Material World – Technology, capitalism and war

Modern warfare entails the destruction of both means of production and workers themselves, as we all see on our TV screen at the moment in Gaza and Ukraine. It represents quite the opposite of any progression of our productive potential — a drastic regression — and poses a massive threat to everyone.

What we are referring to here is the technology devoted to the art of killing human beings on a potentially industrial scale and reducing their habitat to an utter wasteland. The very thought of it strikes us as repulsive and inhumane. Little wonder people feel so ambivalent about ‘technological progress’. Little wonder that, for so many, the future has come to look so bleak.

While some innovations have provided us with both benefits and disadvantages, the same most certainly cannot be said of certain other technological innovations one can think of – like, say, a Tomahawk cruise missile costing about $2 million apiece. There are thousands of Tomahawk missiles at the disposition of navies around the world, not to mention all those other kinds of missiles in service. The destruction they could inflict on the planet does not bear thinking about. One cannot even pretend that there is any real benefit to be gained from any of this — unless you count employment for workers in a factory producing such weapons as a ‘benefit’. But then, these same workers could have been far better employed producing something social useful.

There is an argument that is sometimes made that for all sheer waste of human talent and material resources that the military establishment represents, technological innovation in the service of this establishment has had important spinoffs that benefit us all. According to NATO’s website, for instance:

‘Our militaries have one paramount duty: to keep us safe from any threat. Over the years, countless inventors from NATO countries have created new technologies, big and small, that contribute to that ultimate goal. The spill-over effects of this innovation are all around us and have laid the foundations of our modern world. NATO has supported science and innovation for more than 70 years. The Alliance not only provides direct funding to researchers, but also maintains networks that bring together thousands of scientists from around the world to collaborate and build on each other’s work. Military innovation in science and technology has helped to create some of the most iconic and essential items in our streets, offices and homes. Here are seven of the most interesting inventions pioneered and popularised by NATO militaries that are now common in everyday life’ (

The article then goes on to list the more well-known inventions initially intended for military purposes, such as the internet, GPS satellite navigation, microwaves, duct tape and so on, plus a much longer list of ‘honourable mentions’ only cursorily referred to.

If this is not an example of special pleading then one wonders what else it could possibly be. Reading this, one might be forgiven for having overlooked that NATO, like any other military bloc, is a huge killing machine that consumes massive quantities of resources and manpower for the purpose of waging war. How is that a socially beneficial use of resources and manpower? Satellite navigation is great if you want to find the shortest route from A to B. But satellite navigation can also deliver a Tomahawk missile to its intended destination resulting in appalling destruction and lives lost. That is not so great.

The spurious reasoning in the NATO piece lies in the apparent implication that but for the existence of the military establishment we wouldn’t have at our disposal something like that handy roll of duct tape to seal our leaking pipe. But who is to say this would be the case at all? It seems presumptuous to make such a claim. Maybe someone would well have invented duct tape or, indeed, something superior to duct tape had there not been any capitalist nation states around or military establishments built up to defend them. One might also note in passing that every military establishment claims its role is purely ‘defensive’ but obviously this cannot be the case otherwise wars would never have occurred in the first place.

The potential for war, however, does not exist because we just happen to possess the means of waging war. On the contrary it is wired into the very system of global capitalism that created these means. Since the so-called Great War of 1914-18, dubbed the ‘war to end all wars’, there has not been a single day when there has not been a war going on somewhere in the world.

War is the military expression of capitalism´s competitive struggle over resources, markets and trade routes where other methods of securing these things have failed. This is notwithstanding attempts to rationalise or justify this conflict in terms of supposedly irreconcilable religious or ethnic or whatever other differences one can conjure up between the warring parties concerned. That, however, is just the froth on the surface of things — the whipped-up pretext for war, rather than its fundamental cause. Dig deeper and you will always find an ulterior, economic motive.


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