Is it really ‘all about oil’?
Pretty much every time the Middle East and possible Western actions therein are discussed you hear the common refrain from the left; ‘it’s all about the oil’! This certainly reflects a truth. Oil is important to capitalism and the current ballooning price of a barrel of decent crude isn’t particularly helpful at this economic juncture with the world economy still somewhat fragile.
However, discussions around intervention in Libya are not just motivated by rather base economic concerns. Plenty of spare capacity exists to cover the loss of Libya’s oil production; indeed, Saudi Arabia in particular is busily increasing its production as we speak (well, I write and you read). What is more all the nations with spare capacity are still run by regimes generally congenial to Western interests so there is simply no need for the West to take control of Libya’s oil fields to guarantee its fix of the highly flammable good stuff.
Something else much deeper and much more complex is at play. The deeper nature of this probably explains why its passed the left by, unused as it is to thinking outside the confines of a very small and hermetically sealed box. For a very long time Western identity and indeed capitalist identity has been cleverly interwoven with democratic ideals, discourse and struggle. This reached something of a peak during the Cold War when communism was successfully , not unsurprisingly given the actions of Stalin and his progeny, identified in the collective mind of the masses with authoritarian dictatorship.
The language and power of the democratic ideal basically won the Cold War for capitalism and the left lost because it lost the battle for democracy. In fact, at a certain point it gave up even fighting this battle and implicitly ceded it to the right. Democratic freedom became twinned in the popular mind with free markets (in reality, free markets squash democratic freedom) and the rest as they say is history.
Other concepts like the universal concept of human rights (something that capitalism never respects in practice) became part of this discourse which has survived even till this day. Unsurprising since ruling social systems have for a very long time cloaked themselves in progressive ideals, language and a righteous defence of their position, past the Roman Empire and right back into the mists of time.
This is what is really at stake in Libya for the West, maintaining a semblance of coherency for its democratic discourse. It is also what puts the left in something of a tricky position because the fact is necessity at times forces the discourse to coincide with the actions taken. Truth can exist even in lies (and vice versa, of course); there is no contradiction there because any given thing can exist in two seemingly contradictory and mutually opposed states at the same time. Rome, for example, did in some ways bring progress to the territories it conquered and the West can and sometimes will act in ways that facilitates directly democratic advance despite this going against the grain of the social system that conditions its actions. How a given situation is resolved depends purely upon the interplay of the competing tensions at the heart of the original contradiction.
Of course, when such an advance is made; a negation of that advance will necessarily be sought. Were Gaddaffi to be removed by a foreign force then immediately the establishment of ‘law and order’ would be prioritised; in other words, the restriction of the free and independent democratic movement of the Libyan people. Nonetheless this understanding does not rule out a priori support for other more limited interventions which directly assist the peoples battle with Gaddaffi but mitigate the future ability of that outside force to suppress the Libyan people.
However, how can the left come to a sensible conclusion on this question when it so grossly simplifies the very origin of the original query? If you want a simple summation of why the left exists in a state of perpetual crisis (even when capitalism is in crisis itself) then this is simply provided. It has forgotten how to think outside its tiny, tiny box.