First End the Prison-Military Industrial Complex, Then Let’s See That Laundry List


Do we deserve universal healthcare or free college before we end for-profit prisons and endless wars? ‘Probably not’ say independent experts. And by ‘independent experts’ I mean ‘me’.

By David Icke Turner

Artwork by Abdo Hassan

Every course of action has its own order of operations. When following a recipe, there is a chronology. Successfully solving an algebraic equation hinges on using an exact chronology of actions. Even tying your shoelaces commands a precise sequence of movements. Unfortunately, this is a premise largely lost on some within American social justice movements.

Before we go any further, let us address the ‘C’ word many readers desperately want to yell out with the fervor of a community college sophomore and attribute the totality of the world’s woes.

War, racial injustice, imperialism, and environmental devastation all precede capitalism on a historical timeline. Millions of 8th grade textbooks make this abundantly clear. These injustices were present in all types of government (and no-government ) before Adam Smith imagined the modern free market. These injustices existed during the apex of capitalism by Theocratic, Socialist, Communist, Democratic, and Authoritarian regimes alike. For fuck’s sake, Norway and Sweden participated in ‘Operation Enduring Freedom.’ And long after capitalism ceases to exist as we know it, state violence will remain. State violence is the sword in any authoritarian governments hands that empowers it; capitalist or not.

For utility’s sake, ‘The Prison-Military Industrial Complex’ refers to the U.S. government’s imposition of violence on people at home and abroad. The primary objects of this violence have been the descendants of Africans, stateside, and Muslims internationally. Now comes the hard part. You see, during the days of chattel slavery in the U.S., very few people actually owned slaves. This was an expensive yet profitable undertaking not quite accessible to the average sharecropper or farmer. 

Yet millions worked on these plantations or merely partook in the local economy, received economic benefits,  and enjoyed the dividends of the enriched society created by free labor. So goes America in the 21st century. We stand at roughly 4.5% of the global population, yet use 25% of the planet’s resources. We are afforded a standard of living so comparably high that on a global scale, the vast majority of Americans are either upper-middle income or high income. And many Americans who are classified as “poor” by the U.S. government would be middle income globally, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis.  

You heard it correct. You are a benefactor of oppression, war, and pestilence. You may have not asked for this but you reap the benefits nonetheless.  It does not matter how many Fugazi records you own. The rest of the world is waiting on YOU to move the U.S. away from the disastrous policies of domestic incarceration and foreign intervention. Imagine you are the mother of a family in Afghanistan whose entire family is killed by an American drone strike.  When you ask what the ‘progressives’ were doing to fight the good fight to stop these atrocities, you are told they were distracted by an endless culture war that addresses critical issues such as how soon a female speaks in the first 4 minutes of the Mandelorian. 

The Culture war is ‘ one great, big, festering neon distraction’

It’s 1941. Knowing what we know now, you hop into your time machine to war time Berlin to assess the attitudes of the German population. Granted, you already know much of the population are ardent Nazis who are hell bent on genocide. Nonetheless, there are those who silently resist the Reich and hold beliefs contrary to the Fuhrer. You manage to track down a group of these resistors in a beer hall just outside Berlin and are excited to hear about their thoughts as reluctant benefactors of war, atrocity, and empire. You grab a lukewarm Doppelbock and take a seat to discern what the attendees are yelling over each other. One guy is foaming at the mouth about mass transit while a young lady has a tantrum about the cost of milk these days. As you listen a bit longer to the group of ‘resistors’ rattle off a cornucopia of issues, you realize that this group of Germans is either ignoring or oblivious to the fact that they are the primary benefactors of war and pestilence and that their every output supports the Wehrmacht. As bodies were piling up under their watch, they sought out their own individual rights and creature comforts as they denied others theirs.  Such is the state of the American Left circa 2018. Left or right, progressive or conservative, redneck or counter-culture, we are all enjoying the fruits of American hegemony and multi-theater war. The elephant in the room we are ignoring is that dismantling the Military-Prison-Industrial-Complex should be JOB ONE of the American Left. Ultimately, underpinning the progressive movement with a anti-war rudder is the most anti-racist, feminist, environmentally conscious, pro-universal health care, and overall socially progressive thing we can/should/need to do. The fact that our nation spends the bulk of material wealth and creative output on war touches every facet of our society and is the hidden bulwark against most social safety net efforts. And frankly, how can we work towards equality and justice at home when we deny others the same? 

Original Sin

Undoubtedly, rectifying America’s original sin(s) of Native American Genocide and Slavery are of the utmost moral imperative. Though our subsequent points take on a utilitarian nature, the imperative of reconciling the literal and figurative debt to Natives and the descendants of African slaves is urgent. This original sin manifests itself over and over (almost as if it were a “destiny”) in the pathology of American imperialism and military adventure. These are symbiotic obstacles to furthering any social justice issues in our country. The ‘added value’ in finally reconciling these outstanding debts, is that a host of other issues emanate directly from that source.

See, Many folks have the wrong idea of what being a ‘radical’ is. Hint: It has zero to do with listening to Bikini Kill. The greek etymology of the word radical comes from the word ‘root’. Let’s get to the root of these fucking problems and move on. And the root is organized, industrialized state violence. Without this violence, there is no unfettered capitalism, war machine, for profit prison system, or calculated environmental destruction. Remove the state’s monopoly on violence and those other things can be deconstructed. Then you can have your bike lanes. Kapeesh?

To be clear, though much of state violence against First Nations peoples has ceased, U.S. armed forces breathe new life into the pathology of colonialism over and over again in our near constant militarism around the globe. In many respects, dominion over native peoples never ended. Importantly, the war machine recruits poor and rural kids with no other options but to join the military, then returns them home, broken with PTSD and no psychological care. They get drunk and/or strung out and abuse their partners and kids and end up in jail, then graduate to a system where the only jobs that might be open to them are menial, low-paying jobs with few protections where they are likely to get physically hurt. You heard it correct: you can actually graduate from the military system into the prison system. Using black, brown, and poor white kids to dominate brown and black people in other countries is central to the monster we face. 

“Yes, there was a time when you could not be a Black radical without a basic understanding of how (settler) colonialism works,”

Muhammed Ali in a Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon, 1974.
Remembering Muhammad Ali: "I declare support for the Palestinian ...

The Environment

Nothing creates more stress on our environment and ecosystems than war. This is measured in both immediate effect as well as long term consequences. This impact includes, but is not limited to, unexploded ordnance, greenhouse gas emissions, flooding, release of chlorofluorocarbons, land use and subsequent displacement of indigenous populations, and, of course, fossil fuel use/abuse. According to the 2005 CIA World Factbook, “the US Department of Defense would rank 34th in the world in average daily oil use, coming in just behind Iraq and just ahead of Sweden.” 

Women’s Rights

Women and children make up a whopping 80% of both war dead and refugees worldwide. This number is consistent with the number of casualties and refugees that resulted in the several decades of US military adventures. And the effect on women reverberates beyond just the battles themselves.  “Women and girls are not just killed, they are raped, sexually attacked, mutilated and humiliated. Custom, culture and religion have built an image of women as bearing the ‘honor’ of their communities. Disparaging a woman’s sexuality and destroying her physical integrity have become a means by which to terrorize, demean and ‘defeat’ entire communities, as well as to punish, intimidate and humiliate women,” according to Irene Khan of Amnesty International. Can women in America ever get fair treatment while they are funding the denial of basic human dignity to other women around the world? Methinks not. 


The US spends 54% of its discretionary budget every year on the military. That is more than 598 billion dollars a year. That is more than the next seven militaries spend combined. That said, this is not enough to cover a universal single payer system. At least not right away. However, after the initial decade of single payer healthcare, overall healthcare costs would come down as a result of preventive care. Naturally, healthcare is cheaper when ailments are caught earlier on, as opposed to when they reach critical stages. When we add in the costs of obesity and the drug costs listed above, we land at around $6,862 per person on average in the United States. That’s a total savings of around $1,851 per person; $600 billion overall, or about 21.2% of the total cost of healthcare.

Free College

For about 10% of our annual military budget, everyone in this country could go to college for free. Weed not included.


First and foremost, we spend the overwhelming amount of discretionary tax income on war. We spend more on war than our two ‘strategic competitors’, China and Russia, combined. And liberals and conservatives share one thing in common. They loooove pumping money back into the war machine. The approved 2019 Department of Defense discretionary budget is $686.1 billion. It has also been described as “$617 billion for the base budget and another $69 billion for war funding.”

Time is not on our side

The most common retort to any suggestion that activist movements require a hierarchy of needs is “Hey, can’t we chew gum and walk at the same time? Why can’t we work on all of these things simultaneously?”  Not really. I had a friend who worked for the Innocence Project in college. He made clear to me what overwhelming amounts of work hours, time, and resources were used to free just one wrongly-incarcerated individual. The same urgency applies to our militarism abroad. Potential flashpoints around the world such as The South China Sea, Strait of Hormuz, and Baltic Sea all could independently set off a course of events that would be both intractable and devastating. 

It’s like quitting smoking, but less fun

The medical community is unanimous in regard to the dangers of smoking. Just about every doctor will tell you the first thing someone needs to do to improve their health on just about every level is to quit smoking. Even if you are obese, inactive, eat poorly, or have any other cardiovasular risk factore, STILL your doctor will recommend quiting smoking first and foremost. About the only thing you can do to alleviate health problems quicker than quitting smoking is exiting a Chernobyl reactor. State violence is America’s cigarette: routine, familiar, and eating away at its core. 

But untangling the complex business and civic infrastructure that creates this prison-military industrial complex is no easy task. But it is the most dramatic one step to further us down the road towards real civil, social, environmental, fiscal, and racial justice. There is no dignity or justice in an American where we enjoy prosperity at the expense of our neighbors or those in our family. Otherwise, we are just willing participants in the empire; cynically seeking to improve our own lot. In short, you can’t have your trivial culture war until you force the hand of your own government to cease its constant use of state violence. Sounds easy enough, right?

Fad-activism is parasitic to the sub-structure of legitimate anti-oppression movements

Something changed around 2014-15. We were having real discussions about police brutality and the prison-industrial complex. Protests in Ferguson made it clear how America’s historic treatment of African-Americans was reaching a boiling point despite many claiming we lived in a ‘post-racial’ society. Finally for fuck’s sake. On the tips of our tongues were the names of victims. Eric Garner. Sandra Bland. Trayvon Martin. This opened up a bevy of conversations all inextricably tied to America’s yet to be concluded reconciliation of it’s slavery and continued oppression of Africans on this continent. There seemed to be a resounding consensus that righting this wrong was a precursor to any other attempts at moving towards a more just society. Then poof. In a blink of an eye, social justice discussions seemed to take a perverse focus on the  inane. Suddenly, the discussion turned to representation at the Emmys, depictions of various groups in video games, Aziz Ansari’s shitty date, and dramatic changes in fictional characters from The Little Mermaid. I am sure you can remember several outrages du jour from the last several years.  Let’s be clear: The expansion of social justice efforts as mainstream fad has hurt the cause of social justice. Its coupling with social media and the 24-hour news hype machine has created a near endless array of new causes every day which help us ignore our ‘original sin’. Now that Covid-19 has come along and promised with it a fundamental sea change in politics, economics, and social behaviors, the left must focus its efforts on the root of our nation’s maladies and ‘resist’ the temptation of getting bogged down in inane culture noise. 

Editor’s note: Let’s not confuse the hard-working, thoughtful activists that have invested years into moving the needle with your average virtue-signalling, arm-chair activist. If you do the uncelebrated, painstaking work that authentic social justice work demands, we ask you to read this as a call to arms for collective efforts to become focused. If your activism is a collection of virtue signals, punk rock pins, and quasi-subversive vinyl records, you are likely the problem. Either way, the left desperately needs a hierarchy of needs. Also, this is a rant. Enjoy it as such.


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