Frederick Engels predicted more than a century ago that capitalism would ultimately drag human society down into barbarism if left to its own devices. The evolution of imperialist war over the last hundred years has shown how this terrible prediction would be realised. Today, the capitalist world also offers another route to the apocalypse: a ‘man-made’ ecological melt-down that could make the earth as inhospitable to human life as Mars. Despite the recognition of this perspective by the defenders of the capitalist order, there is absolutely nothing effective they can do to stop it, because both imperialist war and climate catastrophe have been brought about by the perpetuation of their dying mode of production.
Imperialist war = barbarism
The bloody fiasco of the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the US-led ‘coalition’ marks a defining moment in the development of imperialist war towards the very destruction of society. Four years on, Iraq, instead of being liberated, has been turned into what bourgeois journalists euphemistically call a ‘broken society’. And the situation in Iraq is only the focal point of a process of disintegration that threatens to engulf new areas of the globe, not excluding the central capitalist metropoles. Far from creating a new order in the Middle East, US military power has only brought chaos.
In a sense none of this mass military carnage is new. The First World War of 1914-18 already took the first major step toward a barbaric ‘future’. After the failure of the 1917 October Revolution, and of the workers’ insurrections it inspired in the rest of the world in the 1920s, the way was open to a still more catastrophic episode of total warfare in the Second World War of 1939-45. Defenceless civilians in major cities were now a principal target of systematic mass killing from the air, and a multi-millioned genocide took place in the heart of European civilisation.
Then the ‘Cold War’ from 1947-89 produced a whole series of equally destructive carnages, in Korea, in Vietnam, in Cambodia and throughout Africa, while a global nuclear holocaust between the USA and the USSR remained a continual threat.
What is new in the imperialist war of today is that the possibility of the ending of human society altogether by such war now appears in a much more clear form. For all the brutality and mayhem of the world wars last century, they still gave way to periods of relative stability. All the military flashpoints of the contemporary situation, by contrast, offer no perspective except a further descent into social fragmentation at all levels, of chaos without end.
Deterioration of the biosphere
At the same time that capitalism in decomposition has unleashed an imperialist trend towards a more clearly perceivable barbarism, so it has also speeded up an assault of such ferocity on the biosphere that an artificially created climatic holocaust could also wipe out human civilisation, and human life. It is clear from the consensus of the world’s climate scientists in the February 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that the theory that the over-warming of the planet by the accumulation of relatively high levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is caused by the large scale burning of fossil fuels, is no longer merely a hypothesis but “very likely”. The consequences of this anthropogenic warming of the planet have already started to appear on an alarming scale: changing weather patterns leading both to repeated droughts and widescale flooding, deadly heatwaves in Northern Europe and extreme climatic conditions of hugely destructive power, which in turn are already rapidly increasing famine and disease and the refugee crisis in the third world.
Capitalism of course can’t be blamed for starting the burning of fossil fuels or acting on the environment in other ways to produce unforeseen and dangerous consequences. This has been going on since the dawn of human civilisation.
Capitalism is nevertheless responsible for enormously accelerating this process of environmental damage. This is a result of capitalism’s overriding quest to maximise profits and its consequent disregard for human and ecological needs except insofar as they coincide with the goal of wealth accumulation. The intrinsic competitiveness between capitalists, especially between each nation state, prevents any real cooperation at the world level.
Hot air on global warming
The bourgeoisie’s major political parties in all countries are turning various shades of green. But the eco-policies of these parties, however radical they might appear, have deliberately obscured the seriousness of the problem, because the only solution to it threatens the very system whose praises they sing. The constant eco-message from the governments is that ‘saving the planet is everyone’s responsibility’ when the vast majority are deprived of any political or economic power and control over production and consumption, over what and how things are produced. And the bourgeoisie, which does have power in these decisions, has even less capacity than ever to satisfy human and ecological needs at the expense of profit.
One only has to look at the results of previous policies of governments to cut down carbon emissions to see the ineffectiveness of the capitalist states. Instead of a stabilisation of greenhouse gas emissions at 1990s level by 2000, that the signatories to the Kyoto Protocol modestly committed themselves to in 1995, there was instead an increase in major industrialised countries by 10.1% by the end of the century, and it is forecast that they will have increased by 25.3% by 2010.
There are those who, recognising that the profit motive is a powerful disincentive to effective limitation of such pollution, believe that the problem can be solved by replacing liberal policies with state organised solutions. But it’s clear above all at the international level that the capitalist states are unable to cooperate on this question because each one would have to make economic sacrifices as a result. Capitalism is competition, and today, more than ever, it is dominated by the rule of each against all.
All is not lost for the proletarians; they still have a world to win
But it would be quite wrong to take a resigned attitude and think human society must necessarily sink into oblivion as a result of these powerful tendencies – of imperialism and eco-destruction - towards barbarism. Fatalism in front of the fatuity of all the capitalist half-measures proposed to bring about peace and harmony with nature is just as mistaken as the belief in these cosmetic cures.
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, that 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 supercession by socialism. Capitalism is showing itself capable of destroying human society, but it has also created its own grave digger, the working class, that can preserve human society and raise it to new levels.
Capitalism has given rise to a scientific culture that is able to identify and measure invisible gases like carbon dioxide both in the present atmosphere and in the atmosphere of 10,000 years ago. Scientists can identify the specific isotopes of carbon dioxide that result from the burning of fossil fuels. The scientific community has been able to test and verify the hypothesis of the ‘greenhouse effect’. Yet the time has long gone when capitalism as a social system was able to use the scientific method and its results for the benefit of human advance. The bulk of scientific investigation and discovery today is devoted to destruction; to the development of ever more sophisticated methods of mass death. Only a new order of society, a communist society, can put science at the service of humanity.
Despite the past 100 years of the decline and putrefaction of capitalism, and severe defeats for the working class, these building blocks for a new society are still intact.
The resurgence of the world proletariat since 1968 proves that. The development of its class struggle against the constant pressure on proletarian living standards over the ensuing decades prevented the barbaric outcome promised by the cold war: of an all-out confrontation between the imperialist blocs. Since 1989 however and the disappearance of the blocs, the defensive posture of the working class has been unable to prevent the succession of horrific local wars that threaten to spiral out of control, drawing in more and more parts of the planet. In this period, of capitalist decomposition, the proletariat no longer has time on its side, particularly as a pressing ecological catastrophe must now be added into the historic equation.
Since 2003 the working class has begun to re-enter the struggle with renewed vigour after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc brought about a temporary halt to the resurgence begun in 1968.
In these conditions of developing class confidence, the increasing dangers represented by imperialist war and ecological catastrophe, instead of inducing feelings of impotence and fatalism, can lead to a greater political reflection on the stakes of the world situation, and on the necessity for a revolutionary overthrow of capitalist society. It is the responsibility of revolutionaries to actively participate in this coming to consciousness. Como 5/5/7