How to digest the reality of 1,500 dead migrants when most of the victims are lost to the sea; their hopes, dreams and even their names drowned with them?
Blame is of course being assigned; or rather deflected, divided, avoided. British stinginess, smugglers’ greed, ISIL’s savagery, European racism, the oppression of the Amazigh and the vagaries of war – each has its measure of truth. And however tragically dramatic, the present large-scale migration across the Mediterranean is only the latest in at least half a dozen cycles of mass global migration in the modern era.
Global capitalism and global war have always driven large-scale human migration. Before the Mediterranean’s boat people, there were the Vietnamese and the Haitians; the former a product of one of the most brutal imperial wars of the 20th century, the latter of one of the most brutal unfoldings of post-colonial capitalism.
More recently, the World Bank alone has displaced well over 3 million people in the developing world through its “development” and “modernisation” projects. The full costs of decades of globalised neoliberal capitalism has yet to be tallied.
The journey north
Juan Gonzalez’s masterful 2011 book Harvest of Empire reminds us that a very similar south-north movement has been occurring between Latin America and the United States for more than half a century.
Here too, the toxic mixture of colonialism and imperialism, foreign exploitation, savage capitalism, and brutal authoritarian governments – topped off by the imposition of neoliberal reforms and civil wars – have been the primary push factors, while the chance at a better life in “El Norte” has long provided the pull, despite the risks involved in the journey north.
We should thus not be surprised at the present crisis, which was as predictable as it was inevitable. But it is frightening to the extent that it represents an even more deadly mix of neoliberalism, and the increasing concentration of wealth and environmental degradation it produces, with what increasingly looks like precisely the unending – and endlessly profitable – war US strategic elites have spent the last generation preparing (and hoping) for.
And this dynamic points to the problem with most analyses of the mass deaths of the last week. Even the most thorough analyses of the underlying problems and their potential solutions, exemplified by The Guardian (which rightly described the deaths as a “slaughter”), consider “deal[ing] with the root causes” of the conflicts as an afterthought to more seemingly immediate measures to stanch the flow of people and their ability to take to the sea through measures such as attacking the smugglers, disrupting their supply of boats, providing better economic opportunities, and standardising EU asylum rules.
One does not have to return to the era of European imperial dominance of the Middle East and Africa to locate some of the most important ‘root causes’ of the current crisis.
One does not have to return to the era of European imperial dominance of the Middle East and Africa to locate some of the most important “root causes” of the current crisis. Far more relevant and frightening are the changing dynamics of global capitalism reflected in the present conflict.
Ten years ago, in their Global Political Economy of Israel, economists Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler laid bare a cyclical ebb and flow in the profits of the petroleum and arms industries.
Their research revealed how even brief “resource conflicts” (or merely the threat of conflict) every 10 or 15 years ensured a return to high oil and arms prices and sales, and the political power that accrued with them to the arms, oil and related industries (the infamous “military-industrial complex”).
But today we’re in the midst of a 15-year-long period of global war and unprecedented wealth and power historically unrivalled oil prices and arms sales bring – both of which benefit US corporations far more than those of any other country aside from the main Arab/Gulf oil producers. A war that shows no signs of ending anytime soon.
Yesterday it was al-Qaeda, today it’s ISIL, tomorrow it will doubtless be something else. In the end, the arc of instability stretching from sub-Sahelian Africa through the Mediterranean and into the fertile crescent and South Asia has shown an incredible propensity to produce more chaos and war, with no end in sight, creating a kind of self-perpetuating war and profit machine.
Nothing epitomises this dynamic more than the active engagement of the Egyptian and Saudi militaries in the present conflicts ranging from Libya to Yemen. After decades remaining broadly aloof from the conflicts around them, these militaries are now actively involved in the ongoing civil wars across the region.
With every sortie and missile launched millions of dollars are flowing into the coffers of the American War industry and its European competitors and comrades, while at the same time further entrenching the power of the most conservative and undemocratic elements of their respective political systems. This dynamic’s only function is to ensure the violence continues as long as (in)humanly possible.
We are witnessing quite literally a perfect storm of war and greed, profits and murder, and a set of ideological and political narratives on all sides that will ensure the conflicts producing them continue for the foreseeable future.
Too much money
There is simply too much money to be made, and too much power to arrogate and retain. If we want to know why US President Barack Obama seems powerless to stop the violence we need look no farther than here.
The reality is that if the world wants to stanch the flow of people into the Mediterranean, ameliorate the escalating refugee crises, and drain the swamp of the extremism that feeds ISIL and al-Qaeda, the US and the major European powers must stem the flow of weapons to their clients and allies that has driven the present conflicts, support real democratic reforms uniformly and in every country of the region without exception, and transform the economic blueprint guiding the globalisation of the region from one that increases inequality, towards one that encourages locally guided and sustainable development models.
The captain and senior crew of the ship involved in the most recent Mediterranean tragedy might have been Tunisian and Syrian, but the guilt for the massacre at sea is truly global. And nothing short of a paradigmatic shift in global governance will bring the violence, and the refugees, to a halt. How many more thousands will have to die, at sea or in the sands, before such a change occurs?
Mark LeVine is a professor of Middle Eastern History at University of California, Irvine, and a distinguished visiting professor at Lund University.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.