Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Hierarchies of Power

Some years ago, I was reading George Orwell's essay on Rudyard Kipling when I was struck by the following passage -- basically an aside in Orwell's opening argument that Kipling was not a fascist as was sometimes charged (but, rather, a Nineteenth Century colonialist who outlived his era). Orwell writes:

No one, in our time, believes in any sanction greater than military power; no one believes that it is possible to overcome force except by greater force. There is no ‘Law’, there is only power. I am not saying that that is a true belief, merely that it is the belief which all modern men do actually hold. Those who pretend otherwise are either intellectual cowards, or power-worshippers under a thin disguise, or have simply not caught up with the age they are living in.

What struck me about the passage -- and it was not the first time I read it that this occurred to me -- was that this was not true of our day and age. In our time we do not believe that there is no "sanction greater than military power". Nowadays everyone believes that there is no sanction greater than economic power.

Now obviously my statement is just as much of an exaggeration as was Orwell's. But I think that mine, like his, captures something about the general temper of our age. Now, this is probably not the sort of thought that is amenable to ready empirical evidence. The field is simply too vast for anyone -- any group of people, really -- to survey. The only way that we are convinced about this sort of thing is whether it resonates with our experience -- whether or not it sounds right. If you, Noble Reader, disagree with me, there is probably little I can do to convince you.

But it did, and does, sound right to me. I think that, historically, at the end of the Second World War, there was a sense that military power, and only military power, ruled. Yet by the nineties I don't think that was true any more. One reason is simply new history. We had all seen the Soviet Union brought down, not by military power -- indeed, despite its military power -- because, basically, of the weakness of its economic system.

It wasn't only a change in evidence and experience, however, because with the new temper came a rereading of the old evidence. History was reread. Did the U.S. posses the strength it did in the Second World War because of its military power -- or because of the economic power that permitted it? If I'm right -- or, perhaps more accurately, to the degree that I'm right -- this was part of a larger cultural shift in our cultural sense of what was important, of the fundamental causes of social changes and dynamics were.

And of course the problem with these "it all comes down to --" sort of statements is that they're all true -- or, at any rate, a good number of them can be true. It all comes down to military power: if someone can conquer your country, you have to do what they want. It all comes down to economic power: if they can't afford to equip and feed their army, it won't matter how strong their military is.

It may seem silly to bring this up, at this moment in history. After all, the Bush administration is pushing forward with a simultaneous program of military aggression and economic recklessness, and certainly have forgotten all about the merits of what has been called "soft power". For them, military might is all. Either they are as out of their time as Kipling was, or the belief in economic power was simply a brief flirtation before we returned to the basics of the tank and the gun.

Yet there are some reasons to suspect that it might be that they are out of their time. After all, despite all of the U.S.'s unparalleled -- among other powers or in world history -- military might, none of their military campaigns have gone very well. Now, to be sure, there are huge numbers of reasons for this, including at its base the simple fact of their overwhelming ineptitude. Nevertheless, it does keep the attentive observer from shifting back into the "military might is all" mode.

I bring all this up, in fact, because I see a glimmering -- a hint -- a hope -- that another mode might be emerging. Not spiritual or cultural power, which is (very roughly) what Orwell claimed Kipling believed in past its sell-by date. Not military power; not economic power. But moral power.

I know, I know: but bear with me for a moment.

This occurred to me when I was reading one of Billmon's many posts about how the Israeli campaign simply didn't seem to be going very well as a military matter. He clearly disapproves of its excesses; but even that aside, he thought that they were finding themselves quickly in the big muddy (in the old Vietnam-era phrase). The question is why.

I think that -- again, this is more than even wild speculation, this is looking desperately for the gleam of light shinning off the pool of blood that our world seems to have become -- it is because they lack moral credibility.*

It is clearly not a question of military might. As some of its most fervent supporters seem to make a point of remarking, Israel could be killing a lot more people if it wanted to. (This is usually offered as an argument against the notion that Israel is killing civilians deliberately -- if it wanted it, it is claimed, it could kill more. (I don't think this is a valid argument -- but also don't want to get sidetracked.)) But its military might isn't helping it as much as one might think. (Nor, of course, is it an economic question, Israel being by far a stronger economy then Lebanon's (indeed, stronger by the day, given the damage it is doing to Lebanon's infrastructure.))

So why aren't they winning?

The answer is that they want something that can't be gotten through military means. They want compliance.

In the old days, sure, Rome could raze Carthage to the ground and that was the end of it. But if this happened today, whoever was playing Rome would face the revulsion of the world -- revulsion that would eventually find expression in other forms of power (military, economic). This is not to say that one won't find, if one dips even briefly into the comments of the right-wing blogosphere, extraordinarily bloodthirsty calls for the U.S. and/or Israel to do just that. There seems to be a persistent nostalgia for the days when the strong could simply exterminate their enemies down to the last child in some quarters on the right. But the fact is that, unless the madmen who have seized control of our country prove themselves far, far madder even then they have to date (and I wouldn't rule it out), it simply isn't possible.

This is not to deny for a second that hideous bloodbaths are still occurring all over the world -- Darfur leaps to mind, alas, not to mention the multiple killing fields in the Middle East and beyond. Remember, what I am describing, even if it is not simply the blinding glare of hope making me think I see something which isn't there (which, again, it may well be), it is something very new. And, of course, in the complexities of the real world, military power and economic power and all sorts of power have all always mattered, even if we culturally focus on one for a time.

But. Still.

To a large degree, the media struggle over the Israel - Lebanon conflict is over who wants to look like the victim. This is an international version of the sort of "I am more of a victim than you" that one finds all through U.S. culture, even in quite unlikely places like the Christianist right. But it takes place because it works -- because without a general sense of the righteousness of one's cause -- first and foremost among one's own side, secondly in the world at large -- one is at a severe disadvantage. Possibly even an overwhelming disadvantage.

And one can imagine rereading much of world history in this light, too. Why were stronger powers repelled during colonial wars all through the last sixty years -- the U.S. in Vietnam, France in Algeria, etc? One historian has already argued, if memory serves, that the most crucial factor in the Allied victory in the Second World War was, ultimately, the morality (and perceived morality) of the Allies' cause.

If I am right -- if this is a nescient sense, that will grow -- people will start to see that military might is inadequate to their ends without a clear sense of the justice of those ends. There is no military solution to Iraq, people are now saying; it will have to be political. Only a political settlement can really solve all the many issue in the rest of the Middle East, too. Terrorism more broadly is poorly fought by military means -- it needs to be fought with a combination of police and intelligence work, economic development, and -- above all -- a strong ideological and intellectual battle for the values of religious liberty, tolerance, liberalism -- in short, with moral power.

So maybe.

It all seems so impossible, I will admit, at this moment of bloodshed which threatens to grow even wider. And when I typed that sentence -- " people will start to see that military might is inadequate to their ends without a clear sense of the justice of those ends " -- I snickered inwardly: you fool, I thought. Surely you don't believe that.

And I don't. It clearly isn't true.


Because moral power -- far more than military or economic power -- can rule if we, collectively, as a species, decide that it does. If the destruction of Carthage would not be tenable today, this is because there has been some -- slight, partial -- development in the collective moral conscience of humanity. This could go farther. If we want.

Moral power is real power -- the power to persuade, to rally, to gain the support of the world.

So perhaps I should rephrase this, not as an observation, but as a desire. Let us speak of moral power. Let us understand that the power of the gun is useless if the hand that holds it does not believe in its cause.

If we want, we can make it so.

Or, as John Lennon once said: WAR IS OVER!

If you want it.

* Not because of reasons of jus ad bellum -- they were attacked, after all, and most people will agree that they have a right to defend themselves -- but because of reasons of jus in bello: they are simply killing too many clearly innocent people. It takes the initial righteousness of their cause and turns it inside out when it is conducted in such a fashion.

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