An exchange on Global Capitalism: Reflections on a Brave New World
William I. Robinson
I would like to thank all the discussants for the set of insightful comments on “Global Capitalism: Reflections on a Brave New World.” Given the space constraints for the essay, I could aspire only to an introductory overview of my work on the new global capitalism, and how it can help us understand the current moment and some of the challenges of a Great Transition. I am thankful, therefore, for the opportunity here to fill in several gaps, to clarify my views, and to demarcate these views from those of some contributors.
Gareth Dale and Andrew Wright argue that I have overstated the dichotomy between the national corporate and global phases of capitalism, since great powers as far back as the eighteenth century “orchestrated regional and imperial economic flows” that created an international division of labor and established the transnational power of finance. In fact, I have argued in all of my major works that world capitalism, since its inception, has been global. The problem with Dale and Wright’s account is that it does not allow us to identify what is qualitatively new in the current epoch, such as the global fragmentation of industrial production and increasingly services, digitalized finance, the transnational integration of national capitalist groups, and so on.
They go on to claim that a “political battle between globalist and national elites factions makes economic globalization appear more purposeful…than the historical record suggests.” Yet I have always made clear my epistemology of historic development as a dialectic between structural processes that play out behind and beyond the intentionality of social agents, on the one hand, and subjective processes and conscious agency, on the other. I have empirically documented and analyzed at great length (see, e.g., my 2003 book Transnational Conflicts) how national elites in Latin America and other regions did in fact split politically between nationally and transnationally oriented fractions—and how these elites identified distinct group interests; organized themselves in competing business circles, think tanks, and political parties; put forth competing platforms; and vied for state power to implement their platforms. My methodology is driven in the first instance by empirical research, out of which I extrapolate theoretical conclusions and abstract categories such as the transnational capital class (TCC) and the transnational state (TNS).
Dale and Wright say that I posit a political unity to the TCC, and Tom Athanasiou, in a similar vein, says that I do not acknowledge “the contestation that is going on at elite levels.” Yet I have consistently emphasized that the TCC is wracked by conflict and disunity, that any real unity is impossible, and that the only thing that unifies the TCC as a class fraction is its shared location in emergent globalized circuits of accumulation and interest in an expanding global economy. To reiterate, the transnational elite is confused, divided, and rudderless; the transnational power bloc is tearing apart at the seams in the face of the intractable crisis of global capitalism, intra-class competition, and, consequently, its inability to achieve any real unity. In this regard, Hammond’s assertion that I view the TCC as “all-powerful” is a complete misreading of my argument. To the contrary, I have argued that globalization itself is a response by capital to the power and mobilization of popular forces from below the nation-state level, and its inability to suppress mass rebellion and sustain a system beset with contradictions is fueling the current crisis of global capitalism.
Dale and Wright, moreover, observe that “the nation-state still represents the key locus of political legitimacy,” an observation made as well by Bill Fletcher Jr., as if this observation, with which I agree, belies my thesis on the TNS as an analytical abstraction. The TCC requires the nation-state for a host of functions and services, which constitutes yet another fault line of disunity and conflict. Let us recall that the universe is driven by contradictions. As I observed in my essay and expound on elsewhere, one of the fundamental contradictions of global capitalism is the disjuncture between a globalizing economy and a nation-state-based system of political authority, and this disjuncture reflects the contradictions of TNS power. Stated in more theoretical terms, there is a contradiction between the (nation) state’s legitimacy function and its accumulation function.
Fletcher says I do not speak to “the contradictions between nation-states.” In the first instance, there are no contradictions between states as fictitious macro-agents; the contradictions are between or among class and social groups that operate through institutions, the principal one being the national state. In the second, I have addressed at length international tensions and conflicts.1 While there are specifics of each case, I have observed in my works, in broad strokes, three wells of international tension: the pressures for legitimacy at the level of the nation-state, the clash between distinct fractions among capitalists and elites with differing degrees of transnationalization and dependence on the (national) state in each nation-state and their tussles over policy, and threats to the global order from popular social forces from below.
The larger problem with Dale and Wright’s claims—and, more generally, with much extant criticism of the global capitalism thesis—is that even as they acknowledge economic globalization, the underlying premise through which they critique the thesis is that nationally based capitals increasingly operate globally. They have not grasped what I argue—that leading national capitalist groups have transnationally integrated. This ultimately comes down to a matter of empirical investigation as to the extent of such transnational cross-integration.
This brings us to the matter of Trump and the “current populist blowback,” about which Dale and Wright say I am silent. Yet they should look at Endnote 5 in my essay, which references articles I have written elsewhere on the matter. As I explain, Trumpism and right-wing populism “in no way belie my thesis here of a TNS” but rather “underscore the highly conflictive nature of global capitalism and uncertainty as to further globalization in the face of the explosive contradictions and the widespread opposition that it generates.”
With regard to Trumpism, Fletcher argues that we have been witnessing not fascism since the late 1970s but “authoritarian statism.” First, I have never said that the US or other states are now fascist or that fascism is a preordained outcome; rather, I insist that twenty-first-century fascist tendencies are now spreading in the United States and elsewhere around the world. Second, Fletcher asserts that “the growth of authoritarianism is not the same thing as fascism.” He is absolutely right, and for that reason, it is necessary to distinguish between the two if we are to accurately analyze the current moment.
One essential dimension of fascism is the spread of fascist movements in civil society and their fusion at some point with reactionary political power in the state. This is precisely what we need to focus on with regard to Trumpism. At this time, fascist movements and their ideologies, emboldened by Trump, are spreading rapidly in US civil society, from the alt-right, white supremacists, nationalists, militia, and neo-Nazis, to the Oath Keepers, Christian fundamentalists, and anti-immigrant vigilante groups, and this fascist current has a toehold in the executive, viz., Steven Bannon, Stephen Miller, and others.2
Mexico, Dawn Paley suggests, is a cauldron of state and private violence fused together for the purpose of repressing popular revolt, further opening the country to transnational corporate plunder, and advancing what I call militarized accumulation and accumulation through repression. Yet in Mexico we do not see the spread throughout civil society of neo-fascist movements and ideologies in the same way as we do in the US or in the EU. We see rather the “authoritarian statism” to which Fletcher refers.
Paley demonstrates a direct correlation between the escalation of political and military conflict, neoliberal reform, and TCC investment in Mexico in order to assert that capitalism doesn’t always require stability and that Mexico is one such example. Paley cites my 2004 book, but the GTI essay is extrapolated more from my 2014 book, Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Humanity, in which I lay out a similar argument.3 On the other hand, only part of this story is the functionality of generating and sustaining conflict and instability to militarized accumulation and accumulation by repression. The other part, and I do not think Paley would disagree, is simply that defending the social order in Mexico and elsewhere from mass rebellion requires escalating militarization and state repression.
Last but not least is the question of what is to be done. Herman Daly asks that I spell out exactly what sort of an ecosocialism I advocate. Al Hammond suggests that capitalism can deliver the technology that may resolve the crisis of humanity. Jennifer Hinton identifies a not-for-profit (NFP) business model and entrepreneurs as playing an important role. Athanasiou finds the final section of my essay (“Transforming the Global System”) “less useful than the preceding analysis.”
Well, I do not have, nor do I claim to have, the remedy! If it is true that part of a Great Transition involves imagining “another world” and strategies to bring it into existence, it is delusional to think that the roadmap and blueprints for such a transition will come from our analyses. Rather, these are forged through mass social and political struggle and cannot be drawn up in advance or separate from them. This brings us back to the matter I raised in the essay: What are the social forces and agents of any Great Transition? I believe that the NFPs Hinton refers to may play a critical role, but they are not the key agents of global transformation. In the first instance, the replacement of the profit motive by the logic of social need will come from mass struggles that may open up opportunities for NFPs to meet such need.
Athanasiou believes we should first focus on policy reform within capitalism in order to avert ecocide before we can think of getting past capitalism. The problem with this “sequencing” is that the reform of capitalism has historically come less from enlightened elites than from mass and struggles from below that forced elites to reform. The best way to achieve a reform of capitalism is to struggle against it.
The sickness and hunger that Hammond mentions is not due to a lack of technology but to control by the few over global resources. The world currently produces more than enough food to feed all of humanity, and the technology and resources exist to eradicate infectious and poverty-related diseases if only those resources were mobilized to do so. But there is something more troubling to Hammond’s focus on humanity’s “market power.” He says, “For most people, most of the time, shopping beats voting.” Really? The vast majority of humanity does not have the income to do shopping! As my essay made clear, only some 20 percent of humanity has such market power under global capitalism; the (self) empowerment of the 80 percent involves struggle against the logic of the market.
And one last word: Daly says that cosmopolitanism is assumed in my essay. He is absolutely right! I am an unabashed cosmopolitan. While any emancipatory and ecological cosmopolitanism must be nested in our particular and diverse communities, I believe we must overcome provincialisms, extant nationalisms, and communal insularities as an essential condition for any Great Transition.
1. Most recently in my article on US-China tensions: “China and Trumpism,” Jacobin, February 24, 2007, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/02/china-trump-us-trade-economics-finance/.
2. I more fully analyze Trumpism and fascism in “The Battle Against Trumpism and Specter of 21st Century Fascism,” Telesur, January 21, 2007, http://www.telesurtv.net/english/opinion/The-Battle-Against-Trumpism-and-Specter-of-21st-Century-Fascism-20170121-0022.html.
3. I addressed this issue more recently in “Global Capitalist Crisis and Trump’s War Drive,” Telesur, April 18, 2017, http://www.telesurtv.net/english/opinion/Global-Capitalist-Crisis-and-Trumps-War-Drive-20170418-0009.html.
As a forum for collectively understanding and shaping the global future, GTI welcomes diverse ideas. Thus, the opinions expressed in our publications do not necessarily reflect the views of GTI or the Tellus Institute.
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