The role of capitalism in the war in Ukraine

To the motives for war in human history, capitalism added another: profit. That motive drove technological advancement and created a genuine world economy. It also built new capitalist empires such as the Spanish, Dutch, British, French, Belgian, Russian, German, Japanese and US empires. 

Each of these countries built its empire by various means including wars against previous systems operating on their own territories, in their colonies and in foreign “spheres of influence”. Wars likewise characterised interactions among empires. Global warfare (“world wars”) accompanied the globalisation of capitalism and its profit motive. The war in Ukraine is the latest chapter in the history of capitalism, empire and war.

Capitalism means enterprises run by small groups of people — employers — who preside over large groups — hired employees. Employers are driven to maximise profits: the excess of the value added by hired workers over the wages paid to them. Employers are likewise driven to sell outputs at the highest price the market will bear and buy inputs (including workers’ time) at the lowest possible market price. 

Competition among capitalist enterprises pressures all employers to plough profits as much as possible back into the business to help it to grow and to gain market share as means to maximise profits. They each must do this to survive because competition’s winners tend to destroy and then absorb the losers. The social result of this competition among enterprises is that capitalism as a system is inherently driven to expand quickly.

That expansion, inside every capitalist nation, inevitably overflows its boundaries. Capitalist enterprises seek, find and develop foreign sources of food, raw materials, workers and markets. As competition becomes global, competing capitalist enterprises seek help from their nations’ governments to expand. Politicians quickly learn that companies in their nations that lose in global competition will blame those politicians for insufficient support. 

Meanwhile, companies that win in the global competition will reward such politicians for their help. The social result of this is that capitalism entails national competition alongside enterprise competition. Wars often punctuate capitalism’s national competition. The winners in those competitions thereby often tended to build empires, historically.

For example, in the 17th and 18th centuries, wars helped British capitalism to build a global empire. In the 19th century, more wars punctuated the completion and consolidation of that empire. Empire growth had itself stimulated all manner of challenges and competition, resulting in more wars. For example, as capitalism took root and grew in Britain’s American colony, colonial enterprises eventually encountered obstacles (limited markets, taxes and limited access to inputs). 

These obstacles eventually grew into a conflict between them and their colony’s leaders, on one side, and Britain’s capitalists and King George III, on the other. The war of independence resulted. Later, British leaders went to war against the US in 1812 and also considered siding with the enslavers in the South against the capitalist North in the American Civil War.

The 19th century saw countless efforts by other nations to compete with, challenge, undermine or reduce Britain’s empire. Competitive capitalist enterprises engendered competitive colonialism and many wars. The US and Germany grew into the major national competitors for Britain. 

Wars punctuated the growth of capitalism across the 19th century, in the United States and Germany, as well as elsewhere across the globe. As capitalist enterprises combined, centralised, and grew — resulting from the competition among them — so too did many nations consolidate into fewer numbers of nations. Wars became larger too, culminating in the devastating first of the two world wars.

The British Empire fought the German Empire in World War I. That destroyed them both as contenders for global dominance. Having been far less damaged by World War I, US capitalism grew fast in replacing the global capitalist positions that Britain and Germany had lost because of the war. 

World War I also established capitalism’s responsibility for the tens of millions who died, were injured and were made refugees in what was then considered the worst war ever. Germany tried to regain its global dominance a few years later, allied with the newest capitalist empire, Japan, to undo the results of World War I. It failed, as the US defeated Germany and Japan to demonstrate its economic and military (nuclear) superiority. A consolidated US global empire prevailed from 1945 until recent years.

The US then learned what the British had discovered earlier. Building and consolidating a capitalist empire provokes an endless succession of challengers. Among capitalist enterprises, competition’s losers’ employees move to work for the winners; the winners’ enterprises grow, and the loser’s decline. Winners’ growth often entails still greater profits and more competitive victories. That growth invites and promotes new competitors. 

Fended off for a while, eventually one or more new competitors discover how seriously to challenge the older dominant firm and displace it. Capitalist empires and their challengers exhibit parallel histories. As the competitive new enterprise destroys the old, the same happens with empires. That has been capitalism’s history, and that is what is now being seen in Ukraine.

Britain, after the end of the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte, won a century of global dominance. The US after World War I did so too. Both empires provoked endless challenges. Nations large and small developed enterprises, industries, and political leaders who wanted to make changes or move in directions that differed from/challenged the US global capitalist hegemony after World War I. 

For example, across Latin America, references to “manifest destiny” resulted in small wars to remove competing challenges in the region. Likewise, when Iran’s prime minister in the early 1950s, Mohammad Mosaddegh, or Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, showed signs of breaking away from the US empire’s control, both were removed. 

The one repression attempt by the US that failed was in Cuba. The US then isolated and economically hobbled Cuba through sanctions and embargoes. Warfare could be economic as well as military. Ukraine is another example, but with a peculiarity: US support for Ukraine is an effort to repress another country that challenges US hegemony, namely Russia. And repressing Russia too is a peculiar indirect way to get at the greatest threat to the US capitalist empire, namely China.

The USSR’s survival after 1917, its World War II victories, and its development of nuclear weapons after 1945 created a potential challenger for the US capitalist empire that had to be confronted. Former US president Franklin D Roosevelt and former prime minister of the UK Winston Churchill had accommodated the USSR’s control in Eastern Europe after 1945, but that represented a “loss” for US global dominance. 

Thus, Eastern Europe quickly became the site of an ideological or “cold” war that pitted freedom and democracy against communism and totalitarianism in the USSR and its “satellite states.” It had to be a “cold” war because the consequences of a nuclear war would have been extreme. 

Before World War II, US wars against other communist challengers of its empire had not demonised them as “evil communists”. During World War II, the US even allied with the USSR to jointly defeat the immediate challengers (Germany and Japan). But after 1945, that was the preferred ideological terminology used for the USSR to justify protecting the US empire. Then, when the USSR and its hold on Eastern Europe collapsed in 1989-1990, the old terminology faded in favour of a new terminology, used to begin a new war on a new challenger: Islamic terrorism.

The 30-plus years since 1989-1990 have changed both the US empire and its challenges. Russia proved too weak to hold on to most of Eastern Europe. The US reintegrated much of that region into Western capitalism via EU and Nato memberships, trade agreements, and Western investments. Slowly, over the past 20 years, Russia overcame some of its post-1989 weaknesses. 

The meteoric rise of the People’s Republic of China brought new challenges for the US empire, including a Russia-China alliance. Russia is now a capitalist economic system allied with China (whose economy has a larger private capitalist sector than at any time since the Chinese Revolution of 1949). These two powerful capitalist economies are the largest globally by geography (Russia) and by population (China). They present a major problem for the US global empire.

Russia evidently felt finally strong enough and allied with a much larger economic entity so it could hope to challenge and stop further “losses” in Eastern Europe. Thus, it invaded Crimea, Georgia and now Ukraine.

In stark contrast, the US empire’s ability to suppress challenges to its global dominance shrank. It lost wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as its intervention in Syria’s civil war. Its global economic footprint decreased in relation to that of China. It proved unable to bring nations like Venezuela and Iran to heel, despite trying hard for many years.

In Ukraine, on one side is an effort led by nationalists who would bring another nation further back into the US-led global capitalist empire. On the other side is Russia and its allies determined to challenge the US empire’s growth project in Ukraine and pursue their own competitive agenda for part or all of Ukraine. China stays with Russia because its leaders see the world and history in much the same way: they both share a common competitor in the US.

Ukraine, per se, is not the issue. It is tragically a war-ravaged pawn in a much larger conflict. Nor is the issue about either Russian President Vladimir Putin or US President Joe Biden as leaders. The same history and confrontation would prevail on their successors. Meanwhile, former US president Donald Trump’s effort to force change on China by imposing the biggest sanctions action in history (that is, a trade war and a tariff war) utterly failed. Trump was caught up in the same history as Biden, even if each focused on attacking the Russian-Chinese alliance differently.

Eventually, some compromise will end the Ukraine war. Both sides will likely declare victory and blame the war on the other among propaganda blizzards. The Russian side will stress demilitarisation, denazification, and protection of Russians in eastern Ukraine. The Ukraine side will stress freedom, independence, and national self-determination. Meanwhile, the tragedy goes beyond Ukraine’s suffering. The entire world is caught up in the decline of one capitalist empire and the rise of yet another. Conflicts between the capitalist empires can occur anywhere where differences between them flare up.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy lies in not recognising the responsibility of the capitalist system with its markets of competing enterprises run/dominated by the minorities we call employers. That system lies at the root of these historic repetitions. The minority employer class controls or is the leadership of the nations that have absorbed and reproduced the competition that capitalism entails. The majority employee class pays most of the costs on both sides (in dead, wounded, destroyed properties, refugee lives and taxes). A different economic system not driven by a profit motive offers a deeper solution than any on offer at present. 

Perhaps the war in Ukraine can awaken an awareness of its capitalist roots and teach people to explore alternative systemic solutions. If so, this war and the resulting devastation from it could lead to an important turning point that eventually results in some positive outcomes in the future.This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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Richard D Wolff
Richard D Wolff is professor of economics emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

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