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Militarism and the Coming Wars

What Did You Learn from Iraq?

"What Did You Learn from Iraq?" Credit: Alisdare Hickson.

István Mészáros is author of Socialism or Barbarism: From the “American Century” to the Crossroads (Monthly Review Press, 2001) and Beyond Capital: Toward a Theory of Transition (Monthly Review Press, 1995).
This essay is based on the preface to the recent Turkish translation of Socialism or Barbarism: From the “American Century” to the Crossroads by István Mészáros. It was written prior to the recent U.S. invasion of Iraq.


It is not for the first time in history that militarism weighs on the consciousness of the people as a nightmare. To go into detail would take far too long. However, here it should be enough to go back in history only as far as the nineteenth century when militarism, as a major instrument of policy making, came into its own, with the unfolding of modern imperialism on a global scale, in contrast to its earlier—much more limited—varieties. By the last third of the nineteenth century the British and French Empires were not the only prominent rulers of vast territories. The United States, too, made its heavy imprint by directly or indirectly taking over the former colonies of the Spanish Empire in Latin America, adding to them the bloody repression of a great liberation struggle in the Philippines and installing themselves as rulers in that area in a way which still persists in one form or another. Nor should we forget the calamities caused by “Iron Chancellor” Bismarck’s imperialist ambitions and their aggravated pursuit later on by his successors, resulting in the eruption of the First World War and its deeply antagonistic aftermath, bringing with it Hitler’s Nazi revanchism and thereby very clearly foreshadowing the Second World War itself.

The dangers and immense suffering caused by all attempts at solving deep-seated social problems by militaristic interventions, on any scale, are obvious enough. If, however, we look more closely at the historical trend of militaristic adventures, it becomes frighteningly clear that they show an ever greater intensification and an ever-increasing scale, from local confrontations to two horrendous world wars in the twentieth century, and to the potential annihilation of humankind when we reach our own time.

It is most relevant to mention in this context the distinguished Prussian military officer and practical as well as theoretical strategist, Karl Marie von Clausewitz (1780-1831), who died in the same year as Hegel; both of them killed by cholera. It was von Clausewitz, director of the Military School of Berlin in the last thirteen years of his life, who in his posthumously published book—Vom Kriege (On War, 1833)—offered a classic definition of the relationship between politics and war that is still frequently quoted: “war is the continuation of politics by other means.”

This famous definition was tenable until quite recently, but has become totally untenable in our time. It assumed the rationality of the actions which connect the two domains of politics and war as the continuation of one another. In this sense, the war in question had to be winnable, at least in principle, even if miscalculations leading to defeat could be contemplated at the instrumental level. Defeat by itself could not destroy the rationality of war as such, since after the—however unfavorable—new consolidation of politics the defeated party could plan another round of war as the rational continuation of its politics by other means. Thus the absolute condition of von Clausewitz’s equation to be satisfied was the winnability of war in principle, so as to recreate the “eternal cycle” of politics leading to war, and back to politics leading to another war, and so on ad infinitum. The actors involved in such confrontations were the national states. No matter how monstrous the damage inflicted by them on their adversaries, and even on their own people (just remember Hitler!), the rationality of the military pursuit was guaranteed if the war could be considered winnable in principle.

Today the situation is qualitatively different for two principal reasons. First, the objective of the feasible war at the present phase of historical development, in accordance with the objective requirements of imperialism—world domination by capital’s most powerful state, in tune with its own political design of ruthless authoritarian “globalization” (dressed up as “free exchange” in a U.S. ruled global market)—is ultimately unwinnable, foreshadowing, instead, the destruction of humankind. This objective by no stretch of imagination could be considered a rational objective in accord with the stipulated rational requirement of the “continuation of politics by other means” conducted by one nation, or by one group of nations against another. Aggressively imposing the will of one powerful national state over all of the others, even if for cynical tactical reasons the advocated war is absurdly camouflaged as a “purely limited war” leading to other “open ended limited wars,” can therefore be qualified only as total irrationality.

The second reason greatly reinforces the first. For the weapons already available for waging the war or wars of the twenty first century are capable of exterminating not only the adversary but the whole of humanity, for the first time ever in history. Nor should we have the illusion that the existing weaponry marks the very end of the road. Others, even more instantly lethal ones, might appear tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. Moreover, threatening the use of such weapons is by now considered an acceptable state strategic device.

Thus, put reasons one and two together, and the conclusion is inescapable: envisaging war as the mechanism of global government in today’s world underlines that we find ourselves at the precipice of absolute irrationality from which there can be no return if we accept the ongoing course of development. What was missing from von Clausewitz’s classic definition of war as the “continuation of politics by other means” was the investigation of the deeper underlying causes of war and the possibility of their avoidance. The challenge to face up to such causes is more urgent today than ever before. For the war of the twenty first century looming ahead of us is not only “not winnable in principle.” Worse than that, it is in principle unwinnable. Consequently, envisaging the pursuit of war, as the Bush administration’s September 17, 2002 strategic document does, make Hitler’s irrationality look like the model of rationality.


Since September 11, 2001, Washington has been imposing its aggressive policies on the rest of the world with open cynicism. The justification given for the pretended change of course from “liberal tolerance” to what is now called the “resolute defense of freedom and democracy” is that on September 11, 2001 the United States became the victim of world-wide terrorism in response to which it is imperative to wage an undefined and indefinable—but in fact arbitrarily defined the way it suits the convenience of the most aggressive U.S. circles—“war on terror.” The military venture in Afghanistan is admitted to be only the first of an unlimited series of “preventive wars” to be embarked upon in the future. Next in line is America’s not that long ago greatly favored ally, Iraq itself, in order to appropriate for the United States the Middle East’s vast—and for the purpose of controlling the potential rivals strategically crucial—oil resources.

However, the chronological order in the current American military doctrine is presented completely upside-down. In reality there can be no question of a “change of course” posterior to September 11, 2001, said to be made possible by the dubious election of George W. Bush to the presidency in place of Al Gore. For Democratic President Clinton was pursuing the same kind of policies as his Republican successor, even if in a little more camouflaged form. As to former Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore, he declared in December 2002 that he fully supported the war against Iraq, because such a war “would not mean a regime change” but simply the “disarming of a regime which possesses weapons of mass destruction.” Can one get more cynical and hypocritical than that?

I have been firmly convinced for a long time that since the onset of capital’s structural crisis at the end of the 1960s or the beginning of the 1970s we live in a qualitatively new phase of imperialism, with the United States as its overwhelmingly dominant force. I called it in Socialism or Barbarismthe new historic phase of global hegemonic imperialism.

The critique of U.S. imperialism—in contrast to the fashionable fantasies of “deterritorialized imperialism,” which is not supposed to carry with it the military occupation of other nations’ territories—constitutes the central theme of my book. The long chapter entitled “The Potentially Deadliest Phase of Imperialism,” was written two years before September 11, 2001, and delivered as a public lecture in Athens on October 19, 1999. I stressed then that “the ultimate form of threatening the adversary in the future—the new gunboat diplomacy—will be nuclear blackmail” (page 40). Since the time of publishing these lines, first in March 2000 in a Greek periodical, and then the whole book in Italian in September 2000, the predicted gruesome military strategic shift to the ultimate nuclear threat—which could initiate a military adventure precipitating the destruction of humankind—has become no longer camouflaged but openly professed official U.S. policy. Nor should one imagine that the open declaration of such a strategic doctrine is an idle threat against a rhetorically propagandized “axis of evil.” After all it was precisely the United States that actually used the atomic weapon of mass destruction against the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

When we consider these issues of extreme gravity, we cannot be satisfied with any suggestion pointing to a particular and shifting political conjuncture. Rather, we must set them against their background of deep-rooted structural—economically as well as politically necessary—development. This is most important if we want to envisage a viable strategy to counter the forces responsible for our perilous state of affairs. The new historic phase of global hegemonic imperialism is not simply the manifestation of the existing relations of “big power politics,” to the overwhelming advantage of the United States, against which a future realignment among the most powerful states, or even some well organized demonstrations in the political arena, could successfully assert itself. Unfortunately, it is much worse than that. For such eventualities, even if they could come about, would still leave the underlying causes and structural determinations untouched.

To be sure, the new phase of global hegemonic imperialism is preponderantly under the rule of the United States, while the other would-be imperialist powers on the whole seem to accept the role of hanging on to the American coat-tails, though of course by no means for eternity. One can indeed unhesitatingly envisage, on the basis of the already visible instabilities, the explosion of weighty antagonisms among the major powers in the future. But would that by itself offer any answer to the systemic contradictions at stake, without addressing the causal determinations at the roots of imperialistic developments? It would be very naEFve to believe that it could.

Here I only wish to underline a central concern, namely that the logic of capital is absolutely inseparable from the imperative of the domination of the weaker by the stronger. Even when one thinks of what is generally considered the most positive constituent of the system, competition resulting in expansion and advancement, its necessary companion is the drive to monopoly and the subjugation or extermination of the competitors who stand in the way of self-asserting monopoly. Imperialism, in turn, is the necessary result of capital’s relentless drive to monopoly. The changing phases of imperialism both embody and more or less directly affect the changes of ongoing historical development.

With regard to the present phase of imperialism, two closely connected aspects are of paramount importance. The first is that the ultimate material/economic tendency of capital is for global integration which, however, it cannot secure at the political level. This is due to a large extent to the fact that the global capital system unfolded in the course of history in the form of a multiplicity of divided and indeed antagonistically opposed national states. Not even the most violent imperialist collisions of the past could produce a lasting result in this respect. They could not impose the will of the most powerful national state on a permanent basis on its rivals. The second aspect of our problem, which is the other side of the same coin, is that despite all efforts capital failed to produce the state of the capital system as such. This remains the gravest of complications for the future, notwithstanding all talk about “globalization.” U.S.-dominated global hegemonic imperialism is an ultimately doomed attempt by the U.S. state to superimpose itself on all of the other, sooner or later recalcitrant, national states as the “international” state of the capital system. Here, too, we are confronted by a massive contradiction. For even the recent, most aggressive and openly threatening U.S. strategic documents try to justify their advocated “universally valid” policies in the name of the “American national interests” while denying such considerations to the others.


Here we can see the contradictory relationship between a historical contingency—American capital finding itself in its preponderant position at the present time—and the structural necessity of the capital system itself. The latter can be summed up as capital’s irrepressible material drive to monopolistic global integration at whatever cost, even if it means directly endangering the very survival of humanity. Thus, even if one can successfully counter at the political plane the force of the now prevalent American historical contingency—which was preceded by other imperialist configurations in the past and may well be followed by others in the future (if we can survive, that is, the present explosive dangers)—the structural or systemic necessity emanating from capital’s ultimately global monopolistic logic remains as pressing as ever before. For whatever particular form a future historical contingency may assume, the underlying systemic necessity is bound to remain the drive to global domination.

The question is, therefore, not simply the given militaristic ventures of some political circles—militaristic ventures, that is, which could be tackled and successfully overcome at the political/military level. The causes are much more deep-seated and cannot be countered without introducing quite fundamental changes in the innermost systemic determinations of capital as a mode of social metabolic control—of overall reproduction—which embraces not only the economic and political/military domains but also the most mediated cultural and ideological interrelations. Even the expression “military-industrial complex”— introduced in a critical sense by President Eisenhower who knew a thing or two about it—clearly indicates that what we are concerned with is something much more firmly grounded and tenacious than some direct political/military determinations (and manipulations) which could be in principle reversed at that level. War as the “continuation of politics by other means” will always threaten us within the present framework of society, and by now with total annihilation. It will threaten us for as long as we are unable to confront the systemic determinations at the roots of political decision making, which made necessary in the past the adventure of wars. Such determinations trapped the various national states in the vicious circle of politics leading to wars, bringing with them intensified antagonistic politics that had to explode in more and ever bigger wars. Take away from the picture, for the sake of argument rather optimistically, the historical contingency of today’s American capital, and you are still left with the systemic necessity of capital’s ever more destructive production order, which brings to the fore the changing but increasingly more perilous specific historical contingencies.

Militarist production, today primarily embodied in the “military industrial complex,” is not an independent entity, regulated by autonomous militaristic forces which are then also responsible for wars. Rosa Luxemburg was the first to put these relations in their proper perspective, way back in 1913, in her classic book, The Accumulation of Capital, published in English fifty years later. She prophetically underlined ninety years ago the growing importance of militarist production, pointing out that,

Capital itself ultimately controls this automatic and rhythmic movement of militarist production through the legislature and a press whose function is to mould so-called “public opinion.” That is why this particular province of capitalist accumulation seems capable of infinite expansion (Routledge, London, 1963, p. 466).

We are, thus, concerned with a set of interdeterminations which must be viewed as parts of an organic system. If we want to fight war as a mechanism of global government, as we must, in order to safeguard our very existence, then we have to situate the historical changes that have taken place in the last few decades in their proper causal framework. The design of one overpowering national state controlling all of the others, following the imperatives emanating from capital’s logic, can only lead to humanity’s suicide. At the same time it must be also recognized that the seemingly insoluble contradiction between national aspirations—exploding from time to time in devastating antagonisms—and internationalism can only be resolved if regulated on a fully equitable basis, which is totally inconceivable in capital’s hierarchically structured order.

In conclusion, therefore, in order to envisage a historically viable answer to the challenges posed by the present phase of global hegemonic imperialism, we must counter the systemic necessity of capital for globally subjugating labor through whichever particular social agency can assume the role assigned to it under the circumstances. Naturally, this is feasible only through a radically different alternative to capital’s drive to monopolistic/imperialist globalization, in the spirit of the socialist project, embodied in a progressively unfolding mass movement. For only when it becomes an irreversible reality that “patria es humanidad,” to say it with José Marti’s beautiful words, only then can the destructive contradiction between material development and humanly rewarding political relations be permanently consigned to the past.

January 2003

2003, Volume 55, Issue 02 (June)
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