Trump’s delusional Iran oil gambit is decades too late

Trump is using everything he’s got to wage economic war on Iran. His problem is that ‘everything he’s got’ is not nearly enough, as the virtual monopoly power once wielded by the US has long since evaporated.

Last week, a senior State Department official announced the US’ intention to cut Iranian oil exports “to zero” by November 4th this year, by threatening to impose sanctions on any company still trading beyond that date. Brian Hook, director of policy planning at the State Department, told reporters on July 2nd that “Our goal is to increase pressure on the Iranian regime by reducing to zero its revenue on crude oil sales”.

Hitherto, experts had predicted US sanctions would see a reduction of around 500,000 barrels per day (bpd) by the end of the year – barely one fifth of the country’s current export of 2.4 million bpd. Even the sanctions that preceded the 2015 nuclear deal – which, unlike today’s unilateral effort, were supported by a broad alliance of world powers, including Russia and China – only succeeded in removing half Iran’s oil (1.2m bdp) from the market.

Hook reassured the world that “We are confident there is sufficient global spare oil capacity”, claiming Saudi Arabia alone could produce an additional 2 million bpd. Saudi Arabia and Russia have already agreed to increase production by 1 million bpd reversing the production quotas imposed in the wake of the oil price slump in 2016.

This determination to destroy Iran by any means necessary has, of course, been the Trump administration’s signature foreign policy since day one, with almost every member of his team harbouring a long-held and well documented vendetta against the Islamic Republic. What is new with Trump, however, is not this determination as such – let’s not forget that Iran has been on the official Pentagon hitlist since at least 2001 – as the means used to pursue it. As I argued in 2014, the nuclear deal was not, on the part of the west, a genuine rapprochement so much as a long term programme of western infiltration, based on the ‘Libya model’, aimed at building a pro-imperialist fifth column within the Iranian state in order to prepare the ground for ‘regime change’ in the future. The Trump team, of course, has no patience for the long game, and want to simply cut to the chase. The reason for this obsession with destroying Iran – shared by all factions of the western ruling class, despite their differences over means – is obvious: Iran’s very existence as an independent state threatens imperial control of the region – which in turns underpins both US military power and the global role of the dollar. And as South-South cooperation continues to develop, this threat grows every day, whilst the means to diminish it are reduced by the same measure.

At the same time, the US military encirclement of China – begun in earnest as Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’, but, like so much else, undergoing major escalation under Trump – is intimately linked to a policy of cutting off China from its suppliers. In this sense, a policy of ‘isolating’ of Iran is aimed at isolating China also, as China is the largest market for Iranian crude.

Trump’s policy, however, is likely to get few buyers. Pepe Escobar has explained the likely response to Trump’s plans from each of Iran’s top customers:India will buy Iranian oil with rupees. China also will be totally impervious to the Trump administration’s command. Sinopec, for instance, badly needs Iranian oil for new refineries in assorted Chinese provinces, and won’t stop buying. Turkey’s Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci has been blunt: “The decisions taken by the United States on this issue are not binding for us.” He added that: “We recognize no other [country’s] interests other than our own.” Iran is Turkey’s number-one oil supplier, accounting for almost 50% of total imports. Russia won’t back down from its intention to invest $50 billion in Iran’s energy infrastructure.. And Iraq won’t abandon strategic energy cooperation with Iran. Supply chains rule; Baghdad sends oil from Kirkuk to a refinery in Kermanshah in Iran, and gets refined Iranian oil for southern Iraq.”

With European companies likely to be more nervous about insubordination to US diktat, this merely leaves more tantalising investments open to Russian and Chinese companies.  As Philip K. Verleger noted, “It’s a huge opportunity for China and Russia to cement relationships with Iran”.

At the same time, all this activity and uncertainty is bound to push oil prices higher, meaning that any reductions in export quantities may well be compensated by increased revenues.

Trump’s attempts to persuade the rest of the world to cut off its nose to spite its face, then, are likely to all on deaf ears. It is in this light that Trump’s igniting of a global trade war must be seen.

At midnight on July 5th, US tariffs on $34billion worth of Chinese imports went into effect, at a rate of 25%. Trump told reporters that tariffs on a further $16 billion worth were likely to follow in two weeks, fulfilling a pledge made in April to slap tariffs on 1300 products totalling $50 billion annually. These tariffs were designed to target the Chinese aerospace, tech and machinery industries, as well as medical equipment, medicine and educational material. The final total, however, he added, could eventually reach $550 billion – “a figure”, noted Industry Week, “that exceeds all of U.S. goods imports from China in 2017”. These China-specific tariffs follow tariffs on steel (25%) and aluminium (10%) imports imposed on the EU, Mexico and Canada four days earlier.

According to Fox Business, Canada stands to lose around $2billion per year as a result of these tariffs, with Brazil, Russia, China and South Korea each set to lose at least $500 million annually.

But this may be precisely the point: not only to ‘bring jobs back to the US’, but also to create new forms of leverage to be used against rivals and allies (and is there really a distinction between the two anyway these days?) alike. So far, of course, Trump has famously refused to offer waivers to his allies. But with Trump, nothing is forever – everything is leverage, to be played and bartered as seen fit. Could it be, then, that waivers may yet be offered to countries who manage to wean themselves off Iranian oil by the November deadline? And even if not, the very willingness to use trade as a weapon so openly and brazenly is a reminder that there may be further punishments on the way for those who do not toe the line on the strangulation of Iran. After all, as Louis Kuijs, chief economist at Oxford Economics, has pointed out, this ‘new era’ has only just begun: “Clearly the first salvos have been exchanged,” he said, “and in that sense, the trade war has started. There is no obvious end to this”.

Nevertheless, Trump’s bark may yet be well worse than his bite. For on thing, the counter-measures employed by the Chinese – a reciprocal 25% tariff on $50billion of US goods – will hit the US hard. One product subject to the new tariff, for example, is soybeans. China is the market for 25% of all soybeans grown in the US. Grant Kimberley, a soybean farmer with the Iowa Soybean Association, estimates that this tariff alone could lead to a 70% drop in exports.

But even, even apart from the Chinese counter-measures, the US-imposed tariffs themselves are likely to hurt the US as much as China. A report on NPR suggests thatfor now, the blows are threatening to land hardest on non-Chinese companies like New Jersey-based Snow Joe/Sun Joe”, which – like so many other US companies, relies on Chinese imports for crucial parts of its supply chain. And in the end, of course, all of these increased costs will be passed on to the US consumer, directly depressing their real wages.

For China, however, the impact is likely to be – in the words of Ethan Harris, head of economic research at Bank of America Merrill Lynch – “quite small”.  Industry Week noted that whilst “In the past, the U.S. used its economic clout to win trade skirmishes with developing countries… China, whose economy has grown tenfold since it joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, poses a much more formidable adversary.” James Boughton, a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ontario, told the site that  “The dynamic is different from anything we’ve seen. China has an ability to ride out this kind of pressure, to weather the storm, that a lot of countries didn’t have in the past.”

 

Indeed, Trump has already been forced into retreat in some areas, given the likely repercussions. Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group consultancy, told CBS that  “Trump backed off a couple weeks ago on implementing what would have been significant measures against them. You’re familiar with the Chinese telecom firm ZTE. They were going to be made bankrupt by White House regulations what were being put in place. Trump himself intervened with a tweet saying, we don’t want to lose all of those Chinese jobs… [Trump] knows that China can hit back really hard and they can hit back in a targeted way against red states, against American farmers. So I would be very surprised if we saw significant escalation as opposed to significant rhetoric before elections in the U.S. in November, which is what we’re really talking about here.” Other possible Chinese retaliatory measures include limits on exports of rare-earth metals, essential for technologies such as smartphones, and of course the zero-option of dumping its holdings of US treasuries (although this would not be without serious pain to itself of course).

So the idea that trade war will somehow pressure China (and others) to dump Iran seems ultimately fanciful. The process of ‘delinking’ has already gone too far. China is already Iran’s biggest trading partner, and – with Chinese tariffs on US oil looming – is more likely to increase Iranian imports to replace that no longer coming from the US rather than vice versa. Iran already sells its oil to China in yuan, rather than US dollars, meaning that the entire US-controlled financial system is completely circumvented for the countries’ bilateral trade, and therefore outside the control of US-imposed financial sanctions. Looking forward, Iran is set to play a crucial role in the development of China’s mega Belt and Road Initiative, with a high speed railway planned to provide sea access to landlocked central Asia. And with French oil giant Total’s planned investment in the massive South Pars oil field in jeopardy, the contract is likely to now go to a Chinese company.

Economics professor Danny Quah noted back in 2009 that the dependence of China on US markets tended to be greatly overestimated in the west. By 2006, only 20% of Chinese exports were to the USA, with a far higher proportion going elsewhere in East Asia. In 2013, the US was not even the largest single customer for Chinese goods (it came second to Hong Kong). By 2o15, only 18% of Chinese exports were to the US; with almost half (48.5%) going elsewhere in Asia, 19.9% to Europe, 4.2% to Latin America, and 4.1% to Africa. In other words, the global South accounted for more Chinese exports than US and Europe combined. And, as is becoming clearer by the day, US and Europe are not combined.

According to the CIA’s world factbook, Chinese exports in total represent just under 20% of GDP. If we do the maths, then – 20% of 20% – it turns out that just 4% of Chinese GDP comes from exports to the US. Significant, but hardly the economic gun to the head that Trump seems to believe.

The days when loss of market access to the US meant oblivion for countries like China are long gone. The future now lies in South-South cooperation precisely along the lines of the multibillion Belt and Road Initiative. The US government understand that, and their attempts to simultaneously sabotage both China and Iran are last-ditch attempts to prevent the inevitable – further delinking, and a global economy in which the US is becoming increasingly peripheral. But the truth is, this effort is already too late.

This article originally appeared on RT.com 

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Trump’s attack on the lira – a new financial war on the Global South

Trump’s attack on the Turkish lira, combined with recent Federal Reserve moves to choke off dollar supply, are pushing the world towards a rerun of the 1997 currency crisis. This may well be the whole point.

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Last Friday, Donald Trump announced new sanctions on Turkey – comprising a doubling of the steel and aluminium tariffs he had introduced earlier this year. Turkey’s currency was already struggling, but these new sanctions “are the straw that broke the camel’s back”, commented Edward Park of the UK investment management firm Brooks Macdonald. The same day, the Turkish lira fell to more than 6 to the dollar, the first time it had ever done so, hitting a low point of 7.21 to the dollar on Sunday. Following Turkish caps on currency swaps, it slightly regained some of its lost value, and was trading at 6.12 by Wednesday, still way below the 4.75 to the dollar it was worth last week. Whilst the Turkish move has had some effect, this should not be overstated: simply banning the trading of lira above certain limits, which is effectively what Turkey has done, is hardly a sustainable means of revalorising the currency; andaccording to the FT, investors “are still ratcheting up bets against Turkey in other ways, such as through credit default swaps that pay out in the case of a debt default”. Turkish bank shares now stand at their lowest level since 2003.

Underlying the currency’s vulnerability are the country’s massive dollar debts. Turkish companies now owe almost $300 billion in foreign-denominated debt, a figure which stands at over half its GDP. The question is – how did this happen, and why has it suddenlynow become a problem?

During the era of Quantitative Easing, the US Federal Reserve flooded US financial institutions with $3.5trillion in new dollars, much of which poured into so-called ‘emerging markets’ such as Turkey. So long as the music kept playing, this was fine – near-zero interest rates, combined with a weak dollar, made these debts affordable. But since the Federal Reserve ended its programme of QE last year – and then started to reverse it, selling off the financial assets it had purchased (and thus effectively taking dollars out of the financial system) – the dollar’s value has started to rise again, making debt repayments less affordable. This appreciation of the dollar has been compounded by two successive interest rate rises by the Reserve; but it has also been compounded by Trump’s actions. Paradoxically, Trump’s trade wars have led to a further rise in the dollar, as investors have viewed it as a ‘safe haven’ compared to other currencies deemed less able to withstand the unpredictable turbulence he has unleashed. Even the yen and the Swiss franc, traditionally viewed as ‘good as gold’ have weakened against the dollar – as, indeed, has gold itself. As Aly-Khan Satchu, financial analyst at Rich Management, has put it the “US dollar has been weaponised – either deliberately or by design” (is there a difference?), adding that the “dollar is basically knee-capping countries”, warning that other countries will face the same treatment “if they continue to pursue the policies that Erdogan is seeking to pursue”.

Thus Turkey has been hit by a quadruple whammy by the US – interest rate hikes and the choking off of dollars from the Fed; tariffs and sanctions from Trump. The result is a loss in the lira’s value of almost 40% since the start of the year.

And the effects are already being felt far beyond Turkey’s borders; the South African rand fell to a two-year low on Monday, and the Indian rupee, Mexican peso and Indonesian rupiah have all been hard hit. This is unsurprising, as the ballooning of dollar-denominated debts – from $2trillion 15 years ago to $9trillion today, largely in the global South – combined with the reversal of QE was a crisis waiting to happen. All the conditions which prefigured the 1997 East Asian currency crisis are now effectively in place. All that’s needed is a push – which is exactly what Trump has just given.

This is textbook stuff – or should be, if economics textbooks bore any relation to reality (which they don’t). The last ten years are virtually an exact replay of the decade or so running up to the 1997 crisis. Whilst the 1985 ‘Plaza Accord’ dollar devaluation was not exactly Quantitative Easing, it had the same intent and results – a flood of cheap money and dollar debt, and therefore growing global dependence on the dollar and vulnerability to US monetary and economic policy. This vulnerability was then effectively ‘cashed in’ with the ‘reverse Plaza accord’ ten years later, which, as with the current reversal of QE, choked off credit and ramped up interest rates, making markets more jumpy and bankruptcies more likely. In the end, the trigger was the collapse of the baht – the currency of a country (Thailand) with a GDP half that of Turkey – which spiralled into a crisis that ultimately spread across all of Asia, sabotaging the continent’s development and allowing US corporations to buy up some of the most advanced industrial plant in the world for a fraction of its value.

It is not hard, then, to see why Trump and the Fed might well wish to trigger such a crisis today. The more the currencies of dollar-indebted countries slide, the more real goods and services they have to pay in tribute to the US to service the same paper-dollar debts – whilst those who cannot keep up will be gobbled up for pennies on the dollar. Yet beyond these purely economic gains lies also the geopolitical imperative – to maintain and extend US domination by scuppering its rivals. Trump is, after all, about nothing if not the conversion of all possible means of power into leverage to obliterate his opponents. Forcing one country after another to the brink of bankruptcy – and therefore to the IMF for a bailout – is a means of cashing in the dollar-dependency built up over the past decade into raw power. One can easily imagine the demands the US might make in return for its support in securing an IMF bailout – end oil imports from Iran, discontinue involvement with China’s Belt and Road Initiative… the potential is vast. Already direct threats are being made against Turkey about ‘what it needs to do’ to ‘reassure the markets’ – the Times on Tuesday, for example, demanding that “Erdogan should end his spat with the West if he wants to avert a deeper crisis…his course of action should be clear: he should raise interest rates [that is, promise a bigger cut of the Turkish economy to international currency speculators], heed competent economists, explicitly guarantee the independence of the central bank [that is, remove it from democratic oversight], and make up with President Trump” – as, after all, “US support will be needed if the IMF of World Bank is to step in”. Indeed, the targeting of Turkey may well be a response to Erdogan’s insubordination in relation to Iran: noted Robert Fisk this week, “Erdogan is helping Iran to dodge US sanctions which were imposed after Trump flagrantly tore up the 2015 nuclear agreement, and – in a decision demonstrating the cowardly response of the EU’s own oil conglomerates to Trump’s insanity – has announced that he will continue to import Iranian oil. Thus will Washington’s further threat of increased oil sanctions against Iran be blunted.” Trump may well hope – as I argued recently – that tariffs can serve as a weapon to bring recalcitrant states back in line with his Iran policy.

Indeed, it is here that the false dichotomy between the ‘globalists’ and the ‘economic nationalists’ in the Trump White House – and the country at large – is, once again, exposed. When it comes to pushing the global South into bankruptcy, their interests are perfectly aligned. However much Goldman Sachs’ press releases may cry wolf about Trump’s tariffs, the reality is that the trade war is the icing on the cake of the Fed’s own policy of squeezing the ‘emerging markets’. Indeed, Wall st depends on precisely the kind of financial instability which Trump’s trade wars have triggered. As Peter Gowan has noted, “the US economy depends…upon constantly reproduced international monetary and financial turbulence” – while Wall St in particular “depends upon chaotic instabilities in ‘emerging market’ financial systems.” But by draping these actions in the flag, and parading them alongside a chorus of pseudo-shock from the ‘globalists’, their true nature is obscured. The global South now stands on the precipice – with ‘establishment liberals’ and ‘nationalist insurgents’ alike lining up to give them a shove.

An earlier version of this article originally appeared on RT.com 

Is Russia facilitating Trump’s strangulation of Iran?

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Since the earliest days on the campaign trail, it has never been in doubt who Trump and his team have had in their sights. “Iran is the biggest destabilizing force in the Middle East and its policies are contrary to our interests,” Defence Secretary Mattis told his Senate confirmation hearing, having previously claimed the country posed a bigger security threat than either ISIS or Al Qaeda. Mike Pence called Iran the “leading state sponsor of terrorism” whilst new National Security Advisor John Bolton has for years called for Iran to be bombed. Trump himself, in his own little remix of Pence’s phrase, has called Iran “The Number One State of Sponsored Terror”, which presumably means something derogatory.

 

China, of course, was famously accused of “raping our country” by Trump in 2016, whilst White House aide Peter Navarro claimed the country was waging “economic aggression” against the US. Former National Security Advisor Steve Bannon announced this week that “we are at war with China”.

 

Iran and China, then, have been favoured rhetorical targets since day one – but this year that rhetoric has morphed into all-out economic warfare. This month alone, Trump has unleashed tariffs on $60 billion of Chinese goods, threatened to do so on $500billion more, and announced his intention to cut Iranian oil exports to zero by November. These weapons of financial destruction are openly aimed at crippling and sabotaging China and Iran in order to stymie their development and bring them to their knees. Yet at the same time as this is happening, the leader of Iran and China’s major geopolitical ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, has continued to be courted and flattered by Trump. What is going on?

 

On the face of it, these hostile acts against two of Russia’s key allies have, as one might expect, been condemned by Putin’s government. Prior to Trump’s May announcement that he would intended to violate the Iranian nuclear deal by restoring sanctions, the Kremlin warned of “harmful consequences” should he do so. And following the recent Helsinki summit between the two leaders, Putin continued to back the deal (albeit on the grounds of limiting Iranian sovereignty rather than defending it) stating that “The Russian position remains unchanged regarding the Iranian nuclear program, and we believe that the JCPOA is an instrument that makes it possible to guarantee the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons in general and in the region in particular,” adding that the deal had turned Iran into one of the most heavily IAEA-monitored countries in the world. Russia similarly denounced the tariffs slapped on China earlier this month.

 

Yet, behind the rhetorical opposition, Russian actions are facilitating Trump’s aggression. Following 18 months of oil production cuts agreed by Russia and Saudi Arabia in 2016, which had successfully raised oil prices out of the slump into which they had fallen, Russia last month proposed an unexpected and immediate reversal of this policy. The low oil prices which had plagued oil markets before the 2016 cuts were agreed had caused huge problems for producer countries such as Russia, Iran and Venezuela, leading many to believe that the Saudis had been ordered by the US to flood the market in order to sabotage the economies of its geopolitical foes. The new production quotas, then, had given these countries some much-needed breathing space; yet, this June, Russia put forward a proposal to OPEC to increase production by 1.8million barrels per day (bpd) – and, unusually, proposed that these increases were to start kicking in within weeks. In the end, a pact to increase production by 1 million barrels per day – spearheaded by Russia and Saudi Arabia – was agreed by OPEC and non-OPEC countries in late June. The rise was opposed by Iran, Iraq, Venezuela and Algeria, with Iranian oil minister Bijan Zanganeh commenting ahead of the meeting that “OPEC is not the organization to receive instruction from President Trump … OPEC is not part of the Department of Energy of the United States”.

 

Within days of the adoption of the Russian-led production increase, the Trump administration announced its plans to “reduce Iranian oil exports to zero” by November 4th. Questioned on whether such a policy might cause disruption as countries scrambled to replace supplies, State Department policy director Brian Hooks remarked that “we are confident there is sufficient global spare oil capacity.” Russia’s push for increased production had, in effect, smoothed the path for the next round of Trump’s strangulation of Iran. It was precisely this deal which lay behind Trump’s brazen claim that world oil supplies would plug the gap created by the loss of Iranian crude; without the end to Russian-Saudi production limits, this would have been unthinkable. As things stand, however, all the pieces are in place for Trump to apply serious pressure on all importers of Iranian oil. Whilst the Russian-Saudi deal offers alternative sources of supply, the trade war now underway demonstrates Trump’s willingness to use tariffs against those who do not bend to his geopolitical will. Whilst Trump has openly threatened sanctions against those who do not heed his call to end their dealings with Iran, it is quite possible that those who do heed it will be rewarded with tariff exemptions. China, in particular – Iran’s biggest trading partner, and now threatened with tariffs on all $500bilion of their exports to the US – will be particularly under pressure.

 

On the surface, then, Russia’s actions appear self-defeating. The end to the, hugely successful, production quotas of the previous 18 months immediately triggered a drop in oil prices – Russia’s main export commodity – whilst facilitating the escalation of US economic warfare against key Russian ally Iran. Yet there are several reasons Russia may be supporting Trump’s moves.

 

Most obviously, Iran is a major competitor with Russia for oil export markets – especially in Europe. European hopes to reduce dependence on Russian energy supplies are likely to be seriously dashed if they can no longer turn to Iran as an alternative supplier. Quite simply, Russia will sell more oil without Iranian competition.

 

More than this, however, even Trump’s use of tariffs as leverage to push countries away from Iran could be to Russia’s benefit. If Trump does indeed make tariff-free access to the US market conditional on cutting investment and trade with Iran, China would face a major dilemma.

 

China has for some years been not only Iran’s major trading partner, but investment financier as well. In 2011, China  signed a  $20 billion  agreement  to  boost  bilateral  cooperation  in Iran’s industrial and mining sectors. Today, China is poised to take over development of the massive South Pars oil and gas field should the French company TOTAL pull out, as they are widely expected to do, whilst a $3billion deal was recently signed giving SINOPEC the right to expand the Abadan oil refinery in Khuzestan Province. Meanwhile, reports Fox News, “With the U.S. Treasury putting pressure on Western banks to not make any deals with Iran, the Chinese state-owned CITIC bank is extending lines of credit worth $10 billion for Iranian banks. This funding will finance water, energy and transport projects. To bypass U.S. sanctions, the lines of credit will use euros and yuan currencies”.

But most significant for Russia is the 2017 $1.5 billion deal made by the Chinese Export-Import Bank to finance a high-speed railway between Tehran and Mashhad. The railway is envisioned to become part of China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ , creating a high-speed transit route between central Asia and Europe that will shave weeks off current travel times.

This May – in a clear act of defiance to the US – China opened a new train line between China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and Tehran, shortening travel time by 20 days compared to cargo ship. Once the full vision of  a Chinese built high-tech, high-speed rail network across central Asia is realised, however, the current ‘Northern route’ through Russia is likely to be rendered all but redundant.

 

Could it be, then, that Russia sees it as in its own interests to facilitate Trump’s quest to chase Chinese investment out of Iran in order to preserve its trade routes and access to European oil markets?

 

If so, it is likely to be disappointed. For Iran is central not only to the Belt and Road Initiative – China’s multi-trillion, multi-decade long ‘geoeconomic’ programme – but also to its defence strategy. As correctly observed in a recent piece published by The Diplomat, “Iran constitutes [China’s] true priority. China has nurtured bilateral relations with Tehran for decades, leveraging a common resentment toward Western dominance. This partnership has great geostrategic importance to both nations. Thanks to its oil and gas reserves, Iran could help Beijing withstand a U.S. attack on its SLOCs (Sea Lines of Communication).”

For China, much as it naturally seeks to avoid further punishment from the US, Iran is simply too important to be bargained away. Unfortunately not so, it seems, for Moscow.

Originally published in Middle East Eye, July 2018

The war on Iran has begun. Russia must end it.

Things are escalating again in one of Syria’s many wars. Last Sunday, 29th April, two massive strikes – presumed by Israel – reportedly hit the Syrian Arab Army’s 47th Brigade military base and arms depots near Hama, as well as Nairab Military Airport in Aleppo. The attack, thought to have been carried out using powerful ‘bunker-buster’ missiles, created a fireball which could be seen for miles, and triggered a shock measuring 2.6 on the Richter scale, felt as far as Turkey and Lebanon.  It is thought the strikes targeted Iranian surface-to-surface missiles intended for deployment in Syria, and killed 26 – 38 people, including 11 Iranians.

 

The attack appears to have been coordinated with the USA, coming just hours after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo left Jerusalem – where, according to Haaretz, he had “thrilled Netanyahu with hawkish talk on Iran”. That same day, noted the Times of Israel, “news also broke of a phone call between Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump”, whilst Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman was meeting his US counterpart James Mattis in Washington. This feverish activity came less than a week after “Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of the US army’s Central Command, or CENTCOM, whose sphere of responsibility includes Syria and Iran, made a largely unpublicized visit to Israel.” The article concluded that “All this is beginning to look rather like a coordinated Israeli-American operation to limit Iran’s military activities in Syria — simultaneously conveying the message to Moscow that Russia’s green light for Iran to establish itself militarily in Syria is not acceptable in Jerusalem and Washington.” The war on Iran, in other words, has begun.

 

In hindsight, it has been underway for some time. Israel has reportedly conducted over 100 airstrikes in Syria since 2011, but a stepchange occurred last July. On July 9th 2017, Russia and the US agreed on a de-escalation zone in Southwest Syria, which, according to Foreign Policy journal analyst Jonathan Spyer, Israel believed “could seriously complicate the de facto Israeli safeguards in place against Iranian infiltration of the border”. In the four months which followed this agreement, Israeli jets made over 750 incursions into Syrian airspace, an average of six per day, and totalling 3200 hours in the country. Clearly, some serious reconnaissance activity was taking place. Then on October 16th, Israeli jets struck a Russian-supplied S-200 air defense battery in the Damascus area. The attack took place during a meeting in Tel Aviv between the Israeli and Russian Defence Ministers, and was perhaps calculated to send a message to Syria that they can not rely on Russian protection.

 

Then, in January 2018, with the battle against IS almost won, Rex Tillerson announced new goals for the 2000 US troops in Syria, vowing that they would remain until “Iranian influence in Syria is diminished, and Syria’s neighbors are secure from all threats emanating from Syria.” This was followed in February by calls by the French foreign minister for Iran to ‘leave Syria’, and a warning from the International Crisis Group that Israel had “updated its red lines – signalling it would take matters into its own hands if necessary to keep Iran from establishing a permanent military presence in Syria”.

 

Since then, Israel has moved from targeting Syrian army and Hezbollah convoys to the directly targeting of Iranian personnel and facilities.It’s shooting down of an Iranian drone on February 9th led to one of its own F-16s being downed by the Syrian army after it bombed the drone’s command centre, the first time an Israeli warplane had been shot down since the 1980s. Yet, in a very rare admission of responsibility, Israel still called the mission a success, claiming that between one third and one half of Syria’s air defences had been destroyed in the strikes.

 

Two months later, on April 9th, Israeli missiles again struck the same ‘T4’ military base they hit in February. The target this time, however, was specifically Iranian installations and equipment, and 14 Iranian soldiers were killed. According to one Israeli official, this was first time Israel had attacked ‘live Iranian targets’. It was also, apparently, the first time Israel had failed to inform Russia to provide advance warning of an upcoming strike, breaking the ‘de-confliction’ agreement made between Israel and Russia right at the start of Russian entry into the Syrian conflict in 2015.

 

Russia’s response was similarly unprecedented, with Russia immediately revealing Israel’s role in the attack, and Putin calling Netanyahu to warn him that Israel can no longer expect to be able to attack Syria with impunity. Then, following the US-UK-French airstrikes on Syria on 13th April, the chief of the Russian General Staff’s main operations directorate, Colonel General Sergey Rudskoy, floated the idea of providing Syria with the powerful Russian-made S300 air defence system. The S300, capable of tracking up to 100 targets simultaneously over a range of 200km, “would create a no-go situation for Israel if allowed to be made operational by the Syrian regime”, according to former US naval officer Jennifer Dyer, adding that “The kinds of low-level, preemptive strikes (in Syria) the IAF [Israeli Air Force] has executed in the last few years, against Hezbollah targets and the special weapons targets of Iran and the Assad regime, would become virtually impossible. Israel would lose the ability to preempt the ‘build-up’ to war ”. Russia had originally signed a contract with Syria to deliver the S300 system in 2010, but this was scrapped after pressure from Israel. But, on April 23rd, Russian newspaper Kommersant reported that the decision to reverse that suspension and supply the S300 had now been made, with only the technical details left to iron out. Two days later, the Syrian embassy in Moscow claimed that the S300 had in fact already arrived a month ago and was being deployed. The Russian authorities immediately denied this, and reiterated that no final decision on whether or not to supply the S300 had in fact been taken. A few days later, the Israelis struck again, this time with their earth-shaking bunker busters, directly targeting Iranian troops and equipment for the second time. No S300, you see.

 

Media reports, both mainstream and alternative (my own included!), are increasingly nervous about the scenario now unfolding, and rightly so. Yet, whilst the danger of escalation and miscalculation – and specifically, the drawing in of Russia into the Israeli-Iranian conflict developing in Syria – remains real, many analysts have overstated the friction between Russia and Israel – and, indeed, the convergence of interests between Russia and Iran.

 

Despite both being opposed to western-backed regime change in Syria, Russian and Iranian objectives in the region are in fact very different. According to intelligence analysts Stratfor, “Russia’s strategic vision is chiefly focused on eliminating sources of instability and preventing U.S.-led military interventions”, with a “broader goal of establishing itself as an indispensable guarantor of collective security in the Middle East”. In Syria, therefore, the Russians have the “limited objective of ensuring that Assad controls enough territory to negotiate with Syrian opposition factions from a position of strength” in order to create a mediated, negotiated settlement, overseen and guaranteed by Russia.

 

The Iranians, however, are more focused on “containing Saudi Arabia’s power projection capacity across the Arab world”, leading to an “unwillingness to suspend military operations in Syria until Assad has completely vanquished opposition forces….Iran’s belief in the feasibility of a military solution in Syria has made it less willing than Russia to diplomatically engage with Syrian opposition or Kurdish factions during diplomatic negotiations, limiting the scope of the Moscow-Tehran partnership.” Furthermore, “Iran’s use of Syrian territory to create a permanent transit point of weaponry to Hezbollah has alarmed Russian policymakers who seek to preserve strong relations with Israel.”

 

From this point of view, far from seeking to protect Iranian entrenchment in Syria, Russia has a direct interest in restricting it. Israel’s strikes may thus serve a function for Russia, putting pressure on Iran to ‘rein in’ the activities Russia views as disruptive to its own aims. Furthermore, Russia may believe that the Iranian presence in Iran – as an alternative source of support for President Assad – makes the Syrian government itself less willing to sign up to Russia’s diplomatic initiatives. Indeed, on a very basic level, a reduced Iranian presence leaves Assad more thoroughly dependent on Russia – a point, no doubt, made by Netanyahu on at least one of his seven meetings with Putin over the last year. And anyway, a cynic might argue, now the rebellion has been all but quashed, haven’t the Iranians served their purpose?

 

Many people claim that the alliance with Iran is too important for Russia to risk a gambit like this. And no doubt it is. But what if there is no risk? Whilst the Russian-Iranian alliance remains crucial for Moscow’s projection of power into the Middle East, Russia may well calculate that Iran has no interest in jeopardising this however poorly they are treated by their Russian ‘ally’ in Syria. After all, the provision of protection against a US attack on Iran is hardly a buyer’s market – Russia is a monopoly supplier. Safe in the knowledge that Iran really has no-one else to turn to, Russia can afford to let Israel loose on them.

 

Certainly, Israel’s belligerent Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman does not appear to see Russia as an obstacle to Israeli plans for Syria. “What is important to understand is that the Russians, they are very pragmatic players,” he said in Washington recently, “At the end of the day, they are reasonable guys, it’s possible to close deals with them and we understand what is their interest,”. He certainly doesn’t sound like he is referring to a steadfast ally of Israel’s number one foe.

 

It may even be that Russia are still, against all hope, expecting to get something out of the Trump administration, in the form of sanctions relief, or at least some recognition of their security concerns in Ukraine and eastern Europe. Such hopes are surely forlorn.

 

I would like to think Russia is not so cynical as to stand back and allow Israeli aggression against Iran in order to gain leverage in its own relationship with both the Iranians and Syrians, nor so naive as to expect anything from the US. But the omens are not good. The failure to deliver the S300s, or to create any other meaningful deterrent, even after the opening shots in this new war on Iran were fired on April 9th, suggests either cowardice or collusion. And the Russians are not cowards.

 

Yet acquiescing to western aggression has not turned out well for the Russians in the past. Their failure to veto the UN-blessed crucifixion of Iraq in 1991, let’s not forget, was rewarded with nothing more than an economic straitjacket leading to the biggest collapse of living standards (outside of war) in recorded history. Twenty years later, when Russia agreed not to veto the west’s destruction of Libya, what followed was not gratitude, or acceptance, or respect, but western support for an anti-Russian fascist coup on Russia’s western flank, followed by the imposition of a vicious sanctions regime.

 

If Russia really are going to allow their erstwhile Iranian comrades to get wiped out, they really should understand that this is not simply a matter of Israel’s ‘legitimate security concerns’. This is about eliminating Iran’s chance of building up a deterrent in advance of an all-out war against Iran itself. And the destruction of states such as Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Iran is, in turn, about isolating Russia when its own turn comes. This year will see the 80th anniversary of the Munich agreement, another occasion when major powers sacrificed supposed allies in the hope of saving their own skins. That didn’t go so well. Never mind the S300s, Russia need to provide S400s to the Syrian Arab Army and put a stop to this new war before its too late.

 

My reflections on interviewing Noam Chomsky about Libya

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(Write up of my original interview here

I interviewed Noam Chomsky in October 2011, but it was not published for two months, because none of the newspapers, magazines and journals who usually print my work wanted to run it. This was despite the fact that several of them were initially very enthusiastic – at least, that is, until they saw it. In the end, having been rejected by all the major publications of the Western left, it was published by Al-Ahram Weekly, an Egyptian newspaper.

It was controversial because Chomsky is such a popular figure amongst the British and American left, and my article was critical of Chomsky’s position on Libya. One person even refused to believe that the interview was real, and accused me of having made the whole thing up! Some saw it as sectarian, dividing the anti-war movement by unnecessarily criticising one of its leading voices. But as a supporter of the war against Libya, at least in its initial phase, Chomsky could hardly be considered part of the anti-war movement at that moment. It seems pretty obvious to me that the real sectarians in the anti-imperialist and anti-war movements are those who support wars against anti-imperialist states, not those who criticize former anti-war activists for switching sides. Ironically, although many people expressed the sentiment that I was wrong to criticize Chomsky, he himself told me afterwards that he actually prefers ‘confrontational’ interviews like the one with me (although he said he was not used to having them from this side).

One criticism I took more seriously was that as a British citizen, my focus should be on exposing the devious role of British power in the world – not pointing fingers across the Atlantic as if British imperialism no longer exists, as so many in the British left are wont to do. I agree with that. But nevertheless, I do believe that, as a hero to so many in the British left, Chomsky’s positions helped also to facilitate elements of British public opinion behind a British war. Challenging his argument, I felt, was therefore an essential part of the process of challenging British imperialism as well.

Chomsky’s position on the war was that the initial ‘intervention’ was justified, but that it then morphed into something different ( which he termed a ‘second intervention’), which he did not support. This position still makes no sense to me. To offer an analogy: imagine a notorious, mass murdering robber coming to your house, armed to the teeth, asking if he can come in to read the gas meter. Chomsky’s argument seems to be that you should let him in, but if he deviates from his invented task and – as is rather more likely – instead starts to rob and murder, we should at that point build a mass movement to pressure him to stop it. My argument – and that of others who opposed NATO’s intervention – was that the door should be kept firmly shut to these proven criminals.

In fact, it was worse than this, because the initial intervention was not designed to check the gas meter but to destroy Libya’s air defence system (to create a ‘no-fly zone’). All those who supported this, therefore, helped to pave the way for what Chomsky calls the ‘second intervention’ that they opposed, by supporting the destruction of all possible defences against this ‘second intervention’. Further, by calling for the first intervention, they were also helping to build ideological support for the second.

As I put it in subsequent written correspondence with Chomsky:

You have to admit that it is quite a complex position to argue simultaneously: 

a) that the rebels are a progressive movement that should be supported, 
b) that Gaddafi is a monster who should be overthrown, 
c) that although the rebels are calling on NATO to overthrow that monster,  we should focus on organising a huge movement to prevent NATO doing exactly that and
d) arguing all this at the exact moment we have just supported the resolution that was openly designed to facilitate what we are now opposing.”

This was not the first time that Chomsky had supported Western aggression against the third world. In the run up to the Iraq war in 1991, he was asked in an interview what he thought should be done against Iraq, given that he did not support bombing. His reply was: economic sanctions. In the event, both bombing and economic sanctions were imposed, with the latter being far more deadly, killing an estimated 1.5million people, including 500,000 children, and causing the resignation of 3 high ranking UN officials involved, who argued that the sanctions constituted a form of genocide. Once they were underway, Chomsky campaigned against these sanctions. But it is instructive to note that, just as with the case of Libya, at the crucial moment when public opinion was being prepared, he was calling for the very thing he later came to oppose.

This illustrates something interesting about Chomsky and other ‘radical liberals’ promoted in the mainstream media (albeit at the margins), that I had not fully comprehended before: they are tolerated precisely because their criticism is only vocal at moments when it is likely to be ineffective. The crucial moment in the war against Libya was during the run-up. This was the moment when everything was in the balance and criticism might have had some effect. Once it was underway, it would be much more difficult to stop it. Once it was underway, therefore, criticism was tolerated, because it was too late. This helps explain why people like Chomsky are able to hold impressive positions at prestigious American universities, and their views are even promoted, to an extent, through occasional interviews on mainstream TV channels. It is important for imperialism to allow, and even encourage, a certain level of criticism and dissent, because this allows it to pose as a respecter of pluralism and civil liberties. By tolerating those who criticize imperialist policies, but only at moments when that criticism is impotent, imperialism gets the best of both worlds.

Something else I later came to realize, reflecting on this interview, was that radical liberals like Chomsky are fundamentally not anti-imperialists. They object to some of the methods and policies of imperialism, but do not actually dispute the right of imperialist states to wage wars against third world peoples. They seem to believe that, in an imperfect world, only the imperialist states have the muscle to intervene, and that humanitarian interventions are sometimes necessary. Therefore we should call on those states to intervene, but hold them to account when they do so. This relates to another fundamental problem with Chomsky’s brand of ‘radical’ liberalism: the tendency to think the main problem facing the world is all these nasty third world dictators. The West itself is only seen as a problem inasmuch as it supports these nasty people. We are bad only because we support them. They are the real ‘bad guys’, and we (the West) are bad only because we sometimes tarnish our purity by association with them (or sometimes because we act like them). In reality, of course, this has the problem on its head – the ‘third world dictators’ that really cause problems do so precisely when they act as conduits for Western control and plunder: the real and fundamental problem facing the world. In other words, for Chomsky, imperialism itself is not the

main problem facing the world’s peoples, but a secondary problem. During the Cold War, when support for anti-communist strongmen was the West’s preferred method of maintaining global control (Suharto, Pinochet, Mobutu et al), this difference might almost have seemed academic. Radical liberals and anti-imperialists were largely on the same side, united in opposition to this unholy alliance. However, in the current climate – when it is not the propping up of strongmen, but the destruction of all independent third world states, which is the imperial order of the day – the difference is critical. For Chomsky, Western aggression against ‘dictators’ (a catch-all term covering any leader with significant authority in a strong, sovereign state) is to be supported – within certain legal limits of course, and always ‘held to account’.

This also explains Chomsky’s bizarre method of ‘opposing’ the war, when he eventually decided to do so. Rather than highlight those things about Gaddafi that the West objected to, such as his support for African unity and development, opposition to Western military involvement in Africa, ‘resource nationalism’ etc – and thus exposing the real reasons for the war – he tried to paint a picture of Gaddafi as being somehow ‘in bed with the West’. Presumably, in his mind, this would expose the warmongers, because it would show that they were as bad as Gaddafi. In reality, this approach merely served to confuse, demoralize, and ultimately weaken the anti-war movement, by obscuring the fundamental tension between the imperialist and anti-imperialist agendas that was the real driving force behind the conflict.

At the end of the day, of course, Chomsky is who he is: a radical liberal who believes imperialism can and should be reformed and ‘held to account’ rather than ended. We should not expect him to be anything else. Genuine anti-imperialists need to develop their own analysis of events, and ultimately their own political movement and leadership, and not rely on the ‘respectable’ opposition offered to us by the ruling class. This is the fundamental lesson I learnt from interviewing Noam Chomsky.

Yes, a world war is imminent

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Just over a quarter-century before the outbreak of the First World War, global capitalism was in the throes of a deep economic crisis. This original ‘Great Depression’, which lasted from 1873 to 1896, saw tens of millions perish from famine as the ‘great powers’ shifted the burden as far as possible onto their colonies; whilst, at home, anti-systemic movements such as the ‘New Unionism’ burst onto the scene in the capitalist heartlands, presenting a serious challenge to bourgeois rule. Africa was torn apart by imperial powers desperate to secure monopoly access to its riches, and rivalries between these powers constantly threatened to erupt into outright war. In the midst of all this, one particularly astute political commentator gave a disturbingly prophetic insight as to how the crisis would ultimately be resolved, predicting a: “world war of an extent and violence hitherto unimagined. Eight to ten million soldiers will be at each other’s throats and in the process they will strip Europe barer than a swarm of locusts. The depredations of the Thirty Years War compressed into three or four years and extended over the entire continent; famine, disease, the universal lapse into barbarism, both of the armies and people, in the wake of acute misery; irretrievable dislocation of our artificial system of trade, industry and credit, ending in general bankruptcy; collapse of the old states and their conventional political wisdom to the point where crowns will roll into the gutter by the dozen, and no one will be around to pick them up; the absolute impossibility of seeing where it will all end and who will emerge as victor from the battle; only one consequence is absolutely certain: general exhaustion and the conditions for the ultimate victory of the working class.”

The commentator was Marx’s lifelong collaborator Friedrich Engels. The accuracy of his prediction – right down to the numbers killed and the length of the war, not to mention the revolutions and collapse of empires that would result – is truly remarkable. Yet Engels had no crystal ball. What he foresaw was nothing more than the logical outcome of the workings of the global capitalist-imperialist system, which constantly and inexorably pushes towards world war.

The logic is basically this. Capitalism, with its combination of rapid technological progress plus derisory wage payments – both tendencies a ‘natural’ result of competition – leads to a situation where markets cannot be found for its goods. This is because capital’s capacity to produce constantly outstrips the capacity of consumers to consume, as these consumers are, in the main, the very workers whose wages are driven down, or who are made redundant altogether, by improved technology. Ultimately, this results in a crisis of overproduction, with markets glutted, and workers thrown out of work in their millions. Already in 1848, four decades before his prediction of world war, Engels (and Marx) had written that such crises tended to be “resolved” through “the enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces” – in other words, the wholesale closure of industry. Through closures of the most inefficient industries, surplus production would eventually be reduced, and profitability restored. But in so doing, capitalists were effectively increasing the concentration of capital in the hands of the most ‘efficient’ industries, whose productive capacity in the future would render the underlying contradiction yet more insoluble still, and were thereby “paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises, and diminishing the means whereby crises are avoided”. For Engels, the crisis underway by the 1880s was so extensive that the destruction of capital required to overcome it would take more than mere closures – it would take all-out war.

The destruction of capital, however, is not the only means by which to overcome overproduction crises. The other option, said Marx and Engels, is “the conquest of new markets or the more thorough exploitation of old ones”. The period of the late-nineteenth century saw a renewed ‘Scramble for Africa’ as each imperial power sought to grab territories which might one day serve as both sources of raw materials and markets for surplus capital. In North America, the USA was completing its own colonisation of the West and South in imperial wars against the Native Americans and Mexico. By the close of the century, however, all the ‘available’ territories had been conquered. From then on in, argued Lenin, the capture of new colonies could only be at the expense of another colonial power – ushering in a new, imperial, phase of capitalism with an inbuilt drive towards world war.

We have now witnessed two episodes of this cycle of capitalist crisis mutating into world war, the second much more successful in terms of the destruction of capital than the first. Indeed it was so successful that it paved the way for a ‘Golden Era’ of capitalist prosperity lasting almost three decades. But then, once again, the inevitable crisis tendencies began to set in.

The colonial, imperialist nature of postwar capitalism has, to some extent, been disguised by the formal political independence of most of the formerly colonised world. With an unambiguous and unrivalled lead in technological capacity, the Western nations have not required direct colonisation in order to guarantee essentially ‘captive’ markets for their goods and capital. The former colonies have largely been dependent on products, finance and technology from the imperial world without the need for formal political control – and this dependence has been backed up with economic blackmail through international financial institutions such as the IMF and World Bank where possible, and direct military force against resistant nations where necessary.

Such dependence, however, has been decisively eroded since the beginning of the new millenium. The rise of China, in particular, has completely destroyed the West’s monopoly on finance and market access for the global South: African, Asian and Latin American countries no longer have to rely on US markets for their goods or on World Bank loans for their infrastructure development. China is now an alternative provider of all these, and generally on far superior terms of trade than those offered by the West. In times of continued economic stagnation, however, this loss of their (neo)colonies is entirely unacceptable to the Western capitalist nations, and threatens the entire carefully crafted system of global extortion on which their own prosperity is based.

Increasingly unable to rely on economic coercion alone to keep countries within its ‘sphere of influence’, then, the West have been turning more and more to military force. Indeed, the US, UK and France have been permanently at war since the eve of the new millennium – starting with Yugoslavia, through Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Syria and Yemen (to say nothing of proxy wars such as that in the Congo, or the ‘drone wars’ waged in Pakistan, Somalia and elsewhere). In each case, the aim has been the same – to create, as far as possible, conditions of total state collapse. For the creation of ‘failed states’ serves not only to thwart any genuinely independent development, but also to restrict the flow of resources to China (by disrupting nationally-controlled production and facilitating western-run private piracy), create new markets in private security, and provide liquidity for the western banking system through facilitating major criminal enterprises (such as growing heroin, recruiting private sectarian armies to use against other states, and people smuggling). And ultimately, state collapse is deemed a necessary imposition when even the CIA-favoured anti-communist strongmen of the past can no longer be relied on to snub China in favour of the West; indeed, it is entirely indicative of this new era of decreasing western economic power that several of these wars were waged against states whose leaders were once in the pocket of the US (Iraq and Afghanistan) or who they had hoped to buy off (Libya and Syria).

Thus, where it was once, at least in part, the product of productive superiority, the continued supremacy of the West in international affairs is increasingly reliant on military force alone. And even this military superiority is diminishing daily.

Predictions of the length of time left before the Chinese economy overtakes the US economy continue to shrink. In 2016, China’s share of the world economy had grown to 15%, compared to the USA’s 25%. But with a growth rate currently three times that of the USA, the difference is expected to decline rapidly; at this rate, the Chinese economy is on course to overtake that of the US by 2026. In fact, once adjustments are made for purchasing power parity and differential prices, the Chinese economy is already larger. Furthermore, Chinese manufacturing output has been higher than that of the US for over a decade, and exports are one third higher, whilst China produces double the number of graduates annually than the US.

Such developments, however, are not of economic significance only: for it is only a matter of time before economic superiority is converted into military superiority. And this gives the US and its hangers-on an ever-diminishing window of opportunity in which to actually USE their military superiority in order to preserve their deteriorating global power.

Clearly the strategy hitherto has been to avoid direct war with China and its key ally Russia, and instead to focus on ‘taking out’ its real or potential allies amongst states less able to defend themselves. But Russia’s role as a spoiler in the regime change operation in Syria has demonstrated to the US that this may no longer be possible. This has led to a split within the US ruling class on the issue of how to deal with Russia, with one side seeking to purchase Russian acquiescence to wars against Iran and China (advocated by the faction supporting Trump) and the other aiming to simply ‘regime change’ Russia itself (advocated by the Hillary faction). At the heart of both is the attempt to break the alliance between Russia and China, in the case of Hillary by pulling China away from Russia, and for Trump, pulling Russia away from China.

The point is, however, that neither strategy is likely to work, as clearly the breaking of the China-Russia axis is aimed at weakening both of them. Furthermore, even if Putin were prepared to ditch Iran, or even China, for the right price (such as lifting sanctions, or recognising Russian sovereignty over Crimea), there is no way Congress would allow Trump to pay such a price. Trump would dearly love to offer to lift sanctions – but this is not within his gift; instead he can merely offer sops such as withdrawal from Syria, or pre-warning of missile attacks on Russia’s allies – hardly enough to lure Russia into the suicidal severing of alliances with its most important allies.

This conundrum puts the unthinkable squarely on the agenda: direct war with Russia. The last month has shown clearly how, and how rapidly, this is developing. Britain’s carefully calibrated efforts to create a worldwide diplomatic break with Russia can now clearly be seen as a prelude to what was almost certainly planned to be – and may yet become – an all-out war with Iran on the Syrian battlefield. This scenario appears to have been averted for now by Russia’s refusal to countenance it, and the West’s fear of launching such an operation in the face of direct Russian threats, but such incidents are only likely to increase. It is only a matter of time before Russia will be put to the test.

It is easy to see how the Syrian war could lead to a major escalation: indeed, it is difficult to see how it could not. In Washington, there is much talk of the need to ‘confront’ Iran in Syria, and recent Israeli attacks on Iranian positions in Syria indicate that they are itching to get this confrontation under way, with or without prior US approval. Once underway, however, an Iranian-Israeli conflict could very easily draw in Russia and the US. Russia could hardly be expected to stand back whilst Israel reversed all its hard fought gains of the past two and a half years – whilst demonstrating the feebleness of Russian ‘protection’ – and would likely retaliate, or at the very least (and more likely) provide its allies with the means to do so. Indeed, Putin reportedly warned Netanyahu last week that he can no longer expect to attack Syria with impunity. And once Israelis start getting killed by Russian hardware, it is hard to see how the US could not get involved.

This is just one possible scenario for the kind of escalation that would lead to war with Russia. Economic war with China is already underway, and US warships are already readying themselves to cut off China’s supply lines in the South China Sea. Each specific provocation and escalation may or may not lead to a direct showdown with one or both of these powers. What is clear, however, is that this is the direction in which Western imperialism is clearly headed. It has built up its unparalleled armoury for one reason only – to protect its dominant world position. The time is soon coming when it will have to use it – and use it against a power that can actually fight back – whilst it still has a chance of winning.

An edited version of this article was originally published on Middle East Eye

21st century fascism

This article originally appeared in Counterpunch magazine

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It is the contention of this article that we are entering into a new fascist epoch. Movements with outright fascist roots are winning elections and referendums in Britain and the USA, and mainstream electoral parties too are being ‘fascisised’ in the process. Even the left are being fascisised, with the movements against war and neolioberal globalisation increasingly falling under the hegemony of the new fascists. And yet, the term ‘fascism’ has for so long been used as a byword for any kind of brutality or state control to which one takes exception, that many seem not only to have forgotten what it means, but also to be failing to notice it how it is unfolding before their very eyes.

Part of the problem is that fascism has too often been conflated with particular elements of one or other of its historical manifestations, or even with perceived elements that have never, in reality, existed. Many, for example, conflate fascism with military dictatorship. Yet, dictatorships existed for centuries – if not millennia – before fascism, and, as Robert Paxton has noted, “most military dictatorships have acted simply as tyrants, without daring to unleash the popular excitement of fascism”: fascism, unlike most military dictatorships, is a genuine mass movement. Furthermore, fascist movements can still be properly be described as such before they have established any dictatorship. Hitler was a fascist for long before he became a dictator.

Others confuse fascism with ‘totalitarianism’; total state control of all aspects of social life. The very term is a deliberate piece of Cold War propaganda, brought into scholarly use by imperialist strategist Zbigniew Brzenzski in 1956 in order to besmirch communism by drawing a superficial – and, in my view, unsustainable – parallel with fascism. Yet not only is the term an anachronistic piece of propaganda, it, on closer inspection, cannot even be said to apply to fascism at all: fascist governments never gained ‘total control’, but rather, as Paxton has pointed out, “jostled with the state bureaucracy, industrial and agricultural proprietors, churches and other traditional elites for power”.

Even worse, some seem to think that to use the term fascist for anything less than industrial genocide is somehow an insult to the victims of the Nazi holocaust. This definition of fascism, therefore, excludes from its scope not only the entire pre-governing period of the Nazi party, but also the first nine years of Hitler’s premiership: fascism, by this definition, began not with the establishment of Mussolini’s party in 1919, nor with his coming to power in 1922, nor with Hitler’s ascendancy to the German chancellorship in January 1933, but on 20th January 1942, with the advent of the “final solution” at the Wannsee Conference in Berlin. This definition is the most dangerous, as it effectively serves to give a free ‘non-fascist’ pass to anything below the level of mass extermination.

Furthermore, whilst fascism is necessarily anti-liberal, it is not strictly ‘anti-democratic’. Dylan Riley has described fascism as ‘authoritarian democracy’, noting “the paradoxical incorporation of democratic themes into the fascist project”. Riley argues that democracy fundamentally boils down to “a claim that a certain type of political institution “represents” the people.” Fascists certainly made this claim, arguing that their institutions represented “the people” more perfectly than those they replaced. Indeed, the use of referendums and plebiscites by both the Italian and German fascist governments demonstrated that they took the claim seriously.

So what is fascism then? Let me offer a definition. Fascism is a mass movement, predominantly rooted in a middle class whose privileges are being undermined by capitalist crisis, and whose ‘national pride’ has been wounded by national decline and military defeat and humiliation. It is based on a promise to restore these privileges and national pride through, on a domestic level, purging ‘impure elements’ within the polity blamed for national weakness, and on an international level, restoring military prowess and ‘great power’ status. It is a ‘pseudo-revolutionary’ movement inasmuch as, whilst it adopts much in the way of imagery and policies from the radical left, it does not threaten fundamental property relations: rather, it redirects popular anger away from the capitalist class and towards vulnerable scapegoats in a way that actually serves the ‘elites’ it claims to oppose. It is sponsored and helped to power by powerful elements of the dominant political and economic classes. It opposes liberalism on the grounds that liberalism is unable or unwilling to deal effectively with those internal and external enemies deemed responsible for weakening the national polity.

Yet, first and foremost, as Mussolini’s magazine The Fascist, put it, fascism is “less a policy than a state of mind”. For communist theoretician Rajani Palme Dutt, “there is no theory of fascism, there is only its practice”. But what is the fascist state of mind, and what is it’s practice? Its’ state of mind is one of hatred towards those deemed responsible for ‘national decline’, however defined, and for the declining privileges of the (racially or nationally defined) ‘in-group’. And its practice is attacking these people. As Mussolini put it, “The democrats of [left-liberal newspaper] Il Mundo want to know our programme. Our programme is to break the bones of the democrats of Il Mundo”.

Italy’s fascist movement was founded in Milan on March 23rd 1919. It’s first ‘action’, three weeks later, was to attack the offices of the socialist newspaper Avanti, destroying its printing press, injuring 39 people and killing 4. Said Mussolini, the fascists had “declare[d] war against socialism…because it has opposed nationalism”. This war went into full throttle in 1921, when fascist squadristi went on a countrywide rampage against trade unions, farmers co-operatives and the socialist party, attacking their premises and beating – or killing – their members. These gangs, in an early demonstration of the complicity between fascism and the conservative establishment, were often hired by landowners and businessmen to destroy the wave of land and factory occupations that had gripped Italy in the aftermath of the first world war.

The German Nazis, too, considered the eradication of socialism – and specifically Marxism, “the fiercest enemy of all German and European culture” according to the Nazi professor H. Ludat – to be their principal aim. “I wished to be the destroyer of Marxism” Hitler told the jury in his trial following the failed Munich putsch, “and I will achieve this task”. Nine years later, on the eve of his accession to power, he reiterated this commitment at a meeting of leading German industrialists in Dusseldorf: “Yes,” he told them, “we have taken the unalterable decision to tear Marxism out by its roots”. The Nazis, like the Italian fascists, regularly indulged in the killing of communists, particularly in drive-by shootings, long before controlling the levers of power. Fascism, then, first and foremost, means the crushing of proletarian revolution by any means necessary.

On February 8th of this year, Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos, a 36-year old mother of two who had lived in the US for 22 years, was arrested during her standard bi-annual check-in with immigration officials. She was immediately deported, leaving her two children (both US citizens) stranded. “I don’t think it’s fair that she was taken away from us,” her 14 year old daughter Jacqueline said. “Her only crime was to work here so she could support us”. Of course, working in the US of itself is not a crime; it is only criminal for certain nationalities. Her real crime, committed when she herself was a 14 year old in Mexico, was to have refused to accept the diktat of modern-day feudalism: that those born into high-unemployment, low wage economies ravaged by imperialism must also be condemned to die there. In this sense, the 14 year old Guadalupe was committing a revolutionary act. And it is a revolution which Trump is determined to crush at any cost.

In Reece Jones’ excellent book “Violent borders: refugees and the right to move”, he argues that ‘illegal’ migration constitutes a refusal “to abide by the global border regime… in the same way that Harriet Tubman refused to abide by the system of slavery and fugitive slave laws, Mahatma Gandhi refused to abide by the laws of British colonialism, and Nelson Mandela refused to abide by the South African system of apartheid”. For what are borders, after all? For Jones, they are nothing more than “artificial lines drawn on maps to exclude other people from access to resources and the right to move”.  “One day,” he writes, “denying equal protection based on birthplace may well seem just as anachronistic and wrong as denying civil rights based on skin colour, gender or sexual orientation.” Moreover, it is precisely the system of state borders that creates the wage differentials underpinning the extreme levels of global inequality in the world today, in which, for example, a taxi driver in London is paid around 50 times a taxi driver in Delhi, whilst the average wage in Norway is around 300 times that in the Congo: “Restricting the movement of workers creates artificially low wages. If workers could move, wages would stabilise between the high wage in the US and the low wage elsewhere. This would allow the economy to produce goods based on the real value of work, without a low wage subsidy artificially produced by borders” (Jones, 140). Put another way, the global border regime sustains the split in the global working class, with that section ‘contained’ in the third world forced to subsist on artificially low wages, whilst the section in the western world are able to preserve their monopoly access to high-paid work. This divide has become so pronounced, argues professor Zak Cope, that we can no longer legitimately speak of a ‘proletariat’ amongst the citizenry of the western world at all, but rather a “middle class working class” which is paid well above the value of its labour power (that is, the cost of reproduction of labour power) and “which benefits materially from imperialism and the attendant super-exploitation of oppressed nation workers”.

Yet the proletariat – that section of the working class paid subsistence wages: that is to say, the working class of the global South – are revolting. They are revolting by refusing to accept the global border regime which keeps them in subjection, and they are doing so on an unprecedented scale: the UN estimated that there were 244 million international migrants in 2015, a 41% increase as compared to 2000. Around 350,000 attempt to cross the Mexican border into the US each year, and around one million tried to reach the shores of Europe in 2015. This, then, is a mass proletarian revolutionary movement, driven – like all revolutionary movements – by a realisation that playing by the existing rules will not put food on the table or allow a dignified peaceful future for one’s children. Yet, just like it did the middle classes who flocked to fascism in Italy and Germany, proletarian revolution disgusts the “middle class working class” of the West, who see it as a threat to their privileged monopoly of high waged work. That is why they elected Trump to crush it.

Garcia de Rayos’ arrest came about following an executive order stepping up the deportation of undocumented immigrants in the USA signed by Donald Trump two weeks earlier. This was his third executive order targeting immigrants, the others banning immigration from seven Muslim countries and ordering the construction of a wall between the US and Mexico, along with a further 15,000 border staff to patrol it. “We are living in a new era now,” said Garcia de Rayos’ lawyer, Ray Maldonado, following her arrest: “an era of war on immigrants.”

To be fair, today’s neo-fascists did not start this war. Deportations reached new heights under Obama, who deported a record 2 million undocumented immigrants. The much-hyped ‘wall’ between the US and Mexico effectively already exists, at least in the sense of a hard border, enforced with violence. And it was Britain’s Theresa May, along with her chancellor Philip Hammond, who played the major role in pressuring Italy to terminate its successful search and rescue programme in the Mediterranean in 2014 to ensure that refugees were left to drown as a message to others. Around 10,000 men, women and children have so far been drowned as a result of the policy – which was, significantly, first advocated by the British National Party, Britain’s main overtly fascist party, some years earlier.  In total, Reece Jones estimates that no less than 40,000 people have been killed – shot, drowned or starved in the desert – at the borders of Europe and North America over the past ten years. This already marks the beginnings of a descent into fascism, which can also be viewed as a collapsing of indirect structural violence (in this case the structural violence of poverty wages imposed by the global border regime) into direct,

physical violence (shooting, drowning and starving migrants at the border) under pressure of proletarian revolution. Yet what Obama and the ‘mainstream’ parties did shamefacedly, ‘on-the-quiet’ and to the embarrassment of their supporters, Trump does openly, brazenly and with gusto, to the untrammelled delight of the movement that brought him to power. Again, this is fully in line with classical fascism, which did not, after all, invent the purging of communists, jew-baiting, rule by decree and so on, but rather turned all of this into a mass movement, stepped it up and systematised it –  marking a qualitative difference in what had gone before in so doing.

Once we understand that all citizens of the western world are effectively bourgeois – net beneficiaries of (global) exploitation living, at least in part, off the labour of others – the parallels with fascism become clear. If the working class of the west is, properly speaking, a section of the global middle class, as Cope argues, then for all the ‘workerism’ espoused by Trump and his European bedfellows, their electoral basis is, just like the classical fascists, primarily middle class. Fascism has always had a special appeal to the middle class in periods of capitalist crisis, as it promises redemption from both the threat from ‘below’ – proletarian revolt threatening their privileged class position – and the threat from ‘above’ –  the big capitalist industries and finance capital. Hitler chose the Jew as a very specific symbol designed to represent both of these threats simultaneously – the poor ghetto jew representing the communist threat, and the wealthy jew symbolising the ‘greedy banker’. By the same token, the Jew also represented both the internal enemy, ‘weakening the enemy from within’, as well as the external enemy – the Soviet Union, standing in the way of German lebensraum, and the ‘Jewish-controlled’ capitalist victors of Versailles – responsible for Germany’s decline. For today’s neo-fascists, the Muslim plays the same role. Whilst the poor Muslim immigrant represents the unwanted intrusion of the global proletariat into the white westerner’s monopoly of privileged access to jobs and services, the wealthy Arab sheikh represents the (foreign) capitalist responsible for pushing up house prices and rents etc. Likewise, the internal threat posed by the ‘jihadi terrorist’ is mirrored by the external threat of the rising global South, freeing itself from western domination, and both symbolised by the Muslim other.  The promise to root out this impure ‘other’ internally – whilst reasserting dominance over it abroad – is at the heart of fascism’s appeal.

But also fundamental to fascism is that all of this comes dressed in pseudo-‘left wing’, ‘anti-establishment’ drag. The Nazis were forever railing against what Gregor Strasser called “the degenerate economic system” which would supposedly smashed by the fascists, who would “restore honest payment for honest labour”. Their 25-point programme promised the abolition of unearned income, the “nationalisation of all trusts”, the “breaking of interest slavery”, the “death penalty for usurers” and on and on – but in power, of course, none of this came to fruition. Just like Trump, far from executing the ‘usurers’, be brought them into his government: whilst Hitler made the head of Deutsche bank his economics minister, Trump has now broken the record for the number of former Goldman Sachs officials in Cabinet. For the Nazis, it was only the promises to smash Marxism and round up Jews, in the end, to which they were seriously committed, just as Trump’s anti-immigrant programme is the only major plank of his manifesto that has survived actually taking office. As Slavoj Zizek succinctly put it; “Hitler staged a spectacle of revolution so that the capitalist order could survive”. It is supremely ironic that Zizek now provides ideological cover for the neo-fascists himself, parroting their ‘threat to Europe’ rhetoric on immigration.

For Willie Thompson, fascism is defined as “pseudo-revolutionary populist nationalism”; and a more precise definition of today’s European far-right, Trump and Brexit movements would be hard to find. But the neo-fascist electoral model which has been so successful for these groups – immigrant- baiting, pseudo-workerism, plus a faux ‘anti-establishment’ presentational style – has now been established as THE electoral formula across the entire ‘western’ world, with mainstream parties seeking to maintain their position playing the same game. The fascist epoch is truly underway; history shows us the direction in which it is headed.