Towards a Theory of Modern Disaster Capitalism: Part III

Neil Faulkner offers a critical review of William I Robinson’s new book The Global Police State. This continues from Phil Hearse’s ‘Presenting William I Robinson’ and William I Robinson's reply.

24 August 2020

If you are rich enough, you can pre-buy a ticket on a New York rescue boat scheduled to whisk its clients down the Hudson to safety in the event of revolution. It turns out that at least some of the global elite are that worried. The billionaire owner of the Cartier jewellery company is one of them. He told an audience at the ‘Business of Luxury Summit’ in Monaco in 2015 that fear of an uprising of the poor ‘keeps me awake at night’.

The rich have cause for concern. Global inequality is at an unprecedented level. In 2018, just 17 financial conglomerates collectively managed $41 trillion of wealth, more than half the GDP of the entire planet. That same year, the richest 1% of humanity, headed by 2,400 billionaires and 36 million millionaires, controlled more than half of the world’s wealth, while the bottom 80% made do with just 4.5%.

This is our world – the most unequal in history, where the contrast between the grotesque greed of the rich and the suffering of the poor is more extreme than under Egyptian pharaohs, Roman emperors, Renaissance princes, or even the Carnegies, Rockefellers, and Vanderbilts of the late 19th century Gilded Age.

And it’s getting worse. In the decade following the 2008 banking crash, the number of billionaires in the world doubled. This was the decade of bailouts for the rich and austerity for the rest. It worked: the rich got much richer, while the poor just kept on getting poorer.

This is the world described in William I Robinson’s latest book The Global Police State. In my view, it is his best so far, capping two decades of work trying to understand the world capitalist system today, and offering a cutting-edge analysis of exceptional insight and explanatory power. Every socialist should read this book.

The title may not do full justice to the content, for Robinson provides a polished summary of ideas developed in earlier books about the workings of the system as a whole; this then provides the context for a detailed analysis of ‘the global police state’.

I cannot begin to do justice to the theoretical richness of this text in a review article. Every page is dense with fact and insight. The best I can do is to summarise some of the key components of the analysis:

  • The world capitalist system is afflicted with an intractable crisis of over-accumulation, chronic tendencies to stagnation, and increasingly pathological ways of unloading surplus capital.

  • A transnational capitalist class, with associated transnational state apparatuses, has now become the hegemonic fraction of capital on a global scale, dominant over regional, national, and local fractions.

  • A globalised process of ‘primitive accumulation’ has reached its culmination, with virtually the whole of humanity displaced from control over its own means of production and subsumed within global circuits of capital accumulation.

  • Capital has now colonised the planet as a whole, is pushing beyond the limits of sustainability, and thus threatens the whole of humanity with ecological breakdown and an existential crisis.

  • The global working class – now the overwhelming majority of humanity – is divided into a core group in relatively secure jobs, a precarious group in marginal employment, and a surplus group that is effectively excluded, with the former shrinking and the latter two growing rapidly, especially in the context of ‘digitalisation’ and the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’.

  • Because the global squeeze on working-class incomes means that the working class cannot consume its own product (‘under-consumption’), surplus capital (‘over-accumulation’) is offloaded in increasingly parasitic ways – through financial speculation, pillaging of state assets, and debt-driven consumerism.

This brings us to the heart of the book: the global police state. For here we encounter another in the list of parasitic forms of accumulation under early 21st century neoliberal capitalism. But the concept concerns three interrelated developments.

Militarised accumulation

First, increasing inequality and social crisis, in particular the growing mass of precarious and surplus humanity being plunged into poverty, requires ever more comprehensive and violent repression to contain discontent. Extreme inequality requires extreme violence. ‘The methods of control,’ says Robinson,

include sealing out the surplus population through border and other containment walls, deportation regimes, mass incarceration and spatial apartheid, alongside omnipresent new systems of state and private surveillance and criminalisation of the poor and the working classes. They also include the deadly new modalities of policing and repression made possible by the application of digitalisation and Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies. The global police state brings all of global society into what in Pentagon jargon is called ‘battlespace’, concentrated in the world’s megacities that are now home to more than half of humanity.

Second, this massive hike in militarised forms of repression and social control turns out to be a highly profitable outlet for the investment of surplus capital.

… the global economy is based more and more on the development and deployment of these systems of warfare, social control, and repression as a means of making profit and continuing to accumulate capital in the face of stagnation – what I term ‘militarised accumulation’, or ‘accumulation by repression’… the ruling groups have acquired a vested interest in war, conflict, and repression as a means of accumulation. As war and state-sponsored violence become increasingly privatised, the interests of a broad array of capitalist groups shift the political, social, and ideological climate towards generating and sustaining social conflict – such as in the Middle East – and in expanding systems of warfare, repression, surveillance, and social control. We are now living in a veritable war economy.

Third, the global police state is a material expression of neoliberalism’s ideological turn from social liberalism and manipulated consent to neo-fascism and coercion. Not only has the post-war ‘social contract’ – based on economic growth, strong unions, rising living standards, an expanding welfare state, etc – broken down, but so too as the liberal ‘middle-way’ ideology promoted by politicians like Blair and Clinton in the 1990s. The militarisation of the state apparatus, the intensified levels of exclusion, marginalisation, and repression, find their ideological correlate in the rise of fascism and the system’s attempt to build a new social base by deploying hyper-charged versions of what Marx called ‘the shit of ages’.

[There is] the increasing move towards political systems that can be characterised as 21st century fascism, or even in a broader sense, as totalitarian. The increasing influence around the world of neo-fascist, authoritarian, and right-wing populist parties and movements, symbolised above all by Trumpism in the United States, has sparked a flurry of debate on whether fascism is on the rise again. There has been a sharp polarisation around the world between insurgent left and popular forces, on the one hand, and insurgent far right, on the other, at whose fringes are openly fascist tendencies.

This insight represents an advance on our own theory of creeping fascism. Escalating state violence against the precarious and the surplus, the criminalisation and repression of those marginalised and excluded in the circuits of global capital accumulation, is legitimised by neo-fascist and quasi-fascist ideologies. The nationalism, racism, misogyny, and authoritarianism of modern far-right movements are best understood in the conceptual framework of the global police state.

Fascism, in short, is inherent in the current phase of world capitalism – that of a globalised financial-military-industrial-police complex, dominated by a transnational capitalist class, that is siphoning wealth to the top and laying waste the economic and social infrastructures on which the vast majority of humanity depend.

I am in full agreement with Robinson’s clear conclusion that the system cannot be reformed.

We must fight for any and every reform that helps people survive the depredations of global capitalism and pushes forward environmental policies and democratic liberties. But given the depth and nature of the crisis, I am not convinced that this time around anything short of the overthrow of capitalism can prevent our destruction.

This has implications for the current politics of much of the Left. Robinson is forthright in his critique of the ‘neoliberalisation’ or ‘postmodernisation’ of the Left, where there is rampant identitarian/intersectional fragmentation, a celebration of ‘difference’, a fetishisation of local spaces, token action, and localism, and a collapse into what has been called ‘infra-politics’ and ‘folk-politics’.

What is needed is the unity of the working class and the oppressed on a global scale.

To beat back the descent into a global police state and 21st century fascism, we need to bring together the multiplicity of fragmented struggles, which requires moving beyond identitarian and ‘folk’ politics. As vital rebellion now breaks out everywhere, it is urgent to revitalise a Marxist critique of global capitalism and its crisis as a guide to an emancipatory working-class politics that can win over the would-be social bases of 21st century fascism.

Is national state-capitalism still possible?

The measure of agreement between myself, Phil Hearse, and William I Robinson is exceptionally high. I would put it as strongly as this: I think William’s work represents a holistic framework for understanding the current phase in the development of world capitalism – the epoch of neoliberal disaster capitalism – as compelling as the classical theory of imperialism represented in the work of Lenin, Bukharin, and Hilferding before the First World War. The Global Police State is an essential Marxist text for our epoch.

But we have one substantive and potentially significant disagreement in relation to 21st century fascism. William writes as follows:

… the [neo