I think I mentioned my turn towards Marxism lately, particularly Neomarxism in International Relations. This scholarship involves the three-volume work of Immanuel Wallerstein and Christopher Chase-Dunn. I want to briefly summarize neo-Marxist theory and then draw links to Thomas Barnett’s work.
Neomarxists begin from the fundamental assumption of historical materialism: the history of the modern world is driven by the capitalist pursuit of surplus value through the exploitation of labor divorced from the means of production. As capitalism creates new exploitive relationships between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, it ultimately creates contradictions that bring down the entire system in a socialist revolution.
Whereas Marx conceptualized his theory in terms of a single society (drawn from observations of Great Britain), Neomarxists study the entire capitalist world-system as a single unit of analysis, with specific attention to the historical evolution of the system leading up to its present form. Of particular importance are the contradictions created by the relationships between states that lead to their rise and fall within the global capitalist system. Thus, Wallerstein shows how capitalism emerges from feudalism through the death of the Hapsburgian bid for world-empire and the decline of the commercial Italian city-states, such as Venice and Genoa. While these survived the wars of the early 16th Century, political economic supremacy gave way to the United Provinces of the Netherlands, the first hegemonic nation-state to possess a comparative advantage in a series of commodities (herring, wooden ship-building). Thus, the Netherlands becomes the first hegemonic state in the capitalist ‘core’ and exploits several ‘peripheries’ and maintains a favorable division of labor. In this way, the political apparatus that is the Dutch ‘state’ creates opportunities for the Dutch bourgeoisie to amass a surplus of capital. The construction of a favorable market requires a strong state, and this historical period sees the increasing strength of the Dutch Republic. At the same time, political organizations in the peripheries remain weak and are made dependent upon relationships with the core state. This is the political dimension of hegemony in a capitalist world-system.
However, all hegemonic states eventually decline as their comparative advantage in a set of commodities gives way to rising hegemonic states and their development of a comparative advantage in new commodities. In this way, ‘core’ status within the world economy shifts from one state to another as rising hegemons discover new and more efficient modes of production. The Netherlands declines in the late 17th Century and gives way to England, whose industrial mode of production and comparative advantage in textile production propelled it to the core of the capitalist world-economy and the incorporation of new peripheries into the world-system, namely New World colonies and Eastern Europe, particularly for foodstuffs imported by England. The terms of state strength, England experiences increasing state strength and the formation of a globe-spanning Navy and colonial administration while Poland remains a weak constitutional monarchy. Real power remains in the hands of feudal aristocrats who import their agricultural products to the core. The industrial ‘development’ of core states and the feudal ‘backwardness’ of peripheral states are thus interrelated phenomena of the global capitalist system.
To make a long historical story more relevant to contemporary events, the 19th Century saw competing capitalist European states industrialize and all gain colonies, thereby spreading the capitalist world-system across the entire globe. British hegemony ends with the challenge posed by Nazi Germany’s bid for world-empire, and hegemony then passes to the United States whose power peaks in 1945. We have been in decline since then, and given the economic turmoil of the past year, it should be clear that our hegemony is finally slipping away. The contradictions of our capitalist economy have collapsed on themselves and we are no longer at the center of the capitalist world-economy. This is obvious given the last twenty years of American capitalism. After the Wall fell, we created capitalist relations throughout the East with the onset of a new commodity, namely information. This led to capitalist overinvestment and speculation that could not be met by the consumption of information products: hence the dot-com bubble at the turn of the millenium. Instead of truly facing our own contradictions, we created new ones by lowering interest rates and exploiting two much older commodities: real estate and finance capital. The story is still the same. We exploited these commodities to the point at which their consumption could no longer support the massive amount of investment needed to sustain this economic system and the bubble collapsed, except this time that bubble was our entire economy. Hence, 10.2% official unemployment. The Empire State, formerly the center of late 20th Century capitalism, is now broke and the federal government faces massive budget deficits. Whether or not we experience complete social disorder as predicted by John Robb is a possibility, depending of course on how we deal with our own contradictions.
Whereto from here? The short term answer is that hegemony shifts to a new state with a more efficient mode of production and more profitable comparative advantage. The most obvious answer is China, or at least some other state that can manufacture goods more cheaply or develop new technology permitting the exchange of a new commodity (maybe energy, maybe information, etc). New semiperipheral states thereby increase in state strength and become core states, while older Core states seek to guard their economic and political stability via protectionism and socialist concessions to the proletariat, if they can afford them (universal education, universal health care). Yet, the same contradictions will lead to the decline of future core states and the rise of new ones which exploit new peripheries and control their weak states. Instability within the global system is thereby continually reproduced if the logic of the system is left unchanged.
However, there are moments in world history where agents (in this case, capitalist states) reflexively realize how their own actions reproduce instability. In weak states, such instability takes the form of terrorism and insurgency which can become global forms of political violence (see 9/11). At this reflexive moment, core states purposefully establish new relationships with peripheral states that are not exploitive but are mutually reciprocal. If true, then reflexive core states must develop a grand strategy to recognize the right of peripheral states to engage in capitalist development on their own terms, and encourage the development strong peripheral states that can propel themselves into the semi-periphery. As core states conceptualize a reflexive grand strategy, they do so as a means of resolving the contradictions created by their own participation in the global capitalist economy.
This is why Thomas Barnett’s grand strategy is so important. He argues that the United States should ensure that globalization engulfs the entire world-system. However, he also recognizes that capitalism creates in own instability within weak states that can only be resolved with strong bureaucratic institutions. Therefore, reflexive core states (America) must purposely support state-building throughout the world. Neomarxist terms are also deeply embedded his entire vision of grand strategy. Core states are considered ‘the Old Core’, semiperipheral states are considered the ‘New Core’, while peripheral weak or failed states exist in ‘the Gap’. To resolve this contradictions Barnett calls for the creation of System Administration, or the SysAdmin, a bureaucracy that regulates the capitalist world-system by creating conditions that permit the emergence of strong states in the periphery, thereby ‘sealing the Gap’. The new relationships between Core and peripheral states becomes less exploitive and more reciprocal as each recognizes a ‘right to capital’ and the ability to regulate capitalism within its own borders.
I am not saying that the emergence of the SysAdmin will resolve all contradictions within the global capitalist economy. Far from it, as capitalism will produce new ones. However, the SysAdmin does work to create new state agents that jointly regulate the capitalist world- economy. This has already begun to happen with the emergence of the G-20, as the executive committee of the global bourgeoisie, including both old and new Core states (I think Barnett has said something to this effect, so it is not my terminology). If the G-20 acts reflexively, then it can jointly manage the contradictions produced by global capitalism and support of strong states in the periphery, leading to a ‘new’ new Core whose states are recognized by all other states as having a right to make decisions about their participation in global capitalism. In this way, a reflexive international state system overcomes capitalist contradictions by developing the bureaucratic capacity to reproduce itself.
The point of all this is not that Barnett is a Neomarxist. . However, his grand strategy is consistent with the long-term rise and demise of the world-capitalist system. Neomarxists don’t believe that capitalism will end in a grand moment of revolution, but through a process of incremental steps in which capitalism is tamed by global political organization. Thus, the long-term outcome for Neomarxists is the emergence of a democratic world-state, one that can regulate global capitalism according to the collective action of all of humanity. If this is the outcome (some non-Marxists using a constructivist teleology even say it is inevitable), then the formation of a System Administrator is one significant step in the eventual formation of a world state. It is the administrative kernel whereby humanity begins to tame capitalism and check its own contradictions by building regulative state institutions across the globe. And, if states can reflexively recognize each other and paradoxically transcend their own boundaries (like the European Union), then the long-term development of the world state becomes something other than a mere utopian fantasy.
So whither capitalism? Absolutely, before it withers us. But whence the SysAdmin? Whence a reflexive grand strategy? Time will tell, but hopefully sooner rather than later.