Our contemporary era of perpetual crises demands, we contend, a critical reappraisal of the state’s potential role, to supplant the predominant market-led responses to crisis, to advance a more equitable society. Historically, all major theories of the state—liberal and radical—have been generated in tumultuous eras.
We outline the weaknesses of dominant theorisations of the state before situating our argument within resurgent radical state scholarship. To illustrate our argument, we discuss how a re-envisaged state, within the broader political economy, may ameliorate a widespread contemporary example of inequality—energy injustice.
Crisis tendencies and reappraising the state’s role
A burgeoning discourse has well-documented the rapidly intensifying economic, political, ecological, social, and cultural crisis tendencies, and their conjunction, particularly since the 2007-08 Global Financial Crisis.
‘The state’ has emerged as central to visions for the future, particularly in light of contested political projects such as the Green New Deal. A number of progressive visions for programmatic crisis responses are constructed around a ‘return’ to that of the Keynesian welfare state golden age.
This ‘restoration’ is strongly framed around an abrupt expansion of state ‘interventions’ and ‘investments’ to facilitate, inter alia, an accelerated transition to a ‘green economy’, universal (and improved) education, health and other care services, reversals of privatisations, and a guaranteed basic income for all citizens.
We consider there are at least three critical issues inherent to this ‘return to the Keynesian state’ approach:
- an unhistorical theorisation of the state as a ‘neutral playing field’;
- implicit acceptance of the state, the ‘political’ sphere, as formally separate from the ‘economic’ sphere rather than co-constitutive; and, reflecting these two issues,
- a theory of change disengaging the state’s terrain from the exertion of material power.
We suggest that calls for an uncritical expansion of ‘the state’, if they are successful, will tend to simply preserve and deepen the existing dynamics which generate capitalism’s crisis tendencies.
A more critical and historical approach considers the state as a contingent set of compromises which inflect both the horizons of possible change across the political economy, and strategies for achieving them. This approach, drawing on the later work of Nicos Poulantzas, is situated within the growing body of contemporary critical state theory scholarship geared at bringing the state to the foreground of strategic discussions about responses to the many crises facing our societie .
Our own entry point to these discussions is the nexus of Ellen Meiksins Wood’s (2016) argument against accepting the separation of the ‘political’ and ‘economic’ in capitalism; and the work of feminist scholars such as Nancy Fraser (2014) on ‘boundary struggles’ between capitalism and its biological and ecological conditions of existence. We suggest that ‘the state’ is a terrain of struggle over not only the forms and functions of the ‘economic’ (following Wood and Poulantzas), but also as a terrain through which ‘boundary struggles’ over more or less appropriation of socio-ecological reproduction is determined (situating ‘the state’ within an expansive view of the political economy).
Conceptualising the state is therefore critical and necessary to revealing the dynamics of crises and to enabling its strategic reconfiguration, we contend, rather than simple expansion. This approach is fundamentally geared towards long-term, rather than purely short-term fixes, by creating forms of the state more amenable to future strategic action.
Energy injustice and a theory of power
We illustrate our argument through the phenomenon of energy injustice.
Energy injustice is an outcome of the decisions, ownership and control impacting the structure and operation of energy systems, and who has access to the services of those systems. It is an outcome of deliberate action to remedy an identified form of energy injustice. The outcome of ‘energy justice’ is thus co-constitutive with energy injustice; a form of energy justice cannot be realized without the existence of an energy injustice. Further, energy injustice:
- has multiple scales occurring for households, communities, regions, nations and globally;
- applies across the spectrum of energy production, distribution, regulation, and consumption;
- reflects cultural, spatial and temporal specificities and relativities, and thus human diversity;
- is affected by forms of participation through decision-making and ownership, including but not limited to public policies; and
- is impacted by institutions that support and legitimize contemporary capitalist economies.
Energy injustice examples include:
- ‘energy sacrifice zones’ proximate to energy generation from coal, nuclear, gas, biomass, and hydropower, which disproportionately impact low-income and ethnic communities ;
- the unaffordability of household energy as price rises have rapidly outstripped wage growth with poorer households spending proportionately more on energy;
- significant increases in household energy costs, leading to bill arrears and debts and a rapid rise in disconnections exacerbating the energy impoverishment of poor households;
- unequal access to renewable energy sources to reduce household electricity costs because owner-occupiers with the financial capacity to pay upfront costs are privileged by public policy settings and energy retailers; and
- consumer information, to enable ‘pricing choices’ and ‘better energy management’, mandated by regulation and only internet-accessible is unavailable to many low-income households.
The energy justice discourse overwhelmingly proposes solutions that further affirm the division between the state and economy, while situating the state as enabler of the private (economic) spheres of power. The profit-driven dynamics of the economic sphere remain unchallenged. We contend that this proposed role of the state—emblematic of responses to the COVID-19 pandemic—needs to be re-envisaged.
Energy (in)justice and operationalising state theory
We suggest conceptualising control over production and access to energy as a fundamental tenet of socio-ecological reproduction, facilitated through transforming political and economic social relations to create democratic and collective control across the energy continuum. This does not imply centralised state control over energy provisioning but devolved local (community) control facilitated at least in transition by state actions and financial support.
Critics of our argument may suggest that this will be impossible, ineffective and/or inadequate, or that it simply facilitates ongoing accumulation. In response, we would point to social reproduction arguments about the ways people build capacity to exert material power–moving from present conditions to a future where energy injustice does not preclude people organising towards further ‘participatory parity’. We suggest that energy justice (in the critical sense that we employ here) is foundational to contemporary struggles for better, more secure, and equitable lives.
People asserting collective, democratic control over the energy continuum from production to consumption, at whichever scale appropriate to their needs, opens up spaces for further democratisation and decommodification of their lives.
Invoking the state as a necessary element of progressive strategies in a time of crisis, as does the discursively dominant theorisation, in our view, is useful but inadequate. Rather, we see the state as an historically specific set of social relations articulated according to the struggles over the political economy in its expansive sense. As such, in this neoliberal period, it is both articulated in ways which privilege certain ‘solutions’ (e.g., funding private sector contracting) and riven by internal contradictions. We posit that a relational theorisation of the state allows strategic navigation of its forms and functions.
The reconfiguration of the state that we envisage, illustrated through our example of energy injustice, presents potential pathways for community-led, scholarly and other engagements towards long-term resolutions to crises and complex, extended social and political struggles.
Anna Sturman is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Sydney Environment Institute at the University of Sydney. Her research centres on the political economy of climate change, particularly focusing on the intersections of theories of the state, non-human nature and value.
Lynne Chester is Associate Professor, and Chair of the University of Sydney’s Department of Political Economy. Her research focuses on a range of energy issues and advancing the project of heterodox economics. Her energy research focus includes: the structure and outcomes of energy markets, energy affordability, energy (in)justice, the financialization of energy sectors, the institutions (including economic regulatory regimes) of energy sectors, government energy policies, energy problematization, energy security, and the economic-energy-environment relation. She is co-editor of Heterodox Economics: Legacy and Prospects (World Economics Association, in press), The Handbook of Heterodox Economics (Routledge, 2018) and Challenging the Orthodoxy: Reflections on Frank Stilwell’s Contribution to Political Economy (Springer, 2014), and a former co-editor (2013-2019) of the Review of Political Economy.