Monday, March 30, 2015

Bremer Order 81; Best Practices in Twenty-First-Century Iraqi Agriculture by Wendy Brown

In 2003, one year after Saddam Hussein was toppled, Paul Bremer, the American-appointed head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, declared Iraq “open for business” and spelled out a set of 100 orders that came to be known as the Bremer Orders. These mandated selling off several hundred state-run enterprises, permitting full ownership rights of Iraqi businesses by foreign firms and full repatriation of profits to foreign firms, opening Iraq’s banks to foreign ownership and control, and eliminating tariffs – in short, making Iraq a new playground of world finance and investment. At the time time, the Bremer Orders restricted labor  and throttled back public goods and services. They outlawed strikes and eliminated the right to unionize in most sectors, mandated a regressive flat tax on income, lowered the corporate rate to a flat 15 percent, and eliminated taxes on profits repatriated to foreign-owned businesses.

Many of these orders were in violation of the Geneva and Hague Conventions concerning war, occupation, and international relations, which mandate that an occupying power must guard, rather than sell off the assets of the occupied country. But if illegal under international law, the orders could be implemented  by a sovereign Iraqi government. To that end, an interim government was appointed by the United States in late 2002 and was pressed to ratify the orders when it was pronounced “sovereign” in 2004. And lest future elected governments not be so pliable, one order declares that no elected Iraqi government will have the power to alter them.

The Bremer Orders and the U.S. dominated state under construction that ratified and executed them obviously exemplify a host of neo-liberal features: the use of a calamity (“shock doctrine”) to impose neo-liberal reforms; the elimination of public ownership and welfare; the reduction of taxes and tariffs; the extensive use of the state to structure market competition through inequality; the break-up of labor and popular solidarities; the creation of ideal conditions for global finance and investment capital. Yet the orders, defined as “binding instructions or directives to the Iraqi people that create [penal consequences or have a direct bearing on the way Iraqis are regulated, including changes to Iraqi law,” would seem to be at odds with the idea of the soft power of governance and best practices we have been considering as the mode through which neoliberal rationality is disseminated. As William Engdahl notes, the orders had the shape of “do it or die.” But what we will seen close inspection is the importance of law in codifying and disseminating best practices, on the one side, and the role of best practices in generating law and policy, on the other. The orders emanated from neoliberal understanding of best practices and set them in motion. Law can be mobilized to structure competition and facilitate capital accumulation, but also to codify and animate best practices in lieu of violence or commands. Close inspection of one Bremer order vividly illustrates this concatenation of effects.

Bremer Order 81, the “Patent, Industrial Design, Undisclosed Information, Integrated Circuits and Plant Variety Law,” includes a prohibition against “the re-use of crop seeds of protected varieties.” Why a law against seed saving and reuse? The protected varieties named in the order refer to genetically modified seed produced by Monsanto, Dow, DuPont, and other agribusiness giants, and at first blush, the prohibition seems mainly designed to protect the intellectual property rights of these firms – farmers cannot just buy the seed once and then pirate its offspring: ruthless, perhaps, but hardly unethical or at least, uncommon. And hardly relevant to best practices. However, the story only begins with the letter of the law.

Monsanto and other large seed corporations are selling a package around the world that is transforming agriculture: the package includes patented, genetically modified seed and the fertilizers and pesticides that go with it. With the promise of a giant crop yield and an end to struggling with pests, the agribusiness giants aim to convert farers across the developing world from “traditional” to “modern” techniques, materials, and markets.

Since at least 8000 B.C. Iraqi farmers have successfully grown wheat without this package in what is know to this day as the Fertile Crescent. Over the centuries, farmers cultivated the range of varieties essential to crop sustainability by saving seeds from thriving wheat plants one year and planting and cross-pollinating them with seeds of different strengths the following year. By using such practices, the crop continually improves and diversifies, partly through selection by experienced farmers, partly through plant evolution, partly through open pollination conducted by winds, insects and animals. As late as 2002, writes ecologist Jeremy Smith, the Federal Accounting Office ‘estimated that 97 percent of Iraqi farmers” engaged in these practices, with the consequence “that there are now over 200,000 known varieties of wheat in the world.

For millennia, Fertile Crescent farmers informally shred and traded seeds at harvest and planting time. In the twentieth century, they shifted to storing and retrieving seed from a national seed bank, located, alas, in Abu Ghraib, where the entire bank vanished after the bombings and occupation. This calamity, following war and episodes of drought since 12991 and combined with the embargo by the United States and United Kingdom that limited access to agricultural equipment, caused Iraqi wheat production to drop dramatically and become unable to sustain the population for the first time in centuries. The production crisis opened the door for the agri-business to move in: the seed bank destroyed, the harvest yield dramatically down due to natural disaster and years of war, Iraqi farmers were vulnerable, desperate and exploitable. They needed seed and agri-business-backed relief efforts were there to provide it. Bremer Order 81 sealed the farmer’s permanent dependence on the agri-business giants.

The U.S. government handout of genetically modified seed in 2004 was like offering heroin to a desperate single mother out of a job, facing eviction, and despairing of the future. Not only did it promise relief, but the first bag was free. It permanently attached the recipient to the supplier, and the addiction was deadly – to sustainable Iraqi farming, Iraqi self-sufficiency, and even the farmers themselves.

As the ink dried on the Bremer Orders, the U.S. Agency for International Development began delivering thousands of tons of wheat seed to the Iraq Agricultural Ministry, which distributed it at little or no cost to Iraqi farmers. An Arizona agriresearch firm, the World Wide Wheat Company, provided thousands more bags of free seed. These donations were combined with demonstration plots, run by Texas A&M for USAID and aimed at teaching Iraqi farmers how to grow the new high-yield crops. Thousands of farmers were lured into the new agricultural techniques, which also required the use of specialized fungicides, pesticides and herbicides. Free seed, the promise of soaring production levels, and their teachers’ insistence that the uniform crops and accompanying chemicals represented modernity, wealth, and the future – together , these transformed centuries of Iraqi agriculture overnight. Bremer Order 81 secured that transformation. Prohibited from saving seeds of protected varieties, Iraqi famers are now permanently bound to their foreign dealers, whose seed is ubiquitous in their fields, intermixed with all the heritage seed. Organic, diversified, low-cost, ecologically sustainable wheat production in Iraq is finished.

Half the wheat seeds distributed in post-Saddam Iraq were for bread wheat; the other half was for pasta wheat, and pasty a is no part of the the Iraqi die. Thus, in addition to making Iraqi farmers dependent on giant corporations whose seeds, licensing, and chemicals they must now purchase annually (and for which state subsidies are available, while other farm subsidies have been eliminated), they were being transformed from multi-crop local food providers into monocrop participants in global; import-export markets. Today, Iraqi farmers generate profits for Monsanto by supplying pasta to Texas school cafeterias, while Iraq has become an importer of staples formerly grown on its own soil.

There is more to this heartbreaking story of the destruction of thousands of years of sustainable agriculture and of what some activists call “food sovereignty,” but let us fast-forward to one possible future. A similar experiment took place in India in the 1990s. Tens of thousands of farmers were lured into using genetically modified cotton seed by village-to village agribusiness representatives promising bigger crops with export potential, something especially important at a time when neoliberal reforms were eliminating government price supports and subsidies for cotton production. Farmers were abetted  in the transition by the availability of large bank loans to purchase seed and the needed pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides. Like the Iraqis, Indian cotton farmers were not only adopting new agricultural technologies, but becoming fully integrated into world markets and debt finance.

The problem is that farming in general is uniquely vulnerable to fluctuations in nature, such as draughts and floods, and farming for export is also vulnerable to fluctuations in world markets. One bad year with either can leave debt-burdened farmers without the means to repay loans, which means bad credit, which means the inability to borrow more (or borrowing at scandalous rates), which means the inability to plant and thus recoup losses. This is what happened in India a decade ago, pushing cotton farmers into an ever-deepening hole of debt. The result? An epidemic of farmer suicides (at least twenty thousand at this point), often committed by drinking a bottle of RoundUp, the Monsanto-produced herbicide that kills everything except Monsanto’s genetically modified seed.

An improved investment climate in Iraq, its integration into world trade, elimination of its nontransparent state ownership and planning in favor of private enterprise – these are the “outcomes” that Bremer Order 81 aims to achieve. What Nancy Scola calls the “legal tweak” that effectively ended seed saving was the reform required to bring them about. Casting itself, at the same time, as the opposite of regulation, this order launched the practices that would integrate Iraqi farming and farmers into the global order, an integration achieved by eliminating, on the other hand, nonmonetary trade, local sourcing , and traditional techniques and by generating, on the other, dependence on foreign corporations, on fertilizers and pesticides, on debt financing, and on global export and import markets. The legal tweak instigates these best practices but, like the Protestant Ethic Weber deemed crucial to inaugurating capitalism, its importance falls away once the machinery is in motion. Thus, Order 81, epitomizes the neoliberal mobilization of law not to repress punish, but to structure competition and effect “the conduct of conduct.” It alters one tiny practice (seed saving) to inaugurate the convergent purposes of Iraqi economic growth, protection of corporate intellectual property, and Iraqi participation in world trade and finance.

Visible in the story of Order 81 is the specific meshing of state and business aims through neo-liberal governance, a meshing that exceeds the interlocking directorates or quid pro quo arrangements familiar from past iteratons of capitalism. The project of the state is to facilitate economic growth, not the well-being of a particular sector or people, and the project of capital is to generate such growth, though now, under neo-liberalism, business devotes itself to local development ( ‘privatization’)as government devotes itself to global positioning; governments negotiate contracts as firms become educators; the government concerns itself with the investment climate,(protecting intellectual property, providing tax shelters and subsidies and a deregulated environment); business become ‘ethical actors’ [‘’points of light’], supposedly representing the interests of the needy or underserved.

Order 81 is reputed to have been drafted by Monsanto and emerges  from the Bush Administration’s close ties to agribusinesses (and the extensive presence in the Bush cabinet of those ties), yet these facts are almost beside the point. The orders expressed and executed Bremer’s purpose in Iraq, which was not to democratize it, but to neoliberalize it.  In this regard, even more significant than Monsanto’s direct influence is that the orders fostering deregulation, privatization and the structuring of competition preceded the building of democratic institutions; orders first, then constitutions, parliaments, councils, elections and civil liberties. It is also noteworthy that the provisional government authorizing them, whose members were handpicked by the Bremer team and subject in all their actions to Bremer’s veto, consisted of only those who supported the U.S. occupation. In turn, this government proposed a process for ratifying the permanent constitution that excluded all parties not supporting the occupation. Again, this could be read as the direct and heavy hand of the United States in making Iraq a playground for international capital and especially for U.S. Corporations, ranging from Haliburton to Monsanto. More important, however, are the ways in which these moves represent distinctive features of neoliberal governance: while states operating on a business model may eschew excessive uses of violence or unconstitutional conduct, they are also not about to enfranchise competing or oppositional interests, cede control or prioritize justice and welfare over investment climate and economic growth.

The Bremer Orders reflect a fundamental shift in state purposes and legitimacy that is more important than the question of precisely which politicians, corporations and banks are in bed with one another. That old model could easily be charged with corruption. Neoliberal governance facilitates a more open-handed and effective  - ‘soft’- fusion of political and economic power, one that largely eliminates the scandal of corruption [ or at least makes it more difficult to detect or prosecute] as it erases differences in goals and governance between states and capital, indeed, as ‘best practices’ circulating between them perform this erasure. . . .

Intensified inequality, crass commodification and commerce, ever growing corporate influence in government, economic havoc and instability – certainly all these are consequences of neoliberal policy, and all are material for loathing and popular protest, as indeed, Occupy Wall Street, the Southern European protests against austerity policies, and earlier, the “Anti-globalization” movement loathed and protested them. However, in this book, neoliberalism is formulated somewhat differently and focuses on different deleterious effects. In contrast with the understanding of neoliberalism as a set of state policies, a phase of capitalism, or an ideology that set loose the market tp restore profitability for a capitalist class, I join  Michael Foucault and others in conceiving neoliberalism as an order of normative reason that, when it become ascendant, takes shape as a governing rationality extending a specific formulation of economic values, practices, and metrics to every dimension of human life.

This governing rationality involves what Koray Caliskan and Michel Callon term the “economization” of hithertofore noneconomic spheres and practices, a process of remaking the knowledge, form, content, and conduct appropriate to these spheres and practices. Importantly, such economization may not always involve monetization. That is, we may think and act like contemporary market subjects where monetary wealth generation is not the immediate issue, for example, in approaching one’s education, health, fitness, family life, or neighborhood. To speak of the relentless and ubiquitous economization of all features of life by neoliberalism is thus not to claim that neoliberalism literally marketizes all spheres, even as such marketization is certainly one important effect of neoliberalism. Rather, the point is that neoliberal rationality disseminates the model of the market to all domains and activities –even where money is not the issue – and configures human beings exhaustively as market actors, always, only, and everywhere as homo oeconomicus.

[e.g. ‘What do you buy into?’ ‘What are you selling?’]


  1. There are several critical concerns about Foucault's work bearing on the effort to theorize neoliberalism's undoing of democracy and democratic imaginary. One the one hand, Foucault offers a crucial articulation of neoliberalism as a political rationality and a profound appreciation of all that it entailed apart from economic policy. On the other hand, there are limitations and anachronisms in the College de France Lectures associated with the time, conditions, and intellectual temperament animating them. Moreover, I am seeking to think with, against, and apart from Foucault on subjects that would frankly not have interested him or to which he would have objected including democracy, citizenship, and histories of political thought. Such heterodox practices of engagement are what I understand critical teary to be and to be for.

  2. "The protected varieties named in the order refer to genetically modified seed produced by Monsanto, Dow, DuPont, and other agribusiness giants"

    But no GE seeds are sold in Iraq. This doesn't make any sense.