Leo Panitch on US Imperialism, Russian Nationalism, and Global Capitalism

Journalist Paul Jay and Leo Panitch, Distinguished Research Professor of Political Science at York University, had an exceedingly informative discussion about “Global Capitalism, the US Empire and Russian Nationalism” on the Real News on 10 May.

Panitch begins the discussion stipulating, at 2:25, “First of all, there are no good guys in this.” This idea, absolutely pivotal to understanding these complex global interactions, goes

against the remarkable tone of the Western media, which is astonishingly single-minded in its presentation of Russian aggression all of the sudden, with the United States in the position of really trying to bring Ukraine into NATO, completely encircling Russia.

On the other hand, the Russian oligarchs and the authoritarian Kremlin, not to speak of the extreme right-wing nationalism [even fascism, he later notes] that is so powerful now in western Ukraine, and the old-style Russian nationalism—there are no good guys in this story whatsoever.

This utter lack of “good guys” connects to the crucial point he makes at the conclusion of the interview—that is to say the overall, global weakness of the left.

At 3:26, Panitch reminds us

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 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. Nationalist consciousness doesn’t go away with economic integration.

Panitch insists at 4:50 that “The United States is the empire of global capitalism.” In “the absence of a transnational state,” the US has taken it upon itself (not for benevolent reasons, by any means) to be the “economic manager of global capitalism.”

At 5:09, Panitch notes

I don’t take the view that the United States ’caused’ Ukrainian nationalism to suddenly blow up. It blew up, and had partly to do with the attempted economic integration—which the Ukrainians were pushing more than the Europeans—and 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 of Russia.

Prof. Panitch adds, at 9:40,

Russia was never integrated the way the G7 was integrated. There was this fiction of the G8, in which 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.

At 12:10, Panitch states

I think that the real business, the main business, in running the world these days, lies much less in that thinking, coming out of the national security apparatus, and much more in the kind of thinking that comes out of the treasury and the Fed. Clearly, the important thing [to them] is to keep global capitalist flows and free trade going.

Panitch is careful to clarify at 14:05 that Russia is not necessarily an aggressor in this. He notes the elements of Russian nationalism present in Ukraine, and reveals that “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 gives a great overview of the grimness of the situation at 16:48, saying

Right now … 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, and that’s a classic situation for the drums of patriotism to distract people in Russia from the class struggle going on there.

Panitch responds, establishing that the problem lies not just with imperialism and with much of the world’s turn to nationalism, in the wake of widespread immiseration (particularly after 2008’s Second Great Depression), but in the widespread, global failure of the left to mobilize this popular discontent:

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. So inside the Ukraine, you are 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 18th Brumaire [of Louis Napoleon]; they are ‘weighing like a nightmare on the brains of the living.’ It’s tragic.