Pentagon Capitalism

excerpted from article by Vijay Prashad

Z magazine - March, 1997


In 1970, Seymour Melman published Pentagon Capitalism: The Political Economy of War (New York: McGraw Hill) which detailed the tight nexus between the military elites and industrial capital. Melman showed how military control over national resources narrowed the choices available for other state programs. Further, he argued that the military-industrial complex uses arms exports as a means to manage domestic economic problems as well as to push an imperialist policy via proxy. Aggressive arms sales to the Third World began after the onset of the long recession in 1973. Arms sales to the Gulf States, for instance, enabled the recovery of revenue spent on oil. The major arms merchants sold intermediary military technology to the Third World (keeping the latest inventions for the awesome military might of the overdeveloped world). The military industrial complex earned major revenues from the exchange which enabled the defense industry to subsidize its domestic production as well as to keep the companies productive during times of lean domestic demand.

Further, arms production enabled states with flagging economies to keep employment steady. The overdeveloped world benefited from these sales even at a time when its own economies suffered from the burden of stagflation. The nuclear elites developed a theory to justify their sale of "conventional arms" to the Third World: "conventional weapons, " the nuclearcrats argued, provided a "means to circumvent" the use of the nuclear option by non-nuclear and threshold states (India, Pakistan, Israel, South Africa). If these states receive adequate amounts of "conventional weapons," this wisdom contends, then they will not engage in nuclear weapons production. In other words, let these folks kill themselves with weapons which only have local range; let them have neither long-range nuclear devices nor access to "conventional weapons."

The latter option, total disarmament and non-proliferation of "conventional weapons," is not an option because the arms industry is structured into the heart of the economy of the overdeveloped world. The Third World buys vast quantities of arms from the overdeveloped world: India, for in stance, imported $17 billion of military goods between 1985 and 1989; Iraq was next on the list with $12 billion (and it was in the midst of a bloody engagement with Iran at this time). From 1992 to 1994, India increased its arms expenditure by 12 percent and Pakistan by 19.5 percent. The major exporters of arms to India include France, Sweden, UK, U.S., and Russia; Pakistan is outfitted by PRC, France, Sweden, UK, and U.S. The role of the nuclear elite in such transactions is apparent.

From 1983 to 1993, the U.S. increased its share of the [arms sales to the Third World] pie to 55 percent and Russia decreased its share to 10 percent. Within the past four years, the U.S. renamed its Office of Munitions Control to the Center of Defense Trade. With the end of Cold War II (1979- 1989), the arms business has become "trade" rather than a matter of "control."

The U. S. occasionally frames laws to restrict arms sales to states which engage in nuclear production. Two such legal provisions are the Symington Amendment, section 669 of the Foreign Assistance Act (which prevents U. S. sales to states who do not meet International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards) and the Pressler Amendment (which suspends U.S. military aid and US AID assistance to states engaged in nuclear weapons development and proliferation-in this instance, Pakistan). These legal remedies are frequently exempted to funnel weapons to allies or to those states which pay top dollar. The international community forged two protocols to control the proliferation of "conventional weapons," but even these provisions are nowhere near comprehensive. The UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (October 10, 1980) is only for weapons "which may be deemed to be excessively injurious or to have indiscriminate effects" while the Wassenaar Arrangement on Export Controls for Conventional Arms and Dual-Use Goods and Technologies (November 1996) is only to prevent proliferation to states "whose behavior is, or becomes, a cause for serious international concern." Other states are offered free use of weaponry.

Of course, there is a contradiction in the policy of the nuclear elites. On the one hand, these states, as the congealed representatives of their industrial, commercial, and financial blocs, want to promote a subdued passivity in the Third World in order for "commercial freedom." On the other hand, the nuclear elites want to create discord in the Third World in order to prevent a unified front to the ambitions and interests of the overdeveloped world. There is widespread resentment amongst the peoples of the Third World at the policies of the nuclear elites. States might vote with the nuclear elites at the UN, but their own populations display an impatience which comes out in mass protests or in the growth of unsavory populist movements.

India votes against a hollow treaty and the nuclear elites and their clients round up the usual suspects to begin a campaign of condemnation. The people of the overdeveloped world, soaked with propaganda from the media (which in foreign affairs, acts as the mouthpiece of the state department, et. al.), put their faith in the doublespeak of the nuclearcrats. The nuclear elites, meanwhile, balance their budgets on the blood of innocents via the sale of "conventional weapons." There is no pretense of morality in this phase of Pentagon capitalism.


Vijay Prashad is assistant professor of international studies at Trinity College.

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