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Alexander Anievas (2014), Geopolitics in The Thirty Years Crisis 1914-1945, University of Michigan Press

It is now inevitable that within the next few decades, humanity will be riven by crises created by the clash between its exponential growth and the Earth’s limits. The impacts may be greatly exacerbated, and the responses possibly crippled, by the way in which our modern societies are structured and operate. Alexander Anievas’ book covers a previous time when there was a fundamental crisis within the international order driven by the differing rates of capitalist development between countries in the first half of the twentieth century, and the internal and international conflicts that ensued. This was the birth period of global capitalism, and what we may witness in the next few decades is the death of that very same global capitalism as it exhausts the limits of the Earth.

Uneven Capitalist Development

At the level of nation states Anievas identifies the uneven rates of development as causing major changes in national positions of power and the possibility of conflict. The greatly increased wealth and power that had resulted from the industrialization of Britain had awoken the other powers to the need for rapid capitalist transformation. The successful industrialization of war (steel ships, machine guns etc.) underlined what would happen to countries that did not successfully transform themselves. Capitalist development fundamentally upset the world order. “British military power … benefitted from the almost complete monopoly on industrialization it held for almost half a century. Such were the ‘advantages’ bestowed on the ‘first-comer’ status of British capitalism.” Faced with the rapid development of a competing country, there were only two solutions available to others; accept the challenge of transforming the country and/or a preemptive strike before the other country became too overwhelming an adversary.

Faced with such newly industrializing “upstarts” the already industrialized had to accept a relative decline, or take action to limit their competitor’s ambitions. The ability of less-developed countries to rapidly industrialize by taking advantage of available technologies and lessons from the early industrializers could change relations within only a few decades, as with the case of late industrializer Germany with respect to Britain. The same could be said of Japan, whose naval defeat of Russia in 1905 created shockwaves through the established order and drove Russia toward a rapid modernization that was seen as a direct threat to German interests. The inability of the Ottoman Empire to successfully restructure itself along capitalist lines provided great opportunities for the other powers to exploit, and compete over. With such rapid changes in power relations, the possibilities for inter-nation aggression and pre-emptive war greatly increased. The British hegemony was being challenged, and lesser-developed powers threatened by the new upstarts.

The current period is dominated by the rapid reemergence of China as a great capitalist power, and the recovery of Russia from the economic and social devastation of the 1990’s. The old ‘new world order” is being challenged, with the new economic power of China starting to be reflected in its power relations with other nations. Any continuance in the successful development of India will only add to the complexity of Asian power relationships. With relative power relationships being fundamentally a reflection of relative economic power, nations will be extremely unwilling to accept any ecological limits that reduce their growth rates relative to their competitors.

With its hegemony being threatened, and its ally Europe in relative decline, will the United States quietly agree to a new multi-polar world to facilitate successful action on climate change? Would China accept being frozen in terms of per capital wealth relative to the USA, or the USA accept a lack of growth to allow other countries the carbon budget space to ‘catch up’ (that assumes of course that such space really exists)? Of course not, and there lies the basis for conflict. The backstop to US economic hegemony is its overwhelming superiority in military power. As the former is undermined will it wait until the latter becomes openly challenged? As climate change intensifies and resource limits become endemic, the need to balance ‘realpolitik’ with a communal and holistic management of the Earth’s resources will become increasingly difficult.

Internal Conflict

Without the centuries of institutional and other social changes that had been necessary to fully develop capitalism within Britain, the other nations had to do with the forcible creation of a hybrid combination of the old and the new. This required alliances between groups with possibly conflicting aims, creating unstable social and political relationships. The creation of new capitalist relations also produced new power groups, such as capitalist owners and a unionizing proletariat. As the author puts it, when referring to Russia “The infusion of European armament and finance was a contradictory process, simultaneously strengthening tsarism while undermining its socioeconomic and political foundations.” In Germany the land-owning Junker class allied itself with the expanding industrial capitalist class, in a successful combination that drove rapid industrialization from above while setting up an inevitable elite conflict between conservative Junkers and liberal bourgeoisie, “Bismarck’s state-sponsored program of rapid industrialization aimed at building a militarily powerful German state quickly undermined the socioeconomic conditions on which the Kaiserreich was founded” as the threatened Junker class became radicalized and an organized proletariat rapidly developed.

The great depressions of 1873-96 and the 1930’s greatly exacerbated social conflicts and radicalized significant sectors of the population. The need to find a way out of such crises lead to attempts at colonial exploitation to capture new markets, together with protectionist and mercantilist policies. The impediments that other powers, especially Britain, placed in the way of German attempts at commercial expansionism prior to WW1 clashed with Germany’s need to maintain growth to help ameliorate its internal conflicts. The same could be said for the inter-war limits on Japan’s ability to develop its own “co-prosperity zone” by the United States. The embargo of oil supplies to Japan by the USA (the major provider of oil supplies at the time) prior to the Pearl Harbour attack was a virtual ‘act of war’ that could only lead to either abject surrender or military attack. The inability to stabilize internal conflicts through external means lead to the emergence of fascism and Nazism “that offered alternative, reactionary means of temporarily stabilizing these social issues – means that were tolerated (if not actively cultivated) by key policymakers and business elites.”

With the rise of neoliberalism in the 1970’s, and the end of sharing of the benefits of growth across society, much of the social, cultural and institutional framework that supported capitalist development has been undermined or outright removed. In the developed nations, long-term political combinations have been destabilized as the middle class has been diminished and the working class casualized. With the destruction and impotence of much of the socialist alternatives, radical right-wing populism has taken a much greater hold than previously thought possible. A general distrust, and in cases outright hostility, to elites is evident in much of North America and Europe. The channeling of this through right-wing populism and xenophobia that does not threaten the underlying social order is a useful temporary solution for the elites. It is only a temporary solution though. For China and India, where social stability is heavily dependent upon the promise of continued prosperity, any lack of growth could be seen as a national emergency requiring swift action. Much of China’s recent actions, such as its alignment with Russia and claims over the South China Sea, can be seen as attempts to protect the energy resources that it requires for continued development.

As the Earth’s limits constrain growth, or even worse create recessions, any underlying internal social and political fault lines will be greatly exacerbated. This will create increasing pressures upon national governments to act, whether it is through internal repression or external aggression. The longer humanity takes to act, the lesser possibility for the internal social cohesion required for the required international agreements. The way in which the negative impacts of such agreements are shared will also be greatly impacted by the balance of forces within given countries. The pressure for unilateral actions, such as the limiting of energy exports, military action and geo-engineering will grow.

Individual Agency and Contingency

The author accepts that both individuals and the sheer randomness of events can have significant impacts upon outcomes; he does not take a simply deterministic view of historical outcomes. This does provide a level of hope that individual leadership and specific events may allow human civilization to move away from the path of self-destruction. Informed and able leadership may allow some countries to much better prepare for the future, as may be the case with China’s recent rapid turnaround in the development of alternative energy supplies.

Individual catastrophes may galvanize countries to action, or equally disable that action. Even a nation with the resources of the United States may be greatly stretched to deal with the probably return of its South West to dessert, the flooding of southern Florida and repeated weather-related disasters. Many millions of internal refugees could easily be more divisive and destabilizing than positively transformative.

Corporate Superpowers

One area of International Relations that was not a major one for Anievas to cover was that of the massive corporations that have become international players in their own right. Any move to relocalization through reductions in the use of fossil fuels, or reductions in consumption, would directly threaten the profits and even existence of these corporations. As legally mandated pure sociopaths, their only duty is for their own survival and profitability. Just as the likes of Exxon have already done, they may use every means possible to forestall initiatives that reduce their wealth and power. They have thrown their considerable support behind eco-modernism and geo-engineering, as these promise not to impede the never-ending quest for increasing profits. With a pending possible no-growth/de-growth environment they will strive to move the sacrifices onto others, and even take advantage of the situation in the “Disaster Capitalist”[1] mode described by Naomi Klein.

Overall, Anievas provides a holistic and well-argued description of the fundamental drivers for the two world wars that goes well beyond the banal and simplistic self-serving narrative supplied by western elite opinion. It shows the great shortcomings in the current mainstream analyses provided by International Relations scholars and others writing about society’s responses to the impending environmental crises. The book is heavy on theory in some places, but provides an incredibly rich conceptual and factual framework through which to view the current reality. The impacts of climate change and other environmental issues cannot be viewed in isolation from current international rivalries; internal economic, social and political power relationships, and the state of global capitalism. If Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything”[2] is a somewhat simplistic and overly anecdotal view of reality, Anievas offers part of the much more realistic and nuanced, analysis that is required. It is well worth the effort required to fully comprehend.


[1] Naomi Klein (2008), The Shock Doctrine – The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Picador

[2] Naomi Klein (2015), This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, Simon & Schuster