The 59th annual volume of the Socialist Register examines the growth of corporate power and other important organizational trends in global capitalism. Rejecting such notions as “stakeholder capitalism,” it reviews the organization and strategies of unions and the left as it searches for new routes to socialism.
Adam Hanieh: World Oil: Contemporary Transformations in Ownership and Control
Nicolas Graham and William K. Carroll: Climate Breakdown: From Fossil Capitalism to Climate Capitalism (and Beyond?)
Rafeef Ziadah: Logistical Landscapes: Corporate Power and Capital in the Maritime Industry
Patrick Bond: Multilateralism at a Crossroads: Vaccine Apartheid, Climate Wars, Geopolitical Turmoil
Stephen F. Diamond: The ‘Corporate Governance’ Myth
Charmaine Chua and Spencer Cox: Battling the Behemoth: Amazon and the Rise of America’s New Working Class
Kyle Bailey: The Illusions of ‘Stakeholder Capitalism’: The Case of Unilever
Richard Saunders: Transnational Capital and Regulating African Extractives: Zimbabwe’s Blood Diamonds
Minqi Li: From ‘996’ to ‘Lying Flat’: China’s Regime of Accumulation
Pun Ngai and Chen Peier: Infrastructural Capitalism: High-Speed Rail and Class Conflict in China
Armando Boito: Political Divisions and Neo-Fascism in Brazil
LEO PANITCH AND THE SOCIALIST CHALLENGE
Stephen Maher and Scott M. Aquanno: Capitalist Restructuring, State Transformation: Leo Panitch and Capitalism Today
Panagiotis Sotiris: Mass Parties, Dual Power, and Questions of Strategy: A Dialogue with Leo Panitch
Madeleine Davis: Leo Panitch on British Labourism and the Prospects for a ‘Labour New Left’
Leo Panitch and Rafael Khachaturian: Against Pessimism: A Life on the Left
IN OWNERSHIP AND CONTROL
By ADAM HANIEH
“To many observers, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has brought into sharp relief a central characteristic of world oil today: the rise of national oil companies (NOCs), on one hand, and the relative decline of privately-owned, international oil companies (IOCs) on the other. For most of the twentieth century, corporate power in oil had been defined by the almost complete dominance of the IOCs, a handful of vertically-integrated firms located in North America and Europe, who collectively controlled each stage in the production, refining, and marketing of the world’s most important commodity (including the ability to set its price). Over the last two decades, however, this dominance has sharply eroded, with NOCs run by governments in Saudi Arabia, Russia, China, and elsewhere now surpassing IOCs in their levels of oil production, refinery outputs, market capitalization, and export quantities. The significance of this shift is said to go far beyond simple questions of energy supply – in much of the contemporary writing on oil and politics, the rise of the NOCs has been linked to the consolidation of authoritarianism, the spread of corruption, and increased geopolitical instability. The war in Ukraine has highlighted the importance of these debates, most directly through the heavy reliance of Europe on energy supplied by Russian NOCs.
…an understanding of world oil needs to begin from the recognition that crude oil is a commodity with little practical use prior to its transformation into various kinds of liquid fuels or raw materials (such as petrochemicals and plastics). It is the ability to produce these diverse forms of ‘circulating constant capital’ that has made crude oil so essential to capitalism since the mid-twentieth century. The necessity of this transformation into circulating constant capital means that crude oil must move through its own commodity circuit before it enters the wider valorization of industrial capital – it needs to be extracted, transported from oil fields to refineries, processed, and then marketed to the final customer. For this reason, the oil industry incorporates much more than simply the upstream extraction of crude oil; downstream segments of the industry (refining, petrochemicals, transportation, storage, etc.) are no less consequential to patterns of control within world oil. Too much work on oil – typified in those ‘geopolitical’ analyses that fixate on inter-state competition for allegedly scarce crude resources – ignores the significance of these downstream activities (especially refining)…
…corporate forms of control in world oil need to be understood through the changing spatial configuration of the global oil circuit. A key element to this is the emergence of China as a core zone of global value production over the past two decades, which has dramatically altered how forms of circulating constant capital derived from oil flow through the world market. China’s rise – linked to a broader regional reconfiguration of East Asian capitalism – has driven growing interdependencies between East Asia and the oil-rich countries of the Middle East. At the same time, two other major zones of global oil consumption have consolidated: a regionally integrated North American bloc, mostly centred around the US and Canada, and the European Union (EU), dependent upon energy flows from Russia and Central Asia. The interdependencies that have emerged around this particular spatialization of world oil – including both upstream crude production and downstream refining – are essential to understanding the apparent rise of NOCs and the changing corporate structures of the leading IOCs….”
CORPORATE POWER AND CAPITAL
IN THE MARITIME INDUSTRY
By RAFEEF ZIADAH
“The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted both the significance and fragility of internationalized supply chains. With shortages in personal protective equipment, discussions of vaccine production and rollout, and even the rush on supermarkets, the largely invisible operations of business logistics became part of daily conversations. The labour of those in the transport and logistics sector – dockworkers, drivers, those in warehousing and food packing – was deemed essential, with these workers forced to carry a disproportionate risk of virus exposure to ensure continued access to commodities from basic necessities to the frivolous. Concurrently, the alarm over supply chain disruptions brought with it a debate on worker safety and precarity, graphically demonstrated by the thousands of seafarers ‘abandoned at sea’ and unable to return home for months on end due to travel restrictions. Nonetheless, as the public health crisis unfolded and logistics workers faced unprecedented pressure, companies such as Amazon, who were completely immersed in global circulation and supply chains, were experiencing booming sales and record profits.
For the left, this conjuncture of emergency confirms the need to better understand the ‘logistics revolution’ and its place in contemporary capitalism…
…Logistics has come to permeate every aspect of our everyday lives – from managing access to the basic commodities we consume, to organizing emergency responses to natural disasters and humanitarian relief.2 Yet, the rise of logistics has also raised the spectre of new forms of worker resistance and organizing. Despite the promises of ‘seamless’ trade and fully automated circulation, the pandemic – and now the war in Ukraine with its supply shocks to global oil and agricultural markets – has illustrated the fragility of these commodity movements and their ultimate dependence on human labour.
Maritime transport remains the backbone of global trade, with around 80 per cent of the volume of international trade and 65 per cent of commodity value carried by sea. The world’s seas act ‘as surfaces for the circulation and realisation of value’.3 Maritime ports constitute key nodal points within increasingly integrated logistical networks that underpin the globally structured character of commodity circulation. This may seem like the arcane trivia of the global transport industry, but exploring the specific corporate landscapes of container shipping, the key trends mobilizing global supply chains, and the major concentration and consolidation of port operators and shipping liners reveals key points of political contestation in capitalism today…”
MULTILATERALISM AT A CROSSROADS:
VACCINE APARTHEID, CLIMATE WARS,
By PATRICK BOND
In late June 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping frantically called the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) bloc into a virtual meeting for their annual heads-of-state session. The anticipated gathering in China was originally scheduled for September in person, but quick consultations and consensus were needed to upend the G7’s gathering in Germany, four days later. At the Bavarian G7 summit, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz won in-person attendance by the Indian and South African leaders, Narendra Modi and Cyril Ramaphosa, although neither conceded changes to their ‘neutrality’ in the Russia-Ukraine war.
In contrast, from Beijing, Xi was far more ambitious, restating China’s agenda for BRICS expansion, accompanied by new anti-Western economic strategies relating to the development of trade and currency blocs. Countries whose leaders appeared amenable to joining the BRICS in March 2022 at Beijing’s request initially even included Saudi Arabia, although US President Joe Biden’s obsequious visit in July appeared to negate that threat of political realignment. Another traditional US ally, Egypt, plus major second-tier regional powers Indonesia and Argentina, were also courted as potential additions to the BRICS bloc. Ideological divisions remained acute throughout, given the five countries’ very different orientations. The Sino-Indian turf war in the Himalayan mountains and greater Kashmir remained intractable. But realpolitik had evidently shifted in unpredictable ways that reflect tug-of-war diplomacy, apparently unhinged from durable geopolitical and economic alliances.
The West had little new to offer, and a general sense prevailed across many societies and regions in 2022, and seemingly into the foreseeable future, that ‘end-of-history’ liberal project of conjoining free markets and democratic politics had run into insurmountable troubles.
BATTLING THE BEHEMOTH:
AMAZON AND THE RISE OF
AMERICA’S NEW WORKING CLASS
By CHARMAINE CHUA and SPENCER COX
On an early April afternoon in 2022, Christian Smalls popped a bottle of champagne outside the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) offices in Brooklyn to celebrate an unprecedented victory. Less than two years before, Smalls had been fired from JFK8, a Staten Island Amazon fulfillment centre, when he led a walkout in protest of unsafe working conditions at the start of the pandemic. Now, despite rampant retaliation from Amazon, whose union-busting tactics included arresting Smalls twice for ‘trespassing’, firing workers, forcing them to attend ‘required trainings’, and more, JFK8 had just become the first Amazon warehouse in history to win formal recognition of their union. ‘We want to thank Jeff Bezos for going to space,’ Smalls now-famously quipped, ‘because when he was up there, we was signing people up.’ The upset, journalist Alex Press noted, was a historic event for which ‘there are few parallels in the US labor movement’s post-Reagan history’.
In the aftermath of the victory, publications and pundits from the liberal mainstream to the left sought to understand how workers pulled it off. Journalists attributed workers’ success to factors ranging from cultural conjunctures to hard work: some argued that the success was owed to a generational stirring of young people newly awakened to class struggle; others identified the charisma of Smalls himself, the conjunctures of a tight labour market and a ‘cultural moment’ of record-high support for unions, and the success of tactics such as horizontal organizing and ‘hardscrabble’ worker-to-worker organizing.2 Missing from these analyses, however, have been efforts to place this apparent resurgence of working-class struggle in its proper context: that is, in relation to processes of capitalist restructuring in the deindustrialized US core that have led to a turbulent process of class recomposition