Resisting the cost of living crisis means opposing the war, writes Feyzi Ismail
War and austerity have become enduring features of the neoliberal era, and right now the two are more closely intertwined than ever. Understanding the relationship between the war in Ukraine and the cost-of-living crisis in Britain is crucial for the whole movement.
Partly this is because of the way the war is being used by the establishment ideologically. Rishi Sunak has warned us about what the Russian threat means: we all have to make economic sacrifices in order that Britain can send hundreds of millions of pounds worth of weapons and impose the necessary sanctions on Russia over the invasion. We should be happy to do this, the narrative goes, in order to defend British values from Russian aggression.
Escalation of the war also suits Boris Johnson nicely. The fact that the war has dominated politics and the media so comprehensively has helped get him off the hook for the disastrous state of domestic politics. It has bought him some time over breaking the lockdown rules he himself instituted, and then lied about. This is one of the reasons why he has been so belligerent and ignored the potential for negotiations, including claiming that peace talks between Russia and Ukraine are doomed. The war has allowed Johnson to portray Russia as the biggest threat, and certainly bigger than any domestic crisis. But it won’t be super-rich Sunak – the richest MP in parliament – or Johnson paying for the consequences of war or the cost-of-living crisis. Our opposition therefore has to be uncompromising.
The reality is that the root causes of the cost-of-living crisis predate the war. There had already been a dramatic rise in inflation last year. It was a product first and foremost of labour shortages and supply chain problems, exacerbated by the shock of the pandemic. It is a result too of political choices. The Tories chose to cut universal credit and increase national insurance, both of which were unnecessary and will leave millions of families worse off. They chose to allow oil giants BP and Shell to reap colossal profits while refusing to impose windfall taxes that could help ease the burden of rising energy prices.
It is also true however that the war in Ukraine will intensify the cost-of-living crisis for the poorest everywhere – both in Russia and Nato countries, and the global South. Russia provides 40% of Europe’s gas and 20% of the world’s supply of wheat. Sanctions prohibiting the import of Russian gas and wheat in particular have meant steep rises in inflation in Britain, Europe and the US, while the weakening rouble has sent the cost of basic goods soaring across Russia.
The World Bank has warned that rising food prices – not seen on this scale since 2008 – could push millions more into poverty, on top of the hundred million it predicted would suffer as a result of the pandemic.
There is nothing inevitable about this. Wars are also political choices. Although Britain didn’t start this war, British foreign policy has greatly contributed to global instability and war in the past two decades and in the process spent a huge amount of money. Britain has pledged another £100m in addition to the £750m already provided in military equipment, training and humanitarian aid, becoming the third largest donor of military aid to Ukraine. Meanwhile, a number of senior Tories have called for Britain to further increase defence spending far above the current 2% of GDP.
None of this is really motivated by concern for the Ukrainian people. It is a continuation of the disastrous foreign policy pursued by successive governments since the 1990s and before. During these years Britain played a crucial role in strengthening Nato and supporting US imperialism, complicit in every major war since at least the last two decades. This is so that it can continue to play a role on the international stage under US hegemony. These efforts have now culminated in a proxy war on Ukrainian soil.
Yet another reason for pushing back against the war propaganda is that the war in Ukraine is being used to try and sideline anti-war voices and bury the memory of the level of anti-war sentiment that has developed since 9/11. The whole movement needs to recognise the risks posed by the current war. Not only are huge sums going into military aid from the West when they could be spent on protecting people from the worst of inflation, but as the war drags on over time, sanctions, military aid and the relentless rhetoric stoking tensions – including cavalier words around genocide and regime change – could lead to open confrontation between nuclear powers.
The whipping up of nationalist sentiment is easier to do when the stakes are so high, and the Tories (and the arms factories) are keen to benefit from it. But the potential for war between nuclear powers couldn’t be more dangerous. The global shift towards militarism – this too at a time of impending climate catastrophe – could mean loss of life on an unimaginable scale.
Nationalist sentiment behind the war has to be challenged. Recently sections of the trade union movement in Britain have found themselves supporting demonstrations that favour sending as many weapons as possible to Ukraine, provide uncritical support for Ukrainian President Zelensky and call for a strengthened Nato that should intervene to stop Putin. But the unambiguous record has been that more weapons mean more war, not less, and Nato’s record has been undeniably one of destruction. When the movement ends up supporting Tory policy, the likes of Johnson are strengthened and prospects for effective opposition to both war and austerity are weakened.
As the anti-war movement has consistently pointed out, the Russian invasion has to be understood in context. Nato’s eastward expansion, with the addition of 14 countries along Russia’s border joining the military alliance over the past 20 years, were bound to influence Russian security concerns as a regional imperial power. This does not preclude criticism of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, nor of the atrocities committed. These must be unequivocally condemned: the primary aggressor is Russia, and the atrocities in Mariupol, Bucha and elsewhere are unacceptable. And if there is to be regime change, it has to be brought about by the Russian people themselves.
At the same time, we must urge negotiations at every opportunity. This is how all wars ultimately come to an end. Meaningful negotiations require us to resist attempts by the likes of Johnson and Keir Starmer to silence the anti-war movement, which means that we have to criticise Nato and its expansionist ambitions, the pressure it puts on member states to increase defence spending and the massive amount of weapons pouring into Ukraine. Without this criticism, there is no opposition, and no alternative to war.
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Feyzi Ismail teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London, and is active in UCU
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