By Alex Callinicos
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War Under Attack

This article is over 18 years, 9 months old
Opposing and organising against the conflict in Iraq is the most important task facing anti-capitalist campaigners today.
Issue 273

It is clear that we are currently participating in one of the most remarkable mass movements in world history. Its origins date back to before the Bush administration exploited 11 September 2001 by launching its war-drive, to the great wave of anti-capitalist protests–Seattle, Prague, Genoa. Yet, as the movement has come to focus on mobilising against imperialist war, first in Afghanistan, then in Iraq, it has grown astonishingly in extent–15 February 2003 is simply without any historical precedent as a gigantic day of global protest–and in political radicalism. The determination with which the movement, in belligerent and non-belligerent countries alike, met the actual outbreak of war on 20 March, and the scale of the protests that swept across the world as the missiles began to fly, indicate that a new generation of anti-imperialist militants is being forged.

The anti-war movement: a step back?

Yet many figures who played an important role in the initial development of the anti-capitalist movement are unhappy about this evolution. For example, Bernard Cassen, founder of Attac France and still the dominant figure in this pioneering campaign against neoliberalism, attacked the European Social Forum in Florence last November because ‘the issue of war…overshadowed everything else’ there. In an interview in ‘New Left Review’ he said: ‘Knowing that the forum would be held in Italy, and that Rifondazione would mobilise around the issue, we all agreed that war would be a leading theme in Florence, alongside its original theme: “We Need a Different Europe”.

‘But then we discovered that all the posters for the march spoke only of war, without mentioning Europe. I can’t say I was entirely surprised. But if the forum had been held in France, it would not have gone like this. War would have been on the agenda, but not an obsession with war.’

Since the next European Social Forum will be in Paris, and in the suburb of Saint Denis, in November, Cassen’s remarks are less a comment than a promise–or a threat. Yet there is nothing particularly surprising about what he said. Cassen, in collaboration with elements of the French Communist Party and the CGT trade union federation, has sought to make Attac the right wing of the anti-capitalist movement, bitterly resistant to any attempt to widen the movement’s agenda to opposing imperialism and war.

Much more remarkable is the emergence of similar arguments by forces that present themselves as being on the extreme left of the movement. Michael Hardt and Toni Negri’s ‘Empire’ is the bible of autonomist currents such as the Italian disobbedienti who see decentralised networks as the basis both of resistance and of the alternative to capitalism. Hardt has been rightly critical of Cassen for seeing the nation-state as the basis of opposition to global capital. Yet after 15 February he complained that ‘the coordinated protests last weekend against the war were animated by various kinds of anti-Americanism… This…tends to close down the horizons of our political imagination and limit us to a bipolar (or worse, nationalist) view of the world.

‘The globalisation protest movements were far superior to the anti-war movements in this regard. They not only recognised the complex and plural nature of the forces that dominate capitalist globalisation today…but they imagined an alternative, democratic globalisation consisting of plural exchanges across national and regional borders based on equality and freedom… It is unfortunate but inevitable that much of the energies that had been active in the globalisation protests have now at least temporarily been redirected against the war.’

Hardt doesn’t quite echo Basil Fawlty’s command ‘Don’t mention the war!’–but he comes pretty close. Another leading autonomist intellectual, Naomi Klein, writing from Argentina, has argued that war goes on there daily in the state attacks on the activists in the mass movement against neoliberalism: ‘The anti-war message resonates forcefully here, and tens of thousands participated in the global day of action on 15 February. But peace? What does peace mean in a country where the right that most needs defending is the right to fight?

’15 February was more than a demonstration; it was a promise to build a truly international anti-war movement. If that is going to happen, North Americans and Europeans will have to confront the war on all its fronts: to oppose an attack on Iraq and reject the branding of social movements as terrorist. The use of force to control Iraq’s resources is only an extreme version of the force used to keep markets open and debt payments flowing in countries such as Argentina and South Africa. In places where daily life is like war, people who are militantly confronting this brutality are the peace activists.’

Klein’s argument is a good example of how a proposition that is true in the abstract can turn out to be misleading when directly applied in concrete circumstances. Of course there is a very real sense in which capitalism is always war. Socialists, after all, have long used the metaphor ‘the class war’ to refer to the constant struggle between workers and bosses over the terms of exploitation. But if the implication is that the movement against the actual war currently raging in Iraq is a diversion from the ‘daily war’ against capital, then Klein is dead wrong.

Common to the ‘Don’t mention the war’ tendency is a mistaken view of capitalism. Cassen expresses this particularly crudely: ‘Whether war breaks out or not, B-52s and special forces will not alter poverty in Brazil or hunger in Argentina.’ Capitalism is conceived here as an economic system that is quite distinct from the system of states through which military power is exercised. Hardt, Negri, and Cassen all agree that neoliberal globalisation has radically weakened the nation-state. Hardt and Negri argue that national antagonisms have been dissolved in the ‘smooth space’ of Empire, as institutions of so-called ‘global governance’ such as the UN, G7 and Nato transcend state rivalries. They welcome the decline of the nation-state, while Cassen seeks to reverse it, but all agree that this development is a consequence of the latest wave of capitalist globalisation.

The persistence of imperialism

The international crisis since 11 September has decisively refuted this analysis. At the heart of this crisis has been the effort of the Bush administration to use the military power of the US state to perpetuate the global dominance of US capitalism. In the process, they have split international institutions and provoked the emergence of what is beginning to look like a rival coalition to the Anglo-American duo, headed by France, Germany and Russia, with China tagging along on the sidelines.

This is a more complex situation than straightforward inter-imperialist rivalry–US military supremacy is counterbalanced by a much greater diffusion of economic power among the leading capitalist states. Nevertheless, it is clear that, as Marxist theorists of imperialism such as Lenin and Bukharin argued nearly a century ago, contemporary capitalism is still constituted by two interlocking forms of competition–economic rivalries among firms and geopolitical conflicts between states.

Hardt and Negri’s response to the refutation of their theory has been, to say the least, confused. Hardt has argued that ‘the captains of capital in the US’ should recognise that the Bush strategy isn’t in their interests, and that ‘there is an alternative to US imperialism: global power can be organised in a decentred form, which Tony Negri and I call “empire”‘. So Empire isn’t so much the actual form of capitalist globalisation as a policy option that enlightened capitalists should embrace.

For Negri, by contrast, Empire is not an alternative to the Bush war-drive but what explains it: ‘Preventative war…is a constituent strategy of Empire’. At stake in the present crisis, according to Negri, are ‘the forms of hegemony and the relative degrees of power that American and/or European capitalist elites will have in the organisation of the new world order’. So, in contradiction to what Hardt and Negri argued in their book, Empire involves rival centres of capitalist power after all.

From anti-capitalism to anti-imperialism

Tens of thousands of anti-capitalist activists around the world have instinctively cut through this muddle. They have recognised that while capitalism involves myriad forms of domination and oppression, currently the most important front in the struggle against it is stopping the war in Iraq. The greatest capitalist power in the world is waging the latest in a series of wars designed not just to perpetuate its domination and extend its control over global energy supplies, but also to make it easier to impose neoliberal economic policies on the rest of the world.

The administration’s ‘National Security Strategy of the United States of America’ makes the connection between US global domination and the neoliberal Washington consensus absolutely clear. If the US is victorious in Iraq, then it is more likely to go on the offensive in Latin America, the zone in the south where resistance to neoliberalism is most advanced. Even if the B-52s and Special Forces aren’t directly deployed against Brazilian landless labourers or Argentinian piqueteros, victory for US military power will weaken the struggle against poverty and hunger everywhere.

Drawing these connections has played a crucial role in the maturing of the anti-capitalist movement. This can be seen in two ways. First, a deeper understanding of the nature of capitalism has developed–a recognition that it involves not just economic oppression but also political and military power that is used domestically to crush resistance, and organised globally through the system of competing nation-states.

Secondly, the movement is learning how to think strategically. In ‘Empire’ Hardt and Negri argued that anti-capitalists should reject Lenin’s concept of the weakest link–in other words, the idea that there are particular points where the contradictions of imperialism have accumulated, making the system particularly vulnerable. The implication is that it doesn’t matter where or over what you fight. But this is a big mistake. Revolutionary politics is like war in this sense: we have always to analyse the tensions in the system as a means of identifying–and attacking–where the enemy is weak. In launching a war that even their fellow thieves and murderers in the world’s ruling classes denounce as illegitimate Bush and Blair have exposed their flank to us.

We shouldn’t worry too much about the ‘Don’t mention the war’ tendency. In different ways, Cassen, Klein, Hardt, and Negri helped to initiate the anti-capitalist movement. It often happens that those who played a part at one stage of a movement are unable to make the transition to a new one. They may, like Moses, never reach the Promised Land. The important thing is not to let them hold the rest of us back.

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