A review of Peter Custers' book: Questioning Globalized Militarism: Nuclear and Military Production and Critical Economic Theory, Tulika, New Delhi, 2007
Custer’s book, according to Samir Amin’s foreword, is an ‘audacious pioneering’ work to theorise the global reach of militarism. In doing this, Custers draws on three distinct but inter-related strands of literature - trade and unequal exchange within the ‘world systems’ approach, Marx’s and Marxist theoretical critique of capitalism, and, the radical perspective on militarism, nuclear industry and environment. Custers urges readers to revise some fundamental concepts in Marxist political economy and the universe of historical materialism, e.g. the relationship between use and exchange value, and theorises to address ‘practice’. In this, Custers laudably never allows any disjunct between his theorising and his activism.
The book envisages the rise of militarism as an inseparable part of capitalism. The first part of the book proposes the extension of Marx’s individual circuit of capital. It introduces the concept of dis-value or negative use-value through a survey of the nuclear industry. The impact of ionizing radiation, health hazards of uranium mining, environmental consequences of dumping nuclear waste in the sea and the effect of atomic weaponry illustrate the negative impact of market goods where dis-value highlights the ‘metabolic’ relationship between human beings and their natural environment.
Another concept is that of non commodity waste as distinct from social waste that Baran and Sweezy had used to characterise monopoly capitalism. A detailed review of the technoeconomic paradigm within which nuclear waste is produced establishes the non commodity nature of such waste by categorising its hierarchy.
Custers contends that social and non commodity waste that embody dis-value cannot be conceived within Marx’s formula of individual circuit of capital M-C…P…C’-M’ as the second phase of ‘productive consumption’ in C…P…C’ engenders waste which constitutes a net reduction in social wealth. When the output of manufacturing is a commodity (military or otherwise) that fails to add to society’s real wealth, the exchange taking place in the third phase of the circuit is one with a special character, namely the exchange of C’(=W) with M’ where W denotes waste. Wherever manufacturing is accompanied by the production of non-commodity waste, the third phase ‘deviates’ further from the pattern suggested by Marx in Volume II of Capital. Here a non-transformation accompanies the transformation of C’ into M’, highlighted by the letter code C’(-W)-M’(-W). Custers argues that Marx’s conceptualisation of the individual circuit of capital assumed that all processes of commodity production added to social wealth, while the twentieth century experiences of the military and nuclear industry show that it leads to decrease in social wealth. Simple as the concept is, it has complex portents for the basic tenets of Marx’s Capital in contradicting Marx’s fundamental premise - ‘every product of labour is, in all states of society, a use value…’ (Marx 1986: 67).
It must be noted that the schemes of simple and extended reproduction in Capital are based on the transformation of a product into a commodity in a definite historical epoch. Unless dis-value can elucidate the implication on transformation of products of labour into commodity, i.e. the ‘relations of production’, Custers’ modification of C-M-C’ remains a technological process rather than a social relation. Custers’ argument is also premised on profits being potentially reduced as capitalists incur costs in processing non-salable non commodity waste. However, capitalist production relations suggest the distinct possibility that production of non commodity waste engenders profits through the labour embodied in the production of the commodity that it is a by-product of.
The second part of the book reviews Marx’s schematic of the social reproduction of capital questioning Marx’s conceptualisation of a pure market system through exchanges between capitalists operating within two departments. Custers argues that the capitalist market system has always included a key ‘external’ agent, namely the state that has absorbed as revenue a part of the surplus. It has also been a producer of weaponry.
Custers suggests a three-department scheme with the state as a fourth non-market ‘external’ agent. He draws upon Quesnay’s characterisation of a ‘sterile class’ to characterise the military sector as the third department which absorbs the commodities offered by the capital owners of Department I and II without offering commodities in return. The state exists as a revenue-holding agent ready to buy the products resulting from the military sector. Thus the state and Department III are non-reciprocal participants in the unique centrality of military production in the process of accumulation in hegemonic, monopoly capitalist economies. Custers presents comparative evidence on the construction of warships from Venice between the 12th an 16th century, and, England and France in the 16th and 17th century, and the role of public debt in Britain to promote militarism since the late 17th century. The relationship between the growth of monopoly capital and the state’s reliance on the military sector as a production department is juxtaposed with evidence from Great Britain between 1889 and 1914 and US War allocations during World War II. Oversupply of arms explains qualitative disproportionality and discomplementarity due to the role of the military sector as ‘pump primer’. This is the basis of the extension suggested to Marx’s schema for expanded reproduction incorporating the business cycle driven by the militarist state. Building on both Tugan-Baranovsky and Luxemburg’s critique of qualitative and quantitative disproportionality, Custers argues that the persistent use of the military sector as a business cycle regulator post World War II resulted in the very opposite of what it was aimed at – a periodic crisis engendered by qualitative disproportionality. Foreign capital in the post-1980s US economy has enlarged the size of aggregate demand and counterbalanced the effect of the discomplementarity generated by Department III. The War on Iraq is posited as the outcome of a process where the US government took recourse to the use of military allocations for the purpose of business cycle regulation.
The third part of the book introduces the concept of disparate and unequal exchange as a system of exploitation employed by imperialism in North-South trade. Raw material exports or cheap labour based manufacturing products are exchanged for weapons and armaments. Not only is this exchange unequal for the South, a position well-established in the literature, it is also disparate as it surrenders a valuable commodity constituting social wealth to import a commodity that is the very opposite, social waste. This is advanced through a review of oil and arms trade between the US and OPEC countries, and the political economy of Angola and Sudan. Turkey’s attempt to circumvent the system of disparate exchange since 1985 by building its indigenous military sector led to its emergence as an exporter of armament systems to other southern countries replicating the Northern pattern of trading waste for realisation of profits. Simultaneously, it is also tied in disparate exchange relationships in the international economy for its armament procurements.
The uniqueness of the role of the military/nuclear sector that Custers characterises as the department producing means of ‘mass destruction’ is beyond doubt. But its case for introduction as a third sector can only be complete when its role in simple and extended reproduction can be shown to make a marked difference to the role of ‘productive’ capital in Marx’s two department schematic. Custers, pre-empting this ‘controversy’, suggests it is ‘impermanent’ and takes the shape of a department only ‘intermittently’. But this contradicts the entire thrust of the book’s case for the ‘third’ department.
The state as the fourth actor as ‘revenue holder’ in Custers’ analysis embodies an instrumental approach that is not in consonance with his own empirical evidence. This is the only part of the book where economistic teleology overrides the historical materialist approach. This is rather unfortunate as this is precisely an area in which Marxism has made substantial contribution.
The nation state has clearly been an indispensable instrument for capitalism, not only because the military power of imperialist nation states has carried the dominating force of capital to every corner of the world, but also because nation states have been the conduits of capitalism at the receiving end too (Wood 1995).
Marx in the third volume of Capital pointed to the specificity of state formations and its relationship with the universe of social relations:
…It is always the direct relationship of the owners of the conditions of production to the direct producers – a relation always naturally corresponding to a definite stage in the development of the methods of labour and thereby its social productivity – which reveals the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social structure, and with it the political form of the relation of sovereignty and dependence, in short the corresponding specific form of state. This does not prevent the same economic basis – the same from the standpoint of its main conditions – due to innumerable different empirical circumstances, natural environment, racial relations, external historical influences etc, from showing infinite variations and gradations in appearance, which can be ascertained only by analysis of the empirically given circumstances. (Marx 1986: 791).
In the Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx further asserted that while one can generalise about ‘present society’ across national boundaries, it is impossible to do so about the ‘present state’ (Marx 1968: 312). Mandel (1980), whom Custers cites, also stressed that every attempt to define the capitalist state abstracting from its historical origins conflicts with historical materialism.
Byres (1996) characterised as ‘capitalism from above’ the imperatives of a capital accumulation process that is directed by the state as distinct from the ‘process from below’ that follows from Custers’ interpretation of Marx only through Capital. The oversight of a range of Marxist scholarship on the state e.g., Poulantzas and the wider scholarship from other ideological strands limits Custers’ final ‘synthesis’.
Notwithstanding its limitations, the book is invaluable in its integrated analysis of the role of military and nuclear production. It is a pioneering contribution in advancing concepts that are important for those interested in consolidating the opposition to the current international conjuncture of imperialism.
Byres, T.J., 1996, Capitalism From Above And Capitalism From Below : An Essay In Comparative Political Economy, Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, Macmillan Press.
Mandel, E., 1980, Historical Materialism and the Capitalist State, Originally published in German in Marxismus und Anthropologie, Bochum 1980, English Translation from Marxist Internet Archive, http://www.marxists.org/archive/mandel/1980/xx/hismatstate.htm.
Marx, K., 1968, Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx K. and F. Engels, Selected Works in One Volume, London, Lawrence and Wishart.
Marx, K., 1986, Capital Vol 1, Moscow, Progressive Publishers.
Marx, K., 1986, Capital, Vol 3¸ Moscow, Progressive Publishers.
Wood, E.M., 1995, Democracy Against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Note: This review was published in Biblio, November-December, 2008.