The War Against Life

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It is interesting to observe so many Americans trying to find “meaning” in the Bush administration’s war against an endless parade of “enemies.” From Afghanistan to Iraq to North Korea, the state continues to concoct “threats” for the consumption of a public that is neither empirically nor analytically demanding. The media are quick to play their assigned roles, providing state-generated “information” and self-styled “experts” to convince the rest of us that everything the White House tells us is “just so,” and that anyone who dissents from — or even questions — the state’s purposes or policies is likely an apologist for terrorism!

The state’s ability to gull most of its citizens into an acceptance of politically defined reality has been made possible by one of the few successful state institutions: the government school system. Contrary to those who look upon government schools as failures, I have long regarded them as shining accomplishments for state purposes: to produce herd-oriented men and women incapable of making independent judgments, and who are thus prepared to submit to external authorities for direction in their lives. In the words of Ivan Illich, “[s]chool is the advertising agency which makes you believe that you need the society as it is.”

Almost all graduates of government schools share an ignorance of the nature of social institutions. The study of such fields as history, economics, and government have long been confined to a compilation of names, dates, organizational descriptions, and other disconnected data; but with little genuine critical analysis that would call into question institutionally accepted political or social doctrines. I suspect that the typical government school alumnus is more adept at spotting politically incorrect rhetoric, or putting a condom on a banana, than he or she is in explaining the causes or consequences of World War I. While most haven’t the slightest understanding of how political systems actually operate, they have learned their catechisms about the virtues of “democracy” (i.e., the illusion that they and a friend have twice the political influence of David Rockefeller)! While the bald eagle does represent the predatory nature of the state, I believe it is time to adopt a national symbol that more accurately reflects the mindset of most Americans: the parrot!

Of course, it is not in the interests of the state — or of those who profit from statism — to have the nature of political systems explored; for to do so, might cause even the institutionally-deferential students to catch on to the vicious game being played at their expense. It is not enough to understand that the state often resorts to war: war is its fundamental nature. Every political institution — from the local Weed Control Authority to the United States of America — depends, for its existence, upon men and women being conditioned to submit to the force and violence exercised by government authorities. The state is nothing more than institutionalized violence that we have become conditioned to revere.

Herein lies the fundamental distinction between the marketplace and political systems: in the marketplace, people are persuaded to cooperate and exchange with one another in anticipation of being rewarded for doing so. Political systems, by contrast, induce participation in their schemes through compulsion. In place of rewards, threats to the loss of one’s life, liberty, or property are held out as the consequences of disobedience. I have always found it remarkable that so many men and women are prepared to distrust any and all businessmen — whose appeals, in a free market, they are free to ignore — while trusting even the most corrupt or cruel politician — whose demands they fail to meet at their peril.

But how do political systems secure such servility to force and violence? Why would otherwise intelligent human beings submit to such an abject condition? The state operates on the basis of the most inhumane and anti-social premises — behaviors that we insist upon criminalizing if done by private parties — and yet we tell ourselves that we cannot live well without such brutal practices. Why?

Much of the explanation, I suspect, is to be found in our sense of fear: both of ourselves and others. Having been institutionally trained to distrust our capacities for self-directed lives, while having unfailing confidence in the judgments of institutional leaders, most of us have grown up fearing our own sense of responsibility. To be free is to be accountable for one’s actions. But it is not to others that we fear accountability, but to ourselves. In the words of Epictetus: “It is a man’s own judgments which disturb him.” The state is as eager to relieve us of this sense of disquiet as most of us are to give it up.

In looking to others — particularly institutional authorities — to make decisions on our behalf, we unconsciously tell ourselves, they can become responsible for the adversity that befalls us! We are not responsible. We are victims of the failures of others! If fifty years of smoking has given me lung cancer, it is the fault of the cigarette companies in producing the cigarettes! If our children grow up to be crude or unfocused adults, it is not due to examples we set as parents: the fault lies with rock music or television! We tell ourselves that the state can rectify all of this. But if the state is to enjoy surrogate responsibility, it insists upon having control over our activities, an authority men and women are increasingly willing to cede to political agencies, lest the specter of self-responsibility reemerge.

But we have also been conditioned to have a fear of others. The state would be unable to exist were it not for our being frightened that there are other persons in the world who mean us harm, and that only our submission to the authority of political authorities can protect us from such threats. For its own well being, the state must generate and nurture this mindset, something it has done since primitive tribal leaders warned their fellow tribesmen of the “Nine Bows” who lived on the other side of the mountain. The current “war on terror” reminds us of something every child learned while listening to ghost stories at night around a campfire: threats can be made even scarier as the fear object becomes more amorphous and ubiquitous. The hazier the definition of the bogeyman, the more our mind fills in the frightening details.

What would be the likely consequences, to the state, of a condition of universal peace, wherein men and women no longer lived under state-induced fears of one another? That question was the subject of inquiry for a book, published in 1967, titled Report From Iron Mountain on the Possibility and Desirability of Peace. This book purports to have been the results of a secret government study, begun during the Kennedy administration, on the effects that peace would have on political systems. It is now generally regarded as having been a work of fiction, but that should not distract our attention from its importance. Let us recall that the fictional works of Orwell, Huxley, Kafka, Rand, and even Shakespeare, have told us more about the nature of political systems than have most political science PhD dissertations!

War, the report informs us, “is the basic social system,” and “the end of war means the end of national sovereignty.” Because “[a]llegiance requires a cause,” and “a cause requires an enemy,” the “war-making societies require — and thus bring about — conflicts.” A condition of universal peace, in other words, would be fatal to political systems. This is the same meaning one finds in Randolph Bourne’s observation that “war is the health of the state.” But the health of the war-making system, the report goes on, “requires regular u2018exercise.'” It is not enough to just have the capacity for such systematic violence; deadly force must be employed with sufficient regularity to keep a nation’s subjects in awe of the powers of life and death held by the state over their lives. This is why, particularly since 1941, the United States government has managed to involve itself in one military campaign after another throughout the world.

The “enemies” singled out by a state must be made plausible to the ovine herds who are to be rounded up and driven by their political leaders. The Soviet Union served this role nicely for some four decades but, alas, showed their poor sportsmanship by dropping out of the game. A new enemy had to be found, and it was part of the alleged purpose of the Report From Iron Mountain to indicate some alternative “enemies” should the then-existing ones no longer be available. From environmental pollution to threats from interplanetary invaders to ethnic minorities, the report indicated various “alternate enemies” that could be employed to maintain political power in an otherwise peaceful world. It was only essential, the report emphasized, that the threat be one that could be rendered believable to the public, even if it be one that the state, itself, would have to secretly engage in for purposes of plausibility.

You may recall the various candidates offered up for our consumption following the collapse of the Soviet Union: child abductors, drug dealers, pornographers, Satanists, sexual predators, rock music (particularly that which purported to have hidden Satanic messages in the lyrics!), religious fundamentalists and, the apparent winner: international terrorism. All that was required was to make the threat believable — which events of 9/11 did — and the state could not only continue to enjoy its wartime powers over the American people, but could actually expand upon them far beyond what had existed during previous wars!

It is ironic that, not so many months ago, the present-day fomenters and conductors of the “war on terror” were parading under the banner of being “pro-life,” particularly as such was useful in their campaigns against abortions. But the use of state power — especially in the conduct of wars — is anti-life, for it is premised on the exercise of force against people. To compel others, through threats and violence, to behave differently than they would have acted in the absence of such coercion, is to deny the self-directed nature of all living systems. Through the use of force, we become servomechanisms, objects, the dispirited automatons implicit in the institutionalized job description “human resource manager.”

Many years ago, I saw a photo exhibit at a museum in which a scientist reported on his efforts to examine, under a microscope, the eye of a mosquito. He reported that, for a while, the eye was ablaze in brilliant shades of orange and green. But then, the mosquito died, and the eye became black; the fire had gone out. What a perfectly sad metaphor for what we have allowed human systems of control to do to the spirit that is innate within each of us.

We must understand all of politics — no matter in what nation it is practiced — as a system that wars against the very nature of life. Politics cannot be eliminated by force — for to do so would only imply an even mightier amassing of power than what is in place. Neither can it be reformed, the effort to do so being as absurd as trying to practice a peaceful form of warfare, or a humane system of tyranny. It can only be transcended, a process that can only begin by each of us ending the divisions and fears that our political masters have carefully conditioned us to accept. When we discover peace and order within ourselves, we shall then withdraw our energies from the sanctified hostilities and confusion that are destroying life.

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.

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