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Capitalists, the state and globalization
“The tendency to create the world market is directly given in a concept of capital itself. Every limit appears as a barrier to be overcome…In accord with this tendency, capital drives beyond national barriers and prejudices as much as beyond nature worship, as well as all traditional, confined, complacent…reproductions of old ways of life. It is destructive towards all of this, and constantly revolutionizes it, tearing down all the barriers which hem in the development of the forces of production, the expansion of needs…” etc. (Grundrisse).
This is how Karl Marx saw globalization as an inseparable part of capitalists’ interests and drive. Nothing has changed in 180 years since the passage was written to make us believe that the behavior and the incentives of capitalists are different today. So is the continuation of “high globalization” that began with the opening of China and the fall of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, simply a natural and unstoppable process of capitalism breaking barriers of space, technology and habits in search of profit? In our own time capitalism has expanded not only geographically but also by creating new activities and new markets from renting our flats to being paid for influencing other people’s buying decisions or selling one’s name as a trademark. How can we then understand that the quintessential capitalist country like the United States might decide to opt out of globalization or at least to restrict its further advance?
We can explain it, I think, only by bringing two other “players” in addition to the one highlighted by Marx. First, we can bring in the state assuming that the state is to some extent an autonomous actor, and that what it does is not entirely determined by capitalists’ interests. It is a topic which has been discussed for over a century and on which no consensus has been reached. But if the state does have sufficient autonomy of action then it can override, in some cases, the interests of capitalists.
The second possibility is to allow for the split within the capitalist class. Alongside what we may call “the cosmopolitan capitalists” who have profited handsomely from globalization through outsourcing of production, there may be what we might call “the military capitalists”, i.e. that part of the capitalist class directly linked with the “security” sector, procurement of weapons and replacement of technologically suspicious imports from unfriendly countries. The removal of every Kaspersky anti-virus protection software and every Chinese-made CCTV camera benefits somebody who would produce a substitute. They do have incentive to support a more bellicose policy and thus to question globalization.
But military capitalists labor under two important handicaps. They are very unusual capitalists in the sense that their profits depend on state expenditures which in turn require high taxes. So in principle they have to be in favor of high taxation in order to fund government expenses on defense. They might benefit on balance, but the preference for high spending and taxes puts them at odds with other capitalists. The second problem is that by restraining globalization they work against a force responsible for lower increase in nominal wages, namely cheaper wage goods imported from Asia. For perhaps that the greatest contribution of China and the rest of Asia was not the direct one (higher profits from investments), but the indirect one: allowing Western real wages to rise, albeit modestly, but shifting the distribution in favor of capital. This is what has happened over the last thirty years in the US and other advanced economies and goes under the rubric of the decoupling between productivity and real wage growth: it is just another way to say that the labor share has gone down. The labor share has gone down without reducing real wage thanks to the fact that wage goods themselves have become cheaper. This was a huge boon to both cosmopolitan and military capitalists. If globalization is overturned, that benefit will evaporate: nominal wage would have to go up even if the real wage is constant, and the profit share in GDP will be reduced.
Thus military capitalists face two problems: they need to argue for higher taxation and implicitly in favor of reduction of capital incomes. Neither is popular. However the success cannot be ruled out. An alliance may be formed between the military capitalists and the hawkish part of the semi-autonomous state. They may be wiling to accept such “costs” if they enable the US to curb China’s rise. The pure geopolitics would dominate economic interest. Historical experience helps such an alliance too: US has won all big wars (the First, the Second, and the Cold) and every time its victory has led it to the peak of geopolitical and economic power. Why should not that happen again?
This is how we should regard the future of globalization, at least from the point of view of the western calculation: as a trade-off between unconstrained geopolitical power and higher real domestic incomes. The economic arguments as well as the usual (and at times perhaps facile) assumption that the state does what capitalists want it to do overwhelmingly point in favor of continued globalization. Yet the “bellic alliance” may be just sufficiently strong to keep the other side in check, if not to entirely overturn globalization and shift the country towards autarky.
[This is the text of an article commissioned by New Statesman. I do not know what happened with it. It was not published by New Statesman; perhaps they did not like it. I thus decided to publish it on my Substack.]