The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism Book Club, Part 4
By Bryan Caplan
Now our ongoing Book Club turns to Chapter 3 of Orwell’s book-within-a-book, famously entitled “War is Peace.” I continue to refer to Orwell as the author of the book even though he’s playing a role and may not have fully agreed with his own words.
Please leave your thoughts and questions in the comments and I’ll do an omnibus reply later this week.
The splitting up of the world into three great super-states was an event which could be and indeed was foreseen before the middle of the twentieth century. With the absorption of Europe by Russia and of the British Empire by the United States, two of the three existing powers, Eurasia and Oceania, were already effectively in being. The third, Eastasia, only emerged as a distinct unit after another decade of confused fighting. The frontiers between the three super-states are in some places arbitrary, and in others they fluctuate according to the fortunes of war, but in general they follow geographical lines. Eurasia comprises the whole of the northern part of the European and Asiatic land-mass, from Portugal to the Bering Strait. Oceania comprises the Americas, the Atlantic islands including the British Isles, Australasia, and the southern portion of Africa. Eastasia, smaller than the others and with a less definite western frontier, comprises China and the countries to the south of it, the Japanese islands and a large but fluctuating portion of Manchuria, Mongolia, and Tibet.
Orwell was writing in 1948, so his geopolitical scenario is rather credible. If Anglo-American forces had suddenly withdrawn from Western Europe, we can easily imagine a full takeover by the Soviet Union. The Chinese Communist victory was still a year away, but Orwell seems to foretell its rise as the third great global power – not to mention the Sino-Soviet split. Still, Orwell’s trilateral scenario is a far cry from the bilateral conflict that actually prevailed throughout the Cold War.
In one combination or another, these three super-states are permanently at war, and have been so for the past twenty-five years. War, however, is no longer the desperate, annihilating struggle that it was in the early decades of the twentieth century. It is a warfare of limited aims between combatants who are unable to destroy one another, have no material cause for fighting and are not divided by any genuine ideological difference.
On first glance, Orwell correctly predicts the conduct of the Cold War. In his scenario, however, there’s a major nuclear war first, followed by a three-way Cold War, so don’t give him too much credit. Furthermore, while the ideological difference between the Soviet Union and Maoist China was indeed minimal despite their angry split, the divide between the West and these Stalinist offshoots remained strong. Of course, the West’s claims to champion “democracy” or “the free world” were absurd; look at contemporary Taiwan, South Korea, Indochina, Indonesia, Africa, or Latin America. The main divide was between the Soviet Union, which heavily pushed revolutionary totalitarian rule, and the U.S., which supported the traditional authoritarian regimes that Soviet proxies hoped to supplant.
This is not to say that either the conduct of war, or the prevailing attitude towards it, has become less bloodthirsty or more chivalrous. On the contrary, war hysteria is continuous and universal in all countries, and such acts as raping, looting, the slaughter of children, the reduction of whole populations to slavery, and reprisals against prisoners which extend even to boiling and burying alive, are looked upon as normal, and, when they are committed by one’s own side and not by the enemy, meritorious.
After World War II, this was a quite reasonable prediction. All of the major powers embraced indiscriminate murder of civilians. And the Korean War seemed to affirm this new disdain for long-standing Just War Theory. Amazingly, however, Western countries quietly backed away from this moral abyss. While the U.S. military obviously continues to kill innocents, there has been a marked return to more civilized standards. In particular, Western leaders rarely advocate the deliberate targeting of civilians. A low bar, but still a big improvement from the low of World War II.
But in a physical sense war involves very small numbers of people, mostly highly-trained specialists, and causes comparatively few casualties. The fighting, when there is any, takes place on the vague frontiers whose whereabouts the average man can only guess at, or round the Floating Fortresses which guard strategic spots on the sea lanes. In the centres of civilization war means no more than a continuous shortage of consumption goods, and the occasional crash of a rocket bomb which may cause a few scores of deaths. War has in fact changed its character.
Fairly prescient, if you change one detail. Since World War II, the small number of conflict deaths in Western countries have come via terrorist attacks rather than country-to-country rocket bombs. And depending on how “state-sponsored” you think these terrorist attacks have been, you might consider this superficial detail.
More exactly, the reasons for which war is waged have changed in their order of importance. Motives which were already present to some small extent in the great wars of the early twentieth century have now become dominant and are consciously recognized and acted upon.
To understand the nature of the present war—for in spite of the regrouping which occurs every few years, it is always the same war—one must realize in the first place that it is impossible for it to be decisive. None of the three super-states could be definitively conquered even by the other two in combination. They are too evenly matched, and their natural defences are too formidable. Eurasia is protected by its vast land spaces. Oceania by the width of the Atlantic and the Pacific, Eastasia by the fecundity and industriousness of its inhabitants.
Secondly, there is no longer, in a material sense, anything to fight about. With the establishment of self-contained economies, in which production and consumption are geared to one another, the scramble for markets which was a main cause of previous wars has come to an end, while the competition for raw materials is no longer a matter of life and death.
Orwell remained a self-identified socialist until his death, and his embrace of this Leninist theory of international conflict was probably sincere. Yet the Leninist theory never made much sense. Simply by the gravity model, intra-European trade was almost always far greater than trade between imperial powers and their colonies. And the non-imperial nations of Europe seemed to be at least as prosperous as the imperial nations; it wasn’t like Sweden or Switzerland’s lack of colonies were serious economic handicaps. While imperial rivalry was indeed an important cause of European conflict, the reason was clearly nationalism, not national economic self-interest. If you’re still not convinced, noticed how easily the European powers surrendered their entire empires after World War II. Since they never really “needed” their colonies, they swiftly let them go with minimal domestic side effects when imperial fervor waned.
True, the world’s leading nations did worry about their access to strategic resources. But by itself, this is a circular theory of conflict. Why are you fighting? To secure strategic resources. Why do you need strategic resources? Because we’re fighting. Once again, the ideology of militaristic nationalism comes first.
In any case each of the three super-states is so vast that it can obtain almost all the materials that it needs within its own boundaries. In so far as the war has a direct economic purpose, it is a war for labour power. Between the frontiers of the super- states, and not permanently in the possession of any of them, there lies a rough quadrilateral with its corners at Tangier, Brazzaville, Darwin, and Hong Kong, containing within it about a fifth of the population of the earth.
This quadrilateral remained economically unimportant throughout the Cold War. How is that possible? Because despite its high population, the region remained very low-skilled. While the number of people was high, the total human capital of the region was modest.
It is for the possession of these thickly-populated regions, and of the northern ice-cap, that the three powers are constantly struggling. In practice no one power ever controls the whole of the disputed area. Portions of it are constantly changing hands, and it is the chance of seizing this or that fragment by a sudden stroke of treachery that dictates the endless changes of alignment.
The Cold War was a “constant struggle,” but had a clear direction. The Soviet bloc enjoyed substantial growth throughout, flipping about twenty five countries from 1945-1989. So while conflict largely stayed in the world’s economic periphery, the Soviets’ long-run advance was impressive. Indeed, their only great defeat was the defection of China from the Soviet bloc. This split the world Communist movement, but the only Communist country China pulled into its own orbit was Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. And Vietnam’s subsequent invasion of Cambodia soon reversed that small victory. Once 1989 came, however, the Soviet bloc shattered beyond repair. And in historical perspective, current talk of a “new Cold War” with China is mere hyperbole.