Our guest blog-post this week comes from Gemma Jennings, an AHRC-M3C funded PhD student in History here at the Centre for Modern & Contemporary History. Gemma’s research examines the impact of the oil industry on gender relations and social structures, adopting a transnational approach focused on Algerian oil, tracing the impacts of this sector through space.
Below she reports on an important recent conference at the crossroads of global, political and environmental historiographies. Thanks Gemma!
Conference report: ‘Oil Imperialism? Energy and Political Power from a Global Perspective’ (4-5 November 2016, Paris-Sorbonne).
Emerging as a uniquely valuable commodity in World War One, oil has become one of the world’s most sought after resources, with the global struggles for control of oil reserves widely researched and debated. In these discussions, both within and beyond academic circles, the notion of a new, contemporary form of imperialism, that of ‘oil imperialism’, is frequently invoked. However, scholars have yet to offer a clear definition or theoretical framework for research discussing this conceptualisation. This conference sought to address this ambiguity, exploring a range of historical episodes in which the apparent operation of ‘oil imperialism’ has been identified, attempting to both define the term and interrogate whether the concept could be employed as a useful category of analysis.
Panel One examined oil in the context of empire and international relations. GUILLEMETTE CROUZET (Geneva) presented on the British oil concession in Bakhtiaristan in the early twentieth century, arguing that oil companies operated as ‘agents of imperialism’. The paper illustrated how the policies of these companies created an area that was governed by capitalism and oil technopolitics, transforming local people from ‘dangerous’ tribes into colonial subjects through their employment within the oil labour force. BENJAMIN BENGOBEYI’s (University Paris I-Panthéon Sorbonne) paper, in contrast, elucidated how oil exporting countries have been able to use their oil reserves to counter perceived imperialistic projects, through an examination of Iraq’s approach to the implementation of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries’ (OPEC) oil embargo against Israel and its allies in response to the Yom Kippur War. VICTOR McFARLAND (University of Missouri), likewise examined international politics in the Middle East, examining the U.S. role in the Persian Gulf in the 1970s, exploring the motivations for and limitations of the American military presence in the region, particularly highlighting the dependence on local partners acting as hosts for the American military. The final paper of the panel, presented by EMILY MEIRDING (U.S. Naval Postgraduate School), returned to British oil interests, interrogating the prevailing premise that the British involvement in the Falklands War was motivated by an attempt to control the Falklands oil reserves. In elucidating the lack of evidence to support this supposition, and highlighting that, conversely, Britain had no interest in this oil, the paper both countered the conception of the conflict as an ‘oil war’ and highlighted the significant influence of ‘oil imperialism’, as a presumed ubiquity, both among contemporary actors as well as in historical accounts.
The second panel focused on the operation of national and multinational oil companies. MARTA MUSSO’s (European University Institute) paper illuminated the divergent policies pursued by French and Italian oil companies, faced with British and American domination of the industry. The work highlighted a rhetoric that posited these companies outside of and in opposition to Anglo-Saxon ‘imperial’ projects to gain access to oil. TOURAJ ATABAKI (Leiden University) then examined the labour policies in the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, arguing that the crucial role of oil workers to the British war effort, as well as the chronic scarcity of labour in the area, facilitated an entry into the political sphere through trade unions and strikes in oil refineries, ultimately developing political citizens whose actions could affect world politics. KEVIN WUNSTHORN (University Paris I-Panthéon Sorbonne) closed the panel with an examination of the tensions between French and Anglo-Saxon oil companies within the context of the Iraq Petroleum Company, examining the divergent aims of the Compagnie Française des Pétroles and its Anglo-Saxon counterparts, and the counter measures taken by the French government to promote its interests in the area.
Day one ended with a keynote address from MYRNA SANTIAGO (Saint Mary’s College), which tracked the development of critiques of oil companies operating in South America, evolving from labour force action and nationalist claims to include wider environmentalist concerns, questioning the notion of oil extraction itself. The argument highlighted that anti-imperialist discourse was a central platform of these movements, noting as one example, that industrial action by oil workers lost much of its status and influence following nationalisation.
The second day of the conference opened with a panel on oil, anti-imperialism and decolonisation. GIULIANO GARAVINI’s (New York University Abu Dhabi) paper examined the formation, aims and actions of OPEC, arguing that in its opposition to former colonisers attempting to protect their interests within oil exporting countries, the organisation embodied the international dimension of anti-colonialism. ELISABETTA BINI (University of Trieste) adopted a different approach, focusing on the oil workers of Libya from 1960-1980, outlining how the industrial action of these workers challenged the discriminatory policies of American oil companies. PHILIPPE TRISTANI (Agrégé d’histoire, Sorbonne University) then traced how the Iraqi government, despite western opposition, nationalised its oil, arguing that this played a key role in a global ‘décolonisation pétrolière’, mobilising other oil producing countries to nationalise their own industries. KATAYOUN SHAFIEE (UCL London, Centre for Advanced Studies), in contrast, explored strategies employed by oil importers to manage nationalisation, through an examination of the British appeal to international law against the nationalisation of the Iranian oil industry. The presentation argued that, despite the final verdict linking permanent sovereignty to control over natural resources, the strategy of temporisation enabled the British government resolve the crisis to its own advantage.
The final panel of the conference looked at oil companies, the state, and the future of oil imperialism, opening with DUCCIO BASOSI’s (Ca’ Foscari University, Venice) paper, which argued that the 1970s ‘petrodollar recycling’ constituted a form of imperialism, due to its direct relationship with the development of an ‘imperial’, globally used, dollar in the 1970s and 1980s. FRANCESCO PETRINI (University of Padua) examined the history of agreements and compromises between oil companies and the U.S. government, arguing that by conflating public interest with the success of their companies, oil businesses were able to leverage deals that tended to favour their interests over those of the state. In the final paper of the day, SIMONE SELVA (University “L’Orientale”, Naples), illuminated how Iranian oil revenues reshaped international capital markets, changing the role of American banks into intermediaries for Iranian international investments.
VICTOR McFARLAND (University of Missouri) concluded the conference, outlining that although the range of papers had elucidated the development of ‘oil imperialism’ as a powerful concept in contemporary and historical discourse, the conference had not produced a clear definition of the term, primarily due to its more empirical focus. The geographic delimitation of the conference was discussed, noting that papers had primarily concentrated on oil producers in the Middle East and South America, as well as foregrounding the relationships between western (primarily America and Britain) and producing countries, with less consideration of the broader range of international connections. Finally, the current lack of ‘histories from below’ in this field was discussed, underlining the focus, both at the conference and in wider literature on high politics and economics of the oil industry, highlighting the need to build on and expand the limited studies concerned with individuals and communities directly affected by the industry.
This week the research seminar is a joint session with MBS and will be given by
Dr. Tehila Sasson (Emory).
Modern and Contemporary History Research Seminar
(3-5 o’clock, 30 November 2016)
In this session four postgraduate researchers from the centre for Modern British Studies explore ways in which their doctoral research makes broader historical interventions in modern and contemporary history. The papers, woven together by a single introduction and conclusion, are interested in the relationship between power and historical practice. Exploring broader themes in their individual projects such as race, religion, citizenship, and ordinary life, they interrogate how historical practice has perpetuated power structures in the past. While on the surface very different, by tentatively exploring connections across their work, they argue against historical methodologies that have perpetuated hierarchies of exclusion and have kept their subjects visibly hidden.
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‘This Green Cadre of ours
Like stags they hunt us
But when we come from the wood into the fray
The red banner will wave‘
– a song heard in summer and autumn 1918 in the hills of Czech southwest Moravia
‘Although the Green Cadre was talked about quite a lot, nothing has been preserved in writing, unfortunately’
– Marcel Bimka, a Moravian villager and former Green Cadre, 1931
On 16 November, I will present on a lost chapter in the history of war and revolution in east central Europe. In 1918, armed and organized groups of ‘Green Cadres’ formed across the empire’s hinterland from Austro-Hungarian army deserters and rebellious peasants. They violently resisted their reenlistment for the war effort and staged attacks on the authorities as the multinational state collapsed in October and November of that year. In some places, particularly Croatia-Slavonia, they offered inchoate programs for societal renewal based on land reform and peasant democracy. Their numbers reached into the low hundreds of thousands and the threat they posed helps to explain how power was consolidated in the wake of the Great War by the new ‘successor states’.
Though apparently short-lived, this movement reshaped rural culture and politics in (post-) Habsburg central Europe during the ‘age of catastrophe’. It combined old scripts—that is, meaningful roles or patterns of behavior understood to be appropriate to certain situations—of peasant recalcitrance with new scripts of national and social revolution, which emerged in the apocalyptic end phase of the war. In this paper, I also consider the materiality of these newer roles that the Green Cadres assumed and how that amplified their impact. For their legacy stretched not only into the immediate postwar years, but also into the period of the Second World War when they were resurrected, usually as forest-based anti-Nazi partisans.
I suggest that the scripts of social revolution and national emancipation that the Green Cadres embodied were particularly forceful because of the uniforms they wore. These were Austro-Hungarian infantry uniforms that they re-used and repurposed, which made these everyday things of empire into potent symbols of subversion. The uniforms signified a modern, forward-looking movement, far more so than the traditionally extravagant bandit garb that the Green Cadres in some places also donned.
With the national revolutions that swept east central Europe as the empire collapsed, the uniformed deserters had to be brought into line. Their continued defiance again problematized their uniforms, which, outside of the new national armies, were increasingly associated with criminality. The radical potential of the Green Cadres was thus marginalized. On the other hand, their undeniable contribution to the national revolutions had to be normalized and consigned to history. The landscape of memory that took shape in the 1920s to commemorate the war and its victims partially succeeded in doing this.
Our guest blog-post this week is by our research seminar speaker next week, Dr. Simon M. Stevens. Thanks Simon!
Special Committee on Policies of Apartheid Resumes Meetings. Here, Miss Makeba, who appeared as a petitioner, is seen conversing with Sir Hugh Foot (United Kingdom), member of the Expert Group on South Africa. 9 March 1964. UN Photo by Teddy Chen, reproduced under fair use rules, courtesy the author.
Next week in Birmingham I’ll be talking about the shifting role of the United Nations in the strategies of opponents of white minority rule in South Africa. Reflecting widespread interest in and excitement about the new international organisation, South African opponents of segregation were one of the first non-governmental groups to attempt to use it to advance their domestic political struggle. Domestic campaigns were carefully coordinated to influence UN deliberations, and representatives were sent to New York. Through the efforts of the delegation of decolonising India, South African issues dominated the General Assembly’s first session in 1946.
Within three years, however, the refusal of the Indian delegation even to propose a a UN sanctions regime left South African activists disillusioned with the “weakness” of the UN and its domination by “imperialist powers.” Though the General Assembly continued to debate South African issues every year throughout the 1950s, South African activists accorded little strategic significance to these deliberations and concentrated on their own domestic campaigns.
In 1960, however, anti-apartheid interest in the United Nations was reignited by African decolonization and the consequent transformation of the UN’s membership. South African activists and their allies in the emerging global anti-apartheid movement now accorded central significance to securing a UN sanctions regime. In 1962, the new “Africa Group” at the UN secured the first General Assembly sanctions resolution.
But the high hopes entertained in the early 1960s that the emergence of a postcolonial majority in the General Assembly would be sufficient to transform the UN into a vehicle for promoting African states’ interests and agendas were dashed on the rock of the vetoes held by the permanent members of the Security Council. Disillusioned by the inability of the African states to generate sufficient leverage to compel the veto-wielding great powers to accede to their demands, anti-apartheid activists disengaged from the United Nations after 1965. Annual debates in the General Assembly would continue. But never again would the anti-apartheid movement see the United Nations as such a central actor in the struggle for South African liberation.