This chapter examines Marxist theory's understanding of capitalism as an historically particular way of organizing social life and how Marxism can shed light on complex social relationships through which human beings produce and reproduce their social relations, the natural world, and themselves. It argues that the kind of social organization envisioned by Marxists has political, cultural, and economic dimensions that must be viewed as a dynamic ensemble of social relations not necessarily contained within the territorial boundaries of nation-states. The chapter first provides an overview of historical materialism and the meaning of dialectical theory, with particular emphasis on Karl Marx's critique of capitalism and the Marxist tradition's theorizing of imperialism, before discussing Western Marxism and Antonio Gramsci's theory of hegemony. It then considers Marxist concepts of global power and hegemony and concludes with a case study that highlights the social relations underlying U.S. global militarism.
In discussions of world politics, it is not uncommon for Marxism to be dismissed out of hand as being preoccupied with economics rather than politics, and concerning itself with domestic rather than international social relations. In this chapter I will suggest to the contrary that Marxist theory aims at a critical understanding of capitalism as an historically particular way of organizing social life, and that this form of social organization entails political, cultural, and economic aspects which need to be understood as a dynamic ensemble of social relations not necessarily contained within the territorial boundaries of nation-states. Viewed in this way, Marxism can yield insights into the complex social relationships—on scales from the workplace and the household to the global—through which human beings produce and reproduce their social relations, the natural world, and themselves. The case study section delves deeper into the insights that can be gained from Marxism in understanding the social relations underlying US global militarism.
Marxism may be fundamentally distinguished from both the liberal and the realist traditions. Liberalism generally constructs its view of social reality in terms of individuals pursuing their private self-interest. These individuals may be led by self-interest into a social contract to create a government that will protect their lives, liberty, and property (John Locke), or to specialize and exchange with one another so as to create the germ of a market-mediated social division of labour (Adam Smith). With such contractual theories, liberalism purports to have resolved the problem of social order and cooperation among self-interested individuals. But the question of relations among these contractually constituted political communities remains problematic. Accordingly, the modern structural realist theory of International Relations (IR) has defined its field of inquiry in terms of a fundamental distinction between ‘international’ and ‘domestic’ politics (evident in Chapter 3). While the latter is held to be governed by a sovereign authority and hence allows for the authoritative resolution of disputes, p. 128↵the former is distinguished by the absence of these. In such an insecure ‘anarchic’ environment, sovereign states encounter one another with diffidence, suspicion, and, potentially, hostility. On this view, the ‘high politics’ of national security and power struggle necessarily dominate the horizon. Neoliberalism has sought to reintegrate into this state-centric world the liberal concern with contractual relations of cooperation, suggesting that international interdependence can create a demand for more cooperative forms of interaction that are facilitated by regimes and international organizations (as set out by Jennifer Sterling-Folker in Chapter 5). Thus can the ‘low politics’ of interdependence and routinized cooperation tame the ‘high politics’ of power struggle.
Viewed from the perspective of Marxist theory, both liberalism and realism (and their neovariants) are profoundly limited, and limiting, for each takes as its premise a world of preconstituted social actors (whether self-interested individuals or security-seeking states) and is therefore unable to understand the social processes through which these kinds of actors have been historically constructed, and implicitly denies the possibilities for alternative possible worlds that may be latent within those processes of social self-production. In addition to the analytical blinders that this entails, the presuppositions of liberalism and realism are exposed as embodying political commitments that are profoundly conservative in effect. In order to recover the analytical and political possibilities denied by liberalism and realism, Marxist theories have sought to illuminate processes of social self-production and the possibilities they may entail.
Marxism constitutes a huge and varied tradition of scholarship and practical political activity that is probably impossible to catalogue adequately. Therefore, rather than attempting to map this extensive and varied terrain, I will instead sketch out a particular interpretation that I believe builds upon the strengths of the dialectical social philosophy developed by Karl Marx, and shows how those strengths can yield insights into the politics of global production, as well as the production of global politics. I will relate this tradition of dialectical theory to strains of thought sometimes characterized as ‘Western Marxism’ (to distinguish them from the official state Marxisms of the twentieth-century ‘East’)—including the political theory of Antonio Gramsci. The Western Marxist encounter serves to highlight the many ways in which humans are socially self-productive, and suggests important critical insights that include the cultural and political, as well as the economic, aspects of that process. These conceptual tools, then, enable a much richer and politically nuanced interpretation of the politics of globalizing capitalism, and the role of imperial power within that process.
Historical materialism and the meaning of dialectical theory
While it may not be possible to provide a simple or straightforward definition of Marxism that would comfortably encompass all its different variants and divergent strains, one fundamental commonality is the desire to provide a critical interpretation of capitalism, understood as an historically produced—and therefore mutable—form of social life, rather than as the ineluctable expression of some essential human nature. To the extent that the ways in which we live our lives, the kinds of persons that we are, and our social relations, are all seen as historical social products, the critical question arises as to whether, and how, we might organize ourselves differently. Given the historically specific social context in which we find ourselves, p. 129↵are there tensions or possibilities for change which might enable us to produce a different, conceivably more equitable and democratic, future world? Before any such questions can be posed, however, it is necessary to exert some critical leverage on the prevailing view that social life in commodity-based society is a necessary outgrowth of the natural characteristics of individual human beings.
Contrary to the world conjured by Adam Smith and many liberals (see Chapters 4 and 5), populated by self-interested individuals naturally predisposed to do a deal, Marx posited a relational and process-oriented view of human beings. On this view, humans are what they are not because it is hard-wired into them to be self-interested individuals, but by virtue of the relations through which they live their lives. In particular, he suggested that humans live their lives at the intersection of a three-sided relation encompassing the natural world, social relations and institutions, and human persons. These relations are understood as organic: each element of the relation is what it is by virtue of its place in the relation, and none can be understood in abstraction from that context. Insofar as humans are material beings, we must engage in some kind of productive interchange with the natural world in order to secure our survival. Insofar as we are social beings, this productive activity will be socially organized, necessarily involving thinking, talking, and planning together. And in the process of this socially productive activity, Marx believed, humans continuously remake their world (both its natural and social aspects) and themselves. If contemporary humans appear to act as self-interested individuals, then, it is a result not of our essential nature but of the particular ways we have produced our social lives and ourselves. On this view, humans may be collectively capable of recreating their world, their work, and themselves in new and better ways, but only if we think critically about, and act practically to change, those historically peculiar social relations that encourage us to think and act as socially disempowered, narrowly self-interested individuals.
The meaning of dialectic: social relations in process
This view of human social life as relations in process forms the core of Marx’s famous dialectical understanding of history: humans are historical beings, simultaneously the producers and the products of historical processes. In one of his more justly famous aphorisms, Marx summarized his view of history in the following terms: ‘Men [sic] make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past’ (2000: 329).1
This process is sometimes described as a dialectic of agents and structures. Agents are social actors, situated in the context of relatively enduring social relations or structures, often embodied in institutions. Structures generate the possibility of certain kinds of social identity and corresponding forms of action (i.e. roles that actors may play in the context of those structures), but the structures are not themselves determinative or automatic. They require human agents continuously to re-enact their structural roles. Actors or agents may enact structural roles in ways that reproduce, alter, or potentially even transform social structures in which they are embedded. ‘This interplay between individual actions and the institutions that form the framework for individual action is what Marx means by dialectic’ (Schmitt 1997: 50).
This dialectical, or process-oriented, approach has important implications for the way in which we study social life. As Marx himself put it, ‘as soon as this active life-process is p. 130↵described, history ceases to be a collection of dead facts as it is with the empiricists’ (2000: 181). On this view, causal explanations that posit objective ‘laws’ of social life may be misleading insofar as they distract us from the ways in which our world has been produced by historically situated human social agents. For if we understand history as an open-ended process of social self-production under historically specific circumstances, then we are led to inquire about the historical context of social relations in which actors are situated, to ask about the historical processes that generated that kind of social context, and to look for structured tensions in those historically specific forms of life, tensions that could open up possibilities for historically situated actors to produce social change. Further, we are encouraged to ask how our own social situation in the present relates to that of those whom we are studying. Might our own inquiries have implications for the ways in which contemporary people know and (re)produce our own social world? Is theory of politics itself political?
Marx’s dialectical framework of relations in process also has important implications for the ways in which we think about politics, freedom, and unfreedom. Traditionally understood in terms of authoritative processes of rule (based upon an official monopoly of the means of coercion), or the authoritative allocation of values (who gets what, etc.), from a Marxian perspective these understandings of politics seem remarkably limited, and limiting. In the context of a dialectical view of history, politics appears as a struggle over processes of social self-production, the ability to steer those processes in one direction or another, and thus to shape the kind of world in which we will live and the kinds of persons we will become in that world. Politics, in short, concerns future possible worlds. And freedom may correspondingly be understood in terms of social self-determination—our collective ability to shape ourselves and our world. This is an expansive understanding of freedom, much broader and potentially more empowering than the traditional liberal understanding of freedom as individual choice (often expressed in a market context where the object of choice is the maximal satisfaction of the individual’s private wants and needs). Based on the dialectical approach to understanding history, with its expansive conceptions of politics and of freedom, Marx developed a powerful and enduringly relevant critique of capitalist social life.
Marx and the critique of capitalism
Marx was one of the most incisive critics of a peculiarly modern form of social life—capitalism. For Marx, capitalism was not to be confused with markets or exchange, which long predated capitalism. Rather, capitalism represented a form of social life in which commodification had proceeded to such a degree that human labour itself was bought and sold on the market. One of Marx’s central insights was that this situation presupposed the development of historically specific class-based relations and powers: the concomitant development of capital—socially necessary means of production reconstituted as the exclusive private property of a few—and wage labour as the compulsory activity of the many. Under the class relations of capitalism, direct producers are not personally tied to their exploiter, as were slaves in bondage to their master or feudal serfs bound to the lord’s estate. In a real historical sense, then, capitalism frees workers to treat their labour as their own property. However, this freedom is complemented by a peculiarly capitalist kind of unfreedom. Insofar as means of production are under the ownership and control of a class of private owners, workers are compelled to sell their labour to members of this owning class in order to gain access to those means of production, engage p. 131↵in socially productive activity, and secure through their wages the material necessities of survival. This paradoxical aspect of capitalist freedom is well captured in Schmitt’s pithy summation: ‘Free labor must work’ (1997, p. 91).
Marx’s critique of capitalism hinged upon the claim, intelligible within the context of his dialectical theory of social self-production, that capitalism simultaneously involves historically unique forms of human freedom and unfreedom, empowerment and disempowerment. Relentless competition among private capitalists results in extension and elaboration of the social division of labour and continuous innovation is the organization of production processes. Marx believed that although capitalism develops the productive powers of human societies to historically unprecedented heights, it does so in ways that are also disabling, exploitative, and undemocratic. In these fundamental ways, capitalism is a contradictory social system, with endemic tensions, political struggles, and potential for change.
Capitalism is disabling insofar as this way of organizing social life distorts and obscures real historical possibilities for social self-determination. Socially empowered as never before to remake their world and themselves, people under capitalism are simultaneously prevented from realizing the full implications of their socially productive powers and the fuller forms of freedom these powers might make possible. Within the context of capitalist commodification and the ideology it supports, historically specific forms of social organization and activity take on the appearance of objective, necessary, natural, universal conditions. Marx referred to this kind of disabling mystification as ‘alienation’ or ‘fetishism’. Insofar as these appearances involve abstracting particular elements out of the constitutive relations through which they are produced, and representing them as if they were self-subsistent, preconstituted entities, this ideological mystification may be understood as a sort of reification—the practice of conflating abstractions with reality. For example, social practices that might be seen as specific to a particular historical or social context (and hence to be potentially changeable along with that context) are instead presumed to be hard-wired into individuals as such. Thus, the self-interested behaviour that Adam Smith observed among private producers in the context of a commodity society is represented as a universal human attribute, a natural ‘propensity to truck, barter, and exchange’ (Smith 1993: 21). Similarly, this is the significance of Mrs Thatcher’s famous claim that there is no alternative to ‘free market’ capitalism. To the extent that we understand ourselves as isolated individuals, we confront our social environment not as our collective social product, but as an objective constraint on our individual choices. Social life becomes something which happens to us, rather than a collective way of being in the world. This is an instance of a powerful critical insight derived from Marxian theory: to the extent that people understand existing social relations as natural, necessary, and universal, they are prevented from looking for transformative possibilities, precluded from imagining the social production of alternative possible worlds. In short, they may abdicate their collective powers of social self-production. Ironically, then, the unprecedented development of productive capacity under capitalism has as its historical correlate the disempowerment of collective human producers.
A second strand of Marxian critique holds that capitalism is exploitative. Often couched in the arcane language of the labour theory of value which Marx adopted for the purposes of his critical engagement with classical political economy, the theory of exploitation is a complex and controversial topic (Brewer 1990: 26–36; Schmitt 1997: 100–13), but it may be more readily understandable when expressed as an instance of the disabling unfreedom p. 132↵discussed above. On Marx’s view, capital is the result of socially productive activity, the creation of value by labour. Viewed as a ‘thing’, capital itself has no productive powers. But viewed as a social relation, capital is productive only as an accumulation of previously expended labour power, set in motion by newly expended labour power. Yet, because capitalism is characterized by private ownership of the means of production, as owner the capitalist controls the production process and expropriates its product—the surplus value created by labour (i.e. the product of labour above and beyond that required to sustain the workers themselves). In Marx’s understanding of capitalist exploitation, the process and product of socially organized labour are subordinated to private property and incorporated into the accumulation of capital.
Of course, the capitalists’ ability to control the production process and expropriate its product depends upon the successful reproduction of their class-based powers, and the insulation of these powers from more democratic, collective forms of decision-making. The third strand of Marxian critique thus highlights the degree to which capitalism creates private social powers located in a separate ‘economic’ sphere of social life, effectively off limits from explicitly ‘political’ public deliberation and norms of democratic accountability. This is perhaps best understood in terms of an historical contrast. Precapitalist modes of production such as feudalism involved the direct coercive expropriation of surplus labour by the dominant class, a landed nobility whose social powers were simultaneously economic and political. Should serfs fail to yield surplus labour to their lord, the social significance of this was not simply a private deal gone bad but rather a direct challenge to the political–economic order upon which the lord’s social position rested. That the lord would respond by deploying the coercive force at his disposal would not have seemed extraordinary in a social context where economic and political aspects of social life were fused in this way.
In a modern capitalist context, however, it is relatively unusual (although certainly not unheard of) for employers to use direct coercive force as an integral part of their extraction of surplus labour. Rather, workers are compelled to work, and to submit to capitalist control of the workplace, by what Marxists often refer to as the ‘dull compulsion of economic life’, the relentless daily requirement to earn enough to pay the rent and put food on the table. The direct intervention of explicitly political authority and directly coercive force within the capitalist workplace is the exception rather than the rule. The social powers of capitalist investors and employers are ensconced in this depoliticized and privatized economic sphere, understood not as intrinsically political powers but as individual prerogatives attendant upon the ownership of private property. By virtue of being understood as attributes of ‘private property’, these powers are made democratically unaccountable (it is, after all, nobody else’s business what each of us does with our own private property). Further, because of the state’s structural dependence on private investment, government is effectively compelled to serve the long-term interest of the capitalist class (not necessarily congruent with that of individual capitalists). Failure to create the political conditions perceived by capitalists as a business-friendly climate would result in capitalist investors sending their capital after higher profits elsewhere and leaving the government to preside over an economic crisis which could well be politically catastrophic for incumbent office holders. Insofar as politicians of all major parties are acutely aware of this structural dependence upon the maintenance of a business-friendly climate, a range of possible policy orientations (which might be perceived as threatening to the profitability of private investment) are effectively precluded. This implicit vetop. 133↵
Table 7.1 Contradictory structure of capitalism divides social life into two seemingly separate spheres
Institutional locus: state
Institutional locus: market
Governing norm: pursuit of public interests, overtly political
Governing norm: pursuit of private wants and needs, seemingly apolitical
Social identity: citizen, member of political community
Social identity: private individual, owner of property (or not)
Political rights of citizen
Right to own property (or not)
Equality before the law
Inequality of property
power over public policy is yet another sense in which Marxists have argued that capitalism is undemocratic.
Capitalism as a system of social organization, as a way of life, presupposes as part of its structure both a privatized and depoliticized economic sphere and, correspondingly, a public, political state (see Table 7.1). Further, this separation is embodied in a variety of cultural practices and representations in which we appear to ourselves as private individuals, workers, consumers, rights-bearing citizens, confronting a pregiven world in which we must choose the most efficient means for the realization of our private purposes. In these ways, then, capitalism effectively privatizes the social powers of investors and employers, lodging these in a privatized economic sphere, understood to be separate from the sphere of politics, public affairs, or the state. Even as capitalism creates these unequal powers based on class, it masks those powers behind the apparent equality of citizens in relation to politics, the state, and law, and behind the appearance of the economy (where inequality may be more obvious) as if it was an apolitical arena where questions of power can hold no meaning. To identify capitalism narrowly with the economy—and therefore Marxism with economic analysis—is to miss the crucial point that particular forms of political and cultural organization and practice are bound up with capitalist social reality, and are implicated in political struggles over the reproduction—or transformation—of that entire way of life.
None of this is incontestable in principle or uncontested in fact. A system of social organization premised upon privatized social powers is a system fraught with contradictions and tensions. Historical materialism highlights these powers, along with their structural and ideological defences, in order to subject them to critical scrutiny and to identify historically real possibilities for progressive social change.
Globalizing capitalism and imperial power
Among the most influential contributions of the Marxist tradition to the study of world politics have been those aimed at theorizing global hierarchies of power and wealth, including theories of imperialism. According to Anthony Brewer’s authoritative text (1990: 25), Marx himself never actually used the term ‘imperialism’. Further, Brewer’s interpretation of Marx’s relatively few discussions of the topic suggests that colonialism is not essential to capitalism: ‘capitalism does not need a subordinated hinterland or periphery, though it will use and profit from one if it exists’ (1990: 57). Although he had relatively little to say about imperialism as p. 134↵such, regarding the expansionary dynamics of capitalism that we would nowadays associate with globalization Marx was prescient:
The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilization. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.
Capitalism for Marx was clearly not a purely ‘domestic’ phenomenon, hermetically contained within the territorial vessels of modern nation–states. Its expansionist dynamics (rooted in the imperatives of competitive accumulation) overflowed those boundaries and outdistanced the geographical scope of state-based political authority. For Marx, the privatized social powers of capital have long had global horizons. Marx thought that the international activities of industrial capital (as distinct from the trading of merchant capital) were potentially transformative for the social organization of production on a world scale, spreading and intensifying the capitalist organization of production and greatly expanding socially productive powers. Consistent with his dialectical analysis of capitalism, Marx believed this process would entail both progressive and retrogressive aspects, generate massive suffering, and have the potential for qualitative and, he hoped, progressive social change.
In the early twentieth century, as the First World War loomed, a generation of Marxist writers emerged who are most appropriately associated with the theory of imperialism. Including Rosa Lumemburg, Rudolf Hilferding, Nicolai Bukharin, and, most famously, Vladimir Lenin, these writers argued that advanced processes of capitalist accumulation were driving the major capitalist countries into colonial expansionism. Although the precise mechanisms driving capitalism toward imperialism varied (e.g. the quest for raw materials, overproduction requiring a search for new markets, or overaccumulation compelling the export of capital), their thinking converged on the notion that advanced capitalist countries would be driven by the imperatives of capital accumulation to support the international expansion of their great monopolistic blocs of industrial–financial capital. In a finite world where much of the globe had already been colonized by one or another of the great imperialist powers, ‘interimperialist rivalry’ was seen as an overwhelmingly likely source of conflict, and the First World War would have appeared as confirmation of this. Classical theories of imperialism have been subjected to sharp criticism insofar as they represent species of economic determinism—the idea that processes intrinsic to the economy are the primary determinants of social and political life.
Western Marxism and Gramsci’s theory of hegemony
The Bolshevik revolution and the rise of Official Soviet Marxism in the ‘East’ provided the backdrop for the development of ‘Western Marxism’—a family of innovative theories that both built upon and reacted against aspects of the classical Marxist tradition (see also Chapter 8 for p. 135↵evolution of critical theory). The Marxist expectation that proletarian revolution, once ignited, would sweep the advanced capitalist world was bitterly disappointed in the early twentieth century. The Russian revolution gave birth to socialism in one nation, and Marxists in the West were left to ponder the reasons why working-class revolution had failed to materialize in their own countries and, subsequently, why fascism had triumphed in some Western countries. Official Soviet Marxism soon solidified into a rigid Stalinist dogma in the service of a one-party state, stifling rather than enabling critical discourse and social self-determination. It is in this historic context that we may understand Western Marxism not just in terms of a critique of capitalism, but also a corresponding critique of positivism and economic determinism as ways of understanding social life. In the apt summary of critical theorist Douglas Kellner, ‘those individuals who became known as “Western Marxists” saw the need to concern themselves with consciousness, subjectivity, culture, ideology and the concept of socialism precisely in order to make possible radical political change’ (1989: 12).
The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, incarcerated in Mussolini’s fascist prisons for the last decade of his life, was sharply critical of economistic and positivistic forms of knowledge, including forms of Marxism based on economic determinism. Gramsci insisted on situating the process of human knowledge construction in particular historical social contexts and, in a devastating critique of the economistic and scientistic Marxism of Bukharin, he derided as ‘metaphysical materialism any systematic formulation that is put forward as an extra-historical truth, as an abstract universal outside of time and space’ (Gramsci 1971: 437). For Gramsci, Marxism was not the objective truth of history, but was rather a way of telling the story of history from within a capitalist historical context, a story that could lead people to consider possible postcapitalist futures and ask themselves how, together, they might get there from here.
Accordingly, Gramsci developed a theory of hegemony as a subtle form of political power that relied more strongly upon consent than coercion. In a hegemonic social situation, dominant groups (classes, class fractions, and their various allies) articulate a social vision that claims to serve the interests of all, and they use selective incentives to recruit junior partners into their coalition and to divide and disable opposition. Gramsci believed that in advanced capitalist societies, in which civil society was highly developed, hegemonic power might be promoted and contested in forums of popular culture, education, journalism, literature, and art, as well as in political parties and unions. Under conditions of hegemony, subordinate social groups might be led to consent to the power of dominant groups, making the widespread use of direct (and obviously oppressive) coercive power unnecessary. However, Gramsci argued, hegemony was not seamless, a dominant ideology which simply foreclosed any possibility of critique. On the contrary, hegemony could be and should be continuously challenged throughout civil society in ongoing ideological struggles. Through a long-term process he referred to as ‘war of position’ to distinguish it from the Bolshevik strategy of frontal assault on state power (‘war of manoeuvre’), Gramsci hoped an atomized and depoliticized capitalist culture might be challenged by an alternative political culture, people might be led to think of their economic lives as having political significance, and they might begin to question capitalism’s structured separation of the economic from the political aspects of social life. This latter he saw as the necessary precondition for the concurrent democratization of economic, cultural, and political life, a gateway to a variety of possible postcapitalist futures (see Rupert 2009).
The stream of explicitly critical theorizing associated with dialectical theory, Western Marxism, and Antonio Gramsci, might lead us to regard with some scepticism claims of scientific objectivity associated with positivistic forms of IR theory, and the economic determinism underlying classical theories of imperialism. And, indeed, contemporary theorists have drawn upon these and related intellectual resources to begin to construct dialectical theories of world politics. Robert Cox (1986) was a pioneer in using Gramscian conceptual vocabulary to make sense of historical structures of global power.
Cox explicitly called into question prevailing modes of theorizing world politics: as a species of positivist or ‘problem-solving’ theory, ‘Neorealism implicitly takes the production process and the power relations inherent in it as a given element of national interest, and therefore as a part of its parameters’ (1986: 216–17). Assuming what needs to be explained, neorealism describes patterns in the operation of power among states without inquiring as to the social relations through which that power is produced. Moreover, those relations themselves have a history, a process of production, and they need not remain forever as we see them now. Accordingly, Cox adopts what he calls a method of ‘historical structures’ in which ‘state power ceases to be the sole explanatory factor and becomes part of what is to be explained’ (1986: 223):
The world can be represented as a pattern of interacting social forces in which states play an intermediate though autonomous role between the global structure of social forces and local configurations of social forces within particular countries ….Power is seen as emerging from social processes rather than taken as given in the form of accumulated material capabilities, that is as the result of these processes. (Paraphrasing Marx, one could describe the latter, neo-realist view as the ‘fetishism of power’.)Cox 1986: 225
A Gramscian critical approach to global politics would then take a relational, process-oriented perspective, and seek to show how social forces (classes, social movements, etc.), states, and world orders are bound up together in particular constellations of historical structures. It would inquire as to the ways in which those historical structures—entailing political, cultural, and economic aspects—had been socially produced, the ways in which they differentially empower various kinds of social agents, and the kinds of resistances that those power relations engender. It would seek to highlight tensions and possibilities within the historical structures of the present in order to open up political horizons and enable social agents situated within those structures to imagine, and potentially begin to realize, alternative possible worlds. The view of theory defended by Cox—and his characterization of ‘problem-solving theory’—is discussed in Chapters 1 and 8.
More recently there has been something of a renaissance of Marxian international theory, beginning in the 1990s and gaining momentum with the USA’s turn towards military supremacy and preventive war after 2001. A landmark contribution was Justin Rosenberg’s Marxist critique of realist approaches to IR theory which, he charges, ‘can perceive that the modern state seeks to mobilize the economy, but not that the economy is part of a transnational whole which produces important political effects independently of the agency of the state’ (1994: 13). Instead of reifying states as everywhere and always the primary actors of world politics, Rosenberg seeks p. 137↵to recontextualize geopolitics within ‘wider structures of the production and reproduction of social life’ (1994: 6). Under social conditions of capitalist modernity, in which a structural separation of economic life and political life is effected, this ‘means that the exercise of imperial power, like domestic social power, will have two linked aspects: a public political aspect which concerns the management of the states-system, and a private political aspect which effects the [transnational] extraction and relaying of surpluses’. In both spheres, actors will confront the compulsions of anarchic competition that characterize the historical structure as a whole. Rosenberg refers to this modern, capitalist geopolitics as ‘a new kind of empire: the empire of civil society’ (1994: 131). In the wake of Rosenberg’s pioneering work, innovative Marxist theorizations of the emergence of capitalist geopolitics among a system of multiple territorial states have been constructed (see, e.g., the various essays in Colas and Saull 2006; Anievas 2010).
A new generation of Marxist scholars is rethinking International Relations theory in ways that promise new insights into the inter-relation of capitalist development processes and geopolitics. In an important new book, Alexander Anievas takes direct aim at the very foundations of IR theory, laid down in attempts to understand the great crises of the early twentieth century. Much of our intellectual discipline, as well as the twentieth-century world, was constructed in this epic conjuncture. He takes as his point of departure the insight that IR theory has come to be based upon the radical decontextualization of social processes in search of transhistorical causes of ‘war in the abstract’ (p. 2). This has generated a profoundly misleading dichotomization of geopolitical from sociological thinking. Moreover, he charges Marxist theory with failure to examine seriously the integral role of ‘the international’—especially geopolitical dynamics—in processes of transnational capitalist development, and thereby creating its own characteristic blind spots. Reacting against such dichotomous thinking in both IR and Marxist traditions, his book examines the twenty years’ crisis as emerging from ‘the internationally structured development of capitalism and its destabilizing social and geopolitical consequences’ (p. 8). Deploying a theory of ‘uneven and combined development’ grounded in the seminal thinking of Leon Trotsky, Anievas emphasizes ‘the necessarily differentiated, multilinear character of sociohistorical development as a strategically interdependent and co-constitutive whole’ (p. 8). Accordingly, his comprehensive reinterpretation of the twenty years’ crisis highlights the intersection of multifarious processes of capitalist development unfolding differently in various locales but intersecting in ways that constituted global crises. Among the interconnected processes he identifies are the ‘whip of external necessity’, in which pressures of interstate competition shape processes of capitalist development in particular times and places; the ‘privilege of historical backwardness’, in which later developing states are able to adopt the most advanced practices and technologies, potentially enabling them to leapfrog over earlier developers; and the ‘contradictions of sociological amalgamation’, in which hybridized sociological formations combine elements of different modes of production in ways that generate tensions and potential conflicts both internally and externally. Looking at these processes as aspects of an integral whole, Anievas argues that ‘systemic reproduction is then necessarily interdependent and co-constitutive’ (p. 48), ‘plural and variegated’ but deeply intertwined, involving both geopolitical and sociological dynamics at multiple scales and together generating the great global crisis. His multidimensional historical analyses of the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Wilsonian statecraft, the rise of Nazi Germany, and the so-called policy of ‘appeasement’, defy brief summarization here, but in each case generate explanatory insights previously unavailable.
from Bush to Obama—US global power as twenty-first-century imperialism?
In a series of important books, realist scholar Andrew Bacevich (2005a, 2008, 2010) has perceptively suggested that the very nature of the US state and the ways it exercises global power have been shaped by two inter-related historical processes: the deep embedding of a mass consumerist ethos in American culture, and a corresponding drive to sustain global military supremacy in order to ensure privileged access to the world’s goods, energy, and credit. While Bacevich’s insights are surely of the greatest significance, it is also remarkable that in order to generate those insights he has had to peer into areas of social reality systematically neglected by realism. A realist conceptual vocabulary is ill-suited to understanding of the historical development of such a global power complex and the economic, cultural, and political relations that together constitute its core. I argue that such an understanding requires an analysis of historical structures, their inter-relations, and dynamics, and that historical materialism is better suited to this task than other available theories.
From this perspective, a satisfactory account would need to incorporate not just the historical structures of global capitalism (with their economic, political, and cultural aspects), but also the ideologies and actions of human agents situated within these structures. The resulting multilayered explanatory account would resemble a sort of dialectical layer cake seeking to explain (i) how the structures of capitalist modernity create the possibility of particular kinds of world politics; (ii) how those possibilities were realized in the particular forms of the twentieth-century capitalist world order; (iii) within those historical structures, the key relationship between capitalism, Fordism, and the geopolitics of petroleum; and (iv) the ideologies of ‘economic security’ that have animated US policy-makers from the Cold War to the Bush and Obama administrations. I will be able to do no more in this context than to sketch out the broad outlines of what such an explanation might look like. That should be enough, however, to show how this kind of analysis differs from other approaches to the study of world politics.
Recall that at the heart of capitalism is a class relation between those who own the means of production and those who must sell their labour power in order to gain access to those means of production. One of Marx’s most important insights was that this class relationship presupposes a broader set of social relationships, a set of social structures that make this kind of relation possible. One of these enabling structures involved the constitution of social means of production as private property, and hence presupposed the privatization and depoliticization of economic life (recall, by way of contrast, how economic and political life had been fused under feudalism). The creation of a privatized and depoliticized economy involved the exclusion of public, political concerns from the economy, and their assignment to a separate sphere of society, one that we have come to associate with the modern state. The political states that have become integral to capitalist modernity are understood to be sovereign within their territory, and thus are enabled to legislate and regulate ‘domestic’ affairs. Yet, the activities of private economic actors continuously overflow those boundaries—in no small measure because of the dynamics of capitalism as a system of accumulation without limits, driven by the compulsions of relentless market competition. The structural contours of capitalist modernity, then, involve a contradictory system of territorially limited political authority and flows of economic activity that are not similarly limited. This structure represents a condition of possibility for imperialism—the exercise by states of coercive power in the service of capital accumulation—as well as systems of global hegemonic power in which coercive force is less evident and the ideological politics of consent come to the fore.
Hegemony and Fordist capitalism
These structures of capitalist modernity are not automatically self-perpetuating, but rather are continuously (re)produced, challenged, or changed by human agents under particular historical circumstances. Thus, these structures may assume distinct forms during identifiable historical periods. During the twentieth century, Fordist industrial capitalism in the USA was setting global standards of p. 139↵dynamism and productivity (this itself was not simply an historical datum but the result of long and complex political struggles—see Rupert 1995). After the Second World War a transnational coalition, centred on Fordist industrial capital, emerged and promoted a hegemonic world-order project that envisioned a global economy of free trade, but one in which state managers would be able to use macroeconomic policy to sustain economic activity and levels of consumption, and in which labour unions might be tolerated or even encouraged as brokers of industrial consent, securing the cooperation of workers within the framework of Fordist mass production industry in exchange for real wages that would grow along with productivity. In the USA and across much of the industrial capitalist world, organized labour was integrated into a hegemonic coalition that sought to rebuild the world economy along the lines of this ‘corporate–liberal’ model (van der Pijl 1984; Rupert 1995). Securing a measure of political stability and institutionalizing a rough correspondence between mass production and consumption, this set of historical structures enabled a period of unprecedented economic growth and capital accumulation, and institutionalized a culture of mass consumerism, especially in the wealthy global ‘North’. The political economy of Fordist capitalism played a central role in the great global order struggles of the twentieth century: arguably, it was the unparalleled productive power of Fordist capitalism that enabled the geopolitical triumph of the allies over the autarkic and authoritarian capitalism of the axis powers, and subsequently of the reunified West over the Soviet bloc in the Cold War.
Fordist capitalism depended not only on politically quiescent industrial labour and predictable levels of consumer demand for the products of mass production industry, but it also required fuel and lubricants for its machines, raw material for its pervasive petrochemical industry, and inputs for its increasingly mechanized and chemical-intensive agriculture. Oil, in short, was indispensable to the energy-intensive form of Fordist capitalism at the heart of the twentieth-century world order. Although the US oil industry was able to provide from domestic production the great bulk of the oil consumed by the allies during the Second World War, by the end of the war it was clear that US reserves were not sufficient to fuel the reconstruction of the capitalist world economy or its growth in subsequent decades.
Geopolitics and Fordism
Framed in terms of ‘economic security’, US global strategy after the Second World War aimed not just at ‘containing’ the power of the Soviet Union, but also at creating a world that would be hospitable to the growth of US-centred capitalism (Pollard 1985). US strategists explicitly envisioned a symbiotic relationship between the vitality and robustness of the capitalist ‘free world’ and globally projected US military power. The foundational vision of world order embodied in the strategy document known as NSC-68 (1950, reprinted in May 1993) led the USA into a grand strategy of globalized military containment justified by anticommunism and social self-understandings of Americans as defenders of the ‘free world’. That document explicitly envisioned a political economy of military Keynesianism in which strong economic growth would be consistent with massive rearmament, as well as unprecedented levels of popular consumption at home (May 1993: 75). Over postwar decades, the legitimacy of incumbent officials came to be linked to popular perceptions of their defence of and support for the ‘American way of life.’ As Bacevich (2005b) has perceptively argued, this involved transformations in American political culture in which freedom was increasingly conflated with consumerism in ways which have been deeply consequential for America’s role in the world: ‘what Americans demanded from their government was freedom, defined as more choice, more opportunity, and, above all, greater abundance, measured in material terms …. The aim was to guarantee the ever-increasing affluence that underwrites the modern American conception of liberty.’ In these ways, the military–industrial complex and mass consumerism became embedded together in the p. 140↵historical structures of the US state–society complex, and Americans came to understand themselves and their place in the world in terms of social identities as ‘defenders of freedom’ and as ‘consumers’. Viewed through the lenses of this strategic vision, protecting the free world was closely identified with promoting a vigorous US-centred capitalist world economy, and it was this worldview that appeared to justify US interventions in order to counter political forces which might inhibit the growth of US-dominated global capitalism and support those forces favourably inclined toward such a geopolitical project. In this context we can understand numerous interventions which undermined democracy or led to large-scale human rights abuses in countries around the world (Kinzer 2006)—actions that might seem profoundly puzzling from the perspective of liberal or realist theories.
Insofar as the Fordist world order depended upon ample and cheap supplies of oil that the USA could not itself provide, US strategists sought to establish predominance in the oil-rich Persian Gulf region. Pivotal to postwar US strategic dominance in the Gulf were its relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia. Franklin Roosevelt had established a strategic partnership with the Saudi ruling family in 1945: ‘Roosevelt forged an agreement with Abdul-Aziz ibn Saud, the founder of the modern Saudi dynasty, to protect the royal family against its internal and external enemies in return for privileged access to Saudi oil’ (Klare 2004: 3). In Iran, US influence was secured for a quarter-century by the 1953 Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-sponsored coup in which democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, who had committed the cardinal sin of nationalizing the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, was overthrown by forces who re-established the autocratic power of the Iranian monarch, the reliably pro-Western Shah. In light of this history, it is little wonder that the Iranian Revolution, which finally ended the Shah’s rule in 1979, fused a Shiite Islamic theocracy with bitter anti-Americanism (Kinzer 2003). Nor should it be surprising that the USA–Saudi relationship is deeply ambivalent, with widespread resentment of US influence (and, for the last decade, military presence) in the Kingdom finding expression through the fundamentalist Wahhabi brand of Sunni Islam that predominates there. Announced in 1980, the ‘Carter Doctrine’ made explicit the US commitment to prevent a hostile power from gaining a foothold in the Middle East, and US ability to project military power into the region was augmented substantially. In subsequent years, the US entered into partnership with the Saudis and Pakistanis in support of Islamist mujahedeen resisting Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan, thereby laying the groundwork for the emergence of militantly anti-Western jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda once the Soviets had been driven out (Coll 2004). Militant Islamism did not, then, arise suddenly out of an abstract hatred of American ‘freedoms’ but is in some substantial part understandable as an idiom of resistance to the longstanding geopolitical project of US dominance in the region.
It is against this backdrop of global geopolitics and the ideology of economic security that we may interpret the invasion of Iraq under the guise of the War on Terror. The most hawkish elements in the administration of George W. Bush exploited the atmosphere of jingoism and fear in the USA following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 to put into effect their long-cherished vision of US global military supremacy, unilateral action, and the pre-emptive use of military force deployed to create a world in which the US model of capitalist democracy is unquestioned—a strategic vision now known as the Bush Doctrine. Building on ‘a position of unparalleled military strength and great economic and political influence’—a unipolar condition to which Bush referred as ‘a balance of power that favors freedom’—‘[t]he United States will use this moment of opportunity to extend the benefits of freedom across the globe. We will actively work to bring the hope of democracy, development, free markets, and free trade to every corner of the globe’ (White House 2002: 1–2). Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s continuing defiance of US power in a region of such enormous strategic significance effectively mocked the Bush administration’s pretensions to unquestioned global supremacy. That removing Saddam was a high priority for those who formulated the Bush Doctrine should not then be surprising. The administration also hoped that a postwar client regime in Iraq would provide the USA with a base of operations in the heart of the Gulf region more reliably open to US forces p. 141↵than Saudi bases. Further, among the so-called neoconservatives in the administration and their intellectual guides, it was believed that a forcefully ‘democratized’ Iraq would lead to the spread of liberal democracy throughout the Middle East, ‘drain the swamp’ of authoritarianism and poverty that was believed to be the breeding ground of terrorism, and lessen the perceived threats posed to Israel. But the Iraq War cannot be properly understood in abstraction from questions of world order following in the wake of Fordist capitalism. The US remains among the most petroleum-dependent of major economies, and its mechanized military machine consumes enormous quantities in order to fuel its global power projection. Since petroleum prices are set on a global market, this makes the US susceptible to global supply disruptions and price fluctuations, even as new extraction technologies allow it to reduce its own dependence on imported oil. In their quest for global supremacy and a capitalist world order favourable to US interests, Bush administration officials may well have believed that militarily-based strategic dominance in the Middle East, and an American hand on the world’s oil tap, would represent a bargaining chip of incalculable value when dealing with potentially incompliant allies and emergent rivals (especially China) (Everest 2004).3 On this view, the War on Terror is inextricably bound up with US attempts to achieve strategic dominance in the oil-rich Persian Gulf region, and this latter is deeply entangled with the historical structures of US-centred global Fordist capitalism.
While embracing a more multilateral style of diplomacy and backing slowly out of the major ground wars initiated by the Bush administration, President Obama has continued vigorous use of US military power to attack those perceived to be most hostile to American presence in the Middle East, south Asia, and east Africa. Obama has embraced covert operations and so-called ‘targeted killings’ of suspected militants and their associates, massively expanding the more secretive elements of the National Security State to gather intelligence, identify targets, and execute these attacks (Priest and Arkin 2011). This has included expanded use of so-called kill/capture teams operated by the US military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), as well as drone strikes executed by the military and the CIA. As of February 2012, ‘the Obama administration has carried out at least 239 covert drone strikes, more than five times the 44 approved under George W. Bush. And after promising to make counter-terrorism operations more transparent and rein in executive power, Obama has arguably done the opposite, maintaining secrecy and expanding presidential authority’ (Rhode 2012). Moreover, these ongoing military operations have created a backlash of anti-Americanism among those who are themselves terrorized by America’s antiterror campaign (Scahill 2013). And, most recently, the political destabilization of Iraq following on the US invasion and occupation has converged with the civil war in Syria to create a hospitable environment for the emergence of the so-called Islamic State (IS). Achieving some significant military successes against Syrian and Iraqi forces, and committing theatrically staged acts of horrific violence, IS has now become the justification for ongoing US military interventions in the region. In these ways the National Security State produces the very threats it claims to defend against. While it may not be possible to derive deductively US global militarism from an essential underlying logic of capital, it is possible—and arguably necessary—to contextualize these ongoing military commitments in terms of the historical structures of Fordist capitalism, and the US geopolitical project of economic security and military supremacy which has been its historical correlate.
Case study questions
How does a critical understanding of capitalism as a way of life encompassing economic, political, and cultural or ideological aspects help us to make sense of US global strategy since the Second World War?
How does such an understanding enable us to reframe the Bush Doctrine and Obama’s national security strategy as forms of twenty-first-century imperialism?
Marxism is neither solely preoccupied with the economy nor with domestic relations. Rather, it aims at a critical understanding of capitalism as an historically particular way of organizing social life, one that entails political and cultural, as well as economic, relations and practices, that has never been containable within the boundaries of territorial states, and that has crucial implications for processes of social self-production on scales from the workplace and household to global order. Conceived by Marx as a dialectical theory of relations in process, the enabling implications of Marxist theory were substantially vitiated by interpretations that cast it as a form of economic determinism. Seeking to recover its ability to illuminate dialectical tensions and possibilities, Western Marxism formulated sharp critiques of economic determinism and positivistic forms of knowledge more generally. These currents led towards a re-emphasis of politics, culture, and ideology within a broadly materialist understanding of social life, pointing towards an approach which Cox (1986) described as a ‘method of historical structures’. Employing an analytic approach similar to the one Cox suggests, we may understand America’s global military activity as the product of a confluence of social relations and processes that traverse and interrelate social forces, states, and world orders. The structures of capitalist modernity, the historical forms they assumed in the epoch of Fordism and the hegemonic world order which emerged out of that context, strategic ideologies of economic security, and the culture of Fordist consumerism are all implicated in this story.
What do Marxists mean when they talk about a dialectical understanding of history?
How does such a view shed critical light on liberal individualist theories, such as that of Adam Smith?
What are the implications of a dialectical understanding of history for the way in which we think about politics and freedom? When we see the world in terms of dialectical theory, how do we need to redefine these terms?
Why do Marxists believe that capitalism cannot be adequately understood as a ‘domestic’ phenomenon? How has this belief been reflected in the theories of imperialism?
What do Marxists mean when they talk about capitalism as more than just an economy? In what ways are politics and culture integral to capitalism as a way of life?
How does the apparent separation of economic from political spheres of social life under capitalism both create and mask privatized forms of social power? How might those powers undermine the supposedly democratic aspects of political life?
A set of essays by prominent Marxist theorists debating materialist theorizations of geopolitics and the significance of imperialism.
p. 143↵Anievas, A. (2014), Capital, The State, and War: Class Conflict and Geopolitics in the Thirty Years’ Crisis, 1914–1945 (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat
A bold and illuminating reinterpretation of the ‘twenty years’ crisis’ of the twentieth century in terms of the inter-relation of geopolitical and sociological dynamics at multiple scales.
A highly regarded realist scholar pushes beyond the analytical bounds of realism to raise questions about the cultural, economic, and political relations underlying US global power.
A comprehensive explication and critique of the various theories of imperialism to which the Marxian tradition has given rise.
Essays from a variety of critical perspectives, including a number of leading Marxist theorists, reflecting on the apparent imperial turn in contemporary world politics.
Collected in this book are some of the most seminal essays by a leader in the neo-Gramscian tradition of international studies.
An historical introduction to some of the major episodes of US imperial intervention.
Draws on a theory of social property relations to offer a bold and powerful reinterpretation of the relationship between modern geopolitics and capitalism.
Robinson posits the emergence of a globalized process of capital accumulation, a transnational capitalist class, and a nascent transnational state.
Rosenberg critically situates the theory and practice of Realpolitik within the relations and processes of capitalist modernity.
Essays from a variety of scholars broadly sympathetic to historical materialism but understanding in very different ways its significance in a world of globalizing capitalism.
Rupert, M. (2009) ‘Antonio Gramsci’, in J. Edkins and N. Vaughan-Williams (eds), Critical Theorists and International Relations (London: Routledge), 176–86.Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat
A brief and accessible introduction to the life and political thought of Antonio Gramsci.
A contemporary reinterpretation of imperialism theory from an influential Marxian political theorist.
Marxists.org Internet Archive. A massive electronic resource including extensive selections of texts (in a variety of languages) from many major Marxist theorists, articles on the history of Marxism, and an encyclopaedia of Marxism. http://www.Marxists.org
p. 144↵The Socialist Register. Web page of a leading socialist annual containing Marxian analyses of globalizing capitalism, US imperialism, and a variety of other topics. http://socialistregister.com
Dialectical Marxism. The writings of political philosopher Bertell Ollman, one of the world’s leading scholars of dialectical theory. Check out ‘Class Struggle’, Ollman’s Marxist board game. http://www.nyu.edu/projects/ollman/index.php
Visit the Online Resource Centre that accompanies this book for lots of interesting additional material. www.oxfordtextbooks.co.uk/orc/dunne4e/
1. Marx’s language here betrays an historical context prior to the women’s movement and feminist theorizations of the political economy of the household and culture of gendered privilege (see Sayer 1991: 31–2). This should not be misunderstood as implying that Marxist or socialist feminisms are inconceivable: for a striking example of this kind of work, see Barrett (1980).
2. Again, we may note in Marx’s language the historically prevailing Eurocentric cultural norms of which he was himself not innocent (see Sayer 1991: 14–20). Whether Eurocentrism is intrinsic to Marxism as such is a matter of controversy. My own view, in a nutshell, is that this is not necessarily the case, especially with regard to those versions of Marxism which eschew economic determinism and teleological understandings of history (Rupert 2005).