What’s the cause of endless wars?

October 30, 2014

Todd Chretien argues that the imperial state doesn't just defend oil industry thieves, but the system of competitive capitalism worldwide--the so-called "free market."

REMEMBER WAY back in 2009, when Avatar was topping the box office, Beyoncé's "Single Ladies" was all over the radio, and Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize? Seems like a long time ago, right? That golden age of illusion didn't last very long.

Within months of the announcement of the award, Obama had ordered a surge of tens of thousands of troops into Afghanistan. Then, over the next several years, he built up a monstrous secret security state and unleashed a global drone war that has killed several thousand people, including hundreds of children, from Pakistan to Yemen to Somalia.

And now, the U.S. is bombing Iraq once again, preparing for what may well be the third American ground invasion since 1991--there are already Special Forces crawling all over the place.

Of course, given that the other two sitting presidents who received the Nobel Peace Prize were Theodore "San Juan Hill" Roosevelt and Woodrow "War to End All Wars" Wilson, Obama's 2009 nomination should have provoked more foreboding than celebration among antiwar activists.

Soldiers in the First World War (above) and the U.S. war on Afghanistan (below)
Soldiers in the First World War (above) and the U.S. war on Afghanistan (below)

As we slide back into war in the Middle East--one that we never really left, truth be told--many people feel that Obama has "betrayed" his ideals, or at least the ideals they had hoped he had.

Certainly, you can identify cowardice, duplicity and megalomania in the Obama administration, just as you could in any presidency. But the global system of militarism and imperialism can't be reduced to personal weakness or political conspiracy.

Take the case of Iraq. Every president since Ronald Reagan has intervened in that country militarily, one way or the other. Bush Senior and Junior rightly deserve all the condemnation you can muster--they are directly responsible for the shock-and-awe bombardments in 1991 and 2003 that brought death from the skies for hundreds of thousands of people.

But Bill Clinton's administration was no better, encircling, sanctioning and starving the people of Iraq. Incredible as it may seem, when asked directly by 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl about reports that economic sanctions imposed by the Clinton administration had killed 500,000 children, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright looked into the camera and said, "We think the price is worth it."

So Iraq goes to show, if nothing else, that imperial policies are grimly bipartisan.


BUT WHY? Why are both Democrats and Republicans so committed to maintaining the Super-Sized Pentagon?

Throughout U.S. history, various rationales have served to mobilize and justify intervention and military conquest: The Monroe Doctrine (we own the Western Hemisphere), Manifest Destiny (exterminate the Indigenous people from sea to shining sea), the Carter Doctrine (it's our oil under all their land) and the Reagan Doctrine (better dead than red), not to mention the war-on-terror-axis-of-evil Rumsfeldian doublespeak of the Bush Junior years.

Obama's preferred language--which he lifted from none other than Madeleine Albright--is as monotonous as it is boastful: "[N]ever bet against the United States of America...[because] the United States has been, and will always be, the one indispensable nation in world affairs."

The U.S. ruling class has spent the last 200 years investing in whatever sort of military it believed necessary to achieve and defend its aims, while a parade of ideological alchemists has demonstrated how easy it is to transform working-class soldiers' lifeblood into Exxon's oil profits.

Since the Second World War, the U.S. military has outpaced all its rivals--and today, America spends more on defense than the next dozen countries combined. In other words, if the U.S. is the "indispensable nation," that's only because we have the military might to constantly stick our nose into the rest of the world's business--or else, as Bush Junior said to "The General" (a.k.a. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf) after 9/11, we'll bomb you "back to the stone age" if you don't do as we say.

In 2003, when millions of people around the world marched against the drive to war in Iraq, one chant went: "War and occupation will never bring liberation, that's bullshit, get off it, this war is for profit!" Never were truer words shouted until we were hoarse.

But people can differ over how they understand common words, as we learned from Bill Clinton about the word "is." And in fact, this antiwar slogan can have very different connotations depending on exactly what the word "for" represents.

Many liberal antiwar activists believe that the war was for the profits of Big Oil or the military-industrial complex, or to satisfy the Bush administration's thirst for power. There's a measure of truth to each of these understandings, but they don't explain why, for example, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama followed Bush Jr. and Sr.'s aims so closely.

Revolutionary socialists argue that Team Bush did want war, but in more general terms, war is for the profit system as a whole. In other words, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Nike, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Facebook and even Ben and Jerry's rely as much on the U.S. state's military capacity as Exxon, if not in exactly the same way.

The imperial state doesn't just defend extractive industries overseas. It defends the rules of competitive capitalism worldwide--the so-called "free market."


WHICH LEADS us back in history to a bitter debate between the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin and German socialist Karl Kautsky about the causes of the First World War.

When the First World War broke out, there were large socialist movements in all the countries that were major protagonists: Germany, France, Russia, Italy, Britain and the U.S. These socialists had stated again and again that they would oppose imperialist war because they were committed to the famous slogan in the Communist Manifesto: "Workers of the world, unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains!"

Instead, most of the leaders of the socialist parties in all these countries ended up backing their own bourgeoisie's war efforts--and millions of workers, farmers and poor died for profit, in the second sense I just explained.

When the Social Democratic Party of Germany--the biggest socialist party in any country--failed to oppose the war, Lenin at first didn't believe the newspaper reports. His own organization, the Bolsheviks in Russia, to their great credit, opposed the war, as did minorities of socialists among the other parties.

For his part, Karl Kautsky personally opposed both the First World War and capitalism. But he argued that the two weren't necessarily linked in any direct way. Even after millions of people had died in the trenches, Kautsky kept repeating that "imperialism is just a question of power, not an economic necessity."

To be more specific, Kautsky presented the war as a power grab by a self-serving group of arms dealers, financial manipulators and politicians. Their course of action could be reversed if opposed by a united working class, together with a section of the capitalist class. A return to peace might even give rise to a period of "ultra-imperialism," Kautsky believed--where the dominant sections of capital would realize how damaging wars had become, so they would strive to compete with one another more peacefully.

The Polish-born revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg mocked this dream of peaceful capitalism. For Kautsky, Luxemburg wrote, imperialism was a bad, destructive way of achieving what is "necessary in itself, but can be achieved 'much better' through other methods, namely, 'democracy.'"

Lenin agreed with Luxemburg and argued that Kautsky's very influential belief--that capitalism might lead to imperialist war, but then again, it might not--was one of the drugs that had lulled the socialist movement to sleep.


BOILING WITH anger, he wrote a short book in 1916 that he called Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. His aim was to show that the First World War wasn't an "accident" or the product of the obsessions of a few power-hungry politicians or some rogue elements within the ruling class. (Sound familiar?)

Rather, according to Lenin, the war was the necessary consequence of capitalism's global development. He wrote, "For the first time, the world is completely divided up, so that in the future only re-division is possible, i.e., territories can only pass from one 'owner' to another, instead of passing as ownerless territory to an owner."

Hammering home his point, Lenin charged that "Kautsky detaches the politics of imperialism from its economics, speaks of annexations as being a policy 'preferred' by finance capital, and opposes to it another bourgeois policy which, he alleges, is possible on this very same basis of finance capital."

According to Lenin's view, specific wars and conflicts may be hard to predict, but generalized war and conflict are permanent conditions of capitalism.

This is a critical understanding for socialists. After all, capitalists proudly proclaim that their system is based on a competitive struggle and that only the strongest can survive. So in an era of global competition, having a massive military standing behind your multinational company to protect its interests is vital.

Woodrow Wilson (remember him) laid all this out very clearly in 1913:

Since trade ignores national boundaries and the manufacturer insists on having the world as a market, the flag of his nation must follow him, and the doors of the nations which are closed against him must be battered down. Concessions obtained by financiers must be safeguarded by ministers of state, even if the sovereignty of unwilling nations be outraged in the process. Colonies must be obtained or planted, in order that no useful corner of the world may be overlooked or left unused.

Though he uses different language, Obama regularly gives the same speech today.


WHILE THE U.S. government has had the run of the planet for the last couple decades, other big powers are starting to flex their muscles in the interest of projecting and protecting their own national capitalist interests.

Russia's annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine demonstrate that Vladimir Putin is following Woodrow Wilson's logic as best he can. Meanwhile, China is investing massively in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. In the years before 2005, China invested an annual average of just $3 billion overseas. In five year's time, overseas investment hit $60 billion. By the end of 2011, China's cumulative overseas direct investment totaled $365 billion.

That's a lot of cash to leave lying around unprotected. Consequently, Chinese military spending has jumped dramatically, toping $132 billion in 2014. That's still a far cry from the nearly $1 trillion that the U.S. government spends every single year, but trends are pointing toward a new global arms race over the next generation.

For the foreseeable future, the U.S. reigns over what International Socialist Review contributor Ashley Smith has popularized as an "asymmetric multipolar world order"--a system of states with a still uneven distribution of economic and military power, but one that is no longer overwhelmingly dominated by one or two superpowers.

The U.S. will continue to throw its weight around, attacking weak states and trying to boss around its major competitors--be they technically friends or foes. The Obama administration's strategy for a so-called "pivot to Asia" basically means encircling China with military bases--peacefully...for the time being.

Some of the interventions that the U.S. engages in around the world may succeed in some limited imperialist sense, but they are just as likely to provoke blowback and hostility toward the world's "indispensable nation"--all while prodding other big powers to consider what they have to do to take down the top dog.

Throw in global climate change and its associated forced relocation of hundreds of millions of people in the coming decades, along with the opening of the Arctic and Antarctic regions for drilling, and you have a recipe for imperialist conflict of all shapes and sizes.

The one hope we have is to build an international movement of working people that can challenge these imperial outrages as they are committed by the "ruling gangsters"--wherever they might strike, from Iraq to the Ukraine to Hong Kong. In so doing, that movement can work toward a way to dismantle the capitalist system and replace it with socialism.

Say it with me: "War and occupation will never bring liberation, that's bullshit, get off it, this war is for profit!"

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