Saturday, December 15, 2007
War and Capitalism
We've entered a serious economic downturn, maybe the worst one since 1930--1940. We'll get through it the way we got through the last one, by eating lots of rice and potatoes and throwing potlucks for entertainment.
The more interesting question is what we're going to do to recover from it. Historically, big capital recovers from its periodic collapses by having wars. It's been that way since modern times began. When the economy is in the bucket, building a war machine, then using it, is always a road to recovery.
European societies recovered from the economic downturns of the 1870's by unleashing an orgy of colonialism on the parts of the world that weren't already under their control, and toward the end of the century carved up Africa like a turkey. Many short but quite violent and destructive wars accompanied the end of the age of imperialism -- the Sikh War in Punjab, The Boer War, and the Russo-Japanese nightmare.
The U.S., done with conquering North America, got ino that race partly to recover from the stagnant economy and very tight money supply of the '90's. Teddy Roosevelt built us a modern navy of steel ships fitted with guns that could shoot exploding artillery shells, and we jumped into a very cool little war to pick up territory and prime the economic pump.
Hitler understood almost instinctively that the quickest way for Germany to recover from the hyperinflation and economic collapse of the Weimar years was through massive defecit spending for military purposes, which suited his intentions anyway. Defecit spending doesn't matter, because if you've got a big enough, technologically intimidating army, you can always get that money back.
The New Deal notwithstanding, we didn't begin recovering from the depression of the 30's until after the buildup for WWII began, first with lend-lease and then to produce the hardware for our participation. But the U.S.'s main role among our allies was as "the arsenal of democracy," or in other words, the main supplier of materiel for the allied war effort. The money that was made by manufacturers in Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh during those hectic days when they made the tanks, planes, bullets, and bombs was the embryo of our present-day war machine.
Capitalism's business cycle hasn't changed since the beginnings of modern times. it always follows the same familiar pattern of growth and exuberance, followed by boom and mania, followed by hysteria and panic, followed by collapse and depression, followed by slow recovery. And in modern times, recovery means preparation for war, then war.
Now is the time for us to start preparing for the future. We actually do have choices, and this endless cycle of boom, bust, and war does not have to continue. We can actually have a different kind of world, but we have to be able to envision it first.