Economic Conversion - new challenges and opportunities

By Joanne Sheehan

If our goal is to close down weapons production and military bases, we need to consider what happens to the workers, the facilities, the land and the economy of the community. Economic conversion also called defense, conversion, arms conversion or peace conversion, is the planned redirection of resources from military to socially useful civilian activities, primarily new product development. It is a participatory process involving business, government, labor, and the community. It is constructive program.

“Jobs” are the main concern in a community where the possibility of closing a weapons facility or a military base is raised. Corporations remind the effected community of the “importance” of their role in helping the economy. Politicians fear that job loss will effecting their own job. Fear takes over.

Economic conversion is a vision we put forth, but how can we make it a reality? Learning how we can move economic conversion from rhetoric to reality is crucial to really stopping war profiteers.

Much has been written about economic conversion. It has been promoted by scholars and activists. Seymour Melman (1917-2004), a professor at Colombia University in the US, wrote much on conversion including the “The Permanent War Economy”. Others have followed in his footsteps. Unions and community groups in several countries have done studies on what else workers could be making if they converted the facility, taking into account the workers skills.

Military production has traditionally gone through boom and bust cycles. While it is our responsibility to continue to find ways to stop military production, it is during their “bust” cycle that the possibility of economic conversion is obviously strongest.

After the Cold War there were cuts in defense spending and a realization of new budget priorities.
The cuts in certain weapons systems created opportunities for grassroots activists to engage in the process of economic conversion, or in some cases economic diversification. Economic diversification does not necessarily mean moving away from war profiteering, but focuses on diversifying the economy so that it is not as dependent on the boom and bust cycles of military industries. It is a far less radical approach.

Some grassroots campaigns, including the Community Coalition for Economic Conversion of Southeastern Connecticut, which I was involved in, organized in the wake of cuts in the submarine program which cut thousands of jobs in the community in the early 1990's. Grassroots activists organized a “Listening Project Community Survey on Economic Conversion”, interviewing people in the community to bring them into the process. We held forums that highlighted examples of conversion and community economic development and worked with local development groups and unions. Recognizing that the weapons facility had no interest in converting, our goal was the diversification of the regional economy, away from being one of the most defense-dependent regions of the country, with an emphasis on community control of economic development and the expansion of non-military manufacturing.

Nationally, a network of grassroots activists and academics exchanged ideas which strengthened local work and addressed nation policies. There are a number of successes stories where laid off workers were retrained, and in some cases communities developed more jobs where military bases were closed. Case studies of those efforts are important to gather for future organizing, as is a list of resources on economic conversion.

Challenges

The response to September 11, 2001 brought on a super boom cycle for war profiteers. In “Post 9-211 Conversion: Lessons from U.S. Demobilization and Conversion after the Cold War 1990-1998” Greg Bischak, Former Director of the National Commission for Economic Conversion and Disarmament wrote: “Post 9-11 Anti-terror planners have succeeded in imposing their view that the nation's security is best protected by continuous mobilization at home and abroad, as well as modernization of weapons and forces to maintain U.S. Military's qualitative superiority over all potential foes.” In the process, the US is giving military aid to allies, creating another arms race. Bischak reminds us that “A national siege mentality has preempted genuine public discussion of alternative security policies and rational national budget priorities.” While he was speaking of the U.S., this statement is true in many countries.

War profiteering is the biggest profiteering. Corporations make more money producing weapons than making other products. Governments are willing to pay large sums and cost overruns for weapons. Combined with the “anti-terror” justification used by many countries, economic conversion seems like a far off dream.

Another challenge is that economic conversion needs to be worked on at all levels to be effective. While grassroots organizing in the community is essential to successful conversion to civilian activities, it must be a collaborative effort. Organizers need to work with local authorities and businesses. This can be a challenge for anti-authoritarian groups who prefer working on a grassroots level. Can we stick to our principles and engage in the collaboration? Is it reform or constructive program? We found that we could bring participatory processes to a community that had been a reflection of the military - “don't rock the boat”, “do what you are told”, “don't organize”. Our own Listening Project brought local residents and “defense workers” to the coalition while politicians and economic development professionals opposed us. As we brought models of conversion from our national network, even they were forced to listen.

A Growing Opportunity

On one hand it looks like the post 9-11 situation makes economic conversion impossible now. However the crisis brought on by the recognition of the seriousness of climate change provides us with possibilities. As said in “War Profiteers' News #8,” the need for renewable energy systems provides an opportunity for job creation. New products are being developed that need to be manufactured. There is a recognition of the importance of local production. The need for production of energy alternatives is recognized increasingly by people throughout the world. People working against war, war profiteering, and those working against the war on the environment need to be working together. Jointly working against global war and global warming may be able to create the strength we need to make the changes we want.