Why was there (so far) no third World war?

SUMMARY: Imperialism and interimperialist war are an integral part of capitalism but neither the Leninist nor the Luxemburgist explanation of this phenomenon have been confirmed by history. The root-cause lies within the capitalist production system itself but imperialism and war are not merely capital’s mechanical reflexes to the pressure from the productive forces. Different, complex factors shape the response of capitalism to that pressure and need to be taken into account to understand history and how imperialism and war can evolve in the future. Contribution to the discussion on imperialism at the meeting of the Anglophone wing of the internationalist discussion network in april.


In the discussion on imperialism, the question was raised: why was there (so far) no third world war? Has this danger completely disappeared together with the collapse of the Russian bloc? Given the fact that most of us used to adhere to the ‘classical’ revolutionary Marxist position on imperialism, in either its Leninist or Luxemburgist version, in which a global interimperialist war is the logical product of the crisis of the capitalist system, and given the fact that history seemed to have confirmed this hypothesis twice, it is indeed an important question. Some have answered it by stating that imperialism, rather than being a characteristic of capitalism in its endstage, as Lenin and Luxemburg thought, was an expression of the weight of the past on the capitalist class, and that since the last world war and especially since the collapse of the Russian bloc, the capitalist class, pushed by the growing interdependence of global capital, has rid itself of this infantile disorder. Looking at today’s reality, the perspective of global war between the different developed capitalist nations or between them and a coalition of weaker nations, seems indeed highly improbable.

Lenin and Luxemburg, looking at the reality of their time, at the frenzied colonial conquests, the rise of nationalism and protectionism and the outbreak of the first world war, thought they saw the endgame of capitalism. In hindsight they were clearly mistaken, at least in any immediate sense (I think that terms like ‘endstage’ and ‘final crisis’ reflect a mechanistic view of history and I look forward to the day when they can be used with justification -that is, after the fact). But they were right on the fact that they were not witnessing a passing fad in capitalism’s life, that a major shift was taking place, that capitalism had entered a phase of ferocious destructiveness. Indeed, in the relatively short time since they formulated their theories, war created more casualties than in all of human history up to then. They were also right in realizing that economic competition, in times when the economy does not provide enough room for it, tends to become military competition. Capitals do not tend to fade away gently into the night, they fight to survive, at the expense of humankind.

So why then has the threat of world war receded, while the economic contradictions have worsened? I think it is important in this discussion to distinguish, on the one hand, the underlying build-up of the need for a massive devalorization of capital from which the urge to make war ultimately springs, and, on the other, the way society, the classes, react to this impetus coming from the development of the productive forces.

The first is a given. Because of the insoluble nature of capitalism’s contradictions, it is predictable that the gap between the value of the existing capital and the value that is newly created and realized, will grow to a point that it becomes impossible for the first to postpone massive devalorization, a collapse that is ultimately good for capital but bad for capitalists. Capital cannot maintain its value if it does not participate, directly or indirectly, in the creation and realization of new value. We have analyzed elsewhere how overdevelopment creates obstacles to both. The hallmark of capitalist decadence is not that there is permanent stagnation or no development of the productive forces but that periods of massive violent destruction become an integral, essential part of its ‘life’ cycle. It is a given that they must reoccur because the cycle of value demands it and the proportion of capital that must be devalorized, of value that must lose its value to relieve the pressure on the creation and realization of new value , grows in every expansive period. Crisis alone therefore, does not suffice to accomplish the necessary devalorization, hence industrially organized military destruction must in some way or other be part of the accumulation process (more on this in my "16 theses" posted earlier on this list). Maybe the hypothesis could be entertained that the needed devalorization could be accomplished through the crisis-process alone so that war could be avoided. But violence certainly could not be avoided. Such a descent into depression would be an extremely messy, chaotic affair, with enormous upheavals, even in the absence of proletarian revolution. Given the nature of capitalism, it’s hard to conceive that this would not lead to war. In any case, the capitalist class would want to harness all the inevitable unrest, to canalize it into a struggle against a common enemy, so that it would already have a strong incentive for war from this need alone. So as long as capitalism continues to exist, periods of wide scale destruction will reoccur, each time more massively. This is a predictable, ‘mechanical’ reaction to the underlying pressure of the productive forces. But there is nothing mechanical about the forms that this destruction takes, nor about its timing. These are to a large extent influenced by the understanding of the two main classes of their situation, of the stakes, of the possibilities, the perspectives, an understanding which is itself a product and an agent of history.

The overdevelopment of the productive forces in relation to the straightjacket of the capitalist relations of production always leads to the same combination of roadblocks: a structural impossibility of the capitalist market to follow the pace of growth of the productive forces, and the tendential shrinking of the rate of return on capital resulting from the increasing technification of -and thus labor-elimination in- production. If history were a mechanical process, it would go through repeated cycles of crisis-war- new expansion. Despite the claims of some, it has not done so. Before world war one, although there were numerous signs that the above mentioned roadblocks were beginning to form, there was no open crisis, no depression.

So it’s important to see the way the capitalist class understands its world not as an autonomous factor but neither as a mechanical reflex to the state of its economy. In regard to its policies of imperialism and war, I see several factors that shape that understanding:

- the weight of the past on the capitalist class. Throughout history wars have been fought for conquest, pillage and theft, to increase the power and wealth of the rulers. The bourgeoisie inherited the bellicose traditions of the previous managers of state power and carried them on with gusto, there was no breaking point. Even the wars the bourgeoisie fought to establish its political rule and to forge their nations, extended into or were interwoven with imperialist conquest and interimperialist conflict. For the bourgeoisie therefore, war for conquest presented itself as a normal, natural course of action, not just when faced by insoluble economic contradictions, but especially then. This is especially the case as long as the capitalist class has only established its ‘formal domination’ over society. The weight of the past recedes as capitalism gradually extends its real domination over society (as is becomes adult, so to speak), and brings its methods of geo-strategic control more in harmony with its economic modus operandi. In this sense Negri and Hardt are right when they write that ‘imperialism’ as it has been usually understood and as they narrowly define it - territorial expansion of the nation-state, the creation of colonial relations…- no longer characterizes capitalism today. Negri and Hardt think imperialism no longer exists at all which I think is a mistake. The urge of capitals to survive through conquest, pillage or physical elimination of the competition, has not disappeared but such tactics make only sense when the capitals concerned see no other means to survive, or when the opportunity is created by the collapse or weakening of central state power. Does that mean that ‘imperialism’ survives, but only in the periphery of global capitalism? That’s a question which will be addressed in part 2 of this text. But it seems quite obvious that for the most developed capitals, territorial conquest and colonial type of control is no longer part of their arsenal, as a result of the evolution of the productive forces whose needs have become antithetical to such forms of control, and of the evolution of the capitalist class’ understanding of these needs. But imperialism is wider than the definition of Negri and Hardt. The weight of the past, the ruthless traditions of all ruling classes continue to live on in the capitalist class and capitals continue to be national, even as they operate more and more globally -no global structures of political power have as yet replaced the nation-state nor are they emerging. The goals remain the same. For profit and power, capitals use all the economic, political and military means at their disposal, but these means have changed and are no longer used as they were in the past.

- a second factor is the capitalist class’ knowledge of its economy. While always limited by its inherently competitive and therefore partially blinded point of view, this knowledge has developed greatly over the course of its history, both as a result of experience and of scientific research. It is as much a material factor explaining history as the state of the economy itself. Based on it, the capitalist class takes decisions which can sharpen or soften its economic contradictions, give it a shot in the arm or shoot a bullet through its knee. While it is true that the capitalist class also lost knowledge of its economy because under real domination almost all economic research became directly tied to the narrow goal of increasing profits for this or that capital, while the early ‘classic’ bourgeois economists looked deeper and at the global picture, it’s also true that its lack of experience lead to a dogmatic approach with sometimes disastrous results. Empiricism and dogmatism go hand in hand. The incapacity to go beyond the first leads to the second. That is why the capitalist class often clung to policies that worked in a given set of circumstances even when these circumstances had changed. That is why it hung on to the gold standard and to rigid balanced budget-policies when their effects had become counter-productive. That is why it sought protection in protectionism (which had fostered industrialization in many cases in the 19th century) when its interests demanded precisely the opposite. It was no coincidence that both world wars were preceded by periods of increased protectionism. These sharpened the economic contradictions and limited the options to the point of making war inevitable. Protectionism and imperialism are linked. While the second is aimed at enlarging a national capital’s economic territory and the first at defending that territory, both express the same territorial logic. Experience taught the capitalist class the dangers of unbridled protectionism and of other policies that had outlived their usefulness, but there was more to it than just experience: as capital’s real domination progressed and capitalism created its own, specifically capitalist technology, its own biopolitical structures of power and control as integral part of the network of value relations that came to characterize society as a whole, it stands to reason that its technical skills of economic management also vastly improved, both at the micro and macro level. Keynesianism should be seen in that light. It is not a policy or ideology among many, it is not something the capitalist class has retreated from or is questioning in any serious way. Keynes helped to free capitalism from dogmas of its past, by explaining how the levers of fiscal and monetary policies can soften contractions and rein in too rapid expansions. While the question of how to apply his principles is an endless source of debate, only the most rabid ideologues want to throw them away and leave everything to the free market. Keynes’ name has been wrongly identified with the ideology advocating direct state possession of a large chunk of the productive forces. While the latter uses Keynesianism as justification, it is itself an expression of the same outdated logic that inspired imperial conquest and protectionism, equating power and wealth with sovereignty, direct ownership. Although this ideology was fueled by the expansion of state-capitalism and had its material base within the state bureaucracies and the social-democratic political apparatus linked to them, who sought more power through an internal conquest of the economy, it is not identical to state-capitalism. The retreat from such an ideology, whether in the name of neo-liberalism or of ‘third way-ism’, is not a retreat from Keynesianism or from state-capitalism. It rather shows a maturation of state-capitalism, a fine-tuning of control and regulation, a better understanding of market forces and therefore a more efficient management of them. But I digress…

- thirdly, the capitalist class’ understanding of war itself, the cost-benefit analysis it makes of the undertaking. Obviously in this too, the weight of the past, experience and knowledge play a role. It’s also obvious that the cost-benefit analysis can differ greatly between capitals. If the existing geo-strategic order works to its benefit, a capital has no incentive to change it drastically. If it is winning in economic competition, it has no incentive to escalate to military battle. The incentive is the strongest for the losers, for those who have lost and want to reverse that loss, for those who are economically hitting the wall and see potential military weakness in their competitors. Its earlier loss, as well as its need for a wider market, changed the cost-benefit analysis of German capital before the world wars. Its gradually increasing economic weakness vis a vis the West made Russian capital cling to a war strategy (though it never found one that worked). And so on down to the hungry African tribe who has fewer cattle but more machetes than the neighboring tribe.

Cost-benefit analyses, since they can be heavily influenced by illusions rooted in the past, by inexperience and wishful thinking, are often wrong. In regard to the wave of imperialist conquests in the late 19th century for instance, it is highly debatable whether the profits they generated justified the costs of their undertaking. What seems certain is that the economic role of the new conquests for the European imperialist nations, as market for their surplus commodities and outlets for their surplus capital, was much too marginal to accord it the crucial role that Lenin and Luxemburg thought that it had ("In spite of protective tariffs, the industrial, imperialist nations of Europe continued to trade predominantly with each other" -Cameron, Economic History of the world, p. 301). Both theories were rooted in mistaken economic analyses and are of no use in understanding either the imperialism of the past or that of today.

Obviously, the more that is known about the potential costs and benefits, the more accurate a cost-benefit analysis can be. Experience counts. Before the world war one, few people could really fathom what an industrial war would be like, although the bloody American civil war had given them a foretaste. After the millions of casualties were buried in 1918, a cry went out all over the world: ‘never again!’. Although this cry was heartfelt, deeply and widely, it did happen again after no more than 22 years and of course it was much worse, just because of the industrial-technological development that had taken place since then alone. Which shows the limit of what experience teaches, both to the capitalist class and to society as a whole. Nevertheless, knowledge of the potential destruction is a factor that must be taken into account. Destruction as such is the function that war has for capital as a whole, it serves to restore the conditions for accumulation, but it is not the conscious goal of the warring capitalists. The first reason why the cold war never became the hot war was the knowledge of both sides that the costs would be almost surely unacceptably high, that each side would very likely suffer a thousand Hiroshimas and maybe many more. It is very difficult to draw up a positive cost-benefit analysis in such conditions. Even though the blocs came very close to nuclear confrontations at one or two moments, they pulled back after staring into the abyss. The cold war was eventually won by the West less by waging war than by developing the technology of war so that the possibility that global war would not necessarily spell total destruction, that there could be a winner, gradually increased. But as I said, the world did come close to nuclear war; experience and technical knowledge are not an a guarantee against the madness of capitalism . During the Korean conflict and the Cuban-crisis, the leaders of the blocs were cool-headed enough to step away from the brink. But the same push from the productive system for devalorization that feeds the urge for war, also brings to the helm of states and proto-states charismatic leaders with a bold vision, with burning ambition and supreme self-confidence, with a captivating voice and an unwavering sense of mission and purpose. In other words, raving madmen. Hitler is the prototype, though there are many others. To some extent, they represent the madness of capitalism, the alienation of its economy and politics from the needs of real people. But the blooming of Hitler’s madness may also have expressed a loss of control, over the course of the war, of the German capitalist class as a whole, over the state and its war-machinery, which, propelled by the war dynamic, did not hesitate to sacrifice the interests of German capital for its course towards annihilation. The point is, once a global war is launched, all bets are off. The weight of the war-machinery on society can become such that all rationality goes out the window. That brings us to the next point.

- The final, decisive factor in the understanding of the capitalist class of war is the consciousness of the working class. Capital needs the support, or at least the passive acceptance, of its workers to launch a war. Obviously, the more the war affects the life of the workers, the more crucial that support is. If the workers don’t feel any impact of the war on their living and working conditions, their passive acceptance or even active support will be more easily obtained. The workers make a kind of cost-benefit analysis too, at least intuitively. Their own consciousness is a factor therein. The more self-awareness and thus self-confidence they have as a class, the less willing they will be to accept the consequences of the war, be it in the form of wage-eroding inflation or direct participation as conscripts in the army.

In the post-world war two period the capitalist class underestimated this factor as the turmoil over the war in Vietnam made clear. Not coincidentally, the resistance against that war-effort occurred in a period of rising working class combativity. This illustrated the high risk for the capitalist class of undertaking a major war effort when its working class is not ideologically defeated: it can lead to the weakening and even the unraveling of its authority. The only successful proletarian revolution was in large part a result of the rejection by the working class of the war effort. On the other hand, the danger of rising class struggle is itself a major incentive to launch a war: when social turmoil is inevitable as result of the direction the economy is taking, the capitalist class often tries to harness the frustrations and anger of the population and direct it towards a foreign enemy in order to bind the nation together. But this backfires when the war is unsuccessful or drags on (the collapse of the Argentine military regime after the Falklands war is a case in point). The Vietnam-experience made the capitalist class in all industrial nations very cautious about limiting the impact of imperialist undertakings on its working class (the so-called Vietnam-syndrome). Negri argues that the experience of the workers struggles at the end of the ‘60’s and the early ‘70’s was the primary reason for the wave of technological change in the production process since then: in his view capital concluded that the Fordist organization of production made it too vulnerable to mass strikes, so it undertook a major effort to move beyond that phase of its organization of the productive apparatus. I think he overstates his case -many technological innovations would have taken place even if there would have been no class struggle- but he does have a valid point. It certainly rings true when applied to the war-technology. The desire to avoid direct consequences from military undertakings on the life of the working class, stimulated the development of high tech weaponry and the replacement by most industrialized nations of conscripts by highly trained professionals. That change was quite successful. Recent wars like the Gulf war, Kosovo or recently Afghanistan had no impact whatsoever on the life of the working class, except of course in the countries where those wars took place. Still, that solves the problem for the capitalist class only in regard to limited wars. If and when the capitalist class feels compelled by its economic contradictions to intensify its war making, the combination of war and crisis remains a mix that can blow up in capitalism’s face. The key is clearly the ideological control over the working class. But the more serious the war effort, the deeper that control must be. It’s not enough to have popular support at the start of the war. What is needed to sustain a major war is that the working class has ceased to see itself as a working class, that its consciousness is drowned in the soup of the nation, of (capitalist) civilization. If that condition is not fulfilled, the class confrontations that the capitalist would hope to avoid through war, might happen with even greater intensity. Whether capitalism can achieve that destruction of class consciousness only by first defeating the working class in a series of battles of class against class or whether it can achieve it through the totalitarian pressure of capitalist civilization, the deep penetration of the law of value in all aspects of people’s lives, the brainwashing social practices of alienated production and alienated consumption…that is the big question I don’t think anybody can answer with any certainty today. The capitalist class is well aware of this uncertainty; its practice shows that it would rather not take the risk.

What counts is the window through which the working class looks at its world; the narrative that explains it. Councilists -or ultra-councilists- like M. Dupont think that eventually the force of the crisis will be such that the class struggle inevitably becomes that window, that narrative. I’m not so sure. History, and in particular the depression of the ‘30’s, does not seem to confirm that thesis. What is inevitable is that the working class will see misery, that it will see horror. But through which window it will look at that horror is not determined. That’s why I think that what we do, can be terribly important. We need to develop a clear and true narrative and to use it as well as we can, I don’t see what else we can do. If the working class does not recognize itself in that narrative, there is no direct action that can ignite the fire. But if it does recognize it, it can be powerful and contagious.

Class consciousness is not just about wages and the threat of unemployment. The working class looks at the world not only as workers but also as human beings. In its condition of being a working class it encapsulates the situation of humanity as a whole: powerful yet powerless, enslaved by the machine of its own creation, yet able to stop it at will. The capitalist class is also both powerful and powerless, but in a different way. It controls society yet is itself controlled by the blind pressure of the productive forces. To see the madness that this leads to, a class must have the distance of the powerless, but it must also have the potential power to stop it. Only the working class does.

So when it weighs, in its cost-benefit analysis, the risks of not resisting, it is not just the economic hardships that it is taking into account. The capitalist class has the power to increase the risks of resisting for the working class but it is essentially powerless to diminish the risks of not resisting. That severely limits its options and is probably the principal reason why there has been no third world war. The reasons why the Russian bloc collapsed were not just economic backwardness and the inability to keep up with the arms race. If the rulers of the Kremlin had felt free to play their military cards without risking the loss of social control, if the tolerance of the working class in regard to the direction in which the Kremlin was taking society would not have been so thin, who knows what the world would look like today.


Today, American imperialism is at the height of its power, despite the serious but not immediate threats to the economic strength on which it is based (the tendential hollowing out of its industry). No other nation or group of nations has the economic incentive and the military capacity to seriously challenge its overwhelming dominance over the planet.

While I agree with MacIntosh’s critique of the Global Empire-thesis of Negri and Hardt who claim that interimperialist conflicts of interest between capitalist states are vanishing in a process of transformation of capitalism into a global superstate, it is nevertheless true that today, the main capitalist powers no longer seek territorial expansion (it’s rather their weaker neighbors who would like to be annexed by them, as the waiting list for entry in the EU shows) and have, for a variety of reasons, in the first place the increasingly global, interdependent, nature of the capitalist economy, a commonality of interests which for the moment is stronger than their inevitable antagonism. There are no signs that any of the other main capitalist powers is considering, either in the short or in a longer term, a challenge to the military domination of the US. That does not mean however that their rivalry over influence in various parts of the world has disappeared. Rather, this rivalry takes other forms than military challenge or confrontation. I do not believe that recent conflicts such as in Bosnia or Afghanistan were an expression of interimperialist rivalry between the main powers through intermediaries. While they expressed interimperialist rivalry between the smaller, local powers, the intervention of the US and its allies expressed their common interest in maintaining a global order and stability which are beneficial to them all.

This global geo-strategic order was challenged by capitals who had the economic incentive (because of threats to their present or future profits such as falling oil-prices and dwindling oil-reserves) and the social incentive (war and nationalism as means to canalize and subdue the unrest in society) and who gambled that they had the military means for imperialist conquest, while thinking that for the main powers, mainly the US, the economic incentive (the cost of war) and the social incentive (the ‘Vietnam-syndrome’) to not-intervene would be stronger than the incentive to intervene. They lost their gamble (Iraq and Serbia may even have been intentionally mislead by the West to make a show of force possible) so that, after the Gulf- and Kosovo-war there can be no doubt about the willingness of the main powers to maintain global geo-strategic order. The urge to challenge that order did not disappear, it rather increased, fed by the economic contradictions, but the demonstration by the main powers that any serious imperialist conquest would not be tolerated drove it underground, to transnational terrorism and to military preparation in the expectation of future conditions that would be more favorable for war. 9/11 provided for US capital the social-ideological conditions to vigorously pursue the remaining threats to the global order (the ‘axis of evil’ capitals and the factions that organize and promote terrorism) and, in the process, to strengthen its global hegemony and to establish stronger ideological-social control over society and the working class in particular. For other capitals, there are conflicting interests: on the one hand, they share the goal of global order, on the other, they do resent American hegemony, have their own economic interests and need different tools to maintain social control domestically --they cannot just adopt those tailored to American nationalism. So they want the ‘rogue states’ down but not taken out, they do not want a military solution to the Palestinian problem, they do not want total American hegemony. There are of course many shades and differences between them, but almost all share that basic conflicted attitude in their relations with the US.

Among those other countries, Russia has a unique position. It has lost the cold war but it has not been militarily defeated; it remains the only country on earth against whom the US does not have the military capacity to inflict a defeat without risking an unacceptable level of retaliation. That remains an important factor on the global chessboard and is not likely to change in the foreseeable future, not even if the US would be able to establish some kind of missile defense system. In the short run, that does not seem so decisive. With the fall of the Stalinist regime, Russia has largely given up the territorial conquest-logic which other powers had abandoned much earlier (it has no desire to re-expand its borders although it does not want them to shrink further and wants to remain the dominant outside power in most of the states previously belonging to the USSR and, given its military might, that is something other powers cannot simply ignore) , and its economic deterioration and increasing dependency on the global market and foreign capital give it a stake in the global order. So in the short term, further integration in that global order and good relations with the US and other powers are more important to it than the possible gains of imperialist conquest. Furthermore, its social-ideological control over its working class remains too weak to give it a free hand in using its military cards.

For China, the advantages of further integration in the US dominated global order are even greater. Arguably, no other country on earth besides the US, is benefiting as much from globalization as China does. This year, it is expected to displace Japan as the biggest exporter to the US (only 10 years ago, Japan exported 4 times as much as China to the US). Globalization has a huge price for China too, especially for the many millions of farmers and workers dislocated by it, but there is no question that the formidable growth of the Chinese economy is fueled by foreign investment and foreign markets and remains absolutely dependent on them. On the other hand, Chinese capital has also serious and growing incentives for war: to channel dangerous internal unrest with nationalism , to challenge the existing regional strategic order, to conquer important capital assets (Taiwan, Japan..). These incentives are likely to become even stronger in the future.

Like Russia and China, there are many other capitals who combine relative economic weakness with relative military strength and who are under increasing economic pressure. As long as the existing global order and the continued globalization has more advantages to them than disadvantages, their imperialist tendencies are checked. However, should the global economy break down or suffer serious blows, their cost-benefit analysis of challenging existing regional balances through imperialist war would change.

The contradictions that push the global economy to a breakdown or at the very least to deep, wrenching crisis, are sharpening. While it remains impossible to predict a precise time-frame, the direction is clear. As more and more capitals will find it difficult or impossible to valorize, as the specter of global depression becomes more and more threatening, a different environment for imperialism will emerge.

The economic pressure will affect the commonality of interests of the major capitalist powers and lead to an intensification of their interimperialist rivalry, fought on an economic terrain.

A major battle will be fought between them over the movements of capital. The more the contradictions of the capitalist economy lead to overproduction, falling profitability and deflation, the greater the advantage of possession and control of the international currency becomes. Without this context, the prospect that the euro would become a second international reserve currency, would probably be no threat to US capital. On the contrary. Apart from the advantages of simplifying trade with European capital and reducing overhead costs etc, a system supported by two strong pillars would be more stable than one that has only one. But in the context of more and more capital facing increasing difficulties to valorize, the advantage of having monopolistic control over the international currency becomes enormous. Already now, to protect itself against devalorization, more and more financial capital is seeking refuge in dollar-assets, pushing up their price and thus their purchasing power. Since 1995, the euro (together with its predecessor, the ecu) has fallen by 31,5% in relation to the dollar, the yen by 23% and most other currencies by a lot more. To protect themselves against the loss of value caused by their falling currencies, more and more capitals price their commodities on the international market directly in dollars. More than 60% of international trade is already dollar-denominated today, and the percentage rises each year. But this too means that the US is buying commodities with its overpriced currency under their value and that all others are paying a surcharge. Furthermore, it allows the US to buy, year in, year out, for hundreds of billions of dollars more from the rest of the world than it sells to it with impunity. There are disadvantages too - the US’ share of world trade tends to shrink somewhat because the overpriced dollar makes its commodities less competitive- but they pale compared to the advantages which imply a huge transfer of value from the rest of the world to the US. Only the euro could potentially dethrone king dollar. It seems a long way from doing so but that could change. In any case, a fight is on which would intensify in deteriorating global economic conditions and erode the commonality of interests between the US and Europe and affect the global environment for imperialist conflict.

Secondly, the worsening economic conditions may make it very difficult to avoid increasing fights over market access. Sometimes the impression is created that globalization has created a free world market but this is far from the truth. Tariffs and other obstacles have diminished but not disappeared. Last month, the WTO stated that the agricultural subsidies paid out by the US and the EU alone cost other countries more than 250 billion dollars a year in lost markets. As the recent American decision to impose new steel tariffs illustrates, even in today’s relatively calm economic environment, even the most ‘enlightened’ defenders of free trade have not lost the inclination to protect their domestic market, regardless of the global consequences. The rejection of protectionism remains relative and ‘might makes right’ is still a stronger rule than all those agreed upon in the framework of the WTO. In a much worse economic environment this tendency would become stronger and further erode the commonality of interests between the most developed capitalist powers and between them and the weaker ones. It is conceivable that deepening crisis would lead to the formation of trade blocs protected by walls of tariffs (they exist already to some extent) which would diminish the incentives of other capitals outside of them to place their integration in the global order above their other interests, including imperialist interests.

One can wonder why the EU, in its quest to forge a unified state from the heartlands of Europe, so far has made no attempts to give its emerging superstate a military component at the level of its economic might. On the one hand, Europe seems to follow a different strategy from the US. It saves itself a huge burden by not spending as much on its armed forces and as long as its geo-strategic interests coincide with those of the US, that seems like the smart thing to do. On the other hand, Europe today does not even possess the capacity to intervene in its own region in a rapid and sizable way without American logistical support, as the events in the Balkans have shown. This dependence on the US seems contradictory to the desire for autonomous power implicit in the European unification project. Even quite apart from the possibility that Europe and the US might one day become military rivals, the capacity to act on its own to maintain order in its ‘own neighborhood’ is a minimal requirement to give the EU credibility as a geo-strategic power. That it does not have this capacity and doesn’t seem on the verge of acquiring it, seems less a strategy than a reflection of its political weakness and heterogeneity. That Europe’s unification has come as far as it did is already quite amazing. I don’t think many people could have imagined, say in 1980, that we would see Russian capital giving up Eastern Europe and rid itself of Stalinism, and European capital creating a common central bank and a common currency and transferring more and more power from national to European institutions. It was economic pressure which forced the capitalist class to adopt such once unthinkable reforms. In the case of Europe, the economic advantages of unification are obvious and the faster it would proceed in that direction, the better it would be for European capital. But apart from the fact that there are in each country factions of capital who have economic reasons to resist unification, we cannot underestimate the weight of the past. Their history of conflict, the many wars these nations have fought against each other, are still embedded in their national "consciousness". Britain in particular, once the mightiest capitalist nation on earth, is the prey of conflicting impulses: it cannot live outside Europe but it cannot live within and seeks a counterweight to it in its ‘special relationship’ with the US. Other nations to a lesser degree suffer from the same contradiction. This cannot bloc the path towards unification but it makes it very difficult and much slower than the common interests of European capital would require. Meanwhile, the gap in military capacity with the US grows wider and wider and their economic interdependence continues to grow. This makes it seem unlikely that the US and the EU would one day form opposing geo-strategic blocs. Unless at some point Europe would seek to compensate for its military weakness by seeking an alliance with Russia, which at this moment seems farfetched (which isn’t the same as impossible) and would likely meet stiff resistance from the countries formerly under Russian domination.

But let us now examine the consequences of a deep global economic crisis on the imperialist impulses of other countries. The worsening economic conditions would be felt most acutely in the periphery of the global order, where already now many capitals feel the knife of devalorization on their throats and many states are losing their authority over parts of their territories and their monopoly over the use of armies. Thus, the economic collapse will inevitably ignite more interimperialist fires, wars of states against states as well as so-called civil wars. Increasingly, the US and its main allies will face the dilemma whether to put them out or not. The line of what the sheriff of the global order permits will be constantly shifting. Given their own economic problems, the cost of intervening militarily will weigh increasingly heavily. The dispute over who should carry the burden will come on top of the other conflicts created by the economic crisis and further undermine the perception of commonality of interests between them. Furthermore the willingness of society and of the working class in particular to accept growing military intervention may throw up an impassable roadblock. What is and what is not in the vital national interest of the US and Europe will be constantly redefined. It seems very likely then, that an increasing number of conflicts will have to be allowed to go on without intervention of the major powers. Countries such as Russia, China, Iran and others would jump into the vacuum to advance their own imperialist interests. Alliances and connections between different conflicts would emerge. The deeper the economic crisis becomes and the more wars are permitted, the more the imperialist impulse would snowball. Even if the major powers would succeed in imposing a retrenched but hard line of defense of the global order, which is a very big ‘if’, and prevent war between the nuclear armed India and Pakistan, between China and Taiwan or Japan, an invasion of South-Korea by the North or wars that would endanger oil-production in the Middle East, the fire would burn wide and deep. To summarize: for many capitals, the cost-benefit analysis of imperialist undertakings would drastically change because the severity of their economic problems would increase the incentive to seek compensation through conquest and pillage, while the disincentive to do so would diminish because the global economy in crisis would offer them less benefits, especially if the developed capitals react to this crisis in a defensive, protectionist way. The military disincentive would progressively diminish by a growing reluctance and incapacity of the US and other powers to intervene and last but not least the social incentive would increase because through nationalist, racist and xenophobic war and ethnic/religious cleansing campaigns, capitalism would seek to channel the increasing unrest, anger and violence in society to protect its own rule and domestic order.

In capitalist decadence, crisis and war are intimately related. This is indeed what characterizes decadence in our opinion. Not the fact that the capitalist productive forces reach a point at which they can no longer develop but the fact that their overdevelopment (in relation to what capitalist society can contain) necessitates a process of devalorization so great that it takes the form of massive destruction. Our friends of Robin Goodfellow attack us on this position. They see it as moralism, an abandonment of materialism, because according to them it implies that the working class would make its revolution not because capitalist crisis forces it to by destroying its living conditions, but out of moral outrage over capitalism’s destructiveness (See: Robin Goodfellow - A propos du debat sur les "frontieres de class," posted last month on the Francophone list of this network). Deliberately or not, they have misrepresented what we’re saying. It is not true that we see "humanism and ethics as the material basis" for revolution or that we hold "pacifism and reformism as a political perspective". What we’re saying is that the working class is not confronting crisis and war as separate issues. Their dynamic is interlinked; in both, capitalism manifests the contradiction between its survival and the basic interests of humankind and of the working class in particular. The working class resistance to them is therefore also interlinked. It is foolish to claim that only resistance to economic crisis in a narrow sense has a material base and that resistance to war is merely idealistic humanism, especially given the fact that rejection of war played such a crucial role in the only successful working class revolution so far.

To answer the question in the title of this text, I think the chances that there will ever be a third world war in the pattern of the previous world wars, an all-out confrontation between two blocs comprising the most developed capitalist powers, are rather small. Not non-existant: there are too many unpredictable conjunctural and contingent factors that could have an effect on the overall picture to use the word ‘never’, but small nevertheless. Not only because of economic reasons (it’s hard to imagine a situation in which the economic incentives would be perceived by them as weighing heavier than the economic costs) and not only because of military reasons (the lopsided rapport de forces in favor of US capital) but even more so because of social reasons: I don’t think the capitalist class is anywhere near to achieving the destruction of working class consciousness that would be indispensable to give it the free hand to impose a perspective with such devastating consequences on the lives of the collective worker.

A much greater danger is that the continuously building need for devalorization and attending urge to destroy would manifest itself, in stead of in a third world war, in a series of regional wars which, taken together, would be more devastating than world war two was. In a perverse way, class consciousness in the developed countries could be a factor in such an outcome, if it is strong enough to prevent the major capitalist powers from increasing their military intervention in defense of the global order because of the working class’ unwillingness to accept the social costs thereof, yet not strong enough to link the struggle of the strongest segments of the working class to that of its class brothers and sisters in the lesser developed parts of the world.

Clearly such developments are not on the immediate agenda. Whether they could one day become reality will depend in the first place on the development of class consciousness internationally in the period of growing economic crisis and increasing imperialism ahead of us.

April 12, 2002

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