Abstract: Facing a crisis of legitimacy, the capitalist class is constructing new hegemonic projects to stabilize their global system. This article will examine competiting fractions of the transnational capitalist class (TCC), how these fractions are confronting the crisis of global capitalism, and how TCC theory analyzes the current state of conflict. TCC theorists see the development of two hegemonic projects, one based on militarized accumulation and authoritarian politics and that of green capitalist reformism. But differences exist on the evaluation of the strength and formation of these emerging blocs. The article also pays attention to the relationship between the US and China as a battleground between globalizing projects, rather than nations.
Keywords: Authoritarian capitalism, green capitalism, green new deal, hegemonic blocs, militarized accumulation, transnational capitalist class.
Transnational Capitalist Class (TCC) theory (Sklair 2001, Robinson 2004, Harris 2016) has often been criticized for holding a Kautsky-like view of super-imperialism. A world where national capitalist competition seemingly disappears in a harmonious exploitation of the world. But the capitalist class, whether national or transnational, has always fought over political strategy and markets (Robinson and Harris, 2000). Currently capitalist competition is mainly between transnational corporations (TNCs) whose ownership structures include a mix of transnational capitalists. Nevertheless, national ideology and its political manifestations have never disappeared. Contradictions between nation-centric social relations and transnational restructuring is a historic dialectic, and the struggle between the two defines the contours of our contemporary world.
The question here is how do aspects of the national and transnational translate into political divisions and competition under the current conditions of social and economic crisis and how do transnational capitalist theorists view these developments. The capitalist class seeks stability through the construction of hegemonic blocs (Gramsci, 1971). Such blocs coalesce a ruling consensus around a configuration of accumulation and social relations. This necessitates a broadly supported elite consensus, with a political and social base among the working and middle class. For those radical class elements refusing to be incorporated there is the repressive heal of the state.
The Great Recession of 2008 produced a new field of political responses. Because the crash was so profound the hegemony of neoliberal ideology faced a crisis of legitimacy. Both conservative and liberal parties that supported globalization throughout Europe and the US lost large sections of their popular base. As politics shifted to the left and right the TCC began to search for a solution, one that could stabilize global capitalism and stimulate a new round of accumulation.
To be sure neoliberalism still has widespread support among the TCC. It’s what Paul Krugman calls “zombie economics,” ideas that live on long after their proven failure. Some have rallied around “inclusive capitalism,” a weak attempt to recognize the vast inequalities that neoliberalism has engendered, proposing mild reformism coupled with speeches that express great moral concern. Such tunes now sound like the band that played as the Titanic sank.
But the dynamics triggered by the cascading social collapse has caused other fractions to seek more radical solutions. These are authoritarian capitalism based on militarized accumulation and green capitalism based on environmental economic renewal. These are driven by a reconfiguration of TCC alliances, but are influenced by nationalist pressures. While some overlaps exist, both present distinct visions of capitalist renewal that center on differences between neo-fascism and a global neo-Keynesian regime. Using the framework of TCC analysis and hegemonic blocs we examine the emerging projects, their political contradictions, and conflicting economic base.
The Authoritarian Bloc
Leading TCC theorist William I. Robinson describes the authoritarian transnational bloc in the following passage, “There is a convergence around global capitalism’s political need for social control and repression and its economic need to perpetuate accumulation in the face of stagnation” (Robinson, 2018). He terms this militarized accumulation, or accumulation by repression based in the “development and deployment of systems of warfare, social control, and repression” (ibid). The war on terror, the privatization of armed forces, immigrant internment camps, and growth of security state surveillance are elements around which profits are organized and political movements mobilized. For a fraction of the TCC this is the best strategy to repress rebellions from below, split the working class with appeals to nationalism and white identity, and create stability for global capitalism. Robinson’s analysis rests on the fusion of three essential wings of the TCC: finance, technology, and the military. As he explains,
The global police state and the rise of the digital economy appear to fuse three fractions of capital around a combined process of financial speculation and militarized accumulation into which the TCC is unloading billions of dollars in surplus accumulated capital. Financial capital supplies the credit for investment in the tech sector and in the technologies of the global police state. [Consequently,] as private accumulation fuses with state militarization, the fate of Silicon Valley and Wall Street become tied to that of warfare and repression (ibid).
Robinson describes this as an authoritarian state or police state project, supported by fascist and reactionary nationalist groups within civil society (Robinson 2019). This power bloc has a strong presence in Europe, as well as India, Brazil, the Philippines, Turkey, and Israel. All of these have their own characteristics, and don’t fit neatly into Robinson’s three-way alliance. Nevertheless, a global organization has been established, the International Democratic Union, whose membership includes 72 right-wing parties from around the world, 20 of whom are in power. One commonality is their willingness to jettison most forms of bourgeois democracy. By far the most important country of influence is the US. Authoritarian ideology has failed to establish ruling-class consensus in both political parties. But it has taken over the Republican Party, the most powerful political party in the developed world, and mobilized a solid and loyal reactionary base. With or without Trump the authoritarian project will be a long-term feature of political life. The US, as the most important authoritarian current, will be the focus of the analysis below.
Militarized accumulation certainly plays an important role for global capitalism. All major financial institutions have billions invested in the three big US military corporations—Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman—about $120 billion in total (Phillips, 2018). Government contracts with the military industrial complex add close to another $700 billion (Cancian, 2019). Moreover, 15 million are employed by private military companies doing everything from data collection and warfare, to running private detention and interrogation facilities (Robinson, 2020). Additionally, about 880,000 work in the arms industry. Arms and aerospace production also encompass the maquiladora sector in Mexico, which exported $9.6 billion to the US in 2019 (Bacon, 2020). As military analyst Loren Thompson noted, “This White House has been more open to defense industry executives than any other in living memory” (LaForgia and Bogdanich, 2020).
But these figures need to be put into context. The world’s 17 largest financial institutions control $41 trillion, with investments in every sector of the global economy (Phillips, 2018). Therefore, militarized accumulation is significant, but only one part of a much larger picture. Moreover, corporate investments don’t necessarily translate into ideology. For most large investors holding stocks in the arms industry is no different from their holdings in logistics, pharmacy, or other industries. But for some the military industrial complex does represent the majority of their wealth, their political position, careers and networks. These fit into Robinson’s authoritarian fraction. But for most TCC members there is no direct relationship between having Boeing or Raytheon in their portfolio and supporting an authoritarian state. Nonetheless, beyond economics there is considerable ideological and culture power embedded in military history and mythology that supports its influence throughout society. This adds considerable power to the authoritarian bloc and speaks to their ability to form a substantial populist base.
The privatization of prisons is another element in the repressive accumulation model. About 75 percent of US-detained immigrants are held by for-profit corporations. Thirteen banks have provided over $2.6 billion in credit, but Bank of America is the only major global bank to do so (Carter, 2019). Bank of America holds a close relationship with Caliburn, the only for-profit company running migrant-child detention camps. Retired General and former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, retired General Anthony Zinni, Admiral James Stavridis, and Rear Admiral Kathleen Martin are all Caliburn board members, which is owned by DC Capital Partners (Kates, 2019). Top military figures often move into careers with military and repressive industries, creating an important network of influence and money. Such ties are key in the formation of a ruling class bloc. Although not a large industry by global standards and a relatively small sector of the overall US economy, immigrant internment camps play an outsized role for the authoritarian project, particularly as a political and cultural representation for their nationalist base.
Taken together militarized and repressive accumulation constitute only one noteworthy sector of a much bigger global economy, even if we include other aspects such as surveillance technology. Yet it wields enormous political clout. Although the most reactionary fraction of the TCC may have a relatively limited economic base, it forms the core of an attractive political model of repressive stability, and coalesces elites tied through careers and direct investments in the industry. This creates a rather narrow field for a hegemonic bloc, but one with a clear project. Moreover, a controlling regime doesn’t always need broadly based hegemony that runs throughout the ruling class. Roosevelt’s New Deal was strongly opposed by conservatives throughout the 1930s. Only with the advent of WWII and its aftermath did Keynesianism become hegemonic. What a power project does need is to be highly organized and linked to a mobilized base.
While the current authoritarian project may be a minority trend within the TCC, many of those made uncomfortable have bowed to passive acquiescence, taken their tax cuts, and ignored the bad taste in their mouth left by authoritarian rhetoric. Additionally, TCC investors have favored stock opportunities in Brazil under Bolsonaro, Mohammed bin Salman’s Saudi Arabia, and Egypt under Abdel el-Sisi. Authoritarian regimes viewed favorably for their neoliberal reforms. As Ruchir Sharma, chief global strategist at Morgan Stanley observes, it’s not that Wall Street investors aren’t “appalled by the excesses of autocrats. But it is their job (to) focus instead on whether their policies are likely to spur growth” (Sharma 2019). Strong indication that profits outweigh any sentimentality for democracy. Nevertheless, significant TCC figures like Bloomberg and Gates continue to be vocal in their opposition to an authoritarian US state.
Opposition has appeared in the security apparatus as well, spanning the FBI, CIA, and highly placed military officers. These feuds have been very public, as with past FBI Director James Comey and ex-head of the CIA John Brennan. Signaling that the authoritarian project faces deeply rooted constitutional practices of political neutrality.
Some on the Left may scoff at the idea of democratic constitutional barriers against fascism existing inside an imperialist military. But grasping the difference between authoritarian and bourgeois democratic capitalism is essential, particularly so in these times. Perhaps drawing such lines can be clarified by the statement of US admiral and commander of the Navy SEALs, William H. McRaven. McRaven led the strike force that killed Bin Laden, and went on to build Special Operations into a deadly global force. Writing for The New York Times McRaven recounted attending a gathering of the O.S.S. Society,
…there was an underlying current of frustration, humiliation, anger and fear that echoed across the sidelines. The America that they believed in was under attack, not from without, but from within. These men and women, of all political persuasions, have seen the assaults on our institutions: on the intelligence and law enforcement community, the State Department and the press… As I stood on the parade field at Fort Bragg, one retired four-star general, grabbed my arm, shook me and shouted, “I don’t like the Democrats, but Trump is destroying the Republic” (McRaven, 2019)!
More telling evidence became clear when the military came under intense pressure to “dominate” the streets during the George Floyd protests. As former defense secretary James Mattis stated,
When I joined the military, some 50 years ago, I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution. Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens—much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief… We know that we are better than the abuse of executive authority that we witnessed in Lafayette Square. We must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution (Goldberg, 2020).
The following week chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley stated, “We must hold dear the principal of an apolitical military which is so deeply rooted in the very essence of our republic” (Cooper, 2020). Such resistance from elite military figures who rarely make political statements raises significant barriers for consolidating police state hegemony.
Police are the tip of the spear for repressive accumulation and control. The largest ten US cities have a combined police budget of about $13.5 billion, with New York by far the largest at $5.6 billion. There are about one million police employees nationwide, many part of the reactionary social base. During the recent wave of protests police combined racist brutality with over 200 documented assaults on journalists. Hence, the anti-police movement opens a key battle front against an authoritarian state.
The last element in Robinson’s political fusion theory is the tech sector, which certainly has a long history with the military, and more recently with the security state. Eric Schmidt, past chairman of Google, has become the Pentagon’s main conduit to Silicon Valley. Schmidt holds $5.3 billion in Alphabet stock as part of his $13 billion fortune, much of which is invested in defense start-ups. He now heads the Defense Innovation Board for the Pentagon and is co-chair of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, to which he recruited executives from Microsoft, Amazon, and Oracle (Conger and Metz, 2020). Money-soaked Pentagon contracts are a big attraction for the tech industry whose products are essential for a dominant military.
But political resistance to US militarism among tech workers at Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Salesforce has created some significant problems. More than 3,000 Google workers protested Project Maven, an automatic targeting system for drones, and caused the company to drop its contract. Anti-surveillance protests also resulted in Google pulling out of the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI). Microsoft faced the same problem in their $10 billion JEDI bid when their workers published a letter which read,
Many Microsoft employees don’t believe that what we build should be used for waging war. When we decided to work at Microsoft, we were doing so in the hopes of empowering every person on the planet to achieve more, not with the intent of ending lives and enhancing lethality (Horgan, 2018).
Protest and declarations won’t stop technology corporations from working with the military. But it does show that worker resistance may disrupt relationships based on militarized accumulation. And as we’ll see below a good number of wealthy tech executives are deeply involved in green technologies and social justice issues.
In reviewing Robinson’s thesis, we can see an emerging bloc based in militarized accumulation committed to undermining democracy. But the three-way authoritarian alliance doesn’t act as a consolidated political bloc. Robinson does account for differences, but mainly in a generally descriptive manner focused on class and consciousness. And while he pays attention to far-right nationalist groups and militias, not enough consideration is given to other influential political fractions.
Political Fractions in the Authoritarian Bloc
Militarized accumulation has an invaluable ally in right-wing libertarianism, best represented by the Koch network. Although coming from different ideological viewpoints, both authoritarian capitalists and reactionary libertarians have common interests in dismantling democratic governance. In the early 1970s the Koch brothers constructed an organizational network using what they termed “a Leninist strategy” (MacLean, 2017, 125-126). Over $100 million was funneled into generating cadre in 64 non-profit think tanks that have pushed to change laws, control the judiciary, make voting difficult, and weaken democratic governance. The Koch network has provided an ideological framework for the authoritarian bloc by achieving hegemony over right-wing intellectuals and activists. For the past five decades they have financed and trained what Gramsci termed the “organic intellectuals” of the right-wing movement.
Christian fundamentalists are the largest and most loyal base for the authoritarian project. Their biblical fundamentalism is a doorway to their economic and social views, which closely parallels libertarian doctrine on replacing democratic governance (Davidson and Harris, 2006). Because evangelicals constitute the largest and most mobilized nationalist force, they have powerful political influence. The authoritarian narrative is rooted in a national myth of greatness, cultural and religious purity, closed borders, xenophobia, and verbal attacks on global elites. Consequently, the authoritarian TCC fraction must institute policies that keep the loyalty of the base, as well as influential nationalists in their power networks. But the ideology and demands of the nationalist base constantly push against TCC interests. Globalists are seen as a “liberal-socialist bloc,” which includes everyone from Wall Street Republicans to Bernie Sanders. Trump fed this narrative constantly, as when at a Texas rally, he proclaimed, “You know what I am? I’m a nationalist, O.K.? I’m a nationalist. Nationalist! Use that word! Use that word!” (Baker, 2018).
Nationalist rallying cries cause considerable problems for the authoritarian TCC fraction who still wish to maintain allies and economic ties with other TCC members. Many who don’t outright oppose the authoritarian project, nevertheless don’t want restrictions on transnational economic relations. As Robert Azevêdo, director general of the WTO stated in reference to the China/US trade war, “This is holding back investors, this is holding back consumers, and of course it is having an impact on the expansion of the global economy. Everyone loses… every single country” (Roberts, 2019).
Accordingly, the trade war with China, tariffs on EU and Canadian goods, and freezing the trade court in the WTO are all points of serious tension. COVID-19 economic effects heightened these contradictions. As the pandemic grew the US Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, the US-China Business Council, the American Apparel and Footwear Association, and the National Retail Federation all asked for a permanent roll-back of tariffs, a move they opposed from the start (Swanson, 2020). Therefore, Robinson’s characterization of the authoritarian bloc as fully transnational misses the hybrid nature of the political alliance, and consequently the instability at its core.
Robinson does recognize many of the above contradictions. He argues the “bewildering and seemingly contradictory politics of crisis management that appears as schizophrenic” emerges out of the need to maintain legitimacy with the social base; but the “current nationalist discourse among far-right groups is entirely political-ideological” because the “TCC has no interest in economic nationalism” and Trump’s project is “decidedly….global” (Robinson, 2019, 176, 178). The problem here is the characterization that nationalism is pushed by the far-right with no real economic policy influence. That underestimates the hybrid and interdependent nature of the alliance, particularly between base and leadership, that results in significant concessions not just “schizophrenic management.”
If democracy is the enemy of authoritarian capitalism, so too is the environmental movement. Of course, fossil fuel is the basis of Koch family wealth, and the fossil fuel industry occupies a privileged position in the reactionary project. Consequently, the environmental vision poses a threat to authoritarian capitalism in ideology, policy, and mode of accumulation. All fractions in the reactionary project fear environmental action will mean a significant expansion of regulatory governmental power. For libertarians this means an attack on markets and all the neoliberal gains of the past 40 years. For authoritarian capitalists it poses a challenge of social solidarity backed by progressive governmental policies. And for religious fundamentalists it replaces dogma with a scientific understanding of life and morality. Environmental consciousness, rapidly growing among youth and the general population, is a major barrier to authoritarian ideological and cultural hegemony. And the Green New Deal, with its strong connection to social justice, presents the most challenging counter-hegemonic vision to neo-fascism. Yet to the discomfort of many on the Left, the Green New Deal (GND) is linked to a significant hegemonic project on the part of another TCC fraction, the green capitalist bloc.
The Green Capitalist Bloc
There is an important fraction of the US ruling class and global TCC that links the future of capitalism to green accumulation. This includes well-known US figures, and green billionaires from Europe, China, India, and elsewhere. TCC links abound as with Wang Chuanfu, founder of the solar cell and electric car company BYD. Wang connects to Warren Buffet whose original $232 million BYD investment is now worth $1.5 billion (The Economist, 2019). Overall, the political spectrum spans neoliberals to neo-Keynesians, but all see a new historic round of accumulation in the expansion of the green economy.
There is a broad field of green think tanks, NGOs, funders, and green enterprises. Think tanks and NGOs are concentrated in Europe and the US, but China, Japan, and India have major green TNCs active around the world. Green capitalism divides into three general fractions. All seek reforms within the capitalist system, but differences exist over the role of markets and government, an emphasis on lobbying and conference negotiations rather than mass movements and linking issues of social justice to environmental transformation. These are seen in the activities of corporate-funded policy groups, philanthropic supported NGOs, and Left activists of the GND. Whether these fractions coalesce into a hegemonic bloc is an open question.
Rather than tracing the ownership, production, and markets of the major green corporations, which I detail elsewhere (Harris, 2010, 2013), the following will concentrate on the policy differences among major groups, their networks, and leading figures.
Twenty-five foundations constitute over 90 percent of the funding for NGOs concerned with climate change (Morena, 2016, 10). Of these, six make up 70 percent of such funding: the Hewlett Foundation; the Packard Foundation; the Rockefeller Foundation; the Energy Foundation; the Oak Foundation; and Sea Change (Morningstar, 2019, 173). Examining these philanthropies is a good starting point to understand the money and interests behind the green capitalist project. With $8.74 billion in assets Hewlett is among the most influential funders.
Larry Kramer, president of the Hewlett Foundation and former dean of Stanford Law School argues that a green project needs to replace neoliberalism. Because Kramer’s analysis is perhaps the most comprehensive strategy it’s worth examining at some length. As he explains,
…today’s prevailing intellectual paradigm—which has come to be labeled ‘neoliberalism’…has proven unable to provide satisfactory answers to problems like wealth inequality, wage stagnation, economic dislocation due to globalization, and loss of jobs and economic security due to technology and automation…circumstances are ripe for the emergence of a new intellectual paradigm—a different way to think about political economy and the terms for a new 21st century social contract. Helping develop and communicate such ideas is a task well suited to philanthropy (Hewlett Foundation, 2018, 2).
Kramer has a broad historical understanding of hegemonic blocs. In recounting the triumph of neoliberalism he notes how its victory “in favor of free market orthodoxy in the 1970s and ‘80s reshaped the entire world…Fiscal policy, monetary policy, labor policy, trade policy, welfare policy and industrial policy (and) similarly colonized law, political science, sociology, psychology, anthropology, public policy…corporate governance, how workers and executives are paid, and how the financial sector operates” (ibid, 6). Thus, when Kramer argues for replacing neoliberalism, he is looking to reshape capitalism.
Moreover, Kramer knows how organization and money are key to creating hegemonic ideas. He writes,
The triumph of market ideology did not occur organically. It was, in fact, an intentional, cultivated, and—most important for present purposes—well-funded effort…the free market movement was paid for—backed every step of the way by sympathetic foundations and philanthropists who provided the resources to succeed (ibid, 6).
Kramer states both Republicans and Democrats supported neoliberalism and “share the blame” for today’s social upheavals. “The upshot is that the 20th century free market paradigm has reached the end of its useful shelf life. There is little or no room left within it for useful solutions, or even productive disagreement about alternatives” (ibid, 17). This is where philanthropy comes in, to fund various think-tank to create a new narrative that can evolve into a counter-hegemonic force and replace neoliberalism. This work is already well underway, and Kramer mentions a dozen institutions in the US and Europe.
Kramer’s major weakness is his lack of understanding of how quickly conditions can change when explosive social contradictions come to a head. While he stresses the role of intellectuals in creating hegemonic ideology, he demonstrates no recognition that mass movements are key in creating social transformations. His conception of building a counter hegemonic project is conceived in similar terms to the long and patient road taken by neoliberalism. But the environmental crisis may not be so patient, nor the working class and current generation of youth activists. Kramer has an elite strategy that understands the ruling class, without any real comprehension of the explosive social forces gathering below.
As for key characteristics of the other major philanthropies, we can begin with the Packard Foundation, whose funding of $6.3 billion originates from the Packard family of Hewlett-Packard. It has given out $930 million to NGOs working on global climate change, funding 193 organizations in 14 different countries (Packard Foundation, 2020). Most of the board members have backgrounds in government, philanthropy, and academia, particularly in health and environment. Corporate experience usually comes from the tech sector, and half of the board are alumni of Stanford University, a network that runs through much of environmental philanthropy and West Coast wealth.
Sea Change was founded in 2006 by Nathaniel and Laura Baxter-Simons. Its exclusive focus is clean energy policies and climate change. Simons was a board member of Renaissance Technologies, a Silicon Valley investment group founded by his father. He co-founded the clean-tech investment fund Prelude Ventures, and is involved with the UC Berkeley-Tsinghua Joint Research Center on Energy and Climate Change (Wikipedia, 2020a). Simons’ estimated net worth is $10.6 billion, and Forbes ranks him as the 74th-richest person in the world. A major effort of Sea Change was to help launch Climate Action100+, a group of 320 investors with over $33 trillion in assets under management, to pressure the largest corporate greenhouse emitters to curb emissions. Thus, Sea Change has strong ties to the green sector of finance and capitalists who see both opportunity and danger in the environmental crisis.
The Energy Foundation headquartered in San Francisco is a unique creation. It was incorporated by the MacArthur Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, and Pew Charitable Trust in 1990 and acts as a conduit for other foundations, taking in grants and distributing funds. Its main funders have been Hewlett, Packard, Sea Change, McKnight, and MacArthur. But other familiar names appear such Google, Bloomberg, and the Schmidt Family Foundation. Jason Mark is CEO and previously worked for the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Center for Energy and Environmental Studies at Princeton (Energy Foundation, 2020). Between 1998 and 2015 the Energy Foundation made more than 30,000 grants totaling over $1.2 billion to some 12,000 recipients. It connected to the China Sustainable Energy Program with a $22 million grant from the Packard and Hewlett foundations.
The Rockefeller Foundation, alongside Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, have substantial ties to financial institutions. Board members include: Richard Parsons, Chair of Providence Equity Partners and previously Chairman of Citigroup and Time Warner; Mellody Hobson, board Vice-Chair of Starbucks and a director of JPMorgan Chase; Martin L. Leibowitz, Vice-Chair of the Morgan Stanley Global Strategy Team; Yifei Li, Chair for Man Group in China, one of the world’s largest hedge funds with assets over $60 billion; and Jim Stavridis, former Supreme Allied Commander at NATO and Operating Executive and Chair of The Carlyle Group (Rockefeller Foundation, 2020). Like Kramer, President of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund Stephen Heintz has an expansive criticism of capitalism. He states the systemic crisis stems from the growing obsolescence of three core operating systems that have shaped civilization for the past 350 years: capitalism, fueled by carbon since the dawn of the Industrial Age and increasingly driven by global financialization; the nation-state system, formalized by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648; and representative democracy …our practice of capitalism is both putting the planetary ecosystem at risk and generating vast economic inequality... (nation-states are) inadequate for managing transnational challenges like global warming…(and) representative democracy is neither truly representative nor very democratic as citizens feel that self-rule has given way to rule by corporations, special interests and the wealthy (Cohen, 2020).
The Oak Foundation, like most philanthropies, has several areas of social justice concern, but environmental issues receive the most funding. Oak has its headquarters in Geneva, with offices in Denmark, India, the UK, the US, and Zimbabwe. It has made grants to some 4,000 organizations, and supported groups in Brazil, Canada, China, Europe, India, Southeast Asia, and the US. The budget for their environmental arm is set at $57 million a year. British-born Alan Parker is founder and main funder, having co-founded Hong Kong-based Duty Free Shoppers. His net worth is estimated at $2.34 billion. His grandson Kristian Parker heads the environmental program and carries a doctorate in Environmental Sciences. Between 1999 and 2018 Oak gave out more than $780 million in grants in over 36 countries (Influence Watch, 2020).
Reviewing philanthropy board memberships reveals a mix from corporate governmental and academic fields. Virtually absent are representatives from the fossil fuel industry or military-industrial complex. Instead we see a nucleus of transnational elites dedicated to promoting green technology, with West Coast tech capitalists emerging as the most represented fraction. Visible in this network of philanthropies is the core of a hegemonic bloc with global reach, promoting a common accumulation strategy, and united by a shared political/social vision that rejects neoliberalism.
Corporate-Funded Policy Groups
Parallel to philanthropic foundations, which are often the creation of individual capitalist families, are corporate-funded environmental policy groups. Jean Philippe Sapinski (2016) did a detailed study of the 11 most influential. These do intensive lobbying and participate in the UN Climate Change Conferences known as COP. Each have their niche, but the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD, 2020), established for transnational CEOs and tied to the International Chamber of Commerce, is the most significant.
In terms of corporate board representation among these key policy groups, energy corporations make up the largest industrial sector (48 corporations). Five are exclusively green energy firms, the others have renewables as one division among diversified investments. The next largest group are business consultants, law firms, and accountant firms involved as lobbyists, advisors, or legal representatives of companies concerned with energy and the environment. Banks and financial institutions have 23 representatives, but only one US financial firm participates in groups from North America. The strongest energy and financial ties exist among the three most networked core groups, the WBCSD, the Copenhagen Climate Council, and the International Emissions Trading Association. As Sapinski explains,
The project is driven by a section of the corporate elite that seeks to establish new bases for accumulation within a broadly neoliberal order. Hence the stated goal of climate capitalism is, in the long-term, to divert financial flows from the oil and coal sectors…and redirect them to support the ecological modernization of capitalist production process. Corporate-funding…activities are crucial to conceptualize the new regime and mobilize broad corporate elite support for it. As well, the network they assemble constitute an essential infrastructure around which the climate capitalist section can organize (Sapinski, 2016).
We can take a brief look at the core groups that Sapinski identifies. The WBCSD is the most formidable with over 200 TNC members, with revenues of $8.5 trillion and 19 million workers. The Executive Committee is a transnational gathering of CEOs representing world-spanning corporations that include: Shell, Nestlé, Microsoft, Banco Santander, Toyota, Unilever, and lesser known in the popular press, ArcelorMittal (India-Belgium, steel), ENGIE (France, energy), Natura (Brazil, cosmetics), and Sinopec (China, oil) (WBCSD, 2020).
Founded in 2007 the Copenhagen Climate Council (CCC) was formed to provide “strong support from the international business community” in UN COP climate change policy discussions and has strong ties throughout Europe as well as China (Storm, 2020). Founded by Erik Rasmussen it brings together business leaders, policy makers, and scientists. Among its Councilors are Sir Richard Branson (CEO of Virgin), Samuel DiPiazza, Jr. (CEO of PricewaterhouseCoopers), Ditlev Engel (former CEO of Vestas Wind Systems), Paul Otellini (president and CEO of Intel), Zhengrong Shi (president and CEO of Suntech), Li Xiaolin (CEO of China Electric Power International), and James Rogers (president and CEO of Duke Energy) (Wikipedia, 2020b).
Lastly, the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) helps TNCs find market solutions for climate change. Its main function is to create a framework for carbon trading, and it represents a full spectrum of carbon corporations. IETA maintains a staff of policy experts in the US, Canada, the UK, Switzerland, Belgium, New Zealand, and China. Half the board turns over yearly, but among the 2019 board members corporate representatives included Bank of America, BP, Chevron, Shell, and perhaps less familiar, BHP (Australia, mining), CLP (Hong Kong, sustainable energy), Enel (Italy, energy), DeMarco Allan (Canada, climate law firm), Mitsui (Japan, metals, energy), and Suncor (Canada, tar sands) (IETA, 2020). Other corporate members include Koch, Rio Tinto, Total, and Dow.
Comparing philanthropic and corporate-funded policy groups we see lines of distinct interests with significant differences in board membership and network patterns. While some overlaps exist, corporate-funded policy groups advocate a neoliberal approach to climate solutions with significant ties to energy and industrial TNCs. These corporations want to slow the pace of change while shaping future regulations to their benefit.
Both wings of green accumulation seek what Antonio Gramsci termed a “passive revolution.” As social theorist William Carroll explains,
Climate capitalism fits the Gramscian notion of passive revolution quite well…(it) offers a system affirming response to the climate crisis which tugs at consumerist hearts and technocratic minds, averts the need for any leap into unknown territory, and seems to carry minimal costs; promises to reconfigure the forces of production to avert runaway climate change, yet protects the relations of production which form the nucleus of a now-global, class dominated way of life; and portends a molecular shift in the historical bloc, as fossil capital enters managed decline while renewable energy substitutes (and associated workforces) develop under the control of big capital (Carroll, 2020).
A passive revolution also incorporates movement leaders and activists, and in this arena, philanthropies are deeply involved.
Undercutting the viability of a green capitalism is the hold neoliberal ideology maintains within the corporate and financial sector. As Sapinski notes most climate capitalists are “profoundly anchored in neoliberal ideals of corporate self-regulation, limited state intervention, and technology fetishism (italics in the original)” (Sapinski, 2016). Such ideology will reproduce all the existing problems of inequality, social conflicts, and market failures that have marked globalization.
At a deeper level competitive rationality greatly weakens the ability of capitalism to respond to the environmental crisis. For example, steep drops in solar panel prices created two large-scale recessions in the industry. With a drop in price came a drop in profits and the bankruptcy of dozens of companies. Connected to the price drop was also a crisis of overproduction, with the market unable to consume the number of panels produced. In 2012 solar production in China exceeded global demand by 33 percent resulting in its two largest solar firms going bankrupt alongside dozens of others worldwide. Only in capitalism could the rapid production of a desperately needed technology at a low price produce an economic crisis.
The two dominant blocs in the twentieth century were Keynesianism and neo-liberalism. Both consolidated the capitalist class around a social, political, and economic ideology that defined and structured the relations of production between labor and capital. For Keynesianism the model of accumulation centered on expanding the social contract, recognition of labor rights, secure jobs, higher wages, and greater consumption. Moreover, it was flexible enough when confronted by the civil rights and the women’s movement to encompass some of their key demands. Neo-liberalism slashed the social contracts, broke unions, and instituted austerity and flexibility into the workforce that resulted in less security, lower wages, and the precariatization of the working class. Militarized accumulation takes the full neo-liberal model, and extends its repressive character on all fronts, using racism and reactionary nationalism to control working-class anger.
But green capitalism has no unifying ideology. Internally split between Keynesianism and neoliberalism, it offers no comprehensive social model of accumulation. Meanwhile, large sections of the green social base have moved to Left social democracy. The result is no common vision of social relations exist. The political split over the programmatic orientation of green capitalism was seen in the Democratic Party primaries, with Bloomberg representing the neoliberal wing and Bernie Sanders the Green New Deal. Tom Steyer and Governor Jay Inslee positioned themselves in the center, taking an approach common to environmental NGOs and philanthropic funds. What was new is for the first-time different wings of green capitalism contested for leadership in the presidential primary.
Which sector wins out and defines the structure of capital/labor relations will determine the success of the project. Lacking any real appeal to the working class, green neo-liberalism cannot defeat authoritarian capitalism. If green neoliberalism wins leadership their passive revolution will fail to attract the necessary popular base, and their dedication to the market will fail to fully address the crisis. An even greater danger is the merger between neoliberal greens and the authoritarian TCC fraction. Neoliberalism has always been comfortable with technocratic authoritarian rule, well isolated from democratic input. Therefore, fractions promoting repressive and green accumulation may forge a political accommodation. Such an alliance might come about under pressure from massive flows of environmental refugees, resulting in an econationalism that pursues strict borders closures, more internment camps and competition over shrinking resources.
Only a project that speaks to both environmental and social justice can generate the mass movement necessary to win against authoritarian rule. It’s the environmental base and the social justice vision of the GND that puts energy and urgency to the political and economic issues. Here we have a green transnational movement from below, the opposite of the green capitalists who exist at the top of the planetary social hierarchy. Therefore, the success of this project may depend on an alliance between the Left and center, with only tactical agreement with neoliberal greens. What they bring to the table is building out the environmental means of production such as solar and wind, something the Left is in no position to do. While all three fractions share a green accumulation strategy, only the Left and center share a post-neoliberal vision of social relations and a reformist direction that can lay the basis for a post-capitalist society. So, while Robinson’s three-way authoritarian alliance is beset with internal contradictions, so too is the three-way project of reformist green capitalism.
China and Green Capitalism
No discussion of green capitalism as a transnational project would be complete without attention paid to China. China is the dominant leader in sustainable technologies, including solar, wind, and hydro, and a top producer of electric vehicles and lithium batteries and storage. At $132 billion it’s the largest investor in renewable energy spending one-third of the world’s total (Buckley and Nicholas, 2017). China’s push into green manufacturing also play a key role in transnational accumulation.
In the wind industry China has five of the top-ten turbine manufacturers, and in solar four of the top six. Both wind and solar TNCs have penetrated markets throughout the world, established regional headquarters, maintain foreign subsidiaries, global manufacturing and research institutions in every region of the world (Harris 2019). Additionally, in the production of solar inverters, the technology that converts the sun’s energy into electricity, China has seven of the world’s top-ten companies, Huawei being number one. Taking solar and wind together China has been the largest investor in clean energy for nine straight years, illustrating its central position in green capitalism.
China also fulfills a leading role in organizing financial resources for green investments around the world. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, founded by China with over 80 member countries, has made sustainable infrastructure a priority. In 2019 the bank issued its first global green bond attracting orders from 27 countries (AIIB, 2019). Through various financial institutions China has a large footprint in the world’s Green Bond market, which totaled $1 trillion by 2020. The China Development Bank (CDB) and China Export and Import Bank (CHEXIM) also play a role in promoting solar and wind companies abroad, loaning out more than $2.5 billion over the past decade. Globally, there are 2,000 funds dedicated to financing green development, with five trillion under management. Additionally, over $2.6 trillion has been invested worldwide in low-carbon energy projects. All this indicates the growing basis for a hegemonic bloc built around green accumulation in which China has taken a leading position.
An important aspect of China’s activity are investments and loans in the Global South, financing sustainable energy projects in cash-poor countries at low rates. As Tim Buckley, director for the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, notes, “It is a way of expanding China’s growing global presence and dominant economic force, and it progressively reorients the world from the US and European-centric view of the last fifty years” (Garrison, 2019). In this sense China becomes an influential leader for the Southern fraction of the TCC fighting for an equal place in a multi-centric world order.
But China’s environmental effort is fraught with contradictions. The fossil fuel industry maintains tremendous political clout just as the industry does in the West. Although China increased solar and wind capacity by 65 gigawatts in 2019, it was overwhelmed by an expansion of 249.6 gigawatts of coal-fire capacity. Coal also plays an important role in China’s One Belt One Road strategy (OBR). Since 2001, Chinese state and private firms invested in 240 coal projects in 25 countries, surging 300 percent since the inception of OBR (Pen, et al., 2017). Moreover, in the $143 billion loaned for 165 energy and transportation ventures in 32 countries only 5.3 percent have been for solar and wind (Zhou, et al., 2018). Similar problems appear in CDB and CHEXIM loan activity. Between 2000-2018 almost 75 percent of their energy loans went to fossil fuel projects, while renewables constituted just 1.35 percent of total loan activity. (Kong and Gallagher, 2020).
In the struggle to build what Xi termed an “ecological civilization” China faces its own class contradictions. Li Peilin, vice-president of the elite think-tank the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), points to “three major contradictions of Chinese society…contradictions between rich and poor, labor and capital, and cadre and masses” (Li, 2018, 586). Xuangong Wu, also writing in the CASS journal, details how such contradictions manifest including “the return and even strengthening of economic exploitation, rapid widening of the income distribution gap…and significantly aggravated social contradictions” (Wu, 2019). Wu warns that China “developing at the highest speed in the history of the world…formed both socialist and capitalist production relations… as the two kinds of production relations and economic laws coexist and interact with each other, the more powerful one will guide the direction and determine the future and destiny of social development” (ibid, 3).
These contradictions are evident in the struggle for an ecological transformation. Half of all large protests in China are over environmental issues, as the enforcement of laws are often weak and ineffective (Xin Zhou, 2020). Speaking to contending forces, Jeffery Ball of the Brookings Institute writes,
…they depend on an ever-shifting balance of power inside China between opposite camps in what amounts to the mother of all energy-system transitions. On one side is China’s old-energy lobby, the shrinking but still-massive juggernaut invested in the continuation of an economy powered largely by coal: mining it, transporting it, and building and operating the massive machinery that burns it. This camp is largely government-controlled, run by many of the massive state-owned enterprises that have dominated China’s economy for decades. On the other side is the new-energy lobby, the growing but still-smaller constituency that earns its money by making, selling, and operating everything from solar panels to wind turbines to batteries to electric cars. This group includes prominent private firms founded in the last decade or so by entrepreneurs and widely traded on Western stock exchanges, which is to say owned by investors around the globe. The fight between the high-carbon and low-carbon energy camps is, to be sure, a battle among industries, among companies, and among government ministries. Increasingly and crucially, though, as the economic case for renewables grows more compelling, it also is a fight within each of those institutions (Ball 2020).
Hence, the struggle to develop an environmentally sustainable society is as central to China as it is to countries in the West.
Friction between the US and China exemplifies nationalist/globalist contradictions, reflecting tendencies in the competiting hegemonic projects. The tensions originate in historical imperialism, and over the future of global capitalism. Ideological differences on state and market economies are linked to Western colonial domination. Lacking sufficient capital many countries in the Global South use state-directed development, and China is the primary example. The Western TCC welcomed China into global capitalism when it offered cheap labor and investment opportunities. But with powerful TNCs and advanced technology, state subsidies and industrial policies are now seen as competitive advantages over neoliberal markets—ironic given Western criticism of state economics as inefficient and bureaucratic. Even so US, European and Chinese TCC fractions co-invest and mutually profit.
Consequently, the globalist/nationalist hybrid authoritarian alliance responded with a two-sided trade war. One side demands China conforms to Western institutional rules that favor market mechanisms over state direction, and this plays well with US and EU TCC fractions. But the other side, which disrupts global value chains, drags Europe and Canada into trade conflicts with the US, and creates an uncertain investment climate are opposed by the TCC. This isn’t so much a struggle between nations, as over how best to construct a successful model for global capitalism. Most want problems worked out through negotiations within transnational institutions, and above all, not disrupt capital flows and linked production. Yet nationalist pressure has disrupted globalist’s goals.
During two years of trade talks financial elites Stephen Schwarzman, Hank Paulson, and John Thornton were interlocutors between Wall Street, Washington, and Beijing. But Jude Blanchette from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies noted, “There is still a strong Wall Street-to-Beijing channel. The question is, is it effective? I think the answer is demonstrably no…The conversation is no longer prefaced on how do we boost economic growth and integration” (Mai, et al., 2020). What results is a complex mix of contradictions entailing imperialist history, the social fallout from globalization, and political calculations between nationalists and globalists.
All this intersects with the conflicting TCC projects. If we view Trump’s full-scale antagonism towards environmental laws and science from the viewpoint of an emerging struggle between two hegemonic projects, his opposition takes on strategic clarity. This encompasses China’s lead over green accumulation. But for the TCC green technologies offer wide ranging opportunities for joint ventures, cross-border investments and transnational coordination to confront global warming. All of which are already in play.
Moreover, deep economic ties maintain a foundation between US and Chinese TCC fractions. The US Commerce Department puts assets for all parent and affiliate US TNCs in China at $727 billion, if we include Hong Kong the total jumps to over $1.172 trillion (Bureau of Economic Analysis, 2020, table IB5). In 2018 there were 7,100 US investment transactions in China involving 1,400 TNCs. Some 330 firms made investments exceeding $100 million, another 71 went beyond $1 billion (Hanemann, et al., 2019).
And despite economic threats there are still 217 Chinese TNCs listed on US stock exchanges with a capitalization of $2.2 trillion. Of these 13 were state-owned enterprises, constituting four of the top six listings (US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 2020). This was significantly up from 2019 when 156 firms with a capitalization of $1.2 trillion were listed.
Moreover, a close relationship comes from listing on US markets between TNCs and lead underwriters. Underwriters assess company financials and market conditions to determine the value and quantity of shares to be sold, making a commission of up to eight percent on sales. Big financial firms dominated the top-90 Chinese listings, most often two or three working together, helping to integrate US/Chinese financial interests. Table 1 underlines this relationship between transnational finance capital and Chinese TNCs.
Underwriters of Chinese TNCs on US Stock Markets
Number of Chinese IPOs Underwritten
China International Capital Corporation
China Renaissance Securities
Source: US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 2019, Table IB5.
The above brief review of financial and productive ties reminds us why much of the TCC may oppose militarized accumulation as the dominant wing of global capitalism. Although neo-liberal elites can share parlor drinks with authoritarian rulers, they may balk at climbing into the same bed. The nationalist rhetoric and base that influences the authoritarian bloc impinges too greatly on broader TCC economic interests. For many, green capitalism offers an acceptable and viable alternative that is both politically and economically appealing and pushes towards cooperation with China. Although presently military accumulation outweighs the green economy, the potential for green growth is extremely attractive for finance capital. Particularly compared to the already bloated military and police budgets facing calls for defunding.
Adding intense pressure from below is the mass environmental movement and the global uprising against police violence, which strikes at the heart of the authoritarian project. This makes the strategic choice between repression and reformism more urgent and strained within the ruling class. From the standpoint of regaining legitimacy green capitalism certainly offers better prospects than a police state.
Both authoritarian and green projects face significant internal weaknesses. But green capitalism presents the best arena to develop Left counter-hegemony. William Carroll (2020) distinguishes between a passive revolution led by climate capitalists, and “energy democracy” as a counter-hegemonic strategy pursued by Left NGOs, unions, and activists. As Carroll explains, “To counter a passive revolution one must conduct an anti-passive revolution: a war of position which extends popular-democratic and class struggles…from fossil-fuel power to renewables and from corporate oligarchy to democratic control of economic decisions.” Carroll advocates fighting for “non-reformist reforms” that can push towards a full ecosocialist transition and defeat climate capitalist reformism.
Marxist environmentalist John Bellamy Foster (2019) takes a somewhat different two-stage approach, which he calls “ecodemocratic and ecosocialist.” Foster also sees the danger of a passive revolution, which he describes as “Green Keynesianism, where the promise of unlimited jobs, rapid economic growth and higher consumption militate against any solution to the planetary ecological crisis” (ibid). Instead he hopes a broad popular mobilization will advance from an ecodemocratic platform lacking a critique of capitalism, to a movement that grows to confront the system with an ecorevolutionary opposition.
The strength of the Green New Deal is its incorporation of social justice issues. This links the environmental movement to the struggle against racial capitalism, creating a bond between the two most dynamic and strategic Left visions capable of building counter-hegemony. Both strike at the heart of authoritarian capitalism. Just what type of alliances, political methods, and organizational forms will develop to build counter-hegemony will prove complex and challenging. The pace of the environmental crisis, the response of green reformism, and the strength of the authoritarian project will largely determine Left strategy and tactics. But clearly the fate of humanity and the planet have never been so intertwined.
Global Studies Association of North America
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