Notes on the Global Condition: Against synecdoche! … A plural taxonomy of capitalist globalization

When we speak of the uneven and combined development of global capitalism, what is that is uneven, what is it that is combined?

At the most basic level we might just mean capital and labour in different quantities and ratios. But that is not what we generally invoke when we think of uneven and combined development. There is a terrible temptation to talk about national economies. The pitfalls lurking in that direction are all too obvious. In part as an antidote I started to argue yesterday that a richer account might be derived by looking at specific, technopolitical and economic complexes that might be called sectors (It may turn out that “complexes” is a better term than “sectors”, or that when sectors combine, as in military-industrial, what you have is a complex. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating). Juxtaposing the dollar based global financial system and the global chocolate production chain I suggested that we uneven and combined development as an articulation of multiple inter-related sectors making up a complex whole.

If we allow that (1) the global dollar system anchored by the Fed and the US Treasury and

(2) the agro-industrial system, as illustrated by cocoa

are two separate politico-economic regimes of globalization, with very different political economies, this raises the question of whether there are other sectors  that also could be said to have distinct logics. What is of interest, are complexes in which economics, technology and politics are entangled in distinctive ways:

(3) Manufacturing globalization based on more or less footloose FDI, transferring some technology, but mainly driven by search for cheap labour a la Nike. This, if you like, is the flat world created by the bulldozing action of GATT, WTO and major regional free trade systems like NAFTA and EU.  Just one? Does it need to be broken down analytically? The way I am suggesting we use it her, it is a big baggy sector. But this, I would argue, is not just the result of my failure to provide a better definition. The bagginess of the definition captures the deliberately constructed “openness” at least over a specific range, the creation of the truly, flat, unrestricted, undemarcated, “free market”. Bulldozing is the principal role of the state here. After that, it is relatively “hands off”. On the other hand this is precisely where a lot of commodity-chain and value-chain analysis actually does it works and perhaps there are results there that should force a rethink on my part.

(4) Oil, or extractive, resource-based capitalism. Distinctive for its combination of massive capital intensity, oligopolistic corporate structure, profoundly territorial quality (one of key drivers of classic late 19th century and 20th century imperialism and today of petro-states and their geopolitics), very low demand elasticity (we are “hooked” on fossil fuels).

(5) Biopolitical: centered on the body as the ultimate terrain of sovereignty, but also, from the point of view of the individual with purchasing power and voice the ultimate constraint on the time budge (In the not so long run, we are all dead. Hence the unhinged levels of spending on the final few months of life in the rich world). A zone of intermodal competition between privatized “big bucks” medicine, national health care systems and more basic regimes of individual and collective survival, including the transnational interventions of an actor like MSF. This may look like a relatively parochial sector, but it only takes a global pandemic like AIDS and struggles over drug licensing and pricing to starkly reveal its distinctive mode of globalization. Another way to approach biopolitical globalization, would be via the question of global labour migration and medical and care work. Doctors, nurses and carers are amongst the most globalized workforces.

(6) Real estate. One is tempted to say that bricks and mortar are by definition not suitable for globalized commerce, but securitization has changed that. As Savills the global real estate agency likes to tell its investor clients, real estate constitutes 60 percent or more of all maintream assets.–of-all-mainstream-assets Its an astonishing figure and one designed to bring into being, at least in the imagination of the big money investor, a huge range of fungible opportunities. To that extent you might say that it was “just another” asset. But like soil/climate sensitive agricultural or oil it has a major differentiator, the system is ultimately driven by location, location, location. Hence the suggestion by Jameson, Piketty and others that it is the ultimate foundation of wealth hierarchies. We simply cannot understand global wealth distributions without adding this qualification.

(7) Military-industrial: the global arms trade (ranging from the sharing or non-sharing of nuclear technology, to a bulk order for Chinese made machetes placed by the Rwanda regime in 1993) has highly distinctive politico-economic logics. This not surprising since the circulation of weapons is tied, in the way that the circulation of sneakers and cocoa are not, to entangled processes of state formation and disintegration.

(8) Logistics: the business of overcoming space and time. Like the extractive industries and the agro-industrial complex it is closely and inherently linked to territorial sovereignty but in this case through varying regimes of mobility. Road, rail, “sea” and air constitute highly distinctive and competitive regimes that are tied together in functional systems. The neuralgic relationship to sovereignty is marked by the allergic reaction to piracy and highjacking of aircraft.

(9) Information Technologies and Comms: “Print capitalism” and its descendants down through the internet, for which this blogpost is being written, in bed, on a laptop made in China, designed in California and connected wirelessly to the world.

(10) The global entertainment business and its factories for stars, myths and brands: the sports, branding, media and gaming empire; the money-driven meaning-making and -unmaking machine; where propaganda and censorship meet the cash-machine.

Is this all? Only 10? I need to think more about the principles that underlie this rough taxonomy of distinctive sectors. I’m totally open to suggestion.

The basic idea, by making plurality explicit and, perhaps, producing an allergic reaction, is to make us think about the degree to which we smuggle plurality in to general concepts like “capitalism”, without acknowledging our dependence on that residual, “tacked on” pluralism. The pluralizing terms are there, doing work, but without being acknowledged as the accompaniment to our stagelight grabbing generalization. And if that exclusion by itself were not bad enough, it also makes us susceptible to the charm of an upstart designator of plurality that suddenly takes center stage, and usurps the absolute prominence of generality. It is after all, such a relief, to be finally talking about something that has actors, places, technologies. Phew …. NOW I get it. Capitalism is …. fill in blank. And then capitalism becomes THAT, that ONE thing. Whereas, I am suggesting, we try to remind ourselves that it was ALWAYS (at least for our purposes, this may be a back projection) MANY THINGS. The latest instance is financialization, before that Fordism (generalized from a mythic account of a single big factory, owned by a single firm … the modern historical analogue would be Goldmanism), before that railways, before that cotton.

Against synecdoche! Not much of a battle cry. But that is the jist of it.

As the pic suggests I’m thinking the next stop may be “economic complexity”.

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