Saturday 11 June 2011

On war, and elites

Wars are not won by elites. Or, to be more precise, twentieth century wars were not won by elites. From the middle of the bronze age to the end of the medieval period wars were, more or less, won by elites - for very long periods an elite warrior, equipped with the best armour and the best weapons of the time, was able to slaughter the peasantry almost with impunity. That's why the epic battles of both Scotland's and England's national myths - Bannockburn and Agincourt respectively - were each in their time so shocking: largely elite armies were defeated - at Bannockburn by careful choice of terrain, at Agincourt by the use of the most basic of peasant weapons - by largely non-elite forces. These battles were, in their time, exceptional. Until the development of the reliable portable firearm the elite warrior was perceived as invincible. And all too many of the elite families who established their power with a destrier and a suit of plate armour still have it.

I've always thought it was interesting how the enclosures - the great land seizure by the elites from the commons - occurred just in the period where the elites no longer had anything to offer the peasantry. Formerly, they had offered protection - from other robber barons like themselves - but after the restoration of the monarchy in the United Kingdom they could no longer offer this. Armies such as Cromwell's New Model Army had established once and for all that a disciplined mass of inexpensively equipped commoners could beat any elite force. But in that historical moment of the restoration, with the nations of Britain war weary from fifty years of conflict, the elites - largely those same elites of destrier and plate - still had residual power and prestige, and they used it to steal the land.

But that's not, as Arlo Guthrie famously put it, what I came to talk about. I came to talk about the draft.

The First World War - even more than the Crimean and Boer wars which preceded it, but similarly to the American Civil War - was a war of the masses: fought by the commons, suffered by the commons... but very largely fought in the interests of the elites. For the first time, the elites needed the commons. In order to win the war, the elites had to engage the commons. The Russian elites failed to do this, and they suffered revolution. The Western elites took a different tack: they offered bribes. In the United Kingdom, homes fit for heroes. More democracy. They offered, but in the economic chaos of the nineteen twenties and thirties, they largely failed to deliver. In particular, though the economic suffering of the thirties hurt everyone, it hit the commons far harder than it hit the elites.

Yet only two decades later the elites needed to engage the commons in another mass war. Half hearted promises no longer cut it. The elites had to demonstrate that they were sharing the suffering...

Where does this essay come from? It comes from a short but pungent pamphlet written by a hero of the French resistance, Stephane Hessel, 'Indignez-Vous', translated into English as 'Time for Outrage'; I commend it to you, gentle reader. Go out and buy a copy. It comes from a column I read recently in the Guardian, about the state of the United States economy, which I foolishly failed to bookmark and now can't find. Both pieces make exactly the same point: in the desperate economic conditions of the end of the Second World War, in times of chaos and dislocation, the west could afford health care for all. We could afford homes for all. We could afford pensions for all. Now that we are, collectively, far richer, we can't. And the reason was this: in the aftermath of the Second World War, across the west, the elites paid - both as individuals through their income taxes and death duties, and corporately through taxes on businesses - a share of taxation which reflected their privilege. They paid their share because they needed to. They paid their share because they needed us.

They no longer believe they do.

Modern war is fought with precision munitions, with drone aircraft, increasingly with robots. Hugely capital intensive weapons; but they relieve the elites of the need to deploy a mass army. Of course, these capital intensive weapons are paid for by the taxes on the poor, but the poor cannot escape taxes. Of course, large profits can be made from the manufacture and sale of such weapons. Of course, these capital intensive forces are good at 'shock and awe', much less good at holding territory - which is why the war in Afghanistan is currently being lost and why the war in Iraq probably will ultimately be. But the west does not actually want the territory of Afghanistan, and all it wants from Iraq will be pumped out in twenty years.

More than this, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan pose no existential threat to the Western elites. Yes, we're fighting the war in Afghanistan in reprisal for Al Quaeda taking out the World Trade Centre, and the deaths of the bankers (and others) who worked there; but the derivatives broker, the arbitrageur, the financial engineer of today does not see Afghanistan or Iraq as a real and present danger to his life, let alone to his wealth and power.

The threat of war no longer frightens the elites, and they no longer believe they need an engaged citizen army to protect their interests. In short, the elites no longer feel any common cause with, or need for, the commons, except as what elites have always seen the commons as: a herd of host organisms on which to parasitise.

The banker with his million pound bonus sees no reason to share it. The futures-market gambler with his billion dollar profit sees no need to consider the community. Sharing - community - is for losers. There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are Ferrari dealers. If the tax regime under which he lives and works proves too onerous, to keen to encourage equity, he'll leave and seek another. And so we've - all the nations of the west - engaged in a race to the bottom. Lower taxes on the rich - never mind, the poor will pay. Lower taxes on the corporations - never mind, the poor will pay. But we've got to the point that the poor can't pay, because the rich are taking so large a share of the sum total of all the resources available, there isn't enough left. And so our health systems crumble, our public infrastructure is sold off, our social care fails. This doesn't worry the elites, of course. A helicopter flies over all traffic jams. The elites don't need 'socialised' health care or social care - they can buy their own.

I write this in the aftermath of the 'banking crisis', the 'financial meltdown' in which the taxpayers - which means the poor - of the western world struggle to repay the losses made by irresponsible gambling by the rich. Are the rich paying? Surprise, they're not. Throughout this recession, the very rich have continued to get richer. What we've seen has not been, in fact, a banking crisis, just one more step of the ratchet which moves wealth from the poor to the rich.

And the question has to be asked: have the people of Ireland benefited from their low corporation taxes? Have the people of Iceland, Scotland and England benefited from bank deregulation? I would argue we haven't. Closing down the City of London wouldn't make the United Kingdom richer; indeed, it probably is true that in aggregate is would make us poorer. But what wealth was left would be shared much more evenly, so the interests of the rulers would not be so sharply at variance with the interests of the ruled. For each of us individually, our spending power would be at worst not much reduced; for us corporately, our corporate interest would be once more in the provision of a social structure which supports everyone, including the poorest.

Oh, and, by the way, 'equity', for those who found my use of the word strange, does not mean a negotiable instrument. It means fairness.

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