The economic modernity has its roots in the military armamentism

Robert Kurz

The following text was published originally in « Caderno Mais! », Folha de São Paulo, March 30th, 1997.

German-Portuguese translation: José Marcos Macedo [in].

Translation into Portuguese for Pimienta Negra: Round Desk

Translation Spanish-English: Contracorriente

There are many versions of the modern era birth. The historians haven’t come to an agreement, even about the date. Some said that modernity begun in the XV and XVI centuries, with the Renaissance (a concept that was invented only in the XIX century by Jules Michelet, like the French historian Lucien Lefevre has demonstrated). Others find the true rupture, the modernity take off, in the XVIII century, when the Enlightenment philosophy, the French Revolution and the beginnings of the industrialization shook the planet. Whatever it was the date preferred by the historians and the modern philosophers for their world birth, they agree in one thing: the positive conquests are taken as the original impulses.

They are considered as prominent reasons for the ascent of the modernity as much the artistic and scientific innovations of the Italian Renaissance as the big discovery trips starting from Columbus, the Protestant and Calvinist idea of the individual's specific responsibility, the enlightened liberation from the irrational beliefs and the emergence of the modern democracy in France and United States. The invention of the vapor machine is remembered in the technician-industrial field, and the mechanical loom as « haulage-horse » of the modern social development.

Mainly the Marxism underlined the last explanation because it is in harmony with its « historical materialism ». The true motor of the history, affirms this doctrine, is the development of the material « productive forces » that repeatedly come into conflict with the too narrow «production relationships» that force to a new society form. For that reason, the jump toward the industrialization is the decisive point for the Marxism: the steam engine, said the simplified formula, would have been the first one breaking the « currents of the old feudal production relationships."

Here it is obvious a shouting contradiction in the Marxist argument. Because in the famous chapter about the « primitive accumulation of the capital", Marx, in his great opera, talks about periods that were centuries before the steam engine. Won't this be a self-refutation of the « historical materialism"? If the « primitive accumulation » and the steam engine are so far away from the historical point of view, the productive forces of the industry could not have been the main cause of the modern capitalism birth. It is true that the capitalist production way was only imposed definitely with the industrialization of the XIX century, but, if we look for the development roots, we have to dig deeper.

It is also logical that the first modernity germ, or the « big bang » of its dynamics, had to arise from a pre-modern mean, because otherwise it could not be an " origin " in the rigorous sense of the word. This way, the very precocious « first cause » and the very late « full consolidation » don't represent a contradiction. If it is also true that for many world regions and for many social groups the modernization beginning is prolonged until the present, it is equally true that the first impulse has to have happened in a remote past, if we consider the enormous temporary extension of the social processes (from the perspective of the life of a generation or even of an isolated person).

Finally, what was the new thing in a relatively distant past, that engendered, in its sequence, the history of modernization? We can agree with the historical materialism that the biggest and main relevance doesn't correspond to a simple change of ideas and mentalities, but rather to the full development of the concrete material facts. It was not, however, the productive force, but on the contrary a resonant destructive force, the one that opened the modernization way: the invention of the firearms. Although this correlation is known long time ago, the most notorious and consequent modernization theories (included the Marxism) always underestimated it.

It was the German economy historian, Werner Sombart, who in a sharp way, a bit before the First World War, in his work " War and Capitalism » (1913), approached this question minutely. Only the last years, the technician-arms and warlike-economic origins of the capitalism have been in the agenda again, as for example in the book of the German economist Karl Georg Zinn, « Canyons and pest » (1989), or in the work of the North American historian Geoffrey Parker « The military Revolution » (1990). But none found the repercussion that deserved. As it is evident, the modern western world and their ideologists only accept unwillingly the vision that the last historical foundation of its sacred concept of " freedom " and « progress » it should be found in the invention of the diabolical mortal instrument of the human history. This relationship also serves for the modern democracy, because the « military revolution » remains until today as a secret reason of the modernization. The own atomic bomb was a western democratic invention.

The innovation of the firearms destroyed the pre-capitalists ways of dominance, since it returned militarily ridiculous the feudal cavalry. Already before the invention of the firearms, their social consequence was foreseen, because the Second Council of Letran prohibited in 1139 the use of the crossbows [*] against the Christian. The crossbow imported from no-European cultures to Europe toward the year 1000 was considered, not by chance, as the specific weapon of the hijackers, those outside of the law and rebels. When the canyon weapons, much more effective, came the fate of the horse armies, wrapped in armors, was sealed.

However, the firearm was no longer in hands of an opposition « underneath » that faced the feudal domain, but it took rather to a revolution «above " with the princes and kings’ help. Since the production and the mobilization of the new weapons systems were not possible in local and decentralized structures, the way they had marked the social reproduction, they demanded a totally new organization of the society, in diverse levels.

The firearms, mainly the big canyons, could no longer be produced in small ateliers, as the cold steels or those of propulsion. For that reason a specific industry of armaments that produced canyons and muskets in big factories was developed. At the same time, a new military architecture of defence arose, in the form of gigantic strengths that had to resist the gunshots. An innovative dispute among offensive and defensive weapons and arms career among the States was created and persists until today.

The armies’ structure was modified deeply by the firearms. The belligerents could no longer be equipped by themselves and they had to be supplied by a centralized social power. For that reason the military organization of the society was separated from the civil one. The « permanent armies » arose: the " armed forces " as specific social group were born, instead of the citizens mobilized by campaigns or by local gentlemen with their armed families; and the army became a strange body inside the society. Becoming officer became a personal duty of the citizens, a modern " profession ". This new military organization and new warlike techniques grew at the same time that the contingent of the armies. "The armed troops, between 1500 and 1700, almost multiplied tenfold themselves" (Geoffrey Parker).

Arms industry, arms career and maintenance of the permanently organized armies, divorced themselves from the civil society and at the same time with a strong growth, necessarily took to a radical subversion of the economy. The great military complex, detached from the society demanded a « permanent economy of war". This new death economy extended itself like a shroud over the agrarian structures of the old societies.

Since the armaments and the army could no longer protect themselves in the local agrarian reproduction and they had to be supplied with span resources and inside anonymous relationships, they passed to depend on money mediation. The goods production and the monetary economy as basic elements of the capitalism won impulse in the beginning of the modern era, thanks to the liberation of the military and arms economy.

This development produced and favoured the capitalist subjectivity and its mentality of the abstract « do more ». The permanent financial lack of the war economy drove, in the civil society, to the increase of the usurer and commercial capitalists, the big savers and the backers of war. The new organization of the army also marked the capitalist mentality.

The old agrarian belligerents became " soldiers ", that is to say, people who receive the « sold ». They were the first modern " salary earners " that had to reproduce their life exclusively for the monetary rent and for the consumption of goods. And for that reason they no longer struggled any more for idealistic reasons, but only for money. It was indifferent for them who to kill, because what « interested » was the « sold »; this way they became the first representatives of the « abstract work" (Marx) inside the modern system producing of goods.

The bosses and the " soldiers' " commandants were interested in gather resources by plunders and to transform them into money. Therefore, the plunders rent had to be bigger than the war costs. There is the origin of the modern managerial rationality. Most of the generals and commandants of the army in the beginnings of the modern era invested with gain the product of their plunders and became partners of the monetary and commercial capital.

Therefore they were neither the peaceful salesman, nor the diligent saver or the producer full of ideas those who marked the capitalism beginning, but just the opposite: in the same way that the " soldiers ", as sanguinary artisans of the firearm, were the modern salary earner prototypes, likewise the army commandants and condottieri « money multipliers » were the prototypes of the modern management and of their « disposition to risk."

Nevertheless the " condottieri ", as free managers of the death, depended on the big wars of the centralized state powers and of their financing capacity. The modern relationship of reciprocity between market and State has its origin here. To be able to finance the armaments industries and the strengths, the gigantic armies and the war, the States had to draw out until the blood of its populations. In correspondence with the matter, in an equally new way: instead of the old taxes in species, they asked for the monetary tribute. People were forced to « make money » to be able to pay their taxes to the State. So, the war economy forced the system of the market economy, not only in a direct but also an indirect way. Between XVI and XVIII centuries, the people’s tribute in the European countries grew until 2.000%.

Obviously, people did not let introduce voluntarily the new monetary and arms economy. They could only be forced by a bloody oppression. The permanent war economy of the firearms produced, during centuries, the permanent popular insurrection and, following its print, the permanent war. In order to be able to draw out the horrendous tributes, the state’s centralized powers had to build a monstrous apparatus of police and administration. All the modern state’s apparatuses come from this history of the modern era beginning. The local self-administration was substituted by the centralized and hierarchical administration, in charge of a bureaucracy whose nucleus was formed with the tribute and the internal oppression support.

The positive conquests of the modernization always took with themselves the stigma of those origins. The industrialization of the XIX century, technologically as much as historically in organizations and mentalities, was heiress of the firearms, of the armaments production of the modernity beginnings and of the social process that followed it. In this sense, it is not astonishing that the vertiginous capitalist development of the productive forces from the First Industrial Revolution can only happen in a destructive way, in spite of the seemingly innocent technical innovations.

The modern western democracy is unable to hide the fact that it is heiress of the military and arms dictatorship of the modernity beginning, not only in the technological sphere, but also in its social structure. Under the thin surface of the voting rituals and of the political speeches, we find the monster of an apparatus that administers and disciplines, in a continuous way, the citizen of the State, seemingly free, on behalf of the total monetary economy and of the war economy linked to it until today. No society of the history had such a big percentage of public officials and human resources administrators, soldiers and policemen; none squandered such a big part of its resources in armaments and armies.

The bureaucratic dictatorships of the «late modernization» in the east and in the south, with their centralizing apparatuses, were not the antipodes but the imitators of the war economy of the western history, without reach them. Finally, the more bureaucratised and militarised societies are, from the structural point of view, the western societies. The neo-liberalism is also an untimely son of the canyons, like the gigantic armamentism of the " Reaganomics " and the nineties history demonstrated. The death economy will remain as the disturbing legacy of the modern society founded in the market economy until the capitalism-kamikaze destroyed itself.


[*]Pimienta Negra Note: "The invention of this arm was in the IX century, and it arose as an answer to the necessity of applying bigger force to the arrows, when the foot troops adopted the mesh shirt. With the crossbow it was possible to throw the arrow with so powerful impulse that the projectile crossed mesh shirts (bench marks) and steel helmets. The use of the crossbow was generalized in Europe after the Crusades, and it became habitual weapon of all the armies from the XII until the XVI centuries. It was displaced by the firearms". (Encyclopaedic Illustrate Dictionary Plaza y Janés, 1982).