If, as some people on the left claim, the term "imperialism" is out of date, who are the world's multinationals depending on to defend their interests?
A snippet of news can occasionally lift the veil off the real motives behind high politics. One such snippet was buried on the inside pages of the Guardian last month. It revealed details about breakfast meetings held in Downing Street in 2003 between Tony Blair and the ten-strong "Multinational Chairmen's Group", which included the heads of BP, Unilever, Vodafone, HSBC and Shell. They were invited to tell the prime minister how government policies affected British based international companies and air their grievances.
One such grievance was to demand that the government scrap a plan to increase the tax on the £1.4 million pension pots of 5,000 of the country's richest people.
But there was something else they were very concerned with - the Iraq war. They were not worried about the victims of the massive bombing of Baghdad, the dodgy dossier or the non-existent weapons of mass destruction. Their concern, rather, was that Blair should be making demands on George Bush in return for British support. Blair, they said, had to make it clear that the price for British support was "to treat corporations more favourably". In other words, involvement in the war made sense for them only if it aided their drive for profits.
Their attitude stands in contrast to the claims of their own free market ideology. This holds that capitalism is based on peaceful competition and therefore has no interest in war, except insofar as it is necessary to deal with homicidal maniacs, prevent ethnic cleansing and bring order to "failed states". If only the whole world would accept the unhindered movement of trade and capital, there would be eternal peace.
There are even people on the left who have accepted variants of this argument. Michael Hardt and Toni Negri's Empire - a book that had received a lot of acclaim in the anti-capitalist movement despite (or perhaps because of) its highly obscure language - held that the very term imperialism was out of date because capital, able to move seamlessly from place to place, had no interest in the rivalries of states.
Different variants on the same theme come from Marxists such as Ellen Meiksins Wood, Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin. They hold that capitalists need just one powerful state, that of the US, to police the whole world, and that old analyses of capitalist interests leading to interimperialist conflicts are no longer applicable. Indeed, for Meiksins Wood, they never were. She argues that great empires that clashed in August 1914 were the result of political forces that relied on precapitalist forms of grabbing wealth for themselves.
Such arguments seem to make sense today because so much of big business is multinational. People find it hard to think of big corporations backing governments which bomb their own factories in other countries. And the sorts of wars we saw between European countries in 1914 and 1939 are indeed hard to imagine. But that cannot be the end of the matter.
The fact that the world's giant companies operate internationally does not mean they do not have strong roots in particular countries. A "transnationality index" shows that nearly all still have around half their assets, workforce and sales based within a single country - and for US corporations the proportion is usually greater. This provides strong links with the state apparatus, with any multinational keen to get its backing when it comes to international competition.
But that means corporations require "their" states to exert pressure on other states to take their interests into consideration. The more corporations operate outside their "home countries" the more important this is. They have to try to make sure foreign governments allow, among other things, access to markets, as little tax as possible, and a share of big public contracts. This is why international trade negotiations through the World Trade Organisation involve bitter arguments between groups of governments as each tries to advance the interests of the big companies operating from its territory.
US corporations have always been able to rely on the US state to advance their interests by, for example, subverting governments through the CIA, using its influence in the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to get their pound of flesh in debt crises or engaging in hard bargaining over issues like currency exchange rates or environmental controls. The ultimate measure of the power of the US state is its ability to provide exemplary displays of its enormous military might. The aim of the Iraq war was precisely that.
Other states look to building their own bargaining power short of direct military confrontation with the superpower. One way is to resist certain US demands, as Russia and China have done over Iran. The second is to sponsor different armies in localised, although horrific, "proxy wars" elsewhere the world. A third is to show that a US military adventure cannot succeed if they abstain from giving it military backing, as France and Germany did with the invasion of Iraq. Finally there is giving unstinting support to the US, in return for a pay off, which is what the British multinationals wanted.
This is not capitalism abandoning the military power of the state, as Hardt and Negri contended. It is interimperalist conflict in its 21st century form. As Iraq, Afghanistan and now Somalia show, capitalists still look to bloodshed as a way to advance profitability.