A new Washington Consensus on the role of the state?

By Ilias Alami, Adam Dixon and Emma Mawdsley

In a recent op-ed, Martin Sandbu of the Financial Times argues that “the conversion by the IMF and World Bank to support the activist state would put Saul of Tarsus to shame.” According to him, we may be witnessing the rise of a new Washington Consensus, which embraces deficit spending (by rich countries), “temporary solidarity surtaxes” on the rich and businesses, green public investment, and other forms of government intervention. This is not only to address the short-term effects of the pandemic, but also to stimulate demand across the world economy. Sandbu finds evidence of this new consensus in the benign view that the IMF has taken on Biden’s “rescue package”, and claims that “the new Washington consensus could prove as politically powerful as the old one.” In another op-ed in October 2020,

Sandbu characterised this new consensus as follows:

“After 1945, the guiding assumption was, first, that the state knew best, then that the private sector was best. We are about to transcend both, in favour of an economic worldview based on finding ways in which government intervention can guide the private sector to perform better. In that sense, economic planning and the activist state are back.”

It is indeed striking that the IMF, the World Bank, the OECD, the G20, and other multilaterals, have adapted their discourse on the role and place of the state in development. This predates the COVID-19 pandemic. In an open access paper recently published in Antipode, we document the emergence of this new vision of the state in development and outline its key features. Since the early 2010s, these institutions have produced a remarkable wealth of material explicitly concerned with old and new forms of state ownership and intervention. Witness, for instance, this November 2020 EBRD Transition report titled The State Strikes Back, or this chapter dedicated to state-owned enterprises in the IMF 2020 Fiscal Monitor. Our analysis of such policy documents and others suggests that we are witnessing a gradual yet fundamental reorientation of official agendas and discourses about the state. This emerging vision embraces a fuller role of the state in development (than the post-Washington Consensus), including as promoter, supervisor, and owner of capital. Our analysis expounds the material context in which this vision is emerging. Two interrelated transformations are particularly important.

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The Specter of State Capitalism

17848 DOH Testing Lab

By Adam Dixon and Ilias Alami

Oh, how the righteous have fallen! As the global economy succumbs to COVID-19, we are haunted by the specter of state capitalism. Last week chief economic advisor to the White House, Larry Kudlow, suggested that the US government could take equity stakes in corporations in return for aid. Housing evictions are being postponed. Payroll for employees in some parts of the private sector are to be covered. And the list continues. In the UK, plans are afoot, dare one say, to renationalize the struggling airline sector and other companies.

At the moment, critics of such statist measures are too worried about their own personal health to make a fuss. But as we flatten the curve of the infected and the wheels of the market start turning again, the righteous apostles of the free market will return with a vengeance, and the state capitalists will tumble from their temporary thrones.

As with the last crisis just a decade ago, the state capitalists provided much needed support and took a humble bow (at a profit) when their services were no longer needed. Bailing out General Motors was a good deal for the US taxpayer, as was TARP. Certainly, the same will happen this time around. Or will it?

Since the election of Donald Trump in the US and the Brexit vote in the UK, the prophets of the free market have been decisively pushed out of the halls of power or forced to accept a different religion (typically that of an authoritarian and nationalist form of neoliberalism). National capital comes first!

Without a doubt, Trump and the Brexiteers did not foresee needing state ownership of industry and explicit state direction to achieve their goals. There are plenty of ways the state fosters, guides, and shapes private capital. Capitalism is never without the state, except in some libertarian utopia. State ownership just makes this relationship more explicit.

The embrace of Singapore as a post-Brexit economic model for the UK is telling in that respect. The government of Singapore continues to be a major shareholder of Singaporean industry and commerce, with no plans to change. Why should it? It owns successful and competitive companies. Indeed, state-owned enterprises the world over are demonstrating their competitive prowess. They aren’t the bureaucratic corporate sloths that we are told necessarily come with state ownership. Capital centralized in the hands of the state is resilient and growing for a reason. State-owned enterprises and state-controlled investment vehicles, such as sovereign wealth funds, are multiplying and growing the world over.

For the British elite, Brexit reflected an underlying lament of the sale of British industry (and finance) to foreign owners, even though many became rich that way. They know that restoring such past glory requires explicit action of the state, likely through more centralization of (national) capital. This is a reason behind the refusal to agree to level playing-field provisions with the EU in the future relationship negotiations. But there is more to this than returning to some past glory. Global capital accumulation is driven increasingly by capital centralized in the hands of the state.

The Trump administration’s battle with China (supported implicitly by other Western powers) is not driven by some desire to protect liberal rules-based international order. Rather, it is a battle of national capital. Afterall, China is capitalist.

China’s shift from assembling goods to also designing them, and doing so competitively, has unsettled the hierarchies of the world economy. But China is unwilling to relinquish its development model and its ownership of large swaths of Chinese industry. That is not in the DNA of the Chinese elite. Large state ownership is both necessary to secure the political dominance of the party state at home, and to expand and consolidate the integration of Chinese firms into global supply chains under favorable terms.

This is met in the US (and to a lesser extent other Western economies) by an increasingly aggressive form of techno-nationalism — a form of economic nationalism in the realms of trade, industrial, and investment policy, that aim at securing exclusive control of key scientific-technological innovations. National elites in the West more generally are realizing that they need state power to compete in the global economy. In reality, they always have. But the cloak of free-market neoliberalism energized their buccaneering self-confidence that they were above it all. That fiction is over.

The extension of state prerogatives by non-Western powers used to fuel all sorts of anxieties among state actors and observers in the West. Now, these very same modalities of state intervention are being called for, if not praised, by commentators across the political spectrum. Some even look with envy at the agility with which non-Western state capitalists are currently managing the crisis. The pace at which this ‘new normal’ is emerging is remarkable. We are all state capitalists now (or we all want to be).

COVID-19 and the generalized economic crisis it has catalyzed may hasten changes toward explicit forms of state capitalism in the West. Yet, a decloaked state at the helm does not necessarily mean a more progressive and just economic system (just like it does not mean a move toward state socialism). Who will bear the brunt of the costs of the current transformations, and who will benefit from the consolidation of the ‘new’ state capitalism, will be the outcome of a tense political process. This much we know.

Adam Dixon is Associate Professor of Globalization and Development at Maastricht University. Ilias Alami is a postdoctoral researcher at Maastricht University.

Photo by Governor Tom Wolf. Pennsylvania Commonwealth microbiologist Kerry Pollard performs a manual extraction of the coronavirus inside the extraction lab at the Pennsylvania Department of Health Bureau of Laboratories on Friday, March 6, 2020.


Facing a liquidity tsunami? Profit, risk, and discipline in emerging markets


In April 2012, at the White House on her first visit to the United States since her election in 2010, Brazilian president Brazil Dilma Rousseff scolded advanced capitalist economies for unleashing a ‘tsunami de liquidez’, a ‘liquidity tsunami’, onto the developing world. The expression liquidity tsunami suggests that the sheer scale and volume of financial capital flows to developing and emerging markets had become an issue. It indicates that these quantities were overwhelming and could trigger devastating damages. 

This in itself is puzzling. Have we not been told by development economists and practitioners that financial capital flowing into the poorer areas of the world economy is something good and desirable? That one of the main causes of underdevelopment is actually the lack of capital and domestic savings in developing countries, and that this should be compensated with foreign capital inflows? Following this line of reasoning, vast swathes of financial capital flowing into emerging markets surely should be seen as a boon.

And there was some truth to that. The capital flow bonanza from the mid-2000s to late 2013 (coupled with the primary commodity super-cycle) did deliver some benefits to emerging markets. It helped governments fund themselves at better conditions. It provided the material basis for significant redistribution via a number of social policies. It contributed to economic growth performances much higher than over the previous decade. It also made a minority of people much richer in a very short period of time. In sum, the capital flow boom temporarily helped deliver some economic and social gains, and this was instrumental in consolidating social contracts between governments and their populations.Read More »

State Capitalism Redux?


By Ilias Alami and Adam Dixon

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?Read More »

Thinking politically about capital controls: a class perspective


The recent global financial crisis sparked renewed debates, both within academia and policy-making circles, about regulating highly mobile cross-border money-capital flows. A particular type of policy tool has received considerable attention: capital controls (CC). Within mainstream economics and policy-oriented circles (including policy-makers in central banks, finance ministries, and international organisations such as the IMF and the G20) there has been a growing recognition that unregulated cross-border money-capital flows can considerably disrupt capital accumulation, and debates have accordingly focused on the potential role and effectiveness of temporary CC in limiting the destabilising potential of those flows, while maintaining a long-term commitment to an open capital-account and free capital mobility.[1] By contrast, the Left (including organised labour, progressive economists, and civil society organisations) has been largely critical of capital-account liberalisation, and has denounced its detrimental effects in terms of constraining policy options for development and long-term industrial development.[2]Read More »