Munich Personal RePEc Archive

The scientist and the church

Nitzan, Jonathan and Bichler, Shimshon (2005): The scientist and the church.

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The April 21, 2005 issue of the LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS carried a lead article titled ‘Blood for Oil?’ The paper is attributed to a group of writers and activists – Iain Boal, T.J. Clark, Joseph Matthews and Michael Watts – who identify themselves by the collective name ‘Retort.’ In their article, the authors advance a supposedly new explanation for the wars in the Middle East.

Much of their explanation – including both theory and fact – is plagiarized. It is cut and pasted, almost ‘as is,’ from our own work. The primary source is ‘The Weapondollar-Petrodollar Coalition,’ a 71 page chapter in our book THE GLOBAL POLITICAL ECONOMY OF ISRAEL (Pluto 2002). The authors also seem inspired, incognito, by our more recent papers, including ‘It’s All About Oil’ (2003), ‘Clash of Civilization or Capital Accumulation?’ (2004), ‘Beyond Neoliberalism’ (2004) and ‘Dominant Capital and the New Wars’ (2004).

In their paper, the Retort group credits us for having coined the term ‘Weapondollar-Petrodollar Coalition’ – but dismiss our ‘precise calibration of the oil/war nexus’ as ‘perfunctory.’ This dismissal does not prevent them from freely appropriating, wholesale fashion, our concepts, ideas and theories – including, among others, the ‘era of free flow,’ the ‘era of limited flow,’ ‘energy conflicts,’ the ‘commercialization of arms exports,’ the ‘politicization of oil’ and the critique of the ‘scarcity thesis.’ Nowhere in their article do the authors mention the source of these concepts, ideas and theories; occasionally, they even introduce them with the prefix ‘Our view is. . . .’ Their treatment of facts is not very different. They freely use (sometimes without understanding) research methods, statistics and data that took us years to conceive, estimate and measure – again, never mentioning the source.

These concepts, theories and facts are far from trivial. Until recently, they were greeted with strategic silence, from both right and left. Their publication has been repeatedly denied and censored by mainstream as well as progressive journals (including, it must be said, by the LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS, that turned down our paper on the subject). They cannot be found anywhere else in the literature, conservative or radical. To treat them as ‘common knowledge’ is deceitful. To cut and paste them without due attribution is blatant plagiarism. The first part of our paper illustrates this process of ‘intellectual accumulation-by-dispossession’ with selected examples.

The issue, though, goes well beyond personal vanity and self-aggrandizement. At the core, we are dealing here with the clash of science and church, with the constant attempt of organized faith – whether religious or academic – to disable, block and, if necessary, appropriate creativity and novelty. Creativity and novelty are dangerous. They defy dogma and undermine the conventional creed; they challenge the dominant ideology and threaten those in power; occasionally, they cause the entire edifice of power to crumble.

For these reasons, the latent purpose of intellectual accumulation-by-dispossession – like the accumulation of private property – is primarily negative. The word ‘private’ comes from the Latin ‘privatus,’ meaning ‘restricted,’ and from ‘privare,’ which means ‘to deprive.’ And, indeed, the most important feature of private ownership is not to enable those who own, but to disable those who do not. It is only through the threat of prevention – or ‘strategic sabotage’ as Thorsein Veblen called it – that accumulation can take place. It is only by restricting the free creativity of society that society itself can be controlled. The second section of the paper explains how the appropriators of ‘Blood for Oil?’ fit this pattern.

The final section of the paper is an epilogue. It describes our failed attempts to get this paper published with The LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS; Retort’s efforts to mislead us; and some additional insight from their AFFLICTED POWERS, a 2005 Verso book that contains the same plagiarism and more. The epilogue concludes with a few observations on the nature of academic dialectics.

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