I would argue that we’ve reached a point in history where global capitalism is the immediate as well as the underlying issue and revolutionary strategy must confront all capitalist policy options, not just the most blatant examples of repression and reaction, and not just those policies which arguably are ruling class “mistakes”. Not so long ago, this view appeared to be gaining momentum in the international left, notably in sectors of the anti-globalization movement. I’m not so sure about this now. For the most part, following 9/11, the ‘movement’, including the anarchist sector, has been swept away from a focus on global capitalism to an uncritical positing of a revitalized, malignant, and sometimes crazed
An emerging left ‘common sense’ attempts to explain the world in terms of narrow economic motives - “oil imperialism”, and the uniquely reactionary character and limited worldview of the current
Particularly since the build up to the Iraq War, the alleged irrationality of current U.S ruling class policies, rather than the fundamental irrationality of the capitalist system, is the point of departure for left politics. Anatol Liewen provided an early example of this approach in the Nation, July 7/03:
“…the United States, which of all states today should feel like a satisfied power, is instead behaving like a revolutionary one, kicking to pieces the hill of which it is king …just as U.S. imperialism, emboldened by a strong shot of nationalism, is busy undermining the world political order of which the United States is hegemon, so dominant sections of the U.S. capitalist elite are suicidally gobbling up the fiscal foundations of American economic stability and the American capitalist system.”
Some other commentators, like Gabriel Kolko, do see clear structural problems in capitalism, but believe that ruling class policy is essentially blind and dumb – “capitalism has become more aberrant, improvisatory, and self-destructive than ever.”
“It would be a basic error to look at our present situation as if it were rationally comprehensible. The limits of rational explanations are that they assume rational men and women make decisions and that they will respect the limits of their power and behave realistically. This has rarely been true anywhere historically over the past century, and politics and illusions based on ideology or wishful thinking have often been decisive. This is especially the case with the present bunch in
As contrasted to Liewen and Kolko, I think there is a systematic and relatively rational practice of class rule involving real processes, real forces and real stakes. It includes conspiracies, but is not limited to them. It includes internal ruling class conflicts and contradictions, but also important and growing areas of implicit and articulated class consensus. The elements of this practice develop in the context of and in response to the mass and class challenges and resistances to the development of a global capitalist system – a development which itself, is a response to the class struggles and crises of previous stages of capitalism.
This practice of rule has a content that is both understandable and worth understanding. However, it is not simple. We are not dealing with capitalists just being capitalist or imperialists just being imperialist. To the contrary, there have been paradigm shifts, major developments don’t fit the old categories. But if we clear our minds of some dysfunctional articles of faith, an operational understanding of current reality is well within our grasp. To mutilate Rumsfield’s phrase, it is a “knowable unknown”, despite containing new elements and demanding new thinking.
It’s an unusual day when some Z-Net article doesn’t irritate me, and Z-Net is where this rant on current conditions begins. It’s quite possible this isn’t the greatest starting point. Perhaps if I were less isolated, I would find a better one. Nevertheless, I’m going to start with a few propositions from recent Z-Net postings. I’m open to the possibility that they do not represent Z-Net. They probably don’t adequately and fully express the positions of their authors either.
There are three common themes in the current left conventional wisdom about the political situation. I think that these themes, individually and in various combinations, fall well short of explaining anything significant. They are not so much wrong as they are partial, lazy and complacent.
Theme One: The current struggles, notably, but not exclusively those in
Albert asks: “Why has the occupation been such a disaster, again, from the elite perspective?”
Chomsky responds: (apologies for the truncated quote) “The primary reason for the catastrophe, it is now generally agreed, is what I was told…by a high ranking figure in one of the leading relief organizations…(he) told me that he had never seen such a display of ‘arrogance, incompetence, and ignorance’.”
This is a ‘left’ version of the “legitimate” official and semi-official ruling class opposition. Readers of Juan Cole’s Blog, “Informed Comment”, can find any number of liberal and left variations on the general point of view. More interesting, it mirrors an aspect of ruling class propaganda that routinely depicts the enemy du jour as not just “evil”, but also irrational and unstable.
Theme Two: The War on
Theme Three: It’s all about oil: There are more Z-Net examples of this position than we could possibly cite. The Chomsky interview mentioned above offers a typical statement.
Albert asks: “Why did the
Chomsky replies: “The real reason for the invasion, surely, is that
Manning Marable combines themes two and three:
“Why does Bush defy public opinion by pursuing this unpopular war? The answer lies not in
Taken alone or in any of the possible combinations, these themes are not simply false, but they are truly simple. They contain elements of truth that don’t enlighten. I want to say a few things about each of them just to start a discussion but a more elaborated treatment of specific arguments and evidence is certainly in order.
When ruling class policy initiatives implode as they are doing pretty frequently, it’s fun to watch ruling class ideologues struggling to rationalize events that have publicly proven them wrong. However, we’re not dealing with a flailing body with no head. It’s an odd conceit that leads a left that has only made the slightest mark on history to think that it has a firm hold on the concrete and the real, while the system it opposes is trapped in illusions. Not likely ever - certainly never for long. This is a system that employs tens of thousands of ideological functionaries full time - functionaries that come from the same schools, have read the same books, and often have similar political and cultural backgrounds and circumstances as the left. They are functionaries whose entire job is to maintain the system, understand its vulnerabilities, and paper up its problems. Capital doesn’t spend like this without getting some results.
I want to make a practical point here. The ruling class discussion about the current strategic situation is accessible. We should pay attention to it to locate the shared assumptions and the poles of debate. We should pay attention to see what the ruling class is learning from situations like Iraq, situations that the left is prone to label as “victories”…but victories of what and for whom…leading to what outcomes? As a start, I’d suggest looking at the Thomaspmbarnett website or the William Lind archive at LewRockwell.com, where current implications and options for capitalist political, economic and military strategy are debated by some of those involved in developing it.
There seems to be an idea in the left that it is not important to know this material. The recent Chomsky pieces in Z-Net are filled with this attitude. Earlier I quoted part of his response to Albert’s important questions about the
“The specific blunders (in the occupation of
There is more than a hint of arrogance, maybe even solipsism, in dismissing a question because the topic “…doesn’t interest me much”. Particularly when the lack of interest extends - to such topics as, “…Hitler’s error of fighting a two front war…”, one of the major questions of Twentieth Century history with a good deal of importance for developing a clear understanding of fascism and locating its relationship to capitalism. Chomsky’s lack of interest in the interesting appears to follow from a certainty that he already knows the essential truths. This is typified in the following assertion that appears both in the Albert interview and in a subsequent article (Z-Net,
Oh really…the “real” enemy... “always” and just why is the United States the subject, rather than global capitalism for example? Three problems arise with this confident assertion: First, it’s not even valid for
The next theme is clearly implied in Marable’s… “petroleum” but not “Islamic terrorism”…mentioned above. (It is obvious that this position is at odds with the basic political estimate of the Three Way Fight perspective, but that point is adequately argued elsewhere.)The argument that the global ruling class is not genuinely concerned with a threat from its right, but is using it as a cover for some other objective is frequently encountered. The problem with this argument is that it goes against very clear statements from virtually every segment of ruling class opinion, and very substantive actions implementing the “War on Terror” and fingering radical Islamists and particularly salafi jihadism as the main source of terrorism. This consensus on the urgency and relative importance of the struggle against “terrorism” is a matter of clear public record, globally and inside the
That is not to say that the war in
It should be evident to revolutionaries that there are “good”, if unstated, ruling class reasons to pursue the war on terror by invading and occupying
Every radical knows that the official justifications for major policies are partly propaganda that is intended to obscure underlying causes and actual ruling class intentions. However, this is not a process that simply parallels advertising and marketing a product to a passive audience. The global ruling class must maintain some internal unity and ideological coherence or risk losing hegemonic dominance over the populations that it oppresses and exploits, including the internal population. The positions that explain capital without considering the actual and potential struggles against all it fall into mechanistic fallacies. The ruling class isn’t the only actor on stage and it doesn’t have the only plan and project. Struggles are real and capitalist crises are real. Manipulations operate within pretty narrow limits and can’t be decisive over the long run.
In short, I think that there is a clear consensus in the global ruling class that both legitimates and limits the war in
This brings us to the third theme. I have argued that global capital wouldn’t undertake a risky venture justified by fabricated evidence, unless some looming danger made it necessary and that the threat from the right is such a pressing danger. Many left analysts, including apparently Chomsky and Marable as cited above, say the pressing danger was something else, namely the need to “control” the global oil resource - Oil, not Islamic Terrorism is their shared view.
One of the arguments for this position concentrates on the role of VP Dick Cheney. To compress the argument, Cheney had been the head of Halliburton, a major firm in the oil construction arena and was the point person for the oil cartel when the Republicans won the 2000 election. From the outset, Cheney pushed for the overthrow of Saddam in order to privatize Iraqi oil resources and solidify
There are problems with the story line. Someplace in this computer I have an interview with Cheney from 1991 when he was Secretary of Defense for the senior Bush. He was asked in this interview why the Coalition military hadn’t marched on to
In short, Cheney took a position categorically opposed to the one he currently holds, a position that is eerily similar to the one held by his current ruling class critics and some leftists as well. So what happened to change his views – or at least what he publicly presents as his views? Some leftists apparently believe the change results from his employment as Halliburton CEO and that his personal thinking is determined by his personal financial interests. Frankly that’s absurd. Cheney was always identified with the oil cartel – as Bush Senior and James Baker were and still are. Logically, if Cheney reflects the position of big oil, to explain the change in his position we would have to see evidence of a basic change of opinion in the oil industry, abandoning a long term priority on stability the Middle East in favor of disrupting and transforming it,. I would suggest that nothing like such a change can be found. The oil industry was not the impetus behind
Cheney has his own explanation for his change in position – “9/11 changed everything”. He had an epistemological break. I’m a believer in epistemological breaks. I understand that Bob Avakian has experienced one recently and await further details. If it happened to Avakian, why not to Cheney? I find Cheney’s explanation very plausible. 9/11 cast a huge shadow over “New World Orders”, and “New American Centuries” and “Ends to History”. It welded a ‘neo’ to conservatism to provide some muscle to neoliberalism. It refloated the “Clash of Civilizations”. I know that the neocons, including Cheney, had called for
This leads to my main argument against the ‘all about oil’ thesis. Without some evidence of where and how the oil industry shaped the decision to invade and occupy Iraq, the undeniable fact of the importance of MidEast oil resources is neither support for regime change in Iraq, nor an argument against it. It is neutral. Consider the Chomsky quote cited earlier:
“The real reason for the invasion, surely, is that Iraq has the second largest oil reserves in the world, very cheap to exploit, and lies right at the heart of the world’s major hydrocarbon resources, what the State Department 60 years ago described as a ‘stupendous source of strategic power’. The issue is not access, but rather control (and for the energy corporations, profit). Control over these resources gives the U.S. ‘critical leverage’ over industrial rivals, to borrow Zbigniew Brezinski’s phrase, echoing George Kennan when he was a leading planner and recognized that such control would give the US ‘veto power’ over others.” (Op Cit)
If sanctions had been lifted, Iraqi oil would have been quickly incorporated within the global market. Saddam posed no threat to this. Indeed, one of the reasons that the
Chomsky, Marable and others also place the oil issue in a geopolitical framework, not just a strictly economic one.
“Thus the current Iraq War is…an imperialist effort to secure control of the world’s second largest proven oil reserves.” (Marable, Z-Net, Op. Cit.)
“Control over these resources gives the
This brings the issue of potential “industrial rivals” into focus. Practically speaking,
This perspective raises a range of questions of its own. I can see the factors that support it, particularly the fact that it is an underlying assumption in certain ruling class planning documents. However, I think the perspective is fundamentally flawed and is a relic of an outdated conceptual framework of decreasing relevance to the global capitalist system. It overemphasizes nation states and national economies relative to transnational political movements and supranational economic flows and structures of power and control. A check with the corporate masters of WalMart and MicroSoft to see if they see the future in terms of a rivalry between “us” and
In the context of the current argument, I can’t see how the “industrial rival” issue necessarily weighs for or against the invasion and occupation of
I want to make one final point. It isn’t particularly relevant to the topic, but I ran across it in the Marable piece which was relevant to the topic. I think it illustrates the importance of keeping a critical check on basic concepts and assumptions.
“The larger question of political economy, left unexplored by Edsall and most analysts, is the connection between American militarism abroad, neoliberalism, and trends in the global economy. As economists Paul Sweezy, Harry Magdoff, and others noted decades ago, the general economic tendency of mature capitalism is toward stagnation.”
Of course we should explore some of these questions, but what is this about a general tendency toward “stagnation”? Sweezy put out this underconsumptionist position in the Eisenhower lull of the late fifties. It was questionable then and was quickly surpassed by new phases of capitalist expansion. Why would we describe a social system that has subsequently completely revolutionized productive technology and transformed the productive process, successfully subsumed virtually all precapitalist production, outlasted and incorporated both social democracy and “really existing socialism”, the flawed products of its presumptive gravediggers, and gutted massive popular national resistances, as demonstrating a “tendency” toward “stagnation”?
I may partially agree with what is meant, but this is not the way to say it. The tendency of capitalism is toward crisis and transformation, towards self destruction, towards barbarism; towards the explosive expansion of human possibilities combined with the increasingly widespread crippling of actual human individuals and human societies – not towards “stagnation”.