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An Irrational, Authoritarian Institution

Our Corporate Military

by KEVIN CARSON

Nicholas Kristoff, in a New York Times op-ed ("Our Lefty Military," June 16), lauds the "astonishingly liberal ethos" that governs the military internally ? single-payer health insurance, job security, educational opportunities, free daycare ? in support of Gen. Wesley Clark’s description of it as "the purest application of socialism there is."

For me ? an avowed libertarian socialist as well as a market anarchist ? at least two howlers stand out here. First, when I think of "socialism," I think of all the liberatory things originally associated with that term back in the days of the early working class and classical socialist movement in the nineteenth century: Empowerment of the working class, worker control of production, and all the rest. Last I heard, the U.S. military isn’t set up as a worker cooperative, with enlisted men electing officers, managing their own work, or voting on whether or not to go to war. Taking orders from a boss "because I said so" isn’t my idea of socialism.

Second, the primary external mission of the U.S. military is to keep the world ? or rather the corporate pigs who claim to own it ? safe from anything remotely resembling worker empowerment. To me, that’s pretty unsocialistic. For the past sixty-odd years since WWII (a lot longer, actually), the primary focus of American national security policy has been to protect feudal landed oligarchs from land reform, protect Western-owned corporations from nationalization, act as collector of last resort for the company store known as the World Bank, and enforce the draconian "intellectual property" protectionism which is the central bulwark of global corporate power today. Kristoff’s "socialist" military’s primary mission is keeping the world firmly in the hands of its corporate rulers.

Aside from that, I think Kristoff has it exactly backward: The military is almost a parody of American corporate culture. It’s riddled with hierarchy, with Taylorist/Weberian bureaucratic work rules and standard operating procedures, and all the irrationality that goes with them. The only difference is, the pointy-haired bosses wear a different kind of uniform. If you’ve ever seen the movie "Brazil," or read Dilbert on a regular basis, you get the idea.

Kristoff has one point on his side: The differentials between production workers and senior management are a lot lower in the military than in present-day Corporate America. But that just means the military is structured more along the lines of old-style bureaucratic "Organization Man" capitalism of the sixties (as described by J.K. Galbraith), in which CEO salaries were typically only fifty times that of a production worker, rather than the current pathological model of cowboy capitalism where it’s more like five hundred.

The military, like the large corporation, is plagued by enormously high overhead costs (the cost of training a soldier), and enormously wasteful capital outlays. The military, like an oligopoly corporation, can afford to be so wasteful because it doesn’t bear the full cost of its own activities.

Corporate America’s prevailing management accounting system, invented almost a century ago by Donaldson Brown of DuPont and GM, equates consumption of inputs to creation of value. You know, like the Soviet centrally planned economy. Administrative costs like management salaries, along with wasteful capital expenditures, are incorporated ? through the practice known as "overhead absorption" ? into the transfer price of goods "sold" to inventory. And in an oligopoly market, the corporation is able to pass those costs ? plus a profit markup ? on to the customer through administered pricing. The military shares that pricing system, with its incentives to maximize costs (Paul Goodman called "the great kingdom of cost-plus"). Ever hear of those $600 toilet seats? But in the case of the military, the administered pricing is called "taxation."

In short the military, like the large corporation, is a giant, bureaucratic, irrational, and authoritarian institution which can only survive through parasitism ? enabled by the state ? on the working class.

Kevin Carson is a research associate at the Center for a Stateless Society. his written work includes Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, Organization Theory: An Individualist Anarchist Perspective, and The Homebrew Industrial Revolution: A Low-Overhead Manifesto, all of which are freely available online. Carson has also written for such print publications as The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty and a variety of internet-based journals and blogs, including Just Things, The Art of the Possible, the P2P Foundation and his own Mutualist Blog.