Paths of destruction

May 14, 2012

From the May-June 2012 issue of News & Letters:

Draft for Marxist-Humanist Perspectives, 2012-2013

III. Paths of destruction

A. From war to war to war

War is one of the rulers’ most potent counter-revolutionary weapons when faced with economic crises and revolt. With a military stretched thin, one eye on China, and the failures of Iraq and Afghanistan hanging over their heads, the Pentagon is not pushing for war against Iran. But the Romney-Santorum-Gingrich chorus, joined by many members of Congress, keeps beating the war drums, and the Israeli government is pushing hard for war. While publicly trying to cool the heated pro-war tumult, the Obama administration reportedly offered Israel more powerful bunker-busting bombs if they agree to delay a strike on Iran until 2013. At the same time, the Pentagon is alarmed by a simulation they ran of an Israeli strike on Iran. It concluded that such a strike would most likely lead to a regional war, and the U.S. would be drawn into it regardless of its intentions, resulting in hundreds of troop deaths.

However irrational the path to war is, its siren song is compelling to rulers. [12] That is not alone because of the brinksmanship of leaders playing chicken with millions of lives. It is above all because of the pressure building up from the tectonic plates clashing beneath the surface of capitalism in deep economic crisis. At a time when globalized capitalist industry and trade are depleting natural resources and undermining the environmental conditions that sustain civilization, competition is aggravated by rising demand for energy and water. The workings of capitalism’s law of motion drive rival powers toward conflict.

Therefore, truly opposing war entails opposing the social bases from which it comes. The urgent need is to struggle to stop war against Iran and at the same time “not narrow our vision of the revolutionary struggle for a totally different world, on truly new Humanist foundations, the first necessity of which is the unity of philosophy and revolution.” [13] Taking the side of one set of rulers or another undermines opposition to war.

The distance of much of the Left from such a fully revolutionary perspective is measured in the choice to follow various state powers that claim to oppose U.S. hegemony–that is, to merge the anti-war struggle with acceptance of counter-revolutionary anti-imperialism, such as that of the rulers of Iran. [14] Some anti-war demonstrations have even excluded leftist Iranians who oppose the Islamic Republican regime of Iran; some have barred denunciations of Syria’s Assad.

As yet, a majority in the U.S. opposes strikes on Iran by either the U.S. or Israel. One factor is the meltdown of the occupation of Afghanistan. The massacre of 17 Afghan civilians, including nine children, by Staff Sgt. Robert Bales was only the latest in a series of events that prove it is no aberration. The Koran burnings, the desecration of Afghan corpses, the everyday brutality with which NATO soldiers treat civilians, [15] the continuing night raids that terrorize civilians, all reveal the barbarism and hatred pervading the occupation.

Afghan Women demo
Afghan women march to the Afghan parliament April 14 protesting horrific conditions for women.

Far from “winning hearts and minds,” the protracted occupation has resurrected the fortunes of the misogynist, ethnocentric, counter-revolutionary Taliban–responsible for 80% of civilian killings. The corrupt, U.S.-allied Karzai government, under which the oppression of women almost matches that of the Taliban, is hardly a credible alternative.

One-third of all U.S. troop deaths in Afghanistan this year have been at the hands of Afghan troops. On top of all that, Pakistan has blocked military supply trucks from entering Afghanistan.

The occupation is so moribund that 69% of Americans chose “U.S. should not be involved in Afghanistan” in a survey. About half said Obama’s withdrawal timetable is too slow. When Newt Gingrich referred to the occupation as “very likely. . .a mission that we’re going to discover is not doable,” his Republican competitors did not even bother accusing him of “cutting and running.” As in the dying days of the Vietnam War, the leaders know they have lost but dare not admit it, so the slaughter drags on. That includes even President Obama, who secured the 2008 nomination on the basis of his supposed rejection of the Iraq war.

The U.S. significantly weakened itself with that war. A swift battlefield victory led to a nine-year violent occupation, together with widespread sectarian, “honor” and homophobic killings and degraded living conditions in much of the country. Contrary to the plan, Iranian influence in the region has been strengthened, especially in Iraq. The Iraqi government’s refusal to grant legal impunity to U.S. troops forced their withdrawal, after which the U.S. had to scale back drastically its plans for a massive presence of embassies, spies and mercenaries. [16] The rulers had to face the limits of what the “greatest country in the world” can do–limits set not only by imperial overreach but by the deep global economic crisis. After all, the maintenance of the world’s most colossal military machine–more than half of world military spending–places a huge burden on the economy, which cannot go on forever in the face of stagnation.

B. Economy and ecology

The Great Recession, officially declared over in 2009, lingers on in the impoverishment of millions, with Black America hardest hit, even as corporations rake in record profits. In March unemployment was officially 8.2%–for Blacks, 14.0%, double that of whites. Those figures would be higher if they included involuntary part-timers and “discouraged workers.” Just 14.7% of Black teens had jobs. The national poverty rate had risen to 15.1%, and nearly twice that for Blacks and Hispanics.

The recession, and especially predatory loans followed by predatory foreclosures, destroyed decades of slow erosion of racial economic inequality. Net worth of Black households plummeted to less than what it was in 1984, leaving average wealth of Black households at just 5% of that of whites.

In the last four years, there have been nearly 13 million foreclosure filings, with many more projected for several years to come. State and local legislatures stepped up to the challenge of growing homelessness by further criminalizing homeless people. San Francisco passed an ordinance against sitting or lying on the sidewalk. Memphis gave official blessing to police harassment by creating “No-Panhandling Zones” in the downtown area. As always, capitalist democracy operates in the spirit articulated by Anatole France in 1894:

“The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

Across the Atlantic, capitalism’s decay is seen in Europe’s barbaric austerity programs, especially in Greece–and in the revolts against these conditions. What Greeks are calling the dictatorship of European capital, with Germany in the lead, has forced on their country an austerity program that includes firing one-fifth of public employees, cutting the minimum wage by 22%, and slashing pensions. Those are only highlights of the latest round of austerity, imposed at a time when youth unemployment is near 50%, the suicide rate has shot up, stores are closing in droves, and many people who still have jobs have not been paid in months.

No economic recovery for Greece is envisioned by the European Union plan, but only a bailout of international financial capital and a desperate attempt to stop the crisis from enveloping all of Europe. Some European leaders are calling for debt repayment to be the absolute priority for Greece’s treasury, even before such necessities as wages, healthcare, and food provision. Greeks have been fighting back with general strikes, huge demonstrations in cities all across the country, and occupations, which have moved from Syntagma Square in Athens to neighborhoods. (See “‘We Are All Greeks,’” March-April 2012 N&L.) At the same time, the economic crisis and disintegrative forces in the European Union have created openings for outright fascism. Not only is the neo-Nazi “Golden Dawn” gaining popularity in Greece, the fascist LAOS party was briefly part of the government, and even the Socialist Party is scapegoating immigrants.

Spain demo
Marchers in Valencia during Spain’s March 29 general strike. These signs refer to a strike of caregivers, domestic workers and nurses.

Revolt is Europe-wide. In Spain, where unemployment is even higher than in Greece, millions went on general strike on March 29 on the eve of a new round of austerity. Many strike participants have been involved in the activities of the indignados, whose occupation of Madrid’s Puerta del Sol drew from Tahrir Square in Egypt and helped inspire Occupy Wall Street. Though the occupation ended last June, the movement continues. Spain, which has plunged back into recession, has experienced a surge of eviction blockades and protests over the past year, including a wave of solidarity protests after a high school walkout was attacked by police in February. [17]

Many left as well as mainstream economists point to “economic growth” rather than austerity as what is needed to address the crisis of joblessness. One of the extremely serious contradictions that entails is the environmental fallout from capitalist growth. The more the economy grows, the more it degrades the planet, through pollution, squandering of natural resources, or direct destruction of ecosystems that are turned into plantations, pastures, mines, roads or cities.

Consider how this plays out in ongoing climate change, or rather climate chaos. More than 42 million people in Asia have been displaced by climate-related disasters in the last two years. [18] All the big carbon-emitting countries have failed to rein in their greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, production keeps growing and, with it, so do energy use and carbon dioxide emissions. Europe’s numbers look best, but that is a mirage because so much of its industrial production has been shifted to China, only to be shipped back to Europe, generating even more emissions. Much-touted biofuels are often produced by transforming forests into industrial plantations, displacing indigenous peoples and canceling out emission savings because of the destruction of trees.

In the U.S. politicians are afraid even to mouth the phrase “climate change,” except to deny its reality. The substitute formulas touted by the administration–“investing in technology,” “all of the above,” and “energy independence”–resolve in practice to using more renewable energy and burning more fossil fuels.

In short, there is an insuperable contradiction between capitalist economy, whether in or out of crisis, and the environmental conditions necessary to sustain human civilization.

Even so mainstream a group as the intergovernmental Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development warned in March about “alarming” prospects of “irreversible changes that could endanger two centuries of rising living standards” due to climate change and other factors such as species extinctions and freshwater depletion. [19]

Last year’s famine in the Horn of Africa reveals what it means in human terms. The starving children displayed on newscasts, the tens of thousands of deaths, and the flight of nearly one million Somalis to other countries, were not just products of climate change–let alone of just “nature”–but of the way the crumbling global capitalist order is responding to climate change. [20] Today, the UN warns that looming famine threatens 15 million people in West Africa.

Across the planet, and especially in Sub-Saharan Africa and small island states threatened by rising seas, the struggle to deal rationally with climate change is spreading–and it involves confronting what are the social foundations of its continued exacerbation. While a number of observers have connected food riots and rebellions in Africa to climate change, they cannot be reduced to one factor.

Asked about views of the Arab Spring in Sub-Saharan Africa, a Senegalese told N&L: “The revolutionary spirit is very much alive and all are wondering if they can make it happen in their own countries.”

That is seen in what happened to 45 Zimbabweans. Just for watching and discussing a video on the Arab Spring in Feb. 2011, they were thrown in jail, tortured, and accused of treason, which allows a death sentence. International solidarity made the state drop charges on all but six, who were given suspended sentences. On the day of sentencing, hundreds of supporters of the defendants packed the courtroom or protested outside.

(…to be continued…)

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