Reflections on State and War

Read part I

Making the World Safe from Democracy or: How to Defend Oneself Against the United States

After this excursion into the theory of democratic peace I am back to the proposition that there is no greater threat to lasting peace than the democratic state, and in particular the United States. Thus, the question: how to make the world safe from democracy or how to defend oneself against the U.S..

This is not only a problem for foreigners but for Americans as well. After all, the territory constituting the U.S. too is conquered and occupied territory – conquered by the U.S. government just as Iraq today is conquered by the U.S. government (if only less successfully). Thus recognizing the question as a truly general one allows us to gain a more principled understanding of the issues involved.

Let us assume that a small territory within the borders of the current U.S. – a village, a town, a county – declares its independence and secedes from the U.S. What can and will the U.S. do in response? The answer depends on many “ifs” and must be largely speculative, but not entirely so.[amazon asin=0765808684&template=*lrc ad (right)]

It is possible that the U.S. will invade the territory, crush the secessionists, and if necessary kill everyone in its way. This is what the FrenchRepublic did to the seceding Vendee during the French Revolution, for instance, what the Union did to the Confederacy, and on a much smaller scale and more recently, what the U.S. government did in Waco. But history also provides examples to the contrary: the Czechs and Slovaks separated peacefully, Russia let Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia go; the Slovenes were let go; Singapore was even expelled from a previous union with Malaysia.

Obviously, the relative population size matters in the decision to war or not to war. Likewise it matters what resources and technological capabilities are at the secessionists’ disposal. Also the geographical location of the secessionists can weigh in favor or against intervention. But this cannot be all. For how is one to explain, for instance, that France has not long ago conquered Monaco, or Germany Luxemburg, or Switzerland Liechtenstein, or Italy Vatican City, or the U.S. Costa Rica? Or how is one to explain that the U.S. does not “finish the job” in Iraq by simply killing all Iraqis. Surely, in terms of population, technology and geography such are manageable tasks.

The reason for these omissions is not that French, German, Swiss, Italian or U.S. state rulers have principled moral scruples against conquest, occupation, expropriation, confiscation, enslavement and the imprisonment or killing of innocents – they do these things on a daily basis to their “own” population. Bush, for instance, has no compunction ordering to kill innocent Iraqis. He does so every day. Rather, what constrains the conduct of state rulers and explains their reluctance to do things that appear feasible from a “technical” point of view is public opinion, domestically, but also abroad.

As La Boetie, Hume, Mises, Rothbard have explained, government power ultimately rests on opinion, not brute force. Bush does not himself kill or put a gun to the head of those he orders to kill. Generals and soldiers follow his orders on their own. Nor can Bush “force” anyone to continue providing him with the funds needed for his aggression. The citizenry must do so on its own, because it believes that, by and large, it is the right thing to do. On the other hand, if the majority of generals, soldiers and citizens stop believing in the legitimacy of Bush’s commands, his commands turn into nothing more than hot air. It is this need for legitimacy that explains why state governments itching to go to war (and especially democratic governments expecting popular war support) must offer a reason for their actions. The public is not typically in favor of killing innocent bystanders for fun or profit. Rather, in order to enlist the public’s assistance “evidence” must be manipulated or fabricated so as to make aggression appear as defense (for what reasonable person could be against defense). We know the catchwords: FortSumter, the USS Maine, the Lusitania, Pearl Harbor, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, 9-11.

It thus turns out that not even an overwhelming size advantage is ultimately decisive in determining the course of action. That David Koresh and his followers in Waco could be brutally killed by the U.S. government was due to the fact that they could be easily portrayed as a bunch of crazy child molesters. Had they been “normal people” an invasion might have been considered a public relations disaster and hence prohibitive. Moreover, regardless of whatever disadvantage the secessionists have in terms of size, resources or location, this can be made up by a favorable international public opinion, especially in the internet age when the spread of news is almost instantaneous. If almost everyone anywhere sides with the secessionists and considers their behavior decent, understandable and just, even the seemingly most powerful government on earth must fear for its [amazon asin=0945466404&template=*lrc ad (right)]legitimacy if it decides to crush the “rebellion.”

These considerations bring me to the final points: the likelihood of success of the secessionists depends on their choice of internal organization. The new secessionist country can be another state or it can be a free, state-less society. Tying back to my explanation regarding the relationship between state and aggression, I will argue that the likelihood of successful defense against U.S. aggression is higher if the secessionists form a stateless society than if they opt for another state. Because whether large or small, states are good at aggression and bad at defense, except at defending themselves. (Granting, maybe prematurely, that the U.S. had nothing to do with 9-11 directly, the events of that day certainly show that the U.S. was not good at defending its own citizens: first by provoking the attacks and secondly in having its population disarmed and defenseless vis-a-vis box-cutter wielding foreign invaders.)

How would the defensive stance of a free society differ from that of a state and how would this affect the likelihood a) of a U.S. attack and b) of its success?

Ad a): As explained, the likelihood of an attack depends essentially on the ease of manipulating the evidence so as to camouflage aggression as defense – and to “discover” such evidence is much easier in the case of a state than that of a state-less society. Even the most liberal state has a monopoly of jurisdiction and taxation and thus cannot but commit injustices and create victims which, properly stylized as “victims of human rights violations” or some such, may provide the necessary “excuse” for a planned invasion. Worse, if the new state is a democracy it is unavoidable that one group – the Catholics or the Protestants, the Shiites or the Sunnis, the Whites or the Blacks, the Haves or the Not-Haves, etc. – will use its power to dominate another – and once again there exists an “excuse” for invasion: to “free some oppressed minority.” Better still: the oppressed are incited, assisted by financial aid, to “cry out” for U.S. help. Moreover, in reaction to domestic oppression terrorists may grow up who try to “revenge” the injustice: just think of the Red Brigades, the RAF, the IRA, the ETA, the PKK, etc. – and both: the continued existence of terrorists as well as a policy of trying to eradicate them may provide “reason” to intervene (to prevent the spread of terrorism or to come to the rescue of freedom fighters). In distinct contrast, in a free society only private property owners and private firms, including insurers, police, and arbitration agencies exist. All relationships are contractual. If there is any provocation or aggression, they are the actions not of terrorists but of ordinary criminals: of murderers, rapists, burglars, thieves and plain frauds – and it is difficult to portray the treatment of criminals as criminals as a reason for an invasion.

Ad b): What if the attack does occur? In that case it might well be best to give up quickly, especially if the secessionist territory is very small. Thus Mogens Glistrup, founder of the Danish Progress Party, once recommended that the Defense Department of tiny Denmark be replaced with an answering machine announcing (to the Russians) that “we surrender.” This way, no destruction occurs and yet the prestige, the good name of the invading government as a “defender and promoter of liberty” is likely forever soiled.

This preliminary consideration leads to our central question regarding the comparative effectiveness of states vs. free societies in matters of defense. As a monopolist of ultimate decision-making, the state decides for everyone bindingly whether to resist or not; if to resist, whether in the form of civil disobedience, armed resistance or some combination thereof; and if armed resistance, of what form. If it decides to put up no resistance, this[amazon asin=0945466374&template=*lrc ad (right)] may be a well-meaning decision or it may be the result of bribes or personal threats by the invading state – but in any case, it will certainly be contrary to the preferences of many people who would have liked to put up some resistance and who are thus put in double jeopardy because as resisters they disobey now their own state as well as the invader. On the other hand, if the state decides to resist, this again may be a well-meaning decision or it may be the result of pride or fear – but in any case, it too will be contrary to the preferences of many citizens who would have liked to put up no resistance or to resist by different means and who are entangled now as accomplices in the state’s schemes and subjected to the same collateral fallout and victor’s-justice as everyone else.

The reaction of a free territory is distinctly different. There is no government which makes one decision. Instead, there are numerous institutions and individuals who choose their own defense strategy, either independent of or in cooperation with others, each in accordance with one’s own risk assessment. Consequently, the aggressor has far more difficulties gathering information and conquering the territory. It is no longer sufficient to “know” the government, to win one decisive battle or to gain control of government headquarters from where to transmit orders to the native population. Even if one opponent is “known”, one battle is won or one defense agency defeated, this has no bearing on others.

Moreover, the multitude of command structures and strategies as well as the contractual character of a free society affect the conduct of both armed and unarmed resistance. As for the former, in state-territories the civilian population is typically unarmed and heavy reliance exists on regular, tax-and-draft-funded armies and conventional warfare. Hence, the defense forces create enemies even among its own citizenry, which the aggressor state can use to its own advantage, and in any case there is little to fear for the aggressor once the regular army is defeated. In contrast, the population of free territories is likely heavily armed and the fighting done by irregular militias led by defense professionals and in the form of guerilla or partisan warfare. All fighters are volunteers and all of their support: food, shelter, logistical help etc. is voluntary. Hence, guerrillas must be extremely friendly to their own population. But precisely this: their entirely defensive character and near-unanimous support in public opinion can render them nearly invincible, even by numerically far superior invading armies. History provides numerous examples: Napoleon’s defeat in Spain, France’s defeat in Algeria, the U.S. defeat in Vietnam, Israel’s defeat in South Lebanon.

This consideration of the relationship between fighters and civilians leads immediately to the other form of defense: unarmed resistance or civil disobedience. Provided only that the secessionists have the will to be free, the effectiveness of this strategy can hardly be overestimated. Just recall that power does not rest alone on brute force but must rely on “opinion.” The conquerors cannot put one man next to each secessionist and so force him obey their orders. The secessionists must obey by their own free will. However, if they do not – and this insight forms the basis of the doctrine of civil disobedience – the conquerors will fail. Most importantly: civil disobedience can occur in many forms and degrees. It can range from ostentatious acts of defiance to entirely unobtrusive ways, thus allowing almost everyone to participate in the defense effort: the courageous and the timid, the young and the old, men and women, leaders and followers. One may hide armed fighters or not hinder them and keep quiet about their whereabouts. One may publicly refuse to obey certain laws, or evade and ignore them. One may engage in sabotage, obstruction, negligence or simply display a lack of diligence. One may openly scoff at orders or comply only incompletely. Tax payments may be refused or evaded. There may be demonstrations, sit-ins, boycotts, work-stoppages or plain slacking-off. The conquerors may be maltreated, molested, ridiculed, laughed at or simply ostracized and never assisted in anything. In any case: all of this contributes to the same result: to render the conquerors powerless, make them despair and finally resign and withdraw.

As is often the case, the first step in the anti-imperialist-anti-democratic struggle is the most difficult. Indeed, the difficulties are enormous. Once the first step has been successfully taken, however, things get successively easier. Once the number of secessionist territories has reached a critical mass – and every success in one location will promote imitation by other localities – the difficulties of crushing the secessionists will increase exponentially. In fact, the more time passes the greater will the comparative economic and technological advantage of free territories become and in light of the ever increasing attractiveness and economic opportunities offered by the free territories the imperialist powers will be increasingly happy if they can hang on to their power rather than risk whatever legitimacy they still have in an attack.