The neo-Gramscian perspective has been classified as ‘neo-Marxist critical theory’, and is critical in that it does not take institutions and social and power relations for granted but asks how existing social or world orders have come into being, how norms, institutions or practices therefore emerge, and what forces may have the emancipatory potential to change or transform the potential order.
Located within this neo-Gramscian critique of political economy is the theory that a new class of transnational elites has emerged that seeks to maximise the profits of global firms. But ‘they require help from other groups, notably globalizing bureaucrats, politicians and professionals, consumerist elites, and the institutions in which they operate, to carry out their work effectively’. Together, all these people constitute a transnational class. They constitute a class in that they are defined in terms of their relationship to the means of production, distribution, and exchange, and they are a capitalist class in that they own or control, individually or collectively, the major forms of capital. They are a transnational capitalist class (TCC) in that they operate across borders to further the interests of global capital rather than of any real or imagined state.
This paper first introduces neo-Gramscian theory and outlines the concept of the TCC as theorized by Leslie Sklair of the London School of Economics. It then examines the literature highlighting the evidence both broadly in favour and against the existence of a TCC. It concludes that while there is much plausibility in the concept of a TCC the theory is underdeveloped and lacks much empirical support.
A neo-Gramscian perspective, unlike conventional IR theory, which reduces hegemony to a single dimension of dominance based on the economic and military capabilities of the state, broadens the domain of hegemony. It appears as an expression of broad based consent, manifested in the acceptance of ideas and supported by material resources and institutions, which is initially established by social forces occupying the leading role within a state, but is then projected outwards on a world scale.
The hegemony of a leading class can manifest itself as an international phenomenon insofar as it represents the development of a particular form of the social relations of production and a consolidated domestic hegemony may expand beyond a particularly social order to move outward on a world scale and insert itself through the prevailing world order. Thus hegemony can operate on two levels: by constructing a historic bloc and establishing social cohesion within a form of state as well as by expanding a mode of production internationally and projecting hegemony through the level of world order. Within a world order a situation of hegemony may prevail ‘based on a coherent conjunction or fit between material power, the prevalent collective image of world order (including certain norms) and a set of institutions which administer the order with a certain semblance of universality’.
Hegemony is therefore a form of dominance, but it refers more to a consensual order so that ‘dominance by a powerful [class or] state may be a necessary but not a sufficient condition of hegemony’. Hegemony is understood as an ‘opinion moulding activity’ and is filtered through structures of society, economy, culture, gender, ethnicity, class and ideology. What is important in this process is that such ideas and institutions become to be seen as natural and legitimate, and that they become embedded in the frameworks of thought of the politically and economically significant parts of the population. In this way a hegemonic structure of thought and action emerges, one which militates against the raising, or even conception of alternative types of political, economic and social arrangements.
The theorization of a transnational capitalist class first emerged in the works of Kees van der Pilj’s “The making of an Atlantic ruling class” (1984), while Cox (1987) wrote of ‘an emerging class structure’ and Gill (1990), identified a ‘developing transnational capitalist class faction’. Leslie Sklair, long one of the more important writers in this area, has taken the idea furthest; making what he calls ‘the extraordinarily difficult break with state-centrism which is necessary if we are to move forward’. In his view the transnational capitalist class is the characteristic institutional form of political transnational practices in the global capitalist system and analytically can be divided into four main factions:
While each of the factions performs distinct function for the TCC, personnel are often interchangeable betweens factions. Key individuals can belong to more than one faction at the same time, and the transition from membership of one group to another is more or less routine in many societies. The transnational capitalist class is transnational in at least three senses: First, its members tend to have outward-orientated global rather than inward-orientated national perspectives on a variety of issues . Second, members of the TCC tend to be people from many countries, more and more of whom begin to consider themselves ‘citizens of the world’ as well as their places of birth. Third, they tend to share similar lifestyles, particularly patterns of higher education (increasingly in business schools) and consumption of luxury goods and services.
What the TCC does as a class is to give unity to the diverse economic interests, political organizations and cultural and ideological formations of a very disparate group of people. As in any social class, fundamental unity of interests and purpose does not preclude shorter-term conflicts of interest and purpose, both within each of the four fractions and between them. The fundamental value system that keeps the system intact is the culture-ideology of global capitalist consumerism. The TCC promotes the idea that the path to happiness in the capitalist global system is consumption and excludes any alternatives that would threaten its power. In Sklair’s words:
‘The electronic revolution has transformed the mass media, and by increasingly seizing control of the media, the TCC has extended the scale and scope of the commodification process globally’.
Sklair’s most detailed work on the TCC is contained in his book entitled “The Transnational Capitalist Class” (2001). The book is framed as an attempt to reformulate class theory from the level of the nation to that of a global system. However, apart from an introduction to his theory of the emergent TCC (outlined above), the book has very little to say about the capitalist class or the value of class theory for understanding globalization, and Sklair brings forward little evidence to support his theoretical claims. The books importance lies in his detailed analysis of the techniques and consequences of firms’ globalization. The analysis centres on the most powerful private organisations in the World – the great corporations and banks of the Fortune Global 500; and shows how they operate, see themselves, and articulate visions of the world. By means of an extensive analysis of data from government agencies; corporate public statements, reports, and filings; and interviews with eighty executives, Sklair demonstrates how capitalist firms have become transnational – they think of themselves, their markets, and the future of their companies in global terms. A crucial moment of Sklair’s argument rests on the changes of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) which mark a change from firms acting out of ‘national’ interests, often in collusion of the geopolitical interests of their respective states, to global interests. Further, through a number of brief case studies, he shows how corporate power is exercised, behind the scenes but to great effect, in the global politics of food and tobacco, the latter pitting the global tobacco industry against a coalition of public health officials and medical researchers.
He also points out that capital has been far more successful than labour in organising and exploiting new openings beyond nation states. International capital has, for instance, been able to present a relatively united front across borders and form linkages with important non-economic elites within Inter-Governmental Organizations (IGOs). For instance, under the impact of the IMF many countries have changed their laws to support free trade and end protectionism to make themselves more attractive to FDI. Sklair argues that this push for open markets, retrenchment of benefits, and permeable borders (for goods and resources) came, and still comes, from elites, not from the masses of people affected by these decisions. Thus his main argument is that globalization ‘does not just happen’, it is engineered and promoted by identifiable groups of people within identifiable organizations.
His work is supported by others who similarly argue that although they may be found in a number of institutions, through interlocking directorates, cross-membership in different sites of business, government, politics, professions, and media, these circulating elites are strategically situated in ways that advance the interest of global capital at the expense of the majority of people. Thus, for example, George W. Bush’s cabinet looked quite like a corporate board – which indeed it was.
William G. Domhoff in his fifth edition of “Who Rules America?” (2006) examines the great corporations and banks of the Fortune 500, whose 2005 combined revenues made up 73.4% of the US’s gross domestic product. He identifies an upper class whose members form overlapping circles of men and women who ‘know each other, or who know others who know others, who have gone to the same prestigious boarding schools and universities and are members of a limited number of corporate boards, policy-making organizations, who frequent certain clubs and resort, and who live in recognizably affluent communities’. From this group, many have served as high officials in the federal government.
Domhoff calls those members of the upper class, who are the controlling officials of the largest corporations or of the most influential policy-planning organizations or both, as well as their senior administrators, the power elite. He asks who benefits, who governs and who wins on issues, and by all these tests the upper 1% in terms of wealth come out far ahead, followed by the next 9%, followed by the next 10%, leaving the bottom 80% possessing little wealth and stagnating with respect to wages since the early 1970s.
The policy-planning network, which exercises power in the area of opinion-making, examines necessary changes in policy that will serve the interests of the upper class. As Domhoff describes it: ‘Informal discussions take place in corporate boards. Foundations give grants to think tanks and policy discussion groups. Experts do research and write papers. The leaders of these institutions then pass along recommendations to federal, state, and local government’. Thus while Domhoff’s work is purely focussed on the United States it highlights the power of the capitalist class in this leading state; and other works reveal a similar picture in other developed countries.
In the international context, Trimble (1989) finds international law in general resting ‘on values, or at least interests, genuinely shared by narrow or specialized transnational subcultures or communities of diplomats, bureaucrats, and elites’ . And Cutler (1999) after an empirical study describes the bodies that make commercial international law as comprising ‘corporate and government actors whose interests are associated more generally with the transnational expansion of capitalism’.
The literature seems not to contain much in the way of criticism of the concept of the TCC on either theoretical or empirical grounds. This may be because of the very dominance of the traditional IR theories that this Neo-Gramscian critical theory seeks to challenge , but it is also perhaps a reflection that the idea of the TCC is not considered to be a major challenge. Val Burris criticizes Sklair on the grounds that there is little empirical evidence that the people Sklair identifies are a class defined in terms of their relationship to the means of production, distribution and exchange. Indeed by defining the TCC to include not just those whose resources and actions are deemed vital to the process of globalization: neoliberal bureaucrats and politicians, assorted professionals and technocrats, advertisers and the mass media, Sklair annexes segments of the state and middle class to the TCC and skips many thorny issues such as the extent and mechanisms of the TCC’s influence over states or the nature of its alliances with the non-propertied, professional, or middle classes.
Lauren Langman while generally taking a positive view of Sklair’s work highlights a number of places where one might take issue with his thesis. Langman’s first question concerns the role of the state. Sklair is accused of minimising the role of the State in order to sustain his version of globalization being driven by the TCC. The argument is nuanced as the capitalist state may very well work in the service of the economic elites, as it always has, and as Sklair argues. Still, many theorists suggest that the State itself, in order to preserve its legitimacy, is, in general, a relatively autonomous supporter of capital, and what’s more the State actually gains power in a globalised economy, especially power in the service of transnational companies (TNCs) as it regulates trade and investments, guarantees global standards, and controls the institutions of repression, coercion, and control.
The second question Lauren asks centres on Sklair’s dependence on consumerism as the basis of the hegemony of the TCC. Most students of contemporary IR see consumerism as only one moment of a larger ideological complex and only one of a number of social forces that sustains today’s globalization.
In another paper William K. Carrol and Meindert Fennema (2002) argue that ‘we should only speak of a transnational capitalist class if there are structural conditions that reproduce a transnational corporate elite, independent of its national ‘home’ base, to such an extent that their collective ‘transnational’ identity shapes their behaviour more than the national identities they carry with them as national citizens’. Through a longitudinal analysis of the transnational networks that have been formed through directorship interlocks they looked at the structural conditions behind any emergent TCC. The study was limited to 176 firms from certain sectors, but allowed the authors to conclude that over the last 25 years there has been no massive shift in corporate interlocking, from a predominately national to a predominately transnational pattern and that the ties among the world’s largest corporations continued for the most part to respect national borders. Even when they examined the 20-odd companies that have the most extensive transnational ties they found nationally based clusters. Their conclusion then is that the transnational network is a kind of superstructure that rests upon rather resilient national bases.
The study also revealed the Euro-North American centricity of the transnational ties they studied. The vast reach of today’s TNCs and the increasingly integrated financial markets may be global, but the governance of corporations and the life of the haute bourgeoisie remain in important ways embedded in national and regional structures and cultures.
Thus the picture of the TCC that emerges from the literature is nuanced and not as clear cut as Sklair would have us believe. The theory is underdeveloped and lacking in much needed empirical evidence to support its claims. Within the developed nation States, most particularly the US, there is a well established capitalist class whose hegemony is built in a Gramscian sense not only on its material power but also on its influence of ideology and its acceptance by the sub-ordinate classes. How this class is defined and whether it has a broad a base as Sklair proposes is, however, open for debate. Studies do show that within a nation-State, members of the capitalist class may be found in a number of institutions, through interlocking directorates, cross-membership in different sites of business, government, politics, professions, and media, and that these circulating elites are strategically situated in ways that advance the interest of global capital. Sklair’s extensive studies on TNCs support the neo-Gramscian argument that these capitalist classes have driven globalisation through driving the changes in social relations of production and highlight the impact corporations have in shaping both the debate and the resulting regulation at the international level. Sklair’s work however dismisses the role of the State in globalization to easily and without empirical evidence, much more work is needed, for example, to show that the role of the American State in encouraging rapid internationalization of the world economy after WWII, or that the military power that was intertwined with the expansion of American business was driven by the capitalist elite. And although Sklair depends on consumerism as the basis of hegemony, again, more work is needed to show why only consumerism sustains contemporary globalization and how the TNC and the capitalist class use consumerism and the promise of more and better things to sustain its domination.
Finally, whether these capitalist classes of the wealthy (and newly wealthy) States are now linking together to form a TCC is contestable. The evidence in mixed. Some studies lend support to the idea that they are in the process of consolidating global hegemony through control of international institutions, think-tanks, and the media. However, the evidence from studies of interlocking directorships suggests that transnational ties between classes of different States are limited, and that the transnational network is both Euro-American centric and a kind of superstructure that rests upon rather resilient national bases. In contrast to Sklair’s view, it seems governance of corporations and the life of the capitalist class remains in important ways embedded in national and regional structures and cultures.
There is a dominant capitalist class that exists in some form or other in the developed States of the world, most notably the US. The hegemony of the class in a neo-Gramscian sense is well established nationally and has expanded outwards on a world scale inserting itself through the world order. Through the expansion of the division of labour to a global scale the hegemonic class has expanded its influence through either coercive or non coercive means and is in the process of building legitimacy through the promotion of a consumerist lifestyle that is not only desirable, but, with further global capitalist development, obtainable. This much this author is prepared to believe. I am also prepared to believe that we may be witnessing the emergence of a cross-national, global economic-political elite that has certain unifying (as well as divergent) interests; indeed, a transnational capitalist class. In order to discover whether this is so, however, further research that addresses the question of whether the elite are already a class in itself is needed. As is more information about the individuals and groups that currently constitute the TCC and how they are produced socially and galvanized politically. Sklair has made a good start, but more empirical evidence is needed to prove if the TCC (however defined) are, indeed, organized on a transnational rather than a national basis. As Jeffery Henderson of the University of Manchester asks: ‘To what extent is stock ownership in major corporations becoming diversified across national borders? Are capitalists of different nations becoming integrated through marriage, common schooling, club memberships, or other cultural ties? Is political representation at the national level no longer essential to guaranteeing capitalist property rights and maintaining conditions for profitable capital accumulation? What does [a broader] study of interlocking among corporate boards show?’
Bieler, Andeas, and Morton, Adam David, “A critical theory route to hegemony, world order and historical change: neo-Gramscian perspectives in International Relations”, Neo-Gramscian Perspectives in IR.
Burris, Val, “Review of Leslie Sklair: The Transnational Capitalist Class”, Contemporary Sociology 31 (4).
Caroll, William K., Fennema, Meindert, ‘Is there a transnational business community?’, International Sociology, September 2002, 17(3).
Cox, Robert, “Social Forces, States and World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory”, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 10(2), (1981).
Cox, Robert, “Towards a Posthegemonic Conceptualisation of World Order: Reflection on the Relevancy of Ibn Khaldun’, in Robert W. Cox and Timothy Sinclair, Approaches to World Order. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1992 / 1996).
Cox, Robert, Production, Power and World Order: Social Forces in the Making of History, New York: Columbia University Press (1987).
Cutler, A. Claire, “Locating ‘Authority’ in the Global Political Economy, International Studies Quarterly (1999), 43.
Domhoff, William G., Who Rules America? Challenges to Corporate and Class Dominance (2006), Macgraw Hill Companies, Inc, United States of America.
Farnsworth, Kevin, “International Class Conflict and Social Policy”, Social Policy and Society, 4 (2).
Gill, Stephen, American Hegemony and the Trilateral Commission, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1990).
Gill, S and Law, D, “Key Concepts: Power, Structure and Hegemony”, The Global Political Economy, (1988), Chap 6 in the study pack.
Henderson, Jeffery, “Review of Leslie Sklair: The Transnational Capitalist Class”, American Journal of Sociology, Book Reviews (2002).
Langman, Lauren, “Review of Leslie Sklair: The Transnational Capitalist Class”, Theory and Society, 31, (2002).
Peston, Robert, Who Runs Britain?: and Who’s to Blame for the Economic Mess We’re in, Hodder & Stoughton General Division (2008), United Kingdom.
Sharpe, Mike, “The Heavy Burden of Wealth”, Challenge, (September-October 2006).
Sklair, Leslie, “Capitalist Globalization: Fatal Flaws and Necessity for Alternatives”, The Brown Journal of World Affairs, (fall / winter 2006), volume xiii, issue 1.
Sklair, Leslie, “Democracy and the Transnational Capitalist Class, Annals, AAPSS, 581, May 2002.
Sklair, Leslie, “Social movements for global capitalism: the transnational capitalist class in action”, Review of International Political Economy, 4 (3), (Autumn 1997).
Sklair, Leslie, “The Transnational Capitalist Class and Global Politics: Deconstructing the Corporate-State Connection”, International Political Science Review (2002), 23, (2).
Sklair, Leslie, The Transnational Capitalist Class (2000). Oxford, UK; Malden MA: Blackwell Publishers (2001).
Trimble, P., “International Law, World Order and Critical Legal Studies”, Stanford Law Review, 42.
Van der Pijl, Kees, The Making of an Atlantic Ruling Class, London: Veso (1984).
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This is a well researched piece that does justice to the concept of TCC. However, it misses the importance of Cox in IPE (Sklair is broader and more sociological). Moreover, Cox champions the idea of managerial class in relation to the Gramscian notion of hegemonic bloc and hegemony, Mangement is never explicitly discussed in your essay. Nor is hegemony. The main contribution of Cox and others in IPE is on this alternative image of hegemonic leadership. You touch on it inasumuch as Skalir and others touch on it but there is a missed opportunity here. Despoite this the level of research and presentation still justifies distinction mark.
Assignments are marked in Grade Points on a 15 point scale as follows:
Mark awarded: 13
This mark is subject to second marking by a colleague and could change.
 Langman, Lauren, “Review of Leslie Sklair: The Transnational Capitalist Class”, Theory and Society, 31, (2002), pg 562.
 Cox, Robert, “Social Forces, States and World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory”, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 10(2), (1981), pg 129.
 Bieler, Andeas, and Morton, Adam David, “A critical theory route to hegemony, world order and historical change: neo-Gramscian perspectives in International Relations”, Neo-Gramscian Perspectives in IR, pg 86.
 Langman, Lauren, “Review of Leslie Sklair: The Transnational Capitalist Class”, pg 562.
 Ibid, pg 561
 Bieler, Andeas, and Morton, Adam David, “A critical theory route to hegemony, world order and historical change”, pg 87.
 Ibid, Pg 87
 Ibid, pg 95.
 Cox, Robert, “Social Forces, States and World Orders”, pg 137.
 Ibid, pg 139.
 Cox, Robert, “Towards a Posthegemonic Conceptualisation of World Order: Reflection on the Relevancy of Ibn Khaldun’, in Robert W. Cox and Timothy Sinclair, Approaches to World Order. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1992 / 1996), pg 151.
 Gill, S and Law, D, “Key Concepts: Power, Structure and Hegemony”, The Global Political Economy, (1988), Chap 6 in the study pack, pg 78.
 Van der Pijl, Kees, The Making of an Atlantic Ruling Class, London: Veso (1984).
 Cox, Robert, Production, Power and World Order: Social Forces in the Making of History, New York: Columbia University Press (1987), pg 271.
 Gill, Stephen, American Hegemony and the Trilateral Commission, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1990), pg 94.
 Langman, Lauren, “Review of Leslie Sklair: The Transnational Capitalist Class”, pg 562.
 Ibid, pg 562.
 Sklair, Leslie, “Social movements for global capitalism: the transnational capitalist class in action”, Review of International Political Economy, 4 (3), (Autumn 1997), pg 511.
 Ibid, pg 522
 Sklair, Leslie, “Capitalist Globalization: Fatal Flaws and Necessity for Alternatives”, The Brown Journal of World Affairs, (fall / winter 2006), volume xiii, issue 1, pg 31.
 Ibid, pg 32.
 Sklair, Leslie, The Transnational Capitalist Class. Oxford, UK; Malden MA: Blackwell Publishers (2001).
 Burris, Val, “Review of Leslie Sklair: The Transnational Capitalist Class”, Contemporary Sociology 31 (4), pg 416.
 Sklair, Leslie, “The Transnational Capitalist Class and Global Politics: Deconstructing the Corporate-State Connection”, International Political Science Review (2002), 23, (2), pg 44.
 Farnsworth, Kevin, “International Class Conflict and Social Policy”, Social Policy and Society, 4 (2), pg 218.
 Sklair, Leslie, “Democracy and the Transnational Capitalist Class, Annals, AAPSS, 581, May 2002, pg 146.
 Domhoff, William G., Who Rules America? Challenges to Corporate and Class Dominance (2006), Macgraw Hill Companies, Inc, United States of America.
 Ibid, pg 206
 Sharpe, Mike, “The Heavy Burden of Wealth”, Challenge, (September-October 2006), pg 121.
 Ibid, pg 122
 Trimble, P., “International Law, World Order and Critical Legal Studies”, Stanford Law Review, 42, pg 817.
 Cutler, A. Claire, “Locating ‘Authority’ in the Global Political Economy, International Studies Quarterly (1999), 43, pg 67.
 Burris, Val, “Review of Leslie Sklair: The Transnational Capitalist Class”, Contemporary Sociology 31 (4), pg 417.
 Langman, Lauren, “Review of Leslie Sklair: The Transnational Capitalist Class”, pg 562.
 Ibid, pg 569.
 Ibid, pg 570.
 Caroll, William K., Fennema, Meindert, ‘Is there a transnational business community?’, International Sociology, September 2002, 17(3).
 Ibid, pg 396.
 Henderson, Jeffery, “Review of Leslie Sklair: The Transnational Capitalist Class”, American Journal of Sociology, Book Reviews, (2002), pg 1112.
[A.M.1]The essay is not just about a transnational capitalist class but about what Cox call a managerial class. This is focused more on the heads of big firms, global economic institutions and governments.
[A.M.4]Cox actually identifies a tension between the heads of large MNCs and the heads of large nationally oriented firms – while they are all still capitalists.
[A.M.5]Which s of curse the opposite of the traditional Marxist view that saw ‘workers of the world uniting’.
[A.M.6]Good point. Link it to Cox’s view of ‘management’.
[A.M.8]You have not addressed the Gramscian concept of ‘hegemony’ in relation to an ‘historic bloc’. In IPE this is very important and put forward by Cox, Gill and Law, etc.
[A.M.9]This may be so but they are much more aware of the shared ideas and supportive institutions that operate globally within a capitalist ethos. They may also be involved in exporting as a consequence of this.
[A.M.10]But Sklair is not the leading light in IPE – he is more sociological. The leading light in IPE is Cox.
[A.M.11]You have not discussed the Gramscian notion of hegemony