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Are Gun Manufacturing and Industrial Life Inextricably Tied? By Priya Satia


Priya Satia is a Professor of History at Stanford University. She is the author of Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain’s Covert Empire in the Middle East, and her writing has appeared in Slate, the Financial TimesThe Nation, and the Huffington Post, among other publications. She received a MSc in Development Studies (Economics) at the London School of Economics and a PhD in History at the University of California, Berkeley. She lives in Stanford, California with her family.

Female munitions workers inspecting 25 Pdr. shells at Northumberland Road, Newcastle upon Tyne, 20 November 1942 © flickr/Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums
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Samuel Galton, Jr., a prominent gun-maker in eighteenth-century Britain, was also a sincere Quaker. He eased his conscience about his business by reminding himself and others that everyone in his time and place was involved in one way or another in supporting the British government’s continual wars. In his understanding, war drove the industrial prosperity around him.

In Empire of Guns, I set out to test Galton’s view of the world, and the evidence I found persuaded me that he was right: the industrial revolution was significantly driven by war. The British government’s ever-increasing appetite for enormous quantities of industrially-produced goods drove innovation in technology and industrial organization. Britain’s economic transformation—long held up as a marvel of entrepreneurial genius unbound—was in fact the product of considerable state-led development.

When government demand ebbed during interludes of peace, the government helped arms-makers find outlets for their goods abroad. It also strove to smother arms-making capacity in British colonies, partly to ensure rival centers of industrialism did not emerge.

The wars Britain fought in the eighteenth century continually expanded its empire, making Britain the preeminent global power after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815. In other words, the violence of enslavement and colonial conquest in West Africa, North America, South Asia, and elsewhere drove industrial revolution in Britain.

There are echoes of such dynamics at work today, even with the rise of neoliberal commitments to the idea of government’s minimalistic role in the economy. Today’s Indian government is working to build a homegrown defense industry, openly embracing the militarism that, it believes, will finally enable “catch-up” with the West.

In the US, too, those in power are committed to the idea that war is good for the economy. In his boastsabout bonanza sales to Saudi Arabia, President Trump particularly noted which U.S. states will gain jobs (e.g. Michigan, Ohio, Florida—key swing states) from the government-brokered deals.

For the Lockheed Martin weapons system being prepared for the Saudis, the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency granted a waiver of the $3.5 billion fee required by law to compensate American taxpayers for the cost of developing the system. General Joseph Rixey, former director of the DSCA, has been hired as the Vice President of International Program Support at Lockheed. Meanwhile, former Lockheed executive John Rood is now undersecretary of defense for policy, whose duties include weighing in on arms deals."The old and deep structural ties between violence and industrialism might easily drive one to despair."

In Britain, too, amid scandals of revolving door hires between the government and the arms industry, arms industry spokesmen remind the public that exports to Saudi Arabia and elsewhere enable the industry to employ “150,000 highly skilled people” in Britain and “thousands more…through the extended supply chain,” and to invest “huge sums in research and development.”

As the rest of the world strains after regulation of the global firearms trade (witness the efforts behind the 2014 Arms Trade Treaty), the Trump administration plans to ease controls on US firearms exports by moving regulation of them from the State Department to the looser jurisdiction of the Commerce Department, where some sales may not even require licensing.

Firearms sales to American civilians support the government-led effort to keep arms industries healthy for the sake of general prosperity. The tightening of gun control laws elsewhere in the world has made American civilians an ever-more crucial market for the world’s firearms manufacturers. As in the eighteenth century, government purchases are not enough to keep them in business year-round; American civilians are a crucial support, owning roughly a third of all firearms in the world today.

Recognizing the way violence has historically driven industrialism gives us a better sense of how global economic structures today shape the daily mass shootings that have become a norm in the United States. The newly energized gun control movement is trying to change that by pressuring companies to disengage from the firearms industry.

Bank of America announced that it will no longer lend to gun manufacturers that make military-style firearms for civilians (like the AR-15). In recent years, it and Wells Fargo funded the revolving $200 million loan that allowed the AR-15 manufacturer Remington to borrow for operations. A big change.

To those in favor of gun control, Bank of America looks more attractive as a financial institution. But what impact can its new lending policy have? Wells Fargo has no plans to change its lending practices towards firearms manufacturers. How many banks need to boycott manufacturers of AR-15s to affect their manufacture and sale, especially since Bank of America has no plans to change its relations with retailers of these guns? And does boycotting AR-15 manufacturers redeem the otherwise abysmal record of banks mired in scandal for the last decade? What of the fact that many of today’s most storied banks are founded on wealth accumulated through war and colonialism? Galton himself founded a bank with his war profits—today part of HSBC. His relations, the Lloyds and the Barclays, also founded banks that financed war.

When investment firms like Blackstone and BlackRock cull gun companies from the portfolios of clients who do not wish to invest in them, they enhance their brand appeal without significantly affecting either the gun industry or the inequities perpetuated by such wealth-consolidating firms.

Apart from financial institutions, what of the taxes we pay that continue to go towards government and military gun purchases? What of the law, advertising, investment, and insurance firms; materials and parts suppliers; and retailers implicated in the industry? The Galtons were important philanthropists in their time, and their Italian counterparts, the Berettas, remain major donors to arts organizations today, even while filling the coffers of the NRA. Is the art world complicit, too?

This was Galton’s question: if he ceased to make guns and switched to, say, the iron trade in which many fellow Quakers participated, would his hands wind up any cleaner? After all, some of the biggest customers for iron were gun-makers. Bankers were implicated in war; wool manufacturers made fortunes contracting for soldiers’ uniforms. So did buckle- and button-makers.

If Quaker industrialists could not avoid complicity in the evil of war in Galton’s time, how might companies committed not to “be evil” fare in our time? Thousands of Google employees have signed a letter protesting the company’s involvement in Project Maven, a Pentagon program that may use artificial intelligence to improve drone strike targeting. But at the same time, Google is widely expected to compete with rival tech giants (and defense contractors) Amazon and Microsoft for a multiyear, multibillion-dollar contract to provide cloud services to the Defense Department. The war machine remains a major factor in the most innovative sectors of the economy.

Meanwhile, American arms can be found on all sides of conflicts around the world. During the Iraq war that began in 2003, thousands of lost rifles wound up in the hands of those resisting American occupation. In 2014, Islamic State fighters took up billions of dollars worth of weaponry abandoned by retreating Iraqi forces. The Taliban has American weaponry. American arms are on multiple sides of the Syrian conflict. Arms manufacturing drives our economy, but creates chaos around the world.

The old and deep structural ties between violence and industrialism might easily drive one to despair. The suicide of notable lawyer David Buckel in protest against the environmental ravages of industrial life seems to have emerged from just such a sense of hopelessness and exhaustion. It is that Conradian cry of “The horror, the horror,” in the face of unbearable knowledge of systemic human complicity in soul-corrupting violence.

But it is only with the wider spread of such knowledge that we can begin to think anew about our commitments to our industrial way of life. We might imagine more peaceable ways in which states may drive economic growth around the world. Or we may reconsider industrial life itself, as did Mahatma Gandhi during India’s movement for independence, and William Morris and others before him.

Their ideas may have been romantic, but they had mass purchase. As we continue to look to technology to save us, despite the disasters piling up before our eyes, it is time perhaps to reinvent the possibility and promise of poetic political action. Our global system was founded not only on guns, slaves, and cotton, but on the search for imaginative relief from the dehumanization they caused: The products of the nightmare of plantation labor — tobacco, opium, coffee, cocoa, sugar, and tea–steeped us in a dream of progress. But rather than drugged escape, perhaps we might rely on our own imaginative powers; “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.”

Industrial life is a recent phenomenon, a mere moment on the scale of human history. Until recent decades, we actively explored alternative ways of organizing human society, rather than accepting industrial capitalism, with all its human and environmental devastation, as an inescapable norm and default. Perhaps it is time to revisit lost causes of the past and invent new ways forward.