What matter is a war made of?

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By RAQUEL VARELA*

Capitalism, on all sides, which is on the edge of the precipice and takes a step forward with the war in Ukraine

The great majority of historians are virtuous enough to forget the frivolous motives that the promoters of wars present. Dramatic speeches, propaganda of self-assigned moral values, everything over the years fills up with dust in boxes that end up, at most, in a book of curiosities for sale in an airport. The assassination of Archduke Francisco Fernando is the least relevant fact of the First World War, nobody teaches that it is the cause of the war. But after all what is the reason for the ongoing war?

During the First World War, journalist John Reed, invited to speak at a club of the ruling classes in the USA, gave a forceful answer to the question that his hosts asked him: “What are the motivations for this war?” “earnings”, he replied. Profits. The great motivation of this as of other wars.

Not all rare metals are of equal importance. This is defined for three reasons: its availability (its rarity), location and importance in the production chain. Rare metals are a group of about 60 (according to data from 2010 and 2014).

Due to their optical, chemical and magnetic properties, they are fundamental for car batteries, wind power, aerospace industry, medicine, robotics, automation, cybersecurity, biotechnologies, nanotechnology, lighting, catalysts, military industry.

Among them there are 17, the most strategic, considered as “rare earths”, 15 plus yttrium and scandium. In general, these materials are produced in very small quantities (sometimes a few tons), a far cry from the production of copper, for example – 15 million tons of copper are produced annually. To get an idea of ​​what we are talking about, some of the rare materials reach a price higher than that of gold (50 thousand or more euros per kilo).

Part of these materials are considered critical for the European Union due to “vulnerability of supply”, that is, they come from countries where there are conflicts and wars, there are monopolies, or due to environmental factors. The degree of vulnerability is further defined by the degree of need in the most profitable industries. This is the case of rare earths, chromium, tungsten, antimony, indium, niobium, gallium, silicon, graphite, magnesite, antimony, among others. The production of these raw materials is very concentrated in a few countries, with China at the head, Russia (platinum group) South Africa, Brazil, Turkey, Congo, United States and Kazakhstan.

Rare earths (the set of 17 materials) are not rare because of the quantity in which they occur, but because of the world's needs and concentration in a few countries. They are used in magnets for wind turbines, solar panels, low-consumption light bulbs, electric car batteries, catalytic converters, lasers, missiles, night vision goggles, the aeronautical industry, medical diagnostic devices, submarines. Without them there is no “energy transition”. World reserves are estimated at 124 million tons, of which 44 million are in China, 22 million in Vietnam, 22 million in Brazil, 12 million in Russia and 6 million in India. I recall that of these five countries, four abstained from condemning the Russian invasion, only Brazil voted in favour. China not only holds the largest reserves, but currently produces 90% of the world's rare earths.

Russia and Ukraine produce 25% of the world's wheat and, in some cases, Russia half of the fertilizers, essential for the production of soybeans in Brazil, meat in Argentina, for example. The European Union is dependent on Russian gas and oil. Replacing Russian gas with US gas has unbearable material and ecological costs (in production, because part of fracking; in liquefaction, gasification, transfer, transport). To liquefy North American gas and transport it, it is necessary to cool it down to 162 degrees Celsius, with a brutal expenditure of energy and pollution.

European gas pipelines are built from east to west and branch out when they enter each country, reversing this has astronomical costs. It's like a dam for an irrigation system and not the other way around. The announced US sale to the European Union that made Joe Biden shine does not even cover 10% of what the European Union imports this year from Russia. In addition, pristine Norway, with the most electrified car park in the world, has as a counterpoint the city of Antofagasta, in Chile, which exports minerals to clean “green economies” and which has one of the highest rates of respiratory cancer in the world. world (10%).

The six most produced industrial metals in the world are iron, aluminum, chromium, copper, manganese and zinc and are mainly produced in China, Russia, India, Brazil, USA, Canada, Australia, South Africa, Kazakhstan and Turkey. No European country. Uranium, essential for nuclear energy, which the EU defends as an alternative, has 43% of world reserves in Kazakhstan.

A curiosity: each mobile phone contains 65 to 70 different materials, some of them rare, including eight “rare earths”; each electric car has between nine and 11 kilos of “rare earths”; each of the big wind turbines needs a ton of rare metals.

The Middle East is devastated because it is the target of the dispute for oil, North Africa for gas, Nigeria for oil, Cabo Delgado's war is for these resources, Yemen and Rwanda's was too. There are 82 million refugees in the world, fleeing the wars of this global dispute. Today, everything indicates that Ukraine is the stage of war for a redefinition of economic and military blocs, in which the dispute for these raw materials on a global scale is essential for an economy based on profit and not on the necessities of life.

The only sustainable green economy would be a reduction in working hours without a wage reduction, closing factories at night, better city/country relations, an end to real estate speculation, better public transport, leisure time, an end to planned obsolescence. Instead, factories work into the night, taking the last breath of strength from the millions of workers in the EU who, without any need, work at night. The accumulation model depletes workers and depletes resources, and takes the world to war. It is anti-ecological, with or without lithium batteries. The militarization of the EU would be adding fuel to this fire. And, contrary to popular belief, there is a lack of firefighters in the EU.

The European Union assures us that lasting peace and political stability on the continent and in the world have the EU as the key mediating link, which would be the stronghold of democracy and human rights, safeguarding the principles of a free regulated market as a last resort of any and all freedom. Its rules, at the same time, “firm and flexible”. Yours leitmotifs would combine solidarity and efficiency. For 30 years on end – from 1992 to 2022 – they sold fish from the so-called “Cultura de Paz” as a fresh product from European waters. But there is something rotten in this archetypal kingdom: disputes over raw materials, and the biggest armed conflicts in the world in contemporary history, were at the hand of “oligarchs” and European states.

In the long term, I believe that we will look at this war – which will perhaps stop soon, but could become global in a few years – as an attempt by Western governments to help their companies to try to get out of the structural crisis of accumulation. Crisis provoked by the intensification of competition in globalization, advancing to the direct exploitation, without intermediaries, of raw materials from Russia, and to the dispute with China for these materials and markets. Without these raw materials there will be no industrial reconversion 4.0 and a “green” agreement, the “European miracle” will be impossible (the cost of green reconversion without changing the economic model would be the destruction of the welfare state by channeling resources towards health, education and reforms for “green” restructuring and the war economy).

On the other side are Russian capitalism and Chinese state capitalism and – who knows? – the Indian who compete on a world scale for places on the podium of accumulation. It is capitalism, from all sides, that is on the edge of the precipice and takes a step forward. The reasons given are the defense of the “free world” on the one hand, of “security” on the other. Ukraine is today the regional stage of a world dispute. Those who die on the ground are the children of the working and middle classes, who pay for the war are us, taxpayers, with the degradation of the quality of life, health, education. Welcome to barbarism!

*Raquel Varela, historian, is a researcher at Universidade Nova de Lisboa. She is the author, among other books, of A Brief History of Europe (Bertrand).

Originally published on newspaper N.

 

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