Tuesday, June 28, 2016

War, what is it good for? (creating viable states, may be?)

Last week I finished reading Charles Tilly Coercion, Capital and European States, AD 990-1992, a superb book from a first-rate mind (I have to thank one of the judges in my dissertation panel, professor Jose María Rosales, for pointing Tilly’s work to me), and it triggered a whole set of reflections of great relevance to my understanding of the most desirable social units towards which we should steer our current system which I intend to explore in more depth in this post.

The core of Tilly’s argument dovetails very nicely with my own ideas about the development of the dominant reason within the European State System, identifying the continuous armed conflict between the different societies as the great catalyst of their formation, consolidation and growth in the period under consideration. It was the need to extract additional resources from their populations to wage ever costlier wars what led the budding states to go down the path available to them, be it capital intensive development (leveraging the commercial acumen of their city-based bourgeoisie to hire mercenaries, like in the case of the Low Countries or England); or coercion intensive development (granting their noblemen permission to exploit their vassals for a similar end, like in Russia and Prussia). Those that did well would end up converging in the organizational form of the modern nation-state, and those that did not were finally absorbed by greater units (like most German states, Italian city-states, Occitania, Normandy, Bourgogne and most Iberian kingdoms). A surprising aspect of the authors’ analysis of such long period, over such a vast geographical area, is that although the main actors where for most of the time either directly at war or preparing for war, that didn’t translate in specially war-like mentalities, or required the instillation of an especially combative mindset in their citizens.

Since antiquity the waging of war, the hardships experienced by the soldiers and the physical exposure to potential pain and death were borne by well segregated parts of the population, extracted mostly from the less favored classes (or directly contracted for such exploits from outside the realm, with some regions, most notably the Swiss cantons, specializing in the provision of mercenaries for every warring party that could afford them). Even when such portion of the people were led by the local nobility the casualty rate for the latter was orders of magnitude lower than for the former. Not only was a self-contained part of the population involved with the actual fighting, but the scenario where such fighting took place was pretty limited once the main state actors were in place after the Peace of Westphalia, with the more populous urban centers of the continent (London, Paris, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Stockholm) safely ensconced in the center of national territories surrounded by a buffer zone that almost guaranteed that they would not be visited by the indignities of a foreign invasion until very recent advances in transportation technologies (railway and motorized division well into the XXth century) made that possibility likely again.

Thus although the possibility of fighting more expensive wars was the ultimate explanation of much of their social development, the European societies could live blissfully ignorant of the preeminence of such motive, and focus instead on developing ever more successful institutions and in the end ever more innovative and prosperous economies. Of course, the ultimate success was defined by their ability to produce more material goods, which in turn would allow them to field more powerful armies and navies, as I have ceaselessly repeated in this forum. No revolutionary discovery here, then.

However, what does such history teaches us about the importance of war (“the father of all things” in the unexpectedly prescient words of Heraclitus)? And what happens when such source of creativity, or of societal innovation, dries up, as it seems to be happening in our own times? Finally, how should we consider the influence of conflict when designing the transition to a more humane kind of society? To begin with, for war to be a net positive to the development of social systems the following conditions seem to be necessary:

·         a reasonable balance of forces between the likely contenders that makes the end result of war uncertain enough to make it infrequent enough (where the forces of one side are disproportionately greater, it will either invade and absorb the weaker part outright or impose some kind of vassalage over it; the weaker will in turn submit or resort to any alternative –pay tribute or yield territory- rather than be overwhelmed by force)

·         a dynamic of escalating costs and diminishing returns from fighting as each actor takes the fight farther from its power base (because of the extension of its supply lines, the increasing resistance of the encountered population and the greater difficulty of administering distant lands), thus constraining the amount of territorial gain that could be profitably pursued, and adding to the stability of the system

·         a social stratification system that limits the amount of able bodied males that can be conscripted at any given moment, limiting the disruption war itself causes and the drag on economic growth imposed by the maintenance of a standing army (on a side note, how much of the population can be devoted to war is greatly affected by the particular circumstances and level of economic development of the society in question: Sweden in the XIV and Prussia in the XIX centuries seem to have reached the upper limit of mobilization, that is, until Nazi Germany found itself caught in a struggle for its very existence well into the XXth, but nobody would make the argument that giving a panzerfaust to any 14 year old, or 64 year old for that matter, is a sensible or sustainable idea) and freeing enough talent and manpower to pursue interests with a more immediate economic application

Not that you need the three factors for armed conflict to be a spur to technical and economic development without its costs seriously underwhelming it. For the first two, it helps to have different groups with different histories, languages and even religions but a rough demographic balance, or you end up having a “warring states” scenario at the end of which a triumphant elite ends up dominating the whole territory (as the Han famously did in China).

The vagaries of history, climate and geography created such combination of social conditions only in Europe, and thus it is only in Europe that “progress” took shape, and finally exploded, giving it the institutional framework to dominate most of the world in the XIX century. A bit before that the third condition had been seriously weakened by the appearance of the mass-conscripted national armies created right after the French revolution, and the second was obliterated by the technological advances that came to fruition with WWII (and that had been first applied, at a more limited scale, already in the American Civil War, which saw the first mass movements of troops by rail and Sherman’s raid through the Southern States which severely impacted the civil population and infrastructure). Once you have developed the conditions for “total war” the incentive structure totally changes, and war becomes entirely antithetical to and incompatible with even a shred of economic development. What did Europe and its offshoots do under those new conditions? They essentially stopped making war in their territory (until the Balkan wars of the 90s, where a separate set of reasons took precedence) and limited themselves to “project force” where their economic interests where threatened and keep residual fighting forces which were barely enough to protect them from any mid-sized outside invasion, which was a perfectly rational thing to do given that their safety did not depend on the size and quality of their armed forces as much as on the credibility of the American “nuclear umbrella” that sheltered them…

Unsurprisingly, both economic and institutional development have stalled, and all the public investment of the world doesn’t seem enough to kickstart it back into life. The great institutional innovation that was hatched after the latest carnage showed all too clearly the unacceptable price of the old incentive system (“evolve to better make war or be conquered”) was the supra-national European Union, which made all the sense back then but has not been very capable of evolving in response to the new demand imposed by a very different international scenario, where there is a similarly supra-national agent (vaguely known as “Islamic extremism” under different banners) that does not territorially threaten the well-established nation states, but rather floods them with displaced people from a very different cultural background creating a wave of instability they find themselves ill-prepared to deal with.

That is of course an unfortunate state of affairs, one for which the old response of improving the ability of the state to extract resources from its native population that would then pour into a better equipped, more numerous armed forces doesn’t seem very well suited (essentially, that’s what the USA has kept on doing since the beginning of the new century, with quite underwhelming results). But I do not want to deal now with how such threat should be dealt with (something that would merit a post of its own), but to what such dynamic affects the optimal design of a new kind of society, be it one built on the Anarcho-traditionalist principles that I sketched in a series of posts (AT Manifesto I) or according to my Idyllic view of what the future of humans here on Earth will look like (Sunny future I). One aspect conspicuously absent from the discussion of such ideal (and idealized) social arrangements was how they would defend themselves in case of external aggression. In both cases deviance from the collectively agreed norms was dealt with by a minimal police force, which could be adequate to the task only in the case of internally bred, low intensity, low scale bad behavior. No provisions were made to defend the polity from a full blown external invasion, or to deal with the potentially destabilizing efforts of a significant segment of the population that received support (in any form: armament, training, or even just ideological inspiration) from an external agent.

Back when I penned those ideas I thought that the need for “defense forces” equipped well beyond the capabilities of a constabulary would be at most a temporary nuisance, as a stable equilibrium would be quickly reached where all institutional actors would see that it was in their best interest to get rid of such forces and jointly enjoy the worldwide “dividend of peace” of being able to devote the material resources demanded for the maintenance of such force to the betterment of the whole group, resulting in the utopia of everybody realizing the futility of keeping such costly resources (you can not invade a modern democracy and force all its citizens to work productively for you anyway), so “turning their swords into ploughs” and living peacefully ever after. What European history teaches us, then, is that for millennia an alternative equilibrium (equally stable) is possible in which the progress catalyzed by low intensity conflicts more than compensates the drag on economic development derived from the maintenance of the capabilities to keep those conflicts going. Even after eliminating all the armies and achieving for a few generations a peaceful, demilitarized world there will always exist the possibility of a single group (or federation of groups) deciding to rearm and restart the ages-old quest for world domination, a strategy that in a scenario of surrounding disarmed polities has the potential to offer a huge payoff (at least to the first actor to pursue it, thus increasing the incentives for every actor to take the lead).

Which basically means that in the ideal polity there will probably need to be a supra-national single body with the monopoly of violence, dominant enough to prevent any single phyla to attempt to dominate their neighbors (and beyond). Which in turn poses the problem of how such body is prevented from taking its prerogatives too far and ending up dominating tyrannically all the rest, parasitically taking advantage of their work to live comfortably. And we are back to Hobbes and Locke about the principles of government and how much of a Leviathan makes for preventing the war of everybody against everybody else without itself impinging on their basic liberties. And, in a more down to Earth version, poses the problem of how the first anarcho-traditionalist phratria will ensure they are not “tread upon” by the more traditional polities surrounding them (a problem not that different from that of establishing free cities, which in many ways could be seen as slightly enlarged version of my phratria), which will likely want to either subjugate them or “protect” them (for a fee, thus preventing them from what they would see as secession). I don’t have an answer for such problems yet, but I will keep on thinking about them and share the solutions I see in a following post.  

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