Robert Brenner has produced an in-depth inquiry into the economic history of us capitalism over the last half-century. Yet this is not a history of the world economy. The book is much too focused on America to amount to a global view, though it deals in passing with Germany and Japan. Brenner does not follow Goldman Sachs in highlighting Brazil, Russia, India and China (bric) as the group of new powers that will lead world growth in the first half of this century. He is sure that the us is the hegemon and will remain so. In his view, therefore, the world economy will still depend crucially on future conditions of profitability and investment in the us, as it has done in the past.
This perspective must be challenged—all the more so, since the ongoing crisis that has been weakening the us financial system. In 2006 China overtook Germany to become the third-largest world economy, measuring gdp at market exchange rates. In terms of purchasing power parity (ppp) it is already by far the second largest. It has created a middle class of some 300 million people. It is hard to believe that such an achievement results solely from China’s export drive to the us. The group of emerging market economies has grown at 6 per cent on average since 2000, against 2.5 per cent for the average of the developed economies. Why should they not maintain this lead, indeed even widen it—since growth in the developed countries will remain subdued for a considerable time ahead, as a result of the financial crisis? If they do, twenty-five years from now their share of world gdp will be 66 per cent, almost reversing the gap created by the industrial revolution, colonialism and imperialism in the nineteenth century, followed by the wars and revolutions of the twentieth. Nonetheless, global growth can be expected to decelerate markedly from 5 to about 3 per cent.
I contend that the Asian crisis of the 1990s, followed by China’s entry into the wto, was the turning point that started a major bifurcation of capitalism, like the others that have punctuated its history. Globalization accelerated after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was conceived as the projection of Western capitalism over the rest of the world. The policy for achieving this goal was encapsulated in the Washington Consensus and symbolized by Francis Fukuyama’s slogan of ‘the end of history’. But the momentum generated by the apparent triumph of economic liberalism crashed on the reefs of successive financial crises between 1997 and 2002, before it was definitively halted in Iraq.
More fundamentally, I have always been inspired by Fernand Braudel’s monumental work on the history of capitalism, of which regulation theory is an offshoot. From his teaching, mediated by my own modest experience, I will draw five theoretical propositions to help structure my reading of Brenner’s findings.
1) Since its emergence in Western Europe, capitalism has always been both global and embedded in particular, endlessly differentiated social structures.
2) A market economy and capitalism are linked but not identical. The market paradigm is one of exchange among equals; it can be formalized as competitive equilibrium. Capitalism is a force of accumulation. It is not self-regulating and does not converge to any ideal model. Inequality is its essence.
3) The sphere of the economy is not an independent, still less a predominant, realm within social relations. Two basic underpinnings of capitalism lie beyond market mechanisms: money is a public good and labour is by no means reducible to a commodity.