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Is this the Third World War?


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In an Editor’s Note in the December issue of the Brooklyn Rail, economist Paul Mattick suggests that in its global scope and world-historical implications, the ongoing conflict between Western governments and Islamic fundamentalism might properly be understood as the Third World War. Mattick also argues that formations like ISIS aren’t a medieval throwback, but rather a thoroughly modern product of uneven global capitalism. Here’s an excerpt:

With the most recent turns of these events—the emergence of the Islamic State out of the Mesopotamian branch of Al Qaeda and, in the last weeks, the IS’s turn to terrorism abroad—why not just admit that the Third World War has come? (I’m hardly the first person to have this thought—besides the ever-present Pope, for instance, Iraq Foreign Minister al-Jaafari called the Paris attacks a new stage in an ongoing world war.) It did not start, like the first two, with formal declarations of the major world powers. Instead, it emerged gradually, in the context of big-power rivalry and in a world system lacking alternative means for settling conflicts over such basic questions as the control of resources. It is fueled by the worldwide availability of weapons, from the ubiquitous AK-47 to sophisticated truck-mounted missiles, that flooded the world to meet the needs of various proxy wars (and let us not forget the sizeable contribution made by arms production to American, Russian, Chinese, French, and Israeli GDP), in addition to the billions of cars and tons of fertilizer available to ever more ambitious bomb-makers the world over. Unlike in the earlier world wars, sides are not clearly defined: In Syria, for example, Turkey, officially a Western ally, is more concerned to prevent the emergence of a Kurdish state than to support the war against IS, now fought most successfully by the Kurds; wealthy Saudis fund jihad, while the Saudi air force bombs jihadists in Syria (and anti-jihadists in Yemen); the U.S. and Iran find themselves on the same side vis-à-vis the Afghan Taliban and the IS, while they are otherwise fierce enemies; France and Russia, at odds over Ukraine, coordinate bombing runs in Syria. But this very confusion of “sides” constitutes the new globalism of the war, which can no longer be localized, but is as liable to pop up in New York or London as in Mali or the Philippines …

The failure of the revolutionary wave that followed World War I allowed capitalism another chance; the depression and the new world war to which it led opened the way to a new period of prosperity, the postwar “Golden Age” that ended in the mid 1970s. The receding tide of economic growth, which has allowed the accumulation of riches in a few hands and places while leaving the great majority of the earth’s people a decreasing share of the wealth they generate, has eroded the hope of progress that once helped people tolerate life under capitalism. With a future this bleak, it is not surprising that we see the creation of all sorts of backward-looking apocalyptic practices, from various forms of Christian fundamentalism at play in the to Jewish ultra-orthodoxy and the Islamic State. What we are witnessing is not a “clash of civilizations” but the self-destruction of one civilization, the one that once proudly called itself “modernity.”

Image: The aftermath of the recent mass shooting in San Bernardino, California.


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