Workers’ Power and Neoliberal War-Making: Transformations in the Political-Economy of War in the United States

Corey Payne, Johns Hopkins University

In the mid-twentieth century, the mass mobilization of worker-citizens to wage wars yielded an increase in domestic production, tighter labor markets, higher wages, a rise in union membership, declining inequality, and a ‘tripartite social compact’ between workers, capital, and states. Contrarily, recent transformations in the political-economy of war have led to the emergence of what I call neoliberal war-making, which is characterized by increased capital intensity and outsourcing in both the sphere of warfare and the sphere of war-materials provisioning. This paper compares these paradigms to explore the relationship between war and workers’ power in the United States. I analyze labor struggles in the U.S. manufacturing sector and show that twenty-first century wars have led to an increase in workers’ bargaining power in war-materials provisioning industries, yielding a bifurcation of manufacturing workers between those who are and are not involved in the military-industrial complex. However, through a comparison with the twentieth century paradigm, I show that this twenty-first century empowerment of workers in war-provisioning industries is more localized and less durable than in the past. This is caused by several features of neoliberal war-making—such as the growing ability of the state to outsource war-materials provisioning and by a shift towards the production of unnecessary war-materials. I therefore conclude that, while recent wars have yielded localized workers empowerment, it is unlikely a twentieth century-style tripartite ‘social compact’ can re-emerge in the United States with industrial workers at the center.

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 Presented in Session 23. Labor and Foreign Policy