Economics Behind Politics: A Review of Kees van der Pijl’s “Global Rivalries”

Published online 25 February 2007.

The economic order of society is implicit, property and money being largely invisible, abstract principles.  The political order, though, has obvious physical institutions: the police, the politicians, the buildings, and so on.  So it is hard to connect economic realities to political ones.

Van der Pijl’s Global Rivalries from the Cold War to Iraq, one of the best books of last year’s crop, is about the politics end of the political economy equation.  1998’s Transnational Classes and International Relations was an overall summary of van der Pijl’s theories, but it was mostly about economics and economic theory.  This book is about politics, and again about how the spread of “capitalist discipline” across the world has intensified economic rivalries in the world.  It explains recent history in a unique and interesting way.

Kees van der Pijl’s Global Rivalries from the Cold War to Iraq attempts to address a major question of international politics: how are we to view political rivalry in the world after the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union?  Van der Pijl attempts to take on, directly, the “End of History” thesis of Francis Fukuyama: the world, he says, is not gravitating toward any sort of unity, but, rather, multiplying rivalries.  Van der Pijl admits, controversially, that the contrary theory has become “orthodoxy” even among the Left, citing Hardt and Negri’s Empire as repeating the common belief that “world capital has in the process of globalization effectively absorbed the state system into itself” (x).  The author also expressed objections to this type of theorizing in a recent book review of William I. Robinson’s A Theory of Global Capitalism.

The bulk of this book is a somewhat heterodox discussion of historical events in the latter half of the 20th century.  This is a big (400+ pages) book, full of interesting facts tied together by a consistent, logical theory.  It’s topical, too: history in this book plays as a prologue to our current political/ economic/ historical situation.

The first chapter traces the rivalries of that era back to the first rivalry of the capitalist era – that between England and France in the 17th century.  Here, van der Pijl continues with a conceptual notion he promoted in his previous book, Transnational Classes and International Relations, in which the capitalist world was regarded as containing a “Lockean heartland,” of the most advanced capitalist nation or nations (which for a long time was England) and “Hobbesian” contender states, which attempt to “catch up” in development with the “Lockean heartland” by developing by authoritarian means through command economies, controlled in each contender state by a “state class.”  The first “Lockean heartland,” England, was cemented in place by the events of the Glorious Revolution of 1688; the first “Hobbesian” contender state, France, clung to a “state class” form of development after its bourgeois class was entangled in rebellion:

In terms of state formation, the bourgeoisie in France also failed to obtain a form of state suiting the needs of the commercial and urban classes.  Instead, it was drawn into the Fronde – the rebellion of the provinces and the feudal estates against the centralising monarchy – and it shared in the defeat.  In 1685, three years before the Glorious Revolution in England, the Huguenots (the French Protestant minority, many of whom were in the merchant classes – my addition) were dealt the final blow when Louis XIV decreed that they were to be expelled from France altogether.  Thus the French bourgeoisie was relegated to a subordinate position in the absolutist state.  It reappeared partly as a state class of patrician nobles and partly as a loose collection of middlemen dependent on favours from above.  The bourgeois role thus remained confined to merchant capital parasitic on the state, an obstacle rather than a vehicle of development toward capitalism.  But precisely because France happened to be closest to the English experience in time and space, it could not stray away from the lead given by the British.  (9)

Thus France drifted into the role of the first big “contender state.”  Destined to adopt capitalism, it clung to government through “state class” formations such as the ancien regime and Napoleon’s empire rather than adopting straight-out bourgeois rule as England did.  Van der Pijl spends ink on this discussion because it is so important to his theory of history — from the 1680s on in, he argues, the pressures of expanding capitalism will create both “Lockean heartlands,” capitalist centers with liberal ideologies, and “contender states,” authoritarian semi-peripheries which attempt to catch up in development with the “Lockean heartlands” through authoritarian methods.  One type of politics (liberalism) will “develop” one economic structure (corporate dominance) and another type of politics (authoritarianism) will “develop” another (forced “catching up” from humble origins) within the terms of capitalist discipline.

Having established origins, this book’s Chapter 2 skips forward to World War II, which for van der Pijl paved the way for the first important multi-state “Lockean heartland,” the West, or more specifically, NATO.  The “contender state” role, au contraire, was played by the Soviet Union and its satellites in eastern Europe.

Chapter 2 continues through a discussion of rivalries which came up in the early postwar era, as the imperialist states of the British and the French retreated from the Middle East and were replaced by proxy states maintained through corporate interests.

Chapter 3 explains (within the author’s theory) why the European postwar regimes depended upon stronger state formations than the United States had, with emphasis upon the France of de Gaulle:

…the state, paradoxically, had to regain the lost ground to allow the development of European integration along liberal lines.  That is the second half of the European project, and de Gaulle would be its exponent in the 1960s.  Reviled by liberals, he executed the Lockean programme – not because he was himself a doctrinaire liberal, but because intensified competition required a stronger state to raise the rate of exploitation of labour and return certain international prerogatives to France.  (67)

Chapter 3 continues through a discussion of the disastrous involvement of the US in Asia through the early 1970s.  Emphasis is laid upon the conflict in Vietnam; but, as van der Pijl emphasizes, America’s intimate engagement in Vietnam obscures the fact that American meddling in Indonesian, Cambodian, and Pakistani politics was also very costly in terms of human lives without, however, receiving anywhere near the publicity that Vietnam received.

Chapter 4 deals with the revolts of the late 1960s and the counter-revolution of the 1970s which later imposed a Hayekian program of right-wing marketization upon the world.  The principal experiment that kicked off this program, of course, was the Chilean coup of September 11, 1973, which placed Augusto Pinochet in power and installed an economic program endorsed by none other than Milton Friedman.  As he argues at the beginning of Chapter 5, van der Pijl regards the 1970s as “a parafascist replay of the 1930s ‘interregnum’, a blocked situation of which Gramsci famously noted that the old was dying, but the new could not yet be born.”
Thus began the famous rightward drift of politics in the US and throughout the world, and van der Pijl does not miss a beat in discussing it.

Chapter 6 discusses the Soviet Union, its decline and demise.  The Soviet Union was, of course, begun as a transition to a global communist revolution, but the dictatorship of Stalin changed its identity, which van der Pijl characterizes as “the switch from the world-revolutionary perspective to the contender state posture” (219), thus reducing the whole experiment in “communism” to the creation of yet another contender state, albeit the one which “posed the most serious challenge to the pre-eminence of the West in modern history” (216).  Napoleonic France, Bismarckian Germany, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and China: all contender states.

Van der Pijl emphasizes the way in which the Soviet contender state imported a development plan from the West:

While foreign trade virtually collapsed in the 1930s, Soviet industrialization developed a state-monitored emulation of the more advanced mass production economy being developed in the US.  The Soviet leadership paid American engineering firms huge fees to draw the blue-prints for their five-year plans, ‘focused… upon single clear cut objectives to build new, gigantic, mass-production units to manufacture large quantities of simplified standard models based on proven Western designs without design changes over a long period… (221)

Thus we might even consider the Soviet Union the model par excellence of what van der Pijl calls “capitalist discipline,” in its centrally-planned variant.

The tendencies disrupting Soviet hegemony, from Hungary in 1956 to Czechoslovakia in 1968 to the various Velvet Revolutions of 1989 and 1991, are described in theoretical terms as follows:

All contender state classes attempting to lead their societies to the level of development attained by the heartland face a crisis once they have gone through the breakneck phase of agrarian and industrial revolution and need to move into the next stage of development.  The state class, which has isolated itself from society to direct the revolution from above, must now establish a new relationship with the subjects that it has hitherto been moving around, as on a drawing board, by coercion if not actual state terror.  (223)

Van der Pijl discusses Western foreign policy toward the Soviet Union in terms of a “Rapallo syndrome,” with reference to a treaty the Germans signed with the USSR in 1922 – the idea being that the “West” typically made a full-scale effort to isolate the Soviets from Europe and prevent the “Rapallo syndrome.”  Their efforts paid off in the Soviet Union’s collapse, but its ultimate cause, the author argues, is that:

The demise of the USSR was the result of a collapse of confidence within the state class, part of which joined the shift to privatizing the economy that was set in motion by forces emerging from the shadow world of criminal gangs and regional bosses.  Soviet indebtedness increased from $28.9 billion in 1985 to $54 billion in 1989, and when Moscow adopted G-7 and IMF recommendations for a withdrawal of the state form the economy, it placed the USSR under the discipline of the regulatory infrastructure of Western capital.  (246)

Thus the USSR, having departed only ideologically from capitalist discipline, was reintegrated into capitalism.  This occurred in an economic climate of Western pressure, though ultimately through causes native to the USSR itself.  Much as we might like to conceive of “Communism” as being an essentially different system than “capitalism,” van der Pijl instead integrates the former into the historical trend governed by the latter.  Sure, in arguing thusly he stands on the shoulders of Tony Cliff, whose State Capitalism in Russia defrocked the Soviet Union of many of its claims to being special.  Van der Pijl brings a sense of historical continuity to this line of reasoning.

Chapters 8 through 11 deal with the post-Soviet, neoliberal realities of the present.  In this last portion of the book, the author suggests that neoliberalism represented a new form of discipline for corporations, and that in the 1980s corporations were typically restructured to fit the neoliberal order of domination by finance capital (257-258).  The wars in the nations of the former Yugoslavia (in the 1990s, discussed in Chapter 8) are described as part of an overall effort to preserve NATO, continue to pressure post-Soviet Russia, and to subject European capital to neoliberal discipline through the EU.  One major result of all this, van der Pijl suggests, was to intensify economic rivalry between Europe and the United States while stamping an inappropriate neoliberal order upon Europe.  Chapter 9 discusses neoliberal developments in eastern Asia, with emphasis upon the increasing role of China as the new “contender state” to the United States.  The last two chapters deal with the various rivalries that surrounded US military actions after 9/11/01.  The effect of the neoliberal disciplining of the world amidst amplified US militarism has been, we are told, to further create more rivalries.

Today, suggests van der Pijl, we live under a “global state of emergency” motivated by a War on Terror that “evokes the sense of a comprehensive mutation back to a Hobbesian constellation.” (380)  Globally, the sphere of “human rights” has been assimilated to the rights of investors, and the “War on Terror highlights to what extent the neoliberal globalization project has turned in on itself, just as the medieval crusades in their closing stages became obsessed with internal heresy.” (406)  Thus van der Pijl sees neoliberalism (along with its political project, modern liberalism) as failing, within a world that really ought to be concerned with the environmental, economic, and political crises thus precipitated.

So where does van der Pijl’s analysis of “history so far” leave us?  The system of rivalries he depicts has mutated into something nastier.  The democratic aspirations which once characterized the West’s sales-pitch to the world have been nullified by all-triumphant finance capital and its political representative, the Bush (Two) administration.  The neoliberal ruling order, having declared itself the only game on Earth, arrives at a cul-de-sac of its own making, beset by enemies of its own creation which, themselves, nevertheless acquiesce in neoliberalism.

The picture painted by this book is one of an impending “interregnum,” as its author describes the 1930s and the 1970s.  The “homeland” versus “contender” structure, political foundation of developing capitalism, appears to be doomed; but what will replace it is not yet clear.  For Kees van der Pijl, the future is represented by the anti-corporate-globalization movement, which appears as well to have been shut out of the corridors of power.  In my own diaries, I have repeatedly suggested a replacement structure, that of “ecological discipline”; yet most of what has counted as “ecological discipline” in most of human history has itself been rapidly integrated into neoliberalism, leaving us with a “future” that appears to have recently been killed off.  If we want to see it ourselves, it’s a couple of days’ drive from here in the US to the Mexican corn farmers whose sustainable practices were interrupted by post-NAFTA American dumping of corn on the Mexican market.

With van der Pijl, then, we have a theory of history that encompasses the development of the capitalist system in a thoroughgoing manner.  It’s not just politics, not just economics, but an attempt to intertwine both in comprehensive statements about policy.  I can’t think of a more effective way to bring economic history back into political discussions than the one  the author has chosen here.


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