No shock doctrine for Libya
To say that the West’s involvement in Libya was all about oil was always far too simplistic. For any country to commit military force, a number of people must conclude that this is necessary. Each will have their own reasons, each a number of justifications. No war has one cause, no bombing a single explanation. Simple stories are how we all understand that world, but they are not how it works.
That does not mean that oil wasn’t a factor. And as one chapter of this exchange draws to a close, the next is likely to show us just how much our oil companies have to gain from this venture. After coalition forces took Baghdad, they prioritised securing the safety of the oil wells – famously leaving the museums – and people – to their fate. Over the next few years, our governments worked hard to force through a rapid privatisation of the oil industry – doing everything they could to ensure that it was our companies, rather than the Iraqi people, who benefited from the sale of Iraq’s plentiful crude.
Similarly, after the fall of apartheid in South Africa, the ANC’s promises to nationalise assets were negotiated away amidst the celebration of the collapse of the racist government. To this day, despite the democratic reforms, economic apartheid is far from abolished. Or as the Soviet Union collapsed, the Russian economy was handed – at the insistence of the IMF – to oligarchs. Which hasn’t exactly gone well. These stories are, of course, all documented in Naomi Klein’s book “The Shock Doctrine” – which tells story after story of corporations circling like vultures, then pouncing at a time of national emergency or crisis, robbing countries of their wealth.
Of course, the situation in Libya isn’t exactly the same as it was in Iraq, or in South Africa, or in Russia. But it is similar enough: a new government of some sort will emerge. Will it be a Gaddafi-lite style regime – now, without the Gaddafi? Will it consist of some kind of liberalish democracish elite? Will the country plunge back into civil war? Will it be some new enlightened truly democratic state? No one can know yet for sure, and I certainly don’t know at all. But I am pretty sure of this. For a while, there will be chaos. It might be a couple of days. It could well be a few months – or longer. Large Western oil companies will be deperate to take advantage of that chaos to ensure long term access to as much of the Libyan oil reserve as possible, for the lowest possible cost.
And so we must resist them – until the people of Libya have decided how they wish to manage their resources – and until they have a mechanism in place to decide this properly – we cannot allow Western oil companies to take advantage of the tumult of transition. And we must also insist that just as debts incurred under dictators must not be charged to the liberating governments who overthrew those dictators, the oil companies whose contracts helped prop up the dictator should not have the right to assume that their contracts will be maintained. We cannot at the same time say that Gaddafi was a mad and corrupt and murderous leader, and that the people who have just overthrown him will be bound to the contracts that he signed without the consent of his people.
Of course, I would rather they left the stuff in the ground. And failing that, I think it should be nationalised and used to fund world leading public services. But these are no more decisions for me to make than they are decisions for the Pentagon, IMF, or BP. The Libyian people must choose their fate, and we must ensure that, whilst they do so, our companies aren’t stealing what’s left of their wealth. It’s been a tough few days, months, and decades for Libya. Let’s make sure we don’t allow Western companies to revert to type, and kick them as they begin to stand up.