Capitalism, Covert Action and State-Terrorism: Towards a Political Economy of the Deep State

by Nafeez Ahmed

In the name of fighting the post-9/11 “War on Terror” Western states have with increasing impunity bent, stretched and broken the rule of law on the pretext of defending national security: the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq; the politicisation and fabrication of intelligence on WMD; the routine use of torture in Iraqi prisons; the violation with impunity of the Geneva Conventions and other laws of war in Iraq, Afghanistan and north-west Pakistan; the arbitrary labelling of ordinary citizens as “terror suspects” without evidence, their kidnapping and human trafficking in the form of extraordinary rendition, their indefinite detention in inhumane conditions; Guantanamo Bay; military commissions run by military officers outside the jurisdiction of domestic and international law; the regular input of false information gleaned from torture into the production of “intelligence” to justify new counter-terror and surveillance operations; and so on.

The persistence and proliferation of these crimes is prima facie evidence of an increasing criminalisation of Western state practices, consistent with mounting empirical and historical evidence that state military and intelligence practices intersect systematically and institutionally with a wide variety of extra-legal non-state actors, such as trans-national corporations and lobbies, private mercenaries, terrorist networks, organised criminal syndicates, drugs and arms trafficking groups, and so on.

Although analysis of the criminalisation of the state remains a marginal endeavour within political science and IR, the seminal work of Canadian political scientist Peter Dale Scott stands out for its focus on framing this phenomenon within a more systematic framework. This paper explores the implications of Scott‟s concept of “deep politics ” for understanding covert action and state-sponsored terrorism, through the lens of Carl Schmitt‟s theories of the sovereign, as well as the Copenhagen and Paris schools of Security Studies. These different but converging theories of state securitisation will be critically reformulated against the insights of a political Marxist approach to understanding the evolution of modern state-sovereignty in the context of capitalist social-property relations. This leads to an exploration of the shifting parameters of political violence under capitalism, and the need under capitalist crisis to resort to novel forms of covert action. This illustrates how capitalism‟s eminent compatibility with deep political and economic activities, and its co-optation of criminal economic networks, has through the post-war period increasingly elevated the power of a U.S.-dominated transnational capitalist class. Two major cases of international terrorism – Cold War communism and post-Cold War Islamist extremism – become explicable within this framework.

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