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= Neo-Marxism as political perspective for Alternative Globalisation

Project: From the Crisis of Capitalism to the Emergence of Peer to Peer Political Ecologies



Summary by Jose Ramos:

Neo-Marxist theories, which explore and articulate alternatives to status quo globalisation, vary greatly. It might also be said that neo-Marxism has influenced so many spheres of inquiry and social theory, as to render generalisations difficult. Here I outline some prominent neo-Marxist discourses which apply to the topic of alternative futures of globalisation. I have identified these as World Systems Theory, Global Systems Theory, and associated neo-Gramscian visions of a global (counter hegemonic) civil society. The following explanation of neo-Marxism as alternative globalisation will proceed by way of contrasting these related but different branches of neo-Marxist alternative globalisation discourse.

World Systems Theory (WST) pioneered the conceptual link between capitalism (and its alternatives) and world-historical dimensions of social analysis. As Sklair argues, WST prefigured globalisation discourses, influencing early critical conceptions of globalisation (Sklair, 2002, pp. 40-41).

From the 1960s on, writers such as Wallerstein, Chase-Dunn and others developed WST into a large body of scholarly work (Chase-Dunn, 1999; Chase-Dunn, 2005; Wallerstein, 1983). By contrast, Global Systems Theory (GST) is much newer, emerging in the mid 1990s through the work of scholars such as Robinson and Sklair (Robinson, 2004; Sklair, 2002). GST shares key features of WST, and possibly owes some of its intellectual foundation to WST; however, the two diverge on certain key points (Robinson, 2004, pp. 8-9), which will be briefly explored.

The foundational structures that WST and GST describe are different in significant ways. In the WST conception, the world system is founded on statist structures, divided between core, semi-peripheral and peripheral nations which are locked into a global struggle for power and resources. As with previous epochs in the history of capitalism, the modern system is a ‘stratification system’, ‘driven primarily by capitalist accumulation and geopolitics in which business and states have competed with one another for power and wealth’ (Chase-Dunn, 2005, p.46).

While earlier conceptions of WST were biased on the importance of the inter-state system (and statist empires in the capitalist process of dispossession and ‘primitive accumulation’, or conquest), more recent accounts acknowledge the importance of globalising capitalist interests along side nationalist capitalist interests (Chase-Dunn, 2005, pp. 48-50).

By contrast, GST argues that nationally based capitalist structures of influence have been fundamentally superseded by the process of capitalist globalisation (Robinson, 2004, pp. 11-14). In such a conception of capitalist globalisation, the inter-state system no longer produces the conditions for capitalism. Rather, the inter-state system is conditioned by the interests of capitalist globalisation. Capitalist globalisation is maintained and extended through trans-national practices which operate in three spheres: the economic (through TNCs), the political (through an emerging trans-national capitalist class (TCC) and the cultural (the culture-ideology of consumerism) (Sklair, 2005 pp. 58-59).

Therefore, while WST emphasises a historically evolving capitalism punctuated by inter state rivalry, GST emphasises the new conditions within a capitalist globalisation, and the collusion between various spheres of power toward its maintenance.

WST and GST also differ in their respective conceptions of history. WST is inspired by the longue duree of Ferdinand Braudel (as a gradual world-historical unfolding of social, political and economic change, starting from the first, or mercantile, era of capitalism). It sees the capitalist system as following the rise and fall of empires, from the beginnings of European expansion in the 16th century, to the present era of ‘globalisation’. The present era of globalisation is seen as a manifestation of US hegemony, the latest empire within the historical development of the world capitalist system, fated to end as did all others (Chase-Dunn, 2005, p. 48). For WST the ‘globalisation’ discourse is hyperbole - recent historical shifts are a matter of degree and not seen as a fundamental shifts (Chase-Dunn, 2005, pp. 49-50).

GST’s periodisation of history, on the other hand, conceptualises the development of capitalism in qualitative terms. Robinson, for example, sees four fundamental epochs in the development of capitalism: first, the early emergence of colonial / mercantile capitalism from the 16th to 18th century; secondly, the era of classical capitalism that coincided with the industrialisation of European empires in the 19th century; thirdly, the rise of corporate monopoly capitalism and consolidation of a world market and nation-state system to the late 20th century; and fourthly, the development of capitalist globalisation from the 1970s onward (Robinson, 2004, pp. 4-5).

Robinson argues that a shift has occurred from previous epochs of ‘extensive expansion’, in which more and more peoples and nations were brought into the orbit of the capitalist system, and ‘intensive expansion’, the current epoch of capitalist globalisation in which the vast majority of peoples of the world are already within the capitalist system, and it is the degree of integration, or subjectification which is at issue (Robinson, 2004, pp. 6-7). The end or completion of extensive expansion, and the acceleration of intensive expansion, corresponds to the migration of capital from the nation state to a global de-territorialised sphere from the 1970s onward. As Robinson writes:

nation-state capitalism – entered into a crisis in the 1970s, precipitating a period of restructuring and transformation. Capital responded… by ‘going global’. This allowed it to break free of the constraints that had been imposed on profit maximisation by working and popular classes and by national governments in the preceding epoch of Keynesian capitalism. (Robinson, 2004, p. 148)

The GST explanation of neo-liberal globalisation rests upon the Marxist-Leninist theory of imperialism. Here, theories of neo–imperialism were based on the notion that even after formal colonialism, capitalism would need to expand into new territories for markets, labour, and resources, as older ones were exhasted. This gives rise to the ‘globalisation as imperialism’ school (Sklair, 2002, p. 30). From this perspective, the interwar period (between WWI and WWII) was merely an interruption in the general trend toward the expansion of the capitalist system globally. Keynesian social democracy in the West, Communism in the East and Dependency economics in the South only restrained or slowed the overall trend. As Harvey argues, capitalism would be forced to find new geographic locales of accumulation, bursting from the limiting constraints of the industrial nation-state. The new mode of global production thus precipitates exploitation through new mechanisms of accumulation by dispossession which become more systematically globalised (Harvey, 2005, pp. 93-94).

Neo-Marxism’s epistemic foundations are heavily influenced by the Italian neo-Marxist historian Gramsci. Gramsci conceived of the scholar-activist which he termed the ‘organic intellectual’, who would situate oneself in the struggle for emancipation among oppressed people. The organic intellectual ‘is a product of an emergent social class, which offers that class some self consciousness in the cultural, political and economic fields’ and ‘is the link between philosophy …and working people … unites theory and practice and what is more, is the central unifying force that facilitates the development of an historic bloc’ (McNaughton, 2005, p. 39). It is organic intellectuals who are key to challenging hegemony through the ideological-cultural struggle for the hearts and minds of ordinary people, thus enabling social transformation.

For Robinson the organic intellectual embodies a reflexivity which allows him or her to see social reality as historically contingent, to ‘not accept the world as we find it as being in any sense natural’, distinguishing the relationship between knowledge and power and understanding located-ness in the production of knowledge. This individual asks: ‘whose mandarins are we?’ (Robinson, 2005b, pp. 13-14). This question of reflexivity then sets up a ‘preferential option’ in which the organic intellectual is at the service of ‘the needs and aspirations of the poor majority of humanity for whom global capitalism is nothing short of alienation, savagery, and dehumanisation’ (Robinson, 2005b, p. 14).

The Gramscian conception embraces civil society as the primary location for social transformation. Cox, for example, locates the possibility of change within a global civil society. The dimensions of exploitation under globalisation link workers, peasants and indigenous people, reformulating what it means to conceive of a counter hegemonic historic bloc (Cox, 2005, p. 118; Robinson, 2004, pp. 168-170). Agency in this way is expressed through the ‘war of position’, in which the conditions for an alternative hegemony are laid through intellectual-cultural labour, undermining the legitimacy and credibility of a hegemonic political block from within.

Other neo-Marxist accounts take a somewhat sceptical view of civil society (Axford, 2005 pp. 187-191; Robinson, 2005a; Sklair, 2002, p. 315), but retain the importance of culture and ideology as a source of leverage in social change. Thus Sklair sees the transitional path to a socialist globalisation through replacing the culture ideology of consumerism with a culture ideology of human rights (Sklair, 2005 p. 62). The development of a counter hegemonic block is still seen, in many accounts, as a primary road to social transformation. In this view a diversity of struggles and social movements, without a ‘common political platform’ will suffer from inherent weaknesses or limitations on action’ (Chase-Dunn, 2005, p. 54). Developing a unified platform is a necessary leveraging which can allow ‘anti-systemic’ movements to be successful.

In this view political power must be wrested from power holders, and this means going beyond ‘the initial phase of protest, education, and networking’ to enter into a position of political negotiation with the neoliberal power structure…’ (Chase-Dunn, 2005, p. 54). Most neo-Marxist accounts, including WST and GST, reserve a special importance for the agency of grassroots social movements and struggles to enact change (Chase-Dunn, 2005, pp. 53-54; Sklair, 2005 p. 62; Wallerstein, 2004b).

Whether or not these movements are successful, what is central is the transformation of class consciousness into a globally coherent, self conscious movement for social transformation. For Sklair, a vision of socialist globalisation is not a rejection of all structures associated with globalisation, but a transformed agenda emphasising human rights and social responsibilities. This includes a ‘revival of the local economy, renegotiation of foreign debt, local economic expansion, community control over the local economy, increased wages, an economy driven by producers and consumer cooperatives, democratic unions of producer-consumer cooperatives and a culture-ideology of human rights on a global scale’ (Sklair, 2002, p. 311).

Michel Bauwens 1

The advantages of neo-Marxism is that it squarely faces the challenges from globalization, while stressing both the underlying class dynamics and the necessity of a political struggle for power.

It seems to me that while the nation-state is certainly not 'dead', the recent evolution would tend to give more credence to the GST theses than the WST theses. Indeed, it seems to me that global markets are a 'real' autonomous force, not just infeodated or using the nation-state. The current post-2008 meltdown and its reaction clearly indicates that the nation-state is captured and victimized by global forces which have instrumentalized even the European Union. Social forces like the Tea Party, whose victory would radically undermine American nation-state, seems to indicate that important sectors of the ruling class have opted for solutions that no longer rely on the nation-state.

The second point for me is that 'hegemony' is not dead, even if its expressions are complicated and partially superseded by dynamics of networked 'affinity'. But the peer to peer forces cannot simply abandon the nation-state to their enemies, and neither can they afford, in the long run, not to challenge the global corporate media and financial class and its dynamics. This is why I call for a global coalition of the commons, which combines the forces of social justice (workers and labour movements),the forces for the defense of the biosphere (green and eco-movements) and the forces for a liberation of culture and social innovation (free culture movement), as the constituent blocks of a new hegemony. It is also why I stress the search for commonality of purpose in directions that transcend the old industrial left-right divide. Not because I believe in compromises with neoliberalism, but because there is a real majority against its basic tenets, and that majority has to be wedged out of its tacit support for the status quo.

The third point then, is the remaining essentiallity of the state form. Even in its weakened form, it must be transformed and be made to serve the peer producers and this will require a profound transformation of the present forms of the state. While the neoliberal corporate welfare state is the enemy, the social welfare state is also insuffficient for the new social demands and must become a Partner State. Equally important will be to transcend such national limits and to create global networks and alliances that can tackle the global financial powers and their institutions, and replace them with new internetworked institutions.

In general, our relation with neo-Marxism must be non-ideological, and what remains of use in Marxism must be integrated in a larger body of integrative thought, which can include insights from many other traditions.

Jose Ramos

You have mentioned this forces for social justice, workers and labor movements, as an important aspect of the struggle against capitalism. For me, the questions that neo-Marxist theory raises is profoundly related to peer-to-peer theory and practice specifically because neo-Marxism's structural focus has been on the concept of class and economic production and accumulation. It is for this reason that I think peer-to-peer theory and practice has much much more to articulate in regards to the transformation of the classic concept of class, productivity and accumulation.

So first I would like to probe a bit more with some questions and concepts. Classical Marxism constructed the idea of a worker in the context of the 18-19th century, in effect the industrial worker (or in re-localist terms the fossil fuel based worker). The postindustrial turn in developed countries, the hollowing out of key industries as they were outsourced to “developing countries”, and the important concept and role of immaterial production, which you have discussed at length in other places, in my mind has a very important role to play in helping to re-articulate the idea of the worker, the idea of class, the idea of productivity and accumulation. Is not the practical or idealized peer-to-peer producer a worker? And is not the producer of immaterial wealth a part of a class? So in a structural sense, if peer producers are going to avoid the divide and conquer strategy used by capitalism, how do we reimagine the idea of collective struggle/solidarity among peer producers? Another question, somewhat related to the development discourse, is how we imagine this emerging (counter-hegemonic) economic base capitalizing and sustaining the productive power of this new postindustrial “class". I think that you answer this in part through discussing the importance of states as a key battleground, and I agree with your analysis - we cannot abandon the state as it is a core mechanism of power and control. However to touch on central neo-Marxist themes, I think peer-to-peer theory and practice has much potential in reinvigorating concepts of class, productivities and accumulation (yes I do refer a bit here to M. Wark).

A second important concept related to structure that you mentioned is hegemony. If we take Antonio Gramsci's idea of hegemony, then we are talking about public culture as a battleground for the struggle. So my question here would be how peer-to-peer processes form part of a new capacity or enablement and cultural production and cultural influence? In particular we think of the organizations and institutions of everyday life, and how peer-to-peer cultural production is currently influencing and moving public opinion, or the potential that it has to do so?

Related to this is a question of agency. Within neo-Marxism the principal agents are “organic intellectuals” who facilitate broad conscientization, and who help shift the cultural ground (think Noam Chomsky), and worker/labor solidarities. My question here is whether peer-to-peer theory or practice re-articulates or reimagines either of these? This is somewhat related to my first question on the idea of class.

The socialist vision of the future is not only one of the strong points within this discourse, but it has been enacted in a variety of places: socialized medicine, education etc. in a host of different countries. Most of these visions, promises or enactments have indeed been constructed through political struggles for states, both regionally and nationally. How consistent is peer-to-peer theory or practice with such state based formations, or will it only create a new form which sit squarely in the new 3rd location beyond the private and the state, as you have articulated elsewhere?

Finally, neo-Marxism has a very strong grounding in history, both from the world systems theory perspective and global systems theory perspective, This peer-to-peer theory or practice departs significantly from these neo-Marxist conceptions of history, or more by degree?

More Information

Other perspectives discussed in this series:

Done to date:

To be done:

  • Re-localisation
  • Ecumenism
  • En-gendered
  • Co-Evolution
  • Auto-nomistic
  • Indigenous Struggles for Equipotentiality