In Corporate Power, Oligopolies, and the Crisis of the State, Luis Suarez-Villa details the domination of various sectors of the US economy by a select group of corporations. While Suarez-Villa aims to show how oligopolies thereby shape the US political agenda, Christopher May argues that due to its exclusive focus on US examples, the book largely neglects the global dimensions of the contemporary corporation, and therefore is of limited value to scholars of global political economy.
Corporate Power, Oligopolies, and the Crisis of the State. Luis Suarez-Villa. State University of New York Press. 2015.
As with many books that seek to develop a critical approach to the contemporary political economy of the (global) corporation, Corporate Power, Oligopolies, and the Crisis of the State starts with a cri de cœur: the author tells us that he has overcome resistance from fellow academics towards recognising the problems highlighted by his analysis, and that there continues to be a lacuna of critical work on corporations, oligopoly and financialism. This may or may not be the case in the USA, but certainly in Europe it is a difficult claim to make; there is a significant and well-developed critical body of work on corporations and on the role of the financial sector in contemporary political economy that is available to scholars in both journals and books. Thus, before I had even finished the introduction, a suspicion started to nag that this would be another book focused on US issues, but passing them off as universal. And indeed (warning: plot spoiler), I am sad to report that it is.
In the first, lengthy chapter, Luis Suarez-Villa seeks to map out the oligopolistic domination of various sectors of the US economy – including fair transportation, communications (such as the internet), education, health and the media – to make the not unusual point that domination by a select group of corporations allows them to shape the (US) political agenda. This is achieved through the funding of political action committees, more direct lobbying (building on claimed sectoral expertise) and also through the ‘revolving door’ link by which staff move between political administration and corporate governance and back again. Although there are occasional allusions to a wider political economic context, the vast majority of examples that the author deploys are drawn from US society and government. Moreover, this long account develops a thin, US-centric argument about the importance of oligopoly, ignoring its international dimensions (so well discussed by Jeff Harrod in Global Corporate Power (2006) – which I edited – nearly ten years ago).
This analytical myopia is carried forward into the following chapter’s treatment of what Suarez-Villa terms financialism, where one would be forgiven for thinking no-one outside the USA had considered the rise of the financial sector (either in the US or elsewhere) and its impact on other sectors. Indeed, the terminology itself is instructive; in critical approaches from European scholars, these issues are usually discussed as a process of financialisation, which seeks to identify a dynamic process of political economic change. Here, financialism is very lightly historicised, with the majority of the discussion focusing on the run-up to the 2008 crisis (the account of which is serviceable, but hardly novel), and the power of the financial sector over other industries typified by demands for ‘restructuring’, presented as a structural element of neo-liberalism.
Image Credit: Protestor holding Adbusters Corporate American Flag at Bush’s Second Inauguration, Washington D.C. (Wikipedia Public Domain)
The analysis then moves to the ‘fundamental split’ Suarez-Villa identifies between the social reproduction of knowledge (alongside other economically valuable intangibles) and their commodification by oligopolistic corporations. Here, he focuses on intellectual property rights and the manner in which these are used to capture (‘steal’) knowledge to make it corporate property. Again, a range of US examples is deployed, but perhaps oddly the music industry – where many of these issues have played out on the global stage – does not merit any protracted treatment. Indeed, the prior research on intellectual property that is drawn on does not extend beyond relatively ‘popular’ treatments, thus missing the wide-ranging debates published in the US on this area (ranging from Lawrence Lessig to the critical scholarship around the extension to copyright terms a few years ago), let alone the highly developed European debates about the economic role and problems of intellectual property.
The book then proceeds towards the problem of over-accumulation (drawing, in large part, from Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy’s classic analysis), and the ‘stagnation’ such over-accumulation has fostered (in the USA). Here, Suarez-Villa seeks to explore the relationship between US oligopolistic corporations and the US state as typical of ‘advanced capitalism’ with seemingly no regard to the long-standing debates about the varieties of capitalism, which is to say that there is more than one form of advanced capitalism. In Suarez-Villa’s analysis the key developments are the alignment of a (so-called) public interest with that of oligopolistic corporate power, a parallel alignment of politicians’ interests with the corporate sector and a resulting transfer of risk from corporations to the state. Certainly this may be the correct set of issues in the USA and even beyond, but with no comparative account of other countries as part of this analysis, the question of advanced capitalist economies outside the USA remains absent.
In the final chapters, the above set of discussions leads Suarez-Villa to explore the relations between the ‘neo-oligarchy’ and the state, by which he means the US state. A range of examples of co-option and collusion are presented, ranging from favourable judicial opinions to legislative moves that have served the oligopolistic corporations well, with Suarez-Villa concluding that these developments are ‘the most disturbing social phenomena of our time’ (350). However, the limited horizon of the material upon which this study draws does not warrant such a general conclusion. Rather, this largely synthetic account (drawing significantly on US-based media to complement its dependence on US-based academic outputs) adds little to our understanding of the role of corporations in the global political economy, even if it may appeal to those interested in the US domestic economy. Therefore, I can see little reason that researchers in, and students of, global political economy would find this book of any utility other than as a social artefact of US academic myopia, and as such, sadly this book has little to recommend it in its home territory or beyond.
This review originally appeared at the LSE Review of Books.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of USApp– American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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Christopher May – Lancaster University
Christopher May is Professor of Political Economy at Lancaster University, UK. His most recent book is Global Corporations in Global Governance (Routledge Global Institutions series), and he is currently working on the political economy of the governance of global corporate networks. He has published widely on the interaction between law and political economy, wrote the first independently authored study of the World Intellectual Property Organisation and edited Global Corporate Power (IPE Yearbook 15) (Lynne Rienner, 2006).