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Cooking the Books: A Global Capitalist Class?

Is there a global, “transnational” capitalist class? This is an issue that is dividing those in what can broadly be called the Marxist tradition (as those who analyse capitalism using the same categories that Marx did; so, very broadly).

One view is that the world is divided into independent, territorially-based states representing and pursuing the interests of capitalists from within their borders, and that the world economy is characterised by competing separate national capitals only. The other view is that the capitalist system has always been a single economy, even if divided politically and geographically, into separate “nation states”, and that the recent globalisation represents the emergence of a global capitalist class not tied to a particular national state.

One exponent of the second view is William I. Robinson who argues in an article “Beyond the theory of imperialism. Global capitalism and the transnational state” in Marxism and World Politics: Contesting Global Capitalism (edited by Alexander Anievas and published by Routledge this year) that:

“We have entered a qualitatively new transnational stage in the ongoing evolution of world capitalism marked by a number of fundamental shifts in the capitalist system, among them:
–   the rise of truly transnational capital and the integration of every country into a new global production and financial system;
–   the appearance of a new transnational capitalist class (TCC), a class group grounded in new global markets and circuits of accumulation, rather than national markets and circuits;
–   the rise of transnational state (TNS) apparatuses, (…).”


Obviously, national states have not disappeared and are still powerful players in the capitalist economy. Robinson does not deny this but argues that the transnational capitalist class uses them, through favourable politicians and governments, to pursue its transnational interests (rather than them being used by a national capitalist class to pursue its national interests).

Ever since the last World War, freer trade has been the policy of the dominant capitalist countries (in fact it could even be said to have been the main war aim of America and Britain). But has this now led to the emergence of a transnational capitalist class? Robinson makes out a good case for this and it would explain the present stuff of national politics in that a transnational capitalist class still has to act via national states to get them to pursue policies favouring free trade and transnational investment and to set up transnational institutions, such as the WTO and the IMF, to facilitate and regulate this (which he sees as an embryonic “transnational state”).

However, any transnational capitalist class would only be a section of the capitalist class of the world. There are still plenty of national capitalists, actual and would-be, whose interests are not the same as those of the transnational section. So, although political power in the advanced capitalist countries, may be in the hands of politicians favourable to transnational capitalists, there is still opposition to them.

The ideology of national capitalism, reflecting the interests of small-scale capitalists, is still strong and finds support both from the “right” and the “left” (who beat the same nationalist drum during referendums and votes on the EU) as well as from conspiracy theorists denouncing the “new world order”. Outside Europe there are states controlled by opponents of the transnational capitalists such as Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea, Iran, Burma and, above all and for the moment, China.

Leftists in effect argue that workers should support national as opposed to transnational capitalism. Socialists, on the other hand, don’t take sides in this conflict between different sections of the capitalist class.