October 29, 2005 – States of War: The Geopolitical Logic of Contemporary Capitalism

Saturday, October 29 / 1PM-5:30PM / Oakes 105

A symposium with Iain Boal, T.J. Clark, Joseph Matthews, and Michael Watts, members of RETORT and authors of Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War (Verso, 2005); Jennifer Whitney, activist/organizer and an editor of We are Everywhere: The Irresistible Rise of Global Anticapitalism (Verso, 2003); Gopal Balakrishnan, New Left Review editor and a Rockefeller Fellow at the Center for Cultural Studies; and Robert Brenner, UCLA historian, political economist, and frequent contributor to New Left Review and Against the Current.

In the final decade of the 20th century, the transition to an international order based on capitalism, elections, and human rights seemed to form a trend-line extending into the far future. The U.S. sought to secure the undisputed hegemony it had won in the struggle against communism by committing its power to the protection and expansion of the zone of globalization. On the peripheries of this volatile circuitry of market forces, tightened neoliberal conditions of access to Western investment, aid, and moral legitimation resulted in a far-reaching attenuation of the sovereignty of weak and failing states. A decade of U.S.-led military harassment and disposal of rogue regimes in the name of human rights appeared to have consigned traditional statecraft to the past. Both the editors of the Economist and the authors of Empire declared that the Great Game of national power politics was an anachronism. Western neo-imperial doctrines and military practices were seen, across the political spectrum, as police enforcement of the rules of a global neoliberal order.

This account of the times has been put to a severe test in the aftermath of 9/11. Should the aggressive “unilateralism” of the U.S. response to this event be seen then as an atavistic regression from the previous norms of neoliberalism? Or, as the authors of Afflicted Powers maintain, is “neoliberalism mutating from an epoch of ‘agreements’ and austerity programs to one of outright war… those periodic waves of capitalist restructurings we call primitive accumulation”? Afflicted Powers is emerging as a singularly important analysis of the contemporary situation, and is attracting worldwide attention. Its view of the role of violence in the history of capitalism draws on both Marx’s and Polanyi’s conception of a coercive enclosure of “the commons”—i.e., the appropriation of myriad forms of common wealth embedded in the non-market environment upon which capitalism feeds. From the colossal privatizations of nationalized industries and public properties to an intensified colonization and patenting of nature, today’s “post-industrial” primitive accumulation leaves in its wake a landscape of gated affluence and burgeoning slums. Is this new round of imperial wars and occupations securing the conditions for the ongoing expansion of capitalism? Alternately, are they the result of the ideological fixations and delusions of military neoliberalism at an impasse?

The authors of Afflicted Powers suggest that there is a problem in conceptualizing the dialectic between war and capitalism under conditions of “the Spectacle.” For the strategic direction of state power in the geopolitical field has become increasingly subject to the performance criteria of televisual construction of social reality. How then should we understand the media-staged event structure of the geopolitical moment that begins with 9/11, pitting America against jihad? Has “the War against Terror” merely been a pretext for implementing the grand strategies of the new American Century? Or have the new Islamic vanguards shaken Empire in the realm of image power, provoking it to reckless overreach? Relatedly, readers are asked to reconsider the meaning of modernity in light of this militarized spectacle war between the U.S. and its Islamic nemesis.

Afflicted Powers challenges central assumptions underlying the discourse of opposition to the invasion of Iraq. Criticizing the slogan “No Blood for Oil,” the authors claim that the project of seizing the oil fields of Iraq cannot be understood in terms of any Malthusian scenario of an imminent exhaustion of world reserves. The alternative explanation they offer opens a window onto the vast force field of global demand, speculation, and war in which oil emerges as a strategic commodity, whose price movements “abound in metaphysical subtleties.” In the past, the U.S. has intervened in the region to stave off periodic threats to this vast petro-dollar circuitry in which imperial supervision and local state formation supervene on the logic of supply and demand. Why, then, did Washington decide to abandon the manageable risks of this status quo ante for the incalculable risks involved in attempting to seize and privatize the oil fields of Iraq?

In this genealogy of the current disaster, the authors address a directly related case in which the norms of realist statecraft have seemingly broken down. Why has U.S. support for Israel gone up in a period in which the latter has become a massive strategic liability, both in terms of its regional strategic interests and its hegemonic credibility? The authors of Afflicted Powers claim that the explanation does not lie with powerful domestic lobbies. Their alternative account underscores an implicit motif running through this work—that dimensions of the world system that have proven difficult to grasp are operative at the interface of state power, capital, and the mediasphere.

The possibility of an effective contemporary politics is at stake. The symposium will open with RETORT authors, who will comment on and extend the analysis of Afflicted Powers. Gopal Balakrishnan and Robert Brenner will offer commentary on Afflicted Powers based upon their own current research on the baffling intersections of geopolitics and capitalism. We expect a lively conversation, joined by members of our community.

Copies of Afflicted Powers are available at discount at the Literary Guillotine (204 Locust St., Santa Cruz, 457.1195). Audience members are encouraged to read the book before the symposium.

This conference is the first of three quarterly events associated with the Center for Cultural Studies’ Other Globalizations project, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.