Everywhere Is War
Bob Marley’s stirring reggae song “War” says, in part:
Until there are no longer
First class and second-class citizens of any nation,
Everywhere is war.
Until that day,
The dream of lasting peace
Will remain but a fleeting illusion.
Many people resign themselves to the conclusion that war will forever be the scourge of the human race. But an alternative to that pessimism begins with thinking more deeply about the subject. Bob Marley’s lyrics (which, ironically, were originally written by a speechwriter for a dictatorial ruler) suggest that war may not be eternal after all—that a global future is at least imaginable wherein the absence of racial and economic injustice could remove the motives for war and make it obsolete.
There is a close relationship between war and deep economic inequality. The struggle over scarce resources underlies all social tensions, and when those tensions reach critical mass, they erupt in violence, sometimes in the form of rebellion that explodes into civil war and other times in the form of war between nations. An implication of Marley’s song is that if economic injustice could be eliminated from the world, then war would disappear as well.
To say that there is economic inequality in today’s world would vastly understate the inconceivably deep disparity of wealth. A handful of billionaires control most of the Earth’s resources while billions of people remain mired in hunger, disease, degradation, and grinding poverty. This is not a secret, nor is it the exaggerated claim of disgruntled socialists. It has been reported by the mainstream news media of the world. On the January 20, 2014, broadcast of NBC Nightly News. Brian Williams declared:
“Some new figures came out today on global wealth and income disparity, and they are so shocking it takes a while for them to sink in. A study commissioned by Oxfam says the world’s richest 85 individuals have the same wealth as 3.5 billion people around the world. Once again: 85 people on this planet have the same amount of wealth as the poorest three-and-a-half billion people on this planet.”
Brian Williams calls these figures “shocking,” and they are, but it is equally shocking how few people seem to have noticed. The revelation has had a negligible impact on public consciousness and discourse, and none at all on governmental policies.
“Wealth” is measured in monetary terms, but it is important to move beyond the realm of abstraction by thinking of it as what money can buy—control of the world’s material resources. Eighty-five superrich individuals control as much of the world’s land, water, food, minerals, energy, and manufacturing capacity as the least rich 3,500,000,000 people. And with control of the material resources also comes control of employment opportunities, of political and legal systems, of education at all levels, of healthcare, and of the mass media.
Don’t allow this to remain a mere numerical abstraction in your mind. Translate it into feeling—or at least trying to imagine—the daily misery of the so-called slumdogs of Bombay, the dirt-poor denizens of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, or the super-exploited textile workers of Bangladesh. These are representative of the three-and-a-half billion who have next to nothing.
Current trends do not suggest a reversal of this appalling inequity. To the contrary, the wealth of the superrich follows the logic of compound interest. As their assets increase, their growth tends to accelerate, thus causing the extreme inequality of wealth to grow ever faster. As the struggle over scarce resources intensifies, the prospects for eliminating warfare diminish accordingly.
The most obvious scarce resource that wars have been fought over in recent times is oil. When nations go to war, it is to protect the economic interests of the elites who rule their political establishments. The United States’ endless wars in the Middle East have been, in the final analysis, aimed at controlling the countries where much of the world’s oil is produced and those through which pipelines transport it. Some analysts have argued—persuasively, in my opinion—that the long-range strategic goal of the United States in the Middle East is not primarily aimed at procuring oil for its own needs but at keeping it out of the hands of a likely future rival superpower—China.
But is war as a consequence of scarcity avoidable? If the scarcity of resources were a natural phenomenon, probably not. But it is not natural. It is, to use a newly fashionable term, “anthropogenic”—a consequence of human activity. If humans created the problem, then it is reasonable to assume that humans can resolve it. But first it must be understood.
How scarcity ceased to be natural
Throughout most of the twelve-thousand years or so since the Agricultural Revolution, the scarcity of food was straightforward and easy to understand. Periodic famines and malnutrition-based epidemics were due to the fact that not enough food could be produced to feed the Earth’s population. In 1798 Reverend Thomas Malthus famously predicted that we are forever doomed to that terrible fate.
But the Reverend Malthus was mistaken and his timing could not have been worse. No sooner had he made his prediction than the Industrial Revolution began to take off, resulting in a rapid, immense increase in agricultural productivity. That gave the world’s farmers the ability to produce enough food to feed the entire population of the Earth many times over.
And yet mass malnutrition and starvation have persisted to the present era. Hunger-related diseases kill tens-of-thousands of people, mostly children, in poor countries every day. Do not allow that statistic to pass unabsorbed: tens-of-thousands per day. This is despite the fact that, according to the World Food Program of the United Nations, “there is enough food in the world to feed everyone.” How can this be?
A study by another United Nations–sponsored organization attempted an answer: “Poverty is the principal cause of hunger.” And taking it a step further: “Harmful economic systems are the principal cause of poverty and hunger.”1 In the global economic system today, no matter how much food is produced and available, it can’t alleviate the hunger of people who have no money to buy it.
Although the Industrial Revolution gave us the capacity to produce way more than enough food for everybody, a great deal of that capacity has not been put to use. In our current market-based system of resource allocation, the decision of how much food to produce is not based on how many human beings need it, but only on profit considerations.
And that has led to one of the greatest absurdities imaginable. By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, agricultural productivity had increased to the point that too much food was being produced—too much, that is, for the market to absorb. Crop prices plummeted and growing numbers of farmers went bankrupt. A permanent crisis of overproduction in agriculture set in that has persisted to the present.
By the time of the Great Depression of the 1930s, the growing tide of “excess” food in the United States required government intervention to avoid the total paralysis of American agriculture, producing one of history’s most outrageous paradoxes. In a hungry world, agricultural policy in the advanced market-ruled economies has long been devoted to reducing food production in the name of “price support.” Mountains of wheat and other grains have been burned or put into storage to keep it off the market, and farmers are paid to withhold tens-of-millions of acres of cropland from production. The crisis of runaway agricultural growth has been called “agricultural Malthusianism” in ironic tribute to Malthus’s wrong-way prognosis.
Nothing could be less natural or more irrational than an economic system that repeatedly creates “crises of overproduction.” Agriculture provides only the most salient example of that phenomenon. Regrettably, the production of all of life’s necessities is retarded by the deliberate creation of artificial scarcity in an attempt to avoid crises of overproduction. The economist Richard D. Wolff described its extent in the United States: “Over 20 million workers are unemployed or underemployed. Over a quarter of the nation’s productive capacity remains unutilized, gathering rust and dust. Annual output of $1 trillion is lost by wasting these resources.”2
That is the fatal flaw in the economic system that dominates the planet Earth today. Its survival depends upon maintaining scarcity. What a tragic contradiction! It long ago generated an enormous growth in productive capacity that made possible the elimination of scarcity—but it can’t function without scarcity.
In the current world order, the need to maintain scarcity means that for every winner there must be many, many more losers. That is evident in the aforementioned equivalence of wealth of 85 winners and 3,500,000,000 losers.
The economic imperative that makes war inevitable
The economic system’s need to artificially maintain scarcity is the key to understanding the persistence of warfare in today’s world. In the popular imagination wars are caused by spectacular events such as the assassination of an Austrian Archduke, the sinking of the Battleship Maine, or the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Historians try to probe beneath the surface to discover more fundamental causes. Their analyses are often perceptive and valuable, but they rarely call attention to the primary economic factor that makes war inevitable.
For most of the second half of the twentieth century, the international political stage was dominated by the struggle between the two world superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. It was called the Cold War because it never developed into open hostilities, which would presumably have involved nuclear warfare. But as the four-decade-long standoff continued, there were plenty of “hot wars” going on, many of which were “proxy wars” carried on or instigated by the two superpowers themselves.
At the beginning of the final decade of the twentieth century, however, the Cold War came to a sudden end with the internal collapse of one of the combatants. The Soviet Union disintegrated, leaving the United States as the sole dominant military power on the planet.
When that occurred, a new term appeared in the public discourse of the United States and its allies: “peace dividend.” With the Soviet Union gone, the United States would no longer have to continue its massive expenditures on war. The military-industrial complex—the web of the Pentagon and large aircraft and weapons manufacturers—could be scaled back.
With no need to continue spending trillions of dollars on weapons, war research, and maintaining a huge standing army, that money could instead be directed toward rebuilding the country’s highways and bridges, upgrading public education, and generally improving the quality of life of its citizens. That was the alluring idea encapsulated in the phrase “peace dividend.”
But those who expected a significant reorienting of economic priorities were to be disappointed. There was a temporary decline in war spending during the 1990s, but that was sharply reversed after the beginning of the new millennium. The official “Defense Spending” category in the U.S. budget does not include all war-related expenditure, but the annual figures for 1990, 2000, and 2010 provide a useful indication of the overall trend:
1990: $402.73 billion
2000: $391.70 billion
2010: $832.75 billion3
This is the bottom line: The American economy is hopelessly addicted to war spending. Without it, the wheels of production would cease to turn and the country would rapidly plunge into deep depression. The United States, in its present form, can no more redirect its military budget toward constructive ends than a chicken can lay a duck egg.
That understanding had been derived from the experience of the Great Depression of the 1930s. The crucial lesson was that the American economy had become too productive for its own good. Its ability to manufacture products had outrun its ability to generate enough purchasing power to absorb all the products with which it continuously floods the market.
British economist John Maynard Keynes explained to American president Franklin D. Roosevelt that to keep their economies from falling into gridlock, governments of all the advanced countries would henceforth have to create new purchasing power (i.e., new jobs) by engaging in massive deficit spending.
It would not suffice to merely “prime the pump” and then step back to allow the invisible hand of supply and demand to reestablish economic equilibrium. Government deficit spending, Keynes said, would have to become a permanent condition, with deficits continuously increasing. Frequently asked what would happen “in the long run” as governments continued endlessly piling up mountains of debt, Keynes avoided the question with a famous riposte: “In the long run we are all dead.”
Roosevelt tried to create jobs by means of public works programs, but they were far from adequate to the task of lifting the American economy out of the doldrums of depression. Not all deficit spending, it was discovered, is equally effective in creating new purchasing power. Using government money to produce useful things such as schools or housing or hospitals or highways does not create sufficient purchasing power because it competes with private capital, and that tends to reduce the number of jobs in the private sector.
The most effective of Roosevelt’s public works programs were those that produced nothing, most notoriously exemplified by legions of workers with shovels digging holes and then filling them back in again. In his most important work, Keynes alluded to the benefits of this kind of apparently absurd economic activity:
“If the Treasury were to fill old bottles with banknotes, bury them at suitable depths in disused coalmines which are then filled up to the surface with town rubbish, and leave it to private enterprise . . . to dig the notes up again . . . the real income of the community, and its capital wealth also, would probably become a good deal larger than it is.”4
As useless as such activity would be, it would give workers paychecks so they could buy some of the surplus production without having them create more surplus products. But the obvious wastefulness was an insult to reason, and it was impossible in the American political context to explain that the paradox was an inescapable feature of the production-for-profit economic system.
None of Roosevelt’s public works efforts went nearly far enough to reboot the American economy. What ended the Great Depression was the truly massive military expenditure in the run-up to World War II. Factories reopened and workers went back to work, got paychecks, and began spending. After the war the rebuilding of Europe through the Marshall Plan restarted the Western European economies and kept the American economy humming. This, however, was a temporary fix.
As Keynes had warned, the world economy would once again lapse into a terminal crisis of overproduction unless governments continuously engaged in deficit spending on a massive scale. And the expenditures would have to be on useless production—industrial output that would not house, feed, clothe, or otherwise benefit anybody in any way. But how could such an absurdity be justified?
The answer was found in bogus appeals to national security requiring ever-increasing “defense” budgets. Thus was born the era of “weaponized Keynesianism”—a vast exercise in deliberate waste designed to artificially maintain the scarcity without which the economy would crash and burn.
During the Cold War, the trillions upon trillions of dollars spent on war preparations were deemed necessary to protect the United States from communism. With the demise of the Soviet Union, a new foe had to be invented. And so it was: “international terrorism.”
Random acts of terrorism pose a real (if statistically miniscule) threat to some urban populations in the United States, but to think that the architects of American foreign policy consider Al Qaeda or ISIS to be serious threats to their power is ludicrous. The real purpose of the “war on terror” was to launch a massive scare campaign—to frighten the American public into accepting the continuation of mammoth war expenditures.
The bellicosity of American policy-makers is a symptom, not a cause, of U.S. militarism. The war spending is not primarily driven by a desire for weapons, either defensive or offensive, but by the need to create enough purchasing power to keep the American economy from collapsing.
This understanding is almost totally absent from the public discourse, and yet it is crucial to comprehending why, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., the U.S. government is “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”5 Dr. King made that statement in 1967, during the Vietnam War, but it is no less applicable at present—even though the current U.S. president is, like Dr. King, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
There are certainly more flagrant sabre-rattlers than Barack Obama in the world today—Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Kim Jong-Un come readily to mind—but none with nearly as deadly an arsenal at their disposal, or the number of war deaths to their credit. Whether Obama himself is a humane-minded individual or not is beside the point. He is at the helm of an out-of-control military machine.
As an American historian of science, I have especially lamented the way science and technology in my country have been corrupted by the war-spending imperative. From nuclear weapons to the development of remote-control war, wherein drone aircraft operated from computers in Iowa rain death and destruction on rural Pakistan, the majority of government spending on scientific research and development in the United States over the past 70 years has been devoted to finding more effective ways to kill people. Imagine what could have been accomplished to improve the human condition if all of our scientific talent and resources had instead been directed toward conquering hunger, poverty, and disease throughout the world.
In conclusion . . .
War is a complex social phenomenon that cannot be reduced to a single cause, but the military-spending imperative I have described is the greatest single impediment to world peace. For opponents of war, understanding this is a sine qua non.
But the dark cloud of war that hangs over the human race may, after all, prove to have a silver lining. The good news is that war is only inevitable as long as the market-based, production-for-profit system dominates the economic life of our planet. Eliminate that system and Bob Marley’s “dream of lasting peace” will no longer be “but a fleeting illusion.”
That, however, is a tall order. The production-for-profit system is ferociously defended by the tiny minority that profits most from it. And their control of most of the world’s resources gives them power that seems nearly impossible to dislodge.
But challenge it we must, for what is the alternative? Even the unacceptable status quo is not an alternative, because a global financial crisis now threatens to plunge the planet ever deeper into military, political, and ecological chaos. To avoid that nightmare, the world system must be transformed from one driven to maximize private profits into one designed to fulfill human needs. That requires an economics controlled by human intelligence rather than blind market mechanisms.
Control by human intelligence means economic planning. But who would do the planning? The history of the twentieth century has provided us with major examples of bureaucratically planned economies that have functioned reasonably well, but because they were sustained by repressive political dictatorships they do not inspire emulation. The ultimate challenge to the present generation is to create a new world system in which central economic planning is combined with democratic control over the planning process—control from the bottom up rather than the top down.
I am well aware how utopian this sounds in the context of today’s farcical public discourse. But in addition to being a historian of science, I am also a historian of social revolution, and taking the long view leaves me in no doubt that rapid, radical social change is not only a possibility but is ultimately unavoidable. Some possible outcomes, however, are desirable and others less so.
The present world system is already in deep crisis. It may well self-destruct. The suffering that would produce could either generate widespread despair and apathy, allowing fascism to reign triumphant, or it could bring about a massive upsurge of anger and protest. If the latter—if hundreds-of-millions of people arise in struggle and succeed in establishing economic democracy—the world could finally, once and forever, put war in its rear-view mirror.
—This article is published in the Spring/Summer 2015 issue of Indigo, “Humanities Magazine for Young People,” a South Korean publication.
1 World Hunger Education Service (emphasis added): http://www.worldhunger.org/articles/Learn/world%20hunger%20facts%202002.htm
2 Richard D. Wolff, “Ongoing Crisis and Liberal Blindness,” MRzine:
3 FRED (Federal Reserve Economic Data):
4 John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, chapter 10, section 6.
5 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Beyond Vietnam,” Riverside Church, New York City, April 4, 1967.