Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Good for Nothing (2016)

Book Review from the August 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

'War: What is It Good For?', by Ian Morris (Profile £10.99)

Absolutely nothing, according to the song, but Ian Morris claims here that war has had a much more useful role in human history. It has made people safer, healthier, longer-lived and richer, leading to a society with far less risk of violent death and an enormous expansion in what is produced. The basic argument is that war has resulted in stronger states and a consequent suppression of violence. Hence ‘[i]n 2010 the planet was more peaceful and prosperous than ever before.’

It is not suggested that all wars have been beneficial in this way, only what Morris calls productive wars, those that accelerated the growth of strong states (which he terms Leviathans after Thomas Hobbes). Many wars have been counter-productive, or at least unproductive, though in terms of those killed these have been far less lethal than the productive wars. Behind all this is the view that, left to themselves and without a big and powerful government to keep them in line, people will be constantly at each other’s throats, as supposedly in small-scale societies such as the Stone Age and modern hunter-gatherers. This remains a contentious issue and has been discussed in these pages before (August and September 2014).

On Morris’s account, the last five millennia BCE saw productive wars, with rates of violent death falling by up to three quarters as a result. But subsequently the horsemen of the Eurasian steppes prevented the imperial powers from providing proper security for their subjects, which led to the disruption of trade and to troops plundering peasants to make up for the shortfall in their pay from taxes. By the fourteenth century CE, much of Eurasia was under ‘feudal anarchy’ and casual violence.

Almost a millennium and a half of counter-productive war came to an end, which Morris dates specifically to 1415: not because this was the year of Agincourt but because it was when the Portuguese king started to expand his rule into Africa, thereby setting off productive intercontinental war. So began five hundred years of European war against the rest of the world, leading to vast colonial empires. It involved the suppression of local wars and banditry and eventually to safer and richer lives, so it was ‘the most productive war in history’.

The Second World War was also productive, as it led to the United States taking over as the globocop, a role that Britain was no longer capable of playing. The last chapter is a kind of paean to the military and economic power of the US, which can use overwhelming force to keep other countries in line. But it may only have a few decades left, since drones and robots will take over the fighting, and computerisation will make globocops unnecessary. Until then the world needs a US globocop, a credible Leviathan that will preserve the status quo, whereby people continue to become safer and more prosperous.

As can be seen, this line of argument relies on looking at things in the very long run, discounting all the killing and suffering that take place before the ‘benefits’ emerge. European colonial conquest involved genocide, slavery and massive exploitation, and it is a breathtaking understatement to comment that ‘the defeated fared less well than the victors’. There are no references to child labour, but no doubt that could also be categorised as productive, on the grounds that it contributed to the development of capitalism and the profits of the capitalist class.

Class society needs a strong central power to defend the interests of the ruling class and to suppress ‘unlicensed’ bandits such as the Mafia. There is technological progress due to war, but this is just because resources are directed at this end, not that war is needed for technological advances. War is incredibly wasteful in terms of lives and resources, which could be put instead to meeting human need. Any decline in violence is basically due to the cost and difficulty of resisting US global hegemony: ‘The essence of U.S. military predominance in the world is, ultimately, the fact that it can, at will, with only a few hours’ notice, drop bombs at absolutely any point on the surface of the planet’ (David Graeber: Debt).

Morris writes that ‘we cannot just decide to end war’. What we can do, though, is decide to establish a society in which war is inconceivable. Socialism has been possible for decades, and we do not need wars or globocops or drones to guarantee a society of true peace and well-being.     
Paul Bennett

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