There is one fundamental thing that is common to capitalism in every age that makes it a uniquely violent system. It is not a marginal or accidental part of the system but something that is part of the very definition of capitalist society. That thing is competition.
Everyone from Karl Marx to Margaret Thatcher agrees that economic compeition is central to capitalism. The “free” market is about different firms, whether they are corner shops or multinational conglomerates, competing on the market.
They compete for customers and “market share”. They compete for cheap labour and cheap raw materials. If they succeed they prosper, if they fail they are put out of business by their competitors. At least that’s the theory.
Reality is significantly different. Market competition is often drastically reduced by monopolies and cartels.
The state often alters the rules of competition and props up or bails out those corporations that, for one reason or another, it is politically unacceptable to allow to fail – look for instance at the effective nationalisation of Northern Rock.
The state uses force to alter the rules of competition by using its police and armed forces to threaten and intimidate both the domestic labour movement and economic rivals abroad.
And there’s the rub – economic competition between firms always also leads to economic, political and military competition between nation states. The “hidden hand” of the market needs the iron fist of the state.
From the birth of the capitalist system in the 17th century, warfare became a more systematic and destructive process. Industrial development gave states the weapons to wage war in more bloody ways than ever before. And competition made sure they did so more systematically than before.
No sooner had the revolutions in the Netherlands and England created the first capitalist states in the 17th Century than they went to war with each other. And the state-sponsored corporations – the Dutch East India Company and the English East India Company – began the work of modern colonisation.
Those first – and by modern standards tiny – armies, navies and multinationals set a pattern still being followed today.
The most powerful industrial powers seek to use their economic wealth to develop military capacities that can intimidate or defeat their rivals and so increase their ability to dominate their competitors.
This has meant dominating areas of the globe which have no immediate economic benefit to the major powers but which have a strategic importance or undertaking actions to demonstrate “imperial resolve”.
This colonial and imperial process has produced resistance at every step – from those who fought Oliver Cromwell’s “pacification” of Ireland in the 1650s, through the great anti-colonial movements of the 20th century, to the resistance in Iraq today.
Since its first days the capitalist system has grown enormously. And each phase of the system has produced its own distinct pattern of domination of smaller states by larger states and of rivalry between the major states.
Direct colonial rule – with each major power more or less directly governing its own colonies – spread fastest in the 19th century.
The colonial system sucked the great powers into world war in 1914 – a worldwide conflagration that was only ended by revolution in Russia in 1917 and Germany in 1918.
An uneasy peace was shattered again in 1939 when the unfinished business of European big power competition visited a second world war on humanity.
The Russian revolutionary Nikolai Bukharin summed up the system accurately and concisely, “The anarchic structure of world capitalism is expressed in two facts: world industrial crises on the one hand, wars on the other...War in capitalist society is only one of the methods of capitalist competition, when the latter extends to the sphere of the world economy.”
In the aftermath of the Second World War a wholly new imperial system emerged.
The old European colonial powers, whether victors like Britain and France or vanquished like Germany, Spain and Italy, were exhausted.
Their place was taken by Russia, which had militarily extended its empire into the heart of Europe as it drove the Nazis back, and by the US that was overwhelmingly the world’s most powerful state both economically and militarily.
This bi-polar world, the world of the Cold War, lasted from 1945 to the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in 1989.
During this period two developments took place that decisively shaped the current, post-Cold War phase of imperialism.
First, the state capitalist regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe (where the state combined the same roles that are played in the West by the private capitalists and the state), although they outstripped the West’s economic growth in the early phase of the Cold War, were ultimately undermined by their exclusion from the growing world market as it entered the long boom of the 1950s and 1960s.
The US and its allies ultimately won the economic and military stand-off of the Cold War.
But, second, the cost of winning was borne disproportionately by the US.
While US arms spending propped up the Western market and prevented a return to 1930s-style recession it was other Western nations – especially Germany and Japan – whose domestic economy gained from the growth of the world market most because they spent less on arms.
The US was victorious over its Cold War enemy but it lost out to its Cold War allies.
The new imperialism
In the post Cold War world the US remains militarily greater than any other state in the world. Indeed US arms spending is currently greater than the next ten largest arms spenders all added together.
But economically the US, although still the largest economy in the world, is now nowhere near the same level of dominance that it had at the end of the Second World War.
Then, for instance, US manufacturing accounted for over 50 percent of world manufacturing. Now that figure is nearer 20 percent.
The US is therefore pre-disposed towards using its unrivalled military superiority to redress its relative economic weakness. It is structurally compelled to think more often of using the stick rather than the carrot.
This is the inner meaning of George Bush’s doctrine of the pre-emptive strike. It is the fundamental cause of the series of wars since 1989 in which the US has tried to defend its economic stake in the world, especially its access to oil, to intimidate its rivals and discipline its allies.
Suffice to say not everything is going according to plan.We are now in produced a multi-polar world in which the US has created more enemies and repelled more allies in a shorter time than any other US foreign policy initiative in history.
So far all the post-Cold War wars have been between major powers and much smaller states. Iraq, Serbia and Afghanistan are minnows in the world system compared to the great shark of the US.
Even so these wars have proved difficult to win and have divided the US from former allies.
The most notable of these divisions was that between France and Germany – “old Europe” in Donald Rumsfeld’s phrase – and the US and Britain during the 2003 Gulf War. France and Germany spoke for those European powers who wished to rely on economic power to structure the world as they wish, rather than the military power that the US excels in deploying.
The most significant aspect of the war in Georgia is that it shows the capacity of the current phase of imperialism to generate conflict among the major powers themselves.
After the Cold War the US drove the eastern expansion of Nato so that it encroached onto much of Russia’s former territory by incorporating the Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia as well as Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, and the Czech and Slovak Republics.
In addition US military bases have been set up in the former Soviet Central Asian Republics – Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan.
For this reason alone a conflict between one of Nato’s proxies and Russia was always likely to happen somewhere in what Russia refers to as its “near abroad”.
This Nato enlargement was due to reach its culmination with the inclusion of Georgia and Ukraine, but objections from France and Germany delayed their accession.
Georgia had, in any case, already been the recipient of US support. Georgia has the third largest troop deployment, after the US and Britain, in Iraq.
Had Georgia joined Nato as the US wished, the entire Western alliance would have been committed by treaty to its military defence when Russia responded to Georgia’s military adventure in South Ossetia.
Russia may no longer be a superpower but it is a regional power. Its economy may be recovering from the depths of its 1990s, decline mainly due to oil and gas exports – resources Europe needs.
Russia remains a nuclear power that also possesses very substantial conventional military capacity.
The lesson of Russia’s defiance will be carefully watched everywhere from Latin America to China to Iran.
The states in the world system are like Chicago gangsters in the era of Al Capone. In weakness they see opportunity. The Georgian war will encourage Russia to assert itself elsewhere in its “near abroad”. It will be seen to demand a response from the US and its allies.
It will encourage other states to hope they can stand up to the global Al Capone.
The new imperialism that began with the end of the Cold War is now more dangerous than ever.
Imperialism and Resistance by John Rees is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, phone 020 7637 1848 » www.bookmarks.uk.com