the Global Police State
Crisis of Humanity and the Specter of 21st Century Fascism
By Prof William I. Robinson
April 23, 2015 "Information
Clearing House" - "GR"
- The world
capitalist system is arguably experiencing the worst crisis in its 500 year
history. World capitalism has experienced a profound restructuring through
globalisation over the past few decades and has been transformed in ways
that make it fundamentally distinct from its earlier incarnations.
Similarly, the current crisis exhibits features that set it apart from
earlier crises of the system and raise the stakes for humanity.
If we are to avert
disastrous outcomes we must understand both the nature of the new global
capitalism and the nature of its crisis. Analysis of capitalist
globalisation provides a template for probing a wide range of social,
political, cultural and ideological processes in this 21st century.
Following Marx, we want to focus on the internal dynamics of capitalism to
understand crisis. And following the global capitalism perspective, we want
to see how capitalism has qualitatively evolved in recent decades.
The system-wide crisis we face is not a repeat
of earlier such episodes such as that of the the 1930s or the 1970s
precisely because capital- ism is fundamentally different in the 21st
century. Globalisation constitutes a qualitatively new epoch in the ongoing
and open-ended evolution of world capitalism, marked by a number of
qualitative shifts in the capitalist system and by novel articulations of
social power. I highlight four aspects unique to this epoch.1
First is the rise of truly transnational capital
and a new global production and financial system into which all nations and
much of humanity has been integrated, either directly or indirectly. We have
gone from a world economy, in which countries and regions were linked to
each other via trade and financial flows in an integrated international
market, to a global economy, in which nations are linked to each more
organically through the transnationalisation of the production process, of
finance, and of the circuits of capital accumulation.
No single nation-state can remain insulated from the
global economy or prevent the penetration of the social, political, and
cultural superstructure of global capitalism. Second is the rise of a
Transnational Capitalist Class (TCC), a class group that has drawn in
contingents from most countries around the world, North and South, and has
attempted to position itself as a global ruling class. This TCC is the
hegemonic fraction of capital on a world scale. Third is the rise of
Transnational State (TNS) apparatuses. The TNS is constituted as a loose
network made up of trans-, and supranational organisations together with
national states. It functions to organise the conditions for transnational
The TCC attempts to organise and
institutionally exercise its class power through TNS apparatuses. Fourth are
novel relations of inequality, domination and exploitation in global
society, including an increasing importance of transnational social and
class inequalities relative to North-South inequalities.
Cyclical, Structural, and Systemic
commentators on the contemporary crisis refer to the “Great Recession” of
2008 and its aftermath. Yet the causal origins of global crisis are to be
found in over-accumulation and also in contradictions of state power, or in
what Marxists call the internal contradictions of the capitalist system.
Moreover, because the system is now global, crisis in any one place tends to
represent crisis for the system as a whole. The system cannot expand because
the marginalisation of a significant portion of humanity from direct
productive participation, the downward pressure on wages and popular
consumption worldwide, and the polarisation of income, has reduced the
ability of the world market to absorb world output. At the same time, given
the particular configuration of social and class forces and the correlation
of these forces worldwide, national states are hard-pressed to regulate
trans- national circuits of accumulation and offset the explosive
contradictions built into the system.
Is this crisis cyclical, structural, or
systemic? Cyclical crises are recurrent to capitalism about once every
10 years and involve recessions that act as self-correcting mechanisms
without any major restructuring of the system. The recessions of the
early 1980s, the early 1990s, and of 2001 were cyclical crises. In
contrast, the 2008 crisis signaled the slide into a structural crisis.
Structural crises reflect deeper contra- dictions that can only be
resolved by a major restructuring of the system. The structural crisis
of the 1970s was resolved through capitalist globalisation.
Prior to that, the structural crisis of the 1930s was
resolved through the creation of a new model of redistributive
capitalism, and prior to that the structural crisis of the 1870s
resulted in the development of corporate capitalism. A systemic crisis
involves the replacement of a system by an entirely new system or by an
outright collapse. A structural crisis opens up the possibility for a
systemic crisis. But if it actually snowballs into a systemic crisis –
in this case, if it gives way either to capitalism being superseded or
to a breakdown of global civilisation – is not predetermined and depends
entirely on the response of social and political forces to the crisis
and on historical contingencies that are not easy to forecast. This is
an historic moment of extreme uncertainty, in which collective responses
from distinct social and class forces to the crisis are in great flux.
Hence my concept of global crisis is
broader than financial. There are multiple and mutually constitutive
dimensions – economic, social, political, cultural, ideological and
ecological, not to mention the existential crisis of our consciousness,
values and very being. There is a crisis of social polarisation, that
is, of social reproduction. The system cannot meet the needs or assure
the survival of millions of people, perhaps a majority of humanity.
There are crises of state legitimacy and political authority, or of
hegemony and domination. National states face spiraling crises of
legitimacy as they fail to meet the social grievances of local working
and popular classes experiencing downward mobility, un- employment,
heightened insecurity and greater hardships.
The legitimacy of the system has increasingly been
called into question by millions, perhaps even billions, of people
around the world, and is facing expanded counter-hegemonic challenges.
Global elites have been unable counter this erosion of the system’s
authority in the face of world- wide pressures for a global moral
economy. And a canopy that envelops all these dimensions is a crisis of
sustain- ability rooted in an ecological holocaust that has already
begun, expressed in climate change and the impending collapse of
centralised agricultural systems in several regions of the world, among
other indicators. By a crisis of humanity I mean a crisis that is
approaching systemic proportions, threatening the ability of billions of
people to survive, and raising the specter of a collapse of world
civilisation and degeneration into a new “Dark Ages.”2
This crisis of humanity shares a number of
aspects with earlier structural crises but there are also several
features unique to the present:
1. The system is fast reaching the
ecological limits of its reproduction. Global capitalism now couples
human and natural history in such a way as to threaten to bring about
what would be the sixth mass extinction in the known history of life on
This mass extinction would be caused not by
a natural catastrophe such as a meteor impact or by evolutionary changes
such as the end of an ice age but by purposive human activity. According
to leading environmental scientists there are nine “planetary
boundaries” crucial to maintaining an earth system environment in which
humans can exist, four of which are experiencing at this time the onset
of irreversible environmental degradation and three of which (climate
change, the nitrogen cycle, and biodiversity loss) are at “tipping
points,” meaning that these processes have already crossed their
magnitude of the means of violence and social control is unprecedented,
as is the concentration of the means of global communication and
symbolic production and circulation in the hands of a very few powerful
groups. Computerised wars, drones, bunker-buster bombs, star wars, and
so forth, have changed the face of warfare. Warfare has become
normalised and sanitised for those not directly at the receiving end of
armed aggression. At the same time we have arrived at the panoptical
surveillance society and the age of thought control by those who control
global flows of communication, images and symbolic production. The world
of Edward Snowden is the world of George Orwell; 1984 has arrived;
3. Capitalism is reaching apparent limits
to its extensive expansion. There are no longer any new territories of
significance that can be integrated into world capitalism, de-ruralisation
is now well advanced, and the commodification of the countryside and of
pre- and non-capitalist spaces has intensified, that is, converted in
hot-house fashion into spaces of capital, so that intensive expansion is
reaching depths never before seen. Capitalism must continually expand or
collapse. How or where will it now expand?
4. There is the rise of a vast surplus
population inhabiting a “planet of slums,”4 alienated from the
productive economy, thrown into the margins, and subject to
sophisticated systems of social control and to destruction – to a mortal
cycle of dispossession-exploitation-exclusion. This includes prison-
industrial and immigrant-detention complexes, omnipresent policing,
militarised gentrification, and so on;
5. There is a disjuncture between a
globalising economy and a nation-state based system of political
authority. Transnational state apparatuses are incipient and have not
been able to play the role of what social scientists refer to as a “hegemon,”
or a leading nation-state that has enough power and authority to
organise and stabilise the system. The spread of weapons of mass
destruction and the unprecedented militarisation of social life and
conflict across the globe makes it hard to imagine that the system can
come under any stable political authority that assures its reproduction.
Global Police State
How have social and political forces
worldwide responded to crisis? The crisis has resulted in a rapid
political polarisation in global society. Both right and left-wing
forces are ascendant. Three responses seem to be in dispute.
One is what we could call “reformism from
above.” This elite reformism is aimed at stabilising the system, at
saving the system from itself and from more radical responses from
below. Nonetheless, in the years following the 2008 collapse of the
global financial system it seems these reformers are unable (or
unwilling) to prevail over the power of transnational financial capital.
A second response is popular, grassroots and leftist resistance from
below. As social and political conflict escalates around the world there
appears to be a mounting global revolt. While such resistance appears
insurgent in the wake of 2008 it is spread very unevenly across
countries and regions and facing many problems and challenges.
Yet another response is that I term 21st
ultra-right is an insurgent force in many countries. In broad strokes,
this project seeks to fuse reactionary political power with
transnational capital and to organise a mass base among historically
privileged sectors of the global working class – such as white workers
in the North and middle layers in the South – that are now experiencing
heightened insecurity and the specter of downward mobility. It involves
militarism, extreme masculinisation, homophobia, racism and racist
mobilisations, including the search for scapegoats, such as immigrant
workers and, in the West, Muslims. Twenty-first century fascism evokes
mystifying ideologies, often involving race/culture supremacy and
xenophobia, embracing an idealised and mythical past. Neo-fascist
culture normalises and glamorises warfare and social violence, indeed,
generates a fascination with domination that is portrayed even as
The need for dominant groups around the
world to secure widespread, organised mass social control of the world’s
surplus population and rebellious forces from below gives a powerful
impulse to projects of 21st century fascism. Simply put, the immense
structural inequalities of the global political economy cannot easily be
contained through consensual mechanisms of social control. We have been
witnessing transitions from social welfare to social control states
around the world. We have entered a period of great upheavals, momentous
changes and uncertainties. The only viable solution to the crisis of
global capitalism is a massive redistribution of wealth and power
downward towards the poor majority of humanity along the lines of a 21st
century democratic socialism, in which humanity is no longer at war with
itself and with nature.
William I. Robinson is professor of
sociology, global and international studies, and Latin American studies,
at the University of California-Santa Barbara. Among his many books are
Promoting Polyarchy (1996), Transnational Conflicts (2003), A Theory of
Global Capitalism (2004), Latin America and Global Capitalism (2008),
and Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Humanity (2014).
1.William I. Robinson (2004), A Theory of
Production, Class, and State in a
Transnational World, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press; William
I. Robinson, Latin America and Global Capitalism (2008), Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins University Press, see esp. chapter 1.
2. Sing C. Chew (2007), The Recurring Dark
Ages: Ecological Stress, Climate Changes, and System Transformation,
Landham, MD: AltaMira Press.
3. Elizabeth Kolbert (2014), The Sixth
Extinction: An Unnatural History, New York: Henry Holt.
4. The phrase is from Mike Davis’ study,
Planet of Slums (2007), London: Verso.
5. See in particular, William I. Robinson
(2014, in press), Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Humanity, New York
and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Prof William I. Robinson, Global Research, 2015
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