Transnationalist Marxism: a critique Introduction While John Maclean could write of the ‘mutual neglect’ between international relations

and Marxism in 1988, since the end of the cold war increasing numbers of Marxists have contributed to debates on the international system, focussing in particular on the impact of globalization on national politics and national economies.1 One group of Marxistinspired scholars, including Robert Cox and the neo-Gramscians and members of the Amsterdam School, has proposed a radicalized version of globalization theory that argues that an emergent transnationalization is transforming the global political economy.2 Transnationalization, they argue, is not simply forging greater global interconnections between national economies and nationally-organized social forces, but is tending towards the transcendence of the nation-state as the organizer and container of capitalist politics and economics. For William Robinson, who has become the key figure in the

transnationalist perspective and systematically elaborated transnationalization theory, this represents an ‘epochal change’ in world capitalism.3
Transnationalist theorists reject the dominant mainstream tradition in international relations, Realism, which they argue promotes a transhistorical essentialization and reification of state power. Against this, transnationalism emphasizes the ontological primacy of social forces and, in particular, the developing power of a transnational capitalist class (TCC) committed to the neo-liberal restructuring of the global political economy. The transnationalization of production and the rise of the TCC, they argue, have displaced the nation-state from the central place it once occupied in the international system. For the neo-Gramscians the nation-state has been transnationalized, while for Robinson economic transformations underlie the emergence of a transnational state (TNS). According to transnationalist theorists, the consequence of these developments is that the inter-state system has been transformed, rendering earlier understandings of global geo-politics and national projects of imperialist power projection increasingly anachronistic. Transnationalist theory represents a sophisticated attempt to integrate novel

developments within a renewed historical materialist understanding of the global system.


But, I will argue, its appraisal of contemporary trends is one-sided and fails to capture the contradictory nature of the uneven development of the capitalist world system. In the first part of this article I explore transnationalist arguments on the nature of the global economy, and argue that while transnationalism is indeed an important trend the national organization of economic structures and processes remains significant. In the second part I offer a critique of transnationalist arguments on contemporary trends in the power and role of the nation-state. Here I argue that, while Robinson is right to reject neo-Weberian theory and to emphasize the structural interdependence of economics and politics, if we take this seriously we must conclude that the transnationalist view that economics is unilaterally 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 global economy. In the final part of the article I consider transnationalist arguments on imperialism 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 classes share a common interest in the stability of global capitalism, common interests are tempered by the persistence of rivalry between them, which continues to influence the dynamics of the contemporary global system. Transnationalism and the global economy 4 Global economic integration has been driven over the past century by successive waves of trade (commodity capital), foreign direct investment (FDI) (industrial capital) and more recently financial flows (financial capital). The consequence has been, for the transnationalists, a transition from an international economy, characterized by what Peter Dicken calls the ‘shallow integration’ of externally linked national circuits of accumulation, to a global economy shaped by integrated production and finance (Dicken’s ‘deep integration’).5 The statistical basis of this argument seems incontrovertible. According to the UN’s World Investment Report 2003 FDI inflows rose from $52 billion in 1982 to $651 billion by 2002, and FDI increased annually by an average of 28 percent between 1986 and 2000.6 As a result of these enormous investment flows, Robinson argues, ‘national production systems have become fragmented and integrated externally into new globalized 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-


regulated exchange of the international-economy model is progressively subordinated to the world-economy model.8 Integrated global production has, since the 1970s, been reinforced by the increased power of transnational finance capital, the two combining to exercize 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” which opposes any form of state or interstate control or intervention’.9 As national economic regulation and planning have declined, he argues that the contemporary global economy is best conceptualized as a ‘nebuleuse’, which ‘expresses the consensus of forces promoting global capitalism’ and neo-liberalism.10 For Robinson, the new liberal world order dismantles national barriers to the free movement and operation of capital as it creates an integrated world market along lines similar to the earlier establishment of national economies, including ‘a single set of laws, taxes, currency, and political consolidation around a common state’.11 Criticism of this view does not entail denying either the reality of economic transnationalization as an important contemporary tendency or the expansionary dynamic 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 the globe by the imperative of competitive accumulation.12 Nevertheless, a degree of caution should be exercized over what Michael Löwy refers to as ‘a certain economism and a surprising amount of Free Tradist optimism’ in Marx and Engels.13 For, the economic logic of capital has never been separable from politics, and the global expansion of capitalism has both dismantled and re-erected state-built walls around national economies. In the context of contemporary debates about transnationalism, over-emphasis on capital’s expansionary dynamic risks presenting a theory of global integration driven primarily by an 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. These residuals, he argues, ‘have a way of asserting themselves and conditioning the process under examination’.14 We can think of the national economy as one such residual. The transnationalists correctly problematize the idea of a national economy, for there are, as Robinson argues,


no closed national markets, protected national production systems and insulated national financial systems.15 But if the national can only be fully comprehended as part of the global and subject to global determinations, the economic concentrations within the national remain significant. To deny this, and to highlight only the fragmentation of national production systems and the transcendence of national borders, results in a onesided simplification of a complex and contradictory reality and the obscuring of the elements of continuity with the past that co-exist with the dynamic of change. Notwithstanding the growth of FDI during three decades of neo-liberal restructuring, production and investment remain overwhelmingly oriented on national economies. Average export-GDP ratios are around 10 percent for the most advanced countries (the US, Japan and the EU, treated as a single economy), such that the material interests of most people still largely depend on the other 90 percent.16 One measure of transnationalization, the transnationality index compiled in The World Investment Report 2003, confirms these arguments. A country’s transnationality index is arrived at by measurements of four sets of data: FDI inflows as a percentage of gross fixed capital formation for 1998-2002; FDI inward stocks as a percentage of GDP in 2000; value added of foreign affiliates as a percentage of GDP in 2000; and employment of foreign affiliates as a percentage of total employment in 2000. Small countries, such as Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands have a relatively high transnationality index of a little over a third. The indices of larger countries, however, are considerably lower: those of Canada, Britain and Germany are around 20 percent, France’s just over 10 percent, the US’s slightly less than 10 percent, and Japan’s only 1-2%.17 In addition, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) figures show that in the period 1990-2003 FDI accounted for ‘8% of world domestic investment’, leading to the conclusion that ‘FDI only complements domestic investment’. 18 A similar qualification to transnationalist arguments emerges when we explore beneath the label of ‘transnational corporations’ (TNCs). It remains the case that even the most internationalized TNCs concentrate research and development and management control within their home states or regions. Ruigrok and van Tulder’s detailed analysis of international restructuring demonstrates a relative locational immobility amongst TNCs: of the world’s 100 largest firms only eighteen keep over half their assets abroad, and the top 100 firms in terms of foreign assets hold on average ‘only 37 per cent of their assets


abroad’.19 Only TNCs based in smaller economies such as Sweden, Holland, and Switzerland, have anything like a majority of their share-holdings abroad. Hirst and Thompson’s figures show a similar home concentration of MNC assets, and they conclude that ‘success in the international economy has national sources’.20 These figures do highlight important changes over earlier decades, and we would be unwise to discount transnationalization as an emergent trend, but for now at least capital’s inherited domestic orientation has not been fundamentally transcended. One reason for this orientation lies in the nature of capital. Marx argued that capital can only exist as many capitals, and in the real world of competition capitals are not simply parts of an abstract global capital but separate alienable commodities which share the twin aspects of value of all commodities, being both abstract exchange-values and concrete use-values.21 Conceived of in the abstract, capital has no spatial bounds and is driven by the systemic imperative of capital accumulation to search for markets and sources of surplus-value wherever they may be found. As one General Motors’ executive famously declared, its business is not making cars but making profits. Yet, and this is true for even the most internationalized financial capitals, profit realization requires production of concrete use-values, with specific characteristics, embodying particular labour skills and components, which themselves embody skills, raw materials, etc.. Capitals rarely exhibit the ‘footloose’ quality ascribed to them by what Held and his colleagues refer to as ‘hyper-globalizers’.22 For, although the production of use-values takes place within competitive markets, it requires a considerable cooperation between capitals, commodities being produced and sold within complex networks of production (including supply networks), finance, and distribution. These networks have indeed been transnationalized within global production chains, and we can agree with Robinson that ‘society as social structure cannot be limited to the specific historical form of the nationstate’.23 Nevertheless, the economic interconnections of the social structure remain densest at the national level, suggesting that capital remains in a relation of what Harman calls ‘structural interdependence’ with states, producing distinct national business cultures and what David Coates has called national ‘models of capitalism’.24 These structures and cultures are not fixed, and the global export of the US-inspired MBA represents an attempt to penetrate and restructure national business cultures along more neo-liberal lines. Yet, where capital does undertake international restructuring under the


pressure of globalization, the evidence indicates that it often does so within relatively narrow geographical limits. UNCTAD notes that ‘the concentration of FDI within the Triad (EU, Japan, and the US) remained high between 1985 and 2002 (at around 80 percent of the world’s outward stock and 50-60 percent for the world’s inward stock)’. 25 Although low-wage areas such as coastal China are today included in the major receiving centres, the concentration in the advanced countries suggests that low wages and welfare costs are not the only concern in location decisions. Productivity and profits depend on a range of additional factors, including access to developed markets, implantation behind standards walls, social and political stability, high levels of skill, education, and expertise, healthy and flexible labour, high quality supplier networks, patent and property protection, modern and efficient infrastructure, and the concentration of research institutions. These factors are concentrated in the advanced regions, providing firms with dynamic external economies of scale and scope. Thus, in the EU, where the transnational organization of capital is well-developed, the largest European capitals have largely adopted regional accumulation strategies as means to maintain global competitiveness.26 By focussing on general trends towards transnationalization and the emergence of a global capitalism, much transnationalist theory overlooks the particularities of national and regional concentrations of economic activity and therefore obscures the unevenness that exists within the global economy.27 This is a vital omission, for unevenness does not simply describe the global economy but is both a precondition and a consequence of the competitive accumulation that gives it its dynamic. Within that dynamic the counterpart of competitive accumulation is competitive destruction, the significance of which is magnified as the logic of accumulation produces ever larger corporations whose economic weight within a national economy demands that in times of difficulty they are supported by political and regulatory authorities, as Britain’s recent actions over the Northern Rock building society demonstrate. Thus, we must now consider the transnationalists’ arguments on the contemporary transformations of the nation-state. Transnationalization and the nation-state Marxism has traditionally regarded the working class as necessarily internationalist in outlook and political orientation. Indeed, somewhat ironically given the current critique of the neo-Gramscians, Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks used ‘the international class’ to disguise


‘proletariat’ from the prison censor. Today, however, transnationalists argue that global economic change is transforming the relation between classes and states and creating what Cox calls a ‘transnational managerial class’ and what Robinson and Sklair call a ‘transnational capitalist class’ (TCC). Despite differences between Cox, Sklair and Robinson on the membership of the TCC, there is agreement that it is, in Sklair’s words, ‘domiciled in and identified with no particular country but, on the contrary, is identified with the global capitalist system’.28 According to Robinson the objective aspect of TCC class formation lies in the fact that it ‘is tied to globalized circuits of production, marketing, and finances unbound from particular national territories and identities and because its interests lie in global over local or national accumulation’.29 These objective developments have a subjective corollary because, despite rivalries within it, those controlling the world’s largest capitals share, according to Cox, a ‘distinctive class consciousness’ and a common ideology constructed around a ‘policy consensus’ promoting ‘a world economy open to corporate movements of goods, capital, and technology’.30 That neo-liberal consensus, it is argued, has been articulated and given programmatic form within increasingly influential transnational institutional frameworks of capitalist management. This framework includes both the formal institutions of global economic management - such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Trade Organization (WTO) - and informal ‘policy networks’ and business organizations, including the European Round-table of Industrialists and the World Economic Forum (WEF). So significant have these institutions and organizations become for transnationalists, that Kees Van der Pijl refers to the WEF, in language inconceivable for Marxists until recently, as ‘a true International of capital’.31 One of their key functions, according to Stephen Gill, is to ‘promote a transnational “identity” and a shared consciousness which fosters a closer identification of interests’ between members of the TCC.32 The international institutions also contribute to the development of Cox’s ‘nebuleuse’, which, he argues ‘has no fixed and authoritative institutional structure’ and corresponds to the idea of ‘governance without government’, and to the erosion of state powers of economic management.33 This erosion, whereby economic and social policies have been subordinated to market processes, Van Der Pijl argues, was designed to restore the ‘sovereignty of capital’ against challenges from subaltern social forces operating through


sovereign states.34 As a consequence, according to Gill, social actors increasingly operate within the vice of ‘disciplinary neo-liberalism’ and under a ‘new constitutionalism’: by enshrining market principles as the irreducible basis of freedom, and increasingly insulating markets from state or democratic control, the global economic institutions defend the rights of property owners internationally and ‘guarantee the freedom of entry and exit of internationally mobile capital with regard to different socio-economic spaces’.35 The ascendancy of markets, and their disciplinary power over states, results in the transnationalization of the state. Robinson rejects the dualist thinking of the neo-Weberians who conceive of states and markets as separate, externally related, social institutions that follow independent logics. Instead, he argues that economics and politics are internally related, that the state institutionalizes the class relations that develop around historically formed patterns of social production. Thus, for Robinson, the necessary counterpart of economic transnationalization is the transnationalization of class relations and of states. Transnationalists do not argue that this entails the disappearance of states, but that they have evolved into agents of transnational capitalism and of TCC interests. Robinson presents the most radical argument on the contemporary transformations of nationstates, which he argues have been incorporated into a developing transnational regulatory structure, the TNS. He defines this as ‘an emerging network that comprises transformed and externally integrated national states, together with the supranational economic and political forums, and has not yet acquired any centralized institutional form’.36 The neo-Gramscians broadly concur with Robinson on the dynamic of the tendencies at work, although there are differences between them on whether we are seeing the emergence of a transnational state. Van Der Pijl’s argument that there is a trend towards the ‘international socialization of state functions’ in the ‘Lockean heartland’ of the world system comes closest to endorsing Robinson’s perspective.37 More generally, the neoGramscians and, especially, the Amsterdam school, argue that the liberation of transnational capital and the TCC from their erstwhile social obligations has resulted in the dismantling of national welfare states in favour of global accumulation strategies, entailing inter alia, reductions in business costs, and the weakening of unions’ national bargaining powers.38 Where states previously mediated between world economy


pressures and the demands of domestic social forces, they now largely act as ‘agencies of the global economy….adjusting national economic policies to the perceived exigencies of global economic liberalism’.39 In Cox’s famous phrase, states have ‘willy nilly became more effectively accountable to a nebuleuse personified as the global economy’.40 Thus, in the transnational era regulation increasingly embodies not social discipline over capital, but the discipline of transnational capital over society.41 Transnationalist arguments on the state demonstrate an openness to engaging with novel phenomena and complex global trends. This is both an indispensable condition for the preservation of Marxism’s viability as a research programme and a challenge to other Marxists to reflect on traditional historical materialist arguments on state power and its relation to the international system. For, much Marxist (and wider social) theory has been cast within a national framework, has emphasized the national determinants of state power, and merely added the international sphere, where it is acknowledged at all, as a secondary ‘factor’ with no fundamental importance to the understanding of national societies.42 Nevertheless, while it can be readily accepted that global economic pressures impact ever more forcefully on states and state policy, that this is reflected in the emergence of neo-liberalism as a dominant ideology within the international institutions, and that state policy is being transformed along neo-liberal lines, problems remain with the transnationalist perspective. At the most general level, these flow from that perspective’s primarily outside-in approach to state power, reflecting a form of linear thinking that is unable to capture the significance of the contradictory tendencies at work in the global political economy and which, as Philip McMichael has written of Robinson, ‘suspends the dialectic’.43 At the centre of those contradictory tendencies is the persistence of statepower, which, even as states introject the neo-liberal imperatives of the contemporary world system, continues to be projected into the international system. We can explore these contradictory tendencies by reflecting further on some of the transnationalists’ key ideas. As we saw above, Robinson mobilizes the familiar Marxist argument that economics and politics are internally related. Therefore, while formally separate, they are in reality ‘distinct moments of the same totality’.44 This represents, as far as it goes, a perfectly solid foundation for the development of a Marxist understanding of the contemporary world system. Yet, Marxism traditionally sees a dialectical interpenetration of the whole and the parts, changes in the whole being expressed, via complex mediations, in changes


in the parts and changes in the parts contributing to a transformation of the whole. The emphasis of the transnationalists, however, is overwhelmingly on one side of this dialectic, and transformative powers are located almost entirely within the global economy. The consequence of this, that states are deprived of their own agency and reduced to the status of epiphenomena of the global economy, is expressed in Cox’s argument that states have been made, ‘willy-nilly’, accountable to the global economy and that the nation-state has become ‘a transmission belt from the global to the national economy’.45 Peter Burnham has criticized Cox for underplaying ‘the extent to which “globalisation” is authored by states’.46 But, while the realization of capitalism’s potential for globalization is not automatic but dependent on the intervention of states, highlighting the persistence of state power merely challenges the tenor of much transnationalist theory without dealing it a mortal blow. As we have seen, transnationalism argues that states are not disappearing but being transformed into agents of the global. Thus, the mobilization of state power to inflict defeats on powerful sections of national labour movements from the late-1970s, which helped clear the ground for the neo-liberal advance, and to subsequently erode national welfare provision, is entirely consistent with transnationalist theory. Yet, if transnationalists can consider these as the acts of states en route to their own incorporation within a nebuleuse or a TNS, the very nebulousness of the nebuleuse and the incomplete nature of the TNS suggest that it is premature, at best, to proclaim a fundamental erosion of state power. Robinson recognizes that the TNS does not yet have ‘the internal coherence of national states’, that capitalist competition renders ‘any real internal unity in the global ruling class impossible’, and that ‘the uneven development of the transnationalization process is an important source of conflict’.47 These are important observations, yet their implications are left unexplored. For the interdependence of states and capitals that developed in the twentieth century is unlikely to be dismantled without the development of ‘real internal unity’ of the TCC and the transcendence of conflict in the international system. Furthermore, there seems no good reason to reduce states to mere bearers of structural imperatives and so deny them powers of agency to defend their own interests and territory by shaping, managing and negotiating the impact of global neo-liberalization.


How successful they are depends on a range of factors that express the uneven development of the capitalist world system and the persistence of national concentrations of political and economic power. Thus, rather than there being a linear tendency towards the global law, tax, and financial regimes that Robinson suggests, Benno Teschke and Christian Heine have argued that: The uneven spread of crisis, non-synchronous national and sectoral business cycles, nationally diverging balances of class forces, and historically different institutional contexts of industrial relations, [have] translated into palpable divergences in political management strategies that do not follow an exclusive economic rationality.48


This argument directs us away from the abstract linearity of some transnationalist writing, particularly that of Robinson, and towards the real history of capitalism. It encourages us, following McMichael, to ‘historicize theory’ and recognize that the logic of global capital accumulation always unfolds within constraints set by pre-existing national social relations and institutional structures. As Sam Ashman has argued, ‘local conditions mediate the impact of capitalism’s “laws of development”’.49 Once we recognize this, the historicization of theory logically follows, for these local conditions are not timeless and unchanging. Rather, they involve evolving patterns of social relations and a permanent tendency to disrupt the sedimentation of their consequences in national institutions, cultures, business and trade union practices, etc.. This is not to devalue the sort of Marxist theorization of the unfolding and consequences of capital’s abstract logic championed by Robinson, for the local conditions constructed by social agents must be understood within the context of de-personalized structural imperatives, including capitalism’s rhythm of expansion and crisis. It is, however, to argue that a key task for Marxism in international relations is to articulate an understanding of capitalism as a mode of production – and so foreground its constitutive mechanisms of competitive accumulation and exploitation – within an analysis that recognizes the changing historical forms within which capitalism’s most important processes have unfolded. Here, unfortunately, the transnationalist literature contains two diametrically opposed approaches, both of which are one-sided. Cox argues that his own approach is consistent with Gramsci’s insistence that Marxism is ‘absolute “historicism”’ and in opposition to the ‘static and abstract’ analysis produced by those structuralist Marxists who mobilize the concept of mode of production.50 But care must be exercized here, for Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks were intended not for publication as a complete statement of Marxist theory but to clarify his own thinking and guide the immediate practice of the Italian Communist Party. And, as Gramsci’s other works indicate, he had a clear understanding of the role played by general features of the capitalist mode of production in shaping the immediate context of political activity.51 Cox then, produces a more immediate historicism than Gramsci’s richer and deeper historicism and fails to fully historicize theory in the way suggested above. Robinson’s approach, on the other hand, forecloses exploration of the fertile fields of the history of capitalist development. He argues, correctly but abstractly, that ‘there is


nothing in the historical-materialist conception of the state that necessarily ties it to territory or to nation-states’. In any case, he holds to the somewhat mystifying belief that only ‘social classes and groups are historical actors. States do not “do” anything per se. Social classes and groups acting in and out of states (and other institutions) do things as collective historical agents’. Finally, he reinforces his denial of the significance of the nation-state form of capitalist politics when he argues that ‘the nation-state and the inter-state system are not a constitutive component of world capitalism as an integral social system but a (the) historical form in which capitalism came into being….[and is] a disintegrating structure’.52 These arguments are expressions of an undialectical ahistorical essentialization of capital as a social force that echoes the mechanical materialism that Engels cautioned against when he argued that superstructural elements ‘also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form’.53 The essentialization of transnational capital’s power is illustrated by Robinson’s argument that transnationalization coincides with the ‘dismantling of the Keynesian social structure of accumulation’ (149). This echoes the argument, noted above, that national welfare states are also being dismantled. The evidence, however, does not point straightforwardly to these conclusions. While there is no necessarily direct correlation between the dismantling of Keynesianism and levels of state spending, Robinson’s argument leads us to expect a decline in the latter. Yet, The Economist reports that ‘within the OECD, public spending accounted for a larger slice of GDP in 2002 than in 1990, which was in turn higher than in 1980’.54 Similarly, any dismantling of welfare states would suggest a reduction in public welfare spending, but again reality does not conform easily to transnationalist arguments. Data produced by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that the proportion of national income accounted for by public spending on non-health social protection did indeed decline between 1997 and 2002. Yet, health spending rose in twenty-four out of thirty of the world’s most advanced economies, and fell (albeit marginally) only in Hungary, Luxemburg and the Slovak Republic. Indeed, in Britain, Western Europe’s vanguard neo-liberal state, state health spending rose in real terms every year between 1980 and 2007.55 Without further analysis these figures should be treated with a degree of caution. They nevertheless indicate that the tendency towards neo-liberal restructuring, although real,


is constrained by counter-veiling factors. The recent experiences of Germany and Japan suggest two such factors. In Germany, ruling-class attempts to restructure the socialmarket economy, Modell Deutschland, along neo-liberal lines since the early-1980s were hindered for nearly two decades by fears about their potential political consequences. These include the reinforcement of divisions between east and west and the recurrence of the industrial and social struggle that accompanied attempts at rapid restructuring in the mid-1990s (paralleled on a wider scale in France when similar measures were proposed in 1995-6).56 Meanwhile, faced with a prolonged period of stagnation during the 1990s, the Japanese state, rather than implementing orthodox neo-liberal measures of structural reform, provided immense support for Japanese capitalism. This included assisting banks that by the strict market principles would be insolvent, priming the economy with massive fiscal stimuli, and holding interest rates at close to zero percent. These measures, which contradicted the neo-liberal emphasis on a narrow market rationality and on reductions in state debt, cushioned corporations from the potentially devastating consequences of short-term restructuring, including possible bankruptcy, and indicated that forces for neoliberal change confront ‘strong persistent forces’ which limit neo-liberal restructuring.57 The state, then, cannot be adequately understood if it is conceptualized as a mere transmission belt from the global to the national or agent of the TCC. It is certainly constrained by the interests of transnational capital and there is a powerful tendency towards neo-liberalism in the majority of the world’s states. But, the state is Janus-faced, its outlook deriving from the historically conditioned mediating position it occupies between the international system and domestic social forces: it remains concerned not only with global developments but also with national class relations, the health of national economies, and the national reproduction of political and social relations conducive to continued capital accumulation. Transnationalists’ resistance to these arguments flows from their focus on the power of transnational capital and their corresponding undertheorization of capitalism’s wider social relations. These relations are beset by contradictions – between capital and labour, between competing capitals, between a dynamic of change and the requirement of a degree of continuity and fixity, between capital’s immediate and long-term interests. The unfolding of these contradictions through time is internalized in the thinking and behaviour of social actors such that the past – McMichael’s residuals – permanently shapes and haunts the present.


The relative weights of the global and domestic pressures on states that frame their mediating position – whereby they project national power into the international system while simultaneously introjecting the dynamics of that system – are not fixed. But, while these relative weights differ between successive periods of capitalist development, the subordinate element in what Hannes Lacher calls the ‘national/global dialectic’ is never fundamentally marginalized.58 This is true of both the state’s role within the global economy and in its relation to the geo-political rivalries at the level of the inter-state system. The final part of this article considers transnationalist arguments on contemporary geo-politics and imperialism. Transnationalism and Imperialism Contemporary geo-political developments pose a problem for transnationalist theory, for since the end of the cold war economic transnationalization has coincided with an increasing resort to war and military interventions on the part of the most advanced states, within which the core of the TCC is based. How have transnationalists attempted to resolve this problem? Initially, in a paper written in late-1991, Cox argued that there was ‘an increasingly marked duality and tension between the principles of interdependence and territorially based power’, which is ‘ultimately military’.59 Regarding the United States, Gill explained this duality as a consequence of the conflict between nationalist and transnationalist forces. The former, he argued, were associated with the military and realist geopolitical strategists, while the interests of the latter would be served by global co-operation and alliances to secure capitalist stability and if the US state were ‘persuaded to forgo the temptations of military adventures…’.60 In the immediate aftermath of the cold war, then, both Cox and Gill saw a contradictory relationship between the use of military power and capitalist transnationalization. Cox’s position has evolved however. He now recognizes that military force is an important aspect of the contemporary global system, but conceives it as a means to enforce the rules of the transnational managerial class within the global economy. And, with the diffusion of power under transnationalization, national imperialist projects are in decline and it is no longer possible to identify a ‘regime of dominance’ at the summit of the world order.61


Robinson’s argues similarly that today hegemony is exercised by the emergent TCC rather than a dominant nation-state. The competition that persists is, according to Robinson, no longer between national capitalist classes but between transnational conglomerates. State power, especially that of the US, remains important, but, like Cox, Robinson argues that US power is now mobilized ‘on behalf of a transnational hegemony’ such that recent US military actions in the middle east ‘resulted in a transnational outcome, despite surface appearances, insofar as these regions were drawn further into the global capitalist system’.62 These arguments are close to those put forward by Michael Hardt and Toni Negri in Empire: that ‘there is no place of power - it is both everywhere and nowhere’, within a realized world market which ‘is necessarily the end of imperialism’; that there are, therefore, ‘no differences of nature’ between the United States and Brazil, Britain and India, ‘only differences of degree’; and that ‘the United States does not, and indeed no nation state can today, form the centre of an imperialist project’.63 Robinson quotes the conservative New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman in support of his argument: the hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonald's cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the U.S. Air Force F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley's technologies to flourish is called the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.64 Friedman’s words reinforce Robinson’s argument that economic and military power are inter-connected aspects of the global system. But they sit uncomfortably with the wider transnationalist perspective. For, contra Gill, they show that the exercise of US military power is not solely the preserve of nationalist forces but serves the interests of US transnationals. And, contra Cox and Robinson, they show that the primary concern of the US state is not the interests of the TCC but those of the US ruling class. Although contemporary imperialism is too large a subject to be dealt with fully here, the key elements of an alternative to the transnationalist understanding of contemporary imperialism, more consistent with what I believe to be Friedman’s intended meaning, can be briefly sketched out.


In the light of contemporary interest in US geo-strategy, perhaps the most obvious point to make is that the argument that US power is mobilized on behalf of the TCC and as a component of the TNS is diametrically opposed to the America-first arguments of key actors in the framing of US global strategy since the end of the cold war.65 Notwithstanding important tactical differences – over the degree to which unilateralism should be tempered by multi-lateral alliance building for example – there is an overall consistency in US strategic thinking that embraces the Clinton and Bush administrations, current and former policy advisers like Fukuyama, Brzezinski, and the neo-conservatives grouped in The Project for the New American Century. At the core of this strategic consensus is a project to secure US primacy across Eurasia and beyond and to prevent the emergence of rivals to US power. Specific arguments from key Bush administration foreign policy makers reinforce the critique of the transnationalist case that this quest for primacy entails. To take just three examples, Condoleezza Rice has argued that US foreign policy should ‘proceed from the firm ground of the national interest, not from the interests of an illusory international community’.66 In similar vein, ex-US Ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, believes that ‘there is no such thing as the United Nations’, or international law.67 Meanwhile, in relation to NATO enlargement, which on the face of it might be regarded as representing an expansion of a trans-atlantic transnationalist space, William Kristol, key neo-conservative and founder member of the Project for the New American Century, has written that it enabled ‘the continuing exercise of American leadership in European affairs’ and the realization of ‘the strategic opportunities presented by our victory in the Cold War’ by undermining the construction of a potential EU-centred bloc and the development of an independent EU foreign policy.68 When we note the US’s current role in the Middle East, or its arms spending, now accounting for approximately half of the world total, it is difficult to detect any moderation of this America-first outlook. We should, nevertheless, resist the temptation to mechanically transpose the perspective of inter-imperialist rivalry developed by Lenin and Bukharin in the early part of the twentieth century onto the contemporary world order. For, while they captured the dynamic of the world order that existed from the period of the scramble for Africa through to the collapse of the USSR in 1989-91, the developing interdependence within the West after 1945 tempered the competition between its ruling classes. In particular US primacy


after 1945 ensured that intra-Western conflicts did not assume a military form. Since 1991 interdependence has both intensified and become more extensive as the former ‘communist’ states have been more fully incorporated into the global capitalist system. But, if the world’s ruling classes share a common interest in the stability and reproduction of global capitalism, competition between them has not disappeared. Thus, as Doug Stokes argues, the US is subject to both national and transnational logics, and promotes its own interests while simultaneously seeking to secure a world order safe for capitalism as a whole.69 Or, as Peter Gowan puts it, ‘the US state has not just been pursuing its own interests at the expense of all its rivals, but securing the general conditions for the expansion of capital as a system, in which they have an interest too’.70 These arguments suggest that transnationalist theory is one-sided rather than incorrect, that it overlooks, as Stokes puts it, ‘the dual national and transnational logics that have long operated at the heart of US Empire’.71 Thus, while the common interests of the world’s ruling classes have enabled the international financial institutions to establish a relative consensus around a neo-liberal framework for global economic management, the consequences are not straightforwardly transnationalist. For those institutions are simultaneously arenas of inter-state competition and bargaining, and seek to manage the centrifugal forces that continue to operate on the relations between the major powers.72 Inter-state conflict within the advanced core of the world system is, at present, unlikely to assume a military form, but the contemporary world order is very far from one in which clashes of interest within the advanced core have been transcended. Conclusion The transnationalist understanding of the nature of the economics and politics of the contemporary world order raises important questions for all forms of social theory, including international relations. In foregrounding the global dimension of capitalism it encourages a reconsideration of traditional conceptions of nationally-integrated economies operating under the political jurisdiction of coherent nation-states. In highlighting the dynamic nature of capitalism it warns of the danger of reifying states and the inter-state system, reminding us that as products of social forces in movement their own inner mechanisms and structures are subject to change. But, if its openness to novel developments is a major strength of transnational theory it is also its Achilles heel.


In recent decades national economies and the policies pursued by nation-states have become increasingly exposed to world economy pressures. But, the unplanned dynamic of market competition and the uneven development of the world system encourage even the most transnationalized capitals to seek the support of states. Indeed, subject to the intensified global competition that neo-liberalism promotes, TNCs may make greater demands upon states than smaller capitals. States, meanwhile, negotiate and manage the global imperatives of neo-liberalism as they defend and promote their own interests (as well as those of the capitals operating within their territories) against rivals. Thus, movement in the international system is not linear – expressing not only the common interests but also the competition between the world’s major capitals and states, movement promotes counter-movement and the search for elements of stasis and predictability. In systematically elaborating novel phenomena into a theory of the contemporary world system, transnationalism obscures the elements of continuity and the persistence of pre-existing structures and forms of social power. It therefore draws conclusions abstracted from the real world of capitalism’s history and from the hierarchically organized inter-state system. Ultimately, for all its sophistication and the occasional brilliance of its insights, transnationalist theory is one-sided: the contradictory inter-penetration of the national and global that has characterized its entire history continues to shape the capitalist world system.






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J. Maclean, ‘Marxism and International Relations: A Strange Case of Mutual Neglect’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, vol.17, no.2, 1988. The centrality of transnationalization for the neo-Gramscians is captured by Stephen Gill, who labels it as ‘transnational historical materialism’ (S. Gill, American Hegemony and the Trilateral Commission, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990, pp.46-51). W. I. Robinson, A Theory of Global Capitalism, The John Hopkins University Press, London, 2004, p.1. ‘International’, ‘transnational’, and ‘global’, are sometimes used in the transnationalist literature as if they were self-explanatory. Gill, for example, refers to the current ‘internationalisation, transnationalisation or indeed globalisation of the state’ (S. Gill, ‘Gramsci and Global Politics: Towards a Post-Hegemonic Research Agenda’, in S. Gill (ed.), Gramsci, Historical Materialism and International Relations, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1993, p.9). Leslie Sklair provides a helpful distinction: ‘international refers to forces, processes, and institutions based on the pre-existing (even if changing) system of nationstates….transnational refers to forces, processes, and institutions that cross borders but do not derive their power and authority from the state’, such as TNCs, while ‘global’ is defined as ‘the goals to which processes of globalization are leading’, such as a borderless economy, but which are currently far from attained. For Sklair ‘the transnational, transcending nation-states in an international system in some respects but still having to cope with them in others, is the reality’ (L. Sklair, The Transnational Capitalist Class, Blackwell, Oxford, 2001, pp.2-3). P. Dicken, Global Shift, Guilford, New York, 3rd edition, 1998, p.5. UNCTAD, World Investment Report 2003. FDI Policies for Development: National and International Perspectives, United Nations, New York and Geneva, p.3. Robinson, A Theory of Global Capitalism, p.10, p.15. R. W. Cox, ‘Structural Issues of Global Governance: Implications for Europe’, in S. Gill (ed.), Gramsci, Historical Materialism and International Relations, pp.259-260. Henk Overbeek argues similarly that economic processes are ‘transcending and even negating the boundaries of national economies’ (H. Overbeek, ‘Global Restructuring and Neoliberal Labour Market Regulation in Europe. The Case of Migration Policy', International Journal of Political Economy, vol.28, no.1. 1998, p.59. R. W. Cox, ‘The Crisis in World Order and the Challenge to International Organisation’, Cooperation and Conflict, vol.29, no.2, 1994, p.99. R. W. Cox, The Political Economy of a Plural World, Routledge, London, 2002, p.33. Robinson, A Theory of Global Capitalism, p.78. K. Marx and F. Engels, ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’, in Karl Marx: Selected Works volume 1, London: Lawrence and Wishart (1942), p.209. M. Löwy, ‘Marxism and the National Question’, New Left Review 96, 1976, p.82. P. McMichael, ‘Revisiting the question of the transnational state: a comment on William Robinson’s “Social theory and globalization”’, Theory and Society, 30, 2001, p.202. W. I. Robinson, ‘Reification and theoreticism in the study of globalisation, imperialism and hegemony: response to Kiely, Pozo-Martion and Valladão 1’, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, vol. 19, no.3, 2006. P. Hirst and G. Thompson, Globalisation in Question, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1996, p.112. UNCTAD, World Investment Report 2003, p.6. UNCTAD, World Investment Report 2004. The Shift Towards Services, United Nations, New York and Geneva, p.3. W. Ruigrok and R. Van Tulder, The Logic of International Restructuring, Routledge, London, 1995, p.156. Hirst and Thompson, Globalisation in Question, p.98. C. Harman, ‘The State and Capitalism Today’, International Socialism (second series) 51. D. Held et al, Global Transformations: Politics, Economics, Culture, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1999. Footlooseness usually refers to geographical mobility, but can also be thought of in terms of industrial sector. Figures from The Economist (4 September 2004, p.56) demonstrate the immobility of fixed capital. Profit rates in the car industry have fallen from 20 percent in the 1920s, to 10 percent in the 1960s and 5 percent today. Yet the fixed investments of Ford,

GM, Daimler-Chrysler, etc. remain geared to car production. Robinson, A Theory of Global Capitalism, p.91. 24 Harman, ‘The State and Capitalism Today’; D. Coates, Models of Capitalism: Growth and Stagnation in the Modern Era, Polity Press, Cambridge. 25 UNCTAD, World Investment Report 2003, p.23. Hirst and Thompson, Globalisation in Question, p.68, produce broadly similar figures. 26 G. Carchedi, For Another Europe: A Class Analysis of European Economic Integration, Verso, London, 2001, pp.31-5; B. Balanyá et al, Europe Inc.: Regional and Global Restructuring and the Rise of Corporate Power, Pluto Press, London, 2000. The Amsterdam School has applied a neo-Gramscian approach to transnational restructuring within the EU. See, for example, B. Van Apeldoorn, ‘Transnationalization and the Restructuring of Europe’s Socioeconomic Order: Social Forces in the Construction of “Embedded Neoliberalism”’, International Journal of Political Economy, vol.28, no.1; B. Van Apeldoorn, Transnational Capitalism and the Struggle over European Integration, Routledge, London, 2002; O. Holman, ‘Transnational Class Strategy and the New Europe’, International Journal of Political Economy, vol.22, no.1, 1992. 27 The work of the Amsterdam School on transnational integration in the EU is a notable exception. 28 Sklair, The Transnational Capitalist Class, p.10. Robinson only includes propertied classes in the TCC while Sklair includes its various agents - journalists, state bureaucrats, politicians, technicians, bureaucrats in the international financial institutions, etc.. Despite Sklair’s criticism of neo-Gramscian ambivalence about state-centrism, with which ‘it is necessary to make a decisive break’ (p.16), the membership of Cox’s transnational managerial class is similar to Sklair’s TCC. For a rigorous historical analysis of transnational class formation see the works of K. Van Der Pijl, especially, Transnational Classes and International Relations, Routledge, London, 1998. 29 Robinson, A Theory of Global Capitalism, p.47. 30 R. W. Cox, Production, Power and World Order: Social Forces in the Making of History, Columbia University Press, New York, 1987, p.359. 31 Van Der Pijl, Transnational Classes, p.133. 32 S. Gill, ‘Neo-Liberalism and the Shift Towards a US-Centred Transnational Hegemony’, in H. Overbeek (ed.), Restructuring Hegemony in the Global Political Economy. The Rise of Transnational Neo-liberalism in the 1980s, Routledge, London, 1993, p.261. 33 Cox, The Political Economy of a Plural World, p.83. James Rosenau explores the implications of the idea of ‘governance without government’. He argues that ‘hegemons are declining’, boundaries disappearing, military alliances ‘losing their viability’ and interstate governance is being displaced by new regimes constructed from the interactions of transnational actors (Rosenau: 1992, p.1). 34 K. Van Der Pijl, ‘The Sovereignty of Capital Impaired: Social Forces and Codes of Conduct for Multinational Corporations’, in H. Overbeek (ed.), Restructuring Hegemony in the Global Political Economy. 35 S. Gill, ‘Gramsci and Global Politics’, p.11. One symptom of this is the importance of private credit ratings agencies (such as Moody’s and Standard and Poor) in determining capital markets’ views of sovereign states. TNCs can equally use the World Economic Forum’s annual World Competitiveness Report when making investment decisions. 36 Robinson, A Theory of Global Capitalism, p.88. 37 K. Van Der Pijl, ‘The Sovereignty of Capital Impaired’. For Van Der Pijl’s most recent thinking on the extension of the Lockean heartland, and the rivalries that persists both within it and with the ‘Hobbesian contender states’ see Global Rivalries from the Cold War to Iraq, Pluto Press, London, 2006. 38 For Philip Cerny states have been transformed from welfare states into ‘competition states’; P. Cerny, The Changing Architecture of Politics, Sage, London, 1990, ch.8. 39 R. W. Cox, ‘Civil Society at the Turn of the Millennium: Prospects for an Alternative World Order’, Review of International Studies, vol.25, no.1, 1999, p.12. 40 R.W. Cox, ‘‘Global perestroika’, in R. Miliband and L. Panitch (eds.), The Socialist Register 1992: New World Order?, Merlin Press, London, 1992, p.27. See also Cox, The Political



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Economy of a Plural World, p.81. Van Der Pijl, ‘The Soverignty of Capital Impaired’, p.49. In the global south, less resistant to the international institutions’ structural adjustment conditionality, neo-liberalism has been devastating, such that in many cases ‘the patrimonial glue that holds society together is dissolved’ (A. Hoogvelt, Globalisation and the Postcolonial World: The New Political Economy of Development, Macmillan, Basingstoke, 1997, p.175). Interestingly, however, transnational capital’s requirement for political stability means that neo-liberalization has ‘had to uphold the state and destroy it at the same time’ (p.169). Consequently, for Cox weaker states have become agents of ‘global poor relief and riot control’ (R. W. Cox, ‘Critical Political Economy’, in B. Hettne (ed.), International Political Economy: Understanding Global Disorder, Zed Books, London, 1995, p.41. Justin Rosenberg argues that the historical significance of the inter-societal dimension of social development is such that historical materialism itself may require reformulation. See Rosenberg’s exchange with Alex Callinicos in Cambridge Review of International Affairs, forthcoming. McMichael, ‘Revisiting the question of the transnational state’, p.201. Robinson, A Theory of Global Capitalism, p.96. Cox, ‘Global perestroika’, p.31. Following criticism, Cox has withdrawn the transmission belt metaphor, but the sense behind it still pervades transnationalist thinking. See Cox, The Political Economy of a Plural World, p.33. P. Burnham, ‘Globalisation: states, markets and class relations’, Historical Materialism 1, 1997, p.153. Robinson, A Theory of Global Capitalism, pp.117-8, p.46, p.134. B. Teschke and C. Heine, ‘The dialectic of globalisation: a critique of Social Constructivism’, in M. Rupert and H. Smith (eds.), Historical Materialism and Globalization: Essays on Continuity and Change, Routledge, London, 2002, p.180. Henk Overbeek’s argument that national programmes of neo-liberalization are not simply externally determined and that nation-states mediate ‘between the “logic” of global capital and the historical reality of national political and social relations’, illustrates that the neo-Gramscian perspective is an evolving research programme that does not generate uniform outputs (H. Overbeek (ed) Restructuring Hegemony in the Global Political Economy, p.xi). S. Ashman, ‘From world market to world economy’, in B. Dunn and H. Radice (eds.), 100 Years of Permanent Revolution – results and prospects, Pluto Press, London, 2006, p.90. A. Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (Q. Hoare and G. Nowell Smith (eds.), Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1971, p.465; R. W. Cox, ‘Social Forces, States and World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory’, in R. W. Cox (with T. Sinclair), Approaches to World Order, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996, p.94. Cox appears to share the commonplace understanding of abstract as disconnected from, and so unable to explain, concrete reality. The danger of abstraction in this sense confronts all social theory, including Marxism. Marx, however, regarded abstraction as a necessary stage in scientific understanding, which distinguishes between essences and phenomenal forms of things. Science must transcend appearances in order to discover underlying structures and generative mechanisms actualized in observable phenomena. But, since we have no unmediated access to essences, it must proceed via a process of abstraction, i.e. the formation of concepts that capture basic features of some thing isolated from its concrete interconnections with other things. This, however, is the first step in a double movement, from the concrete to the abstract and back to the concrete, for Marxism’s abstract categories always take society as their necessary reference point. By this method, Marx argued, the concrete features of society could now be conceived not as a chaotic whole, ‘but as a rich totality of many determinations and relations’ (K. Marx, Grundrisse, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1973, p.100). See in particular A. Gramsci, Further Selections from the Prison Notebooks (D. Boothman, ed.), Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1995; A. Gramsci, The Prison Notebooks volume 2 (J. Buttigieg ed.), Columbia University Press, New York, 1996. Robinson, A Theory of Global Capitalism, p.97, p.98, pp.143-4. F. Engels, ‘Letter to Joseph Bloch, 21 September 1890’, in Karl Marx: Selected Works volume 1, Lawrence & Wishart, 1942, p.381.





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C. Emmerson and C. Frayne, Public Spending – election briefing 2005, Institute of Fiscal Studies, London, 2005. A. Budd, ‘The crisis and contradictions of stake-holder capitalism’, Contemporary Politics, vol.3, no.2, 1997; M. Upchurch, ‘The rise and fall of Modell Deutschland?’, in M. Upchurch (ed.), The State and ‘Globalization’: comparative studies of labour and capital in national economies, Mansell, London, 1999. It is interesting to note that the recent acceleration of neo-liberalization depended on the election of an SPD-led government apparently more sympathetic to workers’ interests (see S. Bornost, ‘Germany’s political earthquake’, International Socialism 116, 2007. G. Foljanty-Jost, ‘Introduction’, in G. Foljanty-Jost (ed.), Japan in the 1990s – crisis as an impetus for change?’, Transaction Publishers, London, 2004, p.9. H. Lacher, ‘Putting the state in its place: the critique of state-centrism and its limits’, Review of International Studies, vol.29, no.4, 2003. Cox, ‘Structural Issues of Global Governance’, p.263. S. Gill, ‘Neo-Liberalism and the Shift Towards a US-Centred Transnational Hegemony’, p.273. R. W. Cox, ‘Civil Society at the Turn of the Millennium: Prospects for an Alternative World Order’, Review of International Studies, vol.25, no.1, 1999, p.12. Robinson, A Theory of Global Capitalism, p.77, p.139. M. Hardt and A. Negri, Empire, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass, 2000, p.190; p.333; p.335; p.xiv. T. Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, New York, 1999, p.373. Important critiques of US post-cold war strategy include: A. Callinicos: The New Mandarins of American Power, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2003; M. Mann, Incoherent Empire, Verso, London, 2003; N. Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance, Hamish Hamilton, London, 2003; P. Gowan, The Global Gamble. Washington’s Faustian Bid For World Dominance, Verso, London, 1999; P. Gowan, ‘Western Europe in the Face of the Bush Campaign’, Labour Focus on Eastern Europe 71, 2002; and D. Harvey, The New Imperialism, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003. C. Rice, ‘Promoting the National Interest’, Foreign Affairs, vol.79, no.1, 2000, p.62. Cited in Mann, Incoherent Empire, p.3; and in P. Golub, ‘Cold War Government With No War To Fight: America's Imperial Longings’, Le Monde diplomatique, July 2001. W. Kristol, ‘NATO Enlargement’, at, 1997. D. Stokes, ‘The Heart of Empire? Theorising US empire in an era of transnational capitalism’, Third World Quarterly vol.26, no.2, 2005, pp.230-2. P. Gowan, ‘A calculus of power’, New Left Review, 16, 2002, p.65. Stokes, ‘The Heart of Empire?’, p.230. See M. Gritsch, ‘The nation-state and economic globalization: soft geo-politics and increased state autonomy?’, Review of International Political Economy, vol.12, no.2, 2005.

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