There was a strange moment last month when Donald Trump, briefly departing from his usual conspiracy-mongering and idiocy, stumbled on an argument grounded in actual reality. The leaders of the Pentagon, Trump fumed, “want to do nothing but fight wars so that all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs and make the planes and make everything else stay happy.”
Trump has increased military spending during his tenure and remains a blatant hypocrite, but his words weren’t exactly wrong. Between the usual scolding from pundits and the displeased murmurs of the national security state, there was Trump uttering a truth: wars make a lot of people a lot of money.
Since President Eisenhower warned of the growing military-industrial complex in his 1961 farewell address, various politicians, academics, and activists have lamented its enormity. Eisenhower’s warning went unheeded. What he witnessed six decades ago exists in a far more hegemonic form today, quietly governing many facets of American life.
It’s not merely corporate giants manufacturing airplanes and bombs for the Pentagon, though that’s part of it. Since 9/11, many more federal agencies have taken on military contracts. The Department of Homeland Security, born in 2003, ushered in a new era of gargantuan military spending, averaging $14 billion a year from 2005 onward. In addition to the highly expensive and deadly contracting done with notorious private security firms like Blackwater, the federal government expanded its outsourcing of military and veterans’ health care.
Meanwhile, firms like Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics have become “Walmarts of war,” delivering a dizzying range of goods and services to different federal agencies. Entire sectors of the economy are now invested in a state of permanent war and surveillance — what is, in actuality, the most Orwellian feature of twenty-first-century America.
This dismal state of affairs spans Republican and Democratic administrations, turbocharged by George W. Bush and safeguarded by Barack Obama and Trump alike. It is one of the last bastions of bipartisan consensus, to the detriment of us all.
The Left should have no illusions about Joe Biden if he wins in November. The military-industrial complex will rumble onward, expanding and profiteering off wanton death abroad.
The American military continues to function largely out of view, killing civilians abroad with impunity. Beyond the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Afghani civilians slaughtered over the course of two pointless wars, there are those who die annually in drone strikes and other murderous missions in nations like Somalia and Syria that Americans hardly think about anymore.
America’s brand of state-sponsored war capitalism creates perverse incentives for all of this to continue unimpeded. The Left must get serious about strategizing how to unwind it all, a task that will take many years and multiple administrations, demanding sustained discipline and organization of the likes we have not seen yet. It is one thing to defund a police department; corporate America will shrug and hire their own private security to protect their capital. It is quite another to cut off the lifeline of their wealth, to tell Lockheed Martin and Raytheon Technologies that the tens of billions they reap annually can be no more.
There is precedent for this. George McGovern, the South Dakota senator who won the Democratic nomination in 1972, made the cause of defense conversion a central focus of his doomed candidacy and congressional tenure. In 1964, McGovern called for a National Economic Conversion Commission (NECC) to get the defense industry out of job creation, understanding that the military-industrial complex was functioning, at that juncture, as a far more enormous Works Progress Administration (WPA). McGovern hoped to redirect the money to domestic welfare. The Vietnam War’s ramp-up permanently derailed the effort, as Democratic hawks called for more military spending to halt the spread of Communism.
Converting military jobs to civilian jobs will be a challenging undertaking, on the scale of the original New Deal. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal is a starting point, a transition to eco-socialism that would simultaneously combat climate change and put millions to work in new industries. More politicians, including Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders, have embraced federal job guarantees — not linking them, necessarily, to the supplanting of military and contracting jobs, though they would have the effect of plugging gaps in local economies that have long depended on defense spending.
The federal government is already in the business of job creation for the aim of war; money, on one hand, can merely be reoriented, not created anew. At the same juncture, a radical expansion of the social safety net and an ongoing commitment to guaranteeing all Americans dignified work must be the great twenty-first-century project. America has the wealth and resources to do it: its own treasury to print money and a near-limitless ability to borrow. Interest rates and inflation are low. For the worthy quest of full employment, deficits can be racked up.
As daunting as this all may be, Republicans and Democrats alike have little appetite for more war. Trump won a Republican primary mocking foreign interventions abroad that he once supported. If Americans knew military manufacturing and contracting could be replaced, there would be no more spectacles like otherwise progressive senators fighting for F-35 fighter jets to touch down in their districts, as even Sanders once did. There would be, at the grass roots, a bipartisan embrace of new work available, even as war hawks brayed for more missiles and bombs.
Out of this dystopia, a new world could be born.