1990s >> 1999 >> no-1137-may-1999

World View: ‘Bombing for Peace – the Real Crisis in NATO’, ‘Profit or the Environment?’


    * Bombing for peace—the real crisis in NATO
    * Profit or the environment?

Bombing for peace—the real crisis in NATO

Western liberals are in a flap about NATO’s bombardment of Serbia. Whichever position they take appears to condone violence against somebody, and the shallowness of liberal thinking has never been more cruelly exposed than now. Yet the cynics are having trouble too, because they can’t see an economic motive behind NATO’s actions, and nobody can believe that the West would spend £2 billion on a purely humanitarian exercise when it didn’t show the slightest concern over East Timor, Rwanda or any other killing ground of recent years.

It’s easy to see the economic value of Kosovo to Milosevic, but what’s in it for NATO? The West don’t seem to be after land or resources in the area, and is facing a huge bill for its pains. So is NATO really a cuddly philanthropic defender of the weak?

Wars, though generic to capitalism, do in fact interrupt the process of wealth accumulation and are frequently against the interests of large sections of the capitalist class, who will therefore try to prevent them. You can’t make money when some gangsters are shooting up your casino. Hence capitalism’s need for an international police force. But as with a domestic police force, the willingness of populations to accept law enforcers whose main concern is private property and money-making depends on those enforcers also preventing other types of crime, like mugging, rape, murder and street violence, which don’t directly concern the owning class but which worry the hell out of the rest of us. If the police couldn’t prevent a gang war on your doorstep you’d start wondering why you bothered respecting the law yourself. And when the law breaks down, the looting starts.

At the heart of this crisis is the problem of credibility, not only for NATO in its efforts to keep the peace, but for the Western Liberal Democracy model of capitalism. This is more serious than it sounds. Capitalism, as everyone knows, requires majority support and participation. Now you can enforce this support the hard way, by having a police state with heavy duty surveillance, martial law, “disappearances”, 24-hour border patrols and a huge state propaganda machine. This is the 1984 approach of George Orwell, but there are severe practical problems, because such a system is incredibly expensive to maintain and, being so crude, unable to get the best out of its workers. The collapse of state capitalism in Eastern Europe had long been predicted by the Socialist Party for these very reasons (although it lasted much longer than we expected).

The other way to ensure support is much cheaper, more efficient, more stable, and more user-friendly. It is called Liberal Democracy. Nobody is going to rebel if they believe that they are already free, and this belief is central to the West’s perception of itself. Consequently the capitalist class is obliged to tolerate a (semi-) free press, the vote, and open criticism of itself, because there has to be evidence of this “freedom” for all to see. And there are other costs. We will not co-operate unless capitalism supplies us with a reasonable safe and secure environment. The police rule by popular consent, and could not rule otherwise. Employment has to be supplied, or else a dole, otherwise food riots will ensue. 
The credibility of “Western democratic capitalism” is in bad shape, even for Westerners. We are better informed than we’ve ever been, and we are not impressed by what we see. Nobody believes in leaders like they used to. Nobody doffs their cap to their local MP as they once did. We are accustomed to think of them as generally useless and usually corrupt. Governments, we realise, don’t really care a damn about us except for that little X once every five years or so. Thirty percent of the population doesn’t even bother to give them that.

After the pyramid-selling fiascos in Albania a couple of years ago, capitalism in the region has a poor public image. Millions in Eastern Europe were hoping it was going to be better than Leninist state-capitalism but the bread queues are still there and instead of the secret police they now have the Mafia, that ultimate expression of the free market. If it now appears that NATO, the international Police Department, can’t even stop some tinpot dictator from murdering his way to power, the capitalist hold over workers’ minds will be weakened. We will begin to see through their cosy propaganda and their self-serving laws that nobody else obeys anyway. We might turn back to fascism. But what is worse, we might go forward to socialism. There are no bars on our windows, thanks to the money-saving logic of capitalism. There is only our belief in the system that prevents us acting, and that is increasingly under strain.



Profit or the environment?

In 1992 sixteen hundred scientists warned that humanity was on course for a collision with nature. They predicted an environmental crisis by the year 2020 unless humankind could achieve a change in the nature of its “stewardship” of the environment. While there is much uncertainty about the extent to which humans are “irretrievably mutilating” the Earth, as these scientists claimed, it is clear that radical change is needed.

At present “stewardship” over the Earth is in the hands of a small minority of the world population. Their interests often prove to be irreconcilable with the need to protect the environment from pollution and degradation. Awareness of the damage being done has increased markedly over the last two decades. A growth of pressure groups, non-governmental organisations and international conferences, reports and legislation have at least provided us with ever more information, if little else. Indeed, ever since the first international conference on the environment in Stockholm 1971, there has been no shortage of well-intentioned statements of principle from governments. For example, the Stockholm Declaration stated that:

“Man has the fundamental right to freedom, equality and adequate conditions of life, in an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being.”

In 1987 the Brundtland Report, Our Common Future, called for the development of productive activities to become “‘sustainable’, meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. It goes without saying that most of us would favour these goals of protecting the Earth’s resources for future generations and preserving the quality of our environment. The question is whether they have any chance of being achieved within a social system where profits come first.

Documents such as the 1987 Brundtland Report and 1992 Agenda 21 which followed the highly publicised Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro do not acknowledge that there is any necessary conflict between making profit and protecting the environment. The goal of “sustainable development” is seen as achievable within the market system. There is no acknowledgement of any conflict between the two supposedly complementary goals.

The UN Food and Agricultural Organisation have stated that: “The objective is to create an economic environment in which it is more profitable to conserve resources than destroy them” (Long Term Strategy for the Food and Agricultural Sector, FAO Publications).

Again, conservation and profitability are seen as being compatible. Yet experience has shown time and again that these two gaols are incompatible. Only by replacing the profit system with truly democratic organisation can we give the environment the priority it deserves.



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