10 September 2013

Pursuing peace in an age of crisis

If we value peace and hate war, then it is not enough to call for peace and oppose warmongers. We must go on to take action against the root causes of war. What are they?
In Syria, the major triggers of the civil war seem to include economic distress, exacerbated by extended droughts caused by climate change. That story is not limited to Syria. To the contrary, if the stagnation / breakdown of the global economy continues, and as climate change effects continue to kick in, the conflict in Syria could soon pale in comparison to larger conflicts in more populous countries, not to mention wars that could break out between more significant world powers. We have earlier taken a look at the rumors of war in East Asia, and recently anti-American views have also been breaking out in China as the effects of the crisis intensify there (I hope we’ll return to this issue later; it deserves posts of its own).

Returning to the particular case of Syria: personally, I think that it would just make things worse if the US sent bombs into Syria, and so I am opposed. At the same time, keeping America’s bombs out of the country is hardly a great victory for humanity, since people are already dying in droves without help from the US military. But be that as it may, there is a bigger picture here, and if we really care about peace and avoiding the horrific violence of war, then we need to keep that bigger picture in view and formulate a strategy to match. We need to revive the global economy, rapidly end carbon emissions globally, and institute a global system of climate change mitigation. This is the only way to end the intensification of pressures which have led to Syria’s civil war (and the use of chemical weapons which may provoke a response from the US), and threaten to increasingly lead to violent conflicts.

So, to return to a familiar refrain on this blog, we need a strategy to overcome neoliberalism, because the neoliberal economy has fallen into permanent crisis and neoliberal ideology is incompatible with a serious climate change strategy. And our strategy to overcome neoliberalism must be global in scope; among other things, this involves rejecting the reactionary isolationism that drives so much of the opposition to the plans to bomb Syria (this is of course true on the right, but it is all too common on the left as well).

Of course this will be difficult. But if we refuse to tackle this larger strategic picture, then our calls for peace are at best naive.


  1. What you've managed to do in a few short paragraphs is something I haven't seen in the huge flood of commentary on Syria. You don't choose one side or the other of the anti-imperialism/anti-dictator dichotomy. You transcend the dichotomy itself by developing a position that would advance the priorities of both sides. I think this is possible because rather than treating the issue as a discrete, more-or-less decontextualized event on which to proclaim a moral conclusion, you locate the dilemma itself in a much larger structural crisis of global society. I think this is the method we need to break the impasses proliferating all around us, and which is capable of going beyond the barren and anti-strategic moralizing that animates most of the left.

  2. I agree with the larger picture that you are bringing up, but what happened is what happened. What do we do about the ongoing war in Syria?

  3. There are a million outrages happening all over the world, and we don't have much power to do anything about the vast majority of them, even when it's our government that's perpetrating them. So what we have to do is concentrate all our energy on strategic sites of the global political economy where a small push could set off a chain reaction that would reconfigure the entire system. That would change the calculus of everyone—from a logic of intensifying conflict over a contracting pool of resources (aggravated by climate degradation) in a winner-take-all society, to one of cooperation in a context of shared, leveling growth for everyone.

    What we're trying to do on this blog is develop both a vision and strategy for doing that. Unfortunately we haven't spelled out very concretely the vision; the strategy is a little further along, see here, here, here, here. I'm working on a post that will give a little more substance to the vision, should be up in the next week or so.

  4. Normally, when a particular regime of social life like Fordism or neoliberalism is functional, it's basically impossible to disrupt its process of self-reproduction, and in that situation registering your opposition to its injustices through a kind of impotent moral proclamation is really the best you can do. But now neoliberalism is in crisis and real, globe-changing transformation is not only possible, it's inevitable.

    Under those circumstances, to continue to simply issue moral proclamations with no attention to how one could strategically intervene in shaping the new global system is criminally negligent. Yet this is exactly what most of the left is still doing, taking whatever issue jumps up before it (the Zimmerman case, Miley Cyrus, intervention in Syria) and issuing screeds exposing the injustices involved. All of these issues are produced by the deeper crisis of neoliberalism, and none of them can be addressed by directly confronting the given issue in isolation of this deeper structural crisis.

    So if we just spend our time trying to figure out the right moral position on whatever happens to be hitting the news right now, and then try to convince people of that moral conclusion, we're essentially wasting the best opportunity we're likely to see in at least the next few decades of really remaking the world. We're also risking ceding the initiative to reactionary forces that are willing to act with a vision and a strategy that could lead us to real disaster.

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