Review of New Book: Globalizing the Caribbean

By: Jerry Harris – Race & Class

[We have posted this review of a new book recently published by one of our contributors. The review originally appeared in the scholarly journal Race & Class.]

Jeb Sprague has made a major contribution by updating the study of the Caribbean to the current era of transnational capital. The modern Caribbean was produced through the expansion of colonial territorial capture, the world slave trade and later US imperialism. While the author does a historical survey, it serves as context for his analysis which is eye opening in its breadth of detail, and its forceful exposure of contemporary capitalism and originality. This is the first book on the Caribbean from the viewpoint of the school of global capitalism, and thereby offers new perspectives reflecting today’s world.1

The first chapters give a theoretical and historical framework for the next sections that examine the social forces and economic structures that rule the Caribbean. Case studies include chapters on the cruise ship industry, migration and remittances, export processing zones, and the mining industry. While the Caribbean consist of two dozen nations and 40 million people, the book concentrates on the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Jamaica, although the experience of other countries are wound into the analysis.

Sprague’s first chapter lays out the basic analytical structure of transnational capitalist class (TCC) theory, paying attention to racialised and gendered social relations in the formation of the modern world system. He also reviews the contributions of major thinkers such as Aimé Césaire, C. L. R. James, Frantz Fanon and William Du Bois, essential in understanding the scope and meaning of Caribbean history. Chapter 2, ‘The Challenge of Understanding Social Formation in the Global Era’ delves deeper into class formation. Here the author begins his examination of transnational corporations (TNCs), the capture of the state by transnational elites and technocrats, and the creation of a global historic bloc under the leadership of the TCC. Importantly, Sprague goes beyond economic analysis to include cultural production, ideological formation, and institutions of security and control. Chapter 3 provides an excellent overview of Caribbean history. Starting with the slave trade, the author notes how 47 per cent of all Africans were brought to the islands to work the plantations. Sprague proceeds to cover the period of US domination, the emergence of industrial capitalism and how US investments stimulated the concentration of agricultural production. The chapter also pays attention to the growth of regional differences, combined and uneven development, and the importance of the Cuban revolution. Lastly is the integration of the Caribbean into global capitalism, the role of the IMF and alternative developmental efforts promoted by Venezuela.

The next four chapters are devoted to an examination of the most important ways the Caribbean became integrated into the transnational economy, and how local economic and state actors accommodated the transformation. Chapter 4 investigates the cruise ship business and its importance to the emergence of the TCC. It is a finely detailed work combining research on the transnational business character of leisure travel, and how local states elites attached themselves to gain access to global circuits of accumulation. This industry is dominated by just two TNCs with major investors the world over. Their labour force is thoroughly globalised, and no labour codes protect workers, limit their hours of work, or establish a minimum wage. State regulations are so bare that only about $15 per passenger reaches the country of port of call. Meanwhile the industry has created a bubble of enclosed experiences to capture as many consumer dollars as possible, and local businesses must cultivate a close relationship to access any profits. As Sprague notes, the experience is designed so tourists have the ‘inability to conceive of or determine the true character of what they temporarily interact with and inhabit’ (p. 178).

Sprague’s chapter on migration and remittances is an eye-opener on how global financial institutions profit from the cross-border movement of workers seeking jobs. There are now more than 250 million people living outside their country of birth and the Caribbean islands have the highest per cent per population of migrants. The flexibility of global production now depends on low cost migrant labour; and remittances have reached about $600 billion worldwide, more than six times developmental assistance. This has allowed states to cut back social services with the neoliberal rationalisation that income from abroad acts as a social safety net. Additionally, the huge flow of funds has given rise to a global remittance business, ‘formed through new integrative processes [that] function as a transnational circuit of accumulation, siphoning off profits from cross-border money transfers’ (p. 149). Western Union and Money Gram are the giants of the industry. As in the cruise industry, a wide array of global investors are key stockholders. Migrants are often charged about 8 to 10 per cent of their wages to send money home. For Caribbean islands global capitalism means the export of people and the import of tourists. As Sprague points out, ‘[t]ransnational capital meanwhile has been able to profit double, capitalizing on the surplus labor of migrant workers as well as appropriating part of the value moving through their remittances’ (p. 176).

Export processing zones (EPZs) have been a crucial tool in building the global assembly lines of transnational capitalism. They have fundamentally reshaped productive relations linking national labour forces into world-spanning value chains, and local states have restructured regulations to serve global accumulation and TNCs. In the Caribbean, the Dominican Republic has stood out in terms of EPZ development, with 36 per cent of its GDP coming from industrial production as early as 1991. In Jamaica, value added by the industrial sector was 37 per cent during the same period. But EPZs and other industries such as mining are reliant on world markets, and thus subject to fluctuations far out of control of national governments. Consequently, by 2017, the Dominican industrial sector dropped to 26 per cent of GDP and in Jamaica to about 23 per cent. Still over half of all Dominican exports come from EPZs. With limited capital resources, local businesses are dependent on TNCs and actively form strategic alliances. Consequently, tax holidays, duty-free imports and exports, low wages and unrestricted repatriation of profits are policies pushed by national elites to attract foreign investments – arrangements through which both foreign and local TCC fractions profit.

Sprague’s last case examines the mining industry. As the author points out, globally competitive mining corporations entwined with transnational capital and promoted by transnationally oriented state elites, have supplanted earlier international corporate models and statist developmental policies’ which had been stimulated by US investments (p. 213). For example, state owned mining was an essential feature of the Michael Manley government in Jamaica. But the mining industry has undergone a massive wave of cross-border mergers and acquisitions forming large TNCs. These corporate giants now use local contractors, and provide important spaces for national capitalists to integrate into transnational production chains. Corporations such as Xstrata, Glencore and Rusal dominate, bringing together diverse TCC investors such as the Qatari sovereign wealth fund, Russian oligarchs, US billionaires John Paulson and Nathaniel Rothschild, and Chinese billionaire Robert Kuok. Sprague carries out a rich investigation with telling specifics from the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Haiti. Local TCC contingents are so accommodating that in Haiti the royalty rate is set at a mere 2.5 per cent.

Sprague has accomplished what should become a classic work on contemporary Caribbean conditions. Breaking through limited nation-centric viewpoints, he has given us a book built on original theoretical analysis and backed by fully grounded research to uncover how global capitalism has transformed social relations in the Caribbean.

Reference 1 Leslie Sklair, The Transnational Capitalist Class (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Blackwell, 2001); William I. Robinson, A Theory of Global Capitalism (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004); Jerry Harris, Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Democracy (Atlanta, GA: Clarity Press, 2016).