Thursday, July 14, 2011


In Barbara Ehrenreich's new introduction to her book, Blood Rites, she hints at a comprehensive understanding of human social organization based on the technologies we use for war. This piqued our interest here at BofHam so we decided to dig a little deeper by applying this theory to some case studies. What did we find? A sexy framework for social organization but, as with anything relating to human society and development, a few too many variables that we can't control. But sexy! We love us some sexy.

The crux of Ehrenreich's introduction is that, to a certain extent, the way we wage war dictates the organizational structure and size of our primary actors in international relations. To whit:
"Just as war has shaped human social institutions for millennia, so has it discarded them as the evolving technology of war rendered them useless. When war was fought with blades by men on horseback, it favored the rule of aristocratic warrior elites. When the mode of fighting shifted to action-at-a-distance weapons like bows and guns, the old elites had to bow to the central authority of kings, who, in turn, were undone by the democratizing forces unleashed by new mass armies. ... It was the ascending scale of war that originally called forth the existence of the nation-state as an administrative unit capable of maintaining mass armies and the infrastructure -- for taxation, weapons manufacture, transport, etc. -- that they require."
Based off this understanding, she offers some hope for the socialists out there by noting the American military might actually be the welfare state conservatives lament so loudly in its other manifestations. (Indeed, the truest test of Tea Party-ship could be one's willingness to slash the military budget along with the rest of 'Big Government.') She then goes on to offer some predictions about the future of warfare but I recommend you read her introduction for yourself. We're solely interested in the quote above.

It is a beautiful piece (well, two pieces) of writing, so clearly and succinctly put to paper that the reader almost buys it wholesale. Never mind the Enlightenment, forget the Crusades, ignore shifting moral attitudes precipitated by the interaction of previously diverse groups of people...war has charted our socio-political evolution! Or more specifically, the devices we use to kill each other in these wars.

Surprisingly (particularly coming, as it does, from the lips/fingers/mind of a respected socialist leader), the primacy of war in our social evolution resonates with the capitalist in us. It suggests the inevitability of conflict, the eternal Darwinian struggle that is no better represented than in the cutthroat competition of free-market actors. The moral self does not want to believe that we are fundamentally wired to fight but the suggestion that democracy (the triumph of morality at a governing level) is merely the product of war, has a depressingly seductive appeal. It just explains so much! doesn't really work. Or rather, it fits quite nicely with the cornerstones of western political history but falls apart when applied to human history in general. Below are a few cases where evolving social structures cannot be attributed to changing technologies of war:

Present-Day China:
The democratizing forces of mass armies are slow to materialize in China and calling the diverse ethnicities therein a 'nation' is stretching the term.

Historical China:
'Action at a distant' technologies (i.e. gunpowder) were not weaponized in China until 1044. However, proto-nation-states can be traced as far back as the Zhou Dynasty of 1000 BCE. Furthermore, China's political history has boasted fluctuating nation-states ever since, despite lacking Ehrenreich's requisite military catalysts.

Present-Day Japan:
As an inverse of Present-Day China's example, modern Japan does boast a democracy but does not have a mass army. Is democracy and its continued nation-state status merely an example of institutional inertia? Or are the benefits from such a socio-political organization larger than the military evolution of a mass army?

North Korea:
North Korea claims the largest standing army in the world despite being a patriarchal dictatorship and only half of a nation-state.

As with Present-Day China, calling India a 'nation-state' glosses over the minimum 13 disparate ethnic groups lumped under this umbrella term.

Exported Nationality:
From South America to Southeast Asia, there exists a pantheon of nation-states whose development can be attributed not to mass armies or evolving military technologies, but to colonial legacies. Africa was carved up according to the occupying European forces. The Philippines was arbitrarily thrown together by its Spanish invaders. The difficulty in aligning these borders along reasonably similar cultural lines continues to untangle itself with civil war in various parts of the world.

This is not to say that Ehrenreich's framework doesn't offer any descriptive power. Certainly changing military requirements have brought attendant changes to the systems these militaries protect. But so too has the Industrial Revolution. So too has The Enlightenment. So too has globalization. Putting all the catalytic power in the military is to paint with too broad a brush.

But it sure is sexy.

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