The Rationality of (Self) Destruction

This article attempts to place the events since September 11 in the context of global capitalism’s deeper economic and political trends.

The discussion in the American media on how to fight terrorism, inasmuch as it exists, reminds one a lot of the debate on how to fight crime that went on here for years.

This was, after all, the country that had by far the highest crime-rate of all the highly developed ones. It still is, yet the crime problem does not evoke any more heated arguments in Congress or on TV. The reason is that the position that there is only one way to deal with crime, which is to repress it harshly, has become the consensus, at least among those who control the media. There are of course still a few voices that claim that the higher crime figures among blacks and Hispanics point to a relation between crime and the living conditions in the impoverished inner cities. But even those have grown quiet, for fear of being accused of ‘coddling the criminals" and seeking to justify their depraved behavior, or even of insulting the many blacks and Hispanics in the inner cities who respect the law. Besides, the steep decline of the crime-rates in the second half of the nineties seems to confirm the effectiveness of the punitive strategy. It appears indeed that putting more than two million people behind bars, beefing up the police, building prisons at a feverish pace, stepping up the tempo of executions and upholding a zero tolerance policy towards petty crime, have made American cities safer. Remarkably enough though, crime rates declined about equally in cities were a strict zero tolerance policy was applied such as New York and in those where that was not the case, such as in Los Angeles, where the police department wrestled for years with a debilitating internal crisis.

Criminologists explained this by pointing to two other factors; one economic - in periods of substantially declining unemployment the crime rate has always gone down in the US- the other demographic - there is a temporary decline in the population of teenagers and young adults. Crime, like all social phenomena, results from possibility and necessity. The necessity arises from a lack of alternatives for millions for whom there’s no room in the productive system and from the fact that it cannot be expected that all this youthful energy, all this testosterone, will just sit there quietly without seeking some escape. The possibility comes from the presence of huge extra-legal markets and the rising demand for its commodities such as drugs, especially at times when an economic downturn exposes the lack of perspectives and emphasizes both the alienation, and the moral corruptness, of capitalist society. The criminal is not an anti-capitalist rebel. On the contrary, he seeks his place within the system and follows its rules, its ethics and purpose. That is true not just for the capitalist investing in extra-legal markets but also for the young unemployed trying to make a buck as a drug runner. As the review Against Sleep and Nightmare notes, "For capitalists, drugs are simply another commodity to be managed. Unfortunately, there is nothing stranger about a poor black boy selling crack than there is about a rich white boy repairing cars; while the black boy is breaking the law, both of them are becoming part of the system. With America decaying the way it is, more and more commodities that keep the system running also destroy the people that are in it, especially the poor, the blacks and the browns." (ASAN #2, p.15)

Indeed, they destroy especially those people who are themselves excess commodities, who can’t sell their labor power and therefore have no value for capitalist society. The tendency of capitalism to destroy excess commodities, excess variable and constant capital, is fundamental to the system because they are obstacles to capital’s valorization. It expresses itself in the lives of "excess" population by fostering hatred, self-hatred and despair. As a message on a T-shirt popular with black youths in Detroit during the height of the murder-epidemic in the early ‘90’s proclaimed: "Shoot me – I’m already dead".

Dead Already

"Shoot me –I’m already dead". It’s a slogan with which young men fighting in Africa’s bloody civil wars or suicide-bombers in Palestine could identify. The conditions which American criminologists describe as the perfect incubator of crime – growing unemployment and despair, combined with a demographic curve that bulges with an overabundance of young men- are also those that characterize the countries where terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda find their support and recruit their suicide-candidates. Of course, the leaders of these gangs are not desperate paupers. Bin Laden is a very rich man, as leaders of criminal gangs usually are. The capital at their disposal is a necessary ingredient for them to fulfil the role trust upon them by the deep-seeded need of capitalism in crisis for self-destruction. However different they may be, they express that need just as much as drug gangs in America’s inner cities. There is the same combination of excess variable capital (population) and excess financial capital which breaks national or international law because it must challenge the existing order which denies it the room to fulfil its capitalist destiny, that is to valorize by seeking profit and power.

After the attacks of September 11, and later again when the bio-terrorist anthrax-attacks began, there was momentary confusion about the identity of the perpetrators. There was talk that elements in the American ultra-right might be responsible, or Japanese terrorists or groups directed by Iraq or Iran or the Israeli Mossad or even that the US itself might have organized this or allowed it to happen to reap the results. None of this was proven (neither, so far, has the role of Bin Laden) and much of it was just silly conspiracy theory. But it was interesting because it showed how exchangeable the motives for such outrageous acts of destruction are. The motives –because Allah wants it, for love of country, for the defense of our race, for the national interest, for Jerusalem or even for the revolution- are really secondary to the goal of destruction itself, even if the perpetrators themselves may not realize this. Because they express less a quest for whichever chimera has captured their imagination than the need of capital for destruction, the fact that their violence may be counter-productive to their stated goal or may cause their own destruction, cannot stop them. Thus, the presumably Islamist terrorists flying into the World Trade Center did not only willingly destroy themselves but neither did they care about the easily foreseeable misery their acts would bring upon countless Muslims around the world. We see the same urge for (self)destruction rising around the globe and especially in those areas where capital is seeing its actual or future profits melt away. Whether it takes the form of civil war, ethnic or tribal war, religious war, war of liberation or of revenge or of conquest, or any combination thereof, the ultimate goal always is death and destruction itself. Regimes such as Iraq’s celebrate even their bloodiest defeats as great victories. It is no coincidence that at times when the need for devalorization creates a mounting urge for destruction, madmen like Hitler and Saddam Hussein are at the helm of states. Capitalism in our times has so far avoided its crisis producing a sudden, paralyzing shock as it did in 1929, or that its urge to (self)destruction triggers world war. But it has eliminated neither tendency and both are mounting.

The Double Movement of Globalization

They are linked. The conditions for a more violent, destructive world are rising because capitalism’s crisis has deepened. And the way in which it has deepened in recent years has been marked by what is being called globalization. As we wrote earlier, globalization follows a double movement. As the technological, political and other obstacles to the global integration of capital diminish, the world becomes more and more linked in a high tech, high productivity global economy. But precisely because of its high productivity, capitalism also accelerates the expulsion of capital from the world economy; it makes countless productive forces superfluous, unable to valorize themselves and forces a steep devalorization, creating in the process an ever more gigantic army of unnecessary labor power (there are now close to 2 billion unemployed) and concentrating masses of uprooted, repressed, frustrated young people in hellish cities.

We are not for or against globalization per se. It is simply an historic fact and not a policy choice. It is not a break with the past but a continuation of an immanent process that capitalism has undergone since its very beginning. We have seen an acceleration of that process, but it’s just capitalism following the path of capitalism, described by Marx 150 years ago. Those who protest globalization as such, pander to the illusion that capitalism could be different, turned back to an earlier stage of its course, which is naïve at best. Or that capitalism could be reined in, made more humane, more concerned about its pernicious "side-effects", which is what the apologists of capitalism say to a public that realizes something is seriously wrong. Bill Clinton, of all people, said to such a public after the attacks that the fundamental problem is poverty and that now the task was to make globalization work for the poor. Yes, the man who presided over this globalization, and the pauperization it sowed, and the devaluation of the capital of most countries of the world that it caused, said this with a straight face. We knew already that shamelessness was his middle name. Apparently he still has a role to play as spokesman for the system, but he surely knows that globalization will go on as before, devalorizing the capital of the weaker countries, demobilizing productive forces, spreading misery everywhere

The Advantages of War

Bush, of course, is not talking about making globalization work for the poor, he has a war to win. Just like in "the war on crime", there is a consensus in the ruling class that there can be but one strategy to deal with terrorism: off with their heads. Let our bombs and missiles, and our special forces, decapitate them. Since they attacked the US itself, the fact that the prosecutor, the judge and the executor are one and the same is no objection and neither is the death of uncounted civilians who happen to be in the way. (Pentagon spokesman: It’s not like we do it on purpose. Quite the contrary: we realize that "collateral damage" is bad public relations. But we’ve run out of military targets and our bombs have to fall somewhere. So don’t mind if one lands on a hospital or a Red Cross Center. It’s the fault of the Russians who left too little for us to hit).

One important function of the "war on crime" was to provide the excuse for a never-ending expansion of police powers and –forces. The ‘war on terrorism’ allows the state to bolster its repressive capacity even more. It’s interesting to note that, two months after the attacks of September 11, no new laws have been passed by the US Congress regarding airport security which, apart from the useless presence of some National Guard troops in the departure halls, remains almost as loose as it was before. Yet new laws expanding police powers have been passed with great hurry, often with not even a semblance of debate. It is also telling that the expanded powers these laws give to the various police forces to investigate, tap the internet, break into homes, arrest and detain suspects in secrecy, etc, are not limited to investigations related to terrorism.

Bush set the tone in the very first days by declaring that a new global war had begun and that in this war "you are either with us or with the terrorists". It was a warning, a demand for discipline, as much from citizens within the country as from countries around the world. The whole totalitarian war climate served for capitalism to tighten its grip on society. What Bush really said was: You’re either for US capital or you will be treated as terrorists. Soon after that, workers defending their wages in Minnesota were viciously attacked in the media, which stated that, by striking, the workers were "choosing the side of the terrorists". All workers fighting for their class interests, or anybody protesting global capitalism, can expect to be tarred with the same brush.

A New Grand Excuse

But there’s more. Since the end of the cold war, US capital and its allies had lacked an excuse for the continuing expansion of the gigantic American military machine, for the presence of hundreds of American military bases around the world and of hundreds of thousands of American troops outside US borders. There were the "rogue states" (rogues they are, but so are all the others) but even combined, they amounted to a ridiculously feeble excuse. When the US sent a fraction of its war machine in action against one of them in the Gulf war or later in Kosovo, it was like shooting fish in a barrel. Now, US capital hopes that in "the global war against terrorism" it has found a new grand excuse, a rationale to impose global discipline, to force universal acceptance of the US’ right to intervene anywhere in the defense of its interests and to expand its awesome military strength to even higher levels. Since there is no end in sight to the "war on terrorism" (possibly not in our lifetime, Vice-President Cheney said) the grand excuse remains valid. How well it may work in the long term remains to be seen but it certainly corresponds to an essential ideological need of US capital.

There can be little doubt that this war and terror machine can and will obtain a military victory in Afghanistan. But what will it mean? Certainly not that terrorism will disappear or even diminish. With every new proof of its dominance, US capital creates more resentment from weaker and weakening competitors. The more efficiently it can kill and destroy from a safe distance, the more it becomes militarily invulnerable, the more rational it becomes for its enemies to search for its remaining weak spots and to use terrorism, because it’s practically the only way left to challenge US capital tightening grip. That’s the necessity-part, the possibility is provided by globalization: with all aspects of capitalism ‘going global’, why wouldn’t terrorism ?

Fortress America

Terrorism will not be defeated because the conditions that feed it will continue to grow. The deepening of capitalism’s crisis assures that there will be more excess population, more excess capital, more urge to destroy. US capital knows that and does not trust on its war-making capacity alone to protect itself. Just as millions of rich Americans express their doubts on the long term effectiveness of the ‘war on crime’ (which is quite rational, since both economic and demographic trends point to a rise of crime in the near future) by "protecting" themselves in gated communities, guarded with cameras and electronic alarm systems, patrolled by armed guards with dogs, walled and barred by checkpoints behind which no uninvited visitors can pass, so the US tries, with an array of security measures, to regain its lost sense of invulnerability. It has been estimated that it will spend up to 1500 billions of dollars in the next five years to protect the food supply from agro-terrorism, the mail from bio-terrorism and so on and so on. Not even included in this mind boggling figure are the additional military expenditures, such as the more than 100 billion expected to be spent on missile defense, the ‘Son of Star Wars’ which must make the illusion of invulnerability from "the Evildoers" complete.

The Compulsion to Devalorize

All these unproductive expenditures undoubtedly will worsen the global economic crisis. All the additional inspections and border controls furthermore undercut a great advantage of globalization, namely the faster turnover of capital, a factor Marx mentioned as counter-acting the tendential fall of the rate of profit. But while capitalism is blaming the terrorist attacks for the current worsening of the global economy, it is clear that the causes are much deeper. Despite the gigantic unfulfilled human needs in the world, despite the huge need for food and housing, and all sorts of things, from the capitalist point of view there is too little effective demand for food and housing and all sorts of things. In short, there is too large an excess of capacity to meet the existing effective demand for them. The further evolution of capitalism, that is, the continuation of globalization, will only exacerbate this.

In order to keep its value, capital must, directly or indirectly, lead to the creation of more value. If it loses this capacity, because its yield is too small to remain competitive or because its market shrinks or both, it must lose its value. That is obvious for the means of production (constant and variable capital) and also for capital in the form of all sorts of commodities on the market, which become worthless if unsold. But it is also true for financial capital and all assets whose value depends on their ability to be quickly converted into money (stocks, art, real estate, etc). Yet their price can rise steeply precisely because the universal urge of capital to escape devalorization by seeking refuge in the financial assets of the strongest countries of the world creates a huge demand for them. Their relative attractiveness tends to grow, because globalization extends the reach of the strongest capitals, their access to markets and to devalorized, dirt-cheap labor power, and because only the strongest capitals have the means to constantly develop new commodities that escape overproduction and enjoy semi-monopolistic market-conditions which yield surplus profits. The further course of globalization will continue to sharpen the unequal development. We have warned before that the state of global capitalism cannot be understood by looking only at its strongest parts. It would be a huge mistake to see in the stabilization of American and European stock exchanges, when it occurs, a proof that capitalism has weathered its crisis. This crisis does not develop linearly, but its overall downward trend is clear. The telltale sign of how it continues to erode the world economy will be the devalorization of capital outside the strongest countries, the swelling of an irresistable global deflationary trend. Capital in more and more places will become unprofitable, population unusable, financial capital desperately seeking for ways to escape the downward pull, political structures seeking to calm the waves or ride them to more power, by channeling them into crusades and other Jihads. More and more this deflationary trend, this tendency of capital to lose its value, will creep up to the strongest countries, to the center of the system and bring capitalism’s social contradictions, the widening gulf between its interests and those of humanity to the fore.

This is another way of saying that capitalism was designed for conditions of scarcity and cannot operate without it. Faced with structural overproduction, the system inevitably generates the tendency to forcibly return to its natural conditions of scarcity. The more the problem is exacerbated, that is, the more capital exists that requires valorization and the less new value is globally created to meet that requirement, the stronger this destructive tendency becomes.

While every historic event is different and the future will not simply repeat the past, each time an underlying need for the devalorization of global capital arises, a perverse harmony develops between this rising need and the rising latent violence in capitalist society, the rising use by capitalism of nationalism and other isms that are all aimed at channeling the violence against a hated "other". That was so before the two world wars and it is again so today.

THe Insane Logic of Capitalism

Capitalism, as even its strongest admirers affirm, is all about the pursuit of profit. This seemingly has the advantage of being a rational goal with a rational path leading to it, and thus of fostering rational behavior. This in contrast to the seemingly irrational behavior of the terrorists, portrayed in the media as mad monsters, wild fanatics who want to return the world to pre-capitalist times. We have already made the point, and it is elaborated in other articles in this issue, that they are really neither anti-capitalistic nor irrational but an expression of capital’s attempts to make room for itself. Their means are no more irrational or cynical than those of American or those of other leading capitals. American National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said in the CBS-program

"60 minutes" that Bush sees this as a war of Good against Evil and that any rational person has to see it that way because "with someone like Bin Laden who sacrifices the lives of innocents for his own cause, you can’t see it any other way". Some time ago on the same program Rice’s predecessor as Iron Lady at the helm of Washington’s foreign policy was asked a question about a UN-report that said half a million children died as a result of sanctions against Iraq. Her answer: "We think the price is worth it".

So there you have a few similarities in an otherwise asymmetrical war: in which both camps fight Satan with God on their side and both generously spill other people’s blood when, for their own cause, the price is worth it.

It is completely rational for US capital to launch a war in response to the attacks of September 11. It is rational for it to arrest thousands in search of its enemies, to bomb countries for that purpose, to send out its armies all over the world to guard its access to oil and all its other interests and assets. It has so much to protect, so many reasons to bomb and sow terror, and it will get more of them as time goes by. Its power and profit are inseparable and it is rational that it will do whatever it takes to defend them. This sets it on a course from which it will not deviate because it will only be following the logic, the rationality, of capitalism. A course which, because of the means at its disposal, threatens to create much more destruction than terrorists can ever accomplish.

The very trajectory of capitalism in this epoch inexorably culminates in nihilism. This is one of the clearest signs that capitalism has outlived its usefulness: what is rational for capital, has become completely insane for humanity. This is not only true for the economy, with its absurd contrast between capacity and need, but also for the political spectacle, the entire death-worshipping so-called civilization.

Cut off the Roots

That is something which many of the protesters against the war don’t want to see, especially the pacifists. Although I have to admit that in an anti-war demonstration at Union Square in Manhattan I came across some who held up signs saying "Forget Nationalism, Adopt Humanism", I saw many others waving American or other flags and calling themselves ‘true patriots’. There were still others who waived flags for the other side, who claimed there is but one bad capitalism, American "super-imperialism", so they supported the Taliban, Saddam Hussein or any regime that’s anti-American, regardless of how brutally repressive. In their own way, they too express the system’s urge for destruction.

Most protesters I met, dream that capitalism will abandon its wanton ways if only decent people get to the top, so let’s elect so-and-so, etc. They imagine a world of countries peacefully living together and respectfully trading with each other, all achievable with a little goodwill from everybody. They don’t seem to realize that global exploitation, crisis and war are not just bad policies that can be replaced by good ones. They don’t see how political power, military might, and economic exploitation form an unbreakable whole. Just like many ecologists and anti-globalists they think that the worst aspects of capitalism can be chopped off. They refuse to see that there is no worst part: it’s a whole and it is dragging humanity to ever-greater catastrophes. Protesting the violence of capitalism or the effects of globalization cannot lead anywhere, unless it starts from the recognition that it is capitalism itself which has to go.


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