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The military-industrial complex today

7:00pm, Thursday 14 June 2012, Please email if you would like to attend.

In terms of industrial policy, it can be argued that the UK – and even more, the US – have long had one: it’s called the state’s procurement of weapons that have a fair amount of R&D put into them. Most recently, Obama’s State of the Union address (January 2012) said that the US Department of Defense, the world’s largest consumer of energy, would make one of the largest commitments to clean energy in history – with the US Navy purchasing enough capacity to power 250,000 homes a year.

Clearly the role of military procurement has changed over the years; right now, for instance, the new US cybersecurity agency cannot find all the computer specialists it wants. Since Eisenhower’s influential and liberal 1961 farewell address, which coined the phrase ‘military-industrial complex’, US defence spending totals and percentages, as well as US forces/weapons postures, have likewise been through their ups and downs, declining as a percentage of GDP during the Cold War and reviving even before 9-11, and certainly since. Over the years, too, nuclear weapons, always a relatively cheap option, have become a smaller and smaller element in US defence spending.

Economic and political attitudes to the MIC have also changed. Historically the left always attacked the MIC for its pork-barrel subversion of democracy, its expense, its waste, its baroque product innovations, its arms exports, its debatable ‘spin-off’, and its direct interest in starting wars. On the other hand, from Baran and Sweezy in the 1950s through to the British SWP, military budgets have long been seen as an essential Keynesian support for capitalism, mopping up the capitalist ‘surplus’ generated elsewhere. More recently, however, the US has seen (and again the UK is not far behind) a convergence between militarists worried about energy security, and Greens keen on military innovations spinning off into renewable energy.

Cuts in UK defence are sharp. At the same time UK defence secretary Philip Hammond has just added his voice to traditional US demands that Germany do more in defence. Meanwhile cuts in US defence are a mirage, and there is a very rapid increase in defence spending in China and India.

What role would we assign to expenditure on armed services and weapons today? Are arms really so different from other kinds of products? Why have attempts to restructure the MIC, and reap a peace dividend, proved so difficult? What do we make of the growing US deployment of private armed services in places like Iraq? What can we foresee about the future course of defence spending, in the UK, the US and Asia?


Professor James Woudhuysen


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