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The Third World War has indeed begun

By Kristof Decoster
on May 9, 2015

As we commemorate the end of the Second World War in Europe and elsewhere, it becomes more and more clear that the Third World War  has indeed started. Not in the way you sometimes read in magazines like Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs or some other glossy international politics journal, that we’re sort of “sleepwalking” into a new World War (with crises in the Middle East and Northern Africa, the Ukraine and also increasing risks in East Asia, among other hotspots in the world), as was the case 100 years ago, or referring to the barbarian challenge of IS and its quest for a global caliphate …  no, these are just symptoms of a world in turmoil. I don’t think they are the essence of the crisis.

The real world war we’re engaged in is, like Naomi Klein rightly says in her latest book, a war with global capitalism, multinationals and global finance. There’s not that much wrong with capital or market mechanisms, in my opinion, if they are used for the public good, but there’s clearly something wrong, I’d even say inherently “evil”, about the way our current global economic system functions. It took many of the Germans quite some years before they fully understood that the nazi system was evil, I think the same is true for the current economic system, too many of us are not aware yet, although we’re seeing more and more signs of it, whether it’s increasing ecological disaster, drowning migrants on our shores, or football players earning in a week what other people not even make in their whole life. We know something is wrong, but we can’t fully explain what.

The current paradigm is still one of a world in crisis, trying to overcome “market failures”, on the way to the holy grail of the 21st century, ‘sustainable development’.  I think the global health mainstream also still thinks this way, aiming for global health equity. I think that’s a mistake, and a big one.

For the ones among us baffled and disappointed about yet another shocking election result (this time in the UK) or the way the ‘powers that be’ once again try to play ‘divide and rule’ in the EU (vs Greece), I think it’s good to start thinking about using this war frame. We don’t need a new “narrative” or a better strategy for left-wing parties, so that they can win elections, no, there’s only one “frame” appropriate for the coming years and decades: we are at war. And I’m afraid it’s a war between common citizens and a globalized elite – and yes, I know that sounds populist, but there’s no way to put it differently.

It might take decades to take back power from global finance and dominant multinationals, and it will no doubt not be an easy ride (but take a lot of “blood, sweat and tears” instead) but it should be clear that this is a war with structural evil, even if it’s not recognized as such by many people, and even if there are a lot of decent and well-meaning people working for multinationals, finance etc – it’s not that they’re all ‘Eichmanns of the 21st century’.

It’s also a war we can’t afford to lose, if we want to make this planet more just for everybody and leave behind a hospitable planet for the generations to come. There will be defeats, like the Cameron victory last week, or the EU getting away one more time with imposing structural violence on ordinary Greeks, as seems likely now, or TTIP & TTP being pushed through, if we let the Davos class have its way, but hey, the war has just begun – at least at the global level, before it was mostly the Global South being hit. Now we’re all on the same boat, even if some of us are still on the upper deck.

As we know from our history classes, a lost battle doesn’t mean that the war is lost. Someday, it is my conviction, the world’s 99 % will see its own ‘Stalingrad’, and I have a hunch that day is coming closer.

Bill Gates was right last week, when he compared the holistic agenda of the SDGs with “the bible”. It’s an appropriate metaphor: the Bible, especially the old Testament, is full of violence and war – and I’m afraid that’s exactly what it will take if we want to do more than just ‘chasing symptoms’ in the SDG era (the way Gates and other fans of PPPs tend to do) without tackling the root causes of the current holistic mess. In other words, “There will be blood”, to get to a carbon-free and juster future for the billions, rather than just for the 0.01 %. In fact, the blood is already flowing, as we notice on our tv screens.

Not that we’re that fond of blood – mind you, we had this idea of a Third World War frame this morning, while engaged in a Shingon meditation, and chanting Japanese words we don’t quite understand but that are apparently great to get in a belligerent mood.

The alternative – that somehow, we’ll manage to push “the system” in a more sustainable and juster direction with our own army of human rights lawyers (to overtake the lawyer firms who already keenly look forward to ISDS & all the rest of it, to make even more money), health economists who interpret UHC the way it should be interpreted to get fairer health financing, … and other (only) peaceful means, seems a bit naïve. There will always be a power imbalance, I’m afraid – due to a fundamental resource gap. It’s for a reason that philanthropic foundations don’t know how to spend all their money in time, these days, while other actors see their funding cut. Just an example. It’s the same in all sectors.

And so it appears that, instead, we’ll have to count on massive ‘shocks’ to the system, whether it’s a Grexit, Brexit, Scotland leaving the UK, … something that might completely mess up the global economy. On the ruins of the chaos that will then follow, perhaps there’s a chance to build something better. I don’t believe for a single minute that the current global financial system is resilient. So there’s our chance.

Having said that, this new World War is far more complex war than the second World War, and not just because there’s no clear enemy. We also have to fight the enemy within. We’re all hooked on this system, even if it is inherently evil in many ways. To borrow a toxic term from the Second world war, we’ll have to ‘delouse’ ourselves from the most insidious aspects of the system, and I’m not sure we can. Not just the Ryanair flying and all that, a crime to humanity, no less, but also and perhaps even far more damaging: the cynicism within, that “this is the way it is and will always be, and that nothing can be done about it”. Too many of us believe in the Davos version of the famous Lineker quote: “Economy is a simple game. Billions try to earn a livehood, but in the end, the Davos class wins.” On a bad day, I also believe so.

Once we believe, however, that it can be done, and that enough people believe so, i.e. that the system can change, that’s the moment when we will have won this global war. We ain’t there yet, as last week proved once again. But to quote Bill Gates: I hope it will happen in my lifetime.

I personally believe that the part of the global health community that truly wants to ‘transform’ this world for the better, has to start using this ‘we are at war’ frame. If not, we’ll only be chasing symptoms, no matter how important that may be. We don’t need to count on Gates for this, let him do what he’s good at (and where he has arguably a lot of added value with his foundation for which I have huge respect). But don’t let him frame the future, and set the SDG agenda.

Chasing cars”   is a great song, but there’s absolutely no reason why we should chase Bill Gates’ view on the future – and only do something about the symptoms of the current ‘holistic mess’ in this world – chasing his money… PPPs can work, if it’s clear who’s the boss. And that should be the people, not Big Business. Or take another current example: why the hell is it so hard to properly fund WHO’s contingency fund (which would only require 100 million, as a start) and are apparently a lot more people interested in the insurance model of the global pandemic emergency facility that the World Bank and others suggest? Is it because even when it’s about catastrophes, global capitalism still wants to make money? You tell me.

Cozying up to the Tony Blairs of this world will not ‘save humanity’. To save humanity, we first of all need to recognize we’re at war. Only then, a post-capitalist values driven global economy   becomes possible. Which is exactly what we need in the 21st century. The narrow minded and empty mantras of  ‘value for money’ and ‘striving for excellence’ we’re hearing all the time, have to go. They lead humanity to hell.

Yeah, quite a meditation this morning.

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