In the 1970s and 80s, Torkil Lauesen was a member of a clandestine communist cell which carried out a series of robberies in Denmark, netting very large sums which were then sent on to various national liberation movements in the Third World. Following their capture in 1989, Torkil would spend six years in prison. In 2016, Torkil’s book Det Globale Perspektiv was released in Denmark. In it, he explains how he sees the world political situation today, and his thoughts about the future. This story of Torkil and his comrades’ activities that led to their arrest is recounted in fascinating detail in the book Turning Money into Rebellion: The Unlikely Story of Denmark’s Revolutionary Bank Robbers (edited and translated by Gabriel Kuhn, published by Kersplebedeb & PM Press in 2014) currently on sale at leftwingbooks.net. There is currently an Indiegogo fundraiser to be able to have Det Globale Perspectiv translated into English and published by Kersplebedeb in 2018. Please consider donating here.
Background to “The Global Perspective”: Why this book?
(by Torkil Lauesen, November 2016)
I was born in 1952 in Denmark. My mother was a nurse, my father a seaman. If ever there was a capitalist welfare state, Denmark was it. We got a TV and a refrigerator in 56, a small Renault car in 59, and we moved from a social housing flat to our own house in 62. The slogan of the ruling Social Democratic Party was: “Make good times better.”
My first experience with politics was the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. During the Cold War, as part of the arms race between the superpowers, the Soviet Union intended to deploy nuclear missiles in Cuba. This was partly a response to the US deployment of similar missiles in Turkey directed against the Soviet Union and partly a response to the unsuccessful CIA-backed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in 1961.
The Soviet ships, bound for Cuba with the equipment, were spotted in the Baltic Sea near the coast of Denmark, and the US established a naval blockade of Cuba. What would happen when the Soviet ships came into confrontation with the US Navy? Nuclear war between the superpowers lurked on the horizon.
I was ten years old, but understood very well the seriousness of the situation. The Civil Defense had distributed a leaflet to every family entitled: “If the War Comes.” In the booklet there were pictures of how one should take cover under the coffee table when you see the light flash of the exploding bomb. On our new TV, I had seen the image of the mushroom cloud, and in our street, I heard the sound of sirens that were tested every Wednesday. Our neighbor had stored a lot of canned food and water down in their basement. I thought about what would happen when we had eaten the food and were forced to come up from the basement. What would the world be like?
The immediate danger passed. Elvis, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and discussions about hair length took over in my mind. But now there was also an organization : “No More War” was the first political movement I supported, and I was quite sure that I would be a conscientious objector when I was drafted.
Another military confrontation—the Vietnam War—loomed larger and larger in my mind, not least because of the daily footage on TV. It is no wonder that the Vietnam War was an important mobilizing factor for my generation of anti-imperialists. The war was one of the most brutal in recent history. The bombing from B-52 aircrafts, which began with Operation Rolling Thunder in 1965 and continued until the ceasefire negotiations in 1973, was massive. North Vietnam, which was the size of Texas, was bombed with a tonnage three times greater than the total bombing of Europe, Asia, and Africa during the entire Second World War. Fifteen million tons of bombs with an explosive force equivalent to 400 Hiroshima bombs were poured down on Vietnam. CIA anti-guerrilla operations, such as Operation Phoenix, “neutralized” more than 80,000 civilians suspected of being Viet Cong supporters. Overall, more than 1.5 million Vietnamese were killed because of the US war. It is not an exaggeration to call the American war a “genocide”—a verdict that the Russell Tribunal, chaired by Jean Paul Sartre, reached in Stockholm 1967. President Nixon and Secretary of State Kissinger should, according to international law, have been brought before a war crimes tribunal.
Therefore, it was no accident that one of the first political books I bought was War Crimes in Vietnam, by Nobel Prize winner and philosopher Bertrand Russell. Recently, in connection with writing The Global Perspective, I looked at the book again. The following passage had been underlined by me in the late sixties:
“To some, the expression ‘U.S. imperialism’ appears as a cliché because it is not part of their own experience. We in the West are the beneficiaries of imperialism. The spoils of exploitation are the means of our corruption.” (Russell, Bertrand, 2013 , ‘Peace through Resistance to US Imperialism’, in Barry Feinberg and Ronald Kasril, eds., Russell’s America: His Transatlantic Travels and Writings, A Documented Account, vol. 2, 1945-1970, London: Routledge)
This passage obviously affected me, for looking back on the development of my political views, the words sum up my experience. It began with feelings: as a need for justice for the people of Vietnam, as resentment against US napalm bombings. Possibly, I was also having a guilty conscience over the fact that I was leading a rich life, while so many people in the Third World lead theirs under such poor conditions. I am comfortably writing this text on one of our two household computers. We also have an iPad, a couple of mobile phones, and a flat panel TV. Our 90-square-meter apartment has a bathroom and a modern kitchen. On holidays I travel abroad by plane, enjoying the sun in countries where people are stone broke. The high income I have can pay for it all. Perhaps it is this disparity in the necessities of life that has given me my personal political drive. What kind of history is it that has led to this global disparity? What mechanisms are involved in maintaining it? And why is it so hard to change this situation? In order to find answers to these questions, I began searching through political theory.
In 1969, I found the answers in the political organization that later turned into the so-called “Blekinge Street Group.” Their theory explained to me how the world is organized and functions in a manner that I could recognize immediately from my own everyday life. The theory explained that there was a connection between all the riches in our part of the world and the poverty in the Third World—the connection being imperialism. It also explained why the working class in our part of the world did not want socialism, preferring reforms within the existing system.
I became a member of the Kommunistisk Arbejdskreds (Communist Working Circle), or KAK. Theory turned my individual uncoordinated political action into organized strategic practice. Concretely, this meant study visits to the Third World to see the social conditions and meet with liberation movements first hand, and later on, practical material support to some of these movements. These experiences strengthened my initial feelings: We felt a personal responsibility to help the liberation movements – which had now turned into real people, into comrades. We wanted to be a little cog in the machinery promoting a different world order.
This practice, these feelings, again brought about political reflection and studies aimed at investigating, explaining, and mobilizing others—and hopefully ourselves—i.e. evoking feelings and action.
Thus, theoretical development was always important to us. There was always careful theoretical, strategic, and tactical thought behind our practice. We always discussed politics before practice when working with liberation movements. Therefore, when looking back on more than forty years of political activity, one can see an oscillation between feelings, practice, and theoretical reflection. This book is a collection of these theoretical deliberations.
As mentioned above, I was politicized by the Vietnam War. In the solidarity work and in demonstrations against the war, it was primarily students who were at the forefront. We did not see much of the working class and its organizations. At the same time, it seemed to me that there was an enormous difference between the conditions which the proletariat of the Third World was living under and the problems that the working class in my part of the world was grappling with. There is a great difference between starvation, long unhealthy workdays, and two dollars pay a day, on the one side, and longer holidays, increased pensions, and two dollars more per hour, which were on the agenda of the labor struggles in Denmark in the sixties.
The fact that the challenges facing the working class of the Third World are far greater than the problems the working class faces here might seem obvious to most people. That there is a connection between these living conditions and the radicalism of the resistance and the desire for a different world order might also be regarded as an uncontroversial observation. Among leftists in our part of the world, however, this observation is highly controversial. To claim that the working class in countries like Denmark is taking advantage of the global division of labor, and therefore doesn’t have a direct interest in changing the existing system—and that this fact is the reason for the lack of international solidarity on the part of the working class—is considered taboo and almost treasonous.
Nevertheless, these were the kinds of heretical thoughts that the KAK was putting forth in what it referred to as the “parasite state theory.” However, it was not just the intellectual consistency of the KAK’s theory that drew me in. It was also the commitment and the integrity that the members I met were showing. To them solidarity was not just political statements, but “something you could hold in your hand.” There was a connection between what they were saying and the practice they maintained.
The parasite state theory was formulated and developed primarily by the leader of the KAK, Gotfred Appel, in a series of articles that appeared in the KAK’s newspaper Kommunistisk Orientering (Communist Orientation) between 1966 and the dissolution of the KAK in 1977. (Many of these texts are available online at snylterstaten.dk) One consequence of the dissolution was the formation of the Manifest–Kommunistisk Arbejdsgruppe (Manifest – Communist Working Group), or MKA. In the MKA we tried to substantiate and develop the economic basis of the theory of the parasite state, linking it to Arghiri Emmanuel’s theory of unequal exchange, which described how the exploitation of the proletariat in Asia, Africa, and South America comes about by way of international trade. Historically and sociologically, we also tried to elaborate our theory, linking it especially to Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-systems theory. This theory describes the historical and political development of capitalism from the Middle Ages up until today, as a continuous center-periphery relationship.
In 1983, the MKA released the book Unequal Exchange and the Prospects for Socialism in a Divided World. At the time, it was the most comprehensive and coherent statement in Danish on the theory of the parasite state, addressing both its economic basis and its consequences from a political and a class point of view, not to mention providing a strategy for what to do in the core countries of imperialism. (Originally published in Danish in 1983, Unequal Exchange and the Prospects for Socialism in a Divided World was translated into English in 1986, and is available at snylterstaten.dk)
In April 1989, the MKA was disbanded due to the incarceration of several of its members in connection with the so-called “Blekinge Street Gang” case. Today, there is no formal organization around the theory of the parasite state in Denmark – even though the internet website snylterstaten.dk can be seen as an expression of the ongoing relevance and interest in these matters.
Following imprisonment in 1989, the focus of my political studies was globalization and neoliberalism, which were becoming more and more prominent in those days. At the same time, there were big political changes in the world. The Soviet Union and the socialist states of Eastern Europe were dissolved and integrated into the capitalist world market, while the anti-imperialist struggle in the Third World ran out of steam and/or lost its socialist content.
My theoretical framework was still the global “center-periphery” divide. There was no sign of change in the polarization between rich and poor countries. However, the fading socialist perspectives in the liberation struggle and the dissolution of the Soviet Union led me to reflect on how a socialist economy and political order might be established, and with which strategies and practices we might move in that direction.
For a number of years after my release from prison in 1996 I was active in various forms of globalized resistance. I took part in an “Encuentro” in Chiapas, Mexico and several World Social Forum meetings; organizing inspired by the Zapatista uprising and the resistance to the World Trade Organization (WTO).
So I hadn’t considered the parasite state theory systematically in the light of the big changes that had occurred in the global division of labor and the new transnational modes of production etc. since we had first laid out the theory in Unequal Exchange and the Prospects for Socialism in a Divided World. This is what I want to contribute with my book The Global Perspective.
The book is divided into three parts: history, political economy, and political strategy. In part one, I go over the history and theory of imperialism, the parasite state, and labor aristocracy from its origin in the 1850s up to 1989—as seen from my personal perspective. I made the cut off point 1989, partly because it strikes me as an important year historically, what with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and partly because it was also an important year for me personally, for it was when the MKA was disbanded and I was imprisoned due to the exposure of our illegal practice. This is a major historical survey, full of quotes and names, reflections, asides, and literary references, so that those interested may get a sampling of, and an easier introduction to, the theory. It was very important for me to trace the main thread of the theory in time and space, from its creation in the mid-19th century onwards.
In part two I present the status of imperialism today. How does globalized capitalism function? How does it affect class relations globally? Here I include the many new contributions which have been added to the theory since the 1990s up to today, both from academia and political movements.
Lastly, in part three I deal with politics and strategy. Who are the actors? What are their current politics? I offer strategies for anti-imperialist movements in the present time. In this section I also assess the future of capitalism and the possibilities for socialism. So, while part one is history and part two is characterized by facts, part three presents a proposal for debate.
Over the last few years, I have come to learn – through another new development since 1983, the internet – that a number of political organizations and theorists have been developing, and are working continually with, theories about the connections between imperialistic modes of exploitation and their political and class-related consequences. Such theory is not a dying idea from the 1970s, but is still is very much alive and kicking. It has been encouraging to discover that I am not part of a dying breed, and it is to this tradition that I hope The Global Perspective will constitute a worthwhile contribution.
For more about The Global Perspective, check out this audio interview with Torkil Lauesen and the facebook page devoted to the book, and please if you can do consider making a donation to the Indiegogo campaign to fund the translation and publication of this book.