Tuesday, April 11, 2006

CSE Conference - Selected Highlights

As mentioned below, I went along to a Conference of Socialist Economists... errr... conference last weekend. Thought I might as well squeeze a blog post out of it. I only made scribbled notes I'm afraid, so the following might well be rather fragmentary.

The most interesting session I thought was one in which Prof Paul Rogers and Prof Peter Gowan spoke on the USA's current imperial drive. Paul Rogers provided some fascinating snippets of info. Apparently Rogers spoke in some detail with a number of (unnamed) senior neo-con figures before the war in Iraq. He claims that Iran, rather than Iraq, was regarded as the biggest threat to US interests in the Middle East and that neo-con strategists initially intended the war on Iraq as a kind of stepping stone on the way to Iran. He also argued that the US didn't have the military hardware in position to attack Iraq until early 2003 and so all that UN to-ing and fro-ing in the run up to the war was pretty irrelevant. The US always intended to attack - it just had to wait until the ships, aircraft, tanks and troops were ready.

He argued that the neo-cons calculated that, with the collapse of the USSR, the US had a thirty year 'window of opportunity' to establish strategic control over oil supplies in the ME, before new superpower challengers would emerge - most significantly, China.

Clearly, the neo-cons are still hoping to take advantage of this window of opportunity, although their project has suffered huge setbacks over the past 3 years. Rogers said that he thought that the chances of an attack on Iran are currently 50/50. It's clear, however, that the US could not attack Iran without British assistance. The US military would need access to UK bases in order to launch an effective attack.

Peter Gowan offered an 'interim assessment’ of 'the bid for a New World Order based on American Primacy'. He didn't really say very much that was new and offered a potted version of the theory set out in his (excellent) Global Gamble book, with a couple of updated observations added on. Gowan argues that competition between advanced states of the West has, since the end of the Second World War been contained, to a great extent, within a system of overall US hegemony - 'Pax Americana'. Competition between advanced western states takes the form of a jockeying for position within this hierarchical system of domination. Unlike earlier imperialisms the US empire is a 'non-territorial' one. It is not founded on the direct control of subordinate territories but on a particular kind of statecraft in which the international order is shaped so that sovereign states tend to act in ways that are in keeping with the general interests of the USA. Over the past 50 years or so, the precise configuration of the relationship between the US and its allies/protectorates/subordinates has been significantly altered a number of times. With the ending of the long boom, for example, American administrations in the 70s re-ordered the protectorate system in order to reduce strains on the US economy condititioned by the Bretton Woods financial system. More recently, the ending of the Cold War has necessitated a further re-configuration of Pax Americana. This re-configuration, Gowan argues, is still in process and the Iraq war represented a central part of its strategy to re-order the international state system.

Gowan argues that the collapse of the USSR, although, of course, a welcome development, confronted the US ruling class with a big problem. How could they maintain 'Pax Americana' when the basis for that protectorate system - the external threat of the Warsaw Pact - no longer existed? He argued in his speech that there was a high degree of consensus between the US business class and the political elites that there should be no restructuring of the basic structure of the US state (he calls this a 'momentous non-decision') - it was necessary to retain the enoromous US military-industrial complex, since a great deal of US capital 'clusters' around it. This helped to condition the nature - military - of the process of the restructuring of the US hegemonic domination over allied/rival power centres (Germany, France, Japan etc). The US engaged in a series of actions designed to bind other advanced states to the US and to head off the emergence of rival alliances amongst advanced western powers (and China). Gowan regards the action in Yugoslavia, essentially, as having more to do with the prevention of a hegemonic alliance between Germany, France or Russia and the re-assertion of US comand over NATO
than with the re-shaping of political-military relations with the manifest enemy - in this case, Serbia. He argues that Iraq should be seen in the same light - that US objectives had quite a lot to do with the reshaping of relations between the US and European states and between the US and China and much less to do with the actual threat of Iraq.

Gowan's interim assessment is that US grand strategy is now in a bit of a mess. He pointed to the growing moves towards co-operation between Germany and Russia (first I've heard of it), observed that South Korea was moving out of a US orbit and that Japan, too, was now less securely anchored to the US. So it's not looking good for the neo-cons. Gowan's final point however, was that the neo-con grand strategy was not yet dead - there could well be an attack on Iran - and there is currently no coherent alternative either outside or within the US.

My problem with Gowan's thesis is that it seems rather to 'outward-in' and top-down to me in its presentation of the relationship between the US and its subordinates. In his book, Gowan does argue that the re-shaping of the US hegemonic system is carried out through more than geo-political grand strategic manouevring - he talks about 'globalisation' and financial/trade liberalisation as an essential part of the process. However, it seems to me that there's more to be said here - further to go. I think we should concentrate more on the ways in which subordinate states are actively complicit within this process of re-configuration - they are not simply acted on, as passive dupes. This is why I've got a lot of sympathy for Panitch and Gindin at the moment, who argue (along Poulantzian lines) that the internationalisation of capital and the import of US MNC capital brings changes to the relations of production within the host social formation/state. This makes those economies more reliant on US capital and, thus, makes their states more willing to take on the role of US subordinate. As Poulantzas wrote:

states themselves take charge of the interest of the dominant imperialist capital
in its development within the ‘national’ social formation, i.e. in its complex
relation of internalization to the domestic bourgeoisie that it dominates.
(Poulantzas, 1979: 73).

Or something. Anyway, I put a question along those lines to Gowan and he didn't seem too impressed with the whole Panitch, Gindin, Poulantzas thang.

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