Issue: 147

Adam David Morton

A reply to Alex Callinicos: “Fighting the Last War”

Both Andreas Bieler and me want to thank Alex Callinicos for his engagement and reply “Fighting the Last War” to our article, “Axis of Evil or Access to Diesel?: Spaces of New Imperialism and the Iraq War” published in Historical Materialism. Despite some of the language of his assessment—that we produce standard criticisms, repeat hackneyed attacks, offer little new research—we welcome this opportunity to debate some of our ideas further and with an attempt at avoiding ad hominem reasoning.

Our HM article is the culmination of a series of pieces endeavouring to work through the spatial relationships linked to the accumulation of capital and its geographical extension through war and crisis. In addition to the piece that has attracted Alex’s attention there is our jointly authored piece on the contemporary relevance of Rosa Luxemburg published in Journal of International Relations and Development (2014) and a more detailed joint engagement with transnational state theory and other Marxist arguments published in Journal of Australian Political Economy (2013/14). The latter, specifically, is wide-ranging and offers more detail on our dissatisfaction with Alex Callinicos’s state-centric analysis of geopolitical competition. We mention these pieces as they are all cited in our Historical Materialism article and develop a long-held position, articulated on panels alongside Alex Callinicos at the annual Historical Materialism conferences, that his theory of “the sword of Leviathan” in shaping capitalism has been tried and found wonting.

This is because although it may not be his intention to imply the separation of a territorial (or geopolitical) logic external to capitalism this is nevertheless the result. Rather than referencing a publication produced subsequent to the completion of our HM article, as is the case of Alex’s constant referencing to his Deciphering Capital, we therefore offer the courtesy of referring the reader to our previous (and openly accessible) statement in JAPE. There one finds a summary of Alex’s assessment of US imperialism, from The New Mandarins of American Power and his wider work, which follows four key moments to focus on: 1) the historical ability of the US to establish hegemony over the Americas through military dominance; 2) the role played by the structure of American capitalism based on the vertical organisation of TNCs; 3) the fact that this was supported post-1945 by running a large balance of payments surplus allowing the US to export capital on a vast scale; and 4) that this was backed up by military supremacy evidenced by a permanent arms economy.

But, as we argue in the JAPE article, note the beat that accompanies this tune to US imperialism: there are two separate, syncopated, rather than synchronous rhythms: military; economic; economic; military. So, no matter how much Alex tries to affirm that there is no difference in substance to our philosophy of internal relations—drawn from Bertell Ollman—in assessing the geopolitics of capitalism, we would strongly disagree. To repeat our position, there is a hypostatisation of capitalism and geopolitics in Alex’s account of imperialism, that conceives such “logics” as always-already separate and then combined. Alex Callinicos makes constant recourse to the “common” stance that he shares with David Harvey on the geopolitics of capitalism. But we would raise here two concerns with this association. First, David Harvey is much more explicit in highlighting a philosophy of internal relations in shaping his theory of history. Witness David Harvey’s wide discussion in Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference and his clear statement that, “any recourse to a philosophy of dialectics or internal relations leads, either explicitly or implicitly, to a relational view on space and time”. This is not leaving matters to the whim of chance intention but is directly present in the dance of the dialectic according to David Harvey and Bertell Ollman. This essential feature of historical materialism is missing in the syncopated steps that Alex Callinicos takes to dance, separately, with geopolitics and global capitalism. Second, we find David Harvey’s account of the historical geography of capitalism and the search for a spatial fix to imperialism more convincing.

What we develop through an account of “bomb & build imperialism” is an attempt to assess the Iraq War as an instance of capitalist development caught between the contradictions of war destroying past capital investments in the built environment and opening up fresh room for accumulation through the creation of new built environments in the service of capitalism. We do so by drawing from Rosa Luxemburg and David Harvey, among others, as well as elements from contemporary commentators not reducible to figures such as Naomi Klein. That we do so from an historical point of view in relation to the imperialist intervention in Iraq—by “fighting the last war”—is deliberate. Cut from our final draft of the article (due to peer reviewers’ feedback) was a substantiation of this historical sociological focus. In order to unravel the dynamics of the geopolitics of global capitalism we consciously adopted the historical method of “postholing”, advocated by Richard Sennett in The Fall of Public Man. A postholing method tries to depict the sweep of historical forces and at the same time some of the richness of detail which comes from delving into a specific moment. This method invites theory about why historical change occurs and demands a theoretical perspective on history beyond explanations of immediate contingencies or sheer chance. We feel we have delivered on that ambition.

One key difference between Alex Callinicos and us is clearly our different conceptualisation of globalisation. While we disagree with William Robinson’s notion of an emerging transnational state, we too argue that globalisation constitutes a new epoch within capitalism, characterised by an increasing transnationalisation of production and the emergence of transnational capital as a key, if not dominant class fraction. Our conceptualisation is not simply based on FDI levels, as Alex Callinicos suggests, but a rather more developed argument about how contemporary capitalist accumulation dynamics have given rise to a hierarchically structured, interlocking system of TNCs, which is at the heart of how large parts of production are nowadays organised across borders. Rather than analysing international relations as moments of co-operation and competition between different states, expressing the various interests of separate national capitalist classes, our emphasis (in line with the philosophy of internal relations) is on class struggles within and across national state forms over the extent to which the interests of transnational capital are being internalised within specific state forms. Hence our focus on class struggle within the US form of state over the war on Iraq between national and transnational class fractions, overcoming Alex Callinicos’ syncopated steps of analysis.

It remains to be seen how our argument would extend to alternative contexts, whether that be Libya or Afghanistan, as we allude in the conclusion to our article in Historical Materialism. What we refrain from delivering is a general or universally valid approach to imperialism transcending history appropriate to all times and places. Of interest, though, is the reported statistics from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), that during the time of our writing the US defence budget had risen from $312 billion (2000) to $712 billion (2011). While austerity politics witnessed a slight drop in military procurement, the leading company in the world to profit the most from war, Lockheed Martin, increased its arm sales to $36.3 billion in 2011 from $35.7 billion in 2010. Ever greater pools of surplus capital that cannot be absorbed (resulting in overaccumulation) will be seeking a “spatial fix” in order to temporarily overcome crisis conditions. These can come through policies of “bomb”, or wars as constitutive moments in the dynamics of accumulation, as well as “build”, or further investment in fixed capital linked to the built environment, something that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has been securing through an intertwined geopolitical economy development strategy, as Jamey Essex recounts. The Iraq War was one instance, or countervailing tendency, to offer temporary relief, or a spatial fix, from the problems associated with the overaccumulation of capital.

What is least convincing is to read off from these contradictions a state-centric analysis of imperialism. It was Nikolai Bukharin in his Imperialism and World Economy that argued that “the state apparatus has always served as a tool in the hands of the ruling classes of its country” and that, “the state becomes more than ever before an ‘executive committee of the ruling classes'”. Alex Callinicos’s latest statement in his reply to our article is that the real driving forces of contemporary geopolitics in global processes of capitalist accumulation “are now most visible in East Asia, at once the most dynamic zone of global capitalism and (in consequence) increasingly a cockpit of interstate rivalries”. We do not share this collapse into state-centrism.

To sum up, Alex charges us with an “attempt to generalise from a problematic analysis of the Iraq invasion”. But there is a difference between the problematic of generalising and problematic analysis. We find it problematic to generalise on the basis of a state-centric account of geopolitical competition from Iraq to East Asia. We do not find that the specificity of our argument about bomb & build imperialism in relation to the Iraq War delivers problematic analysis.

This article originally appeared on the Progress in Political Economy website: