In These New Times

A new paradigm for a post-imperial world

Pilger compounds his error

Posted by seumasach on October 13, 2013

Cailean Bochanan

13th October, 2013

Writing recently in the Guardian John Pilger couldn’t have been more dismissive of US peace overtures to Syria and Iran:

“John Kerry’s farce and Barack Obama’s pirouettes are temporary. Russia’s peace deal over chemical weapons will, in time, be treated with the contempt that all militarists reserve for diplomacy. With al-Qaida now among its allies, and US-armed coupmasters secure in Cairo, the US intends to crush the last independent states in the Middle East: Syria first, then Iran.”

But that was 10th September: Pilger’s follow-up article a month later makes no mention of this imminent Middle East war. Instead he focuses on what he claims is a prospective US war against China. So having failed to overthrow Assad, having prepared the ground for a peace settlement and having convinced the rest of the world, except some Israeli tendencies, that Iran is no longer a nuclear threat the US is instead intent on a direct confrontation with China, its principle creditor and provider of consumer goods, and implicitly the SCO, including Russia, who it was loath to confront in Syria, and, soon, Pakistan,India and, once again, Iran This is wild surmise from Pilger: he seems determined to get his war somewhere. Fortunately, he is likely to be disappointed.

What Pilger and the left in general seem unable to grasp is that imperialism, the programme of global hegemony,of global governance from a single power centre, can and, I would say, has reach its limits. This is quite clear in Syria where the prospect of war has alarmed the US military and run into opposition from Russia, China and the Global South. In fact, opposition to further military ventures had already found expression in the dismissal of Donald Rumsfeld in 2006. The Libya attack notwithstanding, Obama has consolidated this anti-war current. He didn’t attack Syria because he chose not to, having decided, along with his military, that it would be a very unwise move which would expose the essential weakness of US global power.

But Pilger and the left are having none of it. Their logic would be as follows: capitalism leads to war and conquest; America is a capitalist country; therefore, America has a policy of war and conquest.

This stems, perhaps, from Lenin’s thesis that imperialism is a stage in the development of capitalism. At first sight this looks odd. The British imperial project was quite explicitly on the way from Elizabethan times and even more obviously form 1688. The capitalism the left refer to is that industrial revolution in Britain beginning in the late 18th century. Surely this capitalism was a product of empire rather than vice versa. However, by a certain slight of hand Karl Marx managed to explain away the pre-industrial imperial period as being merely “the primitive accumulation of capital”. In other words, it could be dismissed as merely an incidental bit of piracy which happened to provide the initial capital for the essential process, that of industrial capitalism. Certainly, without the opening up of the Indian market and the money from the opium and tobacco trades there would have been no industrial revolution. Nonetheless, Marx’s thesis is essentially false. Michie’s History of the London Stock Exchange shows that the role of the City of London in financing the industrial north was virtually zero. The northern industrialists were starved of capital which explains the extraordinary level of exploitation of labour. This was the strange capitalism without capital system so familiar to us in Britain to this day. What capital could be raised was raised from local networks and banks. Where,then,  were the proceeds of empire going?

By the 1820s already they were going into the global government bond markets and later on into government guaranteed investments in the railways and, above all, into more war and empire. The parasitic character of British capitalism which Lenin saw and considered a new development was already there during the mythic heyday of liberal capitalism. Rosa Luxembourg subjected the Marx/Lenin model to intense scrutiny and sensed that there was something wrong with it. All she could see was continued parasitism and “primitive accumulation”. That’s because that was just about all there was to see apart from the emerging productive capitalist powers, Germany and Japan, which were fighting against the constraints of the system that was soon to destroy them.

The accumulation of error, written in  the stone of ideological orthodoxy has been a major factor in the confusion of our times. If we could just cast aside the dismal science of political economy, an obfuscation masterminded by the imperial elite and view things in more simple terms things start to become a bit easier. We would discover, as Amaury de Riencourt brilliantly revealed, that modern history follows paths remarkably similar to those of antiquity. That the development of Western imperialism follows patterns remarkably similar to those of the Roman Empire. We would see that empire is the essential idea of European civilization in imitation of that empire as well as learning the lessons of its fall. We would see that the same factors which led to the fall of that empire have led this one to reach its limits. The logic of end of empire is the key to understanding the contemporary world and it is our particular privilege to live at a great historic moment when the paradigm of war and conquest give way to another of peace, co-operation and well-being.

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