From weapons to wellbeing

by Philip Austin

Responding to the crisis

Messages regarding the Covid-19 virus from some politicians and journalists are heavily laced with militarist language that seems at odds with the work that is being done up and down the country to save lives. Perhaps a more appropriate analogy is the massive restructuring of military industries and employment that took place in the UK (and elsewhere) after the Second World War. Is there a parallel at the present moment, on a far smaller scale, in that we are seeing a rapid transition in industries and institutions, large and small, to produce goods to meet an urgent need?

Up and down the country, there are people finding ways of producing the PPE that the NHS needs, from people making scrubs bags from pillow-cases, to schools producing face visors on 3D printers in tech departments, and racing car makers and arms companies working together to produce ventilators. This is change happening because the context demands it – and people throughout society want to both encourage and contribute to that change. Ingenuity is coupled with necessity and twinned with our sense of being connected and responsible for looking after each other rather than just ourselves.

Business as usual?

The conversation around conversion often elicits criticism from arms industry leaders, employees and some trades unions alike, who argue from the perspectives of supporting the military establishment and protecting jobs. There are powerful vested interests in maintaining business-as-usual, a status quo that is embedded in a vision of security that acknowledges the many causes of insecurity other than military threat but then continues along the same armed-force-orientated response.

There seemed to be a political opportunity for doing things differently in the mid-1970s when shop stewards working for Lucas Aerospace faced redundancies. They worked together to produce a detailed alternative corporate plan for socially useful production, insisting that their skills were not redundant. The story of the Lucas Aerospace shop stewards alternative plan is a powerful one as it’s about workers deciding how they would like to use their skills and expertise.

By contrast, at the present time the impetus to convert large industries to producing ventilators is more top-down, but the significance of the shift towards producing equipment that is directed to enhancing human security should not be underestimated.

The urgency of addressing both health provision and the climate crisis can no longer be denied. Many see the current situation as a foretaste of the challenges that the climate crisis will throw up across the world, whilst also pointing out that there is no chance of a vaccination against climate disruption. Will the same forces of political and economic inertia that prevented the Lucas shop stewards’ plan going forward be brought back into play this time around? Or can ‘business as usual’ be finally seen as the problem rather than the solution?

Urgent shift needed

Conversion from an over-dependence on arms production will require economic, scientific and engineering expertise. At a webinar organised by Medact on 29 April 2020 speakers and participants were united in their affirmation of the relevance and urgency of shifting priorities in how industry and the people and skills within it need to be redirected. There needs to be a shift in political will from top and bottom, a recognition that such a change might both save us from disaster and help build a security that is caring and protective of the health and well-being of people and planet rather than founded on increasingly sophisticated ways of harming or killing others.

A longer version of this blog is on the Rethinking Security website, with other related pieces providing breadth and depth of discussion on these issues

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