The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Axis of Evil or Access to Diesel? Reflections on the Iraq war.

Photo by Mark Rain
Did the Iraq war simply reflect the unitary decision by the U.S. state to assert its interests in the global political economy or was it the result of co-operation by a group of allied capitalist countries to secure access to oil in the Middle East? Alternatively, did the use of military force reflect the interests of an emerging transnational state? My latest article with Adam Morton, entitled ‘Axis of Evil or Access to Diesel? Spaces of New Imperialism and the Iraq War’ is now published in the journal Historical Materialism and attempts to address these questions.

We analyse the relationship between geopolitical and capitalist dynamics underlying the decision to go to war. Importantly, we argue that only through a focus on the internal relation between geopolitical and global capitalist dynamics can we begin to comprehend the way the Iraq War contributed to the continuation of capitalist accumulation through what we refer to as a strategy of bomb and build.

Inter-imperialist rivalry, ultra-imperialism and the transnational state

We start by developing our argument through a critical engagement with classical and contemporary historical materialist thinkers and their different conceptualisations of geopolitics, noting three distinct positions. First, drawing on the earlier work of Lenin and Bukharin, Alex Callinicos analyses the Iraq war as a case of inter-imperialist rivalry between the U.S. and its ‘coalition of the willing’, on one hand, and France and Germany, but also China on the other hand. What his focus on U.S. imperialism, however, overlooks is the fact that large parts of the internal oil market are highly integrated and completely outside the control of any one particular state.

Second, Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin can be noted for their emphasis on co-operation between capitalist countries under the leadership of the U.S. state in securing access to oil. Rather than highlighting rivalries between the U.S. and other states, these authors emphasise the continuity of inter-state co-operation, whether through collaboration with intelligence services or airspace deals over rendition and torture centres. To some extent this position mirrors the classical ultra-imperialism thesis of Karl Kautsky and his focus on a ‘holy alliance of the imperialists’ in managing the global political economy. 

Photo by openDemocracy
Third, we critically engage with William Robinson and his transnational state thesis, in which he argues that the transnational state exists as a loose network of supranational political and economic institutions combined with national state apparatuses that have become dominated by transnational capitalist classes. The argument is that the transnational state used the U.S. state apparatus in order to impose the interests of a newly dominant transnational capitalist class on the global economy.

Ultimately, what all three approaches have in common is their conceptualisation of the external relationship between geopolitics and global capitalism, or the separation of the political and the economic. These spheres are held as two distinct logics, a geopolitical and a capitalist logic, so that the internal relations between these two dynamics are missed.

The importance of the philosophy of internal relations

Following on from our International Studies Quarterly article and in contrast to the above positions, our main focus is to assert the philosophy of internal relations as the hallmark of historical materialism. Developed by Bertell Ollman, the philosophy of internal relations implies that the character of capital is considered as a social relation in such a way that the internal ties between the means of production, and those who own them, as well as those who work them, as well as the realisation of value within historically specific conditions, are all understood as relations internal to each other. Thus, historical materialist analysis is at its best in understanding the character of capital as a social relation in such a way that the ties between capitalism and geopolitics are understood as interior relations. 

How does this then help in assessing the agency of state power, or geopolitics, and the structural context of capitalist expansion surrounding the war in Iraq? Transnational capital is not understood as externally related to states, engaged in competition over authority in the global economy. Instead our focus shifts to class struggles over the extent to which the interests of transnational capital have become internalised or not within concrete forms of state and here in particular the U.S. form of state.

Class struggle in the U.S. form of state and the strategy of bomb and build in the Iraq War

Our argument is that protecting and promoting U.S. geopolitics through the use of force has long been a strategy of neo-conservatives who were at the heart of the George W. Bush administration reflecting the interests of a national fraction of capital. With multilateralism at an impasse within the United Nations, the rhetoric of neo-conservative unilateralism gained salience, while the interests of transnational capital were side-lined within the U.S. form of state. A dominant discourse of U.S. unilateralism at that time emerged, linked to the nationalist wing of the U.S. elite rooted within national fractions of capital tied to the arms industry and key construction companies such as Bechtel. This wing retained firm roots within the Military-Industrial-Academic-Complex, key to understanding some of the dynamics of U.S. geopolitics.

Photo by Alice
Unsurprisingly, companies part of this national capitalist class fraction were also the ones receiving the most contracts from the aftermath of the Iraq War. Halliburton was given a huge contract to run the Green Zone in Baghdad and was hired to help run the ‘living support services’ of the Coalitional Provisional Authority. As reported in The New York Times, it was also given ‘the exclusive United States contract to import fuel into Iraq’ and in March 2003 ‘was awarded a no-competition contract to repair Iraq’s oil industry’, having already received more than $1.4 billion in work. The major U.S. engineering company Bechtel, in turn, was given the first contract awarded by USAID in April 2003, and was awarded a second contract in January 2004, tasked with providing ‘a major program of engineering, procurement, and construction services for a series of new Iraqi infrastructure projects . . . at a total value of up to $1.8 billion’.

Furthermore, in terms of the contractual reconstruction of the built environment in Iraq, the role forged in the early days by the U.S.-led Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance in Iraq involved a main $680 million contract for the reconstruction of electrical, water and sewage systems, which was granted to the Bechtel Group. The senior vice-president of Bechtel, Jack Sheehan, was a member of the Defence Policy Board, a Pentagon advisory group whose members were approved by the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. George Schultz, the former secretary of state, was also on Bechtel’s board and chaired the advisory board of the pro-war Committee for the Liberation of Iraq. The contract was, at the time, the largest of an initial $1.1 billion reconstruction project headed by the United States Agency for International Development. It also led to further awards to Bechtel to repair airports, dredge and restore ports such as Umm Qasr, rebuild hospitals, schools, government ministries and irrigation systems, and restore transport links, with the Guardian reporting that it gave ‘Bechtel an overwhelmingly important role in virtually every area of Iraqi society.’ A $7 billion contract for controlling oil fires was also awarded to Kellogg, Brown & Root, a division of Halliburton, once run by vice-president Dick Cheney.

Photo by Alan Feebery
Ultimately, we conclude in the article, that the war on Iraq therefore reflects a capitalist accumulation strategy of bomb & build. Our analysis demonstrates the importance of the creation of the physical infrastructure in the built environment through fixed capital within conditions of global war as one way of providing temporary relief from the problems of overaccumulation and the crisis tendencies of capitalism. The internal relation of geopolitics and global capitalism can therefore be read through the complex internal linkages of bomb & build in relation to the Iraq War.

In other words, through new imperialist interventions in Iraq and, perhaps, elsewhere (Afghanistan, or Libya), we can witness the spatial reordering of the built environment through militarism and other mechanisms of finance linked to specific class fractions within the U.S. state form and thus the policy of bomb and build on a world scale.   

This post was first published on the Progress in Political Economy blog at Sydney University. Alex Callinicos wrote the reply ‘Fighting The Last War’, to which Adam D. Morton responded with his post ‘Anti-Bukharin’. 

Prof. Andreas Bieler

Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK
Personal website:

6 July 2015


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