Milex and the rate of profit

A review of The Economics of Military Spending: A Marxist perspective – by Adem Yavuz Elveren, Routledge, 2019.

Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs published its annual “Costs of War” report last week.  This refers only to the costs of war for the US.  It takes into consideration the Pentagon’s spending and its Overseas Contingency Operations account, as well as “war-related spending by the Department of State, past and obligated spending for war veterans’ care, interest on the debt incurred to pay for the wars, and the prevention of and response to terrorism by the Department of Homeland Security.” The final count revealed, “The United States has appropriated and is obligated to spend an estimated $5.9 trillion (in current dollars) on the war on terror through Fiscal Year 2019, including direct war and war-related spending and obligations for future spending on post 9/11 war veterans.”

The report found that the “US military is conducting counterterror activities in 76 countries, or about 39 percent of the world’s nations, vastly expanding [its mission] across the globe.” In addition, these operations “have been accompanied by violations of human rights and civil liberties, in the US and abroad.”  Overall, researchers estimated that “between 480,000 and 507,000 people have been killed in the United States’ post-9/11 wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.” This toll “does not include the more than 500,000 deaths from the war in Syria, raging since 2011” when a West-backed rebel and jihadi uprising challenged the government, an ally of Russia and Iran. That same year, the U.S.-led NATO Western military alliance intervened in Libya and helped insurgents overthrow long time leader Muammar el-Qaddafi, leaving the nation in an ongoing state of civil war.

Ever since the end of the second world war, there has been some sort of war, between regional powers, or as proxy wars backed by imperialist powers.  The monetary costs of war are huge, as the Watson Brown Institute shows, while the human costs of war are incalculable – not just the deaths and injuries, but also the destruction of homes, livelihoods, deprivation and disease and the horrors of migration.  Wars are a scourge on humanity.

But are they beneficial to the capitalist economy?  That’s another question.  Wars are often seen necessary by governments and politicians to preserve a capitalist power’s control over resources, land, profit etc.  And they are always portrayed by war-mongering governments to their peoples as necessary to ‘save the nation’ or ‘defend our way of life’.  But are wars and military spending that goes with war a necessary cost to deducted from the profits of capital or alternatively an additional boost to making money? That question has been discussed and analysed over the last 150 years by capitalist strategists and Marxist theorists from Engels to Lenin and Luxemburg and on into the 20th century.

However, the costs of military spending have been in decline for most capitalist governments since the end of so-called ‘cold war’ with the Soviet Union.  So interest in whether arms expenditure and wars are beneficial or detrimental to capitalism has also fallen away.  A Marxist perspective on the economic of military spending has been badly neglected – until now.

Adem Yavuz Elveren, Associate Professor at Fitchburg State University in the US, has now rectified that with his new book, simply entitled, The Economics of Military Spending.  As an earlier pioneer in such analysis, Ron Smith of Birkbeck University says in his foreword, Elveren “examines the interaction of military expenditures and the rate of profit and their contribution to capitalist crises.  It not only redirects attention to an increasingly relevant old literature but also makes an original theoretical and empirical contribution to the analysis.”  The book combines theoretical analysis with detailed econometric investigations for 30 countries over last 60 years.

In my opinion, Elveren’s approach is the right way to do political economy or Marxist social science.  Mainstream economic analysis is either boxed into micro-foundation models or generates purely econometric studies based on unrealistic assumptions – or both.  And unfortunately, most Marxist economic analysis is locked into dissecting the meaning of Marx’s writings as dug up and translated from the MEGA or into esoteric academic arguments over the ‘logic of capital’.  While theory is important, it must be tested by empirical evidence or it useless.  And too little of Marxist analysis of capitalism does that.  For example, I am not convinced by the argument that, as there are regular and recurring crises in capitalist production, this proves that capitalism is a failed system.  And that’s all we need to know.  We don’t need to produce empirical data to show that.  But surely, empirical evidence is essential, otherwise we cannot show the causes of these regular crises, and moreover, whether Marx’s own explanation (as there are others) is the most compelling.

No such charge can be laid against Elveren’s book of failing to provide both a theoretical and empirical explanation of the role of military spending in capitalism.  Elveren correctly starts from the basic assertion of Marx that “the driving force of capitalism is profit.”  And so the book “stands at the junction of defence economics and Marxist economics, examining the effect of military expenditure (milex) on the rate of profit, an indicator of the health of a capitalist economy.”

From this perspective, Elveren takes the reader through a brief history of military expenditure and its apparent economic effects.  Then he considers various models of economic growth that connect military spending.  He deals with the theory of ‘military Keynesianism’, popularly presented as an explanation for the fast growth and full employment in the post-war period, the so-called golden age of 20th century capitalism.  And then he gets into the meat of argument by analysing the various versions of the theory of capitalist crises presented under the Marxist banner.

Chapters 4 and 5 are excellent surveys of various Marxist theories of crises from underconsumption, profit squeeze and the Marx’s law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.  He expertly handles Luxemburg’s view on imperialism and military spending, as well as the Baran-Sweezy thesis of military spending compensating for a stagnating monopoly capitalism – and the so-called ‘permanent arms’ economy idea promoted by Michael Kidron in the post-war period, that capitalism can avoid crises by milex.  If the reader wants to gain knowledge of all these theories of milex and crises without verbiage and confusion, he or she can do no better than read Elveren here.

I have some caveats. Elveren seems to accept the revisionist view of Michael Heinrich that Marx dropped his law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall from the 1870s onwards.  Heinrich argues that the law is wrong and irrelevant to understanding the cause of crises.  I disagree and you can read more about that debate here.  But Elveren’s view is that “Heinrich’s argument seems plausible”; that Marx dropped the idea that the rate of profit must fall over time (namely that the law is a tendency that will eventually overcome countertendencies).  Instead the fall in the rate of profit becomes purely contingent and so whether it falls is just “an empirical question”.

While I disagree with that conclusion, because Elveren does see the law as an empirical question, he can pitch into providing empirical analysis (unlike Heinrich and others). Elveren is fully cognisant of all the empirical work done previously on measuring the rate of profit in the US and elsewhere and it is on this basis that he looks at whether milex will tend to increase or lower the rate of profit and how that affects the capitalist economy in both the short and long term.

The theoretical question at debate in Marxist political economy is whether the production of weapons is productive of value?  The answer is that it must be for the arms producers.  The arms contractors deliver goods (weapons) which are paid for by the government by appropriating value (either present or future). These goods are new use values which have been made under capitalist conditions of production. The labour producing them, therefore, is productive of value and surplus value.

But at the level of the whole economy, arms production is unproductive of future value, in the same way that ‘luxury goods’ for just capitalist consumption are.  Arms production and luxury goods do not re-enter the next production process either as means of production or as means of subsistence for the working class.  While being productive of surplus value for the arms capitalists, the production of weapons is not reproductive and thus threatens the reproduction of capital.  Arms production restricts the volume of use values that can be employed for reproductive purposes.  So if the increase in the overall production of surplus value in an economy slows and the profitability of productive capital begins to fall, then reducing available surplus value for future investment through milex can damage the health of the capitalist accumulation process.

But the outcome depends on the effect on the profitability of capital. The military sector generally has a higher organic composition of capital than the average in an economy as it incorporates leading edge technologies. So the sector would tend to push down the average rate of profit. On the other hand, if taxes collected by the state to pay for arms manufacture are high, then wealth that might otherwise go to labour is distributed to capital and thus can add to available surplus value.  Which way does it go?

To help answer that question, Elveren offers the reader a circuit of capital model to include the military sector based on the model developed by Duncan Foley.  But the question can only be answered empirically.  And this is what Elveren does in the latter part of his book.  He carries out a detailed empirical study to measure the impact of milex against the movement in the rate of profit on capital for most capitalist economies.  This is a far more extensive study than any before.  Elveren uses the Extended Penn World Tables and the Penn World Tables for his cross-country data, as I have done to measure a world rate of profit and rates of profit in individual countries.  As he points out, and as I know only too well, there are many technical problems with these databases and the definitions and assumptions used.  But it is the best we have.

Using his econometric skills, Elveren shows that, overall (from 1963-2008), milex had a positive effect on profit rates in capitalist countries, but that it had a negative effect in the shorter time period – the so-called neo-liberal period from 1980 onwards.  It seems that milex helped to sustain profitability during the great profitability crisis that started in the mid-1960s to the early 1980s, but after that, milex acted against overall profitability in a period when profit rates were rising.

Elveren offers a tentative explanation, “This might be due to the changing structure of major economies in the neo-liberal era. With the rise of the financial sector and the rentier class, the rising share of profits earned by firms has begun to be used for interest payments, dividends and other unproductive expenditure, causing a smaller faction of profit to be invested in capital stock.”  This explanation may be too simple, bearing in mind work by Campbell and Bakir and myself – see my recent post.

But anyway, it seems that the productive sectors of capitalist economies had insufficient surplus value to invest at the previous pace as capitalists switched to financial speculation where profitability was higher.  Military spending then became just another negative.  Milex may have had a mildly positive effect on profit rates in arms exporting countries but not for arms importing ones.  In the latter, milex was a deduction from available profits for productive investment.

Over the period 1963-08, Elveren finds that milex, as a stimulant to capital accumulation (with its high-level technology) was mildly positive in the US, but in other major countries it has a negative effect, particularly in those countries that imported their arms.  In all countries milex was damaging for employment as a whole, as the arms sector used less labour on average.  Thus milex may sometimes help the rate of profit for capital but the flipside is that milex will increase the ‘reserve army of labour’.  And as Elveren adds “the effect of milex may change at different levels of the rate of profit”.

So Elveren’s empirical work appears to back up the Marxist view of the role of military spending in a capitalist economy.  It can act to lower the rate of profit on capital and thus on economic growth as it did in the neo-liberal period, when investment and economic growth slowed.  But it can also help bolster the rate of profit through state’s redistribution of value from labour to capital, when labour is forced to pay more in taxation, or the state borrows more, in order to boost investment and production in the military sector.

In the greater scheme of things, milex is not decisive for the health of the capitalist economy.  At its height, its share in GDP reached an average of 13%.  But that was due to the Korean war.  Even during the cold war period, that share fell by half to around 6% of GDP.  With the collapse of the Soviet Union, military spending in the major imperialist powers halved again to 3%.  Milex is not going to decide the future of capital, one way or the other.  But thanks to Elveren’s work, we have a much clearer picture of the economics of war and military spending beneath the horrors of its outcomes.

15 thoughts on “Milex and the rate of profit

  1. I cannot but observe the following:

    a. it is mainly the strongest and biggest imperialist countries that produce and export arms,

    b. arms’ use value is to DESTROY values. Imperialist countries are implicated in war only abroad since WW2. When the weapons they produce, get used, either by their armies, or by friendly armies, the values destroyed are somewhere abroad. Lately, we often observe the phenomenon of investing in the reconstruction of countries that have been destroyed by imperialist countries or their proxy armies, such as Halliburton. Given the difficulty to allow values to get destroyed/devalued inside imperialist countries, even in times of crisis (see Michael’s posts on the zombi companies…), we can appreciate the important of this function.

    c. Arms are a powerful tool of imperialist states (of any state actually to one or the other degree), in the international competition for capturing as bigger share as possible of the surplus value produced globally, to a large degree by securing monopoly positions on natural resources, markets, intellectual property rights etc

    (b) and (c) together with the phenomena mentioned in the book in question and in Michael’s post about the high organic composition of capital in the arms’ industry leading to inward international transfers of value, or of innovation stimulation, explains the …6 trillions spent by the hegemonic imperialist power US…

    On the other hand, having 6 trillion to spend on “defence” industry assumes already a minimum amount of capital accumulation, which today only imperialist countries + the big former (or to pro-capitalist transition) socialist countries Russia and China, can exhibit…

  2. Great read and thank you for all your fantastic work Mr. Roberts! Is there available any similar, Marxist, empirical analysis out there regarding the economics of migration/migratory policies, their costs, impact on profit and so on, short and long term? I’m particularly interested in the EU case, but any would do. Thanks in advance!

  3. Can’t see how arms spending helps increase the rate of profit. Any investment which increases capital but does not increase profits, must lead to a fall in the rate of profit in the long run. That is why Marx once said: “the production of arms is like throwing money into the sea”. For that $5.9 trillion wasted on killing and destruction, the United States could have transformed all its energy production to green production (current value of US utilities around $3.2 trillion) and had enough money left over to fund a Manhattan Type project to develop a cost effective solid state lithium battery on which the future depends.

    1. Military spending might be like “throwing money in the sea,” but if that money floats like a galleon or a slave ship or an aircraft carrier, it is money well spent for both for primal accumulation, the maintenance of the capitalist mode of production for profit and reproduction of the colonial/imperial system we live in…and, I might add (in the spirit of Rosa Luxemburg), we, that we of the (now global) working class, pay for.

      1. correction: a slave ship, from the point of view of capital, is, of course a kind of constant capital in the profit-making enterprise of plantation capitalism, which was an early form of industrial agriculture. But then, from the point of view of capital, military production is highly profitable, though not in the aggregate.

      2. second correction: delete “for both” from the first sentence (it hung on from the first version of that sentence). Also, delete the first “we” of the last sentence (same hangover).

  4. One of the great mistakes of economics is the concept of “rate of profit”.

    When you think about it a little you realize the concept is not well defined (besides that it can be defined in many different ways).

    The money-goods-money circuit, which allows you to define the “profit rate” does not exist in the economy.To see economics in this way is a primitive mirage on which Karl Marx bases his theory.

    You can’t make an economic theory based on the “win rate”.

    1. The expression for the gain rate:

      rate _G (benefits)/(capital+ wages)

      It makes no sense for a company that is already producing, since it is of the income with which capital and wages are paid.

      The “capitalist” doesn’t contribute anything. He doesn’t contribute the capital and he doesn’t contribute the wages. They’re both paid with the income.

      So what does a company’s profit rate mean? …. It doesn’t mean anything…:

      “The company gets a revenue stream … (a monetary income )… and as with that income, the company won’t close.

      (You can’t build an economic theory based on the rate of profit because there is no profit rate.)

      1. Profit is a flow (it can also be called “benefits”).

        The profit rate is a quotient:

        rate of profit = profit / (capital expenses + salary expenses)

        The profit rate makes no sense to measure profit. Nor does it make sense to know how good or bad a company produces.

        The flow of profit makes sense. When the profit flow is negative the company closes and when it is positive the company does not close.

        The rate of profit is understood as:

        money (-) —> merchandise —-> money (+)

        being ….. money (+)> money (-)


        profit rate = (money (+) – money (-)) / money (-) > 0

        But this makes no economic sense. It also makes no sense:

        profit = money (+) – money (-)

        because in the expression money (-) is not put by the capitalist. It puts the revenue from the sales made by the company.

      2. I made a mistake.

        The expression of profit if it makes sense:

        Profit= Money(+) – Money(-)

        Because it’s equal to this expression:

        profit = income – expenses

        I am sorry. I messed up.

  5. In terms of providing future value, what about the impact that military spending has on the political control of regions of the world containing raw materials? Does the US not benefit economically from its control of oil in the Middle East, for example, not only now but into the future? Does the hegemonic position of the US not ensure that raw materials will cost less in the future than they would otherwise? Hard to measure that, I’m sure, but why would a country engage in militarized control of foreign countries if such control did not benefit its economic position in the long run?

    I look forward to reading this book!

  6. Ron, good point. In general US military might opened the world market to US exploitation, but these matters are always multi-sided. Do not forget, the three economies that became the main competitors to the US prior to China, were Germany, Japan and S Korea, where all three had the largest concentration of US bases during the cold war and whose own military expenditure was accordingly reduced. Thus the market provided by the US military enabled them to rebuild their industrial capacity focused on means of production not war material. By 1973 competition from these countries together with the enormous burden of the Vietnam conflict effectively forced the US to abandon Bretton Woods.

  7. There is a truly enigmatic factor. The US with a larger military budget than the rest of the world combined, cannot maintain its military supremacy, that is to say the American magazines specialized in the subject: “The Simple Reason Why America Could Lose the Next Cold War to Russia or China – The National Interest “or” US Benchmarking Capabilities Against China, Russia, Dunford Says – Joint Chiefs of Staff “.
    It is interesting to note that after the end of the cold war, the US only fought asymmetrical wars and because of this, obsolete and expensive equipment was sold by the weapons manufacturers (See Patriot missiles!), No investment was made in research and development, which has a gain factor for the civil industry, see NASA during the arrival on the Moon, today it was practically handed over to the private sector, which profits and does not develop anything.

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