Oil and War  




The U.S. war against Iraq demonstrates the complete brutality and violence of capitalism in its expansionist drive for profit.

Since 1991, the United States and Britain have led a relentless assault on the people of Iraq, using an economic blockade to deny food, medicine and other resources to the Iraqi people that, along with an endless bombing campaign over two-thirds of the country, has left 500,000 dead and millions of others suffering from leukemia and other diseases resulting from the use of depleted uranium bombs on water purification plants and agricultural land. Because of the sustained attack on Iraq, a nation that once had the highest standard of living in the Middle East before the first Gulf War, and continued to provide its citizens with free education and free healthcare up until the recent U.S. bombing, now is one of the poorest. Almost half of the Iraqi population is under 16, and the UN reports that because the majority of the population survives on food distributed by the Iraqi government almost 80% of the population will be at immediate risk of hunger, famine and malnutrition following the end of the war.

Revealing the utter barbarism of the imperialist cabal of Bush, Blair and their corporate cronies, only after Iraq was disarmed and economically devastated did the U.S. begin its "shock and awe" campaign of sustained bombing of urban centers populated by millions of civilians. Despite the pronouncements by the Bush administration, and the wonderment of the television reporters who now operate as propaganda clerks of the State Department (including Peter Arnett who before being fired by NBC for "misjudging" the degree of media censorship in the U.S. excitedly declared from Baghdad that the images of bombs falling were "amazing" and "just like a movie") this is not a war of "technological" wizardry and "precision" bombing. It is an armed mugging by the forces of capital of a nation that for twelve years has been systematically denied even the most basic defensive weapons. As Air Force Brigadier General William Looney declared in a swaggering 1996 interview in Defense Weekly: "They know we own their country. We own their airspace. We dictate the way they live and talk. And that's what's great about America right now".

But the current war against Iraq is not only a war on the people of Iraq but on the people of the world. It is a war led by U.S. transnational capital to gain control over the world economy and to ensure that the future of billions of people is decided in the interests of the U.S. owners. It is this understanding which is missing in the current debates over war in Iraq. The majority of commentaries have focused solely on the question of oil. While the control of oil as an important resource of production is a key aspect to understanding the U.S. interests in the war, the dominant arguments—on whether or not this is a war for oil—miss the central point. What is at stake in the war is not oil as such but what oil represents in the imperialist race for competitive profits: control over the rate of exploitation of the world working class. The current war is a class war being fought in the interests of U.S. imperialism in order to extend its control over the rate of exploitation of the global labor force by gaining control of the future rate of economic growth of the South, the primary source of cheap labor for transnational capital.

The activist understanding of the issues is summarized in the slogan of "no blood for oil".  It centers on the idea that "Washington has [Saddam Hussein] in its gunsights because he is the chief opponent to U.S. control over the vast oil wealth of the Persian Gulf" ( For the activist left, the driving force of the war is the fact that Iraq has 112 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, control over which would increase the wealth of U.S. oil companies; a view seconded by such mouthpieces of transnational capitalism as The Economist which stated that in the event of war, "The big prize is control of the country's oil reserves" ("Saddam's Charm Offensive; Iraq's Oil", October 12, 2002).

The official line, of course, has always been that this is not a war for oil. In a series of talking points entitled "Myths to be Debunked" distributed to the media at the beginning of March, the Bush administration declared "if all America was looking for was cheap oil, Washington could cut a deal with Iraq: that would be far easier than going to war". And, as David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter who has taken credit for creating the phrase "Axis of Evil", argued in The Daily Telegraph, "America can already freely purchase all the oil it wants. There has not been a credible threat to access to oil supplies since the Arab embargo of 1973-74 and there is no credible threat to access today. Saddam wants to sell more oil, not less. And if conquest and occupation were necessary to obtain oil, why wouldn't America attack an easier target than Iraq—Angola, for example?" ("America in the Dock", October 22, 2002).

What is common to all sides in the debate is that control of oil is the main issue at stake: a perspective which conceals the actual objectives of the war by representing oil—an object—as the source of wealth.

But objects—whether essential natural resources such as oil and water or manufactured commodities—do not produce wealth (and yield political power). Labor does. While nature provides a source of use-values, it is labor-power which turns them into social wealth. Thus, in the first instance, without the labor of thousands of workers to build the machines that locate, drill, ship and process the oil, it would remain an undiscovered and unused substance, sitting idle in the ground. It is human labor-power that enables oil to become a resource of production and, under capitalism, it is control over exploited labor-power that turns oil, like all means of production, into a commodified source of private wealth.

It is only through the agency of labor, in short, that capitalist wealth—whether from oil or any other object—is produced. By equating oil with wealth, the dominant commentaries on the war from both the right and the left erase the issue of the exploitation of labor in the production of wealth and thus obscure the fact that the fundamental issue of war on Iraq is not simply about control over oil and oil profits: it is about gaining control over the world supply of surplus labor. By controlling the world's oil resources, the U.S. will be in a position to control the rate of economic growth in such nations as China, India, and Pakistan—nations heavily dependent on oil from the Middle East and the major suppliers of cheap labor to transnational capital today—and thus effectively gain control of the rate at which the workers of the South can be exploited. It will gain control, in other words, over the relation between that part of the working day in which workers produce value equal to their wages and the part in which they are engaged in surplus labor: the part in which the worker works for free, producing the surplus value which is the source of profit and accumulation of capital.

It is not a "thing"—"oil"—that determines the economic hegemony of capital and thus its political power, as evidenced by the fact that many of the nations in which the largest oil reserves sit are among the poorest nations in the world and have historically been subject to brutal colonial and neo-colonial occupation throughout their modern existence. The economic dominance of the rich imperialist states comes from their global command over the exploited labor-power—the surplus labor—of workers in all sectors of production, and the struggle for the Iraqi oil reserves is an attempt by the US to establish its decisive hegemony within this global system of exploitation.

Oil, in short, is a social relation. It represents the exploitative relation of private ownership of the world's resources and productive forces in the hands of a few while the majority of the world is left in a subjugated state of dependence in which their ability to survive is determined by whether or not they can earn enough in wages to purchase the commodities their labor produces. The war on Iraq is about this relation. It is a war of the owners against the workers. 

THE RED CRITIQUE 8 (Spring 2003)