A Marine Officer Candidates School troop maneuvers down a horizontal rope on Dec. 9, 2011, at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va.

A Marine Officer Candidates School troop maneuvers down a horizontal rope on Dec. 9, 2011, at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va. Photo by USMC Sgt. Christopher Zahn

The US Military: An Alternative to the Brutalities of the Modern Economy

Millions of service members who live on military bases around the world experience a kind of economic and social security foreign to most of America’s middle class.

Economic insecurity is an important theme this election cycle. As Bernie Sanders frequently mentions in his stump speeches, the top 1 percent of workers in America earn more than the bottom 50 percent combined. Real wages for workers have been stagnant since the late ‘70s and have actually fallen since 2007. According to a recent Associated Press poll, “Four out of five U.S. adults struggle with joblessness, near poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives, a sign of deteriorating economic security and an elusive American dream.”

But a few jobs buck these trends by their very nature. Registered nursing is expected to experience nation-wide shortages until at least 2030, giving such workers bargaining power that helps them avoid being replaced. Police and firefighter unions are too strong (and their work too dangerously complex) to imagine a near future of part-time contract workers with no benefits responding to armed robberies or industrial fires. But perhaps the clearest example of a job that resists, at least to some degree, the vagaries of market demand is the military. As counterintuitive as it may sound, the military provides an alternative to the brutalities of modern economy. And the contrast between the animating logic of the martial life and the gig economy says a lot about humans and what they need to feel fulfilled.

In the military, clothing, food, shelter, and medical care are guaranteed. And although it offers less choice about what to wear or where to live than the private sector, there’s a baseline of care for service members that doesn’t exist in the civilian world. The military invests time and money in service members while making the maximum effort to keep their morale high. The millions of service members who live on military bases around the world experience a kind of economic and social security that isn’t comparable with any other working-class community in America. There are schools, golf courses, public parks, movie theaters, and campsites maintained for their use. While some have called the military a “socialist paradise,” as The Daily Beast’s Jacob Siegel has suggested, there’s a practical reason for the full-service benefits: Military members are simply more effective at defending the country when they’re healthy, happy, and untroubled by issues at home. Napoleon’s dictum that an army marches on its stomach is absolutely true. Likewise, marching requires vaccinations and boots. (In fact, five years after separating from the Army as an infantryman, I still occasionally wear the boots I deployed in.)

One of the empty promises of the so-called “gig economy” is that workers have the freedom to work whenever they want. As Arun Sundararajan wrote in The Guardian, “You can pick up your kid from school (and then switch to being an Uber driver). In the gig economy, the lines between personal and professional become increasingly blurred.” But work hours weren’t meant to limit employees’ productivity; they were meant to protect workers from being exploited. When work life and home life blur, the effect becomes totalizing. Work life always “wins,” and the time that could be spent with family or pursuing an identity outside of your role in the corporate structure is stolen. As Leah Libresco writes in First Things, asking workers to devote so much to a corporate cause forces them to approach a career as oblates—secular monks—without a counterbalancing depth of meaning.

See also Beyond the Draft: Rethinking National Service

The military obviously asks much of those who serve and their families. Deployments are long, and death or injury is a very real possibility. However, the profundity derived from military service, unlike abandoning a family life in order to take on more Uber routes, is commensurate with the sacrifice. Military service provides a sense of meaning beyond what any corporate culture is capable of creating. This seems like a fairly obvious notion, and it’s one that has been expressed by thinkers from Plato to Hegel to Francis Fukuyama: Human beings derive a higher sense of self from risky, physically dangerous sacrifice in the service of a higher ideal. Plato knew it as thumos or thymos, Attic Greek translating roughly to “spiritedness.” People don’t just want to satisfy their own physical needs—they want to contribute to something larger than themselves. This is what veterans most miss after leaving the military: the sense that the people to your right and left are looking out for you while you in turn are willing to lay down your life for them, all towards a goal that transcends group and individual self-interest. As one vet writes, “Most recent veterans aren’t suffering because they remember what was bad. They’re suffering because they miss what was good.”

The military is tasked with something almost pre-modern in scope and seriousness: destroying the enemy. Not maximization of value for shareholders. Not the opening of new markets. The goal is simply to defend the lives and property of the United States. In other words, the focus is on people instead of profits.

Civilian employers are fundamentally different from the military because their animating goals are different. And their goals often do not prioritize their workers’ well-being. The result, for many, is economic insecurity, which is about more than stagnant wages or wealth distribution. Precarity is an all-inclusive term that describes a lack of predictability, stability, and sense of security in the workplace. It’s a word that can be used to describe the tenuous legal status of migrant laborers, the Weltschmerz of Millennials clinging to unpaid internships, or the desperation of the underemployed holding down multiple part-time jobs that offer few benefits or none at all. Precarity is at work in things like forced telecommunication, being paid per minute, and the trend towards turning employment into a quickly revolving door. As Barry Asin, chief analyst at labor-analysis firm Staffing Industry Analysts told Bloomberg Business, “When I hear people talk about temp vs. permanent jobs, I laugh. The idea that any job is permanent has been well proven not to be true.”

At the frontline of precarity is the gig economy. In theory, the gig economy gives workers the freedom to remain untethered to a single employer, pursuing work piecemeal as a series of individual short-term tasks. No need to be limited by a set salary when there’s a potential to work and earn as much as you want. These are the promises of companies like Uber, Airbnb, and TaskRabbit. Of course, played out in the real world, the reality of the gig economy is different. Jobs and workers are traded back and forth in a bid to simultaneously minimize the responsibility of the employer and maximize value for shareholders. Uber drivers have to purchase and maintain cars themselves. AirBnB hosts purchase and maintain their own property. Neither company treats those providing their services as employees. The gig economy has served, as Melissa Gregg writes in The Atlantic, to “liberate workers from a single employer,” a liberation that in actuality serves to liberate employers from “the traditional responsibilities of being an employer,” resulting in greater precarity for workers.

The charge that modern capitalism fails to create meaning isn’t a new one. Since the 19th century, social thinkers like Max Weber, Karl Marx, and Émile Durkheim have critiqued consumption as fundamentally nihilistic. The experiences of those who have served, who have had the opportunity to cultivate experiences outside the logic of the market, complement these critiques. Bryan Wood echoes the chorus of dissatisfied vets when he writes in his memoir Unspoken Abandonment, “I couldn’t believe the kind of silly bullshit these people thought mattered in life … I couldn’t believe I once thought these same things were important.” Most civilians I’ve talked to about military service dismiss it as a brutal and alien experience. But in many ways, the gig economy, and the contemporary economy more generally, provide the more brutal environment: People are isolated, uncared for, fungible or disposable, and without the opportunity to cultivate the higher human need to sacrifice for a noble purpose. In this sense, it’s the military—and similar occupations—that provide the more humane option.