Foundations of Social Change: An Interview with Kees Van Der Pijl

by Kees Van Der Pijl, Michael Barker

Kees Van Der Pijl discusses the role that philanthropic foundations have played as instruments of capital’s ‘soft power’.

First published: 02 October, 2012 | Category: Corporate power, Education, History, International

Kees Van Der Pijl is Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex. He is known for his critical approach to Global Political Economy and has published, amongst others, The Foreign Encounter in Myth and Religion, Vol. II of Modes of Foreign Relations and Political Economy (2010); Nomads, Empires, States (2007); Global Rivalries from the Cold War to Iraq (2006); Transnational Classes and International Relations (1998); and The Making of an Atlantic Ruling Class (1984). 

Could you explain what you see as the main differences between hard and soft power?

They are aspects of the same complex of forces, and really on a continuum. Gramsci spoke of consent protected by the armour of coercion and it is the same here. Joseph Nye just re-invented the wheel, that is what most post-Marxist social science is about anyway. 

I tend to think that most writers have neglected emphasising the importance of soft power, most specifically that of philanthropy, in legitimising and extending capitalist relations: what are your thoughts on this matter?

International studies after World War I were recast as a direct extension of Anglo-American open nation-state building, a process in which client governing classes are given the keys of a state on the condition they leave the door open. The large foundations were instrumental in ensuring that this connection remained at the heart of international studies -- from Carnegie, whose ideas about (white) English-speaking hegemony were most explicit, to Rockefeller and Ford, and so on. On the boards of the foundations one finds the key representatives of the US ruling class. Their interventions, especially Rockefeller's, in the replacement of foundational philosophy by 'method' and inter-disciplinarity (all disciplines using the same methods), have shaped contemporary social science and are still spreading across the globe. The topics that they want, are the ones studied on a grand scale – if you want money today, study 'Islamic fundamentalism'. 

When do you first remember reading or hearing about critiques of liberal philanthropists and their foundations? What was your initial reaction to such criticisms? Here I am predominantly thinking about the former "big three," the Ford, Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations.

When I read Peter Bell's article in a 1971 special issue of International Organization, later republished as a collection by Nye and Robert Keohane, I already had been working on the Atlantic ruling class (my book of 1984, to be republished this year). Bell was a Ford officer himself, but then critical knowledge is not a matter of rejecting reality but investigating its connections to the broader social context -- the information for that can come from anywhere. The article certainly helped me fit the role of the Ford Foundation into the larger picture of the projection of power by the West, which includes, but is not confined to, transnational capital headquartered there. 

Following on from the last question, could you could briefly explain what you think about the academic/activist literature that is critical of liberal philanthropy?

I have come across so much that there is no point trying to assess it all, but of late I have read Clyde Barrow, Universities and the Capitalist State, which is a seminal work of how US higher education was shaped in the post-Civil War era up to 1920; and Inderjeet Parmar, Foundations of the American Century, which is just out. Parmar's book I found very insightful, he has worked the archives for a decade or so. It is a really important work, he corroborates for instance the article by David Ransom on the Ford Foundation's role in grooming an anti-Sukarno elite in Indonesia, a grim example of what it takes to build a 'client governing class' and how this is helped to power. The way he says he will check the Ransom article, for which Parmar also draws on Ford's own refutation of that piece, is really brilliant -- he backs it up on the basis of archival material without at any point giving the impression his mind was made up in advance. 

How would you describe the general impact of liberal foundations on the evolution of research within universities and on intellectuals more generally?

This influence is massive and deepening, but then the foundations are merely the dedicated tax-avoidance schemes by which capital imposes its class discipline on higher education and research, which it privatises through the philanthropy process. An important aspect here is that like so much else, capital as it crystallised across the Atlantic, assumed a social form in North America shorn of all the trappings of the European social structure, no aristocracy or other 'pensioners of economic history' as Gramsci calls them. The universities in North America were run by the Protestant clergy who did not want European philosophy ('rationalism') part of the curriculum. So you had the 'Ph. D' imported from Germany, but not the 'Ph'. What connected the different disciplines, which only in the United States became separate in the modern sense, was a common set of methods, a 'positivism light' combined with functional psychology and evolutionary biology into pragmatism. This was the process to which the foundations added their financial muscle. 

Do you think anti-capitalist activists can strategically utilise liberal foundation funding to develop an anti-hegemonic movement for social change?

This happened to some extent given that the Ford Foundation funded critical scholarship and even as Parmar recounts, the World Social Forum. But it also demonstrates to what extent capital holds sway over the entire complex of social forces, and the effort it takes to free one-self of this comprehensive influence. Ford was heavily attacked on account of its funding practices, in that sense its far-sighted strategies (like Rockefeller's in the art world) can be sure of provincial America sniffing them out and kicking them into line. 

You are currently in the process of writing a new book; could you tell me a little about this work in progress?

The book, entitled The Discipline of Western Supremacy, is planned as Volume III of a project on Modes of Foreign Relations and Political Economy, which analyses how foreign relations are always a composite of different modes (tribal, imperial, inter-state, and global governance), and hence are an attribute of life from the dawn of historical humanity. All communities and societies, as I show in Volume II, had extensive mythical and religious imaginaries to make sense of the foreign encounter, but only in the West did a dedicated social science, international relations, emerge. All the other social sciences are also Western, but international studies is the one branch of social science which is exclusively Anglo-American in the mainstream form we know it today. My explanation in the book hinges on the fact that the empire of Western Christianity was too weak to impose orthodoxy and had to live with heresy. Like all other aspects of modernism, this created the constant questioning and contestation that in turn, paradoxically, brings forth a hegemonic mainstream of unparalleled vitality. Today the discipline of IR is constructed around the two poles of global governance, for which the liberal West writes the rules, and sovereign equality, which is granted only if a state submits to Anglo-American governance. As this process is increasingly stagnating, we see a growing recourse to violence, for which the IR discipline in turn provides the legitimation. At my own University of Sussex, the NATO planning director in fact has been appointed on a three-year stint to teach students what the world is about, a 'practitioner'. Structural reform of higher education on a world scale helps to push the boundaries of the disciplinary structure. So Russia or China may resist Western preferences, but at the same time the mode of thought of their educated classes is being restructured to conform to the lines broadly drawn by the West. 

Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in the UK and blogs at

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