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Militarism and Capitalist Accumulation

Accumulation Questioning Globalised Militarism: Nuclear and Military Production and Critical Economic Theory by Peter Custers; Tulika Books, New Delhi, 2007; pp 431, Rs 695 (hardback).

Militarism and CapitalistAccumulation

Questioning Globalised Militarism: Nuclear and Military Production and Critical Economic Theory

by Peter Custers; Tulika Books, New Delhi, 2007; pp 431, Rs 695 (hardback).


he title chosen aptly sums up what the author has tried to do in this book. This book is about revising Marxist economic theory to incorporate the unique destructiveness of nuclear weapons; the wastefulness generally of arms production (nuclear and conventional) and of the nuclear energy production cycle; the actual and potential devastation caused to the environment by such activities; the inescapable necessity of militarisation for capitalist accumulation and expansion. If the advent of nuclear weapons was the first dramatic evidence that humans could now destroy the planet, ever growing awareness of ecological damage – its possible irreversibility caused by capitalist growth – has been the second great spur to re-evaluating both orthodox and Marxist economic theories.

This re-evaluation by critics of capitalism has taken two directions. There is the rise of an altogether new ecological economics which treats the human-created economy as a subsystem embedded within a wider social metabolic system of material and energy flows (inflows and outflows – energy input, throughput and output) that needs to be understood, measured and controlled if this wider metabolic system is to survive or remain balanced and healthy. Ecological economic thinking leads to a completely different set of theoretical propositions, modelling and equations as compared to both neoclassical orthodoxy and Marxist economics. It is also far and away the most sophisticated way of dealing with the issue of waste production, recycling and disposal in the environment. One of its more important equations encompasses the three major determinants of the planet’s future and of the free market system. This is the formula: I (Impact on the earth) = C (Consumption) × T (Technology) × P (Population). And one method for solving this equation and predicting future planetary welfare is through measuring the “ecological footprint”, i e, the quality and quantity of ecological resources required to sustain a given population (say, in a country) with given consumption and technology levels.

Custers has taken the other approach of exploring how the power of Marxist economic theory can be harnessed, through appropriate revision, to deal with both the issues of waste and militarism in contemporary capitalism. The book then is divided into three parts dealing respectively with Marx’s understanding of the individual circuit of capital, the social accumulation of capital, and finally with how globalised militarism affects the post-Marx theory of imperialist exploitation of the south by the north. The classic Marxist equation describing the money circuit of the individual capitalist is M-C….P….C’-M’, where this equation itself has three phases. The first phase is of the money purchase of input commodities, including labour power. The second is the manufacturing phase where the means of production are combined with labour power and raw materials to produce commodity outputs embodying surplus value yet to be realised. The third and final phase is the realisation of surplus value through sale and the achievement of enhanced money capital for restarting the circuit again.

Custers, however, takes this classic formula of Marx to be insufficiently sensitive to the wastefulness and destructiveness of militarism, nuclearism and ecological disregard embodied in certain modern capitalist production processes and outputs. To remedy this, Custers suggests certain conceptual innovations. Marx’s concept of use value is deemed too neutral and therefore needs to be supplemented by the concept of a socially damaging and therefore “negative use value”. The second production phase in the individual circuit of capital must be refined (through additional theoretical notations in the equation) to account for the production of waste, the possible reduction or even total elimination of surplus value, and the ways in which commodity wastes and non-commodity wastes (nuclear waste products) detract from profits and investments. Especially important, says Custers, is the introduction of the notion of unproductive consumption in manufacturing processes. Productive processes should be defined as only those that actually contribute to the sustenance of human life unlike forms of unproductive consumption such as military armaments. Only in this way can we move towards a proper understanding of the relationship between militarism and capitalist production in our times. For example, much more can be understood and said beyond the idea of military Keynesianism about how arms production has a specific importance in regulating the business cycle.

Economic and Political Weekly July 14, 2007

With regard to the social accumulation of capital, Marx uses the three concepts of constant capital (c), variable capital (v), surplus value (s) to construct his equations, and identifies two departments, I and II for the production of means of production and means of consumption respectively. This framework enables him to explain simple and expanded reproduction under capitalism. Custers insists on changing this schema by adding another department III that produces armaments as well as an additional agent, the state, whose relevance for expanded reproduction (the expansion and development of capitalism) must be seen as internal and foundational, not just external and helpful. This is particularly so since arms production unlike other output forms has a predestined buyer and direction – the state. Only in this way can one theoretically highlight the centrality of arms production and state militarism in the functioning of capitalism.

To the contemporary left-wing literature dealing with matters of unequal exchange between the countries of the north and south, Custers adds the notion of disparate exchange. Here it is not just a question of deteriorating terms of trade between the commodity exports of the north and south. Arms sales to the south are a form of waste disposal in return for non-waste commodity exports from the south that expresses a further dimension of exploitation not otherwise captured in the literature on unequal exchange. Somewhat surprisingly, Custers does not address the issue of more direct forms of waste disposal whereby the north pays the south to accept its toxic wastes or to carry out environmentally damaging activities such as ship-breaking. This might complicate but would not be expected to disrupt the author’s basic equations. The larger claim that the author is making is that the militaristic preparations and behaviour of the state have played a hugely important role in both the transition to capitalism and in the subsequent development of capitalist countries and in the expansion of the capitalist world system, albeit unevenly. Custers then brings into the third part of his book historical narratives that provide evidential support for how war-making states promoted capitalist industrialisation.

What then can we say in conclusion about the book? This is not a work about militarisation and nuclear energy and weapons production per se; or even about how these phenomena affect society generally. It is a book about how these phenomena should be incorporated in a reconstructed Marxist theory of capitalist accumulation. While a general reader will find much of interest, it is more likely that a reader more familiar with, and disposed towards, Marxism and Marxist economic theory will give it the careful and systematic attention it deserves. How effective a reconstruction is it? Will it spark a new research agenda? Those more familiar than this reviewer with the technicalities of Marxist economic theory will have to take up the task of evaluating the first question while only time will reveal the answer to the second. But that this is a courageous and original effort by the author to address the theoretical challenge posed by the emergence of nuclearism-militarism and the unprecedented levels of ecological de-stabilisation that are the features of contemporary capitalism goes without saying. In contrast, conventional economic thinking in its current neoliberal garb is basically an ideologised form of apology, indeed glorifier, of a capitalism gone rampant and blissfully unconcerned with the issues that Custers has sought to raise and address.



Economic and Political Weekly July 14, 2007

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