Following the publication of William I Robinson’s article on this site on militarisation and capitalist crisis, he had an exchange of letters with ACR supporter Phil Hearse, who argued that the main driver of conflict between major powers was imperialism, involving both economic and political rivalry. Robinson replied arguing that these conflicts arise from the need for major states to deflect internal crises and rebellion onto external enemies, as well as to promote militarisation as a way to boost the economy and ameliorate the economic crisis. We reproduce the exchange below.
Letter from Phil Hearse to William I Robinson
Thanks for your article which is now on the ACR site. To start of with, let me say how much I have enjoyed reading your new book, Global Civil War. Socialists, radicals and social movement activists would all benefit from reading this book. It is a remarkable skill to be able to integrate such diverse aspects of the world situation into a general theory. However, the article has enabled me to formulate more precisely my reservations.
I think you are attempting to have your theoretical cake and eat it. It seems to me that the weakest thread of your position in Global Police State is the argument that we are in a post-imperialist era. I think, on the contrary, that we are in the middle of a period of growing inter-imperialist conflict, particularly between the United States and China, but also as we have seen, between the United States and Russia. Surely no one can today deny that the massive US militarisation of Eastern Europe (aided by Britain and other West European states), military aid for Ukraine and the hugely punitive economic sanctions, designed to collapse the Russian economy, are interwoven with inter-imperialist conflict—even though the Ukrainian war of self-defence is completely justified? In addition, I think that the formation of AUKUS, an imperialist bloc led by the United States, is part of the growing militarisation of the American-led economic and political offensive against China, one that until now has been going hand-in-hand—paradoxically— with economic integration between the American and Chinese economies, in what Richard Haas describes, correctly in my opinion, as ‘competitive interdependence’. I explained this in my article on War in the Pacific?
I think that in your article there is a danger that the realities of militarisation are being presented backwards. You seem to be arguing that conflict with Russia, and the characterisation of China as an enemy, following on from the war on terror and the Cold War, are ideological inventions to justify militarisation. I think the reverse. There are conflicts of objective economic and political interests, especially between the United States and China, which underlie political conflict and militarisation.
Let me give a telling example. There have been a very interesting couple of podcasts on the FT’s Techtonic about the FBI witch hunt against Chinese professors, tech workers and students of Chinese-American origin, in Silicon Valley. There is now an FBI office and unit there, completely devoted to tracking down Chinese people spying against US tech firms—or allegedly so. Washington has run an international campaign against Huawei, persuading the British government to rip out all the Huawei 5G gear it had installed, and replace it with mainly American products. (This BTW is an impossible task; it has all gone too far).
Is this all just an ideological invention? Is it really true that all the tech firms are completely internationalised, so there are no longer American or Chinese high tech firms in competition with one another?
The assessment that there is indeed inter-imperialist competition behind US-China economic rivalry is reinforced by the fact that, according to Fortune, China’s 500 biggest companies are bigger than ever—and mostly state-owned.
In GPS (Global Police State) you are saying that the TCC (transnational capitalist class) is escaping the control of national states, and will turn to international bodies as the centres of governance—the UN, IMF, WHO, World Bank etc. But this has just not happened. National states, especially the USA, call the shots in these international organisations. Look at the UN General Assembly vote condemning the invasion of Ukraine. A vote organised by the United States and its allies, in which many of the countries who voted in favour did so in fear of American disapproval or retaliation, notwithstanding that many countries did so out of political conviction.
So, briefly summed up, what I am saying is that if there is significant intern-imperialist conflict, and if this is reflected not only at an economic and political level, but also at a military level, it undermines what I would now say are exaggerated formulations in GPS about a post imperialist era, and indeed a more-or-less completely integrated transnational capitalist class. Of course, it’s easy to be wise after the event. But I would say that Global Police State highlighted important tendencies toward global integration of big capital, the de facto interdependence of important US and Chinese firms, the attempts especially by US capital to break into Chinese finance and so on. But that process has been dealt a massive blow by the conflict with China and the war in Ukraine, which in my opinion is being used by the United States to undermine Russia, indeed to smash the Russian economy and defeat its military power. And of course, numerous US commentators say that after Russia next comes China.
Now logically one might say that any US move to undermine the Chinese economy, or even worse move towards military conflict with China, would be the US cutting off its nose to spite its face. True, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Because political developments can get out of step with economic ones to a significant degree; the rise of nationalism and creeping fascism can generate wars and conflicts which are not in the long-term interests of big capital. The sanctions against Russian food and energy are going to hit the world economy, driving down profit, generating inflation and deepening mass poverty. Objectively this is not in the interests of the big corporations in the US or elsewhere.
By the way, the issue of imperialism was one that Neil[i] and myself raised with you last year, and I think in effect you said you were going to take it under advisement. In your reply to me you say that wars like that in Ukraine could be both wars of national defence and inter-imperialist conflicts…but surely not if we are in a post-imperialist era!
There is a key passage in your article that I think shines a light on these potential contradictions:
‘“From the anti-communist hysteria of the Cold War, to the “war on terror,” then the so-called New Cold War, and now the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the transnational elite, led by Washington, have had to conjure up one enemy after another to legitimate militarized accumulation and deflect crises of state legitimacy and capitalist hegemony onto external enemies and contrived global capitalist elite.” (My italics).
But if we have a transnational global elite, and if it is led by Washington, then that precludes the participation of the Chinese state capitalist and Russian kleptocratic capitalist elites. In which case we don’t really have a globalised elite. Or at best you could argue that there is a transnational capitalism in which the major imperialist powers fight for dominance. That’s not so far away from Haas’s ‘competitive interdependence.’ Even in that case, we would have to admit that inter-imperialist conflict, linked to militarised accumulation, is undermining the process of the formation of a transnational capitalism and a stabilised TCC that escapes the control and dominance of their respective (imperialist) states.
In any case, if the transnational capitalist class is dominant, how is it that it is Incapable of asserting its control at the level of the state?
The war in Ukraine is landing major blows against globalisation. More than 750 corporations have pulled out of Russia, and if they are household names– Exxon, McDonald’s, H&M, Shell, Nike, you name it – they have pulled out. Not willingly I suspect but under enormous political pressure. Those who want to stay are fighting a rear-guard action. Corporations with big investments in Russia are expecting to take a big hit – more than 700,000 of the 4 million plus customers that Netflix has lost in the last six months are in Russia because their subscribers have been disconnected. Banks with big investments in Russia also expect to take a hit. Major disruption is caused by the energy sanctions against Russia, deliberately aimed at forcing European countries to buy more liquefied natural gas from the United States. Sanctions on Russian wheat and fertiliser are going to cause waves of food shortages and mass hunger in the Global South, none of this in the immediate interests of big capital.
Militarisation, internationally and domestically, is caused of course by the needs of the capitalist class worldwide to clamp down on protests and rebellion and is also linked to the rise of creeping fascism and the authoritarian right. In Ukraine, in my view, there is a justified war of self-defence by the Ukrainians against an incredibly brutal and cynical Russian invasion. But NATO is doing everything possible to turn it into a proxy war against Russia.
I think the great merit of the book Global Police State was to integrate into an overall panorama of all these discrete developments, from Trump’s wall to militarised policing, rising state brutality against rebellion (as in Myanmar, Colombia and many other places), savage judicial and prison regimes, arms production and sales, and the increasing role of the military in the economy and society at large. None of this in my view enables us to dispense with the concept of imperialism or to see militarisation as solely the product of the need for world capitalism to stabilise itself economically. Militarisation is indeed about militarised accumulation, a term coined by you and right on the button. But militarised accumulation goes hand in hand with inter-imperialist conflict, and with the continuous attempts by American imperialism to militarise its competition with rivals, and indeed to corral other major capitalist states into military-political alliances like NATO—and in the past CENTO and SEATO— under its own leadership. At every stage, American imperialism attempts to leverage its vast military dominance to fend off the growing economic or political power of its rivals. The 1997 Project for the New American Century, under the aegis of people like Paul Wolfowitz and William Kristol, was all about a project for American military dominance. Imperialism and militarisation go hand in hand.
In March 2021 ACR published an article by me entitled What De We Mean by a Global Police State? Naturally, all the arguments in that article are yours. But I posed it so that nothing in the article suggested we are in a post-imperialist era. We are in an era that can only be understood through the optic of the Global Police State – and imperialism.
Reply by William I Robinson
Thank you again for your thoughtful comments on the matter of Ukraine, imperialism, global capitalism and global police state. This is of course a massive discussion/debate that we cannot do justice to in a few email exchanges. But let me try as best as possible and in the brevity that limited time allows for responding to your concerns.
I think that you are both inflating and conflating the global police state thesis. The “master concept” for me that frames how we understand the current world conjuncture (including Ukraine) and how we more broadly frame our analyses of world capitalism and its political and economic dynamics, is not global police state but (my theory of) global capitalism, the former an application of the latter to recent developments in the world capitalist system, accumulation processes, and the global class struggle. As I stated in my previous email and let me reiterate: I would not expect the global police state framework to explain what is going on in Ukraine. When you state that I said in my previous email that “the Ukraine war could be both wars of national defence and inter-imperialist conflict” you were misreading me. I was not saying that I believe the Ukraine crisis is an inter-imperialist conflict or a war of national defence (I don’t think either, and I frame the conflict in terms of the acute crisis of global capitalism). Rather, I was saying, any observer is free to interpret the Ukraine conflict in either of these ways and neither of them would invalidate the global police state thesis – which to reiterate, refers to: 1) how GPS is being developed to contain the global rebellion in new and more sophisticated ways than previous waves of repression thanks to the new digital technologies; 2) as a means of accumulation through wars and repression at a time of overaccumulation and chronic stagnation, and; 3) is conducive to fascism, all of which is entirely true irrespective of how anyone wishes to analyze the Ukraine crisis. I hope this much would be clear. Recall that what I said about global capitalism in The Global Police State is a brief summation of my earlier and very extensive writings on my theory of global capitalism as a qualitatively new epoch in the ongoing and open-ended evolution of world capitalism, characterized above all by the rise of truly transnational capital (and a TCC) and by new worldwide circuits of accumulation and class/state power relations around a globally integrated production, financial and service system (the “global economy”). Those matters are threshed out in four earlier books, and I believe you and Neil read one of them, Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Humanity, which I published in 2014. Again, in GPS, I merely summarized the theory in order to apply it to the idea of a GPS.
Then on to imperialism. You are misrepresenting me when you attribute to me the view that we are in a “post imperialist era”. Those are your words, as I have never used that language. If what we mean by imperialism is inter-state and geopolitical conflict then I would never suggest such a thing as a “post imperialist era”, as interstate conflict has never ceased and will continue to escalate. Much less have I ever argued that the US and other core powers no longer intervene around the world in function of capitalist expansion, exploitation and the repression of any challenges to global capitalist control – and one is welcome to refer to that as imperialism too. The problem among the left and more generally among observers is that the term “imperialism” is thrown around as a buzzword without any discussion or explanation of exactly what the user of the term means by it and thus becomes emptied of any meaning and simply based on rhetoric and unsubstantiated assumptions. I was quite explicit in chapter three of the 2014 book, which was titled “Beyond the Theory of Imperialism”, that we have moved beyond a stage of world capitalism that was characterized when Lenin wrote by discrete national capitalist classes (an English, French, German, U.S., etc. capitalist class) that are in competition with one another. I will not reiterate the argument here, but only stress that this does not mean that these states may not be in competition with one another – whether and in what ways they may require our concrete analyses of concrete situations and of historical conjunctures. Recall also that I have never said there are not local, national, and regional capitals in competition, only that the transnational fraction has become hegemonic over the past 40 years. I was clear in earlier writings that we could expect inter-state conflict, and core state aggression, in cases where either capitalist classes in particular countries have still not substantially integrated into the ranks of transnational capital, or in cases where there is a major state elite (what some call a “state class”) whose status is tied to its own (rather than transnational capitalist) control of accumulation processes. In the latter case, I specifically mentioned China as far back as the early 2000s. I, and by this point, many others, have provided a wealth of empirical evidence to belie any claim that world capitalism remains organized into discrete national capitalist classes in competition with one another and that the level of transnational integration of capitals at this time places us in a new situation distinct from much of the 19th and 20th centuries. So, what I have explicitly argued is that the cornerstone of the classical theory of imperialism – the competition among discrete national capitalist classes, which was the reality when Lenin was writing – is no longer the case.
The conflation that I see in your concern on this matter is the same as the conflation that pervades almost all discussions of imperialism – of the state with capital, of inter-state competition with national capital competition. In the final section of chapter one of Global Civil War I discuss briefly the importance of not collapsing capital and the state even though the two form a unity, a discussion in brief that is more extensive elsewhere in my writings. Despite the specific case of Huawei and others we could point to, which remain anecdotal (and besides, Huawei is an employee-owned company distinct from the mega-corporations that dominate the Chinese economy), Chinese based capital is inextricably integrated into transnational circuits of accumulation, and the Chinese private TCC is as much in a tense relation with the Chinese state and its state elite as are other transnational capitalists and other capitalist states – that is, the Chinese state elite is indeed a problem for the TCC that wants a free and unrestricted access to the Chinese market. What I see among left and non-left analyses alike is a confusion of surface appearance with underlying essence. I did point out in some detail in The Global Police State, to take one example, of how almost everyone characterized Trump’s steel and related tariffs as proof of US capitalist competition with other countries (this is the surface appearance). Yet the TCC, US Chamber of Commerce and the vast majority of US-based corporations were vociferously against those tariffs. For that matter, the beneficiaries of the tariffs were transnational corporations from other countries with investments in the US and the losers were US-based corporations that have major investments outside of the US (the biggest single winner of the steel tariffs was the Indian-based TNC Mittal Steel, which owns the major share of US Steel). What this tells us is that this is real inter-state competition yet there is something else going on to explain it that cannot be explained as competition among the US and other national capitals.
I have argued in Global Police State, Global Civil War, and elsewhere, is that a part of this something else is that capitalist states must deal with the crisis of legitimacy. They must deal with restive populations in their own territories. They must attract transnationally mobile capital to their territories and create conditions for transnational capital accumulation in those territories, in competition with other states. They must hold the internal social order together. And state elites (who are not necessarily capitalists themselves and often are not) must reproduce their own status, tied as it is to the internal social and economic order. It is these drives that help us understand geopolitical tensions and inter-state competition. I spoke in the new book about the “overdetermination” of the political, that is, in this case, of US state considerations. By chance, I am reading just now a book that quotes some European statesmen during WWI who observed that “Europe’s leading statesmen in 1914 believed that war would stave off their social and political problems…. German foreign policy after 1897 must be understood as a response to the internal threat of social democracy”. Neither this early 20th-century statesman nor am I denying that European capitalist classes were in competition over colonies, markets, etc., but that part of the story was the need for external aggression and war to externalize internal threats and crises – just the case right now, in part.
In the case of China, it is these drives, the U.S. effort to weaken the Chinese state grip over the free accumulation of transnational capital inside Chinese territory, and the efforts of those state elites at aggrandizement, that give us a better explanation for the US-China conflict than competition among national capitalist groups. The US as the lead core state must continuously push for worldwide capitalist expansion at a time when a new expansionary wave faces severe obstacles thrown up by the contradictions internal to global capitalism. However – and this is key – there is simply no evidence that the US drive for capitalist expansion means that global capital is organized into discrete national capitalist classes in competition with one another.
Finally, as for the role of militarized accumulation, you misread my thesis more generally, and specifically what I argued in the short Ukraine article. I am not suggesting that US state elites decided they wanted to expand war profits and therefore chose to provoke Russia into invading Ukraine. Rather, the multitude of pressures in the midst of the spiralling crisis of global capitalism, some of which I have alluded to above, pushes the US state (which again, is not to be conflated with or collapsed into, US-based capitalists) into war, intervention, and conflict around the world. We may refer to that as imperialism although I do not use the term precisely because it is so closely associated with the idea of national capitalist classes in competition as if nothing has changed since Lenin’s days, and because more often than not it is simply a rhetoric devise devoid of serious analysis and bereft of empirical support.
In sum, our analyzes are of critical importance but at least in these cases and not for the moment do they change our political position of radical opposition to U.S. aggressive intentions and war drives, to the Russian invasion, and to Chinese state oppression and exploitation, including its exploitation of those regions in Latin America and elsewhere where Chinese capitalists are plundering local communities and extracting wealth.
The conversation is hardly exhausted but that is about as far as I can get for the time being. I still do want to get back to you on the covid matter and will do so as soon as I am able to.
William I Robinson has two new books being released soon in the UK. Global Civil War: Capitalism Post-Pandemic on PM Press and Can Global Capitalism Endure? on Clarity Press.
[i] The late Neil Faulkner, who died in February this year.
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