On Crisis, Marxism and IR – An interview with Professor Kees van der Pijl

by iraklis oikonomou
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“The old is dying but the new is not yet born”
 
An interview with Professor Kees van der Pijl
 
 
 
by Iraklis Oikonomou
(Published in two parts in Greek newspapers “Avgi” and “Epohi”)
 
Professor van der Pijl, in Athens you will be speaking at a workshop on the financial crisis, in memory of Peter Gowan. Who was, really, Gowan as a person and as a scholar? What was his contribution to our understanding of the world?
 
I only met Peter Gowan a few times at conferences and always found him a most congenial and generous person. Peter was a man of exceptional breadth of interests and an exceptional ability to cover the most diverse fields. He wrote for instance on the history of the English civil service and the class profile of it, but also on world politics and finance. My own feeling is that his Global Gamble is the work that most impressed me, because not only did he get to the heart of the matter by speaking of a ‘gamble’, of which we now all know that it was lost; he also focused on the newly re-conquered terrain of Eastern Europe where this gamble was underwritten by broad majorities and eager elites, who are now paying the price. It fills me with deep sadness that in Peter Gowan we lost a man of his abilities at such a young age.
 
In your own work, you argue that the current global crisis is not simply financial, but involves a crisis of the nation-state as well as a crisis of the social and natural resources that are necessary for capitalist reproduction. Where do you see the origins of this multi-faceted crisis?
 
As a financial crisis, even if it evolves into the ‘Great Recession’ that people speak of, we are still looking at something cyclical. If governments were collectively willing to reenact an equivalent to the 1933 Glass-Steagal Act in the US, separating deposit from investment banking, the problem would be solved technically speaking. At least if this time, the opportunities to evade such legislation by moving offshore  (in the US case,  the City of London) are foreclosed. That this is not happening is because the investment bankers are not willing to forego their reliance on the  mass of deposits with which they play international markets and on which (in the UK alone) £ 8.5 billion is earned annually solely by not paying the interest. So imagine what profits can be made with using the underlying principal of several trillions for speculation on a global scale.  Bank capital now has other forms and the political scene firmly in its grip, much more so than in the 1930s.
More fundamentally I see the crisis as bringing to the surface the inherent limits of capitalist market discipline, which has performed its historic role of raising the level of our control over ourselves and our environment. It must now give way to new social forms. Unfortunately, it may once again be the case, as Gramsci said of the 1930s, that the old is dying but the new is not yet born and that in the meantime we will be witnessing many morbid phenomena. This time that might apply to xenophobia, neo-fascism and racism, which governments are openly flirting with—just think of how the endless repetition of phrases like ‘Islamic terrorism’ poisons the public sphere and mutual trust. Since many people are exposed to forms of extreme dislocation and a breakdown of social protection, scapegoating is an obvious way to release anxieties and dissatisfaction. The neoliberal offensive launched by Reagan and Thatcher (and prepared by people like Hayek and Friedman in the Mont Pèlerin Society, Rupert Murdoch in the International Chamber of Commerce, and so on) has not only brought financial capital to the commanding position it now enjoys. It has also exploited human creativity and resilience, productive and reproductive social practices, brief, the inner fabric society, to such an extent that society shows signs of exhaustion. This is expressed in the breakdown of social bonds, but also, as recently in the privatized France Télécom, in a range of suicides among highly skilled staff who no longer can handle the work pressures. Finally, what it also being exhausted is the natural basis on which society rests—whether through actual overexploitation or through pollution.
 
One of the main arguments of the “Green” parties and movements, including the newly founded Green Party in Greece, is that environmental degradation has rendered the Left-Right distinction meaningless. To what extent is the current ecological crisis an outcome of capitalism’s logic and discipline?
 
The Left-Right schema certainly requires rethinking but I find it hard to believe that the distinction between a society organized around income equality, cultural advancement, and mutual respect, would no longer be distinguished from one that celebrates individual material success and chauvinism. What the limits of capitalist discipline imply is certain elements of conservatism must be incorporated into a Left tradition that after the 1960s tended to function more and more as a launch-pad for neoliberalism. Just think of intensive consumption or the use of recreational drugs. Neoliberal capitalism must be criticized partly by a self-critique of the sort of hedonism that characterized the 1960s youth movement and provided the mass base for a break with the highly  regimented lifestyle of the 1950s mixed economy (just as it did, belatedly, in Eastern European state socialism). The crisis of the biosphere has been brought about by deepening capitalist exploitation, long complemented by a state-socialist attempt to match it. Today, agricultural land is being converted to allow capitalist agribusiness to thrive at a record rate (in the way rice paddies in Bangladesh are inundated with seawater for shrimp culture, and so on); people as a result are driven into the cities (more than  half of the world’s population is now urban). But no city in the world can feed its population, so the pressures to exploit the land even more intensively increase as well. In spite of some exciting local initiatives, it is usually through large-scale capitalist business that this exploitation is organized, more people will be driven to the cities, and so on.
 
Despite the two-fold crisis of capitalism and social democracy, the radical Left in Europe seems unable to benefit politically from this crisis and provide a convincing alternative. Why is this so, and what should a left-wing strategy involve?
 
Social Democracy is in crisis because, after initial hesitations, it signed up to neoliberalism and the myths by which it is being advocated.  They have lost all credibility. But the radical Left historically emerged as a fringe movement of Social Democracy, so its legitimacy too has suffered—even apart from the actual conversion to neoliberalism as in the case of the Italian Communist Party. The Left was part of a tendency that characterized an entire civilization at a particular juncture—the optimism of the late 19th century that electricity and sanitation, longer life-spans etc. would usher in a new age –an optimism expressed also in avant-garde painting and music and in many other ways. The Left itself was also an intellectual powerhouse, with debates raging across borders. It split over the threat of war, and the First World War shattered the utopian mood entirely, burning up all the hopes of a new Europe and a new world in the trenches. When the Russian revolution was then confined to what remained of the Czar’s empire, and Fascism was unleashed against communism everywhere, the Left degenerated into Stalinism or fragments like Trotskyism, Maoism etc. What is needed today is a class analysis that fills in the many blank spots in the legacy of historical materialism. I think the role of the new middle classes, or ‘cadre’ is one such urgently needed field, because the cadre will be the class the executes the necessary changes in the crisis, as it did before in the 1930s and 1970s. Also foreign relations, from elementary relations of culturally different communities to imperialism, must be investigated in their own right and not reduced to economics.
 
You have been a fierce critic of the US-led war in Iraq. With the benefit of hindsight and in the light of the complete failure of the proclaimed US goals (WMD, terrorism, stability, etc), why did this war take place?
 
I would say, as a last-ditch attempt to keep the forward drive of Western liberalism in conjunction with keeping capitalism expanding, and playing the last competitive advantage—US military superiority—in the process. All the subsidiary aims (oil and pipeline politics, excluding Russia, forcing the EU in line, arms industry interests, support for the ongoing Israeli colonization of Palestine…) follow from this basic fact.
 
Much of your work has been dedicated to the study of transatlantic relations.  A part of the Greek Left has traditionally stood for an “autonomous Europe” that is independent from the US and speaks with one voice. Is this goal feasible and, indeed, desirable, in the light of Europe’s growing military arm?
 
The EU is large enough to organize its own role in the world, but the problem is that it is deeply divided too. Britain and Berlusconi’s Italy, and the new member states in the former Soviet bloc, all want close ties with the US; Germany inevitably will dominate the continent, France with Russia will again move into positions which are part- complementary with Germany, part meant to contain it. The EU itself has lost credibility by blindly advocating neoliberalism to a degree matched only by Britain (which itself is happy to opt out of the consequences—the Euro, notably).  The build-up of European military industrial capacity is worrying, because it is so unclear what this is meant to serve except adding to a general tendency to seek military solutions. What we are looking at is a growing instability, notably in the European periphery, caused by the application of neoliberal policies; for which there is then a massive military machinery in place (which in the future can only be expected to be actually fielded by Germany) to control them and reassert the authority of the centre.
 
The title of one of your recent books is “Global Rivalries: From the Cold War to Iraq”. Is anarchy and war the most plausible future scenario concerning relations between capitalist metropolises? If yes, why? Is there an alternative that you envision?
 
This was very much an attempt to combine my work on transnational classes with the centrifugal effects of geopolitical competition, and to highlight how the West has advanced across the globe by incorporating challengers, or what I call ‘contender states’ without being able to entirely incorporate them into a liberal universe. In fact, it is less and less capable of doing so. Hence you see a sort of reversal towards regionalism, with Russia and China resisting the West although they have allowed capitalist forms  to proliferate in their own countries. Also what is happening in Latin America is of world historic proportions. The coup in Salvador which would have been a routine military intervention against the Left, and hence eligible for US support if not engineered by Washington in the first place, this time had to be neutralized. The alternative to Western hegemony and domination will come from a rough balance between the social models represented by the different regional formations, which however tend to be authoritarian whether inspired by Left or Right ideas. Democracy is in short supply these days, and the crisis of politics that we are witnessing threatens to create further vacuums.
 
Debates about international relations theory in Greece seem to be still stuck in the “prehistoric” dichotomy of realism v. idealism. What is, according to you, the fundamental problem or question in contemporary international relations theory?
 
IR is the most backward social science discipline, and can only recover as Global Political Economy, that is, through a comprehensive bringing back of the other disciplines that were separated from economics when it was sanitized to serve against Marxism in the late 19th century. My own current work investigates what is socially substantive in the relations of communities occupying separate spaces and considering each other as outsiders. This goes back to the earliest encounters of roving human bands, and in that sense the ‘foreign’ is as old as historical humanity, not something that came about in the Westphalian peace of 1648. Idealism and realism are branches of one and the same tree, which was planted after World War I when IR too had to be enlisted in the struggle against Marxism, then at the height of its prestige. Today, we are seeing not only the limits of capitalist expansion, but also of the expansion of the West. This has taken the form, paradoxically given that the English-speaking West itself is ‘post’-national, of an extended reproduction of the national state. This has had devastating, indeed genocidal  consequences as state boundaries were imposed across the living spaces of pre-national, tribal and other pre-modern social formations, triggering population movements across borders, creating ‘minorities’ and so on. That too is in crisis today, because no state in the world is coincident with a nation any longer.
 
You have referred explicitly to Nicos Poulantzas as one of the theorists who influenced your own work. In what way did he do so?
 
Poulantzas is of course very much a structuralist Marxist, and also guilty of economism in many respects. Even so, his work on the internationalization of capital and the nation-state is a text that I come back to time and again, and also his writings on law I find intriguing. What Poulantzas saw was that capital, by penetrating a national economy, disorganizes its social cohesion. Effectively it subordinates the governing class of the country in question to its own designs. In my own work, beginning with the Making of an Atlantic Ruling Class, I used this by also applying it to the United States itself. The US too is a society in the process of disintegration as a result of the world market movement of capital, so it is not a one-sided US-to-Europe process of expansion, but a transnational class ‘effect’ (as Poulantzas would say) in which the American role is preponderant but not qualitatively different from that of European countries. 
More generally, are certain aspects of Marxist theory of any relevance to the analysis of international relations today?
First, what is relevant today is the Marxist method—the idea of society as always evolving through contradiction, the perceived inconsistency between what we are told is the case and what really happens. This has been applied to the economy, but it must also be expanded to other fields, not as Althusser and Poulantzas had it, by creating separate  floors above the economy which could be reached by an elevator that you enter on the ground floor (that of the economy), but by analyzing social conflicts in terms of exploitation and alienation. Gramsci’s writings are hugely important but of course he was not as broad as Marx. The bottom line of all Marxist critique and reflection is the connection with practical struggles, which is not the same as saying that everyone must be workers’ leader him/herself. A former Ph D student of mine, Jeroen Merk, is involved in the campaign for an Asian Floor Wage, a minimum wage that would limit the over-exploitation of Asian workers to supply cheap textiles and other goods to Western markets. Jeroen has analysed these product chains in terms of the role of a managerial cadre working for the large transnational companies organizing them. Now he is in a position to witness for himself, and for the Clean Clothes Campaign which combats abuses of textile workers across the globe, what can be done about it. I am following this closely, because in my view, this is what Marxism is ultimately about. We look at a nice pair of Nike athletic shoes, but behind that shoe is a world of misery and exploitation that can be changed. 

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