The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire

December 13, 2012

Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin have produced an ambitious account of the nature of global capitalism, looking at its historical origins in order to argue that the US state has been the main driver of the spread of capitalist institutions around the world. The book is at its best when discussing the development of the financial system in the post-Second World War US, the development of American company involvement abroad and the role of the US in international economic affairs since 1970. About two-thirds of the book is devoted to these topics, with detailed research running to 104 pages of footnotes. The final chapter contains a thorough summary of the 2007 financial crisis and the role played by the US in its genesis, as well as the proactive response of the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department. These parts of the book could stand alone as a substantial contribution to the literature on financial history.

Where the work falters is in convincing us that its key premise is true - that the US state is wholly responsible for the character of modern capitalism and the nature of the interconnectedness between countries. The authors argue that various arms of the US government were able to push other countries towards US-style capitalist policies and institutions, including openness to trade and capital flows, aided by the increased presence of American multinational companies abroad.

Panitch and Gindin focus on the activities of US government agencies to the neglect of other important determinants of the path of globalisation. Most importantly, they ignore the role of technological change, which facilitated the new disintegrated modes of production and made offshoring a viable development model for many countries, increasing global trade dramatically. The case of China stands out as one that does not really fit their thesis, as its evolution towards modern capitalism since 1978 has been driven by domestic considerations and facilitated by technological change and the offshoring model. Furthermore, although the US may have lobbied hard for other countries to adopt its flavour of capitalism, growth by imitation has been a key development strategy ever since Germany and the US overtook the UK in the late 19th century. It is therefore difficult to know the extent to which the actions of the US government affected foreign institutions. The exceptions are the various episodes of financial crisis experienced by developing countries, in which US-dominated international institutions were able to step in and provide relief in return for reforms.

The authors’ focus on capital flows as the main vehicle through which the US was able to influence the policies of other countries is understandable, as this is the strongest case for their argument. But there are other avenues for international economic interaction, and when these are discussed, holes appear in their main thesis. Trade features more prominently in the early chapters, but what one can deduce from the discussion is that the US was not always committed to free trade - its early abandonment of the International Trade Organization and demand for protectionist exceptions in the agricultural sector stand out. The sections on trade could also benefit from more economic data and analysis, but the authors prefer to stick to a more traditional political science approach.

Overall, this is a useful text for students of 20th-century political economy and financial history, and for those interested in the recent financial and political history of the US. But in my view, it would have benefited from closer comparison with the previous pro-globalisation hegemon, Britain, the first global era, 1870-1914, and from a greater use of economic data.

The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire

By Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin

Verso, 464pp, £20.00

ISBN 9781844677429

Published 5 November 2012

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