The Role of the Movement against Global Capital in the Fight against War

 by Andy Pollack


[The author is a labor activist and member of the Labor Party in New York City.]

Within days of the horror at the World Trade Center activists in various movements for peace and social justice mobilized to try to forestall the war plans of Bush and friends. Those who’ve been building the movement against capitalist globalization have naturally been among those launching the vigils, educational events, press releases, and petitions against the coming war.

The fight against that war will have to be the first priority of progressives around the world. But we mustn’t let the warmongers in the White House distract us from the fight against global capital as capital. In fact it’s crucial that we make the burgeoning movement against capital the centerpiece of the antiwar struggle.

The Mobilization for Global Justice, in calling off the street actions previously planned to coincide with the D.C. IMF/WB meetings, said that it didn’t want to use the MGJ name in upcoming antiwar actions, that since MGJ is not primarily a peace group it would be opportunist and pretentious to claim it could take the lead on this front.

While there are valid tactical considerations behind MGJ’s stance, both in canceling the actions and in its organizational modesty, I would argue that in fact over the long haul the strongest movement for peace can only be built if the movement against global capital is at its core and openly presenting itself as an alternative both to the warmongers in Washington and to the reactionary fundamentalists (of every religion) who prey parasitically on the despair of the world’s exploited.

It may take us some time to articulate concisely and clearly to the public, in fact even to ourselves, the connections between the fight against this particular war and the issues we’ve been raising against the IMF/World Bank/WTO and the multinational corporations and banks (and their servants in public office). Ironically our enemies have not been slow at all in articulating these connections from their own perspective.

On Friday, September 14, for instance, two columnists on the New York Times op-ed page, in their calls for military vengeance, made quite clear that for them this is not a war just against Islam, but against anyone resisting capital’s right to rule the globe.

Regular Times columnist Thomas Friedman (who in recent weeks has been calling for NATO to occupy the West Bank and Gaza) describes with approval Shimon Peres’s recognition that “this is not a clash of civilizations—the Muslim world versus the Christian, Hindu, Buddhist and Jewish worlds. The real clash today is actually not between civilizations, but within them—between those Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and Jews with a modern and progressive outlook and those with a medieval one. We make a great mistake if we simply write off the Muslim world and fail to understand how many Muslims feel themselves trapped in failing states and look to America as a model and inspiration. Their terrorism is driven by pure hatred and nihilism, and its targets are the institutions that undergird America’s way of life, from our markets to our military.” (Emphasis added.)

And of course Friedman is just as clear as are we that the military is inevitably used to protect those markets. That’s why he insists the war be launched with the most clearly stated goals—and this also explains why such racists as Bush and Giuliani have taken pains to appear to be against Arab-bashing in the streets of the U.S. They want as many allies as they can find in this war from the ranks of “modernist,” that is, pro-market Arabs (and Arab-Americans). By making clear which side their budgets are buttered on, the warmongers feel, they can best motivate Third World ruling classes to resist the pressure of “the Muslim street.”

Friedman continues:

“This civil war within Islam, between the modernists and the medievalists, has actually been going on for years—particularly in Egypt, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Pakistan. We need to strengthen the good guys in this civil war. And that requires a social, political and economic strategy, as sophisticated, and generous, as our military one.”

For Friedman, this war is a continuation on a grander scale of the Camp David-Oslo strategy: convince local ruling classes that peace means participation in trade; Western-dominated, but with sufficient crumbs for all elites. In the Middle East, that meant convincing Sadat, Mubarak, King Hussein, and finally Arafat, to join “America’s way of life,” that is, join the world of modern markets and thus turn ever more openly against their own poor. Thus the increased trade, even free trade pacts, with Egypt and Jordan; thus the free trade verbiage in the Oslo Accords. Now, for Pakistan, Iran, Syria, etc., etc., it means the same choice: be part of world trade or face sanctions.

Ronald Steel, a professor of international relations at the University of Southern California, makes the same point on the same page of the Times in even blunter terms.  It’s worth quoting him at some length:

“Even though we cannot yet be sure who directed and carried out the attacks against us, we do know that there are those in the world who hate us. Trapped between the traditional world in which they were born and the confusing world of modernity in which they inescapably live, they seek a single cause for their confusion, their resentments, their frustrated ambitions and their problems of cultural identity. It is perhaps not surprising that they would focus on the world’s most powerful state as the object of their resentment.

“They hate us because we champion a ‘new world order’ of capitalism, individualism, secularism and democracy that should be the norm everywhere. We orchestrate a global economic system that dictates what others shall produce, what they shall be paid, and whether or not they will find work. We proudly declare that we are the worlds undisputed Number One. Then we are surprised that others might hold us responsible for all that they find threatening in the modern world.” (Emphasis added.)

That last sentence would at first make you think that Steel is about to oppose Western economic and military domination, and urge us, as have progressive writers who see this contradiction, to deal with the root causes of terrorism.  But Steel—being in favor of “our” world domination—merely wants, as does Friedman, the utmost clarity on how to convince Third World elites of their stake in global rule by mostly U.S.-based multinational corporations.

“This does not mean that we should shrink from retaliating against those who attack us and the leaders of any state that harbors them. But at the same time we cannot deal effectively with terrorists unless we understand them. It would be a mistake to assume that the terrorism is a spillover from the continuing troubles in the Middle East. Even if the Palestinian-Israeli quarrel were settled tomorrow, the war of the traditionalists against the modernizers— he war in which we find ourselves combatants—would go on. What happened this week is part of a global phenomenon not limited to any single geographical area. Today it might be focused in Central Asia, tomorrow in Latin America or Asia.

“It is a war in which the weak have turned the guns of the strong against them. This is a war that is showing—despite the proud claims of the globalizers—that in the end there may be no such thing as a universal civilization, of which we all too easily assumed we were the rightful leaders.”

This last is the typical pessimism of those who’ve convinced themselves they carry the White Man’s Burden: we’ll never be able to civilize them, we must be prepared forever to use, without gratitude, a combination of military might and cooptation of local elites on their behalf.

Edward Herman quickly picked up on this theme in the mainstream media (see his and others’ articles at the zmag.org site):

“The Times then goes on to blame terrorism on ‘religious fanaticism…the anger among those left behind by globalization,’ and the ‘distaste for Western civilization and cultural values’ among the global dispossessed. The blinders and self-deception in such a statement are truly mind-boggling. As if corporate globalization, pushed by the U.S. government and its closest allies, with the help of the World Trade Organization, World Bank and IMF, had not unleashed a tremendous immiseration process on the Third World, with budget cuts and import devastation of artisans and small farmers. Many of these hundreds of millions of losers are quite aware of the role of the United States in this process. It is the U.S. public who by and large have been kept in the dark.”

Even before September 11, Friedman and friends were baiting our movement as being antimodernist, of standing in the way of progress, which for them can only be defined as capitalism. But in fact, in the ugly days to come, as Bush’s war leads to fundamentalist retaliation, which leads to further U.S. war measures, and on and on, the ONLY forces pointing a progressive way forward, the only forces which can eventually build a sane world are those who have been mobilizing in the millions against global capital in Seattle, in Davos, in Quebec, in Genoa, in Porto Alegre, and elsewhere.  What’s more, only we can provide a rational alternative to those who hate war but see no other way to end terrorism.

Little more than a week before the World Trade Center attack, millions of South African workers struck against privatization. Not long before that millions in Argentina struck against IMF/World Bank-imposed austerity. And there is no doubt that but for the events of September 11 hundreds of thousands would have been in the streets in Washington at the end of this month.

We must not let this war interfere with these strikes, with solidarity on behalf of these strikes, and with the global movement which has gotten better and better at articulating the alternative world which the workers involved in those strikes can create.

When we oppose war we are going to be facing some very difficult discussions. We can make some very strong arguments about the role of the U.S. in organizing and financing fundamentalists in their fight against the Soviets (and in supporting other right-wing terrorists around the world against various left-wing forces). We can make very strong arguments about the millions murdered by Washington. But in the long run we must prove that, as the World Social Forum declared in Porto Alegre, “Another World Is Possible”—a world not only where the warmongers are brought to bay, but also a world reconstructed by and for workers, women, children, and for the survival of the planet itself.

Those working in solidarity with Palestine have felt all too keenly the disastrous relationship of forces there, in which the bourgeois Arafat regime and the fundamentalists have marginalized what remains of the Marxist and feminist left. In this they’ve only felt more directly and tragically the weakness felt by the whole global left facing the end of the bureaucratized workers’ states in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and the decline of the labor and allied movements.

That’s why the movement against global capital has heartened all of us. And that’s why more than ever in these days of looming war we must continue to build that movement, and integrate its demands with the call to end this and all wars.