by Nafeez Ahmed
Nafeez Ahmed is the founding editor of the 100%
reader-funded investigative journalism project INSURGE
intelligence. His latest book is Failing States,
Collapsing Systems: BioPhysical Triggers of Political
Violence (Springer, 2017).
is an 18-year investigative journalist, formerly of The
Guardian where he reported on the geopolitics of social,
economic and environmental crises.
now reports on 'global system change' for VICE's
Motherboard. He has bylines in The Times, The
Independent on Sunday, The Independent, The Scotsman,
Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Foreign Policy, The
Atlantic, Quartz, New York Observer, The New Statesman,
Prospect, Le Monde Diplomatique, among other places.
has twice won the Project Censored Award for his
investigative reporting; twice been featured in the
Evening Standard's top 1,000 list of most influential
Londoners; and won the Naples Prize, Italy's most
prestigious literary award created by the President of
Nafeez is also a widely-published and cited
interdisciplinary academic applying complex systems
analysis to ecological and political violence.
is a Research Fellow at the Schumacher Institute.
the systemic roots of this risk
can help us
A senior European Commission economist has warned that a Third World
War is an extremely "high probability" in coming years due to the
disintegration of global capitalism.
In a working paper (From
Integrated Capitalism to Disintegrating Capitalism - Scenarios of a
Third World War) published last month, Professor Gerhard
Hanappi argued that since the 2008 financial crash, the global
economy has moved away from "integrated" capitalism into a
"disintegrating" shift marked by the same sorts of trends which
preceded previous world wars.
Professor Hanappi is Jean Monnet Chair for Political Economy of
European Integration - an European Commission appointment -
at the Institute for Mathematical Models in Economics at the
Vienna University of Technology.
He also sits on the
management committee of the Systemic Risks expert group in
the EU-funded European Cooperation in Science and Technology
In his new paper, Hanappi concludes that global conditions bear
unnerving parallels with trends before the outbreak of the first and
second world wars.
Key red flags that the world is on a slippery slope to a global war,
he finds, include:
growth of military spending
transitioning into increasingly authoritarian police states
geopolitical tensions between great powers
the resurgence of
populism across the left and right
the breakdown and
weakening of established global institutions that govern
widening of global inequalities
These trends, some of
which were visible before the previous world wars, are reappearing
in new forms.
Hanappi argues that the
defining feature of the current period is a transition from an older
form of "integrating capitalism" to a new form of "disintegrating
capitalism", whose features most clearly emerged after
the 2008 financial crisis.
For most of the twentieth century, he says, global capitalism was on
an "integrating" pathway toward higher concentrations of
This was interrupted by
the outbreaks of violent nationalism involving the two world wars.
After that, a new form of
"integrated capitalism" emerged based on an institutional framework
that has allowed industrialized countries to avoid a world war for
This system is now entering a period of disintegration.
within the system between rich and poor were overcome,
"by distributing a
bit of the gains of the tremendous increase of the fruits of the
global division of labour to the richer working classes in these
tensions were diffused through transnational governance frameworks
and agreements for the regulation of capitalism.
But since the 2008 financial crisis, wealth distribution has
worsened, with purchasing power for the middle and working classes
declining as wealth becomes even more greatly concentrated.
Growth in the Western centers of transnational capital has slowed,
while formerly sacrosanct international trade agreements are being
torn to shreds. This has fuelled a reversion to nationalism in which
global and transnational structures have been rejected, and
'foreigners' have been demonized.
As global capital thus
continues to disintegrate, these pressures escalate, particularly as
its internal justification depends increasingly on intensifying
competition with external rivals.
While integrated capitalism depended on a transnational
institutional framework that permitted "stable exploitation on a
national level", Hanappi argues that "disintegrating capitalism"
sees this framework become disaggregated between,
...each of which pursues
new forms of hierarchical subordination of workers.
Disintegrating capitalism, he explains, will resort increasingly to
"direct coercive powers supplemented by new information
technologies" to suppress internal tensions, as well as a greater
propensity for international hostilities:
authoritarian empires need confrontation with each other to
justify their own internal, inflexible command structure."
Hanappi explores three potential scenarios for how a new global
conflict could unfold. In his first scenario, he explores the
prospect of a war between the three most prominent military powers:
All three have
experienced large increases in military spending since the collapse
of the Soviet Union.
Despite a dip for the
U.S. since 2011, President
Trump has ushered in a new
spike, while Russian spending has plateaued and Chinese expenditures
are rapidly increasing.
All three countries have
also experienced an authoritarian turn.
Drawing on game theory, Hanappi argues that the calculus that none
of these countries would be capable of 'winning' a world war may be
changing in the perceptions of the leaderships of these countries.
By one estimate,
China has the highest probability
of survival at 52 per cent, followed by the U.S. at 30 per cent, and
Russia at 18 per cent.
This calculus suggests
that of all the three powers, China might be the most inclined to
escalate direct hostile military activities that challenge its
rivals if it perceives a direct threat to what it sees as its
The U.S. and Russia in contrast might transfer the focus of their
military activities on more covert, indirect and proxy mechanisms.
In the U.S. case, Hanappi
strategy of Trump seems to include the possibility to delegate
part of local operational responsibility to close vassals, which
receive massive weapon support from the U.S., e.g. Saudi Arabia
and Israel in the Middle East.
Turkey, one of the
strongest NATO branches in the area is a special case.
It seems to have been
allowed to destroy an emergent state of the Kurdish population,
which would have been closer to the European style of
There are growing signs
of heightened great power tensions which could erupt entirely by
accident or unanticipated provocation into a global conflict that
The U.S.-China trade war is escalating, while
both powers tussle
over technology secrets and argue over China's growing military
footprint in the South China Sea.
Meanwhile Trump's massive
expansion of the
U.S. Navy and
Air Force point to preparations for a
major potential conflict with either China or Russia.
Both the U.S. and Russia have jettisoned a critical nuclear treaty
established since the Cold War opening the way to a nuclear arms
North Korea remains
unrepentant about its ongoing nuclear weapons program while Trump's
tearing up of the nuclear agreement
with Iran disincentives that
country from complying with disarmament and reporting terms.
Early last year, a statistical study of the frequency of major wars
in human history found that the so-called 70 years of 'long peace'
is simply not an unusual phenomenon indicating an unprecedented
period of peace.
there was no reason to believe that the 70 year period so far would
not give way to another major war.
Hanappi's second scenario explores the prospect of a series of,
"small civil wars in
The ingredients for such
a scenario are rooted in the resurgence of both right-wing and
"Both variants -
sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly - refer to a past
historical national state form that they propose to return to,"
While right-wing populism
harks back to the authoritarian, racist regimes established in
Germany and Italy in the 1930s, left-wing populism yearns to return
to the model of "integrated
capitalism" that was in place during the first three
decades after the Second World War, and which reacted to the
unequalizing effects of capitalism through the 'social net' of the
so-called 'welfare state' as well as various forms of state
intervention in the economy alongside private industry.
But the challenge is that "integrated capitalism" is already
engulfed with its own internal contradictions, propelling the shift
This puts left-wing populism in a systematically weaker
position, as right-wing populism can point to the multiple
failures of "integrated capitalism":
the failure to
"overcome class antagonisms", and the failure to "fulfill the
promise of a substantially better life for the majority of
According to Hanappi:
of Integrated Capitalism are discredited and cannot act as
leaders, the movement therefore is forced to experiment with new
forms of national organization.
forms of democratic organization take more time, and with
multiple social groups involved this weakens this movements
strength vis-à-vis right-wing populism.
vision of an improved national Integrated Capitalism is
handicapped by the fact that many people still remember its
failures, while the song of national glory that right-wing
populism sings refers to an imagined far-away past that no one
ever had seen."
In this context, he
argues, the potential exists for outbreaks of national civil war
between emerging paramilitary branches of right-wing and left-wing
populist movements, in the context of either movement adopting state
power and coming into conflict with the opposition.
Hanappi warns of the possibility of a regional or global
"contagion" effect, if these breakdowns occur within a similar
In that scenario:
"The fluid mobility
of national ideological political entrepreneurs, the creators of
populist movements, meets the rigidity of dire global economic
This is the crash
that provokes local wars."
This scenario is also
backed by statistical data.
In 2016, a study by
Lloyds Insurers (Political
Violence Contagion) found that since 1960 there has been an increasing
frequency in "pandemics" of "political violence contagion" involving
regional and transnational outbreaks of civil unrest within and
The report said that social protest and dissent against government
policies of militarism abroad and neoliberal austerity at home could
act as potential precursors to "contagions" of violence, along with
other risk factors, including,
"an increase in
the share of internet users"
a growing young
insurgency of the poor
Hanappi's third scenario parallels the Lloyds study's finding that
in coming years, the world is likely to face a series of "super
strain pandemics" in the form of,
protests against national government"
associated with two particular ideologies, "Marxism" and
According to Hanappi, the
plausibility of this scenario can be found in the,
trajectories of welfare of poor parts and rich parts of the
While GDP has continued
to grow overall, in the last three decades income and wealth
inequalities within almost every country have widened, and look set
to sharpen further.
If this cycle continues,
a coalescence of grievances among the poorest three billion, spurred
on by the interconnectivity of communications in the smartphone era,
Hanappi argues that in reality, global conditions make a combination
of these three scenarios more likely than just one of them.
capitalism is not a prediction. It already has arrived and
shapes everyday life.
The vanishing of
integrated capitalism is not a forecast either. Disintegrating
capitalism dissolves capitalism but to do so it first has to
destroy integrated capitalism, its immediate predecessor."
feature of disintegrating capitalism is its tendency to establish,
racist restrictions" designed to exclude "what its leaders
define as an inferior minority",
...in order to protect
capital accumulation for a parochially-defined narrow national
Old integrated capitalist
institutions are abandoned, and new more coercive governance
structures are introduced.
In this context, Hanappi concludes that a Third World War will,
take place, but carries "a frightening high probability."
To avert it, he suggests,
requires the adoption of effective counter-strategies, such as a
global peace movement...
disintegration - What comes next?
Hanappi's diagnosis is insightful, but is ultimately limited due to
his narrow focus on economics.
Missing from his analysis
is any acknowledgement of the biophysical crises driving the
disintegration of global capitalism:
the ecological and
energy flows by which capitalist economies function , and thus
the natural limits (or planetary boundaries) they are breaching.
However, his concept of
"disintegrating capitalism" - bringing with it a heightened
propensity for violent conflict - coheres well with a broader
ecological concept of civilizational decline explored in a recent
the Anthropocene Back Loop) by American geographer Dr Stephanie Wakefield published
in the peer-reviewed journal, Resilience.
Wakefield draws on the pioneering work of systems ecologist C.S.
Holling, who argued that natural ecosystems tend to follow an
"adaptive cycle" consisting of two phases,
"a front loop of
growth and stability and a back loop of release and
She points out that while
Holling's work focused on the study of local and regional
ecosystems, there remained the question of whether the idea of the
"back loop" could be applied on a planetary scale to understand the
dynamics of civilizational transition:
"Are we in a 'deep
back loop' that presents the same opportunities and crises as
the regional back-loop studies that we have described?" he asked
Wakefield explores the
idea of the "back loop" of
the Anthropocene, signaling a phase
shift in which a particular order, structure and value system
encompassing humanity's relationship with the earth is experiencing
a deep rupture and decline:
"The claims to human
mastery over the world are being literally washed away by rising
seas and unprecedentedly powerful storms, while terminal
diagnoses of western civilization proliferate as quickly as
fantasies of the end."
In this new phase, there
is a parallel between the escalation of environmental crises
and intensifying political disruption.
"The list of
anthropogenic-induced tipping points crossed or neared grows:
melting of the ice caps and
350 ppm and now
400 ppm CO²
acidification and coral reef bleaching
But equally and
together with these processes, since 2011 we are also in an era
of riots, revolutions, local experiments and social movements
from left to right that, to the front loop mind, may look
insane, but that are very real."
But the parallel between
environmental and political disruption is no accident.
Rather, it is a
fundamental feature of what Wakefield calls the "Anthropocene back
loop", a phase of systemic decline which sees the old order
unraveling - but which simultaneously opens up new possibilities
for the emergence of a new system.
"In short one thing
would seem clear: we are not in the front loop anymore," writes
"If the front loop was the 'safe operating space' of the
Anthropocene… this complex, nonlinear 'post-truth' world of
fragmentation, fracture, dissolution, and transfiguration is
what I propose we call the Anthropocene back loop."
The front loop, then, is
equivalent to the apex of Hanapper's "integrated capitalism" that
emerged after the Second World War and continued to evolve through a
'golden age' of neoliberal growth from the 1980s to the early 2000s.
Since then, we have increasingly witnessed the eruption of internal
contradictions with this 'front loop' of integrated capitalism, in
the form of a trajectory of disintegration which manifests the "back
loop" of systemic-civilizational decline:
"The back loop is our
present, the moment of the naming of the Anthropocene (as a
failure), in which the past (front loop) has not disappeared,
like points trailing behind on a line, but is erupting in
unpredictable ways in the present."
The phase of
disintegrating capitalism, then, is part of a wider "adaptive cycle"
of global capital which now finds itself on the cusp of protracted
And yet, adopting this
systems lens beyond econometric thinking in a deeper ecological
framework allows us to see more than just the destruction of the old
order at play, but within that very process, the real emergence of
unprecedented possibilities for the emergence of a new 'front loop':
Anthropocene through the adaptive cycle lens, and in particular
our threshold 'now' of scrambled grounds, discombobulated modes
of knowing and being as a back loop, has a number of benefits,"
"Chief amongst these
is the ability to see the Anthropocene not as a tragic End or
world of ruins, but a scrambling where possibility is present
and the future more open than typically imagined."
of the human condition within the framework of the 'back loop' opens
up space to envisage this as part of a longer historical series of
civilizational cycles of decline and renewal, in which the task
before us is to embrace our role in activating and enhancing the
possibilities for renewal.
This means moving far beyond conventional 'front loop' models of
resilience - adapting stale, broken, extant political and economic
structures to a world of intensifying crisis - into models of
resilience aiming to reinvent and redesign ourselves and our
structures from the ground up:
"Instead of accepting
the end of human agency except that of managing crisis - and
rather than imagining ourselves as victims or managers of the
back loop - I argue that another possibility exists: deciding
for ourselves, locally and in diverse ways, where and how to
inhabit the back loop."
Inhabiting requires more
than "fighting against or living in fear" of the back loop.
It requires a degree of
acceptance of it, finding one's own place in it:
"to be familiar,
comfortable, and involved with it… A habitual, everyday act of
free creation and building."
And that requires
recognizing that we are moving into fundamentally and literally
unknown terrain, which can only be done by dispensing with the,
"old modes of
thinking and acting from the fore loop."
In the back loop,
everything is up for grabs - not just old infrastructures, but
also political ideologies and assumed philosophical realities.
And so, to respond to the
phase of disintegrating capitalism and the threat of a global war,
more is required of us than old models like the idea of a 'global
peace movement' - we need an entirely new ethos and
practice committed to the ushering in of a new world:
"What the back loop
suggests to us is that the Anthropocene is now a time to
explore, to let go - of foundations for thinking and acting -
and open ourselves to the possibilities offered to us here and
This is an 'unsafe'
operating space because we have passed thresholds already, but
also because there are no blueprints, no transcendents, no
guarantees, and no assurances:
the only thing to
do is become creators of new values and new answers."
Wakefield's work reminds
us that while the dangers of a third world war are escalating in the
Anthropocene back loop of disintegrating capitalism, the
opportunities for renewal, reorganization and revival are
These need to be grasped and activated whether or not war breaks
Further, we need to work
to sound the alarm, relentlessly, at all levels
to raise awareness of the true
nature of the phase shift we now find ourselves in as a species.
emerges, the end is not nigh - rather, we stand at the unknown dawn
of a 'new beginning'...