[OPE-L:8531] Main Contradictions behind War on Iraq

From: Hans Ehrbar (ehrbar@econ.utah.edu)
Date: Sat Mar 01 2003 - 13:45:28 EST

This posting is in response to Jerry's question on OPE-L how
critical realism (CR) might help understand the war on Iraq.
I am sending this also to the a-list, because the theory I
came up with theorizes the link between oil and capitalism
differently than Mark Jones does, and to the bhaskar list.

I fully concur with Howard Engelskirchen's account of CR on
OPE-L [8527].  CR and Marxism complement each other.  Critical
realism gives a more explicit reasoning than Marxism why the
method used by Marxists is right.  But CR does not have a
specific analysis of capitalism, for this you need Marxism.

Critical realists might begin as follows: the war, a
concrete event, is the result of many different driving
forces which themselves are invisible.  Social science must
identify these driving forces which are as real as the
events themselves.  In my mind this is very similar to
Marx's "the concrete is concrete because it is the
concentration of many determinations, thus a unity of the
diverse". (Introduction to Grundrisse).  But while Marxists
usually rely on Marx quotes to establish this, CR attempts a
compelling derivation of these results (not given here).

Another result of CR is that the relationship between the
underlying driving forces and the observable events is
tendential.  (Again this is nothing new to Marxism, with its
tendential fall of the rate of profit.)  The world is not
pre-determined but open, events may or may not happen
although the driving forces are still there.  The real world
can therefore harbor contradictions: the underlying driving
forces may pull in opposite directions.  A war is a crisis
which has to be explained dialectically.

A (dialectical) critical realist might therefore look in the
following direction: the world capitalist system suffers
under certain systemic contradictions, which threaten to
erupt in this war, but which exist as contradictions whether
or not this particular war will happen at this particular
time in this particular form.  Again, this is similar to
Marx who for instance says that "in world market crises, all
of the contradictions of bourgeois production erupt
collectively" (Theories of Surplus-Value, chapter 17).

Of course, the form in which this contradiction plays out in
events has to do with the personalities in power in
Washington at the present time.  The primary question is
however: which basic systemic contradictions come to an
outbreak in the Iraq war?  Without this, the second question
cannot be properly answered, because the primary question
defines the environment in which the individuals in
Washington act.  Critical realist social sciences speak of a
hiatus between individual and social levels.  These levels
cannot be reduced to each other, but the social level is
primary, because the social relations pre-exist the
individuals which may fill them.  Again Marx's concept of
"character-masks" and the ability of individuals to rise
above these character-masks is a very similar view.

Many contradictions come to a clash in the Iraq war, but the
main one, in my view, has to do with the declining
hegemonial power of the US.  The US has been the prevailing
capitalist power since the end of World War II, both
economicaly and militarily.  The contradiction is that its
economic hegemony is eroding, while its military hegemony is
more overwhelming than ever.  Why is this a problem?  As
long as military and economic hegemony went hand in hand,
the particular national interests of the USA coincided with
the general interests of the capitalist classes all over the
world.  Therefore the USA could speak softly while carrying
a big stick.  It benefited from the dissolution of the
colonial empires.  It reaped immense special benefits from
its hegemonial position, but it also served the capitalist
system and led the fight against communism.

Nowadays, its economic hegemony is challenged, and it
responds by using its military superiority to prop up its
economic privileges.  In other words, the interests of the
USA deviate more and more from the general interests of the
world capitalist system.  It no longer uses its military
power mainly against socialism, while leaving its relations
with other capitalist nations governed by the dull
compulsion of market forces, but it must attack other
capitalist nations in order to ensure economic benefits
which would no longer be forthcoming by market forces alone.

The Iraq war can therefore be subsumed under Marx's
definition of crisis:  a crisis is the forcible
reconciliation of aspects which belong together but which
have moved apart.  Economic and military hegemony belong
together but have moved their separate ways;  the war
is an attempt to reconcile them, an attempt which is bound
to fail because political power cannot, in the long run,
substitute for economic fundamentals.

The economic privilege which this war is designed to bolster
is the role of the dollar as the world reserve currency.
Since 1945, the national currency of the USA has been
accepted world wide as international money.  Originally,
there was a dollar shortage.  The USA was the only
industrialized economy emerging from World War II intact,
and everyone needed American goods.  This economic
predominance is fading, as can be seen from its trade
deficit.  It still holds in certain areas.  In biotechnology
and arms technology, among others, the USA is still the
undisputed leader.  But in other areas (alternative
energies) the USA is a dinosaur.

The continued acceptance of the dollar has two reasons: (1)
the USA is the overwhelming military power, and (2) the oil
exporting countries have agreed to sell their oil for
dollars, which are then invested back into the US economy.
This link between oil and the dollar is the price which OPEC
had to pay so that its management of the oil prices would be
tolerated.  But with the declining economic hegemony of the
USA the dollar has become less attractive, and this link is
at stake.  Its mainstay is the collusion between the USA and
one of the most reactionary governments on earth, that of
Saudi Arabia.  9/11, carried out by Saudi Arab citizens with
Saudi Arab money, demonstrated how tenuous this link has
become.  Iraq's switch to the Euro in 2000, and the bad
example of Venezuela, where a populist government is trying
to use the oil revenue for the benefit of the masses and
which sells part of its oil in barter deals which cut out
the dollar, are other symptoms indicating that the link
between the dollar and oil is slipping.

In order to maintain world wide acceptance of the dollar,
the USA must demonstrate that it is willing to use its
military power.  From this point of view, war is always a
good investment: it demonstrates to other nations that the
USA is serious with its threat, and will therefore smoothen
the way for US interests for many years to come.

As I said, I consider the contradiction between military and
economic hegemony to be the basic contradiction leading to
the present assault on Iraq.  The USA has truly become a
"loose cannon", its military power is no longer anchored in
the systemic interests of world capitalism.  Other
contradictions are involved in the war as well.  The
contradiction between an economic system which is blind
regarding the use-values produced, and the de-facto
predominance of the use-value oil in modern capitalism,
makes it necessary to secure the access to oil by
non-economic power.  And finally the contradiction between
an economic system which concentrates on one factor of
production only, labor, and which treats nature as a free
resource, comes in conflict with the actual character of the
production process in which labor becomes less and less
important compared to the environmental implications.
(There is a Grundrisse quote about this.)

The long-run interests of the capitalist system require the
weaning from capitalist dependence on oil.  But oil is one of
the mainstays for the role of the dollar as world currency.
The USA must therefore strengthen rather than weaken the
world wide reliance on oil.  In other words, it is leading
the world capitalist system down a blind alley which will
result in serious upheavals when the oil is used up.  This
too undermines the legitimacy of the USA as a world leader.

(This is in contradiction to Mark Jones's basic theory that
capitalism as a system is by necessity based on oil.  If the
above analysis is right, capitalism as a system can do
without oil; but the US cannot maintain its hegemony without

Although I said before that the personalities and styles of
the people involved is a secondary factor, this secondary
factor can have wide-ranging effects as well.  Merely by its
style, the Bush clique has sqandered one of the mainstays of
the hegemonial position of the USA, namely, the goodwill the
USA has enjoyed world wide.  This is imperial overreach: at
the height of their power, the individuals in power are no
longer aware of the presuppositions on which this power is
based, and therefore unwittingly undermine their own power.

As in every crisis, the veneer is broken and the true
ugliness of the underlying system is exposed.

Hans G. Ehrbar

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