The Case for Optimism

Empires are a thing of the past

by , October 16, 2013

We all get depressed, at some point or other: I’m sure even Pollyanna had her down moments. What’s troubling is that many anti-interventionists seem to be in a permanent state of depression: given the history of the past decade or so, the interventionist bias of the "mainstream" media, and the enormous resources the War Party has at its disposal, they have convinced themselves the cause of peace is practically hopeless, and that only a miracle can prevent the next major conflict.

The reasoning behind this kind of pessimism is specious. To begin with, human beings have free will: no human outcome is inevitable. There’s the theory that humans are hardwired for violence, and that it’s just "human nature" to engage in mass murder every couple of years or so: I don’t buy it. If that were true, we’d still be living in the Stone Age.

Okay, so human beings aren’t inherently evil, but that’s no reason to rule out a period – say, like the Dark Ages – where violence is the norm, and only small enclaves of human civilization manage to preserve themselves amid the general chaos. Indeed, this is the story of humanity for the greater part of its existence on this planet, but more recently this hasn’t been the case in large parts of the globe, notably the West. The general standard of living has been steadily rising, everywhere, since at least the end of World War II – in large part due to the relative absence of devastating wars.

The problem for peace activists has been that these relatively prosperous and well-ordered Western societies have been waging “small” wars in what we used to call the "Third World" right up to the present day, and the result has been disastrous, both for the victimized and the victimizers. The former have seen their homelands devastated (Agent Orange is still visiting its horrific effects on the children of Vietnam) while the latter have experienced debilitating political and social consequences (the decay of constitutional law in the US, the huge numbers of homeless Vietnam vets, gross economic distortions, etc.) And since September 11, 2001, the US government has been on a rampage that has taken its soldiers (and covert agents) from the mountains of Afghanistan to the deserts of Iraq and North Africa, as our "global war on terrorism" continues without respite.

It seems that hardly a week goes by without some new "threat" emerging, whether it be from a "non-state actor" or some "rogue nation" that suddenly and inexplicably – according to our wise leaders – pops up like a Halloween Jack-in-the-box. In the face of this constant cavalcade of menace, the task of the peacemakers seems well nigh impossible – except it isn’t.

The reason is due to the long-to-mid term factors that are making wars impractical as instruments of policy.

To begin with, modern warfare is expensive. In order to maintain the biggest, most technically advanced military in the world, the US government spends more on "defense" than the top ten military spenders on earth combined – and, as you may have heard, we’re running out of money. America, in spite of its present economic straits, is still a wealthy country, but that wealth is being rapidly eaten up and/or diverted into nonproductive areas – frozen in the form of weaponry and other military assets. The current debate over the debt ceiling is a symptom of this malaise, one that will eventually defeat the War Party – national bankruptcy being the Ultimate Peacemaker.

Secondly, the benefits of imperialism are increasingly a) sparse and b) narrowly dispersed. It used to be that invaders would descend on a city, besiege it, conquer it, and cart off everything of value – including a good deal of the inhabitants, who would then be sold into slavery. This is how Rome accumulated vast wealth: outright thievery. The rulers would then take most of the loot for themselves, being careful to dole out a generous portion to the troops – who might get dangerously antsy if not given their fair share – and, last of all, throwing a few crumbs to the plebeians, perhaps staging games in which the foreign captives would be thrown to the lions for the amusement of the masses.

It doesn’t work that way anymore. What happens today is that the loot only goes to a select few: Halliburton, the oil companies, and the few Washington insiders well-connected enough to extract franchises and other concessions from the conquered population. The plebeians – that’s you and I – don’t get a red cent: instead, what we get is the bill. And, given the escalating costs of modern warfare, the bill is always getting bigger.

So, to be sure, the military-industrial complex gets rich off our wars, but the fact is that their rising stock values are making the rest of us poorer – and, increasingly, the American people (and people all over the world, for that matter) are well aware of it. Which brings us to the third major factor limiting the War Party’s future prospects: technological advances that make the acquisition of knowledge much easier.

It used to be that we had to rely on government officials and their journalistic camarilla for information about America’s far-flung military interventions: back in 1914, for example, very few Americans could place Sarajevo on a map, and even fewer knew of the complex political and social factors that led to the fateful assassination of an Austrian archduke in that city, an event that eventually dragged us into the Great War. It was easy to fool the people into believing a conflict that would destroy European civilization at its zenith was really a war to "make the world safe for democracy."

Today the job of the war propagandist is much harder, and the reason is the Internet. While most Americans still probably couldn’t place Sarajevo on a map, they could easily choose to do so with a few keystrokes – and therein lies the big problem faced by warmongers these days.

In the run up to World War I, Americans were gulled by British propaganda into accepting as fact the assertion that the Germans, under orders from the Kaiser, were bayoneting Belgian babies: screaming newspaper headlines proclaimed the "news," and that was the end of that. Today such headlines would only be the beginning of the story, because such a sensationalist narrative would be immediately challenged – and debunked online.

The role of "expertise" is diminished by the Internet: the establishment of a worldwide system of nearly instantaneous communication has inaugurated the age of the autodidact. Governments have always employed "experts" in various fields to advance their policy goals, both foreign and domestic, but the authority of these Wise Men is going into irreversible decline for the simple reason that, given Internet access, anyone can become a "specialist." So, for example, when our State Department assures us that the Syrian "rebels" being backed by our tax dollars are really "moderates," you don’t have to be a professor of Middle Eastern studies to debunk this outright lie in less than five minutes.

All governments, whether they be democracies or despotisms, require the consent of the governed to some degree: in democracies, this consent is formalized through periodic elections, but even in dictatorships some degree of passive consent is a prerequisite for the elite holding on to power. The same is true for particular government policies: even in a democracy, where the peoples’ alleged representatives make policy, a government initiative opposed and actively resisted by much of the populace winds up being a dead letter, as is underscored by the history of alcohol Prohibition in this country. The social and political problems generated by the lack of general consent are simply too great to be tolerated.

The requirement of popular consent for the waging of war has become even more necessary as access to knowledge is democratized, via the Internet, and the costs of war increase. Add to this the history of the past decade, and the record of lies that got us involved in a series of wars in the Middle East, and it is clear that the advantages once enjoyed by the War Party have been seriously eroded.

This doesn’t mean by a long shot that the danger of war – even of another World War – is over: indeed, while the general trend may be tilting in favor of a more peaceful world, the War Party never rests – and their ceaseless labors may eventually pay off in spite of the historical factors working against them. Yet the false consciousness – the "war spirit" – superimposed on belligerent populations by ruling elites is far more tenuous these days than it has ever been in all of human history.

Lifting the veil of that false consciousness is precisely the task we have set for ourselves here at Antiwar.com. And for all of the reasons stated above, I am a long-range optimist. Not that progress is automatic: far from it. My optimism depends on the active engagement of an informed people – and the choice to act.

We saw that engagement in action in the run up to what was supposed to have been our war in Syria: an informed and had-it-up-to-here people rose up and just said no. Our President, for all his faults, is a master politician, and I can’t help thinking his decision to go to Congress for approval was a recognition – however reluctant – that elites can’t get away with murder quite so easily anymore. Their decisions and actions are increasingly constrained by all the factors I mentioned – and one more, which I didn’t.

I am putting this out there as a speculative thesis, kind of like thinking aloud, and it is the idea that the ideological debates of the past are essentially over. As Francis Fukuyama pointed out in a famous essay, history seems to have ended in the sense that the final form of human government has been decided if not instantiated. Fukuyama and his neoconservative fan club seem to believe this means humankind has settled on a vaguely social-democratic "managerial" society, in which the State plays a pivotal albeit not all-controlling role. In reality, however, the global trend is toward less of a State role in human affairs: indeed, this is in itself a mark of modernity, along with advanced technology and the democratization of knowledge acquisition. Countries that cling to archaic state-centric forms of social organization will simply fall behind, and the success of competing quasi-libertarian societies will be underscored by the growing interconnectedness afforded by technological advances. Pockets of totalitarianism may persist for some time, as in North Korea, but only by isolating themselves almost completely.

The rise of mass ideologies explicitly devoted to authoritarianism and bent on pursuing radically transgressive policies – such as genocide – is limited to the world’s margins. No one, today, is seriously making the argument for Leninism, or Nazism, or some mutant offspring of the two. Only in the darkest corners of the globe, where religious obscurantism and the burden of history have kept the populace mired in the 13th century, do ideologues who celebrate mass murder and see themselves as world-conquerors hold sway. A politician like, say, Teddy Roosevelt, who glorified war for its own sake – and advocated the outright conquest and annexation of the Caribbean islands, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines – could not attain a mass following in 21st century America, let alone take the White House.

In short, everyone already knows that liberty and peace are supreme values: the only argument is over means, not ends. This points to the eventual victory of those of us fighting for those values. While recognizing that human progress is not automatic, and does not proceed perpetually upward, we can take considerable comfort in the general trend – even as we endure momentary downturns.

I’m resisting the temptation to end this column with a smiley face – but only because of my great powers of restraint.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.

I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).

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