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Near the Dulles International Airport west of Washington last weekend, I found myself a couple of dozen meters away from a formidable gathering of 150 powerbrokers – the Bilderberg Group – whose capacity to move money and influence events rivals even the upcoming G20 meeting in Mexico, last month’s G8 summit in Camp David and NATO military meeting in Chicago, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) Spring Meeting in April, or the World Economic Forum in Switzerland in January.
The secretive Bilderbergers aren’t normally a protest magnet, but for my purposes, while passing through Washington, this was the best opportunity to hear their critics from the libertarian-populist strain of US civil society. Hundreds of protesters jammed the sidewalk all weekend, mainly motivated by a call to ‘Occupy Bilderberg 2012’ made by Alex Jones, who has a radio audience of three million and a lurid infowars.com website (“There’s a war on for your mind!”).
Protesters hurled creative abuse at the black limousines rolling past towards the Chantilly Marriott Hotel entrance, and to protect them, police arrested a few activists who dared step onto the road. These particular masters of the universe first met at a hotel (The Bilderberg) in Holland in 1954, co-hosted by Dutch royalty, Uniliver and the US Central Intelligence Agency. The obscure brainstorming session would become an annual intellectual and ideological “testing grounds for new initiatives for Atlantic unity,” according to Sussex University scholar Kees van der Pijl, perhaps the world’s most rigorous scholar of transnational ruling classes.
Often compared to the Trilateral Commission (US, European and Japanese leaders), Council on Foreign Relations thinktank in New York and Bohemian Grove confab (near San Francisco) as low-profile talk shops for key strategic role-players, the Bilderberg Group’s website explains that its “regular, off-the-record discussions helped create a better understanding of the complex forces and major trends affecting Western nations in the difficult post-war period. The Cold War has now ended. But in practically all respects there are more, not fewer, common problems – from trade to jobs, from monetary policy to investment, from ecological challenges to the task of promoting international security.”
By inviting a few outside the US-Euro axis, Bilderberg organisers send signals about which regions are considered important – and Africa doesn’t feature. On this year’s agenda were “Transatlantic Relations, Evolution of the Political Landscape in Europe and the US, Austerity and Growth in Developed Economies, Cyber Security, Energy Challenges, the Future of Democracy, Russia, China and the Middle East.”
The 2012 guest list included the top managers of international banks, oil and chemical companies, high tech firms, the World Bank and World Trade Organisation, plus rising government leaders, philanthropists and old imperialists like Henry Kissinger.
This crew is bound to draw the ire of many victims, yet instead of the kind of Occupy protests I witnessed in London last month – a march through The City with socialists and anarchists furious about parasitical banking practices – or at Wall Street’s Zuccotti Park last year and in various subsequent anti-bank protests by US leftists, the weekend’s Bilderberg protest displayed paranoia about the conspiracies being hatched in the Virginia hotel.
These include everything from the vetting of top politicians – after all, Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama came to Bilderberg to ‘audition’ just as their star rose – to imposing ‘Agenda 21’ sustainable development strategies, to arranging potential world hyperinflation via the next bail-out round for the shaky financial sector. Conversations revealed fears of a one-world government taking away the patriots’ guns and imposing a solution to climate change.
Many of these libertarians believe climate change is a plot by Al Gore to impose world carbon taxes. If only – for Gore is actually nstead a self-interested huckster for carbon trading, which is failing miserably in Europe, as well as in the US (except California) in the wake of the 2010 closure of the Chicago Climate Exchange.
Mind you, some such conspiracy theories are sufficiently close enough to an accurate reading of power to be taken semi-seriously. But it should be patently obvious that at least since 1987 – when CFCs in our old fridges and deoderants were banned by a UN Montreal Protocol so as to prevent the ozone hole from growing – all subsequent world-government ambitions to regulate ecology, manage trade, fix finance, coordinate military activity and address the myriad of other world problems have been dismal failures.
This is where I found myself differing most with Jones’ supporters: never before in history have world elites been so tempted to address global-scale crises, but – thanks to the adverse power balance represented by neoliberal ideology in the 1990s, neoconservatism in the early 2000s and some fusion of the two since Obama came to power – never before have they acted so incoherently.
Today, the very words ‘global governance’ appear a contradiction in terms. Scholars in this field whom I met at Sussex University for a ‘SouthGovNet’ conference on ‘Rising Powers’ last month were well aware that the subimperialist group of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa cannot yet do imperialism’s heavy lifting, even when it comes to what is considered a ‘global public good’ – non-collapsing international financial networks – via the desired G20 re-bailout of the IMF (the BRICS are objecting to giving their $100 billion share of the $430 billion that Christine Lagarde now seeks for a rainy European day).
Van der Pijl’s exceptionally rich study of Bilderberg and subsequent US-European geopolitical maneuvres, The Making of an Atlantic Ruling Class (which thankfully Verso Press is about to reissue), provides the theoretical underpinning that I feel Jones’ passionately conspiratorialist followers desperately need, if they ever aim to properly judge the world’s complex combinations of structure and agency.
As Marx remarked, “People make their own history, but not under conditions of their own choosing.” Developing an analysis of political-economic structure – the background conditions – is the vital missing element short-circuited by the libertarian right’s shallow habit of name-calling Bilderbergers ‘Illuminati!’
How do we best understand the Bilderbergers, then? In his most recent major article dissecting their agenda, based on the 2007 meeting, van der Pijl insists, “The West, capital, and the state emerged in a single process in which mutual relations are not external and optional but internal, embodied in transnational classes.”
Such elite networks are, Antonio Gramsci wrote in The Prison Notebooks, like “international political parties which operate within each nation with the full concentration of the international forces. But religion, Freemasonry, Rotary, Jews, etc., can be subsumed into the social category of ‘intellectuals’, whose function, on an international scale, is that of mediating the extremes, of ‘socializing’ the technical discoveries which provide the impetus for all activities of leadership, of devising compromises between, and ways out of, extreme solutions.”
Likewise, van der Pijl sees the Bilderberg Group as an ‘international’ of corporate capital, although possessing a narrower base than the Davos crew because of its Atlanticist character. Hence the biggest geopolitical and economic threat to the Bilderbergers is China.
Initially, he observes, the mood was welcoming, because “Beijing’s decision to peg the Chinese currency on the dollar in 1994, was seen as a move to tie its fate more emphatically to the US economy and a further commitment to become integrated into the expanding West at the height of the Clinton globalisation drive.”
However, van der Pijl continues, “The Chinese challenge to the West and the response to it were in 1996 still in a benign stage and were soon beginning to mutate into a different direction,” namely putting China right after Iraq and Iran on Washington’s enemy list, roughly a decade ago.
Five years back, van der Pijl identified Bilderberger priorities from a list that an insider informant had jotted down: dividing Iraq, invading Iran, controlling other oil and gas supplies, creating more EU-type unions in the American Hemisphere, and “talking about China as the World’s next Evil Empire.”
Retroactively, in 2012, it is fanciful to imagine Washington’s power to fracture Iraq and to compel more economic ‘unions’, in the sense of a single currency, fallen trade barriers (amplifying NAFTA) and increasingly centralised state coordination. As for the other projections five years ago, recall that the bubbly pre-crisis economic period had not yet ended and Peak Oil was feared at an early date (before the fracking boom), so the Bilderbergers’ bravado is not surprising.
But they were nervous, too, of a coming political storm, remarked van der Pijl. Representing both BP and Goldman Sachs in 2007, Peter Sutherland (former WTO director) “was quoted as saying that it had been a mistake to have referenda on the EU constitution. ‘You knew there was a rise in nationalism; you should have let your parliaments ratify the treaty, and it should be done with.’ Kissinger said words to the same effect concerning unification of the Americas, stressing the need to mobilise the enlightened media behind its propagation.”
What kind of political storm did the Bilderbergers chat about last weekend, in the wake of so much revolt across the world? In his 2007 paper, van der Pijl was correct to warn against “US rightwing anti-globalists with a strong conspiratorial bent who consider Bilderberg a permanent quasi-world government rather than a nodal point (among several others) of the Atlantic ruling class as it evolves and seeks to work out a strategic consensus.”
But if the Bilderbergers agreed upon a strategic consensus, it was probably extreme neoliberalism, taking advantage of financial capital’s crises by bailing out the banks and imposing financial capital’s austerity agenda. With Greek, Spanish, Portuguese, Irish and Italian social pressure rising, we can anticipate many more such populist concerns about the anti-democratic IMF, European Central Bank and financial institutions.
(To illustrate, near where I live in South Africa, the mysterious men from Moody’s rating agency are this month arm-twisting the state to reinstate a hugely unpopular highway tolling strategy in the Johannesburg-Pretoria region, in the face of both trade union and middle-class white revolt.)
So there is no doubt that world banker domination – which should have been reduced by the 2008-09 financial melt – will continue. Only the occasional sovereign default – Argentina (2002), Ecuador (2008), Iceland (2008) and maybe Southern Europe this year – or imposition of exchange controls (as rediscovered by Malaysia in 1998 or Venezuela in 2003) reduces the banksters’ grip.
Yet the libertarian protesters’ fear of the elites has only superficial commonality with the Occupy movement’s more robust approach. The latter want a forward-moving ‘system change’ – as we heard from Occupy COP17 in Durban outside the climate summit last December – whereas nationalistic US nativism offers no grounds for broad-based alliances.
As expressed in a fairly typical protest banner on Saturday, “Warning to secret societies: you are pissing off American patriots. We have machine guns also.” The macho, self-described ‘paleo-conservative’ narrative plus the occasional undercurrent of anti-semitism is not language heard from Occupy’s collection of socialists, anarchists, liberals, Greens, labour, civic activists, youth and the progressive faith community.
The strongest political effort by these libertarian anti-Bilderberg protesters is to attempt the election of Texan member of Congress, Ron Paul, as president, and with 20 percent popularity, he remains Mitt Romney’s only irritant within the Republican Party as the November showdown with Obama now looms.
But with Obama continuing to molly-coddle Wall Street (e.g., still no prosecutions for the great 2008-09 financial theft) and openly declaring himself a militarist – personally approving drone assassinations in the Middle East and delighting in the Stuxnet cyberwar attack on Iran, according to The New York Times last week – the paranoid streak about Washington’s surveillance and proto-fascistic policing also resonates.
So long as they leave their guns behind, I wish them well, because to have directed a great deal more media attention and popular hostility against the ‘.0001%’ gathered in the Marriott last weekend, was a public service that the rest of our world should now build upon. But hopefully, with political values more aligned to rainbow than Rambo.
Patrick Bond directs the Centre for Civil Society in Durban, South Africa.