Towards a Theory of Modern Disaster Capitalism: Part I

Phil Hearse gives a critical introduction to the work of William I Robinson.

18 August 2020

General Introduction

Neil Faulkner and Phil Hearse have been in dialogue with William I Robinson for several months. Neil and Phil, in collaboration with others, have been working on a new theory of modern fascism in the context of Trump and Brexit; this is presented in Creeping Fascism: what it is and how to fight it (2019). Their work has subsequently been extended into a broader exploration of the world crisis of neoliberal capitalism, which opened in 2008; this will be the subject of System Crash: an activist guide to the coming democratic revolution (forthcoming).

The collaboration between Neil and Phil (and others) is significant in itself, in that it represents a coming together of two distinct Marxist tendencies, that of, respectively, the International Socialists and the Fourth International. While disagreements remain, they have become secondary matters, because they primarily concern what are now historical issues, not matters of contemporary political theory and practice. Much the same is perhaps true of the developing relationship with William I Robinson.

When the work of William I Robinson, Professor of Sociology at the University of California in Santa Barbara, first came to their attention, Neil and Phil realised that they were all working on closely similar lines. William has published a succession of major studies, most importantly A Theory of Global Capitalism (2004), Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Humanity (2014), Into the Tempest (2019), and now The Global Police State (2020). Neil and Phil regard these as foundation-blocks for an understanding of the modern world.

We have decided to publish a series of three articles which reflect the exchanges of ideas that have taken place, highlighting in particular areas of continuing disagreement and debate. It must be stressed that this is a fraternal discussion between Marxists who are in broad general agreement. We are trying to understand a world that is radically different from that in which many of us acquired our primary political education, and one that is continuing to change at unprecedented speed and with dire implications for humanity and the planet. All three of us are committed to developing a perspective which makes sense of our increasingly dystopian world, mainly because we see this as a way of contributing to the struggle of the working class and the oppressed for a global revolutionary transformation. We invite others to join the discussion. We must understand the present if we are to remake the future.

In the first article in the series, Phil offers a critical appraisal of William’s work for a British Marxist audience (it was originally addressed to his own comrades in Socialist Resistance, but we are now sharing it with a wider audience). In the second, William will reply to Phil’s critique. In the third, Neil will review William’s latest book and offer further critical comment. William will, of course, be most welcome to reply to that in due course.

Presenting William I Robinson

Phil Hearse

The escalation of worldwide inequalities reflects a crisis of global capitalism that is as much structural, one of over-accumulation, as it is political, one of hegemony. Capitalist globalization has undermined earlier redistributive arrangements at the level of the nation-state, unleashing unprecedented global social polarization and also aggravating over-accumulation pressures. The transnational capitalist class has turned to several mechanisms to sustain accumulation in the face of stagnation: financial speculation, the pillaging of public finance, and militarized accumulation. Digitalization is driving new world capitalist restructuring that is resulting in increased precariatization and the expansion of surplus labor or surplus humanity. This precariatization includes cognitive workers who are atomized and isolated as the labor process has become individualized, which poses new challenges for working-classconsciousness and solidarity among multilayered members of the global working class. The crisis poses a danger of twenty first century fascism and a global police state but also new possibilities for emancipatory projects. An emancipatory project must bring together surplus humanity and its struggles in the margins and at points of social reproduction with workers inserted into the circuits of global capital under precarious work arrangements.

William I Robinson and Yousef E Bakes, Savage Inequalities: Capitalist Crisis and Surplus Humanity

As comrades who have followed the Mutiny website will have seen, we have developed important and fruitful dialogue with the US Marxist theorist William I Robinson (hereafter WIR), who teaches at the University of California in Santa Barbara. He did an excellent webinar for us on the virus and the crisis, still available on the Mutiny YouTube channel, and some of his articles have been posted on the Mutiny website. If, as now seems quite possible, Mutiny and Socialist Resistance both become part of a broader Anti*Capitalist Resistance, hopefully the new organisation would continue this dialogue – without, of course, committing anyone to acceptance of WIR’s theoretical framework.

What I want to explain here is my take on WIR’s contemporary work, and why it is important. There is no Mutiny ‘line’ on Robinson, but I believe he has brought forward an extremely powerful set of insights into the functioning of current neoliberal economics and politics – insights which Marxists need to engage with and integrate into their thinking. But I also have reservations, which I allude to below, particularly over the idea that we are in a ‘post-imperialist’ phase.

Probably for a significant number of SR comrades (but by no means all), the theoretical tradition in which they were trained, and to which they consider themselves to belong, is that of Ernest Mandel. This is not to say that political economists from other traditions, like Geoff Pilling and Bob Sutcliffe, did not make a contribution. They did, but not with the same scope as Mandel. Some of us, only half-jokingly, used to refer to ourselves as ‘Mandelistas’. I consider myself part of that political tradition, but it seems to me obvious that Mandel’s theoretical heritage is not sufficient to grasp the dynamics of world capitalism today (see Manuel Kellner’s article here).

Mandel was at the height of his powers in roughly the period 1965-85. In 1967 he published The Formation of the Economic Thought of Karl Marx (one of his best books), followed by Europe versus America? in 1969. In the 1970s he published a series of books – Late Capitalism, The Second Slump, Long Waves of Capitalist Accumulation, From Stalinism to Eurocommunism, the series of NLR interviews collected in Revolutionary Marxism Today, and a mountain of long articles, pamphlets and reviews, plus a couple of lesser books.

At the time I was absolutely convinced that we Mandelistas were at the cutting edge of analysis of contemporary capitalism, and also of the Stalinist East. Mandel also led the discussion on socialist democracy. All in all, an extraordinary output from a single individual who at the same time was completely engaged in revolutionary politics.[1]

Now there is a series of developments of huge scope that Mandel could not possibly have theorised in advance. In the first place, his long pamphlet, Introduction to Marxist Economic Theory (1967), which sold hundreds of thousands of copies in dozens of languages, was published 20 years before the advent of neoliberalism, and is primarily aimed at refuting Keynesian ideas. The same is true of Late Capitalism, although of course it is underpinned by an extensive explanation of his theory of long waves, adapted from Kondratiev – a theory which seemed to fit perfectly with the 1974-5 onset of the crisis of the post-war Keynesian-Fordist regime of accumulation.

Beyond Mandel

Globalisation has developed massively since Ernest’s death, with its subsequent vast recomposition of production, consumption, and the international working class. The rise of China to a world economic superpower post-dates him. He died six years before the 9/11 catastrophe and the unleashing of the worldwide ‘war on terror’ and the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Although very aware of the environmental crisis, he did not live to see the current ecological collapse. He died before the Internet became central to capitalism, and did not see the current digitalised phase of international capitalism. And like most of his (male) generation, he did not fully appreciate the strategic significance of women’s liberation in the anti-capitalist struggle and the socialist future.

Mandel was very aware of the financialisation of world capitalism, and did in fact foresee the likelihood of crises of the 2007-8 type. He well understood the dangers from the Far Right that would ensure from widespread working-class defeats, and the extent to which such forces have developed would have bitterly disappointed him, as would have the outcome in Russia and Eastern Europe. Towards the end of his life, he got perestroika badly wrong (as did many of us) and refused point blank to countenance the possibility of a capitalist restoration.

New problems, new realities, inevitably throw up new theoretical concepts, which cause us to add to, or modify, our existing theoretical corpus. Ernest would have wholeheartedly agreed with that.

So Mandel’s thinking on the environment has been greatly enhanced by the work of Michel Löwy, Alan Thornett, and John Bellamy Foster. Foster has contributed over a range of topics. People from different traditions have added to revolutionary Marxism since Mandel’s death. Inevitably so.

William I Robinson’s new book, The Global Police State, is about to be published. In the light of the attacks on Portland demonstrators by centrally directed ‘federal agents’ (really operatives of the Border Patrol), the attempted cultural genocide against the Uyghur population in China’s Xinjiang province, the attempt to crush the Hong Kong democracy movement, and the global turn to repression by far-right governments worldwide, the ideas presented in The Global Police State are highly relevant. But they are part of a chain of reasoning about global capitalism that WIR has developed.

A new kind of globalised capitalism

Fundamental to WIR’s argument is that the economic crisis, massively amplified by the Covid-19 pandemic, is in fact a crisis of capitalist over-accumulation, and that quantitative easing simply created a mountain of debt that would inevitably collapse. Over-accumulation and under-consumption are built into the DNA of the neoliberal phase of capitalism. In the present phase, the crisis of the environment, the virus, and the economy have become fused into a single crisis that gives many openings to the Far Right – but also opportunities for the ‘liberatory projects’ of the Left and popular movements.

In 2017, way before the pandemic, WIR wrote:

There is good reason to believe that recovery will be ephemeral and that another crisis looms on the horizon. The underlying structural conditions that triggered the Great Depression of 2008 remain in place and a new round of restructuring in the global economy now underway is likely to further aggravate them. These conditions include unprecedented levels of inequality, public and private debt, and financial speculation. A new crisis could be triggered by a bursting of the current stock-market bubble, especially in the high-tech sector, by defaults in household or public debt, or by the outbreak of a new international military conflict… [Read the whole article here.]

WIR argues that we are now entering a new era, that of ‘digitalised capitalism’, the result of a ‘fourth industrial revolution’. More and more, communication, production, and consumption are based on digital technology. He says:

The tech sector is now at the cutting edge of capitalist globalization and is driving the digitalization of the entire global economy. Karl Marx famously declared in The Communist Manifesto that ‘all that is solid melts into air’ under the dizzying pace of change wrought by capitalism. Now the world economy stands at the brink of another period of massive restructuring. At the heart of this restructuring is the digital economy based on more advanced information technology, on the collection, processing, and analysis of data, and on the application of digitalization to every aspect of global society, including war and repression… While the tech sector that drives forward this new revolution constitutes only a small portion of the gross world product, digitalization encompasses the entire global economy, from manufacturing and finance to services, and in both the formal and informal sectors. It is central to all of the processes associated with the global economy, from controlling and outsourcing workers, the flexibility of production processes, global financial flows, the coordination of global chains of supply, subcontracting and outsourcing, record keeping, marketing and sales.

A consequence of digital capitalism will be the annihilation of millions of more-or-less stable jobs internationally, to be replaced by many fewer, mainly low-skilled, impermanent jobs. Think Amazon. Digitalised capitalism will accelerate the process of the creation of a lumpen precariat, a vast reservoir of surplus humanity. Immigration control and policing is a form of labour discipline, a way of integrating and then expelling labour as required, as well as promoting division and racism in the working class and beyond. The fact that capitalism is less and less able to provide for the needs of billions of people requires ever-more repressive forms of social control in the form of a Global Police State.

Robinson says:

I warn in my new book, The Global Police State, about the dangers of a global police state and 21st century fascism in response to the crisis of capitalism and rebellion from below. Global capitalism is arguably now in the worst crisis in its history. Fascist forces that unite predatory transnational capital with reactionary and repressive power in the state (including the state’s armed bodies) and a fascist mobilization in civil society are on the rise worldwide. Trump, himself a transnational capitalist, a racist, and a fascist, is taking advantage of the protests over the murder of George Floyd to bring this project to a new level, inciting from the White House itself the fascist mobilization in US civil society and threatening a qualitative escalation of the police state. The new US brownshirts – a reference to the Nazi Party’s original paramilitary wing during the years leading up to the fascist takeover – are organized in the white nationalist militia, the Nazi and Klan groups, anti-immigrant organizations, the Boogaloos (who openly declare that their goal is to spark a civil war), the Patriot and anti-lockdown movements, among an expanding litany of far-right and Alt-Right groups. They are heavily armed and mobilizing for confrontation in near-perfect consort with the extreme right-wing of the Republican Party, which long since has captured that party and turned it into one of utter reaction. As capitalist hegemony breaks down, the ruling groups in the United States and around the world are intensifying their class warfare from above by extending the global police state to contain mass discontent from below. The more we understand how this global police state is rooted in the multifaceted crisis of global capitalism the more effectively we can be.

The notion of a global police state refers to three interrelated developments. First, it refers to militarized accumulation, or accumulation by repression, as a means of accumulating capital in the face of stagnation. Second, it refers to the systems of mass social control and repression to contain the oppressed. And third, it refers to the increasing move towards political systems that can be characterized as twenty-first century fascism and even as totalitarian. My new book synthesizes a decade of research on these three dimensions of the global police state.[2]

Digital capitalism is closely integrated with militarised accumulation. The huge apparatuses of armies, weapons production, prisons, border guards, military bases, intelligence apparatuses, and surveillance are an attempt to generate profits for major corporations, but one that comes down to looting the taxes of national states – i.e. the incomes of millions of people. The military is totally integrated with digitalisation. Hi-tech firms (like Facebook) are massive suppliers to the military or to giant military contractors like Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and BAE Systems. The key weapons today are hi-tech platforms, and the key military strategies, like Multi-Domain Dominance, are completely integrated computerised systems of immense complexity and reach.

WIR’s account of the new global crisis, digitalised capitalism, militarised accumulation, surplus humanity, modern fascism, and the global police state seem to me to be a tightly integrated attempt to explain key aspects of world reality – and the dangers and opportunities for popular forces. But those familiar with his work will notice that I have not discussed two key concepts that underpin his theoretical framework – the idea of a transnational capitalist class (TCC) and the notion that we are in a ‘post-imperialist’ phase of world capitalism. These ideas seem to me to be an exaggerated extrapolation of real tendencies inherent in globalisation.

A transnational capitalist class?

Is there really a transnational capitalist class? Are the major corporations really transnational in the sense that they are not mainly owned in the state where they are headquarted? I don’t think so.

Of course, the reality is complex, and most of the major corporations have significant investments from a range of international capitalist groups and institutions (though the real ownership is sometimes hard to discern). WIR points out that Trump may have taken protectionist measures to defend the American steel industry, but some of the key owners are Indian, not American. But is that really the case for Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Alphabet, and Amazon? Or the giant defence contractors? Or Walmart? Or Pepsico? Or McDonalds?

I think you can talk of a transnational capitalist class in the sense of interlocking companies and groups of capitalists operating on a world scale, often collaborating with others and forming international business alliances. But look at the relationship between Apple and Foxconn, the company that manufactures much of Apple’s hardware in China. Both share in the giant profits of Apple’s products. Except that the annual profit of Foxcon is 3% and that of Apple 27%. There’s no question who holds the whip hand.

Look at the Bangladesh garment industry, used by dozens of the world’s most profitable fashion houses. Both the big companies, like Spanish-owned mega-giant Zara, and Bangladeshi capitalists who own the sweatshops and employ the workers, benefit from the surplus value generated. But it is the giant corporations who benefit most, out-earning their Bangladeshi partners by huge amounts. The local factory owners are really exporting massive amounts of labour, and functioning not as equal co-partners, but as comprador capitalists, benefitting locally from imperial outreach.

You could say the same about Nike shoes produced in Indonesia and Vietnam. And what about the owners of the maquiladora factories on the US-Mexican border – are they part of the same transnational capitalist class as the owners of the giant corporations who outsource manufacturing and assembly to Mexican plants? Not really. Modern imperialism is a structure in dominance, economically and politically. At best you would have to say some sections of the transnational capitalist class are the dominant ones, others less powerful participants.

In any case, it seems to me that William’s strong point on imperialism is the rise of capitalism in India, China, Brazil, etc, and the export of capital across a range of countries in a very complex web. But on the political front, in the sphere of inter-state competition, on the diplomatic and military fronts, I think his argument is much weaker. If there is a transnational capitalist class in a post-imperialist world, you have to note one thing right away: the key sectors of the world bourgeoise have lost control of all the major states. In particular they have lost control of the United States, because the aggressive nationalism of the Trump presidency obviously points away from the collaboration and interests of a putative transnational capitalist class. International frameworks that could act as international ‘governmental’ institutions are either under the control of the US (the IMF and World Bank) or weakening (the UN and WHO) or both (the WTO).

Or look at it another way. Is the Chinese Belt and Road initiative about providing opportunities for the transnational capitalist class as a whole, or mainly about extending the economic and political power of Chinese capitalism? I think the answer is obvious.

Then again, what about the vast empire of United States’ military bases and armed outreach globally? Is this a service provided by the US to the transnational capitalist class, or is it there to defend – in addition to the interest of capitalism generally – the specific interest of the United States in particular? I don’t think you can explain the last 25 years, from the Project for a New American Century through Iraq, Afghanistan, and the military ‘pivot’ towards East Asia, without the concept of imperialism.

I am not going to argue the point about the TCC and imperialism in detail here. You can find WIR’s argument, by the way, presented at length in Into the Tempest,[3] where he takes on post 9/11 theories of the ‘new imperialism’. Others have fired back at him, notably John Bellamy Foster.[4] Also see the review by Bryan William Sculos, which substantially defends the WIR thesis.[5] (And note that David Harvey, whose theory of the ‘new imperialism’ is criticised by WIR, has now completely changed his position and defends ideas substantially similar to WIR. For which he has been attacked in unnecessarily vituperative fashion by a number of authors, particularly John Smith.)

As we’ve seen many times, different theorists sometimes develop parallel frameworks that at first blush are sharply counterposed, but often turn out to be different codifications of the same phenomena, with no significant political differences ensuing. We suspect that this may be the case here. Crucially, WIR’s ideas offer a powerful theoretical explanation of neoliberal crisis, creeping fascism, and the deteriorating condition of billions of ‘precarious’ and ‘surplus’ people across the globe. He is, moreover, politically engaged in a way that closely parallels the outlook of Mutiny and Socialist Resistance. We have everything to gain from engaging with him and debating his ideas. I would strongly urge comrades to read his articles on the Mutiny website, his articles elsewhere, and his books, starting with The Global Police State, scheduled for publication in a few days’ time.

Phil Hearse co-authored Creeping Fascism and contributed to The Far Right in Europe.

[1] Key sources on Mandel and his times are: the biography by Jan Willem Stutje, Ernest Mandel: A Rebel’s Dream Deferred, London, Verso, 2009; and the autobiographies of Daniel Bensaid, An Impatient Life, Verso, and Livio Maitan, Memoirs of a Critical Communist, Merlin/Resistance Books. [2] [3] Haymarket, 2019. In the chapter on post-imperialism, David Harvey’s book The New Imperialism is much criticised, but subsequently Harvey has changed his position and now substantially defends the same theory as WIR. [4] [5]

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