Unhappy Families: Global Capitalism in a World of Nation-States

By Wood, Ellen Meiksins | Monthly Review, July-August 1999 | Go to article overview

Unhappy Families: Global Capitalism in a World of Nation-States


Wood, Ellen Meiksins, Monthly Review


Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

--Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

The word "capitalism" is typically applied to a very wide and diverse range of cases - from the United States to Japan, Russia, Brazil, or South Africa. We use the word in this way on the premise that, for all their diversities, all these cases have in common certain basic social forms and economic laws of motion, including a common tendency to crisis. And we talk about "global" capitalism on the premise that national capitalist economies are interconnected, that they are integrated in a global system driven by the same capitalist laws of motion, and that economic crises and prolonged downturns like the current one are not national in origin but are rooted in the general dynamics that drive the whole global economy and in the relations that bind all capitalist economies together.

Capitalism, then, is a system with certain general laws of motion that operate irrespective of national diversities, and it's also a system that is uniquely expansionary and international, a system that has been tendentially "global" since the beginning and is now more globally integrated than ever. So how can we justify a discussion of contemporary capitalism, like the one in this special issue, organized as a series of national and regional case studies? Shouldn't we, instead, have organized the issue around global institutions and processes - processes like "globalization," international capital flows, currency movements, and financial speculation, and institutions like transnational companies, or agencies of capital like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank?

All of these transnational institutions and processes will, of course, figure very prominently in the articles that follow. But any analysis of global capitalism has to strike a difficult balance between two equally essential facts: on the one hand, every capitalist economy exists only in relation to others; on the other hand, there is no "global economy" abstracted from the particular local, national, and regional economies that constitute it, or from the relations among them.

All the articles in this issue, those that focus on specific national cases no less than those that deal with whole regions or continents, are about more than specific cases. They are about the dynamics of global capitalism. Each one illustrates the operation of global economic forces as they manifest themselves in specific national and regional forms. But at the same time, all the articles in their various ways show how persistently those global dynamics continue to be driven by forces within, and relations among, national economies and nation-states. They illustrate - from the inside out, so to speak - how global capitalism operates through the medium of various relations among national economies and states.

In what follows, I want to explore, in general terms, some of the connections between capitalism and the nation-state and to sketch out their development from the beginning until now. To understand the current relations between capitalism and the nation-state, we need to know something about their earlier connections. The emergence of capitalism was closely tied to the rise of the nation-state, and that close link shaped the development and expansion of capitalism thereafter. So I'll begin by taking readers on a short historical excursion, before considering where we are today.

My purpose is not to deny the "global" nature of contemporary capitalism. On the contrary, I want to bring the notion of a "global economy" down to earth, by acknowledging its concrete forms in diverse inter-national relations (I use the hyphen here to emphasize that we're talking about relations among national entitles), from relations among major capitalist powers to those between imperialist powers and subaltern states.

Joined at Birth?

It is not at all uncommon to insist on the connections between the emergence of capitalism and the rise of the nation-state, or even to define capitalism as a system of nation-states. …

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