Book Review: Second Thoughts on Capitalism and the State by Leslie Sklair
Second Thoughts on Capitalism and the State. Leslie Skler. Cambridge Publishing House. 2022.
in a Second Thoughts on Capitalism and the StateLeslie Sklair is reflected in some of his notable journal publications, which are republished here in an updated and edited form. The group’s focus is on “crises of capitalism and the state” (1). It includes Sklair’s reflections on ideology and social utopias, papers on Shenzhen from a global perspective as well as many chapters on different dimensions of global capitalism including his work on iconic architecture, his research on the tobacco industry, and his seminal articles on transnational class capitalism and global politics. It also discusses world revolution, socialism, and the Anthropocene, and the volume includes a final new chapter on “The Besieged City and the Besieged Planet.”
Furthermore, Sklair takes the opportunity to look at the changes that have occurred in the forms social interpretation has taken and the ways in which capitalism has changed over the past 50 years. What gives the book a particularly personal feel is that each chapter contains an introduction referring to the intellectual environment in which it was produced, and there is a concluding section containing the author’s “auto-criticism” of original works and commentary on important later research. . Here I comment on a few topics.
The book begins with an exercise in the sociology of sociology and maps changes that have occurred in sociology content and the normative positions of sociologists. Sklair revisits his article on “Ideology and Social Utopias” (1977) in which he compares Parsonian and Marxist approaches. Sklair is “Marx-inspired” (8) and not a Marxist. He considers that both radical (critical) and bourgeois (conservative) sociology pursue their own complementary utopias. He claims that the goal of sociology should be to “change the world” (15), not merely to explain it.
Sklaer’s concept of the transnational capitalist class represents a major advance in helping us to understand the changes that have taken place in the capitalist mode of production. Whereas early twentieth-century thinkers such as Rudolf Hilferding, J. A. Hobson, and Lenin recognized the economic and political significance of imperialism and colonialism, Sklaer focused on the ways in which internationalization changed the nature of the ruling capitalist class. In doing so, he departs significantly from Marxist economic thinking to include not only corporations, but also their political, technical, and consumerist factions.
Image credit: photography Martin Ciraldi employment unsplash
In Second Thoughts, Sklaer endorses his concept of the transnational capitalist class, but recognizes his failure to adequately map its composition, ideological differentiation, and forms of communication. Here the discussion could have benefited from considering the criticisms that have been made of the concept of a transnational capitalist class, particularly the relative strength of the various factions. Would the approach of the ruling elites, à la C.W. Mills and W. Domhoff, be a better framework? The evolution of Cold War politics between the West (led by the United States) and China, as well as Russia, raises the question of the divisions between class factions, identified by Sklayer, and the transnational capitalist class regionalism. Penal regimes, which punish the industrial and commercial factions of the transnational capitalist class, are applied and enforced by states that still possess significant powers.
Sklar’s political outlook has changed. He maintains his belief in socialist globalization (versus capitalist globalization). However, his “optimism of will” was now overshadowed by “pessimism of reason” (166). Earlier, he asserted, the transition to socialist globalization was not only desirable, but also possible. His writings focused on defining the boundaries and character of transnational classes, rather than the politics of transition to a socialist system. In this book, he pessimistically concludes that neither social democratic political parties nor their Marxist-Leninist rivals can achieve a democratic form of socialist globalization.
Sklaer became disillusioned with the political practices of the former socialist countries as well as the failure of social democracy. He reminds us of the adage that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” (155). In his words, ‘The historical record indicates that in the long run, all attempts to fundamentally reform capitalism to ensure global social, environmental, and economic justice are doomed to failure, especially when humanity faces a potential existential crisis revealed by the Anthropocene. (159).
What does it mean now, then, to “change the world”? Marx’s inspiration is still to be found in the concept of communist society, but the mechanisms—the transformation brought about by class struggle and the whole structure of historical materialism—have been buried. We are moving from reform and revolution to creating alternative societies. Sklaer’s own ideological shift from a socialist (revisionist and revolutionary) vision of socialist globalization to a vision of an “exit from capitalism” (18) and to the creation of smaller, independent human settlements. The alternative is the coexistence of capitalist, alternative capitalist, and non-capitalist groups (167).
Sklair leans toward an underdeveloped economy: “an alternative, radical, progressive, non-capitalist globalization based on networks of relatively small cooperatives between producers and consumers” (239). While remaining a scathing critic of capitalism, Skylar highlights the “potential existential danger to humanity” in the age of the Anthropocene. The alternative is “exit from capitalism and the hierarchical state” (259). The danger here, I believe, is the creation of collective islands in a global capitalist world, and I remain skeptical whether this strategy will lead to a break in the dominance of the transnational capitalist class.
In Second Thoughts to the final chapter, Sklaer raises the fundamental question of why, if capitalism is so bad, do so many people put up with it? Underlying the ideology of consumerism is the fact that capitalism has succeeded in increasing human productivity, life expectancy, and living conditions. The problem with the exit strategy is that these small communities may not be able to provide the economic basis for sustaining life at the levels that people expect and enjoy under capitalism; Many in emerging countries desire the same benefits. The idea of ”socialist globalization” recognizes these sentiments and proposes the preservation of capitalist productive forces in non-capitalist relations to the means of production.
This collection of articles provides a thought-provoking book. It can be recommended to those seeking the distilled knowledge of Sklair’s pioneering analysis of the transnational capitalist class and his assessments of alternatives to global capitalism in the Anthropocene.