kookaburra in a tree with a hot chip in its beak

This article attempts to provide a concise explanation of the key features of industrial complexes and a potted history of the term. It’s mostly pre-reading for this article on the White Saviour Industrial Complex but there are also some good links here to other industrial complex concepts.

Frankly, it’s a depressing topic so if you don’t need more downer news today, come back another day. It’s a bleak story but it’s not the whole story of humanity – we also do many life-affirming, beautiful and creative things so maybe make a plan to do something that balances your view of humanity after reading the article (this Sound of Music Flashmob does it for me).

The industrial complex is a socio-economic concept that describes a conflict of interest embedded in what are traditionally and supposedly, benevolent state-run services/systems. The main characteristics of an industrial complex include:

  • A stated benevolent goal of doing some kind of good
  • If the goal was achieved, the complex wouldn’t be needed
  • Money is made by at best being ineffective or inefficient at achieving the goal, at worst by doing more harm (which in turn generates more business)
  • Usually, the state no longer operates components of the complex (although it does set policy that impacts the complex); the complex is mostly run by a network of outsourced private providers
  • There is more than one type of industry/business benefiting
  • The complex wields significant political power through lobbying relations and large contributions to the state economy.

The essential conflict of interest in an industrial complex is that the service makes more money by doing a bad job at its stated goals. The reason for its existence is also usually dependent on it doing a bad job.

The first usage of the term is attributed to USA President Dwight Eisenhower in 1961 in his departing address as president (watch the short snippet here). He described the emerging military-industrial complex in the United States, noting that the arms industry had become a major employer and contributor to the American economy and therefore had significant political power (of a non-democratic nature). The conflict of interest of course is that the stated goal of militaries is that of peace, but if there is peace, there is no need for such a large industry.

The industrial complex concept can be applied to global systems and local systems but it’s important to note that even though industrial complexes are often labelled as one thing or another e.g. military-, prison-, etc, they are often entangled economic systems that feed each other.

Some great YouTube videos about industrial complexes:

  • My favourite seven and half minutes about the structure and history of the military-industrial complex in the US
  • Super-short snippet of the story behind the first use of the term military-industrial complex, by departing US president Dwight Eisenhower
  • Four-minute military-industrial complex explainer
  • Meet abolitionist Angela Davis, talking about the concept of the prison industrial complex (which she coined)
  • Short explainer about the prison industrial complex
  • A quirky 12 minutes on the non-profit industrial complex.

Some other less commonly known and/or interesting applications of the industrial complex framework that can take you down some fascinating internet rabbit holes include the:

  • Spiritual-industrial complex
  • Academic-industrial complex
  • Sporting-industrial complex
  • Wellness-industrial complex (and its cousins, the diet-IC and the beauty-IC)
  • Autism-industrial complex
  • Mental health-industrial complex (including emerging and not yet well-described trauma-industrial complex).

In Australia

Because so much of the literature and examples of industrial complexes are oriented toward the United States, it can be easy to think it’s a non-issue in Australia. Um…

Here’s a good explainer article about Australia’s military-industrial complex. We also have the abominable detention-industrial complex based on refugee policies (download a free pdf version of this academic journal article for more on this), and our own version of the prison-industrial complex complete with settler-colonial racism (read this excellent Indigenous Law Bulletin article). 

Create Your Own

My own creation is the Mother Teresa Industrial Complex – a basic example of how we can use the framework to analyse supposed benevolence in society:

  • Mother Teresa professed to help the poor, particularly women, but one of the biggest issues that keep women in poverty is insufficient access to birth control, which of course Mother Teresa did not support.
  • She thought suffering and poverty brought people closer to God and encouraged it and claimed to be envious of those she was helping. 
  • Huge amounts of money were directed to Mother Teresa’s charity works, employing lots of people in hundreds of missions all over the world.

Your turn

Share your own creation or an interesting one you’ve heard about in the comments below.

Or share your favourite video that makes you love humans when we’re hard to love.

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