Globalization in the Academy

— John O'Connor

Globalisation: A Systematic Marxian Account
By Tony Smith
Brill Academic Publishers, 358 pages, $120 hardcover

WITH THE SOCIAL movements of the 1960s, it was a good thing that Marxists pushed their way into the academy after being excluded for so long. Generations of college students were exposed to and benefited from Marxism’s challenge to mainstream social science.

Class analysis was a welcome alternative to social stratification; exploitation exposed the delusion of rational, self-interested individuals; and class struggle was more to the point than political pluralism.

Yet assimilation, as always, comes with a price. The tension of having one foot in the door, the other one in the gutter proved overwhelming. Decades of institutionalization, professionalism, and changing political winds left academic Marxism in a sorry state. Establishing Marxism within the academy transformed it: Marxism could stay, but revolutionary Marxism had to go. As part of the trade-off, those that stayed could enjoy a plethora of revised, deconstructed Marxisms, including appetizing rational-choice, cultural and structural varieties.

In the end, within the academy Marxism was declassed and relativized, married off to different disciplines and different perspectives. Cut loose from its revolutionary moorings, academic Marxism stands among the pantheon of the pathetic; it is often indistinguishable from positivistic sociology, post-modernism, and post-colonialism.

More often than not, academic Marxists either fetishize their method, ideology, and categories or they actively engage in their reconstruction. Socialist revolution is nothing more than an afterthought.

This abandonment of working-class politics is clearly seen today in Marxist work on globalization. At a time when multinational corporations from the developing world are becoming more competitive, and the Global Justice movement is fragmenting and drifting toward the right, there are few research programs that insist on the unity of socialist theory and practice. Instead, most academic Marxists (me included) are engaged in historically situating and/or theoretically specifying the processes of globalization.

Tony Smith’s Globalisation is a unique contribution to the globalization debate, even while (as I’ll state in my conclusion) it illustrates some of the strengths and weaknesses of Marxism in the academy. Although touching little on the practices of social movements, it clarifies a number of competing conceptualizations of our new orthodoxy. (1) Smith shows clearly that capital mobility, the internationalization of production, and integrated global markets can only be understood from a Marxian perspective.

Smith’s book aims to lay out a “rational reconstruction of the globalization debate” via dialectical social theory. (10) Rather than focus on globalization’s historic pattern of development, Smith is doing something novel here. As a member of the “new dialectic” group, Smith utilizes a “systematic dialectics” framework for understanding globalization. (2)

Systematic dialectics takes two forms. On the one hand it is an attempt to reconstruct, in thought, a given totality (e.g. the capitalist mode of production), starting with the most abstract elements (e.g. the commodity-form) and progressing toward more concrete forms (e.g. banking capital). The key task is the correct ordering of the categories. (8) On the other hand, systematic dialectics also involves the systematic ordering of a plurality of different theoretical positions, in which inadequate explanations give way to more adequate ones.

Globalisation is divided into two parts. In the first, Smith systematically orders four positions in the globalization debate: the Social-State, Neoliberal, Catalytic-State, and Democratic-Cosmopolitan models of globalization, subjecting each of these in turn to a sharp critique. In the second, he reconstructs a Marxian model of globalization and its alternative — a Marxian model of Socialist globalization.

In presenting popular positions in the globalization debate or reconstructing a Marxist model of globalization, Smith grounds his analysis in the dominant social forms of our epoch: the family, civil society, interstate relations, world market, and the regime of global governance. And he assesses each theoretical model according to three criteria (theory/data consistency, the feasibility of the model over time, and the model’s normative attractiveness).

Smith’s methodological framework is Hegelian, and readers are forced to confront a series of “immanent contradictions” that lead to the “determinate negation” of different globalization models.

Although Smith presents this in a clear and careful manner, the book is often dense and repetitive. Smith’s methodology is troublesome. His conclusion that the justification of a systematic dialectical ordering is only validated by the sequence of the determinations making it up appears dubious.

The real question is — does the logic and categories of Smith’s exposition actually produce new knowledge about globalization? Smith hedges his bet here, arguing that systematic dialectical ordering is little more than an invitation to dialogue.

Globalization Models

Smith provides the reader with a lot to talk and think about. His discussion and critique of the different models of globalization are marked by a great deal of clarity and rigor. Smith’s presentation of the different positions in the globalization debate is a major contribution — if the reader can persevere, he or she will understand both the contours of the debate and the political issues at stake.

With occasional references to the empirical world as a backdrop, the author represents his globalization models as ideal-types, starting with the most abstract and simple determination.

Smith’s systematic dialectical ordering begins with the social-state model. To briefly illustrate, this perspective — resting on the work of John Rawls — contends that the global order is nothing more than a collection of independent state/national economies. Internal contradictions emerge, however, as individuals and groups pursue their interests more effectively, resulting in greater economic transactions across borders. The end result is a global economy, inequality, and state involvement that are at odds with what the social-state position would indicate.

The neoliberal model of globalization is the next step in Smith’s dialectical progression. For neoliberals, the world market and a minimal state have generated a context of both enhanced economic democracy and mutual economic benefits. Of course, the invisible hand of the market is a disaster, as free markets undermine the principle of comparative advantage, trade balances are difficult to achieve, and financial instability is destructive. Judged by its own precepts, neoliberal policies cannot deliver the goods.

With the failure of the neoliberal position, Smith’s third globalization model is the catalytic-state. Based on John Gray’s critique of neoliberalism, the catalytic-state perspective is one in which the state establishes and maintains the conditions for a region to compete in the global order. Again, even these minimal protections, aimed at addressing market failure and community concerns, are undermined eventually by global economic forces.

The final, and most interesting, position considered is the democratic-cosmopolitan model. Given the shortcomings of earlier interventions, democratic-cosmopolitanism is located on the global level, and committed to economic efficiency and social justice. As developed in the work of David Held, this position in the globalization debate is a revitalized form of regulatory social democracy. Once more, the opportunities and freedom afforded by democratic-cosmopolitan policies and practices cannot withstand the pressures of capitalist property and production relations.

Smith’s treatment and criticism of each position is insightful and thorough. Given his dialectical approach (an immanent contradiction justifies a determinate negation forcing a transition to a new position), the author seriously considers the structural tendencies that undermine each position’s efficiency and normative claims. In his slow move toward Marx, Smith sheds light on the work of Rawls, Gray and Held.


A Marxian Model

Having shown mainstream accounts of globalization to be incapable of resolving capitalism’s irrationality and social antagonisms, Smith spends three chapters in the second part of his book outlining a Marxist model of globalization. For Smith, the Marxist account is superior to the previous models because it is based on a critical theory that acknowledges the contradictions of the capitalist global order, and it makes no claims to being efficient or normatively acceptable.

In arguing that what is actual is not rational, and what is rational is not yet actual [the terms “actual” and “rational” are used here in their Hegelian sense — ed.], Smith constructs his model based on the “essential determinations of capital,” Marx’s goal in the systematic presentation in Capital. (3)

As the dialectic progresses (and it always seems to roll on), Smith builds his Marxist model of globalization on a solid foundation: that the law of value, accumulation and exploitation, and monopoly/crisis/uneven development all operate on the level of the world market. Smith ends his Marxist model of globalization by detailing the complex nature of the capitalist state and the role of money in the global economy.

Much of what Smith writes regarding his Marxist model of globalization is sound, and rooted in a serious reading of Marx. In fact, I doubt few Marxists would have many problems with what Smith has written. And Smith is correct when he maintains that his Marxian framework is far superior to the earlier models in understanding today’s global economy — it contains no immanent contradictions and it makes explicit that which is only implicit in earlier models.

However, Smith’s endless systematic dialectical progression and careful attention to Marx’s social forms does leave the reader hungry for a more historical account. Near the end of his book, Smith does revisit the relationship between systematic and historical dialectics, but they are never really reconciled. (243) And it is an open question whether Smith’s Hegelian interpretation of Marx could ever help us understand that today’s globalization is also an expression of the class struggle.

Socialist Globalization

Smith concludes his systematic dialectic of globalization by asserting the need for a revolutionary break. As such, he presents a model of socialist globalization that transcends the criticisms made of earlier models. Smith’s socialist globalization addresses the problems associated with Soviet central planning, and he makes the case for a feasible and normatively attractive form of market socialism.

Smith’s alternative (like everything in the book) is meticulously argued. But it does come as a bit of a shock. After spending close to 300 pages exhaustively showing the corrupting nature of the world economy, the author then makes a leap of faith that the market can be democratized. Well, anything is possible in theory.

Theoretically, Globalization is an important work. Smith unpacks the competing positions in the globalization debate in a clear and helpful way, and he then puts forward a credible Marxist account of the global order. In forcing readers to think about alternatives, he conceptualizes and presents a viable form of socialist globalization. The breadth and depth of Smith’s analysis is proof positive of the continued promise of academic Marxism.

Yet politically the book is frustrating. While Smith acknowledges the importance of the dialectic of theory and practice, it does not warrant much attention. There are important political lessons in Smith’s work, but they are not developed. The fact that it is left to the reader to disentangle the book’s politics speaks to the main weakness of academic Marxism.

Socialist globalization may be an organizational form, but proletarian internationalism is the only activity that can bring it about. We cannot think about one without thinking of the other.



  1. Globalisation is the tenth volume published as part of the Historical Materialism Book Series. The journal Historical Materialism — which is usually very good (although not always readable) — has published/republished books by the likes of Michael Löwy, Alex Callinicos, Pierre Broué, and Jacques Bidet. Although the book prices are criminal, the topics range from considerations on Marxist theory of International Law to Lenin’s What is to be Done?
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  2. The “New Dialectic” group maintains that the conceptual construction of Marx’s Capital is an expression of Hegel’s dialectical logic. Members of this group include: Chris Arthur, Martha Campbell, Patrick Murray, and Geert Reuten, amongst others. Smith’s earlier work on this topic is The Logic of Marx’s Capital (1990).
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  3. Smith’s construction of a Marxist model of globalization relies on a careful reading of all three volumes of Capital, as well as insights from the Grundrisse and Theories of Surplus Value.
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ATC 133, March–April 2008