by Kevin Carson
Nicholas Kristoff, in an NYT op-ed (“Our Lefty Military,” June 16), points to the “astonishingly liberal ethos” that governs the military internally — single-payer health insurance, job security, educational opportunities, free daycare — in support of Gen. Wesley Clark’s description of it as “the purest application of socialism there is.”
For me — an avowed libertarian socialist as well as a market anarchist — there are at least two howlers here. First, when I think of “socialism,” I think of all the liberatory things originally associated with that term back in the days of the early working class and classical socialist movement in the nineteenth century: empowerment of the working class, worker control of production, and all the rest of it. The last I heard, the U.S. military isn’t set up as a worker cooperative, with enlisted men electing their officers, managing their own work, or voting on whether or not to go to war. Taking orders from a boss “because I said so” isn’t exactly my idea of socialism.
Second, the primary external mission of the U.S. military is to keep the world — or rather the corporate pigs who own it — safe from anything remotely resembling worker empowerment. To me, that’s pretty unsocialistic. For the past sixty-odd years since WWII (a lot longer, actually), the primary focus of American national security policy has been to protect feudal landed oligarchs from land reform, to protect Western-owned corporations from nationalization, to act as collector of last resort for the company store known as the World Bank, and to enforce the draconian “intellectual property” protectionism which is the central bulwark of global corporate power today. Kristoff’s “socialist” military has the primary mission of keeping the world firmly in the hands of its corporate rulers.
Aside from that, I think Kristoff has it exactly backward: The military is almost a parody of American corporate culture. It’s riddled with hierarchy, with Taylorist/Weberian bureaucratic work rules and standard operating procedures, and all the irrationality that goes with them. The only difference is, the pointy-haired bosses wear a different kind of uniform. If you’ve ever seen the movie “Brazil,” or read Dilbert on a regular basis, you get the idea.
Kristoff has one point on his side: The differentials between production workers and senior management are a lot lower in the military than in present-day Corporate America. But that just means the military is structured more along the lines of old-style bureaucratic “Organization Man” capitalism of the sixties (as described by J.K. Galbraith), in which CEO salaries were typically only fifty times that of a production worker, rather than the current pathological model of cowboy capitalism where it’s more like five hundred.
The military, like the large corporation, is plagued by enormously high overhead costs (the cost of training a soldier), and enormously wasteful capital outlays. The military, like an oligopoly corporation, can afford to be so wasteful because it doesn’t bear the full cost of its own activities.
The management accounting system that prevails in Corporate America, invented almost a century ago by Donaldson Brown of DuPont and GM, equates the consumption of inputs to the creation of value. Administrative costs like management salaries, along with all sorts of wasteful capital expenditures, are incorporated — through the practice known as “overhead absorption” — into the transfer price of goods “sold” to inventory. And in an oligopoly market, the corporation is able to pass the costs — along with a profit markup — on to the customer through administered pricing. The military shares the same administered pricing system, with its incentives to maximize costs (Paul Goodman called “the great kingdom of cost-plus”). Ever hear of those $600 toilet seats? But in the case of the military, the administered pricing is called “taxation.”
In short the military, like the large corporation, is a giant, bureaucratic, irrational, and authoritarian institution which can only survive through parasitism — enabled by the state — on the working class.