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Synthesis/Regeneration 30   (Winter 2003)

Mobilizing Against War

Not Just Blood for Oil

by Midnight Notes, www.midnightnotes.org

The Passions that incline men to Peace, are Fear of Death; Desire of such things as are necessary for commodious living; and a Hope by their Industry to obtain them.      –Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651)

The slogan “No Blood for Oil” was shouted during the demonstrations against the Gulf War more than a decade ago. It is still being shouted in the demonstrations against the new war with Iraq that is being planned by the Bush Administration. It is an effective slogan, but it also is limited. For it claims that the war against Iraq is motivated only the short-term interests of key players in the Bush Administration who are tied to the oil industry.

But there is a deeper reason for this war mobilization rooted in a crisis of the dominant economic model of the planet: “globalization.” In this article we show the reasons why the Asian Economic Crisis, the collapse of the stock markets internationally, the bursting of the technology stock bubble in Europe and the US are essential to the pounding of the war drums. For the war is not simply an effort to divert attention to this crisis, but is seen by Bush and his supporters as the only answer to it.

It is important to note that the Bush Administration took power not in a moment of capitalist business-as-usual, but in the midst of a systemic crisis that transcends a mere recessionary blip in the US.

The Bush Administration’s answer to the global economic crisis is simple: War. The 1980s and 1990s saw the building of an elaborate international regime of trade, capital transfer and money flow, but it did not see the development of an institution of violence that would enforce the rules of neoliberal globalization. Certainly the UN was hardly the vehicle for such a job, since the important players (the permanent members of the Security Council) were not a unified collection of states that could or even want to enforce the rules of neoliberalism.

Nor was there on the historical horizon an international body of armed men and women that would have the global monopoly of violence. The Clinton/Gore effort to create a such body—one the US government could control from behind the scenes under the guise of a formal equality among national participants—was anathema to the most powerful fraction of the US ruling class. Its suspicion of Clinton’s efforts was behind the extraordinary animus expressed in the impeachment proceedings of 1998 and the electoral coup of 2000. There was a genuine fear that the Clintonites would sign away, on a formal level at least, the US’s imperial role in the 21st century.

The 1980s and 1990s saw the building of an elaborate international regime of trade, capital transfer and money flow, but it did not see the development of an institution of violence that would enforce the rules of neoliberal globalization.

Supporters of the Bush administration often described this role by analogy with the place of the British empire in the 19th century world system. That century’s international gold standard and free trade (called economic liberalism) required a hegemonic state that would make sure that the rules of the system were followed. That state was Great Britain. A central ideological problem with liberalism both old and new is that it presents itself as an autonomous, self-regulating system, but it is not. It needs to have an enforcer, since individuals and governments, especially those who are being put into crisis or are chronic losers, are tempted to break the rules. In the 21st century, according to this reasoning, the only state that could play Great Britain’s role is the United States.

Of course, history is over-determined (i.e., there are multiple causes for most historical events) and “it is no accident” that Iraq has become the first major test case of this policy. After all, Iraq, a member of OPEC, has the second largest proven oil reserves on the planet. Therefore, Iraq’s fate is of vital interest to anyone interested in the oil industry, and the Bush family, Vice President Cheney and National Security Advisor Rice were and are all deeply involved with oil. They are familiar with the oil industry’s problems and sympathetic to the oil companies’ desire to return to the world before the nationalization of the oil fields that took place throughout the world in the early 1970s. Certainly a quick “regime change” in Iraq leading to US-imposed privatization of the oil fields would help set the clock back before 1970, and not only in Iraq.

However, increasing the immediate profits of the oil companies, though important, is not the consideration that makes Iraq the first object of the new Bush policy. Oil and natural gas are basic commodities for the running of the world’s industrial apparatus, from plastics to chemicals, pharmaceuticals, fertilizers, and energy for cars and electric power plants. Whoever controls the commodity, its price and the profits it generates, has a powerful impact on the whole capitalist system. Yet oil is an unusual commodity. It is exempt from the rules of neoliberalism. The trading rules of the WTO do not apply to oil; and OPEC, a self-proclaimed if not completely successful oligopoly, is tolerated in a period when the “free market” ought to be determining the price of all commodities, especially basic ones. How could it be that even though OPEC now controls about 80% of the “proven oil reserves,” it operates in contradiction to the larger rules of the neoliberal game? No wonder neoliberalism is in crisis.

This peculiar singularity is intensified by the nature of the main political figures in OPEC (aside from Iraq’s Ba’ath regime): in Iran there are the desperate Islamic clerics, in Saudi Arabia there is a ruling class that is divided between globalization and Islamic fundamentalism, in Venezuela there is the populist government of Chavez, in Ecuador there is a government that was nearly seized in a rebellion by the indigenous and now is led by a leftist President and former coup organizer, in Libya there is Ghaddafi (need more be said?), in Algeria there is a government that just narrowly repressed an Islamist revolution, and in Nigeria and Indonesia there are “democratic” governments with questionable legitimacy that could collapse at any moment. This list constitutes a “rogues gallery” from the point of view of the thousands of capitalists who send a tremendous portion of “their” surplus to OPEC governments via their purchases of oil and gas. With such a composition, OPEC is hardly an institution to energize a neoliberal world.

From the Bush Administration’s viewpoint, OPEC needs to be either destroyed or transformed in order to lay the foundation of a neoliberal world that would be able to overcome the crisis and truly control the energy resources of the planet. The Bush administration is putting as much pressure as possible on OPEC’s members. In April of 2002, there was a US-supported coup d’etat in Venezuela against the Chavez government, the leading price hawk in OPEC. It failed. In August 2002, it was Saudi Arabia’s turn. The RAND corporation issued a report claiming that the Saudi Arabian monarchy was the “real enemy” in the Middle East and should be threatened with invasion if it did not stop supporting anti-US and anti-Israeli groups. However, that verbal threat has been nullified by the Bush Administration as its war plans have unfolded.

From the Bush Administration’s viewpoint, OPEC needs to be either destroyed or transformed…

The Iraq government is clearly the weak link in OPEC. It lost two wars it instigated; it is legally in thrall to a harsh reparations regime; it cannot control its own air space; and it cannot even import freely but must have UN accountants approve every item it wants to buy on the open market. Ideologically and economically it is prostrate.

A US-sponsored Iraqi government committed to neoliberal policies would definitely be in a position to undermine OPEC from within or, if it leaves OPEC, from without. Such a transformation would make it possible to begin a massive investment in the energy industry that might be an alternative to the spectacular failure of the high-tech sector that has dissolved hundreds of billions of dollars. Rather than the now-uncertain computer- and bio-technology sectors, the more “traditional” oil-driven sectors will be given primacy in re-launching profitability.

There is an additional reason for Iraq having the dubious honor of being the first test case for the hegemonic role of the US: weapons of mass destruction. Saddam Hussein’s regime has been very interested in investing in industrial development that has in the past also been used to develop chemical and biological weapons. These weapons were used extensively in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. The Bush administration has put forward a doctrine with respect to Iraq that, if generalized, would look something like this:

1. Almost any advanced technological production process can be used to create “weapons of mass destruction.”

2. Any such production process not directly controlled by a multinational corporation (MNC) headquartered in the US (or Japan or Western Europe) can be used by a government to create weapons of mass destruction.

3. No government outside a list agreed upon by the US government ought to have the capacity to build weapons of mass destruction.

Therefore, no government (whether democratically elected or not) outside of the agreed list can be allowed to exist unless its advanced technology is controlled by an acceptable MNC.

This argument means that the US government has taken on the role of overseeing and vetoing all forms of industrial development throughout the world in perpetuum. Autonomous industrial development not controlled by an approved MNC or a “friendly” government is out of order. Hence this “war on terrorism” doctrine becomes a basis for the military control of the economic development policies of any government on the planet.

…this “war on terrorism” doctrine becomes a basis for the military control of the economic development policies of any government on the planet.

The consequences of such a doctrine are, of course, enormous, although their immediate impact is on the Hussein regime (and any of its successors). For even if Saddam Hussein could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that there were no chemical, biological or atomic weapons in Iraq at this moment, the Bush doctrine would not be satisfied. The mere existence of industrial capacity not owned and controlled by MNCs in Iraq that could be used in the construction of weapons of mass destruction would violate the doctrine.

This doctrine shows us that the struggle now unfolding in Iraq is not only about oil. What is at stake is the shape of planetary industrial development for decades to come. The combination of the restoration of oil-driven accumulation with the imposition of the Bush doctrine on global industrial development ensures that the “suburban-petroleum” mode of life we are living in the US (and increasingly in Western Europe) will lead to endless war.

We are clearly in a time similar to the Era of Imperialism and the Scramble for Africa in the late 19th century when European armies equipped with machine guns, long-distance artillery, and gun boats that could penetrate rivers, attacked poorly armed peoples in Africa, Oceania and Asia, slaughtering and conquering them with almost no losses. It was only after World War II that the colonized rebels could hold some technological and strategic “parity” with the colonial power, as can be seen in the two Vietnam Wars of independence (first from the French, then from the US). The US military now is so superior technologically to its opponents that it can carry on its activities without a loss from enemy fire, just so long as it does not have to occupy a particular territory. But this is exactly what US troops will have to do in order to bring about the “regime changes” US foreign policy requires. The Palestinian revolt against Israeli occupation should make quite clear that the most sophisticated of armies will suffer a regular flow of casualties when occupying a hostile population.

The assumption that US troops will be casualty-free is exactly what will be challenged by the new US hegemonic role in the war for neoliberalism and globalization. The US military will have to occupy Iraq for a long period of time in order to guarantee that the oil fields will be privatized and that a “regime change” would lead to a dissolution or transformation of OPEC. Further, the action of a military machine operating under the Powell Doctrine of “overwhelming force” can become its own troops’ worse enemy. These factors, not the immediate invasion itself, will lead to a substantial loss of US soldiers’ lives and a violation of the “no casualties” social contract. The antiwar movement needs to warn the US working class of this danger, clearly and distinctly.

…the “suburban-petroleum” mode of life…will lead to endless war.

In conclusion, the Bush Administration’s policy is not a product of oil-company crackpots, it is a desperate initiative to try to militarily save a failing world economic system. Many people in South and Central America, Africa and Asia have lost hope in finding themselves in this system and are trying to recreate their lives outside the precincts of neoliberalism. The same threatens to happen here in the US That possibility, and not the machinations of Al Qaeda or Saddam Hussein, is the Bush Administration’s deepest fear.

Now it is time to learn from the wisdom of an enemy philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, the defender of the absolute state. In the epigraph we quoted, Hobbes locates the source of peace in three passions: Fear, Desire, and Hope. The Bush Administration has effectively used Fear to stifle opposition. It correctly claims that the right not to be killed is the greatest human right. It has asked for a carte blanche to defend that right and impose Peace on the world through the sword. Bush often pointed to the cinders of the World Trade Center towers to win the “war powers against Iraq” resolution, for the Fear is real. Not accidentally, however, the Bush Administration spokespeople have forgotten the other passionate sources of Peace—Desire and Hope. They know that they cannot stimulate these passions even rhetorically without rousing derision throughout the planet. Their economic and social system is that bankrupt. This is the Bush Administration’s deepest weakness: it cannot win on the basis of Fear of Death alone.

That is why our movement cannot simply trade Fear for Fear with the Bush Administration, or be amplifiers of the Fear on which the administration thrives. We cannot best them in this game. Of course, it is our civic duty to point out bureaucratic failures and hyperboles that endanger people in the US or abroad and, if we have good evidence, to point out past, present, or future US government complicity with Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s regime. But unless we can call to the other passionate sources of Peace, we will be bankrupt as the Bush regime and its supporters.

The antiwar movement should, therefore, speak to the Desires and Hopes of the people of the US, from universal healthcare to a healthy environment.

The antiwar movement should, therefore, speak to the Desires and Hopes of the people of the US, from universal healthcare to a healthy environment. We also need to bring the demands of the anti-globalization movement of the 1990s into our demonstrations, forums and programs, especially the wisdom behind the slogan, “This Earth is Not For Sale,” i.e., an end to the privatization of the gifts of the planet and its history. We can work out the details, it is the direction that is crucial now.

We leave you with a historical example in support of our thesis. The most effective way the threat of nuclear terror was answered in the 1950s was not the antinuclear war movement, but the black revolution in the US and the anti-colonial movement around the planet. Black people in the US and colonized people in the rest of the world made it clear that B-52 bombers and their hydrogen bombs were not liberating them, and they refused to be delayed by them. They declared that their civil liberation was a precondition for the “Desire of such things as are necessary for commodious living; and a Hope by their Industry to obtain them” that could lead to Peace. Indeed, it has been the thwarting of this Desire and this Hope by the imposition of a neoliberal economic order that has been the source of most of the War of the last two decades.


The Midnight Notes Collective (P.O. Box 204, Jamiaca Plain, MA 02130) has directed its political interventions and theoretical work for the last quarter century to the anti-war and anti-capitalist movements.

This is a shortened and revised version of “Respect Your Enemies—The First Rule of Peace” which can be found at our website: www.midnightnotes.org. The article is anticopyrighted, i.e., everyone is invited to publish or copy the article in whole or part just as long as s/he/it does not claim copyright.

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