The Terror of the Petrolarchs

Dear Perry,

When we recently met for the first time you kindly asked me whether I had read Edward Thompson’s memoir of the death of his brother, Frank. Indeed, I have read this book, and I commend it to you (I gathered you hadn’t yet): E.P. Thompson, Beyond the Frontier: The Politics of a Failed Mission: Bulgaria 1944 (Stanford University Press, 1997).

Frank Thompson was executed by a firing squad in Bulgaria in 1944, set up probably by Churchill who was already organizing the anti-communist post-war mid-east. Perhaps you, Edward’s intellectual antagonist in the wars of the old New Left, and I, one of Edward’s several students, felt his profound grief for the loss of his brilliant brother. Certainly all who read Edward felt his deep attachment to the ideals his brother died for, ruined by the Cold War.

Frank served as an intelligence officer in Iraq. You write now about Europe and Iraq, “The Special Treatment of Iraq.” I want to comment on what you have published here in CounterPunch, because you leave a couple of things out which I think Edward and Frank can make us both remember.

Before mentioning these two omissions, however, let us enjoy a letter that Frank wrote from the Western desert (no uniforms, no hierarchy) in 1942. It echoes the oft-reprinted chapter 15 of Volney’s Ruins, published 150 years earlier almost to the day. Volney also imagined a classless society, after experiencing a mosaic of multicultural multitudes in the mid-east, very much as Malcolm X did in Mecca.

Frank wrote, “there is something epic about this ‘Middle East’ if only one could get a frame for it. the Russians grinning fit to bust and giving the V-sign to every one they pass; the diminutive Iraquis in khaki breeches and puttees mounting guard among the white hollyhocks on the Persian frontier; the Arab legion and the French meharistes, slender and almost girlish in their red-and-white kefiyehs camps like old Tamurlane on the green steppe-land, swaying round the fire in dancesIndians the neatest, cleanest, and most dignified soldiers in our army, coons everywhere, squatting round brush-fires, driving down main roads like a wind out of hell, grinning in road-gangs; Fighting French, Poles, Canucks, yanks in jeeps, huge south Africans ” and so forth. As white brothers, Perry, you and I wince at a diction that is not unaffected by orientalism or anglo racism. Do we not also recognize something else? “This war is demonstrating, beyond any hope of refutation, the Unity of Man. No one, at least who’s been in the Middle East will want to deny it.”

This was written before Israeli independence and before the Arab-American oil pipeline. Yet, he is gesturing towards an epic. There is something at birth–” if only one could get a frame for it “–which the Zionist project and the Seven Sisters put an end to, and which (here your strictures are fully justified) the UN failed to express.

You review six reasons to oppose war with Iraq. You then provide six clever answers to these six reasons. The orderly march of the six’s is then interrupted by a quasi-comic interlude of the three, that is, you provide three explanations of the “vast, passionate revolt” of popular sentiment, before concluding with another set of six, six telegraphic propositions to give the movement staying power. The impulse of enumeration, always allied with analysis has replaced that of understanding. You provide us with a structure of three by six, with an interruption of three. It seems logical with its premises and deductions. Livy, the Roman historian, drew no line between aggression and defensive war. “The war that is necessary is just, and hallowed are the arms where no hope exists but in them.” Conquest, expansion, defense of vested interests, support of the status quo, manifest destiny, the American way of life, these are “necessary.” The banking, diplomatic, and journalist professions, as well as the professions of arms, understand these “necessities.”

You omit another six reasons against: cupidity, concupiscence, greed, exploitation, pollution, and corruption. How could you have missed this? Have you not seen the slogan dripping in red and black from the posters and banners, “No blood for oil”? Have you not paused to consider its meaning? It takes us, afterall, directly to the political economy of war with Iraq. C. George Caffentzis of the University of Southern Maine has provided a threefold interpretation: first, the petrolarchs are thirsting for the one hundred billion barrels of “sweet” reserves in Iraq, and competing with French, Russian, and Chinese concerns. Second, OPEC alone is outside the ambit of neo-liberal free market privatization, a fundamental obstacle to World Bank and WTO structural adjustments. Oil is the base commodity, it is the commodity of value transference, and it contains a rent component. Hence, reflection leads us to a third understanding, that “no blood for oil” entails no blood for profit, or surplus value. This is why in excluding oil from your analysis you also exclude capitalism.

Perry you write of, if not from, and you write to, the mainstream. The mainstream accepts neither discussion of capitalism or alternatives to it. For you the mainstream is certainly a stream that flows in the West from the West. Rather like the “ocean” that surrounded the world’s landmass as envisaged in the earliest maps of the Europeans, this mainstream provides the outer boundary, a moat perhaps, to that ancient Christian mystification called “the West,” the fortress of empire, from which it launched its crusades to the “East,” for Jerusalem. The term has inescapable theocratic or monotheistic vibrations, which are now given full-throated utterance as the voice of empire. Only “chaos,” only “anarchy” resides beyond this mainstream, or Satan!

Since thinking of your problem–why place yourself in the mainstream?–it occurred to me that you may not know, so to speak, of other rivers. An old recitation piece can come to our aid, Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”

I’ve known rivers: I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young. I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep. I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it. I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers: Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

Do not take this as the négritude of the distant 20th century (the color line has not vanished, it corresponds increasingly with class): see rather in these lines a neuration of possibilities.

Some things we know, Perry. We must leave the mainstream, and find other rivers. The mainstream is actually a dried-up, sewer-like place of wretched, craven ideas, a radioactive ditch, a poisoned well, and scarcely purified by the three-by-six matrix of logical filters, or three tablets of protest. From the oil polluted Niger River delta, to the Ganges, we know that we are against capitalism. It is a social system based on privatization, commodity production, and exploitation. In the current period its aspects appear to us as “globalization” or as “neo-liberalism.” Corporate growth and rule, financial control by the World Bank and the IMF, these are its organizational manifestations. It has a continuity with the past, fordism, the assembly line, and the petrolarchy of Rockefeller. We have had to define and to describe it once again. This capitalism is indeed triumphant, and now has launched its bid for the petroleum resources of the globe, the base commodity of development, accumulation, progress. War provides it with vital spirits.

I bathed in the Euphrates. In his Letter to America (1980) Edward Thompson quoted President Truman writing in his notebook on 25 July 1945, “We have discovered the most terrible bomb in the history of the world. It may be the fire destruction prophesied in the Euphrates Valley era, after Noah and his fabulous ark.” Thompson comments, “The president’s literal biblical reference is touching, and touching also was his confidence that his instructions to the Secretary of War that the weapon be used on a “purely military target” only, and not “women and children,’ would be obeyed by the military executors.” After Bush’s press conference, we find more than a touch of sentiment. Imperial presidents ally themselves closely to the Jahwistic deity of Old Testament destruction raining down the frogs, and fire, and floods, and boils, &c. in a stun-and-awe campaign from the pastoral stage of history to justify Hiroshima. True, the habitat of this projection, or this idol, is along the Euphrates River. The mainstream replaces political economy of war with the theocracy of war.

Besides capitalism, the mainstream does not recognize the practicality of the old commons, that “primitive communism” mocked by the Stalin of the Baku oil fields. This is your other omission. We are against capitalism. We are for common wealth. We know this from our experience as proletarians, since we make that wealth through cooperation. We have been expropriated from our commons. In Central America, Amazonas, the Indian subcontinent, the Afghan mountains, the forests of Sumatra and Indonesia, and in the Middle East, this is the story of our era–call it the New Enclosures as we did in Midnight Notes. From the transhumance of the Kurdish highlands to the people of the reeds in the Tigris and Euphrates, we know some meanings of cooperation and common property. The migrations that result bring an experience of a home, of a village, of an olive grove, of a pasture, of a little woodlot, of a field, of a stream; it is the experience of subsistence, and it is often hidden from state and patriarchal forms. On the one hand, this is the ancient cry of the slave and proletarian–Spartacus led the revolt of slaves for the ager publicus, the common land. On the other hand it is always ridiculed, scorned, derided by the powers that be, for they wish to turn these memories into a sickness such as nostalgia or amnesia, a private longing designed to make us forget or cry in our beer over ‘backward modes of production.’ Toughen up, says the mainstream. Sink or swim.

The multilateral terror of petrolarchy in Iraq has put an end to its commons, and recently. Gavin Maxwell, People of the Reeds (Harper,1957) accompanied Wilfred Thesiger and he relied on his famous contribution to the January 1954, Journal of the Royal Central Asian Society for knowledge of the people of the reeds. This was the form that the commons took in the Tigris and Euphrates valleys. ” these cultivators reckoned the seasons by the rising and setting of certain stars, the Pleiadies and the Dog-star for instance. At the beginning of each new season, the land on either side of the canal below Rufaiya was marked off with real pegs into plots of equal breadth, for which the villages cast lots. Generally a man found himself with several plots in different places. He might then join up in partnership with others or cultivate his portion by himself with the help of his family.” Wilfred Thesiger, The Marsh Arabs (Oxford,1964). They live on floating islands, baffling maze of reed beds, movement is by boat. Trade is despised. The mudhif is a barrel vaulted guest house built entirely of reeds and matting. 5,000 years old, ribbed roof and traceried windows. The marsh Arabs lived in a reed commons–it is ancient, precapitalist. Intimate with animals. Hunters and gatherers. Charging wild boar, women hardening buffalo dung, the cathedral-like mudhif, the dancing boys, the mockery of prayer and sodomy, the untreated diseases. For five millennia they subsisted.

V. Gordon Childe, the New Zealand Marxist archaeologist explained that writing, ceramics, and the city came from the cradle of civilization on the Tigris and the Euphrates. Yes, we look now less at techne than at social relations: the periodic cancellation of debts; the jubilee of land re-distribution; the communal ethic. Now expropriated.

We can observe the style of expropriation from an Anglo to an American mode by an anecdote from Harold Nicholson, upper class English diplomat, who at the 1919 Versailles conference helped Lord Curzon get into his trousers. He made himself useful, and wrote amusing recollections of ‘some people,’ including the American, Miriam Codd. Much as he might detest her lingo of ‘behavioralism,’ and her assiduous refusal to understand others she is a more apt personage to sum up the objective historic currents than Lawrence–the Americans were taking over. En route to Bagdad, crossing the Tigris and Euphrates, they came to the desert. “My!” she exclaimed, “it isn’t flat.” “No, Mrs. Codd, the Arabian desert is not flat. It is, in fact, intersected by mountains.” Mrs. Codd had closed her eyes again and pretended to be asleep. It was possible that she did not care for information.” The portrait grows in vicious malice of that polite Edwardian kind. “And on we went. The sun was above us. The sun sank behind. Towards evening three vultures scattered at our passage: they flapped off languidly with trailing feet, and settled again some fifteen yards away: the body of an Arab lay there with the guts exposed: he was the first human being we had seen for four hundred miles. Mrs. Codd glanced at him indifferently, as if at a cinema poster passed at Purley. The Colonel said, “My God! Did you see that?”

That is one aspect of the expropriation. Another is told in Ghassan Kanafani’s classic story of the Palestinian diaspora, and the Persian Gulf proletariat. Men in the Sun, translated Hilary Kilpatrick (Three continents Press, 1983). Abu Qais falls to the ground at the Shatt al-Arab, the name of the river after the Tigris and Euphrates join each other. Remembering them from a childhood geography lesson, “When the two great rivers, Tigris and Euphrates, meet ” c. 1956 the Palestinian carried all his years on his shoulders and fled across the desert to Kuwait to find a crust of bread. Alien and insignificant. Ten years and lost “your trees, your house, your youth, and your whole village. Ten olive trees. He threw himself on the earth again at Basra, “the scent of the earth rose to his nostrils and poured into his veins like a flood.”

We know, in general, that the expropriation happened before in England. Given the destruction of the people of the reeds, we can look at it more exactly. In 1772 the court of King’s Bench accepted oral testimony from Theberton, Suffolk, that “everybody in the world may cut rushes on the common.” Though two years later this was reversed in a case arising from Ludham Waste, Norfolk, which did not extend the right to cut rushes to inhabitants as too vague a description.” “Rushes, reeds and useful grasses were also good for bedding, as a netting in the plastering of walls, and a wrapping for soft milk cheeses. They made cheap, bright rushlights too: a labouring families got more than five hours of ‘comfortable light’ for a farthing, and reported that a pound and a half of rushes gave a year’s light because they were used chiefly in winter: ‘working people burn no candle in the long days, because they rise and go to bed by daylight.’ William Cobbett was brought up reading winter nights by rush-light. His grandmother never burned a candle in her life. “It is to blaspheme God to suppose that he created men to be miserable, to hunger, thirst, and perish with cold, in the midst of that abundance which is the fruit of their own labour.”

In 1950 Edward Thompson wrote a poem, “A Place Called Choice.” Remarkably, the common of the rushes supplies the materials for the light enabling the English working class to be made.

“Paine’s Rights of Man which once in some high Pennine valley The weaver at his handloom, straining by rushlight, read.”

Or again,

” In the frost-blue flames Of the handloom weaver’s rushlight the heroic shadows leap”

We have this choice too, though the places have changed. We are not consigned by inevitable laws or gods to the spaces of the mainstream.

You put us down, Perry, the millions who poured into the planetary streets–“fixation of the fan club, politics of the spectacle, and ethics of fright.” You chide us, “great mass movements are not to be judged by tight logical standards.” Are we loose and disorderly? Are we illogical? Are we below standard? This is despicable; it is not helpful. Our history is always made by masses of us, whether in Hyde Park, the Hill of Tara, Woodstock, Tompkins Square, People’s Park, the Champs Elysée, the mall of Washington DC. That’s when we know that we are many, and they are few. Shoulder to shoulder, mile upon mile, we see, hear, and feel it. A generation of historians has taught and studied the crowd, the mob, the mass. To enclose it, the Romans developed the stadium. To control it, the Riot Act was passed. To channel it, cities were redesigned. There is a politics to the movement, not a spectacle, or fright, or fans. Hence, the importance of slogans, hence the millions of images of the placards, posters, and signs we shoot around the planet. From these we begin to smile, and to feel our strength. We listen for other voices. Groups form; literature is addressed; the old parties feel young; and the new find voice. Logical standards grow from our movements! When it moves fast, in can have insurrection in mind. So, we must assert, the mass movements may judge the logical standards, not vice versa.

We also are not ignorant of history. We know, for instance, that when disaster hits, as it did in the wars against the French revolution, or against the American confederacy, or in world War One, it is also a time when the buried longings can become realized into the powerful revolutionary forces of history–the Haitian revolution, the freedom of the American slaves, the clarion of the Paris Commune, the third world struggles associated with the names of James Connolly, or Claude McKay, or Rosa Luxemburg. We do not advocate disaster. We do not advocate Zion. The seeds of the new society are picked by little birds in the ashes of the old and carried hither and yon.

How to we get from what we are against to what we are for? The distance from here to there is the project of our organizing and our practice now, in the parks, in the commons, in the streets, in the fields of the metropolis. Here is where we embark on the steps required to build the force that can restore a common wealth. Socialism, anarchism, communism, feminism, environmentalism, pacifism, vegetarianism provide the libraries of our heritage which have been renewed, invigorated, in the streets. The opportunity we have now is to interface with those commoners who have been let loose by the violences of war, expropriation, rape, and terror. The third world is in the cities of the north. This is the meaning of our slogans, “the whole world is watching” or “this is what democracy looks like.” We sense our historical task.

We build on a) the indigenous peoples who are the people with a relationship to the commons; we build on b) the anti-globalization protests that began at Seattle and have traversed the planet–Melbourne, Davos, Porto Allegre, Nice, the people who dream the commons; we build on c) the Durban conference on reparations, the people who want justice. These are the rivers, Perry. Jump in. The water’s fast-moving but infinitely welcome.

Frank Thomson and Iris Murdoch were lovers. At Oxford they studied Agammemon together. During war he wrote her, “the question of building a new communal ethic is one of the most important that we have to elaborate.” This is what we are doing in the streets, in the great demonstrations, the beautiful manifestations. We are practicing this communal ethic. (Vandana Shiva, Maria Miess, help to guide us). (None of this is to be found in the movie about Iris Murdoch). Many years later Iris Murdoch concluded a poem in memoriam of Frank,

The young are bored by stories of the war. And you, the other young who stayed there In the land of the past are courteous and pale, Aloof, holding your fates.

In studying Aeschylus they read how the common soldiers bemoaned their lot in life, their fate. Yet, it was George Thomson, the Marxist classicist beloved of Ireland, who pointed out that in this case “fate” referred originally to the lots cast for the divvying up the common lands. The question before us is how can we divvy up, in justice and in equality, the wealth of oil, which has belonged to None and must belong to All. To leave the oil to the Few, the petrolarchs, brings terror and the shameless bulimic ethic of bloated binge and ghastly vomit as ‘a planetary way of life.’

PETER LINEBAUGH teaches history at Bard. He is the author of two of CounterPunch’s favorite books, The London Hanged and (with Marcus Rediker) The Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. He can be reached at:


Peter Linebaugh is the author of The London HangedThe Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (with Marcus Rediker) and Magna Carta Manifesto. Linebaugh’s latest book is Red Round Globe Hot Burning. He can be reached at: