Capitalism has its capacity to reinvent itself and not only survive the many crises it has caused but transform itself into more aggressive forms over the years. This has prompted many authors to query the possibility of its collapse and at what point this event may occur. More importantly, how will this system of appropriation and accumulation that the world has got used to finally unravel? It is a timely question when the availability, accessibility and affordability of basic and essential human needs such as staple foods are being impacted by the dilapidated state of governments, economy, and ecology under the capitalist system.
One explanation offered by William I. Robinson has come at a time when the world is at an intersection of many crises on multiple fronts: health, environment, economy, and escalating geopolitical tensions. Robinsons’ latest book Can Global Capitalism Endure? was published in 2022 by Clarity Press as the world just experienced the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, the ripple effects of war between Ukraine and Russia and the escalating wrath of climate change. At the centre of Robinson’s argument is how globalisation, financialisation and digitisation have enabled the domination of transnational corporations (TNC) and the crises arising from them. While this current stage of capitalism is known by various terms such as late capitalism or CorpoCapitalism, it has one thing in common which is the global corporate control over governments and resources. This particular form of capitalism has been particularly destructive to societies, the environment, and has accelerated the crises on a global scale.
Attracting transnational corporate and financial investment to the national territory requires providing capital with investment incentives, such as labour discipline and low wages, a lax regulatory environment, tax concessions, investment subsidies, and so on. The result is rising inequality, impoverishment, and insecurity for the working and popular classes, precisely the conditions that throw states into crises of legitimacy, destabilise national political systems, and jeopardise elite control.”
The book showcases elements of Robinson’s previous work, such as the growing use of militarisation by the transnational capitalist class (TCC) in The Global Police State published in 2020 by Pluto Press. However, more relevant to the collapse of civilisation from the impact of the transnational model on food is Robinson’s critique of the agriculture industry in greater detail in his book Latin America and Global Capitalism: A Critical Globalization Perspective published in 2010 by Johns Hopkins University Press. It establishes the transformation of economies by transnational capital, which have become highly specialised by focusing on Non-Traditional Agricultural Exports (NTAEs). For example, almost 100% of pineapple exports from Costa Rica are controlled by TNCs like Del Monte. The process of developing NTAEs comes at the cost of the country’s own decline in domestic grain production.
The extent of global corporate takeover provides a “big picture” perspective which is particularly insightful to understand how globalisation, financialisation and digitisation affects the global food system and contributed to the 2008 global food crisis. It was through overspeculation by the transnational capital class (TCC) that a spike in the prices of staple grains resulted in civil unrest (or food riots) in several countries.
As opportunities dry up to reinvest overaccumulated capital elsewhere in the global economy, the TCC has turned into unloading trillions of dollars into speculation in the global commodities markets, stock markets, currency markets, future markets, leverages, every imaginable derivatives and shorts, cryptocurrencies, “land grabs”, and urban real estate, among other speculative activities in the netherworld of shadow banking. These speculative markets become outlets for global investors to “park” their overaccumulated capital. As a result, the gap between the productive economy of goods and services has grown to an unfathomable chasm.
Every aspect of the main staple commodities (rice, corn and wheat) has become controlled by TNCs and the TCC from production, to distribution, to transportation, to consumption. It has been made possible from the lobbying of TNCs at global scale ever since the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in 1947, which had specifically targeted agriculture. The international treaties and trade agreements that followed further locked in the capitalist global food system. It is a risk for the world’s population who rely on imported staple grains which is under the control of only a handful of agribusiness companies.
Robinson’s conclusion moves to a focus on eco-socialism as a counter to capitalism, which becomes clearer when it is applied to the global food system. With over half of the world’s population now living in urban centres, food is at the centre of the city-capitalism nexus. Food becomes a key player that fuels capitalism through the labour of large populations consolidated within a location. As a market for mass consumption and a source of labour for the capitalist system, the cities’ insatiable appetite requires locations with suitable resources for food to be produced cheaply. For food to be affordable to the masses, it needs not only cheap nature but also cheap labour. The extraction of value from low-paid labour power and low-cost natural resources is a form of “dark value”. In this short book, Robinson develops the concept of “dark value” drawing from Clelland’s The Core of Apple: Dark Value and Degrees of Monopoly in Global Commodity Chains. Dark value has been legitimised within the structure of the commodity chain as it “subsidises capitalists, but it also benefits consumers”. Its counter, the “bright value” is described as “cumulation of value that is monetarised and measured with transparent accounting techniques”.
The world under TNCs is struggling to survive from the scale and intensity of appropriation and accumulation from the economic transactions along the nodes of global commodity chains. The extraction of “dark value” occurs from the reduction of labour costs and the exploitation of the planet, such as externalities from environmental damage for the profit of the TCC and TNCs. The postscript to Can Global Capitalism Endure? is on the war between Ukraine and Russia with the focus on the financial system and the military. In keeping with the theme of food, these two countries are amongst the top ten largest wheat exporters in the world, which explains why this war has caused significant disruption to global food security. One way to answer the question posed by the book’s title, is whether the likelihood of a climate catastrophe can be envisaged or, through war impacting on food production, whether there will be a collapse of civilisation along with capitalism itself. Time will tell.