27 September 2010

Political Economy and War (Part 2)

Although Freud persuasively argued that Pharoah Ahkenaton and his priest Moses were the first to perceive the political advantage of monotheism, ideology became a permanent part of the equation with the conversion to Christianity of the Roman Emperor Constantine. He saw that a single religion with a single god could be a powerful unifying factor in an empire of disparate cultures, and realised that he could co-opt what was until then a pacifist and subversive doctrine into an instrument of state power. Muhammad had the same clarity of vision three hundred years later, with explosive consequences among what had been until then a disunited and fractious people.

The frontier between these two messianic creeds became for centuries the preferred arena for rulers on both sides to increase their power through Crusade and Jihad. From the popes who convoked Christendom to retake the Holy Land as part of their temporal struggle with the Holy Roman Empire, through Emperor Charles V who used the Ottoman threat to consolidate the Hapsburg empire, down to Khomeini calling for a Jihad to reunite the Muslim world under his Shi’a leadership, monotheism and war have gone hand-in-hand to extend and to sanctify the centralisation of power.

When Philip IV of France expropriated the military monastic order of the Templars in 1307, it was as much to eliminate an alternative source of power as to lay hands on the order’s wealth. This was seen even more clearly when Henry VIII of England dissolved the monasteries and declared himself the head of the English church. The appearance of mercenaries as major actors in warfare coincides with the emergence of the Italian city states, able to generate great wealth without the agricultural lands and populations that previously defined military and hence political power.

By persecuting the Moorish and Jewish conversos who constituted their commercial and financial class, the Spanish monarchs attacked their own ability to finance their wars. Conversely, in the Netherlands revolt, the House of Orange was discovering the power of protracted war to assemble a new kingdom from the dozens of disparate sources of economic power represented by the great trading cities of the region. The successive immigrations of groups persecuted for their religion as a means of expropriating their wealth on the European mainland laid the foundation for the astounding commercial success of England, then Britain and finally the USA.

The USA provides one of the clearest illustrations of the tight link between war and statism. The four great centralisers in her history were Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, not coincidentally associated with the four greatest wars the nation has fought. There is no chance here of confusing cause and effect – all were firmly committed to increasing the power of the federal government before getting involved in war. To this day, among those who admire their legacy, there remains a marked tendency to declare unwinnable “wars”, such as those on poverty and narcotics, to justify previously unthinkable intrusions into the pockets and the private lives of citizens.

Some believe socialism is intrinsically pacifist, against which we have the example of the French socialist Jean Juarés, whose examinations of the French Revolutionary and Franco-Prussian wars led him to adopt the doctrine of “the nation in arms”. The idea that the individual is enhanced rather than diminished by marching in step with millions of others is the common thread linking socialism with militarism. It is worth remembering that Bismarck, to many the epitome of “blood and iron”, was also the architect of the beginnings of a welfare state far more comprehensive than anything in France or Britain. Extending government favour to the industrial working class, like his short, sharp limited wars, was a means to an end, namely the unification of Germany under a strong central government.

The politicisation of private life, foretold by George Orwell in 1984 and by Kurt Vonnegut in the prophetic stories of Welcome to the Monkey House, is not the least of the entirely intentional results of rallying peoples to great national causes. For as long as people continue to rejoice in the dollar they receive from on high and do not appreciate that it is simply their own money, recycled, then as Thomas Sowell gloomily observes there is no logical stopping point on the road to consensual tyranny, what he calls “totalitarianism from within”.

If by “totalitarian” we understand a philosophy that claims to have the answers to all the questions of existence and which will seek to impose that philosophy through coercion and indoctrination, the three great totalitarian systems of our time have been Soviet Marxism-Leninism, German-Italian National Socialism-Fascism, and Anglo-American Progressivism. Of these the last and least overtly offensive has proved the most durable. All three have depended on not so much a class as a type of person for whom a world without clear direction from above is unendurable. Although all three have fought to the death among themselves, they have been united in their hostility towards traditional economic liberalism.

This is not surprising, for laissez faire means leaving people alone, and if you do that they will not think and act in the approved manner. In addition, Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” of the market gives more importance to those who produce wealth than to those who merely collect, spend and distribute it. Seen in that light, war is the antithesis of progress not just because it destroys and kills, but because whatever the high-flown reasons given for fighting (“a world fit for democracy” springs to mind), its political legacy is oppression.


  1. Good reading. I am ultimately reading that in order to go to war, a government needs to and is able to compromise it's people's social and economical liberty and that it is never returned in full after the war is over (if it's ever over). Does this sound about right in layman's terms?

    I wonder when the Labour party is gonna re-instate habeas corpus? Lol.

  2. Yup - that's right. I cringe, because I thought I had written that essay "in layman's terms"! As for habeas corpus, why would any government restore such a right when their opponents have made them the gift of abolishing it? The drive is to supplant English Common Law with European Statute Law, and since 70 percent of "British" legislation now originates in Brussels, I'd say the process is irreversible.

  3. Laymens terms... subjective methinks