Arms trade: All the fun of the death fair

Submitted by Anon on 10 September, 2003 - 2:27

On 9-12 September, the Excel centre in East London hosts DSEin - Defence Systems and Equipment International-one of the world's biggest arms fairs. And why shouldn't the fair come here? The UK is the world's second biggest arms exporter after all: in 2001 arms exports from the USA were worth $9,700 million, from the UK $4,000 million. Before the Kelly affair robbed him of much of his allure, our very own defence secretary Geoff Hoon was rumoured to be opening the fair.

A comprehensive agenda of protest will greet the 1,000 exhibitors and 20,000 shoppers (see box), who will be guarded by 1,600 of the Met's finest. As well as urging readers to get involved in the protests, Vicki Morris here examines some of the issues raised for socialists by the arms trade as a whole.
If competition between individual capitalists drives technological advance, the competition between countries-that is, mainly, between groups of capitalists-drives military technological advance.

Defending their profits makes individual capitalists invest in research and development to find, for example, a new chemical formula to wash whites whiter or a way to shave a fraction of a fraction of a second off the time it takes to produce a commodity for sale. Or they lose their competitive edge and go out of business. How much harder do their representatives in government seek to defend and extend their national markets against external competitors!

Governments invest in research and development of weapons and related military paraphernalia. Half of the money that the UK government spends on R&D it spends on military research: in 1999/2000 the MoD's research expenditure was about £2,500 million. Governments spend a large part of their citizens' taxes on maintaining military forces and equipping them. In most countries, the arms are made by private companies who make huge profits, whilst being completely unaccountable to the public.

Military machines are some of the most beautiful things men have ever made, and then, of course, they become the ugliest, for all they do at the end of the day, is detonate, make a loud noise, and blow everything in their way to pieces. Why isn't the money that goes into warmongering spent on preserving and improving life?

Good-for-nothing war?

Sometimes people need arms. To defend themselves. There are just wars. But while we are not pacifists it is quite right for socialists to make the arms industry one of our targets.

It is the symbol par excellence of the insanity of the economic system we live under.

Instead of humans as a race having the political power to shape their economic activity to produce what humans need, humans are effectively divided into two races: those with power and wealth, and those without.

Economic activity meets the needs of the minority who have, in the first place, those who have the means of production. The companies that produce goods produce them not to meet need, but to make profit. If there are enough people who want to and can buy arms to make arms manufacture profitable, then arms is what some of the few that own the factories will make. It makes good business sense!

Is there such a thing as ethical business, or indeed ethical investment? Should we put our meagre savings, if we have them, in "ethical" investment funds that won't invest in arms manufacture?

Is Mr BAE Systems, arms manufacturer, more morally repugnant than Mr Kipling, maker of exceedingly good cakes? I think he probably is! But the arms manufacturer just points up the absurdity of the economic system we live under, and which Mr Kipling does very well out of, thank you.

And the arms that BAE Systems makes ultimately defend capitalists, the Mr Kiplings alongside British American Tobacco alongside… BAE Systems: they defend the capitalists of one country against the capitalists of another country; often they defend the capitalists of one country against their domestic opponents, that could be you and me, socialists, activists, "trouble-makers".

One of the most repugnant-because one of the most absurd-aspects of DSEi is the way enemies will shop side by side. On a given day, one brutal warlord might have more right on his side, but at the end of the day, all of them are the enemies of ordinary people. And the arms manufacturer will do business with both of them.

The arms fair would not work if the UK government weren't ready to nod the arms, if they are made here, out of the country-to grant them an export licence. So the main anti-arms trade campaign in the UK, Campaign Against the Arms Trade, puts pressure on the government to give 'ethical' consideration to certain arms deals.

CAAT points out that the countries spending most on arms are often the poorest, and that arms expenditure is made at the cost of their own citizens' lives (literally, where the arms bought are used against internal opponents).

I don't think this concern is cultural imperialism: "Tanzania", for example, has as much right to waste its substance on arms as "the UK" does, I'm sure CAAT thinks so, but it is reasonable to use the arms issue to highlight the appalling human rights records of governments in whatever country, of first or third world.

Appealing to Tony Blair's government to act morally looks misguided, however. In their 1997 manifesto, New Labour promised: "Labour will not permit the sale of arms to regimes that might use them for internal repression or international aggression", the famous 'ethical foreign policy'. They also said: "We support a strong UK defence industry, which is a strategic part of our industrial base as well as our defence effort." But they've honoured the second commitment far more than the first.

Leaving aside the monstrous fact of the recent wars New Labour has waged-which have certainly been good for the armaments business-they have done next to nothing to make the arms industry more ethical.

The Indonesian government is currently using UK-made Scorpion tanks and Hawk jets against the people of its Aceh province, in a war that could become as murderous as its war against East Timor was.

Socialists should take up cudgels against the death dealers and those who buy their wares, and against the Government who issue the Export Credit Guarantee licences!

Jobs not arms

The UK arms industry is worth £5 billion a year-20% of the world's expenditure-and employs 70,000-150,000 people. If less money is spent on arms, arms jobs will go. Of course, the money that will be saved will be spent on more worthwhile things, and jobs will be created in those fields, yet there is an issue of convertion of armaments manufacture to other production. Campaign Against the Arms Trade campaigns for a National Conversion Fund to help arms manufacturers convert.

Some trade unions have defended the arms industry as a way to defend skilled jobs in manufacturing. The arguments do not hold up. Given the level of subsidy from taxpayers, in export credit guarantees, etc., maintaining jobs in arms manufacture works out more expensive than maintaining other types of manufacturing job.


  • Saturday 6 September: Unity demonstration-all wings of the movement against the arms trade. Noon, Temple tube, Victoria embankment, march to the Imperial War Museum, Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park.
  • Sunday 7-Monday 8: Counter-conference. 10.30am-8pm, Convergence Centre, Kingsley Hall, Powis Road, London E3. Details:
  • Tuesday 9: day of non-violent direct action. Details:
  • Wednesday 10: "day of direct action blockades" to shut DSEi. Details:

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