Transnational Capitalist Class

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William Robinson:

"Transnational capital is not faceless. A transnational capitalist class (TCC), made up of the owners and managers of transnational capital, has emerged as the agent of global capitalism. Its interests lie in promoting global, not national, circuits of accumulation. Among the many developments facilitating this cross-integration of capitalist groups around the world into a TCC, the massive expansion of TNCs and spread of their affiliates has played a major role, along with transnational ownership of these companies’ capital shares. Other important developments include the phenomenal growth in foreign direct investment; an equally phenomenal increase in cross-border mergers and acquisitions; the interlocking of boards of directors; the spread of cross-border joint ventures and strategic alliances of all sorts; the spread to most countries of the world of stock exchanges trading TNC shares; and increasing global outsourcing and subcontracting networks. The giant corporate conglomerates that drive the global economy have ceased to be corporations of a particular country and have increasingly come to represent transnational capital.

It is difficult to understate the extent to which capital has become transnationally integrated, concentrated, and centralized in the TCC. One 2011 analysis of the share ownerships of 43,000 TNCs identified a core of 1,318 with interlocking ownerships that tied the TNCs in this core tightly to each other. Each of these core TNCs had ties to two or more other companies, with an average number of 20. Although they represented only 20 percent of global operating revenues, these 1,318 TNCs appeared to collectively own through their shares the majority of the world’s largest blue chip and manufacturing firms. These firms accounted for another 60 percent of global operating revenue, and since the core, according to the report, exercises control over the TNC structure, it effectively controls over 80 percent of the world’s revenue.

Moreover, much of this web is woven around a “super-entity” of 147 even more tightly knit companies—all of their ownership is held by other members of the super-entity—that controls 40 percent of the total wealth in the network.3 In other words, less than 1 percent of the companies control 40 percent of the entire network. The top 100 corporations have an average of 20 holding companies each, domiciled in low-tax jurisdictions around the world; more than 500 affiliates, each spread over many countries; and supply chains that span the globe.

These corporate colossi are clustered in the banking and financial sector, “fourth industrial revolution” technology companies (especially IT, automation, and telecommunications), the energy industry, and the military-industrial-engineering-security complex.4 This congruent concentration and centralization suggests that the global economy is acquiring the character of a planned oligopoly, with centralized planning taking place within the inner network of TNC nodes. In particular, the transnational capital class has gained enormous structural power over states and political processes in its pursuit of global corporate interests.

Greece provides a textbook case of how the structural power of transnational capital subsumes the direct power of states (and of working classes and leftist governments that manage to win state power). The leftist party Syriza won office (but not power) in early 2015 through an anti-austerity program that came on the heels of several years of protest by Greek workers against the debt crisis imposed on the country by transnational investors, exerting control via the European Union. Once in office, the Syriza government caved under enormous pressure from the “troika”—the European Central Bank, the German government, and the IMF, acting as a collective representative of the TCC. The troika made emergency loans to avoid default and resultant isolation from global financial markets conditional on further austerity and the sale to transnational investors of what remained of the Greek public sector.

The linkage between globalized capitalism, economic control, and political domination is critical to the coalescence of the new power structure. The TCC has been trying to position itself, with limited success, as a new global ruling class. Capitalists and ruling elites first sought to transnationalize in an effort to break the power that the working classes had achieved in their respective countries through the mass popular movements and anti-colonial struggles of the post–World War II period, culminating in the tumultuous decade of the 1960s. Going global allowed the emerging TCC and its political and bureaucratic agents in states and international agencies to dismantle the diverse forms of redistributive or “social” capitalism that had come into being in the wake of the 1930s Great Depression, such as the New Deal in the US and social democracy in Western Europe. In this way, globalization weakened the power of labor at the national level. What followed is a well-known story: decreased levels of unionization, the onset of austerity and privatization, and the spread of new systems of labor control. New work arrangements are increasingly “flexible,” meaning that workers are often forced to give up full-time tenured employment for part-time, temporary, informal, and contract work.

Technology has also played a key role in these new social and political relations of global capitalism. The transnational capital class has been able to draw on computer and information technology in its political campaign to open the world to transnational capital through “free trade,” integration agreements, and neoliberal policies. The digital revolution also made possible the global integration of national financial systems and new forms of money, such as hedge funds or secondary derivative markets. It has similarly enabled the frictionless and instantaneous movement of money in its diverse forms around the world, bringing about what political economists refer to as the financialization of the global economy. Any fixed asset—a factory, an agro-industrial complex, even real estate—can be converted into a new form of digitized money capital and traded around the world, rendering fluid the ownership of capital and the class relations associated with it.

Such mobility allows transnational financial capital to appropriate, circulate, and redistribute wealth all around the world in unprecedentedly flexible ways, bestowing a frightening power upon global financial markets, as shown in Greece and elsewhere. Those who struggle to confront capitalist exploitation face an amorphous, moving target. In earlier epochs of capitalism, the process of exploitation, or the appropriation of wealth by capitalist from workers, was seen as a direct relation. Today, however, financialized tangible and intangible wealth moves instantaneously through the open veins of the global financial system, and is endlessly appropriated and re-appropriated in evolving forms. As a result, the global working class faces the TCC in bewildering new ways. For example, whereas conventional fleet-owning taxi companies may have exploited taxi drivers, Uber drivers from India to Mexico are exploited by shareholders around the world in this “platform” company that produces nothing, yet has a valuation of $40 billion.

The coming fusion of this globally integrated financial system with emergent technology points to troubling prospects ahead. The industrial revolution enhanced productivity by a factor of 100 whereas the ICT revolution has the potential to enhance it exponentially as fourth industrial revolution technology now comes on line. Now, cutting-edge technologies—including 3D printing, artificial intelligence and machine learning, robotics, the Internet of things, nano- and biotechnology, new materials, energy storage, and quantum computing—join physical, digital, and biological worlds. The TCC has started to “weaponize” these new technologies both figuratively (in that the TCC uses their productive power as a weapon in its class warfare) and literally (insofar as these technologies are applied to new systems of transnational warfare and social control, viz, robot soldiers and surveillance)." (

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