Issue 271 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 2003 Copyright © Socialist Review

Stop the war

Facing down the evil empire

Iraqi tanks destroyed by the US army during the last Gulf War
Iraqi tanks destroyed by the US army during the last Gulf War

The fight against war must also be linked with the fight against the system that breeds it, argues Mike Haynes

It was the economist Jeffrey Sachs who first suggested it. Why not invest in 'weapons of mass salvation'? 'Weapons of mass salvation,' he said, 'are the arsenal of life-saving vaccines, medicines and health interventions, emergency food and farming technologies that could avert literally millions of deaths each year in the wars against epidemic disease, drought and famine.' Sachs calculated that the $100 billion that George Bush II plans to spend on destroying Iraq could prevent 'around 30 million premature deaths from disease, if channelled into a sustained and organised partnership with the poor countries'.

This comparison is a powerful illustration of the obscenity of war. The missiles that fly are also schools that have not been built, water supplies that remain impure and diseases that stay uncured. Peace campaigners have long argued that we should make 'war on war'. And as socialists we stand shoulder to shoulder with them in exposing its irrationality. But what is irrational from a human point of view is not necessarily irrational from the point of view of the system in which we live.

This creates a problem for opponents of war. Anti-war and peace movements have existed since the 19th century. But the mainstream movement has focused on appealing to the self interest of our rulers, trying to point out the irrationalities of their politics and arguing for international restraints and organisation. More radical members of the peace movement have pointed the finger at the way in which special groups like arms producers as the 'merchants of death' twist governments through influence and bribery.

But socialists argue that militarism and war is much more deeply rooted than this. No one spoke more eloquently against the waste of war than the US president Dwight D Eisenhower. In 1953, for example, he said, 'Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. The world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its labourers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.' Eight years later he warned the American people of the dangers of the 'military-industrial complex'. Fine words. But as president he still presided over the huge military boom of the Cold War.

Today Bush and Blair are in the same position. They can direct their war machines in this or that direction. But they cannot and will not dismantle them. To do this requires more than a challenge to narrow military logic and more than an appeal to 'humanity'. We have to confront the relationship of war to modern day capitalism.

Seizing the wealth

The first machine gun: a revolutionary breakthrough in its time
The first machine gun: a revolutionary breakthrough in its time

Human beings are not inherently warlike. The organised violence of war comes from our forms of social organisation. War emerged with the development of the first organised class societies. Rulers, not content with exploiting those around them, looked to increase their wealth by seizing the wealth, land and slaves of their fellow rulers. But as class society changed so did the role and nature of war.

When capitalism began to develop in the 16th century it laid the basis for societies which were both more organised and more exploitative. This also means that capitalist societies are potentially more warlike with ever greater destructive potential at their disposal.

To get rid of war therefore requires us to get rid not only of capitalism but of class society in all its forms. It would be easier if this were not the case--if we could simply see war as an external growth that could be lopped off, leaving the body healthy. But it is built into the very nature of the societies in which we live. The 20th century saw more war than any previous one, with many times the number of casualties. Moreover civilian casualties now vastly outnumber military ones. This suggests that war has become more closely tied to the central mechanisms of capitalism as the system has developed.

The early 20th century marked a new stage in this relationship. Several major competing capitalist powers existed and the world had been divided into spheres of interest, so any future battles had to be for the redivision of territory and power. This is what Marxists called imperialism. At the time it was closely bound up with colonies but it was by no means restricted to colonial empire. Today the colonies have gone but economic competition still intertwines with political and military competition.

For all the talk of globalisation, it is this merging of the competition of business and the competition of states that is the essence of modern capitalism. This certainly doesn't mean that every state action is determined by narrow economic factors. The largest capitalist power effectively tries to police the world economy in its wider interests. Interventions such as those of the US in the Balkans and Afghanistan have to be seen in terms of this logic of creating a wider world order that fits the US's broader needs. Such a 'policeman' necessarily becomes the leading military force and the most warlike state. From the early 19th century to 1945 it was Britain that played this role. It far outspent its rivals on weapons and used them more often. Since 1945 the US has played this role.

Britain and the US, as the leading capitalist powers of the last two centuries, also show something else. Because of their economic strength they have been able to rely on fighting capital-intensive wars. On the eve of 1914 Britain had the best equipped military in the world. Its navy, for example, was the biggest; its ships were larger, better equipped and more technologically advanced. Today the US is in the same position.

We often think of the military as the home of the amateur and the blimpish. But it also requires an enormous amount of brainpower, especially as it has become more technologically sophisticated. Britain led the way here, seeking to capitalise on its wealth, and the US has followed and extended this pattern. The search has always been one of 'bangs for bucks'.

This creates difficulties for states challenging the great capitalist powers. If they want to compete, they have to divert enormous resources to this and be prepared to sacrifice countless numbers as cannon fodder. Sometimes, of course, it can go wrong. This happened in 1914-18 and 1939-45, when opponents were more evenly matched and war became a slog of attrition. But even then the drive to invest more to find superior technology continued--think of the tank between 1914 and 1918 or nuclear weapons in 1945.

Something else follows from this. The so called military-industrial complex is built into the heart of capitalism. For all the talk of 'militaristic' Germany, Japan and Russia, historically it has been Britain and the US which have led the way in developing the industrial logic of war and the others have followed. Britain and the US have always been the world's greatest arms producers.

The end of the Cold War has left US capitalism in a dominant position. US defence spending is one third of global defence spending, and equal to the combined weight of the next six countries. With its Nato allies the US-led bloc do over half of total world arms spending. Add in the non-Nato allies of the US and the superpower appears even more powerful. At the moment the US has no actual great power rival. It therefore has a unique opportunity to order the world in its interests and its leaders are using it.

To see this we only have to consider what happened to the 'peace dividend'. When the Cold War ended it seemed to many people that there would be a break with the past and a new potential to heal the world's wounds. But the peace dividend never materialised. US arms spending had risen to 7 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 1985--the largest ever amount in absolute terms. By 1997 it had fallen to 3.2 percent of GDP. This sounds impressive but the amount of spending was still 85 percent of the average annual level between 1948 and 1991. In other words, in the midst of potentially the greatest peace dividend in history, US arms spending was only 15 percent below the worst period of sustained peacetime arms competition in history. Today, of course, arms spending is being ratcheted up again with massive investments out of all proportion to any conceivable short or medium term threat.

Why does this happen? There is a basic continuity of policy here. Bush is tweaking an imperial policy but that policy rests upon an imperial state operating in an imperialist system with an imperial ideology. US capitalism is driven to order the world in its interest in the same way that Britain was a century ago. Of course its leaders worry that the rogue states they have helped to create may get out of hand. They worry too about issues like oil. But these issues alone cannot explain the huge effort. It is explained by the bigger imperative of ordering the world so that neither friend nor potential foe gets out of line. Madeleine Albright put this well: 'If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We stand tall. We see further into the future.' There is an imperial arrogance but also an imperial truth. The US's rulers do believe that they see further because they hold the destiny of global capitalism in their hands.

Britain's role

Protesting against the Vietnam War during the 1960s
Protesting against the Vietnam War during the 1960s

Britain plays the role of junior partner in this relationship. How much of the fantasy of 'moral imperialism' Tony Blair and the rest of the government actually believe is unclear. What is certain is that this rhetoric provides a useful cover for a very traditional policy. As Blair has said, by 'virtue of our geography, our history and the strengths of our people, Britain is a global player'. Although now very much inferior to US imperialism, the British capacity to launch a combined air, sea and land operation abroad is probably still second only to the US. If we define 'defence' in the narrow terms of defending the UK, then one recent estimate is that only 15 to 20 percent of the British defence effort goes on this. The figure is so low because at any one time half the navy will be in foreign waters and a third of the army abroad, with much of the rest of the armed forces training for action abroad.

But why is it so important for the UK to be up there with the US? There are three more basic reasons. Firstly, a global UK military role is necessary if British capitalism is to punch above its weight at the negotiating tables of the world. Think where British capitalism would be if power were simply judged in terms of population (17th), total output (7th) or output per head (13th). Thus ever since 1945 British leaders have tried to present themselves as partners of the US. Lord Cherwell put it well in the 1950s, referring to Britain's nuclear proliferation: 'If we are unable to make the bomb ourselves and have to rely entirely on the United States army for this weapon we will sink to the rank of a second class nation.'

Beyond this British capitalism also continues to have a relatively high level of interest in foreign trade and foreign investment compared to other European capitalisms. There is a third element too. Britain remains a major arms exporter. Labour claimed when it came to power that the British arms industry is 'one of the best in the world'. When the manufacturing base began to crumble in the 1980s and 1990s arms production continued to be buoyant. When Labour came to power Robin Cook immediately played down the talk of 'ethical arms sales'. His justification was that 'a strong defence industry [is] a strategic part of our industrial base as well as of our defence effort'. Throughout the 1990s the UK provided around a quarter of all world arms sales. Much of this went to the Middle East, which has consumed some 40 percent of world arms sales in the 1990s. Saudi Arabia was an especially important market. Not surprisingly, Labour's 1998 Strategic Defence Review said bluntly, 'We have particularly important national interests and close friendships in the Gulf.'

'But surely.' people ask, 'the United Nations and the international community can stop this?' Most people who make this argument do so with the best of intentions. The idea that there should be a world community is one that all socialists support. But the United Nations is not and can never be a representative of that community.

Far from the United Nations being a restraint on the big powers it is an organisation that is effectively controlled by them. Its finance depends on the contributions of the most powerful members. Any serious armed forces that are used under its auspices must come from these same powers. And it is the big powers that have control of the decision making in the UN.

Power is in the hands of the Security Council. This has five permanent members--the US, Britain, France, Russia and China--each of which has a veto. They are assisted by ten floating members who stay on for two years but have no veto. Behind them is the rest of the world, with the right to vote in the General Assembly, where a motion needs two thirds support to be passed, but can still then be effectively blocked by any of the big five. This rarely happens when it matters. If the US wants its own way and has the support of the other four it is not difficult to persuade those who matter and the rest to follow. The other ten in the Security Council can be brought on board by being leaned on, offered the appropriate bribe or hint of a threat. Usually this is not necessary, because who wants to be in the US's bad books at the moment? This is why, despite all the talk of the UN, so little fuss was raised outside of the big five over getting the appropriate resolution through on Iraq.

This UN structure is not an accident. Some UN enthusiasts argue for reform, believing that, for all its faults, it can become the world community of the future by, for example, adding new permanent members to the Security Council. But even if this occurred the veto would not be given up, the UN would not be allowed an independent role and it would not be able to act without the forces of the most powerful states. It is and must always remain a prisoner of the powers which created it and the system on which it rests. The UN therefore is little more than a fig leaf. It can be used to legitimise the actions of the big powers. It also usefully diverts attention from the real nature of power by pretending to be a representative of the 'international community'.

But in reality there is no international community. We live in a world that is divided by class into rich and poor, those with power and those without. In this new century this class-divided system rests, as it did in the old century, on a capitalist system that forces us into economic and military competition with one another and against the interests of the world community that could exist, but will never exist while this fundamental division remains.

When socialists therefore say that capitalism produces war, this is not just empty rhetoric. It explains why war takes the form it does, and why the fight against it must also become part of a broader fight against capitalism itself.


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