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Transnationalist Marxism - a critique

Transnationalist Marxism - a critique

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Published by Adrian Budd

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Published by: Adrian Budd on Jun 03, 2012
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11/12/2012

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Transnationalist Marxism: a critiqueIntroduction
While John Maclean could write of the ‘mutual neglect’ between international relationsand Marxism in 1988, since the end of the cold war increasing numbers of Marxists havecontributed to debates on the international system, focussing in particular on the impactof globalization on national politics and national economies.
1
One group of Marxist-inspired scholars, including Robert Cox and the neo-Gramscians and members of theAmsterdam School, has proposed a radicalized version of globalization theory that arguesthat an emergent transnationalization is transforming the global political economy.
2 
 Transnationalization, they argue, is not simply forging greater global interconnectionsbetween national economies and nationally-organized social forces, but is tendingtowards the transcendence of the nation-state as the organizer and container of capitalistpolitics and economics. For William Robinson, who
has become the key figure in thetransnationalist perspective and systematically elaborated transnationalizationtheory,
this represents an ‘epochal change’ in world capitalism.
3
 Transnationalist theorists reject the dominant mainstream tradition in internationalrelations, Realism, which they argue promotes a transhistorical essentialization andreification of state power. Against this, transnationalism emphasizes the ontologicalprimacy of social forces and, in particular, the developing power of a transnationalcapitalist class (TCC) committed to the neo-liberal restructuring of the global politicaleconomy. The transnationalization of production and the rise of the TCC, they argue, havedisplaced the nation-state from the central place it once occupied in the internationalsystem. For the neo-Gramscians the nation-state has been transnationalized, while forRobinson economic transformations underlie the emergence of a transnational state(TNS). According to transnationalist theorists, the consequence of these developments isthat the inter-state system has been transformed, rendering earlier understandings of global geo-politics and national projects of imperialist power projection increasinglyanachronistic. Transnationalist theory represents a sophisticated attempt to integrate noveldevelopments within a renewed historical materialist understanding of the global system.
1
 
But, I will argue, its appraisal of contemporary trends is one-sided and fails to capture thecontradictory nature of the uneven development of the capitalist world system. In thefirst part of this article I explore transnationalist arguments on the nature of the globaleconomy, and argue that while transnationalism is indeed an important trend the nationalorganization of economic structures and processes remains significant. In the second partI offer a critique of transnationalist arguments on contemporary trends in the power androle of the nation-state. Here I argue that, while Robinson is right to reject neo-Weberiantheory and to emphasize the structural interdependence of economics and politics, if wetake this seriously we must conclude that the transnationalist view that economics isunilaterally driving politics is mistaken. The nation-state is not simply an agent of transnationalization but remains a central actor in the competitive dynamics of the globaleconomy. In the final part of the article I consider transnationalist arguments onimperialism and the way that these competitive dynamics are expressed at the level of the inter-state system. Here I argue that while the world’s major national ruling classesshare a common interest in the stability of global capitalism, common interests aretempered by the persistence of rivalry between them, which continues to influence thedynamics of the contemporary global system.
Transnationalism and the global economy
4
 Global economic integration has been driven over the past century by successive wavesof trade (commodity capital), foreign direct investment (FDI) (industrial capital) and morerecently financial flows (financial capital). The consequence has been, for thetransnationalists, a transition from an international economy, characterized by what PeterDicken calls the ‘shallow integration’ of externally linked national circuits of accumulation,to a global economy shaped by integrated production and finance (Dicken’s ‘deepintegration’).
5
The statistical basis of this argument seems incontrovertible. According tothe UN’s
World Investment Report 2003
FDI inflows rose from $52 billion in 1982 to $651billion by 2002, and FDI increased annually by an average of 28 percent between 1986and 2000.
6
As a result of these enormous investment flows, Robinson argues, ‘nationalproduction systems have become fragmented and integrated externally into newglobalized circuits of accumulation’, organized via ‘an integrated global financial system’.
7 
Cox similarly highlights the emergence of ‘complex transnational networks of production’,which constitute ‘an economic space transcending all country borders’, as the state-
2
 
regulated exchange of the international-economy model is progressively subordinated tothe world-economy model.
8
Integrated global production has, since the 1970s, beenreinforced by the increased power of transnational finance capital, the two combining toexercize considerable leverage over state policy.Cox recognizes that the transcendence of the international-economy model is incomplete,but nevertheless argues that transnationalization has produced ‘a “new capitalism” whichopposes any form of state or interstate control or intervention’.
9
As national economicregulation and planning have declined, he argues that the contemporary global economyis best conceptualized as a
nebuleuse
’, which ‘expresses the consensus of forcespromoting global capitalism’ and neo-liberalism.
For Robinson, the new liberal worldorder dismantles national barriers to the free movement and operation of capital as itcreates an integrated world market along lines similar to the earlier establishment of national economies, including ‘a single set of laws, taxes, currency, and politicalconsolidation around a common state’.
 Criticism of this view does not entail denying either the reality of economictransnationalization as an important contemporary tendency or the expansionarydynamic of capital highlighted by Marx and Engels. As they argued in the
Communist Manifesto
, capitalism ‘batters down all Chinese Walls’ as it is driven to spread across theglobe by the imperative of competitive accumulation.
Nevertheless, a degree of cautionshould be exercized over what Michael Löwy refers to as ‘a certain economism and asurprising amount of Free Tradist optimism’ in Marx and Engels.
For, the economic logicof capital has never been separable from politics, and the global expansion of capitalismhas both dismantled and re-erected state-built walls around national economies. In thecontext of contemporary debates about transnationalism, over-emphasis on capital’sexpansionary dynamic risks presenting a theory of global integration driven primarily byan economic logic, abstracted from what Philip McMichael refers to as the ‘residuals’ of earlier phases in the development of capitalism as an historical living reality. Theseresiduals, he argues, ‘have a way of asserting themselves and conditioning the processunder examination’.
 We can think of the national economy as one such residual. The transnationalistscorrectly problematize the idea of a national economy, for there are, as Robinson argues,
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