Wall Street, War Street, Debt Machine
by MICHAEL HARDT
To organize against the debt society in the US today we have to find a way also to challenge the war machine. The war business is a permanent profit maker for Wall Street. It is hard to find a major bank or corporation that is not deeply engaged in weapons production or military supply. And one of the prime objects of so many wars is to open markets for them and secure their access to resources. Wall Street can’t let war come to an end. There’s too much money in it.
War funds are raised primarily through debt. The enormous financial costs of the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance, have swelled the national debt, and such war debt translates directly into personal and social debt. The more money spent on military and security projects, the less the government spends on education, housing, and health care, and thus the more people have to go into debt to maintain the basics of their lives. War debt, like many other forms of public debt, serves as a huge funnel that pours money from the 99% into the pockets of the rich.
The suffering in the US caused by this war machine and its debts is dwarfted, of course, by that of those in the global South, measured in part by the lives lost and communities torn apart. (During the Vietnam War it was common to note how the global color lines coincided with where the bombs were falling – and the geographies of today’s wars are certainly no less racist.) But the suffering of those in subordinate countries also results from local military regimes and the systems of military aid and indebtedness that support them, as well as the nonstate militias that are also happily supplied by the global arms market.
So when you hear about troop withdrawals from Iraq or Afghanistan, don’t be fooled into thinking that war is yesterday’s issue or that the US war machine is declining or that you can expect a peace dividend next year. The United States is engaged in a “long war,” a seemingly permanent military project for which Osama Bin Laden or Al Qaeda or the Taliban or Saddam Hussein temporarily serve as the prime targets but are really stand-ins for a more vaguely defined enemy and much broader objectives. Sometimes this war takes the form of open combat but often is conducted by drones, bombing campaigns, peace-keeping forces, surveillance at home and abroad, and myriad other means.
Today’s war machine is driven by three primary logics, which are all constantly present and mixed together in different proportions. First is the old-fashioned imperialist logic, most closely identified with neoconservatives, founded on the dream that the United States, through its economic, political, and military power, can not only defeat enemies but also create new political and social orders, reshaping nations, regions, and ultimately the global environment.
Second, the neoliberal war doctrine, less noisy than its neoconservative cousin and seldom stated openly, defines national interest primarily in term of access to resources and markets – and ultimately corporate profits. Oil and minerals are not treated simply as the loot of the victors, but the strategic planning and rationales of military actions always involve calculations about access and ownership.
Finally, always part of the mix is also the humanitarian war doctrine, a social democratic logic by which the US military intervention, often as part of a (at least nominally) multi-lateral force, is charged with toppling dictators, preventing genocide, thwarting terrorists, and other noble tasks. Such imperial war projects for the good of humanity do indeed in many cases target odious and repressive regimes and groups, but I argue that even if we were to assume its virtuous intentions the US military (or that of France or any of the other dominant powers acting separately or together) lacks any real capacities to benefit those it claims to save – but that’s a discussion we’ll have to save for another time.
The Clintons (Bill and Hillary both) have often appeared as primary spokespeople for humanitarian war, just as Bush and Cheney stand for a mix of neoconservative and neoliberal logics, but really humanitarian war always activates neoliberal and neoconservative logics, and vice versa. The differences are a matter of proportion and emphasis.
But, you respond, isn’t Obama different? Didn’t he campaign in 2008 on withdrawal from Iraq, closing Guantanamo, and ending torture (while, of course, pledging a surge in Afghanistan)? I’m hesitant to hazard a guess at any politician’s true beliefs – if they really have such things. More powerful than Obama, though, is the office he occupies, which is fully embedded in the war machine.
War protest in the US today has the added benefit of extending the vision and action of debt organizing to a global level through common struggles and networks of solidarity. One great virtue of debt activism is how rooted it is in the local realities of peoples lives, but it can’t be effective if it remains only on such a small scale. Indeed debt organizing also has the potential to create an expansive platform that links together a wide range of struggles — from education to precarious labor and from housing and medical care to racial hierarchies. Even that network, though, risks being limited to the national scene. Adding the war and security regime to the mix is one way to insure that our actions and analyses also engage transnational and global frameworks.
There are many reasons to oppose the US war machine, with its complex of military and security operations, installations, and institutions. It is a killing machine, a racist machine, a misery machine, and much more. It’s also a debt machine, and thus perhaps, when engaged together with other contemporary issues posed by debt, a movement can also begin to erode the foundations for our seemingly permanent state of war.