Bush victory belies imperialist crisis
17 November 2004
For all the gloom and drama surrounding the Bush election success and the bloodbath which inevitably followed in Fallujah, there is surprisingly little in the way of socialist analysis of the significance of Bush’s election victory and of the current direction of US imperialism.
One popular view is that the Bush victory is a victory of the religious right. There is no doubt that Bush cultivated this constituency, promising to amend the constitution to prevent gay marriage and going as far as organising referenda on this issue in eleven key states to make sure that the religious right were brought out. There is no doubt that there is something to fear about a popular base so soaked in superstition that they want to prevent the teaching of science in schools. Neither is there any doubt but that Bush’s re-election, and the debt he owes this constituency, means savage attacks on gays, women’s rights, black people and the poor. However, it would be a mistake to see this base as in any sense in control – years of voting for Democrats never put working-class or black people in the driving seat and a large moral right does not prevent the US sex industry from being the largest in the world. In any case the Republican coalition that Bush heads includes large constituencies that support elements of gay rights and women’s rights and to move too far would be to split the party.
A slightly less superficial view of the election victory looks to big business. The Bush regime contains the leaders of corporate America, who donated hundreds of millions of dollars to see him re-elected. His first term saw the removal of even limited environmental restrictions on pollution by big business, massive tax breaks for the rich and the slashing of health and social security programmes. The Bush regime has shamelessly plundered Iraq and transferred the resources directly to the companies most closely connected to the US government.
The problem with this analysis is that Bush’s opponent, John Kerry, is also the candidate of big business. He also is a billionaire, supported by hundreds of millions in donations by corporate America. He, like Bush, is also is a member of the ‘Skull and Bones’ society of Yale university. Only the elite are admitted. Three of the last five presidents and candidates for office have been members of this secret society of the super-rich. He also has promised to protect the interests of the corporations.
So how do we understand what is happening? We don’t have to take at face value the ideology presented by Bush supporters of a deep moral basis for their vote. For example, the religious right at one time was synonymous with anti-Semitism. Today it defends Greater Israel. It led lynch mobs against rights for black people. Today it sports a handful of rich and reactionary blacks in its ranks. A wing of corporate America supported Kerry against Bush – but it insisted that the Kerry programme be almost identical to the Bush programme. It is much more likely that the issue that dominated the campaign was the issue on which people voted – and that issue was Iraq and behind Iraq, a strategy calling for merciless military domination of the planet.
If we accept the idea of a referendum on imperialist strategy then we can explain the energy and emotion generated by two lacklustre candidates as being based on the atmosphere of crisis which accompanied the debate. From this perspective the global capitalist system, with the US as its leading component and lynchpin, is in crisis. The economic manifestation of this crisis is a whole series of global collapses, beginning with the Japanese collapse over a decade ago. The US, by sheer political and economic power, prevented the progress of these economic collapses, but in the process shifted from being the chief global creditor nation to being the major debtor nation. The idea of crisis doesn’t necessarily mean weakness. The US remains the only superpower. It does mean that it is trapped in contradictions that, for all its power, it cannot resolve.
The crisis is above all an economic crisis and is not fully understood or described, with elements remaining subject to debate among Marxist economists. However a classical Marxist outline would be as follows:
Capitalism contains within itself two long term tendencies. Neither are inevitabilities and neither by themselves will bring about the end of capitalism – that will be the outcome of struggle involving the working class, but both are elements in periodic crises that shake capitalism.
The first is the tendency of the rate of profit to fall over time. The other is the tendency of the composition of capital to change, with the proportion of manufacturing capital decreasing and the proportion of finance capital increasing. As finance capital is parasitic on other forms of capital, it tends to generate speculative bubbles and increase instability. The phenomena of globalisation is essentially a strategy to maintain stability by transferring vast floods of wealth from the third world to the capitalist centres, from the working class to the rich and from public to private hands.
US financial policy since the mid-80s has been to feed speculative bubbles to avoid collapse. As a result, each financial crisis gets bigger and bigger and more and more unstable and a whole battery of weapons are deployed to control the instability.
• Artificially low interest rates (below
the rate of inflation).
The movement advocating the main elements of this approach, the neoconservatives or neocons, argues that the crisis can be resolved by force. At home this means all-out assaults on the working class, directly through wage cuts, indirectly through cuts in social welfare and culturally through a new right-wing morality. Abroad it means scrapping all the bodies, institutions and laws governing US relations with the world and imposing a direct US empire obtaining its mandate by force and suppressing not just the rebellious of the colonial and semi-colonial world, but also any economic challenge from its rivals in Europe or a possible future challenge from China. A central element of this doctrine is that the US has the right to unilaterally take military action against any country that it perceives might become a threat – even if it has not yet become one!
The neocons needed immediate and absolute control of the state to enforce their solution to crisis. Clinton was a right-winger who introduced many of their policies, but he wasn’t reactionary enough and was the focus of a ferocious campaign to force him out of office on the grounds of sexual misconduct. When Clinton’s term of office ended and Gore won the popular vote, the count was fixed and the result handed to Bush by the reactionary judges of the US Supreme Court. The neocons needed a popular mandate and the fact that the Bush regime has now won legitimacy is important to them.
The idea of crisis also explains the inability of Kerry and the Democrats to mount an effective challenge. It is only in the good times that capitalism has a range of strategies. In crisis is has only one strategy – that of all-out offensive. That means that the party not in government has to oppose the incumbent while supporting almost identical policies. The task is almost impossible to pull off and Kerry didn’t manage it.
The immediate prospect is grim. Investigative reporter John Pilger talks of normalisation to explain events in Fallujah. He is talking about the role of the media in presenting as everyday something that is quite clearly criminal. The pulverising of Fallujah and its inhabitants is clearly an atrocity on a grand scale – justified as preparing the town for elections! The fact that the Red Crescent is to be excluded from the town and the US is to ‘tidy up’ alone illustrates the neocon dogma; ‘the rule is that there are no rules’. In Palestine the story that only Arafat stands in they way of peace evaporates with his death, but it is immediately clear that Israel will continue its criminal policy with the full support of the US. The brushing aside of lapdog Blair on the issue of Palestine, and the failure to adopt some cosmetic plan for a peace conference, means that Bush does not want to disguise his policy on Palestine, but to intimidate the Palestinians into unconditional surrender. At home right wing, racist Attorney General John Ashcroft is to be replaced by Alberto Gonzales, the man who drew up the torturer’s charter under which Guantanamo Bay is run and who describes the Geneva Convention on prisoners of war as ‘quaint’. Condoleezza Rice, who recently justified the Israeli murder of a quadraplegic man, is to become secretary of state.
If the idea of crisis shows the depth and intensity of the imperialist offensive, there is hope in one simple fact. The neocon strategy has failed. A strategy of force does not resolve the crisis of capitalism and in fact accentuates many of its elements. The 9-11 attacks gave George Bush widespread popular support in the US, but the domestic offensive since then meant that he won narrowly in a tweedledum and tweedledee election amid manifestations of popular hatred in the majority of urban centres where the working class is centred. Tax giveaways resulted in a jobless recovery where only the rich benefited. Insistence that the other capitalist powers buy the dollar has aided the US economy as the dollar fell sharply, but runs the risk, alongside the rising price of oil, of leading to a catastrophic collapse. Babble about spreading democracy has proved to be purest hokum, reducing to supporting an Israeli ‘democracy’. As the colonial-settler state subsumes the rights of non-Jews and bases its ‘democracy’ on ethnic cleansing the argument is far from convincing. In Iraq the military strategy has failed absolutely. The claim was that the technical dominance of US military power, which essentially is a generation ahead of all other armies, would so terrify the population that they would be incapable of resistance. In fact the campaign demonstrates Napoleon’s famous dictum that you can do anything with a bayonet except sit on it. It shows that technical superiority cannot substitute for the need to fully occupy territory if you are to control it. That lesson means that the US cannot credibly threaten invasion of Iran and North Korea, named as next on its list of targets.
All the signs are that the US plan B is plan A all over again. As George Bush so elegantly put it, you are either with us or against us – absolute resistance or capitulation. There is nothing on offer for the working people of the Middle East or for the planet overall. A number of major factors will then come into play:
The gunboat policy is a sign of the decay of imperialist power. A power that has genuine economic superiority can buy its friends. The military option accentuates the economic crisis – for example the cost of the Iraqi war is immense and in any has the effect of bringing forward a crisis of the price of oil that might otherwise have been delayed. Acting to prop up the global economy simply means that each bubble is larger and more unstable and the eventual collapse more devastating.
A scissors factor operates on other imperialist powers: They are trapped between the Blair approach – support for Bush without visible gains that will eventually lead to his political destruction – or the open enmity towards France and Germany that tries to suppress economic competition from Europe through military and political intimidation. They will only confront the US if desperate, but they may become so if forced to pay the US debt of watch the US corner the world’s oil reserves. Interimperialist rivalry was to some extent suppressed during the Cold War. It is never strong enough to make the capitalists forget the threat from the working class, but can create fissures and openings that workers’ movements can exploit.
The attrition of existing alternatives – this exists most clearly in Palestine, where the existing leadership, and the Arab bourgeoisie as a whole, plead with the US to stop Israeli genocide at a time when the US is employing Israeli specialists to practice identical techniques in Iraq. The only existing alternative, the Islamists, offer a military strategy that can’t possibly out-terrorise the imperialists. The future alternative of a working class movement able to remove the Arab bourgeoisie is not yet present but the possibility of such a movement exists in nascent form where the pressures are greatest – in Iraq itself.
The re-emergence of the working class. This is most likely in the US itself. The uselessness of supporting a capitalist ‘opposition’ has been richly demonstrated. The American working class will be a major target in the coming offensive and the internal and internal contradictions will come together in one simple fact – a war strategy requires a massive army that can only come from press-ganging the working class into the military.
Those most unwilling to draw these conclusions will be socialist militants themselves. The ABBers (anybody but Bush) on the US left who supported the Kerry campaign keep hoping that an opportunist strategy will throw together some opposition that can halt the offensive. If that’s not the case we are in for a long hard slog to build a working class movement. All that it has in its favour is that the working class does have the power to defeat Bush – the liberals don’t.