Fighting the Last War

Issue: 147

Alex Callinicos

A Note on Andreas Bieler and Adam David Morton, “Axis of Evil or Access to Diesel? Spaces of New Imperialism and the Iraq War” (Historical Materialism, 23.2 [2015])

Andreas Bieler and Adam Morton have just published a long and wide ranging article on imperialism.1 Since my own version of the classical Marxist theory of imperialism, along with William Robinson’s theory of transnational capitalism, serves as a counterfoil for their own argument, I thought it might be interesting to offer a few quick comments. (There’s a lot more in the article that I don’t address—for example, discussions of Rosa Luxemburg, Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin.)

1. Andreas’s and Adam’s theoretical critique largely repeats standard criticisms of my provocation that “there is, necessarily, a realist moment in any Marxist analysis of international relations and conjunctures: in other words, any such analysis must take into account the strategies, calculations and interactions of rival political elites in the state system”.2 They also criticise the so-called “two logics” position associated with David Harvey and myself—as I put it, the idea that capitalist imperialism is constituted by the intersection of economic and geopolitical competition.3 Their quotations from my own work rely heavily on passages where I am trying to state what is in common to Harvey and me. It does not address the fullest statement of my position in Imperialism and Global Political Economy, pp73-93.

See in particular the following passage:

The main point of relevance is that, on the strategy being defended here, the state system is treated as a dimension of the capitalist mode of production. Here we see one advantage of conceptualizing imperialism as the intersection of two forms of competition. Harvey’s formula of two logics, capitalistic and territorial, is vulnerable to attack from Weberians and Political Marxists because it implies that the territorial logic (geopolitical competition in my version) is external to capitalism. I don’t think this is Harvey’s intention and it certainly isn’t mine. Economic competition among “many capitals” is constitutive of the capitalist mode of production. My claim is that any development of Marx’s theory on the assumption that the capitalist mode is dominant must introduce, at the appropriate stage in the analysis, a distinct form of competition with its own patterns and goals, as a property of the state system. From this perspective, in a certain way it is misleading to pose the issue in terms of two logics or forms of competition, however necessary this may be when conceptualizing imperialism, since the state system and the interstate conflicts inherent in it are simply one among a multiplicity of determinations that, when correctly conceptualized and ordered, a theory of the capitalist mode must incorporate. But also—and this is important when addressing [Gonzalo] Pozo-Martin’s criticisms, we should recall another feature of Marx’s method as described in §1.1 above, namely that each determination is explained by its placing within this larger theory. Thus any analysis of the state system as such a determination would take into account the entire preceding account of the capitalist mode. Far from reproducing the reified conception of the international to be found in realism, which abstracts states from the social relations and economic structures in which they are embedded, such an analysis would explore the features of a specifically capitalist state system, shaped by class antagonisms, competitive struggles, capital accumulation, crisis-tendencies and social and political movements. Hence Pozo-Martin’s call “to theorize a capitalist geopolitical logic” is not simply consistent with, but required by, this approach.4

2. Andreas’s and Adam’s preferred theoretical position, citing Bertell Ollman’s (or rather F H Bradley’s) “philosophy of internal relations”, is that “the character of capital is considered as a social relation in such a way that, here, the ties between production relations and geopolitics are understood as relations internal to each other” (p100).5 As the preceding quotation makes clear, my own theoretical perspective is provided by an interpretation of Marx’s method in Capital (extensively discussed in my recent book Deciphering Capital). From that viewpoint, determinations that are posited in the theory of the capitalist mode of production are internally related inasmuch as they are determinations of the same articulated totality. More generally, in both Imperialism and Global Political Economy and Deciphering Capital, one of my main aims is to develop and defend an understanding of capital as a nexus of social relations, including the state system. So I see no difference of substance here.

3. Andreas and Adam try to manufacture a difference by asserting that my analysis is “state-centric” and recognises only “national capitals”. But this is not so. Consider, for example, the following passage from Imperialism and Global Political Economy, which is careful to take into account the internationalisation of capital and its implication that state managers are constrained to relate to capitals based outside their territory:

the concept of the interests of capital is itself a somewhat misleading abstraction; as Marx noted, “[c]apital exists and can only exist as many capitals.” The convergence posited by [Fred] Block actually occurs between the interests of the managers of a given state and those of specific constellations of individual capitals particularly concerned with and having leverage over the state in question (a set that is unlikely to be co-extensive with that of the capitals based in the state in question). The result is the formation of specific, institutionalized, and…geographically demarcated nexuses between particular states and particular capitals.6

4. Although my position was never “state-centric”, it has evolved in one respect. Thanks to the work of Lucia Pradella on Marx’s economic manuscripts (and especially the London Notebooks of 1850-53) I now understand much more clearly than I used to that the object of Marx’s entire analysis is the capitalist mode of production understood as a global system; I have tried to take this into account in Deciphering Capital.7 This helps to reinforce one of the guiding assumptions of the International Socialist tradition, namely that the contradiction between capital and wage labour is a global one, transcending national boundaries. But I don’t think that this theoretical clarification undermines my version of the theory of imperialism: thus in Imperialism and Global Political Economy I argue that foreign policy is multiply determined by “domestic class relations”, “interstate relations” and “transnational class relations”.8

5. But where there is a disagreement is when Andreas and Adam affirm:

one has witnessed the emergence of a transnational capitalist class (TCC) meaning that it is no longer possible to simply speak in terms of a rivalry between “German” capital, “French” capital, or “American” capital, etc. Transnational capital, too, relies on the legal and institutional support by states and international institutions of global governance, but different fractions of capital are no longer defined by their particular relationship to a specific state (p105).

There is very little supporting argument for this assertion: the elementary fact that FDI (foreign direct investment) sometimes represents the internationalisation of production and not merely financial flows proves nothing. More seriously, no criteria are offered for differentiating the TCC from other fractions of capital.

6. The latter failure is particularly serious because the article concludes in a lengthy interpretation of the US invasion of Iraq based on a supposed conflict between “globalist” and “nationalist” capital fractions in the US. These fractions aren’t well differentiated. We are told nothing about the economic base of the “globalist” fraction beyond a vague reference to “‘non-military transnational capital’ representing the interests of the TCC” (p115) (who were presumably anti-war? It would be nice to have some examples). There’s a bit more clarity about “the nationalist wing of the US elite which retained firm roots within the military-industrial complex (MIC)” (p117). But then we’re told of “the struggle between globalist and nationalist fractions both within the MIC and the extended military-industrial-academic complex” (p118; italics added). This seems more plausible, since it presents the US state and its academic and industrial extensions as a terrain in which debates over policy and strategy develop, but it undermines any tight linkage between economic sectors and positions in these debates.

Furthermore, I don’t see very much in the way of new research here—essentially Andreas and Adam repeat the very problematic argument of Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine that wars and other disasters are manufactured because they are functional to some US corporations.9 So they write: “it was the nationalist fraction of capital which was shaping and constituting the strategy of bomb & build in Iraq, or the linkage of militarism and reconstruction of the built environment to stave off capitalist crisis” (p122). They also state, correctly, that for the US Iraq’s “oil reserves were not seen primarily as an economic prize, but rather as a political, strategic asset” (p118). This is of course a central theme of both Harvey’s and my explanations of the war, which are the object of criticism early on in the article. Andreas and Adam never explain how their adoption of this argument sits with their endorsement of Klein’s much more economistic explanation.

But even if the “bomb & build” theory worked as an explanation of the Iraq War, which is doubtful, of what relevance is it to the contemporary conjuncture? The concluding sentence suggests that it is meant to be: “it is through new imperialist interventions in Iraq and, perhaps, elsewhere (Afghanistan, or Libya) that one can witness the spatial ordering of the built environment through militarism and other mechanisms of finance linked to specific fractions within the US state form and thus the policy of bomb & build on a world scale” (p124).

The briefest reflection comes up with some obvious objections to this:

    Why is it that it is the Pentagon that is resisting pressure from the (ideologically “globalist”) State Department to up the level of military intervention in the Middle East?10

    Given the scale of the problems of overaccumulation and profitability faced by global capitalism, what difference would a few Middle Eastern construction projects (in Afghanistan or Libya? are you kidding?) make? Michael Roberts in an article in the summer issue of International Socialism indicates the scale of overaccumulation: for example, global debt has increased by $57 trillion since 2007 to almost $200 trillion, 286 percent of world GDP.11

    How is “bomb & build imperialism” relevant to the actual geopolitical conflicts the US is currently engaged in—with Russia over Ukraine and potentially (and much more seriously) with China in the Pacific?

7. Overall, the article strikes me as an attempt to fight the last war. This is true theoretically—the hackneyed attacks on the “realist moment” etc—and also in the attempt to generalise from a problematic analysis of the Iraq invasion. This is disappointing since one would have thought that Andreas’s and Adam’s overall theoretical framework would well equip them to understand the real driving forces of contemporary geopolitics in global processes of capitalist accumulation and the spatial displacements they produce. As Harvey and I argued at the time, these formed the background to the Iraq War. They 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. I’ve tried to address the problems of imperialism today in a recent article.12


1: Bieler and Morton, 2015. References in the text are to this article.

2: Callinicos, 2007, p542.

3: Harvey, 2003, and Callinicos, 2003.

4: Callinicos, 2009, p83. Those interested in this debate should consult Anievas, 2010, and especially Callinicos and Rosenberg, 2008.

5: Ollman, 1971, Part I and Appendix.

6: Callinicos, 2009, pp87-88.

7: Pradella, 2010, 2013 and 2015, and Callinicos, 2014, chapter 7.

8: Callinicos, 2009, p97.

9: Klein 2007; for a critique, see Davidson, 2009.

10: See, for example, Jaffe and Ryan, 2015.

11: Roberts, 2015.

12: Callinicos, 2014b.


Alex Anievas, ed, 2010, Marxism and World Politics (Routledge).

Bieler, Andreas , and Adam David Morton, 2015, “Axis of Evil or Access to Diesel? Spaces of New Imperialism and the Iraq War”, Historical Materialism, volume 23, issue 2.

Callinicos, Alex, 2003, The New Mandarins of American Power: The Bush Administration’s Plans for the World (Polity).

Callinicos, Alex, 2007, “Does Capitalism Need the State System?” Cambridge Review of International Affairs, volume 20, issue 4.

Callinicos, Alex, 2009, Imperialism and Global Political Economy (Polity).

Callinicos, Alex, 2014a, Deciphering Capital: Marx’s Capital and Its Destiny (Bookmarks).

Callinicos, Alex, 2014b, “The Multiple Crises of Imperialism”, International Socialism 144 (autumn),

Callinicos, Alex, and Justin Rosenberg, 2008, “Uneven and Combined Development: The Social-Relational Substratum of ‘the International’? An Exchange of Letters”, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, volume 21, number 1.

Davidson, Neil, 2009, “Shock and Awe”, International Socialism 124 (autumn),

Harvey, David, 2003, The New Imperialism (Oxford University Press).

Jaffe, Greg, and Missy Ryan, 2015, “In White House’s Iraq Debate, Military Brass Pushed for Doing Less”, Washington Post (13 June),

Klein, Naomi, 2007, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (Penguin).

Ollman, Bertell, 1971, Alienation: Marx’s Conception of Man in Capitalist Society (Cambridge University Press).

Pradella, Lucia, 2010, L’Attualità del Capitale: Accumulazione e Impoviremto nel Capitalismo Globale (Poligrapho).

Pradella, Lucia, 2013, “Imperialism and Capitalist Development in Marx’s Capital”, Historical Materialism, volume 21, issue 2.

Pradella, Lucia, 2015, Globalisation and the Critique of Political Economy: New Insights from Marx’s Writings (Routledge).

Roberts, Michael, 2015, “The Global Crawl Continues”, International Socialism 147 (summer),