The spread of war shows capitalism is at a dead-end

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The situation in Syria continues to worsen. Israel has attacked a military facility outside Damascus. Both government and opposition stand condemned for their use of poison gas. The Syrian government is accused of having used at least 200 chemical missiles. A UN expert has said that the opposition has used sarin, the very potent chemical nerve agent. Since March 2011 more than 70,000 people have died in the conflict. More than a million refugees have fled the country.

Not for nothing has CNN (10/5/13) described the conflict as “a vicious whirlpool dragging a whole region toward it.”

A question that has been posed is whether any of the great powers can influence the situation. The CNN article suggests “Many analysts believe the United States can do little to influence -- let alone control -- the situation. And it could make things worse. Fawaz Gerges of the London School of Economics argues against the United States ‘plunging into the killing fields of Syria ... because it would complicate and exacerbate an already dangerous conflict.’

Others contend that if the United States remains on the sidelines, regional actors will fight each other to ‘inherit’ Syria, and hostile states such as Iran and North Korea will take note of American hesitancy. They say inaction has given free rein to more extreme forces.”

So, while the US Congress has introduced legislation that would allow the administration to “provide lethal aid to the Syrian opposition - weaponry that could tilt the balance on the ground” (BBC 8/5/13), against that “The bottom line is that the US administration does not want the rebels to win …the risk attendant on beefing up support for the rebels and prolonging the conflict is that it could lead to an uncontrolled regime collapse and chaos, with all kinds of radical groups possibly moving in”. As we’ve said elsewhere1 the opposition includes all sorts of forces including the al-Nusra Front which is related to al-Qaida.

As for major powers such as Russia, China, France, or Britain, any support they can give to government or opposition will only further fuel the conflict and its potential for inflaming the whole region. The exposés about the use of chemical weapons2 are used as part of propaganda campaigns, but they are a useful reminder of the brutal and ruthless way the factions of the bourgeoisie combat each other, with the population of the area as victims in the crossfire.

The Middle East historically has, for economic and strategic reasons, been the focus of imperialist confrontation and conflict, with the ever-present threat of war. There is potential for Israeli intervention against Iran, imperialist interventions in Syria, the war between Israel and the Palestinians, instability in Libya, Egypt and Yemen, tensions between the Gulf monarchies and Iran. The region has become an enormous store-house for armaments with the escalation of arms purchases by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and Oman. Imperialist powers of many scales confront each other in the region: the USA, Russia, China, Turkey, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, with more and more armed gangs at the service of these powers, alongside the warlords acting on their own account. Overall, the situation in the region is explosive and tending to escape the control of the major imperialisms. The withdrawal of western forces from Iraq and Afghanistan will further accentuate the destabilisation, even if the US will try and limit the danger by trying to restrain Israel and cultivate closer relations with the current regime in Egypt.

The spread of war and instability is not confined to the Middle East. Elsewhere in the world you can see the development of imperialist confrontations. In the Far East, for example, the presence of the world’s second and third economic powers, China and Japan, taking more and more military forms (for a historical background to the situation in the region we recommend our online special International Review, Imperialism in the Far East, past and present)3. In the present period, it’s the development of the economic and military power of China that’s a concern for the rival imperialisms in the region. China also intervenes across Africa and in the Middle East and has been clearly identified by the US as the most important potential danger to its hegemony.

The growth in Chinese power is not only a concern for countries in Asia like Japan, India, Vietnam and the Philippines; it has provoked a counter-strategy from the US. America has developed a strategic alliance to contain Chinese ambitions, which echoes the encirclement of the USSR in the Cold War. The cornerstones of this alliance are Japan, India and Australia, but it also engages South Korea, Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia and Singapore.

In this confrontation between super-powers, with the involvement of lesser imperialisms, the stand-off between the two Koreas (the North backed by China, the South by the US) is one of the clearest demonstrations of the menace of war. Our statement “Against the threat of war in Korea”4 shows the dangers facing the working class, while giving a proletarian perspective against capitalism’s war drive.

It’s in Africa that capitalism’s descent into militarist barbarity is most clearly pronounced. In continuing conflicts, in the fragmentation of capitalist states, the wearing away of frontiers, the role of clans and warlords in Sierra Leone, Uganda, Mali, or the Congo, it’s possible to see fragmentation and chaos extending across a continent, giving us an idea of what the decomposition of capitalism could have in store for the whole of humanity.

In Europe, where arms budgets have declined and where there are no open conflicts, it might appear that different forces are at play. However, if you look at the economic forces at play you can see the potential for future antagonisms. On the one hand there is a strong tendency toward centralisation in order to face up to the potential for economic collapse. But against this there is the tendency for each for themselves, for national bourgeoisies not wanting to be swallowed by bodies such as the EU, for the growth of anti-Germanism – tendencies exacerbating the tensions between states.

More and more we are witnessing the historic impasse of capitalism. Not every conflict has a direct economic motive, although energy sources such as oil and gas, minerals for the construction of communication technology or weapons, diamonds and precious metals have often been the loot over which imperialist gangs large and small have ravaged whole regions of the globe. And there is no mechanical link between an immediate dip in economic performance and the rise of military conflicts. Rather, the link can be seen on a more historic and global level: the more world capitalism sinks into its economic contradictions, the more it is facing a brick wall in its search for economic solutions, the more the world’s imperialist states and proto-states are driven towards the military option: seizing the resources of your rival, striking out to avoid being attacked, using proxy wars to destabilise your rival’s authority or weaken its alliances. And even though we are no longer living under the shadow of two huge military blocs as we did between 1945 and 1989, today’s chaotic chessboard is in many ways even more dangerous and unpredictable, an even greater menace for the future of humanity. The alternative between socialism and barbarism announced by Rosa Luxemburg in 1916 is even clearer today. Car, 11/5/13