William I. Robinson’s
"Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, U.S. Intervention, and
New York: Cambridge University Press, 1966
466 pp., $59.95 (cloth) $22.95 (paper).
Reviewed by Jerry Harris
of globalization have focused on the growing web of manufacturing
and financial ties that characterize the current era of capitalism.
William Robinson has enriched this discussion with his insightful
and detailed analysis on the politics of neo-liberalism. In doing
so Robinson adds a vital component to our understanding of global
economic restructuring. He shows how global financial elites have
achieved hegemonic political power and implemented a new strategy
for U.S. imperialism based on "low intensity democracy"
in the Third World. This provides us with a picture of the political
and superstructural changes to match the transformation of the world
globalization as a "time of transition from one major epoch
to another...a great historic crossroad" in which "the
world system has entered into a qualitatively new phase, that of
the global economy" (pp. 3, 8). This analysis argue that to
understand the world as simply a continuation of industrial capitalist
society misses the most important power shifts responsible for changing
today's world. This is where Robinson focuses his book, offering
new insights into how the transnationalization of the political
process is intertwined with historic economic shifts.
The author uses
a Gramscian analytical method to describe the structural changes
in international politics. Gramsci's concept of hegemony is that
of a "social relation which binds together a bloc of diverse
classes and groups under circumstances of consensual domination"
(p. 22). This consensus is cloaked in an "armor of coercion"
so that class rule encompasses both democracy and force as forms
of domination. Class blocs not only refer to relations between classes,
but also dominant relations within class formations. This produces
a constellation of forces which exercise state power and hegemony
in civil society. Therefore obtaining leadership inside political
parties, unions, mass movements and media intertwine with control
of the state to produce an "historic bloc" in which ideology
sustains social control.
this framework to describe a set of new international relationships
under the hegemonic leadership of a global bourgeoise. Driving these
changes are the profound transformations in knowledge-intensive
technologies which are unfolding a new social structure of accumulation.
This has lead to the "emergence of transnationalized capital,
concentrated in international finance, as the hegemonic fraction
of capital at a world level" (p. 33). Groups most closely linked
to the global economy now dominant the state and have ushered in
the neo-liberal political agenda. This helps explain the present
convergence of the Democratic and Republican parties, for example,
the Bush and Clinton administration's mutual support for NAFTA.
The leadership of both parties represent the new hegemonic bloc,
maintaining only small areas of disagreement. In the South a technocratic
elite is promoted by transnational capital to act as their counterpart
and manage the new process of world accumulation.
Unlike the old
colonial system which relied solely on coercive domination, the
new hegemony is based on polyarchy. This is the term Robinson uses
to refer to a carefully managed system in which democracy is limited
to electing competing elites. Democracy itself is given a narrow
institutional definition which centers on the process and method
of choosing leaders. As Joseph Schumpeter said; "Democracy
means only that people have the opportunity of accepting or refusing
the men who are to rule them" (p. 49).
traces the development of this elite theory of democracy to the
post World War II international system. Starting with Schumpeter
and winding his way through Robert Dahl's publication of "Polyarchy",
the author shows how theory transformed into state policy through
semi-official think tanks like the Trilateral Commission.
excellent use of quotes throughout his work. He providesus with
such incriminating evidence that it reawakens our wonder over the
self-servinglies and political pronouncements we are used to hearing
over mainstream media. One of my favorites, by Samuel Huntington,
reminds us that the elite are at least honest when speaking to one
another, as Huntington states; "Political democracy is clearly
compatible with inequality in both wealth and income, and in some
measure, it may be dependent upon such inequality...Defining democracy
in terms of goals such as economic well-being, social justice, and
overall socioeconomic equity is not, we have argued, very useful.
(p. 55)" How come we never hear this argued on Nightline?
The book takes
this discussion into the reconstruction of U.S. foreign policy to
match the needs of globalization. Beginning during the Carter administration
and working through the Council of Foreign Relations and the Trilateral
Commission, the transnationalized fraction of the ruling class gradually
forged a new consensus. A basic shift from military to political
competition occurred which employed political action, coercive diplomacy
and covert political warfare as it's main tools. To carry out the
new strategy, the National Endowment of Democracy (NED) was built
with a multi-purpose apparatus. Core groups within the NED focus
on developing and directing political parties, unions, media, women's
groups, youth movements, and peasant organizations in order to create
a hegemonic consensus tied to neo-liberal policies and global capital.
Robinson's detailed analysis of NED operations sheds important light
on an organization which most people are only vaguely aware, and
which has replaced the CIA in importance in much of the South.
The core of
Robinson's book are case studies of how new political hegemony was
achieved in the Philippines, Chile, Nicaragua and Haiti, along with
interesting but less detailed looks at South Africa and the former
Soviet Union. He traces the transition from dictatorships to polyarchical
regimes blending an exposure of neo-liberal strategy with the particular
array of forces in each country. Robinson is careful in his examination
of the popular movements, the old neo-colonial forces, and the new
technocratic elite. The activity of the NED is inserted within the
struggle between these social-political blocs forging a new transnational
class alliance. The specific results and balance of forces is different
in each case. But what is similar is a new hegemonic bloc which
dominates both civil society and the state, and the integration
of each country into the neo-liberal global market.
The book ends
with an interesting discussion on the future of global society.
Central to Robinson's critic is the question of how capitalism maintains
legitimacy. He sees globalization in contradiction with the state's
ability to satisfy basic economic and social demands. Political
stability relies on sufficient national capital accumulation, but
globalization undercuts the state's flexibility and redirects it's
focus producing "precisely the polarization between a rich
minority and a poor majority which Marx predicted" (p. 348).
In promoting formal democracy while expanding a socioecononmic system
of vast inequality neo-liberalism creates an internal contradiction
which will engender political upheavals.
needs to be read by anyone interested in globalization. It is an
essential work that adds to our basic understanding of the epochal
shifts changing the contours of our history.