Global Capitalism and Transnational Class Formation in Asia and Oceania

8 02 2016

[Updated/article version of the introduction to the new book Globalization and Transnational Capitalism in Asia and Oceania]

By: Jeb Sprague

News headlines warn of rivalries and competition between nations across Asia and the Pacific, even as powerful, cross-border relations form on an unprecedented scale. This article looks at the reality behind this façade of nation-state competition, examining the new forms of social, economic, and political integration and conflict fostered by a global capitalist system rife with contradictions, inequalities, and crises. We move beyond traditional conceptualizations of the interstate system, with its nation-state competition as the core organizing principle of the world economy, and the institutional framework in which global social forces operate. In this paper I will look at the important studies that have examined and debated over how there is a growing transnationality of material (economic) relations in the global era, as well as an emerging transnationality of many social and class relations. I will look in particular at how such studies have taken into consideration social formation in regions of Asia and Oceania.[i] To what degree are transnational processes taking place? How do transnational capitalist-class fractions, new middle strata, and labor undergird capitalist globalization in Asia and Oceania? These social classes are relationships generated and reproduced through the productive processes and economic life of a type of society (or what Marx referred to as a “mode of production”). As components of a society, these classes contain individuals who are carriers of productive relationships. So in the present global/transnational phase of world capitalism, how do state and institutional apparatuses connect to these shifting social and class relations? How do local/national and international processes clash or link with transnational processes?

For the purposes of this paper, it is important to first emphasize the difference between national, international, and transnational processes. Whereas national processes occur within the frontiers of the nation-state, international processes occur across borders. Transnational processes, while occurring across borders, also take place through functional integration. Functional integration refers to how amalgamations of different components (or agents) are constituted through their joint-operation. Processes that take place across frontiers in this integrated manner alter the very ways in which space and geography are implicated in material and social production. Political economists in recent years, for instance, have shown how transnationally oriented class relations have developed through the shift from the international phase of world capitalism to the global phase of world capitalism (Carroll, 2010; Harris, 2006; Liodakis, 2010; Robinson, 2004, 2014; Sklair 2001). This transition has occurred as earlier indicative planning (with a view to foment national economy development) has fragmented and as markets have become integrated into new transnational circuits of accumulation.

South, East, and South-East Asia and Oceania, or their particular regions, are geographic spaces and frames of reference that we can use to examine how production networks and financial flows have changed alongside shifting social and class relations. A number of nuanced studies have looked at the particularities of global political economy in the context of these regions and many of the nations therein (to reference just some of these: Breslin, 2013; Chun, 2013; Jayasuriya, 2004a, 2004b; Li, 2009; Murray, 2007; Zhao, 2008). Many other scholars have written on gendered and racialized class relations in Asia and Oceania, and on the way in which socially constructed divisions (with material consequences) have developed historically, and in connection with diverse and interconnected cultures. Yet, to date, there has been no comprehensive study focused on shifting relations of production (or, class relations) in the context of transnationalism across these regions during the era of global capitalism (an era that we can date starting from the last quarter of the 20th century and continuing into the 21st century).

Much of the mainstream, academic, and even critical discourse on the political economy of these regions takes up surface-layer views of geopolitical and national competition occurring through the interstate system: China’s growing role abroad; the rise of the association of five major emerging “national” economies, the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa); the unending political crises on the Korean peninsula; the emergent role of the developing nations of South and Southeast Asia; Australia’s partnership with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO); India’s competition with its neighbors; and the squabbles over islands in the East China Sea as Japan reasserts its power in tandem with the United States foreign policy establishment’s “pivot to Asia.” Likewise many sociological studies have looked at populations in these countries as engaged in national competition with one another, between competing “national” business groups, conflict between “homelands”, and between state policymakers pursuing their “national” interests. Yet the rationale for this paper is that much of the analysis and theorizing on contemporary events – and more broadly on globalization and the contemporary dynamics of political economy – remains deeply impoverished and reflects the zombie language of the Westphalian, state-centric approach.

The capitalist state has always functioned to institutionalize unequal power relations. Yet in the global phase of world capitalism, state elites have increasingly come to see their interests neither in national development, nor in finding strategies that meet the desires and interests of local popular classes or even of national capitalists. Instead they have seen their interests in terms of global competitiveness, transnational capitalist investment, and that of local dominant groups who are seeking to entwine with such processes. Policymakers are increasingly abandoning or are being forced to abandon polices of domestic development and “national goals”, and instead are moving toward policies of elite oriented transnational engagement, where local goals emphasize constructing a climate conducive to global investors. States as political organs, with all of their repressive and ideological forces, are (to different degrees and through particular conditions and forms) being tasked for “reconfiguring sovereignty to meet challenges and demands that stem from relentless global market integration to strengthen and broaden global capital accumulation” (Watson, 2015: 10).

Next I want to provide a brief overview of the growing body of research on transnational social and class relations that have coalesced as a collective research effort by scholars associated with the Network for Critical Studies of Global Capitalism (NCSGC). The NCSGC was founded at a conference titled “Global Capitalism and Transnational Class Formation,” held in September 2011 at the Academy of Sciences in Prague in the Czech Republic. An edited book volume (Murray and Scott, 2012) and two scholarly journal issues (Haase, 2013; Struna, 2013) were published with papers from the conference. Two years after the initial conference, the network held its second conference, “Global Capitalism in Asia and Oceania,” at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia in June 2013. Together, many of these papers first presented at the conference were then published as an edited volume (Sprague, 2015). A purpose of the conference in Brisbane has been to continue the debate on the political economy of global capitalism and transnational class formation, with particular attention to Oceania and Asia.

In this article I want to look over how these new studies have reflected back and engaged with works of the “global capitalism school” that have examined changing material relations alongside transnational class and social relations and the subjective and objective dynamics therein. Below I will provide an overview of this new research, exploring how shifting production relations interconnect with various power blocs and the rise of a globalist bloc, as well as with states, corporations, and other institutions. The research done as part of this recent conference focused primarily on Australia, China, Japan, India, Laos, Papua New Guinea, and upon global processes more broadly. Some of the major themes and questions prompting this research have been:

  • 1)  How can the political economy of Asia and Oceania be seen in light of the novel dynamics of the globalist era, with the rise of transnational social, economic, and political processes?
  • 2)  How are one-time nationally or internationally oriented state apparatuses, institutions, and corporations converging with new transnational processes?
  • 3)  How do social classes and various social groups in Asia and Oceania connect objectively and subjectively to transnational and global processes?
  • 4)  How do shifting social and material relations play out regionally or within particular frontiers or built environments?
  • 5)  What contradictions are connected to these processes? For example: (A) the crisis of legitimacy that occurs through the abandonment by state managers of national development as they seek transnational integration, (B) social polarization, and (C) the global environmental crisis.


Rather than reify the interstate system, placing the nation state at the core of 
capitalism, this paper calls on us to consider how a growing amount of class power is exercised transnationally, manifesting itself both across and within national borders in complex and contradictory ways. Recent studies, for example, have looked at the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), through which many elites from across the Pacific Rim are seeking to more closely integrate their states’ economic and regulatory frameworks. Through such forums, for instance, dominant groups have sought to create the conditions through which transnational corporations (TNCs) can override domestic laws by appealing regulations through international tribunal. At the same time, competition between transnational conglomerates exists, and the TPP serves as a mechanism through which certain transnational capitalist fractions gain leverage over the more statist oriented Chinese fractions of transnational capital. This is reflected in the contradictory policies of U.S elites in seeking to secure better conditions for global capitalist accumulation, while at the same time engaging in particular hegemonic policies (Starrs, 2015) meant to most benefit certain fractions of transnational capital. The formation of these new regional frameworks also occurs as state policymakers maintain the deregulation of national financial systems, allowing for the continued ease of capital mobility and flight. Related to this, Anthony van Fossen (2015) has examined how tax havens have emerged as important nodes for transnational capitalist-class formation while also becoming a battleground between the differing visions of state policymakers.

A close examination of the emerging transnational capitalist class (TCC) that operates across national contexts in Asia and Oceania is a central focus of this study. Recent studies demonstrate that global capitalist integration is not motivated by the idea of contributing to national economic development or national job creation, or transforming the productive powers of labor as a national objective. The studies examined below instead illuminate shifting capital-labor relations in Asia and Oceania, considering for example how new waves of proletarianization in China and India are connected with global capitalist accumulation, as labor-power is incorporated into transnational value chains. This does not mean that class relations are not riven by conflict and impacted by historic and national differences – for instance, as workers operate in particular labor regimes and built-up environments – and fractions of capital hold closer ties with some state policymakers as compared with others.

Several studies have looked at how particular fractions of the TCC operate with regard to specific states and institutions in Asia and Oceania. As Ietto-Gillies explains, transnational-oriented capitalists with interests across various countries “use their economic position and clout to strengthen their ties and claims . . . [with] specific countr(ies) and exercise influence to secure special treatment” (Sprague and Ietto-Gillies, 2014: 44). Take, for example, the intense rivalry and competition among transnational capitalist conglomerates. While particular state policies may not benefit all transnational capitalist groups equally, many state policies facilitate transnational capital distinct from more locally or nationally oriented capitalists. Obviously the institutions of the “Washington consensus” (the IMF, the World Bank, and the U.S. Treasury Department), as well as apparatuses of the U.S. state, and of the other western and NATO aligned states and supranational institutions have an oversized role in promoting global capital. This has deep historical roots. As Watson (2015) explains U.S. and European “colonialism and imperialism set the terms and conditions under which different social classes and their racialized ethnic and gendered components were reproduced as parts of societies”. Even so, we cannot ignore how so many other groups and institutions around the world have now also become deeply implicated in processes of global capitalist accumulation, including across Asia and Oceania. Next, I will lay out some of the stakes of this project in regards to the broader literature that it engages with.

The global capitalism school 

So how have scholars of the “global capitalism school” examined transnational social and class relations? Although there are many differences between the various approaches, what binds them together is the argument that global capitalism represents a qualitatively new epoch in the history of world capitalism. Scholars have theorized and shown empirically many of the novel social arrangements that have come about in the era of global capitalism (Harris, 2006; McMichael, 1996; Robinson, 2004; 2014; Rodriguez, 2010; Sassen, 1991; Sklair, 2001, 2002; Van der Pijl, 1998), but have also raised questions for conceptualization (Embong, 2000). As global networks of production and finance that pushed through TNCs and other institutions redefine the scale of the world economy (Dicken, 2011), transnational relations form within and between class fractions and social groups. One of these new classes, the TCC, is tied together as a conscious class, a class in and of itself whose material basis is in TNCs and the accumulation of global capital (Robinson, 2004; Sklair, 2001). However, such a class is not monolithic. Different fractions actually exist within this class, as a segment or portion of the whole class that are grouped around different forms of economic activity.

Some scholars have begun to theorize how transnational class relations are also emerging among subaltern groups, with, for example, different static, diasporic, and dynamic global proletarian fractions coming into existence (Struna, 2009). In addition, as some class fractions are becoming transnationally oriented, others remain more nationally oriented or have not developed into a conscious class fraction, even as they have become objectively interconnected with transnational chains of accumulation. In addition to the rising vast number of human beings living in slums (Davis, 2007) and the many unemployed, in recent decades we can also see the solidification of precariaty, and as large parts of the world’s population have come to be structurally underemployed and marginalized in relation to the global economy. To effectively organize transnationally, a difficult and long road ahead exists for labor unions and struggles from below (Bieler, 2012).

In regards to the TCC, this is an idea that has been theorized in different ways. The TCC, as Robinson (2004), Harris (2006), and Liodakis (2010) argue, is the dominant social class in this new era, the age of global capitalism. These theorists utilize a historical-materialist understanding of the division of labor into social classes upon the basis of property ownership. They understand the individuals of the TCC as people directly involved in global capital accumulation, whereas others involved in its promotion but not accumulation are described in other ways, such as transnational elites and functionaries (but not as capitalists). By contrast, Sklair’s more eclectic approach constructs a TCC model that not only includes groups directly involved in global capital accumulation, but those who promote it as well – for example, some media and state functionaries.

Sklair outlines four major propositions in regard to the TCC. First, it is a class that benefits from its connection to TNCs, emerging “more or less in control of the processes of globalization” (2001: 5). Second, it is acting as a “transnational dominant class in some spheres” (ibid.). Third, a “profit-driven culture-ideology of consumerism” exists as a mechanism of persuasion, solidifying the participation of populations in global capitalist chains of consumption. And finally, the TCC is faced with two global crises: class polarization and ecological crisis (ibid.: 6). Furthermore, Sklair presents a TCC structure that includes four primary groupings. These are: (1) those who own and/or control the major TNCs and their local affiliate (corporate fraction), (2) globalizing bureaucrats and politicians (state fraction), (3) globalizing professionals (technical fraction), and (4) globalizing merchants and media (consumerist fraction). In regard to the state, Sklair argues that what others term the transnationalization of state apparatuses is more accurately conceptualized in terms of ongoing individual struggles between what he describes as the state fractions of the TCC (globalizing politicians and officials) and politicians and officials who see their interests in more local terms.

Differing from Sklair, William I. Robinson (2014) has gone into more detail in regards to the changing orientation of state policymakers and the state apparatus. Through his analytical abstraction of emergent transnational state apparatuses, Robinson (2004) argues that worldwide many state managers and policymakers are becoming transnationally oriented. The social reproduction of these state elites, he argues, is becoming increasingly linked to networks of transnational capitalist accumulation. As the state facilitates the myriad things that capital (increasingly, transnational capital) has to do in order to reproduce itself, we can appreciate more fully the “migratory propensities” of sovereign state power.

Sklair (1996a, 1996b) was among the earliest to consider transnational class relations in regard to Oceania, through studies in which he looked at the limitations of domestic markets and growing globalist trends among leading Australian-based corporations, the rise of transnational capital in Australia, and the growing transnational orientation of leading state bureaucrats undergoing a shift from protectionism to policies of global competitiveness. In recent years, scholars have carried out expanded studies of the TCC in Australia and New Zealand (Murray, 2007; Murray and Scott, 2012). Contemporaneously, scholars began to look at how the economic restructuring of the global era occurred alongside a political restructuring, as state elites and reshaping power blocs promoted polyarchy where political decision-making and electoral options were confined to narrow, dominant segments of societies, such as has occurred in the Philippines and other countries (Robinson, 1996: 117–145).

Political economists writing on global capitalism in Asia have sought in particular to understand how China’s historical experience with a particular form of socialism and state capitalism has led to a unique mode of integration into the global economy. With Keynesian economics heavily studied in China, during the past decades of transition state enterprises have maintained a major role, which has played an important role in the lifting of 728 million out of World Bank defined poverty (Ross, 2016).

Yet China’s integration into the global capitalist economy has created massive inequalities. Jerry Harris (2006) has researched the rise of statist fractions of the TCC within China. Another scholar, Yuezhi Zhao (2003), has examined the ways in which transnational and local social forces in China have intersected to structurally reshape China’s mass media and communication industry. She first recognizes the complex constellation of interests effecting Chinese media’s integration with transnational capital: from integrationist, culturist, and nationalist perspectives, to the rising influence of non-Chinese capitalists on the industry and shifting alignments of social forces and power relations in the country. She points out how Chinese bureaucrats hold unique rationalizations for the neoliberal reforms that have been undertaken, which over time have helped ease China into the global system, as with its ascension into the World Trade Organization (WTO). Chinese media has been reorganized under global market logic, yet remains connected with the country’s statist political model. Here her argument shares some similarity with Harris’s (2009) observation of a statist TCC in China, as she describes how the country’s development will continue to be heavily managed by state elite, whose interests have aligned with fractions of transnational capital. Zhao points out, for instance, how the media has come to serve dominant groups:

Whereas the rising business and urban middle classes are increasingly using the media to articulate their interests and shape state policies toward their preferred ends, the rally cries of tens of thousands of Chinese workers and farmers in their struggles for economic and social justices often fall on deaf ears in the Chinese media system (Zhao, 2003: 63). While occurring through local specificities, transnational media capital in China serves as a key mechanism through which information is tilted toward the interests of dominant, transnationally oriented groups, both from within and without.

In looking at Taiwan and China, Hsiu-hua Shen (2011) has examined how transnational capitalists in Taiwan have utilized “nationalist” state policies as favorable opportunities for their cross-strait strategies of capital accumulation and integration. A contradictory process initiated with the lifting of martial law and the opening of family and business travel from Taiwan to China in 1987, the outward orientation of Taiwanese transnational capital has greatly intensified in the years since, as Taiwanese investors have come to prefer the regimented labor system in China and have gained significant wealth through subcontracting in mainland China. By manipulating the political systems of both countries toward its own end, transnational capital has helped generate tremendous economic growth, as well as heightened social inequality in both Taiwan and China. By the late 1980s, Chinese state policymakers saw Taiwanese transnational capitalists as valuable sources of capital, and put into place special laws to encourage their investment. Scholars have also noted the role of the TCC in other parts of East Asia. For instance, in a study examining the political economy of South Korea, Phoebe Moore identifies the dominant role of a TCC (2007: 44).

Other studies on the TCC in Asia have researched Indian and Indian diasporic transnational capitalists (Biradavolu, 2008; Upadhya and Vasavi, 2013). Writing on India in regards to transnational class relations, Carol Upadhya (2004), for example, has shown the emergence of an early TCC fraction rooted among entrepreneurs in the software outsourcing industry. As one of the least regulated industries in India and emerging relatively autonomously from the “old economy,” Upadhya traces how the software outsourcing industry expanded rapidly in the 1990s and into the 21st century, becoming globally competitive alongside underlying transformations in social and material relations. Looking at specific companies, she shows how middle-class professionals founded the initial Indian software enterprises. These companies underwent a decisive shift as foreign and cross-border capital investments grew, occurring not just through the direct investment of TNCs but also through venture capital (Upadhya, 2004). The industry’s expansion was also tied to the growth of an Indian diaspora business community in the U.S. (most importantly in California’s Silicon Valley), who use their connections with India in their business activities. She points to new contradictions and the necessity of studying how outsourced and diasporic labor – harnessed through virtual space – impacts the structure of global capital. Others have shown how these new high-technology ventures have facilitated the exploitation of segments of the Indian workforce through new 24-hour economic hubs where transnational telecommunications and sales corporations are heavily present (Sandhu, 2010).

Some studies have also begun to look at the role of state apparatuses in the region in promoting transnational labor regimes, such as Robyn Magalit Rodriguez’s (2010) recent work, in which she observes how the Philippine state has become actively involved in marketing its citizens to companies and labor-receiving governments around the world for low-wage and closely monitored temporary jobs. She explains how Philippine state elites have become entwined with global capitalist accumulation to such an extent that managing and promoting networks of transnational migration has become an important part of their own social reproduction (Sprague, 2011). Many studies have looked at the growing role worldwide of policing actions targeting migrants and maintaining them as supra-exploited labor (Golash-Boza, 2015). With similar approaches and lines of enquiry to the studies previously discussed, below I want to discuss some of the studies to appear in my recent edited book (Sprague, 2015). They help to form an interrelated body of work on the emergence of transnational social and class relations in Asia and Oceania.

Transnational capitalist class 

A number of recent studies have examined how there are different fractions of the transnational capitalist class. Harris (2015) has studied in detail the rise of a Chinese, statist-oriented fraction of the TCC. He explains that state enterprises have been utilized to incubate and promote this class fraction’s increasing involvement in global chains of production and finance. Here he expands on his previous research on statist fractions of the TCC (Harris, 2009).

Focused on Japan, Hisanao Takase (2015) argues that transnational productive capital has gained hegemonic status over other fractions of capital. To support this argument, he looks at the global orientation and activities of Toyota, showing how Japanese transnational capitalists hold a dominant influence over policy-making and push for stronger global economic integration, including the Asia-Pacific free trade accumulation strategy (the FTAAP). He points out, though, that many problems and contradictions face the implementation of Asia-Pacific economic integration, including the balance of social forces and the geopolitical conflict centered on China and the U.S.’ role in the region.

Jenny Chester (2015) has looked at the emergence in recent decades of leading transnational capitalists in China and India. Connecting the world systems approach (Robinson, 2011; Wallerstein, 2004) with the global capitalism school approach, she argues that rapid economic growth and rising inequality within the territories of China and India has been linked to the exacerbation of wealth inequality in Australia and other parts of Oceania and Asia. The author explains how leading capitalists hailing from China, India, and Australia have become transnationally oriented and geared toward global competition, rather than localized markets or national development. Chester also looks at the number of billionaires in the region, showing that financial speculation, rapid urbanization, and real estate development have generated much of the massive new wealth of top billionaires in India and China.

In a multi-authored piece, Robert Jones, Samir Shrivastava, Christopher Selvarajah, and Bernadine Van Gramberg (2015) examine how the rise of transnational capitalists and TNCs has occurred alongside declining well-being and job security for workers. The authors look at how processes of lean production have come to function, with case study research on the operations of Toyota in India. The standardization of lean production is enforced by a cohort of managers that are transferred between different locations around the world. Workers, meanwhile, are monitored in increasing detail by management through new technologies and organizational models. Workers that last as employees are those that remain uninjured, continually achieve cost, time, and production targets, and display themselves as compliant and loyal to management. Globally standardized labor regimes, promoted by transnational capital and operated by managerial groups, are thus used to extract more and more surplus labor from workers, with the value created incorporated into transnational chains of production.

Labor and the global economy 

With vast tracts of humanity marginalized as “supernumeraries” of the global economy, many are propelled into migration as exported laborers, while others remain in relatively spatially fixed positions within nations as their labor-power is incorporated into transnational value chains. Only in recent years have scholars begun to theorize the emergence of global proletarian fractions (Robinson, 2014: 48-59; Struna, 2009). Many new studies have focused on the intensifying flexibility and precarious nature of labor in the 21st century. Below I will mention some of the recent studies that further illuminate labor-capital relations in the global era and in regions of Asia and Oceania, examining the novelties that have come about, as well as engaging with the work of Struna and other “global capitalism school” scholars.

Kevin Lin (2015) through theories of a global proletariat and transnational capitalism has looked at the changing structural features of labor in China. With China’s integration into the global economy over recent decades, Lin explains how millions of proletarianized workers have come to be embedded in new circuits of transnational accumulation. Here it is important to take into account the historical trajectory of Chinese labor through the Maoist period, up through the market reforms of Deng Xiaoping, and into the heightened capitalist globalization of recent decades. Taking under consideration Struna’s (2009) theory of global proletarian fractions, Lin suggests how different fractions of the working class in China have come to exist through the era of capitalist globalization, observing how different skilled, immigrant, and statically located workers have had their labor-power transnationalized. Yet at the same time, as the author argues, many are grounded within a national context where their experiences and conditions are shaped heavily by local peculiarities. As the author recognizes, novel relations have led to new contradictions where local specificities both clash with and become enmeshed with transnational processes. Lin (2015) adds how these changes occur alongside open-ended labor struggles that face particular problems in building cross-border solidarity, such as being channeled through bureaucratic hierarchies and with their international ties heavily influenced by powerful state apparatuses (a problem that labor unions face in other parts of the world as well, including within the U.S., as Scipes (2011) has documented).

Expanding on the work of Upadya and others who have examined the contradictory nature of India’s integration into the global economy, authors Bob Russell, Ernesto Noronha, and Premilla D’Cruz (2015) have focused on business process outsourcing (BPO) as a leading up-and-coming sector of India’s globally integrated economy. BPO is a type of outsourcing in which the activities of specific business functions are contracted out to a third-party service provider, often specializing in creating flexible and “more efficient” labor-intensive tasks. While Russell, Noronha, and D’Cruz recognize the transnationalization of capital in the industry, with subcontracting forming a vital aspect of local capitalist integration into the global economy, they point to many existing problems that hold back and box in working-class organizing, subjectivity, and agency. They argue that workers within these industries have yet to exhibit tendencies that would lead to a globally oriented “class for itself,” but instead remain confined to primarily local struggles, organized through national bodies and occasionally taking part in international campaigns. This points to a major problem and contradiction of capital-labor relations in the global era: whereas transnational capital intensifies its cross-border integrative practices, labor struggles are usually nationally or locally geared. Labor unions and movements from below have a long way to go in order to effectively organize against transnational capital. Yet, as William I. Robinson (2014) and others have argued, if radical changes to this system are to occur and humanistic alternatives are to percolate, working-class organizing and consciousness too must globalize.

Another scholar, Sivakumar Velayutham (2015), points out how national rhetoric has become a mechanism through which policymakers of national states facilitate competitive engagement with the global economy. Foregrounded in the context of rising income inequality worldwide, Velayutham emphasizes how, through the era of global capitalism, government regulation and labor protections have been undermined through neoliberal reforms that have strengthened transnational capital. The author argues that as a part of this process, nationalism and national identity have been repackaged as a tool for competition in the global arena.

Finance and production capital

While the globalization of capital has occurred unevenly (for example, with divergent economic growth rates; distinctive consumer preferences; varied competitive environments; divergent regulatory standards and tax regimes; different currencies, cultures, and operating and management models), there has also been growing standardization of regulations, a wide-scale lowering of tariffs, increasing rates of cross-border mergers and acquisitions, and broad structural shifts toward global competitiveness. Financial speculation has reached unimagined heights through high-tech and organizational advancements, with stock markets and many banks now interconnected around the world. Areas in Asia have become nexuses for global chains of production and transnational banking and financial systems, and with highly developed “global cities” such as Singapore and Hong Kong.

Anthony van Fossen (2015) argues that offshore tax havens have served as key nodes for transnational capitalist-class formation, observing, for example, how “[n]ew and powerful entrants to the TCC in the Asia-Pacific, such as most of China’s elite, have formed symbiotic relationships with offshore tax havens.” Fossen (2015) deals with how, among the TCC and their state and institutional associates, there have been different approaches toward tax havens. Van Fossen describes these factions/approaches as (1) libertarians who seek opaque tax havens that weaken the role of sovereign states to regulate capital, (2) structuralists who aim to lightly regulate havens through minimal common norms, and (3) regulationists who push for global law and regulations over tax havens). With transnational capital and power blocs not reaching a consensus over tax haven policy, there has been a relative incoherence in practical policies toward havens.

By contrast, authors David Peetz and Georgina Murray (2015) look at the TCC in connection to the global phenomenon of climate crisis, which now affects every region across the planet. Recognizing climate crisis as a by-product of capitalism, they seek to see whether fractions of transnational finance capital can be motivated to interrupt or avoid climate crisis. They seek specifically to understand how individual capitalists or agents of capital might be motivated to take environmentally friendly and even activist positions on matters of corporate behavior in relation to climate change.

Looking at transnational production capital, Drew Cottle and Joe Collins (2015), using the Marxian idea of ground-rent in their study of mining in Australia during the global era, make clear the role of land and nature in the creation of values of various forms of capital. Recognizing the “dominance of the transnational mining capital fraction within the ensemble of capital in Australia” they furthermore reference Beiler and Morton’s argument on how the interests of transnational capital internalize within different forms of state. To articulate some contradictions they identify, their case study emphasizes “comprador” capitalists operating in “semi-peripheral” Australia. The term comprador, which is also used by Frank Stilwell (2015), was utilized throughout much of the 20th century to describe capitalists in colonial and postcolonial societies that played a subordinate role to metropolitan capital. Future studies can debate the usefulness of the idea of comprador capitalists in understanding contemporary class relations.


Transnational dynamics and (under)development 

To understand the structures and agencies that undergird global society, scholars of the “global capitalism school” have emphasized as more determinant (of causal priority) the role of social production, and then, while also important, uneven geographic development. Whereas the academic field of development studies has long been wedded to nation-state centered frameworks, as Robinson suggests: “the way forward is a reconsideration of the relationship between space and development, and a new conception of development based not on territory but on social groups” (2002: 1048).

Examining the class nature of contemporary development and underdevelopment, Kearrin Sims (2015) has looked at the social and economic transformation of Laos. Focused on the Indochinese peninsula in Southeast Asia, Sims explains how Laos has become a nexus through which people and capital move between more highly developed surrounding areas and, in the process, has become deeply incorporated into global chains of capital accumulation and rising inequality. Long considered an isolated area in the region, through secondary sources and ethnographic research the author shows the quantitative and qualitative expansion of global capital into this zone, with new city districts, transportation routes, upgraded airports, and other infra- structure developed for the purpose of facilitating the movement of transnational capital. The author connects the lived experiences of lower-income communities displaced from their homes with the activities of dominant groups seeking to open space for new transnational capital investments, such as in real estate. Though looking at a much more highly developed part of the world, Harvey (2008: 38) has also recognized the role of transnational capitalists in reshaping cities and real estate development.

Also informed by ethnographic research, Mousumi Mukherjee (2015) charts how middle-class education in India has historically been incubated in private, missionary schools. She argues that the successor models of this earlier missionary approach are now focused on their insertion into a globally competitive educational market. Seeking to adapt to shifting social and material patterns, under local and global pressures, such schools are dropping policies of social inclusion and are becoming more exclusive, increasingly immersed within structural inequalities of the global system. Mousumi provides detailed testimonials she gathered from educational workers in Kolkata to support her argument.

Vladimir Pacheco (2015), emphasizing the uneven nature of today’s transnational chains of accumulation, looks at the local impact of transnational corporate mining on the remote island of Lihir in Papua New Guinea. He focuses specifically on how the industry seeks to measure and promote the data they have gathered. Having formerly worked in the mining industry himself, Pacheco provides an insider’s view. He observes that “the worldwide deregulation of investment in mining, oil, and gas facilitated the entry of private foreign multinational companies into developing countries,” with various projects starting up at that point. The growth in global capitalist industrial production in locations such as China has sent transnational capital fractions in search of new raw materials, giving impetus to new investments in oil, gas, and metal industries in the developing world. For this reason, new mining enclaves in developing countries such as Papua New Guinea have become substantial locations for global capital investment. Pacheco explains how mining companies conduct detailed studies of the impact of their operations, in part to comply with national and transnational regulatory regimes but also to show global competitiveness and secure legitimacy. He concludes that the tensions between the mining company and local communities he observed in Papua New Guinea were not diminishing, but rather were “rooted in structural, historical, and economic disparities” perpetuated by the transnational legal system that upholds international contracts while sidelining substantive debate and depoliticizing local struggles (Pacheco, 2015).

Transnationally oriented elites and the state apparatus

In regards to the state, Robinson (2004), Harris (2006), and others have argued that a parallel political project connected to the class power of the TCC is nascent. Conceptualizing political restructuring in the global era, they have argued that transnationally oriented elites operating through various state apparatuses (often aligned with different fractions of the TCC) have become the dominant actors in most governments and major political institutions. The theory of emergent transnational state apparatuses, as coined by Robinson (2004), claims that through globalization a nascent political, juridical, and regulatory network is taking shape through numerous local, national, and supranational state institutions. The TCC, to promote and ensure its power, requires a concomitant political project. Such a political project would involve, for example: (1) promoting investor confidence in the global economy, (2) setting up mechanisms and institutions for responding to economic, political, and military crises that threaten the stability necessary for global markets, and (3) establishing a degree of macroeconomic policy uniformity across borders. Some scholars have used this approach to look at how international law has been impacted during the global era (Chimni, 2010). Jayasuriya (Sprague, 2010) and Bieler and Morton (2013/2014) explain how specific state forms or subunits within states have come to incubate or be penetrated by transnational interests, emphasizing (as does Robinson) that particular mechanisms of statecraft and regulatory regimes have become sites of political contestation and transnational conflict.

Robinson (2015) expanding on his earlier work, argues that over recent decades, state elites operating through different national and supranational state apparatuses have worked to congeal the political project of transnational capital by way of state reforms and policies that promote the interests of transnational capitalist fractions. He examines in particular the relationship between the TCC and the BRICS association (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa), observing how state apparatuses within the BRICS association have become transnationally oriented. While recognizing the importance of the BRICS in helping lead toward a more multipolar interstate system, Robinson (2015) argues that BRICS do not represent a liberatory alternative for the global system’s class society. This is because the BRICS are deeply integrated within the highly unequal class relation of capitalist globalization. He explains that mainstream political economy perspectives, through the lens of nation-state competition, ignore the fundamental changes undergone through the transnationalization of capitalist relations, leading many to overlook how capitalists in the BRICS have become inseparable from capitalists worldwide. He observes, for instance, that the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) now has “co-investments and joint ventures around the world with virtually all the major private transnational oil companies” and rather than being shut out of U.S.-occupied Iraq, it was ushered into the Iraqi petroleum market with the assistance of U.S. policymakers. In another example, he points out “agribusiness interests in Brazil . . . bring together Brazilian capitalists and land barons with the giant TNCs that drive global agribusiness, and that themselves in their ownership and cross-investment structures bring together individual and institutional investors from around the world, such as Monsanto, ADM, Cargill, and so forth (Patel, 2007: 197–200). He adds, “simply put, ‘Brazilian’ agricultural exports are transnational capital agricultural exports.” Brazilian state elites who promote the dropping of U.S. agricultural subsidies in fact advance the interests of certain TCC fractions, not Brazilian national capital. The same can be said of many state elites operating through their national state institutions in Oceania and Asia, where their social reproduction has become dependent upon the investment and accumulation of global capital. Robinson (2015) has taken on some of his critics in a number of recent pieces, elaborating, for instance, upon how political economists Andreas Bieler and Adam David Morton (2013/2014) have mischaracterized his approach.

Another political economist, Tom Bramble (2015), provides a fascinating historical and analytical overview of the trajectory of capitalism in Australia. Accepting the usefulness of some aspects of global capitalism theory, while critical of others, he attempts to critically appropriate some ideas therein. In contrast to many of the other studies influenced by the “global capitalism school” approach, Bramble argues that inter-state rivalry remains the driving force of international capitalism, as he claims nationally rooted capitalist monopolies are defining features of the international system, in turn propelling competition and conflict between different states. Even so, Bramble attempts to connect aspects of the “global capitalism school” approach with earlier Marxian theories of international political economy and nation-state imperialism.

In another recent study on mining in the era of globalization, David Cannon and Kanishka Jayasuriya (2015) lay out how changes to political economy have occurred regionally and through state regulatory apparatuses, utilizing examples from Australia (such as the heightening impact of transnational Chinese mining capital on Australian institutions). Identifying the transformation of what they call subnational state institutions, the authors examine how transnational interests and processes have become embedded within governmental bodies. The authors open to further debate how best to understand the transformations occurring through particular state forms and institutional units within states.


Much has been made in recent years of the so-called Asian century and the rise of China and the problems it faces, with emphasis on global finance and heated geopolitical conflicts new and old, and the governmental and business policy challenges all of this entails. Through traditional state-centric approaches, social scientists have focused their attention on the development of phenomena occurring within the borders of a single nation, making comparisons between nations, or at times considering international processes that occur back and forth between countries or companies (identified with the nation-state in which they are domiciled). This article, however, as I have outlined, seeks to break from Westphalian state centric analysis. It seeks to place emphasis on the transnational chains of accumulation and social reproduction that are forming and how these are entangled with local, national, and regional phenomena. It seeks to draw our attention to the relations, conflicts, contradictions, and novelties of global capitalism as a new phase in the history of world capitalism.

The numerous studies that I have discussed in this paper illustrate the integrative yet intensely exploitive, dehumanizing, and crisis-prone nature of class relations in the globalist phase of world capitalism. Theories of transnational class relations remain contested, with plenty of avenues for further study. When looking at how social and class relations are undergoing changes in the global epoch, we need also to look at past work on social and class formation, as Australian political economist Frank Stilwell has emphasized in pointing out the connection of theories of transnational class relations and global political economy with earlier theories of international political economy and international and national class relations. Looking at such studies, scholars need to consider how different social classes, class fractions, social groups, strata, and their racialized and gendered components operate in parts of Asia and Oceania and are unevenly integrated into today’s global economy and society. We need to consider how the previous phase of world capitalism (the international phase) underwent a transition and has meshed with the new global/transnational phase.



[i] This article is an altered and expanded version of a chapter titled “Global capitalism and transnational class formation in Asia and Oceania”, published previously in an edited book volume (Sprague, 2015).



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