War. What is it good for?

Q: War. What is it good for?

Ethics War & Conflict History

War as Creative Destruction Editors’ pick


54dc1c1ea73e36808001608e113cbb17 normalPeter Turchinscientist and author, Connecticut Science

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From the heart of all matter
Comes the anguished cry –
‘Wake, wake, great Shiva,
Our body grows weary
Of its law-fixed path,
Give us new form.
Sing our destruction,
That we gain new life . . .’

—Rabindranath Tagore

Shiva, the god of destruction and war, is one of the most important deities in Hinduism. Why did people belonging to many (perhaps even most) world civilizations worship war gods? Because war, horrible as it is, can be creative.

In some Hindu traditions, Shiva is purely a god of war and destruction—Shiva the Destroyer as opposed to Brahma the Creator and Vishnu the Preserver. But in others, he is both the destroyer and the creator. The creative aspect of Shiva was explained by the Swiss historian Jacob Burhardt in this way:

Not without cause do the Indians worship Shiva, the God of destruction. Filled with the joy of destruction, wars clear the air like thunderstorms, they steel the nerves and restore the heroic virtues, upon which states were originally founded, in place of indolence, double-dealing and cowardice.

This may sound like so much mystical claptrap. Death and destruction are all-too-real results of war; how can war be creative?

But think of complex human societies, with elaborate governance structures and large differentials in wealth and power. The ruling elites of these states, both ancient and modern, concentrate a lot of power in their hands. What’s to prevent them from using this power for their own benefit, rather than the benefit of the society as a whole? The surprising answer is, war.

There is a principle in Sociology known as the Iron Law of Oligarchy, first proposed by the German sociologist Robert Michels in 1911. It says that all forms of organization, regardless of how democratic or autocratic their origins, will inevitably develop into oligarchies. Michels studied the inner workings of socialist parties and labor movements, in which both the leaders and the rank-and-file professed a strong belief in equality and democracy. In practice, however, as the leaders accumulated power, they began subverting democratic procedures. Power corrupts.

Over the last three or four decades, the gulf between the wealthy one percent and the other 99 percent has been deepening, even (and particularly) in Western democracies. And, as many social commentators have pointed out, this trend resulted in our societies becoming less democratic, less responsive to the wishes of the 99 percent.

The tendency of large-scale, complex societies to inevitably become more unequal and despotic with time, however, couldn’t have run uninterrupted for the last 5,000 years, when such societies first appeared. If it did, by now the inequality would have reached its logical limit: one Supreme Leader owning everything and the rest of us owning nothing. Something prevents the Iron Law of Oligarchy from running to this extreme.

That something is war. War can take different forms. Internal war, such as a peasant uprising, may temporarily reverse the inexorable trend to greater inequality if old elites are overthrown. The new elites, for a while, may be less grasping and more likely to pursue popular policies. But most peasant uprisings fail because the established elites are too powerful to be displaced easily.

External wars—that is, conflicts between sovereign states—are another matter. Inequality destroys cooperation, and despotic states lose the capacity to mobilize their populations in life-and-death struggle against external rivals. The relative advantage, enjoyed by more egalitarian and more internally cooperative states, is how democracy spreads. In Ancient Greece, for example, democratic poleis mobilized large armies of citizen-soldiers and defeated oligarchic city-states.

Following the French Revolution, a more recent wave of democratization occurred as competition and rivalry between European states increased; these states found they could only survive by raising massive citizen armies. Because such armies require cooperation from the throngs of non-elites, rulers were forced to introduce democratic forms of governance and extend voting rights to an ever-increasing proportion of the population. It is not a coincidence that all extensions of franchise in the United States, for example, were introduced during or immediately after major wars.

In a recent best-seller, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Tomas Piketty argues that capital (and inequality) should always become more concentrated. But, as he acknowledges, there was one period when the reverse was true, between 1914 and 1945. This period saw two hugely destructive World Wars in addition to major revolutions in Turkey, Russia, and China.

So perhaps Shiva-worshippers got it right. War is one form of creative destruction. Just as competition in the marketplace weeds out the inefficient firms, competition in the international arena weeds out dysfunctional states—those too unequal and despotic to sustain the basic cooperation needed to survive.

This is not to argue that wars are good. I hope that the humanity will eventually evolve to the point where we can abolish wars and all the misery they cause. But when we do it, we will still need an engine of creative destruction to prevent runaway accumulation of power and wealth by the few, and to weed out dysfunctional societies that lost their ability to cooperate.


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