It's difficult to know where to begin in the face of the growing devastation throughout the world that is posed by the increased militarism and barbarism of the capitalist system. The confrontation between Ukraine and Russia has grabbed the headlines recently but it can only be understood in a more global context in which we are seeing a constant sharpening of military tensions and open conflicts across a very considerable portion of the planet.
In chapter one, "Bourgeoisie and Proletariat", of the Manifesto of the Communist Party, Marx wrote about the need of capitalism to look for "a constantly expanding market for its products (which) chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere". If this was characteristic of capitalism's global expansion of commodity production accompanied by "blood and iron", then the characteristics of capitalism's fights over saturated markets and a world now carved up by the major powers are all the more intense, destructive and irrational. Even bourgeois commentators have noticed the similarities with the period prior to World War One to that of today: the arms races, the fights for resources, tensions within and between states, the growth of all sorts of nationalisms and xenophobia, etc. There are though many differences at many levels between the early 1900's and today but, fundamentally, we are confronting the same capitalism and the same question: socialism or barbarism. Nothing has really changed in the sense that capitalism still means war. What has changed in relation to war is the development of state capitalism over a century, the extension of militarism and the accumulation of the means of destruction, stored powers of massive destruction which, along with their ever-more sophisticated delivery systems, are nothing but sterilized, useless capital. Apart from being a threat to humanity, this is an absolute drain on the accumulation of capital overall, further exacerbating economic crisis. War and militarism today, in a word imperialism, take on a deadly life-force of their own that goes well beyond the rational and itself spawns further irrationality.
New scramble for Africa
We could start with Africa. In 1884, at the high point of capitalism’s imperialist expansion, the Berlin Conference divided up the African continent between the main European powers. But it was not long before this “scramble for Africa” turned into a source of direct conflict between those same powers. Throughout decadence the continent has been a theatre of war – in both world wars, in the ‘Cold War’, and above all as part of the slide into military chaos that succeeded the collapse of the old bloc system. The longest and bloodiest of these wars has probably been waged in the sickly-named Democratic Republic of Congo. Here war has raged since the early 90's, at the dawn of George Bush Senior's promised era of "peace and prosperity". Though largely ignored by the media, the war in the Congo shows many characteristics of the decomposition of capitalist society. Seven local countries and a number of the major powers are directly involved in a war that, according to the website War Child, Conflict in the Congo,1 has killed more than five-and-a-half million people, including 2.7 million children, many of whom have been recruited as child soldiers. Typical attributes of imperialism are expressed here in civilian massacres, mass rapes, a huge flight of internal refugees and the reign of warlords, clans and irrationality. This renewed scramble for Africa could be added to the list of pre-WWI similarities, with this time the additional presence of the imperialist appetites of the People's Republic of China.
In Libya, following David Cameron's and Sarkozy's "victory tour", the effects of this "just war" have caused devastation and spread vast swathes of instability across the whole of northern Africa. The reverberations have been felt in the heart of Africa's most populous nation and a so-called "emerging economy", Nigeria - a country whose bourgeoisie has recently played the China card against British and American influence. But this new “economic giant”, an accredited member of the so-called MINT club of the nouveau riche2, has not been spared from the region's underlying dysfunction: this has been expressed in religious pogroms between Muslim and Christian and the murderous activities of the fundamentalist faction Boko Haram. Meanwhile the Nigerian government has joined the new international trend to use gay people as a scapegoat for the world’s ills, passing laws that not only increase penalties for gay sex but require all citizens to rat on their gay neighbours.
Elsewhere in the region, Mali and Somalia are all unstable entities who affect the countries close to them, and throughout this region we see French, British and American militarism, sometimes working together, sometimes against one another . China, Russia, Israel and Germany are also becoming involved. The outbreak of war and of inter-religious slaughter between Christians and Muslims in the Central African Republic has geographically extended and further deepened the war in the DRC3. Just to confirm this pall of capitalist decay over much of Africa, South Sudan, the world's newest nation, born a couple of years ago under pressure from US and British imperialism, has fractured and collapsed into a war that has initially involved over ten thousand deaths and a further million refugees in a region of so many refugees that the aid agencies are unable to cope (Independent, 20.1.13, for just one example). The war is now spreading to the already decimated Darfur region. As always, the media present this as war of ethnicities, an irrational war of savages or religion. It's irrational all right but this is an imperialist war with one South Sudanese gang backed by Washington and Britain and the other by Beijing. In other words, whatever the relative actions of countries or warlords on the ground, the weight of imperialist stresses is overwhelming. And the news coming from "the world's newest nation" (RTE, 25.2.14) is that South Sudan is among the world's most dangerous nations to give birth!
Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria
From one capitalist hell-hole to another in Afghanistan where the AfPak war continues to rage, drawing in India in an attempt to stymie Pakistani interests. Both are involved in their own nuclear arms race and China is backing Pakistan for its own imperialist ends. The proposed withdrawal of ISAF troops under US control and the strengthening of the Taliban show both the weakening of the world's superpower and the continuation of misery for this long-suffering population. Tens of thousands of lives have been lost; billions, if not trillions of dollars have been spent by the west here - and Prime Minister Cameron has declared the Afghan war "Mission Accomplished!" (Daily Telegraph, 16.12.13). If the mission was to pave the way for the flourishing of warlords, produce record levels of opium and further hammer the condition of the population, particularly women and children, then indeed it’s mission accomplished. The AfPak war is yet another expression of the chaos and instability generated by decomposing capitalism.
Another "mission accomplished" was written on the banner behind George Bush as he made his victory speech about the 2003 war on Iraq on the USS Abraham Lincoln. Since then, like Libya, Iraq has gone from bad to worse with daily atrocities and bombings - with Fallujah, once devastated by America, now under bombardment by jihadists. The daily death toll in Iraq, on top of the hundreds of thousands killed already by American and British imperialism, has now reached Syrian proportions.
The rise of fundamentalists and opposing factions has been woven into the network of the war in Syria which has spilled over into Iraq and Lebanon and sent ripples to the Golan Heights and the border with Israel. Thousands of foreign jihadis are fighting in Syria and many pose a threat to their states "back home" and not least within Europe. As the Assad regime push on with its bloodbath, backed by Russia and China, there's a whole nest of Middle Eastern vipers - not least Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan - all involved in the Syrian war on different sides of the divide. The US, Britain and France - with their own differences between them - have been somewhat sidelined but continue to stir up this imperialist cauldron for their own ends. US Central Command, COMCOM, says that it is active in 20 countries in the Middle East and has a military presence in 22 countries in Africa4. These do not include "special operations" that have increased under the Obama administration. We can only wonder about the actual presence of the US, Britain and others and their implantations and manoeuvres in the Middle East.
Tensions in the Far East
From the devastated regions of Africa and the Middle East we "pivot", like US imperialism, to the East. Here we find more arms races and sharpened nationalisms with a faltering Chinese economy expressing its imperialist thrust "locally". Japan is rearming at a furious pace and regional powers are being sucked into this potential maelstrom, including South Korea, Philippines, Vietnam, Australia and Indonesia, each with their own imperialist appetites within the framework of US influence. The Gulag of a nuclear-armed People's Republic of North Korea adds to the chaos and instability.
The expansive and destructive contradictions of the capitalist economy underpin the developments of imperialism both through its rise and fall. Economic considerations do play a role in the development of wars and tensions today: oil, gas, trade routes, raw materials and so on. But the economic rationale becomes more and more difficult to see and rather it's the reverse that's the case with capitalist war and militarism costing more and more for less and less or no return; and, more than that, spreading misery, atrocities, chaos and further instability. War and militarism are for capitalism today a global drain but - and this is a fundamental contradiction of capitalism - these factors are essential to the nation state on pain of death. Greater areas are devastated by imperialist war, from Africa, the birthplace of our species, to the cradles of civilisations in the Middle East and the "enlightened" empires of the East. All this amounts not just to the destruction of culture but the destruction of human beings on an unprecedented scale. There's little rationale and no post –war "reconstruction" in all this. We've seen that after recent wars: the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq, all the bourgeoisie's talk of reconstruction has been nothing but cynical lies. Only the working class has the power to reconstruct, to construct a new society and to do this it must directly confront imperialism by confronting its own ruling class and its "national interest", particularly in its heartlands of darkness.
2 MINT is a neologism invented by the same gigantic economic mind – Jim O’Neill of Goldman Sachs - that gave us the BRICS. It stands for Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey.
4For much more on this see the research of L.J. Bilmer and M.D. Intsiligatov at Harvard University