No champions of democracy

David Cameron's gun-toting trade tour is a much-needed reminder of imperialism's real interest in the Middle East, writes James Turley

When David Cameron delivered a speech attacking multiculturalism last month, much of the inevitable controversy focused on his timing - it coincided with an English Defence League protest - which turned out to be its largest yet. Cameron pointed out, not unreasonably, that the conference at which he spoke had been in his diary for some months; he could hardly be accused of being deliberately inflammatory, except by the content of his speech.

However, when he includes the representatives of no less than eight arms firms amongst the British capitalists on a trade tour of the Middle East at a time when the whole region has erupted into protest, he cannot seek refuge in prior appointments. The repressive regimes the prime minister claims to oppose have brought to bear everything from CS gas to airstrikes on dissidents - and now he hopes to sell them more. It is a nakedly cynical bit of money-grubbing for British capitalism: there is no reason why something as profitable as the arms trade should be interrupted by the democratic aspirations of the pesky Arab masses.

The resultant furore is the latest in a long line of indicators that imperialism has been utterly wrong-footed by the Arab revolts. The first major upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt drew some of the least enthusiastic endorsements of democracy from the United States and Britain since 9/11, which served as a spurious alibi for repressive global police actions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Only when it became clear to everyone else in the world, it seemed, that Ben Ali and Mubarak simply could not survive such deep popular opposition could the likes of Barack Obama, Cameron and foreign secretary William Hague bring themselves to acknowledge that their favoured strongmen would have to step aside.

The substantially more brutal methods of repression favoured in Libya by Muammar al-Gaddafi - whose links to imperialism, though real, are shallower and less well-established - presented the west with a chance to reassert its tattered moral authority in the region. Day by day, calls for sanctions and other forms of quasi-military (or just plain military) intervention gather steam. Forget the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are told: Something Needs to be Done.

A fine moment, then, for Cameron to set off on his jaunt to the Middle East, as if nothing had happened - let alone what some are calling the ‘Arab 1848’. The first stop was Egypt; one almost has to have a grudging respect for the sheer balls of the man. How many western leaders, short of an improbable ascension of Henry Kissinger to the US presidency, could bring themselves to troop a gang of arms dealers through the hotel lobbies of Cairo at a time like this?

After all, it was the west which armed Hosni Mubarak’s regime over decades. It is Britain, specifically, which has armed Gaddafi since Tony Blair’s high-profile overtures to the tottering tyrant in 2004. It is now a known fact that British-made armoured personnel carriers have been mobilised against protestors, and very likely that British-made CS canisters and sniper rifles are also in use. No less than 50 British firms were present at an arms fair in Libya only last year, and total exports in this sector from Britain to Libya amount to some £100 million since the infamous 2004 handshake between Gaddafi and Tony Blair.

Cameron, defending his arms trade jolly, has pointed out that Britain has some of the ‘strictest’ rules on arms exports in the world - which seems to amount to formal assurances that shipments of weaponry will not be used to ‘violate human rights’. It does not take a genius to work out that this is a cover story - and a pretty shaky one at that. “What did the [foreign office] think colonel Gaddafi meant to do with sniper rifles and tear-gas grenades?” asked Simon Jenkins in the Guardian. “Go mole hunting?” (February 22). As a rearguard PR action, the foreign office has revoked 52 arms export licences to Libya and Bahrain - which, as Jenkins points out, amounts to an admission of guilt.

There are two matters arising from this tragicomic affair which must be highlighted. The first is ABC anti-imperialism. Those voices clamouring for western intervention in Libya should be told where to get off. The United States, Britain, France and the rest are no great white hope upon which the Libyan masses can rely to make selfless sacrifices in the service of a forthright commitment to democracy. Until a few months ago, Ben Ali, Mubarak and even to some extent Gaddafi were allies. Not only were they tolerated: they were artificially propped up and provided with arms whose only conceivable use is in putting down popular unrest.

The imperialists do not want democracy in the Middle East - they want their needs met. Most infamous among these needs are the region’s prodigious natural resources - principally oil - but there are broader strategic-geopolitical concerns at work too. If these needs can be met by a notionally democratic regime, so much the better to save spin doctors a few headaches. If not, so be it. The bourgeoisie, far from being ‘naturally’ democratic, will take every opportunity to contain and limit the rights of the masses if it thinks it can get away with it. The democratic gains achieved in Britain, as elsewhere, were not handed down to us from above: every one of them had to be fought for and won against our rulers’ opposition.

More than that, as an old French saying has it, supporting the machinations of imperialism is worse than a crime: it is a mistake. The fundamental premise of such politics is that, without the beneficence of the US and its allies, the poor, beleaguered Libyan masses will simply be crushed into nothingness by Gaddafi’s war machine. Quite the opposite; before any UN resolutions and so forth, the rebels had already seized control of the east, amid large-scale army defections (though the army has been gutted over decades by Gaddafi in order to circumscribe threats to his power). Attempts by western governments to isolate Gaddafi, and promises of kangaroo-court hearings for his supporters, make him - if anything - more likely to insist on going down in blood and fire.

The second major issue is the strategic importance of arms production within capitalism overall. The emergence of capitalism as a fully-fledged mode of production in different countries, from Venice to Britain to France, was inevitably marked by wars of expansion; more recently, the post-war recovery in the capitalist world dovetailed with a substantial rise in arms expenditure by peacetime standards.

Dwight Eisenhower, himself an old military man, famously signed off as president of the United States by warning of the growing power of the “military-industrial complex” (which, tellingly, he could only safely do beyond the point where he could threaten that power - it would better be called the military-industrial-political complex). On the other side of the political spectrum, Marxists - notably Tony Cliff and Michael Kidron of the Socialist Workers Party and its predecessors, as well as the influential Trotskyist, Ernest Mandel - have frequently attempted to theorise this phenomenon. One does not have to endorse their conclusions to acknowledge that the persistent resurfacing of the arms question in Marxist theory indicates some level of real significance.

Arms production is of necessity particularly closely integrated with the state, which is the principal consumer of its products. Expenditure in the sector is wasteful, even by the standards of a mode of production where waste has a certain use-value. However, because its products can invariably find a market among the states of the world, it acts as a backdoor stimulus to the economy as a whole.

Thus, arms production is heavily subsidised. Some sense of the scale of this can be surmised by examining the scandal surrounding the so-called Al-Yamamah contract between BAE and the Saudi government. When the serious fraud office - more than a decade after the first indications of fraud and bribery on BAE’s part - seemed close to uncovering substantial legal violations surrounding the sale of fighter jets to Saudi Arabia (the sums of money involved ran into the billions of pounds), government pressure led to the investigation being canned in 2006. The blame for this was laid at the door of the Saudis, who threatened to cease cooperation on counter-terrorism if things went further; nevertheless, it is an indicator of how business is done in the arms trade, and the close integration with sections of the state. The BAE scandal is a large and very public example of the kind of deals conducted at innumerable arms fairs and high-profile lobbying missions ... like Cameron’s Middle East jaunt. In this world, it is a necessary part of the business of politicians to sell weaponry to tin-pot dictators.

The political consequence is inescapable. Scrapping the arms trade - this corrupt and repugnant junket dedicated to the production of mass murder - requires, more than any other sector of capitalist production, the destruction of the political rule of the bourgeoisie, and the winning of the type of extreme democracy to which Cameron et al will not even bother paying lip service.