So I came across an interesting article by the much-lauded novelist Arundhati Roy in last month’s The Nation. It was adapted from her speech given at the opening of the World Social Forum on Jan. 16, 2004, in Mumbai (or, as we decadent Western imperialists call it, “Bombay”), India. In it she details the evils of the hegemonic corporate American Empire. Read ’em and weep:
“Poor countries that are geopolitically of strategic value to Empire [sic], or have a ‘market’ of any size, or infrastructure that can be privatized, or, God forbid, natural resources of value — oil, gold, diamonds, cobalt, coal — must do as they’re told or become military targets. Those with the greatest reserves of natural wealth are most at risk. Unless they surrender their resources willingly to the corporate machine, civil unrest will be fomented or war will be waged,” Roy said.
Now, there are many things one could say about this quote, but for simplicity’s sake let’s stick with the most glaringly obvious; it’s nuts. Oh, I’m sure that Roy is just going for some complicated literary effect that’s beyond me (she is after all a Very Important Writer), but on the face of it this paragraph is cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.
Because you all know that the invasion of Botswana is proceeding apace, and our forces should have the diamond mines secured by midweek — just in time to gear up for the invasion of Uruguay and its precious cobalt … fields? Mines? Never mind — we’ll just ransack the whole place. And of course you all recall President Bush’s denunciation of “steroids” in his State of the Union address. “Steroids?” Please. That was just a thinly disguised threat to the people of Bulgaria: “surrender your coal immediately, or else!” (See, I can use complicated literary devices too. That one was “sarcasm.” The CIA World Fact Book — aka Consumer Reports for the modern oppressor — lists Uruguay’s natural resources as “arable land, hydropower, minor minerals, fisheries.” No cobalt.)
Roy is obviously under the impression that war is good for business and especially good for the corrupt plutocracy that she thinks really runs our nation. That makes for great bumper stickers, but it’s wrong. War is the worst possible thing for plutocrats. It’s a lose/lose scenario: if you lose the war, you lose the support of your people; if you win, you still lose since you’ve devastated everything you’ve conquered and have to rebuild it all. Face it; war hasn’t been a paying proposition for a long time. The last time I can think of, in fact, was during the Roman Empire, and you can see how well that worked out — all the nations of the earth still tremble at Italy’s might. Corporations might not be the most lovable entities, but you rarely see them overrun by Visigoths (unless you count what happened to Starbucks at the Seattle WTO meeting).
But at least some corporate fat cats make out like bandits from war, right? Errr, maybe. Halliburton stock went up 60 percent over the last year, it’s true, but so did Nike (57.9 percent), and I don’t think Phil Knight is selling too many Air Jordans to the Marines. Boeing and General Dynamics make lots of stuff that goes boom, and they’re up (36.34 percent and 37.59 percent, respectively), but Lockheed Martin, which makes the Tomahawk cruise missile, is down six and a quarter. That’s okay — George, Dick, and the boys probably sold short. I hope they held on to their PepsiCo, though — it’s up 18.43 percent despite not having too many military contracts.
The point here is that commerce not conquest is the real road to riches. Yeah, Halliburton’s stockholders are probably happy, but their 60 percent uptick is going to disappear faster than Howard Dean’s election chances once the invasion bill comes due. For example, the Christian Science Monitor reports (“A Tally of U.S. Taxpayers’ Tab for Iraq,” Aug. 25, 2003) that as of that date, U.S. consumers were paying something like an extra $100 million a day for gasoline and other petroleum products thanks to the war and that the other theaters of the War on Terror were running us another $1.1 billion per month. How much Halliburton stock would you have to own to cover your share of that tab? I don’t know — I’m in history, not math — but I bet it’s a lot.
Admittedly, Roy has a point if you’re willing to dig far enough through the paranoia to find it. Corporations are inherently expansive, and yeah, sometimes they’re about as ethical as Michael Moore is discreet in their pursuit of filthy lucre. But corporate strategies of global conquest — catchy jingles, free subscription offers, and luscious spokesmodels — are a far cry from some flunky in a suit holding a gun to your head. Plus, consider the alternative. Maybe folks in the developing world like having access to all kinds of products and services. Has anyone asked them?
So yes, there are plenty of principled reasons to be against the War on Terror, and reasonable people can disagree reasonably about them. The tired old “war is good for business” dodge, though, just isn’t one of them.