Wealth and Power: The Politics of Food and Oil

Anyone looking back in 1975 at the oil and food crisis, as it has developed since October 1973, and at the whole current economic disequilibrium, will quickly perceive that things are not what they seem. Of course, we must take care not to get involved in the old game of the pot calling the kettle black. But the way events have been presented in the West is at best only a half-truth. There is a politics of food as well as a politics of trade, and oil—from as far back, at least, as the Achnacarry agreement of 1928—has always been a matter of politics. The danger in the present situation, as in the 1930s, is that the politics will override the economics and propel us all into disaster.

Contrary to commonly accepted opinion, the overriding issue since the end of 1973 has not been oil or food, or even inflation and unemployment. What we have witnessed, in reality, and what we are still witnessing, is the opening stage of a struggle for a new world order, a search for positions of strength in a global realignment, in which the weapons (backed, naturally, by the ultimate sanction of force) are food and fuel. If we continue to analyze the situation in economic terms, as though the only issue was how to combat the threat of depression, we shall never get the measure of the crisis which overhangs the world. The scenario (to use the currently fashionable jargon) may be economic, but the action is political.

The steps taken by the oil-producing countries in October 1973 to secure a larger share of oil revenues added a new dimension to the conflict, but it would be totally unrealistic to suppose that they created it. The onset of the crisis was clearly visible five or six years earlier. What happened, briefly, was that the war in Vietnam, and the mounting inflation that ensued, undermined the international system built up since 1947, and in particular weakened the position of the United States, the linchpin of the system. “After 1967,” as Fred Bergsten puts it, “the rules and institutional bases of the old structure began to disintegrate.”

The event that symbolized the close of one era and the opening of another was the withdrawal (one might almost say the abdication) of Lyndon B. Johnson, his announcement on March 31, 1968, of his decision not to seek re-election. In retrospect, it would seem probable that the operative cause was less the much advertised student unrest than a revolt of big business and corporate finance, frightened by the damage Johnson’s policies were inflicting on the US economy and on its economic position abroad. In effect, Nixon and Kissinger were called in to repair the damage, to remodel the system, and to restore US standing in the world. Two new brooms—or, to be accurate, one new broom and a distinctly shop-soiled one—were to sweep away the debris and clear the ground for …

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