The Importance of Militarism Under Imperialism, and Why Prisons Aren't So Much
A California prisoner wrote: In the article entitled "The Myth of the 'Prison Industrial Complex'", MIM(Prisons) quotes Loic Wacquant, reasoning that "fewer than 5,000 inmates were employed by private firms." MIM(Prisons) reasons that since "there is not an imperialist profit interest behind favoring jails ... the concept of 'PIC' is a fantasy."(2) This reasoning is fundamentally flawed. The definition, relied upon here, is not one used by the crusaders of that movement, but rather, is one attributed to the term by MIM(Prisons). In other words, I've yet to see an advocate who claimed that the entire premise of the prison industrial complex is based on direct prison labor for the "imperialist." The truth is, since there's nothing "complex" about direct prison labor, the MIM(Prisons)-attributed definition severely trivializes the true meaning of the PIC. The term has to mean more.
To avoid further distortions — and unreasonable deduction — let's look at the plain meaning of the term (see Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary). (a) Prison, I believe, is self-explanatory. (b) Industry: a distinct group of productive enterprises; esp: one that employs a large personnel and capital. (c) Complex: a whole made up of, or involving, intricately interrelated elements.
In light of this definition, the question becomes does the apparatus referred to as the PIC represent a "distinct group of productive enterprises" that "employs a large personnel and capital," "made up of, or involving intricate interrelated elements"? Answer: Yes, of course. The conglomerate, that is the PIC, consists of hundreds of corporations and unions, including phone companies that literally engage in bidding wars to contract with the prison; the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, their labor union, is one of the biggest in the state, which isn't to discount the plumbers and electricians unions, big food and cosmetic companies, like Doritos, Colgate and many more, all garner impressive profits off of the prison population. Additionally, many small impoverished towns have routinely used prisons to stimulate their economies. And so, per definition, this intricate network of parasitic companies siphoning millions of dollars from both the government and our families does meet the definition of the term prison industrial complex. In a nutshell, while not disputing the facts relied upon by MIM(Prisons) in its article, I believe those facts are being misapplied in this situation. To keep using PIC is not inaccurate or "a fantasy."
Wiawimawo of MIM(Prisons) responds: The definition derived above from the dictionary is a literal interpretation of the words piecemeal and does not reflect how proponents of the term define it. If you look at definitions by those who use the term they usually allude to a collaboration between government and private industry. As we point out in the article being responded to, the term prison industrial complex is appropriated from the term military industrial complex, which we will take some time to explain in more depth to further demonstrate why prisons do not play a similar role under imperialism. We argue that to use the term PIC is to imply that prisons do play this role that is crucial to imperialism's economic success. Further, despite this critic's claim to the contrary, the line that prisons are profiting off of prison labor is quite commonly presented by those who use the PIC term. (See recent call by September 9th strike organizers for the most recent example)
War and prisons serve a similar role in oppressing other nations to enforce the will of imperialist interests on them. As we all know these days, prisons and torture are an integral part of U.$. imperialist excursions throughout the world.
What is militarism? MIM answered, "Militarism is war-mongering or the advocacy of war or actual carrying out of war or its preparations."(1) But what causes militarism under imperialism and what purposes does it serve? We already mentioned the important purpose of controlling other peoples. But there are other economic benefits to militarism under imperialism that are strong enough to lead humynity to war, to the slaughter of thousands of people. Namely, militarism can artificially increase demand enough to buoy a struggling economy, and war can solve problems of over-production under capitalism through its great destructiveness. It can do this because it is both productive in the Marxist sense, and destructive. In fact, one of our critiques of the PIC line is that the injustice system is not productive at all as the definition proposed by the reader above suggests. This makes it qualitatively different from the weapons industry.
The injustice system is not a productive system. Despite some small productive enterprises within it, U.$. prisons are designed to pay a bunch of people to do nothing while preventing a bunch of other people from doing anything. A large portion of working-age oppressed nation people are prevented from contributing to their nations economically or otherwise. Meanwhile prison guard unions are one of the most obvious examples of non-productive "labor" under imperialism.
As we've mentioned before, the military industrial complex represents a whopping 10% of U.$. GDP.(2) And as most of us know, under capitalism there is a problem when demand is not high enough. It is a problem of circulation. When capital circulation slows, profits decrease, so finance capital stops investing, and without intervention this leads to a self-feeding cycle of decreased production, decreased profits and decreased investment. Not only is production of war machines big, but it is mostly determined by the state. Therefore it becomes a useful tool for the state to interfere and save capitalism from crisis. It just needs to order some more fighter jets and things get better (maybe).
Now, the astute reader might ask, doesn't this create another downward cycle where the state has to tax the people, thereby decreasing their consumption rates, in order to buy all those fighter jets? Well, finance capital has developed much more complicated solutions to this problem than just taxing the people. It so happens that the state also controls money supplies, which of course is a primary tool for such Keynesian strategies for preventing crisis. But in addition to creating money out of nowhere, the imperialists are able to squeeze money out of their partners. In fact, the U.$. domination of military production is one way that it maintains its dominance in the world, controlling 31% of global arms exports.(3)
The Islamic State has been a great benefactor of U.$. militarism, snatching up advanced U.$. weaponry from local puppet forces. They are also the most popular of many strong movements influenced by Wahhabism, an ideology that evolved from Sunni Islam and is promoted by the House of Saud, the ruling royal family of Saudi Arabia. It just so happens that Saudi Arabia is the number one importer of U.$. war production, accounting for 11.8% of exports in that industry, followed closely by India, Turkey and then Taiwan.(4) These are countries that are largely able to fund their own military purchases, thus providing a great influx of money to the U.$. without having to tax Amerikans to increase production. So when people ask why the U.$. works so closely with Saudi Arabia while claiming to be fighting radical Islam, this is the answer, along with the fact that Saudi Arabia does its oil sales in dollars, which also props up the U.$. economy. In recent presidential campaigns we've seen Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump campaigning for Saudi Arabia (and other countries) to do more to carry out war efforts against the oppressed to take some of the burden off of the United $tates.
Of course, much of the arms market is controlled not just by U.$. financial interests, but political interests as well. It is not a free market. In 2014, the Amerikans gave out $5.9 billion in foreign military aid, with Israel getting more than half of that ($3.1B), followed by Egypt ($1.3B), Iraq ($300M), Jordan ($300M), and Pakistan ($280M).(5) This accounts for around half of U.$. military exports. So these countries are big consumers of U.$. arms, with the help of subsidies from the United $tates itself. But that money is not just given away, much of it is in loans that must be paid back by those countries with interest and always with other obligations that benefit the imperialist countries.
All that said, the United $tates still spends far more on war than any other country. Amerikkka's own spending is an order of magnitude greater than what is exported to other countries. So our continued invasion of the Third World will be playing a bigger role in propping up the U.$. economy via the military industrial complex than all of its exports ($610B vs. something like $10B in exports).(3) But as long as those invasions enable imperialist profits, incomes in the First World can stay high, and the tax money to pay for war can continue.
Another reader recently wrote in response to another article on the same topic, "MIM(Prisons) on U.S. Prison Economy"(6):
"If it is MIM(Prisons)'s position that the prison industrial complex doesn't generate private profit for some, I would regard that line as practically irresponsible.
"I'm beginning to exit my comfort zone here. I don't have the vast field of data I have examined previously to my avail, but it is my determination that as capitalism advanced to imperialism, market capitalism evolved, or is evolving, toward the monopoly of all aspects of society."
One should not come away from our article thinking that our position is that no one profiteers off of prisons. We agree that there is a great trend towards privatization of state services in advanced capitalism. The first subheading in our article is "Profiteering Follows Policy," where we state,
"Private industries are making lots of money off prisons. From AT&T charging outrageous rates for prisoners to talk to their families, to the food companies that supply cheap (often inedible) food to prisons, to the private prison companies themselves, there is clearly a lot of money to be made. But these companies profits are coming from the States' tax money, a mere shuffling of funds within the imperialist economy."
And we also recognize that many individuals are benefiting from prison jobs. Yet when we call these people parasites, we are told that they are the exploited proletariat. But when we say that prisons are about national oppression, we are told that it is about profits because look at all the money the prison guards are making. The reality is, Amerikkkans support more prisons because they support national oppression. And some of them get paid to participate directly.
Our specific critique of the use of "prison industrial complex" is explained in more depth in the article "The Myth of the 'Prison Industrial Complex'", so we won't repeat that here. But in essence, the PIC thesis is deflecting the critique of the white oppressor nation's willing and active participation in the oppression of the internal semi-colonies for over 500 years on this continent, in favor of aiming attacks at the likes of Doritos and Colgate. Our critic above doesn't address those points, and therefore does not make a strong case for why it is a correct term. We think they are correct in their letter to us when they write, "Believe me, we — the actual 'oppressed nations' — don't care what you call it, just change it!" This reflects the reason why we do focus on prisons: it is a frontline issue for the oppressed nations in the United $tates, who are the principal mode for change in this country. So the prison movement is important in the anti-imperialist struggle in the United $tates, but not because prisons are economically important. The national question does make the current mass incarceration craze unlikely to go away under imperialism, but increased imprisonment is not vital to imperialism's continued success in the way that militarism is. And by having a correct understanding of the role that these things play in the current system we can better change the system.
In eir letter, the California prisoner also suggests that we should use PIC due to its popularity and maintaining the United Front. Well, "injustice system" was popular before PIC was, but some made a conscious decision to replace it with PIC. Those folks are coming from an academic background with a particular political line, and they are no strangers to Marxism. It is our job to put forth the political line of the proletariat in everything we do, which means a scientific and accurate assessment of all things. We do not think that using different terms will deter those interested in combating injustice in U.$. prisons. In contrast, we do believe that by failing to distinguish the revolutionary anti-imperialist position from that of the Liberal reformers, we will hinder real change from ever happening.
Should we only oppose the criminal injustice system when companies are making money off of it? No, we should oppose it all the time as a tool of national oppression and social control.