Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Humanity

William I. Robinson
New York: Cambridge University Press
ISBN: 978-1-107-69111-7
A Review by Susan Froetschel

Capitalism, a subject of abiding interest ever since Karl Marx penned Das Kapital, has come under intense scrutiny after the near death experience of 2008. In Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Humanity, sociology professor William I. Robinson enlarges his focus on the impacts of the system evolving under capitalism. A mix of crises that approach systemic proportions is in motion, he argues, threatening “the ability of billions of people to survive, and raises the specter of a collapse of world civilization and degeneration into a new ‘Dark Ages.’”

The gloomy book serves as a warning: The world is more integrated than we realize, and humanity can either prioritize sustainability or suffer the consequences. “Capitalism is a system wracked by internal contradictions that generate crises,” notes Robinson. Crises can disrupt a community overnight. Few communities can insulate themselves from the effects of war, climate change, the spread of infectious diseases or pollution. Any community is vulnerable, protectionism is futile, and ignorance is dangerous.

Unfortunately, Robinson’s message is esoteric, even occasionally nit-picking when he insists that “world” is distinct from “global,” “transnational” is more appropriate than “international,” corporations are no longer “multinational,” but “globally integrated.” In defending his arguments on global capitalism and globalization so finely, he risks discouraging wide discussion of valid concerns on inequality and unsustainability.

Globalization rolls along in a highly uneven way – regions, nations, cities, villages have their own pace, tensions and transformations. Yet, he argues, the uneven accumulation is not a function of territory, but rather social relations, including the capital-labor relation. He questions the feasibility of a tightly integrated world where the wealthiest 10 percent of people hold 85 percent of the wealth and the lowest 50 percent hold but 1 percent. He stands with many other writers and economists in pointing out how the global elite and industrial leaders have more in common with one another than they do with their fellow citizens whatever nationality. Networks of elites, not nations, conduct transactions. Colonization is no longer country over country, but corporations over countries, including the advanced economies. 

Control is in a few hands with the frenetic pace of cross-border mergers and acquisitions, overlapping membership in boards of directors, mutual investments among companies, cross-border alliances, global outsourcing and subcontracting networks that minimize accountability and transparency, 24-hour trading. Global currency trading is not linked to underlying assets.

Citizens are encouraged to aspire to lifestyles of the elite and take on debt.  Finance pervades all transactions, even quick trips to a grocery store or a routine lunch, creating an illusion for producers that all have more to spend. “Securitization makes every pile of money – pensions, for example – as well as debt itself, or negative money, a ‘tradable’ and therefore a source of speculation,” a global casino, according to Robinson. The speculative economy, with its unsustainable excesses, disguises the real economy.

Governments take on more debt, too, and then enact policies to protect bond-holders – which encourages more speculation along with demands for cuts to social programs including education, health care, or social-security for the elderly.

Widening inequality gives license to more exploitation, and reckless financial behavior seems to go unpunished. “The global mobility of capital under globalization and especially its ability to move money almost frictionlessly and instantaneously … has allowed it to extend the mechanism of capital flight, or its ‘veto’ or ‘strike’ power, to the planet as a whole,” Robinson writes. “This mechanism is, in content, a class power of national capital over that of popular classes worldwide.” Huge interlocking systems suggest to many the impossibility of taming capitalism’s excesses and crises. Robinson is particularly vehement about labor – insecure, vulnerable and disposable: “Transnational capital has subordinated virtually the entire world’s population to its logic” and “In this sense the world’s people live under a dictatorship of transnational capital – a dictatorship more powerful, omnipresent, and deadly than any in history.”

Citizens who protest the system, those who cannot secure work, are marginalized and ignored at best or, worst, repressed and criminalized by militarized means.

Robinson insists that the United States is not imperialistic but rather short-sighted as it strives to protect global capitalism and its own transnational interests much like a global police force. Costly ventures accelerate its own decline, and steeped in debt, many in the United States are losing the will for constant global fights and crises. No country seems eager or ready to take its place.

People of all classes are impatient as the most powerful nation-states struggle to unite in protecting against global threats. Bickering, polarization, corruption and failures weaken and discredit government.

The outlook for reform is bleak, and Robinson unfortunately offers little advice for resolution. Globalization and integration of national economies have led to common class interests. The challenge for the ruling class is to stabilize capital and minimize crises, and the challenge for the disgruntled poor and middle classes is to organize across borders.  So far, the elites have great cohesion; they are politically engaged, capable of driving or slowing policy at all levels.

Still, the most astute, wealthy or not, recognize all too well that efforts to carve out safe communities could fail against threats like climate change, global pandemic like Ebola and or determined terrorists who plot alone. Robinson concludes that strategizing at the global level is essential to counter the cycles of war, greed and profit-making – with all the distracting panics in between.

In an age of rapid communications and social media, the way forward could move in any direction: A sophisticated wave of fascism led by militaristic, nationalistic, expansionist elites who reject education and impose their own controls; reform and specific goals on global priorities by those who can mobilize publics across borders, the workers and activists who are great in number, but fragmented, distracted and low on resources; or, the current complacency and intermittent panics that ensure self-destruction.

Global organizing is needed among the webs of resistance and those concerned about the systemic crises. As noted by former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2008, the world has global financial markets and corporations, but stops with national regulation. Only radical overhaul of national and global institutions can end the uneven and futile responses to the planet’s interconnected systemic crises. 

Robinson warns of a stark choice: renewal of critical thinking, political engagement and redistribution, or a new Dark Ages with the collapse of trade, the spread of disease, the loss of technology and advanced skills.


Susan Froetschel has been with YaleGlobal Online since 2005. Her most recent mystery novel, Fear of Beauty, is set in Afghanistan and received top honors in mystery and suspense from the Military Writers Society of America for 2014.

Copyright © 2014 The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale