Lair Of A Squirrel Red

Historical Materialism Conference 2007 by korakious
November 12, 2007, 12:13 am
Filed under: Historical Materialism Conference, Imperialism, Marxism, Neoliberalism, Rob, Theory
As you probably already know, this weekend was the annual Historical Materialism Conference, which I had the good fortune to attend. Unfortunately I missed Friday’s sessions (prior commitments) which meant I didn’t get to see Zizek (damn, damn, damn, damn) but the rest of the Conference was pretty damn good. The first thing to say is that despite the current poisonous climate on the left (and particularly as between the SWP and everyone else) the atmosphere at the Conference was really good (bearing in mind there was a mix of people from different traditions there), everything felt very comradely (although of course the interventions were occasionally slightly cutting) and everyone seemed to get along well enough. So, as is usual in the old blogosphere I thought I’d give a [not so brief] summation of those sessions which I did attend.


I rolled in a bit late on Saturday, so I missed the first session of the day. Not that I would really have listened to it much. The next session I attended was on ‘Marxism, Pashukanis and the Law’. In this session I actually ‘presented a paper’ on Pashukanis, Legal Nihilism and Legal Strategy, which I will probably put up here at some time (once I’ve cleaned it up a bit – the notes were really only intended for my consumption only). There weren’t too many people here (although there were a few), which was kind of predictable, as law is not a particularly glamorous topic for Marxist analysis. There were two other contributors aside from me – Andreas Harms presented a paper on ‘Commodity Form and Legal Form’ and Bill Bowring presented a paper on ‘International Law, Lenin and Self-Determination’. Both of the papers were of high quality and we got some good discussion in as well. It feels kind of weird summarising this session, so I’ll leave it for the atendees to do so (hopefully some of them blog).

There weren’t any more ‘sessions’ for the day, as it extended into a ‘meet the editors’ session and a lunchbreak, I did have some pretty interesting conversation during this period, so it was all to the good.

The next ‘session’ was a plenary one, featuring some rather big hitters, the talk was on ‘Neo-liberalism and Neo-imperialism’ and the speakers were Alex Callinicos, Robert Brenner and David McNally.

Robert Brenner
The central thrust of Brenner’s argument was the relationship between the war in Iraq and the US’ geopolitical strategy. Brenner argued that the Iraq war was a puzzling phenomenon which represented a real rupture with previous US strategy in content if not form. Brenner argued that during the 2000 election no one would have predicted that the Iraq war would come around in the time that it did. The Republicans seemed to have a fairly low-key foreign policy, certainly not the type of messianism that seemed to characterise them post-9/11. Furthermore, it was argued that the US had fulfilled its three key strategic aims (which it had held since World War 2); these aims were

  1. To freeze and weaken ‘communism’, third world statist nationalism and statism more generally so as to allow the free movement of [US] capital throughout the globe.
  2. Consolidate US hegemony in Japan and Europe – depriving them of their ability to disrupt the framework of international capitalism; key to this aim was depriving them of their military power and compensate them for this by providing them with security.
  3. As a consequence of the above two aims the US intended to implement a neo-liberal agenda throughout the world, with all the consequences thereof

Brenner argued that the US was willing to do this since US capital was so powerful that it didn’t require the formal protection of the US state. So on this reading the US had – according to Brenner – recognised the essential validity of the Leninist critique of imperialism – namely that monopoly-capital imperialist states vying for domination of the world’s resources inevitably culminated in war, which was not conducive to the continued position of the US and global capitalism. To combat this the US entered into a ‘radical Kautskyite’ project of restructuring the global situation as above – the only question was whether the US was disciplined enough to continue enforcing the consensus.

All of this was encapsulated in the term ‘New World Order’ as used by Bush et al. This meant that there was a new approach to the international use of force:

  • Don’t use force unless you can use massive amounts of force
  • Other conflicts should just be ‘policing’ or assymetrical conflict
  • Avoid committing ground troops if you can – use cruise missiles, bombs etc.

All of ths as summarised in a phrase by Madeline Allbright that ‘military force’ but not war should be used (which got a big laugh from the audience, but really the distinction isn’t as ridicoulous as it first, certainly international law tends to distinguish between the use of military force and an armed attack or war). This was basically a neo-liberal form of imperialism and one in which generally states toed the line (the thrid world accepted the neo-liberal consensus the [not yet] axis of evil was going to the table, etc.).

So US policy in Iraq has to be understood in relation to this. It is therefore necessary to view US policy towards Iraq in this context. What the context what seem to suggest is that no US adminstration would really want regime change in Iraq, as this would be internationally counterproductive – it would be costly, destabilising and could whip up Arab resistance across the Middle East. Futhermore, the Shia could not be trusted to serve as a counterweight to Iran. This is why Saddam was not overthrown following the first Gulf War and a policy of ‘containment’ was pursued in relation to Iraq.

Against this backdrop the recent war in Iraq does seem to be a break (and to a lesser extent so does Afghanistan). Brenner’s next task is to explain how this could happen. Brenner traces the strategic rupture to the ascendence of the neo-conservative movement within the American state apparatus and their huge influence within the State Department. It was only with 9/11 that they were able to gain control over foreign policy.

Brenner then gave an internal examination of this movement. According to Brenner the key theoretical position for the neo-conservatives is the ‘fungibility of force’. By this they mean that American military domination can be used to do anything, and the neo-conservatives were interested in ‘harvesting the fruits of military dominance’.

It is then necessary to understand how the neo-conservatives gained this power. Brenner roots the neo-conservative movement in the Republican far-right, who had taken over Congress in 1994. They had always had trouble gaining power and were only able to do so by pushing the foreign policy aspect. Once they had gained power they acted as a ‘Shadow Cabinet’ that pushed Clinton into all sort of things (like passing the Iraq Liberation Act) but they could only achieve limited success and certainly couldn’t impose their domestic agenda. But 9/11 changed all of this and gave the neo-conservatives the pre-text they needed to actualise both their domestic and international agenda.

Brenner’s analysis was pretty damn interesting (he’s also a very good speaker). I quite liked his focus on concrete, ‘micro’ US politics and the way in which they interact with the global sphere, a Gramsci quote seems particularly relevant here:

Do international relations precede or follow (logically) fundamental social relations? There can be no doubt that they follow. Any organic innovation in the social structure, through its technical-military expressions, modifies organically absolute and relative relations in the international field too. Even the geographical position of a national State does not precede but follows (logically) structural changes, although it also reacts back upon them to a certain extent (to the extent precisely to which superstructures react back upon the structure, politics on economics, etc.). However, international relations react both passively and actively on political relations (of hegemony among the parties). The more the immediate economic life of a nation is subordinated to international relations, the more a particular party will come to represent this situation and to exploit it, with the aim of preventing rival parties gaining the upper hand (recall Nitti’s famous speech on the technical impossibility of revolution in Italy).
Gramsci, The Modern Prince

So I actually thought that Brenner’s analysis was a niecly dialectical one, similar in the way that Gramsci presented it. I also see nothing a priori wrong with the ascription of such a decisive role to a ‘subjective’ factors. Especially as these subjective factors are in a dialectical relationship with the objective situation (Lukacs comes immediately to mind on this point). This isn’t to say that I think Brenner is entirely right, but I don’t think we dismiss his analysis out of hand.

Alex Callinicos
Callinicos delivered another pretty awesome speech (you will hear this a lot, because I thought the quality of this session was absolutely stellar, even if the sweltering heat of the lecture theatre left much to be desired!). Alex presented his argument as one diametrically opposed to Brenner’s. He argued that Brenner had only given us description, but no analysis – we can’t just see Iraq as a random event we need a larger perpective and so must look at the historical connection between liberalism and imperialism.

Callinicos noted that the US has always eschewed formal imperialism – and continuously legitimated itself with reference to this. He looks back to the ‘imperialism of the open door’ – in which the role of military power was only to enforce the conditions of a liberal world economy, this of course should not – as a rule – involve the use of ground troops. The predecessor of this type of imperialism was the ‘imperialism of free trade’ practiced by the British Empire in the 19th century and Britain relied heavily on informal empire in Canada and China. The US has a consistent, radical version of this.

Following World War 2 the US dominated the advanced capitalist world and built up a series of institutions, but this liberalism was only ever transnational. After the collapse of the Soviet Union the US was able to convert this transnationalism into global liberalism. This means that for Callinicos there was no fundamental break in the project – and it was one vigorously pursued by the Clinton administration. For Callinicos therefore, Clinton was the true pioneer of the fungibility of military power.

But of course hegemony is always about force and consent, and they are always combined in different ways. The manner in which these methods are combined is what differentiates the neo-cons from Clinton. Thus, for Callinicos this is a matter of quantity not quality there is no rupture. Callinicos further argues that the Bush administration was radicalised post-9/11 and that in this context the neo-cons cannot be considered ‘mad’. He argues that in the face of the increasing threat of China’s economic power a rational argument could certainly be made out for the US using its only comparative advantage in this conjuncture that of military force. Iraq was therefore important because rising captialist powers were dependent on its oil and the US needed to assert this.

The question Callinicos thinks we need to ask is ‘what are the interests of US imperialism’? When we do this we understand that the US ruling class is complex and the best strategy is always a contested question – we have to look at te question of the imposition of ideology on a world scale, and the geo-political is central to this.

All well and good – but I think Brenner responded pretty well by saying ‘we don’t really disagree on much’. I think this is probably the case – all they really disagree is whether there is a qualitative or quantitiative difference between Clinton and Bush (which sounds big but – meh – scales). Brenner just helps us to understand why it is that one side won the argument. But I’d actually go further than this. Callinicos seems to argue two contradictory things. On the one hand he argues that there is no rupture between Clinton and Bush, but on the other hand he seems to argue that China posed a qualitatively new threat to the US. Because of course post-WW2 there has been no capitalist power that posed a threat to the US in the way China has (although I guess the state-cap people would argue the USSR was a rival capitalist power, so maybe change the reference to post-1989?), since every other ‘threat’ was pretty damn friendly to the US, and were happy to allow the US maintain Pax Americana. So, on this reading, Alex seems to be arguing that the emergence of China has disrupted the ‘radical-Kautskyism’ of the US, since it doesn’t accept the US’ managerial role. But surely this would indicate a rupture, in line with Brenner.

David McNally
Although I really liked the first two talks David McNally’s was far and away my favourite (I think much of the audience agreed with this too). In contradistinction to the first two McNally’s position was to start from a general theoretical analysis and proceed from there. So for McNally the central point of depature was that of Marxist value theory. We need to begin from this perspective – so McNally argues – because we live in a world of alienated social relations and theory must de-fetishise them.

McNally’s talk revolved around 5 arguments:

  • Neo-liberalism involves radically extending and intensifying the commodity form
  • This is achieved through ‘monetarising’ more and more aspects of human life
  • This involves the extension of primitive accumulation
  • This occurs on a variety of levels and entails imperialism
  • World money becomes decisive

So McNally’s basic argument is that the phenomenon we call ‘neo-liberalism’ must be understood as the extension of the commodity form – not a conscious project of the capitalist class but a result of the value form itself. It is fundamentally connected to new forms of discipline, and is primarily exercised through the discipline of money – the IMF, the World Bank etc. This leads to a reversal of the partial decommodification of labour.

Dispossession is also fundamental to this (hence the importance of primitive accumulation) because land has to be converted into capital. But since this land is occupied by other people, they have to be turfed off. For this reason there is a nexus of land, violence and dispossession – which gives rise to new enclosures and modalities of class struggle arise against this. Furthermore, ecological disaster is incorporated into this, so disasters which displace people are taken advantage off (Hurricane Mitch was used to get rid of the Honduran indigenous population).

McNally further linked this process to militarisation – war is of course central in ‘clearing out’ areas of land, be that through death or fleeing. All of this has also led to a great rise in the industrial reserve army, which has grown massively as people have been forced out of their land in the process of dispossession.

McNally went on to criticise the approaches of David Harvey and Rosa Luxemborg, who he thinks failed to properly elaborate the ‘laws’ of this economic process – meaning they cannot properly theorise it. Instead they often remain at the level of (very powerful) description. [He also made a really interesting point about dialectics and subjects positing their own presuppositions – but I’ll ignore that]. Further, his problem with Rosa’s approach is that she assumes this form of imperialism requires permanent occupation, which is clearly not the case, as the discipline of money suffices to compel national elites to implement dispossesion.

McNally then went on to focus heavily on what he called ‘world money’. By this he means the currency which serves as the ‘global’ medium for exchange. He argues that there has beeen an intensification of unequal currecny exchange, with the global South losing out on this. But the concept has been under theorised, and it is important, because the state that issues ‘world money’ will get the surplus on exchange, and so can appropriate value. This means that different nation states struggle over who is to issue world money.

McNally argues that this can be illustrated by the Euro project in the European Union, where the states of the European Union have tried to create a currency with all the characteristics of world money. McNally describes this as a form of inter-imperialist rivalry and denies that such rivalry need be militarised.

McNally ended with the argument that we need to emphasise anti-neo-liberalism and anti-imperialism highlight the need for a de-commodification of labour – that is to say the socialist revolution (which earnt him a rousing cheer).

What I really liked about McNally’s talk was the way that he was able to articulate linkages between his theoretical paradigm and our practical trajectory. His analysis does explain rather well a lot of contemporary phenomena in a basic theoretical way, and I think this is to be welcomed.

Ultimately, I think all of these talks worked well, and frankly if we could have combined them all into one big talk it would have been awesome. So David sets the economic-theoretical scene for us, Alex embedded it in a broader historical context and Bob examined the specific way in which ruling classes responded to the broader need for the expansion of value. Each therefore had the merit of contributing to a totalising perspective, and with a little work we could trace the analysis of value directly into Alex’s and Bob’s talk. Of course this is the inherent weakness of the short talk format, but nonetheless I was impressed by this session.

OK, I’ve clearly gone on long enough, so I’ll stop now, and do something else. Tomorrow (maybe?) I want to at least outline the talk on ‘Global Flashpoints’ that was also on Saturday, particualrly as I felt it offered a really interesting perspective on the Palestinian resistance.


2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Thanks a million for this synopsis. It captures what must have been an amazing discussion and conference!
Do you know if there’s any audio for this session?

Paul (Toronto)

Comment by Anonymous

Hello, thanks for the summary.
I was at the conference as well (we even talked i think after that session, as we were one of the few ‘younger generation’ students) and lost my notes on them, so very handy for some revising on imperialism and dispossession.

Comment by Enrique Martino

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