‘The Political Economy of Global Capitalism and Crisis’, ‘Global Capitalism: Selected Essays’ reviewed by Pete Green


The Political Economy of Global Capitalism and Crisis

Routledge, Abingdon, Oxon, 2014. 188pp., £27.99 pb
ISBN 9780415844383


Global Capitalism: Selected Essays

Routledge, Abingdon, Oxon, 2015. 244pp., £26.99 pb
ISBN 9780415726412

Reviewed by Pete Green

About the reviewer

Pete Green is an Independent Researcher and UCU Retired Member. …

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Both of these books have been published in the RIPE (Review of International Political Economy) Series in Global Political Economy. They share a number of themes, most notably, as the titles indicate, the global restructuring of capitalism since the 1970s, and the impact of the latest phase of global economic and financial crisis. But they are structured very differently.

Bill Dunn in his Introduction is explicitly concerned with questions of Marxist method. He sets out an ambitious agenda of moving from the most ‘general, abstract determinants which obtain in more or less all forms of society’ (6, quoting from Marx’s Grundrisse) through successive conceptual levels to, in the final chapter, an assessment of the ‘prospects for global capitalism’ in the wake of the ‘Crisis’ (12). Along the way he addresses questions of value theory, the heterogeneity of capital, a theory of crisis and recovery, states and global capitalism, the Keynesian moment and its contradictions, and Global restructuring, to quote just six of the eleven chapter headings. All this occupies 164 densely packed pages before the extensive list of references.

Hugo Radice, by contrast, provides us with an artfully selected sample of his work over three decades, comprising 12 essays with dates stretching from 1984 to 2010. These are organised into four groups of three: on Globalisation; on Britain and the world economy; on Global capitalism and development; and finally on The recent crisis. This collection is very welcome both because it brings together pieces scattered over many different journals and edited collections and hopefully because it will find new readers for some old articles which have retained their relevance for current debates. Inevitably in such a collection there is a certain amount of repetition and some dated material (notably in chapters from the 1990s on Britain and on Eastern Europe). Yet what strikes this reviewer, who can recall being provoked by the first piece, `The national economy: a Keynesian myth?’ back in 1984 when it first appeared, is how much of a then controversial argument has been confirmed by the subsequent evolution of global capitalism.

Back in the early 1980s Radice was challenging the advocates, especially within the Bennite left, of an Alternative Economic Strategy in Britain, a strategy which in Radice’s words sought to combine ‘restoring national sovereignty with a strategy for socialist transformation’. This perspective shared with Keynesian theory the assumption that there was a relatively self-contained national economy. Indeed, as Radice explains in another essay, Keynes, in his 1933 article on `National self-sufficiency’ responded to the disintegration of the world economy in the 1930s with an argument that restrictions on the free movement of capital and goods were necessary preconditions for the full employment policies he advocated. Greater national economic autonomy (even if in Britain that was really imperial self-sufficiency) was a general consequence of the Great Depression and the Second World War which followed. But by the 1970s, even before the policy changes of the Thatcher government such as the abolition of exchange controls which accelerated the process, the British economy had once again become deeply integrated into the international economy. Nor was this simply a function of the revival of the international role of the City and finance generally. Industrial MNCs based in Britain were to the fore in both overseas investment and sourcing equipment suppliers from elsewhere. This put into question the realism of any strategy which hoped to appeal to a class alliance with domestic industry against the City.

 Radice also extended his critique to those Marxists who relied on Bukharin’s work of 1918 for an analysis of Imperialism and the world economy. In particular he noted that there was something ‘curiously ahistorical’ (24) about Bukharin’s generalisation from the period leading up to the first world war. Capitalism, he argues correctly, only emerged ‘in and on the basis of a world economy’ (25) and it is now possible to see the whole period of ‘nationalisation’ (not perhaps the best description) from the late 19th century through to the 1960s as exceptional.

`Responses to globalisation: a critique of progressive nationalism’, from 2000, develops this argument in response to what by then had become a flood of writing about ‘globalisation’. His targets here are the ‘globalisation sceptics’, represented in Britain most prominently by Hirst and Thompson. The response is nuanced, acknowledging the validity of a number of the sceptics’ claims against those who became known as the ‘hyperglobalisers’. There is nothing new about a global economy, capital is not always ‘free to move wherever and whenever it likes’, the global economy remains extremely unequal, and not least ‘emerging elements of global governance continue to rest on the political and legal foundations of the nation-state’ (56). In his essay on ‘The developmental state under global neoliberalism’, from 2008, he endorses the position of Justin Rosenberg, that globalisation is not an independent causal factor but the ‘historical consequence of global capitalist development’ (159). All of these arguments also appear in Dunn’s book although Dunn himself, once firmly in the sceptic camp, remains more equivocal than Radice on whether the concept ‘globalisation’ is even useful, despite conceding at one point its relevance to the changing position of China within the global economy.

However, the sceptics tend to counterpose state and market, national and international, a binary conceptualisation which Radice rightly rejects. These antinomies in turn are used to justify policy responses in which the state is presumed to be acting in a ‘national interest’ (65) whereas Radice insists that it is the class division between capital and labour which is primary. The failures of ‘progressive nationalism’ he argues are evident not just in Britain but wherever modernised ‘social-democratic parties’ have adopted the agenda of ‘progressive competitiveness’ (67). The only way forward he suggests is for labour to adopt an explicitly transnational perspective although he is very sketchy on how that could be implemented in practice.

These themes recur through subsequent chapters. A piece on `Britain and Europe’ from 2007 provides a succinct but useful survey of different Marxist approaches to European integration and notes how in Britain the left shifted in response to defeats under Thatcher away from advocating withdrawal from the EU to seeing the European social charter as providing a lifeline (113). Radice is caustic about the advocates of ‘social market capitalism’ and the ‘varieties of capitalism’ literature in general. As he notes in several of the later pieces the recent trend has been for countries such as Germany and Sweden to move much closer towards the neoliberal ‘Anglo-Saxon’ model of capitalism anyway. But he is equally dismissive of ‘little Britain’ arguments for rejection of the EU.

The final section of the collection contains three pieces on the recent crisis. The first of these `Confronting the crisis: a class analysis’ reiterates an earlier theme with some critical comments on the ‘methodological nationalism’ (185) evident in the approach of those who see the crisis as in some sense a crisis of globalisation itself. On the contrary, Radice rightly insists, the response of governments was to ‘deepen global coordination rather than retreat from it’ (184). Unlike the 1930s there was no return to national protectionism precisely because there was scarcely a single large firm anywhere not deeply enmeshed in complex global chains of supply and demand. The final brief chapter on `The Crisis and the global South’ emphasises that it is the so-called emerging economies led by China, which have continued to grow faster since the crisis and have become less dependent upon markets in the old core in the process, another critical difference from the 1930s.

Nor, despite widespread expectations to the contrary, did the crisis put an end to neoliberalism which Radice accurately summarises as a ‘project of class hegemony’. Certainly states were to the fore in rescuing their banks and other financial institutions but the costs of that were imposed on the mass of workers. `Cutting government deficits: economic science or class war’ from 2011 provides a short but incisive survey of the rise of Thatcherism in Britain and neoliberalism as an ideology which economically embraced both financialisation and globalisation as two interrelated trends. At stake therefore in the policies of austerity in Britain as elsewhere is less the economics of financing deficits than the politics of class war. It’s not enough for the left to rely on Keynesian critiques of this strategy. It needs, Radice concludes, to reassert the ‘class nature of capitalism … without denying the political significance of other forms of oppression’ (205).

One possible criticism of Radice’s book is that his brief comments about Marxist crisis theory in the final section do little justice to the complexities of recent debates or even to individuals such as Robert Brenner, although Brenner is deservedly indicted for his ‘methodological nationalism’. It is much more enlightening to clearly locate the restructuring of global capitalism and financialisation since the 1970s as a response to a crisis of profitability in the 1970s and 80s, drawing on the theoretical framework of Marx’s analysis of tendency and countertendency.

Dunn by comparison does attempt to address the theoretical questions more explicitly in the light of Marx’s value theory. On most of the critical political issues otherwise Dunn and Radice share a common perspective especially on the class character of neoliberalism and the response by states to the crisis. Dunn’s chapter on Keynesianism and its contradictions provides a more detailed historical perspective on the long boom of the postwar period from 1945 but also confirms Radice’s observations on the limits of Keynesianism which were so apparent by the 1970s.

More distinctive is Dunn’s emphasis in chapter 5, `A Contribution to a Theory of Crisis and Recovery’, on the cyclical nature of capitalism. This demands that we pay more attention not just to the causes of crises but to the recoveries, or the ‘transformation of slumps into booms’. Recovery as he observes ‘need not be automatic and may be achieved only with considerable difficulty’ (61) and this has certainly been evident in the latest phase of crisis in Europe, and Japan. Dunn proceeds to examine four theories of crisis, wage-push theory, underconsumption, disproportionalities and a tendential fall in the rate if profit with respect to both logical consistency and empirical data. He concludes that ‘none separately provides a satisfactory account of crises and recovery ’ (73) and that some sort of synthesis is required.

Yet when it comes to his detailed account of the latest phase of crisis no such synthesis is evident. Instead Dunn relies on a framework derived from the late US post-Keynesian economist Minsky for an analysis of financial speculation and the bursting of the bubble in 2007/8. He does this well and attempts to link in an analysis of global imbalances in a manner which is suggestive if not very precise. But the connection to the earlier analysis of Marx’s crisis theory is tenous at best.

Unfortunately the scope of the book is far too broad and Dunn can fairly be criticised as overambitious. There are many interesting ideas, dispersed like sparks off a sparkler, but few of them are developed in any depth and possible critical objections are frequently not even acknowledged . To take just one example which I found particularly irritating: Dunn suggests in the early chapter on value theory that Marx’s concept of value is applicable much more broadly than the capitalist mode of production. That could simply mean that elements of the analysis are applicable to any monetised economy which would be controversial but in my view defensible. Yet he also suggests at one point, after misinterpreting Marx’s famous letter to Kugelmann (30), that value relations are present wherever there is the performance of social labour, which denies the essential connection in Marx between value and exchange-value. His defence of the transhistorical character of uneven and combined development, also derived from Rosenberg but given a lot of stress in Dunn’s opening chapter, is far too sketchy to be persuasive. But both books are testaments to the vitality of Marxist work in this field.

30 March 2015

4 comments

  1. You’re right about Bill Dunn’s severance of value from exchange value – this is in part a legacy of his state capitalism – paradoxically it was also a position advocated by Stalin.

  2. The reviewer and perhaps Dunn too should know that the basic ( Hegelian dialectical) contradiction throughout Marx’s Capital and in capitalism itself as Marx exposed it–more or less– is between value and use value and not between value and exchange value. There is an excellent review of my 2009 book Capitalism and the Dialectic at this site in which I demonstrate this but in any case Marx tells us this in Vol.I after acknowledging that he had misspoken when he earlier referred to the basic contradiction as being between exchange value and use value. Once you grasp the dialectic of capital as it unfolds over the 3 volumes of Capital you must recognize that Marx’s correction was right on the money or should I say capital. Dunn’s attempt to extend value theory beyond capitalism would thus appear to be misguided to say the least.

  3. John Bell is correct about the basic contradiction but this unfolds in Marx throuigh a succession of more complex forms. The point about Marx’s differentiation between value and exchange-value is one I emphasised in a recent review I wrote in Historical Materialism (22.1 2014 on two collections edited by Bellofiore and others) and not contradicted by what I wrote in this review.
    Bill Jeffreys however fails to recognise that it is possible to defend a state capitalist analysis of the former USSR whilst recognising the distinctive character of the suppression of the law of value within the ‘command economy’. Cliff’s version of the theory makes this point whilst insisting that the USSR could not escape the reassertion of the law of value via the pressures of military competition. Dunn’s attempt to defend the ‘state capitalism’ thesis by broadening the scope of Marx’s value theory is, however, mistaken as I suggest in the review.

  4. Well anything’s possible in words. All theories of state capitalism attempt to solve the unsolveable. Capitalism is generalised commodity production, while the centrally planned economies were predicated on the suppression of commodity production. How to get around this base level contradiction? State capitalists present essentially two different, and counter-posed answers to it. On the one hand they argue that capitalism is not commodity production, this is Binns, Haynes and Dunn or they argue that there was commodity production in the USSR this is Harman. Cliff straddles both camps, he argues that there was no commodity production in the USSR, but the state capitalist nature of it was determined by the absence of the thing that essentially defined it.

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