As 1914 dawned a century ago today, Western Civilization dominated the planet in the form of global empires, the British and the French being the most far-reaching, though their power was being challenged by the American empire, which dominated the entire Western Hemisphere and had recently subjugated the Phillipines, and by the militaristic German Empire, which dominated Central Europe and was building a navy which would challenge the century-long control of the British Royal Navy on the high seas.
The Russian Empire, economically and technologically backward when compared to all of the above, sprawled from Warsaw to Vladivostok. It was already shaky, but the iron hand of Tsarist autocracy still appeared to have total repressive control. The Chinese Empire had collapsed, and was being carved up by the Europeans, Americans, Japanese, and its own warlords into a mish-mash of misery and competing interests, sewing the ground from which Mao would rise.
All of Africa, with the exceptions of Liberia and Ethiopia, was under direct European rule. Most of southern and southeastern Asia was controlled by either the British(what is now India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma, and Sri Lanka), the French(what is now Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos) or the Dutch(Indonesia.) Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific islands were either parts of the British, American, or German empires for the most part, but Japan, which had rapidly industrialized in what was really self-defense a few decades earlier, had already begun its march to what it eventually became in World War II by defeating Russia in 1905 and conquering Korea in 1910.
Every single one of these empires extracted wealth from their colonial possessions to line the pockets of their respective ruling classes, and crushed any “native” colonial dissent with ruthless military force. At home, they ranged from outright despotism to representative democracy, but the ruling classes, be they aristocratic or capitalist or a combination of both, kept most of the real power to themselves even while the more Western ones prated about liberty and democracy and freedom. That last should sound very familiar to most readers here, for many of us have seen things swing back that way in our own lifetimes.
And, most importantly, the rulers of all of these empires wanted to extend their power and influence at the expense of the others. They had run out of planet, you see. This should also sound very familiar. In early 1914, though, few people thought that the existing order, no matter how flawed, would be swept away in just four years. The Powers That Be of the time appeared firmly entrenched and insurmountable. I think that also sounds very familiar. Then came the spark that triggered the global catastrophe of World War I, the Russian Revolution just three years later, and the Great Awakening of the colonial, or “Third World,” peoples that continues to this day.
By the end of 1918, the German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian Empires no longer existed, the British and French ones were at their geographical height but were considerably weakened, while the Americans and Japanese were clearly on the ascendant. Working classes across the world were realizing that they, too, could get some real power if they organized and were willing to strike, fight, and sometimes die for change. In short, the world had changed.
So. Here we are a century later. The naked military imperialism of a century ago is no longer fashionable, in spite of the efforts of American capitalists to bring it back. Even they still pay lip service to “freedom” and “democracy.” Still, there are some remarkable parallels to 1914. First, a few positive things, in my view.
Global finance capitalism has replaced global manufacturing capitalism as the dominant economic force, but like its predecessor, it’s running out of planet. The people it has so ruthlessly exploited are starting to revolt, or at least protest. South Korea was recently paralyzed by a general strike and its rulers appear poised to make some concessions. A labor movement is starting up in China, and there’s actually understandable nostalgia for the enforced equality of Maoism when compared to the increasing inequality caused by capitalism(No, I’m not a Maoist. Yes, I’m aware of the genocidal Cultural Revolution. The same applies to most Chinese.) Most of the countries of South America now have governments that are far more responsive to the needs of their own people than they were just a decade or so ago.
And now, a few really really dangerous parallels. As I said above, our current form of capitalism is running out of planet. The ruling classes of the various powers are casting envious glances at each other. The Chinese PTB are whipping the flames of nationalism in order to distract from their own domestic problems and seek to expand their influence, and profit-making abilities, into the Pacific, Africa, and other places. The Americans, Japanese, and South Koreans are especially alarmed by this and the Americans and Japanese in particular are getting more militarily bellicose to the Chinese. One mistake by some young officer of any of those nationalities could quickly cause a shooting war that could spiral out of the PTB’s control rather quickly, not only militarily but domestically.
Any sort of Sino-American War, no matter how short-lived it would probably be due to the terror of nuclear weapons all rational people of any political persuasion have, could cause such social unrest as to bring down either, or both, the existing Chinese and American political power structures. Who wants obviously insane people governing them?
Meanwhile, I won’t even venture a guess as to what might happen in the Middle East, as the American Empire seeks to continue its dominance, the Arab, Turkish, and Persian peoples demand more liberty and higher standards of living, and other powers, from France to Russia to China to Israel, seek to exploit any opportunity for their own gain. Any number of things could happen there that could end the existing order in just a few years, and probably at the cost of great human suffering, even more so than that region has experienced for all of my life.
Closer to home, Mexico is overdue for a revolution. 1810, 1910, hey compadres, you’re four years late! It’s government is as corrupt as it’s ever been, the inequality of wealth there is truly ridiculous, the drug gangs are out of control, and the Zapatistas have re-emerged in the south. How long before some new Pancho Villa emerges in the north? I’m not saying it will happen, but it definitely could, and who can blame the Mexican people if they rise up? They certainly have good reason to do so.
To conclude(I hear that “Finally!” out there somewhere), both 1914 and 2014 began with global capitalistic imperial and economic systems that had nowhere left to go except against each other in order to expand. Expansion is necessary for any capitalistic system to survive, even if such expansion results in war, which is also profitable for some people, who actively push for it and will sell arms to opposing belligerents if they can get away with it. In both 1914 and 2014, most of the people of the great powers valued what stability their existing systems offered and definitely didn’t want long, bloody wars. In 1914, everybody thought it would be over with in a few weeks. In 2014, even our PTB talk of “surgical strikes,” regime change, and use drones to assassinate from a position of safety. You don’t hear anybody calling for another World War.
Virtually nobody thinks it’s even conceivable. Virtually nobody did in 1914, either. That’s maybe the scariest similarity of all. That, and the fact that in 1914 an inherently expansionist system could not expand any further without war, and I think the same scenario exists in 2014 as well.
So beware! It is possible to stop it, like the American people stopped a new war in Syria last year. But we need to be prepared to do so again and again until we finally get smart enough to create a stable economic system that doesn’t need to constantly expand in order to exist.
And a Happy New Year to all. May it end better than 1914 did.
Public domain photo via Library of Congress.