William I. Robinson and jerry harris

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Towards A Global Ruling Class? Globalization and the Transnational Capitalist Class
Published in Science & Society, Vol. 64, No. 1, Spring 2000, 11–5411
We would like to thank Gioconda Robinson and two anonymous reviewers for their comments on earlier drafts of this essay.
ABSTRACT: A transnational capitalist class (TCC) has emerged as that segment of the world bourgeoisie that represents transnational capital, the owners of the leading worldwide means of production as embodied in the transnational corporations and private financial institutions. The spread of TNCs, the sharp increase in foreign direct investment, the proliferation of mergers and acquisitions across national borders, the rise of a global financial system, and the increased interlocking of positions within the global corporate structure, are some empirical indicators of the transnational integration of capitalists. The TCC manages global rather than national circuits of accumulation. This gives it an objective class existence and identity spatially and politically in the global system above any local territories and polities. The TCC became politicized from the 1970s into the 1990s and has pursued a class project of capitalist globalization institutionalized in an emergent trans-national state apparatus and in a “Third Way” political program.

The emergent global capitalist historic bloc is divided over strategic issues of class rule and how to achieve regulatory order in the global economy. Contradictions within the ruling bloc open up new opportunities for emancipatory projects from global labor.

IT IS WIDELY RECOGNIZED THAT WORLD CAPITALISM has been undergoing a period of profound restructuring since the 1970s, bound up with the world historic process that has come to be known as globalization (Burbach and Robinson, 1999). One process central to capitalist globalization is transnational class formation, which has proceeded in step with the internationalization of capital and the global integration of national productive structures.

Given the transnational integration of national economies, the mobility of capital and the global fragmentation and decentralization of accumulation circuits, class formation is progressively less tied to territoriality. The traditional assumption by Marxists that the capitalist class is by theoretical fiat organized in nation-states and driven by the dynamics of national capitalist competition and state rivalries needs to be modified.

We argue in this essay that a transnational capitalist class (hence-forth, TCC) has emerged, and that this TCC is a global ruling class. It is a ruling class because it controls the levers of an emergent trans-national state apparatus and of global decision making. This TCC is in the process of constructing a new global capitalist historic bloc: a new hegemonic bloc consisting of various economic and political forces that have become the dominant sector of the ruling class throughout the world, among the developed countries of the North as well as the countries of the South. The politics and policies of this ruling bloc are conditioned by the new global structure of accumulation and production.
This historic bloc is composed of the transnational corporations and financial institutions, the elites that manage the supranational economic planning agencies, major forces in the dominant political parties, media conglomerates, and technocratic elites and state managers in both North and South.
In what follows, we explore some of the theoretical, conceptual, and empirical issues at stake, although we state as a caveat that space constraints preclude a full discussion of these issues. The propositions advanced here are intended to provoke discussion, and as a matter of course are tentative in nature, requiring further substantiation in ongoing research. In part I, we discuss the notion of transnational class formation, identify some of the key developments in the rise of a TCC as agency in the latter decades of the 20th century, and as part and parcel of the same historical process, the rise of a transnational state apparatus in this same period. In part II, we review some empirical data on globalization as indicators of transnational capitalist class formation. Finally, in part III, we discuss the political dynamics of the TCC, including strategic debates and emergent splits among transnational capitalists and their organic intellectuals.
Since the 1960s a growing number of observers have discussed therise of an “international capitalist class.” In the early 1970s, Stephen Hymer noted that “an international capitalist class is emerging whose interests lie in the world economy as a whole and a system of inter-national private property which allows free movement of capital between countries . . . there is a strong tendency for the most powerful segments of the capitalist class increasingly to see their future in the further growth of the world market rather than its curtailment” (Hymer, 1979, 262). Dependency theorists posited the notion of an international bourgeoisie formed out of the alliance of national bourgeoisies bound by their mutual interest in defense of the world capitalist system. In their landmark 1974 study, Global Reach, Barnet and Mueller argued that the spread of multinational corporations had spawned a new international corporate elite. Summarizing much of this earlier work in the 1960s and 1970s, Goldfrank pointed in 1977 to “growing evidence that the owners and managers of multinational enterprises are coming to constitute themselves as a powerful social class” (35), and that “the study of class structure or stratification on a world level is in its infancy” (32).
Parallel to the burgeoning research on economic globalization, studies in more recent years have focused on the process of trans-national class formation. Kees van der Pijl’s excellent theoretical work on international class formation stands out here (1984; 1989; 1998). He has analyzed the fractionation of capital along functional lines in the post–World War II period in advanced capitalist countries, the internationalization of these fractions and their projects as a consequence of the transnational expansion of capital, and the consequent development of an internationally class consciousness bourgeoisie and of a “comprehensive concept of [bourgeois class] control” at the international level. For their part, David Becker and his colleagues, in their controversial thesis on “post-imperialism,” observe that global corporations promote the integration of diverse national interests on a new transnational basis. A “corporate international wing” of the managerial bourgeoisie is the prime promoter of this process and the new ruling coalition is comprised of a national “managerial bourgeoisie” of private and public interests in the old Third

World and a transnational “corporate bourgeoisie” tied to global corporations.

Relatedly, the “Italian School” in international relations has attempted to theorize a global social formation that is increasingly outside the logic of the nation-state (see esp. Cox, 1987; Gill, 1990). Robert Cox (1987, 271) discusses “an emergent global class structure,” and Stephen Gill has identified a “developing transnational capitalist class fraction” (1990, 94). From an entirely different vein, Leslie Sklair’s “theory of the global system” (1995) involves the idea of the transnational capitalist class that brings together the executives of transnational corporations, “globalizing bureaucrats, politicians, and professionals,” and “consumerist elites” in the media and the commercial sector (1995; 1998). Although his analysis is muddled by a number of theoretical and conceptual confusions, including the conflation of class with strata, and his inability to address the issue of the state, Sklair’s work goes the furthest in conceiving of the capitalist class as no longer tied to territoriality or driven by national competition.
What all these accounts share (with the exception of Sklair) is a nation-state centered concept of class. They postulate national bourgeoisies that converge externally with other national classes at the level of the international system through the internationalization of capital and concomitantly, of civil society. World ruling class formation is seen as the international collusion of these national bourgeoisies and their resultant international coalitions. The old view of internationalization as national blocs of capital in competition is merely modified to accommodate collusion in the new globalized age. In contrast, we submit that globalization is establishing the material conditions for the rise of a bourgeoisie whose coordinates are no longer national. In this process of transnational class formation dominant groups fuse into a class (or class fraction) within transnational space. The organic composition, objective position and subjective constitution of these groups are no longer tied to nation-states.
Globalization compels us in this way to modify some of the essential premises of class analysis. An understanding of the changes bound up with globalization requires that our methods and epistemological assumptions revert back to those of classical political economy, which set out to theorize a set of relationships that were not self-evident in contemporary practices in order to highlight both structures and historic movement latent in existing conditions. Marx’s generic concepts of political economy were general and not in its abstract form coincidental with the nation-state. But as history unfolded in its concrete form the dilemma of political economy became the need to explain the paradox of an economy that was clearly internationalized

amidst a world political system that was compartmentalized into separate nation-states. The self-expansion of capital within the territorial boundedness of the nation-state and the international dynamics that resulted from the system of nation-states established the parameters of much social analysis. Those parameters are increasingly unable to capture phenomena bound up with globalization, such as the transnationalization of classes.

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