Braudel’s Hegemony

I am recalling a passage from F Braudel, cited by G Arrighi, and ubiquitous in systems theoretical literature, to the effect that rising hegemons are free traders, while declining hegemons are protectionists. This seems to be holding good, with the US and UK circling their wagons and China and the EU fanning out across the globe. But there are a couple of nuances it would be easy to overlook in this analysis: (1) since the investment community is international, it leverages legal and institutional differences to its own advantage, no matter that the community happens to be their community of origin or residence; and (2) investors will naturally restrict or constrain goods whose prices dip too low.

This second nuance is well-illustrated in the current scramble for oil producing nations to reduce refinement of crude in order to raise global prices in light of the demand shock caused by the pandemic. Even if in general terms we support the elimination of fossil fuel extraction, nothing in the logics, public or private, of the Saudis, Russians, or Americans suggests that a sustainable future is on any of their minds. The liberality of free traders finds its nemesis in the price that dips too low to justify the cost of bringing it to market. No one knows this more than Trump’s white nationalist advisor Steve Miller, within whose narrative lurks the ghost of dirt cheap Eastern and Southern European laborers, not to mention prison labor, the labor of the camps, whose value to investors is that it has no access to legal protections, civil rights, or the protections offered by association. Constrain this commodity, and its price will not rise, even in the face of a shortage, because, unlike oil, workers who are unemployed will die. They will therefore take to rafts, boats, deserts, and even face armed vigilantes in order to feed their families. Constraining commodities is among the tools investors enjoy to realize the most handsome returns possible.

National laws, polities, and publics are among the commodities investors are authorized to manipulate. When China or the EU move into Africa, pleading nothing more than good will and altruism, they are not employing a logic different from Trump’s or Johnson’s. The same investors who decry Trump’s extremist white nationalism will, out of the other side of their mouths, welcome the higher returns on commodities offered by what are in effect taxpayer subsidies to US producers. Protectionism is not the enemy of the investor, only the inattentive investor.

All of which is to say that F Braudel is both correct and incorrect. Yes. It is the great preditors who are responsible for the shape of late capitalism. But, no. This is not by contrast to markets and certainly not by contrast to everyday life. Markets under capitalism are composed by abstract value as it occupies and sloshes about among its material forms of appearance, including states and state forms. The liberality of the Chinese and EU is not driven by a different set of global investors than the reactionary protectionist UK and US. Investors are global. Everywhere, they leverage differences in surface forms of appearance to maximize their returns.

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