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.

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  1. #1 by classicliberal2 on November 19, 2009 - 21:39

    I don’t have a lot of use for largescale abstract theory in the matter of the global economy. Understanding it requires only observing how it operates and why; no need to cook up some macro theory that will be full of holes at birth (because of all the exceptions that undermine it).

    The first rule is always “follow the money.” There are a lot of other considerations along the way, but that’s the most important one, the one that always emerges as the most prominent from observation, and the one about which Marx, in his roundabout over-theorizing way, was incontrovertibly right. It doesn’t take some complex macro theory, for example, to understand why countries subjected, by international orgs like the IMF, to an “austerity” program are miserable and mired in the worst sort of corruption and poverty. Their economies are reorganized, by these programs, around serving the needs of foreign capital. When all of the good agricultural land is taken over by huge agribusiness, and used to grow crops for export, then–surprise, surprise–you can’t properly feed your own people.

    “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.”

    It wasn’t really that goal alone–it was that goal coupled with some serious, gaping blind spots about things like the nature of power. Marx took a lot from the early liberals–he would have done well to have listened to them a lot more intently on points like that.

    Though Marxist thought can fairly be said to have led to things like Bolshevism (which is a word I prefer to use for Soviet-style totalitarian “communism” in all its permutations in order to avoid the traps associated with the word “communism”), it has never really been fair to hang the Bolsheviks around Marx’s neck. Marx was, for all his flaws and shortcomings, basically an humanitarian. A fellow who saw the horrible conditions around him wrought by the industrial revolution and wanted a better world. He would probably have been just as horrified by a Stalin as anyone else (the anarchists predicted, with remarkable precision, Marxist states leading to the horrors that eventually happened in the Bolshevist states, and Marx strongly rejected their view).

    And his legacy isn’t just Bolshevism. Bolshevism is actually only a tiny part of it, and, in fact, a radical deviation from most of the rest. In most of the advanced world, socialists who trace their ideas through an evolution that goes right back to Marx, are not only prominent in governments; they run those governments. The U.S., with its relatively sparse socialist tradition, is almost alone among advanced nations. Even the “conservatives” of Europe would mostly be considered socialist radicals to American “conservatives.” These are far from horrible, squalid Bolshevist dictatorships.

    That was a bit of a tangent, but it came to mind. Sue me.

    • #2 by Scott Erb on November 20, 2009 - 21:12

      Yes, Marx would have been horrified by what was done “in his name.” He was all about liberation and ending oppression, not bureaucratic control! Most conservatives in Europe support health care systems far more inclusive than anything before the US Congress now. The way some Americans throw around terms like ‘socialism’ for anything the government gets involved in absurd.

  2. #3 by renaissanceguy on November 21, 2009 - 19:05

    I’m afraid I do not have the training (or brain power?) to understand everything in your post. Unfortunately it strikes me as a lot of academic hooey, but that is possibly because it is way outside my field of knowledge. I don’t care as much for theories as I do for practical, real-world application. I tend to think that these issues are much simpler than academics want to make them. It’s in their best interest to keep things complicated in order to justify their existence as academics.

    “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.”

    I do not understand how he could “realize” it. Has it been tried somewhere in Africa and found wanting? I would never assume that “theories coming from the West” can cure anything. I would rather see if changed behavior could cure some of the problems in Africa. And it is up to the people of Africa to make those changes, if they so choose.

    “He sought to explain the division of the world between a relatively small wealthy core, and an impoverished and underdeveloped periphery.”

    It seems pretty simple to me. In places where people utilized natural resources effectively, developed technologies, worked hard, and organized themselves to work efficiently, they prospered. At different times different civilizations sprung up by applying those principles. Then they usually declined by abandoning them. At one time Europe was very “backward,” but through changes in the attitudes and behavior of the people there, Europe began to dominate the world. (I don’t condone all the behaviors, since some of them were clearly evil.)

    “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).”

    And perhaps the real reason that the core countries give “aid” to the periphery. I do not understand why people support the giving of foreign aid, which sustains corruption and oppression. It’s the so-called liberals in America who support it the most, by the way. If people were really humanitarian they would give to private charities that actually feed people, dig wells, provide education, and empower the common people.

  3. #4 by Scott Erb on November 22, 2009 - 02:45

    Hey, RG and Classicliberal agree that they have little time for this kind of abstract theory — I knew you two could agree on something! You have a very good point on foreign aid, RG. A lot of it has simply enabled corruption, often to the benefit of advanced countries. I do think the role of colonialism in structuring under-development can’t be overlooked. Before colonialism you didn’t have the problems in Africa and elsewhere that one sees know. And where colonialism was most destructive of local traditions (Africa) you find the greatest poverty. I suspect that a lot of the current system operates much like colonialism, only with control now being indirect.

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