Some 42 conflicts are raging across the world today–there hasn’t been a single day of peace since before the Second World War.
Often very specific local or national issues seem to be driving the conflicts.
Western politicians sometimes talk of the wars in the Middle East as a “clash of civilisations” between the West and Islamism.
They portray themselves as bringing “liberation” or defending progressive “values” against an inexplicably “backward” enemy.
Sectarianism can play a role in fuelling these conflicts—and various nationalisms have fuelled the civil war in Ukraine.
But if we want to stop war we have to look at the bigger picture. That means recognising the role of great imperialist powers in sowing chaos around the world. And it means looking at the forces that drive them to do it.
When the US and its allies, including Britain, invaded Iraq in 2003 it was clear that oil had at least something to do with it.
Oil is crucial to the functioning of modern capitalism—both for energy and because it’s necessary for producing other commodities. But this isn’t the whole story.
The US doesn’t use much Iraqi oil. It was self-sufficient in oil until the 1970s, and today imports 51 percent of its oil from the Western hemisphere.
Syria has some gas and oil, but isn’t particularly rich in either.
Neither the West nor Russia are bombing for the sake of their oil corporations alone.
Syria has become a major battleground because its location makes it important for dominating the Middle East.
And the Middle East as a whole is important to capitalism worldwide.
Its oil might not feed the US, but it does feed important economies in Asia.
When different world powers compete for control of the Middle East they are really aiming at each other.
If the US in particular gains dominance over the region, it gains an advantage over rising powers such as China.
South East Asia is becoming another key flashpoint as China’s economy expands.
The South China Sea is now a major choke point for shipping routes between some of the world’s biggest economies.
So it’s not surprising to see increasingly tense standoffs over who controls it.
That can seem a long way from the conflicts between Isis and Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, or the militias in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
But great powers have often stirred up wars for strategic advantage far away from their heartlands.
During the “Cold War”, rivalry between the US and Russia dominated the world—yet they never directly clashed on the battlefield. Instead they backed proxies in regional and civil wars, or intervened in other countries.
An important example was the war in Vietnam.
The US wasn’t “liberating” the country it was carpet-bombing. Russia was just as cynical with the support it sometimes gave the resistance. But Vietnam wasn’t particularly rich in resources either.
The US wanted to stop a “domino effect” of struggles across Europe’s former colonies that would weaken the West’s influence. The Russian ruling class wanted to make sure any such struggles ended up strengthening its influence.
The superpowers weren’t always in control of their proxies, any more than anyone is controlling Isis today. But those wars only made sense in the context of global military competition. And the same applies to the chaos in the Middle East and many other regions today.
So where does that competition come from?
Throughout history there have been examples of larger powers dominating smaller countries. But the conquests and conflicts have taken many different forms according to how society as a whole was organised.
The wars we’re seeing today flow directly from capitalism. One of the first to explain how was the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin with his theory of imperialism.
Lenin called imperialism the “latest stage” of capitalism.
He said that “capitalism has grown into a world system of colonial oppression and the financial strangulation of the overwhelming majority of the population of the world by a handful of ‘advanced’ countries”.
As long as we live in a world of competing capitalist states, wars will keep coming.
That’s because capitalism is fundamentally based on two divisions—between capitalists and workers and among the capitalists themselves.
Bosses exploit workers to pump as much “surplus value” out of them as possible. This is the source of all their profits.
But capitalism is driven forward by competition between rival firms. If bosses don’t compete to be the most profitable, they’ll be driven out of business.
This has always taken on an international dimension. The growth of Britain’s textile industry was partly built on destroying the one in India.
Deciding which exporters get access to which markets—and which importers get access to which raw materials—can be hugely important.
That makes bosses in each country rely on the international influence of their state.
States in turn need to keep their bosses profitable to finance their own expenditure.
Each state looks out for the interests of their own capitalist firms. So competition between firms becomes competition between capitalist states.
Today many firms are huge multinationals operating across states and borders.
It’s very different to when the revolutionary Karl Marx was writing in the 19th century, for example. Firms were mostly clustered around a few industrial boom towns such as Manchester, rarely employing more than a few hundred workers.
These changes are a direct product of that process of competition.
As individual firms compete they swallow up their rivals or drive them out of business. Marx called it the “concentration” and “centralisation” of capital.
This process doesn’t mean that the nation state becomes less important. It raises the stakes as firms compete to divide up the world market.
This shapes the negotiations over trade treaties such as TTIP, what to do about climate change, or whether the European Union should have more or fewer powers.
It’s also part of the reason for attacks on working conditions or education. The Tories want to make British business competitive against foreign rivals.
But ultimately getting international influence isn’t just an economic question.
As Lenin said, “the ‘booty’ is shared between two or three powerful world plunderers ... who are drawing the whole world into their war over the division of their booty.”
The US is no longer the world’s biggest economy. It accounted for 50 percent of world output in 1945, but that had already halved by 2000.
Yet it’s still the world’s biggest superpower, with immense diplomatic influence that helps it negotiate good terms for its bosses.
That’s because it has a huge army with bases and puppet regimes all over the world.
Many of its recent wars have been about stemming the decline of that power—and showing rivals that it isn’t afraid to use it.
This drove its brutal military interventions in Iraq, Somalia and the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The lynchpin in that strategy was the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
But Iraq was a major defeat for the US—and the Arab Revolutions further weakened its grip on the Middle East. Now it’s desperate to regain control.
In this way economic competition can spill over into military competition.
Sometimes this can even spiral into explosions such as the First World War.
The enduring global economic crisis increases the pressure on every state—and could make such conflicts more likely again.
No one war is simple or inevitable. But as long as we live in a world of competing capitalist states, wars will keep coming.
Identifying imperialism as a global system tells us how to fight it.
There’s no point looking for good superpowers, or letting our own rulers’ rivals off the hook.
There’s even less point looking for a “right” way for Britain to shape the Middle East.
Lenin argued that socialists should fight to turn the bosses’ war into a war against the bosses.
We need to build a strong anti-war movement to beat the imperialists at home. And we need to make that part of a struggle against the capitalist system and all its horrors.
Our job is to defeat imperialism, not Isis
by Alex Callinicos
Socialist Worker online
Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism
by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin
Marxist Internet archive
Imperialism and global political economy
by Alex Callinicos
published by Polity Press
Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to bookmarksbookshop.co.uk