Conjunctural analysis is useful in many fields but has special theoretical and practical significance for critical political economy and left strategy. For the pursuit of politics as “the art of the possible” depends heavily on correct conjunctural analysis and is practised by most successful political forces. Its central role for left politics is seen in the analyses of Marx and Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky, Otto Bauer, Gramsci, Mao Zedong, Althusser, Poulantzas, and Stuart Hall, among many others.
For Lenin, the central focus of political analysis and action is the concrete analysis of a concrete situation (1920: 165) oriented to the correlation of forces. And, for Althusser, the key concept of a Marxist science of politics is the conjuncture: “the exact balance of forces, state of overdetermination of the contradictions at any given moment to which political tactics must be applied” (1970: 311).
A sound conjunctural analysis depends on: (a) an appropriate set of concepts for moving from basic structural features to immediate strategic concerns; (b) the spatio-temporal horizons of action that define the conjuncture; (c) a clear account of medium- and long-term goals that should guide strategy and tactics in the current moment; and (d) ethico-political commitments that set limits to acceptable action in particular contexts on the grounds that the ends do not always justify any means. Moreover, because one’s strategy depends on the likely responses of other key social forces, one must map their conjunctural analyses too. There is scope for infinite reciprocal regress here but it is lower in periods of relative stability that promote stable expectations or, conversely, in the face of urgent crises calling for immediate action. Multi-faceted crises that build over time with sudden, acute phases are more disorienting and place the heaviest demands on conjunctural analysis.
Such analyses pose problems of periodisation, i.e., the identification of continuities and discontinuities in the situation of action, of discontinuities in continuity and continuities in discontinuity, and the dissolution-conservation effects that come from strategic interventions to modify the correlation of forces and bring about social transformation. Time can enter strategic calculation in five main ways: chronicle, narrative, genealogy, chronology, and periodisation.
A chronicle is a simple list of events that occur at the same time or that follow one another in time. It involves little attempt at interpretation or explanation apart from what is implicit in the categories used to describe the event (e.g., strike, riot, market crash, electoral defeat). Comparing analyses produced by different social forces can provide important clues about their selective perception, the events they consider important, and the categories used to name or classify them. For example, timelines in mainstream media on the current crisis privilege economic events, policy shifts, and trends in public debt – and tend to ignore its broader social impact. They can provide a basis for Ideologiekritik and exploring power/knowledge relations.
A narrative emplots selected past events and forces in terms of a temporal sequence with a beginning, middle, and end in a story that embodies causal and moral lessons. For example, neo-liberals narrated how trade union power and the welfare state undermined economic growth in the 1970s and called for more market, less state. The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements offer sometimes convergent, more often divergent narratives about the recent crisis and reach radically different conclusions about the appropriate response. Their co-existence is an important indicator of the current correlation of forces. Narratives play a key role in strategic action because they can simplify complex problems, identify simple solutions, connect to common sense and mobilize popular support. Narratives need not be scientifically valid and, indeed, are often more powerful by virtue of what Spivak (1988) has termed a strategic essentialism that enables coalitions to be formed (a good example is found in the Manifesto of the Communist Party).
A genealogy traces the heterogeneous origins of various elements that are later combined into a coherent structure that is subsequently reproduced more or less systematically. An example is Marx’s account of the genesis of the capitalist mode of production from many individual processes and events that permitted the eventual encounter of capitalists with capital and workers who owned only their labour-power. Genealogies have a role to play in tracing the multiple causes of crises and identifying potential points of disruption and deconstruction.
Evolutionary time of variation-selection-retention and/or time of active bricolage
Time as neutral metric to distinguish succession of events in past and present
Evolutionary time with attention to temporalities of different processes and social relations
Can be unilinear or multiple - depends on the object of genealogy
Orders events and actions in unilinear clock, calendrical, or geological time
|Multiple time scales to order events and actions in terms of plural time horizons|
|Time Frame |
Simple coincidence or succession in time
|May be linked to future scenarios|
| Temporal Horizon |
Traces origins back in time and requires view on how to avoid infinite regress
Succession of "present" times if made in real time or reconstructs past from perspective of present
Differential sets of constraints/ opportunities for social forces over different horizons and action sites
|Type of Explanation |
Chance Encounter or discovery
Simple narrative with beginning, middle and end
Oriented to causal and/or moral lessons
|Complex narratives or explanations based on contingent necessities and a dialectic of path-dependency and path-shaping|
Box 1: Genealogy, Chronology and Periodisation and Conjunctural Analysis
A chronology describes the unfolding or succession of a complex series of discrete events and processes, presenting them on a unilinear time scale that serves as a neutral metric (e.g., clock time, geological time, or socially relevant markers such as business or electoral cycles). While a chronicle lists empirical events, often without regard to their conjunctural significance, a chronology links events and processes in post hoc, propter hoc fashion, in which the past “explains” the present in terms of more or less complex chains of action and reaction. Chronologies are often a first step in producing periodisations but can never substitute for a correct periodisation.
A periodisation orders actions, events, or periods in terms of multiple time horizons (e.g., the event, trends, longue durée; the time-frame of economic calculation versus that of political cycles) and focuses on their conjunctural implications (as specific mixes of constraints and opportunities) for different social forces over different time horizons and/or different sites of social action. It connects one or more complex series of historical events and processes and examines their uneven development across different fields of social action; and it explains them in terms of the linkages among underlying causal mechanisms. Its explanatory framework can underpin a complex narrative and also identify the nodal points for strategic intervention – the points of intersection where decisive action can make a difference. There is no master periodisation – they are constructed for specific purposes and vary with the strategic position and interests of those who construct them. Most Marxist conjunctural analyses take account of stages and steps in the class struggle; other approaches may be more concerned with other sets of social forces.
Conjunctural analysis is a common practice in the business and economic field, tied to investment decisions, economic policy, crisis-management, and historical interpretation. This can be a relatively mechanical exercise based on the intersection of processes with different rhythms, e.g., inventory cycles, fixed investment cycles, infrastructural investment cycles, and long waves of technological innovation and exhaustion. This produces an understanding of conjunctures based on the mechanical interaction of law-like cycles. From this viewpoint, conjunctures primarily affect the timing of decisions or the choice of routines (including crisis-management routines) rather than requiring a flexible choice of strategy and tactics.
This structurally-oriented approach can be extended by introducing cycles from other fields of analysis, such as electoral cycles, long term swings in public sentiment, the rise and fall of Great Powers due to imperial overstretch, and so on. The more cycles are introduced, the more overdetermined is the conjuncture. This holds especially where the cycles are not simply mechanically superimposed but modify each other through their interaction in often unpredictable ways.
Whereas the preceding analytical approach is primarily oriented to observation of historical trends that may inform the timing of decisions or the choice among pre-given policy sets (e.g., Keynesian contra-cyclical demand management), strategically-oriented conjunctural analysis allows for path-shaping as well as path-dependency. The latter is oriented to the past in the present, i.e., how prior development determines future trajectories. Path-shaping starts from the current situation and assumes a more or less open future. It implies that social forces can intervene in current conjunctures and actively re-articulate them to create new possibilities. This means, in short, that social forces make their own history but not in circumstances of their own choosing. This is why correct conjunctural analysis matters (see below).
A full conjunctural analysis moves beyond a concern with the coincidence and/or succession of events and processes to analyse the uneven, differential strategic implications of this “con-junction” or coming together of multiple processes, actions, and events. A key feature of such a strategic-relational approach is its concern with the strategic possibilities that a specific period gives for different actors, different identities, different interests, different coalition possibilities, different horizons of action, different strategies, and different tactics. No period offers the same possibilities to all actors, identities, interests, coalitions, horizons of action, strategies, tactics and hence that several periodisations may be needed even for one object of analysis. This presupposes commitment to political action rather than disinterested observation or, at least, requires the observer to switch among the strategic perspectives of specific social forces with specific identities, interests, and political objectives. It follows that concepts of strategy and tactics must be placed at the centre of a strategic-relational analysis of periods and, in particular, conjunctures.
Conjunctural analysis can be assessed in terms of the usual canons of scientific validity but this is an insufficient test of their correctness not only because of the usual tendencies towards the contamination of scientific inquiry by extra-scientific considerations that merit the own critique but also because something more is expected of conjunctural analysis. At stake is their correctness, i.e., their capacity to identify what exists in potential in a given conjuncture and to provide sound guidelines to turn these potentials into reality through transformative action. Thus correctness depends on the limits set by the objective nature of conjunctures and the power of strategic perspectives. What is “correct” logically (in reading a conjuncture) and chronologically (in terms of prior appeal or imposition of a reading) matters more than what is “true”. A “correct” reading can create its own “truth-effects”. Thus, to paraphrase Gramsci, “there is a world of difference between conjunctural analyses [he writes of ideologies] that are arbitrary, rationalistic, and willed and those that are organic, i.e., offer a sound objective analysis in terms of the correlation of forces and the strategic horizons of action of the social forces whose ideal and material interests it represents” (see also Lecercle 2006: 40-41).
An important and innovative analyst of conjunctures, especially through the concepts elaborated in his prison notebooks, was Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937). He inspired many others, including the Greek communist thinker, Nicos Poulantzas (1936-1979), who offers further major insights for conjunctural analysis. Many of Gramsci’s analyses concern conjunctures, their strategic implications, and the most suitable strategic lines of action. For example, he drew a broad contrast between the revolutionary strategies appropriate to the “East” (where the state was despotic and civil society gelatinous) and the “West” (where state power rested on hegemony armoured by coercion and involved civil as well as political society). Among his key conjunctural and strategic concepts are: war of position, war of manoeuvre, unstable equilibrium of forces, different levels of analysis of the balance of forces, intellectuals, parties, power bloc, class alliances, and the international conjuncture.
Poulantzas built on the analyses of Marx, Engels, Lenin and, notably, Gramsci but took them to new heights in his account of the rise of fascism and, later, the collapse of the military dictatorships in Greece, Portugal, and Spain. A key argument was that interests cannot be defined outside a specific horizon of action, i.e., the range of feasible alternatives in a given spatio-temporal context. This requires analysis of the objective situation and the correlation of forces, including feasible alliances among relevant forces in different phases of an unfolding situation. This analysis should assess what is possible in a given spatio-temporal horizon of action and identify strategies oriented to winning the most that is possible within this horizon – neither over-reaching in a form of revolutionary maximalism nor falling back into a defeatist fatalism or passive support for the “lesser evil” rather than seeking to advance the prospects for future progress. While maximalism can lead to disastrous failures, defeatism and policies of the lesser evil can lead to popular demobilisation, demoralisation, and an individualistic turn to private solutions.
Fascism and Dictatorship (1974) applied these propositions to the rise of fascism as a process with successive steps in a complex war of position and manoeuvre. Poulantzas distinguished periods in terms of the politically dominant force was the bourgeoisie or working class (or there was an unstable equilibrium of compromise) and the nature of their connections to potential allies among other classes and within the state apparatus, broadly conceived. Here and in his analysis of the crisis of the dictatorships, he included the implications of the international situation for the economic conjuncture, class relations, and risks of foreign intervention. Thus he distinguished periods and conjunctures in terms of whether the bourgeoisie or working class was engaged in, or could launch, a strategic offensive and whether this should be met with a counter-offensive or defensive steps. Reading the correlation of forces correctly was crucial to avoiding offensive steps during a phase when defensive measures were more appropriate, and vice versa.
The first error is exemplified in the Comintern’s view of the economic crisis as the long-awaited moment for a revolutionary offensive and the false conclusion that, in this offensive, the main enemy was social democracy rather than Nazism. This error derived in part from a simple-minded economism according to which the Great Depression doomed capitalism to collapse. With hindsight, Poulantzas read the conjuncture differently. He insisted that the bourgeoisie held the dominant position in the class struggle throughout the rise and consolidation of fascism. After a failed working class offensive in an open war of manoeuvre in the preceding period, there was a phase of relative stabilisation before the bourgeoisie embarked on its own offensive to smash the organisational bases of the labour movement and reverse its earlier economic and political gains. He concluded that fascism corresponds to an offensive step by the bourgeoisie and required a defensive step by the working class. This was not a period of terminal decline for capitalism but a period of structural economic crisis overdetermined by a dual crisis of hegemony – affecting hegemony within the power bloc and over the popular masses – and a generalised ideological crisis in which the Weimar Republic and its institutions had lost legitimacy. The installation of an exceptional regime (fascist dictatorship) created the conditions to restore capitalist domination and prepare for imperialist wars.
Regarding democratic transition in Greece, Poulantzas (1977) argued that the communist movement had to choose between prioritising the consolidation of bourgeois democracy or polarising forces in a rush towards an anti-monopolistic, democratic socialism. Because its leaders expected a continuous, uninterrupted path from a united front against dictatorship to a democratic socialist regime, the communist party ignored the need for a flexible strategy with alternating defensive and offensive steps. Its intransigence hindered the growth of popular struggles and made a bourgeois counter-offensive and even resurgence of military power more likely – especially given capital’s continuing strength in the state and internationally.
In both cases, Poulantzas argued that economic crisis matters only in so far as it circumscribes the conjunctures of class struggle and contributes to political crises. The field of class struggle – or social relations more broadly – is crucial here. This analysis was expanded in more general remarks on the crisis of the state (1976) in which he claimed that generic elements of crisis – political and ideological as well as economic – are constantly reproduced within capitalist societies. But this no more entails a permanent political crisis or permanent crisis of the state than it does a permanent economic crisis. Rather crises are overdetermined condensations of generic crisis elements plus specific crisis-tendencies and contingent events that combine to form a distinct conjuncture with its own distinctive rhythms.
Nonetheless the occurrence of crisis does not explain outcomes — these depend on the correlation of forces and their respective strategies. Thus an analysis of political crisis must not focus one-sidedly on the failure of political institutions but also examine class relations. For, according to Poulantzas, it comprises a crisis of hegemony within the power bloc because no class or class fraction can impose its “leadership” on other parts of the power bloc, whether through its own political organisations or normal democratic channels. It also affects supporting classes (e.g., the petty bourgeoisie), popular classes, and state personnel and is reflected in the political scene. They are linked to a crisis of party representation, i.e., a split between different classes or fractions and their respective parties. This leads to efforts to by-pass political parties and influence the state directly. In addition, different state apparatuses may try to impose political order independently of decisions from formal channels of power. This can undermine the institutional and class unity of the state and prompt splits between its top echelons and lower ranks, leading to disobedience, resistance, and battles among different branches for resources and priority for their particularistic demands.
These historical reflections have clear implications for the current conjuncture. Here, too, there is a major economic crisis, amounting to an epic recession in the North Atlantic economies and fisco-financial crises in many states at different scales. In contrast with the Weimar Republic and more akin to New Deal America, however, these are not associated with a political crisis or crisis of the state. The transnational power bloc has not been seriously fractured and financial capital has retained its strongholds in the leading states and parallel power networks. This is partly due to the earlier and continuing failure of left forces to challenge the hegemony of neo-liberalism and partly to the gradual adaptation, if not open embrace, of social democratic parties to the neo-liberal project. This reflects a long war of position by neo-liberal economic, political and ideological forces, culminating in the “Third Way”, which provides flanking and supporting mechanisms for neo-liberalism; and it also reflects the weakening of popular forces through attacks on their economic and political organisations in both the private and public sectors and partial integration into a financialised way of life. In this conjuncture, following a brief phase of disorientation when the neo-liberal policy paradigm lost its appeal, the correlation of forces has enabled a rallying of the power bloc and the mobilisation of state power to defend finance-dominated accumulation in neo-liberal economies and the neo-liberal project of market completion in the Eurozone. In this defensive phase in the struggle for democratic socialism, it is essential to mobilize to defend democratic institutions, however imperfect; to develop a more radical and resonant critique of the neo-liberal project; to build on popular discontent with austerity politics by mobilizing old and new social movements; and to embark on a war of position to promote a critique of bourgeois political ecology and promote global solidarity. While this is by no means a revolutionary conjuncture, nor is it a moment for fatalism or a politics of the lesser evil. The key to a progressive politics is to link current resistance to the restoration of finance-dominated accumulation to the building of a long-term war of position for a democratic socialism based on solidarity, sustainability, and global justice. This is not a task for a single party, let alone one individual. It requires a new collective movement and the connection of multiple conjunctural analyses of the concrete situation in specific spatio-temporal contexts.
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