Archive for November 19th, 2009

Neo-Marxism Ascendent?

(Thanks to my POS 336 class discussion on globalization, and the second and third chapters of the book Globalisms by Manfred Steger for inspiring this post).

Neo-Marxian theories about the global political economy have been relegated to a secondary position in academia, and outside the third world tend not to be taken seriously by politicians.  Part of it comes simply from the term “Marxian.”   That gets associated with Soviet style communism, an approach to politics and economics which failed utterly.   But neo-Marxian analyses of the global economy are profoundly different than orthodox Marxism, and do not posit some kind of workers and farmers’ paradise in the future.   They often see communism as the major flaw in Marx’s thought — rather than just analyzing how the political economy operates, he tried to imagine some kind of perfectly just system.   That goal led to the horrors associated with Marx’s legacy.

Neo-Marxian analysis is an approach to studying the global political economy in a manner informed by Marx’s structural analysis of capitalism.   It has evolved far beyond Marx, most notably in that it looks at the global economic system while Marx was concerned with a domestic economy.    Perhaps the most famous of these is an approach put forth by Immanuel Wallerstein some time ago called “World Systems Theory” (WST).   Wallerstein was an Africanist who, in studying Africa, realized that underdevelopment there could not be explained or cured by the liberal capitalist theories coming from the West.  He sought to explain the division of the world between a relatively small wealthy core, and an impoverished and underdeveloped periphery.   A small semi-periphery held states that moved beyond poverty and instability, but could not become as wealthy and dominant as core states.

In essence, he posits capitalism as a world system with relations between the core and periphery structured so that the core exploits the periphery for cheap resources and labor, turning those goods into valuable finished products for consumption in the core.    Some finished goods are sold back to the periphery, but consumed by governmental elites whose interests are more in line with those of the core than those within their own country.   The elites in third world states thus find it in their interest to perpetuate structures that benefit the core (one reason corruption is prevalent throughout third world governments).   Because post-colonial states are often fictions with no strong sense of national identity, people go into government more to get rich than out of any idealistic notion of helping their state develop.

For Wallerstein and the numerous “world systems theorists” who followed in his wake, creating a kind of cottage industry of academic neo-Marxism, this world system functions in part through the control of a hegemon who can dominate the system and enforce its rules.   First it was the Netherlands, then Great Britain, and finally the US.   US hegemony started weakening in the 70s, and the current crisis pretty much collapses it.   US military power is seen as less credible after Iraq and Afghanistan, while US economic hegemony has vanished with the current crisis.   The US really lost economic clout with the downsizing of its manufacturing sector after the 1980-83 recession, but managed to retain hegemony by dominating financial markets.   An illusion of economic health existed with the bubble economy, but now huge deficits, a large debt, and dependence on countries like China and Saudi Arabia for maintaining the ability of the government to function, puts the US in a weakened position.   Still an important actor, but not a hegemon.

WST has been effective in predicting the on going division between rich and poor states and the limitations of the semi-periphery (Taiwan, South Korea, Brazil, etc.), but until recently seemed overly pessimistic about the health of global capitalism.   Like all Marxian theories, WST claims that capitalism as it operates in the real world contains contradictions which lead to intermittent crises.   The most dangerous is the problem of over-production which can lead to a credit crisis that can cause systemic failure.   Capitalism runs on credit, you can’t invest without credit, and any threat to the availability of credit is very dangerous.

On September 18, 2008 the world economy nearly collapsed.   Credit markets had seized and if capital wasn’t injected into the system right away there would have almost certainly been a global depression.   I do not think Americans quite comprehend the danger the world economy faced that day, and why it was that free marketeers held their noses and supported a massive federal bailout of the financial industry.   Yet this bailout didn’t solve the problem, it just bought time.   The crisis is still very real, and much like the kind of crises predicted by neo-Marxian analysts.

Now, this may sound weird, but neo-Marxism seems to find some common ground with the ideas of someone associated with a pro-US pro-military approach to globalization, Dr. Thomas P. M. Barnett.   Barnett, who writes for Esquire, has a Ph.D. from Harvard, and has worked in the defense department, puts forth a grand strategy for how to approach globalization.   He defines different types of states: Core states (much like Wallerstein’s core, though including India and China), Gap states (states not integrated into the global economy) and Seam states (those somewhat integrated).   This parallels WST’s Core, Semi-periphery and periphery in a manner that seems almost too obvious to be coincidental (given he has a Ph.D. in Political Science from Harvard, he has to know WST).

Like WST, Barnett looks at globalization as a system that should be global.   Concerned with terrorism and security, he argues that gap states represent the breeding grounds of terrorism, and seam states are places where terrorists could entire the core from the gap.    Globalization thus needs to be protected by both integrating the gap into the global economic system, and fighting anti-globalization forces, particularly jihadist terrorism.     In a way this is similar to neo-conservatism, which also views globalization as a force for good, though Barnett is more realistic about the limits of the US to manage the system alone.  In fact, his approach seems to recognize that a concerted effort in the core to manage globalization is necessary to keep the project alive and avoid systemic collapse.

Not being a Marxian thinker, Barnett seems convinced that if the globalization project is kept alive, then the gap states can successfully integrate into the system and the power of markets and liberty will spread prosperity.   WST would suspect that his approach might only help the global capitalist system overcome current structural weaknesses (especially the collapse of US hegemony) and contradictions (global financial instability and the dollar crisis) to maintain the system.   WST would predict that efforts to integrate the gap/periphery into the global economy would fail because of how the system operates and is structured.

I’m not sure if WST is right or not.   However, it seems to me that of all theories of the political economy that emerged after WWII, neo-Marxian analysis is surviving the current crises and changes brought about by globalization as good if not better than neo-liberal and neo-realist theories.    My own view remains in the constructivist camp for a variety of reasons I won’t get into here.   However, at least in explaining the changing nature of the global political economy, neo-Marxian thought may have to be taken much more seriously.   Non-Marxists like Barnett may already be doing so.