Capitalist Crisis and the War in Ukraine

We live in troubling times. The amount of pain humankind is afflicting upon itself grows by the day. The saddest thing is that much of that pain is avoidable. There is no law of history or nature that forces humans to destroy Syria and Ukraine.

We live in a world awash in crisis. Is there a connection between this context and the war in Ukraine? We think there is. The system, the capitalist ground rules, makes it impossible to overcome the existential threats humanity faces. This impossibility fosters the possibility of interimperialist war.

Capitalism makes solving the climate crisis impossible. That this crisis is real and a mortal threat to our species and many other is becoming obvious in the year 2022. It’s obvious too for many that green tech is not going to stop it. Competition, the compulsion to grow, and the dependency of that growth on the consumption of ever larger quantities of energy, assure that in regard to the climate, we ain’t seen nothing yet. Capitalism can only try to contain the results of this crisis—the catastrophes, the pandemics, the forced migration, the conflicts over resources—while making its cause worse day by day.

Capitalism cannot solve the social crisis. Worldwide, poverty, hunger, homelessness are spreading. The income gap has grown to absurd proportions. Between 2009 and 2018, the number of billionaires it took to equal the wealth of the world’s poorest 50 percent fell from 380 to 26.

In some countries, the population can’t take it anymore and mass protests erupt, they usually lead to a replacement of the upper management of the state after which things essentially stay the same. It doesn’t matter whether the government is leaning left or right. Conditions vary but the direction is the same everywhere. In South Africa, the gap between rich and poor is now much wider than under apartheid. Not because the government was better back then but because defending the national interest can be nothing else than defending the interest of capital. In times of crisis even a left-wing government like Syriza in Greece must first and foremost restore the credibility of the national capital. In the present crisis the value of all existing capital, of all the hoarded assets and money-capital, came under threat. This strikes at the heart of the system: if money cannot be turned into more money, if it cannot be stored without losing value, why produce at all? Hence the policies of the state in defense of the national interest are aimed at saving the profitability of its capital, by lowering its costs (at the expense of the working class) by forking over massive amounts of new money to it. They make the income gap, the growing misery of the many and the concentration of purchasing power in the hands of the few, ever larger.

It’s clear that capitalism cannot solve its economic crisis. Since the “Great Recession” of 2008, world profitability fell to near all-time lows. The collapse was only avoided by borrowing heavily from the future. At the turn of the century, global debt stood at $84 trillion. It has since risen to $296 trillion by 2021. That’s 353 percent of the total annual income of all countries combined! Inflation is skyrocketing and there is no plan, no prospect of climbing out of the hole by any “normal” means. Increase or reduce taxes, stimulate or rein in spending, reduce or expand the money supply, nothing works against the crisis of the system which is dependent on growth, on the accumulation of value, yet increasingly incapable to accomplish it. The restoration of favorable conditions for value accumulation requires a devaluation of existing capital, an elimination of “dead wood” on a massive scale. Is it a coincidence that in the same period of growing economic insecurity and crisis, global military spending has increased year after year and the number of military conflicts has increased sharply?

Wars are raging and tensions are rising in almost every continent. The us and China accelerated their armament efforts with each other as justification. Global arms spending has increased by 9.3 percent (in constant dollars) over the past decade and is now topping $2 trillion annually.

Before the twentieth century, capitalist wars roughly fall into two categories. The first are wars between rival capitalist states, fought to consolidate the emerging nation-state or to expand its frontiers. They typically led to the redrawing of the borders but not to the expulsion or extermination of populations; they were confined to hostilities between armies.

Secondly, there were wars between capitalist states and precapitalist societies. Those were genocidal, and involved the construction of racism to justify the reduction to slavery or the extermination of native populations.

Since the twentieth century wars between capitalist states have taken characteristics of the second category, that is, they have become genocidal. The development of military technology made it possible to erase any distinction between combatant and non-combatant, soldier and civilian, and xenophobia and racism made the extermination of the foe—now primarily the civilian population—an integral part of the very structure and organization of war.

In global conflicts, the initiator of the battle more often than not is the intrinsically weaker party, obsessed with the threat of encroachment, seeking the advantage of attacking first. The German demanded Lebensraum when they started World Wars I and II. Now it’s the demand of Putin’s Russia. They always expect a short war.

What does that mean, Lebensraum? Space to live, for whom? It means space for capital, control over resources and markets, it means access to profit.

For lack of time, I will skip the specific reasons why Ukraine has become the locus of the war escalation. See on this, my article “Don’t fight for ‘your’ country!”

I want to point out three factors that limit the war for now.

The atomic threshold. It means Russia cannot be attacked directly, even though it is militarily much weaker than the West. That limits the confrontation for now, like in the cold war, which did not really end. But it is no guarantee that a future step-by-step escalation towards nuclear war is impossible.

Likewise, the globalization of the capitalist economy is a factor that weighed much less in global wars of the past. But again, that’s no guarantee. Even though it’s bad for profits, the war dynamic can lead to a restructuring of trade patterns, as we see already to some extent with the Western sanctions and the redirection of Russian trade towards India and China.

The third, most important check on escalation: the lack of social submission. In a limited war, the mobilization of the population can seem unnecessary. Putin, who was counting on a short war, so far managed to limit the impact of the war on the living conditions of the average Russians. He has 150,000 soldiers in Ukraine, only a fraction of his army. Yet there is no draft, there are no conscripts at the front, instead he uses prisoners and mercenaries, Chechens and the Wagner brigade. It shows he doesn’t trust his own army. He does not have the population in his pocket like Hitler had the Germans. Nationalism is both the goal and the condition here. Putin hoped that the war would whip up nationalist fever, redirect the anger of the working class against a foreign enemy. But for that he needs to win the war, lest he tumbles from his pedestal like the Argentine junta after the Falklands war. But to win, he needs to escalate, and to escalate, he needs the nationalist fervor to be present, he needs a population mobilized for war, willing to endure the hardships of war, from which so far he has zealously tried to protect it. It’s a dilemma.

Nationalism is the most essential weapon of capitalism. It is the window through which capital wants us to look at the world. What you see then is the national interest and all the rest follows, including the need for war. When you wave an American, Ukrainian or Russian flag you help to strengthen that view of the world, you make a little contribution to the preparation of future wars, for which nationalism is a requirement. If instead you denounce all nationalism, racism, and xenophobia, you help to open another window on the world: one that shows the common interest of all, of the global working class. Then all the rest follows: the need to refuse to fight each other and to fight together against the common enemy, the capitalist system.

We reject fighting for national self-determination. We want self-determination for everyone. Everyone should be free to determine his or her own path. Everyone should be free from exploitation and oppression. All humans share the same basic needs. Meeting those needs must replace profit as the motivation of production, only then real self-determination can flourish.

But we reject self-determination if it means that your interests are the same as those of the rulers of the piece of land where you happen to live, and different from those of people like you who live outside its borders, while the opposite is true. National self-determination means a defense of the state, of its military, of its faction of capital, while our common interest is to do away with them.

Revolutionary defeatism is not a passive stance. It is not pacifism. It involves sabotage, strikes, resistance, both to the Russian and Ukrainian rulers, on an autonomous class basis. While we express the wish that soldiers on both side refuse to obey, refuse to fight and fraternize, we realize the obstacles to this in practice. But it happens to some extent. Thousands have deserted on both sides. If the war escalates, and its consequences are more felt, we may see class resistance rising, in Russia and elsewhere.

Yesterday, the New York Times quoted Oxford professor Goldin who said, “we’re living the biggest development disaster in history, with more people being pushed more quickly into dire poverty than has ever happened before.” The Guardian published a report of the risk intelligence company Verisk Maplecroft, which stated that in 101 countries, there is now a heightened risk of social conflict and instability. Already the uk is experiencing the biggest strike wave in decades. So fasten your seat belts, we’re in for serious social turmoil, in which the core issue will be nation or class: through which window are we going to see our world?


4 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Anonymous,

    Sander: “Yet there is no draft, there are no conscripts at the front, instead he uses prisoners and mercenaries,”

    I don’t believe that is accurate. Didn’t Putin impose conscription in September 2022? And regular army, including enlistees and conscripts have been at the fronts since the invasion began

  2. Anonymous and Stephen: You’re both right, but at the time of writing Sanderr was correct. These were his remarks from early September, prior to the “partial mobilization” later in that month. I’d say Sanderr still has a point regardless, given the Russian army’s continued reliance on prisoners and mercenaries despite the mobilization of reservists.

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