September 11, 2009

Permanent War


In the early years of the Soviet regime there was much consternation over the future course of the revolution. The Russian Revolution had not occurred according to the progression of classical Marxism, and the Marxist ideologues had to square events with ideals. They also faced imperialist intervention on many fronts. It looked like global capitalism was going to try to “strangle Bolshevism in its cradle” as Churchill fondly put it. Given these problems the Bolsheviks had to come up with a master strategy for the future.
Trotsky’s contribution was the doctrine of Permanent Revolution. The socialist USSR could not stand alone; as the first proletarian society it would exist in a state of never-ending war with global capitalism until one side or the other achieved total victory. Therefore the Soviet Union had to constantly foment revolution among all the capitalist powers. Only in this way could it generate multiple fronts to fight the enemy elsewhere than in the homeland, help bring about further revolutions, and eventually defeat world capitalism.
Toward this end all of Soviet society had to be organized as an armed camp and total war economy. This mode of organization would persist until total victory, however many decades it took.
Trotsky’s plan did not appeal to the Bolshevik rank and file who, having won the civil war, wanted to enjoy a peace dividend of power, careerism, even rudimentary material comfort. To them, Stalin’s counterdoctrine of Socialism in One Country had much greater allure. Trotsky went down to political defeat, while Stalin went on to dictatorship.
But Trotsky, who was so fond of citing the “trash heap of history” and might have lamented how his own idea had ended up there if he were prone to self-examination, might be surprised today to see by what a strange path his idea had found new life, and in such a strange place.
The ideology of the modern West is corporatism. Its economic aspect, globalization, is often called “neoliberal”, while its foreign policy is called “neoconservative”. These are two aspects of the same master plan for aggression which has prevailed since the fall of the Soviet Union. In its neoconservative aspect it carried on with the Cold War doctrine of counterinsurgency without missing a beat. The basic goal remained the same: the aggrandizement of multinational corporations and authoritarian governments, abroad and at home.
But no longer having the all-purpose ideological cover of anticommunism, neoconservatism has had to be more opportunistic. Thus its predatory interventions in Panama, Iraq, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo were variously represented as humanitarianism, or to protect national sovereignty vs. “aggression”, or to depose a narcostate. (Though in September 1990 Defense Secretary Cheney did briefly admit before Congress that Desert Shield was about protecting access to oil; Republican discipline not yet the perfected machine it later became, it took them a few weeks to switch over completely to “sovereignty of Kuwait” and “Saddam’s aggression”.)
More recently, of course, they’ve found terrorism as the all-purpose bogeyman to replace communism. But in all cases the imperialist goal has remained fundamental. [Parenthetically I ask, why would those who always openly proclaim the domestic politics of attack-not-defend be believed when they claim their foreign policy outlook is the opposite? Yet there’s no lack of credulous liberals and media types ready to believe this.] The goal is the permanent revolution of capitalism. What does this have to do with Trotsky?
The West has entered the stage of its great economic travail. It depends completely on exponential growth for its power and wealth to continue to burgeon and concentrate and for society to exist at anything approaching its current level of material development. But permanent economic growth relies upon the permanent growth of the supply of oil and on permanent exponential debt. Both of these are unsustainable. American oil production peaked in 1970 and the globe has now reached Peak Oil, while the debt economy has for years been in the permanent crisis stage of boom-bust, bubble and crash. (In classic Orwell fashion this has been called the Great Moderation. What that has really meant is a reliable growth in wealth and power concentration for the elites and reliable degradation of wages and power, insecurity, debt, and disaster for everyone else on Earth.)
So within any finite system growth capitalism must eventually enter its stage of permanent crisis, at which point it must expand and repeat the original capital accumulation. That’s what globalization has done for the last forty years, with the process greatly accelerated and radicalized since the fall of the USSR. Capitalism, reaching the limits of the globe itself, in terms of space, environmental factors, and natural resources, must increasingly cannibalize mankind or else collapse.
Global capitalism is therefore in a position similar to that of the Soviet Union in the 20s as Trotsky saw it. There’s the sense of permanent militarism and power expansion or else collapse. Neoliberalism’s permanent economic war has gone hand in hand with neoconservatism’s permanent military advocacy.
In the age of permanent crisis capitalism, that radical capitalism, finding itself in this similar situation, has taken up the same idea from radical communism, is not an ironic coincidence. The history of ideas is clear on this point. Founding neocons like Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell were originally Trotskyites. They drank deep of Trotsky’s apocalypticism and fanatical will to preserve and expand a system and an ideology no matter what the cost. While over the years, especially during the Vietnam years, they moved from far left to far right along the so-called spectrum, they maintained the old Trotsky fanaticism, bloodthirsty and rather childish.
[We see several examples here of how this spectrum is inadequate to describe ideology and campaigns of action. That mass communism and mass capitalism both tend toward crisis indicates more affinity than difference. The convergence of the very terms neoliberal and neoconservative under the same ideological roof reflects how vapid the terms “liberal” and “conservative” are in general as alleged opposites. These alleged differences are just surface details. Corporatism is the underlying unity.]
So the rise of neoconservatism over the last twenty years, and the rise of its doctrine of Permanent War, must be considered a variation on Trotsky’s original doctrine of Permanent Revolution. This permanent war had for a time the official brand name Global War on Terror, and while politicians may try to give things new names, we should stick with the same name for the same war. “Global War on Terror” it should remain. 
Today the neocon ideology is ever more overt in its proclamations. It’s no accident that Defense Secretary Gates could effortlessly be held over from one administration to the next, for the Global War on Terror, even more than the bank bailouts, is now a constant and will remain so for as long as America remains a corporatist state.
Permanent war is the flip side of domestic colonization. The bailouts, the health care poll tax, the land and food monopoly of Big Agriculture, the total financialization of the economy, are all domestic fronts of the same war being waged in Afghanistan and Iraq, a war which according to the administration will be heading to many other theaters.
Perhaps there will be Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia redux, subsaharan Africa, and there will be more domestic Pakistans and Somalias just as we now have domestic Afghanistan and Iraq.
It’s one war, and to counteract one front the people must counteract all. While this counteraction doesn’t have to be “socialism in one country”, it will have to focus on sustainability in one country. Sustainability of economy, resource use, consumption, and of wealth, power, grandiosity, aggression, and all the other things which must be constrained by limits or destroy us all.