Massive Increases in Military Spending: The Parasitic Feature of Modern Capitalism
The following is a lightly edited transcription from In the News, the weekly Tuesday show on The Socialist Program. Subscribe here.
In addition to all of the other elements of the Ukraine war, one thing that really jumps out is how the U.S. intends to use the war as the pretext or rationale for a very large expansion of the already bloated U.S. military budget. We looked at some statistics earlier today, and spending globally is off the charts.
As of 2021, military spending globally surpassed $2 trillion per year — and that is including the United States, which is, of course, by far the biggest spender with $801 billion for the armed forces. But again, this is just in 2021 when there wasn't a war in Ukraine that the whole world was watching. Very clearly military spending is going to be increasing even more past the $2 trillion mark. Global military spending has been increasing for seven consecutive years, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Research Institute.
And with the war in Ukraine, many European governments have pledged to spend even more than they have been. This is just a huge amount of global resources that is going toward the military.
Yes, and people should have a way of explaining and understanding what military spending really means. Military spending, in all ways, from the point of view of human society and from the point of view of the economy as it relates to human beings, is nothing other than waste spending because the only thing that you can do with a weapon is to use it in the course of actual war and military confrontation.
So every tank that is built that's not used in war basically is for no purpose. And if it is used for war, it's for a generally bad purpose. So every time we build a tank or a missile or a bomb, it either is waste spending because it's never going to be used by human beings for anything that's useful for human beings, or if it is used, it will be used in a way to damage human beings.
When Marx wrote Capital, in the first chapter, he identified the characteristic features of a commodity. He said a commodity has two basic components. It has a use value, meaning it’s something of use or utility to human beings, and as a consequence, human beings would want it. And secondly, it has an exchange value, around which prices fluctuate, which is based on the average amount of labor time that's socially necessary to build or create a particular commodity.
Are military goods a commodity? Yes, they are. Do they have a utility? Yes, because otherwise they wouldn't be produced and sold. But the utility in this case is of something very unique and distinctive in human society, which is either to be not used or used for the purposes of death and destruction.
So it's a commodity, but a commodity of a very special type, and we have to understand that. In some circles the argument is made that it's a subsidy to corporations, to capitalists; it's a way of the government keeping the corporations afloat by giving them contracts for weapons production, and that leads to profits and leads to all of the things that come with profit.
yes, that's true — but we cannot lose sight of the fact that these are commodities of a very special type and as a consequence should be treated by society as something awful and something wasteful.
It's one of the most sickening injustices of the capitalist system that all of these unimaginable resources, unthinkably huge quantities of money and time and energy and knowhow is directed at nothing else than killing people and causing destruction all around the world, or threatening to kill people and cause destruction and therefore bully them into doing what the capitalists of this country want. It's an obscene waste of resources and it could be so easily repurposed.
Think about all of the schools that are falling apart all across the country or the schools that don't have enough teachers or don't have any librarians or don't have any extracurricular activities. The decaying state of education in the United States, the decaying state of infrastructure in the United States — there are tens of thousands of roads and bridges and other pieces of vital infrastructure that are completely neglected, not to mention the state of public transportation in cities across the country, not to mention the state of airports or ports or other commercially important other commercially important areas. All of these things are totally forgotten so that the Pentagon can get its $800 billion every year, and it just keeps going up and up with no end in sight, even though all of these grave social problems go completely unaddressed by the politicians. But they never miss an opportunity to express their unflinching support, undying loyalty, to the military.
Rather than spending a trillion dollars on the military, the nuclear weapons, and the accoutrement to wage war, based on some 2020 data the government could wipe out 26.9 million people's student debt. The government could wipe out 89.3 million people's health care expenses for an entire year. They could pay 666.7 million people's rent and mortgage payments, fix Flint's water system 18,000 times, or replace all the lead pipes in all municipalities nationwide – 36 times over – or end world hunger for seven years. That's what they could do with a trillion dollars.
It's a demonstration of the both degeneration and decadence and parasitic nature of advanced capitalism — imperialism — or Lenin called it imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism. Or, as he put it, the briefest possible definition of imperialism today would be monopoly capitalism. But beyond the general definition, these are the distinctive and negative features of the current system. And when you think about it, the argument is always made that the reason capitalism is better than socialism is that it lends itself to competition.
And that when humans can compete and become rich, or richer than somebody else, that gives them incentive to work harder, to use resources more carefully, to innovate. There's an element of that which is true — competition, or the competition for survival, leads to certain types of innovation. And all the capitalist corporations are actually competing with each other for survival because you either expand and take the market or your competitor will. So, yes, there's an element of capitalist competition that incentivizes those things that revolutionize the means of production.
But there's this other element of late stage monopoly capitalism, or imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism, which has these degenerative, parasitic, and destructive elements, which are now baked into the system. So whatever you get from competition on the one hand, in terms of incentive in innovation, it's taken away with the other hand. Based on the destructive powers and the growing, increasing impact of militarism and military spending, which are the hallmarks of the system.
The detriments go far past the benefits, because so many people never had access to any of the benefits anyway. You might have an innovation in health care, for example, but the majority of people can't access any of that innovation. So all the current state of capitalism is doing is creating an incredible system for a few, and as everyone knows, a horrendous system for the rest.
Just picking up on that example, think about how much more innovation there would be in health care, how many more discoveries and inventions would be made if all of the people involved in research and development on the military side of things, which is absolutely enormous in the United States, were instead redeployed to health care or saving the environment or creating new sustainable housing or toward addressing any of the many, many dire social problems that exist? It's a tremendous waste of the intellectual capacity of human beings even beyond the funding.
And the other dimension to that is to think about how many people are essentially locked out of that process of scientific discovery and innovation by virtue of extreme inequality in education. It's a pretty small sliver of humanity that gets access to the type of educational opportunity that you need to become a scientist or a doctor or an engineer and contribute to these things.
But in a socialist society, every single person as a basic right would have access to all of those things, and so the creative capacity of humanity is unlocked by a planned economy, a socialist society that guarantees these things as basic rights.
If anyone wants to learn more about this subject, how militarism as an essential, now foundational, part of imperialism in late stage capitalism is in fact holding back the development of the productive forces, redirecting resources toward waste rather than something meaningful, I would recommend that you look into a couple of books written by Professor Seymour Melman. Professor Melman died in 2004. He was a very important critic of militarism and capitalism. He wrote “The Permanent War Economy: American Capitalism in Decline,” “After Capitalism,” “Profits Without Production,” and more. He was not a Marxist, but his research on militarism and in particular on U.S. militarism after World War II, is very useful in terms of getting a perspective on this issue. Since he is not a Marxist, that means as The Socialist Program and we as Marxists might not agree with him on all things. But his books were a real contribution.