Sally Campbell spoke to John Rees about the growing weaknesses in the imperialist project, and how they might be exploited by the anti-war movement.
The cover of John Rees's new book, Imperialism and Resistance, shows graffiti on a wall in Barcelona on 15 February 2003 - the global day of action on which, according to one study, 36 million people demonstrated against the pending war on Iraq. The image depicts George Bush, Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld with red noses. I ask Rees whether it boosts the argument that the Iraq war is simply the result of a few bad men's stupidity. "I like the cover," he responds, "because it illustrates the theme of imperialism and resistance. It both depicts the architects of imperialism and subverts that image." As the first few chapters of Rees's book make clear, the current imperial adventure is anything but an aberration.
The first argument that Rees stresses is that while the US is overwhelmingly strong militarily, its economic strength has declined. The second part of this argument is not widely accepted. "This is understandable," says Rees. "In the anti-globalisation movement people are confronting these massive multinational corporations and of course they seem extremely powerful - and compared to us they are! But that isn't how it looks in terms of competitive relations between nation states, and between US corporations and others." This economic/military mismatch is central to understanding imperialism today.
"The invasion and occupation of Iraq was a deal struck between the neo-conservatives and the fiscal Republicans inside the US governing elite. The neo-conservatives wanted the invasion and occupation, while the fiscal Republicans were prepared to go along with it on the basis that it could be done in an inexpensive way. This is why they have so much trouble now - it's a knock-off occupation, done on the cheap. The inability to launch a kind of Marshall Aid plan means that they have to rely almost entirely on military force - all stick and no carrot."
Rees argues that it is impossible to understand the history of the Middle East without understanding the economics of oil. Some activists claim we are reaching a peak in oil production, and that the current wars are about scarce resources. Rees responds that this isn't the most important point. "The fact that the US has run out of oil is more important than whether oil has run out as a whole," he says, "because it tightens the bond between the imperial project and the oil question. Neither is it just about 'America's gas-guzzling dependence on oil'. The profits to be made from supplying oil - and not allowing competitors in China, Russia, Iran, etc, to control it - are what interest US multinationals."
The central theme running through Rees's book is the interrelation between what he calls the "three titans of the modern world" - the power of nation states, of the international economy, and the power of the mass of people upon whom the first two rely. So imperialism is not simply a plan formed by the ruling classes of the world and played out with us as pawns.
The Iranian Revolution of 1979 was a fantastic example of the power of the masses and its lasting impact. "The outcome of the revolution wasn't a socialist one, but it threw into chaos the entire political system. Its consequences run out like lines of causality through Iraq and Saudi Arabia," says Rees. The same forces are at work today in Iraq. One consequence of the disastrous occupation is that "the dominant political current in occupied Iraq, the Shia current, is sympathetic to Iran. So despite the unpopularity of the war, the damage it has done to Bush and Blair's ratings, they feel an almost inescapable necessity to confront Iran."
The lines of causality can be seen at work from a different angle: "Saudi Arabia forms a link in the chain of America's imperial difficulties in the Middle East. In 1979 the US lose Iran. In the following 15 years, as a result of their response to the Iranian revolution, Iraq increasingly moves from being an ally to being a problem. Saudi Arabia becomes the critical base from which the first Gulf War is mounted, thereby creating massive internal instability. These tensions are increased by the Saudis' growing reluctance to keep footing the bill for US arms, and their rejection of Osama Bin Laden's offer to use his troops to kick Iraq out of Kuwait - instead allowing US bases on Saudi soil.
"By the end of the 1990s the Saudis are refusing to pay up for US arms, effectively demanding the removal of US bases, and refusing to play the role of guarantors of the price of oil in the world market. These are the circumstances in which the neo-conservative policy of 'regime change' becomes a strategic necessity."
Rees characterises the forms of resistance to imperialism as continuing a thread running through the classic bourgeois revolutions in England in 1649 and France and America in the late 18th century up to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
"The origins of the current world order are discontinuous in time - a combination of neo-liberalism from the late 1970s and the new imperialism from 1989. These two elite shifts have prompted a response from the mass of people which can be seen as a reinvention of the democratic revolution. All the revolutionary upheavals of modern times have as their template the revolutions of 1989."
The right have tried to claim the "democratic revolution" as their own - George Bush's celebration of the 1956 Hungarian uprising is an example - but they then have to paint processes such as those in Venezuela as undemocratic. How should the left understand the dynamics of these struggles? "As with all revolutions, from 1649 to 1848 to 1989, the question is will the limit of this revolution be democratic, political change, or will it challenge the economic power which is ultimately the power of the ruling class? The experience of Chavez in Venezuela is right on the line between those two options, and it is now a question of whether or not it can create institutions which begin to deal with both the political, democratic question and the economic question at the same time. The experience of history is that if they cannot, the ruling class will reorganise itself and claw back in bloody and tyrannical ways the political gains."
The international character of such struggles today means that links can be made between democratic movements in quite different circumstances. "The anti-war movement, Respect and similar movements across Europe address anti-imperialism and the democratic deficit - as they do in Venezuela or Egypt. The question is how these democratic movements can tie up with movements challenging economic power.
"It is this economic aspect, the adherence of established political parties to the neo-liberal agenda, that feeds the democratic deficit in the first place. It drives a wedge between the parties and their traditional supporters who are the victims of neo-liberalism. The question is, how do you move from popular democratic politics to particularly socialist politics? How this question is resolved is dependent on how socialists behave tactically inside the movement. They must be part of the movement but must raise a particular class politics, a particular social and economic analysis within it.
"This will bring us into conflict with other forces. Take Ken Livingstone for example. It's fine to celebrate Chavez, and bring him to London, but it is not fine to be privatising parts of the Tube network, or to have a big business agenda for the London Olympics, or to be putting parts of the rail network out to tender. This is not Chavista behaviour!"
The collective experience of Latin America's Bolivarian revolution can seem a million miles away from life in Blair's Britain. I ask Rees whether the faceless bureaucracy of neo-liberal capitalism impacts on people's ability to conceive a collective struggle. "It has an impact in that it creates a huge sense of alienation from the political and economic structures of the modern world, and produces an enormous distance between us and the ruling elite. The ties that used to bind us to the welfare consensus are snapping.
"There is a danger that this alienation can be expressed in reactionary nationalism or even fascism, but so far this isn't the dominant expression. The dominant expression since the Seattle protests of November 1999 has been one of a common disgust with the effects of neo-liberalism, a sense of commonality in our alienation from the old structures, and a determination to bind ourselves together in some way which will be effective against the forces of neo-liberalism. You can't understand the anti-war movement simply as a reaction to the war - the scale, depth and longevity of it can only be attributed to the fact that the war became the lightning rod through which discontent with cuts, privatisation, anti-union legislation, and running down of the welfare state became expressed.
"And I don't think that by any means we have reached the limit of what the movement can achieve. In terms of the industrial struggle and the potential for what can be achieved there in future, I don't think we've even really begun. That's why I wrote the book now. We are at a point where it's clear enough to assess the political landscape, but early enough to affect the final outcomes."
Imperialism and Resistance is published by Routledge and is a summer special offer at Bookmarks for £11.99 - phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarks.uk.com