Where’s the military industrial complex when you need it?

Where’s the military industrial complex when you need it?

US president Dwight Eisenhower warned in 1961 ‘we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex’ (MIC). The idea that there is a grouping of lobbyists and industry desperate to suborn public money for their agenda is a persistent one in Western political discourse. It is suspected that the MIC rigs public discourse and provokes the odd minor war or two to shift the units. It is a handily portable quote, so we have references to the pharma-industrial complex, data-industrial complex, the woke-industrial complex and on and on. There is probably an industrial complex-industrial complex. The term usually implies something malevolent, systematised, and unneeded, constantly creating non-solutions for non-problems. OTOH Ukraine is fast running out of weapons to defend itself. Maybe it’s time for the MIC to step up?

Though it captures some real dynamics – regulatory capture and so on – the specific claim is wrong in its context and more generally. Historically, most developments attributed to the MIC have come from political competition, external to the MIC itself. To take one core example, the ‘missile gap’ myth was promoted by president to be John F Kennedy. He used it to build his career as a US Senator and made the basis for a successful run for US President. Yes, lovely JFK was a total warmonger. Supposedly the Soviet Union had an edge in the effectiveness and quantity of their nuclear missiles and this needed to be matched by the USA. The missile gap did not in fact exist, and JFK probably knew that. He also knew that his opponent could not disprove it without looking weak and also sharing classified information. The MIC was the instrument, not the prime mover, of this particular addition to the arms race.

Coming back from that divergence, metaphors spread widely in social science, sometimes because they are more effective rhetorically than analytically. MIC succeeds because it is an effective metaphor. We see a lot of metaphorisation of our discourse. Type ‘uberisation’ into Google Scholar. Most of social life is being uberised apparently.  Before it was Googlization, and before that McDonaldization. I regret to inform you that Education 3.0 is now also a thing. The metaphors are handy but like any figure of speech might conceal as they reveal. For example, focusing on how work is being made casual and algorithmically governed is important but also tends towards presentism. We forget the tools that helped us in the past understand and sometimes fight against these tendencies.

Metaphors are useful little packages of meaning and I have used a few already (eg. ‘arms race’). They are different from reusable analytic concepts. In contrast, the concept of weapons of the weak is one that has been widely reapplied and while malleable is also coherent and internally consistent. It is also rhetorically powerful and persuasive. It is perhaps not possible to separate a concept’s rhetorical power from its empirical traction but the latter should lead. The nature of competition in social science means that we can end up pursuing beguiling rhetoric at the expense of the work needed to bring it down to earth.

If you want to read further the CIA (yes, THE C I A), has a great collection of documents on the missile gap. They are a fascinating study of evolving intelligence capabilities and concerns. Top marks if you write ‘weapons of the week’ like it’s an offer at Tesco.

Ritzer, George. The McDonaldization of Society. Sage, 2013.

Scott, James C. Weapons of the Weak. Yale university Press, 2008.


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