The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

The Geopolitics of Global Capitalism and the Transnational State

With all of the kerfuffle in the UK academic world about open access journals−meaning without legal or financial barriers to gain access to publically-funded academic work−and the fudge underway to resolve this in the interests of publishers, Adam David Morton and I are delighted to announce a new article of ours now available in the Journal of Australian Political Economy (JAPE). This journal publishes peer-reviewed articles and is fully open access. The latest issue includes the annual E. L. Wheelwright Lecture by Susan George, articles on urban political economy, and our joint article on recasting contemporary geopolitics, territorial processes of capitalist accumulation, and spaces of imperialist rivalry. Our article is entitled ‘The will-o’-the-wisp of the transnational state’ and can be freely accessed here.

Our argument is that while the role of the state in the global political economy, or the relationship between the inter-state system and globalisation, has been the focus of scholarly debate for some time, mainstream debates have run out of steam. On one hand, neo-realists argue that the inter-state system has not changed fundamentally and states remain the only significant actors. On the other hand, liberals speak about a transformed system within which the relevance of states is on the retreat in light of the juggernaut of globalisation. Instead, we shift our attention by critically engaging with a series of historical materialist contributions to the debate on geopolitics and global capitalism. We argue that by drawing on the work of Antonio Gramsci and Nicos Poulantzas it is possible to focus on the way the interests of transnational capital have become internalised in various forms of state to, thus, comprehend the internal relationship between global capitalism and the inter-state system but without succumbing to the notion that a ‘transnational state’ is emerging as a result.

The main focus from a historical materialist stance is on why the state and the market, the political and the economic, appear as two separate entities under capitalism. Some Marxists, such as Werner Bonefeld or Peter Burnham, usefully explain the historical specificity of capitalism through an analysis of the underlying social relations of production. In a capitalist productive system based on wage labour and the private ownership of the means of production, the extraction of surplus value is not directly politically enforced, but the result of indirect economic pressures. The ‘economic’ and the ‘political’ therefore appear as distinct, particularised forms of domination in abstraction from capitalist relations of production. This stance enables one to understand capitalism as a historical phenomenon and directs analysis towards an investigation of the internal relationship between the ‘political’ and the ‘economic’. This includes, for example, an analysis of the role of the state and how, while appearing separate from the market, the state ensures capitalism through a guarantee of the institution of private property.

Alex Callinicos has separately indicated that the two distinct but related registers of capitalist accumulation and geopolitical competition need to be integrated into a contemporary understanding of global capitalism. Thus, in his book Imperialism and Global Political Economy he considers two logics of power, capitalistic and territorial, with the geopolitics of the states-system treated as a dimension of the capitalist mode of production. As we note in our JAPE article, we see a common problem with the above viewpoints on the geopolitics of capitalism. First, when discussing global developments, they fall back into a state-centric (almost neo-realist) discussion of state rivalry, as also noted by Gonzalo Pozo-Mart√≠n in the Cambridge Review of International Affairs. The internal relation between the ‘economic’ and the ‘political’ is, as a result, not transferred into the analysis. Second, this state-centric focus also prevents these viewpoints from recognising and conceptualising recent developments in global capitalism, expressed in the emergence of transnational production networks and integrated global financial markets, which have transformed the inter-state system.

Here it is William Robinson who has established a distinctive position in acknowledging the emergence of transnational capital and labour as significant new actors as a result of the transnationalisation of the social relations of production. In his book Latin America and Global Capitalism (awarded the 2009 Best Book Prize of the International Political Economy Group of the British International Studies Association), and in A Theory of Global Capitalism,  he argues that not only has transnational capital emerged as a new leading social force but the task of guaranteeing capitalist accumulation on a global scale also befalls an emerging transnational state (TNS). At the domestic level, states are perceived as mere transmission belts, ensuring that the demands of the TNS are implemented. While we agree with his focus on transnational capital, we criticise the notion of the TNS on the following two grounds:

  • it overlooks that states continue to be significant nodal points in the organisation of capitalist accumulation; and

  • it fails to acknowledge the continuing relevance of the unevenness of capitalist development between and within states;

In short, Robinson incorrectly delinks uneven development from the inter-state system. If certain Marxist viewpoints remind us of neo-realist state-centrism, then transnational state thinking falls into the liberal trap of assuming the retreat of the state.

In order to conceptualise the internal relationship between the geopolitics of the states-system and global capitalism we draw on the work of Antonio Gramsci and Nicos Poulantzas. For Gramsci, the state is understood as the form of a particular condensation of class forces as well as the terrain within which and through which these class forces struggle to achieve hegemony. It is then through the social relations of production that the internal relation between the ‘political’ and the ‘economic’, state and market, manifest themselves.

Poulantzas focused on how transnational capital became internalised, particularly within European forms of state through foreign direct investment, since the 1970s as part of global processes of restructuring. Capital is not simply represented as an autonomous force beyond the power of the state but is embodied by classes or fractions of classes within the very constitution of the state. The phenomenon now referred to as globalisation therefore represents the transnational organisation of production relations which are internalised within states to lead to a modified restructuring (but not retreat) of the state in everyday life.

New transnational class forces of capital do not, however, confront the state as an external actor, as a transnational state, but are closely involved in the class struggle over hegemonic projects within state forms. The exact way this is played out through struggles and resistance and the extent to which the interests of transnational capital become internalised within individual state forms needs to be empirically assessed. It is likely to be a variegated and differentiated terrain of struggle, differing from state to state depending on the diverse configuration of class forces and institutional set-ups at the national level in line with different historical trajectories of state formation.

In sum, seen in this way, globalisation and the related emergence of new transnational forces of capital and labour has not led to a retreat of the state, a strengthening of the state, or the emergence of a transnational state. The transnational state is a will-o’-the-wisp (or jack-o’-lantern, or Min Min light): a delusive or misleading phenomenon. Instead, focus should be held on the unfolding process of capitalist restructuring marked by an internalisation within different state forms of new configurations of class forces expressed by struggles between varied (national and transnational) fractions of capital and labour.

Class struggle still matters!


Adam David Morton is Professor of Political Economy at Sydney University/Australia.

Andreas Bieler is Professor of Political Economy at Nottingham University/UK.

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