It is now virtually a commonplace among left observers and activists that we have recently witnessed the emergence of a New International Division of Labour and the Globalization of Production.footnote For many, these twin tendencies manifest such deep structural transformations in the world economy that group or government efforts to swim against the currents are becoming increasingly ineffectual, if not futile. The power of labour, community and the state has seemed to wither as multinational corporations sweep irresistibly around the globe. The roots of these concerns, at least in the advanced capitalist countries, are obvious—manifested, for example, in rising unemployment, sectoral devastation in many traditional industries, and insistent corporate demands for concessions on wages, benefits and working conditions. Intensifying international competition appears to be casting its shadow more and more broadly across the economic landscape, chilling the spirit of growing numbers of organized and unorganized workers alike.

Some of these concerns are clearly warranted, since there have been striking changes in the dynamics of the world economy over the past fifteen years. But many others stem from a transposition of trend and long cycle, confusing the effects of continuing stagnation in the world capitalist economy with the auguries of a transformation of the global capitalist order. It is not always easy to discriminate between the decay of an older order and the inauguration of a new. I argue in this essay, indeed, that widespread perceptions about the nidl and the gop have been significantly distorted and that much of the conventional wisdom prevailing on the left (and elsewhere) about recent changes in the global economy requires substantial revision. These changes are best understood not as a symptom of structural transformation but rather as a consequence of the erosion of the social structure of accumulation which conditioned international capitalist prosperity during the 1950s and 1960s.footnote1 We are still experiencing the decay of the older order and not yet the inauguration of a new.footnote2

Because in my own experience many on the left find this argument both discomfiting and at first blush implausible, I should begin with a number of cautions. First, I do not intend to unveil a subtle and extended argument that nothing at all has changed in the global economy; this is not going to be one of those magical moments in which plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. There have been vast and quickening changes throughout the world with unsettling impact on the vast majority of ordinary people. Far from denying the importance of these changes, I want rather to suggest that they have been widely misunderstood and that this misunderstanding has undermined our ability to respond to and oppose them.

Second, it may appear in much of what follows that I am belittling the power of capital, especially the mammoth transnational corporations (tncs) who currently bear witness to its historic extension and dynamism. Quite to the contrary, I yield to few in my apprehension of the global power of capitalists and their corporate juggernauts. I shall argue, nonetheless, that we have all been staggering from the blows of economic crisis, including the multinationals. It is not at all clear that they have already achieved new global structures of coordination and control which will necessarily enhance their power through the coming decades. Yes, they have huge resources. And yes, they can still take their capital out on strike if they dislike our behaviour at the bargaining table. But they are much less invulnerable, with far less security about the future, than many on the left appear to believe.

I want finally to stress the provisional and tentative character of much of my argument. It is difficult to challenge a fairly entrenched conventional wisdom without at times sounding shrill, caricaturing views, or overstating one’s own conclusions. My purpose in this essay is as much to raise questions as to insist upon particular answers. I write with great respect for the hundreds who have contributed to the recent literature on the changing global economy. But I also write from an urgent concern that we not handcuff ourselves politically with misplaced and potentially crippling perceptions about a new global order.

My argument is divided into three principal sections. First I review the prevailing perceptions of trends toward an nidl, and the gop. I then present some synthetic historical evidence on the character and relative importance of recent changes in the global economy which grounds my scepticism about the adequacy of much of the conventional wisdom. A third section develops an alternative view of these recent trends, sketching a brief synthetic macro-institutional account of the structure and erosion of the global political economy in the postwar period. A brief concluding section reviews some of the implications of this analysis.

Distinguishing among secular, crisis, and transformational trends in the global economy would be difficult enough. Our task is further complicated by a difference between two somewhat divergent hypotheses about structural transformations, which I shall refer to respectively as the nidl and the gop hypotheses. The nidl perspective stresses a new division of labour between the North and the South, the advanced and the developing countries.footnote3 In a critical review of this perspective, Dieter Ernst has usefully summarized its internal logic. ‘According to the nidl theory, a new capitalist world economy has emerged, its main feature being a massive migration of capital from major oecd countries to low-cost production sites in the Third World. The main purpose of establishing such a new international division of labour is to exploit reserve supplies of labour on a world scale. This type of an internationalization of capital requires the existence of world markets for labour and production sites, and of one global industrial reserve army of labour.’footnote4 The gop perspective places much less emphasis on the movement of production from the North to the South and much more weight on the centralization and concentration of capital through two related developments: first, the spreading importance of decentralized production sites in both the advanced and the developing countries; and second, the increasingly centralized control and coordination by transnational corporations of these decentralized production units. These two trends have combined, according to the gop, to foster both increasing international inter-dependence and enhanced tnc leverage over national governments and domestic unions.footnote5