Militarism and Capitalism
War created capitalism. Let’s see how.
Today, I want to speak to you about the relationship between militarism and capitalism. As I claimed at the beginning, war created capitalism. Nevertheless, not many scholars uphold this thesis, and they usually look for the causes of capitalism somewhere else. They explain its origin with theories that focus on specific and secondary aspects of capitalism. I’m not going to enumerate all approaches, but the most popular ones argue the economy itself brought about capitalism. Other authors claim that ideas, beliefs, and culture are the real cause of this economic system. In general, there are three schools of thought that dominate this field. I refer to liberalism, Marxism, and those who uphold cultural explanations.
On this occasion, I want to discuss a very different perspective that emphasizes the role of war in the birth of capitalism. In this way, I’ll discuss its connection with militarism—something I addressed before.
So, the explanation I’m going to set forth is not a theory by itself. It’s the conclusion a few scholars drew from their researches, and the same I reached by myself after studying this topic. The following discussion will revolve around the connection between militarism, warfare, and capitalism.
The origins of capitalism: war and international geopolitical competition
I don’t mean that capitalism has only one cause. What I mean is that the leading cause of this economic and social system is warfare, and it is related to militarism. However, there are geopolitical implications in this approach. I refer to international wars, and not to civil wars. Therefore, the global environment and the relations between States is the point of view of this explanation. Violent conflict plays a decisive role in this analytical context.
This preliminary clarification is necessary because it helps answer the following question. If war is the cause of capitalism, and warfare is older than capitalism, then, why did it emerge in the modern age and not before? Besides this question, another one comes up to us, why capitalism was born in Western Europe and not anywhere else?
They are basic questions because of their analytical and theoretical implications for the core idea I uphold here. I’m going to answer them in this discussion.
First of all, I have to note that space and time are intertwined, and we can’t think of them separately. For this reason, the answer to these two questions needs to pay attention to this fact. So, why was Western Europe in the modern age, and not somewhere else in a different time? Geopolitical factors play a crucial role here. We’re talking about a geographical region that was fragmented in geopolitical terms. There were hundreds of political units across Western Europe. They were competing. Indeed, their competition was very intense, and that was a cause that drove social and political change.
In this respect, realism provides an excellent framework to explain this situation. If you want to know more about it, I recommend an episode in which I discussed the main aspects of this theory of international relations.
Realism claims that States look for their safety because they have different interests. The anarchical international environment leads them to compete. And that was going on in Western Europe in the late Middle Age and the Early Modern Age. This competition unchained many different processes in the long run. International rivalries stimulated changes in the inner sphere of States. They adjusted their political and social structures to their needs in the external field. So, challenges posed by other States involved new security requirements, and therefore, changes in the internal organization of the State. Warfare and arms races were decisive in this respect. We shouldn’t forget that wars mean an expansion of the State spending, and larger armies, with new technologies, are expensive. So, this chain of events led to new arrangements in domestic politics to mobilize and extract more and more resources. I’m talking about funds, but also raw materials and economic means to support the war effort. Besides, the draft involved the mobilization of recruiters and even workers for new war industries.
It was a complex process that meant the progressive transformation with every war outbreak. Crises turned out to be fundamental for these shifts in the political structures of States, up to the point of leading to the formation of the modern State. The urgent need for recruiters, the growth of war costs, technological change, and so on, made necessary the development of new institutions, and additional power structures.
The mobilization of resources, both material and human, was essential to afford every war and to ensure national security. In the economic realm, the evolution was also complex. Despite that, it followed a general trend amid persistent arms races and successive wars. That trend was an accumulation process among those merchants who at the outset of any war set up new industries everywhere to supply the military.
The German sociologist Werner Sombart explained this process very well in his essay Krieg und Kapitalismus. There he analyzed the process of accumulation of those merchants who were in charge of supplying the massive demand of armies. So, the war allowed them to make a fortune at the same time they adapted to technological innovations. I refer to two phenomena in this field.
On the one side, I have to stress innovations in the military with the introduction of new weapons. That involved changes in the means of production to adapt them to the manufacture of these weapons. Artillery and portable firearms were decisive for these transformations. When this technology became popular in European armies, the need for standardization arose. At that time, the industry was mainly handcrafted, and the production wasn’t quick enough to supply a strong demand in wartime. Due to the innovations in armaments, they introduced machines for the production of these weapons. That change required big investments and capital. Nevertheless, the emerging industries that thrived during the war didn’t last because, in peacetime, they didn’t have the demand to be profitable. Despite that, warfare stimulated technological development, and it ended up having broad consequences in the mode of production.
On the other side, I have to address the effects of technological innovations in the production process. We shouldn’t forget that technological progress is accumulative, and it brings about qualitative changes at all levels. In the economy, these changes reflected on the mode of production as the result of the military innovations in armaments. Larger and more expensive armies needed to increase economic production on the same scale. Therefore, it was necessary to boost production, and at the same time, develop the commoditization of the economy. What do I mean with this? Until the Early Modern Age, there wasn’t a market as we know it today. Communities were self-sufficient, and there was little trade because exchanges were scarce and seasonal. Insofar as any army doesn’t produce anything, and its members are only consumers, it was necessary to create a market and provide for it. In that way, the army could buy supplies and satisfy its massive demand for goods and services.
The technological progress achieved by the eighteenth century was a direct consequence of the geopolitical competition between European powers. At that time, the old workshop that manufactured weapons was unable to supply armies. Armament factories were the base for the initial capitalist industry due to the massive capital investments they needed to work. Mechanization played an essential role in this process. As a result, this change had a multiplier effect in many other industries. That led to the transformation of the economy, in which the industrial revolution was critical.
So, industrialization advanced the capitalist mode of production. It was the consequence of the new battlefield that warfare created in the economy. Larger and more expensive armies needed a massive production, and that made essential change the way of producing to mobilize resources and workforce on a massive scale. By the eighteenth century, there was already the technology to do so, and industrialization is the evidence. A quicker extraction of coal and iron to manufacture cannons in blast furnaces, industrial clearcutting to build warships, the mechanization of the textile industry to produce sails, uniforms, and so on, besides the development of science and metallurgy industry, led to the appearance of capitalism.
We shouldn’t overlook another aspect of the long process of the formation of capitalism. I refer to the role of States debt to advance the rise of the stock exchange market. Financial outfits played a crucial role in waging war because they issued loans, and States could expend quicker to raise armies. It helped mobilize the wealth available in the country, and support the war effort by funding supplies and troops. So, militarism contributed to developing the financial system that made possible the transformation of the productive base of the economy and its mode of production. This unnoticed combination led to capitalism in the long run.
It’s unwise to pretend to say a date in which the capitalist system came to life. However, we know its formation was the result of a long process that lasted centuries. It began in the early modern age and culminated in the nineteenth century with its heyday in the twentieth century. Still, it seems it’s going to last more time. Anyways, it was the consequence of geopolitical competition in world politics. That makes us think about its recent evolution if we look at the formation of the military-industrial complex. In this regard, the military demand in the economy has sustained this social system. Indeed, its continuity chiefly depends on geopolitical competition.
Capitalism and militarism nowadays
Technological development has been crucial for warfare and the capitalist mode of production too. We’ve witnessed how different innovations in the military had economic implications in manufacturing. Besides, I have to mention how the military has driven the dynamic change in the economy to fulfill security needs.
Nowadays, capitalism depends on military contracts. So, we shouldn’t downplay the role of militarism in all of this. Indeed, I have to stress the fact that militarism has been fundamental insofar as its development was through the process of State-building. The formation of the modern State was violent, and war resulted crucial. Militarism is still alive in world politics. That’s quite evident when we see the competition and rivalries between great powers, as well as arms races and wars. Nevertheless, that’s something I’ll address in the next episode, so it’s a good idea to subscribe now and you won’t miss anything.
In sum, war and militarism have been the fertilizer that made possible the birth of capitalism. Now they are the fuel that keeps working the capitalist machinery, which is at the same time war machinery.
Question of the day
Question of the day! Do you think war machinery is stoppable? If so, tell how. Post your opinion in the comments section below, and I’ll check it out.
Mann, Michael, The Sources of Social Power
Mann, Michael, “Capitalism and Militarism” in Mann, Michael, States, War and Capitalism
McNeill, William H., The Pursuit of Power
Kurz, Robert, “Kanonen und Kapitalismus. Die militärische Revolution als Ursprung der Moderne in Exit https://www.exit-online.org/link.php?tabelle=autoren&posnr=92
Zinn, Karl Georg, Kanonen und Pest: über die Urspünge der Neuzeit im 14, und 15. Jahrhundert
Headrick, Daniel R., The Tools of Empire: Technology and European Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century
Headrick, Daniel R., Power Over Peoples: Technology, Environments, and Western Imperialism, 1400 to the Present
Porter, Bruce, War and the Rise of the State: The Military Foundations of Modern Politics
Gilbert, Felix (ed.), The Historical Essays of Otto Hintze
Sombart, Werner, Krieg und Kapitalismus
Disclosure: Some of these links are affiliate links where I’ll earn a small commission if you make a purchase at no additional cost to you. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.