Who is the main 'enemy of civilisation'?

[Green Left Weekly, #470, November 7, 2001]

It has become a familiar scenario. A former political tool of the United States has fallen from favour and become an obstacle. Washington decides to take drastic action to assert its interests. But first, the public must be ideologically conditioned. Through a strident campaign in the mass media, the recalcitrant regime is painted in the blackest colours. A decade ago, the Gulf War required Iraq’s Saddam Hussein to be portrayed as an Arab Hitler; today, the terrorist Osama bin Laden is an "enemy of civilisation", likewise Afghanistan's Taliban regime which shelters him.

Of course, none of these are very nice people, as Washington should well know since it helped all of them to become what they are. In fact, it was precisely their utter ruthlessness in repressing popular democratic movements which made them useful to the US rulers.

For instance, in the 1960s, as Saddam Hussein embarked on his rise to power, the US provided him with crucial intelligence information in his brutal campaign to crush the large Iraqi Communist Party. In 1979 Washington was dealt a heavy blow when its client, the bloodstained Shah of Iran, was toppled by a massive popular, pro-democracy uprising. Not surprisingly, when Iraq fought a bloody war against the new Iran in the early 1980s, it received strong US support. Only long after these events did US policy-makers and the Western mass media discover that Saddam was the biggest thug in the whole world and a menace to international security.

But who is really the main "enemy of civilisation" — sundry Third World dictatorships and right-wing terrorists or the superpower which created and nourished them and used them to defend its global empire?

Imperialism

For Marxists, the answer is clear: the number one enemy of the human race — responsible for all its misery and threatening its very survival — is imperialist capitalism, in particular, US imperialism, the world’s only superpower.

Human beings live on planet Earth, we have a particular ecosphere, and our current system of social organisation is capitalism, now in its imperialist stage. Without grasping this basic reality of our society, it is simply impossible to understand modern world politics — it determines everything.

While capitalism developed over centuries, the 19th century saw it embark on a truly stupendous growth (evoked nowhere so dramatically as by Marx and Engels in the 1848 Communist Manifesto). And at the end of the 1800s, it metamorphosed into a new stage: laissez faire capitalism gave way to monopoly capitalism — imperialism.

Instead of a relatively large number of small- and medium-sized firms, each branch of production came to be dominated by a handful of giant corporations: typically, the great bulk of output in each industry would be accounted for by one, two or three companies. Bank capital merged with industrial capital to create finance capital. Giant associations of capitalists — corporations and cartels — completely dominated the politics of the developed capitalist countries.

The new imperialist capitalism was aggressive from the start. The home market was too small for its operations; it quickly spread over the globe in its search for new markets, sources of raw materials, fields of investments and capital export (loans).

Colonialism received a tremendous impetus. Between 1876 and 1914, six European states grabbed 25 million square kilometres — an area two and a half times that of Europe! — and enslaved 523 million people. Africa, for instance, was largely carved up among the European powers in the late 1890s and early 1900s. From the colonies, fabulous wealth flowed back to the ruling classes in the West.

Britain and France had the largest colonial empires. Germany was a more powerful but late arrival and lagged badly in the race for colonies. The only way it could acquire a world empire was to seize colonies from Britain or France. This reality led to World War I — the old empires strove to hang on to their stolen goods, which Germany fought to grab for itself. It was a war between robbers for control of the loot.

US imperialism erupted onto the world stage with the 1898 Spanish-American war; its easy victory over Spain gave the United States a number of first-class strategic assets. In the Caribbean, it annexed Puerto Rico; and, pushing aside the indigenous liberation forces, it established a harsh protectorate over Cuba. In the Pacific, Washington grabbed the Philippines — again pushing aside and then brutally crushing the native independence movement — and annexed Guam. Some years before this, US adventurers had overthrown the Hawaiian monarchy; in 1898 the US formally annexed the islands, thus completing its strategic corridor to China and the Far East. In 1903, the US rulers engineered a revolt in Panama, separating the country from Colombia, and embarked on the construction of the strategically and economically vital Panama Canal (completed in 1914).

Rise of US superpower

The US was the real winner from the World War I carnage. Britain and France still had their colonial empires but they were seriously weakened, as was Germany. It was clear to astute observers that a fundamental new force had arrived on the world scene, more powerful than anything seen before. In 1934, assessing the forces driving for a new world war, the exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote that whereas German imperialism under Hitler wanted to reorganise Europe in its interests, the US sought to reorganise the whole world.

The grandiose ambitions of the US imperialist rulers were well expressed in 1941 by Time-Life publishing magnate Henry Luce who called for an "American Century" — the US equivalent of Hitler's "thousand-year Reich".

World War II had the same underlying causes as the 1914-18 war. Nothing had been resolved by the first global slaughter. Germany again tried for European domination. However, the involvement of the post-capitalist Soviet Union was a new factor; it was not fighting for plunder but merely to survive; eventually its heroic resistance proved Hitler’s undoing.

The US emerged from the war as the world superpower. Britain and France were now definitely second-rank imperialist powers. But the US was stronger than ever: its homeland had not been devastated as had Europe, the Soviet Union and Japan, its economic base was immensely strong and it had a monopoly on the atomic bomb.

The US had a qualitative military and economic superiority over all its capitalist rivals. This reality, and the Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union, conditioned the forms of inter-imperialist rivalry for the rest of the 20th century. All economic competition between the imperialist powers was conditioned by the need to present a common front — the US-led "free world" — against the challenge represented by the Soviet Union, China and the Third World national liberation struggles.

This ruled out another inter-imperialist war for the redivision of the world. However, it did not rule out sharp economic competition, localised proxy wars and, especially, it didn’t rule out wars against the liberation movements in the Third World. Quite the contrary.

For instance, the postwar period saw the US supplant Britain in important traditional markets and spheres of influence such as Argentina and the Middle East. And for 15 years until 1975, Washington fought a bloody and atrocious war against the Vietnamese liberation forces, killing and maiming millions and devastating the country before being compelled to withdraw.

Today, the Soviet Union has gone and the Cold War is over. But the qualitative US economic and military preponderance remains a decisive fact.

Competition between the huge First World monopoly firms — multinationals in respect of their field of operations but in their ownership they remain tied to particular nation-states — and between the various imperialist countries is sharply intensifying. The whole system is in a deep crisis.

Neo-liberal assault on working people

For the past two decades we have seen the continued demolition of the so-called welfare state (that is, limited concessions to the Western working classes in the context of the Cold War contest with the Soviet Union) and endless calls to cut government spending — actually to cut social spending, while boosting handouts to big business and increasing the military and police budgets. Every conceivable state instrumentality is being privatised as big business searches for new sources of profit — even water supply systems are not immune. Workers are under constant pressure as union rights, job security, wages and working conditions face continuing attacks.

The imperialist powers are pressing this neo-liberal economic program on the working people of the Third World through the imperialists' control of international financial and trade organisations like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation.

Trapped by their huge debts to Western banks and governments, Third World countries are unable to resist this pressure. The effects are devastating. Every index of social misery — hunger, poverty, infant mortality and child death rates, the oppression of women, sex-slavery, unemployment, and so on — is sharply worsening.

The only country which has been able to resist this trend, however tenuously, is revolutionary Cuba, which does not belong to the imperialist financial and trade organisations. Despite great pressures, Cuba retains control over its own economy and its modest but impressive economic and social development stands in stark contrast to the social holocaust occurring in the rest of the Third World. Cuba's revolutionary, anti-imperialist, non-capitalist path of development shows the only way forward for the people of the Third World.

Today the old colonial empires are gone but the Third World remains a collection of neo-colonies of imperialism. Just as the old colonial empires of Britain, France and the Netherlands were retained only by naked military force, so the economic interests of US corporations in the Third World are ultimately dependent on stealth bombers, aircraft carrier battle groups, the Marine Corps, the Central Intelligence Agency and murderous US-trained puppet armies, torturers and paramilitary death squads.

And that is what the Washington's "war on terrorism" is all about — projecting US military power across the world; gaining new legitimacy for its role as imperialism’s "world cop"; having the right to station its forces in scores of countries far from home; and finding a more plausible ideological framework for fighting Third World liberation movements.

The "war on terrorism" is Orwellian double-speak for a war on the people of the world — on behalf of First World corporations. The criminal September 11 attacks killed some 6000 people; they have also given the world's number one terrorist a new ideological screen for its activities. But we shouldn’t be confused: the main "enemy of civilisation" isn’t some right-wing religious fanatic — a former tool of the CIA — holed up in a mountain cave somewhere in Afghanistan, but the imperialist world economic system which puts capitalist profit ahead of every human need and value.

Fighting to get rid of this rotten system and replace it with a socialist society of peace, solidarity and plenty remains the most urgent task facing progressive humanity.