A countervailing power: an interview with Jan Pronk

We have to establish a world public power representative of all countries and all people within all countries. One cannot ‘think away’ individual countries as powers, or international companies and banks. But we need a countervailing power in the system. 

Professor Jan Pronk (born 1940) is a prominent Dutch politician and diplomat. He has served three terms (between 1973 and 2002) as the Minister for Development Cooperation and one term as the Minister of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment. He twice held the position of the Deputy Governor of the World Bank, in addition to serving as the Assistant Secretary-General of UNCTAD, and as the Assistant UN Secretary-General. He was the UN Special Representative for Sudan between 2004 and 2006. In 2007 Pronk ran for the position of the chairman of the Dutch Labour Party. He is a Professor of Theory and Practice of International Development at the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague.

Daniel Jakopovich: You have directly interacted with various global economic and political protagonists during your work in the World Bank, in UNCTAD and elsewhere. What kind of restructuring of global decision-making and regulatory institutions is required to reduce the tensions between current forms of international governance and the relative anarchy of militarist and economic international competition? BRICS, the Non-Aligned Movement and other established and emerging actors have in recent years begun to force the answer to this question...

Jan Pronk: Yes, but the answer is not clear. It is uncertain to what extent the members of the BRICS and the economic powers of the Non-Aligned Movement just want to have a bigger share of the pie, and whether they have in mind the global public good. The important question is to what extent any decision-making structure constructed by some or all of the major powers will really be in the interest of all people, rather than of the powers that be.

This means, firstly, that we need international decision-making structures which are based on international law, structures which are not based just on raw power relations, but on a body of international law which is agreed upon, which – if it is being violated – people can appeal to, so that you also have institutions with instruments necessary to bring to account those powers that are violating this international law, a legal framework based on an agreement about human values.

For me, we are talking here about the United Nations system, which has to be reformed, of course, but is nonetheless a system based on values embodied in international law, with a number of institutions and instruments which aren’t very powerful, but still have some influence. This UN system is being eroded by powerful countries and also by financial institutions and huge corporations with a grip on natural and other resources.

This means that we have to restore the world public power representative of all countries, and possibly representative of all people within all those countries, as a countervailing power to what does exist. One cannot "think away" individual countries as powers. One cannot "think away" the international companies and banks. But we need a countervailing power in the system.

We need a number of reforms of the present world economic and political system. We had some initiatives in that direction, for instance the new international economic initiative in the 1970s, some efforts to reform the Bretton Woods system. All of these have so far not been successful. I would be in favour of a new San Francisco conference, and a new Bretton Woods conference, not to start all over again, but to genuinely rethink the structures, not the basic values.

The basic global values have been agreed upon, for instance in the preamble of the UN Charter. That was a breakthrough for civilization as such. We don’t need new values. Of course, you have to rethink the importance of specific values given political developments in the world, but the UN system has allowed for that, for example through the concepts of UN Development and Security, Responsibility to Protect and Sustainability, all new values. The UN system allows the gradual development of the values which have been agreed upon in the past. We don’t need a new negotiation on values, but rather on institutions and instruments. 

Q: Many prominent advocates of anti-militarist social democracy and democratic socialism, such as Jean Jaures, George Lansbury, Lord Ponsonby, Olof Palme, and Willy Brandt have worked for international disarmament. What are the obstacles and the opportunities for a reorientation of social democratic alliances in Europe away from the military-industrial complex and towards more civilian economic sectors and less regressive non-monopoly capital?

A: I think the biggest problem at the moment is that nearly all the social democratic parties in Europe have become nationalist parties. Social democracy is the only political ideology which from the very outset did have in mind all people in the world. Read Marx! Old social democratic parties always had in mind the well-being of workers in other countries as well. This went on even after the Second World War. They were competing with each other for influence in the framework of the Socialist International or the European Party of Socialists, bringing together the social democratic parties of the EU member states.

These institutions do not function any more. They are talking shops and many politicians do not even bother to show up at their own conferences. You have to start again with an institution which is going to challenge the national social democratic parties to work together. Otherwise, they will always turn inwards in order to satisfy their own electorate rather than leading their own electorate.

Secondly, social democracy had the ambition to work for, with, through the lower classes of the world, the workers who were exploited. The working class in developed countries has partly become lower middle class, and they often feel that they have more to lose than to gain in change. This means that social democratic parties in Europe have become more conservative: don’t strive forwards, but avoid losing what you already possess. They thus forget the new underclass, which is either the elderly, or the poor people at home and in other countries. This underclass includes the very weak in Europe, the immigrants, as well as the elderly, the ill, people with disabilities, who are seen by neoliberal ideology in terms of costs to the system, rather than as people who enrich society.

Social democratic parties, so afraid of losing access to power within their own national societies, aren’t taking over, but are instead accommodating their views to those of the neoliberals out of fear of losing their own positions. This is related to your question - why don’t social democratic parties challenge the established powers any more, for instance the military-industrial complex? The people themselves do not sense the threat posed by these large companies any more, they don’t fear them and social democratic parties don’t lead the way for people in social analysis. They follow people rather than leading them, out of the anxiety to compete with other parties. Sometimes you should be willing to lose voters. You always get them back if you genuinely behave in a consistent fashion that shows them that people really do matter.

Q: The welfare state and progressive elements of civil society are also victims of the military economy. Yet trade unions, as perhaps the most powerful constituents of civil society and the representatives of the working masses, have failed to mount a resolute opposition to the squandering of public resources on the military. What are your thoughts on the role of trade unions in European disarmament and demilitarisation?

A: It is a very difficult question because you directly relate the capabilities of trade unions to action with regard to the military-industrial complex. In answering your previous question, as you noticed, I spoke more about the social democratic parties, their ideology and their general political positioning than directly in relation to the military-industrial complex - because the effectiveness and capability of social democracy with regards to key things, such as the military-industrial complex, depends on the strength of the social democratic movement as such.

The same is also true of the trade unions. They are, at the moment, in many countries continuing to lose strength, and they are internally divided. This is not so much due to the capitalist class or the big companies who do not want to negotiate with the trade unions, as in the Thatcherite period in Britain. Very often and in many countries, for instance in Germany, the companies want to have a strong trade union because you need to negotiate with a strong organisation if you are in favour of some form of stability. You cannot build stability if the other negotiation party isn’t permanent as well.

The real issue is that the trade unions themselves are representing a class which isn’t a traditional working class any more, which is no longer willing to fight and only wants to keep what it already has, and doesn’t recognise the need for a fighting spirit and a fighting organisation.

Secondly, the neoliberal overhaul of western economies has to a certain extent resulted in new technologies, new economic structures, labour saving techniques, many more people who are self-employed out of sheer necessity. For that reason, the working class has become extremely dispersed, with internally very different interests. The trade unions are for that reason losing members, since workers are under the impression that their specific interests in their specific company or in their specific trade are not represented very well by trade unions, because unions seek to build a certain degree of solidarity one with the other.

This is also the reason why unions are not very successful in the role of acting as a countervailing power to the military-industrial complex, which is not being seen by the middle class as a threat. They see it as a source of employment, rather than as institutions which may endanger peace in their own societies.

Q: So you don’t see any prospects for Dutch trade unions portraying the military establishment as a threat to the civilian economy?

No, not at the moment... The progressive trade unions with an analysis of society which went beyond the short-term interest of labour died out in the 1970s. Of course, these unions were also manipulated into further weakness because the negotiations with regards to vulnerable groups, such as the elderly, were extremely difficult, but they ceased conveying a political message about the future of society. I don’t know how that could change, because the structure of the labour market has meanwhile been transformed.

We may need trade unions of a new type. It entails small groups, because of the dispersion of interest within the working class, and it entails going beyond short-termism to include political goals and political activity. It is also necessary to rely on other groups in society – political parties, churches, civic groups and think-tanks that are really representative, as well as students and intellectuals.

Q: The Netherlands have an interesting history of progressive activism inspired by religion. Could you tell us about the current state of Christian humanist political engagement and cooperation with the rest of the Dutch Left?

A: Today there is hardly any... But it was different in the past. The World Council of Churches did play a positive role. There was a very progressive group of Catholics – including bishops. But secularisation has severely affected all churches. They have reacted by developing an inward-looking focus on keeping themselves alive. Many of them have forgotten, for instance, the teachings of Dorothee Sölle, an influential theologian in Germany in the 1960s, who was very much admired in the Netherlands in that period: "You have to believe on Monday, not only on Sunday".

So, there is alienation between the Sunday church and social and political life. Of course, there are many new religious movements, in particular the evangelical churches, which are much more oriented towards individual happiness and individualised ethics.

I am a Protestant, but especially within the Dutch Catholic Church there was a strong wave of progressiveness. Many Christians wanted to also be active members of society, and based their activities on solidarity with others. The Church did open up that possibility. It had a number of leaders, bishops in particular. For instance, Bishop Beckers, a very well-known bishop in the 1960s, led people towards personal liberation and out of the more traditional anxieties, for instance with regard to sexuality. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, had been very conservative as far as sexual matters were concerned. He was opening up possibilities for people to be happy. Many people therefore stayed in the Church. Quite a few were also abandoning the traditional Christian political parties...

There was a breakthrough in the post-WWII period, when it became possible to work together with humanists and others in other parties to reach a common goal. Churches, and the Catholic Church in particular, were very strongly against this in the early 1950s: they more or less told their members that they couldn’t obtain their sacraments if they voted for the socialists. This completely changed in the 1960s and the 1970s.

But, as a result of secularisation, the churches largely lost their interest in being an active member of society as a whole. The peace movement, of which I was a member in the 1960s, was very strongly based on churches at the time. That link hasn’t disappeared, but it is very weak at the moment. Also, people who were highly active in defence of asylum seekers in the early 1990s had a very strong base in local church groups working together. They have been effective, but much more locally than nationally. The national churches have shied away from this kind of political and social engagement, but progressive religion-based local activism remained a force.

Q: You are also a specialist in the area of international development, with years of practical experience around these issues. Is it realistic to expect that the deterioration of social and labour rights, the ravages of climate change and other problems exacerbated by the global economic crisis could be successfully addressed without the prior founding of an influential coalition of progressive states willing to take leadership as transformative international actors, even – in the case of a hypothetic political alliance of Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands and the Republic of Ireland for example - at the risk of undermining their traditional European and trans-Atlantic affiliations through the pursuit of independent policies?

A: Groups of like-minded countries have always been able to play a role as front-runners, preparing ground for a new consensus on a number of issues. With regard to the issues which you have mentioned, I would emphasise three: development, climate change, and also how to address the international financial crisis.

You need like-mindedness between countries which themselves are representative of all parts of the world. If you have a group of like-minded countries only based on western European behaviour, culture and traditions it ultimately wouldn’t be able to play a very important role in global decision-making. You cannot reach any final global solutions or steps forward without, for instance, China or the US. Which doesn’t mean you can’t achieve anything without them, but if no Latin American, or African, or Asian countries would, right from the beginning, be a part of such a group of progressive countries it wouldn’t have much global effect.

This is different from the situation in the past, when there was still a major difference between the North and the South, and the crux of the problem was how to change the attitude of the North. That is no longer the case.

Emerging economies have become quite strong, they are middle class-oriented, their behaviour is also very much in favour of stability and of the status quo, and they are not so different in terms of their interest and behaviour from the countries of the North.

You could say that all the countries are forgetting their own underclass. They are willing to negotiate with each other, but they very often reach agreements which are detrimental to the future of their own poor people of whom there are many. The well-known German phrase "Zweidrittelgemeinschaft" (the community of the two-thirds) is a very good picture of world society as a whole: two-thirds of the world population are living more or less on the right side of the divide, one-third on the wrong side. You could emancipate all countries and uplift the lower third, but this isn’t happening. What we are seeing instead, due to economic scarcities but also economic interests, is an increase in economic growth as a structural trend, despite the current crisis. This applies to Asia and Latin America as well.

But the gap between the rich and the poor is increasing everywhere. Maybe the increase in the level of economic welfare of the two-thirds at the top can currently only take place because they do not want to share with the others. That is my theory, and it entails a threat to the future of world society as a whole, because the one-third below is not going to accept this and will resist. They will come to the conclusion that others are going forward, that life is improving for these other people, but that they themselves are not benefiting at all.

I call this a calculated default of the system, as against what we had in the past, poverty as collateral damage of a process of development. So you need countries which are not only like-minded, but also countries which are like-minded because they are really interested in all of their people. You also need movements of people belonging to the underclass, or willing to represent people belonging to the underclass, who are building coalitions with the rest of those who seek change.

Q: Erasmus once wrote that "(p)eace is (...) at once the mother and the nurse of all that is good for man.(...) Peace shines upon human affairs like the vernal sun". Do countries without military forces, such as Iceland and Costa Rica, where you have lectured at the University for Peace and whose population has been found to be the happiest in the world according to a recent poll, offer an encouraging glimpse into a peaceable future?

A: Oh yes, if the others follow where they lead. At present that is not happening. Their advanced approach is ignored, although it shows that warfare doesn't have to be our “destiny” if we decide to prepare conditions for positive peace... A broad international war is at the moment not taking place. It is not certain that it will not return, because there are major clashing interests between nations. These antagonisms may result in explosions, possibly by accident, but also because governments have a preoccupation with their own national security and are willing to go very far in order to advance their narrow goals. I do not at all exclude the possibility of major international wars.

To a certain extent, of course, there is also a military-industrial complex which is itself interested in on-going armaments and military proliferation. Eisenhower made this clear and emphasised this trend as a major danger. Democracy is seriously imperilled by the military establishment, as well as by the secret services and all the agents related to the military, the arms industry, secrets, etc. Even in supposedly democratic countries these are shadow actors, and international security is to a certain extent even out of the control of governments.

This is one reason why we have to stay alert with regards to the problem of militarisation, why we have to disarm and strive, as much as possible, for transparency as a countervailing power. I was very much in favour of the actions of Wikileaks, which I greeted with a sigh of relief. It exposes and helps dismantle power. I would be very much in favour of structural transparency on the basis of law, so that journalists, citizens, parliamentarians, have the right to know everything. Governments, and units within governments, are very much against this. We are witnessing at the moment the moblisation of governments against Wikileaks. Transparency is a necessary countervailing value with some power against complexes which flourish on the basis of secrecy.

 A shorter version of this interview was published in the Croatian weekly magazine "Lider".

About the author

Daniel Jakopovich is director of the Demokratska misao/Democratic Thought publishing house and editor of the Novi Plamen journal, currently preparing a doctoral thesis in Sociology at the University of Cambridge, having written for numerous magazines and newspapers.