If you have "no place to go," come here!

Global Studies Association Conference Notes - Part 3 - Transnationalism

FrenchDoc's picture

Cross-posted from The Global Sociology Blog

This third part of my report from the GSA conference (part 1 and part 2 ) was truly the best, from my point of view, because it featured a speech by one of my favorite sociologists (if not THE favorite), William Robinson, of UC Santa Barbara. He is the author of what I consider the authoritative social theory book on globalization: A Theory of Global Capitalism: Production, Class, and State in a Transnational World.

In his presentation, Robinson contrasted his approach to globalization as qualitatively different phenomenon (transnationalism) as opposed to the school of thought he labeled "new imperialism." Robinson's view of globalization involves specific features:

  • the rise of truly transnational capital with integration of all countries into that system;
  • the rise of the transnational state (TNS) where class power is exercised through networks and by the transnational capitalist class (TCC - especially its political / executive component);
  • the development of new relations of power and inequalities on a global scale
  • the increased power of the transnational corporation (TNC)

So, for the maths-oriented among us: Globalization = TNS + TNC + TCC = true transnationalism.

What we are seeing then, for Robinson, is a reconfiguration of the power of the nation-state as agent of the TNCs, TCC and TNS. The nation-state does not disappear but is displaced in influence. It is one level of power that transnational agents use for their own purposes, for instance, when countries that are members of the EU use their national institutions to implement transnational directives coming from above (the EU level) or when countries again use national institutions to enforce WTO rulings.

This system, though, is in crisis on several levels:

  • social polarization on a global scale
  • overaccumulation and unloading of surplus
  • legitimacy
  • social control
  • legitimacy
  • sustainability

And this global systemic crisis will produce outcomes that are yet unclear. Any crisis or time of transition will produce dangers and opportunities. But what is clear is that the globalist ruling bloc is seeing the unraveling of its project on two levels:

  1. The Washington Consensus is being questioned.
  2. Increased radicalism as 21st century fascism as well as increased militarism (Bush) along with heightened social coercion and control (though both increased surveillance and direct violence) that also accompanies the unloading of surplus.

This crisis in its aspects outlined above is what has given birth to the school of thinking Robinson calls the New Imperialism. This thinking is particularly visible in the writings of Michael T. Klare , author of many interesting books, the latest being Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of Energy, Ellen Meiksins Wood, author of Empires of Capital, or even Mary Kaldor, author of the recent Human Security among many (really good) books as well as the master of them all (and I mean it, I am not being ironic here), David Harvey, after all, he's the one who wrote the book on New Imperialism.

According to Robinson, New Imperialism became especially strident after 9/11 in its view that the US, through the neo-cons, were making a new bid for US hegemony through militarism. This school of thought, mistakenly, according to Robinson, understands global capitalism strictly in terms of national competition: the US versus China (or India or Brazil or whichever country is perceived as the US's main competitor).

This understanding of imperialism as a series of conflicts (like WWI) among capitalist powers accompanied by the exploitation of the periphery due to outward pressure to expand is an outdated framework. Such a view of state or national capitalism was characteristic of the late 19th century, early 20th century. It does not reflect current conditions but the New Imperialist school is frozen in that analytical mode.

For Robinson, this school of thought additionally fails on the two levels that matter in the social sciences:

  1. logical inconsistencies
  2. empirical verification

On the first level, the failure comes from a weak conceptualization of the state. And on the second level, the New Imperialist literature actually is very poor on empirical evidence and heavy on assumptions. They just assume a conception of the state borrowed from Weber and a conception of capital borrowed from Marx and mix the two without empirical verification.

What the New Imperialism school misses is that governments now fight for the interest of global capital rather than national capital. Even the US policy, for instance, the invasion of Iraq, is directed at opening more regions to global capital and not strictly American capital. Now, someone protested saying that French oil companies were shut out of the big grab for Iraqi oil to make France pay for its refusal to go along.

Well, let's take a look at this item from the International Herald Tribune published just a few days ago and that describes how several Big Oil TNCs are coming back to Iraq, including the French Total. Moreover, one has to ask whether it really means anything to talk about nationalities when it comes to TNCs that are, by definition, transnational and whose capital and ownership is no longer nation-based. From the IHT article:

"Four Western oil companies are in the final stages of negotiations this month on contracts that will return them to Iraq, 36 years after losing their oil concession to nationalization as Saddam Hussein rose to power.

Exxon Mobil, Shell, Total and BP ? the original partners in the Iraq Petroleum Company ? along with Chevron and a number of smaller oil companies, are in talks with Iraq's Oil Ministry for no-bid contracts to service Iraq's largest fields, according to ministry officials, oil company officials and an American diplomat.

The deals, expected to be announced on June 30, will lay the foundation for the first commercial work for the major companies in Iraq since the American invasion, and open a new and potentially lucrative country for their operations.

The no-bid contracts are unusual for the industry, and the offers prevailed over others by more than 40 companies, including companies in Russia, China and India. The contracts, which would run for one to two years and are relatively small by industry standards, would nonetheless give the companies an advantage in bidding on future contracts in a country that many experts consider to be the best hope for a large-scale increase in oil production.

There was suspicion among many in the Arab world and among parts of the American public that the United States had gone to war in Iraq precisely to secure the oil wealth these contracts seek to extract. The Bush administration has said that the war was necessary to combat terrorism. It is not clear what role the United States played in awarding the contracts; there are still American advisers to Iraq's Oil Ministry."

Similarly, in the New Imperialist view, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are simply tools of the United States. This is not an accurate view. These institutions (as part of the TNS) do force open countries to capital and investments from all over the world. The flexibilization of labor that we have witnessed globally also benefits capitalists globally. And to add another example, when Argentina faced its major default crisis in 2001, pressure was exercised from Washington for Argentina to honor its defaulted bonds not just to US investors but to investors worldwide.

Transnational groups make instrumental use of the US government to further their interests. And therefore, the US government further global accumulation through the mobilization of global resources. But it also does so through its own resources: its extensive military-industrial complex.

The mechanisms of transnationalization are also visible with TNCs like Bechtel, originally from Germany, but with headquarters and operations in Kuwait, using labor from the Philippines (the remittances will contribute to fuel global consumption). It also operates in Iraq, also with labor from the Philippines, using mercenaries... pardon me, private military contractors from South Africa for security.

Of course, this does not mean that the nation-state and interstate dynamics are completely irrelevant. Polarization and conflicts are obviously present at all levels. But again, these dynamics operate in the context of furthering (or resisting) the big global push of global capital. And we do find dominant and subordinate classes at all levels as well. But again, what is articulated at all levels are the dynamics of global capitalism.

Overall, for those of us not part of the TCC, this leaves us facing states whose functions are to further global capitalism from above, and make sure that there are no grumblings from below (surveillance and repression) through the control of resistance movements of various sorts. Either way, Robinson does not hesitate to use the expression "fascist capitalism" to describe the world that is being made.

I cannot pretend to have done justice to the density of Robinson's analysis. The full article on which he based his presentation is titled "Beyond the Theory of Imperialism: Global Capitalism and the Transnational State", published in Societies Without Borders , volume 2, 2007 (available in PDF if you have access to academic databases, if not, email me for a copy). It will be well worth your time, trust me.

No votes yet


Submitted by hipparchia on

this one?

i can't say whether you've done justice or not to robinson's analysis, but you've made it far more readable [for me] than it would have been if i'd read that paper on my own. thanks.

i'd be hard-pressed to put my finger on the moment when i think the balance of power shifted from the state to the multinationals, but it seems to me that carter's windfall profits tax was the last time the u.s. successfully wielded state power in opposition to multinational corporations.

FrenchDoc's picture
Submitted by FrenchDoc on

Robinson is a very "dense" writer in the sense that he's very concise. When I read him, I have to go slow, with a pencil and mark stuff all the way through. So, yeah, he's demanding but it's always worth it.

And you're right regarding Carter. And, of course, we all know what happened when Reagan took over both economically and militarily (same with Thatcher in the UK).