Whither Capitalist Militarism?

Against the Current, No. 60, January/February 1996

Ellen Meiksins Wood

IT’S HARD TO get around the fact that classic Marxist theories of imperialism have, in many important respects, been overtaken by history. Certainly the basic Leninist idea that imperialism represented “the highest stage of capitalism” can hardly now stand up to scrutiny.

Underlying this definition was the assumption that capitalism had reached a stage where the main axis of international conflict and military confrontation would run between imperialist states in competition over (re)division of the world. The more capitalism spread (at uneven rates), the more acute would be the rivalry among the main imperialist powers, while they would also face increasing resistance.

Even Rosa Luxemburg’s more nuanced history of capitalist militarism “as a province of accumulation” shares something like these basic assumptions. One of the fundamental contradictions of capitalism, she suggests, is that, “Although it strives to becoe universal, and, indeed, on account of this tendency, it must break down–because it is immanently incapable of becoming a universal form of production.”

Capitalism is the first mode of economy that tends to engulf the whole world, but it is also the first that cannot exist by itself because it “needs other economic systems as a medium and soil.” (467) [All Luxemburg quotations are from The Accumulation of Capital (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963.)]

Capitalist militarism, then, having gone through various stages beginning with the straightforward conquest of territory, has now reached its “final” stage, as “a weapon in the competitive struggle between capitalist countries for areas of non-capitalist civilization.”

Now, the rules of the game have changed almost completely. Capitalism is more or less universal. At least its systemic logic is global, while both pre-capitalist and anti-capitalist formations are pretty scarce.

Advanced capitalist states no longer seem to need militarism as an instrument of direct accumulation in any of the old senses; neither, however, are they subject to an intensification of inter-imperialist rivalry in geopolitical and military form. On the contrary, war between the major capitalist states has never seemed less likely. At the same time, capitalism faces no military threat from anti-capitalist forces.

Even if questions have to be raised about the old conception of imperialism, there is surely still room for revising the idea. It seems to me that constructing a new theory of imperialism adapted to today’s realities–one which concentrates on new forms of economic and cultural domination, transnational financial institutions, and so on–is the easy part. What will be harder to construct is a new theory of capitalist militarism.

Does Imperialism Need War?

One of the newest things about the “new world order” is that the relation between imperialism and militarism has been thoroughly transformed. There is, in fact, no longer any unambiguous connection between them.

It would be too much to say that Kautsky came closer to the truth than Lenin when he envisaged not inter-imperialist rivalry but an “ultraimperialist” alliance among capitalist powers, in which the world would be exploited jointly by an internationally united finance capital. The economic competition among advanced capitalist states, even when they have been displaced by regional rivalries, have been, and are likely to remain, enough to foreclose Kautsky’s utopian vision.

But it has to be admitted that Kautsky’s financial “ultraimperialism” at least for the moment looks less implausible than Lenin’s war among the great but “moribund” capitalisms. Although the old theories envisaged the spread of capitalism, their central focus was never on the purely economic challenges that the great capitalist/imperialist powers would face from their former subordinates and victims. And they certainly never imagined a world in which anti-capitalist revolutions would be reversed and formerly Communist states would aspire to capitalism.

As for Luxemburg’s assumptions about the limits of capitalist universality, now it is not at all clear that capitalism can never become universal because it needs non-capitalist modes on which to feed.

These are the various ways in which the old connections between capitalist imperialism and militarism have been broken, and we on the left have been thrown into confusion by that historic disconnection. We knew how to oppose territorial annexation, enslavement, direct colonial domination and oppression, or suppression of anti-capitalist struggles. But where these obvious motivations are absent, our stance toward military action by capitalist states is far less clear.

We can say that the U.S. economy can’t do without the defense industry and needs to create reasons for its very existence; or we can say that U.S. capital, to sustain its hegemony, needs an ideological substitute for the old enemy, the Soviet Union. But if these are the principal functions of capitalist militarism today, they are too indirect and indeterminate to guide us in our attitude to U.S. military interventions in, say, Haiti, Somalia or Bosnia.

Not the least of our problems in understanding the new functions of capitalist militarism is that capitalist states themselves are still uncertain about the role of military power in the new world order. How, then, should we go about exploring the new functions of capitalist militarism?

One obvious place to begin is to uncover the new contradictions in the capitalist world order. Maybe it isn’t true, for example, that capitalism is incapable of universalizing itself, but what is surely true is that a successful capitalism can never be completely universal.

The logic of capitalism, its imperatives of competition, guarantee that not all capitalisms can be winners, and that former winners can also become losers. The irony is that now the very success of capi<->talism in imposing its systemic logic on the whole world is turning advanced capitalist societies into potential losers.

And here we come up against another contradiction: the economic weaknesses of advanced capitalist societies are not, of course, necessarily accompanied by a commensurate military decline. There is no direct proportionality between economic success and military strength, as declining capitalist economies have retained their imperial military power.

Here, then, are the new contradictions we have to confront in explaining the function of capitalist militarism on the eve of the twenty-first century. Nowhere are those contradictions more clearly evident than in the USA.

In the absence of a well-elaborated theory, let me first propose some very untheorized rules of thumb: Offhand, I can’t think of any recent U.S. military intervention that has produced results more good than bad, whatever its motivation. Somalia, for example, the intervention that seemed most disinterested, was an utter disaster.

I’m not sure why U.S. military interventions are so typically disastrous–whether disaster is structurally inscribed in its motivations or in its methods and organization (e.g. a military apparatus specifically designed for high-tech mass destruction, carpet-bombing and related methods, not readily adaptable to any other mode of warfare), or whether there is some deep-seated social and cultural reason.

But more fundamentally, the United States illustrates the dangers of the new contradictions: Here is a declining economic power, deeply riven by internal social divisions and a disintegrating social fabric, which nevertheless possesses the most overwhelming and unchallenged military power the world has ever known.

This is a dangerous mixture; and even failing an explanation of U.S. militarism as neat and unambiguous as classic theories of imperialism, it seems to me reason enough to question any U.S. military intervention.

At any rate, even if neither direct accumulation, nor redivision of territory, nor even suppression of anti-capitalist struggle is the main objective of capitalist militarism, what happens when military power becomes a substitute for economic strength and social cohesion?

ATC 60, January-February 1996