The Age of Extremes
There’s only one path out of the chaos that global capitalism is creating from climate change to terrorism. The West acted swiftly following the Islamic State group attacks in Paris that killed 130. Refugees were fingered for the slaughter, encryption was blamed for allowing the attackers to avoid detection, police powers were expanded, France joined Russia and the United States in bombing civilian areas in Syria, more than 1,230 house raids (and counting) were conducted in France alone, anti-Muslim attacks and rhetoric soared , and a huge protest planned in Paris against inaction on climate change was banned by the French government.
If this script seems familiar, it is. Islamophobia, war, draconian state power, and repression of a popular movement are a replay of the response to the September 11 attacks by al-Qaida and similar episodes in Britain, India, and Australia.
The greatest cost is to the countries being bombed and civil society. In November 2001 the global justice movement, which gained prominence after thwarting a free-trade agreement two years earlier, was planning to shut down seven stock exchanges in a worldwide day of protest. That was derailed by 9/11, and the global justice movement fell apart. This time climate-justice activists say the movement is stronger and wiser and the climate crisis is too profound for one episode to end it, but it has been set back.
Just like 9/11, the Paris attacks were blowback. The United States gave rise to al-Qaida to fight the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the eighties, and the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq spawned the Islamic State group. A key difference is while 9/11 was organized from abroad , nearly all the Paris attackers were E.U. citizens , and some were among the more than 3,000 Europeans who’ve fought with religious extremists in Syria or Iraq. In effect, Western states are using one crisis they created, “Islamic terrorism,” to prevent action on another crisis of their creation, global warming.
Explaining the roots of the attacks, the racism, how elites manipulate public sentiment, and debunking lies about refugees and encryption, however, are not enough to shift opinion decisively. After the Paris attacks 65 percent of Americans favored sending “additional ground troops to fight ISIS in Syria and Iraq.” In France, military enlistments surged and 55 percent of the public favors of war in Syria. The one bright spot is support for the police state and war is not as overwhelming as after 9/11 because many in the West realize bombing Muslim countries only fuels more radicalism and attacks.
Nonetheless, the barbarism of alQaida and the Islamic State group, whose victims are mainly in the Global South, compounds the problem of building an alternative to the barbarism of capitalism. It’s especially difficult given the likelihood of another massacre in Europe. The only way to navigate these two extremes is to offer a compelling vision, one based on radical redistribution of wealth, power, and technology. In a word, socialism.
The history of Western colonialism and lack of economic development and democracy are the medium in which the Islamic State group grows. One researcher who’s interviewed imprisoned Islamic State group fighters in Iraq discovered , “They are children of the occupation … filled with rage against America and their own government. They are not fueled by the idea of an Islamic caliphate without borders; rather, ISIS is the first group since the crushed Al Qaeda to offer these humiliated and enraged young men a way to defend their dignity, family, and tribe.”
Analysts who argue the strategy of Islamist extremists is to polarize opinion either for or against Islam by “creating and managing chaos” are right, but they miss the bigger picture. The United States and its allies are the true masters of chaos. That includes understanding how capitalism produces extreme crises from the social to the natural, why they will intensify, and how they are used ideologically.
Take the intersection between capitalism and nature. As technology, energy use, and economic activity increases crises become more extreme from the micro to the macro. The global consumer economy has polluted the entire hydrosphere with toxins and microplastic. The drive for more capital accumulation is trashing planetary systems like the rainforests and coral reefs. Genetically modified organisms are altering species evolution, nanotechnology is causing new types of microscopic health and pollution risks, and some scientists say we have set in motion a third stage of planetary evolution that will almost certainly outlive humanity as a species.
Other crises endemic to capitalism are foremost social. This includes the proliferation of financial bubbles and their increasing magnitude, such as the progression from the Savings and Loan crisis in the 1980s to the Dot-Com bubble in the nineties to the subprime mortgage crisis that damaged the entire world economy a decade later.
Socio-economic crises are also intertwined with ecological ones. One cause of the Syrian civil war, where ISIS gained new life, was a global warming-induced drought . Hurricane Katrina, which was worsened by global warming, was compounded by right-wing policies that permanently displaced 75,000 African-Americans from New Orleans. In mountainous regions from the Andes to the Himalayas, disappearing glaciers will tear the social fabric of hundreds of millions of people as freshwater supplies diminish.
Social crises under capitalism come in many forms. One type stems from capital’s need to seek profits, such as the healthcare industry and medical bankruptcy, drug companies and opiate addiction, and banks and the explosion of personal debt. Other crises are externalities. Just as factories externalize costs by dumping pollution in the air, land, and water, policies designed to hold down wages and free up capital are dumped on the most vulnerable. Consigning millions of Americans to poverty is tied to record prison populations, homelessness, and the obesity epidemic. Many of these crises end up becoming new profit centers, such as with the incarceration and diabetes industries.
It is outside the West where crises are most extreme, whether it is war, poverty, or global warming. This includes the U.S. drug war in Latin America, agricultural land grabs and mineral wars in Africa, seizure of peasant and indigenous land throughout Asia for “development,” and post-9/11 wars from Afghanistan to Libya that involve the U.S.-led attempt to control of territory, markets, and energy resources.
The wars and policies are invariably justified with appeals to nationalism and xenophobia. The racism is then used to whip up support for increased state police powers and surveillance to repress both communities already subject to discrimination and movements against capitalism.
This is the dilemma going forward now that grassroots dissent is being squelched at the climate talks in Paris that begin Nov. 30. Civil society, indigenous, peasant, and workers organizations, NGOs, environmentalists, scientists, and activists have been told to pack it in. Addressing climate change will be left to the perpetrators of the crisis: the most powerful states, corporations, militaries, and the 1 percent.
Social-justice movements can’t just be oppositional. They have to craft narratives of a better society based on economic and political democracy to counter the extremes of global capitalism and violent fundamentalists alike. And it’s still socialism that offers the only real path out of the crisis.