The Army and the Factory: Working-class anti-imperialism (Part 2)

Building of French warship late 1800s
courtesy of
By Lynn Koh
Jul 21, 2013

This is the second in a series of posts looking at the theories of Giovanni Arrighi, Sam Gindin, Leo Panitch, and others. The first post asked the question of how working-class interests align with anti-militarist demands. This post describes Arrighi's description of the relationship between capitalism and militarism, contained in his book Adam Smith in Beijing.

Part 2

Left-wing explanations of imperialism typically describe modern imperialism as a product of the dynamics of capitalism, supplemented by the ideologies of nationalism and racism. This is a venerable tradition, claiming Lenin and Luxemburg as paradigmatic thinkers. Starting from the observation that capitalism requires endless growth, one can look at imperialism as a means to grab raw materials or cheap labor from vulnerable peoples, or to forcefully impose capitalist markets on larger regions of the world.

"the Industrial Revolution in the sectors that really mattered -- i.e., the capital goods industries -- was largely a byproduct of the European armament race"

Arrighi makes a number of observations on the relationship between capitalism and militarism that have quite a different flavor. Consider this proposition: "the Industrial Revolution in the sectors that really mattered -- i.e., the capital goods industries -- was largely a byproduct of the European armament race" (Adam Smith in Beijing, 268). Again, as we mentioned in Part 1, geopolitics and economics are tightly intertwined in this account.

The story here begins, as you would expect, in the 15th century. Italian city-states were pioneering a form of military Keynesianism, based on the introduction of wage labor into their armies. Soldiers spent their pay, which expanded the local economy and generated higher revenues that could be devoted anew to warfare and state-building. This innovation, along with developments in finance, trade, and diplomacy contributed to the city-states' dominance within European politics.

The success of this military-economic setup depended on two preconditions. First, that interstate conflict could be manipulated in such a way as to financially benefit a well-positioned state; second, that external expansion allowed states to draw resources from other areas in order to fund more extensive and technologically advanced militarization.

We have, let's say, a reinforcing cycle that links militarism (and imperialism) and economic expansion (and exploitation), rather than the former being a vehicle of the latter.

Military forces underwent changes analogous to those in the economy as a whole.

Military forces underwent changes analogous to those in the economy as a whole. Maurice of Nassau revolutionized military training and fighting in much the same way that Fredrick Taylor did modern manufacturing -- rationalizing efforts through a division of labor. Private businesses also merged large-scale industrialization with the instrumentation of war. All this made the reinforcing cycle of militarism and capitalism nearly unbreakable for a century.

Finally, Arrighi describes what distinguishes capitalist imperialism from earlier types. Control over financial resources is decisive to military advantage. The developments traced above mean that geopolitical struggles have often been decided by a states' place in the world economy: "From the mid 1840s through the 1860s, most technological breakthroughs in the design of warships were pioneered by France. And yet each French breakthrough called forth naval appropriations in Britain that France could not match" (271). We saw in Part 1 that the neoliberal turn in the U.S., and the flood of international capital towards the U.S. that resulted from it, allowed Reagan to ratchet up the arms race with the USSR to the point that it destroyed the Soviet Union's economy.

From this perspective, the present situation appears quite unique. The U.S. has created a monopoly on military force that is historically unprecedented. On the other hand, many analysts find its economic position untenable. The stage is set, but for what? In our next post, we will take a more in-depth look at the role played by hegemonic states in Arrighi's account of global capitalism. 

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Lynn Koh is a long-time activist in the anti-war movement, and is a labor organizer in the Bay Area.

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