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At stake in Ukraine is the future of globalized capitalism

Ukraine is only one front in an all-round confrontation

EuropeGlobalizationWar Zones

Photo by Dmytro Smolienko/Ukraine Territorial Defense Forces/Twitter

The far-reaching war in Ukraine is only one phase of a world-wide conflict that began earlier. In international relations, the driving forces are often obscured by surface occurrences, such as immediate military events and the din of apologetic or denunciatory rhetoric. What is at stake in Ukraine is not Ukraine: it is the future of globalized, neoliberal, financialized, US-ruled capitalism, the model that has been in place since the 1980s. While the parties gear up for the next stage of the fighting, while moronic propaganda continues unabated, even as public attention has dwindled, it is important to get to the root causes.

Hierarchical global economy

Globalization was the expedient found as a way out of the impasse faced by the Western economy following the exhaustion of the postwar economic boom. Capitalism was restructured and its territorial base broadened. As productive activities became less profitable, they were relocated to the “developing” world. The West reserved for itself the command functions, military industries, high technology and the more profitable sectors of finance and services.

Neoliberal globalism is hierarchical. At the top, the United States rules the system, uses the dollar to drain the world’s resources for its own benefit, and retains the key role of military arm of the whole structure. At the second rung, Europe, Japan and Canada reproduce the US formula and are progressively deindustrialized, financialized and service-sector oriented, while their foreign and military policies are integrated into those of the United States. At the bottom of the ladder, the rest of the world, more than 80 percent of humanity, is expected to produce industrial goods and raw materials in subcontracting economies.

The elites of the second-tier countries are in a subordinate position and are expected to bite the bullet in disputes with the US, but they are nonetheless beneficiaries of globalized capitalism, and thus are self-interestedly loyal to the US leader, no matter what the cost to their people and to their countries’ independence. Under the effect of Americanization they tend to merge with their American counterparts. As for the elites of the lowest-ranking countries, their share in globalization is, with individual exceptions, the smallest, and their countries’ room for maneuver the most limited.

The tribulations of American-centric globalism

They are of two kinds, one economic, the other political. Hailed at the outset as a guarantee of limitless and endless prosperity, financialized neoliberal globalization revealed its nature as a casino economy in crises and bubble bursts with international repercussions, notably in 1987, 1994, 1997 and 2008. Moreover, as was to be expected, the economies that produce material goods did not take kindly to their subordinate status to the rentier economies at the top of the pyramid. Their interests were translated politically in a desire for autonomy expressed through their states.

But globalization requires the compliance of states, their openness to external intervention and the loss of whole components of their sovereignty. The unipolar world knows only the state of the American hegemon, the others being only local extensions. It is monolithic and cannot tolerate autonomous tendencies, let alone withdrawals or disconnections, the risk being that a successful case set an example and led to a chain reaction of imitations.

Herein lies the motive of regime change operations in Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, Venezuela and Yemen over the last 30 years: to destroy states so as to dislocate societies and set back economies in order to remove the means of possible autonomy.

Russia and China

The same method is being applied to Russia and China, with military pressure by means of Ukraine and Taiwan, economic threats, media campaigns and attempts at regime change. The strengthening of these two countries coincides with the relative weakening of the US, so much so that their submission becomes a precondition for continued US hegemony. Failure would expose American-centric globalism to eventual unraveling. Without disguise, Biden’s National Security Strategy, made public in October 2022, sets the sequence: put down Russia, then do the same to China.

Bleeding Russia white and inducing it to crumble is the proclaimed policy of the US. The objective is destabilization and internal collapse. This amounts to posing an existential threat to the Russian state and to Russia as a country, a situation explicitly provided for in its doctrine for the use of nuclear weapons. A Third World War looms as the outcome of this strategy.

In the event that nuclear war is avoided, an American success against Russia would prolong US hegemony and weaken China, itself destined for the same treatment. A breakup of Russia would represent the worst calamity in that country’s history, already strewn with disasters overcome at great cost. The Yeltsin years would look blessed by comparison. On the sidelines, disoriented and adrift, Europe will have its hands full rescuing its economy jeopardized by anti-Russian sanctions. It would be an understatement to qualify these stakes as enormous.

The conflict between the US and Russia is fought out in Ukraine but its scope is much wider. Can US-defined globalization continue? Can another form of globalization replace it? Can globalization be non-hierarchical? At the same time, Ukraine is only one front in an all-round confrontation pitting a dominant power, the US, and two other powers standing in its way, Russia and China. In Taiwan, a similar scenario is taking shape. Moreover, Ukraine and Taiwan are not the sole bones of contention between Washington, Moscow and Beijing. There are and will be others as Russia and China close the gap with the US and the latter strives to enlarge it by all means available, including force.

Samir Saul is a professor of history at the University of Montreal. Michel Seymour is a retired professor at the same university.

A different version of this article first appeared in Le Devoir.

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