On Global Politics and Petropolitics

Part I: Petropolitics and Information Society

, by Fernando A. Iglesias

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

On Global Politics and Petropolitics

A quick glance at the greatest fortunes of the planet, headed by software corporations’ CEOs, financial speculators, mass-media owners and Hollywood producers, makes it clear that the creation of wealth is shifting from a hardware-related phase, in which value was generated by the production of objects through manual work, to a software-related phase, in which intellectual work gets the core of economy and society. We already live in a post-industrial context dedicated to the creation and handling of information, knowledge, cultural diversity, communication, innovation and emotions. From Henry Ford to Bill Gates, the change in what Marx denominated “means of production” has been incredibly fast: less than a century has elapsed between the last Ford T and the first PC. A split second in History.

As early as 1980, Alvin Toffler declared that the conflict between Capitalism and Communism was a transitory dispute within an industrial civilization, and predicted that it would be overcome by the truly political fight of the future: a megaconflict of planetary scale between the defenders of the second (industrial) wave and those of the third (post-industrial) one. Even though Toffler was right, industry was not the agent that led the defence of the status-quo; it was – more exactly – the most obsolete branch of industry, which is in charge of energy supply and totally depends on its Majesty Petroleum. It is not by chance that the NY Times’ journalist Thomas L. Friedman has recently originated an interesting polemic by enunciating what he called “the First Law of Petropolitics ” . In short, Friedman stated that “the price of oil and the pace of freedom always move in opposite directions in oil-rich petrolist states”. Beyond the general accuracy of Friedman’s statement, the use of the “Petropolitics” category marks the emergence of a deep and dangerous asynchrony between the information society – however we call it – and its incredibly antiquated source of energy: fossil oil.

Petropolitics and information society: two antagonistic paradigms

A quarter of a century after the publication of Toffler’s “Third wave”, the greatest and most urgent threats to the post-industrial global world (depletion of non-renewable resources, global warming, energy dependence, global terrorism, war for resources) come from a decrepit and polluting nationalistic-industrialist order, which intrinsically tends to militarism and confrontation. But let’s take a look at the origins of Petropolitics.

human intelligence is a non-polluting and inexhaustible resource

The oil industry remains poles apart from the information and knowledge society. An oil barrel is worth nothing if someone takes it from us. On the contrary, computer programs can be copied without losing their original capacity and get more valuable for each individual who uses them. The intangible products of the economy of information are shareable. No matter how avaricious and monopolist their leaders are, the information economy needs cooperation and education to produce goods, and general well-being to sell them. The wealth it creates increases with general wealth and education, whatever the national and social origins of their owners, consumers and producers. The human intelligence on which it is based is a non-polluting and inexhaustible resource. As it is independent of territory, the loss of the economic centrality of land it has caused has abolished the classical model of conflict of the industrial era: the warlike dispute for territories and raw materials.

There has been no war between developed countries since intellectual workers – white collars – numerically surpassed manual workers – blue collars – in the Sixties. Since then, the economically and politically advanced units have been peacefully extended, due to the needs generated by new technologies, on the one hand, and thanks to the opportunities they created, on the other. Reliable statistics indicate that – on the contrary – welfare states do not exist or are disappearing in nations that are organized according to the nationalistic-industrialist model. They also emphasize that post-industrial countries that have the highest average of foreign interchange have also the lowest levels of inequality. This is not accidental: an economy based on human intelligence implies high education standards and a well-developed social capacity to work in associated ways; two factors that are indispensable for the political process that is at the base of the redistribution of wealth. Exactly the opposite happens within the economies based on raw materials such as oil. Like in every social matrix that depends on non-shareable and exhaustible resources, in mineral-extraction-based countries the economic and political processes assume a zero-sum type: the appropriation of a resource by an agent excludes all the others, which abolishes cooperation and leads to disputes.

The extraction of raw materials is also, for obvious reasons, strongly bound to the territory; therefore it tends to generate conflicts for geopolitical predominance. All these elements (non shareability/ zero-sum processes/ dependence on the territory) have led to the emergence of several Petropolitical nuclei. They grew from agreements between economic agents of extractive corporations and political agents that command the military apparatus. Since the intervention of people in the generation of wealth is minimal and depends on low labour-quality in extractive activities, general well-being and the population’s capacity to work cooperatively becomes irrelevant. Consequently, the richness falls in the hands of a few; in the case of oil, corporate owners and public authorities who manage the access to and the control of resources. This is the kingdom where Petropolitics arises and has its dominions.

The world of Petropolitics

Wherever Petropolitics dominates, exasperation and conflict replace dialogue and consensus. The society splits between “us” and “them”.

The territory and the dispute for its control acquire a metaphysical value. No matter what use is made of to the extracted wealth, foreigners are presented as a gang, eager to steal “our” resources. Beyond the speeches on nationalism and solidarity, wealth accumulates in the hands of the richest and more powerful. Democracy staggers, if it ever exists, or it never arises, when it does not. In spite of the nationalistic rhetoric that is used to conceal the real interests at stake, the national unity is put under pressure, which opens the way to a new destructive scheme: the intra-national (civil) war for resources, and the ethnic masked ball threatens to move nowadays from African diamonds to Bolivian gas. Political and religious fundamentalisms predominate in the Petropolitics universe. The world is divided between “friends”, who are co-opted for the reproduction of the existing power, and “enemies”, who are bound to symbolic destitution or physical destruction.

Third-world-friendly theories on “unequal interchanges”, which attributed underdevelopment to the low prices of raw materials, have shown their irrelevance, because even after decades of vertical ascent of oil prices, that originated an incommensurable flow of wealth towards the OPEC countries, the life conditions of their citizens experienced no significant change. The ambiguous properties of natural resources as factors of progress did not only make the theory of “unequal interchanges” obsolete, but are at the origin of the “curse of natural resources” thesis, an idea that is well confirmed by the fact that countries where per-capita resources are very low (such as Japan) have been able to develop rich and egalitarian societies, whereas in other countries with very high per-capita average of natural resources (such as Argentina) poverty and inequalities continue to increase. The fact that Latin America is the continent with the greatest amount of natural resources per inhabitant and also the one of bigger inequalities, and that Africa follows in both headings, is a confirmation of the thesis.

Africa, the continent where the weight of natural resources in the GDP is the highest in the world, has become the preferred territory of tribal barbarism. Secular tyrannies and ethnic cleansing are encouraged by corporations that are after diamonds in Sierra Leone and oil in Sudan. While the world was watching Iraq, millions of African died and hundreds of thousands became refugees in the most extensive humanitarian drama of the 21st century. The tribalism and militarization of African societies generated a renewed Middle Age where spears and arrows have been replaced by Kalashnikovs and machine guns. It does not seem accidental that the Middle East, where oil is the basic economic resource, has become the center of world-wide political instability, insecurity and global terrorism.

Recent studies – such as Friedman’s – show a strong correlation between the rise of oil prices after the invasion of Iraq and the worsening of democratic rights and freedom standards. However, although Friedman locates the phenomenon in “oil-rich petrolist states”, the trend is visible not only in Latin American, African and Middle-East societies, but also in the United States of America, which is far from being “petrolist” but where the oil industry is very powerful and is very close to political power.

To be continued...

This article was originally published in the November 2007 edition of The Federalist Debate, Papers for Federalists in Europe and the World.


- the top of an old, tired petrol pump ... source: Flickr

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