By Bryan Mabee and Srdjan Vucitec
The word “militarism” has seen better days. Judging by Google Books’ Ngram Viewer, it first entered into the vernacular in the nineteenth century, first in Spanish, then in French, Italian and Russian, then in English and German. The word reached its zenith in these European languages during and after World War II, then slowly declined in every language except in Russian, where it peaked sometime around the Cuban Missile Crisis. In Hebrew, the word has an entirely different trajectory, as it probably does in Chinese as well (our simplified Chinese Ngram View attempt failed). Most interestingly, by the year 2000- the last on offer by Google’s program- “militarism” appears to be falling out of favor across the board.
What about within the language of Critical Security Studies (CSS)? Looking at the content of CSS scholarship in textbooks and journals—Security Dialogue included—we see that the word militarism and its cognates are under-provided. Although overlaps exist between militarism on the one hand and “broadened and deepened” areas of security on the other, the word is simply not part of the everyday CSS vernacular. Rather than focusing directly on the continued relevance of the military as a key institution of power, the theoretical and analytical focus of CSS has tended to concern itself with other issues—such as securitisation.
This is now changing. The rise to power of Donald Trump, who once described himself as the “most militaristic person“; the ever-expanding global arms trade; and the growing risk of nuclearized conflict involving North Korea are all bringing the realities of militarism back into the foreground.
We argue that it is essential for CSS to understand militarism in the context of historical sociology. There, the conceptual debate revolves around two basic questions: how fundamental is militarism to political and social life? And how do we situate our conceptualizations of militarism in historical context?
We argue that it is essential for CSS to understand militarism in the context of historical sociology. There, the conceptual debate revolves around two basic questions: how fundamental is militarism to political and social life? And how do we situate our conceptualizations of militarism in historical context? A historical sociological perspective can advance established agendas within CSS. Both militarism as a fundamental feature of socio-political life and the production of security are mutually constituted. As such, it is an urgent task to analyse different manifestations of militarism today, their historical trajectories, and their inter-relationships.
To that end, we identify four ideal types of militarism that should be of interest to CSS. One of these, ‘exceptionalist’ militarism, is about the ways in which ‘normal’ politics is suspended for ‘security’ reasons—an ideal type that CSS scholars will immediately recognize. To return to the Trump example again, recall his notorious ‘Muslim ban’ on 27 January 2017. The U.S. president signed this executive order during the swearing in ceremony for the new defence secretary, James Mattis, at the Pentagon, in a press room adorned with military symbols (including an oversized Medal of Honor, the country’s highest military decoration), and alongside an order to increase military spending.
What CSS researchers tend to ignore are other types of militarism, namely ‘nation-state militarism,’ ‘civil society militarism,’ and ‘neoliberal militarism.’ Nation-statist militarism is the default (‘normal’) setting for militarism in international and global life, characterised by some form of civilian control over the armed forces and a state-led economic and social mobilisation of ‘destructive’ forces. Trump’s touting of martial values or enjoying Bastille Day military parades with President Emmanuel Macron of France illustrates this type of militarism.
Civil society militarism still derives from a pronounced statism, but thrives on deliberately blurred lines between soldiers and civilians: it is the use of organised military violence in pursuit of social goals that is, as Michael Mann puts it, ‘state-supported, but not state-led’. For example, the Mexico-United States border control ecology, especially in the current Trump era, cannot be understood without an analysis of the so-called vigilante groups who use military hardware and tactics (drones and small planes engaged in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance operations), and military culture (camouflage outfits, command structure) to ‘monitor the border’.
Finally, neoliberal militarism refers to the configuration of social forces and social relations in which military mobilisation is achieved at once through the framework of socio-economic liberalisation and through the formal division between (professional) soldiers and civilians. The relevant developments are not simply the marketization of defence procurement and of personnel management, but also the rise of private military actors, the privatization and corporitization of military logistics, and the ‘streamlining’ (Trump’s word) of transactions in the international arms market. The neoliberal imagination of freedom and fluidity are key to all of these developments.
By diversifying its understanding of militarism, CSS has an opportunity not only to make a major advance in contemporary scholarship but also inform policy and political discourses that define our moment in history.