Is war coming? Many people are beginning to consider the possibility anew. The thought had gone away in the few years after the end of the Cold War, when the likelihood of an annihilating confrontation appeared to recede. The possibility of a limited exchange between smaller states or an accidental discharge of missiles increased rather than decreased, but the sense of an impending total and final conflict no longer hung over the business of everyday life. The possibility of total nuclear war had made it seem as if any major war would be the end of human existence, and so most people stopped thinking about major wars as a possible event in a continuing history.
Today we can imagine a rather different scenario — a war of hitherto unthinkable destructiveness between global power blocs, but one which does not result in species annihilation. Given the existing chronology it will be called World War III, but in reality it will be the real World War I — a conflict between post-colonial powers that is not focussed solely on Europe and the parts of Asia it owns, but involves the mobilisation of what were separate civilizations and are now multinational trading blocs with cultural features in common.
Like the twentieth century’s World War I, World War III will begin because sooner or later one bloc will believe it has no option but to strike first or be annihilated. The Belle Epoque period of 1890-1914 has been constructed in retrospect as a golden age of peace, at least for Europe. In reality it was a period of constant ‘war scares’, with at least a half-dozen occasions on which the European powers came close to conflict. We have seen the foreshadowings of a new series of such war scares with the confrontation of India and Pakistan, and the George W. Bush administration’s policy and rhetoric towards China. The recent US decision to withdraw commitment to international protocols on biological weapons had even its loyal deputy sheriff Australia squeaking in protest.
These tensions will be amplified in the years to come by a number of factors. The first is the new-found determination of the United States to openly assert its global power. As other groups start to use the mechanisms of globalisation to make alternative arrangements –witness the decision of Europe and the global South to proceed with the Kyoto treaty in the aftermath of US withdrawal — and as their dominance of hi-tech and other markets comes under threat, they may repudiate the facade of globalisation altogether, and use the Free Trade Association of the Americas as a geographically based power bloc, ‘protected’ by its missile defence shield. As the smaller states around China and India falter — both Pakistan and Thailand are effectively bankrupt — regions may become further destabilised, and the scramble to create power blocs via treaties or military annexation more rapid. Simultaneously, nationalism will come at them from the other end. Not only will there be the break-up of the most obviously vulnerable blocs such as Indonesia and the DRCongo, but hitherto solid states such as Mexico may find themselves under pressure.
As the deliberate underdevelopment of selected areas continues apace, anti-systemic ‘rogue’ states may multiply — Nepal could well be the next to join the list, if its ruthless Maoist guerrillas take Khatmandhu in the near future. The potential of complex global movements such as Islamic fundamentalism is open-ended. The likelihood of large-scale terrorism, with casualties in the thousands or upwards rather than the hundreds or so due to the late Timothy McVeigh, will become all but inevitable. Water scarcity will become an overwhelming geopolitical consideration.
For all these reasons and more — not least the prospect of a global economic depression coincident with the above phenomena — large-scale war may present itself as a recourse for the power blocs.
In the lead-up to such developments, one might anticipate a political crackdown across the Western/global Northern world: something more than the piecemeal attacks on the separation of powers and the presumption of innocence that occurs today — an actual suspension of the liberal political order. The technical mechanisms are all in place: the CCTV cameras which have been introduced in the ‘war on crime'; the facial-recognition software that makes their operation autonomous; the interlinked databases which will make surveillance total. The cultural mechanisms are in place as well. The tabloid media, year on year increases the pitch of persecution and paranoia, and has added the anti-globalisation movement to its roll-call. The ‘new’ Labour parties in Britain and Australia, and the US Democrats, have cued themselves into this political style and willingly contort themselves into a variety of illiberal positions to accommodate the rhetoric. Right-wing parties have ventured into the territory of deep reaction in order to retain some form of political branding. Lip-service to the liberal political sphere is now universal — actual defence of it, rare. The missile shield above, the surveillance state below — rogue states, rogue groups and rogue persons will all be dealt with.
Clearly many authorities are gearing up for this. There is every sign that their patience with the ‘anti-globalisation’ movement is exhausted. Having believed that the Seattle demonstrations marked a highpoint of the movement, they were faced with a protest double or even triple that size in Genoa. Even conservative estimates put the turn-out at a minimum of 100,000. Having already resorted to scheduling large meetings of these ‘open’ institutions in closed states such as Qatar (the absurdity of which makes for bad publicity) or on the internet (which left them open to being hacked into) the Genoa G8 meeting retreated to a walled-off zone of the city.
Nothing could be more symbolic of the deep-structure of globalisation — quite aside from the fact that the wall was built of shipping containers, perhaps the key technological innovation responsible for the global economy. Nor is there any doubt that the fortification process will continue. The numbers attending such protests are now on such a scale that they could begin to spark continuing protests and the establishment of zones of autonomy after the conference itself has departed. Had ten, or fifty, protestors rather than one been killed in Genoa, what sort of cycle of response and counter-response would have been initiated?
That the current protest movement is now debating whether to take on the label ‘anti-globalisation’ or ‘anti-capitalist’ is a measure that an analysis of the structures of contemporary global power has begun in earnest. Nevertheless there is still an insufficient appreciation of the way in which both modes of globalisation — that of decentring and distributing power on the one hand and that of consolidating and integrating it on the other — persist, and the impact that such an observation should have on political strategy.
The new global social form promises infinite interconnection with no centre, but at the moment this is appearance rather than essence. The internet, half temporary autonomous zone, half global shopping mall, presents itself as a deterritorialised space. Ideally it is, but in reality most of it is now located in server farms in Boston and across the metropolitan United States. As the recent California power blackouts, the product of a conjunction of the ‘new’ economy and privatised utilities, have shown, the ‘weightless’ economy is weighed down by all the traditional concerns of political economy. The ‘free’ media space of the internet is the alienated labour of those — the Indian working class, latino-americans — who produce software and hardware in conditions similar to those who have worked looms or made cars in the past: dirty and routine work, done so that others could live a ‘free’ life.
That space will not exist forever. The powers-that-be are treading carefully because they realise that global dissatisfaction with the current arrangements is widespread, and that the response of the trade union movement, and of liberal-left organisations and citizens, to a global crackdown is unpredictable. On the one hand, a glance at the tabloid newspapers would assure one that it was a done deal, and that reaction will triumph. On the other, a reflection on the numbers who come out for, say, a reconciliation march — not to mention an S11 — would equally highlight the residual radical and democratic spirit that exists across the social order.
This unpredictable situation puts the ball in the court of radical organisations of the global North. The anarchist and postmodern critique of the Leninist mode of organisation is well-taken. But if there were to be a crackdown, it would seem that the postmodern/anarchist organisations would be gathered up instantly, devoid of any resources to resist the sudden transformation of the State from liberal pluralist to expression of reactionary global order. One must now pose the question as to what is in place to resist the prospect of a crackdown. What resources and actual organisational structures exist within radical groups who emphasise ‘autonomy’ to withstand a change in political space? It is a question for those who celebrate the decentred nature of their political and organisational structures.
Those who imagined that the twentieth century was the most brutal in humanity’s history may be guilty of pollyannaism. The coming century will be the narrow passage through which human beings pass — on the one hand the unprecedented development of modes of destruction, on the other the burgeoning forces of a fully human global–local/ethical–political order — and we will either survive it, and in doing so open up new and better possibilities for living, or pass through war to annihilation or worse.