Thursday, April 7, 2016

HIGHLY recommended: Empire of Capital (2003)

“‘[A]nti-capitalist’ movements [targeting corporations and transnational institutions like the IMF and World Bank] have been effective in bringing to light the devastating effects of ‘globalization’, especially in capturing the attention of the advanced [sic] capitalist world, which has long ignored the consequences of global capitalism. They have raised the consciousness of many people throughout the world, and they have offered the promise of new oppositional forces. But it may be that it some respects they are based on faulty premises. The conviction that global corporations are the ultimate source of globalization’s evils, and that the power of global capital is politically represented above all in supranational institutions like the WTO, may be based on the assumption that global capitalism behaves the way it does because it is global, rather than (or more than) because it is capitalist. The principle task for oppositional forces, it seems, is to target the instruments of capital’s global reach rather than to challenge the capitalist system itself.

In fact, many participants in movements of this kind are not so much anti-capitalist as anti-‘globalization’, or perhaps anti-neoliberal, or even just opposed to particularly malignant corporations. They assume that the detrimental effects of the capitalist system can be eliminated by taming global corporations or by making them more ‘ethical’, ‘responsible’, and socially conscious.

But even those who are more inclined to oppose the capitalist system itself may assume that the more global the capitalist economy becomes, the more global the political organization of capital will be. So, if globalization has made the national state increasingly irrelevant, anti-capitalist struggles must move immediately beyond the nation state, to the global institutions where the power of global capital truly lies.

We need to examine these assumptions critically, but not because anti-capitalist movements are wrong in their conviction that transnational corporations are doing great damage and need to be challenged, or that the WTO and the IMF are doing the work of global capital – which is certainly true. Nor are these movements wrong in their internationalism or their insistence on solidarity among oppositional forces throughout the world.* We need to scrutinize the relation between global capital and national states because even the effectiveness of international solidarity depends on an accurate assessment of the forces available to capital and those accessible to opposition.” – Ellen Meiksins Wood, Empire of Capital, pp. 137-139
There are so many insightful articles, books, and films about corporate misdeeds, the destructiveness of transnational agencies, the culture and psychology of colonialism, and the history of US overt and covert foreign intervention. But too often they lack a firm appreciation of the economic forces at work (some otherwise useful books don’t even list capitalism in the index).** Meanwhile, good, readable general books on capitalist imperialism are hard to find.

Understanding capitalism’s tendencies and imperatives and how they shape political culture, domestic and foreign policy, and global power relations is indispensable for addressing every issue today. As the quote above suggests, it’s also essential for anyone fighting for a better, radically different world.

Ellen Meiksins Wood’s Empire of Capital - written as the Bush administration prepared the US invasion of Iraq - is the rare work that can help people develop such an understanding. If I were teaching these days, I would assign it. Refreshingly minimalist (I don’t know if it contains a single extraneous sentence), beautifully organized, and free of jargon, it makes its case clearly and thoughtfully. A book like this doesn’t, of course, replace more targeted studies, but it crucially contextualizes them.

* The insistence on solidarity seems to have been decreasing in recent years, leaving some struggles against, for example, trade policy open to exploitation or cooptation by nationalist and imperialist forces.

** This isn’t to argue that the authors themselves lack this appreciation, although this is sometimes the case. What’s important is that the arguments aren’t adequately situated within the capitalist context.

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