A crisis of ends: Kees van der Pijl interviewed

In a wide-ranging discussion, Kees van der Pijl delves into the interplay of power and economics in an era of "authoritarian capitalism".

Ernesto Gallo Giovanni Biava
9 March 2015

We would like to start with current and much-discussed events. What is the meaning of the recent wave of so-called terrorist attacks, in your view? Why now?

My hunch is that we may be witnessing a repetition of the "strategy of tension" of the 1970s, at least in some key respects. Of course one has to build on scant information but every scrap counts here and it helps to have some sort of a framework. On the basis of my study of a series of these incidents, I would argue three things. First, in a really severe crisis as we are now experiencing, unorthodox and covert tactics are resorted to besides regular politics. Second, there are in every society fringe elements (both in the state apparatus and in opposition groups, including criminal) which have a capacity for violence. Third, when events happen in which such groups are obviously involved, one does well to interpret events, at least as a serious possibility, in the light of the first point. In other words, to consider the possibility that violent fringe groups have been allowed, by conscious negligence or actively, to strike.

The Paris attacks were in my view suspicious. Too many details are fishy, like the very professional killers both leaving their identity-cards in the escape car, a third suspect being identified immediately but who happened to be at school, the killing of the suspects rather than disabling at least one of them to be interrogated and tried. The "crisis" consisted of France being too hesitant, whether in upholding the sanctions and confrontation policy against Russia, or in the matter of upholding austerity policies in the Eurozone and relatedly applying neoliberal reforms at home. In addition it had just recognised the Palestinian state. And then the mass theatre of all the leaders and the "Je Suis Charlie" roar whilst Muslim targets were being attacked left and right.

What are the responsibilities of the west (and its Gulf allies) in the rise of “Islamist terrorism”?
When 9/11 happened, the UK's then Conservative party leader Michael Howard said that this was a crime, so it should be investigated as such. Instead we declared war, and in the absence of an identifiable attacker in international law terms, began invading one country after another. A little further back, there was the Yugoslav intervention after 1991. Paul Wolfowitz said at that time that United States would have a window of around ten years or so to clean out all the regimes that formely had depended on Soviet support, so Nato or the US alone would have to move aggressively against them sooner rather than later. Russia and China for different reasons were not able at the time to resist this transformation towards a militarised intervention campaign.

Then there is the long history of US/UK support for Islamist groups of different stripe against nationalist or left-leaning regimes, and actually also against the Soviet Union both in Afghanistan and through incursions in the Soviet-era central Asian republics and the Caucasus. This created a shadow zone between groups supported and armed by the west, which also were anti-western at the same time. Al-Qaida is the obvious example, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is another. In the same way Israel supported Hamas to keep the PLO off-balance, and so on. It is from these shadow zones that recruits for a strategy of tension can be mobilised. Algeria is important in this respect as well, I’ve seen credible material about Algerian intelligence connections to the Paris shootings, but how and what exactly is not easy. It shows you how the "war on terror" and all its ramifications generate a vast reservoir of uncontrollable forces, and structural instability in the world.

Then there is the long-term planning of a war on terror, which goes back to the 1980s and involved both Republican far-right figures like George Shultz, and Binyamin Netanyahu, who was then Israeli ambassador at the United Nations. Via the Bush family there are links between this project and Saudi Arabia and the UAE. There is a growing literature on these links, with Peter Dale Scott perhaps the most reliable, but also Jeremy Scahill, Steve Coll and others, which documents them in great detail.

In what ways is ISIL different from al-Qaida? What could be done to bring peace to the region?
It would seem that ISIL is in part a full realisation of the al-Qaida project (including their backers in Saudi Arabia, who calculated that turning the radical Wahhabi element to the outside would avoid having to deal with them at home. Here, the Mecca incidents in 1979, when the Grand Mosque was seized, were a grave warning of what such radicalism could turn into if not channeled into foreign "jihad". But the other side is that these projects escape the control of even the most powerful patrons. Both the US and the Gulf Arab states have now lost control of the full-blown ISIL - or so it seems to me. It may also be a partial control, there may be just sections out of control, like now in Libya, whilst the core is sitting safely just astride the planned pipeline  routes from Iran across Iraq and Syria. But that is speculative thinking. Somebody must be paying for all these new uniforms, the brand new SUVs they drive around in. Would it really be the oil they sell, to the European Union among others ? Let’s not forget that Mosul is the historic centre of Iraqi oil production, as far back as Ottoman times.

To bring peace to the region has become a tall order. Israel wants the Middle East in turmoil and states undermined by internal strife. Lebanon and Iran will be well aware of that. The US and Britain, covering for the large fossil energy firms, and serving the largest arms market in the world (Saudi Arabia, notably), also have no interest in any stabilisation outside the fortresses they have signed up to protect.

There will be no alternative but to open a channel of communication to all radical groups and to the Sunni groups behind them. I've read that ISIL weapons experts are veterans from Saddam’s army, that sort of thing. But maybe the time has come when only complete withdrawal of western influence is the precondition of the return to some sort of stability.

Moving to the former Soviet space, who is responsible for developments in Ukraine - the west, Russia, local oligarchs?

The oligarchs stole Ukraine bare from day one. When I was in Kiev in 2008 for a few days to contribute to discussions about a viable future route for this troubled and fractured state, I saw demonstrations against poverty and corruption every day - a few hundred demonstrators here, a thousand there.

The west has consistently pushed forward after 1991 to isolate Russia. Richard Sakwa's Frontline Ukraine is the best account told by a real specialist, my own assessments in "War Is No Solution" may still add a few details. Again to concentrate on my own experience, when I was there I was told that US institutions like the Ford Foundation were willing to fund scholarly events only if they were either in Ukrainian or in English. So events in Russian, although the language of science for two centuries also in Ukraine, were not funded.

The Russian government has simply drawn a line in the sand. If they hadn’t done that, the Sebastopol naval base would have come in the line of fire and a major war involving Russia directly might have ensued. How John Kerry can speak, talking of the Russians, of "a country invading another sovereign state" after Afghanistan, Iraq etc. etc. is really amazing. Would they believe their own words?
If we look at the bigger picture, we still see the US on top, even if China is fast closing the gap. Will the US remain the world’s "hegemonic" power in the decades to come?

One reading is that the US is compensating for its loss of civilian clout in the world by using its military muscle. But then, has there been a single military success after Panama in 1989? I would think that if hegemony means consensual leadership and cultural attraction, we are really at a watershed juncture. Maybe the application of violence is already compensating for that, in the sense that high-risk proxy wars like in Ukraine, or the largely theatrical events around ISIL, serve to distract attention from the Snowden revelations, WikiLeaks, and so on. The mainstream media, all owned by the oligarchies in the respective countries, play along: the other day there was the revelation that NSA/GCHQ hacked into SIMcard manufacturing to install surveillance-ware into each phone, and it was carried as far as I saw as a small note somewhere in the back pages.

As to China, it is supplying the US market at bottom wage levels, it finances the US deficit. It may be we have to wait for a further upsurge of class struggles in China itself to deflect from this course, because the oligarchy there will not voluntarily change. 
What do you think about China? Will it keep a “contending” position, or will it be included into the “Lockean heartland” - to use your terminology?

I now think this terminology helped me to look back on western supremacy for the last three hundred years, and bring structure to what otherwise would be an endless series of apparently random events - the "rise and fall of states" à la Paul Kennedy, that sort of thing. I’ve recently gained a better understanding of liberalism and Locke thanks to Domenico Losurdo's Controstoria del liberalismo (I am reading a French translation of 2013). Losurdo sees liberalism as self-rule by the propertied classes, and it basically excludes democracy in a more extensive sense. The trente glorieuses after 1945 were really the exception. I think we have now reached the stage where the achievements which in those thirty years seemed to have reached maturity as an enduring characteristic, are now being rolled back to such a degree that the spontaneous attraction the west might exert elsewhere is also rapidly diminishing. We are moving into the age of authoritarian capitalism (Frank Deppe’s term), a rolling back of democracy in any substantive, social sense, in combination with proliferating violence. The background of it all is the crisis of the biosphere, due to the world having entered the "anthropocene".
While China already has a “Hong Kong-Shanghai super-bourse”, Russia is financially lagging behind. Don’t you think Moscow should come closer to a more autonomous EU?

Capitalism is unravelling and maintained by creating permanent tension and authoritarian control. When Nicolas Sarkozy became president in France on a neoliberal programme of privatisation and deregulation, it recalled the phrase "there are always people who arrive at a party when it’s almost over". The Russians have actually developed an interesting alternative with the Eurasian Union which has a technological project, but whether it will prove resistant to rampant corruption remains to be seen.
How do you see the EU? Will Mario Draghi’s quantitative easing programme at the European Central Bank help, and for how long?

I can only say that in the US and the UK, QE helped create the sort of cash flow that an economy needs for wealth to percolate upwards. A little bit of "growth", a lot more inequality. I am involved in an initiative to demand that the extra money should be devoted to boosting lower incomes and public projects. I am watching events surrounding Greece versus the other Eurozone countries with some trepidation. It is obvious that the Syriza government is about to resign from its original, courageous stance but possibly they have no plan B which might give them a chance to change the rules of the game as currently played. The story that this is a sovereign debt crisis rather than a bank crisis is still being taken for granted by too many people to give the Greeks a chance.
Why is neoliberalism still the main economic policy, despite the tremendous crisis started in 2007?

Because all alternatives have been sidelined; that is one aspect of the current authoritarian capitalist trend.

What would you say to a European in their early twenties? Where can they find “hope” - in political terms, not just as a slogan?

They must study, understand what’s going on, and see that slowly but surely, the signs of a democratic upsurge are becoming visible. Not just in Greece, but in Latin America, in the US. If there is hope, it is that there are people "in their early twenties" who have the ability to begin to study the world beginning with what is really decisive, which is the state of our relationship to nature. Then with the structure of a society that is falling apart and the need for new social practices such as cooperative arrangements for insurance and the like, which I notice are going on on left and right.

Never give in to the cynicism we are invited to embrace.

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