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A Theory of Globalized Capitalism

William I. Robinson, Latin America and Global Capitalism: A Critical Globalization Perspective (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2008), 412 pages, $55.00, hardcover.

Jeffery R. Webber is assistant professor of political science, University of Regina, Canada. He is the author of Red October: Left-Indigenous Struggles in Modern Bolivia (forthcoming), and is currently finishing Rebellion to Reform in Bolivia: Class Struggle, Indigenous Liberation, and the Politics of Evo Morales, 2000-2010.

Latin America and Global Capitalism delivers a scathing indictment of neoliberal globalization from an explicitly anti-capitalist perspective. Its scope is theoretically and empirically ambitious, beginning with a wide-ranging treatment of structural shifts in global capitalism since the early 1970s, before turning to rigorous examination of a range of themes in Latin American political economy in light of these global changes. Robinson then brings these threads together with an argument that neoliberalism entered its twilight phase in the region beginning with the recession of the late 1990s and early 2000s, as extra-parliamentary mass movements concomitantly exploded onto the scene and a variety of self-described left governments took office. The focus then tightens, with conjunctural analyses of the current upsurge in indigenous revolts, the immigrant rights movement in the United States, and the complicated and contradictory processes of the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela.

The theoretical scaffolding of Latin America and Global Capitalism builds from and extends the frameworks first developed in two earlier books—especially the concepts of transnational production and finance, a transnational capitalist class (TCC), and a transnational state (TNS).1 The text contains a succession of exposés of the social and environmental catastrophes engendered by the dual process of global capitalist expansion through which: (1) new external areas of the world are brought into the system of commodity production and capitalist market relations; and (2) “capitalist or commodity production replaces pre- or noncapitalist forms of production” in areas of human activity that had “previously remained outside of the logic” of the system.

In many ways, Latin America and Global Capitalism is an exemplary treatment of Latin America’s present day political economy and social predicaments. It acts as a needed corrective both to the Panglossian celebration of the impact of globalization on Latin America offered by mainstream economists, and to the social-democratic left whose theories fall short of a foundational critique of capitalism. If “there can be no socialism without democracy in the twenty-first century,” Robinson rightly points out, “it is equally true that democracy is not possible without socialism. A democratic socialism founded on popular democracy is in my view the only real alternative to disaster—to collective suicide.”

In chapter two, one of the most powerful and persuasive, Robinson charts the crisis of developmental capitalism, or import-substitution industrialization, in the 1960s and 1970s, and then shifts to neoliberalism, or export-led development, in the 1980s and 1990s across Latin America. Drawing on the historical materialist categories of proletarianization and primitive accumulation, he examines the contours of the new economic model through a focused exploration of nontraditional exports and services. He offers a penetrating look at the cut flowers industry in Ecuador and Colombia, the explosive growth of the fruits and wines sector in Chile, soy production in Argentina and the rest of the Southern Cone, and winter fruits and vegetable production in Central America. He demonstrates how there has been an “accelerated replacement of noncapitalist by capitalist forms of agricultural development” and a “concomitant displacement of the peasantry and its conversion into a rural proletariat. This has occurred along with an increase in rural to urban and transnational migration”; promotion of “flexible…work in the new agro-export platforms”; a move to “predominance of female workers in these platforms”; and “the articulation of local agricultural systems…to global agricultural and industrial food production and distribution chains.”

The main weakness in this otherwise compelling portrait of the political economy of the Latin American countryside today is the one-sided structural power allotted to capital. Opportunities for increases in agricultural workers’ bargaining power under certain conditions, such as those examined by Ben Selwyn in his important study of export grape production in North East Brazil, are elided.2

Latin America and Global Capitalism offers a brutal and compelling exploration of the growth of flexible labor in Latin America under the current conditions of global capital accumulation and the new capital-labor relation. Robinson describes in intricate detail the world of work in the proliferating export processing zones (EPZs) of Central America and brings to light the gendered character of flexible labor, noting that the “vast majority of workers in EPZ plants around the world are young women 16 to 25 years old.”

The final two chapters explore the crisis of neoliberalism at the outset of the twenty-first century and the resurgence of variegated forms of popular resistance. The discussion of Latin America’s escalating indigenous revolt since the early 1990s is one of the most effective syntheses available in English. Robinson correctly focuses our attention on the interpenetration of ethnicity and class and the anti-capitalist character of revolt. “Transnational capital seeks to integrate indigenous [peoples] into the global market as dependent workers and consumers, to convert their lands into private property, and to make the natural resources in their territories available for transnational corporate exploitation.” Threatened in this fashion by the implications of global capitalism, indigenous populations have ever more frequently responded through direct action and mass protest, becoming “perhaps the…leading edge of popular class mobilization.” The outbreak of Latino/a-led immigrant working-class militancy in the United States, particularly the wave of strikes and demonstrations in the spring of 2006, is also analyzed to good effect. Robinson rightly describes this growth of radicalism as “an all-out fight-back against the repression, exploitation, cultural degradation and racism they routinely face.” Unfortunately, though, looking back to the height of this 2006 struggle from the vantage point of 2009, Robinson seems to have been overly optimistic about the strength and endurance of the movement.

Robinson’s book is an indispensable resource in all these respects, but some of its core theoretical underpinnings are problematic. Most of these problems arise in relation to the concepts of the TCC and the TNS—questions of inter-imperial rivalry and other forms of geopolitical conflict, as well as the related issue of Robinson’s at times perfunctory dismissal of serious and sophisticated Marxist analyses of imperialism that differ from his own. Components of Robinson’s analysis of transnational capitalist class formation point toward real developments in global capitalism, but he exaggerates the extent to which the TCC has become “a class group with subjective consciousness of itself and its own interests.” Such strong claims on the relative homogeneity of this class far exceed the empirical evidence actually marshaled by Robinson in this book and others, and tend systematically to obscure the necessity of a more rigorous examination of both the extent and limits of TCC formation to this day.

This somewhat mechanical economic determinism is reproduced in the concept of the TNS. As capital goes global, so, too, does the state. The new TNS, it seems, is a mere function of the needs of global capital. It should also be noted that nation-states do not dissolve as part of TNS formation, in this view, but rather are incorporated into the TNS as part of its apparatus. Nation-states become transnationalized and neoliberalized, serving the interests of global over local capital accumulation. Robinson claims at one point that the formation of this new “transnational configuration of power” is “a very incomplete, contradictory, and open-ended process” and that the TNS apparatus “has not yet (and may never) acquire any centralized form.” Only a page later, however, the underlying structural-functionalism rises to the surface, as he insists that “Economic globalization has its counterpart in transnational class formation and in the emergence of a TNS brought into existence to function as a collective authority for a global ruling class.” 

Since Robinson “does not allow for any possibility of a non-identity of interests between capitalists and state managers,” he concludes that, because a TCC has been formed, an ideal-typical TNS to act in its interests becomes necessary.3 State managers in the multiple supranational institutions and neoliberalized states that constitute this TNS network apparatus ought then to act out the conscious interests of the TCC, and when they do not, that becomes the mystery.

Latin America and Global Capitalism, as with Robinson’s earlier books, (correctly) rejects classical Marxist theories of imperialism as insufficient for explaining the current global situation, but in so doing Robinson often props up a false dichotomy between inter-imperial rivalry—reduced to open military conflict between different capitals and their nation states—and a new world in which territorial rivalries and geopolitical disputes essentially recede backstage, to be replaced with the relatively unmediated conflict between global capital and global labor. Robinson thus rejects the conclusions of various theorists of “new imperialism.”4 He claims that these Marxists, in holding on to the notion that aspects of inter-imperial rivalry and geopolitical conflict continue to characterize the world order, have “confused capitalist competition with state competition and conflated disarray, factionalism, and parochial and sectoral interests among transnational capitalist groups and global elites with nation-state rivalries.”

Robinson recognizes that global capital requires coercion to enforce its interests throughout the globe and that the supranational institutions of the incipient TNS lack the requisite military apparatuses. Instead, the United States is seen as playing a major part in this policing and militarizing role, acting not in the interests of U.S. capital when it does so, but rather in the interests of the TCC more generally. “The only military apparatus in the world capable of exercising global coercive authority,” he underlines, “is the U.S. military.” However, “The beneficiaries of U.S. military action around the World are not ‘U.S.’ but transnational capitalist groups.” The problem is that this theory—one that overlaps substantially with that of Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin—is never adequately linked empirically to Latin American realities in subsequent chapters.5

The theoretical argument developed assumes rather than demonstrates that U.S. policy in Latin America and elsewhere reflects interests that are those of transnational capitalists, and critical investigation of the degree to which U.S. policies enter into conflict with the interests of capitalists based in other regions and states is simply set aside. In light of recent intricate analyses of the complex geopolitical and domestic origins of defining moments in recent world politics, such as the war in Iraq,6 it is increasingly difficult to sustain the notion that the United States merely acts in the interests of global capital, or that when it does, it does not also act with particular preference for the interests of U.S. capital: “Other core capitalists may be happy that U.S. policies make the world safer for trade and investment, even if they think Washington sometimes acts foolishly. Does this mean that the United States acts in the interests of capital in general? Yes it does. Does this mean Washington acts in the interests of its corporations and capitalists above others? Yes it does.”7

Moreover, recent contributions to Marxist theories of imperialism—many of them drawing on Leon Trotsky’s concept of “uneven and combined development”—have come some distance in explaining that uneven spatialized patterns of global capital accumulation tend to reinforce and sustain a plural system of states that militates against the realization of a single global state. This suggests the persistence, not obsolescence, of variegated forms of geopolitical rivalry between different capitals and states, even if it does not mean imminent military war between great powers.

Processes of global accumulation lead to territorial and geographic concentrations of investment, markets, and labor in specific spaces of the world economy—concentrations of capital which privilege certain areas at the expense of others and which tend to be reinforced over time.8 Alex Callinicos has correctly pointed out that “the centrifugal pulls generated by the inherently geographically uneven distribution of resources under capitalism play an irreducible role in keeping the state system plural.” As noted, there are situations in which hegemons can “provide public goods for all states,” but in coming to terms with deeper, structural patterns of global capitalism, the system is better understood as “inherently conflictual, presupposing and generating antagonisms of interest between workers and capitalists and among capitals, and unleashing economic crises and self-reinforcing processes of uneven development” with “extreme geographical concentrations of economic power.”9

Again, this does not signal the inevitability of war between inter-imperial rivals and the simple vindication of the relevance of Lenin, Bukharin, Hilferding, and Luxemburg for our times. But in order to understand that geopolitical competition has taken different forms over the long history of capitalist modernity, and to be attentive to the new dynamics it is displaying in the current epoch, we need to avoid theoretical exaggeration regarding concepts such as a TNS and a TCC alike.

Notes

  1. William I. Robinson, Transnational Conflicts (London: Verso, 2003), and A Theory of Global Capitalism (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2004).
  2. Ben Selwyn, “Labor Process and Workers’ Bargaining Power in Export Grape Production, North East Brazil,” Journal of Agrarian Change 7, no. 4 (2007): 526-53.
  3. Alexander Anievas, “Review Article: Martin Shaw, Theory of the Global State and William I. Robinson, A Theory of Global Capitalism,” Historical Materialism 16, no. 2 (2008): 167.
  4. See David Harvey, The New Imperialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), Ellen Meiksins Wood, Empire of Capital (London: Verso, 2003), and John Bellamy Foster, Naked Imperialism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2006).
  5. See Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, “Global Capitalism and American Empire,” in Socialist Register 2004, eds. Leo Panitch and Colin Leys (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2003): 1-38, and Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, “Finance and American Empire,” Socialist Register 2005, eds. Leo Panitch and Colin Leys (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2004):  46-81.
  6. See, for example, Vivek Chibber, “American Militarism and the US Political Establishment,” Socialist Register 2009: Violence Today, eds. Leo Panitch and Colin Leys (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2008): 23-53.
  7. William K. Tabb, “Globalization Today,” Science and Society 73, no. 1 (January 2009): 34-53.
  8. See Alex Callinicos, “Does Capitalism Need the State System?” Cambridge Review of International Affairs 20, no. 4 (2007): 533-49; David Harvey, Spaces of Global Capitalism (London: Verso, 2006), and Neil Smith, “The Geography of Uneven Development,” in 100 Years of Permanent Revolution, eds. Bill Dunn and Hugo Radice (London: Pluto, 2006): 180-195.
  9. Callinicos, “Does Capitalism Need the State System?” 545, 547.
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