Development and Global Capitalism

By Jeb Sprague and Hilbourne Watson

“Globalization,” a term often bandied about, is the latest epoch in the development of historical capitalism—an uneven and diverse form of production based on exploitation for private accumulation.[1] Uneven and combined development inhere in the fundamental capitalist process, reflecting the operation of  the law of value/production for private capitalist accumulation (as theorized by political economists throughout the long twentieth century (Amin, 1978; Arrighi, 1983; Frank, 1967; Hilferding, 1910/2006; Lenin, 1917/1969; Rodney, 1981; Sweezy, 1942; Wallerstein, 1979; Wood, 2005)). The organization of capitalist production is not designed though to promote the development of autonomous national economies, a fact that is reflected in the worldwide reality of combined and uneven development. The reality of capital accumulation as a global process is also reflected in the rise of transnational forms of business organization, production and accumulation. The rise of globalization or “global capitalism” helps us to understand how new and uneven transnational practices and processes are playing out through a heterogeneous world context (Dicken, 2015; Harris, 2016; Jayasuriya, 2005; Liodakis, 2010; Murray and Scott, Eds., 2012; Robinson, 2014; Sklair, 2002; Sprague, 2019; Watson, 2015).

The organization of production and of state power on a national basis formed the starting point for the internationalization of the production and accumulation process. The reality however, is that capital first emerged within the interstices of the world market, a fact that undermines nation-state centric and interstate analysis. State centric analysis is reflective of the territorial trap of geographic determinism and notions of a developed west versus an underdeveloped third world (Agnew, 2017). Methodologically we need a theory of history that combats false inside outside dichotomies that are associated with state-centric logic that invents dichotomous relationships between individual places (each country) and the actual spatial processes that mirror the dialectic of an interconnected world. For transnational capitalists, the real economy is not a mass of independent national economies but rather an interconnected (global) space in which place and space form a heterogeneous unity, which approximates an open-ended totality that never reaches a simple whole. Put in more simple terms, capital accumulation is a worldwide process. 

The historical importance of the role of the state for capitalist development can be seen through the colonial mercantilist, industrialization, heightening internationalization and globalization phases of world capitalism. Institutionalizing the right to exploit (Watson, 2015, p. 32) is indispensable for “providing the infrastructure of capitalism by levying and collecting taxes; funding or subsidizing research and development activities; building or financing the construction of public projects like ports, roads, highways, and defense and military security programmes; providing education and supporting the arts and other cultural activities” (p. 11). Here it is useful to consider sovereignty as being reproduced in “soft” and “advanced” forms, where various technocratic and elite groups have become oriented toward transnational practices in the contemporary era.  Operating through a powerful state exercising “effective sovereignty” and acting to internationalize and globalize the reach and scope of its sovereign imperial power, U.S. officials utilize diplomatic, commercial, political, military and other means to shape the contours of global governance in pursuit of their so-called “national security goals”. 

Even as transnational processes intensify (such as through finance, trade, communications, and various institutional arrangements), these dynamics entwine with many local, national, regional and international particularities, impacting how capitalist development occurs.  Capitalist development is not organized to transform national societies and uplift the lives of the global majority, rather capitalist development is decidedly for the ends of private capital accumulation, which means that it is necessary to rethink the dominant development paradigm.

Uneven and combined development remains integral to capitalism’s spatial motion, with a “tendency for capital to concentrate in particular built environments” (Robinson, 2009, p. 74). Yet capital accumulation (at the most general level), in our view, is often misrepresented as amounting only to national economic development. Far from being motivated to make the economic development of any single country its priority, the logic of capital is to enrich a handful of individuals and private institutions at the expense of nature and of the exploited, the marginalized, and gendered and negatively racialized working people. 

Transnational processes are increasingly used then as a more efficient means by which capital can extract even more wealth from every corner of the globe, while being less accountable to humanity. The global reach of capital provides evidence that capitalists understand that they cannot afford to rely on any single country to satisfy their endless drive to accumulate capital. As such, fighting for deep progressive reforms and for socialism are extremely hard to achieve. It is here where the territorial division of the world in conjunction with its growing transnational integration strengthens the need for local and counter hegemonic national struggles to function alongside the building of inter-national and transnational linkages and strategies from below to help us understand our world and fight to transform it in the interest of humanity.

Jeb Sprague is a Research Associate at the Institute for Research on World-Systems at the University of California, Riverside and has taught sociology at UVA and UCSB. His most recent publication is Globalizing the Caribbean: Political Economy, Social Change, and the Transnational Capitalist Class (Temple University Press, 2019).

Hilbourne Watson is an Emeritus Professor of International Relations, Bucknell University, Lewisburg, PA. His most recent publication is Errol Walton Barrow and the Postwar transformation of Barbados: The Late Colonial Period, Volume One (University of West Indies Press, 2019).

[1] Capitalism is not a “system” in the normal understanding of a system, which implies balance, order, stability and regularity within a structural framework. Capitalism is inherently crisis-ridden though crisis is not necessarily evident all the time. Capitalism is best seen as a form of production for the ends of private capital accumulation, with capital accumulation as a global process.


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