Global Capitalism, the US Empire and Russian Nationalism
Leo Panitch analyzes the complex relationship between the process of global economic integration and nation state rivalry
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.
On Friday, Vladimir Putin visited the Crimea as part of victory celebration day. That’s celebrating the victory of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany. Of course, the Western media portrayed this as just more provocation from Putin, and the war of words continues. The war of actual life and death also continues in Ukraine–at least three more people killed, although some reports are saying it’s as many as 20.
Now joining us to talk about a broad look at the situation in Ukraine, Russia, and relationships with the United States, joining us in Toronto, is Leo Panitch. Leo is the Canada Research Chair in Comparative Political Economy, a distinguished research professor of political science at York University in Toronto. He’s the author of the Deutscher book prize winner The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire.
Thanks for joining us again, Leo.
LEO PANITCH, PROF. OF POLITICAL SCIENCE, YORK UNIVERSITY: Really happy to talk to you about this, Paul.
JAY: So if one–of course, it’s a very complex situation in the Ukraine, As all these situations are now, Syria and otherwise, in the sense that there’s always very complex domestic factors and very complex external players all fishing in troubled waters and trying to manipulate the situation so the outcome is in their benefit. But if we look at the situation through the lens of the American-Russian relationship, there’s a particular thing that seems to me–there’s kind of two processes that go on. One is all the economic integration, the dependency of the Russians on European oil markets, and vice versa, the dependence of the Europeans on Russian energy. But, also, large amounts of capital go back and forth and investments back and forth and banking structures at all the things that are part of modern globalization. But then you also have this grand chessboard old-style rivalry that seems to go on, were you have what people call the encirclement of Russia by the Americans. You have–you know, it’s old 20th century, the type of things that, you know, did lead to war in those days. Maybe–you know, the nuclear bomb maybe has mitigated that. But there seems–each of these processes seems to have their own logic. What do you make of this?
PANITCH: Well, first of all, there’s no good guys in this. I think one has to say that, against the remarkable tone of the Western media, which is astonishingly single-minded in its presentation of Russian aggression all of a sudden, with the United States in the position of really trying to bring the Ukraine into NATO and completely encircling Russia; on the other hand, you know, the Russian oligarchs and the authoritarian Kremlin, not to speak of the extreme right-wing nationalism that is so powerful now in the Western Ukraine and the old-style Russian nationalism. There’s no good guys in this story whatsoever.
So, having a sober conversation about this is really a pleasure. And I think you put your finger on what’s going on. The fact that globalization, economic globalization, capitalist globalization, has occurred through states precisely has meant that the politics of states has not been done away with. Those people who thought that economic globalization was about bypassing states, multinational corporations, escaping their control, etc., etc., not at all. It’s taken place through states. And that means that insofar as states define themselves in national terms, in nationalist terms, create all kinds of mythologies of citizenship and so on, that you get this kind of friction, expression of international relations still in terms that are not only global capitalist but are also nationalist.
And, you know, over this whole process of neoliberal globalization, we’ve seen nationalisms exploding like firecrackers across the world, partly to do with the breakup of the Soviet Union, but not only. You see it in Africa, etc. So nationalist consciousness doesn’t go away with economic integration.
I guess what we’re seeing here is, I think, as you know, that the United States is the Empire of global capitalism. In the absence of a transnational state, it’s fallen to the American state. The American state’s been burdened with being the economic manager of global capitalism.
But it’s a very, very messy and irrational world. I don’t take the view that the United States caused Ukrainian nationalism to suddenly blow up. It blew up, and it had partly to do with the attempted economic integration, which the Ukrainians were pushing more than the Europeans. It had partly to do with American geopolitics, their ambition to take all of Eastern Europe into NATO. But it’s something they couldn’t control. And now there’s a mess in their hands. And I also think that’s Russia, the case of Russia.
And in the management of that mess, it’s much, much more difficult to get Russia onside than it is to get Germany, because the linkages through the military have never been established. One of the things that backed up European integration with the United States was in addition to economic integration you have the integration through the strategic security services and the military. And although some of that has increased in terms of cooperation since the breakup of the Soviet Union, it by no means is the kind of integration that you have amongst the leading capitalist countries.
JAY: If you go back to Brzezinski’s book–
PANITCH: Grand Chessboard. That–very good. Yeah.
JAY: –and you take his basic thesis, which is, if the United States is going to maintain its fundamental policy that this should be a single-superpower world dominated by the United States–. And, of course, in Brzezinski’s mind–and, I guess, Obama’s mind and most of the American elites’ mind–they see this as a force between, you know, democracy and anarchy: if the Americans aren’t in control, the world goes to chaos. Clearly the real economic reasons are the Americans benefit from this position, so–however they rationalize it. But all that being said, the fundamental thesis is you can’t allow another power to be a rival at a serious level. And what Russia’s been doing, most markedly in Syria, for example: really defying American plans. Germany, there’s no sign they would ever do such a thing or any country in Western Europe would do such a thing, and the most they did is you had France stand up at the United Nations and a few European countries and not go along with the invasion of Iraq. But then after they made their stand, that was the end of it. But Putin actually seems to want to chart his own course and not totally play ball. And I don’t know that the Americans can abide that.
PANITCH: Well, I think they can and they will within certain limits. I mean, it’s very clear that they are not about to not only use a nuclear weapon; they aren’t about to send troops into a Ukrainian Civil War. And they are using–and this is very interesting and very non-Brzezinski-like–they are using the power of the U.S. Treasury. The U.S. Treasury has, by its central place in managing global capitalism–they’re using that as the main means of geostrategic maneuvering here.
There is no economic big deal in this. The Treasury’s not involved in this ’cause they want to be control Ukrainian resources. It’s a cost to the United States.
But, yes, there is a partly–you know, it’s not even–it’s face saving. If they don’t stand up, if you like, for the Ukrainians (for, I must say, the right-wing ultranationalist Ukrainians, the Ukrainians oriented to integrating with the global capitalism, but with a certain fascistic tone, I must say), then they look bad in the eyes of the Japanese, who fear that the Chinese might take this or that tiny island.
So part of the logic here, as it’s always been in American foreign policy, is that we have to take a stand here because we look to our allies and friends elsewhere like we’re weak if we don’t. But, you know, they aren’t prepared to go very far.
And one needs to remember that Russian integration, while the oligarchs have all kinds of money in American banks and, as you say, there’s foreign direct investment flowing both ways and trade and so on, Russia was never integrated the way the G7 was integrated. There was this fiction of the G8 in which, you know, Russia was treated as one of the big capitalist countries. But it was always a fiction, and the real discussions went on amongst the finance ministers of the G7, and even less than that the finance ministers of Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
So, you know, it’s a difficult world to manage. It’s always been the case that it’ll be much more difficult to bring the G20–not only Russia, China, Brazil, South Africa, etc.–into the American Empire. Much more difficult to bring them in in a smooth way than it was to Canadianize Western Europe. That has to do with religion, language, common history, etc., etc., and military integration above all. So it’s a difficult, messy process. On the other hand, you know, one sees the extent to which the Treasury’s sanctions are having an effect. [They do have an effect.]
JAY: I wasn’t suggesting they would use any armed force to intervene. But they have a lot more economic levers, if they want. But there seems to be the idea that if you can somehow destabilize, somehow weaken and encircle–it’s the old logic of the 20th century is what I’m getting at, is this chessboard logic. Brzezinski says, if you want to dominate the world, you have to control Eurasia.
PANITCH: There’s no doubt. There’s no doubt there are Brzezinskis and Madeleine Albrights, let alone Condoleezza Rices, in the making of American foreign policy. The thinking of someone like Madeleine Albright is that if only the European Union had moved more quickly and more generously to integrate the Ukraine ten, 15 years ago, then NATO could have already been in the Ukraine. They could have been integrated into the American Empire’s military and spy apparatus. That’s how she has defined what’s wrong now. And you see the extent to which the American interest in the forming of the European Union as an economic unit, but was always mixed up with military interest, that’s interesting.
On the other hand, I think that the real business, the main business in running the world these days lies much less in that kind of thinking coming out of the national security apparatus and much more in the kind of thinking that comes out of the Treasury or the Fed. Clearly the important thing is to keep global capitalist flows and free trade going. That’s not to say that they totally are able to do this. Things could get out of hand. It’s a very messy world to run.
JAY: I interviewed Larry Wilkerson.
PANITCH: Yeah, I saw that.
JAY: Yeah. And I think he makes an interesting point. You know, there’s a lot of different oligarchs in the United States, and they don’t all have the same agenda. And the agenda of those that are interested in a, you know, global capitalism that works and keeping capital flows working and so and so aren’t necessarily the same interests of the whole industrial, you know, military complex, etc., who love brinkmanship, who love getting close to the edge of war, and perhaps love war itself.
PANITCH: no, I think that’s true. On the other hand, they run up against powerful interests inside and outside the American state who say to them, are you nuts? Are you prepared to actually undermine the way in which we’re trying to manage the global economy?
Now, that said, I have to say Russia, like Iraq, is not as important for the global economy as are other parts of the global economy. So, you know, I don’t know that this might not get out of hand. I think there are forces inside Russia itself, however, which are operating so as to restrain what Putin might want to do in this respect. I must say, I’m not saying that the Russians are in some sense aggressors in this. I think they also are dealing with a soiled diaper and trying to clean their hands as much as they can. Of course there’s elements of Russian nationalism that are present here. And some of the people who are most active in eastern Ukraine, and no doubt in Russia itself, in terms of trying to play this nationalist card, are very nostalgic communists, people who look to Stalinism as representing great Russia in the 20th century.
JAY: And you even hear suggestions of that from Putin himself.
PANITCH: Yeah, you do. And I must say, it is–when you think back, actually, what was really astonishing about the breakup of the Soviet Union, the end of that particular empire, was how peacefully it all happened. You saw an unwinding of much of the events after World War I. And it was astonishing to me how peacefully it all happened. I think what we’re seeing now is some of the continuing fallout from that. And it’s not surprising, in historical terms, that that should still be playing itself out.
Now, what is surprising is this astonishing naivete or feigned naivete in the main media, in the West in particular, who are treating this as though, you know, Putin is Hitler. Absolutely astonishing.
JAY: Yeah. I mean, I think your first point, there’s no good guys and this, I mean, I think the American position, I think, is clearly one of trying to manage and strengthen their Empire and their dominant position. But in terms of Putin, apparently Putin’s speech on Victory Day, he used the phrase the Russian people’s “all-conquering” patriotism. Now, that’s assuming the Western media’s translation is correct. But if it is correct, this idea of conquering patriotism, I mean, let’s not forget there’ve been–.
PANITCH: To be fair, his “all-conquering” patriotism, this is said on the day that marks the defeat of Nazism. And what they conquered were the great innovators of the 20th century. And, you know, they made the greatest sacrifices in doing so, much more than we made in North America. So I think that that’s what that refers to. I’m not saying there isn’t a greater Russian nationalism here, but I think that’s mainly [incompr.]
JAY: I mean, that’s what I’m getting at is right now you have a situation of Russian oligarchs, you know, the majority of the people of Russia are suffering, and the working-class of Russia is suffering greatly, and there’s a stratum of enormous billionaires or–and that’s a classic situation, for the drums of patriotism to distract people in Russia from the class struggle going on there.
PANITCH: Yeah. No. No doubt. And the rival nationalisms inside the Ukraine, which are overlaid, very interestingly, with definitions of nationalism that aligned themselves after the Russian Revolution either with being anti-communist or pro-communist. And so, inside the Ukraine you’re also seeing the masses, if you want to put it that way, who are suffering from the grossest corruption by oligarchs inside the Ukraine, are being mobilized by nationalism rather than by a common class position. And this is tremendously unfortunate, and it speaks to, I must say–and this is true almost everywhere–it speaks to, again, the unbelievable weakness of working-class political expression. The failures of the communist parties and of the social democratic parties in the 20th century are weighing on us like a nightmare, to use one of Marx’s famous phrases from The Eighteenth Brumaire. They’re weighing like a nightmare on the brain of the living. It’s tragic.
JAY: Alright. Thanks for joining us, Leo.
PANITCH: Great to talk to you about this, Paul.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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