Ecological disaster: The poison of militarism

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Over a hundred years ago Frederick Engels stated that, if left to its own devices, capitalism would lead society into barbarism and ruin. Today, we can say that this is already happening and that if unchecked it will continue to do so and drag us down with it. 

While the likes of President Trump and his placemen play the pantomime villains regarding the damage being done to the world and its future by capitalism, all of capitalism’s national states, its "international organisations", its bosses, political parties, trade unions and environmental groups recognise the deadly future that awaits humanity and are, more or less, actively vocal about it. But none of these capitalist states, nor their institutions, can halt this descent into oblivion because there's not a snowball's chance in hell that these same states can cooperate given the rivalry that is intrinsic to capitalism. In fact, the competitive and cut-throat dynamic of the economic system that directs these states and institutions not only renders its organisations all fundamentally impotent in the face of such an impending disaster, however conscious they are of the growing dangers to humanity; they also, whatever the colour of their governments, become an active factor behind this completely irrational drive towards the cliff edge.

There have been two recent important examples of the above that are completely related and come from the same capitalist source: 1. Militarism/imperialism and 2. Environmental destruction.

The Arctic region opens up: imperialist benefits of global warming

Trump's attempt to buy Greenland, not a bad suggestion for the interests of US imperialism from the deal-maker-in-chief, raised the more serious question of the opening up of accessible navigational sea and land routes in and around the Arctic as the region warms more than twice the global average and the ice rapidly melts. While the Polar Cap warms so do imperialist actions and tensions around the region where Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia and the US have interests and with more countries flocking in. The region is said to contain 13% of the world's oil, rare-earth minerals, natural gas, zinc, iron, etc., and these are all factors in this new "scramble" for the Arctic, just as there were economic factors in the fundamentally similar scramble and carve-up of Africa in the nineteenth century.  The coming imperialist drive in the Arctic has the same dynamic as that in nineteenth-century Africa but takes place in conditions where the world is already carved-up between the major powers but where, as Rosa Luxemburg said a hundred years ago, they still have to confront their rivals and invade every possible area of the planet.

In a sort of irony, past imperialist conflict over the Arctic (USA, Canada, Russia, in the main) have been "frozen conflicts"[1] but they are warming up now in a situation where the basic rules of the game no longer apply and more and more international treaties are breaking down. The yearly Arctic Council meeting a few months ago, involving some of the interests of the indigenous people,"...was highjacked by Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, ignoring the meeting's aim of balancing all the climate challenges and development, Pompeo attacked Russia and China, for ‘aggressive behaviour’, said collaboration would not work and vetoed a communiqué because it mentioned climate change" (Simon Tisdall, see footnote 1). The US has also recently refused to ratify the UN's Convention on the Law of the Sea, which up to now has been generally adhered to by all countries.

With its general weakening over the last couple of decades, US imperialism is late in the game here and Russian and Chinese cooperation is being established in the region, a cooperation which carries a direct strategic threat to the American state. The Pentagon has already stated that Russia regarded itself as "a Polar great power" and was building "new military bases along its coastline and (making) a concerted effort to establish air-defence and a coastal missile systems" (Ibid). Russia also plans for new Arctic ports and infrastructure while other smaller nations outside of the US, Canada, Denmark, are examining their interests here and China has recently declared itself a "near Arctic state" as it increases direct cooperation with Russia. There is an economic focus of despoliation, at least at the beginning of this free-for-all, but the military-strategic dynamic of imperialism - "The historical method for prolonging the life of capitalism" and the source of its "period of catastrophes"[2]  - is the motor force here.

In the military manoeuvres about to take place in the Arctic, like the various ongoing military "exercises" all over the world, let alone their actual wars, the military machines burn up staggering amounts of fossil fuel and leave the polluting scars of their weapons; and, in the case of the Arctic, they will be covering the ice with a layer of filth that will further reduce its reflective quality.

Capitalism has always polluted its own nest but what's different today is that it's becoming clear that it is an increasing threat to the continued existence of humanity and possibly all life on Earth. It's not just the wipe-out threat of nuclear weapons[3], now back with a vengeance, but a whole range of actions and consequences: destruction of the soil, the animal world, the environment, nature in general. Capitalism and its ruling class have always fought wars. Up until the 20th century, some of them served a progressive function in clearing away obsolete systems of exploitation like feudalism and slavery. But the imperialist wars of capitalism today have become totally irrational even from the point of view of capitalist economics. This is a great contradiction within the system but its ruling class simply adapts, sometimes with some difficulties, to its own decomposition because there is no other future for it. War now brings little or no reconstruction. In the Middle East whole cities have been turned to toxic rubble by all the major - and local - powers for nearly three decades now. And what's the result of all this death, destruction, pollution and disease, what is its return? Nothing in economic terms; trillions of dollars have literally gone up in smoke. And much less than nothing in social terms: these wars, like other wars in Africa, Asia and the general breakdown of Latin America, offer only more chaos, instability and unpredictability that will guarantee their perpetuation as long as this system lasts. This element of the disintegration and decomposition of the social order has, for the last couple of decades, also resulted in generating the fear and flight of tens of millions of refugees as well as the major development of terrorism, itself an element of capitalist decomposition that will not go away – as evidenced by Isis making a comeback in Iran, Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen.

The imperialist space opera

It's not just the whole regions of the planet that have been carved up, trashed and turned into war-zones by imperialism: outer space itself has, for some time now, been declared a battleground. A few decades ago, there were dreams, awe-inspired hopes and mysteries to space-exploration that seemed to offer a future to humanity. It was an illusion that's been turned to dust by capitalism.

Recently, the United States "Space-Com" commander, General John Raymond has declared space "a vital (US) national interest" and outer space "a war-fighting domain" (The Observer, 1.9.2019). Britain has shown it is ready to follow this bizarre free-for-all by joining the Pentagon-led "space-defence programme", Operation Olympic Defence. China, India and the US have already tested their missiles systems in space, leaving their debris orbiting the Earth.

The military and repressive component of capitalism grows ever stronger and deeper; science and production is ever-more devoted to producing the means of destruction and this on the back of the increased exploitation of the working class.

Amazon forest fires: the tip of the iceberg (so to speak)

It's not just people like Trump who deny the fundamental responsibility of capitalism in the destruction of the planet. From the liberals and the left comes the idea that capitalism can still be positive, that it can continue to create, build and produce. And there's an element of truth in this. But behind and underneath every capitalist advance, such as they are nowadays compared to its past, behind every major sporting or entertainment extravaganza for example or every shiny new building erected in its financial and wealthier districts, lies the innate drive of capitalism to destruction. These gleaming, seductive and illusory trinkets of capital are similar to the radioactive blueberries from Chernobyl packaged in fancy boxes and wrapped up with ribbons and bows. They should fool nobody.

Record fires in the Amazon rainforest have increased since the takeover of the new, right-wing president, Bolsonaro, but things wouldn't have been much different with a left-wing leader. Bolivia (where the left-wing, self-styled "Defender of Mother Earth", Evo Morales has introduced the same policies as Bolsonaro), Paraguay and Colombia have suffered from record fires which both increase global warming and decrease the ability of the planet to cope with it: i.e., its "lungs" are weakened. Fires increase in Central Africa and while these can be recovered from the cycle of fire and re-growth, they are becoming more closely linked to wars and decomposition in the region (the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example). The countries of Europe and Asia have seen their forests more than decimated in the drive for profits while not forgetting the massive blazes in the Arctic region of Russia.

The despoliation of the planet is not just a feature of capitalist society but, as Marx and Engels made clear[4], belongs to a long line of destruction of the environment by the ruling classes and their oppressive regimes that have existed since the beginning of Civilisation. But capitalism has accelerated this process many-fold with its global state-controlled drives and the artifice of debt-financed production, "planned obsolescence", production of junk producing more waste and the mountains of unsold commodities that pile up while large sections of the working class continue to live in misery, hunger and want.

A while ago the British bourgeoisie was trumpeting the cleaning up of the environment, its rivers and beaches notably. This was largely due to a period of de-industrialisation, and while "showcase" stretches of the Thames have been kept relatively clean, things are generally getting back to "normal" now with rivers and seas used as sewers for industrial and human waste[5]. And, like all states, while they are responsible, they turn the culpability for this back on us saying that it is "everyone's responsibility to save the planet" as if a collection of any number of helpless individuals can do anything about it[6] with a spot of litter-picking while the carbon emissions and the destruction of the biosphere by the state and vast capitalist monopolies reaches new levels.

Despite its new "shiny" productions, its continuing expansion into every last corner of the world, capitalism cannot even keep up with the maintenance of its existing decaying structures and infrastructures: transportation, bridges, dams, living accommodation, sanitation, health, etc., and all these elements are made more problematic by the effects of climate change. In the quest for the maximisation of profits China is no different from anywhere else here; rather it's an example of the future. Instead of building up a sound infrastructure from its massive production, it has, in its drive for the maximisation of profits through particularly ruthless and policed exploitation, “built up” the destruction of the environment and spread the resulting pollution well beyond its borders.

There are others who say what we need are state-organised, common-sense, liberal policies to mitigate the effects of production for profit but this is a utopian vision that is asking for capitalism to stop being capitalism. Good-thinking, liberal forces within the state are impotent in the face of a system without a future. Marx said that the existence of the bourgeoisie was "no longer compatible with society". With the development of its final stage, that of its decomposition, capitalism, its states and its representative elements (from the right or left) can only be subject to the still-more prevailing force of "everyman for himself", wall-building and dog eat dog. Because both on the imperialist level, as on the ecological level, capitalism is not only unable to cooperate internationally, but has rather to increase its rivalries and the pace of competition as its economic crisis deepens. In the face of the most important and pressing need of the mass of humanity - a healthy life and planet for future generations - capitalism can only offer more militarism and more ecological destruction, containing the possibility of wide-scale, irreversible ruin.

There is one force capable of arresting and overturning this descent

And that is the working class. In times of crisis, and this is definitely a time of crisis, it is necessary to go back to the fundamentals of the workers' movement. Essential to these fundamentals is the concept that class struggle is the motor force of society. It's not a pre-determined, linear process but advances, innovates, invents, regresses, gets caught in dead-ends. Throughout class-divided society, from about five thousand years ago, different forms of society have risen and fallen: despotism, slavery, feudalism. And here we stand at the denouement of this process: bourgeoisie and proletariat. It is certainly still around but we haven't seen much of the working class lately, especially with the news being dominated by the contortions and hysterics of the bourgeoisie - which is also an attack on the working class. While the working class daily runs the machinery of the massive service sector, transportation, provides power and the essentials of life, produces almost everything, at the present moment is has lost confidence in itself and the links with its historic struggle have been weakened. But this is a class with a history, a revolutionary history which makes it a revolutionary class with a future. It's not just the pinnacles that it reached: 1871, 1905, 1917-26, 1968 and the late 70's, but the whole of its struggles where there are endless examples of their self-organisation, their political strength and depth with the moral underpinning of a class with a future. 

This perspective of a class with a future is underlined by the fact that: "Capitalist society, as well as sacrificing everything to the pursuit of profit and competition has also, inadvertently, produced the elements for its destruction as a mode of exploitation. It has created the potential technological and cultural means for a unified and planned world system of production attuned to the needs of human beings and nature. It has produced a class, the proletariat, which has no need for national or competitive prejudices, and every interest in developing international solidarity. The working class has no interest in the rapacious desire for profit. In other words capitalism has laid the basis for a higher order of society, for its supersession by socialism. Capitalism has developed the means to destroy human society, but it has also created its own gravedigger, the working class, that can preserve human society and take it to a higher level"[7].

The present state of its weakness, if persisting, raises the possibility that the working class could simply be side-stepped by a decomposing capitalism resulting in what Marx and Engels called "the common ruin of contending classes"[8]. To consider the real and dreadful possibility of the destruction of the planet by the dynamics and forces of capitalism is not to fatally accept it. On the contrary, nothing is written in advance and this increases the responsibility and necessity for the proletariat's revolutionary minority to put forward analyses that clearly lay out the stakes in the class struggle. Rather than a fatalist acceptance along the lines of panic and the idea that "we are all doomed", the present descent of capitalism into the abyss can be a spur, an element in the development of class consciousness in the sense that it is becoming apparent that, as Marx and Engels indicated in The Communist Manifesto, the present state of things has rendered the present society and its perspectives untenable. Thus the only possible result that can avoid the future destruction that capitalism holds for us, the only possible result for the defence of the whole of humanity, is the active emergence of the proletariat: a class with a future.

Baboon, 4.9.2019


[1]  Simon Tisdall, "Greenland saga shows dangers of scramble for the melting Arctic", Guardian, 25.819

[2]  Rosa Luxemburg: The Accumulation of Capital

[3]  No-one is giving estimates for the number of nuclear testing and "accident-related" deaths, but you can bet from the clues that the numbers are off the scale and growing all over the world.

[4]  "The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man", Marx and Engels, Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Volume 25.

[6]  See the chapter "Hot air on global warming" in "Twin-track to capitalist oblivion", in International Review, no. 129, second quarter, 2007.

[7]  See "Imperialist chaos, ecological disaster: Twin-track to capitalist oblivion,