The War Upon Us

Against the Current, No. 220, September/October 2022

Jerry Harris

Global Civil War:
Capitalism Post-Pandemic
By William I. Robinson
Oakland, CA: PM Press/Kairos, 2022, 224 pages, $17.95 paperback.

WILLIAM I. ROBINSON’S Global Civil War is a call to the left to get ready for battle. This book follows Robinson’s Police State, diving more deeply into the post-pandemic world, the fourth industrial revolution, and what the left needs to do to meet the challenges ahead.

More than in any of his previous works, Robinson devotes space to the types of political organization, theory and practice needed to win against authoritarian capitalism, a discussion that takes up most of Chapter Three.

Robinson wants this work to be an intellectual weapon in the effort to construct counter-hegemony, an analysis that can be understood and used by activists to develop a systemic critique of global capitalism.

For Robinson, this is the role of “organic intellectuals in the Gramscian sense, intellectuals who attach themselves to and serve the emancipatory struggles of the popular classes…” (148)

A professor of sociology, global and Latin American studies at the University of California-Santa Barbara, the author begins with a description of the economic fundamentals at the foundation of the world’s social and economic crisis. This is covered in the first chapter “Global Capitalism Post-Pandemic.”

But where Robinson expands his previous work is in detailing how advanced digitalization is transforming the world, presenting the dangers of a technological dictatorship. This is the centerpiece of the book, encompassing Chapter Two, “Digitalization and the Transformation of Global Capitalism.”

Chapter Three is “Whither the Global Revolt,” which Robinson notes “may be the most urgent for readers,” whereas the first two chapters “lay the indispensable groundwork for this strategizing.” (7)

Global Capital and Contradictions

Robinson and others have covered this economic and social analysis before, but it’s a concise and necessary framing for the book. To this is added the impact of COVID-19. As Robinson says, “The pandemic left in its wake more inequality, more political tension, more militarism, and more authoritarianism — or rather, there were more of these things through the pandemic.” (33)

The first chapter starts with the crisis of overaccumulation and stagnation. The fact that capitalism must always seek to increase profits by lowering the cost of production, particularly labor costs. The result is the working class can never buy all that it produces, leading to stagnation and the need to find new markets.

Consequently, capitalism needs to ceaselessly expand, moving beyond nationally bound economies. While this impulse was always part of capitalism, the 1980s stagnation led to a much deeper, wider, and connected system of global production and finance, a global system constructed by the emergence of a transnational capitalist class (TCC).

But this spatial expansion offered only temporary relief, as global polarization and inequality reached levels without precedent. A new structural crisis exploded in 2008, with all its contradictions accentuated a few years later by the pandemic.

As joblessness and poverty rapidly increased, authoritarian capitalist states heightened their repressive control and pushed forward the global police state.

Robinson concludes that the global nature of the crisis results in an “acute political contradiction.” (51) National states must retain political legitimacy for the capitalist system. But the accumulation process is largely out of their control.

The transnational capitalist class demands downward pressure on wages, the deconstruction of the social contract, cuts in taxes, privatization of state assets such as health and education, and budgetary austerity.

That’s exactly what creates anger and alienation among broad sections of the working and middle classes. Nationalist political movements then direct this anger against other countries as well as racial, religious, or ethnic minorities. Writing before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Robinson notes that “The drive by the capitalist state to externalize the political fallout of the crisis increases the danger that the international tensions will lead to war.” (53)

The following chapter is devoted to an examination of the powerful growth of tech companies, and their ties to finance and also repressive accumulation.

Throughout the past 20 years Robinson has written on the importance of computer and information technologies, and the power of digitalization to synchronize, coordinate, transfer and integrate global production and finance. But here, Chapter Two offers an extended investigation, particularly the most recent developments concerned with artificial intelligence, biotechnology and big data.

Tech and Capital’s New Bloc

Typical of Robinson’s methodology, he offers an abundant amount of data and statistical evidence as to the growth and economic importance of intellectual capital and its tools of production, and the giant tech companies who dominate the field.

One interesting aspect is the separation of direct human labor from the actual work process through robotization. Robinson notes how human pilots can operate production robots, or military drones, from anywhere on the planet. But we can take that example even further: Consider the robots roaming the surface of Mars doing scientific research directed and controlled from workers on Earth.

The transformation of the work process has been truly remarkable. Robinson pursues the effects on labor in diverse areas including gig workers, precariousness, working from home, and the diminished role of living labor in the creation of wealth.

As he explains, the pandemic has increased the fragmentation of the entire labor process, which in turn increases the physical isolation of workers, undercutting solidarity and the ability to organize.

The fourth industrial revolution has brought capital closer than ever to reducing labor costs, and the number of workers from direct labor. But as pointed out in Chapter One, this only increases the crisis of capitalism and all of its social contradictions.

Robinson uses his examination of tech to argue a new capitalist bloc has been established. He writes, “The rise of the digital economy involves a fusion of Silicon Valley with transnational finance capital…and military-industrial-security complex giving rise to a new bloc of capital that appears to be at the very core of the emerging post-pandemic paradigm.” (87)

One important area that doesn’t gain Robinson’s attention is the green ecomodernization of the means of production with its ties to the tech industry, a development that has attracted significant investments.

This field also offers expanding new opportunities for over accumulated capital, and it would be interesting to see how Robinson fits this sector into his analysis of the new capitalist bloc.

Social Explosions and Quandaries

Chapter Three turns attention to the social explosions breaking out in numerous counties as the result of neoliberal policy, the pandemic, and the structural crisis of capitalism. Robinson examines mass upsurges in Sudan, Chile, Bolivia, France, China, India and the United States as well as other countries. Unfortunately, the environmental mass movement, particularly among youth, doesn’t find its way into this list. But the author’s main focus here is to identify “four quandaries” as to why these mass global rebellions have not led to revolutionary alternatives to capitalism.

Robinson has little belief in any renewed capitalist stability requiring large-scale state intervention, finding neither neoliberal nor social-democratic elites up to the task.

The first quandary is the disconnect between popular uprisings and an organized socialist left. Robinson sees the need for a revolutionary political organization with a program of action and strategy that can bring together social movements into an emancipatory anti-capitalist project. One of the main barriers is the “stubborn identitarian paradigm…resistant to political organization and to identifying broader class interests beyond identity.” (118).

Without a socialist party with revolutionary conscious leadership, he contends, building a sustained challenge to capitalism out of the spontaneous upsurges becomes nearly impossible.

Quandary two is the failure of the left to respond to the nature of transnational capitalism. As the author argues, national states are unable to exercise real political power over a global system of accumulation when the transnational capitalist class has tremendous structural power when facing over 200 individually divided countries. Since working classes can only seize power at the nation-state level, they can be isolated and defeated.

For Robinson the answer lies in building “transnational counter-hegemony…coordinated across borders and across regions.” (120) He doesn’t articulate what the political program will be, although in the book’s conclusion he briefly notes that the Green New Deal as a sweeping reform movement can generate “favorable conditions to struggle for a post-capitalist social order.” (148)

But under quandary two, Robinson’s real focus is the relationship of the political to the economic, and the role of the state.

Describing liberal ideology, he illustrates how the capitalist viewpoint separates the public political sphere, which encompasses the state, from the private corporate sphere of economic expropriation. Consequently, the widespread popular belief is that each has “its own innate laws and dynamics, the first pursuing power and the second wealth.” (122)

Since the state is the condensation of social and economic grievances, social movements often turn their attention to political demands of inclusion, without demanding democratizing economic relations using a revolutionary class perspective.

Turning to Gramsci, the author explains that while the state has autonomy from individual capitalists, it remains the guardian of capitalist relations of production. Therefore, Robinson criticizes “popular struggles that target the state (and) run the risk of dissolving class-based demands of the proletariat and other exploited classes into more abstract demands for democratization (which) can strengthen the hegemony of dominant groups as these groups accommodate liberal demands for equality or representation and inclusion in the capitalist state.” (124)

Thus, his critic of identitarian politics ties into Gramsci’s “passive revolution” in which the ruling class can encompass and defuse mass movements. This is Robinson’s third quandary, the “influence, even hegemony, over mass struggle of identitarian paradigms that…eclipsed the language of class and the critique of capital and political economy.” (127)

Here the author blames academics and intellectuals who have led the assault on Marxian class analysis with postmodernism, replacing collective action by the oppressed with demands for equitable inclusion into global capitalism.

Bringing the point to the largest movement in recent U.S. history, Robinson maintains that Black Lives Matter and the Defund Police movements focused on reforming law enforcement, rather than speaking to the “big picture,” the structural fact that the role of police is to defend capitalist property rights and criminalize the poor — an economic violence responsible for more Black deaths than police brutality.

The Far Right’s Appeal

The final quandary is the far-right’s appeal to the same social base that the left is attempting to organize.

Robinson makes the point that social decay, downward mobility, xenophobia, and racial supremacy all add to the power of the far-right’s appeal. But in describing the majority of those who stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021 he ascribes their anger to various economic troubles, blaming identitarians for writing them off as racists.

Nevertheless, an important study done at the University of Chicago led by Robert Pape found sixty-three percent of the would-be January 6 insurrectionists believe in the “Great Replacement” theory that whites are being replaced culturally and economically by minorities.

Furthermore, Pape’s original hypothesis was that insurgents would come from white households whose income was dropping. Instead, he found the most meaningful correlation was that insurgents came from counties in which the white population was in decline.

Indeed, for every one-point drop in the percent of whites, insurgents coming from that county increased by 25 percent. This link held up in every state, and attests to the powerful role that racism actually plays in the neofascist threat, and the widespread effect of Replacement Theory propaganda.

The task then for Robinson, and indeed the entire left, is how to understand and organize around the core relationships among U.S. capitalism, race, and class.

Robinson himself notes: “The problem here…is not a struggle against racism, for that must be front and center of any emancipatory project, rather, it is the separation of race from class, the substitution of politics based on essentialized identities for politics based on the working class.” (139).

The last point in Chapter Three turns to the relationship of the transnational capitalist class and the authoritarian state and fascist mobilization. Robinson argues that full-blown fascism requires three elements: reactionary state power, fascist mobilization in civil society, and support for the project by the majority fraction of the Transnational Capitalist Class. But he observes, “It appears that the major portion of the TCC is not prepared to support fascist projects,” because reactionary nationalism calls for a withdrawal from globalization. (140)

Instead, we see a TCC engaged in fierce competition, splits, and infighting. This may help explain the war in Ukraine and efforts to contain China.

In a future work we can hope that Robinson expands on this analysis. What are the different strategic differences splitting the TCC, are there different blocs contending for hegemony, and just how does nationalist politics impinge on transnational economics?

Robinson’s latest book raises vitally important questions for creating a viable and dynamic counter-hegemony. Robinson, as one of our best revolutionary intellectuals, needs to be closely read, his analysis followed, and we should all look to his further works as he explores the path toward a socialist future.

September-October 2022, ATC 220

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