Is Europe really at the brink of war?

A provocative article by Vinay Gupta at EdgeRyders draws a response from Christopher Brewster (below):

(thanks to Dante Monson for the forward)

1. Vinay Gupta:

Europe’s New War

“Europe is at war. It’s not obvious until you know some history, but Europe is at war. There are three critical pieces of information you need to master to understand this fully, and what it implies.

The first is that Spain and Greece very nearly had totally different political systems in the 20th century. Spain very nearly went Anarchist (not violent-chaotic, but without central control from government) but during the Spanish Civil War they were forced into Fascism. Greece very nearly went hard-line Communist after WW2 but was went down an entirely different path after the armed struggle.

Right now, both countries are clearly pre-revolutionary. Greece has school children passing out in class from hunger due to “austerity measures” and may be in the process of ditching the Euro so they can inflate the Drachma to devalue their currency and remove the weight of their debts – and sod whoever they owe the money to. Spain is at 50% youth unemployment and nearly 25% total unemployment, with 20% being the tradition unemployment figure associated with civil unrest.

Both of these societies fought wars for an alternative to capitalism, lost those wars to capitalism, and are now being shafted by capitalism. It’s time we seriously thought about what this might mean for the European Union, and our personal lives.

Distinguishing War and Revolution

The Libertarians have a very good analysis of war. They think of the fundamental human right as the right to “self-ownership” – that your body (and mind) are yours and entirely yours and nobody should be able to force you to do what you do not choose to do. As with many simple principles, this is subject to the Calculus of Competing Virtues. “Your freedom to swing your arm ends at the start of my nose” as the famous saying goes. A very great deal of effort is spent trying to square Libertarian self-ownership with, for example, planetary ecological limits – it’s not clear that a system which assumes the fundamental political truth is about human freedom is capable of navigating the extremely severe limits to action which appear to be necessary to protect the planet, for instance.

But back to the analysis. Libertarians model most political problems in terms of property rights, in terms of theft. Theft of property is theft of the Past, of the work you did to create or acquire something. Murder is theft of the Future, of all the future potentialities of the being killed. Imprisonment etc. are theft of the present, denying people freedom to do what they will with their property, their body and mind. This model is appealingly uni-polar, a single principle from which all (political) truth can be generated, and I don’t buy it, but it’s as useful as a flashlight in the dark when we want to ask what War fundamentally is, and Revolution to boot.

“War is the continuation of Politik by other means” – Carl von Clausewitz

In this analysis, War is when one State attempts to steal or destroy the property of another State.

Revolution is when the People of one State attempt to reassign property within that State.

Right now, Europe appears to be in a position where some countries are approaching Revolution. However, I think this is an inadequate political analysis – in fact, the truth comes much closer to war.

The problem is that the Euro does not belong to the Greeks or the Spanish – or even the Germans. Euros, individual units of currency may belong to them, but The Euro does not. The Euro is property of an entirely nebulous entity of uncertain political definition. The problem we have is that they are sloshing around the continent like water in a bath-tub, and the usual fiscal measures taken by governments to keep the water in their own national bucket are not working. Money lent to the Greeks accumulated interest, long bets did not pay off, and pretty soon they owe more than they have to nations they have no control of. Because the Euro is the Euro, they can’t use inflation to escape this trap which is the classic strategy, and we have an accidental economic war, in which Greek property is being reassigned to the Germans and many others by implosion, in an environment where EU membership requires them to keep their assets available for on the market at firesale prices. The good ship Europe sailed well in times of growth, but was never designed for Recession – any more than the Titanic was designed to stop Icebergs with its hull.

In a Revolution, the action is within nations. The property rights being reassigned are within a pre-existing national political unit. Although the revolutionary factions in Greece and Spain may see their struggles as purely national, the Euro is a shared asset of many governments, and everything which affects its destiny bridges borders. There is no way to confine the situation inside of national boundaries, any more than pollution in a river can be confined upstream.

We are all in this together, regardless of whether or not there are boots on the ground, and the unique confluence of nation-state interests bound together as the Euro is a unique political asset. There is no more National boundary on Revolution, it’s all War now.

Now let us consider our options here.

Trapped in the Boundries between Nations

We can’t easily vote out way out of this trouble. Elections are every few years, and no parties exist which have an appropriately fast-moving and accurate political and economic analysis to understand how to get us out of this mess. The pan-European truth is very simple: if we are going to be liable for each-other’s welfare and debts, if we are to have a pan-European Democratic Socialist Social Contract in a manner recognizable from Finland to Spain as the same deal, we’re going to need political parties in each nation which work on dismantling national boundaries to create a European superstate. Right now our political parties in Europe because they are elected nationally and make law nationally have only very indirect policies on international matters, even though the simple truth is that vast amounts of real economic power now reside at the European scale.

What it means is that nations are being plunged into poverty and causing chaos for their neighbours in the midst of a political process (continental unification) which may or may not succeed, and for which there is very little coherent political theory or political practice. Everybody sorta-knows it is happening but the sides are poorly defined, and there’s little international cooperation to push the course of events one way or the other. Even the greens are balkanized and national.

So, then, to resilience. It’s going to hit us hard, this process, and there will be troops on the ground in at least two countries within two years (90%) probable. Local revolutionary efforts to reallocate property to allow people to survive the crisis will be treated much more like political secessionist movements, because the basic European legislative fabric tears so badly when (for example) a nation sets up border controls or changes import/export policies. Changing the rules radically in a single nation (Revolution) takes on an international dimension (War) when everything is bound together by such tight international treaties.

The money in your pocket and the passport in your bag allow you to travel all over the continent, and that’s why what’s happening in the South of Europe is closer to War than Revolution, when it becomes fully activated.

So let’s talk about what this means for us.

Modern War in Europe

Modern war in Europe is not going to be shelling of cities and airstrikes. Enough was learned in Kosovo to avoid that at all costs. However, if (for example) Basque separatists decide to protect that most functional and productive portion of Spain by detaching it and applying for UN and EU protection, it’s not hard to imagine a border conflict as Spanish interests attempt to keep it in Spain. That kind of stuff could easily turn into proper, “hard” war up-to-and-including surface to air missiles and so on. Tough guys in hill country and make a stand against modern armies.

But it’s the cities that really fascinate me. The cities are the new horizon in conflict. It’s the water and sanitation and food supply and natural gas lines and electricity cables which make up the new landscape of war, particularly in a European theater where nobody wants to kill anybody, where there’s no fundamental ideological and nationalistic blood lust, but a sad, sorry cluster**** of competing interests which have made a worse mess than anybody ever imagined. It’s urban warfare in Europe that everybody fears, the Kosovo scenario playing out in the South.

So finally, having framed the threat, let’s talk about resilience in this model.

I’m a hard resilience guy. I’m not al that interested in social resilience, in people being nicer to each other in times of crisis, in what prevents people being so vulnerable to stress. I’m a hard resilience guy, I think in terms of food and water and power and communications. I think about life and death. I foresaw conflicts of this kind many years ago, really started the work around 2002 or 2003 after the Euro was created because I did not think the world financial system could be stable with two reserve currencies – in the bimetallic period, the destructive oscillations between gold and silver wiped out stable international trade over and over again.

If you are in Spain or Greece, either in the big cities or near the borders, and particularly at ports, there is a substantial risk of fighting and a near-certainty of supply chain and grid issues within two years. Obviously this could all hit much, much sooner than that, but the other shoe is not far from dropping, and two years is a good horizon to think about. Sooner than 2015. That’s pretty damn soon. It’s not enough time to finish a college degree or publish a novel, really. Faster than that come battle, in many scenarios. We can never know for sure, but it’s hard to miss the signs now.

Think of it as a tear in the fabric of society, the fabric of the grid. People arguing over property rights draw guns, or threaten to do so, and more people arrive to keep the peace. But now everybody is freaking out, and so capital and trade flee the area. If fighting starts, the flight of capital and trade accelerates – shops close, people no longer deliver to the area, business grinds to a halt – and there may be destruction of physical assets too, like water pipes and power cables and bridges. These are not likely to be wars of annihilation against populations, nobody hates each-other that much in Europe any more, but wars about the structure of local laws and about who gets to sign agreements. Administrative wars, if you will. And Chaos radiates out from the tear in the Civility of Administrators. War is the continuation of Bureaucracy by other means.

So one more time, back to resilience. Pipes and Wires and Radio Waves, Trucks and Boats and Planes. That’s everything, more or less, that brings services to your doorstep. All those systems are owned, and many of them by international or foreign owners. All of them are governed, many by international or foreign treaties and standards bodies. The internet is IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) incarnate, for example. As the bureaucratic systems tear and lose interoperating civility (a key concept) the total economic and life-support throughput of the system crashes. People get suddenly poorer – you need an artificial hip and you’re not going to get one. The young do well, the old are only as well taken care of as their family ties require, and people who can get by when things are good (the diabetic, the schizophrenic, the alcoholic) go to the wall. Many die from lack of care and comfort, usually far more than from fighting, given that Europeans do not currently hate each-other.

Resilience in short

Resilience has four phases: Detect trouble, Avoid trouble, Mitigate trouble and Recover from trouble. I’m writing now about Detecting the upcoming trouble, seeing the signs early enough to (for example) consider leaving likely conflict areas. This is harsh, harsh advice and I’m not simply suggesting picking up and fleeing, but if you’re in a vulnerable group, and you have an EU passport, perhaps now is the time to consider moving north to the extremely well-organized and disciplined countries where Winter can kill you and so people work together and plan to survive it every year, keeping them in good mindsets for handling other kinds of trouble. Minnesota Nice as they say in the US, has nothing on Finnish nice.

So now let’s talk about Mitigate. Go buy some food. Note how long it lasts and how much it costs. Now imagine it costs five times as much, the trucks come once every three weeks, and everything is sold out in days. Now imagine that lasts for years. Ok? So go and buy a lot of food, say two person-years worth. In America that costs about $1500 if you buy in bulk at Sam’s Club and keep some capacity (energy! wood burning stove) to cook from basic supplies like beans and rice and lentils and cooking oil and flour and even wheat (grain mill.) Why? Because if you had these things, and you lived in a fairly safe area, the worst of even extremely large social upheavals (fall of the USSR, American Civil War and even WW2) basically passed you by. It’s the fragility of the supply chain and the grid that draws people into becoming actors in history – you can’t afford to eat, you don’t have a good store of food, you wind up in the black market. Risks go through the roof. Worst still, you enlist in an army to feed your family.

No, I am not kidding. This is the Hard Resilience landscape, and these doors are opening up on all sides. Those people in the streets rioting, the protesting classes, are fighting not for internal political change within their own countries, but (whether they know it or not) for a re-arrangement of the political balance of an entire continent. Conditions are bad enough that the protests could be 10 times the size they are now very quickly, and then escalate to simply becoming the administrative controllers of entire cities. And the new technological base (the internet, 3G masts operated by local groups and so on) can open up the space for these kinds of friendly (or otherwise) insurrections in ways nobody can imagine. Where’s the food, where are the medicines, how do we keep things going.


In May of 2012, the Greeks are starving in their homes, as we discuss whether to lend them more money, kick them out of the Euro, or buy the country out from under them. They’re already facing this, and if the price of getting out of that hole is seizing the foreign-owned assets of their own soil, somebody will eventually do it, and then being the question of sanctions and embargos and, well, both Spain and Italy are radically unstable right now, as is the UK but for very different reasons, and slowly we begin to see that this is not somebody else’s business, but eventually, in all probability, ours.

It will be many years before we get to Recover.

Resilience is just about staying alive when the structures you rely on go away. It’s started in the poorer countries in Europe and we are (rightly) panicked. But to understand this in is global context, think of what’s happening in Africa right now – unsafe coal mines, aids epidemic, high food prices, crop failures, starvation, wars of genocidal hatred and the rest blight an otherwise perfectly nice continent.

Any of us can fall as low as the lowest level we allow to exist in the world. Time for change.”

2. Christopher Brewster :

“There are lots of reasons to support Vinay Gupta’s thesis that Europe is on the brink of a kind of war. His thesis is that at some stage the austerity measures being imposed for ideological reasons on Greece (and other countries in Europe – Spain, Portugal, Ital and Ireland) will result in some kind of revolutionary backlash where property will be seized. The fact that much of this property is owned by international institutions will result in major crises and consequent disruption of food supply chains and other infrastructure.

There are several responses to this:

1. It is already happening. Fundamentally the austerity measures are resulting in property seizure by international agencies (banks, TNCs) of personal or national assets (cf. for example the privatisation programme imposed on Greece). The privatisation of the NHS in the UK is another front where this war is occurring in the UK – what this means is that gradually that hip-replacement Vinay mentions no longer becomes an automatic right but is initially rationed and then eventually needs to be paid for. The absence of funds is making living in remote Greek islands extremely precarious if you happen to have an accident or life threatening illness. This process of conquest and colonisation by (relatively) faceless forces is no different than the earlier incarnations of colonialism whether we look at the spread of the East India Company or the colonisation of Egypt by the UK in the second half of the 19th century. The major difference today is the rather impressive propaganda whereby people are given the impression that “there is no alternative” (TINA). There always are alternatives at every stage in the unfolding of a war. The leader of Greece’s SARIZA party, Tsipiras, understands this when he says the conflict is between capital and people, and in the same breath states that it is not inevitable that Greece either imposes an austerity package or is kicked out of the Eurozone. His statements show far greater sophistication and understanding of reality than the current statements emanating from Angela Merkel.

2. It may not happen. One of the interesting but little understood achievements of the European Union is the gradual and subtle interweaving of Europeans at mutiple levels. Over 1m UK citizens live (mostly in retirement in Spain). The mayor of Majorca is (or was until recently) a German citizen. Hundreds of thousands of EU citizens work in other EU countries. Universities and companies around the EU employ a multiplicity of international staff especially from other EU regions. There are 300,000 French citizens living in London, but there are an equal number of Greeks living there (proportionately a far greater percentage), let alone Spanish, Portuguese and Irish. One question today is what the proportions are of the various social groups who are other Europeans. In the 19th century, a large proportion of ‘navies’ (those who dug the canals and built the railways) were Irish, but few bankers in the City of London were Irish. Today the proportion of foreign staff at all levels in society has increased enormously.

A friend of mine is a Portugese computer scientist working for a top insurance company in Zurich. His girlfriend is french speaking Swiss. They speak English together. This is typical scenario today, more unusual in earlier centuries where freedom of movement of labour did not exist to that extent either for legal reasons or for lack of education and opportunity.

So the question arises whether the level of integration I am pointing to here can act as a brake on the tendency towards war. It certainly makes nonsense of national parties, national separatism.

On the other hand, one of the reasons the Greeks are torn about the Euro in spite of the austerity is the fear of losing the free movement of labour that membership of the EC provided. This fear at present is unfounded as there are other non-Eurozone members of the EC – however, in the long term it may make sense. My mother (aged 74) recommends that people should live where they have a passport because she has seen enough to know the dangers of living somewhere where one is by any criterion ‘foreign’.

3. It does not need to happen. Vinay has argued time and again that the final arbiter of power is the nation state, with its laws and military power. If Tsipiras is right that the real war is between capital and the people, and Vinay is right that the power lies with the nation state, then if Greece were to revolt and the nation state’s power go into the hands of a revolutionary force then what part could capital play here? Three things to remember: First, nations have renationalised their resources frequently and often without serious negative consequences to their economic position (cf. Argentina renationalising its oil company, or Bolivia’s Morales nationalising the natural gas reserves). Capital screams, everyone is upset, and then they move on. These are the rules of the game and if a nation choses to change them they usually have te right to do so if they are in a strong enough position.

Second, as Tsipiras says, the problem lies as much with the lenders as with the borrowers. Greece is in a much stronger position than public discourse allows. It has already defaulted in effect so the imposition of the austerity is an ideological imposition independent of the reality of financial default.

Third, there is an irony that over the years Greece has been one of the largest arms importers in the world, spending more as a proportion of GDP than any other EU country. There is no present day need for this except to keep French, German and UK arms manufacturers happy. The side effect of this is that if Greece does choose to follow an independent path it is in a better position to do so than almost any other mediterranean country.

But this is not the sort of war Vinay speaks about – he speaks of an undeclared war of infrastructure meltdown. Nonetheless the point here is that power is not all in the hands of the EC or the neo-colonialist/neo-liberals.

4. Vinay’s focus on the cities is important. Countries like Greece have kept strong ties to the countryside. Most Greek families have a ‘second home’ in the village, and it is to this village that many are returning. Ties have been kept with the relatives in the village supplying olive oil, and other basics. There are enormous problems with regard to the ability of Greek villages to feed themselves, but there is also huge potential. The poorer people are in the mediterranean societies the less impacted they are by the austerity measures, they more ‘off-grid’ they are in practice. It would interesting to find out whether just as the European banks ave disengaged over the past 2-3 years from financially dangerous investments in the EC periphery, whether there has been a corresponding disengagement at an infrastructure level of the local populations, a re-engagement with the family ties which have always acted as the final, most essential infrastructure in times of crisis. If you can flee the city and be received by your cousins in the country, then the situation is a lot less bad than if you are an alienated individual with no effective ties to a (first life) social network.

This leads to the natural question as to what role can technology, especially social networks and our networked world, play in reducing the alienation of cities and providing alternative succor as the hard infrastructure collapses. Will our Facebook friends receive us, house us, feed us, when the shit hits the fan? Will we be able to find them in first life if all we know is their second life handle, when the lights go down?

5. While there has been an immense growth of international organisation in many areas (NGOs e.g. Gereenpeace, TNCs e.g. Vodaphone, GM, Tata), there has been a dearth of overtly international political movements since the collapse of communism. In the context of Tsiiras’ remarks, we need transnational, pan-eurpean political and social movements. We have the structural underpinnings – in the form of a common language (English dominates the EC) and technologies (social media, etc.). We have the political context in that it has become more and more clear that decisions are no longer made by our national governments for a whole range of issues. We have a clear democraitc deficit (the wekness of the European parliament is well known). All this augurs well for a revolution in political action which crosses international boundaries and co-ordinates its activites. There are three movements which have to varying degrees expressed this: the Greens and more recently the Pirate Party and the Occupy Movement. Thus while the time may be ripe for revolutions, wars and other such unpleasantnesses, it may also be a opportunity for political maturity across the board, across social classes and national divides. This may sound somewhat utopian but looking at the realities of today in Europe we could just as easily tip into war (real hard war) as we could into creating trans-national political organisation with specific demands and legislative agendas. Here I suspect we come up against a certain degree of defeatism about the possibility of such political movements. The EC is continuously in danger of tipping into oligarchy (of some form). There is an opportunity to push back and revitalise democracy across the board.

6. The core advice Vinay has given on numerous occasions remains valid: Stock up with food and water so as to be able to survive a lengthy breakdown in services. We can add to that a. ensure you are living in a country whose passport you possess; b. build your first life social network to maximum, c. revitalize the connections with the cousins who grow tomatoes.”

1 Comment Is Europe really at the brink of war?

  1. AvatarMike Riddell

    Nice response to Vinay’s over-dramatic assessment.

    I see Co-operatives acting as the economic/political key that unlocks democracy. The democratisation of health, wealth and happiness is not far ahead of us.

    We just need – Vinay – to Keep The Faith a tad more.


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