Latin America and Global Capitalism

Book by William I. Robinson; Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2008, 440 pp.

Last year, UC Santa Barbara sociology professor William I. Robinson was in the news for having the temerity to criticize the Israeli military’s assault on Palestinian civilians in Gaza. Right-wing groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, orchestrated a campaign attacking Robinson with the implication that any criticism of Israel’s military abuses in the occupied territories equates to anti-Semitism.

His current volume, Latin America and Global Capitalism, is an important book for anyone interested in where our imperiled planet is headed. Robinson, author of the 1996 study of U.S. foreign aid, Promoting Polyarchy, is thorough in his overview of the direction capitalism has taken in Latin America since the 1970s. He uses research from years of work and sifts through data to map out how neoliberal trade agreements and other mechanisms of global commerce have increased profits for global elites, while deeply disrupting traditional patterns of life and balance with the natural world.

One glaring example of this that Robinson focuses on is the shift toward intensive farming of soy—which has massively displaced small farmers—and the production of dairy, fruit trees, horticulture, and other grains. Soy production is now much more profitable than food production for local consumption, leading to rising malnutrition rates in soy producing areas.

Plans for expansion of biofuel production, Robinson writes, "Could well obliterate small and medium producers and consolidate a new empire of corporate agribusiness, biotechnology, chemical and pharmaceutical TNCs [transnational corporations] in South America. The ecological devastation would undermine any gains in terms of a reduction in carbon-based fuels, and we would face a situation—absolutely absurd from any social logic yet consistent with the logic of capital—in which cars would replace human beings as the main consumers of world cereal output."

In addition to these new agro-exports, Latin America and Global Capitalism describes the spread of maquiladoras, the transnational tourist industry, exported labor, and remittances from abroad sent home. In an argument he also develops in his 2004 study A Theory of Global Capitalism: Production, Class, and State in a Transnational World, Robinson argues that a new transnational capitalist class has squeezed out more nationally-based capitalists in Latin America: "These new transnationally oriented economic groups and political elites captured state power in country after country during the 1980s and 1990s and used that power to integrate their countries into the emerging global economy and society. They are the manifest agents of capitalist globalization in Latin America."

Robinson makes no bones about being a politically engaged academic, or of shaping his thorough, rigorous work with the intent of it being useful for popular progressive struggles. His sentiments are clearly with the indigenous resistance movements he chronicles in Latin America, as well as the immigrants’ rights movement in the United States, and the continuing Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela.


Ben Terrall is a writer and activist whose work has appeared in In These Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Progressive, and other publications.