The Merchants of Death

"Turkey kills with Italian weapons" poster in Rome.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2018 was a good year for arms producers.

Submitted by Internationali… on February 3, 2020

Sales increased by 4.8%, worth $480 billion in total. If we add in China’s sales, which are missing from these figures, it comes to over $530 billion. Much of this considerable increase is due to the US programme of modernisation announced by Trump in 2017. All the large American companies in this sector are increasing in strength and merging to equip themselves better to produce the next generation military systems that will allow them to be in the best position to win the Washington government's contracts. This explains why the top five places among the leading 100 war industry companies are held by US firms. Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon and General Dynamics together sell $148 billion in weapons or 35% of the global top 100 firms total arms sales. If we add knock-on effects amongst suppliers to all five majors, we reach $246 billion in sales: 59% of the total and 7.2% more than 2017.

Officially Russia’s turnover is falling, if only slightly (-7%), but it has more likely remained at the same level despite the statistics issued by Moscow which claim to show the opposite. In Europe things are not going badly either. Overall turnover of the biggest European producers reached $102 billion. This is balanced by the reduced sales of the UK which is normally the leading European power in this sector and Germany (-14%) whilst those of France have increased (+27%) thanks to the contracts signed by Dassault. Dassault is the leading French arms firm operating as part of the role that French imperialism is trying to play in its former colonies in Africa (but not just there, as its intervention in Libya demonstrates).

Even scrawny Italian imperialism makes its little contribution to the capitalist death factory. Arms sales by Italian enterprises have risen 5% in the last year for which figures are available (2018). The market share of Italian companies, (again in comparison with the top one hundred companies) was 2.8%, more than Germany, Japan and Israel. The turnover of the two largest Italian companies reached $11.7 billion: Leonardo even entered the top ten (in eighth place) with arms worth $9.8 billion sold in 2018, a decent growth of 4.4 percent.

The Economic Crisis and Imperialism

Besides, the ever-present business interests in the capitalist economy, there is another reason for increased production and sale of arms on the world market. This urgent and pressing motive, that comes from the very bowels of the system, is called the economic crisis. A devastating crisis that started in 2008 and that is still continuing today, has produced poverty all over the world: hundreds of millions of unemployed and dispossessed people, both in the old centres of capitalism and on its periphery. It has triggered and intensified a process of aggression against the international proletariat, lowered levels of growth in production (GDP), disrupted trade (Trump's tariff policy is not the cause but an effect of it) and, finally, has accelerated the conflict between the major imperialisms in the four corners of the world. It is in this tragic picture of wars, regional conflicts, international tensions, which in the future are destined to turn into direct or proxy military clashes, that the phenomenon of the increase in the production and sale of arms takes place.

The great imperialist powers, besides equipping themselves with increasingly advanced technologies, both in the field of traditional and nuclear weapons, in order to be militarily competitive in any theatre, including space, sell weapons to their allies, or to the factions they support in local wars. They even arm the so-called terrorists in Africa and the Middle East, as long as they fit their overall strategies. In the latter case, the weapons arrive "for free" or at reduced prices. At times, the strategic interest is superior to the immediate business interest, even if, in the general calculation, the second remains the fulcrum of the production of arms and the first is a form of political-strategic investment which, in the long run, reinforces business itself.

Arms Sales of the Imperialist Rivals

It is no coincidence that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the elite of world imperialism (USA, Russia, Great Britain, France and China), are the world's largest arms manufacturers and sellers. Together they control 85% of the international market. And it is the same imperialist powers that we see in action in the theatres of war. Wars which are very often provoked by themselves.

For over a century the USA has been the world’s largest manufacturer and seller of weapons. Not only that, but its primary imperialist role means that weapons reach those aligned or subjugated countries which, out of their own interests, or the need to deploy them, make these weapons a life and death issue both for themselves and their adversaries. From the Pentagon, Saudi Arabia gets the best treatment (sales to Riyadh were up 225% in 2018). By spending tens of billions of dollars on arms, Saudi Arabia tries to play a leading role in the Sunni world, opposing every Shiite challenge, such as the Alawites in Syria, the Houthi in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and all those forces that directly, or indirectly, are in the Iranian sphere of influence. It also seeks to maintain order within the Sunni world itself, by asserting its unchallenged political and military leadership, in boycotting, if not repressing the non-aligned position of those like Qatar and, more recently, denouncing the United Emirates’ defection from the Gulf Coalition. This has nothing to do with any alleged religious superiority, but invoking Allah here may be a prerequisite for having a free hand in the management of Arab oil, both within OPEC and as an instrument of pressure on the other crude oil markets. And without an enormous mass of petrodollars which can be converted into sophisticated weapons, its prestigious role of leader of the Sunni Arab camp would only be a vain hope.

The US also sold arms and provided political cover to the Taliban in Afghanistan in the 1980s, even though they eventually found themselves against them. The idea at the time was to establish the first major pipeline project which was supposed to bring oil from the former Soviet republics in Asia to Europe and the US, without passing through Russian and Iranian territories. The US launched both Al Qaeda and then ISIS with its arms supplies. It financed and armed all the forces opposing the Assad government in Syria, even the jihadist ones, contributing to make the factory of death that every war sets in motion, more and more effective. Not to mention the two wars against Iraq and its predictable political and military interference in the new Latin American governments.

Russia, another leading imperialist contender, sells arms to Turkey, both for immediate economic interest and in the hope of strengthening the agreement for the construction, which is already underway, of the Turkish Stream pipeline. On the one hand, this strengthens Erdogan's already powerful military apparatus and, on the other, allows Russia to strengthen its economic and military presence in the Mediterranean. In the mirror image of the USA, in this indirect but very intense conflict, Russia has supported the Assad government militarily with weapons and men, thus guaranteeing the permanence of its military bases in the Mediterranean, in the Syrian ports of Tartus and Latakia.

Russian weapons also support the Ayatollah’s army in Iran, and the Shiite rebels in Yemen's civil war. They are a crucial component of the Haftar’s Libyan National Army in its fight against the Serraj regime. There are about a hundred Russian mercenaries on the territory who, under the name of the "Wagner Group", operate as a combat militia, as both a support unit and as military advisors for the Haftar forces. This keeps Russia in the current game in Africa.

Here, France, the USA and China are competing for supremacy in the Sahel region in order to exploit its natural resources, from Chad, Niger and Mali to South Sudan. This exploitation ranges from oil to "rare earths", from minerals to gas. France has a standing army in this area, funding and arming compliant and corrupt governments while fighting rebel forces. On the other hand, when it needs to, it also finances and arms the rebels who then become instruments of French imperialism, thus hoping to still hold on to economic and political power, even if heavily conditioned by those who they have supplied with weapons. For the moment, the US presence is mainly anti-Chinese, but that does not stop it from leaving its military consultants in the most strategic areas.

For the time being, Chinese imperialism in the Sahel is limited to bribing the governments of the countries which it is most interested in exploiting (soft power), without, however, skimping on arms and funding for civil and military infrastructure. These are the classic instruments of pressure that are either openly applied or are carried out through shadowy unofficial channels. Other channels are also used in the Sahel by both France and the USA via the usual tried and tested method: against the jihadists if they hinder their plans, with the jihadists if their immediate objectives coincide. How else can we explain why, throughout the Sahel, where poverty and lack of structures have been endemic for decades, there are bands armed to the teeth that have been fighting for years against the indigenous regimes without ever being short of weapons, the source of which even a child could work out. It is in this way that organisations operating in that area, such as Al Qaeda (Nigeria), Hayat Tahrir al Cham which is one of its offshoots, Swap, another Al Qaeda franchise fighting in Nigeria, or like Boko Haram and other factions that refer to Isis, such as Al Shabab in Somalia and other military structures can, amongst the general poverty of their countries, obtain abundant military supplies, capable of setting up highly competitive armies. But the same is true of its reverse. When the governments of the states in question refuse to be exploited, or just do not agree with the "neo-colonialism" of France and the USA, the flow of weapons halts and those that do arrive go to strengthen the jihadist factions, formerly labelled terrorists, against the recalcitrant governments.

However, there is another point about China. Asia is "its" back garden to cultivate, and 90% of its military exports go there. Since 2013, Beijing has been the world’s fourth largest arms exporter with a share of $25 billion a year. It exports $8 billion to Saudi Arabia in open competition with American exports, even if Washington's exports are much more substantial in terms of quantity and quality. It also exports to Iraq and the Emirates in competition with the United States. In the Far East, its clients are Pakistan, for $5 billion (ballistic missiles and the last model of armed drones plus nuclear submarines). The list of exports continues with Myanmar, Thailand, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. It goes without saying that those who sell arms demand at least some tactical alignment, if not political subordination, as befits any imperialist power "worthy" of the name.

As for Great Britain, which has always been a great exporter of arms, even if currently in slight decline, it maintains a series of "customers" in the Middle East: notably Saudi Arabia which buys everything from all and sundry. In this case, the British supply cluster bombs that Riyadh uses in Yemen against the Houthi. This has created problems for the government in London, which has had to give up the sale of these "illegal" weapons. On the other hand, it continues to export 23% of its imports to Riyadh, second only to the Americans. An excellent client, even if only of small arms, is Mexico, both for government supply its army and the aggressive gangs of drug traffickers. In the period 2013-2016 the UK sold arms in Mexico for £446 million. The rest of its exports go mainly to the Middle East, India and Australia.1


In conclusion, the factories of death that the imperialist powers produce for their own war needs, or to sell to allied countries, or even to formations that they themselves define as either terrorist or legitimate, depending on convenience, are churning out their products increasingly faster. In the midst of a systemic crisis that in the advanced capitalist world has led to the closure of millions of factories and small businesses, where hundreds of millions are unemployed, and many are living below the poverty line, the only sector that is doing well is the production and sale of arms.2 It is those very weapons that imperialist powers are using to ferociously fight their wars of robbery and destruction in order for the decadent economic system they arrogantly represent to survive.

There is no war without weapons, but there is no war without the involvement of the international proletariat that fights for the interests of its class adversary with those weapons. They are all wars fought by the exploited in order to let the managers of capital carry on exploiting those same proletarians against whom unhealthy nationalistic or religious ideologies still manage to be effective on the ground of their social suicide. But the time has come to ensure that the world’s workers point those same weapons, not against their own kind in fratricidal war, but against those who make weapons and wars their only reason for living: their own ruling class.

January 2020

  • 1The UK regained “the title” as world second exporter of weapons from Russia in 2019. Both are a long way behind the USA which accounts for 40% of world arms sales. UK exports were valued at a record £14 billion in 2019 ( or about 19% of the global total. The main firms supplying the Ministry of Defence are BAE Systems, Babcock, Qinetiq and Rolls-Royce but overall 9000 first are involved in arms production. The total number employed overall in the UK is 300,000 and it accounts for 10 percent of all manufacturing. BAE Systems (formerly British Aerospace) is the world's second largest arms producer employing 40,000 in the UK alone. All of this is backed by the UK Export Credit Guarantee Department which has a maximum commitment of £50 billion acts to both feather-bed UK arms production, bribe potential buyers, and 'facilitate credit lines' thus drawing other states into debt to the UK's profit. It is the activities of this body as mentioned in the article which have led to the courts condemning exports to Saudi Arabia as illegal for “breaching international humanitarian law” and which the British Government still aims to overturn in the Supreme Court.
  • 2In terms of the capitalist system as a whole arms production as such not only produces no new value for capital accumulation, it ultimately acts as a drain on it. What it does produce is profits for the seller which are paid out of the revenues of such states as Saudi Arabia in “oil dollars”. It is literally an “investment” for imperialist war.