Heart of Darkness:
Modern Imperialism and its Charnel Houses

What is happening to the world? Russia is again threatening the eastern borders of Western Europe by land-grabbing chunks of Ukraine. China’s relationships with neighbouring countries are tensing: military face-offs with Japan in the East and South China Seas; with Vietnam; with the Philippines. The Western powers are opening up new military activities in Syria and Iraq, launching air offensives against the Islamic State and in so doing re-aligning themselves with local powers – last year’s foes have become this year’s allies. Civilian populations are pulverised by air and ground attacks and more charnel houses – in Gaza, Syria and Iraq – are created not as collateral damage but deliberately, viciously, as results of the intensifying hostilities between Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Additionally, armies and militias extend their murderous reach down through Somalia into the East African littoral, central Africa (in Congo, in the Central African Republic), the Sahel (Mali), West Africa (NE Nigeria) and the newly-created states of North and South Sudan where they converted a civil war into cross-border conflict. Still, Kashmir remains a hotspot for frictions between Pakistan and India – and in Afghanistan it’s business as usual.

In short, inter-imperialist rivalries are intensifying; and more and more of humanity is in a free-fire zone suffering from mass murder and displacement. What happened to the peace the Western bourgeoisie promised in a unipolar world following the collapse of the USSR? What happened to the wealth produced by the massive expansion in the world economy in the last 25 years?

To make sense of world affairs today we have to stand back and look at the substantial changes that have taken place in global capitalism over recent decades. Within the limitations of a single article, we can do this only in a broad-brush way. However, this issue of Internationalist Perspective contains articles focussing on events in Ukraine and on the Islamic State.

Economic accelerations and their consequences

The economic reforms pushed forward by Reagan and Thatcher in the 1980s took their theoretical stimulus from the monetarist policies promulgated by Milton Friedman and the Chicago School. Declaring Keynesianism dead, they embarked on a programme to accelerate the liberalisation of international financial markets and so opened up unprecedented opportunities for companies and states to raise money on the international capital markets and enabled huge investments to be made into the development of productive forces globally. (1) The increased availability of investment finance coincided with, and further accelerated, the developments along a hugely important pathway: in computing and communications. Not yet on the radar in 1980, they have changed the entire functioning of the world economy and produced tectonic shifts in the structure of capitalism. The upshot has been an integration of the entire production process, its financing and the world market itself, to an unprecedented degree.

The old description of the world - West, USSR and the Third World - is long gone. The old idea of some orthodox Marxists – that capitalism could no longer develop the productive forces – has been disconfirmed in the most striking ways. Indeed the map of the world’s commodity production line has been redrawn over the past three decades: China, India, Vietnam, Brazil, Mexico and others have become manufacturing powerhouses. While they owe some of their growth to the move of a great deal of industrial production from the West motivated by the search for cheap labour power, these countries are not sites for displaced factories based on old technologies. They use and create leading-edge technologies (such as in automation and robotics) and interface with enterprises all over the world in real-time.

The capabilities of air, sea and land transportation have greatly expanded over recent decades and, together with the revolutions in communications technology have furthered integration in the marketplace and in production itself. Different parts of the same end-product can be manufactured in different parts of the world for assembly elsewhere and this can apply not only to traditional assembly lines such as, say, cars but to the most complex products – such as commercial airliners, aircraft carriers, pharmaceuticals and electronics. The provision of power to drive these enterprises has become global too. Adding to the already vast coal and oil transportation channels (that now include those for tar sands and fracking products), natural gas pipelines transmit even more energy across distant parts of the world: from eastern Siberia to Eire, from Norway to Libya, the length and breadth of North America, the southern cone of South America, across south and east Asia, and across Australia; the building of immense liquefied natural gas tankers have further enhanced the networks to create a global natural gas system.

Developments in advanced communications and control systems have surged over the past thirty years. Moving data round the world has gone from telegraph to telephone and radio bandwidths and on to fibre-optic cables and server farms that host the so-called cyber-space in the most physically joined-up way. A description of today’s world manufacture would not have been recognisable thirty years ago. Technological developments enable production and distribution management, and commercial and financing management covering many geographical zones, from anywhere; this capability has been further augmented by satellite communications and global positioning systems, Distance and time are today only tiny fractions of what they once were. The consequences have been far-reaching, not the least of which has been the period of accelerated growth in the economies of what used to be called the Third World.

The integration of economic ties has been all the tighter because so many of the flood of bilateral deals have involved infrastructural projects which demand stability in relationships. But while integration ties together, it doesn’t exist on its own; capitalism is always competitive and as the investments grow so does the competition sharpen. The hunt for profitability is incessant and nothing is allowed to stand in its way.

These conditions have generated stresses – not just on the economic terrain, between capitalist entities, but throughout the whole of society. Some examples illustrate the sources of intensified stress. Technological developments involving robotics and automation are removing millions of jobs – and with them the ability of workers to earn their living – from the workplace. Shifting swathes of industrial production from the West to Asia in the search for cheaper labour power created massive unemployment in the US and Europe. The accelerated proletarianisation of millions of people who had previously lived on the land in many (now-termed) emerging nations has stimulated a massive drive to the cities so that more than half of humanity now lives in urban environments, with a substantial and growing proportion in continuously degraded conditions. The ejection of people from land required by the state or its entrepreneurial friends for new cities or factories or cash crops has dispossessed hundreds of millions. And relentlessly, globally, the gap between rich and poor continues to widen inexorably. The conditions of existence are being rent in all directions.

These circumstances have led to widespread class struggle and to considerable social discontent and civil turmoil against which the ruling class everywhere always prepares. The American investment into the militarisation of its police forces has been ongoing for decades and its approach to dealing with civil unrest was well exhibited in Ferguson, Missouri. With its aggressive and merciless attitude to economic growth, the Chinese government deals with tens of thousands of what they call mass incidents each year – and spends more on internal security than on its military.

Globally, the resulting strains expressed are many and various – from riots to madness - depending on the culture and the nature and strength of the institutions that structure social and political life.

And then there is the crisis. The speed at which the 2008 banking crisis spread across the world, disrupting not only the whole financial system but also the systems of production, testifies to the degree of integration highlighted earlier. The collapse of sources of finance in the West dried up the lifeblood of much industrial production; and the collapse of demand hit output in Asia. The effect on the Chinese working class was immediate: over 25 million Chinese migrant workers, home for the 2009 Chinese New Year, had no jobs to return to in the industrial cities.

These developments are the backcloth to an examination of the intensification of inter-imperialist antagonisms and the appalling effects they have on humanity, and particularly on its social struggles.

The reshaping of imperialism and its deadly embraces

Imperialism operates at several levels: on the economic terrain in competition for markets and resources; on the political terrain for influence in support of economic interests; and, on the military terrain because of the need to support economic interests by ensuring access to raw materials, supply lines, etc. Furthermore, military hostilities go further and take up a dynamic of their own. All in all, inter-imperialist antagonisms come down to questions over distributions of power – global, regional and local.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Western bourgeoisie proclaimed a uni-polar world in which the US and Western Europe - with a total military expenditure that far outgunned the rest of the world – could use that military power with impunity. Western influence pushed eastwards and pulled some of the Warsaw Pact countries into NATO and some into the EU. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was the high point of its hubris.

However, the ending of the two-bloc confrontation opened up new evolutionary pathways in an environment that encouraged more free-market imperialisms. Second-level forces strengthened - China, India and Pakistan among them – and their hostilities have blossomed across disputed territories such as in Arunachal Pradesh and Kashmir. Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran also opened up their rivalries to involvement in a wider range of conflicts over Gaza and in Afghanistan and Iraq. Lower-tier armies and militias also entered the fray, such as those of Somalia, Sudan and Congo.

In other words, economic growth, availability of armaments and financing in the context of the break-up of the two-bloc hegemony over international relations together enabled a wholesale reshaping of imperialist forces.

As we have emphasised, today’s close integration of the global economic system at the levels of the production process and of markets was undreamt of a quarter of a century ago. Myriads of projects and bilateral deals tie the interests of multi-national companies and nation states together in a web of relationships that can only be run with the globalised communications of information and materials. Yet, these same countries are also fundamentally hostile to one another as competition for markets, resources and political influence is ever-intensified. Let’s consider just three examples; in Europe between Russia and the West; in the relationship between Israel and Russia; and between some powers in South and East Asia.

Today, oil imports from Russia stand at approximately 33% of Europe’s total and gas imports are nearly 39%. This is a strong economic tie that can only be broken at enormous cost to both. And, during the last decade, there has been substantial cooperation over counter-terrorism and opium smuggling, particularly relating to Afghanistan. Trade has included arms sales, even French Mistral assault ships. (2) But, at the same time, the West pushed its military force further towards the Russian border and proposed projects such as missile defence systems to be sited in Poland and the Czech Republic. These moves threatened Russia’s long-term geo-political interests and over recent years Putin has pushed back as opportunities presented themselves – such as in South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the 2008 war with Georgia. Most significantly, in 2014 following hostilities between pro-European and pro-Russian factions in Kiev (and substantial social disruption) Russia effectively gained control over Crimea and the eastern Donbass region of Ukraine while exposing deep inconsistencies in the economic and military interests of the Western countries that led to their inability to deal with Putin’s manoeuvres. (3)

The second example concerns relations between Israel and Russia which highlight the ebb and flow of interests. Israel’s survival in the Arab-Israeli war 1948 hinged on Czech arms provided at Russia’s behest. However, the relationship between the two countries became hostile because of Russian support for Israel’s enemies (the surrounding Arab regimes and the Palestinians) determined as part of Russia’s global posture in the intensifying Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s. A 20-year period of prohibition on Jewish emigration to Israel worsened relations. However, following the Glasnost period the trickle of Jewish emigration became a flood and today approximately 16% of the Israeli population are Russian-speaking - which has had the effect of strengthening certain social ties via this ‘Russian bridge’ as it is sometimes termed. And although Russia has continued to support Israel’s contiguous enemies it has also embarked on large-scale projects with Israel - such as Gazprom’s drilling of offshore gasfields in the Mediterranean and laying subsea pipelines to the shore. Such activities all build up the same contradictions as in Europe.

In East Asia, our third example, there are chain-links connecting all the powers. China and India have long had disputes along their more than 3000km border, particularly in Arunachal Pradesh. China’s aid to Pakistan further exacerbates Indian government’s concerns. Economically, both work together to exploit oil and gas reserves in Myanmar’s blocks in the Bay of Bengal and to build a pipeline to take oil and gas to China. India is considering how best to use the Andaman Islands for a military base that would enable it to control the Malacca Straits through which passes much of China’s (and other East Asian countries’) trade with western economies. In September, India’s Modi visited Japan’s Abe and the outcome was a hike in Japanese investment in Indian infrastructure, a commitment to military cooperation including joint naval exercises, and Indian support for the Japanese claim over the Senkaku Islands. The East and South China Seas are loci of tension over ownership of islands and the consequent rights for exploitation and here China has disputes with Vietnam (the Paracel Islands) and the Philippines (the Spratly Islands) and Malaysia and Brunei over the Nine-Dash Line area.

The accumulation of bilateral agreements has no coherence and generates a mass of contradictions. Thus, chains of alliances and hostilities have generated chronic tensions throughout the entire capitalist system with the linkages involving all imperialisms.

Social eruptions and the collision with imperialist interests

The trigger for the wave of intensified social turbulence of recent years was the 2008 meltdown in the banking system; along with the havoc generated in the production process, the response of the Western bourgeoisie was to impose austerity on their populations. The collapse in global demand had repercussions for production in China, India and elsewhere: millions of workers were laid off.

Globally, millions of people showed their rage at the increased exploitation and repression imposed by the ruling classes. The Occupy movement that started in Wall Street reverberated around the world, in North and South America, East and South Asia, the Antipodes and all over Europe. More resistance and street demonstrations followed against the austerity policies of European governments – in Spain, Italy, France and Greece.

The social movements of the ‘Arab Spring’ exposed the lack of social safety valves and the brittleness of these dictatorships; and because of the proximity to the all-important oil centres the Western various military-imperialist groupings became more involved. At the beginning, in Tunisia and Yemen the rulers were encouraged to depart hurriedly; in Libya it took longer to shift Qaddafi as the major imperialisms were unclear what should replace his rule; Libya became an arena of indecision for the Western ruling class as they did want to support some of the oppositional groups. In Egypt, despite the strength of the social movement against the government, the West was reluctant to get rid of Mubarak who they used as a sentinel at the gateway to the Middle East and as a block on Islamists, most especially the Muslim Brotherhood. But when the application of their democracy produced a government that was a front for the Brotherhood, they machinated to depose Morsi. A military coup led to the installation of the Head of the Egyptian Armed Forces – Sisi – as president. Throughout these events the imperialist dimension grew substantially at the expense of the social movement.

But if Libya and Egypt showed the West’s indecisions about supporting oppositional groups, albeit for different reasons, the arena which came to overshadow all others as a killing field was Syria. At first the social demonstrations against Assad’s oppression looked to be part of the ongoing wave across the Maghreb and there was an expectation that the regime would likely capitulate. However, with the backing of Russia and China, the Assad family stood its ground and fought the social movement militarily, ruthlessly, unleashing a new level of ferocity against the population. To date nearly 200,000 people have been killed, the largest movement of refugees in the world has been created (including more than five million displaced) and the social movement opposed to the regime has been drowned in a conflict between capitalist forces.

Militant Islamism and some of its roles

The replacement of the pro-Western Shah’s regime by that of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 Iran well illustrated what can happen when an overtly repressive state undermines or destroys social institutions that support and enable that capitalist society to function. As the Pahlavi regime came to rely more and more heavily on secret police and repressive forces to maintain itself and as legally-recognised means of opposition atrophied, the only major nation-wide oppositional institution embedded into society and able to wield power was the Shia religious network run by the ayatollahs. After seizing and consolidating power, the new state apparatus could turn on other anti-Shah (or anti-American) forces and execute tens of thousands of people, a model indeed for the birth of new power structures in the region.

The growth of militant Islamism in modern times stems from the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The fielding of Afghani mujahedin augmented by an increasing flow of foreign fighters from Islamic states in West Asia and the Middle East (and, as time went on, American military aid) drew the Russian forces deeper into an unwinnable war from which after ten years they had to abandon. With Russian withdrawal American interest evaporated and into the resulting power vacuum came competing tribal groupings and militias from which the Taliban emerged dominant. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1991, Saudi Arabia felt threatened by the proximity of the massive hostile army on its borders. Osama bin Laden offered to participate in the defence of Saudi Arabia using his al-Qaeda forces; instead, he was expelled and the Saudi regime welcomed the American forces which marshalled on its facilities to launch the offensive against Saddam Hussein.

After the West re-invaded it, Afghanistan again became a destination of choice for foreign jihadists - especially from Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and Yemen. Effectively, these dictatorships were able to export what had been an internal militancy problem, and pretend they had nothing to do with it. Instead, the militants became the problem of the US, the UK, Russia and India among others. And, by dismantling the secular Iraqi Ba’ath Party-state after the 2003 invasion the way was opened for new capitalist factions to present themselves through sectarian religious institutions in that fractured society. In what became a decade of murderous rivalries Iraq was the stage on which power struggles were fought out; and with the injection of finance and arms Shia and Sunni militias also became proxies for the other imperialisms, particularly Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Today, ten years further down the line, the availability of weaponry, coupled with years of experience in extortion, kidnapping, torture and murder means that the brakes are off. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), having been active for years in the post-2003 Iraqi mess, is now also involved in Syria. They are even more brutal than their predecessors because they can be. Their rise was helped by foraging for arms from the dumps that litter Iraq, but their longer-term success has been enabled by considerable financing from factions within Saudi Arabia and Qatar and other Gulf states who project their internal divisions onto the outside world. ISIL’s proclamation of a caliphate and its morphing into Islamic State marks an escalation possibly leading up to an explicit carving-up of Iraq into new territorial formations. And the Islamic State’s influence has widened: in the east of Libya, around Tobruk, the local militia has declared the area to be an emirate loyal to Islamic State.

The phenomenon of modern militant Islamism in today’s global capitalism has some important characteristics: it has been oppositional to entrenched dominations by family and republican dictatorships in several Arab and other countries; it has launched international crusades against invasions by major imperialisms, most emphatically against Russia and the US; in many countries it has fragmented state institutions along sectarian lines; and it has been a tool of the imperialisms, global and regional, that finance it. It can be a driver as well as a catalyst.

Yet if their internecine strife makes many parts of the Middle East and beyond reminiscent of the bloodbath of the Castellammarese War in the New York mafia of the late 1920s, their religious ideologies have resonances with deep belief structures in their social cultures from which they have mobilised support. Such resonances are also being demonstrated in surprising places, such as among middle class Muslims in Western Europe. This is another indication of the atrophy of social cohesion in civil society as capitalist fractions devour all that is human in the interests of furthering their economic and military power.

Some geo- and regional politics

The economic processes highlighted earlier in this article will continue to deepen the contradictions inside global capitalism as imperialisms are ensnared into ever-deadlier embraces. As ambivalences strengthen we can expect greater tensions between national capitals as they all confront their insoluble problems, worsening with the current crisis. As these global tensions cascade down to the regional hostilities where armies and militias confront each other, the one accurate forecast that can be made is that the civilian populations will be the losers either because they are collateral damage or because they are the target.

The Middle East remains a pivot for geo-politics because of its oil reserves and the hostilities among the main regional powers - Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel – which are all highly antagonistic to each other and have ambivalent relationships with the US. The American ruling class has been reassessing its military-economic perspective on how the region fits into the map of its global interests (and one parameter is that it will soon become a net energy exporter) and how to work its relationships with these regional players. There have been many twists and turns in the recent past.

Although the Obama administration has tended to distance itself from the Saudi regime, in part because of the ambiguities about its role vis-á-vis some of the Sunni militias and the financing that has come from within the Kingdom, there are limits to how far it can go: Saudi Arabia remains hugely important to the world economy as the largest oil producer and the primary balancer of supply and demand in the global market and the US can’t ignore its pressure. Saudi commissioned two new ballistic missile sites last year, one targeting Israel and the other Iran. Iran wants to maintain its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and supports the Assad regime in Syria as a means of ensuring it. Israel wants to destabilise Hezbollah – which was also US policy. However, Israel’s punitive actions in Gaza are considered by the US, with an eye to the opposing Arab interests, to be ‘disproportionate’; and the US and Iran have made tentative approaches to one another concerning the uranium enrichment centrifuges (to the displeasure of Israel) – and in recent weeks have even worked together militarily against Islamic State. It is impossible to forecast where this nest of vipers is going to end up; in reality, there is no end to it.

The volatility of events is increasing as all imperialist participants probe and test their opponents and allies. They take advantage of opportunities as and when presented: as Russia did in Crimea as Western manoeuvres in Ukraine unravelled, as ISIL did in Iraq seeing Western indecision over how to deal with contending militias. It is in this Middle East theatre that the maelstrom is strongest. IS vows to destroy the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the 1916 deal between France and the UK to divide the Middle East into spheres of influence and control, and which gave rise to most of the borders in the region. The major imperialisms may go for fragmenting Iraq into Kurdish, Sunni and Shia segments; which, interestingly, was a view proposed by (now Vice-President) Joe Biden when he launched his presidential campaign in 2006. This may contribute to the West’s hesitation in choosing its friends and foes in the Middle East when last year’s foes are this year’s friends.

It is remarkable how crises seem to appear as if from nowhere. Added to regular censorship, the epidemic of yellow journalism obscures actual events behind deceptive and diversionary perspectives, and how quickly it uses a new issue to put the last one in the shade. The Russians are inhuman because their proxies shot down the MH-17 airliner over the Ukrainian war zone, as if the US hasn’t done the same thing ;(4) beheadings by IS are barbaric, but those carried out by Saudi Arabia are not ;(5) last year, Assad’s gassing of Damascus suburbs was barbaric and crossed Obama’s and Cameron’s ‘red lines’ but this year get scarcely a mention. This is not hypocrisy – hypocrisy needs a moral compass –it is only bourgeois interest shifting with the currents.

For the bourgeoisie, a pile of corpses is just so much political capital in demonstrating the evil behaviour of The Other, defined as needs dictate and used to justify the cruellest responses; the sheer vindictiveness and viciousness of the Israeli pulverisation of Gaza being a supreme exemplar. The demonization of populations is all the easier when a militia or a regime acts barbarically. Mass murder, displacement and dispossession are acceptable collateral damage in the furtherance of imperialist interest. For the ruling class, charnel houses are but an expedience.


October 2014

NOTES 1. For a broader treatment, see the article ‘Virtual Trillions’ in Internationalist Perspective 56.

2. The French government has put this sale on hold.

3. See the article on events in Ukraine in this issue.

4. Iranian Air Flight 655 in 1988 was deliberately destroyed using missiles fired from USS Vincennes.

5. 19 judicial beheadings took place in a two-week period in August.

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