Blood for oil? Pt. 2

[This is the second article of the series Blood for oil? Global capital, counter-insurgency and the dual logic of American energy security.]

Theorising the American state under globalization

As we saw in the first article in this series, a new ‘blood for oil’ thesis has emerged when examining US intervention in oil-rich regions. The ‘blood for oil’ thesis argues that US intervention in oil rich regions is designed to ensure that US oil transnationals dominate world markets. As James Paul succinctly argues ‘the war was primarily a “war for oil” in which large, multinational oil companies and their host governments acted in secret concert to gain control of Iraq’s fabulous oil reserves and to gain leverage over other national oil producers’.1 However, this understanding of the American states role within global capitalism operationalises an overly instrumental theorisation. Simply stated, instrumentalist accounts argue that the state is a mere ‘instrument’ in hands of national elites.

As Miliband, one of the chief proponents of state instrumentalism argued, ‘the ruling class of a capitalist society is that class which owns and controls the means of production and which is able, by virtue of the economic power thus conferred upon it, to use the state as its instrument for the domination of society’.2 This theorisation of the American state (and by extension, US foreign policy), tends to reduce American decision making down to the economic interests of the American capitalist class, with the American state’s primary function one of ensuring the necessary conditions for profit maximisation for US corporations. Inherent within this theory of the American state is a base-superstructure reductionism whereby the political and strategic logics of US statecraft are subordinated to the economic interests of American capital with the state the central organisational conduit of this process (‘host governments acted in secret concert to gain control of Iraq’s fabulous oil reserves and to gain leverage over other national oil producers’);.

There are of course more sophisticated versions of this argument. For example, the Retort Collectives analysis of the close interrelationship between US oil corporations, Middle Eastern financial surpluses and the huge profits made by US weapons manufacturers in the financially liquid and war-prone Middle East.3 However, there still exists the tendency to subordinate (albeit in the ‘last instance’); the projection of American power as little more than the extension of an iron fist for corporate interests. The American state thus becomes a mere instrument to be wielded by hugely profitable and powerful US corporations, with American intervention in oil-rich regions designed to ensure continued profitability for US oil transnationals.

Aside from the tendency for this instrumentalist thesis to treat American capital itself as a largely unitary bloc with a contiguous interest in American oil interventions, it also overlooks what Poulantzas called the ‘relative autonomy’ of the state. By this Poulantzas meant that the state enjoys a degree of autonomy from the sectoral interests of its national capital as the states primary function is to reproduce the necessary conditions for the long-term functioning of a given social formation. Thus, the structural requirements of the capitalist system as a whole are not necessarily synonymous with the interests of sections of national, or indeed transnational, capital. The states structural role is thus one of long-term political management which could well be compromised by catering too strongly to the interests of a particular sector of capital (for example, oil transnationals). As such, Poulantzas’ theory of the relative autonomy of the state serves as a useful corrective to overly instrumentalist accounts that denude the state of any political autonomy free from the immediate requirements of the economic interests of capital.4 Panitch and Gindin succinctly capture this when they argue:

It is not so much that states are autonomous from the capitalist economy or from capitalist classes, as that capitalist states develop certain capacities to act on behalf of the system as a whole (autonomy), at the same time that their dependence on the success of overall accumulation for their own legitimacy and reproduction leaves those capacity bounded (relative).5

This ‘relative autonomy’ is especially clear in relation to the American state which has acted as the key hegemonic state within the global political economy since the post-war period, and as such has developed specific capacities to act for global capitalism as a whole (and not just for American capitalism).6 As Andrew Bacevich argues, the primary strategy of the American state has been ‘the creation of an integrated international order based on the principles of democratic capitalism, with the United States as the ultimate guarantor of order and enforcer of norms’.7

The US role as the lead state within world capitalism became increasingly clear with the decline of Britain, the custodian of global free trade prior to the end of the Second World War. US primacy in the post-War period was underwritten by its unrivalled military, political and economic power. At the end of the War, for example, the US had almost half of the worlds manufacturing capacity, the majority of its food supply and nearly all of its capital reserves.

In this new role, the post-war US national interest became articulated around a dual strategy: the maintenance and defense of an economically liberal international system conducive for capital penetration and circulation coupled with a concomitant global geo-strategy of containing social forces considered inimical to capitalist social relations. In this endeavor the American state acted not just in its own interests but also in the interests of other core powers that relied upon the American state to contain the spread of world communism, rollback third world nationalism and to underwrite the institutions and enforce the rules of the liberal international order.8

This liberal order was concretized through the American dominated Bretton Woods institutions, the internationalization of American capital and business models (primarily through American foreign direct investment) and US dominance of the strategic frameworks of other core powers, for example NATO and the Japan-US Security pact.9 US hegemony was thus positive-sum in so far as it benefited other core capitalist powers. Indeed some theorists go so far as to term the penetration of European sovereignties by American power as an ‘Empire by invitation’ throughout the post-war period.10 Importantly, this positive-sum generic reproductive function for global capitalism has formed a key component of American power and has undergirded its hegemony in the post-war international system.

In a sense then, American power has played a system-maintaining role that has benefited a number of core states as well as America itself, and in relation to maintaining a stable supply of crucial energy onto the world market, was quite consciously pursued. For example, a National Security Council report authored in 1958 makes clear that in relation to the Middle East, the US needed to be prepared ‘when required, to come forward with formulas designed to reconcile vital Free World interests in the area’s petroleum resources with the rising tide of nationalism in the area’ with the US using force ‘as a last resort’ to insure that ‘the quantity of oil available from the Near East on reasonable terms is sufficient … to meet Western Europe’s requirements’.11

The more narrow instrumentalist accounts miss out on this transnational aspect of the American states role within the historical development and internationalisation of capitalism and often overlooks this wider component of US hegemony. A more structurally grounded theory of the state thus avoids denuding the American state of political autonomy and allows for the fact that the American state has historically acted not just for specific sectors of American capital but for global capitalism as a whole (even if we are currently living through a highly unilateral phase under the current Bush administration).

End second article————————————

1 James A. Paul, ‘Oil Companies in Iraq: A Century of Rivalry and War’, Global Policy Forum, November 2003.

2 Ralph Miliband, The State in Capitalist Society (New York: basic Books, 1969), p.23.

3 Retort, Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War (London: Verso Books, 2005), pp.38-77.

4 Nicos Poulantzas, Classes in Contemporary Capitalism (New York: Schocken Books, 1978).

5 Leo Panitch & Sam Gindin, ‘Superintending Global Capital’, New Left Review, September / October, 2005, p.102.

6 Perry Anderson, ‘Force and Consent’, New Left Review, September / October, 2002. ; See also Peter Gowan, ‘Triumphing toward International Disaster: The Impasse in American Grand Strategy’, Critical Asian Studies, 2004, 36:1.

7 Andrew Bacevich, American Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), p. 3.

8 Robert Latham, The Liberal Moment: Modernity, Security, and the Making of Postwar International Order (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997).

9 For the most succinct argument for this see Leo Panitch & Sam Gindin, Global Capitalism and American Empire (London Merlin Press, 2004).

10 Lundestad Geir, ‘Empire by Invitation? The United States and Western. Europe, 1945-52’ Journal of Peace Research, 1986, 23:3 ,pp.263-277

11 National Security Council report quoted in Micah L. Sifry, ‘US Intervention in the Middle East: A Case Study’, in Micah L. Sifry & Christopher Cerf, The Gulf War Reader: History, Documents, Opinions (New York: Random House, 1991), p.32.

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