Gwynne Dyer – A review of a recent talk: a lot right, some not so much.
Gwynne Dyer (http://gwynnedyer.com/) spoke recently at North Island College as part of the Institute of War & Peace being taught over the spring term by three faculty members from the English and Humanities and Social Sciences Department. This is the third time I’ve heard Dyer speak and on every occasion he has demonstrated an uncanny ability to go on for an hour and a half without notes or even the benefit of a power point presentation. Astounding! But he is a compelling speaker. When I was still teaching sociology at the college I often used Dyer’s films in my classes, one on the experience of Marine basic training on Parris Island, South Carolina and another great one on the ‘tribe’ as an organizing social and political force. Dyer is an intelligent reporter and critic on world affairs, especially those with military dimensions.
In his recent talk at the college he covered three areas of ‘current unrest’ in the world, the Middle East, the Ukraine and the South China Sea. His analyses often seem counterintuitive as one listens to them yet strangely plausible at the same time.
With reference to the Middle East, Dyer argues that there has been no major war to disrupt the area for quite some time. He goes over the power and potential of the major states in the area, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iran and Iraq, but also of Egypt, to win a war with Israel. He concludes that all out war between Israel and any one of those Arab states is highly unlikely. Of course, the tension always seems to be there and there have been the odd military excursions here and there and punishing attacks by the Israelis in Gaza in ‘retaliation’ for Palestinian attacks like the wave of bus bombings in Jerusalem a few years ago. The West Bank is slowly being overrun with Jewish settlements. So what would be a viable solution to the ‘crisis’ if one were a Palestinian? Well, the two state solution seems plausible with Israel taking the bulk of the territory but with the Palestinians at least holding on to some territory over which they would have sovereignty. A better solution, still, Dyer proposes, might be a one state solution where Israel would cover the whole area from the Egypt to Lebanon and everyone would become a citizen of one country, Israel, whether Jewish or Palestinian. Because of the demographics of the situation, and if the Palestinians had the vote which would be their right as citizens of Israel, power could realistically devolve to the Palestinians in a reasonable period of time. Apparently, this scenario is gaining ground as a possibility among Palestinians but the impediments to such a solution are not easily discounted. Plausible…as they would say on Mythbusters, but probably a long shot.
Dyer’s comments about the Ukraine are less optimistic than are his thoughts on the Middle East. He sees a lot of outright stupidity and bravado there but he is cautiously optimistic that war will be averted as long as Western countries keep their noses out of it but that the tension could very well devolve into something more serious than a skirmish. Dyer is much more knowledgeable about the situation than I am. I freely admit that I know very little about the politics of that area of the world, but I still feel there is something lacking in Dyer’s analysis, a feeling I get from my general knowledge of the global political economy over the past few centuries, particularly since the first serious wave of the spread of European capital to other parts of the world in the 15th Century. (let’s not quibble about the Roman empire). Back to that later.
Dyer ended his talk with a note on the South China Sea where China and Viet Nam are now in a dispute about the ownership of some islands that coincidentally are on top of substantial oil reserves. We know from the news that Chinese nationals are being attacked by Vietnamese in Hanoi and other cities causing thousands of Chinese to return in haste to China. Dyer also talked about longstanding disputes between Japan and Korea over islands (of course). His main point in his talk about the South China disputes is that China is headed into a deep recession. Its in need of a diversion so that its citizens are focused on an external ‘threat’ thus inflaming an always present but sometimes dormant nationalism. For the Chinese leaders this is a much better outcome than having China’s workers brooding on the fact that their jobs have disappeared and having them get revolting over that. There’s already enough unrest in Chinese factories with workers demanding pay increases and better working conditions. Don’t need any more of that! I don’t believe I’ve misinterpreted Dyer in any of this but I’m open to be corrected if need be. That said, I left Dyer’s talk last week a little dissatisfied.
Dyer, being a specialist in military and political history, can be forgiven for not integrating political economy into his analysis more completely. In reference to some situation in the Ukraine that I can’t recall at the moment, although it may have had something to do with the sad state of productive capacity and outmoded means of production and competition from other jurisdictions, he made an offhanded remark that ‘well, that’s just business.’ Well, business, especially at the scale we’re concerned with here, is never just business. When Dyer mentions that a coming recession in China is driving foreign policy he’s getting it, sort of, but not essentially.
I want to step back here for a moment and consider why there has been no major military battles in the last 70 years on this favourite planet of ours. It could be argued, I suppose, that assured mutual destruction may have something to do with it. Launching nuclear weapons is a no-win game and everybody knows it. That doesn’t mean that some nut job in the Pentagon or the Kremlin hasn’t thought about it. So far more rational heads have prevailed. Let’s hope it stays that way.
I believe, however, that the main reason for the fact that bombs aren’t flying between major powers in the world today is much more about the fact that countries are not really the drivers of economic activity, multinational corporations are. I know not everyone agrees with me on this, but from my reading of European history, the driver of the formation, configuration and constitution of countries (states) from as far back as the 14th Century is capital expansion. In the Middle Ages the acquisition of land, often violently but mainly by treaty and intermarriage, was the way wealth and power were accumulated. After all, it was the prospect of new territory that prompted Queen Isabella of Spain to bankroll Christopher Columbus on his little jaunt into the Atlantic Ocean. Columbus himself didn’t care a hoot about territory. He was interested in ‘stuff’ he could bring back from India or wherever he landed to sell on the European market to make himself rich. For his class of people, the bourgeoisie, commodities, not the conquest of land were the source of wealth. That’s still the way it is today although today we’ve come to a time when the world is becoming highly integrated in economic terms. Companies with head offices the whereabouts of which matter very little anymore, produce (or contract other local businesses to produce) goods in export processing zones all over the world. They then move them to ‘consumer’ markets mostly in Europe and North America, but increasingly to every corner of the planet by just-in-time processes of distribution. In whatever country a corporation has a head office (usually just because it first saw the light of day there) it’s likely to lobby hard and get the support of the national government to champion its interests even though those interests may clash with those of the citizens of said country. The larger the corporation the less likely the national government is to ignore it. And if, as with the petrochemical or auto industries, a number of corporations lobby hard through their non-profit lobbying societies like the Canadian Petroleum Producers Association, then the government takes the call no matter what time of the day or night.
In fact, with a few exceptions, the governments of our world are all too eager to serve corporate interests to the detriment of those of its own citizens. A recent article in The New Republic suggests that a number of ‘American’ corporations are already whining about how economic sanctions against Russia would be sanctions against them because they do billions of dollars of business a year in Russia and have high hopes for Russia as an emerging market for US goods (some produced, no doubt, in China). There are Pepsi and Coca-Cola signs all over Moscow. (Vinnik 2014) Now this has a critical impact on the likelihood of open interstate warfare, especially where nuclear weapons are concerned. It’s really not about territorial expansion anymore, anyway. It’s about control of commodity markets, including those for cheap labour power. Particularly strange would be for the US to decide to attack China with bombs. It’s true that if Walmart were a country it would be China’s 8th most important trading partner. I can’t imagine Washington attacking Walmart’s factories in China!
In fact, in a perverse kind of weird way, I think that the fact that corporations, in looking for the cheapest sources of labour and raw materials, spread themselves all over the globe is a deterrent to all-out war between states. Of course the fear of war is important because that justifies feeding billions of dollars into arms producing businesses. But skirmishes here and there use up some of that arms production as do military exercises like patrolling the South China Sea, something the American Navy has done since 1945. Still, an American government aiming to protect ‘its’ corporations is not likely to send in the troops when that would lead to dropping corporate profits. Nowadays, war is not always good for business and its clearer now than ever that corporate interests come first in our world. I hate to admit it, but corporate global expansion may be a strong deterrent to interstate warfare. (Vinnik 2014)
Vinnik, Danny. These U.S. Corporations Are Probably Scared of Sanctions on Russia. March 4, 2014. http://www.newrepublic.com/article/116853/economic-sanctions-would-hurt-american-companies-russia.
 Corporations are considered legal individuals in the US and in Canada but it’s a stretch to think of them as ‘national’ when capital supercedes state in the way the world is organized these days according to Thorstein Veblen and other commentators for whom I have a great deal of respect. Although the relationships are complicated, it’s more accurate to say that capital created the modern nation-state than the other way around.