Leo Panitch is Canada Research Chair in Comparative Political Economy and Distinguished Research Professor of Political Science at York University. A leading left-wing political economist, he is a long-standing editor of The Socialist Register and the author, with Sam Gindin, of The Making of Global Capitalism (Verso, 2012).
He spoke with NLP about the role of states in global capitalism, elite cooperation in the wake of the 2007-08 financial crisis and the possibilities for left politics in an economically integrated world.
In what sense is capitalism a 'global' system?
Our world is still very much made up of nation states with quite discrete economies and class and social structures.
That said, many of those economies are integrated into the production networks of multinational corporations (MNCs), which produce, outsource or contract in many different countries. Many states are now highly dependent for a massive proportion of their GNP on exports and trade, which is in turn linked inextricably to international banking (through trade credits, currency market derivatives, and so on). Investment and commercial banks have become thoroughly internationalised. In these respects one can say that what Marx spoke about in the 1850s—capitalism as a system with globalising tendencies—has been more or less realised.
What role do states play in underpinning this global capitalist order?Syriza as the most promising anti-neoliberal party on the European political stage.
That said, to take the Greek example, no matter what happens in Greece and no matter what the successes of Syriza would be in this respect, they are only going to be able to go so far in the absence of corresponding shifts in the balance of forces in Europe, especially in northern Europe and, crucially, Germany. We're back to 1917: the shift occurs in the weakest link, but the ability of the forces of fundamental change in a society like Greece to carry it through in a way that would be democratic and realise their goals depends on complementary shifts inside other nation states, above all the more powerful ones.
So the fault lines lay within states—but, again, it's not a matter of 'in' or 'out', it's about the synergy between them.
Could small and medium size economies unilaterally break from the global economic order? Would that be too painful?
That will only be known when it's tested. It will depend on the natural resources a particular country has, the arrangements it can reach with other states given the geopolitical balance of forces, and so on.
But you're right: the inside-outside dialectic is such that it's difficult to imagine a break occurring, of a kind that would permit the realisation of democratic socialist ambitions, without complementary shifts in the balance of forces in other states, above all in the most proximate other states to us.
What are the implications of this for left-wing strategy?
First, it means we have to rid ourselves of the illusion that you can change the world without taking power. It is utterly impossible to progress towards a better world unless the balance of social forces that are in conflict in any society find expression in the transformation—in terms of organisation as well as policies—of the states in those societies.
Relatedly, it means we have to move beyond a politics of protest. While tremendously energising and creative, street protest ought to feed into the creation of political organisation, which is aimed not simply at standing outside the state and throwing tomatoes at it, or having a punch-up with police, but at building the types of organisations which can go into the state and change its make-up.
How do you respond to that as a 23 year old, no-doubt politicised in a very different era than I was?
I agree that the lack of institutions able to translate upsurges in protest into more sustained organisation is a big problem. But I'm wary of repeating the standard criticism—'you need to develop a programme'—without having a clearer idea of what that programme should be. The other thing I find frustrating, and which is part of the rationale behind organising this series, is that economic commentary and reporting often takes place at the wrong level of analysis: it will focus on specific details in the latest budget review, for instance, without placing them in an international context.
I couldn't agree more.
Even if one does develop a programme that is visionary as well as substantive, where does that take us if we don’t have political vehicles which have a chance of getting into the state and trying to implement it? It leaves us trying to influence Ed Miliband, who is so structurally constrained by the role of the Labour Party and the elite forces inside it that, even if he were sympathetic, he couldn't do much to realise it.
So we do need to start thinking about how to build new political organisations. But I understand your generation's concern to avoid reproducing the old Communist or Social Democratic parties. That's going to depend on taking the creativity of the street protests and putting it to work in building organisations which are able to transcend those—quite undemocratic—models.
This interview is part of NLP's series, Left Politics in an International Economy.