Making a killing

Corporate Carve-Up

Oxford’s tireless chroniclers of the hypocrisies and hidden realities of big business, Corporate Watch, have recently released a first-of-its-kind report on the extent of the role of UK companies in Iraq since 2003: Corporate Carve-Up.

Naturally, UK involvement is dwarfed next to American involvement. As David Whyte says in his foreword, “If US business is the dominant predator here, then British business is the scavenger.” This report presents up-to-date details of UK companies contracted to reap the benefits of reconstructing Iraq in the wake of the British army helping to deconstruct it. A brief analysis of the economic context to this process is given, together with listings of conferences and events that show how the occupying governments and the transitionary authorities they installed in Iraq have opened all the doors to the victors’ business interests.

Particularly revealing is the look at the private security business; even though US giants like Halliburton and Bechtel dominate the general reconstruction market, UK private security and military operations “are easily neck and neck with their US counterparts”. Chief among these is Aegis, a company who won the “three-year $430m Pentagon contract to coordinate the top military/security companies in Iraq”. As for Halliburton and many others, the Iraq war has been a boom time for Aegis, whose turnover “has gone from £554,000 in 2003 to £62m in 2005; three quarters of this is from work in Iraq.” The implicit “revolving door relationship between regular and private military” belies the Foreign Office’s guidelines for dealing with private security companies, providing a specific example of the general complex web of interwoven interests between state actions and private wealth.

In a complex world, we all have images, stories or myths that underpin our rational thinking, helping to give manageable shape to the welter of information about the world around us. More and more contemporary cognitive research is confirming and explaining this fact, giving a more grounded basis for the brilliant but inevitably imperfect initial psychological forays of Carl Jung. But Jung’s advice holds; while it’s impossible to rid ourselves of these background images, we can become more conscious of them, and allow that consciousness to help us guard against possession by them. Bringing them to consciousness isn’t just a prelude to rubbishing them and thus being “free” and rational—such is the naive way that leads to their replacement by other, now wholly unconscious, and thus more perilous images.

Regarding the operations of large-scale power in the world, my own image is one that sees formerly obvious, overt impositions of power by the few over the many becoming ever-more complexified and inscrutable. Feudalism and monarchic dictatorship is challenged by libertarian revolutions and ideologies, but there is never a clear-cut overturning of the structures of power. More often than not, entrenched power moves defensively to become more amorphous, less susceptible to direct investigation and attack. My image, then, is a kind of “hyper Hydra”: worldly power as a beast that at first responds to decapitation by growing more heads than it had before, but eventually responds by sinking back into its lake home, leaving the swords of attack to slash vainly through the waves. An unexpectedly Taoist aspect to power—behind the hard, hollow puppets presented for us to rail against.

The idea that greed and need for oil is the ultimate motive behind the invasion of Iraq is popular, but rarely taken seriously in mainstream media. It’s an important truth, laying bare some of the basic aspects of the current global crisis. But there are other factors, and they’ve nothing to do with benevolence or WMDs. As we have come to equate justice and freedom with democracy, and democracy with free-market capitalism, we’ve lost sight of the rapaciousness of the hydra beneath the watery feel-good visions of humanitarian rhetoric. Our culture’s economic doctrines and dogmas work to wrap old-fashioned plundering in slippery notions of “progress” and “development”.

While the world remains inherently complex, navigating it frequently involves moves to drag its more basic underlying aspects into view, to spark revelations that can help guide us through. Corporate Carve-Up is a small but revealing contribution to the project of pulling the Hydra to the surface.

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