World War I—Its Causes and Consequences (Pt 4)

October 19, 2014

Could it happen again?

This August marked the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. Could it happen again? Before exploring this question, I should review how the world has changed since those European summer days of a century ago.

I have already examined in this blog the changes in imperialism—the underlying cause of the “Great War”—over the last hundred years. But before I explore the question of whether something like the Great War could happen again, I should briefly summarize these changes.

The main powers in Europe

At the start of 1914, there were a number of independent imperialist “powers,” as they were called, that were in economic, political and, as events were soon to demonstrate, military competition with one another. In Europe, the main powers were Britain, Germany, France, Russia and Austria.

Britain had been for the preceding century—since the defeat of Napoleon—the most powerful country in the world. Britain’s military power was largely naval. As the British chauvinists put it, Britannia ruled the waves. It was naval power that held the English empire—“where the sun never set”—together. In turn, British naval power was made possible by its highly advanced—for the time—industry.

France, which had been Britain’s primary rival in the world war that followed the French Revolution, was a significant imperialist power in its own right. It had a large empire in Africa, Indochina and elsewhere. Its industrialization, however, had always lagged behind that of Great Britain.

As a result, large amounts of idle money capital tended to pile up in France compared to the situation in the more dynamic capitalist countries. Since the French capitalists converted a relatively smaller amount of their money capital into industrial capital, a relatively larger amount was converted into loan capital—finance capital. Much of this capital was loaned abroad, especially in Russia.

By the beginning of the 20th century, however, France was no longer Britain’s most important rival within Europe. Germany, due to its rapid industrialization, had replaced France in that role. In Germany, capitalist production based on the latest technology was developing fast. Because its industrialization had come later than Britain or France’s—Germany wasn’t even unified as a country until the 1870s—Germany had relatively few colonies.

However, unlike the case in France and increasingly Britain, the German capitalists tended to quickly convert the money capital that passed through their hands into productive capital—both constant and variable. Therefore, finance capital developed somewhat differently in Germany than it did in Britain and France. In Germany, there was a need to mobilize every spare penny and place it in the hands of the industrial capitalists. As a result, Germany’s banking system was ultra-modern, with both commercial and investment banking centralized in a small number of huge “universal banks.”

This stood in contrast to the older British and to a large extent even the U.S. pattern, where commercial and investment banking were conducted by separate companies. The biggest of the German universal banks was the Deutsch Bank, which remains to this day Germany’s most powerful bank.

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World War I—Its Causes and Consequences (Pt 3)

September 21, 2014

Some particularly unpleasant consequences of the ‘Great War’

During July and August, 2014, Israel waged a brutal one-sided “war”—if it can be called a war—against tiny Gaza. More than 2,200 Palestinians, the vast majority civilians, and around 500 children were killed. The Israeli slaughter created a worldwide wave of outrage. Demonstrations against the Israeli actions were held around the world.

This latest Israeli assault on the Palestinian people is part of a long-running conflict rooted in what the Palestinians call al Nakba—“the catastrophe,” in Arabic—that occurred in 1948. In that year, Jewish settlers systematically drove the majority of the residents of Arab Palestine out of their native country into refugee camps, where survivors and their descendants are still to be found 65 years later.

There have been many attempts by well-meaning people to solve this conflict. Why can’t the Israeli Jews and the Palestinians, both Muslims and Christians, learn to live together in peace? Though “historic Palestine” is a small country, there is room enough for all present Jewish residents of Israel and all Palestinians in the refugee camps and the Diaspora to live happily together. The real question is not why can’t they live together but why don’t they?

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World War I—Its Causes and Consequences (pt 2)

August 24, 2014

Wars rarely turn out the way their initiators expect. In our own time, we can point to many examples. George W. Bush and Tony Blair, when they ordered the invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003, believed that the U.S.-British forces would defeat Iraq’s armed forces—weakened by years of sanctions, continued military attacks, and forced unilateral disarmament—within weeks with hardly any casualties on the side of the invaders. It would then be “mission accomplished.”

But now in August 2014—100 years to the month since the outbreak of the “Great War”—the U.S. has resumed bombing Iraq as the government it created crumbles. The reason this government is failing is that virtually no Iraqi wants to fight and die for it. Why should an Iraqi fight for a foreign-imposed government?

Nor should we forget the war against Afghanistan launched by the Washington war-makers in October 2001 against the Taliban government, which had no modern armed forces, only a militia. Within weeks, U.S. media were writing about that most unequal war in the past tense. But now, 13 years later, the U.S. is still struggling to find a way to exit that war without the return of the Taliban to power. That war didn’t turn out as the Washington war-makers expected either.

Nor has the air war fought by U.S-NATO against Libya in 2011 turned out the way the Obama administration, which launched that war, expected. And the same will probably be true of the most recent war—if it can even be called a war—launched by Israel, with at least the tacit support of the U.S., against the people of tiny Gaza, which has no army, air force or navy.

This August marks not only the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I but also the 50th anniversary of the infamous Gulf of Tonkin Incident. If we were to believe the U.S. propaganda of the time, (North) Vietnam’s tiny navy attacked without any provocation the mightiest navy the world had ever seen! This “incident” occurred—or rather didn’t occur—on August 2, 1964, just two days short of the 50th anniversary of the start of the “Great War.”

The U.S. Congress used this faked incident to grant the Johnson administration cart blanche to wage war against Vietnam, which the administration took full advantage of by launching a series of bombing raids on the Democratic Republic of Vietnam that August. This gave way to a steady air bombardment of (North) Vietnam—the South had been subject to steady U.S. bombardment for the preceding five years—the following year after Johnson won re-election as the “peace candidate.”

While the Washington war-makers succeeded in killing millions of Vietnamese people and doing incalculable damage to the environment with Agent Orange and other forms of environmental warfare, in the end the war against Vietnam did not turn out the way the war-makers in the White House, the Pentagon and Congress expected. For example, the renaming of Saigon Ho Chi Minh City was probably not part of Washington’s war plans.

Nor did the war against Korea, which is usually seen as beginning in June 1950 but really began when Washington occupied the southern part of Korea in 1945, turn out exactly as the Washington war-makers intended, though they succeeded in killing millions of Korean people and left no multistory building standing in the northern part of the country.

The rule that wars seldom turn out the way those who start them expect was certainly true of the general European war that began exactly a century ago. To the generation that actually fought, it was known as the “Great War” or “the World War,” ”the war to make the world safe for democracy,” or, most ironic of all, “the war to end all wars.” But as a result of unintended consequences of the war, it had to undergo a name change. It was renamed World War I, a mere prelude to the even greater bloodbath of World War II.

‘Before the leaves fall’

When the general European war commenced on August 4, 1914, each warring imperialist power was convinced that it would be a short war and that it would emerge victorious. Or as was said, the war would be over “before the leaves fall.”

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World War I—Its Causes and Consequences (pt 1)

July 27, 2014

Owing to the author’s and editors’ participation in this weekend’s Gaza protest, the following has been posted a little later on the scheduled publication day than usual.

Almost exactly 100 years ago, on June 28, 1914, shots rang out in the city of Sarajevo, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Assassinated on that day were the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and Sophie, his wife and Duchess of Hohenberg. Serbians and other “south Slav” nationalists struggling to create a federation of the small south-Slav nations—Yugoslavia, in their language—were held responsible. Within little more than a month, the entire world order as it had existed prior to June 28 completely unraveled. First Europe and eventually the world plunged into what was to become known as World War I.

Among the pillars of the world order that collapsed in 1914 was the international gold standard. Under this system, central banks issued banknotes that were actually promissory notes payable in gold coin of a definite fineness and weight to the bearer on demand. As late as mid-1914, in the imperialist countries, gold coins still circulated side by side with banknotes, which along with bank checks were used for large transactions. Everyday purchases and wages were paid in coins made out of silver or base metals.

The fact that currencies of the imperialist nations were defined as a certain weight of gold of a given fineness meant that there was, within the narrow limits of the “gold points,” fixed rates of exchange among the imperialist countries. In effect, a single currency—gold—existed among the imperialist countries, with pound-sterling, dollars, marks, francs, and rubles merely local names for the universal currency, gold.

The international gold standard encouraged a massive growth of world trade and international investment rivaling today’s “globalization.” Individual countries on the gold standard had to remain on it or their access to the London-based capital markets would be undermined.

Things had not always been this way. In the mid-19th century, currencies of most European countries—with the exception of Britain—were defined in terms of weights of silver, not gold. The Russian ruble was a paper currency and was not convertible into either gold or silver at the state bank. In contrast, the United States defined both a silver and gold dollar, along with a fixed legal rate of exchange between the two. This system was known as bimetallism.

But since the value of gold and silver—the quantity of abstract human labor needed to produce a given weight of gold and silver bullion—constantly changes, it was the “cheaper” dollar that actually circulated. Originally, this had been the silver dollar, but by the middle of the 19th century after the gold dollar was made slightly lighter—in effect devalued—the U.S. was, like Britain, for all practical purposes on the gold standard.

By mid-1914, all these currencies, including the Russian ruble, were on the gold standard. Only the currencies of semi-colonial or colonized countries such as China and Mexico were still defined in terms of weights of silver or were paper currencies. And in 1914, after years of populist resistance to central banking, the U.S. Federal Reserve System began operations establishing the centralized management that the U.S. gold standard had previously lacked.

Before 1914, the U.S. gold standard was managed by a combination of private for-profit bankers, such as J.P. Morgan, and the U.S. Treasury. The flaw in this system was that there was no mechanism to meet a sudden increased demand for currency as a means of payment such as tends to develop during crises. Under the old U.S. national banking system, when a crisis hit, panic-stricken depositors would attempt all at once to convert their deposits into cash. As a result, the crisis would rage unchecked until money capital, in the form of gold bullion eager to take advantage of the sky-high U.S. interest rates caused by the panic, arrived from overseas.

The cyclical crisis of overproduction that hit with full force in the fall of 1907, as had happened periodically during the 19th century, triggered a panicky run on U.S. commercial banks as depositors rushed to convert their deposits into cash. But the changing conditions of the early 20th century made bank runs much more dangerous than they had been earlier.

By 1907, the U.S. had emerged as the world’s leading industrial power. Far fewer of the unemployed could return to their family farms to ride out the crisis like many still could during the 19th century. But there was another factor at work. Because the U.S. had now emerged as the world’s leading industrial as well as agricultural power, a run on the U.S. commercial banking system threatened to crash the entire global capitalist economy. Therefore, a U.S. central banking system had to be created to allow a rapid expansion of the quantity of means of payment in a crisis.

The danger was that if this were not done, during a crisis so much money capital in the form of gold bullion in search of the highest rate of interest would be shipped to the U.S. from Europe and elsewhere that the European central banks would be forced off the gold standard. To protect the international gold standard, it was therefore necessary for the U.S. to create a system of central banking just as the European countries already had done that would make it easy to issue extra dollars in a crisis. The very knowledge by bank deposit owners that extra dollars could be created during a crisis would make bank runs far less likely. When the Federal Reserve System began operations at the beginning of 1914, the international gold standard was now secure. Or so it seemed.

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Low-Wage Workers of the World, Unite!

June 29, 2014

On May 15, 2014, a worldwide strike of McDonald’s workers involved workers in at least 33 countries, both imperialist and oppressed.

While participation in the strike varied, and most workers who participated were out for only an hour or so, this was a historic event all the same. It points the way forward to a far more internationalist future for the workers’ movement. To understand why this is so, we have to examine long-term underlying economic changes making the low-wage movement both possible and necessary.

This post is part of a series that explores the evolution of imperialism and the world capitalist economy in the century that began with the events of August 1914—the start of World War I. Let’s go back, not a full century but rather half a century, to the year 1964. This is the mid-way point between 1914 and the present day.

In 1964, the postwar, post-Depression “Long Boom” (strictly speaking, a series of industrial cycles with strong booms and relatively mild recessions) was underway. Indeed, to all appearances the “boom” was gaining momentum. In 1964, the U.S. and world capitalist economy entered a cyclical boom following a period of stagnation—a pause in the long postwar expansion—that occurred in the wake of the global economic recession of 1957-58.

Over the next couple of years, the Long Boom picked up steam as it was fueled—in addition to purely cyclical forces—by U.S. federal government deficits created by the escalation of the Vietnam War (called the American war by our good friends in Vietnam), further increased by a huge regressive tax cut signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964, backed up by the Federal Reserve Board’s then expansionary policies.

This was the heyday of Keynesian economics, and even many Marxists were inclined to see the Long Boom as the new norm of capitalism thanks to the increasing intervention in the economy of the capitalist state. The Johnson administration boasted that the U.S. economy was so strong that the government could follow policies that would provide both “guns and butter.”

Despite these “good times,” it was becoming obvious, even to bourgeois economists, that due to the growth of automation in industrial production, the rate of growth of traditional factory jobs, though still rising in absolute terms in both the imperialist and oppressed capitalist countries, would absorb only a small part of the coming generations of young workers. This was especially true in the United States and Britain, where long-term economic growth was much lower than in Western Europe and Japan. Many social scientists and other observers expressed fears that a permanent crisis of mass unemployment was inevitable.

With few exceptions, however, professional economists insisted there was no danger of a crisis of permanent mass unemployment caused by automation. What was really happening, they claimed, and had been claiming since concerns about the long-term effects of automation on employment first arose in the 1950s, was a shift from an industrial economy where most jobs were “blue collar” jobs in factories, mining, construction, and agriculture to a “post-industrial” economy where most jobs would be white-collar salaried office jobs.

Computerization and the automation linked to it, the economists insisted, was actually creating more jobs than it was destroying. As the role of computers grew dramatically in coming years, economists assured us, huge numbers of highly skilled white-collar workers would be needed to write the software programs that would run on all those computers.

As a result, the traditional blue-collar working class would fade away over the next few decades to be replaced by the highly paid “middle-class” white-collar workforce. Since salaried white-collar workers have little interest in unions, unions were becoming obsolete and had little future. These unfolding developments—along with the “boom” that many viewed as permanent due to government policies inspired by the work of British economist John Maynard Keynes—represented the final refutation of Marx, the economists explained to their university students.

Instead of Marx’s predictions of a society increasingly polarized between a relatively few, extremely rich capitalists, on one hand, and a great mass of low-wage blue-collar workers, on the other, the “free enterprise system” was allegedly evolving toward a society that would be made up overwhelmingly of a high-salaried “middle class” without the extremes of wealth and poverty that had marked the early days of capitalism.

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Is Russia Imperialist?

June 1, 2014

What started out as a small-scale demonstration in Kiev’s Maidan—Independence—Square against the government of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in late 2013 has escalated into a crisis that in a worst-case scenario could develop into a full-scale shooting war between Russia and the U.S-EU-NATO world empire—“the Empire” for short. As more facts have came out, it has became clear that the demonstrations had a pro-imperialist, pro-Empire character from the beginning. In addition, it is now obvious that the U.S. government has been heavily involved since the beginning.

The one-sided U.S. media coverage of the “pro-Maidan movement,” as the pro-imperialist forces in Ukraine are called; the activities of U.S.-funded NGOs; and the U.S. role in the pro-imperialist “Orange Revolution” of 2004 all point in the same direction. In addition, as the crisis developed it was revealed on the Internet that U.S. diplomats favored right-wing neo-liberal banker Arseniy Yatsenyuk, or “Yats,” as the diplomats affectionately called him. Sure enough, right after the coup that overthrew Yanukovych, “Yats” was named prime minister of the new coup government in Kiev. But there is more.

According to Wikipedia, on April 18, 2014, Burisma Holdings, one of the leading oil and natural gas production companies in Ukraine, announced Hunter Biden’s appointment to its board of directors. “Burisma holds licenses covering the Dnieper-Donets Basin and the Carpathian and Azov-Kuban basins and has considerable reserves and production capability,” the on-line encyclopedia stated.

Hunter Biden, a lawyer, is the son of U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden. According to Wikipedia, Hunter Biden’s résumé includes multiple connections to the financial industry and government: “From 2001 to 2008, Biden was a founding partner of Oldaker, Biden, and Belair, LLP, a national law firm based in New York. He also served as a partner and board member of the mergers and acquisitions firm Eudora Global. Biden was chief executive officer, and later chairman, of the fund of hedge funds PARADIGM Global Advisors…. At MBNA, a major US bank, Biden was employed as a senior vice president.”

Wikipedia further reports: “In addition to holding directorships on the Boards of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, The Truman National Security Project and the Center for National Policy, he sits on the Chairman’s Advisory Board for the National Democratic Institute (NDI). The NDI is a project of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).” The NED is the organization that does what the CIA did covertly 25 years ago.

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Schedule Change Announcement

April 29, 2014

My next post will be published Sunday, June 1. This will be a delay of two weeks from my regular schedule to enable me to take a spring break. This post will take up the issue of the nature of Russia today, imperialist power or oppressed country.

Sam Williams

Money, wage-labor and Marx’s ‘Critique of the Gotha Program’

April 20, 2014

This August marks the 100-year anniversary of the start of World War I, which forever changed the world. This is the first in a series of posts that will center on the causes and consequences of World War I. The most important consequence was the conquest of political power by the working class of the former Russian Empire. Rosa Luxemburg, along with other Marxists of the time and since, saw that the catastrophe overtaking Europe in 1914 had deep economic roots.

At the beginning of this year—2014—I couldn’t help but wonder if a major new European war could break out on the 100th anniversary of the “Great War,” as it was called, that started in 1914. This seemed extremely unlikely, and indeed history rarely respects anniversaries in this manner. But in light of the crisis in Ukraine, a major new war that would mark the anniversary of the events of August 1914 doesn’t appear as unlikely as it did at the start of the year. Many of the ghosts of the last century seem to be rising from their graves once again.

In the coming months, I will explore the economic roots of the Great War in light of the ideas on crisis theory I have been exploring in this blog. Though the Great War itself was not a crisis of overproduction, it did break out during the 1913-14 global recession and was the greatest crisis by far that capitalist society had experienced up to that time. And we have already seen that the Great War played a crucial role in the development, starting in 1929, of what seemed to be an ordinary cyclical recession into first the super-crisis of 1929-33 and then the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The conquest of political power by the working class of the former Russian Empire began in Petrograd (aka St. Petersburg and Leningrad) with the insurrection of October 25 (old calender) or November 7 (new calender). Here I want to examine the fate of that first serious attempt to build a socialist society in light of Marx’s last—and as we will see perhaps least understood—work “Critique of the Gotha Program.”

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Capitalist Anarchy, Climatic Anarchy, Ukraine and New Threats of War and Fascism

March 23, 2014

The Keystone XL pipeline

President Obama appears to be nearing a decision on approving what is called the Keystone XL pipeline. This proposal by the TransCanada Corporation calls for a pipeline to be built that will, if Obama gives the green light, transport “heavy oil” produced from tar sands in the Canadian province of Alberta to refineries in the U.S. Midwest and along the Gulf Coast.

The U.S. president had indicated that his approval would depend on a State Department report on the proposed pipeline’s effects on the Earth’s climate. Opponents of the pipeline pointed out that the refining of heavy oil releases more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than the refining of “sweet oil” does.

In late January, the State Department released its report, which claimed that the pipeline would have little if any adverse effect on the climate. The State Department reasoned that even if the pipeline was not built, the Alberta tar sands would be used for oil production anyway. The resulting heavy oil, according to the State Department, would in the absence of the XL pipeline be transported by rail. So, the State Department concluded, there would be little adverse effect from the proposed pipeline project. These conclusions put heavy pressure on Obama to approve the construction.

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Big Challenges Facing Janet Yellen

February 23, 2014

Yellen testifies

Janet Yellen gave her first report to the House Financial Services Committee since she became chairperson of the Federal Reserve Board in January. In the wake of the 2008 panic, her predecessor Ben Bernanke had indicated that “the Fed” would keep the federal funds rate—the interest rate commercial banks in the U.S. charge one another for overnight loans—at near zero until the unemployment rate, as calculated by the U.S. Labor Department, fell to 6.5 percent from over 10 percent near the bottom of the crisis in 2009.

However, the Labor Department’s unemployment rate has fallen much faster than most economists expected and is now at “only” 6.6 percent. With the U.S. Labor Department reporting almost monthly declines, it is quite possible that the official unemployment rate will fall to or below 6.5 percent as early as next month’s report.

But there is a catch that the Fed is well aware of. The unexpectedly rapid fall in the official unemployment rate reflects the fact that millions of workers have given up looking for jobs. In effect, what began as a cyclical crisis of short-term mass unemployment has grown into a much more serious crisis of long-term unemployment. As far as the U.S. Labor Department is concerned, when it comes to calculating the unemployment rate these millions might just as well have vanished from the face of the earth.

In reality, the economic recovery from the 2007-09 “Great Recession” has been far weaker than the vast majority of economists had expected. Indeed, a strong case can be made that both in the U.S. and on a world scale—including imperialist countries, developing countries and the ex-socialist countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, as well as oppressed countries still bearing the marks of their pre-capitalist past—the current recovery is the weakest in the history of capitalist industrial cycles.

The continued stagnation of the U.S. economy six and a half years since the outbreak of the last crisis has just been underlined by a series of weak reports on employment growth and industrial production. For example, according to the U.S. Federal Reserve Board, U.S. industrial production as a whole declined 0.3 percent in January, while manufacturing, the heart of industrial production, declined by 0.8 percent.

Yellen, as the serious-minded policymaker she undoubtedly is, is well aware of these facts. She told the House committee:”The unemployment rate is still well above levels that Federal Open Market Committee participants estimate is consistent with maximum sustainable employment. Those out of a job for more than six months continue to make up an unusually large fraction of the unemployed, and the number of people who are working part time but would prefer a full-time job remains very high.”

Over the last several months, the growth of employment, which serious economists consider far more meaningful than the the U.S. Labor Department’s “unemployment rate,” has been far below expectations.

Bad weather

Most Wall Street economists are sticking to the line that the recent string of weak figures on employment growth and industrial production reflect bad weather. The eastern U.S. has experienced extreme cold and frequent storms this winter, though the U.S. West has enjoyed unseasonable warmth and a lack of the usual Pacific storms, resulting in a serious drought in California. So it is possible that bad weather has put a kink in employment growth and industrial production.

But there is also concern—clearly shared by the new U.S. Fed chairperson, notwithstanding rosy capitalist optimism maintained by the cheerleaders that pass for economic writers of the Associated Press and Reuters—that the current global upswing in the industrial cycle has failed to gain anything like the momentum to be expected six years after the outbreak of the preceding crisis.

Two ruling-class approaches

This growing “secular stagnation”–lingering mass unemployment between recessions—has produced a growing split among capitalist economists and writers for the financial press. One school of thought is alarmed by continued high unemployment and underemployment. This school thinks that the government and Federal Reserve System—which, remember, functions not only as the central bank of the U.S. but also of the world under the current dollar-centered international monetary system—should continue to search for ways to improve the situation. Another school of thought, however, believes that all that has to be done is to declare the arrival of “full employment” and prosperity.

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