Against the Current, No. 27, July/August 1990
THE SO-CALLED “PEACE DIVIDEND” looks like one of the hottest political topics of 1990, 1991 and maybe even 1992. The Bush administration never tires of repeating that there really isn’t much of a peace dividend, because we still need a “strong defense” and there’s a deficit to be taken care of. Democrats are winning rhetorical political points by accusing Bush of being mired in Cold War thinking, when a little creativity would yield money to solve acute problems of health care, education, drugs, AIDS, homelessness, hunger and deindustrialization.
For Democrats, the peace dividend” has all the appeal of a classless quick fix. Throughout the 1980s, the United States had a government that stole rapaciously and shamelessly from the poor and gave to the rich. In real terms, 1990 federal programs for the poor were funded at 47 percent of 1960 levels. During the same decade, real wages fell for working people, so that the society became much more polarized. Democrats who had won elections in the 1960s by serving corporate interests, waging war and increasing social services had no formula for the 1980s. They see the peace dividend” as a possible ticket back to their golden age.
But the idea that working-class and poor people in this country could collect a peace dividend (by clipping a peace coupon?) runs contrary to all historical experience. Only the rich get something for nothing in this society. The rest of us get only what we work and fight for.
We do have an opportunity now to win back some of what was stolen from us in the 1980s. But we will succeed only if we understand what the current fight is really about Battle lines are already being drawn over the budget that not only divide Bush Republicans from “peace dividend” Democrats, but divide advocates of the “peace dividend” from one another.
To believe that there will be any peace dividend without massive social struggles— let alone that liberal Democrats will hand us one — would be to underestimate badly the depth of the current political impasse and its roots. During the late 1960s, capitalism entered a general crisis of profitability. Between 1965 and 1975, the rate of profit on investment fell by half or more, and it still has not recovered. The result has been, for almost two decades now, growth and investment rates less than half those of the 1950s and 1960s, accompanied by much deeper recessions and shallower recoveries. The crisis is, moreover, fully international, with the result that a slower-growing pie has been matched by a massive intensification of international competition.
In the 1980s, capitalist propaganda to the contrary, the crisis continued. Despite all the hype of the Reagan boon, despite the tax breaks and wage restraint, the annual rate of growth of investment in new plant and equipment did not increase, remaining at least a third lower than it was in the 1950s and 1960s.
The difference between the period from 1983-4 to the present — compared to the previous fifteen years — is not economic recovery, but the fact that the system has, for the longest period in postwar history, avoided falling back into a recession which, given the low state of profitability and general fragility of the world economy, could be disastrous. In essence, the system has been able to maintain stability by contracting enormous debts. And politicians of both parties are under excruciating pressure to use every penny saved from military spending to reduce the budget deficit and to relieve the pressure on interest rates.
In such a climate, not inherently conducive to gaining generous reforms and an improved social wage, the movement to cut the military budget has already divided itself into a right, center and left wing. We can understand these divisions by looking at the different answers to the key questions at stake. The hard questions are: How much? How fast? For what? With what consequences? and How?
How much? Simply cutting the rate of growth of the military budget below the rate of inflation would change nothing. After the enormous military spending binges of Reagan’s first term, the military budget has declined in real terms every year from fiscal 1985 to fiscal 1990. The Bush administration proposes to continue the reduction during fiscal 1991 (with its $303 billion military budget) and throughout 1991-95 (although it has the chutzpah to propose a total cut of only 9.3 percent, lower than in 1985-90). Given the size of the deficit, however, the kind of cuts Bush proposes would require even more drastic cuts in social spending.
At first sight, the opposition to Bush shows amazing unanimity in its figures. Most everyone else agrees that the military budget should be cut by 50 percent after inflation. The caucus of “peace dividend” Democrats agrees. So does Vietnam-era Defense Secretary Robert McNamara.. So does one of Reagan’s Assistant Secretaries for Defense, Lawrence Korb, who chaired the ‘Defense Budget Task Force of the Committee for National Security and The Defense Budget Project.
What would the U.S. military look like after being cut in half? The Task Force’s report, Restructuring the U.S. Military: Defense Needs in the 21st Century” (March 1990), favors a 50 percent cut, sketching the outlines of a $150 billion military. It would include 100,000 U.S. troops in Europe, an air wing in South Korea, a 400 ship navy (down from the current 560),17 Trident submarines, 15 B-2 bombers, 3000 nuclear warheads, $3 billion a year on Star Wars research and more.
Now that the Soviet Union has virtually opted out of the arms race, the United States can remain the World’s dominant military power at a lower cost. Those like McNamara and Korb who favor U.S. global power can ‘responsibly’ call for cutting the military budget in half. Those on the left who oppose U.S. intervention abroad have to do better. At the very least we should say, with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, that a 50 percent cut would only be TM “a first step.”
U.S. military spending is being reduced only in those areas where the goal of extending U.S. power is being achieved by non-military means. It is simultaneously increasing for those regions where imperial power might possibly be threatened. Monies are therefore redirected toward high-efficiency intervention against small Third World nations. (One dimension of this development, U.S. intervention as it relates to the so-called “war on drugs,’ is explored in this issue.)
That shift to “mobile striking forces,” with the accompanying gadgetry and logistics, constitutes a true “peace dividend,” for the military itself.
How fast? Once the question is posed of how fast the military budget should be cut in half, the apparent unity of the “peace dividend” forces disappears McNamara and Korb, joined by Professionals for Nuclear Arms Control and other groups who have founded the Coalition to Cut the Military Budget in Half, argue for a period of ten years.
The “peace dividend” Democrat caucus points to the same goal with its proposal of a $292 billion military budget in fiscal 1991. In the center of the “peace dividend” camp, the Citizens Budget Campaign, in which the mainstream peace organization SANE/Freeze plays a major role, argues for a 50percent cut in five years. On the far left, the Common Agenda coalition called together by Jobs with Peace says “immediately.”
These differences are not minor. Daniel Ellsberg has pointed out that while cutting the military budget in half over ten years would save half a trillion dollars, cutting it in half immediately would save a trillion and a half. The difference between “moderation”’ and radicalism is a trillion dollars.
The pace also helps decide the final objective. The 6.7 percent annual cut advocated by the moderates is a stabilizing cut, a cut calculated to keep U.S. power intact. An immediate cut is a “destabilizing” — the only kind that would be of any help for revolutionary forces in the Third World.
What for.? The awkward secret of the moderate approach is that people like McNamara and Korb do not want savings from military budget cuts directed toward social services. These clear-sighted conservatives see what the Reaganites who grew rich off 1980s speculation refuse to see: that the worst threat to U.S. power in the medium term is insolvency and manufacturing decline.
In other words, having paid with lower wages and benefits in the 1980s to maintain the profits of the corporations and the incomes of the rich, working people and the poor are supposed to bear the brunt of the cost of reducing the U.S. debt in the 1990s.
This “responsible” solution lacks even the most minimal fairness. Working people did not weaken the U.S. industrial base: corporations did, by shifting investment away from manufacturing to the higher-profit fields of Third World sweat shops, international debt-squeezing, finance and real estate.
Working people did not create the federal deficit corporations and the rich did, by securing their enormous tax breaks. Corporations and the rich should pay to solve the crisis that they themselves were so instrumental in creating, while military budget cuts should be earmarked for desperately needed health care, housing and schools.
With what consequences? A desperately needed redirection of resources has one insurmountable flaw in the eyes of the people making the decisions: it cannot be squared with our “free enterprise system.”
The limping capitalist economy might not be able to bear the squeeze on its profits that a fair share of taxation would entail. Far from being able to pay for the transition to a peacetime economy, corporations demand subsidies to enable them to survive it.
The corollary of the “peace dividend” is “peace conversion,” which, touted as a way to reindustrialize, could be one more blow to unionized industrial workers.
One possible form of conversion can already be seen in communities where Department of Energy nuclear weapons plants have been closed down because of the terrible environmental consequences of weapons production.
Employment at the Hanford Reservation in eastern Washington has actually risen since weapons production was halted, because so many workers are needed for cleanup. Production jobs paid well, however, cleanup jobs are dirty, unpleasant, near-minimum-wage jobs.
There are several bills before Congress now laying out programs for “peace conversion.” The most radical is H.R. 101, crafted by Columbia Professor Seymour Melman and sponsored by New York Representative Ted Weiss.
The centerpiece of H.R. 101 is joint labor-management “alternate use” committees at almost every military plant, whose plans would be binding on and funded by the federal government.
This attempt to smuggle West German-style co-management into the United States disguised as conversion may well disappear as Democrats try to agree on a single, joint conversion bill If the proposal survives, though, the left should consider whether “alternate use” committees would do any better for military industry workers than the United Autoworkers’ representative on the Chrysler board did for Chrysler workers.
Any serious attempt to increase social spending by cutting military spending, and any serious attempt to convert to a civilian economy while protecting working-peoples’ interests, runs headlong into the logic of corporate profitability. Consequently, the left has no alternative but to challenge that logic.
How? The Coalition to Cut the Military Budget in Half and the Citizens Budget Campaign have their own strategy for winning the “peace dividend”: lobbying supplemented with grassroots pressure.
This strategy might conceivably win a gradual reduction in military spending, a radical reduction of the deficit and a minor increase in a few programs. It cannot win a national health-care program, or house the homeless, or provide drug treatment for those who need it.
The Common Agenda coalition has a different strategy, beginning with coordinated local demonstrations across the country in the spring of 1991 and leading to a major national demonstration in late 1991 or early 1992.
The Housing Now! demonstration in Washington in October 1989 drew a quarter of a million people around the housing issue alone; Common Agenda has the potential to unite many constituencies and bring out many times as many. It could change the climate of opinion around the federal budget even more decisively than the April 1989 mobilization in Washington changed the climate of opinion around abortion.
Bringing people into the streets for mass, militant action is the way to begin. Through powerful pressure from below, the social gains of the 1930s and the civil rights and social programs of the 1960s were won. That is also the way forward today: Those of us who are serious about the Common Agenda program have to begin now in the building of both a militant mass movement and a base for independent politics that can move us forward in the 1990s.
July-August 1990, ATC 27
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