Death Merchants?

On 24 September 1938, Benito Mussolini posed a question to a large crowd of his followers in Belluno: ‘Faced with the absolutely ridiculous alternative: butter or guns, what have we chosen?’ Their response was unequivocal: ‘Guns!’ Over the following years, Italians would suffer the consequences of this choice: massacres, destruction, economic ruin. Yet, nowadays, not even Vladimir Putin would dream of asking an audience of Russians whether they prefer butter or missiles, since he knows that – notwithstanding the rhetoric of Holy Mother Russia – they would vote unanimously for buttered toast. Nor would any Western leader run the risk of consulting their citizens on such a ‘ridiculous alternative’, aware that foreign policy decisions are best kept out of public hands.

Today, of course, the choice of missiles and drones is a given. It’s even considered morally indispensable – a ‘humanitarian necessity’. NATO has officially sent Ukraine more than a thousand tanks and over two million rounds of ammunition (but really it’s much more than this). And the Russian army, in turn, has mustered an equivalent level of armaments. Once the logic of rearmament is triggered, the Thatcherite maxim concerning finance capitalism rings just as true: ‘there is no alternative’.

Even a cursory analysis shows the profundity of the gap separating 1938 from the present period. In the interwar years, phrases like ‘mercanti di cannoni’, or ‘death merchants’, were used to describe those who reap the spoils of war. Now such terms are virtually banned from public discussion. The fact that there are people profiting from mass slaughter has been expunged from our political consciousness. Not even the most lucid and disenchanted commentator would dare affirm, as Anatole France did in 1922, that ‘We think we are dying for our country; we are dying for the industrialists’.

To be sure, the peace movement still denounces increased arms sales. In 2022, the world spent $2.24 trillion on arms, 39% of which was accounted for by the United States, 13% by China, 3.9% by Russia, 3.6% by India and 3.3% by Saudi Arabia. NATO members made up 55% of the global total. Peace activists have responded to such figures by pointing out that the total spent on arms could be used to solve more urgent problems: ‘With $25 billion we could resolve the most serious humanitarian crises around the world, with $100 billion we could mount an efficient offensive to the global climate crisis, and with $200 billion we could reach all of the UN’s Sustainable Development goals’.

Yet, although their arguments may be the same, the tone and rhetoric of the anti-war movement has shifted. Addressing International League of Peace Fighters in 1932, Anne Capy began by giving a much more concrete tabulation of war expenditure following WWI:

With the money the war cost, we could have provided a house worth 75,000 francs to every family in the United States, Canada, Australia, Britain, Ireland, France, Germany, Belgium and Russia. We could even have fitted these houses with furniture worth up to 25,000 francs, and provided an advance of 100,000 francs to every family. There would still have been enough money to give each city of 200,000 inhabitants of the abovementioned countries 125 million for libraries, 125 million for hospitals and 125 million for universities. And there would still have remained a sum of capital which, placed at 5%, would have permitted to pay 125,000 schoolteachers and 125,000 nurses 25,000 francs per year.

She went on to denounce the ‘parasitic, international super-capitalism which dominates nations and has for years directed a great dance of speculation, governing behind governments reduced to the role of puppets’. It is hard to imagine such words being uttered today. Whereas Capy and her contemporaries had a clear critique of the ‘international profiteers of nationalism’ (a phrase used by Francis Delaisi in his 1913 pamphlet Le Patriotisme des plaques blindées), their inheritors typically use a more sanitized parlance – one that revolves around ‘human rights’, ‘diplomacy’ and the ‘rules-based order’.  

Indeed, who among us is capable of naming even a single Western capitalist or Russian oligarch profiting from the slaughter in Ukraine? Even if we were able to identify a few, it would be highly unusual to label them ‘geniuses of destruction’ (the appellation once given to Gustav Krupp), nor would we speak of the ‘Jackal International’, as Mil Zankin did in his 1933 pamphlet L’Internationale des charognards: Les marchands de canons veulent la guerre. Nowadays, it would be atypical to refer to an arms dealer in the following terms:

Sir Basil Zaharoff, the passion of whose declining years is orchid culture, would probably not be aghast at the suggestion that he was the greatest murderer the world has even known. He has heard it too often. And he may even enjoy the irony of his gifts (they took a few millions out of the hundreds of millions he made from the World War) for hospitalization of the ‘War wounded’.

This portrait of Zaharoff, then the world’s most powerful weapons magnate, wasn’t penned by an angry pacifist, but by an impeccably mainstream journalist for Fortune. The publication, founded in 1929 by Henry Luce, described itself as anIdeal Super-Class Magazine’, a ‘luxury’ mouthpiece of American capitalism sold for a dollar a copy (equivalent to $16 today). In 1934 it published an unsigned dossier, ‘Arms and Men’, with the lengthy subtitle, ‘A primer on Europe’s armament makers; their mines, their smelters, their banks, their holding companies, their ability to supply everything you need for a war from cannons to the casus belli; their axioms, which are (a) prolong war, (b) disturb peace.’ Reproduced by Reader’s Digest, and later published as a pamphlet, the essay travelled widely. Its opening paragraph is striking, for it demonstrates how the capitalist class of the 1930s exhibited attitudes that have since become unthinkable. Imagine if the Wall Street Journal or Forbes began an article like this:

According to the best accountancy figures, it cost about $25,000 to kill a soldier during the World War. There is one class of Big Business Men in Europe that never rose up to denounce the extravagance of its governments in this regard – to point out that when death is left unhampered as an enterprise for the individual initiative of gangsters the cost of single killing seldom exceeds $100. The reason for the silence of these Big Business Men is quite simple: the killing is their business. Armaments are their stock in trade; governments are their customers; the ultimate consumers of their products are: historically, almost as often their compatriots as their enemies. That does not matter. The important point is that every time a burst shell fragment finds its way into the brain, the heart, or the intestines of a man in the front line, a great part of the $25,000 much of it profit, finds its way into the pocket of the armament maker.

It isn’t that this unofficial spokesman of American capital woke up one morning with the pressing urge to denounce the European war industry (its US counterpart only got a cursory mention). It was rather that a national campaign was already underway, culminating in a Senate Committee tasked with investigating the ‘manufacturing and sale of munitions and the economic circumstances of US entry into World War I’. The Democratic majority in the Senate elected Gerald Nye, a Republican from North Dakota, as chairman – responsible for overseeing a total of 93 hearings. Predictably, although the investigation ‘produced a sordid report of intrigues and bribery; of collusion and excessive profits; of war scares artificially fostered’ and disarmament conferences ‘deliberately wrecked’, its ultimate impact was nil. It fulfilled the usual function of such inquiries: to brush the issue under the rug.

A few years later, it wasn’t just Mussolini and his supporters who chose guns over butter; the whole world followed suit. Thus, for all the sympathy and nostalgia that the anti-war movement of the 1930s may arouse today, there are two things worth noting about its trajectory: it was entirely inefficacious, and – as we shall see – most if not all of its arguments have been rendered outdated by our new political-economic conjuncture.

In the erstwhile discourse of pacifism, the ‘merchants of death’ were often presented as occult forces. As the Fortune piece asserted:

. . . without a shadow of doubt there is at the moment in Europe a huge and subversive force that lies behind the arming and counterarming of nations: there are mines, smelters, armament works, holding companies, and banks, entangled in an international embrace, yet working inevitably for the destruction of such little internationalism as the world has achieved so far. The control of these myriad companies vests, finally, in not more than a handful of men whose power, in some ways, reaches above the power of state itself.

This ‘handful of men’ whose power ‘reaches above the state’ were the same figures who, in Delaisi’s words, ‘specialise in manufacturing machines of war, concentrate on systematically corrupting the senior civil servants responsible for national defence, induce panic amongst an easily-excitable public opinion with loud press campaigns, exert pressure on legislatures to raise funds for lucrative orders and, by playing on patriotism as a dividend machine, entrench the odious regime of “armed peace” when not launching bloody conflicts directly.’ This image of puppet-masters pulling the strings of governments belonged to the era of magnate capitalism. But this regime was superseded by a distinct form of managerial capitalism at the turn of the Second World War. At that point, ‘death merchants’ were displaced by the ‘military-industrial complex’.

It was the American sociologist C. Wright Mills who, in his 1956 book The Power Elite, argued that a new oligarchy had consolidated itself, constituted by economic, political and military elites whose roles were increasingly integrated and intertwined. Politicians, Mills wrote, were no longer puppets controlled by industrialists and bankers, a ‘committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie’. They had been subsumed into the elite itself, and formed an essential element of its power structure – capable of shaping it and being shaped by it. The idea of a ‘military-industrial complex’, however, was most memorably conveyed by Dwight Eisenhower in his famous farewell message on 17 January 1961. ‘In the councils of government’, he declared, ‘we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted.’

From then on, talk of ‘death merchants’ was limited to shady figures who trafficked arms to Third World states and terrorist militias. World powers, on the other hand, could comfortably rely on their military-industrial complexes. Like snakes changing their skin, this moulting from death merchants to military-industrial functionaries had the effect of anonymizing the warmongers. Real-life people – who could in theory be named and shamed – were supplanted by an impersonal bureaucratic structure. The ‘complex’ saved them from accountability.

These days, if there’s a scarcity of munitions, arms producers will ask for assurances from governments before building new factories, as they don’t want to be stuck with idle factories once the war is over. The military-industrial complex therefore serves not only to produce armaments for the military, but also to guarantee that industrialists won’t find themselves with stranded assets. The constant interchange between the arms industry and the upper echelons of public life is best described through the metaphor of the ‘revolving door’; or, perhaps, the more expressive French term pantouflage: i.e., senior public officials (civil servants, cabinet ministers, generals) who become managers of private companies and vice versa. The current Italian Defence Minister, for instance, previously worked for the Leonardo group, a leader in the Italian armament sector, and served as president of the Federation of Italian Companies for Aerospace, Defence and Security.  

In the twenty-first-century imaginary, death merchants have been replaced with drug traffickers, as demonstrated by the endless Hollywood films in which the antagonist is a shady dealer in pills and powders. This represents an extraordinary act of misdirection, given that the global war industry employs more than 50 million workers and 500,000 scientists: a universe infinitely larger and more dangerous than that of drug pedalling. What’s more, the arms sector is now integrated into, and controlled by, the respected realm of finance. We now find great investment funds at the helm of arms companies. The same fund will invest in a chain of retirement homes in Germany, a lithium mine in Africa and a soy plantation in Brazil, as well as partnering with a multinational manufacturer of ‘suicide’ drones and buying equity in the US space industry. Everything is exchangeable, and therefore everything is permissible. For the investor, the anti-tank missile cannot be differentiated from the hospital bed, as both are bluntly characterised by their cost-benefit relationship, and hence subject to the same criterion of benchmarking.

Financialization of this sort has two primary effects. First, it stages the passage from the international to the global. A century ago, as Delaisi wrote, it was possible to identify a ‘Great International, long searched for by political idealists and working-class strategists, taking shape in the arms industry’. These were national figures operating according to an international logic; but now, in a striking inversion, we see transnational actors with global interests adapting themselves to national exigencies. Second, and perhaps even more insidiously, financialization has rendered all of us – the postman, the primary school teacher, the factory worker – shareholders (and thus, in a certain sense, both owners and profiteers) in the death industry. Since pensions have been privatized, our derisory retirement funds have to be invested, which means handing them over to corporations. Without knowing it, large swathes of the Western workforce have come to depend on the dividends of missiles launched in Ukraine. This may be an unconscious reason for the silence that surrounds the death merchants – a reticence that makes the indignation of the last century seem dated.  

Yet this doesn’t mean that, on at least a couple of points, we shouldn’t heed the old analysis of the arms industry. Fortune’s explanation of the ‘philosophy’ of the death merchants remains as relevant as ever: ‘Keep Europe in a constant state of nerves. Publish periodical war scares. Impress governmental officials with the vital necessity of maintaining armaments against the “aggressions” of neighbor states. Bribe as necessary. In every practical way create suspicion that security is threatened.’ In our current media landscape, these techniques still predominate – animating the nightly news coverage and shaping its parameters.

Moreover, the mutually reinforcing dynamic of arms sales is just as evident as it was in Delaisi’s time. ‘Under this strange system’, he wrote,

the war potential of a great country, or of a group of countries, is strengthened by the development of the adverse military power. The trade in arms is the only one in which the orders obtained by a competitor increase those of his rivals. The great armament firms of hostile powers oppose one another like pillars supporting the same arch. And the opposition of their governments makes their common prosperity.

This is why, as the Russian war machine experiences an unprecedented boom, its Western counterparts are also rejoicing. In the UK, BAE Systems has increased its revenues by 9% and seen its orders expand from £21,458 to £37,093 billion. Since the outbreak of war in Ukraine, Germany’s principal defence provider, Rheinmetall, experienced a similar surge in orders, sending its revenue to €6.4 billion, inflating its profits by 61% and more than doubling the value of its stock. Even in a country like Italy, which has provided Ukraine with precious few weapons, the Leonardo group can boast of a 30% increase in orders, especially from allied states that need to replenish their arsenals.

As such, the idea that the great armament industries of hostile countries constitute pillars holding up the same arch – that the antagonism between their governments produces their common prosperity – is not so far-fetched. As ever, patriotism continues to function as a ‘dividend machine’.

Translated by Francesco Anselmetti.

Read on: Edward Thompson, ‘Notes on Exterminism’, NLR I/121.