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Sunday, August 12, 2007

Imperialism and a War Economy

Imperialism and a War Economy
Image © Austin Cline
Original Poster: National Archives
Click for full-sized Image

The contrast probably couldn't be more stark and depressing: on the one hand the American government is spending billions to wage a war overseas while at home taxes are cut and basic maintenance is withheld on vital infrastructure that eventually crumbles and falls. In both cases, people are killed for no good reason — but military contractors keep getting richer. What's wrong with this picture?

It's not as though military spending is entirely illegitimate, but America's military spending has been more in alignment with a war economy than a peace economy since the end of World War II. Massive amounts of funding go into the Defense Department and defense contractors, all to pay for equipment and training that proves worthless unless used in a war. So, unless we get involved in wars, people will start to think that all the money is just being wasted — and who wants to waste money?

This state of perpetual war is incompatible with the preservation of civil liberties because in war, nearly all other considerations are consistently subordinated to the interests of national security and/or victory in the war. This is true even in metaphorical wars, like the War on Drugs. The state of perpetual war is also incompatible with friendly relations with other nations — if we can't be involved in an actual shooting conflict, then we'll be using our military for imperialistic goals of one sort or another.

There were reasons for maintaining a war economy during the Cold War, but once that ended people were worried about what would come next. Those getting rich off of defense contracts certainly didn't want the gravy train to end, but without an enemy to fight and justify the need for military spending, what would they all do? The War on Terrorism provided the perfect excuse for maintaining the war economy rather than transforming into something else. Of course this will be an open-ended war with no exit strategy or end in sight — those in charge don't want it to end.

If we dangle billions in front of corporate boards, they'll come up with all sorts of ways to kill our enemies. Since we had to create enemies in order to justify that sort of spending, in the end we'll possess both enemies that need killing and effective means for achieving that goal. Given all that, how can we justify not moving forward? Any argument we make will undermine everything we've done up to that point. Eventually, we will go to war — and perhaps on a regular basis, too. We can't build an economy on war and never fight anyone.

I say "we" because it's not just large defense contractors and their corporate boards who are complicit in this,. They've managed to make all of society complicit to varying degrees — it's a war economy precisely because so many people make their living off of preparations for war. Some do so directly by working for defense contractors to build tanks and bombers; some do so indirectly by servicing military bases filled with thousands of soldiers and their dependents.

Look at the outcry that ensues when defense contracts are dropped, when munitions factories might close, and when military bases might shut down. The common-sense decision to vote to end funding of the occupation of Iraq is undermined by the fact that this would imperil funding of war production which voters directly benefit from. Rather than celebrate the reduction of our war posture, people complain about the loss of jobs and money — understandable, since people have to eat and pay the rent, but it's still a sign of how many have been drawn into the web of our war economy. People's short-term economic interests are being used to subvert society's long-term best interests.

Would it really be so difficult to move spending away from defense contracts and towards other projects, like infrastructure? I recognize that less spending generally, and spending on things like medical care, might make even more sense but contracts to build things might be an easier move to make. If the war economy is being driven by profit motives, we can't imagine that we'll be able to eliminate those motives with a stroke of the pen. Redirecting them towards less dangerous pursuits, however, is a lot more plausible and we all might benefit a bit from it. One of the key features of the philosophy of America's founders was to accept the persistence of flaws and vices in humans and rather than try to snuff them out, they tried to find ways to redirect them and make use of them. We should learn from this.

Now, I don't necessarily favor the replacement of our Military Industrial Complex with a Transportation Industrial Complex, but if faced with a choice between risking the construction of too many tanks and bombs that someone will want to use rather than waste, and risking the construction of too many bridges and tunnels that someone will want to use rather than waste, I think I'll take the latter risk. I don't like to sit in traffic any more than the next person, but unnecessary roadwork and bridge replacements are preferable to unnecessary wars and fighter replacements.

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We'll try dumping haloscan and see how it works.