Perspectives on Power: A Review of ‘The Global Police State’ by William I. Robinson

By Kai Heidemann

As a sociologist working full-time at a Dutch university, I find that my summer readings come in many flavors, which range from pure escapism to essential must reads. My recommendation to social movement scholars for this summer definitely falls in this latter category. “The Global Police State” by William I. Robinson (Pluto Press, 2020) is a relatively small book that addresses some very big questions about contemporary issues of power and repression that are of immediate relevance to social movement scholars and activists alike. Although firmly grounded in critical and neo-Marxian strands of global comparative sociology, this book is intended for a broad audience and packaged as a quick read. I especially recommend this book to scholars who tend to engage in micro-level and cultural analyses of social movements, such as myself, as Robinson’s work does very well to spark some serious macro-sociological thinking about the material and class-based relations of power that contribute to the widespread silencing and subjugation of progressive social movements around the world.

In what is his latest book, William I. Robinson (Sociologist, UC-Santa Barbara) builds directly from his previous writings about the transnational capitalist class (TCC) to show how progressive social movements are facing enormous challenges from the “omnipresent systems of mass social control, repression and warfare promoted by the ruling groups” (p.3),  dynamic which he terms ‘the global police state’. A major theme of Robinson’s work through the years has been to ask whether it is possible to speak of the existence of a class-consciousness amongst the transnational networks of wealthy elites who have become rapidly enriched and empowered by [i] the rise of new modes and relations of global economic production, and [ii] the corresponding systems of governance and policy-making that accompany these economic processes. Is there truly a ‘global elite’? Do they recognize one another as sharing common interests? Do they have agency and work to pursue common interests? In brief, Robinson has responded to these kinds of questions with an emphatic but yet qualified ‘yes’. As he summarizes in his latest book:

“A transnational capitalist class emerged as the manifest agent of global capitalism… The leading sectors of national capitalist classes have experienced integration with one another across borders in a process of transnational class formation. It’s interests lie in promoting global rather than national markets and circuits of accumulation, in competition with local and national capitalist groups whose fate is more bound up with their particular nation-states… This TCC is the hegemonic fraction of capital on a world scale. It is made up of the owners and managers of the giant transnational corporations, or TNCs, and the financial institutions that drive the global economy (11).”

In his  previous books, A Global Theory of Capitalism and Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Humanity, Robinson has drawn on a wealth of data to establish the foundations for his claims about the TCC as a somewhat disjointed but nonetheless cohesive and highly influential social class exerting its agency in ways that create widespread social inequalities and suffering around the world. In Marxian terms, Robinson is basically saying that neoliberal processes of globalization have altered the base and superstructure of global society, thus bringing about a notable shift in the class relations and class conflicts that shape history. A key factor in the rise of the TCC, according to Robinson, is the corresponding emergence of the ‘transnational state apparatus’ (TNS). This is not some form of global government, as Robinson is clear to explain, but rather an articulation of class-based governance that is comprised of “a loose network made up of trans- and supra-national organizations together with national states that have been captured by transnationally oriented policy makers and state managers” (13). At the core of this network is a small but highly influential “super entity” of around 150 transnational corporations and investment firms, i.e. the so-called “1%”. A primary political aim of the TNS is to “promote the conditions for global capital accumulation in their territories” while also securing “their legitimation through ‘the nation’”(13), and subdue the agency of the global working classes.

 In this new book, Robinson turns his attention toward the more political question of how the TCC has utilized the TNS to cultivate innovative mechanisms of social control and repression that work to both protect and expand its material bases of class-based power against the myriad forms of resistance and contention mobilized by social movements from the grassroots. In this regard, Robinson points toward two driving logics.

On the one hand, there are mechanisms of social control used by the TCC to safeguard its sources of capital accumulation, such as resource extractivism and financialization. In this regard, Robinson shows that the economic relations empowering the TCC have generated “savage inequalities” characterized by ever-increasing forms of poverty, precarity, exploitation and expulsion. The wealth of the TCC, writes Robinson, “requires extreme violence and repression” in order to be maintained as it becomes necessary for the TCC to both preclude and pacify the myriad forms of protest and contention that emanate from expanding conditions of humanitarian crisis. In this regard, Robinson gives ample attention to the roles played by digital surveillance and militarized policing regimes as well as the uses of debt and the destruction of labor rights.

On the other hand, there are mechanisms of social control designed to generate new sources of profit-making through what Robinson terms “militarized accumulation” or “accumulation through repression”. This is basically the commodification of repression and surveillance. Some examples that Robinson explores at length in this regard include: war profiteering, the privatization of prison systems and the outsourcing of policing and military activities to private security firms.

In addition to the global comparative perspective, one of the things that I have always appreciated about Robinson’s work on the TCC is that he is able to clearly point to the specific sets of actors and actions that underlie and give shape to the macro-level material relations of power at work in our world today. Questions of power are thus not portrayed by Robinson as a nameless and faceless force that exists as an abstract structure, but rather they are presented in concrete terms as specific sets of historically situated actors engaged in particular sets of practices that have very tangible consequences. In spite of the short length of this book, he does equally well to work in such specific terms and to provide an onslaught of illustrative examples that establish the identity and agency underlying the power of the TCC. 

One of the major contributions of this book is thus not only to outline some of the major structural landscapes within which social movements are embedded, but to help explain the absence of social movement activities in many parts of the world.  The power dynamics outlined by Robinson provide insight on the savage forms of repression and violence that elites are prepared to wield in order to protect and promote the material sources of their wealth, thus significantly raising the hazards and risks associated with organized resistance. Given the increased normalization of totalitarian and neo-fascist thinking in political systems around the world today, these are important issues for any scholar of social movements to consider because studying the absence of collective action is just as important as understanding its many articulations.

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Filed under Great Books for Summer Reading 2021

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