Total War

There’s a review of David Bell’s new book on the inventional of modern warfare in Revolutionary/Napoleonic France, The First Total War, in the latest issue of The Nation. When The Nation contemplates economics and Progressive politics, it isn’t worth much. But on issues of war and peace, right now, with Democrats not bombing and invading countries for allegedly humanitarian reasons (and under explicit U.N. aegis or in defense of “international law”), The Nation is pretty good. I expect that will change once a Democrat reoccupies 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. and our sprawling and out of control executive branch, when they will probably take up cudgels again. Until then, they are a valuable resource.

While the concept of total war is generally accepted as coming into its own in the early 20th century, Bell says the French Revolutionary Wars and Napoleon’s march across Europe constitute total war because they “involv[ed] the complete mobilization of a society’s resources to achieve the absolute destruction of an enemy, with all distinction erased between combatants and noncombatants.” While there was little aboslute destruct of enemies during the various Napoleonic campaigns (a point both Bell and reviewer Ruth Scurr note), the savage campaign by the Revolutionaries in the Vendee come closest. Absolute destruction is an ideal rather than a realistic program. A better description may be the absolute defeat, subjugation and even “conversion” of the enemy.

(And while Europe may have been spared another total war in the century between the Congress of Vienna and the assasination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, North America was convulsed by just such a war from 1861 to 1865.)

According to Curr, Bell links the evolution of total war to the rejection of war as part of the ancien regime’s social order by 17th and 18th century Enlightment thinkers, who concieved of peace as the rational outcome of a rationally managed social order. Curr writes:

It is far from obvious how the Enlightenment arguments for peace that the revolutionaries inherited can have transmuted in so few years into unprecedented bloodshed in Europe, or total war. Curtly summarized, the trajectory seems utterly bizarre.

Except that it isn’t, if you understand that what was happening was the creation (in the French Revolution) of the first ideologically defined total state. And that total state is itself the product Enlightenment rationalism, a state bound not by custom or tradition but allegedly by reason. A state that has power over all things, a state that seeks to remake individual human beings and whole societies. It’s no surprise that a writer with The Nation wouldn’t see this point, since The Nation, with its attachment to Progressive politics and the Enlightenment/Progressive teleology of history, also wants to believe in the ability of the total state to remake individuals and societies.

While some leaders of the French Revolution did not believe in the forceful spread of the French Revolution by force of arms — Curr and Bell quote Robespierre as saying in 1790: “The most extravagant idea that can arise in a politician’s head is to believe that it is enough for a people to invade a foreign county to make it adopt their laws and their constitution. No one loves armed missionaries…..” — this total statism becomes an evangelical faith within just two years. Robespierre himself would change his views on the subject, saying: “Those who make war on a people to halt the progress of liberty and destroy the rights of man must be attacked by all, not as ordinary enemies, but as assassins and rebel brigands.”

This gets to another point a Nation writer would not pick up. When the wars of the French Republic (and then of Napoleon) became “wars of liberation,” in which France became the “benefactor of nations,” then the evangelical religion of the total state became totally justified. What kind of evil and reprehensible people oppose being librerated? Who could honestly and decently stand against the ever rising tide of freedom? The Prussians, the Austrians, the Russians, the British, the Spaniards were not merely enemies of the French nation, but of humanity as well.

Violence — especially total violence — is implicit in any philosophy or theology of liberation (again, something a Nation writer wouldn’t see or wouldn’t admit even if she did), whether espoused by revolutionary priests or powerful presidents.

It’s axiomatic for many of us in the West that the Enlightenment was an absolute good. But I’m not so sure. Curr writes:

The thrust of this argument brings Bell up sharply against one of the most intractable questions about the French Revolution: Was it caused by Enlightenment social and political thought? Can its excesses and atrocities be attributed in some subtle yet direct way to the intellectual contributions of Voltaire, Rousseau or the proto-pacifists mentioned above? Bell claims that the arguments for peace that won over Europe’s intellectual elite during the eighteenth century were philosophical abstractions, insulated from the practice of war by a metaphorical glass wall, which the Revolution was to shatter. It put ideas into practice, just as Edmund Burke had seen it would. “The mode of civilized war will not be practiced,” he predicted in 1791, “nor are the French…entitled to expect it…. The hell-hounds of war, on all sides, will be uncoupled and unmuzzled.” Burke was right, but as he conceded, there was no moral high ground left to occupy, only squalid despair amid the horrors of unlimited war.

I’d go back a little farther, to the Reformation, which (in Europe) ended the nearly millenia-long dispute between church and state in favor of a state geographically limited monopoly over individual human loyalty. The Enlightment and the French Revolution would extend that monopoly from mere violence and loyalty to meaning, creating Michael Oakeshott’s teleological state — the ideologically defined state which assumes the unlimited right to intervene in all affairs of human life.

I Think I Get It…

Lew Rockwell.com has recently run some older pieces by Murray Rothbard on (the late) Milton Friedman and the Chicago School, focusing on the statism of the Chicagoites and their fraudulent free market credentials.

Essential to this analysis, I think, is the separation of macro and micro economics in the Anglo-American tradition — a separation that simply isn’t warranted. But it allows the so-called “free market” economist to support both individual freedom and statism at the same time. In fact, it is a way of thinking that is essential to both the Republican and State Libertarian worldview.

The distinction between the macro and the micro as described in the essays I’ve read by Murray Rothbard effectively says that unless certain kinds of government actions are taken on the macro level, there can be no real individual freedom on the micro level. Without a proper interest rate policy, or a commitment to a stable “price level,” or whatever else the macro planner or central banker does, individual choices to act cannot be maximized. Individual economic freedom is not created by the individual, but by the state, and must be fostered, cultivated, promoted and expanded by the state. As I was conemplating Rothbard’s review of the Chicago School published on the LRC site last weekend, it ocurred to me that it looked an awful lot like the Progressive/Neoconservative/State Libertarian view of human freedom.

This version of “freedom” sees nothing but the individual and the central state. In this instance, the federal American state created by the Constitution of 1787, and is, I think, a product of Jeffersonian thinking about the relationship of the individual to that central state and all other subsidiary governments. Jefferson’s genius was to state in the Declaration of Independence (the truly admirable document of American history; the rest are garbage) that the individual as an individual, and that individual liberties precede the state. In fact, the state is the product of free individuals working together voluntarily to secure those liberties. But which comes first in this scheme of things is clear: free individuals will the state into being. They can also will it out of being as well, according to the Declaration.

Jefferson’s view of individuals free as individuals became the dominant view during the debates over the Constitution, with the (poorly named) anti-Federalists espousing the notion that individuals were not free as individuals, but rather would have their status in society dtermined by their membership of secondary, subsidiary or semi-subsidiary institutions. For example, many believe that non-Protestants should not be allowed to hold office, and maybe not even be allowed to become citizens, effectly stating the rights for individuals living in America would be dependent not on their humanity but on the Protestantness — on their membership of Church or Sect. What the anti-Federalists (or some of them) were agitating for were group rights, or collective freedom, rather than real individual freedom.

The federal government created in the 1780s was dependent on free individuals, and in return, the federal government was the only place where individual human beings could be truly free. From the 1790s through the 1860s, little was done about this, but it’s a short step from having a central state dependent on individual freedom to having a central state define individual freedom and then become the author of individual freedom. In short, the state willed into being by the Constitution of 1787 was seen not as the result of individuals seeking to safeguard and guarantee their freedom but as that freedom’s very author.

It’s a short step from there to make “individual freedom” — micro-freedom — a government project, a program, something government manages and expands by preventing any and all “macro-freedom.” Consider the Civil War, which was from the beginning a government program to expand freedom. Not by freeing slaves, though that would come. But by promoting the mystical doctrine inherent in this notion of state freedom that if any bit of the state is removed then individuals within the state are automatically less free. For supporters of the Union, there could be no “good riddance” to the slave economies of the Confederacy, because the loss of that land, those people, that bit of territory, made the people in the whole less free. Lincoln’s Gettysberg Address makes no sense otherwise save as mystical religious doctrine.

After that, Progressive politics — Square Deals, New Deals, Fair Deals, trust busting, corporatism, Great Societies, the Civil Rights Movement — all examples of the government promotion and expansion of “individual freedom.” Indeed, don’t school textbooks and the popular narrative of American history portary the march from Jamestown and Plymouth as the steady advance toward more and better freedom? The march of ever expanding and rising micro-freedom as any macro-freedom we have is erased utterly. It’s freedom as consumerism — free to chose everything but not choosing.

But this isn’t really freedom any more than the small businessman is economically free in a world run by Chicago School state planners. And it isn’t real freedom for several reasons.

First, this is Michael Oakeshott’s teleological state, a state imposing meaning on individuals. In this kind of state, some individuals — the managers of the state — will be selected (or select themselves) and empowered to coerce meaning and value, to choose the projects and people the state will support and those it will condemn. Individuals are not legally left alone to choose what they will live for, sacrifice for, love for and die for — the state arrogates to itself the right to make that choice for them. In fact, while no state agent can in fact deny an individual soul the right and power to define what their lives mean, the state can (and does) punish those who refuse to accept the state’s meaning. And woe to anyone seen to be in the way of the state’s self-proclaimed great moral crusade to promote and expand individual liberty.

Second, this isn’t real freedom because it deprives human beings of the power to say “no.” One cannot say “no” to the state, to its confiscation of wealth, labor and time for state ends because the state will not take “no” for answer. There is no freedom without the ability to say “no” to any kind of potential human master.

Finally, because “no” is not allowed, this isn’t really freedom, it’s akin to the “self-realization” envision by the founders of the Great Society. One can only choose which kind of “yes” one says, but not choose “no.” It prevents self-organization, both political and economic, because it demands all individual freedom flow from and through the central state, just as all economic activity must be measurable and taxable. No one can say “no” either to the state or to the macro-economy because they are the same things.

Real freedom is a lot more complicated, a lot more fraught with serious moral problems. It cannot be subsidized or spread by act of law or military maneuver. But I think I understand now why so many misguided and foolish people believe it is.