by Richard Gaunt, David Johnson, and Tim Shenk
Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR)
The term “globalization” is on everybody’s lips today, from academics to policy makers to international business leaders. Yet the term’s precise meanings and consequences are often elusive. At CUSLAR, in our study of Latin America, we increasingly find it necessary to study globalization, a phase of capitalism that is rapidly knocking down the borders and barriers that formerly shaped our world and therefore altering the struggles we face.
In this article, we turn to the work of William I. Robinson, whose path-breaking work on critical theories of globalization is essential for social scientists and social movements alike. Robinson’s work charts globalization’s place in the historical development of our economic and political system. He demonstrates how we can apply the study of globalization as a lens through which to view contemporary issues in specific regions. A critical globalization perspective not only challenges the way we situate Latin American Studies, but also reveals the rising potential for global change and global action.
International politics is less about relations between individual nation-states and their respective economies and increasingly more concerned with the global economy and international institutions.
Distant civilizations have connected through trade for millennia, and economic life has always had a global dimension, even before the advent of capitalism. However, the contemporary issues surrounding globalization are not just about connections between peoples and nations, but also the specific forms and class relations that these connections entail. The central concept in Robinson’s work defining this historical difference is the concept of transnationalization.
Transnationalism challenges the more common national-level frame of analysis that present-day changes in a given country are the results of choices, benevolent and otherwise, made by individuals and national institutions. Instead, to understand contemporary political economy in any region today, we must look to systemic global processes.
For example, rather than singling out individuals like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, acting to promote vaguely defined “national interests” in order to explain rise of neoliberal policy in the 1980s, Robinson seeks a systemic explanation: In order to resolve the contradictions of a slumping economic system in the 1970s, capitalists who were tied to world markets and their political and military allies found it necessary to break down state-centered barriers to accumulation such as trade protections, tariffs and labor and environmental laws.
The dazzling leaps computer technology has allowed in communications, transportation and industrial production have led to the decimation of trade unions and a hollowing out of the middle-income strata of the working class in strategic regions such as the U.S. Midwest. This relatively abrupt decline in standard of living has been a source of deep pain and resentment.
With this understanding international politics is less about relations between individual nation-states and their respective economies and increasingly more concerned with the global economy and international institutions. Consequently, although the basic dynamics of capital remain fundamentally the same, the forms and institutions that express them are undergoing profound changes as they open up to the flow of global capital. National boundaries are less and less substantive; global capitalism is reorganizing the world’s national economies into a singular “global production and financial system” (2006: 7).
The neoliberalism that has dominated policy making in governments around the world, and led to the proliferation of trade agreements, have insured that capital is no longer bounded by the nation-state, but rather states serve capital. This signals the formation of what Robinson refers to as a burgeoning “transnational state,” which serves the interests of global business class.
It’s incumbent upon us to study the strategy of global capital and its proponents, understanding that many strategies today appear pragmatic, multicultural and even progressive.
This “transnational capitalist class,” as Robinson calls it, consists of the relative handful of people working at the top levels of transnational corporations and international trade organizations, who coordinate the flow of transnational capital and whose financial interests are not tied to any one nation but rather are determined and unified by the flow of global capital in a global marketplace.
As a group whose interest is “grounded in global markets and circuits of accumulation,” they exert their influence on institutions like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization, as well as on national governments to promote the flow of capital. They benefit from neoliberal policies, such as free trade agreements, privatization of state-owned enterprise, weakening social spending and the opening up of national governments to global investments. These representatives of capital are obligated by the laws of capital to show little concern for “externalities,” that is, the real-world effects this has on communities and working people (2008: 29).
If we can speak of a transnational capitalist class, we can also speak of a transnational working class. Capital’s insatiable drive to find new areas in which to profit displaces the peasantry, on one hand, in favor of agribusiness and resource extraction. On the other hand, those displaced people must go somewhere, and they become wage laborers in disadvantageous conditions in their new setting. In addition to massive rural-to-urban migration, more and more people are finding it necessary to leave their country of origin to find adequate work. According to the United Nations Population Fund, 243 million people lived outside their country of origin in 2015, a staggering jump from 93 million in 1980. Thus, as capital globalizes, so does the labor force.
Yet globalization affects not only arriving immigrants, but receiving populations as well. The dazzling leaps computer technology has allowed in communications, transportation and industrial production have led to the decimation of trade unions and a hollowing out of the middle-income strata of the working class in strategic regions such as the U.S. Midwest. This relatively abrupt decline in standard of living has been a source of deep pain and resentment. Political tendencies represented by the likes of Donald Trump in the United States, Marine Le Pen in France and others have been successful in channeling that pain into anti-immigrant sentiment. Therefore, right-wing nationalism among certain layers of the working class must be viewed as arising from the material conditions of transnationalizing economic relations, and not simply from the persistence of racism and xenophobia.
Placing the emergence of transnational capital at the forefront, Robinson argues that a new global elite is increasingly the hegemonic power, with disastrous results for workers around the world. The policies implemented throughout Latin America, while spurring new eras of productivity for the global capitalist class, have been horrifically destructive for the majority of workers and peasants. Global capitalists have brought huge quantities of land formerly worked by peasants under the control of transnational agribusiness, made deregulated maquiladoras the productive norm, and squashed what little stability and rights workers have had in the past. The only “thing” served by these changes is the flow of global capital, and the primary beneficiaries are the thin top layer of transnational capitalists and their allies.
While the global capitalist class acts out of unified self-interest, spurring transnational policies into ever greater efficiency, the global class of the poor and dispossessed struggles to attain solidarity. The division of the increasingly transnational working class along national lines at this point prevents it from recognizing and acting upon its unity of interest. Only a transnational working class consciousness can birth the agency capable of building counter-hegemonic potential in a transnational world. Such a movement would discover and invent new forms of “transnational” organizing which build on and expand the traditional forms of party and trade-union politics to suit the conditions of today.
In the analysis and actions of our organizations, it is important to make clear our commitment to building class consciousness while participating in the particular and emerging struggles of the global poor and dispossessed. In these initial stages, this could mean the combination of strategic actions and deep study of our current global reality:
- Prioritize building relationships with those whose experiences of the effects of the oppression of transnational capital differ from our own. This should not be seen primarily as an excuse to “teach” or recruit others to our viewpoint, but rather to enrich our understanding of reality. If unity is to occur, it will be built upon genuine, not transactional, relationships of trust and mutual support.
- Through these relationships, identify and unmask the strategies of division employed and encouraged by representatives of capital and their allies. Resist division and isolation, and refuse to abandon sections of the poor and dispossessed, even after disagreements, including those sections that have been conned into forgetting their connection with their class.
- Study the strategy of global capital and its proponents, understanding that many strategies today appear pragmatic, multicultural and even progressive. In the face of global crisis, global capital seems to prefer what Antonio Gramsci called “passive revolution,” or a set minor reforms, in order to ensure the general stability of the exploitative system as a whole.
Ultimately, Robinson ascribes the power for change to dispossessed people around the world, writing: “The upper and middle classes of global society dream of a world in which they will journey joyfully toward global citizenship and First World abundance while preserving the allegiance of the poor and excluded majority whose consent — or at least passivity — is required for the legitimacy and stability of such a world. Should that consent or passivity not be forthcoming then there can be nothing legitimate, nothing stable, nothing peaceful” (2008:354). It is time for a new movement of transnational working class resistance.
Robinson, William I. 2008. Latin America and Global Capitalism: A Critical Globalization Perspective. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP. Print.
—. 2007. “Beyond the Theory of Imperialism: Transnational State and Global Capitalism,” Societies Without Borders 2 (1): 5-26. Available at: http://scholarlycommons.law.case.edu/swb/vol2/iss1/2.