[OPE-L] Custers militarism

From: Rakesh Bhandari (bhandari@BERKELEY.EDU)
Date: Tue Mar 27 2007 - 22:26:16 EDT

Vol:24 Iss:06 URL:


A daring attempt


The book attempts to interweave the empirical problem of globalised
militarism with the economic theory of Marxist tradition.

PETER CUSTERS was an activist in the Dutch peace movement in the 1980s and
was subsequently associated with studies relating to women's labour in
Asia. He was an activist with a theoretical bent of mind, and this book,
therefore, is the product of all three - activism, empirical studies and
theoretical excursions. In the Foreword, Samir Amin describes the book as
"audacious and important" but adds that "it is not always easy to read".
It is also rather difficult to review, mainly because the author makes a
brave - `audacious' - attempt to interweave the empirical problem of
globalised militarism with the economic theory of Marxist tradition.

A critical appreciation of the work calls for familiarity with the
rudiments of Karl Marx's theoretical contributions, those relating to the
relationship between circulation and production, on the one hand, and the
treatment of the "Departments of production", on the other. I shall make
use of the advantage I have of not being a theoretician, Marxist or any
other, to convey the gist of the empirical aspects of the work, which I
consider to be more important than the theoretical exercises, though the
author maintains that his contribution is primarily in the realm of
theory, Marxist theory to be specific.

The empirical problems with the theoretical overtones that Custers
features are basically threefold. First, production of military hardware -
weapons of mass destruction (WMD), to put it crudely - assumed alarming
proportions in the 20th century and continues to increase in the present
century as well. In a rapidly globalising economic environment, weapons,
including nuclear weapons, constitute a major share in production and

Second, governments in all parts of the world play a major part in the
production and trade of weapons, as also in the research relating to
weapons. The state, therefore, must be taken as an economic agent in all
societies, including, importantly, capitalist societies.

Third, global trade dominated by weapons cannot be considered `free
trade'. It has special features of its own. If so, trade negotiations, in
and through the World Trade Organisation, for instance, cannot be premised
on the principles of free trade that now underlie such negotiations.

All these three are important empirical issues, with significant
theoretical implications. The theoretical dimensions may now be explored.

Production and circulation are basic economic activities, but they take
different institutional features under changing social conditions. For
instance, while production, in principle, is always the interaction of
human beings with nature, its actual manifestation depends on a wide range
of social conditions. Under the socio-economic system that has come to be
known as feudalism, agriculture was the predominant productive activity,
clearly demonstrating human action on land and where the social
arrangement for the distribution of the produce was more crucial than
ownership over land. In the social set-up commonly designated capitalism,
the means of production are a wide range of items including machinery,
energy and raw materials, all valued in money terms as `capital', owned
and controlled by a small section in society, who uses this power to
employ and control others.

Exchange is the ubiquitous economic activity of transfer of one good for
another. It, too, takes different forms. Barter is one of them, in which
the owner of one good exchanges it directly with the owner of another
good. Exchange more often takes place through the mediation of money;
those who have goods to transfer selling them first for money and then
buying what they want from those who keep goods for sale. This form of
exchange, therefore, is less personal and more widespread than barter. It
and other forms of exchange involving money give rise to markets and
market exchanges. Because these tend to change social relations as well,
they lead to market societies too. It is not difficult to see that there
is a close connection between the capitalist form of production and the
market form of exchange although the tendency to identify the two is not

Now, underlying both exchange and production is the notion of useful goods
(technically `use-values'). What one produces must be of use at least to
oneself and, possibly, to others. In barter, for instance, two parties
come together to exchange one good that has use-value for another that
also has use-value. But the process of exchange also establishes the
exchange value between the two goods, that is, the quantity of one of the
goods exchanging for the quantity of the other. In barter, where there is
no mediation, the exchange value is just a rate or a ratio, but when money
is used as a medium of exchange, the ratio can be expressed as a quantity
that takes the name `price'. Thus, while use-value is subjective, exchange
value, or price, is objective. Not surprisingly, in an economy where
markets and market values tend to dominate, prices become a measure of

These are elementary lessons in economics and even those who have had no
formal introduction to `critical economic theory' are familiar with them.
It can be easily seen, too, that what is price to one may be viewed as
cost by another.

We can now turn to the set of issues that Custers raises in his work. In
what sense can WMD be said to have use-value? From a societal perspective
WMD should be considered at least as waste. And if production is claimed
to be human interaction with nature (resources) to generate use-value, how
can the manufacture of WMD be treated as `production'? Also, if exchange,
or trade, is the transaction of goods of use-value, why has global trade
now come to be dominated by trade in the useless goods called `weapons',
especially those meant for mass destruction?


Aviation ordnancemen prepare AIM-9 Sidewinder short-range and AIM-7
Sparrow medium-range air-to-air missiles for transfer from the hangar bay
of USS Theodore Roosevelt to the flight deck, in this October 14, 2001,
photograph. Production of military hardware assumed alarming proportions
in the 20th century and continues in this century as well.

Bring the manufacture of nuclear weapons into this discussion and the
problem becomes more puzzling. For nuclear weapons are not only social
waste but they also generate by-products whose radioactive contents, such
as uranium 238, result in environmental and health hazards. Such
by-products cannot even be sold as market ware. Hence, the production of
weapons (indeed even the production of nuclear energy for civilian use,
according to Custers) results in "negative value" or "non-commodity waste"
being generated, which are costs the producer must bear.

In today's world, in countries dealing with nuclear power, governments are
directly involved in research leading to the manufacture and disposal of
waste resulting from these productive activities. Capitalist countries
such as the United States are no exception. In such instances, what is the
motivation of governments in generating waste that involves so much
expenditure? Whatever be the motive, since the state in capitalist
countries actually plays such a leading role in the economic sphere,
should not the state be treated as a key agent, along with private
production units, in the analysis of capitalism itself? Then, how can the
notion of capitalist economies as consisting entirely of market operations
be defended? Did Marx also limit his exposition of capitalism solely to
the market phenomenon?

Turning to the third theme of contemporary global trade in which the sale
of weapons has come to play a prominent role (with the U.S. now accounting
for over 50 per cent of the supply of conventional weapons), Custers
argues that the trade between goods of positive value on the one side and
negative value on the other cannot be "free" in any meaningful sense.
Examining the trade between the U.S. and African countries, he postulates
that the U.S. has been exchanging arms with countries such as Angola, the
Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, and many more for primary products,
which are the only ones they have and which they must sell for their
survival. More glaringly, the U.S. used trade with Iran in the 1970s to
get oil in exchange for weapons, setting Iraq against Iran. Trade in
weapons has become a convenient tool for the U.S. to get what it wants and
to create tensions and conflicts in different parts of the world, which in
turn leads to further trade in weapons. "Disparate exchange" is the
expression that Custers has coined for such trade.

I find the issues that Custers poses, and documents to some extent,
interesting and important. Custers also uses them to argue that at the
theoretical level he goes far beyond Rosa Luxemburg's attempt to extend
Marxist theory by pointing out that capitalism requires non-capitalist
economies for its expansion; Paul Baran's and Paul Sweezy's treatment of
surplus and social waste; Ernest Mandel's thesis of `permanent war
economy'; Arghiri Emmanuel's much-debated `unequal exchange'; and Samir
Amin's `Accumulation on a World Scale'. Custers has been more daring,
trying formally to extend Marxist theory to accommodate the themes he has
put forward. He says: "I have tried to restate the basic views of Marx in
such a way as to hopefully promote a revival of interest in Marx's
economic theory. My position vis-a-vis classical Marxism is, however, far
from uncritical ... ."

For instance, he introduces (--W) to refer to non-commodity waste and uses
it to modify Marx's widely used representation of the
circulation-production process, M-C... P... C' (--W)-M' (--W). Similarly,
he puts forward a modified three `Departments' schema to bring in
production of the means of destruction (MD) into Marx's two "Departments"
- the Department for the production of the means of production (MP) and
the Department for the production of the means of consumption (MC). In
order to bring the state into the analysis, he introduces a
revenue-holding state (R) that exercises primary responsibility for and
control over the MD Department. I shall leave it to theorists, Marxist
theorists in particular, to discuss and decide whether these amount to a
radical reformulation of Marxist theory to make it relevant to the
realities of the 21st century. However, I can state without any hesitation
that the text is cluttered with these and many more formula modifications
that make the reading tedious.

The work has an important by-product, though. It calls for much more
anthropological and historical research into the evolution of economies
from the most rudimentary to the most complex. It is now a fairly
well-established position that all economies have two sets of transfers,
one vertical and the other horizontal, the former symbolising authority
and the latter being the basis of exchange and markets. It is important to
establish which of the two has primordial priority. That, in turn, can be
used to trace how and when authority gets metamorphosed into `state', and
the role of the `state' in different economies and at different periods.
It is equally important to explicate the social embeddedness of the
economy and to trace the manner in which social forces `external' to the
economy, politics, `culture', and so on influence it. All these aspects
will have a bearing on understanding the nature of the constantly evolving
global economy and polity. These, however, are not merely a matter of
reworking existing models and formulae and not a task confined to Marxist
theorists, either.

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.5 : Sat Mar 31 2007 - 01:00:12 EDT