D.8 What causes militarism and what are its effects?

There are two main causes of capitalist militarism. Firstly, there is the need to contain the domestic enemy - the oppressed and exploited sections of the population. The other, as noted in the section on imperialism, is that a strong military is necessary in order for a ruling class to pursue an aggressive and expansionist foreign policy. For most developed capitalist nations, this kind of foreign policy becomes more and more important because of economic forces, i.e. in order to provide outlets for its goods and to prevent the system from collapsing by expanding the market continually outward. This outward expansion of, and so competition between, capital needs military force to protect its interests (particularly those invested in other countries) and give it added clout in the economic jungle of the world market.

Capitalist militarism also serves several other purposes and has a number of effects. First, it promotes the development of a specially favoured group of companies involved in the production of armaments or armament related products ("defence" contractors), who have a direct interest in the maximum expansion of military production. Since this group is particularly wealthy, it exerts great pressure on government to pursue the type of state intervention and, often, the aggressive foreign policies it wants.

This "special relationship" between state and Big Business also has the advantage that it allows the ordinary citizen to pay for industrial Research and Development. Government subsidies provide an important way for companies to fund their research and development at taxpayer expense, which often yields "spin-offs" with great commercial potential as consumer products (e.g. computers). Needless to say, all the profits go to the defence contractors and to the commercial companies who buy licences to patented technologies from them, rather than being shared with the public which funded the R&D that made the profits possible.

It is necessary to provide some details to indicate the size and impact of military spending on the US economy:

"Since 1945. . . there have been new industries sparking investment and employment . . In most of them, basic research and technological progress were closely linked to the expanding military sector. The major innovation in the 1950s was electronics . . . [which] increased its output 15 percent per year. It was of critical importance in workplace automation, with the federal government providing the bulk of the research and development (R&D) dollars for military-orientated purposes. Infrared instrumentation, pressure and temperature measuring equipment, medical electronics, and thermoelectric energy conversion all benefited from military R&D. By the 1960s indirect and direct military demand accounted for as much as 70 percent of the total output of the electronics industry. Feedbacks also developed between electronics and aircraft, the second growth industry of the 1950s. By 1960 . . . [i]ts annual investment outlays were 5.3 times larger than their 1947-49 level, and over 90 percent of its output went to the military. Synthetics (plastics and fibers) was another growth industry owning much of its development to military-related projects. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, military-related R&D, including space, accounted for 40 to 50 percent of total public and private R&D spending and at least 85% of federal government share." [Richard B. Du Boff, Accumulation and Power, pp. 103-4]

Not only this, government spending on road building (initially justified using defence concerns) also gave a massive boost to private capital (and, in the process, totally transformed America into a land fit for car and oil corporations). The cumulative impact of the 1944, 1956 and 1968 Federal Highway Acts "allowed $70 billion to be spent on the interstates without [the money] passing through the congressional appropriations board." The 1956 Act "[i]n effect wrote into law the 1932 National Highway Users Conference strategy of G[eneral] M[otors] chairman Alfred P. Sloan to channel gasoline and other motor vehicle-related excise taxes into highway construction." GM also illegally bought-up and effectively destroyed public transit companies across America, so reducing competition against private car ownership. The net effect of this state intervention was that by 1963-66 "one in every six business enterprise was directly dependent on the manufacture, distribution, servicing, and the use of motor vehicles." The impact of this process is still evident today -- both in terms of ecological destruction and in the fact that automobile and oil companies are still dominate the top twenty of the Fortune 500. [Op. Cit., p. 102]

This system, which can be called military Keynesianism, has three advantages over socially-based state intervention. Firstly, unlike social programmes, military intervention does not improve the situation (and thus, hopes) of the majority, who can continue to be marginalised by the system, suffer the discipline of the labour market and feel the threat of unemployment. Secondly, it acts likes welfare for the rich, ensuring that while the many are subject to market forces, the few can escape that fate - while singing the praises of the "free market". And, thirdly, it does not compete with private capital.

Because of the connection between militarism and imperialism, it was natural after World War II that America should become the world's leading military state at the same time that it was becoming the world's leading economic power, and that strong ties developed between government, business, and the armed forces. American "military capitalism" is described in detail below, but the remarks also apply to a number of other "advanced" capitalist states.

In his farewell address, President Eisenhower warned of the danger posed to individual liberties and democratic processes by the "military-industrial complex," which might, he cautioned, seek to keep the economy in a state of continual war-readiness simply because it is good business. This echoed the warning which had been made earlier by sociologist C. Wright Mills (in The Power Elite, 1956), who pointed out that since the end of World War II the military had become enlarged and decisive to the shape of the entire American economy, and that US capitalism had in fact become a military capitalism. This situation has not substantially changed since Mills wrote, for it is still the case that all US military officers have grown up in the atmosphere of the post-war military-industrial alliance and have been explicitly educated and trained to carry it on. So, despite recent cuts in the US defence budget, American capitalism remains military capitalism, with a huge armaments industry and defence contractors still among the most powerful of political entities.

D.8.1 Will militarism change with the apparent end of the Cold War?

Many politicians seemed to think so in the early nineties, asserting that a "peace dividend" was at hand. Since the Gulf War, however, Americans have heard little more about it. Although it's true that some fat was trimmed from the defence budget, both economic and political pressures have tended to keep the basic military-industrial complex intact, insuring a state of global war-readiness and continuing production of ever more advanced weapons systems into the foreseeable future.

Since it's having more and more trouble dominating the world economically, America now claims superpower status largely on the basis of its military superiority. Therefore the US won't be likely to renounce this superiority willingly-- especially since the prospect of recapturing world economic superiority appears to depend in part on her ability to bully other nations into granting economic concessions and privileges, as in the past. Hence the US public is being bombarded with propaganda designed to show that an ongoing US military presence is necessary in every corner of the planet.

For example, after the Gulf War the draft of a government White Paper was released in which it was argued that the US must maintain its status as the world's strongest military power and not hesitate to act unilaterally if UN approval for future military actions is not forthcoming. Although then President Bush, under election-year political pressures, denied that he personally held such views, the document reflected the thinking of powerful authoritarian forces in government -- thinking that has a way of becoming public policy through secret National Security Directives (see section D.9.2 -- What is "Invisible government"?).

For these reasons it would not be wise to bet on a deep and sustained American demilitarisation. It is true that troop strength is being cut back in response to Soviet withdrawals from Eastern Europe; but these cutbacks are also prompted by the development of automated weapons systems which reduce the number of soldiers needed to win battles, as demonstrated in the Persian Gulf.

Although there may appear to be no urgent need for huge military budgets now that the Soviet threat is gone, the US has found it impossible to kick its forty-year addiction to militarism. As Noam Chomsky points out in many of his works, the "Pentagon System," in which the public is forced to subsidise research and development of high tech industry through subsidies to defence contractors, is a covert substitute in the US for the overt industrial planning policies of other "advanced" capitalist nations, like Germany and Japan. US defence businesses, which are among the biggest lobbyists, cannot afford to lose this "corporate welfare." Moreover, continued corporate downsizing and high levels of unemployment will produce strong pressure to maintain defence industries simply in order to keep people working.

Despite some recent modest trimming of defence budgets, the demands of US military capitalism still take priority over the needs of the people. For example, Holly Sklar points out that Washington, Detroit, and Philadelphia have higher infant death rates than Jamaica or Costa Rica and that Black America as a whole has a higher infant mortality rate than Nigeria; yet the US still spends less public funds on education than on the military, and more on military bands than on the National Endowment for the Arts ["Brave New World Order," in Cynthia Peters, ed., Collateral Damage, 1992, pp. 3-46]. But of course, politicians continue to maintain that education and social services must be cut back even further because there is "no money" to fund them.

A serious problem at this point, however, is that the collapse of the Soviet Union leaves the Pentagon in desperate need of a sufficiently dangerous and demonic enemy to justify continued military spending in the style to which it's accustomed. Saddam Hussein was temporarily helpful, but he's not enough of a menace to warrant the robust defence budgets of yore now that his military machine has been smashed. There are some indications, however, that the US government has its sights on Iran.

The main point in favour of targeting Iran is that the American public still craves revenge for the 1979 hostage humiliation, the Lebanon bombing, the Iran-Contra scandal, and other outrages, and can thus be relied on to support a war of retribution. Hence it would not be surprising to hear much more in the future about a possible Iranian nuclear threat and about the dangers of Iranian influence in the Moslem republics of the ex-Soviet empire.

In the wake of the Persian Gulf War, the United States has quietly been building a network of defence alliances reminiscent of the Eisenhower years after World War II, so that America may now be called upon to police disturbances all over the Arab World. Sending troops to Somalia appears to have been designed to help accustom Americans to such a role.

Besides Iran, unfriendly regimes in North Korea, Cuba, and Libya, as well as communist guerrilla groups in various South American nations, also hold great promise as future testing grounds for new weapons systems. And of course there is the recent troop deployments to Haiti and Bosnia, which provide the Pentagon with more arguments for continued high levels of defence spending. In a nutshell, then, the trend toward increasing militarism is not likely to be checked by the present military "downsizing," which will merely produce a leaner and more efficient fighting machine.