Sunday, January 28, 2007


Does Capitalism Require Warfare?

Ever since the rise of the capitalist model there have been continual wars. These are of two types: wars of acquisition (colonial wars) and wars between capitalist powers.

The colonial wars are easy to explain. A growing economy needs access to cheap raw materials and markets for its finished goods. But the wars between states are harder to explain. Just look at late 19th and 20th Century European history. Germany and France fought a war about every 30 years. I don't think there was ever an expectation of permanent conquest and the economic importance of the fringe areas that changed hands can't have been all that central to their economies. So what were they fighting about?

I'm going to postulate (with no direct evidence) that they were fighting about nothing. My premise is that capitalist economies produce more "stuff" than is needed. That is they are too efficient. So they seek overseas markets. This leads to the colonial wars. India was a perfect example. Cotton was exported to England under unfair conditions, converted to finished goods and sold back to India. We understand this dynamic, but what about Germany and France (or Spain, the Netherlands, Great Britain, etc.)?

After all the wars between France and Germany, the borders ended up pretty much where they started, the economic strength of their respective economies was proportionally the same, and nothing permanent had been achieved. What had happened is that a vast quantity of economic output had been generated in the process of the wars. Not only were there bursts of production to build weapons and similar war making materiel, but the destruction caused by the fighting generated later economic activity in rebuilding. The removal of large numbers of able bodied workers from the productive to the destructive sectors also changed the pressures on capitalism. A permanent standing army also has a lesser, but similar, effect.

The US has had a history of colonial wars, most notably in the Philippines, Hawaii, and the Banana Republics. But, since the end of WWII has shifted to the pattern previously seen in Europe. Wars about nothing. The three biggest have been Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. In every case we had no real colonial interest in the area, their internal affairs were of no concern to us, and their influence on their neighbors was limited. The oil issue in Iraq might seem to contradict this, but in actuality Iraq's oil was readily available on the world market, one just needed to pay for it, and as a percentage of world supply it wasn't enough to control prices.

My thesis is that hyper-capitalist societies develop internal pressures from over-production and this causes a "need" to expend this energy to keep the economy humming. The avenue that most frequently presents itself is warfare. I don't even think this is an overt social policy, I think that the type of mindset that develops in such an environment leads to those with aggressive tendencies, or feelings of unpunished international injustices, rising to positions of leadership. There is a well-known correlation between the amount of armaments a country possess and the frequency that it engages in conflict. Owning weapons causes wars.

Madeleine Albright was heard to have said once: "What's the use of having all these weapons if we're not going to use them?"

The next phase of economically-created warfare seems to lie in space. The US has been building up its space offensive and defensive weapons systems since at least Reagan. The Chinese have just demonstrated a satellite killer missile and we know that other regions are launching spy satellites which are useful for command and control functions during terrestrial actions. Bush has recently released a policy statement threatening any state that even develops capabilities that will threaten our existing, or future, space weapons capabilities. There is also some question as to whether the recently announced Moon base and trip to Mars programs are intended for research or military purposes.

As the pressures on existing supplies of raw materials become greater, the incidence of colonial wars can be expect to increase as well. The question is will the wars about nothing also continue as well? Each new cycle proves more deadly and destructive as weapons systems become more technologically advanced. In addition prior ethical questions about the morality of using certain weapons have faded. Things like cluster bombs, bunker busters and small nukes are be treated as acceptable. Recruiting children as soldiers, raping women as a tactic and ethic cleansing are now used routinely. Rather than warfare becoming less of an issue, it is both growing in frequency and becoming more barbaric.

Even the terminology is evolving so that people are desensitized to death and destruction. In stead of "wanton killing" we have "collateral damage". We commonly accept the notion that it is only a bad thing when civilians die, thus implicitly treating soldiers as non-human. Most soldiers are civilians who have been handed a gun. Their deaths are just as much a tragedy as anyone else's. We are being trained to become numb to warfare. Is it any wonder why the next war gets launched so easily?

I've written many times about the need to transition to a steady-state or sustainable economic model. To the obvious fact that the resources needed to continue consuming at the present rate won't last forever can now be added the issue of wars induced by capitalist economic necessities.
one more form of warfare you might want to add is internal warfare stimulated by transnational geopolitics -- from counterinsurgency (cold war and post-cold war to the war on drugs. at the very east it stimulates arms industries but also creates all sorts of security-industrial complexes, from employment in security to revanchist urbanism to prison building.
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