Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Critical Theory

I'm reading an interesting book, Introduction to Critical Theory: Horkheimer to Habermas, on the intellectual movement founded by the Frankfurt school -- a group of like minded academics and critics whose analyses on culture, capitalism, and society attempted to refigure the impracticalities of Marxian orthodoxy. In a summation of Marxian tenets, David Held, the book's author, offers this.

The progressive rise in the organic composition of capital -- the amount of fixed capital per worker -- exacerbates the inherently unstable accumulation process. In order to sustain this process, it's protagonists’ utilize all means available -- including imperialist expansion and war.
p. 42
Though an obvious point, it is also compelling on many levels. For instance, the relative move towards trade liberalization, fostered by institutions such as the WTO, the World Bank, and the IMF, has sustained the appetites of growing multinationals (usually Western) looking for new and pliant markets (almost always developing countries). Western industrialized nations are no different in this respect and, in essence, underwrite the political legitmacy of these international institutions. The Iraq war has been perceived through this lens, as critics see its rationale to be more convoluted and involving the unintelligible logic of capitalism. To this effect, the London Review of Books had an essay in April's issue entitled Blood for Oil? Its conclusion is eerily persuasive and, therefore, needs to be excerpted at length.

But something has clearly shifted over the last ten years. Even as recently as the late 1990s, there was confidence that the new world of capital penetration would come about essentially by means of agreement between governments and corporations, ‘fiscal discipline’, fine-tuning of subsidy and bail-out, and non-stop pressure from US creditors. What constellation of forces put all this in question is still open to debate. But it happened – precipitately. Cracks began to appear within the World Bank establishment: Western Europe fought with the Washington consensus, and the South often refused to take its bitter medicine. The grotesqueries of Third World indebtedness and First World subsidies to corporate agriculture became more widely recognised. The back-slapping and mutual congratulation of the Uruguay Round descended into the fiasco of Seattle, and then Doha and Cancœn. At Cancœn, an in-house insurgency of 20 nations refused to endorse the massive US-EU subsidies to North Atlantic agriculture and the WTO rules crafted to prevent the South from protecting itself.

This is the proper frame for understanding what has happened in Iraq. It is only as part of this neo-liberal firmament, in which a dominant capitalist core has begun to find it harder and harder to benefit from ‘consensual’ market expansion or corporate mergers and asset transfers, that the preference for the military option makes sense.

Marx had no illusions about the role of force in his own time. But he did seem to believe that the age of violent expropriation was at an end. It was capitalism’s strength that it had internalised coercion, so to speak, and that henceforward the ‘silent compulsions of economic relations’ would be enough to compel the worker to ‘sell the whole of his active life’. We are not the first to think Marx too sanguine in this prognosis. In fact it has turned out that primitive accumulation is an incomplete and recurring process, essential to capitalism’s continuing life. Dispossession is crucial to this, and its forms recur and reconstitute themselves endlessly. Hence the periodic movement of capitalism outwards, to geographies and polities it can plunder almost unopposed. (Or so it hoped, in the case of Iraq.)

Will military neo-liberalism endure? With the US deficit rolling along at $600 billion annually, and the national debt rising to $2.5 trillion, the cost-benefit balance of the strategy looks dubious. And, two years after the tanks rolled across the Euphrates floodplain, the occupation and its Vichy surrogate barely have control of Baghdad. With unemployment running at perhaps 50 per cent, the Mahdi army steadily draws new support from the ranks of the urban unemployed in the slums of Sadr City and Basra, now twice dispossessed: once by Saddam, once by Bush. Even the lustre of the privatised contract economy has tarnished. Of the $18.4 billion in reconstruction funds allocated by the US Congress in October 2003, less than 9 per cent had been spent a year later – and untold amounts of that was spent on ‘security’. During the same period, more than a hundred criminal investigations of contractors were launched, and cases opened on hundreds of allegations of fraud and ‘waste’. As if to confirm falling expectations, Halliburton is reported to be putting Kellogg, Brown and Root on the block because it has become so unprofitable. So much for the Great Iraqi Oil Robbery. As Rumsfeld has admitted: ‘We lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror.’ However you calculate it, in the present equation a few more million barrels of oil won’t matter a damn.

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