Marx on Vacation: Assessing “A Theory of Global Capitalism”

When speaking about “globalization” there is a tendency in both the academic and popular literature to speak about it as though it were a phenomenon borne entirely of the late 20th century. The boosters and critics of globalization see it as being developed and made possible, both in an ideological and technological sense, by developments peculiar to current historical period. Most notably these include the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite states and the rapid advances in communications technologies. However, as much as it may seem that we have entered a new epoch without old theories to guide us, much of this same sentiment was captured by Karl Marx when he wrote that, “modern industry has established the world-market” and that, “this market has given immense development to commerce, to navigation, to communication by land” (1954). To say that our world has been made entirely anew in the past 30-or-so years is to ignore the ever-increasing extent of trade, economic interdependence and migration that has characterized life under the capitalist mode of production since its origins.

With this said, if there is a feeling of qualitative difference for many about the economic of today as compared to that which they remember from between the 1940s and 70s, it is not hard to see why. Capital moves more freely than ever, labour processes are ever-more subject automation and casualization and inequality, both in most developed countries and as a global measure has never been higher since the development of modern statistical collection methods (Hickel, 2016). Surely, this is not just a matter of scale, but rather of a fundamental something having changed in the political economy of how production is organized. A variety of theories have been put forward as to how to conceive of this shift, many of which draw on theories of imperialism and the hegemony of the United States (Veneziani, 2009). William Robinson, in adapting a Marxist analysis of capitalism, particular its division of class and relationship to the state to a modern context, develops a framework for analyzing new developments in the world economy. In Robinson’s framework, the central actor is capital, but crucially it is a new form of capital, not directly identifiable with a nation-state. This shift, though in certain ways masked by the technical geographic concentration of the seats of capital and the emerging transnational state in the United States and Western Europe, has profound implications for both academic inquiry and political praxis.

The key feature which distinguishes the new forms of capitalism from the old, according to Robinson, is the decentralization of the production process of goods themselves, as opposed to only their distribution. In contrast to a prevailing reality in which “nation-states mediated the boundaries between a world of different national economies” (Robinson, p.10) and engaged in trade in finished products with each other, there are now hugely diffuse supply chains, crossing borders, that all contribute to the final good having an exchange value[1]. This is accompanied by an, initially paradoxical, “concentration and centralization of worldwide economic management, control and decision-making power” (p.11) in fewer hands. This is embodied both by the increased activities of merges and acquisitions in the private sector[2] and by the moving of political powers related to economic management from the level of the various nation-states to what Robinson describes as an emergent “trans-national state” (TNS). Examples of this include the International Montary Fund (IMF) and World Trade Organization (WTO). This shift has deep effects on the relationship between labour and capital, both by vastly increasing the available pool of labour, thereby driving wages down though increased competition, and by increasing the identification of capital not with its nation of origin, but with other capital on a global level (the same is true of labour, though it is not articulated as strongly due to the hegemony of capital). This is also accompanied by a “new class fractionation” (p.37) between national and transnational capital, in both the developing and developed countries, there the latter gains a position of hegemony over the cultural and policy agenda. It accomplishes this by creating alliances with other social sectors in order to craft an appearance of “a broader basis than that of the class previously ruling” (Marx, 1972).

To the extent that they demonstrate an increasing alienation of workers from the fruits of their labour inherent in the system of diffuse supply chains, and the increasing concentration of capital ownership, the facts laid out in Robinson’s book seem to bear out Marx’s predictions of capitalism’s dynamics. On the other hand, Robinson is keen to tie his theory to Marx’s notion of the increasing immiserating of the working class at higher levels of capitalist development. He does so in order to both demonstrate the continued relevance of Marx’s theory (despite gains in wages beyond the subsistence level in Western countries) and the inherent instability of the capitalist system itself. In order to bolster this, he cites statistics demonstrating that, at least in the period from 1990–2000, “the absolute number of destitute and near destitute has been increasing” (Robinson, p.152). He does not consider, however, the potential causes beyond neoliberal economic policies themselves for this increase. Given that the 1990s saw, stemming from the collapse of the Soviet Union and a variety of other geopolitical factors, a devastating series of wars ranging from the former Yugoslavia to much of Sub-Saharan Africa, it would not be entirely surprising to see a regression in living standards in areas outside of the West. Looked at in a longer view, absolute and extreme poverty, as defined by living on less than $1.25 US per day, has decreased substantially over the past 30 years (Chandy & Gertz, 2011). Furthermore, an emerging “global middle class” has been noted in some developing countries, such as Brazil, which experienced “a decrease in poverty from almost 40% of the population in 2001 to around 25% in 2009”, with the middle class by relative income now consisting of 52% of the country (Pezzini, 2012).

It is doubtless true that inequality is increasing in a global sense, and that movement to a relatively higher level of absolute development does not deal with the question of relative poverty, however. Given the role that global capital, through advertising and other such techniques, has in manipulating global consumer tastes, it can also be predicted that relative gains in income by this class will be put into consumption of status-symbol goods. It may also be that a new “subsistence” existence emerges in these nations which is at a higher level of consumption than previously, but which nevertheless allows a large portion of population to live in a newly-redefined poverty.

In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, however, even many who had previously taken a relaxed attitude to the inequalities and instabilities nurtured by globalization started to sit up and take notice. Robinson’s somewhat off-hand dismissal of individuals on the centre-left, such as Joseph Stiglitz, as merely concerned with “creating a more predictable economic environment” (p. 165). Many of these skeptics of globalization have been active in calling for direct government measures to reduce inequality, increase labour standards and environmental controls and so forth. At the more radical edge, theorists such as Piketty (2014) and former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis (McGoey, 2015) have suggested “global surplus recycling” mechanisms, in essence Keynesian demand-boosting measures administered on a world scale, will be necessary to sustain any political stability over the long term. Whether or not one considers this only as form of system regulation, or a genuine transnationalization of a struggle between labour and capital is likely a question of a preference for reform or revolution. Furthermore, an example of a TNS that Robinson does not discuss but has been more nuanced in its impacts is the European Union. Though doubtless serving a capital accumulation function, the EU has also proved to be a social democratic block on some of the worst excesses of global capitalism, such as through its regulations on working hours (Holehouse, 2015). It is striking that the EU, too, is currently the most controversial and contested of the TNS institutions, perhaps because of its more ambiguous character making it a target of ire for a wider set of interests, both from labour and capital (Elliott, 2016).

Finally, an oversight in Robinson’s argument is revealed by a consideration of state-centered economic theory on the basis of “national interest”. As described by Caporaso & Levine (1992), statist theories “begin with a state agenda not reducible to private interest” (p. 189). The extent to which transnational capital conceives of itself as a hegemonic force the Gramscian sense and therefore articulates a coherent, consistent set of policy priorities is questionable. Though they may have concrete interests in common, elites in different nations often conceive of themselves in nationalist ways and have a strong identification with the “interests” of their nation. Indeed, for capital in some sectors, a strong state, pursuing a “national interest” is their main source of profit, particularly in the arms trade. In this sense, certain sectors of capital need the nation-state to define a “national interest” in order to create a market for their products, and public willing to accept government spending on them, in order to be profitable. This particular aspect of state-capital independence is unfortunately left underdeveloped by Robinson.

In reviews of Robinson’s book, both Cioffi (2007) and Pijl (2005) noted that his evidence for transnational capital, as distinct from capital in general, being a hegemonic fraction is scant, and that imperialist drives led by states still play a large role in capital accumulation. Others have pointed out that, where contrary to the “national interest” or particularly strong factions of capital in developed countries, rulings by TNS organs such as the WTO are often simply ignored (Urmetzer, 2003). As well, amongst emerging economies such as China, state-owned enterprises (SOEs) with explicit mandates to pursue national interests beyond the pure profit motive are big economic players (Cendrowski, 2015). As many of these SOEs are increasingly involved in the global market, it is unfortunate that Robinson does not address the possibilities of such enterprises representing a counter-hegemonic force. Few who have investigated the conduct of Chinese SOEs in Africa, for instance[3], would say that these are progressive actors, but nevertheless their presence on the world stage, along with China’s current drive to set up parallel transnational institutions to the IMF and World Bank, does hedge away from a model of pure transnational capital hegemony (S.R., 2014). Perhaps, in time, these contradictory developments will be subsumed into a wider system of transnational capital, but for the time being, they are evidence that nation-states do still indeed matter, beyond being the “proactive instruments for advancing the agenda of global capitalism” (p.109) that Robinson sees them as.

Nevertheless, though some of Robinson’s points may have been true when the book was published but appear less so now, there are many of his points which are still deeply relevant. It may come to be that, in the longer sweep of history, the relative reemergence of international competition and anti-globalization forces in the wake of the 2008 crisis will come to be seen as only a bump in the road. In terms of political praxis, certainly, the observation that the battle between labour and capital is increasingly one which can only be waged globally rings true. This is likely why nation-state based movements against capitalist-led globalization, both reactionary and progressive, have tended to fail. Now more than ever, the proletariat do, indeed, “have a world to win” (Marx, 1954).

[1] Incidentally, though Robinson does not himself discuss this, this situation would seem to give lie to the arguments for “free trade” embodied in Adam Smith’s discussion of comparative advantage.

[2] Robinson demonstrates on page 59 that particularly cross-border M&As increased sixthfold from 1991–98

[3] A prominent example of this is the case of coal production in Zambia, see:

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