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2014

Form, Function and Variegation in 21st Century Capitalism

Book review of: Dixon A. D. 2014. The New Geography of Capitalism: Firms, Finance and Society. Oxford, OUP.
Jakob Engel
Bibliographical reference

Dixon A. D. 2014. The New Geography of Capitalism: Firms, Finance and Society. Oxford, OUP.

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1In The New Geography of Capitalism (Oxford University Press), Adam Dixon brings both a wide-reaching and succinct analysis to recent fundamental changes in the global economy, including the integration of capital markets, the growth of global supply chains and ‘trade in tasks’, as well as the changing role of the state and of firms in the provision of social protection (and particularly pensions). Dixon views these recent developments as fundamentally changing societal orders, and necessitating a view that goes beyond common analyses of either incremental path-dependence or ‘one-world hyper-globalisation’.

2Methodologically, Dixon’s argues for the need to bring the perspective of an inter-disciplinary social scientist grounded in economic geography, in order to understand the spatial structure and scope of financial markets, elucidate the capacity and scope of these markets and financial agents to undercut the resilience of local institutional traditions, and to explain the ways and means through which value is captured and concentrated across space and time. Central to Dixon’s argument is the necessity of analysing both critically and with greater variegation and nuance how these changes have interacted with different political economies as well as governing and regulatory institutions throughout jurisdictions in Europe and the United States.

3The first three chapters of The New Geography of Capitalism are primarily theoretical and establish a framework for the more detailed case studies that make up the second half of the book. The first chapter provides a detailed discussion of the changing functions and form of finance within a context of rapidly growing global investment flows. Dixon highlights three primary drivers of global financial convergence: international policy and regulatory standards, the globalisation of practices (most notably through business schools), and financial innovation. These are resulting in the functions of finance across global borders becoming increasingly homogenous, even if their form is not identical. The second chapter – provocatively titled “One world of production?” – challenges existing understandings of national production systems in the face of global economic integration. Drawing on both the literature on “global production networks” and on agglomeration economies and uneven development across city regions, he broadly endorses recent work by Allen Scott (2011), Michael Storper (2011) and others of a global mosaic of regions with substantial differentiation but increasing convergence.

4Dixon’s analysis becomes most original in his third chapter, in which he critiques the “Varieties of Capitalism” literature, arguing in favour of a framework of ‘variegated capitalism’ drawing on his own work, as well as recent articles by Jamie Peck and Nik Theodore (2007), among others. This, he argues, allows for an institutional analysis that combines research on uneven spatial development with later institutionalist economic geography in order to engage with debates in comparative political economy (p. 49). Rather than the dual convergence into two ideal types that is implicitly endorsed in the VoC framework, Dixon argues for a middle ground that is more explicitly relational, paying much stronger attention to global financial integration and to the interdependencies that define institutional convergence and capitalist structuration.

5Chapters four through six provide national case study examples of the macro-social changes highlighted in the previous three chapters. In his comparison of the German and US financial systems and banking sectors, and counter to the VoC binary of coordinated and liberal market economies, he finds evidence for the increasing functional convergence – even as forms continue to differ. “Capitalism in the singular, not varieties of capitalism,” Dixon argues, “increasingly defines the rules of the game” (p. 94). The final two chapters focus on the implications of capitalism’s changing geography for the role of the nation-state and the firm in the provision of pensions. In regard to the former, he examines the French system, and finds a limited degree of convergence towards a common institutional design – thus the maintenance of formal diversity – even as functional institutional convergence is manifest. Similarly, the previously discussed globalisation of finance and firms’ lack of constraint from the weight of history and geography is central to their pulling back in the provision of defined benefit pensions. Again, convergence and homogenisation is occurring while formal differences and distinct political economies persist.

6Dixon’s greatest contribution in The New Geography of Capitalism is to bring together financial geography and the spate of recent analyses on world cities and financial integration with more traditional economic geography. While primarily focusing on Western political economies, he essentially argues for a ‘weak form’ of one-world capitalism driven by the globalisation of production and financial markets. He further provides a compelling and long overdue critique of the more simplistic strands of the VoC literature. Perhaps the most interesting aspect in this regard is both how (a central focus of the book) and why (something that is regrettably neglected) traditional geographically-specific institutional forms are maintained even as their function shifts. Here a stronger engagement with recent developments in comparative political economy and institutional analysis would have been of value. Further, his critique could have benefited from a stronger rationale for the selection of these cases, as well as a look beyond Western economies. That said, Dixon makes a compelling case that it is worth looking at the function of modern capitalist institutions, rather than their form, to see that “under the surface major changes are underway” (p. 157). While the book makes an important contribution to ongoing debates in economic geography and international political economy, and is therefore of interest for scholars in both fields, it will be particularly useful to undergraduate and masters students seeking a broad overview of recent shifts in the global economic and financial system.

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Bibliography

Peck J., Theodore N. 2007. Variegated capitalism. Progress in Human Geography 31(6): 731-772.

Scott A. J. 2011. A world in emergence: Notes toward a resynthesis of urban-economic geography for the 21st century. Urban Geography 32(6): 845-870.

Storper M. 2011. Why do regions develop and change? The challenge for geography and economics. Journal of Economic Geography 11(2), 333–346.

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References

Electronic reference

Jakob Engel, « Form, Function and Variegation in 21st Century Capitalism », Articulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], Book Reviews, 2014, Online since 13 December 2014, connection on 24 July 2017. URL : http://articulo.revues.org/2606

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About the author

Jakob Engel

Jakob Engel is a PhD candidate in Economic Geography at the University of Oxford, where he is working on the regulation of physical and financial commodity markets in various jurisdictions. He previously worked as a researcher at the Overseas Development Institute on economic governance, as a trade policy analyst and advisor for the UK government, as well as a consultant for the World Bank, the WTO, UNESCO and various national governments. Email: jakob.engel@wolfson.ox.ac.uk

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