The New Geopolitics: Class, Capital, Nationalism

What is geopolitics?

Since the first nation-states came into existence, their kings raised armies, levied taxes, and controlled cross-border trade. This is geopolitics. It always implied state-to-state competition. As nations grew larger and more powerful, becoming empires, allocation of resources among internal regions became a greater concern, but so did the intensity of competition with outsiders. Kings, then emperors, demanded loyalty from vassals or governors, who were charged with raising armies and collecting taxes within their respective regions. Even today’s elected leaders have those same drivers. Expansion of empires (called imperialism) followed as growing power allowed, with Defense of the empire against external threats always a corollary.

Whether motivated by acquisition of resources, or defense of what the king already possessed, the tools were the same: armies, loyal vassals, intimidation. Either resource scarcity or plenty might cause aggression against neighbors. Scarcity, because of domestic need, plenty because of domestic capability. Threats from outsiders might be real, imagined, or fabricated to intimidate subjects.

And it continues today. Nation-states still engage in geopolitical actions, now often called political warfare. They take advantage of modern technology for propaganda and disinformation campaigns to improve or defend their position vis-à-vis competitors. One thing seems to have changed, however. No longer is the state dominant over capital. Capital is now global, multinational. It has total freedom of movement. Kings have become vassals to CEOs! And armies are no longer the primary means of exerting influence.

What is (or was) class struggle?

While much of the world’s economic activity is now transnational, and international trade motivates many actions of today’s rulers, there always exists tension between the haves and have-nots within a population, as well as across national boundaries. Nations, themselves, can be either haves or have-nots. In the 19th century, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels asserted that class divisions between workers and bourgeoisie were the dominant force in geopolitics – rendering national boundaries irrelevant. Indeed, workers must organize internationally, without regard to local language, custom, or capitalist government. That was then. What about the 21st century?

The 20th century intervened. It was a violent century, full of uprisings, total war, economic disruption, and the rise of a new class – the “middle class.” Today, virtually everybody in the world’s developed economies considers themselves middle class. Marx called this class the “petit bourgeois.” They were a hybrid of worker and owner. They worked for an employer, drawing wages, but also owned at least some property, like a home, or a 401-K. But, surely to the chagrin of Marx and Engels, the shrinking of the world in the 20th century only further emphasized the role of culture, language, religion, and local character — at the expense of class consciousness among the world’s workers.

Migration, both internal and international, became the common response to economic hardship. A new geopolitics emerged where economic regions became more salient than national borders. Most governments are now “popular,” and they must appeal to multi-cultural constituencies, no longer homogeneous class-based cohorts.

Some countries, like the United States, became powerful enough where geopolitical positioning required promotion of external threats from anywhere and everywhere to justify suppression of any internal class divisions.  The real enemies became those communists, then Middle Eastern terrorists, outside. In the Soviet Union and China, mirror images of this position existed – their real enemies were the capitalist nations surrounding them, and “capitalist roaders” in their midst. Class struggle in the second half of the 20th century had morphed into geopolitical competition.

Winners and losers

The dynamics of 21st century geopolitics now focuses on nationalism, or cultural chauvinism. People have begun to yearn for unification with others “like us.” Cousins may live across town, in another city, or another country. But those cousins share a common bond of language, religion, history. Sometimes, popular political leaders use nationalism to foster geopolitical ends. The most famous case, from the early 20th century, was Nazi Germany. Vladimir Putin’s Russia uses similar approaches in an apparent strategy to recover some (or all) of the former Soviet Union. The theme of reclaiming former glory, a lost empire, is common in geopolitics, perhaps now reaction to the multiculturalism we experienced in the late 20th century.

Related to the reunification and recovery theme is the “we know what’s best for you” theme of imperialism and colonialism. Here, we are the winners: we’re stronger because we’re smarter. In the “recovering lost glory” scenario, we are the losers: suffering because somebody has taken something that is rightfully ours. Even if material resources are the root of both, political rhetoric usually obscures that foundation. “Blood and soil” replace wealth and exploitation in the popular imagination.

But today material resources are controlled less by nation-states than by multinational corporations, nations are either creditors or debtors under global capitalism. The haves and have-nots among nations are divided along lines set by the World Bank, or other large financial institutions like Chase or DB, with their worldwide tentacles. Armies have little influence over international capital. Owners of capital are the new kings, debtors their serfs, and nationalism keeps them divided.

The big players

Throughout history, the big players in the game of geopolitics have been the “great powers” among nations. Small countries, the have-not countries, generally have no economic or political designs beyond their borders. Empires are another matter. As their populations and cultural diversity grew, their geopolitical interests became global. If we now live in an age of imperial capital, the big players will be the states owning the most capital. GDP is still a valid measure of this power. And in that light, the United States joins in competition with Europe (EU as a national unit), China, India, and a trailing Russia. In 2021, anybody else is an “also ran.” That petit bourgeois middle class has become the dominant class in all these countries — if not in numbers, then certainly in self-perception and influence over government. These players all maintain at least the appearance of democracy via voting and party membership. Quibbling about the degree of democracy in any of them reflects more cultural bias than anything. All of them are equally successful in stifling cross-border working-class solidarity.

So, who will win the geopolitical struggles of the near future? Who makes the Final Four? We can assume that climate change and growing inequality will suppress any aspirations of the Global South, not now nor ever likely to be ranked among the “great powers.” Among the winners, each of our five has certain advantages and disadvantages going forward.

Taking each in turn:

  1. The U.S.: seems to be falling into the “recover former glory” camp. Our “American Century” has probably ended. We still control an enormous amount of capital, have a large population (but likely slowing in growth), and clearly the most powerful military establishment in the world (influence declining). Greatest strength: our GDP. Greatest weakness: internal cultural divisions.
  2. Europe (the EU and Britain): patrimony of U.S. culture, Indian, and most of the Global South. Despite its past hegemony over the world, it now seems to be relying mostly on GDP and control of capital, much like the U.S. And like us, Europe is riven by internal divisions of language and religion. Europe has dealt with this in the past, however, achieving a surprising degree of unity. Greatest strength: lowest degree of inequality among major players, although growing. Prediction: Britain will find its way back into EU after lengthy negotiations with Germany and France to preserve fiscal autonomy.
  3. China: rediscovering capitalism after about 50 years as pure worker/peasant state, China has lately become a clear rival to the U.S. and Europe for control of the global economy. Again, important to remember that global capital does not depend on any national government. But China, like the U.S., and the EU, is creditor, not debtor. Greatest strength: central planning and control of all things, including capital flows under State Capitalism. Greatest weakness: too many people to control effectively, with growing cultural (even religious) divisions.
  4. India: “new kid on the block,” India has had eye-popping economic growth in recent years, still behind the U.S., Europe, or China, but moving fast. Nationalism is being wielded as a weapon for regional hegemony, as is growing military capability, including a navy. Greatest strength: coherent national strategy for co-opting varied tribal, cultural groups within society. Greatest weakness: rivals’ jealousy, including Pakistan and China.
  5. Russia: hasn’t fared well in 21st century, clearly in the “recover former glory” category under Vladimir Putin. This, despite having a powerful grip on much of Europe’s fossil fuel resources. Russia is looking toward a decline in world demand for those resources, a trend which may neutralize beneficial effects of climate change for Arctic navigability. Greatest strength: none, really – Russia seems doomed to regional influence only, especially given its greatest weakness: corruption of leadership and lack of aspirations among its population.

Our bracketology prediction is tough, but the ultimate championship (if any), is likely to be from these five.

–William Sundwick

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