Among the Kwakiutl and several other indigenous cultures of the Pacific Northwest, the potlatch was a ritual of hospitality. The host would invite guests to a big feast and then distribute gifts. The distribution was a way of demonstrating the host’s status: the more significant the gifts, the more important the host. Think: swag bags for the pre-celebrity era.
Although this sophisticated social ritual reflected the host’s generosity and connectedness to the community, the potlatch could sometimes lead to a destructive one-upmanship.
“At times these contests would escalate to the point where the distribution of property became inadequate for the expression of a chief’s disregard for wealth and property,” writes anthropologist Neal Keating. “The next step would be to actually destroy property, often by burning it up. He might burn up his canoes, or his house, or the entire village.”
The potlatch ceremony was not only about gift-giving. But the Canadian government, in instituting a ban on the activity in 1885 that lasted nearly 70 years, was particularly uncomfortable with the Native American approach to commodities. By existing outside the logic of capitalism, the potlatch served as a barrier to the assimilation of indigenous people into mainstream consumerism. God forbid that a community should so thoroughly ignore the getting and spending required by capitalism.
The global military-industrial complex similarly stands outside normal market economics. You can’t buy a nuke or even an F-35 on Amazon. The state intervenes in the economy in order to guarantee the production of these items and ensure that they are not available through normal market mechanisms. The state does so, moreover, not so much to make money from their sale — though this happens, too — but to reaffirm the country’s status.
This status is sometimes expressed a different way: deterrence. If we have enough big weapons and you know that we’re packing some serious heat, you’ll think twice about attacking us.
This rule applies with even greater force to the top of the pyramid. The United States is the world’s single superpower not because of the moral character of its policies or the size of its economy (China’s is larger at the moment). The notion of “superpowerdom” is directly tied to the size and quantity of America’s weaponry. We’re No. 1 by virtue of our capacity to destroy.
Let’s be clear: The ceremony of military spending does not revolve around gift giving, even though the United States occasionally bestows a fighter plane or two on its closest allies. Rather, the resemblance to a potlatch lies elsewhere. The logic of military spending leads countries to effectively destroy their own property and burn down their own villages, through misplaced national budget priorities, in order to engage in the one-upmanship logic of local, regional, and global arms races.
For instance, at a time when the United States is falling apart bridge by bridge and Flint by Flint, it nevertheless devotes hundreds of billions of dollars to perfecting the machinery of death. The same irrationality can be found at the next level up. At a time of climate crisis, when we are burning our bridges to the future right out from beneath our feet, can the world really afford to spend more than a trillion dollars a year on what amounts to a second means of existential egress?
It’s remarkable that more anthropologists are not spending their time trying to understand the mythology of military spending and its attendant ceremonies.
It’s no longer common in the anthropology profession to talk about studying “primitive cultures.” But surely, the culture of the Pentagon and its counterparts around the world qualify as primitive: illogical, irrational, and guided by baser instincts. Don’t let the modern dress fool you. The thinking that prevails inside the military-industrial complex is fundamentally prehistoric in its savagery (no offense to the Neanderthal).
There’s also no evidence, alas, that this thinking is changing. This month, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) released its annual assessment of global military spending. After several of years of decline, the numbers went up again in 2015. It’s a sign of maturity when children learn from their mistakes. We are obviously still in civilizational infancy.
The world spent nearly $1.7 trillion on weapons of mass, medium, and minor destruction in 2015, SIPRI calculates.
The United States still leads the pack by a factor of nearly three. The Chinese increased their spending last year by 7.4 percent to $215 billion. If it continues to spend at that rate (which is highly unlikely) and the United States doesn’t increase its own military budget in response (even more unlikely), it would take until about 2030 for China to catch up. At that point, China would be able to enjoy not only the status of superpower but also the crumbling infrastructure that goes along with the dubious distinction.
The big surprise this year in the SIPRI report is the country that now occupies third place. It’s not Russia, even though the Kremlin increased its spending by 7.5 percent in 2015. Nor is it Japan or any of the countries of Europe, which in the past have cracked the top five.
The third most wasteful spender in the world in 2015 was Saudi Arabia at $87. 2 billion. The sharp uptick in military expenditures reflects the Saudi military intervention in Yemen, which has cost an estimated $5.3 billion. Saudi Arabia has been destroying its neighbor, already a desperately poor country before the bombs began to fall, in order to demonstrate its regional status, particularly to Iran. Someone should tell the sheiks that a gift of a few solar energy facilities and desalination plants would have demonstrated status to Iran and ensured the loyalty of Yemenis far more effectively and at a much more affordable price.
The truly remarkable story behind the increase in global military expenditures has been the role of energy. The price of oil has plummeted over the last couple years. This has cut dramatically into the military expenditures of countries like Venezuela (down 64 percent) and Angola (down 52 percent), and will eventually impact Russia and Saudi Arabia as well. Even with these cutbacks — which meant that overall military spending for both Africa and Latin America fell in 2015 — the world still managed to blow an enormous amount of money on war and preparations for war.
Driving up the global total was Asia, where the conflict around the South China Sea has intensified the arms race in the region. The Middle East too saw a regional increase, though SIPRI didn’t release a regional total because of the lack of statistical information from some countries. It did, however, note that Iraq increased its military spending from 2006 to 2015 by 536 percent. Maybe the United States and its allies failed at nation-building in Iraq because they were so focused on army-building instead.
The problem, ultimately, boils down to status.
The bloated military budgets no longer bear much relationship to actual defense, at least not for the big spenders. The Pentagon and its ilk are more concerned with perceptions. If the arguments over budget priorities focused on defense, the different sides could debate issues of sufficiency. But when the debate enters the realm of perception, there is never enough spending to satisfy the status imperative.
Several organizations have tried to redefine global status in non-military terms with the Global Peace Index, the Human Development Index, the Global Green Economy Index, and so forth. All of this is to the good. Some day, we will declare the top-ranking countries in these indices the global superpowers and pity the idiot countries that pride themselves on the amount of money they lavish on soldiering.
Public pressure is mounting. For the sixth year in row, activists around the world organized events for the Global Day of Action on Military Spending. In Prague, Athens, Nairobi, Buenos Aires, across Canada and the United States, in New Zealand and Australia, all over the UK, on the Peace Boat as it sailed around Northeast Asia, and in 50 rural villages in India, peace and human needs organizations came together around a simple message: Cut military spending, fund human needs.
There is something fundamentally dysfunctional about the primitive culture inside the military-industrial complex. What started out as homeland defense has morphed into a self-destructive feedback loop, sustained by Congress, nurtured by universities, and reinforced by popular culture. Severing this feedback loop is no mean task.
Anthropologists and activists: We have our work cut out for us.