Towards a Theory of Modern Disaster Capitalism: Part II

William I Robinson replies to Phil Hearse’s ‘Presenting William I Robinson’.

20 August 2020

I cannot say that I am familiar with Ernest Mandel’s complete oeuvre. But I did read Late Capitalism in the 1980s, when I lived and worked in Nicaragua. It had a huge influence on my thinking and understanding of world capitalism. I recall in those years how Henry Ruiz, who was better known by his nom de guerre ‘Modesto’, would recount that during his time as a guerrilla commander in the armed struggle to overthrow the Somoza dictatorship he always carried around Late Capitalism in his knapsack up in the mountains where his column operated. On breaks he would study the text while stretched out in his hammock.

Modesto earned the title of ‘Comandante de la Revolución’ and was a member of the National Directorate, the nine-member collective leadership of the party. He was always, in my view, the most theoretically sophisticated, the most honest, and the humblest of that group (which is why his nom de guerre was Modesto, or ‘modest’). I learned of Ernest Mandel and Late Capitalism through him.

Let me respond here, all-to-briefly, to the matters of imperialism and global capital in Phil Hearse’s presentation. He used the term ‘post-imperialism’, but I never used it and never would; it comes from Hardt and Negri (Empire), with whom I have significant differences.

My critique is specific. I have attempted to provide a coherent theoretical explanation and empirical support through the vantage-point of global capitalism theory for explaining the practices that we typically associated with imperialism – US military intervention, domination of international financial agencies, political dictation to weaker states, and policies to open up markets and investment opportunities.

Beyond classical imperialism

The classical theory of imperialism argued that capitalist classes were organised nationally and in conflict and rivalry with one another. If Lenin’s analysis was correct, then each imperialist state would pursue a political and military strategy around the world of opening up space for ‘their’ national capitalists and closing space for rival national capitalist groups.

This is historically verified. The classical theory of imperialism was in my view an accurate analysis of the reality of world capitalism in the late 19th and well into the 20th centuries. But if this still holds in the 21st century we would expect to see US policy around the world seeking to open up space for ‘US capital’ (whatever that means, and I will get to that below) and try to close it up for rival national capitals. But this is decidedly not the case – there is virtually no evidence to support it.

As I pointed out in the chapter ‘Beyond the Theory of Imperialism’ in Into the Tempest that Phil mentioned in his comments, to take but one example, the United States, just as soon as it established its control in Iraq following the 2003 invasion, invited capital from all over the world to invest in the country under the canopy of US military protection. The very first oil company to invest was the Chinese state company CNPC – the supposed rival. There are many other such examples that suffice to conclude that US political and military strategy is aimed less at advancing the interests of ‘US’ capital than at opening up the world to transnational capital.

This could certainly be called ‘imperialism’ (and I have no objection to the term), but it is something distinct from the classical theory. And Trump and his neoliberal predecessors, without exception, have opened up the United States for investment by capital from around the world.

I am sure Phil agrees that official state discourse is not to be taken at face value. The policy towards China, putting aside Trump’s own erraticism, has sought over the years to open up China to transnational capital – to break with state control over the financial system, to allow foreign investors more than a 49% interest, to remove trade restrictions, and so on. This is entirely consistent with my argument that the US state acts for the most part to advance the interests of transnational capital.

Phil points to US control over the IMF and the World Bank. In itself that means nothing. What concerns us is what the US state does with this control. And both institutions have served unambiguously since the 1980s to open up countries to transnational capital with no particular dispensation for capital coming from US territory. The chapter in Into the Tempest is an abbreviated version of the chapter by the same title in my 2014 book, Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Humanity, which I mention because the longer version elaborates theoretically and provides an extended empirical discussion.

Transnational capital

However we interpret Trump’s actions, and we clearly have some differences on the matter, it cannot simply be assumed that these actions are on behalf of capital. The US Chamber of Commerce, and even the Koch brothers, came out against his tariffs on steel and other items – even the major US-based steel producers opposed them!

Part of the problem here is the conflation of capital and the state. The capitalist state does form a unity with capital but we cannot collapse the two into one, just as the political and the economic are in unity but cannot be collapsed into one. Capital has the sole objective of maximising accumulation but capitalist states have a contradictory mandate: they must promote capital accumulation and also secure legitimacy and reproduction of the social order. The crisis aggravates this contradiction and drives the capitalist state to externalise its political fallout, whether this means scapegoating immigrants or geopolitical aggressions. We can account for escalating geopolitical conflict without negating the existence of a transnational capitalist class. The political does in this case overdetermine the economic.

In the end, the debate on imperialism comes down to the analysis of global capital. Phil’s observation that Apple takes the lion’s share of profit over Foxconn in the global value exchange is accurate. But it is beside the point insofar as it does not tell us anything about the structure of Apple ownership and what happens with the values appropriated by Apple.

Transnational capital is not the only capital (I have never argued this); it is the hegemonic fraction of capital on a global scale. There are still local, national, and regional capitals that are in competition with transnational capital. If intra-capitalist class relations are ownership relations then it is simply impossible, in my view, to disentangle the mass of transnational capital at the commanding heights of global capital into national boxes.

Phil pointed out that contractors in Bangladesh and elsewhere are more comprador capitalists in their relation to the giant transnationals. I do not disagree. But there are distinct capital groups around the world and they do not all enter into a comprador relationship with global capital. On the contrary, the evidence is simply overwhelming that there are significant and growing fractions of capital in the former Third World that have integrated into the ranks of the transnational capitalist class and are anything but comprador.

I believe I discussed in Into the Tempest the case of the Tata conglomerate, which in the early 2000s bought Range Rover, the Tesco chain, British Steel, Tetley Tea, and other historically ‘British’ transnational corporations. India-based global capitalists exploit thousands of workers in the UK. But this type of transnational capitalist class and capital-labor relations of ownership and exploitation are all around the world. By the logic of the classical theory of imperialism or the notion of national capitalist classes in rivalry, the Indian state would be propping up Tata in competition with British capitalists. Of course, this explains nothing other than to confirm that the classical theory of imperialism is outdated. The irony here should not be lost, as the vast tea plantations that British capitalists established in India were emblematic symbols of the British colonial project.

Similarly, in North America, the Mexico-based CARSO Group dominates the tri-state market for corn tortillas and related products. That domination was made possible by NAFTA. The theory of uneven and combined development is not in my view outdated, but does need to be modified so that uneven accumulation is not seen as coextensive with national borders.

I appreciate Phil’s comments, and look forward to discussing further with comrades from Mutiny and Socialist Resistance.

Comradely greetings,

William I Robinson

William I Robinson is Professor of Sociology at the University of California in Santa Barbara. His latest book, The Global Police State, is about to be published by Pluto/Left Book Club.

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