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The polycrisis industrial complex

Feb 18,2024 - Last updated at Feb 18,2024

LONDON/OXFORD — In Constantine Cavafy’s poem “Waiting for the Barbarians”, the much-feared barbarians never turn up. “Now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?” the poem asks. “Those people were a kind of solution.”

We seem to have become addicted to useful “barbarians”. From terrorists and drug lords to human smugglers and even refugees, our politics increasingly revolves around simplified threats and facile solutions. So, for example, congressional Republicans tell Democrats they will not support more military aid for Ukraine unless something radical is done to stem the flow of migrants and asylum seekers at the United States’ southern border.

Lost in these debates is an appreciation of the larger game that is being played. The “war on terror”, the “war on drugs”, and the fight against irregular migration all exhibit a pattern that we call “wreckonomics”: A state of functional dysfunction in which the purported threat worsens as politicians, contractors and enforcers exploit it for their own ends.

A spoof personal ad, taped to a wall in the Pentagon at the end of the Cold War, captured this pattern perfectly: “ENEMY WANTED: Mature North American Superpower seeks hostile partner for arms-racing, Third World conflicts and general antagonism. Must be sufficiently menacing to convince Congress of military financial requirements”.

One way or another, the barbarians duly appeared. By 2008 (adjusted for 2010 dollars), annual US defence spending had hit $696.5 billion, compared with an average of $517 billion during Ronald Reagan’s presidency in the 1980s. NATO, rather than disappearing, was expanding.

Meanwhile, the fight against drug traffickers, smugglers and migrants has been the gift that keeps on giving, at least from the perspective of defence contractors, detention conglomerates and security agencies. The US Border Patrol budget has grown more than tenfold in the past three decades, and European border-security expenses have similarly rocketed. The war on terror has cost a staggering $8 trillion.

In addition to all the Western politicians and companies that have benefitted from hyping these threats, “partner” states quietly gamed the system. When Guatemala’s civil war ended in 1996, shadowy counterinsurgency structures signed up to the war on drugs but soon became complicit in the very criminal enterprises they claimed to be countering.

Similarly, in Libya, Muammar Qadhafi found that he could ease his international isolation by threatening to “turn Europe black”. Soon enough, many others learned to sell their cooperation in the “fight against migration,” sometimes stoking the threat to maximise the price.

This is an old game. In the early wars on drugs and alcohol a century ago, enforcers were often in cahoots with the gangs that profited from prohibition. Double-gaming took a different form in Vietnam, where, according to one US general, South Vietnamese forces kept the war going “at the appropriate level” to prolong American support. In the war on terror, Afghan warlords fuelled threats against the foreign occupier while offering to remedy them. Regimes in Sri Lanka and Syria used the same pretext to pursue local vendettas.

In each case, the threat only worsened. Yet these “wars” have proved remarkably enduring, because confronting an endless stream of “barbarians” can be a politically and economically rewarding enterprise.

Gaming the information environment has become a key part of this process. While the costs have piled up in the form of mass incarceration, soaring drug use, stronger smuggling networks, countless border deaths, and almost one million fatalities in the war on terror, the public is subjected to a hall of mirrors. Like the “body count” metric used by the US in Vietnam, these grisly statistics are distorted to look like evidence of success.

Under the influence of New Public Management, a school of thought aiming to make public administration more businesslike, budget-conscious bureaucracies increasingly compete to demonstrate “good metrics”. Our wars are no exception. In the war on terror, tallies of killed insurgents buttressed claims of “wins” against Saddam Hussein, Al Qaeda in Iraq and [Daesh]. In the drug wars, statistics capturing the acreage of poppy fields destroyed or soldiers deployed signal “success”. This positive spin feeds our collective astonishment when things go spectacularly wrong, when Saigon falls to the Viet Cong or Kabul to the Taliban.

In the political gaming of barbarians, fear has been a faithful friend. As General Douglas MacArthur suggested in the McCarthyite 1950s, “Always there has been some terrible evil at home or some monstrous foreign power that was going to gobble us up” unless we rallied behind the government. Today, Donald Trump says immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country”, while British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak plays his own lurid migration game by suggesting that “our enemies” are using migration as a “weapon” to destabilise Europe.

There are ways out of wreckonomics. One important step is to recognise the true costs of our “wars”. Encouragingly, the drug war has started to give way in many countries to more health-centred approaches as its costs and failures have grown more evident.

Elsewhere, though, it is tempting to say that failure has become the new success. Politicians compete to promise “security” in the face of new crises that are feeding on one another. Pointing to a deeply disorienting “polycrisis,”Adam Tooze of Columbia University wisely suggests that a single fix is no longer possible. Yet our disorientation seems only to have boosted the appeal of the quick fix.

We need to get over our simplistic obsession with violently reducing supply, whether through fighting migration or waging war on drugs or terror. Instead, we can start tackling demand. We also must recognise how the gaming of endless “wars” is feeding the polycrisis. Relying on dodgy metrics and a politics of distraction, our leaders continue to fiddle while the world burns. If we cannot end our addiction to fighting useful barbarians, the real barbarians may turn out to be us.

 

David Keen, professor of Conflict Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science, is the co-author (with Ruben Andersson) of “Wreckonomics: Why It’s Time to End the War on Everything” (Oxford University Press, 2023). Ruben Andersson, professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Oxford, is the co-author (with David Keen) of “Wreckonomics: Why It’s Time to End the War on Everything” (Oxford University Press, 2023). Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2024.

www.project-syndicate.org

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