Global Rivalries Today

How have global rivalries shaped the world we live in, and how do they continue to affect the way some of the most crucial geopolitical decisions of our time are made? In this interview with renowned political scientist Kees van der Pijl, we look at some of the most pivotal events of recent years, from 9/11 to the Arab Spring and the current crisis in Ukraine, to reveal the surprising underlying forces at work.

Introductory question: Since more or less the beginning of the neoliberal offensive in the 1970s, you have been leading important research and theoretical work on the Atlantic ruling class, international capitalist class formation, transnational capitalist classes and the global rivalries amongst capitalist classes which finally triggered a massive global economic crisis in 2007. Throughout the past decade you have been extremely productive, publishing a notable amount on these topics. In addition to numerous articles, your book Global Rivalries was published in 2006, followed by Nomads, Empires, States and The Foreign Encounter in Myth and Religion in 2007 and 2010 respectively. The first and second volumes of your Modes of Foreign Relations and Political Economy trilogy were also published. The last volume The Discipline of Western Supremacy was just recently released. Besides this classical body of work, which in our opinion is on a par with Polanyi’s Great Transformation, you have written and updated a free web-textbook on Global Political Economy. Last year also saw the release of a reprint of The Making of an Atlantic Ruling Class. Currently you are editing a very timely and exciting volume entitled International Political Economy of Production.
Kees, after seven years how do you view the current status of global rivalries amongst the ruling classes? Could you give us your account especially in relation to the grassroots uprisings that have been happening in different kinds of state-society complexes around the world following the 2007/2008 financial crisis? Do you think these were the uprisings anticipated in infamous Pentagon reports and National Security documents released on the eve of 9/11? What do you think the Atlantic ruling classes have done to prepare their response to these early warnings?
Kees van der Pijl: Historical events, as such, are never entirely anticipated, and even when planned, (such as the invasion of Iraq), they have consequences that nobody had foreseen. Of course, once events unfold, intellectual preparation will kick in, and then it depends on the quality of theoretical insight and the accuracy of contingency planning, as well as the readiness of the apparatus to put it into practice, as to– whether the planners can gain control over the course of events again.
In the case of popular uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, there is no point trying to pinpoint individuals ‘behind them’ other than those leading the outburst of mass indignation over inequality and related grievances. Thus, in Tunisia, the typical pattern that would repeat itself elsewhere was that the ruling clique crossed a line in pursuing its strategy of neoliberal private enrichment whilst keeping the repressive state apparatus in place for the less lucky. The self-immolation of a graduate who had had to make a living as a street vendor (in protest over bureaucratic obstruction preventing him from even just doing that) then sparked what obviously had been brewing for some time.
Only at that point can we assume that preparation and planning came to play a role. As far as the Atlantic West is concerned, it had fashioned a machinery for provocation and repression abroad in 1946/47, organised in the Office of Policy Coordination (OPC), a unit for undercover operations and psychological warfare operating outside the CIA. It was absorbed into the CIA in the 1950s, but since that coincided with Allen Dulles (one of the architects of OPC) becoming CIA director, it meant that the CIA inherited the covert operations portfolio. Knowledgeable observers, like Peter Dale Scott, claim that OPC took over the CIA rather than vice versa.
Across NATO, this covert structure fanned out into what later became known as the Gladio cells, small nodes of committed Rightists with access to hidden arms caches. They were conceived as stay-behind cells around which, in the case of a Soviet invasion, resistance was to be organised. Of course there was no Soviet invasion either planned or expected, and these networks in practice turned out to function as relays of a NATO-coordinated strategy of tension. So whenever there was a threat from the domestic Left, it was from these quarters – working hand in glove with the intelligence services – that the political process could be destabilised by violence, infiltration and provocation. Italy and Turkey are examples of how the application of a strategy of tension worked to block the way for the Left when it could no longer be contained through the regular political process. From these countries, some of the most insightful analyses have emerged of how the ‘deep state’ (a term coined in Turkey) actually operates. In the 1980s, these networks partially metamorphosed into ‘democracy promotion’ structures, drawing in private financiers like George Soros and others, but essentially remaining covert operations.
France under De Gaulle was exceptional in that it suspended membership of the military organisation of NATO in the mid 1960s, among other things in protest over US covert action in French politics, including the instrumentalisation by the West of neo-fascist elements emerging from the struggle over decolonisation (in France, the OAS; remnants of the Portuguese fascist secret police, PIDE, were likewise integrated into the NATO panoply after the Carnation Revolution in 1974).
In hindsight May 1968 was an important turning point, also in the evolution of the covert networks operating under NATO auspices. The student and workers’ revolt demonstrated the potential of mobilising the young in the streets against an elected, but from the Atlantic point of view undesirable, government–De Gaulle resigned from the presidency within a year. The attention of psychological warfare specialists in Britain and the US at the time was drawn by the fact that not only did the students and workers criticise capitalism, they also were profoundly critical of Soviet-style state socialism. In my book Discipline of Western Supremacy I give details how, when the Soviet Bloc began to crumble, analysts of the Vatican’s and the Reagan administration’s support for the Polish workers’ revolt urged a shift to democracy promotion.
Since then, youth movements have been mobilised to unseat undesired leaders–from Milosevic in Serbia to currently, and so far unsuccessfully, Yanukovich in Ukraine.
A movement to camp out in a central square and storm government buildings is not something that one can organise from the outside. But if there is protest, we can by now safely say that a well-trained apparatus is ready to move in to provide money and organisational skills for round-the-clock pop concerts, printing materials, visits by Western politicians (in Kiev a US State Department official was filmed handing out sandwiches etc.) and the like. Its lack of success in Kiev, in my view, has to do with the growing independence of the German ruling bloc, which after having declined to follow the US and Britain into Iraq, and likewise kept aloof from the Libya adventure that toppled Gaddafi, has also cultivated its own cronies in Ukraine, partly at cross-purposes with the US.
Through the 1970s and 80s, the ideas put forward by Harvard scholar-activist Gene Sharp concerning non-violent coups have provided intellectual back-up for the democracy promotion/youth revolt movements–in the Philippines, the former Soviet Bloc, ex-USSR, and so on. Again, I detail the evolution of this line of thought and its adoption by veterans of the US and NATO covert operations infrastructure in the aforementioned book. The youth movement must of course be there; every student generation is in principle inclined to seek and experience something similar to May 1968, and in the changed circumstances, this is being instrumentalised. It has by now been theoretically reflected on to such an extent, and there is such an apparatus in place to put ideas into practise, that whenever there are stirrings with the potential of a student movement, it can be jumped on. At Sussex students have told me how they travelled in countries like Albania and former Yugoslavia as part of solidarity groups, connecting the anti-government youth movements in different countries. One should not underestimate the spontaneous and authentic, albeit politically naïve and geopolitically illiterate, nature of this sort of movement. And then, should one speak up for a man like Yanukovich?
In Belarus the youth movement was also frustrated by an authoritarian government aware of the forces they were up against. Putin organised his own youth movement, which can be mobilised should an unexpected pop concert revolution set up camp in Red Square (not very likely).
Chávez in Venezuela was also on the hit-list, but then he had his own mass base that protected him from a middle-class youth revolt. He was also saved by the invasion of Iraq which distracted full US attention from Latin America for a time.
To return to your question, 9/11 marks a turning point also in this respect: this event triggered a return to placing a premium on violence. There is a sort of reversal to overt warfare, infiltration and provocation–away from the subtleties of trying to influence authentic mass movements. This certainly has been borne of events following the Arab Spring which, after tortuous attempts to gain control of the revolting masses, including on the Muslim Brotherhood, has been short-circuited by violence again–first in Libya, then in Syria, and then in the generals’ coup in Egypt which has basically turned back the clock entirely, with Sissi taking the place of Mubarak, and the $1.5 billion annual US subsidy for the military uninterrupted.
Turkey is located in the middle of imperial frontiers such as the Balkans, the Caucasus, the Middle East and North Africa. Transnational and systemic rivalries therefore simultaneously penetrate and intersect over the social space in which, to use your term, a Turkish ‘secondary contender’ state-society complex is embedded. Most notably after recent crises between Erdogan’s AKP and the Gulen Movement – namely over the head of the national intelligence agency (MIT), the Gezi Uprising and recent corruption scandals which came about after the covert operations targeted the ministries and the prime minister himself – the struggle between Erdogan and Gulen has become fierce. What do you make of the rivalry between the western-oriented and militarist old power elite, represented by Erdogan, and the Gulen networks in the wider regional and global context of global rivalries? 
Kees van der Pijl: Erdogan’s support for militant Sunnism in Syria has stirred concern among the secular current of opinion in Turkey, whilst the country’s Kurds and Alevis are likewise distrustful of support for jihadists in the war raging across the border. But even within the AKP, support for an Islamist make-over of the Turkish state is limited (in a recent poll only 12 percent of Turks were in favour of sharia law to be the basis of the country’s legal system, against three-quarter majorities or more in the Middle East and Muslim Asia). To deal with the bubble economy, the AKP government has resorted to austerity policies, with the same result as in the rest of Europe: the economy becomes smaller, the deficit relatively larger. This too undermines popular support. It also makes the country more dependent on the Gulf Arab states which have supplied most of the short-term finance to cover the deficit–in turn aggravating the wariness in Turkey towards increasing Islamicisation due to the conservative Gulf states’ influence, a dangerous spiral for sure.
Erdogan’s attitude towards Israel, a country with which his Central Anatolian business constituency does not have the links that the Istanbul-based big business groups have had historically, only makes his support for militant Sunnism at home and abroad more of a concern. His patronage of Hamas in Gaza has become dysfunctional now that the Egyptian military are again closing the lifeline that allowed the Palestinians to survive the Israeli stranglehold.
Clearly the idea, including my own at first, that AKP-style ‘moderate Islamism’ would provide a model to consolidate the Arab Spring along the lines of a neoliberal, pro-Western format, has been overtaken by the return to violence as the predominant mode of exercising Western influence. Whether the Gülen network from its US base serves as a relay to help mobilise mass protests in Turkey, as Erdogan has implied, I do not know; except that from what I have learned, the Gezi park movement is not a politically naïve youth festival but a politically articulate resistance in defence of the secular state and with a strong academic component. I have received many messages from METU in Ankara concerning plans to sacrifice part of its beautiful campus to commercial interests too, as if the country’s academia were not one of the greatest assets for the future.
It seems like, as we see in Turkey and indeed in almost every country and region, inter-ruler rivalries are becoming increasingly fierce. How do you see the situation at the imperial frontiers, especially in North Africa, the Middle East, and the Asia Pacific region surrounding China? With reference to the increasing capabilities that the developments in the ICTs have brought about, how do you analyse the interest of the rulers, or a segment of ruler class, in choosing soft-power versus a military offensive and occupations against the backdrop of network/cyber wars and technical-tactical based civil uprisings as seen in Eastern Europe?  And how do you compare those velvet revolutions to the recent uprisings?
Kees van der Pijl: Here I tend to start with my own, inevitably schematic understanding of the global political economy, which is based on the idea of a Lockean heartland around the white-majority English-speaking West, from which capital expands and links up with nodes of capitalist development elsewhere. Every epoch since the long 18th century, when the French monarchy and then Napoleon resisted English-British maritime and commercial supremacy, has seen a key state reproduce such a contender posture. Today that role has been assigned to China.
India, Japan, even Vietnam, the Philippines, and others are being mobilised by the West to gang up against China, just as China itself was being encouraged in its anti-Soviet stance from the 1970s onwards.
Now, whilst it can be helpful to begin thinking about historical configurations of forces along these lines, the next step must always consist of specifying the secular trends which make each heartland/contender configuration different. The current one, in fact the post-Soviet world constellation as a whole, has, in that light, as its key characteristic the fact that the national security state in the United States and its NATO dependencies has run out of control, whilst the capitalist economy everywhere crystallises into an oligarchical structure with a clique of billionaires at the top and an increasingly impoverished population, including the middle classes which are losing economic clout everywhere. Such a frozen constellation, in which the oligarchies collude with the national security apparatus, keeping each other in power, is unable to deal with popular demands and with objective, life-threatening crises that result from the destruction of the Earth’s biosphere.
This is another viewpoint from which to understand the growing dependence on violence exhibited by those countries like the United States and, in the EU, Britain and France. By demonstrating their readiness to use force in crisis situations, they seek to compensate their loss of economic weight in the world. Germany, on the other hand, although also weakening due to the crisis of capitalism (albeit with a delay due to its repression of rentier incomes during the reunification phase with the East), is increasingly pursuing its own interests. In countries like my own, this reactivates old tensions between our historical liberal line, which goes back to the days of Dutch maritime primacy which oriented the nation towards the English-speaking world, and late industrialisation after 1870 which pushed it towards Germany as a supplier of semi-finished goods.
The militarists in the US have made it clear on several occasions that they will never again tolerate a balance of terror as they ‘granted’ to the Soviet Union in the 1970s, and in defence publications you can read of US war plans aimed at knocking out the underground network on which the Chinese nuclear forces rely. At the same time, the fiction of al Qaeda, which is now estimated to have consisted of, at most, some 200 activists at the time of the 9/11 attacks (hence also why it is so improbable that they pulled off such a massive operation), has become the common denominator of all jihadist unrest in North Africa, the Middle East, and from the Caucasus across all of Muslim Asia.
What former UK foreign secretary Robin Cook once dismissed as a US national security database, at best, has been amplified out of all proportion to serve as the rationale for keeping a massive defence apparatus in place. As the books by Jeremy Scahill document, US covert operations across the globe only further inflate this once negligible threat.
So, in response to your question about soft power, even in the zone where it seemed for a time that Western strategy relied on it to roll back Chinese influence (Africa), this is now being sidelined by increasing military involvement led by France, but with the US Africom military command in the background. Whilst the soft power option, which hinges on the spread of mobile phone technology and in which the (Bill) Gates Foundation is an important relay, continues to be played as well, it is clear that more and more the West is choosing the military option.
How do you view the level of politicisation of cyberspace since it became increasingly central to global rivalries, at least publicly: from WikiLeaks, to hackers’ involvement in political activism, groups like Anonymous or LulzSec, and whistle blowers like Snowden, as well as revelations regarding NSA-PRISM-GCHQ surveillance scandals? Could you share with us your account of some confusing relationships that exist between Soros, Google, Facebook, Stratfor, as well as other actors, from a transnational class-analytical perspective – even though it may be at an informed-speculative level.
Kees van der Pijl: The Snowden revelations and WikiLeaks have exposed a huge system of surveillance that the ‘allied’ governments are claiming to be surprised by, but which in fact they signed up to long ago. After the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, the NSA and other US intelligence agencies switched from monitoring communist countries to all countries, both in Europe and in Asia. In the course of the 1990s this led to concern in the EU. In 1998 there was a dossier put together by a British research bureau for the European Parliament that spelled out, in detail, NSA eavesdropping practises and called on the governments of the EU to resist them. So the ‘surprise’ of Merkel and others is totally disingenuous; not only the UK but also the German and other national European intelligence agencies have been collaborating with the NSA for a very long period because the deep state is a transnational structure on which ruling class power relies, and increasingly so.
Meanwhile, big capitalist firms are struggling to regain control over the Internet which is a major, potentially liberating space such as has never existed before. It has abolished, in principle, the power of those governing our lives to decide what we read and see and know; through the Internet, the editorial function has in fact been returned to informed citizens. Also, thanks to Snowden, Assange, and all other whistle blowers, the extent to which we were kept un-informed, has been made public.
The attack by capital on Internet freedom is built around private property rights. This produces the absurd penalties for those who challenge the privatisation of scientific and scholarly knowledge, barring people from freely accessing relevant information purely on the ground of copyright. Public universities pay their staff out of the general budget, the staff publishes research in journals but these are owned by private corporations and so the product of their intellectual labour is put behind bars. Even the academic institutions that produce the research must pay to look at it again.
People challenging this have run into serious trouble. Aaron Swartz, who hacked into the JSTOR library of scholarly journal articles and made it public, faced such exorbitant persecution that he chose to end his life. A Swedish hacker was locked up in complete solitary confinement without the right to read books, a right denied not even the neo-fascist mass murderer, Anders Breivik. That is one line of attack (I need not recount the fates of Manning, Assange, Snowden and many lesser known whistle blowers).
The other step is to seek to privatise the Internet as such and restore the editorial role. This has been compared to an attempt to make the Internet an extension of cable TV in which companies decide what can be accessed. This is currently being brought to US courts for jurisdiction, but if Monsanto is any indication as to what to expect, we must fear that Verizon and other big communication giants are going to get their way.
The picture of the world today is one of entrenched oligarchies competing with each other economically and deploying the means of repression and violence at their disposal. At the opposite end we find the disempowered masses, facing the consequences of an economic system that no longer works, ecological destruction and generally, exhaustion of the social and natural bases on which organised social life rests. The only thing that still gives cause for optimism is the ability of the masses of the population on all continents to remind the rulers that their will to resist has not been extinguished.
Interview conducted on 15 January 2014. 

Click here for the Turkish version: Atılım Social Sciences Journal