Transnational Capitalist State

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Intimations of a Transnational State

William Robinson:

How does the Transnational Capitalist Class organize itself to pursue its interests around the world? How do the class and social relations of global capitalism become institutionalized? What is the system’s political authority structure? Despite the rhetoric of market fundamentalism, the capitalist system cannot be sustained through market relations alone. Capitalism requires the state in order to function. But national governments do not exercise the transnational political authority that global capitalism requires. It is through transnational state (TNS) apparatuses that global elites attempt to convert the structural power of the global economy into supranational political authority. The TNS is not unrelated to the concept of global governance, a notion first put forward by the World Bank and now championed, above all, by the World Economic Forum (WEF), but is by no means synonymous with global government. Nor is it the same as consensual processes of transnational governance.

As transnational factions of national elites emerged in the latter decades of the twentieth century, they organized politically. They vied for, and in most countries won, state power, whether through elections or other means, such as foreign (mostly US) political and military intervention. These transnationally oriented elites used this power to implement policies favorable to integration into the global economy. As the TCC and its political and bureaucratic allies pushed capitalist globalization, nation-states came to adopt similar sets of neoliberal policies and to sign free trade agreements in consort with one another and with the supra- and transnational institutions that have designed and facilitated the global capitalist project, such as the WTO, the IMF, the World Bank, the European Union, the United Nations system, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. These organizations, together with nation-states in which transnationally oriented elites have come to power, form an increasingly dense institutional network that constitutes a TNS.

This TNS promotes globalized accumulation circuits over local and national ones. The TCC attempts, through TNS apparatuses, to exercise its power in individual countries and in the global system as a whole; the TNS, as such, functions as a collective authority of the TCC. For instance, the IMF, the World Bank, and other TNS institutions imposed structural adjustment programs and free trade agreements on one country after another in the wake of capitalist globalization. These programs included the privatization of public sectors, trade liberalization, and investment guarantees for TNCs, with the intended effect of undermining the power of labor and popular movements, while heightening the influence of transnationally oriented capitalists and elites in each country. Other agencies of the TNS, such as the United Nations Development Program, along with the NGOs they fund, critique poverty and espouse a discourse of “needs,” “consensus,” “inclusion,” and “citizen participation” even as they often promote market “solutions” and the corporate-driven capitalist globalization that generates poverty, inequality, and marginality in the first place.

The TNS faces a contradictory mandate. On the one hand, it sets out to promote the conditions for capitalist globalization; on the other, it tries to resolve the myriad problems globalization creates: economic crisis, poverty, environmental degradation, chronic political instability, and military conflict. The TNS has had great difficulty addressing these issues because of the dispersal of formal political authority across many national states. TNS apparatuses are fragmentary, with no center or formal constitution, and no transnational enforcement capacity. But the inability of the TNS to regulate and stabilize global capitalism is also due to the TCC’s blind pursuit of immediate profits over the general and long-term interests of the system. In the past, capitalists faced constraints on the national level to unbridled profit-making. National governments, pressured by mass mobilization, could draw on a set of policy instruments, such as tax, wage, public works, regulatory, social welfare, and other measures, to attenuate the worst effects of capitalism. These policies helped offset what political economists refer to as the “internal contradictions” of the capitalist system. The most pressing of these contradictions is that of overaccumulation and social polarization, in which wealth accumulates at one end of the pole and misery and impoverishment at the other. At the world level, colonialism and imperialism resulted in a transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich countries that offset the worst social contradictions in the latter while exacerbating them in the former, a cause of the endemic instability of the Global South relative to the Global North.

In the present, transnational capital’s liberation from the nation-state has enhanced its structural power over oppositional forces struggling within the bounds of the nation-state. As a result, there has been an unprecedented polarization of wealth between the haves and have-nots, which in turn aggravates these internal contradictions and generates escalating social conflict and crises of state legitimacy.

The more enlightened elite representatives of the TCC now clamor for a more powerful TNS to resolve the more and more outmoded disjuncture between a globalizing economy and a nation-state-based system of political authority. They seek transnational governance mechanisms that would allow the global ruling class to rein in the anarchy of the system in the co-interests of saving global capitalism from itself and from radical challenges from below. Such reformism from above proposes limited redistribution, regulation of global markets, and “green capitalism.”

In order to gain legitimacy, any would-be ruling class must present its own project as representative of the whole of society. To advance that agenda, the TCC has to attempt to resolve the most pressing problems of the social order and to reconcile antagonistic social interests while at the same time securing its own hegemony and ensuring that its long-term interests remain paramount. To achieve these goals, enlightened transnational elites must have at their disposal more effective TNS apparatuses—that is, an effective system of “global governance” from above.6 Leadership groups among the transnational corporate and political elite come together each year in the activities of the World Economic Forum, which holds its famed annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. In 2008, WEF founder and Executive Chairman Klaus Schwab called for a renovated “global leadership” and a new “global corporate citizenship” on the part of TNC executives, entailing engagement on major world issues in order to ensure the sustainability of the global marketplace.7 Following the perceived inability of existing TNS institutions to respond to the economic meltdown in 2009, the WEF published a major report that called for a new form of global corporate rule.8 At the core of the project is remaking the United Nations system into a hybrid corporate-government entity run by TNC executives in “partnership” with governments.

As the transnational elite seek a stronger TNS in order to stabilize the global capitalist system, the division of the world into some 200 competing nation-states is not propitious for building global working-class unity. Victories in popular struggles from below in any one country or region can and often do become diverted and even undone by the structural power of transnational capital (as seen in Greece) and the direct political and military control this structural power affords the dominant groups. Nation-states act as population containment zones, allowing the TCC to maintain a system of differential wages and pit working classes in each country against one another—the so-called “race to the bottom.” National cultural and ideological systems, as well as ethnic differences within nation-states, exacerbate this competition and undermine transnational working-class consciousness." (

More Information

  • William Robinson, A Theory of Global Capitalism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004)
  • and Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Humanity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014).