Today’s economic crisis invites many obvious comparisons with the great slump of the 1930s. So it’s worth remembering that the worst thing about the 1930s wasn’t the unemployment, poverty and industrial dereliction, bad enough although all that obviously was. The worst thing wasn’t even the all-out assault on democracy which led to fascism across most of Europe in that decade, reminding us that for the capitalist elite democracy is only really good for the good times, but a positive menace when the going gets tough.

Jackboots then, “troika”-appointed bankers today – more benign to be sure, but the latter are no more expressions of the popular will than the former.

No, the worst thing about the 1930s was what they led to, how the miserable decade ended – in a war which cost over 50 million human lives and caused unprecedented destruction.

Slump allied to a divided working-class movement led to fascism, and fascism rubbing up against “democratic” imperialism led to war.

That is not too much of an oversimplification, and it is a line of connection we should recall today.

Of course, neither history nor horses can cross the same river twice, and even superficial parallels mask real differences of context.

Nevertheless the basic imperatives of capitalism have proved pretty enduring, largely because they exist independently of the will of the politicians running the show.

One thing that may seem to have changed is the scheduling. In the 21st century we have had the wars first – the invasion of Iraq, the occupation of Afghanistan and the destruction of Yugoslavia all occurred while the great “boom” was in full swing.

However, to pursue the parallel a little further, World War II did not start in 1939 if you were Chinese, Spanish or Abyssinian. Their world war started as early as 1931. These were the preliminary wars, the initial scramble by the powers to improve their relative positions prior to the climactic confrontation for global domination.

From the Rape of Nanking to the destruction of Fallujah, preliminary wars themselves exact a murderous price. But when the big powers get down to direct conflict the bill goes up exponentially.

A world war has, happily, not kicked off for 67 years. However, the entwined factors that kept the prospect at bay for most of that time – the power of the Soviet Union on the one hand, and the unchallenged supremacy of the United States within the capitalist powers on the other, are no longer operative.

Nowadays there are few counterweights to imperialism at the level of state politics, while the US has considerably lost its economic edge over other countries.

Its military primacy remains intact – enhanced in fact – but even that cannot be indefinitely sustained given Washington’s economic troubles and the incapacity of its political elite to even address, never mind solve, them.

That is why the most worrying international development of this year, seen over a longer term, may well prove to be President Obama’s announcement that the Pentagon is now prioritising the Asia-Pacific region and the confrontation with the “rising power” of China.

This means a major redeployment of the vast assets of the US military into Asia, ostensibly to counter a country which has a defence budget a fraction that of the US – and moreover deploys its armed forces exclusively in and around its own home territory.

But that is only the half of it. Washington sees the “Chinese menace” everywhere. No sooner had Africa found in China an alternative customer for its raw materials – and one prepared to pay without seeking to interfere in African affairs – than the US had set up a Pentagon command, Africom by name, to intensify intervention in the continent.

Previously Africa had been blessed in being just about the only part of the world not covered by one of the US regional commands.

Moreover, the US orientation towards Asia must also mean a loosening in practice of the alliance with Britain and France, major military players in the Middle East but negligible factors further east.

Taken together this is a reconfiguration of world politics.

That is the case whether you regard China’s social system as a novel mutation of socialism, a variation on capitalism or something else again. So far, Chinese policy has aligned with the rhetoric of “peaceful rise.”

This reconfiguration is taking place amid the greatest slump in 80 years, a crisis which only appears to abate for a week or so before bursting forth once more, as the gyrations on the stock markets over Italian and Spanish debt showed only this week.

Economic crisis does not automatically lead to war of course. But it makes little wars an attractive political option to some leaders. And it gives extra urgency to the hunt for resources, markets and profits which are always the anticipated rewards of a successful conflict.

Some flashpoints which could trigger the transition from shouting matches to shooting matches are obvious. Iran must be top of the list right now. A war in the Gulf could spread much wider itself.

But over the horizon looms a still larger struggle for control of the world’s resources, centred on the competing interests of the US and China, the one a declining power, the other a rising one.

History alas provides no precedent for such rearrangements being concluded peaceably.

But it also provides no precedent for many 21st-century things – an anti-war movement of great size and sweep for one. If we can stop the war taking place in Afghanistan, and the one threatened against Iran, we will be better placed by far to halt the larger conflagrations looming.

Remember – Hiroshima could have been avoided by an earlier stand against aggression in Manchuria and if Hitler had been stopped at Madrid, he would never have got to Stalingrad or Auschwitz.

April 13, 2012