Military violence and economic exploitation

IssueMarch - May 2001
Feature by Chris Ney

The relationship between military violence and economic exploitation is not new nor is it limited to modern capitalist economics. The dynamic was present in the former Communist societies and it was present before industrial capitalism developed.

Many have argued that globalisation began more than five hundred years ago when the Europeans first sent their armies to the New World. The conquest of the Americas (and subsequent subjugation of Africa and Asia) produced fantastic wealth for the imperialist countries of Europe, and death, destruction and unimaginable suffering for the indigenous peoples of the conquered territories. Military domination and commercial exploitation developed side by side as the imperialist nations extended their conquest and occupation around the globe. Despite the end of traditional colonialism in the post-World War Two era, the economic and military dynamics have remained.

Forces of neo-colonialism

In the 1960s, African independence leader Kwame Nkrumah decried the forces of neo-colonialism that placed economic control of the former colonies in global institutions while granting formal political control to local elites. Latin American scholars developed dependency theory, arguing that underdevelopment is not part of a process that leads to social advancement, rather it is a process that drains natural and human resources from poorer nations to the benefit of the richer nations a process similar to traditional or formal colonialism.

Today, in the aftermath of the Cold War and the collapse of communism, global capitalism has taken on new manifestations around the world. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), established in 1994 by Mexico, the United States, and Canada, may be a precursor to the kind of economic and political relationships among nations that might one day cover the world.

The end of history

Champions of the free market proclaimed the end of history when liberal democracy and capitalism emerged victorious in the struggle against communism. Right-wing political leaders were equally ideological, proclaiming there is no alternative (or TINA in shorthand). But around the world, the triumph of capital has not led to a more benevolent state but to governments focused on social control. Unencumbered corporate movement is accompanied by increasing restrictions on immigration and a rise in ethnic prejudice and violence. While this pattern is most obvious in nations ruled by military dictatorship, the states role in social control is also manifest in the liberal democracies, most notably in the increase in police brutality and dramatic expansion of prisons.

War and economic injustice

The War Resisters League has a long-established and well-known history of resisting violence and opposing militarism in all its forms. The founders of WRL, who had rallied in support of those brave few who resisted conscription during the First World War, were pacifists, suffragists and socialists. Their earliest pledge was not to support any war and to strive toward the removal of wars causes, including economic exploitation. WRL members and other pacifists were among the earliest US supporters of Gandhi's anti-colonial struggle in India and of Martin Luther King Jrs campaign to end government imposed segregation in the United States. Both movements employed nonviolent direct action as an effective tool for political struggle and personal transformation; both movements also focused attention on the economic roots of violence and discrimination.

Creating creative tension

The movement against globalisation owes a great debt to those earlier justice movements, following most closely, perhaps, the tradition of King, who wrote that the power of nonviolence is to create a situation of creative tension in an unjust status quo so that the injustice might be corrected. The protests that have followed the institutions of globalisation around the world have created that situation of creative tension: Whereas these institutions were once able to conduct their business away from the spotlight of public attention, today they must contend with a better informed and aroused public. People who live in the industrialised nations of the global North have become aware of the impact of globalisation for the people of the global South. IMF-imposed structural adjustment programmes, now the leading condition for loans and international aid, demand that poor nations cut education and health care spending, reduce social services, and shred the social safety net. Inevitably, these policies lead to increased poverty, a widening gap between rich and poor and deeper indebtedness. The resulting protest and instability often lead to increased repression and militarisation of the state. The links between militarism and economic exploitation continue.

The Gandhian way

While the protests against corporate-dominated globalisation have used nonviolence to great effect as a consciousness-raising tool, the traditions of nonviolence may also be the source of some of the solutions to the current problem of global greed and exploitation. During the Indian struggle for independence, Gandhi emphasised that his approach to nonviolence was 10 percent protest and 90 percent positive programme. He recognised that India could not be truly free if it remained economically dependent on Britain or any other nation. Moreover, formal political freedom meant nothing to the majority of Indians whose basic economic needs were unmet. Gandhis positive program included economic development based on Indias village system: low-technology production, local control, and self-sufficiency. While it may stretch the imagination to apply principles that were developed for a rural agrarian society to more complex industrial and post-industrial societies, the principles that currently lead the world economy are the precise opposite of those Gandhi advocated.