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How our mobile phones and plastic toys help to prop up dictatorships

Leif Wenar's Blood Oil skillfully reveals the link between the consumer goods we purchase and the violence with which their raw materials are obtained.

“Telling the person in the seat next to you that you are interested in philosophy,” writes Leif Wenar, “will often result in an uninterrupted flight.” It is a lesson that Wenar – the chair of philosophy and law at King’s College London and an expert on international property rights  – seems to have learned better than most members of his profession. He must like to talk on aeroplanes, because in Blood Oil, he brings a wonderfully light touch to his subject and steers clear of hard philosophy. It’s just as well, because his subject is the theft, plunder and murder that accompany res­ource extraction in the developing world: not exactly easy reading to start with.

Resource control is an issue that we have perhaps grown a little tired of hearing about in recent years, one that nags us from some far-off corner of our conscience but that we don’t feel we can do very much about. We know that venal tyrants in benighted klepto-dictatorships control the world’s supply of oil, gas, diamonds, coltan, phosphates, and so on. We know the money that they make from these blood minerals only makes them more unaccountable, more corrupt and more entrenched in power, fuelling a cycle of lobbying, bribery, import dependency, civil war and even global terrorism. It has been so for years, and nobody has come up with a solution that doesn’t involve ripping up the rules of international relations. Wenar, however, urges us to do better: to think harder, to look closer and to realise that we already have at our disposal most of the tools to put a stop to the madness.

Blood Oil starts from the proposition that most property is theft. Not inherently, perhaps – not in the classic, overdetermined Marxist sense (Wenar is a consummate liberal). But as a practical, legal matter, he writes, virtually everything that you own today, every item of clothing, every plastic toy, every beauty product that you smear on your body, has been manufactured from raw materials stolen at gunpoint by thugs of one variety or another. He gives the example of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where young men with guns stand guard over mines drawing everything from copper and coltan to cobalt out of the ground. These resources, in turn, are snapped up hungrily by factories in China, which turn them into, say, an elegant pair of spectacles with a designer logo on them.

“This defective link is the first link,” Wenar reminds us. Everything that follows is morally compromised.

The “men of blood” who control the world’s resources have the “right” to sell those materials only because of their ability to muscle their way to the top from behind the safety and security of their countries’ borders. Their impunity, in other words, derives from the concept of state sovereignty, an outdated relic of the order enshrined in the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. For centuries, Wenar says, our theory of international relations has been based on the premise that no country has a right to interfere with what takes place within the borders of another, because we have assumed that the alternative is anarchy. Yet it no longer has to be this way.

The “legal transaction is the moment of moral transition”, he tells us: “the moment at which foreign injustice can enter our own justice system, and where moral contamination can slip across our borders wrapped in a cloak of law”. The mobile phone in your pocket might be legally recognised as your “property” by UK law but it is nothing of the kind. It is merely the scrubbed-up end product of a supply chain that is built on layer after layer of violently stolen goods – a bloody palimpsest. And this, Wenar writes, is where we have an opportunity to turn things around.

The simple solution, he tells us, is to enforce property law as if it were a universal human principle, one that transcends the jurisdictions of sovereign states. So, if an illegitimate dictator or brutal warlord makes money selling raw materials, products derived from those materials should be treated as illegal and there should be a price to pay for trading in them.

For the most part, Wenar reminds us, we have the tools that we need to do this. Again and again, international law has enshrined certain principles as being bigger than the rights of sovereign states: the Wilsonian principles of national self-determination, the abolition of slavery and apartheid, the maxim that a country’s resources belong to the people (a notion that, Wenar shows, almost every leader of every political persuasion has at least paid lip-service to). It is simply a matter of upholding those principles in a meaningful way, without hiding behind state sovereignty. All we have to do, he suggests, is get every government in the world to sign an international “Declaration on Trade in Natural Resources” – similar to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948 – and then enforce it.

It sounds great. But the world doesn’t work that way and Wenar knows it. The solutions he offers, after 300 pages of build-up, are clever and creative but unlikely ever to see the light of day. His flagship proposal is that some powerful country (probably the United States) should pass a “clean trade act” – in essence, placing sanctions on countries with unaccountable leaders and making it illegal to import their resources. There is a reason that this has not been done before: almost certainly, it would result in retaliatory measures and a worsening of the US’s already troubled relationship with particular parts of the world. It is also the definition of draconian. Wenar tells us that Norway is the only oil-exporting country that is truly ethical. Are we going to stop buying oil from everyone but Norway?

Wenar also calls for a “Clean Hands Trust”, a complicated arrangement by which tariffs would be placed on Chinese goods made with “stolen” raw materials from unaccountable countries, with the money collected in a trust fund and eventually released directly to the citizens of those countries once their governments become more accountable. Supposedly, this would give China an incentive to stop buying from dictators, as well as give oppressed people a reason to press their governments for change.
In reality, it would just result in a trade war with China and a recession in the US.

No matter. Wenar is an idealist. He has little patience for those who say that it “can’t be done”. At his best, he is nearly convincing. As he reminds us repeatedly, abolishing the slave trade came at huge “costs” to Britain in the 19th century. The British paid higher prices for sugar; taxes rose; businesses suffered; and 5,000 lives were lost at sea as Britain patrolled the Atlantic trying to enforce the ban on slave ships. But it was done because it had to be done. And now, Wenar says, it has to be done again. It is difficult to argue with this point.

The greatest strength of Blood Oil is Wenar’s writing. Laced with memorable anecdotes, skilful analogies and clear metaphors, the book is a masterclass in how to break down complex issues for a lay audience without losing scholarly integrity. You could place this book in front of an intellectually curious 17-year-old just as easily as you could assign it to a roomful of furrowed-browed postgraduate students. Wenar wears his erudition lightly. He has the decency to confine most of his abstruse reasoning to the epilogue, where it can be skipped by those who don’t want to spend their time decoding sentences such as: “This is an ideal-based consequentialism – a theory that judges everything by its contribution to the ideal, and with the ideal set by the maximum achievement of freely unified ends.” The rest of the book is written with us mortals in mind.

One area where Blood Oil falls short is its handling of the geopolitics of the Middle East. For Wenar, the oil-rich regimes of the region are all the same and the question of “how to deal with them” is a simple matter of applying a uniform set of guidelines derived from concerns related to natural resource politics. This is a common shortcoming of the American left: the overemphasis on oil as the cause of the Middle East’s problems. Iran, Saudi Arabia and Isis are the same in this equation – all disasters that can easily be walked away from by reducing our dependence on oil. Never mind that both Israel and the Cold War have played important roles in shaping Western policy towards the region.

For Wenar, it is all about oil. He refers more than once to Syria, for example, as a “petrostate”, implying that oil is responsible for today’s carnage. But Syria, even before 2011, was a minor oil producer, putting out barely 300,000 barrels a day, which accounted for less than 25 per cent of its GDP. Oil is not what drove Syria into the abyss.

For all its strengths – and there are many – Blood Oil suffers from inattention to editing. Wenar is a sharp and witty writer but he repeats himself an awful lot. A paragraph-long metaphor in the introduction appears again, almost verbatim, 80 pages later. The book as a whole feels as if it easily could have been 100 or even 200 pages shorter. Many of Wenar’s points, though eloquent and astute, sound overexplained. The lay reader comes away feeling as though he has just sat through a slightly rambling lecture delivered by a philosophy professor. This is a shame, because Wenar has important things to say. Any of us would be lucky to be seated next to him on a long flight.

Blood Oil: Tyrants, Violence, and the Rules That Run the World by Leif Wenar is published by Oxford University Press (494pp, £22.99)

John Ghazvinian is the author of Untapped: The Scramble for Africa's Oil (Wadsworth)

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Boris Backlash

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Former MP Bob Marshall-Andrews: Why I’m leaving Labour and joining the Lib Dems

A former political ally of Jeremy Corbyn explains why he is leaving Labour after nearly 50 years.

I’m leaving home. It’s a very hard thing to do. All of my natural allegiances have been to Labour, and never had I contemplated leaving the party – not even in the gloomy years, when we were fighting Iraq and the battles over civil liberties. I have always taken the view that it’s far better to stay within it. But it has just gone too far. There has been a total failure to identify the major issues of our age.

The related problems of the environment, globalisation and the migration of impoverished people are almost ignored in favour of the renationalisation of the railways and mantras about the National Health Service. The assertion that Labour could run the NHS better than the Tories may be true, but it is not the battle hymn of a modern republic. It is at best well-meaning, at worst threadbare. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life talking about renationalising the railways while millions of people move across the world because of famine, war and climate change.

The centre left in British politics is in retreat, and the demise of the Labour Party has the grim inevitability of a Shakespearean tragedy. Ironically, history will show that Labour’s fatal flaw lay in its spectacular success.

Labour is, in essence, a party of the 20th century, and in those 100 years it did more to advance the freedom and well-being of working people and the disadvantaged than any other political movement in history. The aspirations of the founding fathers – access to education, health and welfare; equality before the law; collective organisation; universal franchise – have all to a large extent been achieved. The party’s record of racial and religious tolerance has been a beacon in a century of repression. These achievements have been enshrined in the fabric of British society and reproduced across the world.

The success brought deserved, unprecedented power and created political fortresses across the industrial heartlands of Britain. But with power, the party became increasingly moribund and corrupt. The manipulation of the union block vote at party conferences became a national disgrace. The Labour heartlands, particularly Scotland, were treated like rotten boroughs, and were too often represented by union placemen.

Instead of seeking a new radicalism appropriate to the challenges of the age, New Labour sought to ambush the Tories on the management of market capital and to outflank them on law and order: a fool’s errand. It inevitably succumbed to another form of corruption based on hubris and deceit, resulting in attacks on civil liberty, financial disaster and catastrophic war.

The reaction has been to lurch back to the status quo. The extraordinary fall from a massive majority of 179 in 1997 to a political basket case has been blamed on the false dichotomy between Blairism and the old, unionised Labour. Both have contributed to the disaster in equal measure.

I believe desperately in the politics of the 21st century, and Labour is at best paying lip service to it – epitomised in its failure to engage in the Brexit debate, which I was horrified by. The Liberal Democrats are far from perfect, but they have been consistent on Europe, as they were in their opposition to the Iraq War and on civil liberties. They deserve support.

But it’s a serious wrench. I’m leaving friends, and it hurts. Jeremy Corbyn was a political ally of mine on a number of serious issues. We made common cause on Tony Blair’s assaults on civil liberty and the Iraq War, and we went to Gaza together. He has many of the right ideas, but he simply has not moved into addressing the major problems.

To be blunt, I don’t think Corbyn is leadership material, but that is aside from politics. You need skills as a leader, and I don’t think he’s got them, but I was prepared to stick it out to see what happened. It has been a great, gradual disappointment, and Brexit has brought it all to the fore.

Frankly, I was surprised that he announced he was a Remainer, because I know that his natural sympathies have lain with a small cadre within Labour – an old-fashioned cadre that holds that any form of trade bloc among relatively wealthy nations is an abhorrence. It’s not: it’s the way forward. Yet there are people who believe that, and I know he has always been sympathetic to them.

But by signing up and then doing nothing, you sell the pass. Labour was uniquely qualified to confront the deliberate falsehoods trumpeted about the NHS – the absurd claims of massive financial dividends to offset the loss of doctors
and nurses already packing their bags – and it failed. Throughout that campaign, the Labour leadership was invisible, or worse.

At present, there is a huge vacuum on the centre left, represented in substantial part by an angry 48 per cent of the electorate who rejected Brexit and the lies on which it was based. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. There is no sign from Labour that the issue is even to be addressed, let alone actively campaigned on. The Labour leadership has signed up to Brexit and, in doing so, rejected the principles of international co-operation that Europe has fostered for half a century. That is not a place I want to be.

The failure to work with, or even acknowledge, other political parties is doctrinaire lunacy. And it will end very badly, I think. The centre left has an obligation to coalesce, and to renege on that obligation is reneging on responsibility. Not to sit on the same platform as other parties during the Brexit debate is an absurd statement of political purity, which has no place at all in modern politics.

The Liberal Democrats have grasped the political challenges of the 21st century as surely as their predecessors in the Liberal Party failed to comprehend those that faced the world a century ago. For that reason, I will sign up and do my best to lend support in my political dotage. After nearly 50 years as a Labour man, I do so with a heavy heart – but at least with some radical hope for my grandchildren.

Bob Marshall-Andrews was the Labour MP for Medway from 1997 to 2010.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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