Review – Globalization and Capitalist Geopolitics

Capitalism, courtesy of Patrick Hoesly/Flickr

This article was originally published by E-International Relations on 23 April 2016.

Globalization and Capitalist Geopolitics: Sovereignty and State Power in a Multipolar world

By Daniel Woodley

London: Routledge 2015

Daniel Woodley explores important contemporary trends in the capitalist world system from a Marxist perspective. Focusing on tensions between economic transnationalization and the persistence of state power and inter-state (and inter-regional) geopolitical rivalry, Woodley poses challenging questions for all perspectives in IR, including those seeking to transform the chaotic and destructive dynamics of globalized capitalism.

Woodley’s central thesis is that, notwithstanding US military and financial power, the world has entered a transitional phase in which ‘imperial state hegemony is giving way to a new international economic order characterized by capitalist sovereignty and the competition between regional/transnational concentrations of power for geopolitical security’ (p.xiii). In line with the transnationalist Marxist perspective, Woodley argues that the scale of transnational corporate power is such that the significance of inter-state competition is declining and that corporations operate within the framework of an emergent transnational state form of capital (chapter 4).

Capitalist sovereignty and state power

Woodley argues that the concept of capitalist sovereignty (chapter 2) reintegrates the dual logics of capital and territoriality that are separated in much international political economy. Rejecting the common view that states are the basic entities of IR, Woodley ‘places the value form-determined relation of power at the centre of theoretical analysis’ (p.1), emphasizing that both capital and states are subject to capital’s determining logic. Capital continues to depend on states ‘to reproduce the conditions necessary for the production of value’ (p.22), but, echoing Robert Cox’s transmission belt metaphor (later withdrawn), Woodley argues that states are becoming ‘administrative instruments for restructuring’ economies in line with transnational corporate interests (p.18). Like other transnationalists, Woodley throws down a gauntlet to state-centric IR and IPE, Marxist and otherwise.

An Impediment to Global Governance – Strategic Culture

Image: shutterstock

In today’s discussion of global interdependence, we highlight a common weakness of those who advocate increased global governance – e.g., the belief that the cluster of values and beliefs that support the concept are universal and not culturally bound. This is of course not true – any attempts at formal global governance must reflect the principle of socio-political subsidiarity if it is to succeed. But in embracing the principle of maximum local control, the seed of collective governance’s destruction, or at least its diminished strength, is at hand. One reason is that the localism represented by subsidiarity is not necessarily compatible with global governance, and the reason for that might be a nation-state’s strategic culture.

According to the political scientist Jack Snyder, strategic culture “refers to a nation’s traditions, values, attitudes, patterns of behavior, habits, symbols, achievements and particular ways of adapting to the environment and solving problems with respect to the threat or use of force.” Alastair Johnston, in turn, defines strategic culture as a “system of symbols…which acts to establish pervasive and long-lasting strategic preferences by formulating concepts of the role and efficacy of military force in interstate political affairs, and by clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the strategic preferences seem uniquely realistic and efficacious.” These definitions are a big improvement over their less “scientific” forefathers – i.e., the 19th century, Social Darwinist notion of “national character.” Ardant du Picq, for example, noted in his infamous “Battle Studies” (one of the founding texts of the 19th century European military Cult of the Offensive) that the French military historically had no choice but to be offensively-minded. After all, the typical Frenchman was too skittish, nervous, glory hungry, and “Latin” to ever prefer defensive over offensive warfare. (Never mind the Maginot Line.) This type of stereotyping was quite common in the late-19th and early 20th century, but its crudity and caricaturing of nations and peoples soon caused it to lapse into disfavor. The typical Japanese soldier, if we recall, was often portrayed as a robot, an ape or as lice in virulent WWII propaganda, which was nothing if not the ungainly child of earlier “national character” parents. So, it’s interesting to see how the concept of strategic culture has dubious roots, got sanitized over time and yet gained explanatory power in the process. National obsessions and myths do remain an impediment to transnational governance.