keeping it civil

‘Naïve’, ‘red’, even ‘dangerous’ — I recall my teenage self and fellow anti-nuclear campaigners being on the receiving end of these and similar adjectives while we leafleted for CND on Saturday mornings. And at least for a while after the end of the Cold War, add ‘irrelevant’ too. But now? The nuclear question has become an issue in the UK General Election campaign where, bizarrely, the candidate who has said she would push the nuclear button is widely seen as the responsible one.

During a televised debate Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was ‘heckled’, as BBC Radio 4 put it, over his reluctance to confirm whether he’d ever authorise the use of Britain’s nuclear weapons. Corbyn ruled out a first strike; when asked about a retaliatory strike he pointed to the devastating effect on the planet and its population that would entail, adding that he’d consider the evidence and circumstances of the specific situation. That sounded like a no, and I’m pleased to hear it: I absolutely believe that nuclear retaliation is the ultimate futility. But I wish that Corbyn’s ‘no’ had been bolder, less hedged. The problem is of course that while Corbyn is a dedicated anti-nuclear campaigner who opposes the renewal of Trident, his party takes a multilateral approach to disarmament and supports Trident. Still, prevarication over the nuclear ‘deterrent’ is nothing new for Labour, the party that gave Britain the Bomb in the first place. Under Corbyn’s leadership it’s a debate that looks set to continue.       

For me, antimilitarism is a theme where lifelong personal conviction coincides with research interest. A paper I’m currently working on examines the German Left Party’s antimilitarism policy. Crucially, the draft manifesto [German] recognises that demilitarisation goes far beyond disarmament and bringing home forces: it’s also about demilitarising society. Two important and related issues I want to highlight here are weapons exports, which the Left Party would ban outright¹, and the Zivilklausel, or ‘civilian clause’. Institutions that commit to the civilian clause, universities for example, undertake that their activities (e.g. teaching and research) are for exclusively civilian purposes. The Left Party wants not only to protect the clause but also to extend it, for example to international development projects.

demilitarisation goes far beyond disarmament…
it’s also about demilitarising society.

However, some background reading led me to a recent article in Bremen’s Weser Kurier paper, which stridently put the case for supporting the weapons industry and against the civilian clause. The writer noted with approval that pragmatists in Bremen’s Social Democrat-Green government had long since realised that without ‘militarily relevant’ companies investing in the city-state, there would be less money for redistribution; the economics minister had lamented the ‘culture of shame’ surrounding investment by these companies. Conversely, the writer expressed frustration that the civilian clause could stand in the way of a satellite manufacturer endowing a professorial chair, or the Bundeswehr (army) funding an IT programme for female students. These might seem very specific and local examples, but the line of thinking behind them has far wider implications — also for the UK, which alongside Germany ranks among the world’s top weapons exporters. 

First, the article asserts that given the asymmetrical nature of security threats and the increase in cyber attacks it’s no longer possible to draw a clear distinction between military and civil. Likewise, just as military innovation feeds into civilian markets, innovations across a range of industries (e.g. technical communication, medicine, textiles) can be adapted for military purposes. Again, the line is blurred. The second argument contends that in an era of greater global insecurity when Europe needs to defend itself, rather than depend on what Chancellor Merkel recently described as an increasingly ‘unreliable’ USA, manufacturers developing their expertise into new (military) sectors should be welcomed, along with the jobs they bring.

There is much I find troubling in these arguments. But I’ll pick up on two main concerns.

The first is the economic justification of the arms trade. In another UK election debate, Green co-leader Caroline Lucas asked the prime minister’s stand-in how she slept at night in the knowledge that the UK was selling arms to regimes the government itself had flagged over human rights concerns. The reply was a succinct one: it benefited the economy. It’s a claim open to challenge on so many levels, not least in terms of the wider impact of destruction, collapse and instability in countries where those weapons are deployed. graffiti-1472472_1920Nonetheless, militarisation of the economy does mean jobs depend on weapons manufacturers and supporting industries. One of the UK’s largest trade unions, Unite, recognises that ‘ordinary working people have always borne the cost, human and material, of wars and the arms race’. But it then explains Unite’s support of Trident’s renewal: as a trade union, ‘the first claim on its priorities’ was the ‘protection and advancement of its members [sic] interests at work’, including ‘the preservation of our members’ jobs (…) and the communities in which they live’². It’s certainly true that conversion to the civilian sector presents a huge challenge. Not every job or skill is easily transferable from one industry to another, as restructuring programmes frequently show. The Left’s draft manifesto outlines some of the far-reaching measures required: state investment into conversion of production, support for affected companies undergoing that process and investment in infrastructure including renewables, transport and housing.

But here’s my second concern. Unite’s statement understandably stresses the need for a government that’s ‘willing and able to give cast-iron guarantees on the security of the skilled work and all the employment involved’. However, if we accept the ongoing and often subtle militarisation of society — access to military markets for civilian manufacturers, for example, or more education sponsored by weapons producers —  the disentanglement of military and civilian becomes even more complicated. In other words, militarisation itself threatens to inhibit the solid political will needed to successfully and sustainably meet the conversion challenge: as military and civilian become even more densely woven together, will any government dare to pick them apart?

Which is why we need that civilian clause firmly embedded in our institutions, economy and society.


¹ The party campaigns with the motto: ‘Jede Waffe findet Ihren Krieg‘ – every weapon finds its war.

² Unite Executive Council statement on Trident [here]

image credit: ShonEjai @ pixabay


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