May you live in interesting times By William Bowles

24 December 2003

So goes the Chinese curse and nobody can say that 2003 hasn’t been an interesting – and for many – a cursed year, not the least of which has been the 25 million or so Iraqis, cursed with being ‘liberated’ by a desperate imperialism on the rampage. Barbarians seems somehow an inadequate description.

Yet, we can also say that imperialism has never been weaker than it is right now, largely because unlike the imperialism of yore, it is effectively clueless, headless and aside from its instinctual desire to maximise profits at any cost – even risking the destruction of what’s left of ‘our’ planet – bereft of a plan short of brute force and accelerating repression at home in order to quell resistance.

So what lessons can we learn from the past year? Well on the plus side, tens if not hundreds of millions of people flexed their collective muscles and demonstrated to the power elite that they weren’t too impressed with the ‘war on terror’. So it’s my feeling that we will look back on 2003 as somewhat of a watershed in the post-Soviet era, for in spite of, or perhaps because of the fact that so many millions came out onto the streets and said no to war, it scared the imperium absolutely shitless and made them reckless.

Of course on the minus side it has to be said, that the left in all its diverse expressions has failed to produce a viable leadership to such global resistance to the machinations of the imperium, but given the circumstances it’s not surprising, and in any case, it’s early days yet. The question is, will we run out of time?

And if I may be allowed a ‘prediction’, perhaps the most dangerous potential development will be the manufacturing of some kind of ‘Pearl Harbour’ that will overwhelm opposition to the imperium, a ‘Pearl Harbour’ that will attempt eclipse 9/11. For it is clear that the deep crisis that US capital faces will only be overcome by a war on the scale of WWII (or at least it’s contemporary equivalent) or, and of course this pure wishful thinking; revolution. This much we can learn from history.

Now you may ask how I can be so pessimistic but I’m not saying it’s inevitable but all the signs are there and it may well be that the Sarejevo of 2004 will be Tehran and the assassin Ariel Sharon, so desperate is the mini-imperialism of Israel having backed itself into a proverbial corner called the Occupied Territories:

“The execution of the plan in half a year is perfectly timed. At exactly that time the American election campaign will reach its climax. No American politician will dare to utter a word against Israel. The Democrats need the Jewish votes and money. The Republicans also need the votes and the money of the 60 million Christian fundamentalists, who support the most extreme elements in Israel.”
Sharon’s Speech: Decoded Version by Uri Avnery[1]

But much will depend on just how perceptive the leaders of the imperium are to the dangers of their proxy running amok. Sharon seems to have convinced himself that the US public and especially the Democratic Party will not dare to stand up to the so-called Israeli lobby, but people are fickle and what’s unacceptable one day can be acceptable the next. Much will depend on whether or not the US elite realises that the parochial interests of the racist and expansionist elite of Israel in the short term at least are not necessarily those of US imperialism. There is after all, more than one way to skin a cat.

And this is where it gets really tricky. Many years ago, I read in one of R Buckminster Fuller’s books, his take on the imperialism of the British and American empires of the late 19th century and pre-WWII period. Fuller I should add, had the job of planning the logistics of moving men and materiel from the US to Europe during WWI, the first operation of its kind in the history of our species that involved organisation on such a vast scale. But then Fuller’s training as a naval architect (as was his father) prepared him well.

In any case, already, back in the 1960s Fuller had a pretty low opinion of the post-WWII inheritors of empire and to back up his view, he cited the meetings that occurred between the Brits and the Americans in the 1870-80s over how the empire was to be extended and protected for the next one hundred years through the combined use of British Naval power and US industrial might.

In other words, those guys had a plan and although the Bolshevik Revolution ‘intervened’ and various and sundry economic crises of capitalism, the plain fact is that by 1945, the world was on its way toward perhaps the first stable period in its history for over well over 500 years. After all, the history of Europe from the 16th century had been one of almost continuous warfare. As the historian Eric Hobsbaum pointed out, England had been in a state of almost continuous war since the 1500s and indeed the central state only existed in order to practice war. The British state could truly be called the first ‘Warfare State’ in history.

But post-Churchill/Roosevelt/Eisenhower, things were heading downhill at a rapid rate culminating in the defeat in Vietnam and almost simultaneously with the first ‘energy crisis’ (1973). It is I believe no accident that the rise of the Reagan/Thatcher period is directly related to the general crisis of capital following the defeat of imperialism in Vietnam and the increasing realisation that the continued existence of capitalism depended on its complete control of shrinking energy supplies, energy supplies held in the poor countries of the world.

Throughout the 1970s, we saw one country after another, rich in oil and gas, taking greater countrol over their natural resources – eg Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela – that between them, controlled pretty much the world’s energy supplies. As far as the USUK were concerned this was and is an intolerable situation.

Much is made of the ‘competition’ between the US and the USSR (by both the ‘left’ and the right) but a fundamental reality that is missing from this argument is that the USSR was energy self-sufficient, indeed it was self-sufficient in almost all 92 elements of the Periodic Table! As long as that vast reservoir was excluded from the depredations of the imperium, room for expansion was forever limited. Hence the first objective was to open up Russia to private capital.

Having achieved this objective in 1990, it was according the ‘theorists’ anyway, open season on the planet and its people. Yet of course it was not 1890 but 1990. Russia was by no means the ‘dark continent’ of Africa that the Berlin Conference carved up in 1890 and the world of the late 20th century bore little resemblance to the world of an already shrinking British Empire of the late 19th.

And America, far from being the newly industrialising nation of 1900 was already a nation in decline by the 1970s it’s technology two decades behind its major competitors, Japan and a resurgent Europe of the EU. The only advantage the US had (at the expense of its civilian industrial capacity) was in waging war, where most of its cutting edge technology and skills had been employed (the parallels between the British and American empires are truly striking and perhaps explains in part, the current alliance?).

In any case, the imperialism of the post-1990 world is one of crisis. The speculation that fueled the ‘boom’ of the 1990s was largely that of ‘funny money’ made through currency speculation and in yet another echo of the 19th century, speculation in the latest revolution in production, the IT revolution that created the basis for the global and deadly embrace of the financial markets.

Dragged along as it were, by the serendipitous march of a revolution in technology, only barely if at all understood by the financial speculators who exploited it, the full implications of what it meant for capital even now are not appreciated. In a world already bulging with the products of the revolution in technology, and before even digesting the results of the boom and bust decade of the 90s, it finds itself drowning in a worldwide explosion in production led by China, that threatens to choke the imperium to death with its own products. This is indeed the incarnation of the Worm Ourobouros.

What I find remarkable about this entire process is firstly that it took less than three decades to come to maturity and secondly, that with all the knowledge at their disposal, the managers of capitalism were incapable of predicting the outcome. Surely, the end product of moving high technology production to areas where costs were several orders of magnitude lower than in the imperium but where the surplus was used to finance marketing and advertising in a market that no longer produced anything tangible, had to have been foreseen?

All of the above points to the central role that credit plays in the maintenance of terminal capitalism. For without virtually unlimited credit, how can a population pay for products it no longer even produces? I think it’s safe to say that the dotcom bubble that burst at beginning of this century is merely a prelude to what’s in store for us.

And the credit system is in fact a triple bind for not only does it embrace domestic populations of the developed world, it cripples the poor countries of the world and to add to our woes, the role of the dollar in underwriting the US economy’s vast, almost unimaginable foreign debt, threatens to dump the entire planet into a crash of enormous dimensions. Should for example, Japan decide to cash in its rapidly devaluing dollar holdings (estimated at several trillion), it would trigger economic meltdown that would cascade through an interlocked global financial network. Stafford Beer’s exponential oscillations that will shake capitalism into ten thousand pieces.

And although my continual demand for a socialist alternative may, right now, seem naïve or even sentimental, the plain fact is that I do not believe that we have any other alternative except global barbarism, that coupled to the increasing destabilisation of the climate, may make the last ten years look positively idyllic.

Will the domestic populations of the developed world wake up to what is happening or will the comfort of the living room and reality TV hold sway? For without our action and reinvolvement in the political process, I believe we are truly lost. Those of us who see some kind of ‘salvation’ in the actions of the poor of the world have lost the plot. And in any case, haven’t they already paid the price ten times over?

I truly do wish all my readers a prosperous and I hope, peaceful new year but I have to say that rather than wishful thinking, I’d prefer we take charge of our own destinies than leave it in the hands of the barbarians.



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