War, militarisation and the ‘business’ of capitalism

Brigadier General Garrick Harmon (left) is in charge of the US' multibillion foreign military sales portfolio. Photo: US Army

American actor Sean Penn has issued a heartfelt plea for billionaires to buy fighter aircraft for the war in Ukraine. While the harrowing images of the war cannot be ignored, Penn’s call for individual capitalists to fund the war indicates a deep ignorance of how capitalism works and whose interests it serves.

Decades ago, the anti-war movement produced a bumper sticker saying: “It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need, and the air force has to hold a cake sale to buy a bomber".

Penn seems to want the war to be some sort of crowd-funded event. There is a dark irony in this and it is not being missed by those who campaigned against imperialist wars a generation ago.

Private donors, or cake stalls, have never been an issue when the drums of war are sounded. Regardless of how difficult the economic times might be, there is always a river of cash for the military.

The Scott Morrison-Josh Frydenberg budget is a case in point. Individual capitalists will not be expected to put their hands in their pockets to fund the military, at least not while there are working-class pockets that can be emptied. It would be foolish to imagine it any other way.

The interests of business and government are inseparable. War has traditionally been good for business. If it were not, we would not have had so many.

Arms trade

The first and most obvious advantage that wars offer capital is the opportunity to supply combatants with the weaponry required to wage war. Much of this, from the United States perspective, is organised by government-to-government sales.

A clutch of multinational arms’ manufacturers, often based in the US, profit from these deals. Last year the US Foreign Military Sales Program was worth US$200 billion. Business, since then, has been on the up.

In recent years, sales from the US and Britain to the Saudi regime have been worth many billions of dollars. The Saudis put these weapons to immediate use in bombing Yemen.

Canberra wants to get a share of this action and, in the meantime, is buying up big.

The arms trade inevitably means combat, which means the destruction of infrastructure. This allows for contracts in reconstruction. The beauty of such a circle of destruction and rebuilding is that the companies involved are generally not at war. The governments who oversee such a trade parade themselves as upholders of a mystical rules-based global order.

If war were not such a profitable enterprise for capitalism, then the arms industries would not be so huge.

Whenever the term military-industrial-complex is mentioned, it is usually connected with the US. However, the US is not unique in this most grotesque form of capitalist industry.

The US, like all capitalist states, buys and sells. It exports and imports. The value of its exports last year was US$1.7 trillion. It is a lucrative market: many billions of dollars in export earnings came from the sale of military hardware last year.

The military-industrial-complex is also a substantial employer. There are 1.6 million Americans employed to provide the military with the equipment it needs to supply its 1.4 million soldiers and its export markets. Corporations such as Lockheed, Boeing, Raytheon, General Dynamics and many others would, in all likelihood, collapse were it not for US military contracts. Lockheed, for example, derives 86% of its entire revenue from the military-industrial-complex.

This year it is estimated that the value of “defence” contracts awarded to US companies by the US Department of Defense is set to reach a record US$407 billion. This comes from thousands of individual contracts awarded to companies directly by the US Department of Defense.

The mutual advantage that state and capital have come to enjoy is clear for all to see. The state has a particular role to play in advancing capitalist relations. Many of the biggest corporations in the US rely on these state contracts. It becomes a circular relationship.

It is not an exaggeration to say that for decades the US has consciously become a militarised state and economy. The military-industrial-complex, operating as an “informal” alliance between capital and government, has become central to US capitalism.

The federal government is keen for this arrangement to also form the basis of a perverse industry policy — to weaponise the world. It is yet to reach the dizzy heights of the top 10 arms dealers in the world and so must work with “strategic” partners to accumulate the firepower it thinks it needs.

Morrison has just announced that Australia, with the US and Britain, as part of the AUKUS group, are engaging to produce hypersonic missiles — the stated purpose of which is to use against China.

The government is also spending $1 billion on new guided missiles for its fighter planes. Raytheon and Lockheed Martin are getting the contract.

Just wars?

The fact that capitalism produces weapons of mass destruction lies at the centre of one of the central contradictions of the age: capitalism makes things with the view to selling them and products can only be sold if there is a use for them.

If the products are not consumed, then there is an oversupply. Oversupply leads to a crisis in the capitalist cycle. The production of weapons is, for capital, simply another commodity.

There is an underlying assumption that the commodity will be consumed. If not, the market suffers. Logically, the product, whatever it is, will be used. If it is not, the cycle of production and consumption cannot be repeated.

The public might be told that the arms deals are simply to protect us. But the truth is that they are being purchased with a view to future use — against a non-existent threat.

The billions of dollars spent on weapons produced by the major arms dealers are not simply taking up space in warehouses around the world. The US alone, has dropped an average of 46 bombs every day for the past 20 years. For capitalism this is simply good business. Weapons are made and sold. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have died and millions displaced by wars that have been made possible by this trade.

The United Nations estimates that as many as 377,000 people have died in Yemen, either directly or indirectly because of the war that has been funded by the world’s military-industrial-complexes.

The media is presenting the war in Ukraine as a “just” war against an aggressive Russia that seeking to expand its influence and power. But it is no more just than any other. While the victims are Europeans, it is still a war that capitalism has promoted, funded and will profit from.

Penn does not need to look for a handful of billionaires to come up with the cash for a few more fighter jets for Ukraine. The destructive capacity of both sides is already more than enough and the US, United Kingdom, Australia and the European Union have made sure that there will be no oversupply or under consumption of these products of capitalism.