Between & Beyond: Industrial Complex

Dwight D. Eisenhower: five-star Army general, Republican, 34th president of the United States, and the most unlikely of prophets. In a time of abundant peace and prosperity and normalcy, Eisenhower bid the nation farewell as he left his term in office and addressed us as if we were capable and intelligent citizens. It was a different time. Things were about to get really weird in the ’60s, but ultimately not weird enough as things went quickly back to business as usual, and that’s exactly what Eisenhower was warning us about: business as usual. I’m talking, of course, about Eisenhower’s warning of a burgeoning military-industrial complex. The problem remains as entrenched as ever, and within our current cultural climate it has become all the more systemic.

Eisenhower’s fear was based on the idea that if the arms industry had become so profitable, the desire to perpetuate that profit could shape government policy, both foreign and domestic. Eisenhower said, “Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.” These elements, though vastly different in scope and nature, are the very things we struggle with today. Our work has exited the factories by and large, but all the same, our financial security and the American Dream itself hang in uncertainty.

But, if we no longer depend on factory jobs and the prosperity of manufacturing, why does this still matter to us? Sure, we have seen wars in the past 10 or even 20 years, but certainly not on the full scale of World War II. It’s not like our entire economy was converted. The reason why Eisenhower’s concerns still matter is because many industrial complexes have arisen since the 1960s. In fact, American capitalism has become a vast network of industrial complexes. How many can you name? The military-industrial complex still absolutely exists, but we can add the prison-industrial complex (forever entwined with the drug war and the police state, both industrial complexes of sorts themselves), the medical-industrial complex (with an incredibly heavy lean towards specifically the pharmaceutical-industrial complex), the college/education-industrial complex, the energy-industrial complex, the financial-industrial complex, the communications-industrial complex, the agricultural-industrial complex.

This list could probably continue into all the nooks and crannies of our culture. The idea is that the profit of small enclaves of individuals reigns supreme over the value of service and morality and humanity. Prisons are filled to the brim because it makes money. Drones are bombing Pakistan because it makes money. The American diet is full of crap that makes us sick, but makes others money. The illnesses that arise are treated with medications that make us sicker because they make others money. The underlying value of American society is absolutely perpetual unchecked growth and profit above all other concepts.

How did it become this way? Weren’t there checks and balances built into American capitalism to avoid monopoly and give the public choice? We have become very lazy and complacent for certain. We reach for what is available and immediate rather than protest, boycott, and demand. But centralized control is the real catalyst for the current moral landscape in America. Almost everything in our lives arrives there from some top-down source, trickled into our existence with quality minimized and profit maximized.

Quality is a very interesting word to me as a huge fan of Robert Pirsig’s seminal Zen & The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance. Pirsig basically spends the book discovering that this elusive concept called Quality, which we haphazardly refer to in our lives, has a deeply profound meaning that often stays hidden in plain sight. Quality is that which drives our survival, the survival of the whole Earth, and perhaps even the universe. The values that trickle down from corporate and political think tanks are of a seeming sophistication: cold, maybe, but effective, progressive, designed for this very cutting edge day and age. In reality, they are built on the measured and ordered tyranny of numbers, on the soullessness of materialism. What we are in desperate need to reclaim is the nobility of virtue. Service to the greater good is an ideal worth more than profit must return. Quality of life, as in life in adherence to the deep and ever present cosmic law of Quality, must be preserved as the highest goal.