American Party of Labor: William I. Robinson’s Global Theory of Capitalism – The Problems of Transnational Class and State

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Globalization has become a subject of the utmost interest in recent decades. With the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the rise of capitalist hegemony in its most sincere form, some have argued for an “end of history” in which international capitalism reigns supreme, lead by the the United States, the chief victor of the Cold War. Others have articulated this differently.

William I. Robinson argues that the theoretical understanding of imperialism asserted by V.I. Lenin and upheld by other 20th century Marxists is insufficient for understanding the current state of affairs in modern global capitalist society. Rather, he asserts that a new theory which takes into account a negation of the nation-state as the main vehicle for advancing the cause of capital and fulfilling the profit ends of regional capitalists. He argues that the contradictions within capitalism are being globalized; that nation-states and national capitalists are being integrated into a larger transnational class and state.

It must be noted, however, that Robinson is not the first to make such an argument. Other theorists have made similar arguments in which the old notions of imperialism are replaced with more “global” perspectives which perceive the contradictions within capitalist nation-states taking place globally. These hypotheses would later lead those theorists and their adherents to anti-Marxist, anti-scientific conclusions which would render their theories less useful for a concrete understanding of capitalism on the world stage. There are problems which arise in trying to haphazardly apply intra-national contradictions in an international way. We will examine Robinson’s theory of global capitalism and using similar attempts at assessing capitalism internationally we will argue that the concepts of a “transnational capitalist class” and transnational state are problematic.

In his book, A Theory of Global Capitalism: Production, Class, and State in a Transnational World, Robinson argues that an epochal shift is occurring in capitalism in which the rise of transnational production is leading to the construction of a transnational capitalist class (TCC) and a transnational state (TNS). This theoretical understanding would, at first blush, seem eerily similar to one put forward by Karl Kautsky at the beginning of the century. Kautsky, on the eve of the First World War, argued

“From the purely economic standpoint… there is nothing further to prevent this violent explosion finally replacing imperialism by a holy alliance of the imperialists” (Kautsky, 1914).

This state of affairs is what he referred to as “Ultra Imperialism.”

Vladimir Lenin puts forward a different view in his work Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism:

“The capitalists divide the world, not out of any particular malice, but because the degree of concentration which has been reached forces them to adopt this method in order to obtain profits. And they divide it ‘in proportion to capital’, ‘in proportion to strength’, because there cannot be any other method of division under commodity production and capitalism. But strength varies with the degree of economic and political development. In order to understand what is taking place, it is necessary to know what questions are settled by the changes in strength. The question as to whether these changes are ‘purely’ economic or non-economic (e.g., military) is a secondary one, which cannot in the least affect fundamental views on the latest epoch of capitalism. To substitute the question of the form of the struggle and agreements (today peaceful, tomorrow warlike, the next day warlike again) for the question of the substance of the struggle and agreements between capitalist associations is to sink to the role of a sophist” (Lenin 1916).

Given the continuation of inter-imperialist conflicts throughout the 20th century, Kautsky’s theory has ultimately ended up in history’s dustbin. It is for this reason that Robinson took the time to briefly mention Kautsky and to separate his theory from “Ultra Imperialism” by saying

“My theory differs sharply from Kautsky’s in a number of ways that I cannot take up here except to note that competition has driven capitalist dynamics and will continue to do so” (Robinson 61).

He then goes on to describe how competition on an international scale has lead to mergers and acquisitions across state lines. Nevertheless this is insufficient, because Robinson ignores the issue of inter-imperialist warfare. Has capitalism evolved beyond wars between imperialist powers? Kautsky’s theory would seem to answer in the affirmative and, in a sense, Robinson’s does as well.

Another theoretical outlook which deserves to be examined in comparison to Robinson’s is Lin Biao’s. In his pamphlet Long live the Victory of People’s War! the Chinese politician Lin Biao wrote:

“Taking the entire globe, if North America and Western Europe can be called ‘the cities of the world’, then Asia, Africa and Latin America constitute ‘the rural areas of the world’. Since World War II, the proletarian revolutionary movement has for various reasons been temporarily held back in the North American and West European capitalist countries, while the people’s revolutionary movement in Asia, Africa and Latin America has been growing vigorously. In a sense, the contemporary world revolution also presents a picture of the encirclement of cities by the rural areas” (Lin Biao 1965).

Lin Biao, in an attempt to apply the Maoist concept of people’s war to the international struggle between the proletariat and bourgeoisie, pioneered a version of Mao’s “theory of three worlds” which perceives the world as being a global countryside surrounding a global city, paving the way for later adherents to his theory to apply class labels to entire nations, saying that the “first world” represents a global bourgeoisie and making such claims as “the first world proletariat is a myth.” At this juncture it is important to note that Robinson does not share Lin Biao or his modern-day followers’ understandings of a global countryside or global city, and indeed argues against the sort of assessments which fuel the line taken up by contemporary third-worldists.

We do not seek to label Robinson as a Lin-Biaoist or a Kautskyian. Rather, what we’d like to point out is the common failing of all three of these theories. What these theories demonstrate is that there are problems when one is too quick to apply phenomenon which can be empirically understood at the national level to phenomena occurring internationally.

The chief problem with Robinson’s theory of a “transnational capitalist” class is that Robinson underestimates contradictions among the bourgeoisie internationally, seeing a “bourgeois internationalism” that is not there. Uneven development among nations means that capitalists internationally frequently have different interests and not all of these interests can be met by full integration of their economic activity within the global marketplace. Any alliance, any “unity” within the capitalist camp is subject to how it benefits the profits of the individual capitalists within such an alliance. Unlike workers, who are able to reap benefits from the struggles of workers all over the world, a capitalist isn’t necessarily benefited by the success of other capitalists. As capitalists are forced to compete for what they perceive to be a limited number of material and market resources, the bonds which have formerly bound them begin to deteriorate. Within nations, compromise among capitalists is more possible and prudent. After all, they both have access to the mechanisms of state power and both have a vested interest in keeping the local proletariat in bondage. Yet internationally, inter-imperialist competition and warfare are a viable solution when unity and compromise become too much of a burden. The capitalist often has little to gain and much to lose when the capitalists of other nations are able to seize upon material and markets he desires and potentially has much to gain from their destruction.

Following with this error, Robinson’s theory of a transnational state is equally problematic, in that by concluding that

“[e]conomic globalization has its counterpart in transnational class formation and in the emergence of a TNS, which has been brought into existence to function as the collective authority for a global ruling class” (Robinson, 88)

he underestimates special functions of the state which this new transnational state has no mechanism to fulfill. These special functions include the reinforcement of a common ideology, the maintenance of a military and police apparatus for the defense of private property relations and (to varying degrees between advanced industrialized capitalist countries) some assurance of social welfare. These functions are essential to the maintenance of an economic system built upon class antagonism, for any state to exist and to perpetuate itself, nationally or transnationally, these specific functions need to be effectively managed in a centralized manner. Instead, these important functions are still carried out at the level of the nation-state. The consequence is that the nation-state is itself still an invaluable asset to those capitalists who exert control over it locally. It cannot be abandoned, nor can it necessarily be compromised by the needs of integrating the nation state into a broader transnational state apparatus if the cost of such an integration infringes on the national bourgeoisie maintaining their grips on the local proletariat.

In Robinson’s understanding of a transnational state, Robinson would seem to think of inter-imperialist conflict as a “thing of the past,” when in actuality, the distinct possibility of a clash of powers exists as Western hegemony begins to wane. Sure, Robinson allows for competition between capitalists in his theory, yet any conception of a transnational state would require that competition be limited insofar as it becomes a threat to this state apparatus. There are no guarantees in the current world situation that inter-state rivalries would manifest themselves militarily. Every attempt to build an international body that would prevent such violence has failed and will fail so long as different nation-states have interests which lie outside of a possible collective interest.

As the world situation evolves and new material realities emerge, many are lead to try and perceive what will be capitalism’s “next greatest leap.” From the time of Marx to the time of Lenin we have seen capitalism evolve into a system of imperial capitalism. Now, with the United States emerging as victor in the Cold War and with the evolution of communications technology and international commerce, theorists are tempted to call this the dawn of a “new world order.” The reality is that the rules haven’t changed since the days of rival imperialist powers. Capitalists still thirst for profit and still face differing conditions for the exploitation of the world’s laborers. To say that the world’s exploiters are coming together as a “transnational capitalist class” and are building a “transnational state” to advance the ends of their mutual exploitation is to ignore one facet of capitalism’s character which is most vital: the capitalist is in it for himself, and to defend that self-interest the capitalist is still willing to go to war with other capitalists. When nations are forced to compete for resources, when empire is forced to challenge empire, international relations can and will be placed second to the needs of the national bourgeoisie.

This reality, this inevitability of inter-imperialist struggle, has ensured that attempts at building lasting unity among capitalists abroad are but a mere pipe-dream in the long run. The facade of unity presented after the cessation of another inter-imperialist conflict will ultimately break in favor of the next one. As the leading imperialist power falls into decline in a matter quite reminiscent to the events leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union (economic crisis, ten-year-long occupations of Afghanistan, et al.) other powers will try to assert their dominance. The hope of some sort of unity among the “transnational capitalist class” in the wake of such a shift in powers is meager.

Given the essential problems in William I. Robinson’s conceptions of an emerging “transnational capitalist class” and “transnational state,” we argue that the Leninist model is still the best model for understanding the machinations of the capitalist system internationally — even in this moment where the words “globalization” and “transnational corporation” are on everyone’s lips. While Robinson deserves credit for attempting to assert a new theoretical model for understanding contemporary capitalism on the world stage, his theory is not a suitable replacement for the Leninist model.

Sources

Biao, Lin. Long Live the Victory of People’s War! Foreign Languages Press, 2003.

Kautsky, Karl. Ultra-Imperialism. 1914. Print.

Lenin, V.I. Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. 1916.

Robinson, William. A Theory of Global Capitalism: Production, Class, and State in a Transnational World. John Hopkins University Press, 2004.

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