Recent transformations in the global economy have sparked renewed interest in the role of the state in capital accumulation. Such transformations include a ‘return’ to various forms of state-led development across the global South since the early 2000s (in China, Russia, and other large emerging economies), extensive state intervention following the 2008 global financial crisis in the global North, and the multiplication of various forms of state-capital entanglements such as sovereign wealth funds (SWFs) and state-owned enterprises (SOEs). For instance, the number of SWFs increased from 50 to 92 between 2005 and 2017, while assets under management grew to over $7.5 trillion worth of assets, which is more than hedge funds and private equity firms combined. According to a recent study, ‘SOEs generate approximately one tenth of world gross domestic product and represent approximately 20% of global equity market value’. SOEs now dwarf even the largest privately-owned transnational corporations, with PetroChina currently leading the list with a market value of more than $1 trillion. Three of the top five companies in the 2018 Fortune Global 500 are Chinese SOEs (State Grid, Sinopec Group, and China National Petroleum Corp). Significantly, these state-capital hybrids have also become increasingly integrated into transnational circuits of capital, including global networks of production, trade, finance, infrastructure and corporate ownership. Does this renewed state activism – and its remarkably outward orientation – indicate a changing role of the state in capital accumulation and the emergence of new political geographies of capital?
For many commentators, this polymorphism of state intervention signals the resurgence of ‘state capitalism’ under a new form. Despite the widespread mobilisation of the concept for both categorisation and explanation, there is neither consensus about what it exactly means, nor about its implications. Scholars have deployed the concept to designate a national variant of capitalism, a new brand of SOE and/or state-sponsored investment fund, a particular type of state-business relation, a threat or an alternative to (Western-dominated) (neo)liberal capitalism, a reconfiguration of the global ‘state-capital nexus’, and the use of market mechanisms for the promotion of geo-economic and geopolitical goals. Hence, the term not only lacks a unified definition, it refers to an extremely wide array of practices, policy instruments and vehicles, institutional forms, relations, and networks that involve the state to different degrees and at a variety of levels, time frames, and geographical scales.
While this proliferation of competing definitions and loose conceptualisations is not necessarily problematic, it nonetheless warrants a heightened level of reflexive scrutiny. Indeed, despite its capaciousness and wide circulation, the term state capitalism has not been subjected to the same level of reflexive scrutiny that other widely used categories of political economic analysis have been subjected to, such as globalisation, financialisation, and neoliberalism. We fill this gap in an (open access) article recently published in Competition & Change. We propose to assess the concept’s analytical value as well as the contribution of state capitalism as a research agenda. In particular, we critically engage with the key arguments made about the new state capitalism in three bodies of literature: (1) strategic management and corporate governance, (2) comparative capitalism, and (3) global political economy. Our analysis reveals their underlying set of assumptions, common principles, theoretical underpinnings, points of disagreement, and emphasizes the blind spots, tensions, and questions left unanswered by the literature.
Our main contention is the following: the loose, if not imprecise, conceptualisations of the category state capitalism have allowed it to become some sort of ‘banner to unite under’ for a number of commentators with extremely different theoretical outlooks, methods, and objects of inquiry. As such, it has opened the possibility for a critical dialogue that could lead to a more holistic account of the changing role of the capitalist state and the new political geographies of capital. Nevertheless, our analysis shows that state capitalism, as it is currently deployed in much of the literature, does not bring recognisability, even less clarity, to the seemingly more visible role of the state across the world capitalist economy. Furthermore, its use does not offer ready-made analytical expedience and insight, and as a whole, its critical properties have not been sufficiently established. Consequently, we submit that, at this stage, the analytical value of the concept is weak.
However, we do not argue that the concept of state capitalism should be discarded altogether. Rather, we wager that its analytical value can be bolstered. In that spirit, we identify three interrelated issues that research on state capitalism must further grapple with for the term to be analytically meaningful, or more precisely, capable of rendering (state)capitalist diversity amenable to analysis and critique. These are: (1) the ‘missing link’ of a theory of the capitalist state, (2) the time horizons of state capitalism, or the question of ‘periodisation’, and (3) territorial considerations, or the question of ‘locating’ state capitalism within dynamics of uneven geographical development and of politically mediated capitalist competition.
In the article, we examine these three issues in turn, and unpack their implications for theorising the new state capitalism. We also make the case that the concept of ‘state-capital hybrids’, which we define as the concrete historically and geographically specific organisational, institutional, legal, and spatial forms that mediate the relationships between state and capital, is well positioned to refocus the study of state capitalism on the aforementioned issues. This concept starts from the idea that the capital relation is always political, and that political and economic power are always entangled. But it does not stop there. It prompts us to reflect upon how specific organisational and governance arrangements (as discussed in the strategic management literature), particular institutions and forms of state-business relations (as discussed in the comparative capitalism literature), and transnational state capitalist practices (as discussed in the global political economy literature) contribute to a multifaceted process of reconfiguration of political and economic power in relation to broader dynamics of accumulation, and who (what social group or social force) benefits from them.
To conclude, state capitalism as a research agenda in its current form has provided valuable insights into configurations of capitalism where the state plays a particularly strong role in organising the economy and society, in supervising and administering capital accumulation, or in directly owning and controlling capital. Nonetheless, much work remains to turn state capitalism from an umbrella term – harsher commentators might even say a mere buzzword or slogan – into a powerful heuristic tool capable of helping us make sense of the changing political geographies of capital and of the polymorphism of state intervention. Our hope is that our critical engagement with the concept contributes to this important task.
Ilias Alami is a postdoctoral researcher at Maastricht University.
Adam Dixon is Associate Professor of Globalization and Development at Maastricht University.