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Follow the Money, Uncover the Power Dynamics: Understanding the Political Economy of Violence’

In the 1976 drama-documentary about the Watergate scandal, All the President’s Men, the informant, “Deepthroat,” tells the journalists from The Washington Post to “follow the money.” This is also good advice when it comes to the political economy of violence. Follow the money: some people lose it; some people gain it–some for survival purposes, others for combat purposes, a lot purely because the opportunity arose. Understanding the different methods of accumulation and dispossession that are part of the political economy of violence is central to uncovering the origins, development, and aftermath of a variety of conflict contexts.

I prefer the term “political economy of violence” to that of “war economies” for three main reasons. First, it ensures that we extend the analysis to include revolutions and counterrevolutions, siege and sanctions, complex political emergencies, as well as, of course, the traditional focus on inter- and intra-state wars. Second, it underscores that violence exists on a continuum, i.e., that there is an emergence of violent political economies before the eruption of outright violent conflict; and that the political economies that are shaped during the phase of outright violence continue into the “peace.” Third, that by emphasizing a political economy approach, it focuses our attention on not merely the impacts on the economy, but on analyzing how different modes of accumulation, class and societal relations, and political alliances are formed and develop over time. 

The researchers that have been most influential on my own intellectual development regarding this topic are: Michael Pugh, Neil Cooper, Jonathan Goodhand, David Keen, Chris Cramer, and Mark Duffield, to name but a few. I will briefly tease out what I consider to be the six most important aspects that I took from their work. The first is that they promoted the study of conflict dynamics (particularly the production and distribution of power, wealth, and destitution) and critiqued the overwhelming focus on identity issues or “primordial hatreds.” The second is that they emphasized the international and regional dimensions of both the origins of violent conflict, and the political economies of violence that emerge. Their research has emphasized the destabilizing impacts of the globalization of capitalism and the concomitant weakening of the nation-state through market de-regulation and the policies of the Washington Consensus that created lucrative margins and thus an intricate relationship between “legal” markets and “illegal” mafiosi. Third, they have insisted that violent conflicts should be regarded as the emergence of alternative systems of profit and power, rather than simply the breakdown of a system. This was an important corrective to the dominant narrative in the 2000s (and still often heard) that conflict is “development in reverse.”[1] Keen’s research on the 1980s famine in Sudan was particularly original in that he showed how, in fact, despite common perceptions that famine affects all indiscriminately, the assets of the politically weak were forcibly transferred to powerful beneficiaries such as political elites and traders.[2] Underpinning the work of these researchers is the recognition that violent contexts allow for an acceleration of processes of accumulation by dispossession.[3]

The fourth important aspect is the three-fold conceptual distinction developed by Pugh, Cooper, and Goodhand between “combat” economies, “criminal” economies, and “coping” economies.[4] This has proven to be particularly useful and has been utilized by a lot of researchers since (including a gender analysis of Iraq’s informal economies by V. Spike Peterson[5])–although, of course, these are not hermetically sealed categories but overlap in a variety of ways. The fifth is the problematization of the “security-development nexus” which has underpinned more invasive levels of western donor and multilateral intervention based on the belief that “southern” instability, caused by underdevelopment, is the main threat to western security. Duffield, in particular, has emphasized that the world has polarized into “zones of privilege” surrounded by a “surplus population” which is being secured and silenced through the use of kinetic violence such as military intervention and techniques of counterinsurgency and more bureaucratic forms of control such as development and governance strategies.[6]  Finally, the sixth important aspect was that they drew attention to the fact that the way in which conflicts play out and the tactics used in them are partly determined by the type of political economy of violence, and that this will shape the type of “peace” that emerges after the end of violent confrontation. My first co-edited book with Pugh and Cooper explored these legacies and how to transform them.[7] 

While this early round of research shaped the agenda in important ways (as well as my own approach), much of it suffered from an important conceptual weakness: its tendency to buy into the “new wars” thesis. Initially proposed by Mary Kaldor, the concept of “new wars” has been dominant in the lexicon of the study of violent conflict since the late 1990s. While this thesis has been critiqued from a number of different angles, for me the two most important problems with it are: first, that it reintroduces a focus on identity (ethnic, religious, or tribal[8]); and second, that it is entirely dependent upon a distinction between “new” and “old” based on a Eurocentric conception of war. While the authors referred to above critiqued identity-based explanations and offered a different model, they accepted other aspects of the thesis (and indeed used the term widely) that are tied up with the ahistorical and Eurocentric conception of war that it advances, i.e., that the end of the Cold War heralded a new era of warfare that could no longer be understood as constituting a conflict between two sides with opposing views but instead should be understood as being characterized by irregular forms of warfare  driven by highly criminal behavior in the economic sphere (profiteering) and in the political arena (indiscriminate violence that ignores the rules of war). However, “new wars” are not all that new, because most warfare has not taken the form of the inter-state model as exemplified by the First and Second World Wars, but has largely taken the form of what Tarak Barkawi calls “small wars” (which includes civil wars, colonial wars, insurgencies and counterinsurgencies, death squads, etc.).[9] Once this is recognized, the field opens up for critical enquiry and comparison–both past and present–that is not dependent on an ahistorical “western” model as the baseline. 

As pointed out by the editors of this roundtable, there has been less engagement with the Middle East from researchers of war economies–which is surprising given that no society in the region has escaped some form of violent conflict: inter-state war, revolution and counter-revolution, intra-state civil conflict, military coup, as well as siege and sanctions. Steven Heydemann’s edited volume, War, Institutions and Social Change in the Middle East, which was published in 2000, was one of the few exceptions.[10] The book was groundbreaking, particularly because it insisted that war should be understood as a social process; plus (despite its title) it did not confine itself to an analysis of “war” as is normally narrowly defined but also included, for instance, an analysis of the rise of the PLO, and the impact of the Arab revolt on statebuilding in Jordan. However, this collection was written and produced before the current round of violent confrontations that have crisscrossed the Middle East in the past twenty years.

Since then there have been some excellent analyses that do not explicitly use the language or frameworks of war economies research but their methods, concepts, and findings are complementary because they reside within the critical political economy tradition in that they emphasize the analysis of processes of accumulation and dispossession, the international and regional setting, and political alliances. For example, Adam Hanieh’s Lineages of Revolt is seminal in its analysis of the political economy that underpinned the revolutions that have swept the Arab world.[11] Similarly, the works of Ali Kadri[12] and Gilbert Achcar[13] are important, as are some of the chapters in Fawaz Gerges' edited volume The New Middle East[14] as well as the MERIP policy brief by Omar S Dahi.[15] There have also been some interesting studies on the causes and impact of the US occupation of Iraq (from other angles);[16] the causes and ongoing consequences of the revolution and counterrevolution in Egypt;[17] Lebanon’s wars and post-conflict reconstruction;[18] and the origins and development of Syria’s revolution and civil war.[19]

Iraq’s experience has, of course, garnered a lot of research attention given that it has been in a continuous war situation since 1980: initially with Iran, and then its invasion of Kuwait in 1990 provoked international sanctions that helped to hollow out the economy and create international black-market networks fostered by the Ba’athists. This created a new elite, destroyed the middle class, and impoverished most of society, so when it came to the invasion and occupation by US and British forces in 2003 to overthrow Ba’athist rule, it is little wonder that the state crumbled. These problems were compounded by corruption and profiteering by occupation forces, and the economic and governance policies of the Coalition Provisional Authority including ‘de-Ba’athification’ and opening up Iraq to the world economy (including selling off state enterprises).[20] This truly was an example of “war by other means” designed to destroy the old governing elite and build a “new Iraq”–but instead it destroyed the country which descended into civil war, and was the proximate cause of the emergence of Da’esh.[21]

Dominating the media at the moment is, of course, the Syrian revolution and civil war–and this has spawned some incisive analyses of its political economy. Samer Abboud, for instance, has emphasized that there is not one war economy but multiple war economies based on territorial fragmentation–with a plurality of forms of accumulation, actors, and geographies (some of which overlap). He draws our attention to the lack of productive activity and the secondary role that resource extraction plays in the financing of the conflict, which has meant a greater role for predatory behavior such as taxation, smuggling, and kidnapping.[22] The journalist, Nour Samaha, has emphasized the impact of the sanctions regime in creating a new class of war profiteers and “black market kings.”[23] While Will Todman, in his analysis of siege warfare, shows how what is normally understood as a military tactic to subdue and defeat opponents, is also a profitable system of accumulation and dispossession. He develops the concept of the “siege enterprise” to explain the complex web of businessmen, traders, armed groups, and the upper echelons of the Assad regime that are making huge profits.[24] The work of Jihad Yazigi reminds us that these new interests and power centers are likely to clash with any attempts to rebuild central control.[25]

In terms of the occupied Palestinian territory (my own research interest), work has tended to focus on the economic impacts of Israel’s occupation and colonization practices. The concept of de-development, coined by Sara Roy, to explain Israel’s deliberate practices designed to destroy the economy of Gaza, has been particularly useful and influential.[26] Indeed, an exploration of its applicability in other contexts outside of Gaza underpinned my co-edited book, Decolonizing Palestinian Political Economy.[27] However, there have been fewer studies of how the political economy of the OPT is shaped by processes of accumulation by dispossession from both the occupier, Israel, as well as from Palestinian elites. There is an excellent chapter in Hanieh’s book that sets a useful framework for analysis particularly in terms of the influence of regional (Gulf) capital. And Mushtaq H. Khan and Toufic Haddad offer some useful insights on the relationship between the Palestinian political elite and the Palestinian business elite in the context of Palestinian (quasi-) state formation.[28] In the case of Gaza, the research on the 2007-13 “tunnel economy” by the journalist, Nicolas Pelham, was groundbreaking in its analysis of the political economy that emerged in the context of siege and the concomitant change in class relations and political allegiances.[29] There are many more excellent analyses (including in Arabic) that I have not mentioned here.

Suffice it is to say, therefore, that those who employ a critical political economy framework are natural research allies for those of us working more directly with the frameworks developed to understand the political economy of violence. 

Violence is inherent in all societies–but how we understand it derives from our analytical frameworks. To me, an approach that emphasizes the six aspects I outlined earlier provide us with an excellent framework from which to analyze the political economy of violence, across regions and time: i) explore the production and distribution of power and wealth over a focus on identity; ii) uncover the international and regional dimension; iii) analyze the emergence and development of alternative systems of power and profit that empowers some and marginalizes others; iv) employ the conceptual distinction (albeit an overlapping one) between “combat,” “criminal,” and “coping” economies; v) analyze the discourse and impact of intervention strategies by donors and multilaterals, and how they become part of the conflict dynamics; and vi) explore how the type of political economy that emerges during these violent confrontations shapes the “peace.”

All in all, the principle underpinning our research should be: follow the money, uncover the power dynamics.


[1] Paul Collier et al, Breaking the Conflict Trap: Civil War and Development Policy (Washington DC: World Bank, 2003).

[2] David Keen, The Benefits of Famine: The Political Economy of Famine Relief in Southwestern Sudan, 1983-1989 (Princeton University Press, 1994). 

[3] See especially Chris Cramer, Civil War is Not a Stupid Thing: Accounting for Violence in Developing Societies (Hurst & Company, 2006).   

[4] Michael Pugh, Neil Cooper, with Jonathan Goodhand, War Economies in a Regional Context: Challenges of Transformation (Lynne Rienner, 2004), 7.

[5] V. Spike Peterson, “Gendering informal economies in Iraq,” in Women and War in the Middle East: Transnational Perspectives, edited by Nicola Pratt and Nadje Al-Ali (Zed, 2013).

[6] Mark Duffield, Global Governance and the New Wars: The Merging of Development and Security (Zed Books, 2004); Mark Duffield, Development, Security and Unending War: Governing the World of Peoples (Polity, 2007).

[7] Michael Pugh, Neil Cooper, and Mandy Turner (eds.), Whose Peace: Critical Perspectives on the Political Economy of Peacebuilding (PalgraveMacmillan, 2008). 

[8] Mary Kaldor, “In Defence of New Wars,” Stability: International Journal of Security and Development 2, no. 1 (2013).

[9] Tarak Barkawi, “Decolonising War,” European Journal of International Security, 1 Part 2, (2016), 199-214.

[10] Steven Heydemann (ed.), War, Institutions and Social Change in the Middle East (University of California Press, 2000).

[11] Adam Hanieh, Lineages of Revolt: Issues of Contemporary Capitalism in the Middle East (Haymarket, 2013).

[12] Ali Kadri, Arab Development Denied: Dynamics of Accumulation by Wars of Encroachment (Anthem Press, 2014); and forthcoming The Cordon Sanitaire: A Single Law Governing Development in East Asia and the Arab World (Palgrave, 2017).

[13] Gilbert Achcar, The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising (University of California Press, 2013); and Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab Uprising (Saqi, 2016).

[14] Fawaz Gerges (ed.), The New Middle East: Protest and Revolution in the Arab World (Cambridge University Press, 2013). 

[15] Omar S. Dahi, “Understanding the Political Economy of the Arab Revolts,” Middle East Report 259 (Summer 2011).

[16] Toby Dodge, “Intervention and Dreams of Exogenous Statebuilding: The Application of Liberal Peacebuilding in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Review of International Studies, 39, no. 5 (2013), 1189-1212; Eric Herring and Glen Rangwala, Iraq in Fragments: The Occupation and its Heritage (Cornell University Press, 2006); Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone (Vintage Books, 2007).

[17] Maha Abdulrahman, Egypt’s Long Revolution: Protest Movements and Uprisings (Routledge, 2014); Roberto Roccu, The Political Economy of the Egyptian Revolution: Mubarak, Economic Reforms and Failed Hegemony (PalgraveMacmillan, 2013); Joel Beinin, Workers and Thieves: Labor Movements and Popular Uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt (Stanford University Press, 2015).  

[18] Toufic Gaspard, A Political Economy of Lebanon, 1948-2002 (Brill, 2003); Hannes Baumann, Citizen Hariri: Lebanon's Neoliberal Reconstruction (Hurst: London, 2017).   

[19] Raymond Hinnebusch and Tina Zintl (eds.), Syria from Revolt to Revolution, Volume 1: Political Economy and International Relations (Syracuse University Press, 2015); Shamel Azmeh, “The Uprising of the Marginalised: A Socio-economic Perspective of the Syrian Uprising,” London School of Economics Middle East Centre Paper Series 6, November 2014.

[20] Pete Moore and Christopher Parker, “The War Economy of Iraq,” Middle East Report 243 (Summer 2007); Dodge, 2013, op cit; Herring and Rangwala, 2006, op cit.

[21] Toby Dodge, “Enemy Images, Coercive Socio-engineering and Civil War in Iraq,” in The Politics of International Intervention: The Tyranny of Peace, edited by Mandy Turner and Florian P. Kühn, (Routledge, 2016).

[22] Samer Abboud, “Social Change, Network Formation and Syria’s War Economies,” Middle East Policy, XXIV, no. 1 (Spring 2017). 

[23] Nour Samaha, “The Black Market Kings of Damascus,” The Atlantic, 3 October 2016.

[24] Will Todman, “Sieges in Syria: Profiteering from Misery,” Middle East Institute Policy Focus, June 2016, Washington DC.

[25] Jihad Yazigi, “Syria’s War Economy,” European Council on Foreign Relations Policy Brief, April 2014, London.

[26] Sara Roy, “De-development Revisited: Palestinian Economy and Society Since Oslo,” Journal of Palestine Studies 28, no. 3 (Spring 1999), 64-82.

[27] Mandy Turner and Omar Shweiki (eds.), Decolonizing Palestinian Political Economy: De-development and Beyond (PalgraveMacmillan, 2014).

[28] Mushtaq H. Khan, George Giacaman, and Inge Amundsen (eds), State Formation in Palestine: Viability and Governance During a Social Transformation (Routledge Curzon, 2004); Toufic Haddad, Palestine Ltd: Nationalism and Neoliberalism in the Occupied Territories (IB Tauris, 2016).

[29] Nicolas Pelham, “The Role of the Tunnel Economy in Redeveloping Gaza,” in Turner and Shweiki (eds.) 2014, op cit
 



[This article is one of five contributions to the Jadaliyya roundtable on war economies. Click here to read the introduction or read other contributions by Tariq Dana, Toby Jones, and Pete Moore.]

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