Jane Austen and Eisenhower’s Military-Industrial Complex
My thanks to Jane Austen and her novel Mansfield Park as it has helped me to see and understand our political, our human condition today.
In Mansfield Park, there are allusions to the British practicing slavery, not in Britain itself – where in “the Mansfield case” it was held illegal to hold slaves - but in what were then called “the West Indies,” and especially to that practice in Antigua. Sir Thomas Bertram leaves Britain and Mansfield Park, his estate, to tend to the “affairs” of his estate in Antigua and there are allusions to the practice of slavery and even to the existence of a slave revolt. This would not be odd because in 1736 there had been a slave revolt on that island, when 77 slave rebels were burned alive, while in Jamaica in 1760 approximately 400 slave were tortured and killed for rebelling. Slave revolts in the West Indies were far from unknown and so by placing Sir Bertram in Antiqua to deal with his estate there would have led readers then to wonder just what it was he was doing there and, especially, as it involved, as the narrator says, “great danger.”
But what, pray tell, does this have to do with Eisenhower and our military-industrial complex? Well, by merely referring to the Brits practice of slavery, and of course hinting at the inhumanity required to maintain slavery, Austen causes readers to take note of the connection between Britain’s practice of slavery and its economy or society generally. That is, the British ability to live as they did, as Sir Bertram did, depended upon slavery. The two phenomena, in fact, are not “two phenomena” at all. They are one phenomenon, with the one aspect of it, the British, or some of them anyway, living lives of significant luxury, being connected to and dependent upon the other, the practice of slavery and, therewith, on the inhuman measures needed to maintain that slavery. Britain’s greatness, its wealth, rested on, was made possible by great inhumanity. [And not only inhumanity abroad as Fanny’s life and life generally in Portsmouth reveals.]
The same can be said, I think, of what Eisenhower labeled in his Farewell Address “the military-industrial complex.” That is, Eisenhower, when he labeled this “complex” in this way, gave rise to the thought that that “complex” was just one aspect, one feature of our political system, one which, as Eisenhower warned, must be watched, tended to, and reined in as necessary. But, in fact, Ike’s “military-industrial complex” is no such thing. Rather, it is, as was the British practice of slavery, central to our economy, to our society, to our political order, to our “way of living.”
Which is to say: Our rather significant luxury or wealth, as reflected by our numerous shopping malls, our wonderfully luxurious and even beautiful automobiles, our ability to travel the world via cruises and other kinds of exotic vacations, is in the final analysis dependent upon the existence and continued vigor of our “military-industrial complex.” And, of course, that existence and vigor is dependent upon making war or, at the very least, “projecting American power” throughout the world, ostensibly in response to particular dangers created by ISIS, Russia, Iran, or North Korea. We must keep “military-industrial complex” going if we wish to maintain the rather commodious life we have created for ourselves – or at least for some of us – in these United States, just as Sir Bertram had to put his “affairs” in the West Indies “in order” – an “order” of slavery - if he was going to be able to maintain Mansfield Park. And just like Sir Bertram, who had to engage in inhuman warfare to maintain his estates, both in Antiqua and at Mansfield Park, so too we have to engage in inhuman acts, such as killing civilians, including children and old people, in order to maintain our own “Mansfield Parks” here in the United States.
What Eisenhower saw as a separate phenomenon, “the military-industrial complex,” is in fact not a separate phenomenon at all. It is central to how we have chosen to live. Or to put it differently, “going shopping” – as Bush Jr. told us to do after 9/11 – and going after terrorists are, in fact, just different aspects of the same kind of politics, a politics of “greatness,” a politics that secures wealth, even great wealth, at the expense of our humanity.