Review: Economic Conversion: Revitalizing America's Economy

By Suzanne Gordon and David McFadden, eds., Harper and Row, 1984. 256 pages, paperback, $17.50.

By Joe Mihevc

AT FIRST GLANCE, President Reagan's plan for restoring America's economy has worked. He has produced jobs and lowered inflation and interest rates by rearming America. These results seem to support the arguments that government intervention in the military sector, that a military Keynesianism, is critical to the renewed strength of the US economy.

There is, however, a growing movement, with its own body of literature, that argues to the contrary -- that military spending is precisely the main cause of the depletion of American industry and the loss of industrial competence.

Economic Conversion: Revitalizing America's Economy, edited by Suzanne Gordon and Dave McFadden, is the most recent contribution to the growing literature which details the negative impact of military spending on a national economy. The book's primary contribution is the challenge it presents to the Reaganomics' argument that military spending produces jobs and stimulates a nation's economy. Robert DeGrasse and Seymour Melman outline how increases in military spending have paralleled a depletion of civilian industry and infrastructure. In the steel industry, for example, the US, which formerly dominated the world market, now imports 15 to 20% of its requirements from the highly efficient steel-makers in Japan and Western Europe. Foreign cars, mostly Japanese, comprise 27% of automobiles driven in the US. The military side of the economy may be doing well because of government support, but the civilian sectors are no longer able to fulfill their own nation's needs. The authors of the book agree that "by 1980, it is clear, the US industrial economy had suffered a debacle."

The struggle against militarism and military production is a labour concern. A number of chapters highlight how it is in labour's self-interest, because of its interest in preserving jobs, to struggle against a militarized economy. Examples are given of particular attempts to convert specific industries as models for labour and peace activists wishing to do likewise in their own locale. The traditional fears that conversion will jeopardize workers' immediate livelihood are dealt with through chapters providing insights into how concrete "nuts and bolts" conversion plans involving the workers, community and government may take place.

Two chapters on the conversion activities in England and in Western Europe are particularly exciting because they offer the most tangible evidence that conversion is an achievable goal. The attempts to convert Lucas Aerospace has drawn international attention. Within Great Britain, the Lucas struggle has challenged the labour movement and the Labour Party to work on conversion strategies and conversion legislation, the peace movement to address the issue of jobs, and various levels of government to initiate regional conversion councils that support plant-by-plant conversion efforts. The efforts in Europe, most notably in Great Britain, serve as inspiration around the world.

Despite its strengths, however, the book does not deal with a number of issues and concerns that need to be addressed before a fuller understanding of the basis of militarism and a viable conversion strategy can be developed. For example, none of the chapters deal with the global causes of the present level of militarization in the world. While some chapters imply some kind of global analysis, what is explicitly examined most seriously is the internal US sources of the military-industrial complex. Chapter 11 on "Can Business Become a Participant" could have dealt with the transnational corporations, the new international division of labour, the rise of the national security state, oppression in the Third World and Pentagon interventionism. The militarization of the US is not solely the result of domestic politics; it is also meant to freeze a particular global economic order.

Does the economic conversion movement align itself with the anti-intervention movement? The chapter on business suggests that it is in business' self-interest to promote conversion, and the following chapter on coalition-building notes that "somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of the Fortune 500 corporations are sponsoring some kind of worker participation scheme." However, if economic conversion is merely an attempt to achieve, or re-achieve, world dominance through industrial re-organization rather than through the current military means, then there is cause to be fearful of the movement's success.

From a Canadian perspective, economic conversion looks different. While economic conversion for Americans may mean revitalizing their economy so that they again can be at the "top," our experience of a vitalized American economy has been that it penetrates our economy more intensely, causing uneven and incomplete industrialization, increased regional disparity and added unemployment and inflation. The mainstream of the economic conversion movement needs to be challenged to be more inclusive of global justice issues in its conversion efforts.

The linkages between different movements addressed by economic conversion proponents in the book are primarily between the peace and labour movement, and to a lesser extent include the environmental movement. In his chapter arguing for building broader coalitions, it is interesting that Geiser does not encourage networking with the women's and black communities, even though feminist and anti-racist analyses can contribute to a broader justice vision for conversion proponents. Marion Anderson, with her studies on black and women's employment in the defence industries, has noted how military spending has particular negative effects on these constituencies; this could be the start for greater analytical work. The conversion movement must not be primarily a white and male issue.

In summary, Economic Conversion: Revitalizing America's Economy provides what I will call a partial, medium-range strategy for linking the peace and labour movements against militarism. That is, in the medium-range the book provides grounds for an alliance between peace and labour and possibly with those nationalist sectors of US business that oppose the internationalization of capital. In the present milieu of Reaganomics and Pentagon Power, this is a radical step in itself.

Peace Magazine April 1985

Peace Magazine April 1985, page 31. Some rights reserved.

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