World War 3 would be a symptom of capitalism’s decaying nature, not simply a result of Brexit or ‘human stupidity’
In the much-acclaimed but fatuous Medium blog “History tells us what may happen next with Brexit and Trump”, the self-described entrepreneur and academic Tobias Stone writes that Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump could trigger World War 3, simply because “we’re entering another of those stupid seasons humans impose on themselves at fairly regular intervals”.
While it is quite true as Stone says that “things can rapidly spiral out of control until they become unstoppable”, such events do not simply happen because “humans have a habit of going into phases of self-imposed mass destruction”.
“This is a cycle,” writes Stone. Taking on a tone of false humility to credit himself with some rare gift for prescience, he says “most people don’t see that it’s happening again”.
For Stone, “historians can see” that World War 1 and 17 million gruesome deaths were “the direct outcome” of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. In reality, that infamous deadly shot was the straw that broke the camel’s back amid escalating inter-imperialist rivalry. Because he himself is an apologist for imperialism, stone cannot admit that WW1 was essentially a fight over ownership of the colonies.
If we are heading for World War 3 again now (and arguably it has already begun in Syria), it is indeed part of a “cycle”. But it is one driven by economics and, more specifically, the decaying nature of capitalism. It is not a cycle driven by “human stupidity”, but by bourgeois stupidity.
To get to the point: capitalism is in turmoil like never before. Amid a deepening global profitability crisis, national capitals (nations) are forced into confrontation, into ever-intensifying competition for what remains profitable.
This is the driving force behind trade, regional and world wars. It has already led in the past 18 months to G20 economies introducing a record number of trade-restrictive measures since the WTO started keeping track in 2009. Globalisation has not been rejected per se – it is in retreat because its ability to expand capital has been all but exhausted. The first step towards world war in the past was indeed protectionism – though, when we think of peace time, we have to ask: peace time for whom? Britain alone – even more perpetually aggressive than the US – has invaded nominally sovereign countries 139 times since WW2 (and those are just the overt incursions we know about).
The over-accumulation of capital
Why is there a global profitability crisis?* It is grounded in capitalism’s strong tendency towards the ‘over-accumulation’ of capital – a massive unspendable glut capital piling up in private bank vaults. With limited and diminishing profitable opportunities, investors can only hoard their riches. This is why interest rates are at record lows, as governments wage futile battles to stimulate growth. In August, Fitch calculated that there was a remarkable $11.7 trillion worth of sovereign debt in the global market that carries negative interest rates. The same contradiction in the 20th century was resolved only via the Great Depression, fascism and two world wars, which decimated the value of labour and destroyed surplus capital, laying the basis for a new start in the process of capital accumulation. The abnormal but relatively short period known as the post-war boom followed.
The over-accumlation of capital negates the profit motive and thus places a fetter on investment and productivity growth. US and British imperialism are stagnating as a result (both saw their productivity growth stagnate at around 0.2% in 2016). Their dependence on financial parasitism (for example, Britain’s investment in foreign (largely neo-colonial) assets is six times greater than its GDP) has effectively necessessitated a relative decline in productivity, exports and self-sufficiency. Such is the character of an imperialist nation – exporting capital (debt) became more profitable than exporting commodoties. (Britain’s manufacturing workforce has fallen from 8.9 million to 2.9 million, for example.)
In Britain, ballooning debt has been compounded by the damning news that its trade deficit with the rest of the world widened in September 2016 when bourgeois economists wrongly expected the fall in the pound to boost exports. The trade in goods deficit increased by £1.6bn over the month to £12.7bn. Imports, now more expensive, rose by £1.3bn to £38.8bn, while exports fell by £200m to £26.1bn. It was offset by the trade in services surplus of £7.5bn, leaving an overall total trade deficit of £5.2bn.
In the past total trade deficits have been offset by net returns on international investment income. This is no longer the case. In 2011, the net earning on the UK investment account — the difference between what the UK earns on its overseas assets and what the rest of the world earns on its assets in the UK — was £20bn, but in 2012 that return was a barely positive £0.9bn. It turned negative at –£16bn in 2013, fell to –£32bn in 2014 and again to –£35.7bn in 2015. This is a serious development for the balance of payments current account, which had a record deficit of £100.2bn in 2015, equivalent to 5.4% of GDP. In the second quarter of 2016 the deficit reached 5.9% of GDP. A further run on the pound, already down by 16% against the dollar and 10% against the euro since the Brexit vote, is likely.
The decaying nature of capitalism is clearly illustrated by World Bank statistics. Per capita GDP growth-rates have fallen decade by decade in the advanced capitalist countries, from 4.3% in the 1960s, to 2.9% in the 1970s, to 2.2% in the 1980s, to 1.8% in the 1990s, to 1.1 percent in the 2000s. At the start of the crisis in 2007, debt levels were already much higher than they were in 1929. For example, on the eve of the Great Depression, US public debt was valued at 16 percent of GDP; ten years later, by 1939, it rose to 44 percent. By contrast, on the eve of the present crisis, in 2007, the US public debt was already valued at 62 percent of GDP. It reached 100 percent just four years later. Rising debt levels have raised the spectre of default throughout the world’s richest countries.
To sustain their own faltering economies, the imperialists are compelled to ‘open up’ and privatise the state assets of what Lenin called the ‘oppressed nations’, those which may be capitalist but are either ‘colonised’ by imperialist capital or retain independence from imperialist control (whereas the likes of Saudi Arabia, Israel and Turkey are ‘client states’ or allies of imperialism). This is why imperialism inflicted destruction and ‘regime change’ on Iraq and Libya, and why it is trying to do the same to Syria (at first by arming al-qaeda and ISIS in a proxy war against President Assad, but more than a dozen countries have also been bombing Syria). So much for respecting sovereignty and the right to self-determination. Indeed, it is hard to resist the feeling that the NATO airstrikes that killed 62 Syrian soldiers (“by mistake”, of course) could turn out to be WW3’s ‘Franz Ferdinand’ moment. But in the past two years, the greatest build-up of military forces since WW2 – led by the US – has been taking place along Russia’s western frontier. Not to mention the imperialist encirclement of China (see the John Pilger film, The Coming War on China). It is obvious who the aggressor is. Meanwhile, despite its own banking crisis, European imperialism has been ‘catching up’ with the economic wealth of the US – fostering emerging splits in NATO and potential new alliances between France, Germany and Russia.
Brexit may seem like the kind of moment that triggers a series of events leading to a new world war, but the referendum vote was largely an expression of capitalism’s unending crisis. In the absence of real, credible and influential socialist parties exposing economic truths, some sections of the working classes have been led to believe that living standards have fallen because of globalisation and immigration. Crypto-fascists like Trump, Theresa May and Marine Le Pen have been the beneficiaries. With several ultra-nationalist parties already governing across Europe, liberalism is indeed once again enabling a frightening rise in barely opposed and ‘legitimate’ far right power.
Liberals will cry “national socialism”, but fascism has always in general been an alliance between the property-owning middle classes and sections of finance capital. Irrepressible economic factors are eroding liberal democracy’s material basis. In the 20th century, both fascism and Keynesian social democracy were effectively required to save capitalism from collapse. The horrors of fascism and two world wars combined to create the conditions for the ‘New Deal’ in America and Clement Attlee’s NHS-building Labour government, for example, whereby the destruction of entire countries around the world created massive profitable investment opportunities (although these social democrats still relied heavily on the continued brutal plunder of the colonies to fund their projects).
It is now undeniable that the period of roughly 1950-1990 represented a “golden age” for capitalism and that 2000-2030 will be considered quite differently.
For communists, it is galling to think that capitalism’s “golden age” ended at the very moment the socialist bloc fell. At the time, the ruling classes boasted that the end of the Cold War was “The End of History”, that the world could now sally forth peacefully into Capitalist Utopia. But far from “ending history”, capitalism’s defeat of socialism was the moment that history was reset. Had the revolutions of the 20th century or the Cold War ended in global socialism instead of global capitalism, the inherent (and ever-sharpening) contradictions of capitalism would have been removed. The system’s symptomatic crises – of racism, hunger, poverty, housing, energy, climate and ecology etc – would have been eminently solvable under a socialist system dependent on serving people and need instead of profit and greed. The imperatives behind trade, regional and world wars would have been removed. The repressive and militaristic measures socialist states required to defend themselves from imperialist aggression would no longer be necessary. A permanent world peace was within grasp, but it was squandered and tossed away by the grand coalition of opportunists, idealists and anti-communists of all stripes who opposed the socialist bloc instead of fighting to spread revolution (for which British, German and American social democrats bear most responsibility). Just 25 years after the end of the Cold War, we are back where we started – only this time the planet is dying, the Soviet Union isn’t around to defeat fascism, and the advanced destructivesness of 21st century science and technology threaten horrors potentially worse than the cataclysms of the 20th century. The ‘migrant crisis’, symptomatic of the war and poverty imperialism inflicts on the oppressed nations, is a case in point.
It’s no wonder the present crisis is the deepest ever: capitalism requires infinite growth, but having conquered almost the entire planet, it has nowhere left to go. Capitalism, a progressive force when it usurped feudalism, has long outlived its historical mission. Now the arc of its self-implosion is becoming clearly visible to the people – the vast majority – it threatens. The only solution, the only possible resolution, is socialism. To oppose socialism instead of fighting for it is to fight for nothing more than barbarism.
The first appeal that the Communist International made all those years ago to all working people throughout the world was to ‘remember the imperialist war’. It warned that unless capitalism is overthrown, the repetition of such destructive wars when the workers of different countries are forced ‘to cut each other to pieces’ is not only possible but inevitable. WW1 confirmed what was written in the statutes of the First International that the emancipation of the working class is not a local, nor a national, but an international question.
This warning from the past must be heeded, and Stone’s blasé misanthropy, the suicidal bourgeois stupidity he represents, rejected. The future of civilisation and humanity depends on socialism prevailing once and for all.
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*The primary reason for capitalism’s decaying nature is the rate of profit’s tendency to fall when human labour is reduced or replaced by technology (which is made necessary by the need to raise productivity and stay ahead of competitors). In short: Marx found that, because it is a sellable commodity, the human labour power that goes into commodity-production is the source of value and thus profit (or “surplus value”, ie the value of labour the capitalist expropriates after ‘paying’ the worker enough to subsist). Therefore, when the need to raise productivity via mechanisation reduces the number of humans in the workforce, total capital outlay rises relative to (and tends to outgrow) total surplus value. The remaining workers experience an increase in exploitation through reduced pay or longer hours etc, but while the total mass of profit continues to rise, the rate of profit falls – precipitating investment withdrawals, driving the system into crisis and accelerating the centralisation of capital (whereby big capitalists devour the small). Marx called this “the most important law of political economy”. To clarify, while humans can sell their labour power (a commodity in itself), machinery cannot; it can only “pass on” (into commodities) stored value from the human labour that made it in the first place. A study by American Marxist Fred Moseley, for example, bears this out: “The rate of profit [in the US economy] declined over the postwar period by approximately 20% because the composition of capital [machinery] increased faster (40%) than the rate of surplus-value (15%), consistent with Marx’s theory.” In an era where entire factories of workers are increasingly being replaced by robots and artificial intelligence, Marx’s theory is as relevant as ever.