When I contributed to the recently published Why Liberty, the assignment was easy. After all, liberty is a condition that men and women everywhere instinctively love and need, even if it isn't always well-articulated. Liberty speaks to a way of self-government that is human-centered and fundamentally humane. Liberty defines human rights in a way that is supremely just, and liberty, by its very nature, is antithetical to force. Liberty is the natural condition of man, and most Americans share this ideal. Peace, on the other hand, for Americans born in the past 70 years, and for the millions of foreign subjects of the modern American empire, has not been part of their ideals, their ethics or their collective experience.
When we think of the Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his work on individualism, libertarians and logicians alike chuckle at his claim that "Men must be forced to be free." Rousseau likely meant that we tend to be voluntarily enslaved by our governments and kings, and by our cultures and traditions. He was right on one aspect of human nature. We are often reluctant to give up our fantasies of the justness of our rulers, and the righteousness of our traditions.
Americans, in particular, embrace the language of liberty, even as the American state itself has become ominously and voraciously antithetical to liberty. The state pursues its wars in the name of liberty, and the government constantly reminds us that it maintains a large standing army, a massive military establishment, and a heavily integrated domestic police apparatus — all in the name of freedom. We cannot go far in the United States without being reminded that "if we like our freedom, thank a soldier."
To talk about peace in the 21st century, as fresh as we are from the deadly outcomes of the 20th, is a challenge. While it is natural to love liberty, it seems that peace is often argued to be unnatural, uncommon, and unlikely in the human condition. While the claim to liberty is granted by the Creator, claims to peace are not. But practiced liberty, with its prohibition on the use of force to take a man's time, his children, his property and labor, his movement, is the fundamental precursor to peace. A truly free society is one that embraces a culture on the value of individual lives, a respect for their property, and aversion to the use of force. It is one that is comfortable in the art of trading and deal-making based on marketplace choices, not government edicts. A truly free society is a peaceful society.
In the United States, we once had a vocal combination of thinkers who advocated nonviolence, and opposed the use of force, by individuals and by states. For many decades in our history, the primary opinion in the country was that government was to be limited in size and scope. Statesmen referenced the Constitution as a guide for this limited government, and limiting government (and by extension, war) was considered both valuable and normal. In these previous eras, serious public debate on war and peace was tolerated, and one could read about both war and peace in the newspapers.
But gradually, the state as a source of both assistance to and identity for individuals (increasingly thought of as "citizens") emerged in part with the emigration of the German and other national populists after the failures of the various 1848 Revolutions in Europe. These immigrants, unlike previous waves of Europeans seeking freedom of religion and opportunity to farm and produce, embraced ideas of the importance of national unity, and the supremacy of democracy, political ideas that elevate the importance of the state. They were urban-oriented and industrial-minded immigrants, who valued the state as a legitimizer of individuals, and desired a powerful and egalitarian welfare state. They became important political blocs in the country, supporting a strong central rule, workers rights over property rights, majority rule over rule by the more staid and limited Constitution.
Meanwhile, the role of religionists and philosophers in the United States also increasingly saw the state as the mechanism of virtue. The era of Christian progressivism looked to the state to aid sinners in their fight to resist sin, and this very powerful and popular abdication of individual and community responsibility for diktats of state on the individual culminated in the 18th Amendment in 1919, banning sales and consumption of alcohol across the land. From political, economic, and religious perspectives, American as a great state was increasingly valued over America, land of liberty. These Europeans in general opposed Southern slavery, they generally did so as a means to higher paychecks and full employment rather than because they believed in equality of African Americans, or substantially embraced the fundamental concepts of human liberty. Slavery was enforced more effectively in the non-slave North than it had ever been in the South, in part due to racism, and in part due to the widely held view of slaves as economic units of competition.
The state centralized as a result of the Civil War, and militarized as a result of Reconstruction and the professionalization of civil servants. Dehumanization, destruction of property, unlimited post civil war takings but both the state, and its friends and allies, all challenged constitutional ideas of liberty. Without liberty, and the innate justice that comes from respecting property of others, peace is impossible. That many in the Christian churches condemned their more peaceful advocates in the abolition movement, and came to see the state as an ally in pursuit of common goals of social order, the hypocrisy of those who worshipped the Prince of Peace became more and more obvious. The rise of the Yankee Leviathan, as phrased by historian Richard Bensel, and the statist/church Battle Hymn of the Republic, written at about the same time illustrates the nature of the perversion.
Mark Twain's famous "The War Prayer," published in 1923 but believed to be dictated in 1904 or 1905, and referring to the Christian calls to reconvert the failing Spanish Empire from Catholicism to Protestantism, even as the public school movement at home was attempting to do with the waves of impoverished Catholic Irish and Italian immigrants, indeed captures the hypocrisy of Christians who long for war, death and destruction, often overseas or in another's backyard, and usually the name of the state. This lust for war, equating support for the state for love of country and government-led collective hate confused with patriotism, was not something the founders envisioned for the new and free Republic. They certainly understood both the nature of mob thinking as well as the nature of ruling elites, the latter of which were in a position to profit from war. To prevent the nation from adventuring into wars abroad without the full awareness and support of the people, and without a concluded public debate on the justness of the war or military adventure, they specified the Congress, at that time representing the people and the several states, as the branch of government that could declare and authorize such a war or military adventure.
This seemed to work with few exceptions until the late 1800s. Was it a desire for war, or a desire for global relevance, or just the evolving nature of the American state that caused this shift? Had Americans thrilled to the idea of peace, it seems we would have heard more in the public sphere about how we could achieve it. Instead, we got a 20th century of state wars on the indigenous, state wars on other states, cold war militarism and fearmongering, and the positioning of global alliances against global alliances. There were also wars on drugs, wars on cancer, wars on illiteracy, and wars for "humanitarianism" and human rights.
War is organized in vertical authoritarian structures, and entails force against one's own people through regulation, drafts, and economic mandates from the state. War requires great collective fear of an enemy, as well as great personal fear of one's own state. When Randolph Bourne wrote "War Is the Health of the State" he explained how the state is fully realized only in war:
The more terrifying the occasion for defense, the closer will become the organization and the more coercive the influence upon each member of the herd. War sends the current of purpose and activity flowing down to the lowest level of the herd, and to its most remote branches. All the activities of society are linked together as fast as possible to this central purpose of making a military offensive or a military defense, and the State becomes what in peacetimes it has vainly struggled to become – the inexorable arbiter and determinant of men’s business and attitudes and opinions. The slack is taken up, the cross-currents fade out, and the nation moves lumberingly and slowly, but with ever accelerated speed and integration, toward the great end, toward the “peacefulness of being at war,” of which L.P. Jacks has so unforgettably spoken.
And what is that "peacefulness of being at war?" Jacks observed that in the early years of the First World War.
…the individual is not more gloomy. He is brighter, more cheerful. He worries less about himself. He is a trifle more unselfish and correspondingly more agreeable as a companion or neighbor. … This feeling of being banded together, which comes over a great population in its hour of trial, is a wonderful thing. It produces a kind of exhilaration which goes far to offset the severity of the trial. The spirit of fellowship, with its attendant cheerfulness, is in the air. It is comparatively easy to love one’s neighbor when we realize that he and we are common servants and common sufferers in the same cause. A deep breath of that spirit has passed into the life of England.
In a sense, there is no way to speak about peace to a 21st century American, except as the absence of war. There is no way to collectively think about the absence of war, because the language of modern America is filled to the gills with talk of war, and a reactionary embrace of the centralized state. War is what we do. War sustains a significant portion of our government, gives our presidents manliness and makes our men and women aggressive and longsuffering patriots. War and munitions makes up over half of our global exports and employs over three million people, not counting men and women in uniform. The US government is obsessed with war, and in war, both seeks and finds its political and economic identity. This war obsessed government employs today over 22 million Americans, twice the number of people employed in manufacturing.
Yet, for all of this, Americans themselves do value peace, and are increasingly tired of war, and the endless lies and prevarications about the wars that seem to constantly engage us. Happily, the latest flurry of news from the White House about the final end of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Ladin is not producing the presidential political "bump" in the polls that past similar announcements have done, and instead of loud celebrations, Americans seem newly interested in what bin Ladin's death can tell us about our own country's prospects for real peace, and a contraction of our global military empire.
Peace takes on a more concrete meaning when people are struggling to feed families, buy gas, get and keep a job, and make their mortgage payments. As the productive capacity and civil liberties of Americans are shrinking, as they have done radically since September 11, 2001, the idea of living in a constitutional republic rather than an empire or global military enforcer becomes more compelling to the average American. Increasingly Americans are expatriating, and if not fully disengaging from the American state, are seeking second homes in places that truly, seem to embody peaceful living.
We are reminded today, almost three generations later, of the emerging prosperity-oriented ideas of the late 1950s. Barry Goldwater called for smaller more accountable government, in the face of a growing and ever more confiscatory state. President Dwight Eisenhower questioned the burgeoning growth of the military-industrial complex, and warned all Americans that unless checked, we as a nation would sacrifice both peace and liberty. In 1957, Ayn Rand published Atlas Shrugged, posing a last ditch solution to the monster war-loving state, a "shrugging" off of individual productivity by simply disappearing from the purview of the state.
These ideas — all related to peace, all related to prosperity, founded on Renaissance revelations of the intrinsic value of the individual and resting on the Founders' ideas of a Creator-granted organic right of liberty — have persisted, even as the government of the United States has morphed into a war-addicted, liberty-offending, debt-ridden global empire.
Why peace? And why now? We have become a country that cannot afford the luxury of killing human beings and destroying economies around the world. Americans are slowly waking to the ongoing destruction of our own economy, due largely to government spending abroad and government malinvestment in a military sector that dwarfs anything existing anywhere else on the planet. Americans are beginning to separate in their own minds their government's unending interest in military force and intimidation around the world, and their own interest in living a profitable and peaceful life, and seeing their children prosper in their own great land, not die miserably or be damaged irreversibly in some barren mountaintop or miserable desert inhabited by people we simply do not care about. Americans are slowly recognizing that the rule of law in this country has been usurped by a new imperial model, where presidential assassinations of enemies of the state around the world are standard, and where American citizens in general are viewed as threats to the state, not as free and valuable individuals, for whom the state must necessarily be submissive and subordinate. Peace is the only way we can to resolve and reduce the state's grip on the lives and economies of Americans, even as peace will resolve and reduce our government's rip on much of the rest of the world.
Many Americans increasingly sense that economic hardship and limited freedom is the new 21st century reality for them and their children. They correctly associate hardship and a kind of citizen servitude with the United States global military empire, even as this empire has been slowly evolving, in some ways surreptitiously, for nearly 100 years. We require peace because we can no longer afford war. More importantly, Americans are beginning, thanks in part to vastly and immediately available access to a wide variety of information, both historical and real-time, to recognize and even laugh at our prevaricating and parasitic political masters in both parties. When major public polling entities begin to regularly pose questions for the "political class" as opposed to "the people" as Rasmussen did in 2010, it is a major sign of impending revolution — or, if we are fortunate, a peaceful evolution towards a value set that will publically and commonly criminalize war and war-mongering, and celebrate peace, liberty and prosperity at home, and everywhere.
In the dystopian future imagined by George Orwell in 1984, Winston is advised,
There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always — do not forget this, Winston — always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.
In this simple description, we see the answer to the question "Why Peace." War is intoxication, addiction, and destruction. It is sensation, compulsion, and sin — the enemy not of peace but of humanity itself. Randolph Bourne correctly observed, "War is the health of the state," and we can clearly see that the converse is also true. Peace is the health of the individual, the family, the community and the land.
We don't have to accept the boot of the state and its wars stamping on a human face forever, even as it is served up daily by the ever-ravenous political class, sitting atop a sand-based pyramid of state paranoia. Peace trumps the zero sum game of war, and peace is additive, creative, infinitely inventive, and just. Only in peace can a true "spirit of fellowship" be experienced. To use the language of war with which Americans have become so comfortable, peace always wins, even as states inevitably collapse under the weight of their hubris and criminality.