How do you keep up profits when the actual productive forces are in decline? How do you maintain the wealth of the capitalist ruling class when the global economy that this wealth is built upon keeps being destabilized? You commodify the social ills that arise from this crisis. In the case of private military companies, the social ill that's being commodified is violence.
Like big pharma for people's mental-health breakdowns under late-stage capitalism, the prison-industrial complex for crime amid rising poverty, or big tech for the social dysfunctionality of the COVID-19 age, this type of disaster capitalism markets itself as the solution to a crisis even though it works to compound the problem. And since the audience it's marketing to is the U.S. government, the problem that it claims to solve is one that is entirely detached from any humanitarian concerns; the U.S. war machine wants to perpetuate its endless conflicts while saving state funds, and while avoiding the scrutiny of the public.
Predictably, PMCs have done the opposite of fulfilling their promise to make the wars cheaper. In 2019, $370 billion, more than half the U.S. defense budget, was spent on contractor efforts. This ironically inflated cost has stemmed from the fact that when PMCs are hired with no-competition bids, as has been the case during this rush to expand the military-industrial complex, they lack the incentive to cut costs. These factors, along with the corruption that's naturally arisen from the privatization of military operations, represent yet another way that the U.S. empire is overextending itself amid its global decline.
But perhaps to their own long-term detriment, the kleptocrats behind these companies don't care. Like how Wall Street executives are able to exploit the financial crises that their business practices create through exorbitant government bailouts and ever-increasing monopolization, the executives behind the PMCs can use the dysfunctionality of the system to their advantage. Private military contractors are going to continue getting a bigger role in U.S. military operations in the coming years, because they're useful for the empire's goal of obfuscating U.S. war crimes. After two decades of war, the public overwhelmingly wants these conflicts to end. And switching over to a corporatized version of the wars is a good way to make them more concealed, in lieu of an actual move towards peace (which at this point the empire will never honestly consider).
The Biden team is thinking along these lines. As Biden's Secretary of State Tony Blinken has said, in the coming years the U.S. will move towards "discreet, small-scale sustainable operations, maybe led by special forces, to support local actors. In ending the endless wars I think we have to be careful to not paint with too broad a brush stroke." This will mean the selective removal or relocation of official U.S. troops, while actors like proxy terrorist groups, secret troops, and PMCs will be leaned on more. The Biden team's plans to solidify relations with Ukraine, and to thereby intensify the proxy war against Russia, hint at one of the places where these forces will likely become concentrated around.
Trump's pardoning this last month of the four Blackwater operatives who in 2007 killed fourteen Iraqi civilians, including two children, serves to normalize the kinds of atrocities that these corporate troops will carry out. Like in the scene from Snowpiercer where a crowd of masked men with axes cut open a fish so that their blades will already be red and the ensuing killings will be anonymous among them, the war state is preparing to conceal the horrors it plans to commit. As well as give those who commit them a sense of imperviousness to consequences.
It's another step in the systemic breakdown of ethics and morals that the era of privatization has brought about. Like how handing off the prison system and healthcare to corporations has resulted in exploitation and abuse within these facets of society, privatizing the military is resulting in more potential for war crimes. And as these pardons show, the state is coming to sanction these crimes, because enabling more violence is ultimately the point of this whole process. Making war a corporate matter gives the empire another layer of impunity, since the military can sit back and say that the crimes the PMCs commit aren't its fault. And when these crimes are exposed, the PMCs can change their names and continue to profit from war under rebranded descendant companies. This is the dynamic of self-perpetuating violence that Erik Prince, who led Blackwater before rebranding it into his current PMC, has used to build his fortune of $2.4 billion.
It's a cycle whose deadly and anti-democratic effects are going to be felt more and more within the United States itself as the empire turns inward. As Charles Pierce of Esquire concluded last month: "There is evil, there is Trump evil, and there is a level of evil beyond that, on which you find Erik Prince and his extended empire of spies and crooks and international ratfckers." It's this kind of evil, an evil that exploits war crimes for the purpose of corporate profits, that fits the role of facilitating this inward imperial shift. As the country's wars are brought home, they're serving to enrich the capitalists who are morally depraved enough to profit from the resulting brutality.
The role of PMCs in this trend has started with Erik Prince's operations to infiltrate Trump's political opponents, making for a militarized political opposition. In a report last year on how Prince has recruited ex-spies to infiltrate the American Federation of Teachers (a major teachers' union), the New York Times observed that:
Mr. Prince appears to have become interested in using former spies to train Project Veritas operatives in espionage tactics sometime during the 2016 presidential campaign. Reaching out to several intelligence veterans--and occasionally using Mr. Seddon to make the pitch--Mr. Prince said he wanted the Project Veritas employees to learn skills like how to recruit sources and how to conduct clandestine recordings, among other surveillance techniques.
History shows that this is common among empires that descend into despotism and rampant corruption in reaction to their broader decline. As Jim Sleeper wrote in response to last year's use of unidentified federal agents to detain protesters within unmarked vehicles:
To understand what boundaries Trump is testing, know that nearly two thousand years ago the Roman Senate granted the republic's first complete emperor, Augustus, what Edward Gibbon characterized as "an important privilege": "By a dangerous exception to the ancient maxims, he was authorized to preserve his military command, supported by a numerous body of guards, even in time of peace, and in the heart of the capital." Augustus' Praetorian Guard metastasized from something like our Secret Service into a force that roamed the empire hunting down the emperor's personal enemies, including Roman senators themselves. Gibbon wrote that Roman citizens became accustomed to the dark, seductive shift from republican ardor and eloquence to submission to force and fraud in political life.
The rise of the PMCs within Washington's late-stage imperialist conflicts abroad, along with these recent moves towards making the PMCs legally impune and integrated into domestic politics, portend to PMCs also being incorporated into this internal rise of fascism. Sleeper observes that the U.S. empire's institutions have "shepherded us through a decades-long disintegration of civil society and republican governance, leaving New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina's perfect storm of unchecked global warming, failed infrastructure, and corrupt politics in 2005, when the devastated city was patrolled by the private military Blackwater guards." It's not hard to see private mercenaries being used to suppress the inevitable revolts from the underclass when natural disasters like Katrina envelope the country in America's near future.
We're already just a step away from that point. Mercenary companies have been used to infiltrate and surveil the protests at Standing Rock, in addition to the other ways they've so far been converted into domestic political policing tools. As The Intercept's Alleen Brown reported last year when new revelations came out about the extent to which the mercenary company TigerSwan became involved in the war against the indigenous and environmental movement:
TigerSwan organized its surveillance work like a full-fledged state intelligence agency but on a smaller scale. The company divided the intelligence operation into teams focused on human intelligence, imagery intelligence, signals intelligence (intercepting communications), and open-source intelligence based on news reports or other publicly available material like social media posts. The TigerSwan teams worked out of "fusion centers"--the same term state law enforcement agencies use to describe a network of post-9/11 information sharing offices--located in Bismarck, North Dakota; Des Moines, Iowa; and Sioux Falls, South Dakota. At times, on the radios, TigerSwan operatives would add their own disruptive messages, according to a former member of the intelligence team, who declined to be named out of fear of retribution.
You read details like these, and you can get the sense that history of empire is indeed repeating itself--with the continent's poor people, colonized nations, and political dissidents being the ones who will come under threat. Amid ever-rising inequality, economic decline, a perpetual public-health crisis, and a snowballing environmental breakdown, capitalism is eating itself. And in the core of the empire, there will be types of vulture capitalists who exploit violence itself.