Salvage Perspectives #5: ContractionsDeath Drive Versus Disavowal
In line with his mandate, but against the wishes not only of the US public but also capitalist America – including, notably, fossil-fuel corporations – Donald Trump has withdrawn from the Paris Accords. There are signs that he may reverse the decision if changes are made to the Accords to the advantage of US energy producers, but at present these are only media reports. This followed his early executive order cancelling Obama’s Clean Power Plan, his appointment of former Exxon boss Rex Tillerson to Secretary of State, and his appointment of climate-change deniers Scott Pruit and Jeff Holmstead to head the Environment Protection Agency.
Such actions have been cast as a war on science. There are elements of truth to this: the EPA is having its budget slashed, as is the National Institutes of Health, and official websites detailing climate science have been deleted. But such war is only on representative agencies of the ‘wet’ sciences, those concerned with human and ecological welfare. NASA, traditionally something of a partner of US imperialism, is getting a budget bump despite having backed the scientific consensus on climate change.
Trump channelled the most unreal wing of petty bourgeois reaction in a campaign resembling his Twitter-feed, denouncing the Paris deal as a ‘global warming hoax’, ‘very expensive … bullshit’, designed to benefit only the Chinese at the expense of Americans. ‘Trump Digs Coal’, a famous campaign placard read: in fact, the only thing Trump was digging was bullshit, and that by the imperial tonne.
Why were fossil-fuel companies, not to mention Exxon itself, firmly against Trump’s position, lobbying him to stick with the Paris Agreement? These firms are not interested in reducing their contribution to climate change, nor in meeting the targets set by the Paris Accords. The deal reached in Paris last April nominally committed signatories to keeping global temperatures at or below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. But numerous studies have demonstrated that the specific measures prescribed under the rubric of Paris would still lead to global temperatures rising up to 3.7 degrees, very close to the current projected estimate of 4 degrees by 2050. This, moreover, is an average estimate: at the extreme, global temperatures could go as high as 8 degrees above pre-industrial levels, with incalculable consequences. As the journal Nature Climate Change, among many others, points out, the climate-change-mitigating policies actually introduced under Obama wouldn’t even come close to their supposed, stated goal.
For Vice’s tech website, Motherboard, the environment journalist Sarah Emerson wrote that the oil firms backing Paris are ‘gambling on energy scenarios that climate scientists insist we cannot afford if we want Earth to remain habitable.’ As for the coal industry, a report by Climate Analytics shows that Obama-era plans ‘would lock-in the energy infrastructure on a carbon-intensive pathway for the next forty years’. Evidently, those firms’ hope was that the Paris Accords – though inadequate in terms of averting climate catastrophe, and around any concrete measures of which they considered inconvenient these companies would in any case unhesitatingly swerve – would secure a system of global governmentality that would protect their profit margins until well beyond the point at which they irreparably damaged the habitable planet. It is doubtless an exasperation to Big Energy that Trump’s eco-poujadist bullshit threatens, through its arrogant destructiveness, to re-politicise the whole question. The Vicissitudes of Empire
How far has Trump broken with Obama’s methods of imperial management, especially in the Middle Eastern theatre? There are clear signs not only that there is a shift, but that that shift – and this must be said without a scintilla of nostalgia or political support for the cynical, death-dealing realpolitik of that earlier approach – appears to be accelerating overt and dangerous conflicts in ominous fashion. Consider the shooting down of a Syrian regime plane in the skies around the Daesh redoubt of Raqqa. ‘This’, intoned one piece on Foreign Policy, ‘is how Great Power wars get started’. Indeed, which is all the more reason to demand that ‘Great’ – or as Salvage prefers to style them, imperialist – powers remove themselves and their influence from the region. The questions remain, what are they doing there, and how are they doing it, in the first place?
So far – in keeping with his mercurial tergiversations in apparently all areas – there appears to be no consistent ‘Trump doctrine’ in the international arena, beyond a generalised enthusiasm for the omnidirectional use of force to assert and maintain American ‘credibility’. This is, in any case, not so great an exaggeration of a perfectly mainstream view in the US imperial establishment. Amid the Trumpian incoherence, however – and mindful not to exaggerate the contradictionlessness of the Obama government’s approach to the region, which always showed the traces of its committee nature, the unresolved competing immediate priorities in the context of a rapidly shifting situation – certain aims appear to be clarifying. These imply increasing conflict with a buoyant Iran and its Russian ally.
For the US, the order of priorities of preferred outcomes seems to be: 1) defeat Daesh (ISIS); 2) contain Iran; 3) avoid deep entanglement in the conflict with Assad. For Russia, they are: 1) support Assad and eradicate his enemies; 2) strengthen Iran; 3) provide a pole of attraction for Turkey, increasingly alienated from NATO due to US support for the Kurdish YPG. Contrary to the fantasies of the pro-Assad Left, clashes between US- and Iranian-backed pro-Assad forces have nothing to do with the denuded and degraded rebellion now left largely helpless in the face of the regime’s foreign-backed counterrevolution. None of the chaotic potential lines of conflict are fundamentally concerned with whether Assad should rule: rather, they are a result of these conflicting priorities over the control of the territory evacuated by Daesh.
The collapse of Daesh’s monstrous self-proclaimed Caliphate has appeared imminent for some time now: indeed with Mosul fallen and Raqqa under unrelenting bombardment, it even seems to be taking longer than expected. The consequent vacuum will be dangerous, and not just because of the increase in number and savagery of the terror attacks Daesh mounts abroad as it retreats from its heartland. In the Iraqi arena, the retaking of Mosul was achieved by the central state, but in Syria two fronts make possible open clashes amongst the victors. In the North, the US’s Kurdish allies the YPG, moulded into a notionally multi-ethnic force known as the ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF) is thrusting towards Raqqa while Turkey bombs its bases in the rear. The US shooting-down of the Syrian-regime jet came after Syrian regime forces advanced on SDF positions, not on any anti-Assad militias. In the south-east of Syria, where Jordan and the US demobilised the fight against Assad and instead founded an anti-ISIS battalion called the ‘New Syrian Army’ (now known as the ‘Revolutionary Commando Army’), open conflict between the US and Russia-Iran-Syria is an even greater risk. US forces are embedded in Tanf airforce base in the east of the district. In May of 2017 US airstrikes destroyed a convoy of Iranian-led militias and regime troops heading for the base, presumably to demonstrate a geographical red line. As Iran seeks to establish a corridor between Iraq and its allies in the Syrian regime and Lebanese Hizballah, further clashes are likely. Much of the Anglophone Left has been obsessed with an imaginary ‘proxy war’ in Syria for years: now that their favoured outcome, Assad victory, and their preemptively diagnosed Western co-option of the YPG, have come to pass, such a conflict is actually breaking out . The crowing of campists notwithstanding, this does not mean any diminution in the anti-imperialism of those of us who stand and stood in solidarity with the Syrian revolution. Opposing Assad does not imply any softening of our condemnation of Trumpian intervention, nor does that latter necessitate blunting the former.
The carnage of ‘Syraq’ cannot be separated from the unsettling manoeuvres in the Gulf, which likewise reflect the fallout of victorious counterrevolution. The extraordinary bluster against Qatar by its fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE represents an act of revenge by one counterrevolutionary axis in the region. The uprisings of 2011–12 sorted out the anciens regimes broadly into three camps; the hard petro-reactionaries, linking Saudi Arabia and the GCC majority with the Egyptian military and at times, the US; a contrary but equally counterrevolutionary entente consisting of Iran, Hizballah and the Assad regime with Russia in the background; and a third camp willing to tack somewhat, to cynically ride the revolutionary wave, at least to elect Islamist politicians, consisting of Qatar, Turkey, the Muslim Brotherhood, leavened with infrequent American support. The ultimatum issued to Doha represents the revenge of the first group on the third, having as its precondition a hard swing by Trump behind the Saudi axis.
This is, as Adam Hanieh has pointed out in Jacobin, yet another of the proliferating modern contexts in which – shades of Syria – ‘simplistic readings of the Middle East, especially those based on the notion that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” are profoundly unhelpful’ . Qatar finds itself on the wrong side of Saudi Arabia, with the shadow of the US behind it. That does not mean it would not be ‘utterly foolish to consider Qatar, Turkey, or Iran as representative of some progressive realignment’. There is no major player here to support. The hankering on the Left for one is not an itch to be scratched but a condition to be diagnosed. Trumped up Imperialism and Democrat Dreams
Judging from the dispatches of the histrionic anti-Trump Democrat #theresistance, Trump is constantly one step away from being unmasked as an agent of Russian global intrigue, not to mention a dupe of North Korea, a pawn of Daesh, and a puppet of Assad. All this despite the fact that a few months into his presidency, Trump has escalated the ‘war on terror’, ratcheted up the sabre-rattling against North Korea, and struck a Syrian airfield at least ostensibly in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Idlib. In fairness, Trump had given some grounds for this paranoia. At various points in his freewheeling monologue, he had suggested that Russia and Assad were allies against Daesh, and hadn’t been particularly enthusiastic about a US presence in the Korean peninsula. (And given the, at best, remarkable stupidity and incompetence of various of his allies in making easily falsifiable and falsified claims about their Russian contacts or lack thereof, it is not beyond possibility that Robert Mueller, in charge of the FBI’s ‘Russia investigation’, might yet find something beyond various predictable fiddlings and jostlings for position of the kind to which the US is hardly a stranger, despite its dogged refusal to manifest so far.)
The major foreign-policy priority vis-à-vis which Trump sounded especially hawkish was the war against Daesh, declaring that he would ‘bomb the shit out of them’, and whose families he declared himself ready to blow up, in a series of war crimes. He claimed to have an ‘absolutely fool-proof plan’ for winning the war on terror. As it transpired, his big idea, apart from attempting to ban Muslims from entering the US, was to go to the Pentagon, and to give them thirty days to come up with a plan. They duly presented to him the outlines for escalation left behind by the previous administration: on these The Donald enthusiastically signed off. What this meant was a 20 per cent tilt toward more violence, changed rules of engagement, the slackening of restrictions on targeting and the opening of new fronts. Trump declared parts of Somalia an ‘area of active hostility’, allowing for more flexibility in targeting, and increased the firepower available for raids. Restrictions on drone strikes, already responsible for mass deaths under Obama, were loosened. The total effect of these actions was to give the CIA and the military a much freer hand in prosecuting the war, relieving it of the micro-managing style of the previous administration.
The changes have resulted in a spate of massacres, in Raqqa, Mosul and rural Yemen. Nearly 60 per cent of the total number of civilian deaths reported by US Central Command (Centcom) from the air war on Daesh and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula come from this year. Centcom admits to 484 such deaths to the end of April: Airwars, the website whose raison d’etre is to keep track, puts the estimate at 3800. These are the people out of whom the shit has been bombed.
The politics of Trump’s shift are also evident in his meet-and-greet tour of various dictatorships. General Sisi of Egypt, for example, he declared just a ‘fantastic guy’. This was not a fundamental breach from the Obama doctrine: it was two years ago, under Obama’s administration, that the US had resumed funding the Egyptian dictatorship at a rate of $1.3 billion per year. There is, though, a difference of emphasis. Obama had foregrounded his government’s criticisms of Sisi’s human-rights record; Trump is very understanding about Sisi’s need to shed blood.
Trump’s next step was to decisively repudiate those who had dismissed him as a Pyongyang pawn. The scaremongering of the liberal press over the necessity for US bases in South Korea, even as President Moon-Jae sought to reverse the US-coddling policy of his corrupt predecessors, had not been in vain. Pyongyang, came the alert, was embarking on a new phase of nuclear proliferation that could see it develop the ability to target Washington DC. Trump, Vice-President Pence, and Secretary of State Tillerson let it be known that the Syria strike was intended as a message to Kim Jong-un. Chairman Trump began issuing stern warnings that the US could have a ‘major, major conflict with North Korea’, and sent a naval fleet toward the northern part of the peninsula: ‘an armada, very powerful’. Alongside such sabre-rattling, Trump has tried to amplify the Obama-era policy of ‘strategic patience’, using sanctions to punish the regime and wait it out. Thus, Trump leans on China, as so many US presidents have done, to use its trade links with the North Korean state to bring it to heel on its nuclear programme.
According to Graham Allison, a defence specialist at Harvard, the US is pushing North Korea toward a ‘Cuban Missile Crisis in slow motion’, while the South Korean leadership is pleading for other interlocutors to help restore the Sunshine Policy of cooperation with the North. This is not, Allison writes, just a product or matter of Trump’s belligerence, but of the slow-burning logic of US strategy since Marines partitioned the island in 1945: this has been to keep the south as a protectorate under a web of US military bases and anti-missile systems. The only thing that could begin to reverse Pyongyang’s policy would be for the US to accept that it has no legitimate claims in the Korean pensinsula and draw down its military presence. Nor would this necessarily alarm the South Korean state, which is becoming an increasingly reluctant partner in US dominance. Its government did not consent to the latest anti-missile system, developed by Lockheed Martin, being brought into the country, and it is anxious to distance itself from Trump. But the very idea of US withdrawal horrifies the US establishment press and political class, and on this point Trump’s conversion – to the extent that any of his whims can be so dignified – has been welcomed.
Predictably, #theresistance has been rather disarmed by Trump’s break with the Bannonite wing of his base. Rarely was this more evident than in the reaction to Trump’s speech at a Joint Session of Congress glorying in a particularly bloody strike in Yemen, when, murmured a visibly moved Van Jones, he ‘became President of the United States in that moment, period’. (The irony is redoubled by the fact that Trump was claiming credit for a strike that had been planned under the previous administration.) The bombing of a Syrian airfield earned praise from liberal paladins, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer and Justin Trudeau. ‘On Syria attack, Trump’s heart came first’, the New York Times sighed. (China Miéville expands on this in his essay in this issue.) In response to the massacre in Mosul, the same newspaper excoriated Congress for ducking their ‘constitutional responsibility’ to pass laws authorising Trump’s war. On North Korea, the media has tended to vacillate between condemning Trump for a lack of nuance, and for being too soft on China in his efforts to lean on Pyongyang, but the idea of a principled disagreement was moot as soon as the White House began to threaten conflict.
As well as seeing their own victories in these hawkish lurches, in more general terms, in the cravings of the Democrats for ‘relevance’, for the power they believe is a birthright denied them by history’s caprice, in Trump’s very erraticness lies hope. ‘He likes us,’ Chuck Schumer can be heard saying on a C-Span microphone, after the president’s abrupt and unlikely collaboration with Schumer and Pelosi on ‘Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals’ immigration policy (to his own party’s rage). ‘Oh, it’s going to work out.’ Rarely have the illusions of a bankrupt centrism been so vividly and so pitifully visible.
All of this has produced some head-scratching. ‘What happened to Putin’s puppet?’ asked a Slatecorrespondent with weary sarcasm. What has happened is that state managers have proven less deluded than the intelligentsia. They recognised in Trump a metastasising of the culture of imperialism, its essence and its excrescences, a hypostasis of the original formula, not an antidote. The endless sloganising about ‘winning!’ was not sloganising; it is the essence of Trump’s doctrine. And the Pentagon has successfully harnessed this bombastic product of imperialist victory culture to its own extant objectives. That these are themselves earth-threatening doesn’t burden the Keith Olbermann wing of progressivism: they continue their search for Russian dolls. The Descent
On the military front, the full political collapse of the centre may have been averted or delayed, but the institutions of neoliberal globalisation are faltering. The Brexit crisis is one aspect of a general politicisation of the global economy and the breakdown of a supposed and once-heralded convergence toward a liberal world order. This is signalled in Trump’s rejection of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) – at the cost of some hundreds of billions in future revenue for US corporations. There is a growing general recognition that ‘globalisation’ is not, in Timothy Morton’s terms, a ‘hyperobject’ exceeding the ability of mere mortals to apprehend it in its totality, and manifesting only in its effects: as much as a description or diagnosis it is, and always has been, an ideology, a project, and a set of distinctive institutional relationships through which the impediments to extracting surplus-value, not just trading barriers but above all various non-commodified sectors of national economies, are progressively rolled back.
In its actually-existing form, it is also, crucially, an imperialist project, organising under the tutelage of the US Treasury Department, Wall Street and the IMF, a set of arrangements in which surplus is not just extracted but circulated through the increasingly byzantine mechanisms of ownership known as the world’s major stock markets. Surplus-values flow from labour to capital everywhere, but the major concentrations of capital to benefit from these global flows are located in the ‘advanced’ economies. The fact that this is not uncomplicatedly true, and that the US-led imperium is increasingly modified by the rise of the BRICS, among others, not to mention Putin’s growing assertiveness, and the internal political weaknesses of the US ruling class, does not mean it is not broadly still the case. Currently the problems for US dominance are primarily political, in terms of the ability of its ruling class to maintain a grip on the system’s management. These problems are now feeding through into the rupture in the US geopolitical strategy that has been in place since World War II.
The crisis of US military efficacy, and the effects of the credit crunch, which exposed the dysfunctions of this system, had been managed by the Obama administration reasonably effectively. Having moved to protect the US financial sector with bailouts, it implemented mild regulatory reforms which, in effect, shored up the political power of the banks. It re-pivoted US military commitments to southern Asia, and invested heavily in expanding technologies of ‘risk-transfer’ war, such as those notorious drone strikes. Economically, having caulked the institutions of global economic liberalism, it focused on its trade war with China by preparing a series of trade, property and investors’ rights agreements between south-east Asian, Australian and North American economies – the Trans Pacific Partnership – and a similar set of agreements between the United States and the European Union, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Some snafus and crises aside, this was looking broadly successful.
The Trump project, in this context, is worse than a setback for the US ruling class. It is the first major breach within the US with global liberalism. Prior to Trump’s reversion to Pentagon orthodoxy, this breach also included threatened military retrenchments beyond the frontiers of the ‘war on terror’. Notwithstanding his reversals on NAFTA and TTIP, he continues to oppose US involvement in the TPP, and his programme still includes elements of national protectionism in an economy whose leading capitalist sectors have nothing to gain from such policies. Meanwhile, the other TPP signatories are pressing ahead, China has accelerated its plans for a regional trade deal, and the EU has, with much fanfare, signed its own more limited trade pact with Japan. At the G20 summit in Hamburg, Trump found himself isolated as Merkel and allies worked to outflank him on the Paris Agreement and global trade. He was excoriated in print by co-architects of the Washington Consensus like Jeffrey Sachs and Larry Summers. The right-wing Australian journalist Chris Uhlman summed up the mood of those nostalgic for US global dominance when he complained that Trump had ‘no desire and no capacity to lead the world’, and that he was ceding ‘power to Russia and China … Some will cheer the decline of America, but I think we’ll miss it when it’s gone. And that’s the biggest threat to the values of the West’. Of course, the biggest capital will continue to attempt to divert Trump’s agenda, and if it cannot, to make the best of it: this is not the same, however, as claiming (as do some on the left) that Trumpism is a mere continuation of the norm, let alone a ‘corporate coup’.
Trump’s main compensatory offer to the American bourgeoisie, though he is struggling to get most of the programme passed by Congress, is a raid on the public sector — accumulation-by-dispossession. It is strongly supported by small businesses which feel crushed by ‘big government’ and the more adventurist wings of capital, and it is absolutely certain to compound the already grotesque dysfunctions and infrastructure failures in the US economy. This project was greeted with cheers on the part of America’s petty bourgeoisie: the National Federation of Independent Businesses reported soaring ‘optimism’ in the early months of the Trump era, only for demoralisation to ensue as the Senate obstructed Trump’s rollback of Obamacare, a key desideratum of the grifting, low profit-margin employers.
This is a tentative experiment in administering petty-bourgeois reaction within a still bourgeois state, and it is a pathology of unacknowledged imperial decline.