[You may think this is all about Egypt; it's a reading, really, of David Harvey's influential The New Imperialism which was written in the lead-up to the Second Iraq War, at a time when Egyptian revolutions were just a gleam in Mubarak's bootblack's eye.]
I) Kumbaya Capitalism
Harvey's reading of Imperialism is miles away from the sameold, which runs something like this: the major industrial countries produce too much, and after a while they need new markets for their sh... I mean, their products, and so they need to "open up" new markets; then they fight each other for the privilege, end of story have a nice war. Harvey takes another tack: the capitalists need new markets so they create new demand (not just new geographical markets), for instance by bombing the bejeezus out of Iraq and that creates a big demand for just about everything once the dust has cleared. If that's the case, then Iraq was a case of bad, bad, US Imperialism; but Egypt? Hey! We're helping them find their way to Freedom and Democracy!
Of course that was the reasoning behind Iraq's invasion, too; and Harvey hasn't missed the fact that Egypt and Iraq are in the same area, roughly, as Ukraine, Iran, and few other countries where revolutions are know to occur more or less spontaneously of late. This does not necessarily mean the CIA's behind the Egyptian revolution, only that it would be in the general interest of the US to have some kind of control over an area that still produces much of the world's oil and that acts as a spatial buffer between Russia and Europe, India and Europe, China and the oilfields, not to mention the Suez Canal. Control over this area, according to the Obama Doctrine, need not come out of the barrel of a gun, it can come from a bunch of happy Egyptians who "share our values:" What a peaceful world this would be if everybody sat around like us Americans, getting fat on overpriced junk: Fritos and Democracy! So the logic of America's "intervention" in Egypt is not so much the logic of occupying physical space but of creating markets to supply. Harvey's a geographer by training and he has an interesting theory that the logic of space and the logic of capital are occasionally in synch, occasionally not, and that as capital becomes global it enters into conflicts and contradictions with the separate nations that seemed at first to control its flow, the US for instance. Harvey's concerned with the new global logic of capital expansion and contraction, and here he takes a page from Rosa Luxemburg, redefining the concept of the "Primitive Accumulation of Capital" to fit a global economy.
II) Rubin Sandwich
As Marx and Adam Smith tell it, the capitalists need some raw material to get started: land, or cash, or folks to work for them at starvation wages – especially folks, because contrary to the free-market myth, people don't "freely" chose to work in sweatshops unless you want to argue that they freely chose to be kicked off their land and then to freely move to the Big City because they're now vagrants and freely subject to arrest. (Which would make them not so free, actually.) To many Marxists "Primitive Accumulation" is a one-time thing, it happened some time between the seventeenth and the nineteenth century in Europe, and once it got started the machine of Capital rolled on. For Harvey accumulation occurs again and again, every time a homeowner in Michigan's evicted or a farmer in Michoacan flees the drug lords for El Norte. Capitalism needs to create markets for its goods and it will happily create those markets any way and anywhere, whether by building a school in Egypt (with computers kindly donated by Bill Gates, that will require expensive new software periodically), or by bombing schools in Iraq, which will require periodic rebuilding by teams on the American payroll. Or again: Cappie can reduce the surplus capital in one country or another by "exporting" it to other countries where it can be used to buy up all the abandoned land and hire the jobless campesinos who've just been conveniently accumulated. Of course, as Harvey points out, the capitalists could simply redistribute income to their own citizens through improved health care or better infrastructure, but noooo, that would be communism, and as Aristotle pointed out a long time ago, communism can really mess up your ruling class.
It used to be that American capitalists were happy to bomb Germany or Japan in order to rebuild. The crazed Surrealist Georges Bataille thought there was something sexy about all this rebuilding and destroying, to him the Marshall Plan was the equivalent of guys getting off. Now, because Capital is global, it has no qualms about reducing Flint to rubble, either. The whole world then becomes a stage of alternating boom-and-bomb scenarios where Country X is raided by the IMF while Country Y is the new "Economic Miracle," meaning it's being fattened for the kill: Fascism, as Benjamin pointed out, is the aestheticization of the political; it's therefore the aestheticization of economic processes: all that sexy footage of folks in Tahrir Square. In the days after the fall of Ben Ali, an economic adviser to the French Embassy in Tunis explained that Ben Ali had to go because he was so corrupt that he was soaking up all the investment money from abroad and none of it was going into "profitable" investments in Tunisia – glad that's over, aren't we? The reality is, that the countries of the Southern Rim of the Mediterranean Basin have been crushed by the drop in exports to Europe, the local "primitives" are being accumulated at an accelerated rate, and an Egyptian "revolution" offers enormous opportunities for fresh investments and IMF loans. Clearly neither Mubarak nor Ben Ali were competent to channel those loans in the right direction; and now that Mubarak's gone the Times is making similar accusations against the Egyptian Army – not that the same system shouldn't remain in place, just that it should be better run. Remember those glowing articles in the Wall Street Journal about the "Irish Tiger?" Now you can look forward to glowing articles about how sexy the Egyptian Camel is, unless matters should get out of hand. Should the Egyptian Army decide the striking Egyptian workers need a little bit more of that old free-market discipline the New York Times will surely rush to condemn the massacre in the name of free-market freedom, which puts the Army in an interesting bind and explains their caution. "Hillary, we don't mind crushing the Egyptian working class for you, but you might at least say Thank You..."
III) The Mushroom Brotherhood.
I once had the pleasure of taking a seminar with Eric Hobsbawm, the great Marxist historian, a man of incomparable charm, kindness and vitality. At one point he remarked with unfeigned surprise that workers in the early days of the Soviet Union were not happy going back to the same, dreary jobs, even if their goal was the building of a Worker's Paradise. Apparently the Egyptian Army feels the same way as Hobsbawm, minus the feigning and surprise. So do the global business elites: According to the World Bank, which cares deeply about such things, Egypt is the only large country that's actually reversed the flow of poor people from the countryside to the cities: probably the only country that has done so without a catastrophic external cause. This is disturbing to dyed-in-the-red-wool communists as much as to neo-global capitalists because in the beast-laid plans of capitalists and old-fashioned communists developing countries are supposed to naturally move toward greater and greater industrialization and urbanization, and that is known as "Modernization," and Modernization, as we all know, is inevitable. Inevitably there forms a "Reserve Army of Labor" as Marx called it, an army ready for plucking or organizing, and usually both; but as Harvey warned back in 2002,the resistance to globalization may not necessarily take the form of workers in overalls seizing control of the Winter Palace – they do have winters in Egypt, don't they? One of the most marked features of the Egyptian Revolution was already prefigured in the rural Zapatista uprising of 1994: the Zapatistas were not interested in seizing power, they wanted power to cease seizing on them; Harvey calls these "anti-dependency movements." A week or so back, AlJazeera decided to interview the Egyptian economist Gouda Abdel Khaleq, who was supposed to say that Egypt was in deep financial trouble and only huge IMF loans could bring it out of its misery, but Khaleq kept talking instead about subsistence farming and autonomy until the anchor switched to the other economist, who dutifully told AlJazeera what they wanted their audience to hear.
There's an old Civil Rights joke: "Why do white folks always invite two black people to their parties? - In case the first one doesn't work out as planned." What happens next in Egypt if the first Revolution for Freedom and Democracy doesn't work out as expected? We'll know soon enough.
[2/18/2011; revised 8/24/2012]