International Political Economy: Overview and Conceptualization
- Renée Marlin-BennettRenée Marlin-BennettInternational Studies, Johns Hopkins
- and David K. JohnsonDavid K. JohnsonPolitical Science, Johns Hopkins University
The concept of international political economy (IPE) encompasses the intersection of politics and economics as goods, services, money, people, and ideas move across borders. The term “international political economy” began to draw the attention of scholars in the mid-1960s amid problems of the world economy and lagging development in the third world. The term “global political economy” (GPE) later came to be used frequently to illustrate that what happens in the world is not only about interactions between states and that the GPE includes many different kinds of actors. The survey aims at a comprehensive picture of the different schools of IPE, both historically and as they have developed in the early 21st century. Authors of antiquity, such as Aristotle and Kautilya, explored the relationship between the political and the economic long before the term “political economy” was coined, presumably by Antoine de Montchrestien in 1613. The mercantilist writings of the 17th and 18th centuries, including those of Colbert, Mun, and Hamilton, argued in favor of the state using its powers to increase its wealth. List, writing in the 19th century, emphasized the tension between national economic self-determination and free markets. The 19th- to 20th-century iteration of the mercantilist view can be found in the form of economic nationalist policies, which link to a realist approach to international relations more generally. Theorists of the Global South have adapted economic nationalist policies to address the problem of development. The liberal tradition of IPE also has historical antecedents, beginning with classical political economy. Examples include the influential works of Locke, Hume, Smith, and Ricardo. After World War II, the economic writings of Keynes, Hayek, and Friedman were influential. Variants of neoliberal IPE can be found from the 1950s with scholarship on integration and from the late 1970s with scholarship on international regimes. Late-20th-century and early-21st-century liberal scholarship has also explored varieties of capitalism and economic crises. An alternative stream of IPE can be traced through Marxian political economy, beginning with the work of Marx and Engels in the 19th century and proliferating globally. This approach provides a critique of capitalism. Other critical approaches that have emerged in the 20th and 21st centuries include feminist global political economy and postcolonial critiques of liberal and Marxian analyses. Trends in scholarship include analyses of China and transition of the neoliberal order, queer theory for global political economy, and studies of growing trends toward precarious forms of labor. A final section discusses research beginning in the 1990s that is relevant to the global political economy of transborder transmission of disease, a topic of special concern in light of the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020.
Updated in this version
Light revision throughout, added discussions of postcoloniality and Covid-19
Research in the field of international political economy, as described in this overview, includes work grounded in different schools of thought and drawing upon distinct conceptualizations of important concepts, relationships, and causal understandings. Antoine de Montchrestien (1889) is reputed to have introduced the term œconomie politique in his treatise of 1613, by which he referred to the study of how states should manage the economy or make policy. The concept of international political economy has come to encompass a larger range of concerns, including the intersection of politics and economics, as goods, services, money, people, and ideas move across borders. The term “international political economy” (IPE) began to appear in the scholarly literature in the mid-1960s as problems of the world economy and development in the third world gained scholarly attention. The term “global political economy” (GPE) came into sporadic use at about the same time. GPE was (and is) often used more or less synonymously with IPE, though IPE approaches usually emphasize the individual nation-state as the basic unit of analysis, while GPE approaches tend to be more holistic, placing states and other kinds of actors within larger structures or the global system. Gill (1990) notes that in the 1980s, the terminological difference between IPE and GPE came to mark a difference in methodological orientation, mapping onto more or less “mainstream” and “critical” approaches, respectively. By the end of the 1990s, the GPE came to be used by both mainstream scholars (Gilpin, 2001, and Cohn, 2016, are examples) and critical scholars, although critical scholars are more likely to use GPE exclusively. (This article omits a full discussion of the development of IPE in the Global South and its engagement with GPE, a topic covered in Deciancio and Quiliconi, 2020). This survey of IPE and GPE scholarship proceeds in a roughly historical plan and consists of eight sections. It begins with some very early works on the intersection of politics and economics, and then it turns to the mercantilist school and its 20th-century successor, economic nationalism. The next section traces the development of the liberal tradition of political economy, including classical political economy, Keynesianism, neoclassical economics, and neoliberalism. This discussion is followed by sections on the Marxian, feminist, and postcolonial global political economy. The penultimate section briefly discusses some trends of scholarship in the 21st century, especially moving into the 2020s. The survey concludes with a discussion of scholarship (published prior to May 2020) that is relevant for assessing the global political economy reverberations of the COVID-19 global pandemic.
Politics and Economics: Early Works
The study of the relationship between economic activities and state interests originated long before the term “political economy” was coined. Two examples of very early works include writings by Aristotle (384–322 bce), who criticized Plato’s conception of communal ownership and placed the state in the role of guarantor of private property in The Politics, and Kautilya (ca. 350–283 bce), the Indian author of Arthashastra, a book of statecraft, who wrote of the need for the ruler to send spies to the marketplace to ensure fair weights and measures (Kautilya, 1915). In the Middle Ages, Islamic social theorist Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) wrote about the relationship between governing structures and productivity of people (Ibn Khaldun, 1967). Another Muslim scholar of this era, Al-Maqrizi (d. 1442) (1994), analyzed governmental policies, including monetary policy. Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527), generally seen as a political theorist, was mindful of the relationship between the state and the economy as well, at least in the sense that a primary role of the prince or of a republican government is to protect private property. He called “public security and the protection of the laws [. . .] the sinews of agriculture and of commerce,” and suggested that the protection of property rights was important “so that the one may not abstain from embellishing his possessions for fear of their being taken from him, and [. . .] not hesitate to open a new traffic for fear of taxes” (Machiavelli, 1882, p. 448; see also Machiavelli, 1979, ch. XVI, on how princes ought to spend—or not spend—money).
Governments traditionally were held responsible for defending their own citizens’ property, but they had no such obligation toward conquered peoples. The European Age of Exploration led unsurprisingly to the expropriation of resources, since the purpose of those conquests was to bring home wealth in the form of gold, silver, and other precious materials. Enslavement of the indigenous peoples and profiting from their resources was considered consistent with natural law, as Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, drawing on Aristotle, argued in 1550 (Garcia-Pelayo, 1986).
Sepúlveda’s opinion was commonly, but not universally, held. The famous opposition to Spain’s inhuman treatment of indigenous people was published by Bartolomé de Las Casas in 1552. He charged that the “avarice and ambition” that motivated the Spaniards and led them to perpetrate acts of barbarism were, to use a modern term, “illegitimate” (Las Casas, 2007). At a time when imperial conquest was considered the natural goal for states, Las Casas sounded a normative message—that the state cannot act with impunity and that the quest for riches does not excuse unjust forms of violence. The Sepúlveda–Las Casas debate prefigured future debates over the norms of international political economic interaction.
From Mercantilism to Economic Nationalism
Adam Smith referred dismissively to the various theories and policies on how states should intervene in markets to increase wealth and power as “mercantilism.” The more neutral-sounding “economic nationalism” became the successor term in more recent times. In both cases, assumptions about the role of the state conform to a general realist model, although a form of economic nationalism has also been espoused by theorists and polities of the Global South with the aim of “delinking” from relations of dependency on the North. This section traces the development of theories of mercantilism and economic nationalism from the 16th century to the 21st.
The two-volume history of mercantilism by Eli Heckscher (1935) outlines at least four elements of this school of thought. Following List, and especially Schmoller, mercantilism is identified as the economic element of creating national states from disparate regions. Mercantilism is also characterized as a specific conceptualization of the nature of wealth that stresses the critical nature of inflows. The lack of reciprocal demand, the difficulty of facilitating accumulation in early agrarian societies, and the differential ability of various economic pursuits regarding generating employment opportunities are central to this element. A third characterization of mercantilism is as a body of policy designed to decrease the cost of inputs and facilitate production in the face of competition. Finally, mercantilism is characterized as a belief in the importance of enhancing the power and wealth of a state, so that it is better able to direct resources both at home and abroad. The best-known mercantilist theories focus on maintaining a positive balance of trade and payments by limiting imports or encouraging exports. One variant, bullionism, focuses on the desirability of increasing a country’s supply of gold and silver. (See Viner, 1937, for a detailed history of English writings on mercantilism and “bullionism” prior to Adam Smith. A more recent and strongly proneoclassical liberal discussion of the relationship of historical theories of mercantilism to monetary policy can be found in Humphrey, 1999.)
European exploration and conquest of new lands led to intellectual debate, starting in France in the 16th century, over which policies would best achieve these ends. An influx of gold and silver led to instability in the value of money. Commentators began to consider the government’s role in determining the value of money, the terms of trade, and other facets of what scholars since the mid-20th century would call international political economy. Jean Bodin, for example, wrote in 1568 about how the value of specie would fluctuate with supply and demand and warned that government interference would only worsen the situation. “A ruler,” he wrote, “who changes the price of gold and silver ruins his people, country and himself” (cited in Turchetti, 2018). Instead, as Luigi Cossa (1880, p. 117) noted, Bodin argued that the oversupply of money that resulted in price increases “would be turned to better advantage by a fiscal system promoting the growth of national manufactures in opposition to the excessive consumption of foreign goods.” Antoine de Monchrestien drew heavily on the work of Bodin to advocate for government protection of manufactures. (See Ashley, 1891, and Perry, 1883, for discussions of Monchrestien’s work.)
An influential supporter of mercantilism was Jean Baptiste Colbert, minister of finance for King Louis XIV of France. He increased taxes, created benefits for production that would substitute for imports, and worked to bring wealth into the country through his policies, which were referred to as Colbertism. In 1664, he wrote a memorandum to the king in which he argued “that only the abundance of money in a State makes the difference in its greatness and power.” He advocated government intervention in markets to increase domestic manufactures, to encourage imports of raw materials to be used for manufactures, and to support the exportation of manufactured goods. To encourage French traders to sell goods widely, he also advocated rewards for building or buying new ships and for long-distance voyages (Colbert, 1998). Thomas Mun, a director of the British East India Company, expressed similar views in a widely read defense of mercantilism. He argued that a country’s wealth is increased if a positive balance of trade is maintained. England should try to produce as much of what it must consume as possible and import as little as possible for its own consumption. People should tame their appetites to avoid wanting foreign garments and foods. However, having English traders purchase valuable wares from distant locales, bring them back to England, and, from England, reexport them would, according to Mun, serve to increase the national treasure. Mercantilism, in other words, would result in a net inflow of gold and silver—commodities not produced in any great quantity from English mines—and this would be the only way for England to increase its wealth (Mun, 1895).
The protectionist policies of mercantilism held considerable attractiveness as countries sought to industrialize and develop their economies. Alexander Hamilton, the first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, provided a Report on Manufactures to Congress in which he outlined steps that the young country should take to secure its economy, especially in opposition to the economic might of other countries. Creating an economy based on manufactures, Hamilton argued, would protect the United States from being dependent on other countries “for military and other essential supplies.” He implicitly countered the argument of the physiocrats, discussed in the section “Early Liberal Writers,” who stressed the importance of agriculture over manufactures. Hamilton maintained that the country was best served by encouraging the development of manufacturing. Using machines would allow for the full employment of the population (including women and children) in order to increase the country’s self-sufficiency—and therefore its wealth and security (Hamilton, 1913, p. 3).
Friedrich List, a German scholar and politician who later became a naturalized American citizen, extended Hamilton’s argument by emphasizing that states should take advantage of their own human resources—that is, the ability of people to produce agricultural and manufactured products through their innovation, hard work, and the natural environment. He argued that “it is of the utmost concern for a nation [. . .] first fully to supply its own wants, its own consumption with the products of its own manufactures,” he wrote. Only then should a country trade with others. List also developed the proposition that young economies could not compete with more established, more technologically advanced ones until the younger country had invested in developing its domestic industry. He emphasized “that a nation is richer and more powerful in proportion as it exports more manufactured products, imports more raw materials, and consumes more tropical commodities.” Government policies should therefore work toward these goals (List, 1909, pp. 76–77). For a classic but much overlooked contribution to the tensions between protectionism and free trade in theories of IPE, see E. H. Carr (2001, pp. 41–62).
The 20th century marked a shift in theoretical labels. “Mercantilism” was supplanted by “economic nationalism,” a more neutral term and one that is more easily interpreted from a realist perspective. Economic nationalists are realists who expect the contest for wealth to mirror the contest for power in international relations. However, they often articulate a somewhat schizophrenic view: theorists who write about economic nationalism often see it as an unfortunate, economically inefficient, but unavoidable fact of international life. For example, in 1931, T. E. Gregory criticized economic nationalism, but explained that such policies continued to be implemented because citizens and governments were reacting to six factors. They (a) feared “dependence on foreign markets for the sale of your products”; (b) saw “the danger of intervention in the domestic market by the foreign capitalist”; (c) desired “to reserve for the intelligence of the country itself such positions of honour and prestige as are offered by the existence of growing industries and a growing financial structure”; (d) realized “the undesirability of allowing [. . .] raw materials to be owned by foreigners”; (e) worried about the risk “that in a period of war, if you depend on foreign food supplies, you may find yourself in a very difficult situation, and therefore you ought to grow your own food”; and (f) believed that keeping “agriculture going as a type of economic production” would guarantee a supply of “vigorous manhood”—men who would be strong soldiers in times of war (pp. 292–294). Similarly, Gregory’s contemporary, Charles Schrecker, begins his discussion of “the causes, characteristics and possible consequences” of economic nationalism with the caveat that he “consider[s] this tendency [toward economic nationalism] in its ultimate effects to be regrettable and detrimental to the future economic welfare of humanity” (Schrecker, 1934, p. 208).
This differentiation between the scholars’ personal beliefs and their analytical stance continues in more recent scholarship. Judith Goldstein (1986) discusses the principle of “free and fair” trade as a norm of U.S. trade policy, and she finds that while “free trade” is consistent with liberal economic analysis (which, by implication, she endorses), “fair trade” refers to protecting U.S. firms from unfair trade practices of other countries. In other words, U.S. trade policy ultimately pursues mechanisms that support the interests of those groups that capture the state and persuade policymakers of their claims. Eric Helleiner (2002), through a careful reading of the 19th-century economic nationalists, makes the sophisticated argument that economic nationalism has always been nationalist—that is, realist—first and economic second. In other words, he argues that countries choose economic policies for nationalist purposes. Sometimes these policies will be liberal, when it suits the country to deploy liberal policies; sometimes the policies will be protectionist, when protection is expected to lead to desired ends. In this analysis, liberal policies may be wholly consistent with theoretical explanations of economic nationalism. In a similar vein, Robert Gilpin clarifies the separation of analytical tools and preferred outcomes. He implicitly accepts the normative goals of liberalism while interpreting behavior in terms of “state centric realism,” a theoretical perspective closely connected to economic nationalism. He writes, “Although realists recognize the central role of the state, security, and power in international affairs, they do not necessarily approve of this situation. [. . .] It is possible to analyze international economic affairs from a realist perspective and at the same time to have normative commitment to certain ideals” (Gilpin, 2001, pp. 15–16). Cohn (2016) elaborates these difficulties in the treatment of “neomercantilism.”
Economic Nationalism and Development
For many theorists, however, economic nationalism takes on a more positive hue when argued from the position of infant industries and developing country economies that need to develop internally before they can compete in global markets. Thus, tenets of economic nationalism have appealed to many writers in the Global South. Julius Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania, could be considered a (somewhat ironic) example. Nyerere’s ujamaa (“familyhood”) policies can be divided into two: a frankly socialist “villagization” policy in which people were moved onto collective farms and a mercantilist self-reliance policy in which Tanzania was supposed to detach itself from dependence on the industrialized world. Ultimately, his policy failed on both counts: the collective farms were unproductive, Tanzania became more dependent on aid from other countries, and the democratic ideals of the movement deteriorated (Prashad, 2008, pp. 191–203). The idea of self-reliance, however, resonates closely with economic nationalist emphasis on the ability of states to produce for their own basic needs (Amin, 1990; Nyerere, 1967).
In general, theories advocating import substitution industrialization fall into this category of developing country economic nationalism. Economist Raúl Prebisch, working on behalf of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America, formulated the theory of dependent development, which explained how industrialization in the developing world could continue to keep countries dependent on advanced economies in the “core.” These peripheral country economies were too closely tied to production for export. Instead, he argued that developing countries needed to implement import-substituting industrialization (ISI) policies. By delinking from the dependent economic relationships that they have with core countries, developing countries could build their own economies. He advocated the mechanization of agriculture, industrialization, and technological advance (Prebisch, 1986). In short, “the fundamental arguments of [Alexander] Hamilton’s Report on Manufactures have a striking similarity with those of Prebisch and his staff” (Grunwald, 1970, p. 826). (Of course, the results of ISI policies have been highly uneven. See, for example, the analysis of Albert Hirschman, 1968, and Vijay Prashad, 2014, on the difficulties of ISI as a development strategy.)
From Classical Liberalism to Neoliberal Institutionalism and Neoclassical Liberalism
In contrast to the emphasis on state power and state interests that characterizes mercantilism and economic nationalism, liberalism emphasizes possessive individualism and the individual as the bearer of rights (Macpherson, 1973). The political economic theory that results from the emphasis on the individual is grounded in the idea that markets should be allowed to function as freely as possible and that the purpose of economic activity is not to benefit the government but rather to benefit individuals who, through their efforts, earn income, purchase goods, and constitute the basic unit of economic life.
Early Liberal Writers
Among the most important of these liberal rights from the perspective of political economy is that of property. For John Locke (1884), the right to property was natural; for David Hume (1992), the right to property was the result of interactions over time between people. (See also Sugden, 1989, on Hume’s view of property.) Liberals reject the idea that the purpose of the state is to gather wealth. Instead, the state exists to provide security and to safeguard property.
In the liberal tradition, “political economy” came to be associated expansively with the relationship between governments, markets, welfare, and wealth. Discourse on Political Economy by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1983), originally written for Diderot’s Encyclopédie, was an example of this. For Rousseau, political economy referred rather generally to those policies and laws that aim to protect and promote society being governed. What set Rousseau’s view apart from mercantilism was the liberal ethos that pervaded his writing: citizens were individuals who held rights; they had private wills; and collectively the community as a whole had a general will. States were bound by the rule of law and, in adhering to the general will, had the responsibility for protecting citizens’ rights, including property rights, but Rousseau was silent on what later writers would term “laissez-faire” policies, a free market vision of popular (as opposed to tyrannical) political economy. Instead, Rousseau seemed to have a very specific view of important government intervention in the economy: “One of the most important functions of the government” is to prevent extreme differences in wealth, since extremes of opulence and poverty erode the sense of “common cause” among citizens. To prevent such inequality and to provide the other functions of government, the state must tax, but, because the right to one’s own property was fundamental, taxation must be limited and levied fairly and progressively (those living at subsistence levels paying nothing, the rich paying relative to their wealth), in accordance with the general will. Rousseau’s popular political economy was thus liberal in protecting rights yet interventionist with respect to taxation and the uses of taxes.
The physiocrats introduced the idea of laissez-faire, laissez-passer (“let do and let pass,” in other words, the government should not interfere in the market) as a goal for states. They argued that the state should avoid intervention wherever possible, and especially avoid the taxation of agriculture. François Quesnay’s Economical Table presented a view of economics that placed a strong emphasis on the value of agriculture and the “sterility” of manufactures (Quesnay, 1968), in contrast to the mercantile emphasis on encouraging manufactures. The physiocrats favored agriculture because, in their calculation, the value of the output—crops—exceeded the value of the inputs used to produce the crops: land, labor, seeds, and the like. Artisans who manufactured things, the physiocrats maintained, only produced goods that equal the value of the inputs because competition would drive prices down to the level that only covered costs. Quesnay and the other physiocrats understood the limited supply of land and the ability of farmers to produce more than was needed for subsistence as evidence of the superior productivity of agriculture (Quesnay, 1968; also Bilginsoy, 1994). A major policy goal of the physiocrats was to “prevent deviations of the market price of industrial goods from their fundamental price, and to guarantee the maintenance of the proper price in the agricultural sector—the price high enough to cover the unit costs and rent” (Bilginsoy, 1994, p. 531). The government, in their view, should limit taxes on agricultural products to ways that meet this goal. The French policies then in place of protecting manufacturers from foreign imports and of the government selling the right to tax farming to wealthy citizens thus had a particularly deleterious effect on the economy (Quesnay, n.d.).
Adam Smith, whose Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations is often seen as the foundational work in the field of political economy, built on the work of the physiocrats, as well as that of Hume. Smith, who first referred to political economy in the eighth paragraph of the introduction to the book, understood the term as concerning causal theories about what governments believe they ought to do—which policies they think they should implement—to increase their wealth. The purpose of political economy, according to Smith (1904), was
first, to provide a plentiful revenue or subsistence for the people, or more properly to enable them to provide such a revenue or subsistence for themselves; and secondly, to supply the state or commonwealth with a revenue sufficient for the public services. It proposes to enrich both the people and the sovereign. (Book IV, Introduction)
The first purpose is achieved primarily through free markets, with Smith advocating for reliance upon “invisible hand.” The second is achieved through some government involvement in the economy, including the provision of funds for militias to defend against foreign invaders; setting up a system to pay for the administration of justice (with revenues for this purpose coming, perhaps, from court fees); providing public works such as roads, bridges, and postal services (which, with fees attached, may produce revenue for the government); and education (Viner, 1948).
For what later came to be known as international political economy, Adam Smith, like the physiocrats before him, made a major intellectual contribution with his rejection of the common mercantile practices of his age. In contrast to mercantilists like Colbert and Mun, Smith opposed the government’s intervention in markets to maintain a positive balance of trade. Smith (1904) wrote:
We trust, with perfect security, that the freedom of trade, without any attention of government, will always supply us with the wine which we have occasion for; and we may trust, with equal security, that it will always supply us with all the gold and silver which we can afford to purchase or to employ, either in circulating our commodities or in other uses. (IV.1.11)
Some IPE scholars, however, have highlighted Smith’s “agonism” in relation to the contradictions of the free market system, reading Smith not so much as an unequivocal supporter of the laissez-faire economics, as he is often assumed to be, but rather as a careful observer of the positive and negative aspects of the market economy (Arrighi, 2007; Blaney & Inayatullah, 2010; Shilliam, 2020). This reading both contributes to a reappraisal of the classical tradition and serves as a critique of its contemporary reception in neoclassical economic theory, suggesting a different path for economic studies at large.
Immanuel Kant, in his famous essay on perpetual peace, extended the liberal optimism about the beneficial effects of trade. An international federation of republics would naturally trade with each other, and the positive effects of commerce would stand as a bulwark against hostilities. “The spirit of trade cannot coexist with war, and sooner or later this spirit dominates every people. For among all those powers (or means) that belong to a nation, financial power may be the most reliable in forcing nations to pursue the noble cause of peace (though not from moral motives)” (Kant, 1983, p. 125). Thus, as scholars such as Jahn (2013) and Ince (2018) have demonstrated, classical liberal thought has always contained an essentially international dimension, the study of which is instructive for understanding later forms of liberal IPE.
An important question for international political economy is, Why engage in international trade? In On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, Englishman David Ricardo (1821) built upon Smith’s support for international trade. In this work, Ricardo outlined the theory of comparative costs (comparative advantage), a cornerstone of trade theory to the present day. The common view had been that states trade with one another when one has an absolute advantage in the production of something and the trading partner has an absolute advantage in the production of something else. (If England produced cloth more cheaply than Portugal did, and Portugal produced wine more cheaply than England did, then both countries would profit from trade.) Ricardo’s insight was that even if a country produced both wine and cloth more cheaply than another, it still made sense for the countries to specialize in and export that good it had the greatest advantage in producing. This theory depended on another theoretical contribution from Ricardo, the labor theory of value: the value of a product can be represented in the amount of labor (person-hours) needed to produce it (a good summary of the theory can be found in Ruffin, 2002).
Comparative advantage continued to be a topic of discussion in international political economy. Swedish economists Eli Hecksher and Bertil Ohlin (1991) contributed a major extension of Ricardo’s theory by focusing on the role that factor endowments play in determining comparative advantage. Since land, labor, and capital move less easily than goods, a country should specialize in those products that are produced with the factors that are relatively abundant in the country. (Jacob Viner, 1937, pp. 500–507, provided a summary and critical analysis of this theory, and Wolfgang Stolper and Paul Samuelson further developed the theory by examining what happens to prices when two countries move from not trading to trading. The consequence can be higher prices, which can affect income distribution, as discussed in Lindert and Kindleberger, 1982, pp. 58–60.)
Some scholars have begun to note areas in which the traditional understanding of comparative advantage no longer fits the evidence. For example, Michael Storper (1992) finds that
the world of production has changed fundamentally since the time of Ricardo. We now live in a world where factors of production for technologically stable products are not endowed, but produced as intermediate inputs. Almost any developed country making the effort can become as efficient as the next country in a technologically stable manufacturing sector. (pp. 63–64)
Storper (1992) argues that products that depend on technological innovation are traded with respect to “technological advantage” rather than comparative advantage.
Another question about the validity of comparative advantage is raised by strategic trade theory. James Brander and Barbara Spencer (1985, p. 83) showed how protection through subsidies would “change the initial conditions of the game that firms play” and make a firm more profitable. By calibrating the protection properly—not too much, not too little—states, according to strategic trade theory, can lead to an equilibrium that may be jointly suboptimal, but the protecting country still gains because its firm is able to earn more. Although strategic trade theory shares some elements with mercantile support for the protection of infant industry, those arguing for strategic trade theory place themselves within a liberal model and seek rational intervention at the best possible levels (i.e., levels that provide net benefits). Some scholars suggest that strategic trade theory is most useful when considering the challenges faced by industries when there are large economies of scale, high learning curves, and knowledge-intensive advanced manufacturing processes. Paul Krugman and others offer a cautionary note, however. The benefits of strategic trade theory fall mainly to the protected firm or industry, not to the domestic economy. Overall costs are likely to outweigh benefits, especially when protectionism leads to trade war (Krugman, 1994).
Two Strands of Liberalism: Keynesianism and Neoclassical Liberalism
As the questions raised by strategic trade theory suggest, liberals wrestle with the appropriate role of the state in the economy. Since the middle of the 20th century, liberalism has been bifurcated into two major strands: Keynesianism and neoclassical liberalism. Keynesian economics, named after John Maynard Keynes, sees direct government intervention in markets as a way to improve welfare and make the economy function better, especially given inescapable market failures and inefficiencies. Neoclassical economics, sometimes understood as libertarianism, draws on the writings of Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and others who believed that governments had become too involved in the economy and that freedom suffered as a result. Keynesianism filtered into international political economy, with variants consistent with integration theory, neoliberal institutionalism, and regimes (which are a form of neoliberal institutionalism). Neoclassical liberalism can be seen in the “Washington Consensus,” which has led to deregulation of global and domestic economies, decreases in foreign aid, and further reliance on marketization.
Keynesianism and Neoliberal Institutionalism
John Maynard Keynes (1883–1946) served on the British delegation at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. He resigned from this position in opposition to the draconian terms of peace. The Allies, in ending the war “with France and Italy abusing their momentary victorious power to destroy Germany and Austria-Hungary now prostrate, they invite their own destruction also, being so deeply and inextricably intertwined with their victims by hidden psychic and economic bonds” (Keynes, 1920, I.4). During World War II, he served on the British delegation in the Bretton Woods negotiations on the postwar monetary order. Central to Keynesian economics is the idea that free markets will not (contra classical theory) always find an equilibrium at full employment. Instead, crises of underemployment call for public expenditures, for example, in public works (Keynes, 1936, 1937; Galbraith, 1968.)
An important inference from Keynesianism is that institutions and governance can be used to create better political, social, and economic outcomes. In contrast to economic nationalism and to neoclassical economics, as James Caporaso (1998, pp. 3–4) noted, integration theorists understood that institutions matter because institutions alter the conditions in which exchanges of various kinds take place by establishing rules. In addition, integration theorists explicitly tied a goal of peaceful relations among nations to integration: liberal markets, with well-functioning institutions, would lead to peaceful outcomes that would be conducive to commercial ties, which would once again feed back and encourage more cooperation. Drawing on both Keynesian liberalism and contributions from sociology to an understanding of cooperative action (Parsons, Shils, & Smelser, 2001), integration theory sought a formula for creating the institutions that would promote positive, peaceful outcomes.
Historically, integration theory emerged with discussion by David Mitrany (1948) of functionalism and world organization. With the cataclysmic effects of both world wars firmly in mind, Mitrany described a world in which functional integration—cooperation and institution building on specific functional tasks and in specific functional areas—would lead to a more peaceful outcome. He wrote:
If one were to visualize a map of the world showing economic and social activities, it would appear as an intricate web of interests and relations crossing and recrossing political divisions comes that would be conducive to commercial, but a map pulsating with the realities of everyday life. They are the natural basis for international organizations: and the task is to bring that map, which is a functioning reality, under joint international government, at least in its essential lines. The political lines will then in time be overlaid and blurred by this web of joint relations and administrations.(Mitrany, 1948, pp. 358RERL)
Karl Deutsch and Ernst Haas both furthered the study of how functional cooperation may lead to political cooperation. Deutsch found “economic ties,” communication across territorial borders and social strata, “mobility of persons,” and a wide range of different kinds of communication and transaction (among other factors) to be necessary conditions for amalgamation of separate states into a “security-community” (Deutsch, 1957, p. 58). Haas (1964) further emphasized the connection between liberalism and functional integration theory. “Integration,” he wrote, “is conceptualized as resulting from an institutionalized pattern of interest politics, played out within existing international organizations. [. . .] There is no common good other than that perceived through the interest-tinted lenses worn by the international actors” (p. 35). Having functional interests in common, states would be able to cooperate, especially when international organizations create the conditions that would facilitate cooperation. Unfortunately, this theory failed in that the hopeful expectations about how international organizations would foster integration and peaceful cooperation did not come to fruition (at least not in the near term, after the publication of these works). Philippe Schmitter offered a revision of the theory that was at once more modest in its predictions and less precise in its specifications of complex expected interactions. Schmitter (1970) thus presents a less deterministic version: under some conditions, integration may result from the complex functional interactions of states.
Interdependence, Regimes, and Neoliberal Institutionalism
Although it soon became apparent that the hopeful expectation about how international organizations would foster integration and peaceful cooperation would not come to fruition, the main liberal tenets of integration theory continued to play a role in IPE theory. Neoliberal institutionalism soon superseded integration theory as the major approach to IPE among those who followed this Keynesian side of liberalism. The “institutionalism” in neoliberal institutionalism may have been drawn from the economics literature, in which institutionalism referred to “an approach which stresses the interactions between social institutions and economic relationships and aspects of behavior, aims to present an orderly arrangement of economic phenomena in which institutions are elevated from the status of the exception and the footnote, and integrated with the main body of economics” (Eveline Burns, in Homan et al., 1931, p. 135). Both sociology (Parsons, 1935) and political science (Apter, 1957) adopted the term, to refer to approaches that explore how organized groups are and what they do in society.
Early links between institutionalism and political economy can be found in an International Studies Association conference panel on “Patterns of International Institutionalism” (Rohn, 1968). James March and Johan Olsen (1984) reviewed the revival of institutionalist thought in political science in the 1970s and 1980s and suggested that the new institutionalism is “simply an argument that the organization of political life makes a difference.” From this parsimonious insight, however, institutionalists opened the examination of how cooperative interactions could regularly, even ubiquitously, comprise IPE. These investigations resulted in the development of both interdependence theory and the concept of international regimes.
“Interdependence,” encapsulating various kinds of interactions and mutual dependencies that promoted peaceful interactions, did not rise to the level of significant scholarly appreciation until the 1970s. The idea had been around for a while. In 1958, John Foster Dulles, then Secretary of State of the United States, referred specifically to interdependence when he asserted that providing development aid and encouraging trade would combine with military security cooperation to prevent developing countries from falling into the Soviet orbit. A few years later, Vincent Rock (1964) suggested, perhaps in a fairly unrealistic vein, that interdependence in scientific, trade, and other kinds of interactions would lead to peace between the United States and the Soviet Union. Edward L. Morse refined the concept of interdependence to argue that the “low policies” that involved economic transactions and welfare interests were becoming more important for international relations than the “high policies” of military strategic concerns. Consequently, “the classical goals of power and security have been expanded to, or superseded by, goals of wealth and welfare. [. . .] [T]he old identification of power and security with territory and population has been changed to an identification of welfare with economic growth” (Morse, 1970, pp. 379–380). Richard Cooper (1972, p. 159) further developed the idea “to refer to the sensitivity of economic transactions between two or more nations to economic developments within those nations.” Cooper, however, saw interdependence as a policy conundrum for states, rather than as a means to more peaceful outcomes in international relations. Richard Rosecrance and Arthur Stein (1973, p. 22) emphasized the unpredictability of the situation in the 1970s: “Whether interdependence will emerge as positive or negative will depend largely on old-fashioned cooperation among governments.”
In a 1974 publication, Robert O. Keohane and Joseph S. Nye Jr., focused on interdependence between the United States and Canada. Drawing on Oran Young’s definition of interdependence (Young, 1968), Keohane and Nye (1974, p. 606) studied “patterns of interdependence, particularly with regard to symmetry” on policy issues and how patterns of interdependence were “used as sources of bargaining power.” Keohane and Nye (1977) further developed this concept into “complex interdependence,” in which actors would have varying levels of sensitivity or vulnerability to each other across “multiple channels” (i.e., across different issue areas) in which military issues would not be more important but rather there would be no clear hierarchy among the issues; and in which these ties across these issues would preclude the use of military force.
Attention to interdependence and international institutions highlighted how states and other actors were sensitive and vulnerable to each other. Scholars also questioned whether the interdependence would lead to coordinated action to solve collective international public goods problems. Even if integration, in the functional sense, was not happening completely and directly, could some sort of coordination short of full-fledged integration be going on? International “regimes,” a term borrowed from the legal scholarship by Ernst B. Haas, provided a tentative affirmative answer to this question. In Haas’s description, international regimes were “collective arrangements among nations designed to create or more effectively use scientific and technological capabilities” and that would “minimize the undesired consequences associated with the creation and exploitation of such capabilities” (Haas, 1975b, p. 147; see also Haas, 1975a). Later debates over the definition of the term included Haas’s restatement: “Regimes are norms, rules, and procedures agreed to in order to regulate an issue-area” (Haas, 1980, p. 358 (emphasis in the original); see also Young, 1980). Keohane and Nye (1977, p. 19), in their book on interdependence, took up the issue of regimes as well, referring to them as “the sets of governing arrangements that affect relationships of interdependence.”
The concept of regimes became more formalized in 1982 with the publication of a special issue of the journal International Organization edited by Stephen D. Krasner (1982a), which was republished as an edited book (Krasner, 1983). The group of influential scholars writing for this publication agreed upon a uniform definition:
Regimes can be defined as sets of implicit or explicit principles, norms, rules, and decision-making procedures around which actors that affect relationships of interdependencees” (Haasterdependence would lead to coordinated action to solve collective inte. Norms are standards of behavior defined in terms of rights and obligations. Rules are specific prescriptions or proscriptions for action. Decision making procedures are prevailing practices for making and implementing collective choice.(Krasner, 1982b, p. 186)
Under this umbrella definition, the authors divided themselves into three separate groups: those who understood regimes to be ubiquitous, “Grotians,” since their views were consistent with that of the 17th-century scholar of international law, Hugo Grotius (Young, 1980; e.g., Puchala & Hopkins, 1982); those who saw in regimes a possibility for states to escape—sometimes—the pessimistic outcomes of a realist world by creating opportunities for rational actors to cooperate (the “modified structuralists,” like Stein, 1982); and those, represented in the volume by Susan Strange (1982), who thought that regimes obscured, rather than elucidated, what was really going on in the world. (None of these authors questioned who “gave” the issue area, or how it was given, a question that was later raised by constructivists such as Onuf, 1989, and Marlin-Bennett, 1993.)
Notwithstanding criticisms, the usefulness of the analytical construct of regimes was that it shifted attention to issues, those questions of international political economy around which negotiations were held, agreements struck, deals kept or not kept. The regimes literature spawned a host of studies of different kinds of issues. By looking at the institutions and the normative structures that made cooperation possible, regimes theorists and empirical researchers opened up the opportunity to see how the vast majority of interactions in the world—those that do not involve military hostilities—actually occur and are ordered. Among the many such works are Rittberger (1993), Martin and Simmons (1998), Nadelmann (1990), Nye (1987), Peterson (2005a), and Cogburn (2017)
The attention to institutions and the role they play under conditions of a relatively liberal international political economy led scholars to start referring to all these approaches to integration and regimes in a globalizing world as “neoliberal institutionalism” (Keohane, 1984). Often contrasted with structural realism, neoliberal institutionalism assumes that rational actors can cooperate under conditions of anarchy because institutions provide rules that the actors are willing to accept and because actors are happy with absolute gains, rather than struggling for relative gains (as a state-centric realist or economic nationalist would assume), from any set of proposed arrangements. Many, however, see flaws in the theoretical edifice of neoliberal institutionalism. Robert Powell (1991), for example, suggests that both structural realism and neoliberal institutionalism are special cases of a single model of states attempting to pursue their interests under conditions of anarchy and constraints imposed by different capabilities among the actors in the system. Others contest neoliberal institutionalism’s empirical validity (Drezner, 2001, among others) and its conceptualization of anarchy (Grieco, 1988). Yet others disagree with the implicit assumption that neoliberal institutionalist cooperation is good, that cooperation necessarily leads to more peaceful, more materially comfortable, and more emancipatory outcomes (Keeley, 1990; Kokaz, 2005; Marchand, 1994). The intellectual history by Cohen (2008) provides an overview and assessment of the development of regimes theory.
The other major stream of liberalism diverges from the neoliberal institutionalism and the Keynesian emphasis on coordination through regulation of (global) economic interactions. The neoclassical liberals, including economists of the Austrian School and leading U.S. economists such as Milton Friedman, understood government intervention as damaging to markets and consequently to the economic freedoms of society. Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich A. von Hayek, two leaders of the Austrian School, advocated antisocialist, antigovernment intervention policies (Hayek, 1994; von Mises, 1998).
Milton Friedman similarly argued in favor of letting markets operate without government intervention. Government policies that seek to manipulate markets for political outcomes are unavoidable errors, in his view. In an article coauthored with Anna J. Schwartz, the economists conclude that
leaving monetary and banking arrangements to the market would have produced a more satisfactory outcome than was actually achieved through governmental involvement. Nevertheless, we also believe that the same [political] forces that prevented that outcome in the past will continue to prevent it in the future.(Friedman & Schwartz, 1986, p. 311)
For Friedman, the role of government is important but limited. With Rose Friedman, he wrote:
“Government is essential both as a forum for determining the ‘rules of the game’ and as an umpire to interpret and enforce the rules decided on.” Markets, on the other hand, “reduce greatly the range of issues that must be decided through political means, and thereby [. . .] minimize the extent to which government need participate directly in the game.”(Friedman & Friedman, 1982, p. 15)
The ascendancy of laissez-faire economics resulted in the dominance of the “Washington Consensus,” which changed the way the international financial institutions (especially the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund) and governments made policies on foreign aid from the 1980s through the 1990s. Proponents of the Washington Consensus placed efficiency of the economy as their highest objective. Further, they did so under the assumptions that efficiency was good and that they understood mechanisms of economics sufficiently to identify good, efficient policies (Williamson, 1993, p. 1330). Though pursuing equity or more fair distribution of resources had often been considered a goal of policy, supporters of the Washington Consensus were not concerned with equity; at best, they saw the possibility that some improvements in equity could come about “as a byproduct of seeking efficiency objectives” (Williamson, 1993, p. 1329). As Dani Rodrik (2006) sardonically recounted:
Any well-trained and well-intentioned economist could feel justified in uttering the obvious truths of the profession: get your macro balances in order, take the state out of business, give markets free rein. “Stabilize, privatize, and liberalize” became the mantra of a generation of technocrats who cut their teeth in the developing world and of the political leaders they counseled. (p. 973)
Ultimately, the popularity of the Washington Consensus waned as it failed to produce positive economic growth in developing countries. By 2005, the World Bank issued a careful analysis of the failures of its own policies that implemented the neoclassical economics of the Washington Consensus (Zagha & Nankani, 2005). The failure of the Washington Consensus cast attention back onto other liberal, but not neoclassical, political economy theories, specifically those dealing with how institutions can resolve externalities and other forms of market failure in an otherwise liberal global political economy.
In the wake of the decline of the Washington Consensus and the financial crisis beginning in 2008, special mention of the scholarship of Susan Strange must be made. Strange, who could be classified, broadly, as a liberal in her understanding of markets and efficiency, strongly criticized the neoclassical position. She understood that markets did not function in the absence of good governance. Indeed, in 1986 and again in 1998 she analyzed a global political economy in which states had ceded control to markets, with the expectation of disastrous results for volatility and the health of the global economy (Strange, 1986, 1998). She saw clearly the danger of fast-moving financial flows in a global political economy in which no government provided the appropriate regulation to ensure fair dealing and protect against the negative externalities that result when rational self-interested agents pursue their self-interest in the absence of such regulation. No one has been overseeing the global financial system, and the result has been, as Strange (1986) predicted, serious harm.
Strange’s contributions have only been confirmed in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008, in response to which liberal theorists have been challenged to critically reformulate the ideal and real relations between market forces and state planning. Landmark works in the empirical study of financial crisis and contemporary inequality such as Picketty (2014) and Tooze (2018) are essential contributions to the study of the contemporary salience of finance and financial crisis in contemporary global capitalism. Indeed, as John Ikenberry (2018) observes, the liberal international order faces grave challenges from resurgent economic nationalisms and social conservatisms. In addition to this 21st-century political challenge, the liberal tradition has historically been most broadly and deeply challenged by Marxian theories of global political economy.
Marxian Global Political Economy
The third major school of thought in international political economy has been Marxism, along with several “neo”-variants. Karl Marx, along with Friedrich Engels and (later) Vladimir Lenin, is considered the progenitor of a political economy that emphasizes the role class plays in society. Although the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the systemic changes within the People’s Republic of China have demonstrated the failures of Marxian-influenced policies, Marxian thought offers a useful critique of the structure of the global political economy by shedding light on capitalism and the production of inequities.
Marx, writing in the mid-19th century, combined philosophical investigation of political economy with activism. He witnessed a world that was being changed by industrial development, in which the workers were increasingly subject not just to the authority of the state but also to the control of the capitalist. Marx adapted Hegel’s dialectic to the material world, seeing the contradictions within capitalism driving change, which he expected to lead to revolutionary transformation of society. This notion of the dialectic and the teleological view of history—that these contradictions would inexorably lead to a communist society as the predictable end state and (ironically, somewhat self-contradictorily) that this unavoidable revolutionary change should be fomented—has not been borne out and, arguably, has been contradicted. The Communist Manifesto (Marx & Engels, 1983) remains, though, the clearest explication of Marx’s view.
In terms of the development of political economy, Marx broke with the liberals in his identification of the sphere of production, as opposed to the sphere of exchange, as the focal point of sociopolitical and economic dynamics. Market mechanisms were relatively fixed, but the politics of production—whether it is on land used to grow food or on the shop floor—determined the nature and dynamics of the social order. Though there are several “Marxian” variations of the broad sweep of history, we basically find a succession of stages that are differentiated by the nature of the ownership of the means of production. Early history is characterized as an era of “primitive capitalism” without specialization where all members of the human community were essentially equal in the tasks they pursued and the status they held. A long period characterized by slavery followed, where some people subjugated others to the status of chattel and appropriated their labor power directly. This system is inefficient and comes to be plagued with high costs involved in maintaining order and overseeing production. In Europe, the period of slavery is followed by feudalism, where direct ownership of individuals ends, but peasants are nonetheless tied to the land, which itself can be owned. The peasant thus owes the owner of the land a level of labor dues. The transition to capitalism emerges when the social relations of production (the social overlay of the feudal system in this latest stage) become impediments to further development. Feudalism’s limits lead to changes that find landowners failing to control their charges, and peasants taking up a new position in the economy. They are stripped of their land and put in a position where they must sell their labor power in the market for a wage.
Marx extended this concept of alienated labor in two ways that are important for the study of global political economy. First, he emphasized the alienation of labor as the definitive element in the capitalist system. The division of labor in an industrializing society meant that workers would have no choice but to sell their labor power as a commodity to survive. In doing so, the worker sells his power of production to the capitalist. The alienation of the worker from his own labor gives a special viciousness to the class relations that characterize the capitalist mode of production (Marx, 1983a). Second, Marx examined how the alienation of labor led to the accumulation of “surplus value,” the profit that accrued to the capitalist when the price of a good exceeded the wages the capitalist paid the laborer for its production. The wage laborer would only earn enough for their subsistence, but the capitalist would be able to take in the surplus, which would be much greater than that needed for the capitalist’s subsistence (Marx, 1983b).
Vladimir Lenin’s tract, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism—A Popular Outline, brought Marxian thought into the global political economy. Lenin extended Marx’s predictions, showing how capitalism would spread around the world, leading to an ultimate contradiction of inter-imperialist conflict. As capitalism became more advanced, the accumulation of surplus value led to the concentration of ownership through the rise of monopolies. Bank ownership became concentrated and closely interconnected with the interests of monopoly capital. According to Lenin, the results were monopolistic “finance capital.” Further, the connections between capital and banks were “completed” by tight connections between each of these and the state. The consequence, Lenin wrote, was a shift in capitalism. “Under old capitalism, when free competition prevailed, the export of goods was the most typical feature. Under modern capitalism, when monopolies prevail, the export of capital has become the typical feature” (Lenin, 1982, p. 62). He argued that the “superabundance of capital” in the advanced capitalist countries drove exports, and capitalism spread throughout the world. Furthermore, imperialism was the natural result, as finance capital moved to expropriate the raw materials of the colonies. The result was the immiseration of the masses, both within the advanced capitalist countries and abroad, “for uneven development and wretched conditions of the masses are fundamental and inevitable conditions and premises of this mode of production” (Lenin, 1982, pp. 62–63 [emphasis in the original]). The ultimate contradiction between capitalism and monopoly and the push for domination eventually must lead, Lenin stated, to inter-imperialist rivalry and, finally, the decay of monopoly capitalism.
Where Marx saw the spread of the capitalist mode of production to all societies as inevitable, other critical scholars were concerned that capitalism was creating not models of itself but of a new kind of social order. Dependency scholars argued that instead of facilitating the growth of capitalism in the third world, capitalist and imperialist actions were leading to a system where real capitalism could not possibly develop. What we were witnessing, they argued, was “the development of underdevelopment” (Gunder Frank, 1969). Dependency scholars argued that capitalist interests often strengthened precapitalist forms of exploitation. Hence, large landowners would solidify their position in a society by reaping the benefits of a captive population of laborers in a system more akin to feudalism than capitalism, but without the internal contradictions that would lead to its transformation. The ability of one society to warp the subsequent developmental path of another, given the incentives that trade relations with capitalists offered, was described by Sweezy (1942), Baran (1957; Baran & Sweezy, 1969), Gunder Frank (1969), Cardoso and Faletto (1979), dos Santos (1970), and Amin (1976). Amin, for example, examined how accumulation differs in the core of developed countries and the periphery of developing countries. In the wealthier core, the masses are essentially co-opted through the production and availability of the consumer goods needed to satisfy them. In the periphery, production is focused on luxury goods and exports, thereby further enriching the dominant classes and leaving the needs of the masses unfulfilled and the people marginalized.
Marxist scholars considered this analysis to be flawed by its concern for actions taking place in the sphere of exchange (trade between core and periphery) and not the sphere of production (more class-based analysis). Supporters of the original Marxian formulation like Laclau (1971) and Warren (1973) produced critical analyses of dependency arguments. Brenner (1977) labels dependency and related schools of thought “neo-Smithian” in orientation and therefore fundamentally un-Marxian.
Dependency scholarship was quite popular given its ability to explain both underdevelopment and the failure of class politics to grow along traditionally identified Marxist paths. In the 1970s, Immanuel Wallerstein brought dependency and a desire to reconceptualize the developmental paths of the advanced industrial states in the long-term approach of Fernand Braudel (1982–1984) together to form world-systems analysis. Wallerstein (1974) dated the origins of the development of the “capitalist world-economy” to the long 16th century. He was able to add political and cultural conditions to the essentially materialist analyses of longer-term critical history. Wallerstein (2004) understands a world-economy as
A large geographic zone within which there is a division of labor and hence significant internal exchange of basic or essential goods as well as flows of capital and labor. A defining feature of a world-economy is that it is not bounded by a unitary political structure. Rather, there are many political units inside the world-economy, loosely tied together in our modern world system in an interstate system. And a world-economy contains many cultures and groups—practicing many religions, speaking many languages, differing in their everyday patterns. This does not mean that they do not evolve some cultural patterns, what we shall be calling a geoculture. It does mean that neither political nor cultural homogeneity is to be expected or found in a world-economy. What unified the structure most is the division of labor which is constituted within it. (p. 23)
Wallerstein also came under critical scrutiny for keeping “capitalism” at the core of his analysis. Scholars like Chase-Dunn and Hall (1991, 1997) sought to push the elements of world-system analysis to earlier eras in explicitly comparative work. Others, like Gunder Frank and Gills, argued for the abandonment of “capitalism” as the core of global developmental concerns, and argued for the development of a world system history that would cover the last 5,000 years of human history (Gunder Frank, 1998; Gunder Frank & Gills, 1993). All these works are essentially emancipatory in their intent. They share the view that poverty is a central problem, that global inequalities should be addressed, and that remedies must be adopted.
Italian communist Antonio Gramsci continues to have a major influence on the field of international political economy. Gramsci, who was influenced by Marx, Lenin, and other socialist and communist thinkers, contributed the concept of Gramscian hegemony to the study of IPE. While in liberal and realist IPE, hegemony simply refers to a single state having a preponderance of power, Gramsci looked at the complex interconnection between the material and productive base of the social order (the structure) and philosophy, ideas, culture, and relationships (the superstructure). Hegemony is in place “in so far as it creates a new ideological terrain, determines a reform of consciousness and of methods of knowledge” (Gramsci, 1988, p. 292). For Gramsci, a class is hegemonic when it is able to lead through the consent of those it controls, because of this complex set of dominant “ethico-political” ideas, and through force, in terms of ownership and organization of economic activity. Giovanni Arrighi (1994) summarizes Gramsci’s definition of hegemony as
the capability of a state to lead the system of states itself in a desired direction—that is, to set the rules for the system in ways that buttress rather than undermine the world power of the hegemon. [. . .] (p. 365)
Here we should remember Gramsci’s point that intellectual and moral leadership (Machiavelli’s consent) is as critical to the effective exercise of hegemony internationally as coercion pure and simple is at the national level. Henk Overbeek (1994), however, emphasizes that hegemony in the global political economy has to do more with dominance of a class—specifically of the capitalist class.
Another important Gramscian term is “historical bloc,” which refers to the dynamic dialectical relationship between the material and productive base and the superstructure of ideas. As Robert W. Cox (1999, p. 5) explains, “Gramsci was less concerned with the historic bloc as a stable entity than he was with historical mutations and transformations, and with the emancipatory potential for human agency in history.” In short, the relationship between civil society and the state within any historical bloc will embody both the existing hegemony and the seeds of counterhegemonies. “Civil society was the ground that sustained the hegemony of the bourgeoisie but also that on which an emancipatory counterhegemony could be constructed” (Cox, 1999, p. 3).
Like Gramsci, Karl Polanyi (2001) saw society resisting the negative consequences of capitalist markets. In The Great Transformation, he argued that a “double-movement” resulted from social forces pushing back against the aspects of a market-driven society. Polanyi also saw the relationship between society, markets, and the state as historically situated, with technological and policy innovations leading to changes in society. Polanyi traced the creation of the self-regulating market economy through the commodification of land, labor, and specie, social changes that made the industrial revolution and the rise of “haute finance” possible.
Both Gramsci and Polanyi have influenced a cohort of critical IPE scholars, including Robert Cox (1996), Stephen Gill (2003; see also Gill & Mittelman, 1997), Craig Murphy (2005), James Mittelman (2004), and Mark Rupert (2000). Gramscian global political economy has been particularly relevant to the study of globalization and the spread of liberal markets around the world. These approaches to global political economy suggest that the existing tension in the world between the antiglobalizers and the proglobalizers has at root a dialectical contestation between hegemonic and counterhegemonic groups. These authors focus on the importance of groups and other nonstate actors, as well as states, since civil society within the global political economy includes a variety of types of actors.
The global financial crisis of 2008 provided the impetus for Marxian-influenced scholarship focusing on globalization. Marxian analyses of global financial crises differ from their liberal counterparts in emphasizing the structural nature of these periodic crises. That is, Marxian theorists tend to locate the tendency for economic crisis in the very nature of the system, as a necessary and (relatively) predictable feature, impossible to explain by reference to the individual decision-making of leaders and firms alone (Harvey, 2010; Krippner, 2011).The tensions between a liberal and a Marxian analysis of capitalism’s crisis tendencies are displayed in the substantive critique of the liberal approach in Crashed by Adam Tooze (2018; see Anderson, 2019). Some of this research, as discussed in the section “Postcolonial Approaches,” emphasizes the consequences of capitalist crises in postcolonial societies (e.g., Krishna, 2009).
Feminist Global Political Economy
Despite the differences among them, the three most common approaches to global political economy (liberal/neoliberal, mercantile/economic nationalist, and Marxian) tend to assume that the buying, selling, and production of goods and services are what matter. Important actors in the analysis, be they firms and consumers, states, or classes, are all engaged in buying and selling, producing goods and services for sale, and seeking wealth (Tickner, 1992). Feminist approaches to global political economy highlight two important points that are usually overlooked. First, people are gendered, and gender is generally understood hierarchically, with men and activities that are understood as masculine (competing, making money) being valued more highly than women and women’s activities. Second, productive (i.e., market-based) activities are not the only things that happen in society; rather, society needs, but, again, does not value as highly, the activities of the reproductive economy—the unpaid work necessary to create a home life, provide leisure activities, and care for family members. These reproductive activities are almost universally associated with feminine characteristics and are not considered by mainstream global political economy analyses. As V. Peterson (2005b) argues, however, understanding the analytical implications of gendered hierarchies provides a more complete understanding of processes of the global political economy (see also Griffin, 2007). The approach by J. K. Gibson-Graham (2006) to decentering and reconceptualizing the capital-labor relation opens an analytical space for feminist theorizations of GPE along these lines.
The marketization of the global political economy, including the integration of emerging market economies, also has important gender implications. As some scholars note, these changes are not necessarily simply good or bad. On the negative side, the informalization of labor—the changing nature of available jobs from regular, full-time employment to part-time, temporary, or independent contracting arrangements—adds significant uncertainty to households’ economic stability. The effect is more pronounced on women’s work and on the feminized jobs held by men. On the positive side, globalization has also brought increasing equity in educational opportunities and increased access to some jobs (Benería, Floro, Grown, & MacDonald, 2000; Peterson, 2005b). Similarly, Jacqui True, in a case study of the Czech Republic, finds that “the commodification of gender is facilitating the extension of markets,” with the dual effect of “empower[ing] women as much as it subjects them to new forms of discipline and market civilization” (True, 1999, p. 363).
Consequently, a further contribution of feminist GPE has been to challenge the pervasive association of the study of the global or the totality with a masculine drive to dominance. Instead of combatting the impulse to study the global by turning to a study of microrelations, feminist GPE has developed theories and methods for understanding gender as a mechanism of producing and rationalizing the inequalities within global capitalism (Bhattacharya, 2017; Fraser, 2013; Tepe-Belfrage, 2016). Hozic and True (2016) bring together a variety of feminist and queer perspectives on global financial crisis, highlighting how these concerns cannot be consigned to the margins of the study of global economic processes.
A burgeoning literature in postcolonial political economy has emerged through critical conversation with traditional IPE. This literature mobilizes a critique of Eurocentrism in political economy and foregrounds the structural impact that colonial histories continue to exert on global economic life (Dirlik, 1994; Grovogui, 2011; Lowe, 2015; Shilliam, 2018). Another key contribution of postcolonial theory to political economy has been its critique of Eurocentric epistemologies and its attention to the knowledge traditions and economic formations of the non-West (Agathangelou & Ling, 2003; Blaney & Inayatullah, 2010; Ling, 2000; Shilliam, 2012a, 2020). Robbie Shilliam (2009, 2012b), for example, theorizes about Atlantic slavery and its consequences for our understanding of liberal and Marxian IPE.
Debates continue over whether Marxian theory is essential to a postcolonial project of emancipation and self-determination (Rao, 2017). On the one hand, the reading of Marx by Dipesh Chakrabarty (2008) has inspired new possibilities for the critique of the coloniality and the racism of capitalism’s history and present (e.g., Persaud & Sajed, 2018; Tilley & Shilliam, 2018). On the other hand, Hobson (2012, 2013a, 2013b) argues that Marx and Lenin’s theoretical edifice is too indebted to a colonial worldview in which the West represents the model of future progress and social development. An influential Marxian critique of postcolonial studies can be found in Chibber (2013). Notwithstanding these tensions, scholars continue to draw inspiration from both postcolonial theory and Marxian theory to construct critiques of contemporary global capitalism. For example, Anievas and Nişancıoğlu (2015) have brought the sensibilities of the Marxian tradition together with postcolonial theory to highlight the irreducibly global or intersocietal history of capitalism, and Khalili (2020) takes stock of the colonial echoes that resonate within global trade flows from the standpoint of the Arabian Peninsula.
Upon entering the third decade of the 21st century, three rapidly evolving areas of scholarship, discussed briefly in this section, are likely to continue to be of interest and grow in importance: China and the transition of the neoliberal world order, queer global political economy, and “precarity” of the global workforce.
Prior to the 1990s, research on China generally focused on processes of development and modernization of a peripheral country. As China made initial changes to its economy and began to participate more in global trade, new questions emerged. Jacobson and Okensenberg (1990), for example, examined the impact of the participation of China, a developing country with a command economy, in the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank (it had been a member since 1980) and the likely consequences for the global economic order of its signing the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. At the end of the 20th century, China’s economy underwent a major transformation, including the growth of its private sector, reliance on exports, and full engagement with international trade and finance. These changes spurred assessment of the IPE implications of China as a rising power. This research is consistent with mainstream IPE schools of thought, framing China’s opening and market reforms in terms of realist/economic nationalist expectations of conflict between China and the liberal capitalist countries (Layne, 2018) or liberal expectations that China will end up conforming to Western liberal capitalist norms (Deudney & Ikenberry, 2018; Ikenberry, 2009).
The new trend in the research moves away from this “binary orthodoxy” (De Graaff, ten Brink, & Parmar, 2020). Instead, this trend provides empirical and theoretical analysis of how China reshapes but does not necessarily remake global capitalism—not overturning global capitalism and the neoliberal order but rather exerting influence on and shaping its contours (Hung, 2009, 2015). This stream of research avoids theorizing China as a unitary actor and instead looks closely at the global consequences of how the Chinese economy is organized domestically and in the global context. Hung (2008) assesses the overaccumulation of capital in China resulting from the state’s decentralization of regulatory authority, local actors’ overinvestment in productive capacity, and widespread underconsumption. China has been able to maintain strong growth and an export-driven trade policy in this unstable circumstance only because of overconsumption and debt in the United States. Other scholars have explored how China’s trade policy is both influenced by and promoted by transnational networks that Chinese elites have entered (de Graaff, 2020; Huo & Parmar, 2020). Disruption of neoliberal globalization is another important theme. For example, Hopewell (2016) argues that Chinese inconsistency—sometimes supporting and sometimes contesting neoliberal rules—is the root of its disruptiveness. Ironically, by supporting liberal rules, China shines a light on the “hypocrisy” of illiberal trade policies of the United States and other Western countries. Weinhardt and ten Brink (2020) suggest that explanation for this inconsistency can be found in domestic differences in the structure and degree of government intervention in sectors. McNally (2020) identifies the source of instability in the contradictions of Sino-capitalism, described as both neoliberal and neostatist and as organized top-down by the state and bottom-up through networks of entrepreneurs.
The second trend, queer global political economy, can be seen within the broader category of queer international relations (IR) theory (Weber, 2015), while overlapping substantially with feminist and other critical approaches. Queer IR theory uncovers and problematizes the political consequences of assumptions, grounded in naturalized cultural practices, of binary constructions of identity—of assuming the world is divided into male and female or similarly into normal and abnormal, heterosexual and homosexual, or other taken-for-granted dichotomies. Applied to the substantive domain of global political economy, this approach focuses attention on “heteromasculine and cissexist assumptions and biases” and “the differential—and productive—impact of processes and policies associated with neoliberal globalization sexualized and gendered subjects, practices, and kinship relations” (see article “Queer International Relations”). Peterson (2014), for example, explores “global householding,” a term that encompasses the many transborder processes of social reproduction necessary to sustain families and the wider society, especially in the Global North. These processes include “marriage/partnership, earning income, managing daily life, securing childcare, eldercare, healthcare, and education, acquiring domestic ‘help,’ relocating for retirement” (p. 606). Smith (2016) investigates how neoliberal policy responses to global financial crises disadvantage those whose lives differ from that of the presumed “normal” family, a husband and a wife and their children. “Imaginaries” of the family, she argues, reproduce the neoliberal economic order.
The growing “precarity” of the global workforce, the subject of the third new direction of research discussed here, has emerged as a grave side effect of the processes of globalization, a reality acknowledged by all the different schools of IPE. Guy Standing (2016) has introduced and popularized the concept of the “precariat,” which he regards as a new stratum of the working class marked by an extreme lack of job security and basic benefits like healthcare and paid time off. This class, according to Standing, represents a growing contingent of the global workforce, a verdict corroborated by many empirical studies, especially from a comparative political economy perspective (Agarwala, 2013; Kalleburg, 2018; Mosoetsa, Stillerman, & Till, 2016). This framing of the issue of precarious labor, however, is not without its critics. With a properly global analytic lens, some argue, precarity does not appear to be a new phenomenon at all but a condition that has characterized the Global South since its inception and which now threatens the North as well (Scully, 2016). Moreover, as Ritu Vij (2019, p. 504) has argued, the idea of precarity as it is popularly conceived rests on “the pathologization of vulnerability,” an ideological process which normalizes a liberal individualist political economy and understands nonliberal forms of life as “abject.”
It is also worth mentioning a trend that seems to have petered out. At the time the original 2010 version of this article was drafted, communitarianism seemed to be a promising, emerging stream of normative research that would address problems of global capitalism. Largely associated with the work of Amitai Etzioni (1991, 2004), communitarianism can be seen as a countertheory to the idea that liberal markets are natural and that men and women are naturally economically rational, self-interested agents. Etzioni’s communitarianism does not eschew liberal economics wholly, nor does he advocate a loss of individual freedoms; instead, he looks for a via media in which the interests of individuals are balanced by the interest of the communities of which they are a part. The local, national, and global political economies are in essence communities. The connection to community seems to draw on the feminist idea of an ethic of care (Tronto, 1987). William Galston (2002), in a similar vein, argues for a rejection of both socialist and laissez-faire economics in favor of an approach that he calls “mutualism”; the policy implementation would be a “progressive market strategy,” in which policies would promote “moderate self-interest, regard for others, and internalized norms” of responsibility. Communitarian global political economy, however, failed to gain traction, perhaps because other, more normatively progressive critical approaches came to the fore.
GPE Research Relevant to COVID-19
As this article was being prepared for publication (May 2020), it became difficult to ignore the severe implications of the COVID-19 pandemic for the global political economy. The robust literature dealing with the global history of pandemics and the dangers that a new pandemic would pose in a world marked by increasingly intensifying processes of economic globalization are highlighted here.
A review of GPE’s engagements with the history of global pandemics reveals a wide variety of analytical lenses, including descriptive accounts of the impact of environment on society and more politically focused accounts of the differential impacts suffered by different peoples. The account by McNeil (1998) of the history of plagues is notable for its emphasis on intersocietal transmission, highlighting how the world’s peoples have been interconnected long before the emergence of 20th-century globalization. The work of Pirages (1995, 1997, 2007) deserves special mention for its wide historical and geographical scope and its sensitivity to the intersections between international politics, infectious disease transmission, and the coordinated social responses (or lack thereof) that have been implemented historically to combat the worst consequences of infectious disease. Work by Paul Farmer (2004) seeks to highlight how the social toll of pandemics largely depends on preexisting power relations and inequalities in society, which he theorizes in terms of “structural violence.” Another key scholar of pandemics is Mike Davis (2005), whose study on the Avian Flu offered a prescient warning of the political–economic threat of a new global pandemic. Davis (2020) has published an analysis of COVID-19 in a periodical issue focused on the pandemic (NLR Editors, 2020).
A special issue of Review of International Political Economy on Political Economies of Global Health, edited by Susan K. Sell and Owain D. Williams (2020b), appeared online just a few months before the first reported cases of COVID-19. The issue focuses on global capitalism’s effects on the health of the world’s people across multiple scales and through multiple processes. Neoliberalism and policies insisting on free markets, Sell and Williams (2020a) argue, have negative effects on global health through “regimes and institutions in areas such as trade and investment policy, austerity programs, pharmaceutical and food governance, and the rules that support globalized production and consumption” (p. 1). Though this observation focuses on health more generally, the global, national, and local responses to pandemics are certainly a part of the larger global health system. Three of the articles are especially relevant to the GPE aspects of pandemics and other instances of the spread of infectious disease. Rebecca J. Hester and Owain D. Williams (2020) ground their exploration of the political economy of the “somatic-security industrial complex,” upon influenza and its movement around the world. Stefan Elbe and Christopher Long (2020) explore global assemblages of medical molecules that become valuable for biodefense against disease outbreaks, bioterrorist attacks, and the like. João Nunes (2020) examines Brazil’s domestic political economy within the neoliberal order, the precarity of health workers’ jobs, and the consequences for Brazil during the Zika virus outbreak.
Much of the salient research on the global politics of infectious diseases prior to COVID-19 has occurred in fields of global health governance (Huang, 2014; Youde, 2018) and security studies (Davies, 2008; Price-Smith, 2009), and these studies will likely prove essential for future pandemic-related knowledge production in GPE. New materialist approaches that privilege the impact of nonhuman life processes will likely contribute in important ways to pandemic research (White, 2015).
Though COVID-19 was only recognized as a global pandemic in March 2020, the sheer scope of the crisis resulted in immediate scholarly attention. Notable analyses of the pandemic and its reverberations in the global economy include the world-systems approach of Silver and Payne (2020) and a short but generative series of contributions to the journal of Foreign Policy (Walt et al., 2020). Certainly, many scholars of GPE will be turning to these contributions and constructing their own in responses to the global crisis of COVID-19.
Links to Digital Materials
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- The Internet Modern History Sourcebook. Though focusing on history, several of the references here have relevance for international political economy.
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