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"Social democracy has been exhausted": Kees van der Pijl on Marxism, barbarism, and prospects for left renewal

Kees Van Der Pijl15 April 2016

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What are the hope for a renewed Social Democracy across Europe? Who constitute the new Atlantic ruling class? How do we combat the rise of xenophobia? And what is the future of the war-torn countries across the globe? Kees van der Pijl, one of the leading Marxist political scientists, takes us through his intellectual and political development since the 1970s, as well as pointing towards the future developments for emancipatory politics in this wide-ranging interview with George Souvlis and Yulia Yurchenko (originally published by LeftEast).

Q1: Would you like to present yourself by focusing on the formative experiences (academic and political) that have strongly influenced you?

My generation was a lucky one, the baby-boomers whose society was in competition with state socialism, our own social order discredited by the Great Depression and two world wars. So capitalism was compelled to show a human face (at home, not in southeast Asia, Africa or Latin America, of course). Although coming from a very modest background, I was able to study for practically nothing, enjoy quality schooling compared to what is offered today, and profit from other social provision and protection. It was generally a Spartan but optimistic environment to grow up in. From my background in the declining petty bourgeoisie of small shopkeepers, I also inherited a mentality of hard work, not counting on others, and a penchant for not trusting the high and mighty (that turned out very useful, too).

So when my generation experienced first-hand what is now recognised as the moment the capitalist class called into question the post-war class compromise forced upon it by Depression and war, and we ourselves burst onto the scene with a permissive culture breaking with the rigidities of reconstruction Cold War Europe, we were relatively well-trained, hungry for a different world (socialism in any form), and optimistic.

Yet at the time I personally completely failed to see what Wolfgang Streeck has called the three successive attempts by Western governments (inflation, state debt, private debt) to cover the breakdown of the post-war class compromise by throwing money into the breaches. We interpreted the 1970s crisis as a crisis of capital, whereas it was in fact a crisis of the post-war class compromise as a consequence of the restructuring of capital to relations of exploitation and domination outside that compromise –both at home and abroad.

I was hired by the University of Amsterdam in 1973, which was then faced with a massive expansion of student intake, in a climate of student revolt, ‘Marxism’, and with mainstream theories such as positivism being ridiculed. Much time was spent in meetings that in hindsight served no purpose but to offer a terrain the government and university administration had decided or just guessed would slowly tame the student movement by incorporating the administratively-minded into the governing structures and prepare these for a transition towards a market-oriented university regime.

I was also, from the mid-70s to when it collapsed, a member of the Dutch communist party CPN. That party had no clue of what was going on either, and basically mistrusted intellectuals. Even so, my membership satisfied my search for a real opposition, and I must say that in the party I finally encountered the working class, its culture, powerful humanity, and the tradition from which the party had been able to build the most powerful resistance movement in our country against the Nazi occupation in World War II. All this, the strength of character, humour, and iron organisation, made the party an unforgettable life experience but intellectually it did not really influence me. Those who influenced me were French communists, some East German and Soviet authors, whose books I found in the communist bookshop: Paul Boccara, Christian Palloix, and so on to Poulantzas, Suzanne de Brunhoff.

My most inspiring teacher in Leiden, where I studied, was the Indologist, Jan Heesterman, who appreciated my creativity and intellectual curiosity more than the political science teachers such as Hans Daalder and Arend Lijphart who wanted an American-style discipline. Ben Sijes, a veteran Council Communist (anti-party) was a guest professor and intellectually was very important for me, because he introduced us to Pannekoek, who (as a contemporary internationally renowned Marxist) criticised Stalinist propagation of Lenin’s original, mistaken materialism.

Once in Amsterdam, my late friend Gabriel Kolko, the US historian, who along with his wife and (co-) author Joyce had come to live there, was a great source of inspiration and so was Robert Cox whom I got to know through Stephen Gill. André Gunder Frank was employed by our university for a year or so and during that time we had some very memorable encounters. Of course my co-conspirators in Amsterdam, Meindert Fennema, Henk Overbeek and later Otto Holman, and others, and several cohorts of unforgettable students, were able and insightful interlocutors in developing intellectually.

Q2: You’ re a Marxist, Aren’t you? What does this mean for you in analytical and political terms?

I certainly wanted to be ‘a Marxist’ once I was made a lecturer in Amsterdam. Before that I was better read in Habermas and others in the Frankfurt School tradition. Marxism was high fashion when I was hired. It was also (certainly in combination with communist party membership) the most unequivocal expression of opposition to the barbaric American wars in Indochina, the bloody coups in Indonesia and Chile, you name it. These were all supported by the Dutch government too, except maybe some inconsequential reservations about Chile.

Today I see it this way. Hegel and Marx are the moment in the history of Western philosophy (by which I mean the comprehensive format of human understanding, first of all of society itself) when it leaves the ‘European’ framework behind and becomes truly universal, the heritage of all humanity. Of course, in Hegel this has not yet been achieved, he rather outlines the trajectory of dialectical, universalising thought from its beginnings to its supreme, but still European form (his own); the last universalising step was then taken by Marx. That is, for example, why there can be a Chinese Marxism, not a Chinese Hegelianism.

However, social philosophy is not astronomy or geology, or music, so its development not only takes place in a given social order but it also positions itself as a critique of it. Philosophy in the Hegelian-Marxist sense must also transcend that social order to truly realise itself. That is, before it can become the core of, let us say, an imaginary standard academic curriculum, the limits placed on it by capitalism’s mental and moral property regime must be overcome. That obviously cannot be the work of theory alone, so Marxism can realise its universality only when the capitalist social order itself is transcended. My experience in the 1970s academic and political environment was that in the university, in the communist movement, the stirrings of that transcendence could (again) be felt. I, for one, felt them then although only now I understand what I think was happening. I mean, the stunted, incomplete and tentative quest for a qualitatively higher level of understanding was developing around us, amidst endless nonsense, misunderstanding, and so on, but developing nevertheless.

Would that transition, theoretically and socio-politically, have been completed, Marxism in a narrow sense would have been transcended as well, only some basic principles such as historicism in Gramsci’s sense, ‘absolute humanism’ (no further quasi-magical forces, like God or ‘the market’, governing us) would remain. And then all the incomplete, unfinished sketches of Marx and his fellows and successors would be taken to the level on which they were projected, as philosophy including method.

By that time, the 1970s, that is, the counteroffensive of theories formulated from a bourgeois framework, from marginalism in economics, positivism in sociology, indeed, the academic division of labour itself on the basis of these retrograde mutations in each separate field, was already a century-old and today it has reasserted itself powerfully. I have argued this point in The Discipline of Western Supremacy (2014) and in my web-textbook of 2009, A Survey of Global Political Economy.

I am now working on an argument that the regressive conjuncture of modern social science and philosophy has in fact had a quasi-suicidal effect on Western civilisation, denying its ability to become truly universal. That inability pits Western liberalism, which has effectively absorbed Social Democracy within itself, against Islam, China, in a Huntingtonian framework. Hence, the West is entrenching in an increasingly bellicose imperialism. Amidst a general backward turn towards religious imaginaries, provoked in part by the combination of a liberal culture proscribing its own most advanced insights (which call for a socialist, today, an eco-socialist society), in part by the crisis of the capitalist order. We are now in what Rosa Luxemburg prophesied, the age of barbarism. It opens up once socialism is not allowed by events (or should we say, the balance of forces) to be realised and developed beyond a certain threshold. The failure and collapse of state socialism in that light may have been the threshold, but then not the one beyond which new future possibilities were opening up for progressive development but the moment when we slipped into barbarism.

Q3: In your study The Making of An Atlantic Ruling Classwhich appeared in 1984, you attempted to analyse the process of capitalist class formation in the North Atlantic area in the period between the launch of Woodrow Wilson’s crusade from Democracy in 1917 and the world economic crisis of 1974-1975. What changed since then? Who/where is the new transatlantic/transnational ruling class?

The easy answer is that Bill Carroll did an empirical study of director interlocks and membership of the main planning groups in 2010 and expressly confirmed the thesis of an Atlantic ruling class, using network analysis and such methods to establish that the commanding heights of the global political economy are still occupied by the ruling classes of the English-speaking West.

What has changed, is the narrowing of the basis of class compromise to the point of oligarchic rule, in which an ever-smaller ruling class, the “one percent,” but often much smaller, now holds power by relying ever-more on authoritarianism and war. The War on Terror, a fight against an imaginary enemy, which, however, is becoming a reality in that very war, is the supreme expression of this, with its endless bombing campaigns, mass surveillance, and the impoverishment of the quality of the political and intellectual debate. The amazing thing is that a vast auxiliary cadre without which the 1 percent would not survive for a month, is still sufficiently loyal, by training and outlook, being paid, and in the absence of a credible alternative ideology. Yet the fact that its loyalty to predatory neoliberal form of capitalism we are now living in is premised on ideological commitments also highlights it is a precarious loyalty. The younger generation of cadre, people who have no prospect of stable employment, are beginning to desert.

In my paper on Streeck, ‘Democratic Capitalism in the Last Stages?’ posted on my site, I have elaborated on the idea of the shock-like narrowing of the class compromise, from a corporate liberal compromise with the middle classes and labour, to a systemic neoliberal with asset-owning middle classes, to a predatory neoliberal one without class compromise and relying on authoritarianism, high-risk international behaviour, right-wing populism and media compliance instead.

Q4: Do you think there could have been a different outcome to Syriza’s negotiations with the troika? Could Alexis Tsipras have pursued an alternative strategy, like the one advocated by Syriza’s dissident Left Platform, and thereby avoided capitulating to Greece’s creditors? Or would that have required a different balance of forces elsewhere on the continent?

On this I wrote a piece ‘Rebellion in Athens’ for New Left Review, in April 2015, when there were still high hopes of a Greek Spring. The paper was kept for some time and then rejected, to my real regret because this is not the sort of a piece I can produce every month. I posted it on too, at least there you don’t suffer from the idiosyncrasies of editorial boards and readers can judge for themselves who was right. The Left Platform in Greece was a dismal failure because politics is not a one-issue matter, so when they stood in the election on a Grexit-platform they hardly gained any adherence. I was enthusiastic about Varoufakis’ Global Minotaur, which I rely on in my Rebellion piece, but also believe that the real target of the German stance was France. I then connected that strand of thought with the exploitation of the Charlie Hebdo attack. However, people at NLR and other publications are (too) keen to be recognised by the mainstream and are allergic to the faintest hint of ‘conspiracy theory’, as if the incidence of terror attacks would be all spontaneous and there would not have been an infrastructure in place which at least seeks to influence the conjuncture of terror. Greece was a sideshow and when the Syriza position at the outset was to stay in the Eurozone they might as well have given up right away. Portugal too has been placed under Brussels’ supervision. It cannot even form a left government without the EU dictating its programme.

Q5: The social-democratic left of the 1970s proved unable to develop a viable strategy for dealing with the onset of crisis and the resulting growth of economic difficulties in the advanced capitalist world. It seems like all over Western Europe, social-democratic reformism gained strength and became more ambitious in the 1970s — but in every case, it eventually went down to defeat. Why did this happen? Do you think that today, within the global context of unregulated capitalism, a widespread social democratic regulation in the European Continent would be possible?

Here I follow the analysis of Streeck that the inflation of the 1970s gave the semblance of left strength whereas in fact it was an inflationary prolongation of the post-war class compromise capital was in the process of disengaging from. The historic roles of social democracy, or of communism for that matter, have exhausted themselves, the former one by allowing itself to be incorporated into the neoliberal adventure, the latter by an ossified, and ultimately faulty understanding of the Russian Revolution and Stalinism. I believe we are on the threshold of a sort of right-wing populist insurrection in which the discontent over neoliberal austerity will be successfully mobilised by Le Pen in France and other Far Right groups across Europe, some of which already run countries, like Poland or Hungary.  This is another reason why I think terrorism is being manipulated because it mobilises people against immigrants, refugees etc. If you just think how the Belgian police which (perhaps unlike its intelligence services) is excellently kept abreast of what happens in immigrant communities such as Molenbeek in Brussels because they set up a very productive network of informers more than a decade ago to combat drugs and drugs-related crime which they now rely on to be aware of terror threats too. So the same Belgian police, upon catching the suspect of the November attacks in Paris, Salah Abdeslam, declares that he wants to work with police. That is a pure provocation: it triggered the Zaventem Airport and metro bomb attacks because the others in the various cells thought, now is the time to act before we are caught. Why didn’t the police keep silent, arrest those revealed by Abdeslam first? This is not incompetence, this is politics if you ask me.

Q6: Conflicts in Ukraine and especially Syria – among other problems linked to recession – have exacerbated xenophobic attitudes and increase of institutionalized racism across the EU. What in your view do those developments mean for foundations and the future of the EU project? Is the definition of ‘the national’ within the EU being changed and if yes, how?

Michel Houellebecq, the novelist (I am just reading Soumission, a distopia about a Muslim Brotherhood president in France in 2022) argues that the centre-left and centre-right want to dissolve the nation into the European project, and everywhere you get a mobilisation of neo-nationalists who form an intellectual mass base for the Far Right. In France, Houellebecq is a hero of precisely those identitaires he writes about, also in the Netherlands. I think this is a new phase in the crisis of the Left, which has completely surrendered to the opposite identity politics, a blanket welcome to the people fleeing the misery caused by the War on Terror, regime changes in the Middle East and North Africa, etc. Nobody asks what this will mean in a generation or so, when as we are seeing now with second- or third-generation immigrants from North Africa, Turkey and the like, feel alienated from the host society and form inward-looking communities of their own. The basis for class mobilisation, for simple issues like wages and housing and the like, has been eroded because fewer and fewer people are in stable employment where they even can begin to think about standing up for their rights, so there is a massive retrenchment in identities, being black, being Muslim, and now also being Dutch, French, German. The EU has been hijacked by neoliberal ideologues, who happen to be its gravediggers because the large mass of the population rejects sustained austerity to save the banks.

Here in the Netherlands there is a referendum on whether or not to ratify the EU Association with Ukraine and I am active in the No campaign, with a group called (War is no Solution). It looks now as if the No will win, but not on our terms but on those of the xenophobic populist right.

Q7: You have stressed elsewhere that the heavy hand of the US is to blame for provoking Russia in their decision to annex Crimea and actively support separatist elements in Ukraine. In your latest report on US, Ukraine, and Russia you also side with those on the left who suggest that the radical right forces enjoy serious leverage in Ukraine since they dislodged Yanukovych. How exactly would you define their role in Ukraine’s politics? Are they qualitatively different in any way from other right wing forces in the EU?

I have written a long report on this to become acquainted with the topic. On finishing it and meanwhile having read a lot more, I realised there is no point trying to turn that into a book or so, because I am not competent to do that and there are already excellent works by more qualified people, Richard Sakwa in the UK, and here in the Netherlands, a young guy, Chris de Ploeg, who has written a splendid little book, Ukraine in the Crossfire (actually written in English, he is negotiating publication but the Dutch translation is already out). So what I am now contemplating (and experimenting a bit already) is to try and use the information I have gathered in combination with a huge stack of material on the MH17 disaster into a class analysis of that tragedy. My argument would be that the fascist element that was crucial in turning the Maidan demonstration to a violent seizure of power, actively supported by the US, have also been able to block various peace initiatives or just compromise solutions. I have a few names of people who had the money, the positions and the means to sabotage the ongoing negotiations between Poroshenko, Putin, and Merkel (with Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash as mediator on the gas chapter) by a dramatic incident—the downing of MH17. Of course this will take time and serious research to back up but solving a crime is not just a matter of forensics (the evidence was tampered with, radar data are not available, neither are the tapes with the conversations between air traffic control and the plane). There is also the issue of who had the motive. That is what I plan to work on, among a few other projects.

Q8: Putin’s Russia has proven to act as a counter-weight to the western hegemonic way of “diplomacy” backed by NATO arsenal. The effects of the renewed clashes of the two are however devastating. Ideologically, too, Putin’s Russia can hardly be seen as an alternative to the US-backed world order. How would you define the current function of Russia in global political economy and geopolitical makeup?

It is a drama, the BRICS are just as hopeless as the West itself, and the reason is simple: capitalism is truly entering the phase of its final demise. In such a historic conjuncture, geopolitics loses its functionality, and becomes mere show and power play by rulers losing their legitimacy as well.

Q9: After disciplining of Syriza there has been reinvigoration of left optimism with rising popularity of Corbyn and Sanders. What are your views on their perceived socialist policy orientation?

As I said, social democracy has been exhausted and neither Corbyn nor Sanders are in a position to renew it. Five years ago, I thought that this sort of leader might inaugurate a consistent reformism but now I think the forces of disintegration have gone beyond the point where such a policy might work. I think that along with capitalism as an organizing principle of economic and social relations, parliamentary representation through professional politicians is slipping into a terminal crisis. Because the Far Right have no economic programme other than neoliberalism (except for Le Pen who has a sort of dusted off version of Keynesian economic nationalism that you also see in Poland now), we must fear a steep downward slide in national income with all the accompanying regressive tendencies in the sphere of ideology, so more religion and religious bigotry.

Q10: Which, if any, viable avenues of challenging authoritarian neoliberalism at the present day do you identify? If those exist, how would you estimate current potential for their successful implementation?

There is still a high level of education in the population, so there is a large section to whom intelligent arguments can be communicated. What is lacking is a consistent message to convey to them. So challenging authoritarianism today begins with developing an understanding of how a transition out of a capitalist order, which has wrecked its underlying social and natural foundations, can be conceptualised to begin with. Of course, we cannot afford to withdraw into a monastery to find the truth first, so we must also speak out against the attempt to discipline populations by fear of others, bombs, and lies. I have the doubtful privilege of chairing a Committee on Vigilance against Resurgent Fascism here in the Netherlands, doubtful because it is very tough to try and stem the tide without a real vision already at hand.