The US is militarized because it is a global class-contested territory

There are four outlier countries in the affluent world, each characterized by an extremely high percentage of the working-class population employed in guarding property from the rest of the working-class population: Greece, the US, the UK, and Spain. Depending on how you count it, 1 out of 4 (or 5) of every US workers is guarding property from other workers. That proportion increased over fourfold in the US between the late 19th century and today. By contrast, there is only 1 guard for every 20 workers in Sweden.

Brought together, empirical analyses by Bowles and Jayadev (2007), and Gourevitch (2015)  reviewing Brecher (2014) and Mitrani (2013), identify correlates of the guard labour market & militarized police state: 1) socio-economic inequality; and 2) a strong history of class contention. Bowles & Jayadev caution that though these factors, and not others, correlate with the policed society, by themselves they cannot explain the extent of guarding and policing in a society, because in the US, guarding continued to rise as a proportion of employment even in the exceptional, lower-inequality Trente Glorieuses period following WWII and prior to 1975. However, as Gourevitch will clarify, even during the short period of reduced aggregate socio-economic inequality in the US, at a finer-grain level of analysis we recognize that inequality reduction was very patchily distributed (Fraser 2017), and quiescence was even briefer, as the Civil Rights Movement was organizing during that period to more widely distribute novel social citizenship and welfare state protections from expropriation.

Although the state is designed to protect large domestic (and some global) capitalists from expropriation, only white male smallholders enjoyed new state protection from expropriation during the short Trente Glorieuses (Fraser 2017), spurring other social groups to organize to expand those protections and state accountability to the entire working class, including African-Americans and other racialized groups, women, and indigenous peoples in the US. This organization was famously met by expanding US police forces and militaries as warfare, and it was met by politicians with carceral expansion (Murakawa 2014), contributing to continued guarding and policing expansion. Moreover, as we see below, in 1947, at the outset of the Trente Glorieuses, the US cemented in an extraordinary legal regime for hobbling working-class people in the US.

While there are surely automatic structural mechanisms, both macro and meso-institutional, favoring capital and crippling working-class people in capitalism, the briefness of the Trente Glorieuses is well explained by the extraordinary level of capitalist organizing to restrain and divest the American working class of collective action capacity, including by diverting work into guarding and militarized policing, as well as via legal mechanisms (Pistor 2019). On both sides of the pond, of course, deregulation of finance, beginning in the City of London only a third of the way into the Trente Glorieuses, permitted the reorientation of US capital from national to global class alignment, permitted inflation coordination as a form of capital strike, and thereby permitted the dismantling of working class-accountable institutions (social citizenship, the welfare state, public infrastructure) within the US state–converting nascent US state capacity to protect workers from expropriation into military, militarized policing, and guarding property, a Nightwatchman state exclusively protecting global capital from expropriation.

But why did the working class, which had developed independent, leading ideas about the good, democratic society, had been highly organized in previous decades, and had innovated and led policy in the FDR era, acquiesce to this massive state conversion, to its tremendous neutralization and increasing disadvantage? Given its former independence and leadership, why did the working class allow itself to be co-opted into a giant police force merely doing the bidding of economic Masters, circling a drain of decreasing capacity to protect itself as a class from expropriation?

There are intermediary steps to this conversion, and path-dependency can be a factor. However, if we explain the rise of the policed society by returning to the question of Why Greece, the US, the UK, and Spain (with NZ, Australia, and Belgium in hot pursuit)?  it becomes reasonable to suggest that in the late capitalist era, these places may be distinguished as the most desirable combined markets and territories from both a capitalist and labour perspective. These are the contested territories of capitalism.

The US and UK contain the globe’s leading financial institutions, all of the top four policed societies feature brash traditions of conservativism and antihuman repression targeting the working class, and Greece, the US, and Spain contain some of the globe’s most liveable territory, from a human perspective, combined with at least moderately-developed economies and institutions. I hypothesize that what distinguishes surveilled, militarized, policed societies is an ongoing history of class warfare over primo global territory. This explanation has the virtue of also explaining the observed correlates of socio-economic inequality and bursts of civil warfare. Greece, the US, the UK, and Spain are barely nations. Riddled by class and regional internal divisions, they are nations in the sense that they are cemented together by heavy resource expenditure on force and nationalism.

We can return to the issue of increasing guard labour in the US during the Trente Glorieuses with the explanation that, despite the cross-class consensual drive to continue the economic expansion initiated with high state-capital coordination during the war, the class conflict over the territory was not closed, and the domestic police force was being built out of the imperial military post-war in order for global capital to resume control of the territory by 1980. This hypothesis is confirmed by the 1947 passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, and its perpetual institutional maintenance, preserving the absolute rejection of workers’ human rights in favor of limitless, global capitalist liberty in the US. When the US built global capitalism back up following WWII (Varoufakis 2011), it was rebuilding global capitalist class collective action capacity to storm the lands that everyone wants to claim.

Because it’s capitalism, the global capitalist class has secured the hierarchical social order and regulated collective behaviour in the heavily-policed societies. Interesting follow-up project: A working-class Moneyball TM analyst would recommend the (relatively-neglected) best places for labour to migrate to based on attractive features without the Policed Four’s military level of surveillance, co-optation,  repression, thin citizenship, and mounting expropriation.

Though, a Geographic Economist I once knew said that capital follows labour. Could the working class even abandon the US, UK, Greece, and Spain in significant numbers? Or are compensating factors, and the complicating factors of migration, so overwhelmingly on the side of these four lands that the class conflict and militarization of society cannot help but lurch on?

Certainly the Anglophone model provides a steam valve in its repressive framework. It directs social subsidy to capital, incentivizing a large portion of the American working class to migrate into and through precarious small-business ownership (Nail salons!) as an alternative to suffering the obscene state-reinforced class dehumanization and unfreedoms.


In Lawrence 2014, pp. 205-206 are particularly succinct and poignant summaries of the stand-out manacled life of the American working class. The legal mechanisms for shackling the American working class include the following:

  1. Following its codification by US Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes in the 1937 NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp (affirming the Wagner Act), American law denies “the fact that the coercion and intimidation inherent in a threat of discharge (firing) are intrinsic to virtually all employment contexts” in capitalism (Lawrence 205). US law refuses to recognize and regulate capitalist powers, including capital strike.
  2. Preserving absolute private property right, Taft-Hartley section 2(5) prohibits workers from bargaining (contributing information or decision-making to) many issues affecting their work, the business, the community, and the socio-economy: layoffs, plant closings, production decisions, investment decisions, product pricing, etc.
  3. Enforcing “Right to Work” TM laws, Taft-Hartley section 7 enables vulnerable workers to forfeit to state-protected, politically-mobilized, wealthier employers the workers’ own, human collective action capacity.
  4. Taft-Hartley section 8(b) prohibits the following repertoire of worker solidarity and collective action: sympathy strikes, solidarity strikes, support strikes, industry-level agreements or cross-class planning (in an industry, or in an industrial council).
  5. Taft-Hartley section 303 illegalizes sympathetic boycotts.
  6. Taft-Hartley section 301 enables employers to use their superior economic resources to sue and break labor organizations via US federal court. This includes, when an employer repeatedly violates an employment contract, and if the union responds with a strike, the US courts enable the employer to sue and financially cripple the labour organization; and if a wildcat strike breaks out, the US courts enable the employer to sue and financially cripple the workers’ labor organization.
  7. Taft-Hartley section 14(a) provides a grotesquely-expansive definition of the workers who are not allowed to unionize, whom employers can force to serve as scabs: Any worker whose work includes any sort of “coordination” or “guidance” to other workers.
  8. On behalf of absolute private property right, Adair 1908 established in the US the unilateral managerial right to fire any worker “at will.”
  9. On behalf of absolute private property right, Mackay 1938 established in the US the unilateral managerial right to replace workers with scabs.
  10. US law denies working-class peoples’ rights as human rights (Lawrence 2014: 204). The 2000 Human Rights Watch report highlighted how US labor law violates fundamental human rights.
  11. In labor law, the US stands out as preserving property owner (employer) absolute liberty, based on servitude, per American slaver John C. Calhoun’s and others’ influential formulation.
  12. That is why the US Supreme Court features so many jurists educated in the ancient conservative Catholic legal tradition, developed to support warlords’ feudal privileges.
  13. This extreme anti-worker legal framework, treating working-class people as second-class citizens (or third-class in the case of slaves, prisoner-slaves, immigrants, and immigrant prisoners and prisoner-slaves), is unique in the world for its dogged enforcement and lack of modification over the years (Lawrence 2014: 199). It is also probably why investment capital flooded into the US when Nixon took the dollar off the gold standard in 1971, and why global capital is attracted to the US. The US has committed to sacrifice its own people’s freedom and suppress their human development, in order to most faithfully service domestic and global elites.



Abraham, David.

Bowles and Jayadev (2007)

Brecher (2014)

Fraser, Nancy. 2017. “From Exploitation to Expropriation: Historic Geographies of Racialized Capitalism: Roepke Lecture in Economic Geography.” Economic Geography 94(1): 1-17.

Gourevitch, Alex. 2015. “Police Work: The Centrality of Labour Repression in American Political History.” Perspectives on Politics 13(3): 762-773.

Klare, Karl E. 1977-78. “Judicial Deradicalization of the Wagner Act and the Origins of Modern Legal Consciousness, 1937-41.” Minnesota Law Review 61: 265-339.

Lawrence, Andrew G. 2014 Employer and Worker Collective Action: A Comparative Study of Germany, South Africa, and the United States. Cambridge.

Lambert, Josiah Bartlett. 2005. If the Workers Took a Notion. ILR Press (Cornell University).

Mitrani (2013)

Mittelstadt, Jennifer. 2015. The Rise of the Military Welfare State. Harvard.

Murakawa, Naomi. 2014. The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America. Oxford.

Orren, Karen. 1991. Belated Feudalism: Labor, the Law, and Liberal Development in the United States. Cambridge.

Pistor, Katharina. 2019. The Code of Capital: How the Law Creates Wealth and Inequality. Princeton.

Reply to Reader:

Thanks to the contribution of the reader with an institutionalist meso-level hypothesis on how the US (ignoring the other countries discussed above) produces extreme guarding (not including policing) of the American population. Meso-level, institutional facts, such as high levels of litigation or insurance requirements in the US, suggest a couple of the possible mechanisms for how the US arrives at extreme policing and guarding, and nest under and support the above socio-geographic explanatory (why) framework. Logical modesty begs a distinction between identifying mechanisms and inferring causality. (Causal explanation would have to be able to address the factors the explanatory frameworks address: Why have the mechanisms changed in the top four policed & guarded countries? Why aren’t they as important factors in some other countries? Are they as important in Spain, Greece, and the UK?)

Without assessing common incentives and sanctions driving mechanisms, and without even acquiring a fuller map of mechanisms and their relative contribution to building policed societies, collectives could organize to address a couple of the mechanisms–insurance incentivization and sanctions, and litigation capacity, as suggested in this case. Liberal and conservative political collectives do that all the time. No one really wants to stop reformist organization. I only suggest here that identifying a couple of mechanisms cannot be the be-all and end-all of knowledge. Such undertheorized, piecework reforms are a lot of grinding work, take a lot of coordination and a long time to organize, fail to avoid conflict, still redirect and consume lots of resources, and in the end, the George Bush IIs of the world can keep chortling about how they make the world and the underlings only tap-dance in reaction. The hazard of accepting a couple of institutional mechanisms as a fulsome explanatory framework (accepting how for why) is that if you intervene to suppress these identified mechanisms without considering the underlying cause, you’re just playing whack-a-mole. Whack-a-mole may be profitable for lawyers, and it may occupy political wonks and unfree bureaucrats while more powerful collectives make the decisions, but we pursue social scientific knowledge to improve collective agential contribution to change. They’re two types of knowledge with different functions, built for advancing different types of societies: technocratic v. democratic.

Alternative to using technocratic knowledge to preoccupy the staff, a scientific research contribution for an institutional, meso-level analyst would be to run a regression testing those (litigation rate, volume of insurance requirements for guard protection) and other theorized mechanisms proliferating guard labour (such as extent of military welfare/keynesianism (Mittlestadt 2015), carceral growth rate, etc). If a researcher were able to do that (using rate of change data) across countries, that would be particularly helpful towards mapping out the mechanisms by which policed societies are built. Again, that’s not explanation. It’s not philosophy, and it’s not science. But it would contribute  toward science, a collective knowledge, and thus, unlike technocratic knowledge, would not foreclose against democratic development at the outset.

My thesis presented above is distinctively designed to explain not only Bowles & Jayadev’s comparative findings (About guarded and policed societies, inclusive of, but not just lost in the blare and glare of the US. Because they are comparative, they can support more disciplined, valid hypotheses.), but also the work of political historians (also comparative data, across time). As Gourevitch points out in his review of Mitrani & Brecher’s historical work, we can observe the connection between, on the one hand, the historical, high levels of impactful working class (and Civil Rights Movement) organization and the subsequent growth and militarization of policing in the US, solidified into the extremity and comparative absoluteness of working-class repression in the US, see also the notes on US labour law above (per Lawrence 2014), and changes in citizenship law & administration (See legal theorist David Abraham’s work) since 1970. The macro-level explanatory thesis presented here is designed to explain both the political history of militarized policing and labour law & administration in the US, and Bowles and Jayadev’s comparative studies of guarding, as it is reasonable to explain the coincidence of quantitatively-extreme guarding with quantitatively- and qualitatively-extreme policing, though they may have different arrays of mechanisms of implementation, particularly as we have observed change over time and variation across countries in guarding and policing. (Particularly given policing is a state function, insurance or legal “markets” is not a response that can provide adequate insight or explanatory power.)

Explanatory power: The contribution of the macro-level explanatory thesis, here highlighting the relationship between human preferences in geography, climate, and institutional development–particularly state capacity to protect groups from expropriation (Fraser 2017), (as well as aversion to dislocation and loss of financial, cultural, and social capital), is that it supports and guides a number of reasonable, useful consequent hypotheses concerning support for the ongoing development of social conflicts, policing, militarization, surveillance technology, domestic and international politics, racial formation, gender relations, and migration, within the US and similar policed societies (Greece, Spain, the UK).

For example, some of these consequences even impact lawyers. Consider a consequent hypothesis about the spectacular growth of disciplinary student debt amongst lawyers. A fair question that people have asked is: Why do American lawyers put up with that expropriation? With the theory in this post I suggest: Because despite the fact that debt, expropriation, is a major cost to many lawyers, the US still presents globally-comparative benefits (along with the constraint of illiquid smallholder assets): climate, geography, and state protection from even more expropriation (directly or indirectly transferring capacities and assets to financial metropoles). As well, we can add the hypothesis that a litigious market contributes another offsetting benefit to lawyers. This cost-benefit constellation continues to reduce workers’ strategic degrees of freedom; they cling on, with no recourse to voice and no exit strategy. (As well, in the highly-policed society, the voice of the policed is replaced with the sovereign’s voice (See Scarry 1985).) There’s no effective voice for democratic change–it’s bound and gagged by militarized policing and guarding, and as yet there is no substantial defection (exit). So the expropriation– in this case, law school debt– stays. For now, even lawyers are impotent to protect themselves in significant ways.

I also suggest that even taking into account the adverse conditions that exiting the US would impose within the human lifespan (and which Americans, observing, exploiting, and violating immigrants, are very familiar), this individual cost-benefit rationality is not in equilibrium: The structural and political tendency has been and continues to be toward increasing expropriation. In this sense, global capitalists are all the more committed to claiming the hot, policed societies, because they can easily and cheaply mine them. However, that understandably-strong preference (even backed up by state support and a sense of class entitlement) is also a strategic constraint in the changing context of expropriation.



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