World War III as an historical category

By Haines Brown, KB1GRM, 6 May 2005

The category I have employed here, World War III, is boldly sweeping in its scope. Not only does that worry me, but also it is a term that is highly ambivalent. I would like to address these two points here, not so much to justify the category, but to alert the unwary.

The choice of the category

Empirical change always takes place in history, sometimes rapidly, sometimes not. There is a natural tendency to focus our attention upon periods of rapid change for a variety of reasons, one of which is that it tickles the fancy.

However, this this a poor guide to historical understanding, and one should try to distinguish what are sometimes called axial or revolutionary epochs from those in which there is merely rapid change. Some revolutionary transitions are spread out over a considerable period of time, but what is of primary significance is less the rapidity of empirical change than the emergence of new kinds of relations. My presumption is that revolution refers to structural change that becomes possible and necessary because of prior empirical change and that results in new possibilities for empirical change, but in itself represents a structural transformation.

I assume here (very tentatively, of course) that World War III refers to a period of rapid and profound empirical change that is making eventual revolutionary change both possible and necessary. So while it is not itself a revolution, it represents a rapid development of the conditions necessary for it.

Since World War III is part of a longer process, we can with some justice look back to the Cold War or even the rise of imperialism to mark the beginning of this era of rapid change, but for the reasons I mention below, I prefer to see the 1990s as opening a new phase of empirical change with its own distinguishing characteristics. For that reason, I do not see it just as another world war, as suggested by those who would prefer to name it World War IV. On the other hand, for the reason suggested above, I would not consider it axial, either.

The ambivalence of the category

During the bourgeois revolution, classical political economy had seen the state as serving to establish the political conditions in which capitalism might flourish. This came down to maintaining a political order in which economic transactions took place with least constraint. Minimal government was the best government.

In the course of the nineteenth century, however, this policy changed, for it became apparent that those nations that sought capitalist development found themselves ever less able to compete with already developed capitalist states. The solution for this difficulty was to allow for ever greater state intervention to encourage the accumulation of capital, to sponsor enormous economic projects, and to engage in the pursuit of empire.

The relation between empire and economic interest has long been debated, and it is indeed complex. However, I think it safe to say that generally there has been a functional relationship between empire and capitalist development. The empires required mass armies, mass communications, and mass democracy. No longer could states afford to employ a conservative (cautious or minimal) policy, but had to become aggressively active in social and economic terms. The age of empire, for this and other reasons, seems empirically distinct from the earlier stage in the development of capitalism.

To a significant extent, World War II represents the clash of imperial interests at the global level. It was very destructive, and so an alternative mechanism to regulate the relations of capitalist states was clearly needed. The solution was to develop institutions for the negotiation of state relations (the United Nations, international law and courts), and to divide the world uneasily between two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, which is often called the Cold War. While I do not assume the Soviet Union had an empire, nevertheless, there were two competitive political centers, which tended to stabilize an international order, so that violence more often than not was an internal affair within the two spheres, which had the advantage of limiting their scope and impact.

Nevertheless, the two spheres were driven by state interests, which in the case of the United States served to protect and develop its own capitalist economy.

What changed in the 1990s, I believe, was a retreat of the state as the principal engine of change. A new phase of globalization occurred in which transnational corporations stepped forward as the driving force, while states became their handmaidens.

There is much talk of globalization dissolving the bourgeois state. Although perhaps somewhat exaggerated, this does seem an important trend. Even mass armies, the hallmark of imperialism, are being replaced by new military technologies which reduce manpower requirements (and the bad press resulting from losses) and to a degree by privatized (contracted) military forces. The pain of war can be exported. Is it possible that states will eventually disappear? Probably not in the existing order, for the reduction of political dangers does not remove mounting social challenges.

World War III seems a new phase, not simply because there is now but one hegemonic superpower, but more importantly because the driving force is international capital. It it were primarily the emergence of one political pole for the two that characterized the Cold War, then the difference would only be a matter of degree. Now, however, various states, including the United States (to the extent their populations allow), subject their policies to the requirements of New World Order driven by international capital.

If true, what this implies is that states are no longer as dependent on the maintenance of the political commonwealths once so necessary for empire. The support of their populations is no longer of primary concern. This independence of states from their own citizenry implies the deterioration of popular wellbeing and of political rights. Globalization tends to select only a small portion of the population to benefit through their maintenance of the New World Order, while the majority sink into misery, if not absolutely, at least relatively.

The most significant feature of this New World Order/World War III is that the target of war is no longer so much a state institution as it is the citizenry of states. Since this majority is working class, World War III is really a war upon the working class, designed to increase the rate of its economic exploitation.

This includes the United States as well, where there is an emptying of democracy of what little real content once existed in an increasingly militarized state, justified by an empty promise of a global bourgeois commonwealth, which in practice means that nearly everyone suffers, including people in the US.

Another implication of this change is that World War III will not end, given the existing global structure. Because the working class suffers greater relative or absolute deprivation and heightened consciousness as a result of globalization, it will continue to fight against the New World Order, whether it be legally (protests) or illegally (terrorism). But this fight is increasingly carried out on the private level through informal means, for not only has the state ceased being an independent target that might be pressured to make concessions, but economic struggle with the corporation is betrayed by the corporations' increasingly international character. The fight will therefore continue, but necessarily assume new forms as the traditional targets of electoral politics and union struggle change character.

The points raised here are, of course, rather speculative, but do serve, I hope, to explain why in the Archives of World History, World War III appears as an important evolutionary, although not revolutionary, category.