Introduction to Kees ven der Pijl's "The Making of an Atlantic Ruling Class"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sat Oct 30 13:42:50 MDT 1999

This study investigates the process of capitalist class formation in the
North Atlantic area in the period between the launch of Woodrow Wilson’s
‘Crusade for Democracy’ in 1917 and the world economic crisis of 1974—75.
The crisis, from which capitalism so far has found no way out, and which in
the absence of a clear revolutionary dynamic has only raised the level of
violence in the international system to a point where the threat of nuclear
annihilation seems all too real, terminated an era of American hegemony and
Atlantic integration. In this era, the specific form and content of the
internationalization of capital allowed the bourgeoisie in the North
Atlantic area to regroup and develop a series of comprehensive concepts of
control by which it could reinforce its hegemonial position both nationally
and, in the confrontation with extra—Atlantic challenges, internationally.
>From either perspective, the dominant feature of the era of Atlantic
integration was the supranational framework in which bourgeois class rule
was organized and legitimized: Atlantic, European, or various combinations
of the two.

Class formation in the North Atlantic area, understood as a continuous
process of redefining the coordinates of bourgeois rule in response and
anticipation to the dynamic of the internationalization of capital, passed
through several stages, reaching well back into the nineteenth century.
Beginning with the post-Civil War American railway boom, an Atlantic
circuit of money capital developed, the epicentre of which at the time of
World War One shifted from London to New York. Interrupted and partially
disorganized in the l930s and 1940s, when national productive capital
reasserted its preeminence at the expense of internationally circulating
capital, the Atlantic circuit was restructured after the war in the context
of the Pax Americana. As international finance capital, in which the
circuits of money capital and productive capital were tendentially
integrated at the Atlantic level, the spread of American multinational
firms and banks opened a third, synthetic stage of the internationalization
of capital.

In each stage, specific trans-Atlantic configurations of interests
crystallized, which were acted upon by a segment of the ruling class
formulating its concept of control in terms of the requirements of the
capital fraction specifically engaged in the internationalization process.
Thus, the liberal-internationalist bourgeoisie associated with the
development of an Atlantic circuit of money capital at the turn of the
century developed its specifically Atlantic cohesion around a concept of
control reflecting the vantage-point of the money capitalist. On the other
hand, the bourgeoisie protecting industry in a national (or, at most,
regional) context in the interwar years carved out sphere—of—interest
arrangements with its trans-Atlantic counterparts primarily from a
productive-capital standpoint. At the outset of the actual era of Atlantic
integration — coincident with Lend—Lease and Roosevelt’s Atlantic Charter —
this fraction of the bourgeoisie, which I term the state-monopoly tendency,
was counter— posed in most West European nations to the
liberal—internationalist fraction as contending poles of bourgeois hegemony.

The synthetic ruling—class class strategy which transcended and subsumed
this antinomy was corporate liberalism. Shaped in the specific conditions
of the New Deal, it became the hegemonial ideological expression of the
US—led internationalization of finance capital in the Atlantic area. As a
heuristic concept, corporate liberalism’ was widely used by American New
Left historians in the 1960s to characterize the dominant ideology both in
the narrow sense of the structural bias towards corporate power, and, in
the broader sense, of the co-prosperity alliance between big business and
organized labour in the modern practice of American ‘liberalism’. In the
present study, the term more particularly denotes the synthesis between the
original laissez-faire liberalism of the liberal— internationalist fraction
(the definition of liberalism still current in Europe) and the state
intervention elicited by the requirements of large-scale industry and
organized labour, which in the period between the wars accompanied various
forms of class conciliation generally referred to as corporatism. (The
reader, should therefore, be forewarned that ‘liberalism’ is not used in
the common North American sense as the opposite of conservative!)

The American bourgeoisie during the New Deal, and its subsequent Atlantic
extrapolation through several us politico— economic offensives, was able to
develop corporate liberalism into the guiding concept for shaping a
specifically Atlantic cohesion of class relations. The class fraction
leading the way in this process could draw on two major experiments in
American social and political history which had hitherto remained
disparate, although they had been recognized separately for their potential
contribution to meet the challenge of socialism. The first of these was
Fordism, a productivist class compromise based on the synchronization of
relative surplus—value extraction with the expansion of effective demand,
especially for consumer durables. Fordism, with its implications for the
macro—economic determination of wage levels and the standardization and
regimentation of working-class life, was resorted to by the Roosevelt
forces when deflation, carried over from the Hoover administration and
dictated by the orthodox money—capital concept, threatened to jeopardize
the very structure of capitalist society in the United States.

The second heritage which the New Deal eventually mobilized was the
democratic universalism pioneered by Woodrow Wilson. Wilson’s universalism,
which presumed an integration of domestic and foreign policy, had been
shaped even more directly in response to the challenge of socialism. The
Crusade for Democracy, by which Wilson led the United States into World War
One at the side of the Allies, was meant to outflank the Bolshevik
Revolution by coopting those demands that could be digested by the
capitalist system, such as national self—determination, and by aiming to
moderate rather than suppress socialism. At the same time, the American
intervention was intended to shore up the regimes of bourgeois Europe in
which American bankers had invested a large part of the savings entrusted
to them by the propertied classes of their country.

When in the context of World War Two, a comparable conjuncture again
presented itself to the American ruling class, the Roosevelt forces seized
the opportunity to reorient the New Deal from its national—corporatist
format to a more liberal—internationalist strategy of expansion, in which
domestic working-class demands could be in part evaded, in part
compromised, while American economic power was brought to bear on both the
British Empire and the Soviet Union in order to force them into compliance
with US preferences for an open world.

The Lend-Lease policy, then, inaugurated an era in which the two elements
in combination — the generalization of Fordism and an offensive diplomacy
of Wilsonian inspiration — materialized as a process of class formation on
the North Atlantic level, guided by successive formulations of Atlantic
unity. Through recurrent offensives of the United States, and concomitant
accelerations of the internationalization of finance capital, a
restructuration of Atlantic class relations was brought about which
ultimately eliminated the lag hitherto separating the pattern of capital
accumulation and inter., nationalization in Europe from that of the United

In the era of Atlantic integration, three offensives of this type were
launched: the Roosevelt offensive, in FDR’s third term; the Marshall
offensive, coincidental with the initial four years of the Marshall Plan;
and the Kennedy offensive spanning the first half of the 1960s. As far as
the global structure of imperialism was concerned, the offensives
(alternating with periods of relative American defensiveness in
international affairs) represented concerted efforts o the United States to
break into the colonial empires or peripheral domains of the European
powers while keeping the Soviet Union at bay. Atlantic unity, the American
nuclear posture, and its militancy in the underdeveloped periphery itself,
were all aimed to prevent socialist forces from interfering with the
delicate process of transition from colonialism to neo-colonialism, and
more particularly, to prevent the linkage of Soviet power and local
insurgency. Paradoxically, Atlantic integration therefore represented a
process of redistribution of spheres-of-influence at the expense of Western
Europe, facilitated by American control of the international monetary
system and its virtual monopoly, on the capitalist side, of the means of
nuclear destruction.

In this process of confrontation and redistribution, Atlantic unity was
cemented by the support the American offensives could draw upon in Western
Europe. As indicated above, the traditional trans- Atlantic ties of capital
were augmented after 1917 by the attraction of European social democracy
towards a Wilsonian universalism which seemed to crystallize Kautsky’s
projections of a peaceful, ultimate stage of capitalist development.

Along these two principal vectors — European liberalism and reformist
socialism — the process of the transformation of Western European class
relations into a corporate—liberal mold was accelerated in the periods of
an offensive us foreign policy. However in the intermediate periods
associated with Republican presidencies, the corporate—liberal synthesis,
deprived of a dynamic American stimulus, tended to disintegrate back into
the polarized ideologies of laissez—faire liberalism and state monopolism.
Until the ultimate crisis of Atlantic integration in the 1970s, this
alternation of offensive and defensive moments in the coherence of the
corporate—liberal unification of capitalist class interests testified to
the existence of an 'over-determining’ Atlantic constraint, related in the
last instance to the balance of power within the American ruling class
itself as well as to the share of productive capital in the overall
profit—distribution process.

>From this perspective, the history of Atlanticism, as both ideology and an
actual process of class formation, must be related to the three successive
strategies of Atlantic unity which corresponded to the different offensive
periods of American capitalism. The first was Roosevelt’s concept of
Atlantic Universalism, which derived its specific Atlantic dimension from
the European focus of World War Two and the key position of the British
Empire in the world America wanted to expand into. The second version of
Atlantic unity was the Atlantic Union idea which surfaced at the time of
the Marshall Plan and combined a status-quo approach to control of the
periphery with a high-pitched Cold War unity against the Soviet Union. The
third Atlanticist strategy was the Atlantic Partnership scheme promulgated
by President Kennedy in an attempt to restore unity of purpose to an
Atlantic world in which the establishment of a restrictive EEC demonstrated
the degree to which Western European capital had emancipated itself from
American tutelage and was intent on carving out a sphere-of-interest of its

Liberalization and state intervention, the two pillars of corporate
liberalism, developed hand-in-hand in the period of Atlantic integration,
their relative emphasis deriving from the stubbornness of either the
original liberalism (as manifested, for instance, in the pre—Suez political
economy of Britain) or of state monopolism (as in the case of Gaullism).
The American offensives were instrumental in setting free the forces for
this transformation, and in activating the fractions of the bourgeoisie
involved in its evolution. The short- term cyclical developments, notably
in the profit-distribution process, which will allow us to explain the
modalities of actual class formation and politics in the central period
under review, however, should not obscure the fact that as a whole, the era
of Atlantic integration was characterized by a (Fordist) class compromise
between capital and labour on the basis of a ‘Keynesian’ sub- ordination of
petty money interests to overall levels of productive investment, and a
profit-distribution structure skewed towards pro- ductive capital. The New
Deal in this respect, too, marked the beginning of an era and set the
standard for Europe.

In the course of the 1960s accumulation conditions in the Atlantic area
were more or less equalized, blocking the trans—Atlantic escape routes for
American productive capital by eliminating the gap between us and European
production conditions. As part of  same development, the profit share of
bank capital climbed drastically in all countries involved, and rentier
incomes revived as well. By the time Richard Nixon cut the dollar from gold
in August 1971 and thus set free an exponential growth of the mass of’
international liquidity, banks in practically all countries in the area had
already been liberated from the Keynesian shackles imposed on them in the
1930s, or were soon to do so. The unimpeded international circulation of
capital which had been the aim of the architects of Atlantic integration
was finally realized — at the price of the system itself. Thrown into the
rapidly widening channels of international credit, the mass of savings
centralized by Atlantic bank capital served to facilitate the transfer of
key segments of the productive apparatus of the North Atlantic heartland to
new zones of implantation in the periphery.

This wave of internationalization, which widened the scope of the present
crisis, also destroyed the very structure of Atlantic integration. By
breaking the territorial coincidence of mass production and mass
consumption, it undermined the capital—labour compromise and the
complementarity of circulation relations; by allowing untrammeled
competition in the search for new outlets for capital, and in the
mobilization of peripheral elites, it destroyed the fundamental unity of
purpose which had hitherto constituted the cornerstone of the hegemonial
strategy of the Atlantic bourgeoisie.

Louis Proyect
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