March 11, 2009

Paleo-Marxism

Try to imagine a young educated marxist conscript who had lost his consciousness during the Battle of the Somme, was then cryogenically frozen, and only revived last year. What would be his analysis of the conflicts in the Middle East? To answer this, consider John Spritzler's latest contribution.

To be sure, there is much about Spritzler's analysis that is right. Spritzler writes, and I agree:
One commonly believed explanation is that the "Israel Lobby"--consisting of organizations like AIPAC and a host of other pro-Israel Jewish organizations in the United States--has hijacked U.S. foreign policy by using its wealth and control of the mass media to buy or intimidate Congressmen. According to this view, the American government's pro-Israel foreign policy is harmful to the interests of the non-Jewish American corporate upper class, and were it not for the power of the Israel Lobby American foreign policy, reflecting as it does the interests of the American upper class, would not be as pro-Israel as it is today....I call this the "The Lobby Makes Them Do It" view. I think it is just plain factually wrong.
I share his basic intuition and orientation. To believe that a large number of people who do not represent ruling class interests can be appointed to top government jobs, to key policy making positions in the Pentagon, to the management of institutions such as the World Bank, and more, keep these job for years, make extremely risky policy decisions including launch wars, and get almost blanket support from both political and corporate institutions, is to believe in miracles. An analysis of lobbying for Israel that assumes miracles is at best worthless and at worst a tool of disinformation and control.

Spritzler goes on to point out that the supposed conflict between the supporters of the war in Iraq and Big Oil is a figment of the imagination. That is not exactly true. There was a moment during the occupation of Iraq when a decision needed to be made about how to structure the Iraqi oil authority. This decision pitted many neo-cons against the traditional views of the oil majors, and the neo-conservative position was unsurprisingly dismissed. As Greg Palast writes:
Iraq's system of oil production, after a year of failed free-market exper­imentation, is being re-created almost entirely on the lines orig­inally laid out by Saddam Hus­sein. Even Hussein's Baathist technocrats are back at the helm of the Ministry of Oil and the State Oil Marketing Organiza­tion. Under the quiet direction of U.S. oil company executives working with the State Depart­ment, the Iraqis have discarded the neocon vision of a laissez-faire, privatized oil operation in favor of one shackled to quotas set by OPEC, which have been key to the 121 percent rise in oil prices since the beginning of 2002. (Harper's April 2005)
But that does not disprove the more general point on which I agree with Spritzler. All the neo-cons built their careers advancing corporate interests, including the interests of oil majors; the neo-conservative push for war generally served corporate interests, mostly the Military Industrial Complex (to which Big Oil is wedded), and this is why they were appointed and allowed to carry out their plans. However, when Spritzler tries to explain those strategic interests in war that account for U.S. support for Israel, he produces an analysis that is as much mythical as that which he dismisses.
The ethnic cleansing polarizes the Middle East along non-class lines, fomenting an ethnic war pitting Jews against non-Jews. The American ruling class uses this ethnic war to strengthen its domestic control over ordinary Americans, and to strengthen the control of Middle Eastern ruling elites (kings, mullahs, dictators) over ordinary people in their respective nations. These are the most important strategic objectives of the American ruling class: social control to prevent the spread of pro-democratic, pro-working class, pro-solidarity movements from overthrowing elite rule anywhere in the world.

>Rgarding domestic control of the American population, the key strategy of elite social control has for many decades been to rely on Orwellian wars of social control. The particular "foreign enemy" has changed over time, from Teddy Roosevelt's Spain to Woodrow Wilson's "Huns" to FDR's Fascists to Truman's Communists to Bush's and Obama's Terrorists. By ensuring that the American mass media refrain from telling Americans the true reason (Israel's ethnic cleansing) why Palestinians and Arabs and Muslims take up arms against Israel, the American ruling class ensures that Americans will believe the lie that Palestinians/Arabs/Muslims are hateful, irrational, anti-semitic terrorists who kill decent Israelis "just like us" and would likewise kill Americans if we fail to obey our upper class rulers who protect us from terrorism.
Similarly, the oil-rich Middle East ruling classes, in countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran, use their people's anger at Israel to strengthen their power over them..

The idea that societies and economies as different from each other as Saudi Arabia, Iran and the U.S. can be all decoded with a single, mechanically applied universal key puts the 'vulgar' in "vulgar marxism." Saudi Arabia, for example, no longer even has a domestic "working class." Two thirds of all jobs, including 90% of private sector jobs, are held by foreigners, mostly from South Asia. The Saudi royals cannot use appeals to nationalism to foster "false consciousness" among workers who are not nationals of the Kingdom. Spritzler's analysis ignores the amount of effort Saudi Arabia puts in containing and taming Palestinian nationalism, and the overarching conflict between Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan on the one hand and Hizbullah and Iran on the other. Far from helping Arab regimes contain their people, Palestinian suffering is a lighting rod for opposition parties and anti-government radicals across the Arab world. That explains why Saudi-funded Arab media "pushed the story of the agony of the Palestinian people to the back pages" during the latest assault on Gaza (As'ad Abu-Khalil, January 2007). As for Iran, it takes severe myopia not to notice that the Iranian government, however much it uses nationalism, is not the one primarily responsible for tensions with the West.

Spritzler's take on U.S. history is equally schematic. Sure, foreign enemies, especially those that can be endowed with a domestic "fifth column," are useful for social control, witness the "war on terror" and the "red scare." But U.S. wars are not Orwellian diversions. The U.S. did not fight Japan in WW-II in order to be able to whip up anti-Japanese racism. It fought Japan for control of the Pacific and all the economic benefits that accrued to the winner. Domination strategies are "overdetermined." Of course the war on terror also creates a climate of increased obedience and deference to government power. But the war is also huge business in itself. The Military Industrial Complex is one of the richest, biggest, and most intertwined with government section of U.S. capitalism. Economists have evaluated the cost of war in Iraq for the U.S. at about 3 trillion dollars, not even counting the increases in the regular military budget. These funds, like almost every dollar spent by the government outside of direct transfers, pass through the corporate filter that leaves 20% of it (and probably more giving the unique features of the oil and defense industries, as well as economic multiplier effects) in the bank accounts of the top 1% of U.S. households. Which goal is more immediate and significant, "undermining class solidarity" in a society in which working class militancy is already at its lowest level in history, or 600 billion dollars in profits? How can one analyse the role of war in U.S. politics without taking stock of the size and breadth of the war related industries?

There are two fundamental errors here, both rooted in dogmatic avoidance of facts. First, there is the lack of attention to value, what it is, how it is created, how it is appropriated. It's been a long time since the cotton mill and the coal mine were the core mechanism for capitalist value creation and appropriation. If the West sees relatively little industrial action, this is not because nationalist fervor confuses the masses. It is partly at least because the relations of production have changed. The oil industry is happy to underpay workers when possible. But the oil industry doesn't make significant money by paying wages below the "market value" of oil. It profits rather by charging monopoly prices for oil, and the difference is born eventually by consumers. The oil industry is oligopolistic, and war is one of the key tools for maintaining the oligopoly, keeping excess oil off the market, and beating down potential claimants for a share in the profits (such as economic development in oil producing countries). Likewise, regardless of how much or how little they are paid, Boeing workers are not the prime victims exploited by Boeing Inc. The profits of the war industries are made primarily through governmental extraction from taxpayers, mainly in the U.S., but also in other countries that "consume" U.S. weaponry, and the most victimized are those who live and die in the various war "theaters." In both cases, war is primarily a pathway in the direct creation of value. To be sure, war does not produce any "real" value in the old Marxist sense of the transformation of nature. It produces financial ( i.e. differential) value and its role in the domestic economy is tied to larger processes of financialization. Furthermore, to the extent that war divides workers, it is not primarily in the form of nationalistic confusion. Within existing structures, important sections of workers benefit from war. In many poor regions in the U.S., a military career is a privileged path of social mobility. Weapon manufacturing is one of the last places in the U.S. for skilled industrial labor to earn decent wages. That is one reason U.S. representatives cannot vote for cuts in the war budget. Some of the arguments that make ordinary people support war (e.g. that it is about keeping the oil flowing, or about defending "Western values") are bunk. But unfortunately not all are.

The second fundamental error is confusing materialism with a concept of class that excludes any other segmentation. Materialism implies only that the analysis of power and domination must rest on the material conditions that make our lives, primarily the way we produce our environment, the way we distribute it and of course that environment itself. Materialism excludes the reification of social identities into fundamental essences. It excludes using terms such as "Jews", "Arabs", "Americans," "Islam," "France," and "Israel" etc, as the fundamental layer that energizes antagonism. But materialist analysis doesn't require, indeed is totally undermined, by a concept of class that implies that all other social categories are unreal. The relation between class, ethnicity and other social category is complex and contingent. Sometimes nationality and ethnicity appear as tools for sowing divisions and facilitating domination and sometimes they appear as means for challenging them. Indeed, most often they are both. All social categories, including class, are organizing tools, strategies and domains of struggle through which both domination and resistance takes place. They have to be articulated and analyzed in relation to their changing lived experience and economic relations. Thus, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine does not "polarize the Middle East along non-class lines," as Spritzler claims, as if Palestinian nationalism were a diversion from the real class struggle. On the contrary, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine produced a whole series of overlaid segmentations that are economic, cultural, and national at the same time. It created the Israeli ruling class with defined ethnic and cultural traits, European, Ashkenazi, secular, Jewish, etc. It made possible a Jewish-Israeli working class and petty bourgoisie with historically distinct cultural character, mostly Arab-Jewish, Mizrahi, observant, etc. And it created new classes based on ethnic identity with various levels of exclusion, exploitation and economic specialization: refugees, OPT Palestinians, "Arab Israelis", Druze, etc. These segmentations do not align perfectly. There are dirt poor Jews in Israel and there are Palestinians who made millions out of the occupation. But they do align a lot. Within historic Palestine, the possession of an Israeli citizenship is also a major economic and class marker. Corporate managers in Ramallah can be humiliated in Israeli checkpoints by Ethiopean Jews who earn a pittance and suffer from racism at home. The distinctions between Jews and Palestinians, Western and Arab, Ashkenazi and Mizrahi, Egyptian and Saudi, cannot be argued away by a solid Marxism that will point to the fundamental unity of all working people, because such unity is not an actual economic location but only a horizon of human potential. Jewish low wages earners and Egyptian low wages earners do not in fact occupy the same position vis a viz capital. And radical analysis that ignores that is not very useful.


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