Publikation Positiver Frieden The War Economy: Towards a Marxist Critique

"Economy" is not antithetical to violence, but rather rests upon it

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Mai 2019

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Saif Al Dawleh, Aleppo 2013
Saif Al Dawleh, Aleppo 2013 Doha Hassan, Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung

In Mohammed Al-Attar and Omar Abu Saada’s play The Factory, the plot centres on the willingness of European businesses—in this case the French construction company Lafarge (now LafargeHolcim)—to co-operate both with the Assad regime and the so-called “Islamic State” that briefly replaced it in Northern Syria.[1] This willingness reflected, in Al Attar’s words, the “strong alliance between capital and political power” before and after 2011.

To speak of such an alliance contradicts the idea of a “War Economy” currently prevalent in discussions of conflict in Syria, Yemen, and Libya. Since the end of the Cold War, academics and policymakers have been committed to the claim that “[w]ar retards development but, conversely, development retards war.”[2] In this view, a lack of economic development increases the risk of civil war: civil war destroys both physical infrastructure and “social capital”, thereby leading to a cycle in which future wars become even likelier. In other words, the economy—or instituting a particular kind of economy—solves the problem of civil war.

At the heart of this idea of the war economy lies the notion that economic relationships are distorted by violence. These distorted economic relationships create constituencies with an interest in perpetuating conflict. Ending the conflict and establishing a durable peace therefore requires the replacement of these distorted relationships with economic relationships that promote peaceful stability. For example, a recent report from the London School of Economics finds in the Syrian conflict zone “a societal condition characterised by vested interests in the continuation of conflict”. Hence, the resolution of which requires “transforming the societal condition from one typified by the existing private and/or identity-based mutuality, in which the different actors have a shared interest in continuing the conflict, to a different kind of mutuality that is centred on stability and aimed at the public interest.”[3] This idea of a war economy is influential in the way conflict in Syria—and other countries—is seen and managed.[4] Economic policy, whether involving Keynesian forms of post-war reconstruction or the creation of efficient labour markets for refugees in neighbouring countries, then becomes a tool in the management of conflict. Marxists and critical scholars have questioned these claims, pointing to the deleterious effects of pre-war neoliberal policies in conflict zones that are then later frequently reinforced by the promotion of similar policies in peace agreements.[5] Here I advance a deeper critique: one that begins with the Marxist critique of “the economy” as a whole.

To speak of a war economy necessarily implies that “war” and “economy” are two different things that are brought into relation with one another. The solution to the problem of the war economy then becomes a different kind of economy, the peace economy. When Marx and Engels write of “economy” and “economists”, however, they are using the term in a different sense than the way it is used today. In contemporary usage the term “economy” means an object described by abstractions and indicators, such as GDP growth, unemployment, inflation or interest rates. As Timothy Mitchell has demonstrated, this conception of the economy as the object of politics developed recently, in the mid-twentieth century.[6] It is important to remember, then, that Marx was not an “economist” but rather a critic of political economy: that is to say, a critic of the thought of such intellectuals as Adam Smith and David Ricardo. These “political economists” sought to understand how the production and reproduction of life could be best managed by the state. “Economy” in this sense meant a practice, not a thing.[7]

“The economy”, then, is not a tangible object that has always existed. It is rather a method of describing and categorising social relations of production and exchange– and a historically rather recent method. If we understand the economy in this way, we must also change our understanding of the war economy. Indeed, I argue that we should see war as a form of economy of the management of resources and the production and reproduction of life to benefit certain classes of people at the expense of others—and “the economy” as a form of war. Of course, this does not mean that the dire conditions experienced in conflicts such as those in Syria are desirable or indistinguishable from those before 2011. “Economic activity”—in the sense of the production and sale of goods, including agriculture­—has dropped by perhaps 60 percent in Syria since 2011, and the country has gone down 50 ranks in the human development index: even if these procedures of measurement and projection remain the products of a particular history, they still reflect real and profound suffering.[8] My point is not to deny the existence of this suffering but to give a different account of its origins.

The origins of “war economy” precede the birth of “the economy” as a separate object of political management. It was war and the necessity of nation-states to husband resources most efficiently to win wars that promoted the idea of separate national economies.[9] The term first appeared in English during World War I when it was used in the classical sense of parsimonious use of resources, especially food.[10]By the end of that war “economy” was being used in the US to refer to conducting the “business of government with a minimum of waste” and use “every human and material resource” to achieve victory against Germany.[11] War economy meant the organization necessary for this aim: the use of “[b]udget making, accounting, business organization” so that the amount of resources available for war could be known.[12] This usage differed from the current concept of the war economy in two ways: it still referred to a practice rather than an entity, and was understood to mean not distorting economic activity but increasing its efficiency in order win a war against another state.

From the ensemble of these practices, and the threat of a new war in the late 1930s, came the practice of delineating a specific object­­—rather than a practice—known as the economy.[13] During the Cold War in particular the idea of the war economy was used to justify the inclusion of military production and expenditure (which after all can only be consumed by destruction) within GDP. War economy thus gave birth to the idea of the economy as a specific, measurable object­—an idea that came full circle with the repurposing of “war economy” to mean a distorted variant of that object. The distorted nature of war economies then came to explain the persistence, and even the outbreak, of civil wars.

This shift in meaning emerged from prior shifts in the understandings of its component terms, war and economy. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise to global predominance of the United States, the prospect of inter-state war seemed to recede: so-called “new wars” fought in the Global South between ill-defined combatants apparently lacking in ideological motivation.[14] At the same time, the idea of the economy as a national unit amenable to political management on the Keynesian model was replaced by the neo-liberal conception of the interaction of utility-maximising individuals. These two changes met in the so-called “greed versus grievance” (economic versus political motivations) debate on the origins of civil wars in the 1990s. This debate was most associated with the English economist Paul Collier, whose work has been hugely influential on how international institutions see conflict, economies, and reconstruction.[15] Basing his arguments on a statistical model and a large dataset of civil wars and conflicts, Collier makes the following claims.

First, the reason for rebellions against governments is always economically motivated: the presence of resources that are valuable but easy to steal (such as diamonds) and of funding from diasporas—who are outside the conflict zone and therefore represent a source of resources that is not affected by the conflict itself. For Collier civil wars are always initiated by rebels, not the rulers of states—and no matter what “grievance” such as repression, discrimination, or ideological commitment offered by the rebellion, in the end this economic motivation is the only one that matters. Collier’s logic here is statistical. Rebellions that persist are those that have access to such resources. Whatever their claimed motivations, most rebellions will eventually come to sustain themselves by extortion and the control of easily extracted resources.

Second, and as an essential corollary of the first claim, Collier argues that war economies perpetuate conflict. War is extremely expensive, especially for rebels lacking a tax base of their own to fund it, or the ability to issue state-backed debt. Armed groups therefore come to depend on rents—unearned, unproductive income—derived from their control of violence and territory. These rents consist of selling natural resources or their equivalents; controlling passage through territory by demanding border-crossing or checkpoint fees; or simply using violence to extort money from civilians by kidnapping or racketeering. In Syria the first form of revenue only applies to oil and gas resource, and to a lesser degree antiquities, whereas the second two have been exceedingly common.

Such activities then constitute the war economy. Armed groups develop a vested interest in continuing the conflict because that is how they profit, on all sides. At the same time as being engaged in combat with each other, armed groups develop mutual interests—in smuggling goods, fuel, or weapons, and in dividing up the opportunities for extracting revenue from the local population. Networks of extortion emerge, often associated with middlemen who cross the conflict lines. This phenomenon is visible in Syria where, although siege tactics have been used frequently most of all by the regime, a great deal of trade took place across the front lines. When ISIS controlled oil and gas fields they sold those resources to any paying customer, including the regime. In other examples, the Southern border crossing into Jordan at Nasib was a site of fighting for control and then co-operation between regime forces and their opponents: the rebel battalions would tax a lorry, and then take the driver to the regime checkpoint to pay national Syrian custom duties.[16] Not all such cooperation is detrimental, of course. In Atareb, a rebel-controlled area with a strong local administrative council, rebel battalions cooperated with the regime to keep electricity flowing.[17]

In general, conditions of siege and combat lead to greatly inflated prices for basic goods, which come through checkpoints that can be controlled by force. Under siege conditions, of course, goods cannot pass freely—this is the point of a siege. As a result, those in control of the siege lines are able to profit from the highly inflated prices of everyday necessities. For example, during the siege of the Eastern Ghouta, historically one of the most fertile areas of Syria, prices of basic goods increased by a factor of as much as 55 times that of prices in Damascus a few kilometres away.[18] The catastrophic decline in living standards most Syrians experienced is undeniable. The solution offered by the proponents of the idea of the war economy is to encourage activities that are structured around profit but not violence. An example of this outside of the country is Collier’s proposal to set up special economic zones (a feature of neoliberal development policy) around Jordan where Syrian refugee labour would be employed and then eventually return to Syria.

My critique of the concept of the war economy in the Syrian context is three-fold. The first point is empirical. The activities known as a “war economy”—smuggling, kidnapping, resource looting—have definitely been happening in Syria and kept armed groups going. It is difficult to see this conflict as perpetuated by those activities, however, unless one ignores the overwhelming preponderance of violence on the side of the Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian allies.[19] The war(s) in Syria have essentially been carried on between combatants who have airpower (the Russians, the regime, and the US in a different theatre) and people who do not. Both in destructive power and economic cost, air bombardment massively outweighs the significance of kidnapping, border transaction costs, or the trade in illicit antiquities. When we speak of the Syrian war economy we must therefore also include the circulation of Russian and Iranian oil to provide credit and arms to the regime—and indeed the much smaller contribution of the US through its ground and air support of Kurdish forces and their allies, and the now largely defunct networks of funding and arms directed to the rebels from Turkey and some of the Gulf states. From this viewpoint, the war economy of Syria then becomes harder to distinguish from “the economy” of the world as a whole.

This shift in viewpoint relates to my second point: that, especially in Collier’s model, all the responsibility for starting civil wars lies with those who rebel against an existing government. The rebels in this model are the greedy (or aggrieved) actors. Jacob Mundy, referring to the violence in Algeria in the 1990s, describes this as “treating rebels as the vector through which the disease of civil war plagues economic development”.[20] The war economy model ignores the fact that the “peace economy”, or rather the pre-war one, might be part of the reason why the war started. The Syrian revolution partly emerged from the nature of the pre-2011 economy and the violence and dispossession it involved.[21] In fact, some of the activities associated with war economies were widely practiced before 2011: for example the shabiha who derive their name from regime-sanctioned smuggling across borders. The transformation of the war economy into “the peace economy” in fact presents a great opportunity for further dispossession and accumulation. Neighbouring Lebanon witnessed such a phenomenon, and the developing legal infrastructure for excluding Syrian refugees from their former homes suggests that any future Syrian reconstruction may face the same fate.[22]

This leads to my third and final critique: for Marxists, “the economy” is a war. The idea that capitalism and the market generate peace because of the shared interest of their participants in profiting from a stable future goes back to the classical economists, to Smith and Ricardo, and is very much present in the work of thinkers such as Joseph Schumpeter.[23] The economy in this view is the solution to war because it binds people into mutually beneficial relationships that they have no self-interest in disrupting by violence.

For Marxists, however, the notion of a separate part of human life called “the economy” concerned with production, distribution, and exchange relies on the creation of what Marx calls “the dual freedom”. This means the freedom of the worker from the coercion to labour on the one hand and hence the separation of economic and extra-economic power, and the “freedom” of the labourer from the means of production leading to apparently “non-violent” compulsion to work for a wage. The idea of peaceful economy therefore depends on this separation, but it was violently achieved in primitive accumulation, what Marx calls a history “written in letters of blood and fire”. That is to say, capitalism is not antithetical to violence but rather rests upon it. As Rosa Luxemburg notes, violence was necessary especially in European colonies to dispossess the indigenous inhabitants of their means of production and thereby bring them under the compulsion to work for wages.[24] The struggle to dispossess, and the struggle against dispossession, are in fact continuous and also involve violence (although nothing like the sort of violence witnessed in Syria today), but there may be more of a continuum between the “peace economy” and the “war economy”. We should question the idea that the former represents the solution to the latter.

Jamie Allinson is a lecturer in the Politics and International Relations of the Middle East at the University of Edinburgh. He is the author of The Struggle for the State in Jordan, co-winner of the 2016 Jadaliyya Political Economy Book Prize. He is currently working on a book about counter-revolution in the Arab world since 2011. This article is based on a presentation given at the conference "Social and Transformative Justice in Conflict and Post-Conflict Settings – a comparative approach", held by the RLS Beirut office in November 2018.


[1] Details of the play can be found here Mohammad Al Attar and Omar Abusaada, "The Factory", Volksbühne, 2018.

[2] Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler, Greed and Grievance in Civil War (World Bank, 2000), 1.

[3] Rim Turkmani, Mary Kaldor, and Vesna Bojicic-Dzelilovic, Countering the Logic of the War Economy in Syria: Evidence from Three Local Areas (LSE Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit, 2015), 80.

[4] Jihad Yazigi, Syria’s War Economy, Policy Briefs (European Council on Foreign Relations, 2014); Samer Abboud, "Social Change, Network Formation and Syria’s War Economies", Middle East Policy, 24.1 (2017), 92–107; Samer Abboud, The Economics of War and Peace in Syria: Stratification and Factionalization in the Business Community (New York: The Century Foundation, 2017).

[5]Whose Peace? Critical Perspectives on the Political Economy of Peacebuilding, ed. by Michael Pugh, Neil Cooper, and Mandy Turner (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008); Mark Duffield, Development, Security and Unending War: Governing the World of Peoples (Cambridge: Polity, 2007); Mark Duffield, Global Governance and the New Wars: The Merging of Development and Security (New York: Zed Books, 2014).

[6] Timothy Mitchell, The Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity (University of California Press, 2002).

[7] There are of course instances where Marx uses the term "economy" unambiguously as a noun with a definite article: for example, in the Grundrisse where Marx distinguishes between "bourgeois economy" and "the economy of antiquity" wherein the term refers to the "historical organisation of production" as a whole and appears synonymous with "bourgeois society" that then produces the object of Marx’s critique of "bourgeois political economy". In the most extensive use of the concept in his work, Chapter 5 of Capital volume 3, entitled "Economy in the Employment of Constant Capital", Marx clearly uses the term "economy" in its pre-twenteith century meaning of the parsimonious use of resources rather than as a measurable entity.

[8] Abboud, Economics of War and Peace.

[9] Philipp Lepenies, The Power of a Single Number: A Political History of GDP (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).

[10] For example in United States Food Administration, War Economy in Food: With Suggestions and Recipes for Substitutions in the Planning of Meals (US Government Printing Office, 1918).

[11] Frederick Cleveland, "Responsible Leadership and Responsible Criticism", in Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science in the City of New York (presented at the National Conference on War Economy, New York: Academy of Political Science, 1920), viii, 29–41 (35).

[12] Adopting more efficient methods would also have the advantage of defeating the "shallow Bolshevist thinking" that advocated taxing the rich to pay for the war effort. See R. Fulton Cutting, "Executive Leadership in a Democracy", in Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science in the City of New York (presented at the National Conference on War Economy, New York: Academy of Political Science, 1920), viii, 42–45 (42).

[13] Mitchell, 82–83.

[14] Mary Kaldor, New and Old Wars: Organised Violence in a Global Era, 3rd edn (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013).

[15] Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler, "Greed and Grievance in Civil War", Oxford Economic Papers, 56.4 (2004), 563–95.

[16] Rim Turkmani and Vesna Bojicic-Dzelilovic, "War Economy, Governance and Security in Syria’s Opposition-Controlled Areas", Stability: International Journal of Security and Development, 7.1 (2018), 1–17 (8).

[17] Turkmani and Bojicic-Dzelilovic, 10.

[18] Turkmani and Bojicic-Dzelilovic, 5.

[20] Jacob Mundy, Imaginative Geographies of Algerian Violence (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016), 50.

[21] Shamel Azmeh, "Syria’s Passage to Conflict: The End of the 'Developmental Rentier Fix' and the Consolidation of New Elite Rule", Politics and Society, 44.4 (2016), 499–523.

[23] Joseph Schumpeter, Imperialism and Social Classes, 2 vols (Cleveland, Ohio: Meridian Books, 1955), i, 70–73.

[24] Rosa Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital (Marxists Internet Archive, 1913).