Contemporary approaches in critical international political economy

The asymmetric character ot global capitalism has important implications for the international political economy. Critical political economists have developed more specific theoretical perspectives in the tradition of Marx in order to analyse important aspects of the IPE (for an overview see Box 14.3). These perspectives provide frameworks at lower levels ot abstraction to understand specific aspects of contemporary processes. In the methodological tradition of CPE they should not be understood as separated or opposing perspectives but as interrelated views, which highlight concrete specific aspects and together provide a more complete picture.

Box 14.3 Overview of important contemporary approaches in critical

international political economy

  • • Theories of imperialism explain the international political economy of domination and war.
  • • Theories of uneven and combined development and critical geography explain global inequality structures and their implications.
  • (Neo-)Gramscianism explains contested international institutions and political structures and shows possibilities for emancipatory strategies.
  • Dependency approaches explain underdevelopment and analyse strategies to overcome it.
  • • The world systems approach shows how core and periphery historically emerge and how changes occur.
  • Political ecology explains the uneven global use of resources and shows paths to environmental justice.
  • Critical feminist perspectives are important to understand the complexities of IPE and show how gender-related forms of exploitation and suppression can be overcome.

Theories of imperialism have a long-standing tradition in critical international political economy. In the early twentieth century Rudolph Hilferding, Rosa Luxemburg and Vladimir Lenin provided a framework that allows understanding inter-imperial conflicts among the important powers. These rivalries and the historic configuration of the international political economy were understood against the background ot the specific form of capitalist development. Inner limits of accumulation due to the suppression of wages led to crisis tendencies. This provided the background for aggressive military expansion to find markets abroad and to gain access to foreign resources required for national economic development. Although military intervention still happens, the period of classical imperialism is over. Nevertheless, authors in the tradition of critical political economy, such as Samir Amin (2017), James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer (2013) and David Harvey (2005), show how economically, politically and military powerful countries impose their interests on weaker peripheral countries. John Smith (2016), in his book on imperialism in the twenty-first century, analyses how the new international division ot labour (Frobels et al. 1980) characterized by outsourcing processes and global labour arbitrage, respectively the globalization ot production, lead to super-exploitation in peripheral countries.

Perspectives on uneven and combined development, which are traced back to Leon Trotsky, are helpful tor understanding crucial elements of international processes. Trotsky argued that capitalist development was uneven, i.e. diflerent in different places. International processes are combined, which implies that the development in one country or region is influenced by the situation in other regions. Countries start to introduce capitalist modes of production from very different starting points and in differing international environments. Those which develop later may have advantages and could potentially leapfrog states that restarted earlier. However, there may also be disadvantages to being a late developer in that a subordinated economic position may lead to a distorted political structure, which implies limits to development and hence perpetuates a subordinated position (Callinicos and Rosenberg 2008). Today critical geography represents a somewhat similar perspective that is relevant for the analysis of global uneven capitalism. This approach explicitly deals with the question of the spatial dynamics of capitalist development and explains how capital produces spaces and places (Harvey 2006).

With the end of World War II, the following Cold War and the hegemony of the USA in the western world, the geopolitical constellation and the form of interaction changed. These changes were mirrored by the emergence of new theoretical perspectives in critical international political economy in the western hemisphere. Baran and Sweezy ([1966] 1989), in their work Monopoly Capital, laid the grounds for an understanding of a new form of capitalism and its international implications. Stabilizing the global economy and promoting growth and development became central concerns of the hegemonic USA. Changing labour relations, which led to increasing real wages, helped to boost the domestic economy. Notwithstanding this, a central concern of the USA was to support the expansion of its corporations abroad and find new markets. At the same time the promise of growth and development was aimed at winning the ideological battle with the Soviet Union. Against this background, in particular from the 1960s onwards, specific new theoretical concepts tor understanding contemporary capitalism have been developed.

Starting with the work of Robert Cox (1987) a new tradition, inspired by Antonio Gramsci ([1971 ] 1999) emerged. Gramsci made important contributions to the theory of the state in the tradition of critical political economy. The neo-Gramscian approach deals with the role of international institutions and shows how global hegemony is reproduced. Critical media theory provides insights into the specific processes of how ideologies and discourses are produced by capitalist mass media to support capitalist’s interests (Chomsky 1995). In contrast to mainstream theories, it is not the interest of the state that is taken as a starting point, but the underlying social relations of production. Hence, international hegemony is based on national hegemony, which is an expression of specific class relations in a concrete capitalist mode of production. Poulantzas ([1968] 1978: 129) considered the state as ‘the specific material condensation of a relationship of forces among classes and class fractions’. Today, it is the hegemony of a capitalist class in the USA, which provides the basis for a specific historic form of US hegemony. Based on this approach, Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin (2012) showed the importance of the USA and their role in politically shaping the global economy in a way that facilitated the predominance ot US capitalism. Like Petras and Veltmeyer (2001), they discarded the idea ot globalization as a generative power and pointed to the ability of the USA to orchestrate global capitalism. In a neo- Gramscian tradition Magnus Ryner and Alan Cafruny (2017) show that the USA exercises power on not only developing countries but how it also conditions the European integration process. Critical political economists in this tradition also point to the importance of the global monetary regime (dominated by the US financial sector), US-dominated international financial institutions (e.g. the International Monetary Fund) and the US Dollar as the global currency for US hegemony. Peter Gowan (1999) coined the term ‘Dollar-Wall Street Regime’ to refer to this phenomenon. This global institutional structure has often contributed in peripheral countries to processes ot financialization and subsequent crisis (Becker et al. 2010).

It was in peripheral countries, particularly in Latin America, that the contradictions of the capitalist mode ot production proved to be highly problematic and contested in the second half of the twentieth century. Under the heading of dependency approaches, concepts for understanding why the post-war configuration ot the international political economy made development in peripheral countries so difficult, if not impossible, emerged. Among others, Cardoso and Faletto ([1971 ] 1979) and Raul Marini ([1973] 1991) showed how specific contemporary capitalism led to dependent forms of capitalism in the periphery. While work based on Cardoso and Faletto tends to be more optimistic regarding possibilities of capitalist development in peripheral countries, traditions based on Marini are more pessimistic and see a need for revolution and socialist development. Dependency approaches explained how a dependent ‘lumpen’ bourgeoisie emerges and how this turns out to be an obstacle to the development of productive forces. Misleadingly, dependency approaches were often presented as exclusively focussing on external factors and negating any possibility of development (Kay 1989). This, however, is a reductionist interpretation which is not justified as already clarified in the classical work by Cardoso and Faletto ([1971] 1979: 28): ‘analysis is complete only when the economic and the social have their reciprocal determinations defined at the internal and external levels’. Hence, processes and struggles at the national and international level are interrelated. More recently, dependency approaches have been rediscovered and adapted. Some follow the tradition of Marini tor e.g. for the analysis of contemporary processes in Latin America (Katz 2018) Others, based on Cardoso and Faletto apply the analysis of core-periphery relations to the European Union and link it to other traditions in critical political economy such as regulation theory (Becker et al. 2015). Loosely related to this tradition are neo-colonial perspectives, such as Anibal Quijano (2007), that emphasize the cultural dimension of domination and dependency in peripheral countries.

Dealing with questions ot core and periphery' in a global perspective, Immanuel Wallerstein (2004) developed the world systems approach. A central aim was to explain, in a long-run historical perspective, how a world system emerges and why some countries change their relative position in this system. Historically, from the sixteenth century onwards, Europe became the centre of the modern world system. This rise of Europe took place against the background of capitalist development in Europe and was based on the exploitation of former colonies in the global periphery. However, not just the concepts of core and periphery are used, but nation states may also have an intermediate function. These states are referred to as semi-periphery and, although dominated by' core countries, they' have their own industrial bases. The world systems approach explains which forces allow core countries to retain their position, and hence reinforce global inequality, as well as which historical processes in the changing mode of production allow for countries to move up or down in the global hierarchy. More recently, many scholars in this tradition (e.g. Giovanni Arrighi 2009) have focused on the rise of China and the causes and consequences of this rise.

The driver of capitalist accumulation is the unlimited search tor increasing profits. According to critical political economy, labour and, hence, economic activity implies the transformation of nature. The use of nature depends on productive forces and the societal regulation of access to it. The unlimited strategy to increase profits stands in contrast to the fact that the earth and nature are limited. Political ecology is a critical perspective that deals explicitly with the environmental implications of capitalism. In a global perspective, the appropriation ot nature (Zeller 2008) which often takes the form of accumulation by disposition (Harvey 2009) is accompanied by' wars of plunder which often take place in the global periphery' (Le Billon 2012). In general, the highly unequal use ot natural resources in different countries and within different classes is stressed. These unequal patterns are also observed in the context of climate change. Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen (2018) argue that the imperial lifestyle in core countries is a central problem and must be transformed by changing production and consumption patterns. However, given the expansive logic of capitalism and the (class) interests attached, there are serious obstacles under capitalist conditions. Hence, overcoming capitalism seems necessary in order to overcome the environmental crisis and overexploitation ot nature and to achieve environmental justice.

Gender and feminist perspectives play an important role in critical international political economy, but they should be considered even more, as Anne E. Lacsamana (2016: 92) points out: ‘feminists and Marxists must re-engage with one another to understand the centrality of gender and gender relations to more accurately capture the complexities ot the IPE.’ (Neo-)liberal forms of feminism are criticized because they tend to focus on a tew elite women and do not question social class structures. While the intersectionality of gender, race and class is a frequently used concept in critical political economy, Meiksins Wood (1995) and Lacsamana (2016) have questioned this perspective. They argue that, in a critical political economy perspective, class has an ontologically different status because it is not possible to think of class as a category of identity that does not include exploitation and domination. While class is, by definition, a relationship of inequality and power, this is not the case tor gender and race. In an international perspective, such critical feminist perspectives argue that the exploitation of women, in both core countries and peripheral countries, is an essential for sustaining current capitalist modes of production. This exploitation should be overcome.

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