14.5.09

War and the State

Something interesting over here. Simon Jenkins is taking the piss (I hope), but he did flag up something I have been thinking about for a while. I had a lecture on the role of the state in modern Europe this year. It described the way its role had shifted from warfare in the 18th century to welfare in the 20th. Nowadays, the state has to be worth your while. Taxes are extracted on the condition that the money is used to improve citizens prosperity and way of life. Essentially, a government's legitimacy rests on delivering economic growth. This is how liberal democracies work.

However, it wasn't always like this. By way of conclusion, the lecturer stressed that war was the most significant factor in the development of the state - Napoleon, Crimea, the First and Second World Wars. War is the state's defining feature. Indeed, war created the state.

This is the theory of the state as protection racket. I encountered it in my very first term at university, when I was doing the Anglo-Saxons. With the agricultural revolution, humanity became tied to the land. But this new mode of production left communities exposed to theft and pillage. Local gangs emerge, that extort resources from a select network of farms through violence and intimidation. In turn, they protect their source of revenue from other gangs in other areas. They collect tribute in exchange for protection. Or, they collect taxes to defend against invasion. The gang is the state, and the farmers the citizens. And war gives the state legitimacy.

We're a long way away from this. But our lecturer intimated that defence spending still keeps the modern state in business, citing the Iraq War as evidence. I am somewhat skeptical of this. Democracy means that the state is no longer so brazenly oppressive. It serves citizens, not itself. If it fails (or appears to fail) to do so, it is booted out and replaced. Look at today's Labour government, which won't survive next year's general election.

Then again, if this was the case, why would governments continue to fight wars? They are hardly value for money for the taxpayer. Wasn't the War on Terror sold as a kind of protection deal? Terrorists/Saddam threaten our lives, so we need to preempt their attacks. Perhaps war still does provide governments with legitimacy to rule.

But wait. It only does so when the war is successful, e.g. Thatcher and the Falklands. Iraq was a disaster, and the justification for it turned out to be a lie. And yet Blair and Bush, and their respective parties, held onto power until very recently. Evidence, surely, that the economy always trumps foreign policy at elections. Blair and Bush didn't need to go to war in order to stay in power. They did so because they thought, for reasons I am still not clear about, it was the right thing to do.

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