Politics & Media
Mar 21, 2022, 05:55AM

When Governments Attack

If World War III breaks out, we can blame the worst idea human beings ever had.

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Christopher Hitchens argued that most of the world's problems were due to “religion,” the source of so much arrogance, cruelty, and war. Then he urged the government of the United States to invade Iraq. I often hear today's socialist types saying that the difficulties the world faces are mostly due to the operations of “corporations” or “billionaires” and that the problem today is “neoliberal capitalism.” But I wonder whether, overall, neoliberal capitalism is what’s driving Putin into Ukraine.

I won’t argue that religions and corporations have been invariably benevolent. But people are somehow, unaccountably, missing the most obviously disastrous force in human history, which I identify as the political state. If it’s legitimate to isolate “government” in the same way Hitchens isolates “religion” or Marx “capitalism,” then I propose that it's obvious where the essential evil resides. An army, i.e. a government, is invading Ukraine, not a particular person, not a denomination, and not a corporation. (It's more than a government that’s resisting, by the way.) Well, that's not surprising, is it? What other sort of organization could mount an invasion of Ukraine? Many forces have rolled, war-like, across Ukraine over the last century or four. All of them were governments.

It seems like everyone, including Biden, thinks WWIII might break out. If it does, it’ll be governments doing the killing, as in the last couple of go-rounds. In WWIII, around 80 million people died. If “government” is a force, it more or less killed all of those people. This is certain: the organization of the world into states was a necessary condition of the world wars. It was a necessary condition of the Armenian genocide, the Killing Fields, the Holocaust, the forced collectivization of agriculture, the Great Leap Forward.

To kill millions, you need the resources that can only be produced through coercive taxation. Any organization is a government only to the extent that it enforces a monopoly of violence, and any government, even if it's not engaged in war or genocide at a particular moment, is potentially a death machine. That's what a government is: an armed group that controls a territory. That's true in dictatorships; it's true in democracies. The millions of victims, or the end of the species, follows directly from the nature of the political state in a way that, for example, forced conversions or religious persecution or crusading wars don’t necessarily follow from the nature of religion. Ask the Quakers. If your religion or corporation wants to start a war, it’ll first have to control a government.

I'm not sure how a Hitchens or, let's say, an AOC, misses this part. All of the wars and the genocides of the 20th and 21st centuries were conducted by governments, which stack corpses like cord wood. Does the legitimacy of government rest on a social contract, or is it built on a foundation of mass graves?

I don't think any other sort of organization could have or would have developed atomic weaponry. Now, the Ukraine conflict has put nuclear war back in our consciousness. Climate change, maybe driven by the Koch bros etc., is liable to constitute a slow or even sudden collapse, but nuclear war promises instantaneous planetary annihilation. It wasn't Lutheranism that went in that direction, was it? Or, for that matter, Standard Oil or Google.

I'd say that the political state was our worst idea as a species, and very likely it's our last idea too. But people can't even seem to focus on it as a question, an issue, an option. It refuses to be isolated; it's the one thing absolutely no one wants to get a clear view of, possibly a measure of their need to be subordinated. Human life is supposed to be impossible without it, though it's impossible with it as well. It looks to me like everyone agrees that human cooperative activity can’t be conducted without widescale coercion, and hence without wars, genocides, nuclear holocausts.

I thought was a cynic.I thought I was unimpressed by and disaffected from my own species. But my take on human nature is all sweetness compared to anyone who endorses any form of government. So I'm presenting a dilemma. You want this, don't you, this slaughter? Or else you're an anarchist, aren't you?

Follow Crispin Sartwell on Twitter.



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