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Review The Global Police State (William I. Robinson)

Book Reviewed: William I. Robinson, The Global Police State [London, UK: Pluto Press, 2020]

9 min leestijd

(By  Radha D’Souza, University of Westminster) (see here for a Dutch translation)

The book develops the concept of a “global police state”. It addresses three interrelated developments in relation to the global police state. The first is the “omnipresent systems of mass control and repression to contain real and potential rebellion of the global working class and surplus humanity” [112]. The second is the idea of accumulation by repression or militarised accumulation. These two developments have in turn promoted a third, namely, twenty-first century fascism as the corresponding political system. The technological infrastructures created by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the Computer and Internet Technologies (CIT) i.e. technologies of surveillance and Big Data provides the material conditions for all three developments related to the global police state. The global police state is not a concrete thing, but an analytical abstraction. It is made up of loose networks of trans and supranational organisations and nation-states that are integrated into the global system [13].

All three developments can be attributed to ‘capitalism’ “the inner workings” of which have “remained constant over centuries” [8]. Nevertheless, capitalism has gone through different stages in history and periodisation is important to make sense of the transformations in the capitalist system [8]. Robinson periodises four stages in the historical development of capitalism: “mercantilism and primitive accumulation”, “competitive or classical capitalism”, “national corporate (‘monopoly’) capitalism” and the current state of “global capitalism”. This last stage is a qualitatively new epoch. Following Hobswamm, Robinson sees the post-World War period from 1945 to 1973 as the “Golden Age” when the world economy was “international rather than transnational” [9].

Robinson has painstakingly threaded together multiple dimensions of the global police state including its economic, political, social and ideological aspects. Indeed, the book is a rich source of interesting information, data and sources. From this rich assemblage of “facts”, Robinson draws two theoretical conclusions. First, he argues that capitalism, in its fourth global stage, has developed a Transnational Capitalist Class (TCC) which is the “hegemonic fraction of capital on a world scale” [11] comprising owners and managers of Transnational Corporations (TNC). The TCC is heavily invested in the global military-industrial-security complex and able to centralise economic and political power globally. They have used their structural power to create a “transnational state” (TNS) as a “supranational political authority” [13]. The TCC have integrated the states into global structures of economic, political and ideological power. The TCC through the transnational corporations (TNC) and TNSs have produced a crisis of humanity.

Second, the book argues that in opposition to the TCC, there has developed a Global Working Class (GWC). Military-industrial- security-media complexes are at the front and centre of the capital accumulation strategies of the TCC. Due to the technological developments spawned by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and globalisation of production, the TCC has been able to drive down wages and working conditions around the world and reduce large sections of the populations to unwanted “surplus humanity”. The state has abandoned its redistributive role as it no longer seeks legitimacy from the people. The crisis of humanity and production of surplus humanity is the consequence of these changes in technology and production. In response to this crisis, there is growing fear of resistance movements getting stronger. As a pre-emptive measure to prevent the resistance movements, the TCC resorts to repression through surveillance. If the militarised accumulation strategies bring windfall profits to TNCs, the repression is also economically profitable for the TCC. As TNS contract out policing, prisons and repressive actions to transnational corporations, they make money from militarized accumulation to absorb surplus capital that create the conditions of poverty and inequality, and also benefit from the repression that follows inevitably.

These two developments lead to the third: twenty-first century fascism. The basic features of twenty-first-century fascism are similar to the twentieth-century fascism in that both seek to address the crisis of capitalism. The main differences are that, firstly capital in the twenty-first-century is transnational and secondly, working class struggles are weak today. Like the TCC, fascism is a globally networked phenomenon.

The book is organised in four main chapters – the first explains the rise of the TCC and TNSs, the second the GWC, the third expands on the idea of militarized accumulation and accumulation by repression and the last addresses resistance to global fascism for the future. The Global Police State is a welcome addition to a growing body of critical writings from Left and progressive standpoints that examine the vastly expanded military-industrial-security complexes in recent times and the role of public-private partnerships and contracting-out of state functions.

The analytical framework for the book is conceptually simple. It expands analytical categories of capitalist and working classes, nation-state and fascist states, repression, accumulation and projects them on to the global plane. The conceptual simplicity comes at the cost of methodological and theoretical opacity. The book remains very much within the Western Marxist tradition in which there is strong tendency to draw out theory from “facts”. The conflation of “facts” to empirical reality is a hallmark of liberalism. Besides, “facts” are neither theory neutral nor value neutral, as their construction presupposes both. Reliance on pre-constructed “facts” focuses attention on surface phenomena or manifest reality in Marxist theory. It takes attention away from social relations of capitalism, and the basis of those relations in history and materiality. Instead analysis shifts attention to appearances rather than causal relations. This fundamental fault-line in the book leads to other methodological and theoretical problems.

Periodisation is one such question. The book sees globalisation as a distinct stage of capitalism beginning in the early 1990s after the end of the Cold War. Such characterisation is problematic for two reasons. Firstly, the historical development of military-industrial-security complex, and indeed the material conditions for globalisation go back to the World Wars when wartime economies established the foundations of the TCC and TNCs, the supranational organisations and TNSs and the social and ideological infrastructures for monopoly and finance capitalism. Indeed, technologies like the internet and war ecosystems such as RMA or Revolution in Military Affairs began during and immediately after the World Wars. In the absence of grounding militarised accumulation in the post-War history of capitalism, the definitive role of that the period during and immediately after the World Wars played in the development of the TCC and the GWC remains opaque. It is difficult to explain the causal and historical developments based on visible “facts” alone. The global police state becomes muddled in all sorts of social democratic rhetoric and assumptions.

Secondly, it becomes difficult to distinguish between quantitative and qualitative transformations of capitalism from “facts” alone. For example, from its inception, capitalism has relied on wars and war financing and states have been the vehicle for both. How are wars during mercantile, industrial, the Golden Age and globalisation eras different from each other? Are the differences quantitative – such that they can be explained by expanding the scale of operations – or do quantitative changes produce qualitative transformations after a critical stage in their expansion? In other words, does capitalist expansion transform the relations of production, exchange, circulation and consumption in the different stages? If so, do the changes impact upon social structures including ideological and political structures?

The book leaves us with more questions than answers about the present stage of capitalism. On what basis do we categorise each stage of capitalism? When does one stage begin and another end and what are the characteristics of each stage? What are the attributes and characteristics of each stage of capitalism? How do we understand the transitions of capitalism from one stage to the next? How do we differentiate between an epoch, a stage and a phase of capitalism? What are the different markers? These questions about periodisation of the different epochs, stages and phases of capitalism is especially important to clarify in relation to the development of the global police state. When did globalised, monopolistic, financialised, militarised, securitised transnationalised capitalism begin and why? This is the central question of our times.

The projection of basic conceptual building blocks like class, nation-state, accumulation, repression on to the global plane conceals an important feature of capitalism, namely, unequal development and unequal relations within classes, between states, regions, genders, races and much else. The TCC and GWC are internally differentiated – a cognitive worker, or a blue-collar worker in the military industrial complexes of the United States occupies very different objective position in the global labour market and the GWC than the rural or informal sector worker in a Third World country. Solidarities between the two cannot be assumed even when they are desirable. While it is true that all states are now integrated into a global order, their relationships are asymmetrical however. The asymmetrical relations between dominant and weakened states leave the possibilities of renewed struggles for self-determination of oppressed states open, even if their elites are integrated into the TNSs. Whether the same can be said of imperialist states like the United States is moot. While it is true that the capitalist classes are globally integrated, the capitalist from Ghana or Kenya occupies a very different position within the TCC from the capitalists and managerial classes in the United States or Germany. Understanding these internal differentiations, the unequal and asymmetrical relations within capitalist relations, holds the key to a dialectical understanding of capitalism and emancipatory politics. Dialectical analysis is notably missing in the book.

Theories derived from “facts” make explanatory critiques difficult. Causal connections become external factors and often open to speculative theorising. Explanatory critiques are often undervalued as they appear too theoretical and complex. Ironically, without theoretical clarity, we remain, unwittingly or unconsciously, wedded to liberal imaginaries imposed upon us by capitalism. Explanatory critiques allow us to understand, not only what the world is like, but also why the world is the way it is. Explanatory critiques are important too because they open the pathway to alliance building by going beyond aspirations and building minimum political programmes based on what is objectively possible and subjectively desirable. By revealing the social relations that underpin visible phenomena, explanatory critiques help us to go to the root of any problem. As Marx said to be radical is to go to the root of the matter. Something more than “facts” is needed to go to the root of the militarized accumulation and accumulation by repression that the book draws attention to, and rightly so.