The FDR Myth

Back in the seventh grade, in the fifties, we studied geography. As we looked at the United States we saw here iron ore, there oil, here a vast corn belt, there a vast valley growing all kinds of fruits and vegetables. Manufacturing cities turned out cars by the thousand. Broadway and Hollywood were going gangbusters. Gorgeous beaches, pristine mountains, crystalline rivers and lakes. Everything was here in abundance. With the proper organization it was paradise. Alas, it didn’t work out that way. It didn’t work out that way because the system we had needed waste to continue. In truth, it’s most important product was garbage. It was a vast churning trash compactor that needed to make always more trash. And it wasted everything.

Americans who are wondering what went wrong might consider a book by John T. Flynn called The Roosevelt Myth written in 1948. The revelation of who Roosevelt actually was and what he did is eye-poping. One such revelation is the tale of the origin of the military-industrial complex. For this did not exist before Roosevelt.

In 1938 Roosevelt had been in office for six years during which his primary concern was the Depression. The New Deal, which actually consisted of three waves of programs, had failed. By 1938 “manufacturing output fell by 37% from the 1937 peak and was back to 1934 levels.” The Depression was growing deeper again after all the New Deal programs. The unemployment rate had climbed back up to 19% and was rising. 11 million Americans were unemployed. Roosevelt was out of tricks to save capitalism and he was eying an unprecedented third term in 1940. The natives were restless. Flynn reveals this conversation, attributed to Cordell Hull, then Secretary of State:

In January, 1938, I talked with one of the President’s most in-intimate advisers. I asked him if the President knew we were in a Depression. He said that of course he did. I asked what the President proposed to do. He answered: “Resume spending.” I then suggested he would find difficulty in getting objects on which the federal government could spend. He said he knew that. What, then, I asked, will the President spend on? He laughed and replied in a single word: “Battleships.” I asked why. He said: “You know we are going to have a war.” And when I asked whom we were going to fight he said “Japan” and when I asked where and what about, he said “in South America.” “Well,” I said, “you are moving logically there. If your only hope is spending and the only thing you have to spend on is national defense, then you have got to have an enemy to defend against and a war in prospect. (The Roosevelt Myth p 174)

The American people were deeply anti-war for they were still dubious of America’s entrance into WWI. But Roosevelt had figured out that the only way to get out of the Depression was to spend money on something worthless. People could be put to work building battleships but they had to spend their wages on cars if the normal economy was ever to revive. With the ability to tax, the government could force the population to pay for bombs, then throw the bombs away. If we were to keep building bombs we had to have some plausible place to throw them. The public might see the inanity of building bombs and just throwing them into the ocean. We started supplying arms to European combatants in the war everyone knew was coming. By 1941 Lend-Lease opened up a way to dump the war matériel on our allies, who would blow it all up. We would pretend to lend it to them so it wouldn’t seem like we were just throwing things away. Unemployment plummeted, and by 1944, when we were in the war and could trash our products ourselves, it was down to 1.2%.

The military-industrial complex was, so to speak, an iron lung for the economy, a rather apt metaphor given Roosevelt’s polio. A capitalist economy is, as it is often called, a rat race. The rat runs because the wheel spins, and the wheel spins because the rat runs. A rat race. Once the wheel stops the rat stops and there is nothing to make the wheel or rat start again. The military industrial complex gooses the wheel, forcing it to turn, which in turn forces the rat to run.

Perhaps the hope was that once the wheel started this extra oomph might be eliminated. Alas, the economy has been dependent upon the military-industrial complex ever since. It is now around $600 billion. With an economy of roughly $18 trillion it is about 3.3% plus the secret expenses. When you add on military sales to other countries and paramilitaries, and the costs of war not included in the budget, you can tack on another $100 billion. Right now there is no way to keep the economy going without making and dumping ever more war stuff, and supporting a large military. Doing this is what we call war. One of the reasons Obama droned people was to keep the drone manufacturers busy.

For whatever other reasons the US needed war, it needed war to trash product and so keep the economy turning. Roosevelt was preparing to trick a deeply anti-war population into war in order to get out of the Depression and give himself a chance at a third term. In doing so he revealed one of the essential contradictions of Capitalism, it is a rat race in which you need to destroy some of the product or the rat would become sated and stop. Planned obsolescence and war production are two parts of the solution to the same problem– how to produce garbage by getting rid of stuff in sufficient quantity.

Naturally, to have a military-industrial complex one needed an enemy and eventually, a war. All our wars since have been manufactured. None were necessary. In truth the United States has no interests outside its borders if it is a democratic market-based country . Militarily, oceans guarantee our safety. The cold war was trumped up. Do we seriously think the Soviet Union, after having lost 23 million people, with its cities pulverized and its industry in shambles, actually had military designs on western Europe? The Warsaw pact cost the Soviet Union. Similarly with Korea. We were dumping large amounts of weapons in South Korea prior to that war, freezing a division everyone assumed was temporary.

The United States elites did have an interest in maintaining capitalism, but not because they thought it a good system for any reason other than that they were living like pigs in slop, whatever they told themselves. They themselves were quite ready to engorge themselves on the benefits of war. I’m sure they even imagined themselves doing good. The military-industrial complex is a sort of socialism for war profiteers. The Marshall Plan preserved the power of the ruling elites in Europe and helped them suppress indigenous uprisings such as that in Greece. Although it pretended to shore up Europe against a potential Soviet attack it actually shored up European elites against indigenous revolution, which was largely avoided.

American hegemony allowed American elites to profit from the Empire, but cold war’s primary purpose was as an excuse for the churning of the military industrial complex. Much of the profit of the empire came from colonizing the people of the United States itself. To do so required a constant stream of propaganda that justified the military budget that has left the history of the last century as a doily of lies. The military-industrial complex is, in the end, a potlatch, as is much of the rest of the economy now.

This particular problem with capitalism is often called “over production.” But that designation is misleading when we realize that the economy can be overproducing when many of the citizens live in poverty. The problem is the rat race. Once the wheel stops it is hard to get it started again. Making things and throwing them away is the only solution, but it does not lead back to anything like a healthy economy, for the potlatch must continue and grow larger and ever larger, something like the dosage of an addictive drug. As Roosevelt said, the only thing he could build is battleships. Every capitalist has an incentive to build garbage and sell it as gold. It takes the military-industrial complex to do it on an imperial scale that will keep the rat race turning. But every breath in the iron lung makes more and more war junk. It is, plainly and simply, a death machine.

It is tempting to think socialism is a solution to the rat race problem. It isn’t. It isn’t because it too will suffer from “over production”. Industrial production, which produces many copies of the same commodity, has the power to expand production with what it is already doing. Just do more of it. Unlike a craftsman, a machine doesn’t have to learn its craft. Workers owning the factories, assuming they are successful, can turn out cars to meet any demand just as easily as fat cats can. And if their work is good, it will provide a stimulus for increasing that demand. If they saturate their market the rat race will stop and they will be out of a job. This contradiction of capitalism is really a contradiction of industrial civilization, capitalist, communist, socialist or whatever. Chinese, Indians, and everyone else wish they all could be Californians now. Industrial civilization is everywhere and in every system. America loses its power as the rest of the world embraces the American dream. But the good life, industrial civilization, is a death trip.

Crap is piling up and we have just about exhausted the materials for making crap. Pollution, especially of CO2, will soon force the rat race to stop no matter what we do. If not, exhaustion of raw materials will do the trick. If not, a crisis in food supply, disease spawned by crowding and travel, or sheer madness. If industrial civilization ends like this we will not be able to transit to anything else, for most of our infrastructure will be irrelevant crap. If we are to survive we must change our ways at a far far deeper level than a change of economic system. We must stop producing immense piles of garbage. Could we do it? Why not? Nobody actually likes the rat race cum death-machine.

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Michael Doliner studied with Hannah Arendt at the University of Chicago and has taught at Valparaiso University and Ithaca College.

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