by Mary Harrington
Monday, 28
February 2022
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09:50

Every company is now a weapon of war

The longstanding myth of neutral commerce was killed off this weekend
by Mary Harrington
Elon Muskconfirmed his Starlink satellite network would provide internet over Ukraine. Credit: Getty

Perhaps the defining feature of our post-liberal era is the increasingly overt re-politicisation of supposedly ‘neutral’ economic, cultural and political institutions. Among many examples, the most internationally significant instance of this is the abandonment of any pretence that international commerce is apolitical.

Unlike privateering in the Azores in the age of Napoleon, today this happens on a scale that impacts us all. Suspending certification for the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and more generally Russian energy exports will hit the cost of living across Europe, as will excluding (some) Russian banks from SWIFT and BP’s exit from a £$14bn stake in Russian energy company Rosneft.

On top of this, US corporations are now being invited to join in the pressure on Russia of their own accord. Some are taking up the invitation: Elon Musk recently confirmed his Starlink satellite network would provide internet over Ukraine in response to Russian attempts to cut off online access. Ukraine’s vice-Prime Minister, Mykhailo Fedorov, has called on payment providers such as PayPal, Mastercard and Visa, as well as social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook and Instagram to take Ukraine’s side in the conflict too.

Harassing a state’s economic interests has been part of warfare since King Henry III first began issuing what became later known as privateering commissions or ‘letters of marque’ in 1243. But globalised commerce thrived in the long post-war peace created by (among other things) the nuclear curtailment of overt great power conflict. In this context, especially since the end of the Cold War, it served the interests of everyone (except for Western workers) to pretend that commercial relations were a force of nature without nation-state ties, and that capital should be freed from state interests to flow globally and benefit us all.

As such, ‘hot’ war mostly was confined proxy struggles while official consensus on commercial neutrality was maintained to safeguard international business interests. Thus, the involvement of civilian corporations in conflict has tended to be (as in Iraq and Afghanistan) official defence contractors, and even then treated as morally dubious.

Yet with a great power conflict upon us, economic warfare has become ever more overt: effectively a return to privateering that enlists once purportedly-neutral international commercial institutions wherever possible.

And while economic warfare between Russia and the West is clearly weighted in the West’s favour, this doesn’t mean no retaliation can be expected. It may or may not be a coincidence that US freight forwarding giant Expeditors was hit recently by a cyberattack, followed a few days later by Nvidia, the biggest US microchip company.

We can only pray the current crisis eases soon. But even if it does, the effects of this now comprehensive re-politicisation of global commerce will be with us permanently — and not just in the economic aftershocks. For you can only break the fourth wall once.

Big Tech and energy markets have now been explicitly conscripted as tools of great power conflict. Privateers on the scale of an Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg are actors with an unnerving reach. This development arguably just moves the West to where China has been for some time, but one thing is certain: free-trade Tories can forget “Global Britain”. There’s no road back to naïve commercial internationalism now, even if we wanted one. We would be wise to calculate our food, manufacturing and commercial dependencies accordingly.

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Terry Needham
Terry Needham
2 months ago

“Big Tech and energy markets have now been explicitly conscripted as tools of great power conflict.”
There will be a charge for their services. That is what happens when governments outsource their most basic duties. Oh sure, governments have always deployed economic warfare, but as an augmentation to military force, not as a substitute for it.

R Wright
R Wright
2 months ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

I agree with this wholeheartedly
The state has abdicated its own responsibility for warmaking and outsourced it entirely to offshore major corporations. The struggle will be waged through the share prices of utility companies and subsequently the pensions of British grannies.

Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald
2 months ago
Reply to  R Wright

..and British grandchildren, and the grandchildren’s parents. Not sure what point you’re making here, but the state has not abdicated anything – it’s just not keeping up with the times.

Richard Pearse
Richard Pearse
2 months ago

Very interesting article (as usual for Mary, no matter what the topic!). There is a hint that the Wild West globalization of capital and “outsourcing” of certain manufacturing to China (and Viet Nam etc) may be in the process of being reconsidered or re-nationalized.

The US and UK have strong labor and environmental regulations for manufacturing (which drives up the cost of labor and manufacturing), while China and Viet Nam (etc) have effectively very few or none. So Apple and GM and others essentially outsource the additional costs of pollution to China with its dirty-coal fired energy, and abuse of workers (etc) to China, so that we can buy an iPhone for $800. But the “true” cost of these goods if they were manufactured in the US or UK (or Germany etc) is much higher (since the costs of pollution and treatment of labor were factored in.

rob monks
rob monks
2 months ago
Reply to  Richard Pearse

yes very interesting article (as usual for Mary…) I don’t always agree with a particular point she makes but she makes me think, reconsider, look at an issue from a fresh angle I hadn’t considered(like other good writers ). The fact that companies can become a weapon for war more readily is alarming. The state as just an arbiter, the referee has entrenched problems with it. I don’t think we will be advantaged by this increased and politicized corporate reach.

Bruce V
Bruce V
2 months ago

My species has mastered the ability to travel back in time. We have identified this as the pivotal moment when humans unknowingly released and sanctified, planetary wide, the curse of independent non-governmental entities such as Anonymous and self-righteous corporations. You will have no control over them, no electoral influence, and woe be to you if you ever have an opinion different from them for you will be cancelled without recourse. This will prove to be far more dangerous over time than Putin’s indefensible war. From the vantage point of 30 years into the future it’s obvious to us that Ms. Harrington, UnHerd, and its insightful members sensed this, to various degrees, but were unable to stop it in time.      

Christian Filli
Christian Filli
2 months ago

This is such a critical (and scary) topic, yet it is rarely discussed. I would argue, though, that it has been going on for a while. Twitter de-platforming Trump is a classic example. Canada’s “emergency” crackdown on truckers is another (cutting all their financial lifelines!). The underlying movements of BLM, CRT, DEI and ESG have given corporations their new purpose in life, as they can now lean on a wide range of ‘good causes’ to morally justify all kinds of shady maneuvering and manipulation (while avoiding regulatory scrutiny and perpetuating wealth inequality). The problem is: what can ordinary citizens do other than put their heads down (or look the other way) and play along?

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 months ago

Please can we forget the praying business – it lessons the integrity of your article – do you really think that there is a capricious ‘magic’ god looking down on humankind ?????????

Karl Schuldes
Karl Schuldes
2 months ago
Reply to  chris sullivan

If you had added one more question mark you might have persuaded me.