Chris Harman

Thinking it through

The barrel and the gun

(October 2002)

From Socialist Review, No.267, October 2002.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The US is preparing to flex its military muscles. But its strategy is a very risky one indeed

As I write, Saddam Hussein has said he will allow in weapons inspectors. But the core group in the US administration are still intent on pushing towards war. But what has the US ruling class got to gain?

There is no doubt that oil plays a central role. The US is dependent on imports for half its oil needs. But that cannot be the end of the matter. Going to war in itself could well cause expensive disruption to oil supplies. And whoever runs the oil states is going to want to sell the oil, with the experience of Opec over the last quarter of a century showing how difficult it is for deeply indebted oil producers to get together to force the price up.

US capitalism has vast worldwide investments in industries other than oil. A display of military power is a way of making the world safe for all of these. The US Space Command document Vision for 2020 compares the US military effort to the way that ‘centuries ago nations built navies to protect and enhance their commerce’. But US military expenditure each year is $396 billion. The total foreign income of US companies last year was only $281 billion. Domestic profits on exports totalling $900 billion were unlikely to approach the $115 billion extra needed to cover the cost of the arms budget. In other words, from a short term commercial point of view war is a loss leader.

But no ruling class can afford to base its policies on short term commercial considerations alone. It has to take into account the total context in which it rules, to see how it is to maintain its position in the face of bitter competition from rival rulers, as well as fearing rebellion from some of the people whose labour it exploits.

This applies absolutely to the US ruling class today. It still expects to enjoy the untrammelled hegemony over the other major capitalist powers it had in the years after the Second World War. With this goes domination of bodies like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and an ability to manipulate the world financial system in the interests of US corporations when it comes to competition in domestic and foreign markets.

The most visible recent expression of this has been its ability to suck in finance from the rest of the world to help finance recent economic expansion – in 2001 net inflows of foreign funds were $753 billion and total foreign funds inside the US reached a colossal $2.3 trillion, equivalent to 22.6 percent of US output.

But the US no longer has the sheer economic might of 50 years ago. As Brzezinski, one of the key figures behind US foreign policy over the last two decades, pointed out in a recent book, US total gross domestic product is $8,511 billion, only marginally ahead of the European Union’s $8,000 billion. Output per hour in US industry is today lower than in French industry, and only the longer working year of US workers gives US industry its cutting edge. Even US direct foreign investment is now lower than that going from the European Union to the rest of the world.

If the US can still retain global hegemony, and get its way in disputes and negotiations with the rest of the world’s ruling classes, it is because something other than sheer economic strength comes into play. Decisive here is its military weight, with military spending more than four times that of Europe’s nationally fragmented armed forces. As Brzezinski crudely puts it, ‘Currently Europe is a de facto military protectorate of the US.’

There is a further twist to the story. One of the absurdities of capitalism is that the sheer waste of arms expenditure can, up to a certain point, enable the system to grow more smoothly than it would otherwise. This was a point made in the 1920s by the German Marxist Henryk Grossman, and reiterated 40 years ago by Tony Cliff and Mike Kidron. This was shown most clearly in recent times during the Reagan years, when ‘military Keynesianism’ enabled the US economy to recover from the recession of the early 1980s.

It has been the integration of civilian capital into military capital that has enabled important sectors of the US economy (especially computer and software production) to soar ahead of their Japanese rivals in the last ten years and put European firms to shame. The US may have accounted for only a fifth of world output in the 1990s, but this included nearly half of world expenditure on research and development.

But arms spending is a mixed blessing for US corporations. It makes recessions shallower. But it has dampened the pace of accumulation, allowing other countries to mount a competitive challenge to US industry that was simply inconceivable half a century ago.

People like Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Richard Perle have been arguing for a long time that the US can only redress the balance by exemplary and ‘unilateral’ displays of military supremacy. This means using the Star Wars system to blackmail China, trampling over complaints from a massively weakened Russia, and steaming ahead in the Middle East with no regard to European worries.

Europe, they reason, does not have the military force to act independently. Under such circumstances controlling Middle East oil not only secures US oil supplies and profits. Perhaps more importantly, it gives the US ruling class important leverage over Europe and Japan, which are even more dependent on Middle East oil than the US itself.

Put bluntly, the US has one great asset Europe and Japan do not-its weaponry. But weaponry is useless as a strategic asset in competition between rival capitalist ruling classes unless the world is periodically driven towards war.

It is a barbaric strategy. But it is also a very risky one for the US ruling class. It increases the possibility of working class resistance and revolutionary upheaval across the Middle East. And it can also expose the degree to which the US economy is only staying afloat because of funds from increasingly nervous European and Japanese investors.

Far from showing how powerful the US is, Bush’s adventure can expose its vulnerability. That is why people like Brzezinski, Kissinger and George Bush Sr’s former adviser Scowcroft are not happy with it.

Such are the explosive contradictions of a capitalism that is both militarised and multinational at the beginning of the 21st century.

Weaponry is useless unless the world is periodically driven to war

Last updated on 1 January 2010