done in tune with the changed historical circumstances, within the limited framework of our planetary household." (

The inevitability of the state for capitalism

John Bellamy Foster:

For Mészáros the capital system is a metabolic, or organic, order capable of its own reproduction, but only as long as the “command structure” of the state is intact. “Without the emergence of the modern state,” he writes, “capital’s spontaneous mode of metabolic control cannot turn itself into a system with clearly identifiable…socioeconomic microcosms. The particular socioeconomic reproductive units of capital taken separately are not only not capable of spontaneous coordination and totalization but diametrically opposed to it if allowed to follow their disruptive course.”28 Thus, while capital’s mode of social metabolic reproduction is based on alienated labor, a hierarchal class system, competition, and an unlimited accumulation imperative, it nevertheless requires for its internal cohesion the existence of a superstructural state apparatus. Altogether the capital system can be seen as a form of “self-reinforcing reciprocity” in which its various second order mediations, including the state, hold it together despite its alienating, destructive, and anarchic nature." (