Darkness at midnight: Review of Midnight Oil - Work, Energy, War, 1973-1992 by Midnight Notes

Kuwaiti oil fields burn

A review of an anthology of articles by the US autonomist Marxist-influenced Midnight Notes collective and the earlier Zerowork group.

From issue no. 17 of the Wildcat (UK) journal.


Capitalism is not in crisis. Firstly, it is having a massive expansion of accumulation in East Asia. Secondly, in the areas which are in economic downturn, such as Europe, capital is not experiencing a recession caused by its internal contradictions, it is imposing a recession -- unemployment, war -- on the working class in order to make it more atomized, divided and malleable, and thus able to work harder for less money. When this has been completed, there will be a recovery.

Perestroika has been overwhelmingly successful, in spite of the problems German capital had during the anschluss. Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia and the Czech Republic are being prepared for integration into the European Community before the end of the century, lowering overall wages, both what we get paid at work and social (benefits, subsidies, etc.). Not only are millions of laborers and unskilled service workers being brought in to compete for jobs; a highly skilled technical and scientific workforce accustomed to unattractive renumeration also exists in Eastern Europe. The bosses of the EC are having it both ways. A centralized state apparatus is being constructed -- whatever squabbles take place in the talking shops of Europe's parliaments, the business end of the state, eg. the police, is being progressively integrated. Simultaneously, nationalism and fragmentation is used to divide the working class. Centralization for the bosses, balkanization for the proles.

As we have briefly remarked in previous issues, this analysis is erected partly on the theoretical foundations of Autonomism -- a Marxist current which sees economic crisis, not as a problem caused by an irreparable defect in the capitalist hardware, but a battle ground of the classes. We referred to Midnight Notes as the eximious autonomist publication in English. We are critical of some of the conclusions which the Midnight Notes collective have drawn from their autonomist Marxism, but have learnt a lot from their method. The best of Midnight Notes and its predecessor, Zerowork, has recently been published by Autonomedia in a collection entitled Midnight Oil -- Work, Energy, War, 1973-1992.

The chief motivation for publishing this book was the Gulf War of 1991. Midnight Notes have spent 20 years studying the production of oil, the world's central commodity, from the viewpoint of the class struggle, so they are in a good position to draw up a balance-sheet of the United Nations holocaust.

The New World Order is identified, not as a piece of mere rhetoric, but as a distinct phase in capitalism's reversal of the gains the working class made in the worldwide struggles of the late sixties and early seventies: "a new capitalist strategy for accumulation". Arguments that the world is divided into rival blocs are ridiculed: they were all on the same side in the Gulf. They still are. This is historically unprecedented. People trying to understand today's world with the theoretical tools of the Third International, such as the concept of "imperialism", cannot make sense of it. Midnight Notes shows that autonomism is the one part of the Marxist tradition which still has life in it.

Capitalism has been preparing for a massive expansion. Huge areas of the world -- Russia, China, etc. -- have been opened up for investment. But the money needed was in short supply. In order to generate some "petrodollars" --money invested by oil states in the world banking system -- the IMF tried to force oil states like Nigeria, Venezuala, Algeria and Morrocco to cut welfare and wages. In all of these countries, riots ensued, and in Iraq, the Ba'ath government backed off rather than dismantle the "guns and butter" social welfare system on which its power depends. If Iraq was America's police chief in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is its bank manager. It refused to allow the price of oil to rise to $25 a barrel as Iraq needed to rebuild its economy following the Iran-Iraq war. Saddam Hussein couldn't screw the money out of the working class, leaving only one course of action -- invade Kuwait, simultaneously cancelling a $40 bn. debt and grabbing a large oilfield.

Midnight Notes provides the only coherent response we have seen so far to our argument that Saddam was "set up" to invade Kuwait. They agree that the USA didn't discourage him. But as they point out, he is not totally stupid. He knew that a US military response was likely. But he also knew that, as he is one of the best policemen in the region, he would not be overthrown. "The war was not an attack on Iraq as a nation-state, it was an attack on the Iraqi working class and a defence of the Iraqi police state..." (p45). The war, then, was not an attempt to get rid of Saddam -- as Norman Schwarzkopf belatedly discovered when he was suddenly told to stop advancing into Iraq. Midnight Notes fills in this analysis, explaining not only how but why the Iraqi proletariat was targetted.

The aim of the Gulf War was to reduce the Iraqi working class from a well-paid, not particularly hard-working bunch of welfare bums into a desperate, starving, third-world underclass, and to crush workers in other Gulf states, particularly Palestinians in Kuwait. The cruise missiles which rained on Baghdad from January 17 onwards imposed the most savage IMF austerity plan yet. Midnight Notes mentions what we said in the leaflet we produced in cooperation with the ICG and Aufheben, 10 days that shook Iraq: the bombing of the retreating Iraqi conscripts was also aimed at destroying the class struggle, and keeping Saddam in power, by weakening the uprising. The loyal Republican Guard units were left unscathed, while the mass of conscripts were butchered on the road to Basra. Those who were obviously unwilling to do any damage to the Allies were killed, while those who might have fought the invasion were left alone. This proves that the war was against the insurgent proletariat, NOT against Iraq.

So Saddam Hussein remains in power, and the Iraqi working class has had its expectations somewhat lowered. More than 300,000 people have died in Iraq as a result of medical shortages. Like other countries which have experienced IMF/UN germ warfare, Iraq has seen the reemergence of cholera, with 960 cases this year. About 4,000 children under five die each month, compared with 700 a month before the war. Water and sewerage systems which survived the bombing have declined from a lack of spare parts. The social contract has been destroyed. Virtually surrounded by US troops, Iraq is not allowed to make any profit from its oil sales, not even enough to pay wages. The Allies are trying to force the Iraqi workers into slavery. This is an attempt to find out how far austerity can go. Yugoslavia and Somalia are further experiments in the same laboratory.

Up til now, the autonomists were the Brian Cohens of the revolutionary movement -- they always looked on the bright side of life. In the most recent essays in Midnight Oil, a more realistic picture emerges. Despite occasionally referring to the possibility of new "revolutionary flashpoints", these are left vague and lack conviction. "The North American working class is now moving toward a recomposition". Although they say "The working class appears ready for explosion -- or perhaps a disastrous implosion", as though the former were more likely than the latter, later in the same article (The Post-Energy Crisis US Working Class Composition) they ask the rhetorical question about the Gulf War "was the US working class, as a whole, sufficiently defeated to be willing -- even eager --to die in exchange for nothing?"

The Gulf War worked. "What we are witnessing in the Mideast is a familiar pattern under capitalism: the forcible and violent decomposition of the working class" (p20). "Decomposition" is the process by which the working class is divided, atomized (fighting among itself) and exploited more intensively. "Recomposition" is when it pulls itself together and fights back. Decomposition
is the order of the day: "The largest and swiftest mass layoff in decades. Five million workers uprooted, deported,
murdered or otherwise severed from their means of subsistence..." as Midnight Notes says in the introduction. For autonomism, the working class can never be defeated, since the bosses always need us. But Midnight Notes's optimism has now disappeared. There is no evidence of "new revolutionary upheavals". If we look simply at the current level of resistance to capital's murderous offensive, the situation for the proletariat is in a worse state than during the midnight hours of the 1930's. However, capitalism has developed since then, and has created a more unified international working class. It is currently trying to fix that obvious bug in a single world capitalist order, by dividing up the working class at the same time as unifying the bourgeoisie. We would not commit ourselves to saying how successful we think this will be.

The rest of the essays give the best of Midnight Notes's explanation of what the autonomist method is, and examples of how to apply it. Conspiracy theories are not antithetical to autonomism. Concrete evidence is produced from White House memos that capitalists plan recessions to attack workers. The conflict of 1973 between the US and OPEC is exposed as a fraud -- both parties wanted higher oil prices. There are papers on the debt crisis as a means of enforcing austerity, and the "New Enclosures" whereby all remaining space is commercialized, and people are driven into tent cities and shanty towns from Lesotho to the Lower East Side.

The Work/Energy Crisis and the Apocalypse is one of our favorites, because of its audacity as much as anything. It attempts to relate just about everything, from physics to jogging, to the autonomist version of Marxism. Science is a product of capitalism's fear of the working class. Thermodynamics replaced Newtonian mechanics after the proletariat overthrew the political system corresponding to it in 1848. The "energy crisis" was a crisis of the energy of the proletariat -- it didn't want to work. Not only did it become more difficult to get rebellious kids and Vietnam vets to work like their fathers had done, but those who reproduce the working class itself -- mothers and housewifes -- rejected the unpaid slavery of their mothers. It was the working class, not Friedman and Thatcher, who smashed the post-war Keynesian deal, by rejecting work itself.

Other articles show the strength of the autonomist approach by applying it to particular struggles. All of them, albeit hesitantly, expose the unions as agents of capital. Examples are Resistance and Hidden Forms of Protest Amongst the Petroleum Proletariat in Nigeria, Wildcats in the Appalachian Coal Fields and Self-Reduction of Prices in Italy.

In The New Enclosures 1982-1992, the governments of "state socialist" countries are condemned as willing lackeys of the IMF, unable to impose austerity measures because of the strength of the working class -- this is why Iran, Iraq and Libya were attacked. Midnight Notes has come to some similar conclusions as we have on the issue of Progress. They recognize that Marx and Engels supported capitalist development because it supposedly prepared the material conditions for a communist society. In the final piece, the collective caustically comments: "Consequently, for all the pain and death, the 'blood and fire' of the Old Enclosures, they were inevitable and ultimately historically positive, for they accomplished 'the dissolution of private property based on the labor of its owner'". They are unsure whether this is a strategic error or a fundamental flaw in Marx's theory of history. "It is plain madness to accept the demise of such villages, tracts of land, neighborhoods and towns as necessary and ultimately progressive sacrifices to the destruction of capitalism and the development of truly 'universal' proletarians". Indeed it is; it is also plain Marxism, as they seem to recognize when they write of "a deeper categorical failure of Marxist understanding of the Enclosures that remains central to Marxism to this day". In any event, they totally oppose the New Enclosures, supporting struggles to defend communal land and space that forms an energy well of proletarian power. Examples: a Quiche village in Guatemala, an area of communal land in Nigeria, a town surrounding a paper mill controlled by striking workers in Maine, an urban neighborhood in Mexico City. All threatened by capitalist development's enclosures; all defended by the proletariat.

The first section, Oil Workers and Oil Wars, shows the autonomist method's current limits. After analyzing capitalism's success in imposing perestroika (starvation, atomization, disease, war and work) on the working class, they don't know what to say next. Will the working class recompose itself and defeat this new stage of capitalist accumulation? They hope so, but give no reasons for optimism. This is, as they say, the midnight hour.

This is why this issue of Wildcat is more theoretical and even inward-looking than previous issues. Of course, there are loads of struggles we could report on, and some we are involved in. But we are trying to produce an international journal which is able to go a step further than autonomism and draw up a balance-sheet of the current period. The period of preparation for the next proletarian renaissance, no matter how long, includes the process of discarding unwanted historical baggage and integrating recent advances into our platform.