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  • Writer's pictureAlan Stevens - AWAH - Libertarianism, Freedom.

'War is the Health of the State' – the History

Updated: Oct 27, 2020

In history, civilisation progressed where free, often relatively small, societies were able to prosper from waterborne trade and to protect themselves effectively from the rulers of big states - at least for a time.

In history, civilisation progressed where free, often relatively small, societies were able to prosper from waterborne trade and to protect themselves effectively from the rulers of big states - at least for a time.

The American writer Randolph Bourne, talking about the First World War, wrote ‘war is the health of the state’.  He meant that it gave the crude power grabbers and exploiters throughout state systems their ideal opportunity to subjugate their own populations to tyranny and servitude.  The increase in state power would long outlast the war which provided the excuse for it.  More wars would bring still more state control of everyday life.

Most human beings can be manipulated all too easily by propaganda which uses fear to bypass reason.  The propagandists manipulate Stone Age moral modules in the human mind about group loyalty and the need to follow ‘authority’.  They demand loyalty to a partially fake group, ‘the nation’, and submission to totally fake authority, ‘our leaders’ (i.e. sociopathic kings, politicians, generals and arms makers) to promote aggressive war. 

War is a state racket.  A small group at the top profits and the mass of the population loses loved ones and well being, whether or not you are on the so-called winning side. The state originated in the conquest of grain farmers in the first middle eastern city states.  The rulers of each state would wish to expand their territories through war in the same way that a farmer might acquire neighbouring fields.  The one to farm more crops, the other to farm more human cattle in the form of tribute-paying peasants.

The same thing went on in endless ‘Game of Thrones’ style for millennia.  Of course, aggressive war was never a paying proposition from the point of view of society as a whole.  So many lost and ruined lives, so much painfully accumulated productive capital trashed, could not be recompensed by meagre and distant revenues from devastated lands. 

But, of course, the costs were borne by the peasantry, the tax sheep of the day.  And all the benefits went to the ruling group.  So aggressive war made sense for a state’s rulers but not for its subjects.  A state forces the people to bear the costs of war.  The rulers are just fine extorting more resources from their ‘own side’.  This is true whether or not the war is a ‘success’ and new territories are acquired.  

War was the chief pre-occupation of the ruling classes.  Their wealth and influence lent a certain glamour to the always ghastly reality of mass carnage, looting and rape in sacked cities and devastated regions.  The priests and court intellectuals played the role more recently played by mainstream media ‘presstitutes’ and the education system in rallying the populace to brainless bellicosity.  (A rare exception perhaps is Shakespeare’s scene in Henry V before Agincourt where ‘the common man’ is permitted to register the tiniest of dissent from the ruling narrative of martial valour.)  

Because of our violent evolutionary history, we have on the whole been easy to manipulate to go to war, using accusations of cowardice and disloyalty against dissenters. In any case, in the miserable conditions of pre-industrial life, many men had few better options than taking the desperate risks of warfare.

Unsurprisingly, in a world filling up with hyper-aggressive warring states, any somewhat free societies where people were able to accumulate property and become prosperous tended to be attacked and destroyed.  Indeed, few relatively free societies maintained their liberty for in the very long term.

Nevertheless, history is mainly the story of the accomplishments of a minority of ‘republics’.  These were societies where individual commercial success was possible - for a time - and was accompanied by artistic, technological and philosophical (or ‘scientific’ as we might say) progress.  They had open competitive political systems maintaining a balance between competing factions.  Without a powerful long-term tyrant, it was possible to live under a system of law capable of guaranteeing property rights and keeping taxation reasonable and predictable.

Admittedly these societies possessed a state in the sense of an entity which coordinated military activity and had a monopoly of jurisdiction.  So, they were not ‘true libertarian’ societies.  On the other hand, if an ostensibly state society is local enough, its political structure resembles more a voluntary association.  In any case, in republics ancient and not so ancient, including Rome, the citizenry fought for free and brought their own weapons and (if wealthy) horses to the fray.  The wealthiest in a society like Venice would expect from time to time to dig deep into their pockets to aid their city.

How then did such societies keep their liberty? Neighbouring tribes and kingdoms were keen to invade and steal their way through their accumulated wealth  The question foreshadows the question of how future properly free societies will defend themselves from aggressive state societies.

Much has to do with the technology of war in each period.  Many free cities flourished in Medieval Germany, Italy and the Low Countries because the technology of the time made big well-walled cities very expensive and slow for rulers to besiege.  

Very large cities were practically impossible to take, except through treachery or internal disunity.   Their size meant that they had very long walled circuits.  The size of the army needed to seal off such a long circuit was simply too large to be supplied in a pre-industrial society.  The bigger the city the more likely its besiegers would starve before the defenders.

Then the Turks brought effective siege artillery to Europe in the 15th century. There followed centuries of rival improvements to the art of fortification and to artillery.  But hitherto impregnable cities could now be subjugated by the rulers of large states.  Not just Constantinople, but most of the Italian city states, the autonomous cities of the Huguenots (17th century French Protestants), and the imperial cities of the Holy Roman Empire in Belgium and Germany lost their freedom.  

The role of the great republics as key drivers in human progress has above all to do with the sea.  Our lovely planet is neither an ocean world (though it may have started as one) nor covered entirely by land.  For the longest time the most complicated piece of physical capital men could make was a ship.  Free men working in voluntary cooperation are the best creators and guardians of physical capital in any form, and above all in the form of ships.

Happily, it has always been far, far cheaper to transport cargos by sea, rather than by land.  And the sea is a hell of a barrier for short term predatory despots to overcome.  So the commercial maritime republic as a persistent island of relative liberty and relative prosperity appeared.  For a clear encapsulation of the relationship between prosperity, liberty, heavy fortification, and a harbour, look at Dubrovnik.  It is a coastal enclave (originally it was an island too) of activity amongst bare hillsides.

The historical thread of maritime republics runs from Crete, through Tyre, Athens, Carthage, Rome, Venice and Genoa, Holland, to Classical Liberal Britain and America, to name but the most notable republics (in spirit if not, in Britain’s case, legal form).

Why should maritime trading communities be able to maintain relatively free property based republican legal systems? In most of the world, predatory states stifled liberty and stole and wrecked whatever meagre accumulations of financial and physical capital occurred.  The answer is that these islands of liberty were islands in strategic terms, if not always strictly in geographical fact.

An island necessarily engages in seaborne trade.  It is therefore suited to building ships of war too.  Predatory empires were usually short of the maritime expertise common in free trading societies.  Typically, when the Persian King Xerxes tried to invade Greece, the core of the Persian fleet defeated at Salamis comprised ships from his vassal trading city Tyre.

An island, strategic or geographical, is something that can be defended by a fleet.  And cucially you cannot have your liberty taken away by a fleet.  If your King demands you pay for an army to defend the realm from neighbours by land, that army can afterwards be used to take your freedom and your property from you.  Ships not so much.  They can’t sail up your drive and take your stuff away the way soldiers can. 

England was an island especially after the 1603 Personal Union with Scotland.  It didn’t need a significant standing army.  Hence the failure of Charles I and II to create a standing army able to dispossess the British governing and landowning class.

The strategic fact of being an island historically was the outcome of a combination of geography, fortification, military technology and naval power.  So looking at the list above, Tyre in Phoenicia was actually an island.  Until, that is, Alexander built a permanent causeway in order to take it. 

The walls of Athens and the Long Walls linking it with the naval harbour at Piraeus made Athens effectively an island as it was impregnable by land. She could only be challenged by sea.  Rome (linked by the Tiber to the nearby fortified port of Ostia) was a still greater walled city and virtual port.  

Rome and Carthage were at the time of their great confrontation naval powers and nearly unapproachable by land. Even when Hannibal had destroyed three Roman armies, Rome itself could not be taken by siege.  The whole trek by Hannibal overland from Spain through the Alps thing was therefore brilliant but misconceived.

A thousand years later, refugees from the fall of Rome established Venice on islands in a lagoon.  The lagoon was an ideal protection.  It was too shallow and shifting for naval attack and too deep for soldiers to cross. Venice’s 1,000 year history as an independent maritime republic begins with the lagoon ringed by Frankish warriors unable to threaten the city, and ends with it ringed by Napoleon’s artillery, which could.  

Holland, or the mighty Dutch Republic of the seventeenth century, was the most impressive, prosperous, open and advanced society of its age.  It was the maritime republic and marvel of its day.  With a small population, and few resources, it nevertheless captured most of Europe’s seaborne trade.  It ground Spain and then France, the two successive big state superpowers of the period, down to defeat. 

The philosophers like Descartes (a Frenchman) and Spinoza (of Jewish Portuguese origin) worked in the free atmosphere of Holland. Dutch artisans made the telescopes that enabled Gallileo, and everyone else, to see the moons of Jupiter and disprove Catholic cosmology.  

OK Alan, but Holland is not an island.  Well yes.  When Louis XIV invaded it with English help in 1672 that is what Holland became.  The Dutch opened the dykes and flooded the land.  The core of the Dutch Republic, Amsterdam and nearby cities, the fleet and the merchant marine, was saved from Louis’s troops.  In the face of the waters they had to retreat.  

The core of Portugal in and around Lisbon was similarly made into a strategic island during the Napoleonic Peninsular War by a combination of the fortifications of the Torres Vedras lines and the Royal Navy, though admittedly by then Portugal had no claim to be a free society.  (Again, the French appear in the story as the incarnation of the huge waste of human potential that allegiance to the state causes.) 

Portugal almost became a cosmopolitan commercial maritime society – its king being referred to by envious peers as ‘the grocer king’ during the golden years of the early 16th century.  But its promising early renaissance progress failed in the face of religious intolerance, and state regulation and predation of the commercial population.

Artillery doomed many free cities and republics and enabled absolutist rulers on the Continent to snuff out earlier liberties and smaller states.  But they served the Royal Navy well enough for Britain to prosper as a classical liberal society.  It also shielded British offshoot societies around the world, of which the greatest has been the USA. 

The USA is itself a huge island in strategic terms.  Neither Mexico nor Canada could support an invasion of it by land so it needed only to maintain a formidable navy.  Since the Panama Canal was built over a hundred years ago, Washington has been able, like Britain before it, to shift its naval deployments easily between oceans, avoiding the French and Russian problem of having their navies divided and isolated in different seas.

So what do we learn from the past about protecting liberty from external state aggressors?  Most progress and prosperity in history has been associated with the relatively free wealth generating societies which fell into the category of ‘republics’.

Historically these societies could survive for centuries based on access to waterborne trade, on naval prowess and on effective and expensive fortification. In many cases they became empires themselves, before relapsing into stagnation.

Republics depended on the active determination of the citizens to protect their liberty in the face of the bigger but inert populations of aggressive despotic states.  They also benefited from the technologies and skills of relatively advanced, more productive economies. 

These societies prospered as long as they retained what we would call a classical liberal property rights and law-based society, and as long as the fortunes of war and military technology made a defence of their territory feasible.   

The last hundred years have been mixed from the point of view of free societies defending themselves.  Totalitarian socialist, including fascist and national socialist, regimes have come and invaded many other states, and then thankfully almost entirely gone.

Victory in two world wars went disproportionately to the Anglo-Saxon powers which were still significantly ‘free’, even if it was Russia that broke the Wehrmacht in WWII.  America in particular demonstrated the raw productive power and energy latent in what had been a largely free, classical liberal society until the 1930s. 

Britain and especially America entered WWI without any really good reasons, and provoked Germany in 1939, and separately the Americans provoked the Japanese in 1941 – not that either regime was hard to provoke.  Victory in the Battle of Jutland in 1916, and the Battle of Britain in 1940, suggest that Britain was not genuinely threatened in either world war.  It could have kept its high level of freedom and vast world-wide commerce undamaged.

But the political elites desired to intervene and engage in war overseas, in the same spirit that the standard bearers of Democratic Socialism desired to intervene in productive people’s lives at home.  And war really was the health of the state.  Britain never went back to the Gold Standard in fact.  State intervention, taxation and regulation went up for good.

So the twentieth century sees the triumph of big government, the welfare-warfare state and indeed the western deep state, at the expense of individual liberty and the classical liberal or libertarian regime.  The big battalions of organized state violence seemed supreme.

Not surprisingly people currently assume that no society can survive without expensive state armed forces.  Therefore they doubt the viability of a libertarian society if it cannot show it can defend itself against the formal armed forces of a state dominated society. This may be the fundamental issue.

And yet. Do you remember the success the French army had against rebels in post war Algeria and Vietnam, the Nationalist Chinese army’s success in defeating Mao’s communist rebels, or the way the Red Army quickly pacified Afghanistan in the 1980s and held on to its vassal territories in 1989-1991?  Then there was the Israeli army’s success in seizing southern Lebanon against Hezbollah, the US Army’s famous victory over the Vietcong in Vietnam and its later efficient suppression of rebels in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Do you remember all these success stories of conventional state armies defeating popular resistance?  No, you don’t.  That’s because none of them happened. Instead what happened was defeat for the big battalions.   They are instances of the failure of apparently superior state organised military action that failed against armed popular opposition. 

There have been other instances in the last few centuries where popular, guerrilla style, resistance defeated big state armies on their own or with the help of much smaller formal state armies or none at all. The Portuguese settlers’ ousting of the Dutch invaders in Brazil, the American colonists achievement of independence, and the destruction of the Napoleonic armies in Spain are examples of the defeat and expulsion of apparently invincible formal state armies.

During WWII the UK government asked Wavell, its Viceroy in India who had the two million strong Indian Army, what policy towards British India should be after the war. He explained that to do anything else than simply leave it would first be necessary to reconquer the subcontinent. Despite the Indian Army, Indians had already largely won their freedom.

In the next post I hope to cast light on whether and how future free societies may be able to defend themselves from external state aggressors.

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