The hidden link between capitalism, social unrest, state violence, and corruption is becoming more and more exposed all over the world. Iraqis do not need to be explained this: George W. Bush is not only killing them on a daily basis, but also privatizing their economy in record time, while giving most contracts to his familyâ€™s and friendsâ€™ companies. Meanwhile, a puppet Iraqi authority, appointed by the USA, provides pseudo-legitimacy, and gets ready for the moment in which the Imperial master decides to leave the country in Iraqi hands.
Needless to say, there is nothing extraordinarily new to this. The end of this story is well known â€“we have seen it over and over again in many other regions. The sequence of US involvement in Iraq reproduces the features and stages of capitalismâ€™s expansion since the nineteenth century, especially (but not only) in Africa and the Middle East:
Stage one: the civilized Empire decides that the barbarians are too brutish to rule themselves and/or are a threat to order and to civilization. From this follows that the Empire has the moral obligation (and, of course, the right) to help/enlighten the natives.
Stage two: through a â€œbenevolentâ€ intervention (usually by military methods), the Empire reorganizes the nativeâ€™s social life. They redraw their territorial arrangements to make them â€œa nationâ€, and impose political and economic institutions in agreement with â€œcivilâ€ life. This involves a) the expansion of market relations and capitalist methods of production, and b) the making of a constitutional order that protects individual rights and establishes the foundations of a representative government.
Stage three: the Empire educates and prepares a native elite, to which government can be trusted. After negotiating the terms of â€œindependenceâ€, the Empire makes a splendid departure. In some cases â€“the examples of Algeria and Vietnam come immediately to oneâ€™s mindâ€“ such an elite was unavailable, in which case the departure was not so glorious. But in most of Africa and the Middle East the terms of independence were more or less â€œnegotiatedâ€ with the collaborative elites.
After stage three, the colonial Empires of the past usually claimed that their mission had been accomplished: the â€œwhite manâ€™s burdenâ€ or â€œmission civilisatriceâ€ had been honored.
In the tricky narrative of capitalist expansion, however, the two stages that often followed this â€œhappy endingâ€ of Imperial intervention belong to a different series, seemingly without connection to the colonial past. In the â€œofficial historyâ€ of civilization, the scenario of social, political and economic instability and dependence that more or less followed colonial intervention throughout the planet is always blamed on the incapacity (or stupidity, or barbarity, or moral shortcomings, or backwardness, you name it) of the natives. So, the sequence continues:
Stage four: in the independent â€œnew nationâ€, the social tensions that invariably come together with market relations and capitalist methods of production in the context of economic underdevelopment and postcolonial exploitation prove too strong. Social unrest, competition between rival elites and other centrifugal forces are impossible to contain by means of constitutional and â€œfreeâ€ political institutions. Anarchy and/or despotic regimes come about. In somewhat â€œeasierâ€ cases or periods, authoritarian and corrupt forms of democracy prevail, periodically shattered by economic and political crises. These scenarios describe more or less the reality of almost every single Third World country during the twentieth century.
Stage five: as the political instability put the geopolitical and/or economic interests of the Empire (and sometimes of their local allies) in jeopardy, the Imperial master makes use of his influence. Unwanted political situations are reverted by a number of different methods: bribes to native politicians, financial support for the opposition, encouragement of coups dâ€™Ã©tat and military regimes, pressure through international institutions (the IMF being the favorite tool), and so on. The long history of US commitment to such practices is well known: suffice it to mention the American support of Nicaraguan contras, the Taliban warriors, Suharto, Mobutu, Pinochet or â€“as recently emergedâ€” the Argentinean dictator Jorge Videla.
Recent developments in Afghanistan and Iraq indicate that a sixth stage might become customary from now on:
Stage six: if all the repertoire of methods informal intervention becomes insufficient to control a certain area, then the Empire may decide that the natives are too brutish to rule themselves and/or are a threat to order and to civilization. From this follows that the Empire has the moral obligationâ€¦ And we are back in stage one.
The history of Iraq displays all six stages: the British â€œinventionâ€ of the country we now call Iraq during the First World War and the setting up of transnational oil companies (stage one and two), was followed by the establishment of a (Western) monarchical constitution and negotiated independence in 1930 (stage three). After the Second World War a long period of political instability and coups dâ€™Ã©tat followed (stage four), accompanied by British and American constant â€œinformalâ€ interventions in defense of oil and geopolitical interests (stage five). One of the factions that the US supported was that of Saddam Hussein, who was later to become their enemy number one. The rest of the story is well known: the first Gulf War of 1991 was followed by direct military occupation of the country in 2003 (stage six/one).
The sequence of Iraqâ€™s past serves to illuminate its most probable future. The US military adventure is now struggling to advance from stage two to stage three, that is, the splendid departure.
Happy endings, however, do not seem to be likely in the case of Iraq. There is a fundamental difference between the British and the present Imperial episodes. Nobody believes in the narrative of progress and civilization any more â€“neither the cynic American politicians, nor the global public opinion or the Iraqis. The utter lack of legitimacy of any pro-Western institutional arrangement, and the evident fact that the new â€œmarketâ€ economy will benefit anybody but the Iraqis, announce a difficult time for the American â€œnation buildersâ€.
In this context, it is hard to imagine a long period of stability between an unlikely splendid departure and the beginning of stages four to five; it is improbable indeed that a (at least formally) democratic political life may be combined with a durable pro-Western orientation. If the US ever finds the right moment for departure (a chance that, by the way, they are desperately longing for), it seems the most obvious scenario for Iraqâ€™s future that the sequence of instability-jeopardizing of Western interests-intervention will overlap all in one.
True, the Empire (be it the US or the UN) may re-initiate the sequence at any time, simply by deciding that the natives are still too brutish to rule themselves. But the whole effectiveness of the â€œcivilizationâ€ narrative collapses if the â€œlearnerâ€ does not seem to be learning at all. Without legitimacy, the Empire will probably be dragged to a permanent low-intensity military intervention â€“just as in the present. In any case, even without Sadam, Iraqâ€™s future looks gloomy in the new world of the permanent global war; but so does the Empireâ€™s.