Contribution to GTI Roundtable Global Capitalism

Dawn Paley

In his essay “Global Capitalism: Reflections on a Brave New World,” William I. Robinson argues, in broad strokes, that a transition to transnational or global capitalism is currently underway. Over the years, Robinson’s work, especially his book A Theory of Global Capitalism, has been incredibly helpful for me in my work on capitalism and violence in Mexico, Central America, and elsewhere.

The new epoch described by Robinson is, among other things, based on the decentralization of production (he uses the example of car-making) and “a reverse movement: the centralization and concentration of worldwide economic management, control, and decision-making power in the hands of ever more powerful transnational corporations (TNCs).” The state, in this vision, is still required in order for capitalism to function, but so are transnational state (TNS) apparatuses, through which " elites attempt to convert the structural power of the global economy into a supranational political authority.” 

Robinson argues that the TNS faces a “contradictory mandate,” seeking simultaneously to establish the conditions for capitalist globalization and resolve the problems it creates, such as political instability and military conflict. But the war on drugs in Mexico can be read against this frame, as an incredibly coherent response by the TNS as well as by the US and Mexican governments, which promotes instability and militarization. Mexico provides a tragic vantage point from which to challenge the notion that transnational capital seeks stability and a reduction of military conflict Indeed, political instability, violence, and war are integral to capitalist profit-making, as I have examined in some detail in my book Drug War Capitalism.

Until relatively recently, Mexico had one of the most closed economies in the hemisphere. Beginning with the presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas in the 1930s, when the bulk of the country’s land reform and the nationalization of oil resources were carried out, the Mexican state has relied on a combination of protective actions, through the extension of state services, and dispossession through repression of social movements, in order to govern1 These protective, or tutelary, actions are akin to what Robinson refers to as “a set of policy instruments… to attenuate the worst effects of capitalism,” which, while less complete than those enacted in the US and Canada, were nonetheless part of the construction of a strong state with a presence throughout the country.

Since the 1990s, but with renewed vigor since former President Felipe Calderón declared war on organized crime in December 2006, the Mexican state has fatally undermined its ability to carry out tutelary measures. Over the past ten years, as different regions of the country became engulfed in so-called drug violence, the state oil and energy companies were privatized, among other neoliberal reforms which will lead to significant reductions in federal budgets. Mexico is experiencing a still incomplete transition towards a new governance model, which relies with increasing frequency on social control through the use of terror, carried out in the name of the war on drugs. As we have seen previously, the violence of the war on drugs has not created a lag in foreign direct investment in Mexico. Rather, over the past years, Mexico has enjoyed FDI levels considerably higher than that of other Latin American countries.

Towards the end of his essay, Robinson points out that “[s]urplus humanity is of no direct use to capital.” People considered surplus humanity, including migrant laborers left seasonally unemployed on the vast cash crop fields of hacendados, formed the rank and file of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata’s revolutionary armies. Communities that an economist may consider “surplus humanity” today are often organized into systems of informal economic activities, social parenting and street organizations which, too, can challenge capitalist hegemony. It is against these same communities (both rural and urban) and especially against the youth of these communities, that the war in Mexico is today being waged..2

It is worth considering that in the current epoch (as in those before), and most notably in peripheral countries, the threat of “surplus humanity” is greater than the need for political stability and a reduction of military conflicts. Mexico is proof that as long as transnational capital has the guarantees and protections required to operate and expand, little else matters.

Endnotes1. Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar, “Horizontes Popular-Comunitarios En México a La Luz de Las Experiencias Contemporáneas de Defensa de Lo Común,” in Lo Comunitario-Popular En México: Desafíos, Tensiones Y Posibilidades, edited by Linsalata, Lucia (Puebla, México: Instituto de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades, 2016).
2. Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis and Opposition in Globalizing California. (Oakland: University of California Press, 2007), 74.

Dawn Paley
Dawn Paley is a journalist covering the extractive industries, trade, and organized crime throughout the Americas and the author of Drug War Capitalism.

Cite as Dawn Paley, contribution to GTI Roundtable "Global Capitalism," Great Transition Initiative (June 2017),

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