Somalia and the Islamic threat to capital

Aufheben gives the background to the civil war, famine and the US invasion of Somalia in 1992.

Submitted by libcom on July 24, 2005


The landing of US troops on the beaches of Somalia in December 1992 might be significant for a number of reasons. The ludicrous spectacle of television camera crews virtually jostling the troops for space on the beach to get the best pictures seems to point to the need on the part of the American state to draw attention to itself not only as a military power, but also as an efficient humanitarian force: not just the world's cop but also the world's social worker.

The apparent suddenness of the decision by then President Bush to send in the marines might suggest that we need look no further for an explanation for such ostentatious benevolence than the prevalent journalistic glosses that the operation was perhaps a last dramatic personal gesture by a lame-duck president, more lauded for his foreign policy than his domestic achievements, an attempt to salvage his vision of a new world order and the international policing role of the US for posterity. Bush's expressed justification for sending troops to deliver relief supplies was in terms of the need to prevent armed Somalis "ripping off their own people". And, in fact, when the US troops ended the operation in early May this year, the consensus among journalists was that, though the US troops had done little to tackle the causes of the civil war in Somalia, they had indeed helped with food distribution, which was said by many to be the main reason for the high levels of starvation in that country.

Yet the extent of the Somalian famine and its problems of food distribution had long ceased to be news by the time Bush's decision came. For the previous two years, the UN had attempted to negotiate with various clan leaders to bring in relief supplies to famine hit areas. As class conscious cynics, we might see Bush's somewhat belated outbursts on "bandits" and his unprecedented attack of charity as, at some level, a pretext. Even within the aid agencies, questions have been asked about the reasons given for the invasion. Thus one UN official described the American claim that 80% of food aid was being looted as "bullshit". He saw the American invasion as an excuse for the testing of certain operational methods by the US army. It is not clear, however, why the American state should want simply to test certain operational methods in Somalia at this particular time. Similarly, Medicins sans Frontiers claimed that the figures of 95% malnutrition cited by the Americans were out of date and, again, just a pretext for sending troops in. Troops, said the French spokesperson, would shatter the balance between the aid agencies and the clans. Finally, we are told that some of the claims about starvation, and particularly displacement, are "absurd" given that Somalia's population is largely nomadic anyway.

Thus problems have been raised, but the bourgeois critics of American intervention bring us little closer to a full explanation. We need to take a proletarian viewpoint in our search for answers. We might therefore understand Bush's sudden change of heart on the question on intervention in Somalia in terms of the strategic interests of Western capital against the particular forms of proletarian militancy in the region. We might ask, for example, whether the invasion had anything to do with the apparent spread of Islamic fundamentalist influence in the Horn of Africa, minor reports of which have been appearing in the bourgeois press over the last year.

Islamic fundamentalism is the common declared enemy of the Americans, the UN and the major clan leaders in Somalia. Somalia is 100% Moslem, and although under Siad Barre it might have been regarded as a politically Islam ic country, fundamentalists have never been happy with its laws. While the major clan leaders in Somalia welcomed the US intervention (albeit inconsistently), one of the country's Islamic parties, the Ittihad al Islami al Somalia, greeted the Americans with threats. Now, the leaders of the main military factions have had to give assurances to an increasingly disillusioned population that they will introduce Islamic shariah law. Groups of Islamic militants who have taken part in the civil war in Somalia are apparently backed by Sudan, which is backed in turn by Iran. Sudan itself has been engaged in a civil war; the (Arabic) north is trying to impose Islamic law on the ("African") south. The southern forces are backed by Western interests, including people like Tiny Rowlands. Sudan condemned the American intervention for destabilizing the region. Other politicians in the region see the US operation as a warning to the Khartoum government which has supported Islamic fundamentalist groups in both Africa and the Arab world. It is interesting in this respect that the US envoy who headed the US mobilization, Robert Oakley, is better known in the Moslem world as a man more familiar with warfare than relief efforts. He ran the Afghan mojahedin fighting the Soviet-backed regime in Kabul. The presence of the US forces may encourage Sudan to keep a low profile in case the troops are sent into the south of that country. The arrival of US troops also coincided with a growing secessionist tone from the southern troops fighting Khartoum.

Bush was at pains to emphasize that the intervention in Somalia was to be a very limited one. The aim was simply to get food into the region; that was all. As soon as this was achieved, the US troops could be gone. All this would fit with a scenario whereby the effects of the famine are ameliorated, yet the various dominant armed factions within the country are still ultimately able to struggle for political control. If they had been disarmed or defeated by the Americans, this would leave the way open for forces even less desirable, in the eyes of the American bourgeoisie, to make a bid for power. The US force therefore hoped to create a degree of stability in Somalia in order to prevent a feared rise in Islamic fundamentalism.

However, the spread of Islamic fundamentalism may not be the only reason for the operation; and indeed other explanations have been proposed by revolutionaries. Thus both World Revolution and Organise! have pointed to the conflict between the national capitals of Europe and the US over influence in the region. But if this is the explanation, why did the US hand over to the UN in May this year instead of retaining a permanent presence in the country?

Even if competition between Western states was a factor in the invasion, such an explanation is, in an important sense, back to front. The very need for influence in the region is itself a symptom of the requirement of capital to respond to particular proletarian struggles. The form of the proletarian struggle determines the form of capital's development, both nationally and internationally. "Operation Restore Hope" might therefore be best grasped in terms of its global context of class struggle and capitalist response. To do this we must briefly outline some of the history of Somalia and the Horn of Africa more generally.


As with most of sub-Saharan Africa, and indeed the Third World in general, capital had little economic interest in the Horn of Africa beyond whatever primary products and raw materials that could be found there. In the case of the Horn of Africa these were few. Among the peasant and proles, the survival of communal ties and the lack of a tradition of wage dependence fostered a sense of entitlements with regard to the distribution of wealth in the community. Communal ties are also responsible for the fact that most African proleterians fail to experience capital's laws as naturalo r inevitable. Monetarization and commodification of social relations have gradually undermined these traditional relations, but capital accumulation has been confined to narrow sectors, restricting the development of modern capitalist social relations.

The general shift towards cash crops and plantation economies made sub-Saharan Africa increasingly unable to guarantee its own needs and thus prone to famine. In the Horn of Africa, the local business class makes most of its money in the import-export trade, which creates little employment and channels much wealth abroad. Capital-intensive export agriculture helped plunge the region into debt and soaked up the resources - land and capital - needed for food production.

However, while the Horn of Africa shared the problems of underdevelopment that have affected sub-Saharan Africa generally, it was also in a distinctive position. While of relatively little intrinsic economic interest, its geo-political location gave the region a strategic importance to the world powers. Firstly, it was of close proximity to the all-important oil production centres of the Middle East. Secondly, because it controlled the important trade route through the Suez Canal and the Red Sea. The history of Somalia is a story of imperialism and cold war rivalry.

History of imperialist rivalries in Somalia

Somalia was colonized by the British and Italian states in the nineteenth century. To Britain, the Somali ports were useful as source of meat supplies to nearby Aden. The Italian state, the last colonial power in the country, developed lucrative banana plantations, often having to force recalcitrant peasants to work on them as slaves. Eventually bananas superseded hides as the country's main export; both these and meat remain important in Somlia's foreign trade.

The Italian collapse throughout East Africa was primarily the result of desertion by their African conscript forces. Independence and unification were finally achieved in Somalia in 1960. In 1969, the army under Siad Barre seized power. Siad Barre courted the USSR in an attempt to create a greater Somalia. With military assistance, he hoped to take land occupied by ethnic Somalis in Ethiopia and Kenya, countering local proletarian militancy with an appeal to nationalism. The partnership was an attractive one to the USSR because of the proximity of the Horn of Africa to the oil-producing Gulf states and the Middle East in general. Soviet rewards for having bases on Somali territory comprised saturating Somalia with weaponry. In turn, Somalia, passed the weapons on to pro-Somali guerrillas fighting inside Ethiopia.

But the 1974 socialist revolution in Ethiopia created complications for the Soviet-Somali relationship. The USSR violated an agreement with Somalia by supplying arms to Ethiopia. Barre was already trying to get the West on his side when the USSR dropped Somalia and openly befriended Ethiopia in the war. The break with the Soviet Union led to a wave of popularity for Barre's government in Somalia. Barre offered the abandoned Soviet military bases to the USA who rewarded him by flooding the country with even more weapons.

In the 1980s, Barre remained in power largely through his ability to play his enemies off against each other. But in 1991, the rival clan-based opposition fronts, whose ideologies were based largely on their desire for foreign backing, collaborated against him and his government collapsed. Having defeated him and driven him out of the country, however, the various anti-Barre fronts fell out. There was also schism within some of the clans. This has led to the current situation where there is no national police force and no central government and the southern portion of the country is split between rival "warlords". Of the most powerful warlords, Aideed is a general, a former government minister and ambassador to India, Mahdi is one of his former clan members and Morgan is another general and a son-in-law of Barre.

Consequences of superpower rivalry for the Horn, particularly for Somalia

The underdevelopment of the Horn of Africa was only exacerbated by the flooding of arms into the area and by the high dependence of large sections of the population on military employment. Instead of being spent on developing the forces of production, money was poured into military expenditure. Clearly, such a priority makes even economic reproduction on the same scale difficult if not impossible. In the early 1970s, Somalia was self-sufficient in its food production; but by the mid-1980s, it was one of the most food-dependent in Africa, and many of its policies were dictated by the IMF.

The economic decline of Somalia was partly a result of the cost of the Ogaden War with Ethiopia. Also, Barre's economic policies for the banana and sugar export trade were disastrous for these industries. However, these factors in the decline of Somalia's economy might be regarded as symptoms of the inability of capital in Africa to screw quite as much out of the proletariat as capitals in other continents were able to do; capital and operating costs in Africa are more than 50% higher than in Southern Asia, where the return is also greater.

In a context of spiralling food and fuel prices and shortages, there were riots in August 1987 in Mogadishu. These were enough to force the government to grant a number of concessions. The ruling class were no doubt mindful that similar disturbances in similar circumstances had heralded the Ethiopian revolution in 1974, terminating the long reign of Haile Selassie.


1. The crisis of Third World debt

Africa for the most part did not benefit from the flight of capital out of the West following the proletarian offensive of the 1960s and 70s. Instead, the continent suffered the consequences of this flight. Faced with huge debts and spiralling interest rates and a stagnant world market in manufactured goods, newly industrializing countries such as Mexico and Brazil had little option but to increase the production and export of traditional primary products such as bananas, coffee, ores etc. This dramatic increase in the export of traditional Third World products forced prices down in the world market. This was catastrophic for much of Africa, pushing much of it to the brink of starvation. In the case of Somalia, by the end of the 1960s, the competitiveness of the country's leading crop and export - bananas - was already declining relative to Latin American producers such as Ecuador

2. Collapse of the Eastern Bloc

This plight of Africa in the 1980s was made worse by the collapse of the USSR which meant that there was no longer superpower competition for influence through aid. This was particularly true of Somalia, which had been so dependent on superpower rivalry. With this lack of superpower competition over the region, Bush's decision to invade might seem rather anachronistic. Indeed, it was the US, in March 1992, which vetoed a proposed monitoring operation by the UN (apparently because of the cost), restricting the UN instead to delivering humanitarian aid. So why did Bush suddenly change his mind? To get closer to a possible answer we must turn to the general problems that face American capital now and in the recent past.


1. The importance of oil in the post 1945 world

Since the Second World War, the car industry has been the linchpin of capital accumulation. It has been the key industry in the Fordist Mode of Accumulation. The Fordist Mode of Accumulation represented a compromise between the demands of capital and the needs of the Western proletariat. As an approach to industry, it allowed increased surplus value to be produced alongside increasing real wages. With Fordism, the rate of profit did not have to be sustained by raising the rate of exploitation through the "super-exploitation" of colonial labour, nor by the appropriation of monopoly profits through the restriction of the domestic market. Instead, the rate of profit was sustained through the production of relative surplus-value and the expansion of the domestic market for consumer goods. Thus, particularly after 1945, capitalism became based on mass production and mass consumption; capitalist corporations no longer sought to restrict production so as to maximize prices but rather sought to cut prices and maximize sales ("pile 'em high and sell 'em cheap").

The rapid expansion of the car industry, the Fordist industry par excellence, required the expansion of the coal, power and steel industries. But coal production, vulnerable to the militancy of miners, was becoming too risky for capital as a general source of energy. The dependency on oil for the smooth running of the car economy developed into a mad dash for the stuff in capital's desperate search for a general alternative energy source to coal.

2. Growth of oil production in the Middle East

With the growth of oil production in the Middle East came the rapid modernization of social relations in previously traditional societies. The emergence of a national bourgeoisie with means to establish a national strategy of capital accumulation was accompanied by the appearance of an oil-producing proletariate. In the late 1970s, proles from Mexico to Nigeria to Iran used the higher price of oil to demand a better standard of living, higher wages, schools, hospitals etc. The price of oil went up to keep up with these demands. Thus much of the wealth generated by the higher oil prices imposed by OPEC went to proletarians instead of being invested in the industries which require high levels of technology and energy.

In the Third World, various socialisms and nationalisms emerged as powerful ideologies to mobilize the emergent oil-producting classes behind the projects of national accumulation (over and against that of global accumulation of Western capital). Nasser in Egypt, the Ba'athist and Communist Parties in Iraq, Gaddafy in Libya and the PLO are all cases in point. While movements such as these divided the proles and inhibited the development of autonomous expressions of proletarian militancy, thus helping capital-in-general, they also threatened to some extent the particular interests of Western capital. There was always the threat of Middle Eastern countries which had adopted these ideologies going over to the state capitalist Eastern bloc or cutting themselves off from Western capital in some other way, thus operating against the interests of capital-in-general.

3. Islam fostered as "moderate" alternative to Stalinism

As a modernizing project, the ideologies of National Accumulation had to be secular. But to people in nations only recently unified and who defined themselves largely in terms of tribal or other allegiances, nationalism alone was clearly insufficient. Hence, in order to mobilise traditional sectors (peasants etc.), there was the need to reconcile secular national modernization with Islam. Indeed, there is no necessary conflict between Islam and the interests of capital. Although the Koran prohibits interest, there are ways of evading this, and capitalist developments have been uninhibited in many Moslem countries. The religion was therefore promoted by pro-Western conservative regimes as a safe alternative to stalinism, to prevent popular support for radical nationalist ideologies and to divert the class struggle. For example, Israel promoted Hizbullah in the Gaza strip, General Zia promoted Islam in Pakistan, the US supported moslem fighters against the Soviet-backed regime in Afganistan, and the religion is still used effectively in Saudi Arabia.

4. The policy backfires

In many cases, however, Islamic fundamentalism is getting out of control as far as Western capital is concerned. Islamic practices threaten to cut off large areas from the world market, just as stalinism threatened to do. Paraphrasing (and reversing) Tronti, while it is true that capital may sometimes objectively force the proletariat into certain choices, it is also true that the proletariat makes these choices work against capital.

The first sign that the policy of using Islam to guarantee national capital accumulation and a place in the world market had backfired was the Iranian revolution. The revolution was sparked by oil strikes and the proletarian seizure of the oil wells; it was the proletariat who destroyed the Shah's regime. The mullahs managed to recuperate and suppress this, however, and channel it into a form of Islamic fundamentalism that went far beyond the intentions of Western puppets such as the Shah.

With the collapse of stalinism as an embodied ideal and a potential patron, and with the discrediting of Arab nationalism, Islamic fundamentalism has emerged as the potential replacement ideology. Islam has historically been a religion of resistance and independence for much of the world's population. Fundamentalism has been posited by followers as the true opposition to (Western) Christianity - and, by extension, as an alternative to democracy and capitalism. Islam is a more worldly, materialistic religion than Christianity, and easily accepts a role as a political force. Communalistic and egalitarian precepts to accept responsibilities to relatives and to fellow moslems (regarded as forming a single "nation") can hamper capital accumulation. All these factors make Islamic fundamentalism both a likely substitute for stalinism for both the oppressed Third World proletariat, who have little hope of overthrowing world capitalism by themselves, and the US bourgeoisie, which might require an external enemy in order to unify itself. Like stalinism, the ideology of the "export of the revolution" - so feared by Western capital - simply serves to consolidate counter-revolution at home.


1. The new threat

But the perceived threat to the interests of Western capital is both real and illusory. The threat is real in that Islam is indeed a powerful means of mobilizing the poor against the interests of Western capital. Evidence for this real threat comes from the increasing damage caused to the functioning of the Algerian and Egynptian economies by fundamentalist movements and terrorist groups. But the danger is exaggerated to provide a necessary external threat through which to mobilize the American bourgeoisie.

In the past, the American bougeoisie was mobilized by the stalinist threat. Faced by the threat of stalinism, military expenditure became a surrogate industruial policy. This surrogate industrial policy became particularly important with the relative decline of the US as an economic power and the need for restructring to meet competition from Japan and the Pacific Rim. In contrast with previous administrations, Reagan abandoned all hope of defending the general competitiveness of American industry. The policy of competitive devaluation of the dollar was dropped; interest rates were pushed up to finance the growing budget, and trade deficits and the dollar were allowed to soar. Large swathes of the rust-belt industries in the North Eastern states were devastated. Under the guise of national security, state investment was able to circumvent the vested interests of the old industries and find its way to the more dynamic leading edge of productive Ameican capital. SDI ("Star wars") is the most well -known example of this. Although militarily preposterous, it allowed capital to be shifted from rocket technology and the aerospace induistry to the computer software and electronics industries. Indeed, SDI represented a massive state subsidy for these leading edge industries at a critical stage in their battle with Far East competitors. More than this, however, Reagan also managed to re-orientate the world accumulation of capital around American military production. With more and more American mainstream industries falling behind to foreign-based competition, the American consumer could no longer be relied upon to buy American. However, military demand came fromthe goverment which could bias its specifications in favour of American-based capital. Through large military expenditures, the centre of gravity of the world accumulation of capital would shift towards military production where American-based capital would have a competitive advantage. In this way, the US could reassert its economic hegemony.

But this use of military expenditure as a surrogate industrial policy, overriding particular interests in favour of general US interests in the name of National Security, has been in crisis since the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the mounting budget deficits. It is no longer sustainable. Hence, American capital might be argued to be facing two choices. "Strategy A" entails renewing the policy of military accumulation as a surrogate economic policy by raising the spectre of Islamic fundamentalism. "Strategy B" would be to intervene directly in the economy with money financed through defence cuts.

2. Bush's belated invasion

This brings us directly back to the mystery of Bush's belated invasion of Somalia. We can conclude by asking two questions regarding the manoeuvre. Prompted by the growing threat of Islamic fundamentalism in the Horn of Africa and North Africa generally, was the invasion an attempt to bounce Clinton into "strategy A" on behalf of the military/industrial faction of US capital? And, even if this is not the case, how far did the invasion address the real problems for Western capital of Islamic expansion in the area? The answer to the latter question may become clearer in the coming months.


World Revolution (161; February 1993) suggested as one of the two main objectives of the military deployment the USA's wish "to signal to its two main imperialist rivals - Germany and France in the first place - that the US will not hold back any longer from anywhere in the world." (p. 4).

Organise! (30; April-June 1993) commented: "This forward camp for the USA on the East African coast can allow it to intervene against the interests of the French (or European) ruling class. It could intervene in Chad, in Zaire, throughout North Africa where French interests are under threat, in particular in Algeria." (p. 6). However, the article also points to the function of the operation of countering the menace of Islamic fundamentalism.

See for example Sylvia Pankhurst (1951) Ex-Italian Somaliland. London: Watts & Co.

It is important to note in regard to this that the debt crisis suited many African dictators as much as Western capitalists; maintaining the constraints imposed by debt can be a way of maintaining internal order in African countries.

IMF Surveys of African Economies. Volume 2 (1969). Washington.

See Aufheben 1, page 19, footnote 38.

See the Midnight Notes pamphlet When Crusaders and Assassins Unite, Let the People Beware (1990)

Clearly, capital is not a unitary force, and particular "modernizing" capitals have on occasion been able to use Third World nationalism against rival capitals. Thus, in 1956, the US effectively sided with the nationalist government of Egypt by refusing to support French and British intervention to protect the latters' "ownership" of the Suez canal.

We can infer from the call by Gadaffi in May this year that all fundamnetalists should be kiled without trial that this idelogyt is getting beyond the control of the islamic-socialists and is threatening them too.