Sunday, June 1, 2014

Don’t mention the war

by Michael Roberts

As President Obama announced the final phased withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, I was reading The Second World War, a Marxist history by Chris Bambery   It is a very succinct account of the war, showing that it was a continuation of the cynical and intense rivalry between imperialist powers that had culminated in the 1914-18.  That useless and violent Great War did not resolve who would be top dog among the imperialist powers.  That required another terrible war before American imperialism became the hegemonic power.  But the second world war was different from the first in that it was also a fight by working people to defeat the rise of fascism and dictatorships that destroyed all independent class action with genocide, racism and permanent militarism.  Bambery’s book reminds us of just how many millions upon millions of all races, nationalities and creeds perished under jackboot of dictatorship as well as during a war for markets and global power.

But wars are not only a terrible product of capitalist rivalry, they are often necessary for capitalism to recover from the depths of recurrent recessions and depressions.  Outdated and loss-making capital is destroyed; governments and the taxpayer come in to revive industry’s profits through building war machines and labour accepts worse conditions, longer hours and rationing for the ‘war effort’.  It took the second world war to enable profitability to be restored in the US after the Great Depression.  The New Deal failed to do so.

So wars can be beneficial to capitalism when it is on is knees.  But wars are also expensive and are waste of resources (labour and capital) that could have been applied to productive investment that creates more value and surplus value.  The strategists of capital in the White House, Downing Street, the Elysee and the Kremlin may reckon that going to war is sometimes necessary to preserve markets and future profits and power. But wars come at a financial cost, especially ‘small wars’ that the major capitalist economies have conducted at various intervals since 1945 under Pax Americana and the New World Order with the collapse of Soviet Union after 1989.

The financial cost of these small wars of 21st century so far (Afghanistan and Iraq) continues to mount.  The cost to the US economy is now put at $6trn, which I estimate is a deduction of about 0.3% of national output every year since 2001 and 1.5% points off annual ‘productive’ business investment

We also have a new report on the cost to the UK economy of Britain’s support to the ‘coalition of the willing’ in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Wars_in_Peace_Foreword_and_Intro is a semi-official study produced by the Institute of Strategic Studies, the research front for British intelligence.  According the report, so far, it has cost £40bn, equivalent to the sort of cuts in the social welfare budget that the current government has imposed on the poorest Britons.  It is enough to recruit over 5,000 nurses and pay for them throughout their careers. It could have funded free tuition for all students in British higher education for 10 years.  It’s a sum equivalent to more than £2,000 for every taxpaying household.

These are the examples used in another study by Frank Ledwidge, Investment in Blood, published this week by Yale University Press. Ledwidge was a civilian adviser to the British government in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan,,  According to Ledwidge, since 2006, on a conservative estimate, it has cost £15m a day to maintain Britain’s military presence in Helmand province, Afghanistan. The equivalent of £25,000 will have been spent for every one of Helmand’s 1.5 million inhabitants, more than most of them will earn in a lifetime.

Ledwidge estimates British troops in Helmand have killed at least 500 non-combatants. About half of these have been officially admitted and Britain has paid compensation to the victims’ families.  The rest are based on estimates from UN and NGO reports, and “collateral damage” from air strikes and gun battles. Ledwidge includes the human and financial cost of long-term care for more than 2,600 British troops wounded in the conflict and for more than 5,000 he calls “psychologically injured”. Around 444 British soldiers have been killed in the Afghan conflict, according to the latest official MoD figures.

And it has been all for nothing.  Ledwidge says Helmand is no more ‘stable’ now than when thousands of British troops were deployed there in 2006. Opium production that fell under the Taliban, is increasing, fuelling corruption and the coffers of warlords.  Though British and other foreign troops were sent to Afghanistan to stop al-Qaida posing a threat to Britain’s national security, “of all the thousands of civilians and combatants, not a single al-Qaida operative or ‘international terrorist’ who could conceivably have threatened the UK is recorded as having been killed by Nato forces in Helmand,” Ledwidge writes.

The real beneficiaries of the war, he suggests, are development consultants, Afghan drug lords and international arms companies. Much of British aid to Afghanistan is spent on consultancy fees rather than to those Afghans who need it most. The real reason Britain has expended so much blood and money on Afghanistan is simple: “The perceived necessity of retaining the closest possible links with the US.”

As the fest of criticism and counter-criticism of Thomas Piketty’s book continues in the economics media and elsewhere, just a note to say that I have written a new review of his book for Weekly Worker ( that should be published in the next week or so.

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