By Gray, John
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 131, No. 4615
The new world order is consigned to the rubbish heap, and the outlines of the world in which we will live over the coming century have become clearer. The end of secular ideology has not brought peace. It has simply changed the character of war. In the Persian Gulf and central Asia, in Africa and the South China Sea, we see nations playing out new struggles. Those struggles are about the control of scarce resources. Ideological conflicts are being replaced by geopolitics. The strategic rivalries of the cold war are being followed by resource wars.
This, in many ways, is a return to normalcy. The ideological struggles of the 20th century were extremely anomalous. Throughout history, wars have been fought over gold and diamonds, access to rivers and fertile land. If we find the emergent pattern of conflict unfamiliar, it is because we are still haunted by 19th-century utopian visions in which the spread of industry throughout the world ushers in an age of perpetual peace.
Until mid-Victorian times, most thinkers regarded scarcity in the necessities of life as the natural human condition. They agreed with Malthus that there are limits to growth -- particularly in human numbers. The earth's resources are finite; they cannot be stretched to accommodate the unlimited wants of an exponentially growing human population. As John Stuart Mill argued, this does not mean there is no prospect of improving the quality of human life. New inventions can bring a comfortable and leisurely existence to increasing numbers of people, so long as overall human numbers are themselves kept in check. Human progress cannot transgress the limits imposed by natural scarcity.
With the accelerating advance of the industrial revolution, this insight was lost. With few exceptions, the great economists and social theorists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries believed that, with the rise of industrialism, scarcity could be overcome. Marx and Keynes disagreed on many fundamental points, but they were one in believing that in modern industrial economies natural resources are basically irrelevant. If Marx envisioned a world in which goods had become so abundant that they need not have a price, Keynes was not far behind in declaring that mankind's economic problems had been solved.
Towards the end of the 20th century; Hayek voiced a similar view, when he insisted that in a world ruled by the free market there were no insuperable limits to economic growth. This fantasy has become part of the conventional wisdom of all mainstream parties, whose leaders never tire of reciting the Nineties mantra that we live in weightless economies that are decreasingly dependent on the limited resources of the earth.
The belief that resource scarcity can be transcended by industrialism unites many seemingly antagonistic political standpoints. When neoliberals announced that the collapse of communism meant the end of history, they showed how much they have in common with their Marxist opponents. They assumed that once the struggle of capitalism with central planning had ended, so would geopolitical conflict. In the global free market, as in Marx's vision of world communism, there would be no shortage of the necessities of life.
It did not occur to these breathless missionaries of the free market that worldwide industrialisation might trigger a new and dangerous kind of conflict. Like Marx, they took it for granted that wars of scarcity are relics of the pre-industrial past.
Yet the neoliberals, unlike Marx, had a clear example of a resource war waged by an advanced industrial society right under their noses. Even more clearly than the likely war in Iraq, the Gulf war was fought to retain control of western energy supplies. If Saddam had been allowed to take Kuwait, he would have controlled a crucial part of the world's oil reserves. There is plenty of oil left in the world; but most of it is much more expensive to extract than the oil that lies in the regions around Iraq and Kuwait. …