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Monday, November 25, 2019

Is It All about the Oil?

“It’s all about the oil” has been a persistent refrain in response to US Middle East policy for as long as one can remember. Certainly there is much truth in this statement. Since the energy transition from coal to oil and its derivatives, leading imperialist powers have sought to dominate or control global oil resources. And the center of global oil extraction, especially for the US and other powerful capitalist countries, has remained in the Middle East and its periphery. 

When the navy of the then-dominant British Empire shifted from coal-fired, steam-driven warships to dependence on oil, the Middle East became the strategic service station for imperial reach. Accordingly, the status and fate of people, nations, and states in the Middle East became inextricably bound to the interests and the will of the greatest imperial powers. 

After World War I, the British and French hacked and hewed the Middle East into “protectorates” beneficial to their own economic interests. The US, self-sufficient in oil resources, was pushed to the margin-- left to explore the vast underpopulated deserts of the Arabian peninsula. 
Of course the vast expanses of the Arabian peninsula turned out to be the source of vast and cheap oil and natural gas. The Arabian-American Oil Company (ARAMCO) proved providential when US domestic energy reserves began to decline.

As the dominant imperialist power after World War II, the constabulary for the capitalist world, the US took on the task of guaranteeing that oil would be safe and within reach throughout the capitalist world and outside the reach of its Cold War foes and their allies. This necessitated a powerful and agile military. Since oil and gas are transported by sea and pipeline, the US military was ensconced in bases globally, and the US enlisted heavily armed deputies at key positions in the midst of energy-rich areas (pre-revolutionary Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, etc.). 

The US (and its closest, most trusted NATO allies) did not serve as a global gendarmerie for free; rather, they extracted a tribute from the oil-producing countries and their peoples. With colonial fetters rapidly breaking after World War II, imperialism established new modes of dominance over the world’s raw materials, including energy resources. Neo-colonial relations replaced total dominance with economic dominance. Despite nominal political self-rule, resource-rich “independent” countries were still the captive of US corporations and their European counterparts. US and European corporations “participated” in the development and ownership of gas and oil resources.  

Because oil and gas are so central to modern economies, imperialist powers display a keen interest in ensuring low, stable prices. Thus, the US and other imperialist countries have invested heavily in oil and gas extraction throughout the world, while installing, when necessary, friendly governments in resource-rich countries. 

Of course even the most empire-friendly governments have sought more of the fruits of resource extraction from their lands. Saudi potentates, among others, have restructured deals, formed production alliances (e.g., OPEC), and exerted their power over global supplies for political purposes. Notably, OPEC producers punished Western countries for their support of Israel with an oil embargo in 1973. 

The 1973 oil embargo proved to be a turning point for imperialism’s relations with the oil-producing states of the Middle East. Differences within imperialism restrained the considered US use of military power to “...forcibly seize Middle Eastern oilfields in late 1973.” Taking advantage of these differences, the Saudis and other countries were emboldened to nationalize their industries and command a measure of independence from Western imperialism. In some cases, the dramatic increase in oil dollars flowing into the oil-producing states’ coffers led to equally dramatic improvements in the lives of citizens (Libya, for example). In other cases, oil dollars only enriched the elites. And, in the case of the Saudis, the enormous bounty of oil-revenue went to promote Wahhabism and an ultra-conservative sectarianism against progressive and radical secular movements in the Middle East and elsewhere.
The US and Israel were successful in channeling Saudi money and resources in support of their own foreign policy objectives, notably by marginalizing, even combatting non-sectarian Arab nationalism, socialism, and anti-imperialism in Palestine, Afghanistan, and many other states. From the rise of Nasserism until today, imperialism and the most reactionary Islamic conservatism have used sectarianism to counter, even destroy, progressive movements. Oil money has subsidized that effort. 

Since the victory over imperialism and sectarianism in Syria, we are beginning to see the encouraging rise of class-oriented, non-sectarian struggles in other countries like Sudan, Lebanon, and Iraq. The setbacks to Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies in Yemen have also paved the way for a higher, more advanced level of struggle with less of the pernicious confusion of tribal and sectarian division. While there is always a danger of imperialism using the new militancy for its own purposes, it is operating from a weakened position.

US Oil Imperialism Today

“I always said, if you are going in, keep the oil.” -- Donald Trump

Commentators were abashed by Trump’s audacity when he linked involvement in Syria with expropriating Syrian oil. Most were embarrassed that Trump publicly exposed that oil thievery so easily ties in with US foreign policy goals. They preferred to mask US objectives behind an almost comical alarm that ISIS would rise again without US presence. This thin excuse stood in sharp contrast to the fact that the entire US military engagement combating ISIS was through air power.

So, is the US meddling in Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Libya, and other countries to steal, secure, or expropriate energy sources? Are these instances of the century-old imperialist plunder of global energy sources?

Certainly US imperialism and its allies continue to serve monopoly capitalist concerns in their quest to exploit global resources. But that is not the entire story today. 

Thanks to the fracking, shale oil revolution, the US is also an intense competitor with global energy producers. This is a new twist that is now shaping US imperialist policy, moving it in other directions. With the US today exceeding the oil and gas production of all other countries, it is less committed to securing, commandeering, protecting, or exploiting global energy resources and more directed toward garnering a greater market share of worldwide sales. 

The war-- and it is war-- for more markets for US energy supplies favors the US when other suppliers are threatened, made less reliable, or more costly by wars, political upheavals, or other causes of chaos. Where US post-war, Cold War oil politics were directed toward stability, low, constant prices, and secure transit, the US benefits today from global instability, volatile prices, dangerous sea routes, and thwarting pipeline infrastructure.

The endless US wars, the stirring of big-power hostility, saber-rattling in sea lanes, blatant military action against stable energy-producing states, and inflated threats of terrorism and banditry all contribute to favoring energy supplies from a politically and economically stable state with the most powerful and far-reaching military in history-- the US.

It is important to place US-induced chaos in the perspective of no real, existing imminent threat from any major power or from so-called “terrorism.” Nearly all of the global chaos is simply manufactured and sustained by imperialism.

US determination to reign over energy markets was decisive in warding off the Saudi price attack of 2014. With production costs half or less of those for US shale, the Saudis, through both calculated collective inaction and overproduction, drove the price of oil down from historic highs, hoping to cripple the vastly expanding US shale market. Saddled with debt piled up from exploration and the high initial costs of rigs, the emerging US shale industry struggled in the face of collapsing prices. But Wall Street came smartly and decisively to the rescue; the loans are only beginning to be called in today. 

With oil-producing Libya a failed state, with oil-producing Iran expelled from commerce, with the Persian Gulf becoming a war zone, with oil-producing Venezuela sanctioned from markets, with Boko Haram disrupting Nigerian oil production, with giant oil-producing Russia forced into a new Cold War, with the Saudis about to sell chunks of ARAMCO to US and other capitalist investors, and now with Donald Trump keeping Syrian oil out of global markets, the US is busy hustling its oil as the most reliable and readily available. 

The same could be said for the US efforts to expand its markets for liquified natural gas. The manic desire to depict Russia as an existential threat looming on the borders of Eastern and Central Europe is meant to stigmatize Russia as a dangerous partner and undermine its standing as the chief supplier of inexpensive, pipeline-supplied natural gas to Europe. Accordingly, the US hopes to kick open the door to that market by establishing LNG terminals in the most anti-Russian states. Similarly, the chaos in the Straits of Hormuz and Iran-bashing have cast a shadow over the reliability of the US’s biggest LNG competitors: the vast Iranian and Qatar gas fields.

In this competition for global energy markets, the US relies upon economic sanctions as its weapon of choice, especially shutting down trade activity of its energy rivals.

Where imposing stability on a capitalist world dependent upon energy imports was the former goal of US imperialism, overproduction of energy from revolutionary technologies has set new goals. Because the US lusts after the traditional markets for oil and natural gas, US imperialism is content to live with, to even foster global instability. It is no accident that endless destructive wars, global hotspots, threats, and hostilities are features of the twenty-first century. 

Bolstering energy exports and arms sales makes the US the biggest troublemaker in a volatile, ultra-competitive capitalist world. 

US energy imperialism makes an already unstable world even more dangerous.

Greg Godels

Friday, November 1, 2019

Thirty Years of a Bogus “Liberation”

It is only fitting that Timothy Garton Ash would write an homage for the 30th anniversary of the so-called Velvet Revolution of the once-called Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. It is equally fitting that he publish his tribute in the most prominent US periodical of liberal anti-Communism, The New York Review of Books. Ash, born and educated from privilege, contrived a career by demonizing the post-war socialist governments of Central and Eastern Europe. 

One would, therefore, expect him to gush over the events-- the counter-revolutions-- that restored Central and Eastern Europe into the hands of the capitalists. One would anticipate a regurgitation of the evils of Communism and the yearnings of the enslaved for the freedom and prosperity of the West.

Yes, we get some of that, but more interestingly, Ash whines over the fate of the various anti-Communist “revolutions.” Indeed, he wonders aloud if it is “Time for a New Liberation?” It is hard to please the doyen of the capitalist restoration academy. Perhaps matters didn’t proceed as swimmingly as he had hoped.

Ash centers his essay around a series of cafe, restaurant, coffee shop, etc. meetings with vintage Eastern European counter-revolutionaries and their youthful counterparts of today, protesters of the current state of affairs in Central and Eastern Europe. 

For example, Ash finds himself in a Budapest bar musing with a once-dissident over the rise of Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister. Orbán was once a darling of the counter-revolutionaries. In fact, Ash’s companion had introduced him thirty years earlier, commending “...him as a shining light of a new, young, liberal generation,” a man who “...studied on a scholarship funded by George Soros at Oxford University and in 1989 was an electrifying speaker at the ceremonial reburying of Nagy” [Nagy was a leader of the attempted 1956 counter-revolution in Hungary]. He is now “...systematically dismantling liberal democracy inside a member state of the European Union.”

But today, states Ash with high drama, “the question that forces itself onto dismayed lips is ‘What went wrong?’”

Ash concedes the supposed lust for “freedom to work, study, and settle down in other European countries” resulted in mass emigration. In less than 30 years, twenty-seven per cent of Latvians left their country; nearly twenty-one per cent of the population vacated Bulgaria. And Ash states, without a hint of irony, that emigration from post-socialist Eastern Germany resumed at the same pace as before the construction of the wall. Today, he points out, the population of Eastern Germany is down to the level of 1905.

Obviously, the philosophers enthusiastically advocating the replacement of supposed “totalitarianism” with Western values had no understanding of the totalitarianism of capitalist markets, especially labor markets. They thought that well trained and educated Easterners, enjoying the generous fruits of socialism, would be somehow bound by their national roots. The liberals of Central and Eastern Europe had no deeper grasp of the economic consequences of cross-border traffic generated by the imperatives of deprivation, oppression, or simply naked self-interest as do today’s liberals of Western Europe and the US. They see emigration and immigration solely as political expediencies without acknowledging their powerful effects upon national economies both depopulated and flooded with new arrivals.

Despite the profound effects of depopulation on national economies, the stagnation that follows emigration, Garton Ash prefers to address the political controversies of immigration to Central and Eastern Europe. Without acknowledging a class dimension to immigration, without suggesting that migrants might work for less, compete in a zero-sum game for entry-level employment under a capitalist regime, he simply dismisses all hesitancy about immigration as ignorant xenophobia. 

It is one thing to characterize the opportunistic manipulation of bourgeois politicians as racist, rabidly nationalistic, but quite another to paint a fearful, weak, and insecure population as fatally infected with these diseases.

But this is the only recourse available to Ash and his fellow Cold War liberal democrats. It is easy to overlook that in the formerly socialist countries the growing sentiments that he abhors were banished from the schools, publicly condemned, even illegal. It is easy to forget that broadly supported solidarity landed thousands of exiles from Chile and other South American countries, South Africa and other African countries, and refugees from many other lands into the socialist countries. Tens of thousands of youth from around the world were educated for free in these countries and mass public campaigns were mounted in support of internationalism, anti-racism, unity, and peace. Surely these efforts count against blaming the rise of racism and xenophobia on the socialist past. 

So why have these countries moved in an illiberal direction? Why have they failed to reach the promised land of bourgeois tolerance and harmony?

Ash opines: “The origin of many pathologies that Central Europe exhibits thirty years on can be traced back to the ways in which different countries tried to (re)create the private property, and capital, indispensable to a market economy… Restitution-- giving property back to its former owners-- was slow, complicated, and could not address what had been built over forty years of communist rule… At its worst, privatization created a new class of hugely influential post-communist ‘oligarchs’ or robber barons.”

Fair enough.

But only a naïf could believe that privatization would not bring an accumulation of wealth and capital in fewer hands in a relatively short period of time. Only a sheltered academic could entertain a transition to capitalism that would not be accompanied by an explosion of wealth and income inequality, including the rise of “robber barons.” But this is the tonic that Central and Eastern European intellectuals and their Western counterparts sold to a population never exposed to the voracious appetite of the market economy. The concentration of private wealth flows inexorably from private ownership! How could the Ashes, the Wałęsas, the Havels, and their fellow “revolutionaries” not know this!

Jacek Kuroń is one of Ash’s heroes (often called the Havel of Poland). As Ash recounts, in 1989-1990, he “was among the most eloquent defenders of a sharp, ‘shock therapy’ transition to a market economy… he patiently explained to laid-off workers and worried wives why this was necessary… [Later] he bitterly regretted his role as the social democratic salesman of the tough free market reforms.”

Despite the enormous pain inflicted purposely on a generation, Kuroń offered little relief for the suffering. Ash quotes him from 1995:

The real social divide in Poland today is the divide between those who have managed to adapt to the new reality, and are coping, and those who don’t understand it and feel themselves pushed away, rejected by the market economy and democracy. I continue to insist that it is possible to offer something to the rejected ones.

Offer something-- a token-- to the “rejected ones”? Not a divide between the “haves” and “have-nots,” but a division produced by a failure to cope with rapacious capitalism? A flaw in the motivation of the victims?

The callousness of these statements is remarkable, the explicit elitism embarrassing. 

Ash quotes Polish workers, also in 1995, complaining: “We workers started it… but now we are paying the heaviest price.” Indeed, they are paying the price for embracing a vacuous Western concept of democracy dogmatically and artificially attached to the acceptance of capitalism and also for becoming a pawn in the Cold War.

From his many personal interactions with those unhappy with the course of the “revolutions,” Ash offers sources of the discontent. Apart from economic inequality, dissidents disdain “liberalism”-- “the social consequences of free market economics.” Both left and right students embrace the slogan: “There’s no solidarity in liberty;” solidarity went out the window with the fall of socialism.

There is a strong backlash against the elitism of intellectuals and the urban “salon” society. Like in most capitalist countries, the explosive growth in inequality brings condescension toward the ‘losers.’

Ash cites polls suggesting that Central and Eastern Europe do not identify with the ‘West,’ especially since the 2007-2009 crisis of global capitalism. He notes that Orbán and other leaders find more to admire in “Singapore, China, Russia, and Turkey” than their Western counterparts.

For Ash, the “powerful forces of inertia, corruption, and reaction” plaguing Central and Eastern Europe require ”a great reform,” “a profound renewal of liberal institutions and practices.” For this, they need “the party, the program, the leaders to win the next election.”

Surely, this is a facile answer from one who promised a veritable liberal paradise to the millions coaxed into allowing the security and equality of socialism to slip away. Liberal social scientists, theorists, and politicians would like us to forget that nearly all of Central and Eastern Europe was ruled by quasi-fascist, clerical-fascist, military fascist, or fascist regimes before World War II (Czechoslovakia, the country with a functional bourgeois democracy, was dissolved by the “Velvet Revolution”). Their first liberation after World War II brought these countries an escape from poverty, economic backwardness, and the rule of the iron fist. Despite the Cold War rhetoric spewing from the West, socialism brought rising living standards, a sturdy safety net, education, housing, cultural development, relative economic and gender equality, and more democratic institutions and stability than they had ever enjoyed. 

But Cold Warriors could not concede those gains. They held out a promise to the East of liberties and freedoms that elite minorities in the West embrace and enjoy, but without explaining that they were economically out of the reach of the less privileged majority. Travel, leisure, luxury were certainly available in the West, but only for those who had the money. Of course you wouldn’t know that from Western television, cinema, or other media-- an enormous propaganda blitz-- directed Eastward.

The second “liberation” brought these freedoms and liberties to the East, but with the same unspoken restraints. Thirty years later, disappointment reigns. Frustration with the fruits of a capitalist economy abounds.

To Timothy Garton Ash’s credit, he exposes these disappointments and frustrations. To his shame, he was one of the Cold Warriors who sold the fraud of a new liberation. 

Greg Godels