Proposal preview

Capitalism’s transformation in the 20th century: the disintegration and differentiation of global value-chains.

The 20th century saw a far reaching and lasting transformation of capitalist production processes: In contrast to the 19th century, when production concentrated in few global centres, particularly so in the non-agricultural and services sector, global divisions of labour ramified over the course of the 20th century. Production now more often spanned two or more countries. Arguably, this differentiation attained a new quality in recent decades, which coincided with the rise to prominence of concepts such “globalization”, “neoliberalism”, and “global production networks” across the social sciences and humanities. Economic history dealt with this transformation mainly as a phenomenon of decreasing transport and organisational costs after the micro-electronic revolution and container shipping. To our opinion such an interpretation falls short and does not cover the huge structural transformation of capitalist production that started much earlier. We suggest that the global differentiation and in some cases the disintegration of production processes cannot entirely be explained as an effect of new transport facilities and should also not entirely be attributed to shifts in the regulatory framework of the world economy. Instead, we propose to treat this as an organisational transformation in its own right. We want to make use of value-chain and production network approaches that have been successfully applied in a variety of the social sciences, but only to minor extend in economic history so far.
Production in the 20th century was increasingly organized in hierarchical networks, cut into ever smaller steps that facilitated value extraction at nodal points of dynamic global value chains. Value-chain-management became a fashion in Management Science by the end of the 20th century, preparing business students for optimizing not only the technical foundation of a global production process but even more so teaching them to navigate the volatile mixture of state regulations, financial opportunities and competing nations offering incentives for production relocation. We suggest that the current shape of global production is the latest stage of capitalism’s organisational transformation that started in the late 19th century.
The session will assemble a range of case-study based contributions discussing the following questions: Can we discover patterns and time-periods of value-chain transformation over the course of the 20th century? And, if so, how does such differentiation articulate in regard to individual countries, regions and products? What were the main drivers of differentiation, globally and regionally – technology (including standardisation), trade-regulation, or ideologies? Which actors and institutions ‘drove’ the transformation – corporations (national or multinational) in manufacturing, finance, or other services? And, last but not least, who profited from the global differentiation of production and where was the added value accumulated over time?


  • Jan-Otmar Hesse, University of Bayreuth,,
  • Patrick Neveling, University of Uetrecht,,

Session members

  • Jennifer Bair, University of Colorado, Boulder,
  • Keisuke Nishi, University of the Ruyuku,
  • Ray Stokes, University of Glasgow,
  • Laura Rischbieter, University of Konstanz,

Proposed discussant(s)

  • Robert Feenstra, UC Davis,