Ukraine, the global war economy and the crisis of capitalism

By: William I. Robinson*

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has unleashed heated political debate on the geopolitical consequences of the conflict. Less noticed, the Ukrainian conflict has opened the way for a broader militarization of what was already a global war economy when global capitalism is sinking in deep political and economic crisis.

In March, the Biden administration announced an increase of 31 billion dollars in the Pentagon’s budget on top of an appropriation approved weeks before of 14 billion dollars for the defense of Ukraine. In 2021, Washington approved a military budget of almost 800 billion dollars even as it ended the war in Afghanistan that year. After the Russian invasion, the governments of the United States, the European Union and others allocated billions more to military spending and sent weapons and private military contractors to Ukraine. Stocks of military and security companies shot up after the invasion: Raytheon (8 percent), General Dynamics (12), Lockheed Martin (18), Northrop Grumman (22). Stocks of military firms in Europe, India and other countries rose similarly on expectations of an exponential rise in global military spending.

The Russian invasion –brutal, reckless and reprehensible– has sparked debate about the role NATO’s expansion into Ukraine played in motivating the Kremlin. US officials were aware that said expansion would impel Moscow toward a military conflict, as a recent report from the RAND Corporation, a Pentagon consultant, affirmed. “The measures that we propose are conceived as part of a campaign to unbalance the adversary, causing Russia to overextend itself militarily and economically.”

Militarized accumulation –endless wars, potential conflicts, civil and political unrest, as well as police actions– plays a central role here in the global political economy, which depends on them to sustain capital accumulation in the face of chronic stagnation and saturation of global markets. These processes encompass a fusion of private accumulation with state militarization to sustain the process of capital accumulation.

The cycles of destruction and reconstruction provide constant outlets for over-accumulated capital, opening possibilities for reinvesting the money that the transnational capitalist class has accumulated. Wars provide important economic stimulus. They have historically have pulled the capitalist system out of crises as they serve to divert attention from political tensions and from problems of legitimacy. It was World War II that finally allowed global capitalism to get out of the Great Depression. The “cold war” legitimized 50 years of increases in military budgets. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the longest in modern history, helped to keep the economy afloat in the face of chronic stagnation in the first two decades of the current century. From the anti-communist fervor of the “cold war,” to the “war on terror,” followed by the so-called “new cold war,” and now the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the transnational elite, led by Washington, have had to conjure up one enemy after another to legitimize the military accumulation and shift attention from internal tensions to external enemies and artificial threats.

September 11, 2001 marked the beginning of an epoch of permanent global war in which logistics, warfare, intelligence, repression, and tracking –even military personnel– are increasingly in the privatized domain of transnational capital. State military spending on a global scale has grown by more than 50 percent from 2001 to date, while profits of the military-industrial complex have quadrupled. For-profit military companies employ some 15 million people worldwide, while another 20 million worked in private security. The amount spent on private security in 2003, the year of the invasion of Iraq, was 73 percent higher than the amount spent in the public sector, and three times as many people were employed in private forces companies than in public law enforcement.

These corporate soldiers and police were deployed to: guard corporate property; provide personal security to executives and their families; monitor, spy and collect data; carry out police, paramilitary, counterinsurgency and tracking operations; crowd control, riot control activities and repression of protesters; manage prisons, and participate in war. These private military firms are flocking to Ukraine. Some mercenary firms offer between $1,000 and $2,000 dollars a day to those who have combat experience.

The crisis of global capitalism is economic, of chronic stagnation and also political, of the legitimacy of the states and of capitalist hegemony. Billions of people in the world face uncertain struggles for survival and question a system that they no longer consider legitimate. International frictions grow as states, in their effort to preserve legitimacy, seek to sublimate political tensions and to prevent the social order from fracturing. Mass strikes and protests have proliferated in the world. Wars and external enemies allow dominant groups –in their quest to retain dominance– to divert attention from political tensions and from problems of legitimacy.

In the US, the class struggle is intensifying, with a wave of strikes and unionization campaigns at Amazon, Starbucks, and other sectors of the gig economy. The current inflationary spiral and the escalation of class struggles in the world underscore the inability of the dominant groups to contain the growing crisis. The impulse of the capitalist State to externalize the political repercussions of the crisis increases the danger that international tensions and local conflicts, such as in Ukraine, will lead to broader international conflagrations with unpredictable consequences.

*Professor of sociology. University of California at Santa Barbara


Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada, Monday, May 2, 2022, and Re-Published by the Chiapas Support Committee

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