The context of human life in our times is shaped by the systemic crisis of the capitalist mode of production. This makes it inevitable that violence and destruction will increase. The downward spiralling movement of the crisis has slowed somewhat, mainly as a result of the intensification of the exploitation of labor power and the massive creation of new money to prop up the profit-rates of banks and other capitals “too big to fail.” Both have their inherent limits so the crisis will accelerate again. It is already doing that in the so-called emerging countries, which withstood the first shock of the crisis relatively well. Everywhere, the gap between poor and rich is growing. The very tactics used to combat the crisis are widening this chasm. Capital trickles up.
The chasm will continue to widen and it would do so even if there was no crisis, because automation made possible by IT offers capitals increasing opportunities to lower labor costs. This action results in a growing mass of proletarians that cannot be integrated in the global production chain and is increasingly seen by capital as an unsupportable burden. In many countries already, youth unemployment exceeds 50%. The very fact that capital reacts to its crisis by accelerating its tendency to reduce its dependence on living labor, assures that this crisis will worsen. By reducing living labor, the capitalist reduces also the creation of surplus value, and thus of global profit, even if his own profit goes up as a result of his competitive advantage. Worsening crisis will increase capital’s refusal to pay for the reproduction of the ever growing part of the proletariat for which it has no use. A struggle for survival ensues. It is violent, ranging from self-immolation, burning and rioting, fighting the police, dying at sea or in deserts while trying to escape from despair, to blockading roads and occupying squares and factories… Struggles often begin in a non-violent way but are met with ferocious violence from the ruling class, ranging from tear gas to torture and tanks. The struggle for survival is inevitably violent. As the class antagonism sharpens under pressure of the crisis, it will likely become even more so.
But the main cause of increasing violence is not conflict between social classes, but conflict within the capitalist class. The crisis widens not only the chasm between rich and poor, and between workers and capitalists, but also within the capitalist class itself. Many stronger capitals for the moment still thrive, not only because of monetary and fiscal policies that prop up their “values”, but also because they profit from the misery of others. We see an acceleration of the concentration of capital, weaker capitals being swept aside, gobbled up by the stronger ones at fire sale prices. Almost everywhere, many small enterprises are in trouble, hanging in by their teeth. The pressure is even greater on the social layers between the two classes (shopkeepers, independent producers) who are massively being ruined. Anger and resentment grow, and are directed at the existing power structure or at a scapegoat (such as immigrants) or both. All ancient and not so ancient differences (national, ethnic, religious…) are used by different capitalist entities, that is, managers or would-be managers of the capitalist state, to mobilize cannon fodder for their power dreams. The global pie is shrinking, not in absolute terms but relative to the claims that capitalists have on this wealth. The bigger players even increase their share of the pie. So the pressure of the crisis fosters violent struggle over the remainder of the pie, as well as wild dreams of radically changing the way in which the pie is divided.
This violent tendency does not only come from those sections of capital that feel excluded from power. The pressure of the crisis also fosters power conflicts between the dominant capitals. In this regard, it is important to look at the implications of the convergence of the crisis of the capitalist economy and the ecological crisis. Capitalism always has looked at the natural environment as something outside ourselves, raw material for the creation of more value. Despite the massive indications that this will end in disaster, the crisis pushes capitalism to accelerate the plundering of the planet even more; to continue to destroy rain forests and poison the oceans, despite the catastrophes caused by the destabilization of the climate; to use even more poisonous and dangerous methods to extract minerals and energy resources, tendentially threatened by depletion. The finality of the fossil fuel reserves on which capitalism is so dependent, is a major concern. It drives the rush to expand fossil fuel exploration in disregard to the environmental damage and it intensifies the power struggles in the Middle East, the region where the largest reserves of fossil fuels are situated. Hence the NATO-war in Libya. Hence the war over Syria.
If both the economic and ecologic crises continue to worsen –and we see no reason to believe that they won’t- we can expect such conflicts to intensify. That doesn’t mean that they would lead to a global war. The dominant powers have many reasons to avoid such a course, not in the least that they lack the deep control over the collective worker that would be needed.
However, the fact that global war is unlikely, does not mean that wars, and other forms of violence, will not multiply and become more destructive. Ultimately, only one social force can stop this dynamic: the collective worker. But, in order to stop it, its struggle must be massive and contagious. And even then, it may only cause a short pause –or readjustment- of the capitalist power struggles. In order to stop it, its struggle must not only be massive and contagious but also autonomous, or at least, autonomizing. By this we mean not only that the mass movement must increasingly refuse to be mobilized behind the goals of this or that party vying for power, but also that the content of the struggle, its explicit or implicit goals, expresses an autonomization from the perspective of capital in a positive way, through a praxis of struggle for proletarian needs (and by extension human needs) against the needs of capital (to be competitive, profitable), against the ‘normalcy’ of the value-form. The radicalization and generalization of such autonomous mass movements is what the communist revolution would be. But even before a revolutionary situation would arise, an autonomizing mass movement would be a serious obstacle on the war path of the capitalist class. By not basing itself on what divides the collective worker (nation, religion, race…) but on the common needs, this movement would tend to be inspiring and contagious because proletarians everywhere could relate to it. That would at the very least shift the focus of the capitalist class away from its wars to trying to recuperate and repress the movement.
Short of such a massive, contagious and autonomizing movement, nothing can stop capitalism from inflicting ever more violence on society. Not even a movement as massive as the Arab Spring. Indeed, the destabilization which this movement caused opened many opportunities for capitalist power struggles. One of these was the war in Libya (essentially a NATO-operation against an unreliable manager of a big oil-field). The war in Syria too, started during the Arab Spring movement.
It did not start because class struggle had waned in Syria. In March 2011, widespread protests erupted in its major cities, encouraged by the mass movements in other Arab countries. It was fuelled by deep anger over high unemployment, especially of young people, and the crushing austerity-measures of the government. This anger merged with the anger of the factions of the capitalist class excluded from political power and suffering under the crisis. This merger was seamless, because the factions that saw in the popular resistance a tool to gain power, did not have to import their ideologies and goals into the movement: they were already there, in the minds of workers. Still, the very dynamic of the struggle could have led to an autonomization, a praxis contradicting these ideologies.
But that’s not what happened. The protests were met immediately with ferocious repression on the part of the government. That they still continued for some time, in defiance of the deadly risks, testifies to the depth of the anger. But soon a military resistance emerged, led by deserters from the army. Everything that happened since March 2011 seems an unbroken continuum. Popular resistance provoked a military repression which provoked a military resistance which provoked the involvement of regional powers and then of the larger players…Every step seems the logical continuation of what preceded. And yet, in regard to the content of the struggle, there is a huge contradiction between the starting point –a struggle for human needs- and what it became: an orgy of destruction, a murderous battle for power in total disregard for human needs.
The results so far: in a country of 22 million people, 4 million are internally displaced, 2 million have fled abroad, most of them barely surviving in horrendous camps, more than 125,000 people are dead, hundreds of thousands wounded, the economy has collapsed, output declined by 40 %, hunger and diseases spread, also because both sides use blockades to deprive the other of food and medicines. And it’s not over.
That outcome is forced upon the population by capitalism. Was another outcome possible? Did the brutal tactics of the Assad-regime leave any other option open than war?
The power of the collective worker is not that it can militarily defeat capitalists. Its power is, to paraphrase Werner Bonefeld, that from the co-dependent relation between capital and the collective worker which capitalism is, the latter can autonomize itself, while capital cannot. Capital cannot cut its dependency from the extraction of surplus value. But the collective worker can refuse to create value, thereby paralyzing capital, to the degree that it succeeds in overcoming the divisions within itself. It is by autonomizing its struggle that the collective worker overcomes these divisions. So it is the autonomization of a proletarian mass movement that capitalism has the most to fear of. It much rather deals with sectarian wars. After all, from the point of view of the needs of the accumulation process, there’s nothing alarming about the destruction of Syria, nothing to regret about the mass killings. That’s just excess capital being eliminated. And is it not more convenient for capital that different parts of the working class are massacring each other, instead of joining hands in a common struggle?
The working class revolt in Syria failed because it did not autonomize. That made the war possible. The war further sharpened the sectarian divisions. In such conditions the class struggle cannot survive. Still, there are some in the anarchist milieu who think that the “revolution” in Syria is alive and well. They base that claim mainly on the fact that many of the committees and “councils” that were formed during the popular resistance in the spring of 2011, still exist: “The main form of revolutionary organization in Syria has been at the local level, through the work of local committees and local councils. These were influenced by the work of Syrian anarchist Omar Aziz… They operate as horizontally organized, leaderless groups, made up of all segments of the society. Whilst organizing on the local level, they have built up networks of solidarity and mutual aid across the country.” (Tahriricn blog)
But, as horizontal as they may be, they mainly seem to be substituting the collapsing state or becoming part of the new state in the part of Syria conquered by the opposition: “They are often the primary civil administrative structure in areas liberated from the state, as well as some areas that remain under state control.” This is not class struggle. This is the recuperation of it by the capitalist state. The LCC, a coordination of local councils, moved from opposing all sides in the war to calling for military strikes.
It is true that one local council in Manbej, Aleppo, supported a strike in protest against the ruthless behavior of the Jihadi group ISIS in the town. That is a hopeful sign that the potential for autonomization still exists in Syria and could grow, depending on what happens beyond its borders. There may be many more of such events that we are not aware of. One that caught the attention recently was a large protest demonstration in July, also in Aleppo, against the rebel siege of government-held areas in the city. The rebels stopped supplies from entering western parts of the city to weaken the supply routes of Assad's army, which led to severe food and medicine shortages. Demonstrators were shouting that the rebels were as bad as the government for seizing food from people who had run the gauntlet of snipers as they crossed the demarcation line between the two sides…
It was, so to speak, “a teachable moment” that clearly revealed the stark contrast between the violent perspective of capital and plain human needs, whose only possible defense is an autonomizing proletarian mass movement. The wars within the capitalist class will multiply. In each and every case, there may be rational reasons to choose one side over the other, but plenty of irrational reasons too. But such choices are always for capital. War and revolution are excluding each other. The very first task of pro-revolutionaries is to speak out against any participation in intra-capitalist power-struggles, from elections to wars, and to defend the position that there is no other base for joining forces but common proletarian interests or basic human needs, which are the same thing. From that base, the perspective of a society without war, misery and exploitation can emerge.
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