Expensive oil and imperialist war

In February 2003, Ari Fleischer, then George W. Bush’s press secretary, brushed off millions of demonstrators worldwide demanding “No war for oil!” If the assault on Iraq was for cheap oil, Fleischer said, the U.S. could simply “lift the sanctions so the oil could flow. This is not about that.”

This is a war for expensive oil. Oil has soared from $20 to over $50 a barrel. Wall Street has a profound interest in controlling oil supplies and keeping prices high, and Washington has served them well with murderous sanctions and wars.

Iraqi oil production has declined since the U.S. invasion; there is no serious effort to develop Iraq and its neighbors’ vast reserves, where oil can be produced for under $1 a barrel.

Wall Street banks and oil monopolies are both dominated by a few families. They share an interest in expensive oil. How? One clue can be found in the Wall Street Journal of June 29, 1990, when oil prices were plummeting. Low oil prices, the Journal protested, have “rocked the oil industry and played havoc with ... the banks that underwrote billions of dollars of oil-collateralized debt.” The first Gulf War followed, and oil prices soared.

Consider the following:

• High oil prices help repay debts owed Wall Street banks, as the Journal implied. The 1998 Global Witness report, “A Rough Trade,” details how imperialist banks seized Angola’s revenues from oil sales to repay war loans. High oil prices speed Wall Street’s collection of debts from oil producers worldwide, including the oil-exporting states of Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma. Thanks to high oil prices, Business Week reported recently, “Russia may well be able to restore its investment-grade credit.”

• High oil prices help Wall Street plunder weaker capitalists worldwide through the mechanism of unequal exchange. To justify their gouging, monopolies have long cried that oil production will soon decline. But there is absolutely no shortage of oil (although it is wastefully destructive to burn it), and the cost of finding and producing oil has declined significantly in the past two decades. In 2003, the average cost of producing a barrel of oil (42 gallons) was around $2.20, including costly production from Alaskan fields as well as cheap Gulf oil. Coincidentally, the average cost of producing coffee is also around $2.20 a kilogram. But Wall Street-monopolized oil sells for $50 a barrel, while coffee, grown by thousands of small and mid-sized producers, sells for around $1.45 a kilo. Coffee growers need oil for fuel or to make fertilizer, and the “exchange” is devastating. Non-monopoly producers of manufactured and agricultural commodities also face unequal exchange with the monopolies, and armed force is ultimately required to enforce it.

• High oil prices help trim capitalist “overproduction.” Wall Street justifiably worries about future profits and debt repayment as imbalances plague its rotten system. “Higher energy prices could limit potentially unprofitable output,” the Wall Street Journal reported. Recent declines in Germany and Italy’s industrial outputs were linked to oil prices.

• Above all, high oil prices facilitate Wall Street’s drive to cheapen and weaken labor. Rising fuel costs effectively cut wages. Furthermore, the “benefits” from workers’ lower wages accrue to Wall Street, bypassing the capitalists directly employing the labor. As capital is redirected to pay for costlier energy, rising unemployment weakens workers. Too many households worldwide will be choosing between heating and eating this winter.

• China is a major, unspoken target of the U.S. war. “A U.S.-led war with Iraq would make China highly vulnerable to a disruption in the supply of crude and higher oil prices,” CNN pointed out in September 2002. “To contain China,” the Singapore Straits Times commented in February 2003, “the U.S. needs to take sole control of the strategic Gulf area.” Soaring oil prices plunder China and play havoc with its economic plans. The war reflects Wall Street’s class antagonism to the Chinese state, which is a product of a socialist revolution. (A future article in this paper will address this important issue.)

Ari Fleischer had a point in denying that this is a war for cheap oil. The war for expensive oil is impelled by a deepening crisis of the social system for which he speaks.

The author can be reached at economics@cpusa.org. Art Perlo contributed to this article.