PRINT September 2020


Federal agents in Portland, OR, July 29, 2020. Photo: Brandon Bell/New York Times/Redux.

COVID CAPITALISM. We knew it would happen. An April 15 article in the New York Times left no doubt that it was upon us, offering stunningly unironic advice about how to profit from war during the pandemic. With Covid-19 ravaging the economy, the production of armaments and security technologies would remain constant and stable, author Tim Gray argued, writing that “stock market stalwarts” like General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon always present opportunities to make money when everything else is falling apart.

It’s hard to think of a better demonstration of the fact that militarization functions as the bedrock of the American economy. Military spending in the United States currently stands at some $700 billion a year, comprising about one-sixth of the total federal budget, and the military contractors listed above gain most of their annual revenue from federal funding. As the Times article explained, the reason military-contractor corporations are so profitable is that the government covers the costs of research and development as well as capital expenditures. The companies’ income streams are ensured: They work on multiyear contracts that are basically guaranteed; the US defense budget is locked in at least two years in advance; and federal contracts for armaments and technology “usually come with long lead times and high prices.”

Raytheon Technologies Tomahawk cruise missile, 2017.

Militarism—the ongoing investment of massive sums in technology and personnel ready to perpetrate violence—is the support structure for capitalism, facilitating the relentless search for profit through dispossession, labor exploitation, and resource extraction. Day after day in recent weeks, we have received object lessons in how policing, counterinsurgency, and incarceration are used to manage political dissent, insurrection, and migration. Militarism, as the violent force behind capitalism, is repeatedly deployed to maintain racial hierarchy as the domestic and global norm: a status quo reliant on cheap labor, cheap raw materials, and the destruction of dissent.

Raytheon Technologies FAB-T military satellite communication terminal test chamber, 2014.

To create and sustain this global system, countries across the Global North have collaborated to emplace militarized border regimes to control the flow of people migrating from the Global South. In the name of fighting terrorism, these border regimes rely on risk assessments of migrants that use colonial-era racial hierarchies, smart technologies, militarized hardware and personnel, surveillance, and incarceration (detention centers, offshore holding facilities, prisons, migrant camps, refugee camps) to control mobility. Border regimes enable the mobility of the cosmopolitan elite, while asylum seekers, climate-change refugees, those displaced by violence, and impoverished people seeking work opportunities are subjected to humiliating and life-threatening interruptions to their efforts to find safety and security. Militarized border regimes emerging across the Global North are reproducing on an international scale the very same racist pillars that constituted South Africa’s odious apartheid system: an essentialized cultural logic that ties people to place through racial and nativist ideologies and discourses (translated broadly: Just as KwaZulu was for Zulus, Mexico is for Mexicans, Germany is for Germans, and so forth); the intentional impoverishment of territories inhabited by people of color in order to ensure white supremacy; the use of a bureaucratic system of identity documentation (such as passports and visas) and mobility controls that perpetuate racialization; the exploitation of the labor of people of color; and the maintenance of a massive, pervasive, continually responsive, and expensive militarized security apparatus. The last is critical to the system because the militarized security apparatus is deployed not only to confront and repudiate migrants (prefigured as potential terrorists), but also to contain insurrection and protest by racialized groups at home. The very same counterinsurgency techniques developed to intervene abroad are easily turned inward against communities resisting oppression at home, as we’ve seen in Portland and elsewhere. There are enormous profits to be made by expanding militarized policing, incarceration, containment, and intervention in response to persistent calls for democratic reforms, social justice, racial equity, and abolitionist transformation.

Militarized border regimes emerging across the Global North are reproducing on an international scale the very same racist pillars that constituted South Africa’s odious apartheid system.

But as the pandemic wrecks the global economy and economic injustice and inequality are at their most widely visible in our lifetimes, the militarist veneer holding the system in place might be beginning to crack. Police brutality against Black people, the horrors of immigrant detention, and the folly of counterinsurgency campaigns—all objects of protest for generations—have finally galvanized the broadest cross section of protesters in US history. And the uprisings around the world in support of Black lives and against police brutality show, in case there was any doubt, the resonance of combating a system that so baldly defines certain racialized categories of people as expendable targets subject to militarized violence.

Federal agents inside the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse, Portland, OR, July 30, 2020. Photo: Mason Trinca/New York Times/Redux.

While the pandemic will upend lives for years to come, it may also become a watershed moment for antimilitarist, antiracist transformative action. The system of militarized global apartheid is unsustainable. It costs too much; it ravages the environment; it is morally unjust; it is too brutal to too many people. The challenge we face is that of defining the sort of future world that would be better, not worse, for all those working so hard for change.

Catherine Besteman is Francis F. Bartlett and Ruth K. Bartlett Professor of Anthropology at Colby College in Waterville, ME. Her book Militarized Global Apartheid is forthcoming from Duke University Press.