Don’t mention the war

As President Obama announced the final phased withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, I was reading The Second World War, a Marxist history by Chris Bambery   It is a very succinct account of the war, showing that it was a continuation of the cynical and intense rivalry between imperialist powers that had culminated in the 1914-18.  That useless and violent Great War did not resolve who would be top dog among the imperialist powers.  That required another terrible war before American imperialism became the hegemonic power.  But the second world war was different from the first in that it was also a fight by working people to defeat the rise of fascism and dictatorships that destroyed all independent class action with genocide, racism and permanent militarism.  Bambery’s book reminds us of just how many millions upon millions of all races, nationalities and creeds perished under jackboot of dictatorship as well as during a war for markets and global power.

But wars are not only a terrible product of capitalist rivalry, they are often necessary for capitalism to recover from the depths of recurrent recessions and depressions.  Outdated and loss-making capital is destroyed; governments and the taxpayer come in to revive industry’s profits through building war machines and labour accepts worse conditions, longer hours and rationing for the ‘war effort’.  It took the second world war to enable profitability to be restored in the US after the Great Depression.  The New Deal failed to do so.

So wars can be beneficial to capitalism when it is on is knees.  But wars are also expensive and are waste of resources (labour and capital) that could have been applied to productive investment that creates more value and surplus value.  The strategists of capital in the White House, Downing Street, the Elysee and the Kremlin may reckon that going to war is sometimes necessary to preserve markets and future profits and power. But wars come at a financial cost, especially ‘small wars’ that the major capitalist economies have conducted at various intervals since 1945 under Pax Americana and the New World Order with the collapse of Soviet Union after 1989.

The financial cost of these small wars of 21st century so far (Afghanistan and Iraq) continues to mount.  The cost to the US economy is now put at $6trn, which I estimate is a deduction of about 0.3% of national output every year since 2001 and 1.5% points off annual ‘productive’ business investment

We also have a new report on the cost to the UK economy of Britain’s support to the ‘coalition of the willing’ in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Wars_in_Peace_Foreword_and_Intro is a semi-official study produced by the Institute of Strategic Studies, the research front for British intelligence.  According the report, so far, it has cost £40bn, equivalent to the sort of cuts in the social welfare budget that the current government has imposed on the poorest Britons.  It is enough to recruit over 5,000 nurses and pay for them throughout their careers. It could have funded free tuition for all students in British higher education for 10 years.  It’s a sum equivalent to more than £2,000 for every taxpaying household.

These are the examples used in another study by Frank Ledwidge, Investment in Blood, published this week by Yale University Press. Ledwidge was a civilian adviser to the British government in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan,,  According to Ledwidge, since 2006, on a conservative estimate, it has cost £15m a day to maintain Britain’s military presence in Helmand province, Afghanistan. The equivalent of £25,000 will have been spent for every one of Helmand’s 1.5 million inhabitants, more than most of them will earn in a lifetime.

Ledwidge estimates British troops in Helmand have killed at least 500 non-combatants. About half of these have been officially admitted and Britain has paid compensation to the victims’ families.  The rest are based on estimates from UN and NGO reports, and “collateral damage” from air strikes and gun battles. Ledwidge includes the human and financial cost of long-term care for more than 2,600 British troops wounded in the conflict and for more than 5,000 he calls “psychologically injured”. Around 444 British soldiers have been killed in the Afghan conflict, according to the latest official MoD figures.

And it has been all for nothing.  Ledwidge says Helmand is no more ‘stable’ now than when thousands of British troops were deployed there in 2006. Opium production that fell under the Taliban, is increasing, fuelling corruption and the coffers of warlords.  Though British and other foreign troops were sent to Afghanistan to stop al-Qaida posing a threat to Britain’s national security, “of all the thousands of civilians and combatants, not a single al-Qaida operative or ‘international terrorist’ who could conceivably have threatened the UK is recorded as having been killed by Nato forces in Helmand,” Ledwidge writes.

The real beneficiaries of the war, he suggests, are development consultants, Afghan drug lords and international arms companies. Much of British aid to Afghanistan is spent on consultancy fees rather than to those Afghans who need it most. The real reason Britain has expended so much blood and money on Afghanistan is simple: “The perceived necessity of retaining the closest possible links with the US.”


As the fest of criticism and counter-criticism of Thomas Piketty’s book continues in the economics media and elsewhere, just a note to say that I have written a new review of his book for Weekly Worker ( that should be published in the next week or so.


17 Responses to “Don’t mention the war”

  1. henry Says:

    Dear Michael,

    A very important subject. SIPRI from Stockholm showed figures which shows a vast increase in military spending. A link is attached:

    If you look at the graph US military spending 1950-2017 we see an important increase in spending since 1997 and during the actual crisis, you can even see a wave-like pattern in military spending, Michael you did pay attention to the US rate of profit, can you explain to us the relation between this rate of profit and the constant increase in US military spending?

    You started a debate on the US rate of profit discussing i.e. the rate of profit calculated by Doug Henwood and others, could the pattern found by Henwood and others partly explained by the constant rise in military spending?

    • michael roberts Says:

      Not sure I know the Henwood piece well. But as you say, I have done several posts on this issue as well as a paper with Carchedi called The Long Roots of the Present Crisis and a presentation to the IRRE in Amsterdam called Tulips, Triggers and Tendencies. These are all referenced in various posts. Military spending may well add to measured corporate profits in the same way as profits from real estate and financial transactions. It does not add to the accumulation of capital (productive capital) and thus to future new value or surplus value; it is deduction from the available surplus value for accumulation. Also, on balance, the arms industry will tend to lower the general or average rate of profit as it is highly capital intensive production. If financed by net government borrowing (bonds), profits of the arms industry could be considered fictitious too.

  2. Jim Brash Says:

    Michael there was a garbage review/article on Piketty in Baron’s recently. 90% of the comments that were written about the article was negative.

  3. Jim Brash Says:

    The US war machine seems to a drag on the global economy. Outside of Blackwater, Unocoal, Haliburton, Bechtel and few other firms the war effort has been profitless. The costs of the war in Afghanistan, might be one of the catalyst for the current revolt against neoliberalism in Europe.

  4. jeff Says:

    Define unproductive and productive investment. There a many shades of grey in there. What does it matter if people are employed as teachers, plane mechanics, or mercenaries ? They are still getting paid, and with that money they are able to buy things.

    • Mike Ballard Says:

      Depends on your point of view. Marx uses the concepts to describe whether labour is producing something saleable in the marketplace of commodities or not. Productive would be something which expands capital e.g. producing cars or pizzas for sale whereas teachers would be unproductive as they are selling a service which doesn’t expand capital, unless of course their services lead to the expansion of an education business through the sale of their services.

      So, a tailor to whom you bring your suit for repair and who is not employed by a capitalist but is a sole trader, is not a productive labourer as the trade is direct between you and him. However, when the tailor hires himself out to a capitalist for a wage and you bring your suit in for repair, he becomes a productive labourer.

      Another point of view, of course, would be how a communist society would view productive labour. I would speculate that we would decide what is produced socially for societal consumption would be productive and what we did on our own for ourselves during our time free from necessary activities within social production would be unproductive.

      • Choppa Morph Says:

        Teachers and health workers etc are actually producing the most important commodity of all – labour power. Very often the capitalist element in their employment is disguised by nationalization of their services, but by no means always, and recently (post-Thatcher) there has been a deliberate drive worldwide to privatize education and health and make it an explicit part of the capitalist process of producing surplus value. So it’s nonsense to claim that public sector workers like this are non-productive. More accurate is to say that (as went for the steel, coal, transport etc industries when they were nationalized) the production of surplus value is mediated via the bourgeois state to benefit the economy as a whole – ie the state is doing what it always does, looking after the interests of the capitalist class as a whole when individual capitalists are congenitally incapable of doing so.

        Ignoring the commodity labour-power gives a very lop-sided picture of capitalist society and places teachers, health care workers etc in the same category as private servants. The militancy, often leading, being shown by public sector workers, should be convincing enough evidence of their central role in the working class even for those not willing to buy the theoretical argument that they are producing a commodity, labour power.

  5. vallebaeza Says:

    Reblogged this on Econo Marx 21.

  6. CB Says:

    How does The Second World War, a Marxist history by Chris Bambery compare to Ernest Mandel’s book on the second world war?

  7. PhilF Says:

    Michael, take a look at James Heartfield’s book on WW2 as well.

    Btw, if anyone is itnerested in New Zealand there’s a really interesting article on the NZ-based Marxist site Redline about the secret history of WW2 in NZ; it focuses on state repression during the war.

    It’s at:


  8. PhilF Says:

    Oops, also we stuck up a piece on WW2 that Sabena Norten wrote back in the early 1980s:
    There’s also an interesting piece by James H on the ‘battle of the books’ about WW2:
    And Heartfield talking about his ‘Unpatriotic History of World War 2’:


  9. PhilF Says:

    In reply to Choppa. What teachers and health workers in the private sector do in helping reproduce labour-power is NOT producing surplus-value. They only produce surplus-value if they’re in private health and education. Otherwise they are, in terms of how capitalism operates, a drain on surplus-value because they are paid out of the funds the state gets by taking a cut of surplus-value.

    This is why in severe recessions and depressions, the bourgeoisie screams about the need to cut state spending and why they want to commodify these services. If these services already produced surplus-value the bourgeoisie as a class would no more be concerned how many teachers and health workers are employed than they would be how many workers are employed by some private industrialist.

    Marx was very clear on the difference between productive and non-productive labour.

    To Jeff, non-productive labour is not a pejorative term. It simply denotes that *under capitalism* workers who do not produce surplus-value *are* performing unproductive labour. Much of the most worthwhile labour performed in capitalist society is non-productive (ie non-productive of surplus-value) and much of the most, in human terms, senseless and destructive work performed (the arms industry!) is productive labour, because it produces surplus-value.

    The basis for working class unity is not that all workers produce surplus-value but that both sets of workers *need* each other. Where would the productive workers be without public health and education workers; and how would the latter function unless there was a section of the workforce which produced the surplus-value that, ultimately, is the source of their (public sector workers) pay?

    It is only in a socialist society that the distinction would be transcended.


    • Choppa Morph Says:

      PhilF – you may be formally correct but you miss the point entirely. Health, education etc often started out as private capitalist enterprises but they were so bad at it that they dragged down capitalist production as a whole. For the good of the whole capitalist class, they were nationalized. Same with coal, steel, rail transport etc when they were nationalized. Nobody in their right mind can think that their products are removed from the capitalist system of production and circulation by this formal manoeuvre. A worker who’s sacked and gets a job as a servant is removed from the system (except as part of the reserve army of the unemployed, of course, indirectly), but health and education workers etc aren’t. They remain an integral part of the system but are at what you might call one remove from it because their labour is controlled more abstractly by the capitalist class as a whole ie by the government and the state.

      What this leads to is big economies of scale and efficiency, and a far better product and distribution.

      However, when the bourgeoisie is either desperate for any direct profit economically or not scared of the revolutionary working class politically, they will try and reverse the process. A smaller mass of product, of worse quality, will provide some direct profit that wasn’t there before – at a great cost to the system as a whole and the total amount of profit available to be shared out among the vampires.

      This is what is happening now, as capitalism writhes uncontrollably in its death agony. It’s eating its own tail, biting off its nose to spite its face – however you choose to express it.

      Labour power is the most essential commodity in the capitalist system – don’t forget that for a second. And if you think its production is somehow going to be magically removed from capitalist imperatives, you’re delusional.

      • Choppa Morph Says:

        PS This is obviously a topic that needs covering in something like what Marx’s unwritten book on the role of the state might have turned out to be. You just can’t wipe out a huge chunk of capitalist production because it’s formally owned by the state rather than an individual capitalist. You might just as well wipe out all production owned by joint stock companies rather than individual entrepreneurs, or at several removes by Big Finance.

        The capitalist system long ago started breaking down its own barriers within the framework of the system, but that is the result of the development of the productive forces which are irreversibly collectivizing on a gigantic and growing scale. Only the obsolete and destructive retention of the relations of production allows the glaring contradictions implied by this to persist.

        Labour power is a commodity – get used to the idea, and start using it for socialist revolution instead of dismissing its production as an unproductive irrelevance.

        And read Theories of Surplus Value part 1 with a bit more perspective.

  10. forbrukslån uten sikkerhet på dagen Says:

    When I initially commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now
    each time a comment is added I get three emails with the same comment.
    Is there any way you can remove me from that service? Thanks!

    • michael roberts Says:

      I think you need to go to the blog site. See the ‘you are following the blog’ tag on the top right and ‘manage’. Go into that and then ‘delivery settings’ and check your settings. Anyway something like that. It’s not me at my end but you at your end, I think.

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