Contribution to a Roundtable on Global Capitalism
Bill Fletcher Jr.
William Robinson’s essay is an outstanding contribution to our understanding of the evolution of the capitalist system and the strategic implications of its trajectory. His analysis not only forces the reader to break with the nation-state-exclusive approach, but also fully thrusts the reader into the post–Cold War world.
While I agree with the thrust of his analysis, there are two issues which I believe need greater attention and where I may have some level of disagreement. The first has to do with contradictions between nation-states. The second concerns the matter of what Robinson calls twenty-first-century fascism.
With regard to the contradictions among nation-states, Robinson makes the strong and convincing argument that the nation-state remains essential for global capitalism and the transnational capitalist class. In that sense, his analysis should not be conflated with that of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in their Empire thesis. Robinson not only acknowledges the continued importance of the nation-state but also implies the existence of a transitional phase in which there are transnational state apparatuses yet no transnational capitalist state, with the result being that the nation-state has continued relevance.
The problem is that the essay does not speak to the contradictions that exist between nation-states. How, for instance, should one account for the contradictions between the USA and Russia in this period in which there is a capitalist class in Russia that is linked with the transnational capitalist class? One could ask a similar question regarding China. Perhaps the easy answer is that in the absence of the consolidation of a transnational capitalist state, these contradictions remain. Another answer is that the nation-states have a complicated relative autonomy from the economy, and that in the context of that relative autonomy, there is a deep necessity for the state to find legitimacy. This search for legitimacy, then, results in periodic assertions of national distinctiveness. It may also be the case that we are witnessing clashes between wings of capital and that those which remain largely nationally-centered are at odds with the transnational wing. In either case, this deserves greater attention. We do not exist in a world where the emergence of a transnational capitalist class has lessened nation-state tensions and contradictions.
Regarding the matter of twenty-first-century fascism, Robinson correctly points to the global wealth polarization—global social apartheid—leading towards a situation where the transnational capitalist class must take extreme and repressive steps in order to suppress dissent. Additionally, with the global environmental crisis, the transnational capitalist class may ultimately seek to save itself via highly repressive means.
The problem is that this is not necessarily a scenario of fascism. There are various forms of repression under capitalism and, to borrow from the late Nicos Poulantzas, there are various forms of exceptional capitalist states. I would argue that we have been witnessing since the late 1970s what Poulantzas coined as “authoritarian statism” and what I term the growth of the “neoliberal authoritarian state.” The growth of authoritarianism is not the same thing as fascism. Fascism is a radical right-wing mass movement that seeks the overthrow of all forms of so-called democratic capitalism and replace it with an authoritarian, barbaric, and lawless capitalist state. Authoritarianism can take multiple forms, including but not limited to fascism.
In the 1920s and 1930s, fascism represented a specific form of mass movement that joined hands with a wing of the capitalist class in order to alter the power bloc and win hegemony for a particular wing of capitalism. But it was also a mass movement rooted in revanchism and the sense within the middle strata of being crushed between the working class and the capitalist class.
In the current world, we have a growing right-wing populist movement (within which one can frequently find fascism) that has an incoherent economic program, though tends to align itself—irrespective of rhetoric—with neoliberal capital, at least at present. Ultimately, right-wing populism and neofascism may have a fully elaborated economic program that is quite distinct from neoliberal capital.
In using the term “twenty-first-century fascism,” Robinson locks himself in. His basic notion is correct regarding the growing authoritarianism associated with global social apartheid. But whether this will take the form of fascism remains an open question. One must be careful to allow for the possibilities of other forms of right-wing exceptional rule that, at the end of the day, may appear to be quite different from that which we associate with fascism.