What makes war between the US and China or Russia inevitable?

Battle of Lepanto

There is a dangerous and not so new idea currently making the rounds that not only is conventional war between the great powers inevitable, but that it would be much less of an existential threat to humanity than we have been led to believe and even might be necessary for human progress.

The appearance of this argument in favor of war was almost predictable given that it was preceded by a strong case being made that war was now obsolete and at least in its great power guise was being driven out of history by deep underlying trends towards prosperity and peace. I am thinking her mostly of Steven Pinker in his Better Angels of Our Nature, but he was not alone.

The exact same thing happened in the 19th century. Then, voices arose that argued that war was becoming unnecessary as values became global and the benefits of peaceful trade replaced the plunder of war. The counter-reaction argued that war had been the primary vector for human progress and that without it we would “go soft” or de-evolve into a species much less advanced than our own.

Given their racist overtones, arguments that we will evolve “backward” absent war are no longer made in intelligent circles. Instead, war has been tied to technological development the argument being that without war in general and great power war in particular we will become technologically stuck. That’s the case made by Ian Morris in his War What is it Good For? where he sees the US in shepherding in the Singularity via war, and it’s a case made from opposite sides of the fence regarding transhumaism by Christopher Coker and Steve Fuller.

The problem with these new arguments in favor of great power conflict is that they discount the prospect of nuclear exchange. Perhaps warfare is the heir of technological progress, but it’s better to be the tortoise when such conflicts hold the risk of driving you back to the stone age.

That said, there is an argument out there that perhaps even nuclear warfare wouldn’t be quite the civilization destroyer we have believed, but that position seems less likely to become widespread than the idea that the great powers could directly fight each other and yet some how avoid bringing the full weight of their conventional and nuclear forces down upon the other even in the face of a devastating loss at the hands of the other. It’s here where we can find Peter W. Singer and August Cole’s recent novel Ghost Fleet: A novel of the Third World War that tells the story of a conventional war, mainly at sea, between the US and China and Russia.

It’s a copiously researched book, and probably gives a good portrait of what warfare in the next ten to fifteen years will look like. If the authors are right, in the wars of the future drones – underground, land, air, and sea will be ubiquitous and AI used to manage battles where sensors take the place of senses- the crew of a ship needs never set sight on the actual sea.

Cyber attacks in the future will be a fully functional theater of war- as will outer space. The next war will take advantage of enhancement technologies- augmented reality, and interventions such “stim tabs” for alertness. Advances in neuroscience and bioelectronics will be used at the very least as a form of enhanced, and brutal, interrogation.

If the book makes any warning (and all such books seem to have a warning) it is that the US is extremely reliant on the technological infrastructure that allows the country to deploy and direct its’ global force. The war begins with a Chinese/Russian attack on American satellites, which effectively blinds the American military. I’ve heard interviews where Singer claims that in light of this the US Navy is now training its’ officers in the art of stellar navigation, which in the 21st century is just, well… cool. The authors point out how American hardware is vulnerable as well to threats like embedded beacons or kill switches given that much of this hardware has come out of Chinese factories.

The plot of Ghost Fleet is pretty standard: in a surprise attack the Chinese and Russians push the US out of the Pacific by destroying much of the American navy and conquering Hawaii. Seemingly without a single ally, the US then manages to destroy the Chinese fleet after resurrecting the ships of its naval graveyard near San Francisco- a real thing apparently, especially a newfangled battleship the USS Zumwalt, which is equipped with a new and very powerful form of rail gun. I am not sure if it helped or hindered my enjoyment of the book that its’ plot seemed eerily similar to my favorite piece of anime from when I was a kid- Star Blazers.

The problem, once again, is in thinking that we can contain such conflicts and therefore need not do everything possible to avoid them. In the novel there never seems to be any possibility of nuclear exchange or strategic bombing and with the exception of the insurgency and counterinsurgency in Hawaii the war is hermetically contained to the Pacific and the sea. Let’s hope we would be so lucky, but I’m doubtful.

Ghost Fleet is also not merely weak but detrimental in regards to the one “technology” that will be necessary for the US to avoid a war with China or others and contain it should it break out.

If I had to take a vote on one work that summed up the historical differences between the West and everyone else, differences that would eventually bring us the scientific revolution and all of the power that came with it, that work wouldn’t be one of science such as the Principia Mathematica or even some great work of philosophy or literature, but a history book.

The thing that makes Herodotus’ The Histories so unique was that it was the first time that one people tried to actually understand their enemies. It’s certainly eurocentric to say it, but the Greeks as far as I am aware, were first and unique here. It wasn’t just a one off.

Thucydides would do something similar for the intra-Hellenic conflict between Athenians and Spartans, but the idea of actually trying to understand your enemy, no doubt because so much about being an enemy lends itself to being hidden and thus needs to be imagined was brought to its’ heights in the worlds of drama and fiction. The great Aeschylus did this with the Persians as well with his tragedy named for that noble people.

It’s a long tradition that was seen right up until The Riddle of the Sands a 1903 book that depicted a coming war between the British and the Germans. Much different than the dehumanizing war propaganda that would characterize the Germans as less than human “Huns” during the First World War, The Riddle of the Sands attempted to make German aggression explicable given its’ historical and geographical circumstances even while arguing such aggression needed to be countered.

In Ghost Fleet by contrast the Chinese especially are reduced to something like Bond Villains, US control of the Pacific is wholly justified, its’ characters largely virtuous and determined. In that sense the novel fails to do what novels naturally excel at; namely, opening up realms to the imagination that otherwise remain inaccessible, and in this specific case the motivations, assumptions, and deep historical grievances likely to drive Chinese or Russian policy makers in the run up to and during any such conflict. Sadly, it is exactly such a lack of understanding that makes war great power wars and the existential risks to humanity they pose, perhaps not inevitable, but increasingly more likely.

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Panem and the dueling dystopias

As was mentioned in my prior review of the first book in the Hunger Games trilogy, Suzanne Collins got the inspiration for the idea for the books while watching American reality television juxtaposed with the very real horrors of the Iraq War. If the first book, for all its violence, concentrated on the decadence of the Capitol, the second book, Catching Fire take us much deeper into the dystopian tyranny of Panem, and it is the combination of these two versions of dystopia that Collins has skillfully packaged in the form of a children’s novel that most sparks my interest.

Catching Fire, tells the story of what unfolds after Katniss and Peeta have returned victorious from the Hunger Games. Their act of defiance at the end of the games, threatening to commit suicide rather than follow the cruel logic of the games which permits only one victor, has proven a spark that begins insurrections against the tyranny of the Capitol. Rebellion only grows as the Capitol tries to manage the story of Katniss and Peeta and put an end to their worship as heroes. But, what has begun can not be stopped and here we are shown the deep violence at the heart of Panem that transcends the dark cruelty of the ritualized brutality found in the spectacle of the games.In desperation, the Capitol isolates rebellious districts and attempts to starve them into submission. It tortures, imprisons’ , and, as appears to be hinted at towards the end of the novel,commits an act of genocide against District 12 the home of Katniss and Peeta.

As the philosopher have always told us, tyranny, being based upon fear, is the worst form of government. Such fear can only lead to three results in the individual: paralysis, flight, or the decision to fight back. The tyranny of the Capitol has been based on the institutionalized fear of the Hunger Games, along with the “memory” of the Capitol’s complete destruction of District 13 during the last rebellion. Katniss and Peeta had broken the spell of the games. Katniss herself entertains ideas of flight only to ultimately decide on courageous rebellion, and the peoples of the districts become inspired to end their paralysis and fight back not only by her, but by the hope that District 13 has somehow survived and remained beyond the control of the Capitol

On a superficial level what Collins has done here is something quite interesting and groundbreaking, for she has managed to combine successfully the two rival versions of dystopia that have held us in their spell since the first half of the last century. Those two versions are, of course, George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

Orwell aimed to capture the brutality of totalitarianism, in both its right-wing, and left-wing varieties. The dystopia of totalitarianism was characterized by Orwell as “a boot stomping on a human face, forever”. It was a state based upon not only fear, as were all tyrannies of the past, but the need for the absolute submission of the individual. Obedience was not enough. The soul of the individual was a territory the totalitarian state aimed to bring under its will, and the aim of the state was to surround its subjects in an omnipresent web of surveillance that took from them not only their public but their private lives as well.

Huxley took a much different, and many argue more prescient, view of dystopia in his Brave New World. For him, tyranny was less likely in the modern era to take the form of a regime based on fear and total control, than it was to be based on the population being lulled into submission by entertainment, consumption, sex, and satiety.

In his brilliant, if horribly ill timed book, The Net Delusion, Evgeny Morozov, argues that we have been blinded to the nature of modern tyranny by seeing the distinction between Orwell’s and Huxley’s visions of utopia as an either- or question. Thinkers, such as Herbert Marcuse, have made a pretty good case that the West has many of the features of the dystopia presented in Brave New World. We are a society that has, willfully or not, been distracted from politics by a plethora of entertainment, advertisement, and pleasures. As Morozov points out, many non-Western regimes  that are in every sense of the word, authoritarian, have caught onto this trick. States like Russia and China let people watch or buy whatever they wish. The reality and dreams of limitless consumption appear to steer attention and energy away from politics and thus leave current political elites entrenched. “Bread and circuses” as the Romans used to say is the best way to control the masses.

Morozov insists that just because regimes have learned from the West how to lull their people  to sleep ala Brave New World does not mean that Orwell should be left in the dust. For, when deemed necessary as the only means of retaining their grip on power,  manyauthoritarian regimes have shown themselves capable of 1984 style violence. We need both Huxley and Orwell to understand dystopia in the present, and Collins has managed to combine both.

The Capitol is a Brave New World style dystopia through and through. Its citizens are enthralled, not merely, by the reality TV “entertainment” of the Hunger Games, but by seemingly endless consumption, celebrity, and vanity. A great metaphor for the Capitol can be seen in a common practice there which Collins presents to us almost as an afterthought. “Citizens” of the Capitol have a habit of eating everything in sight at their major social gatherings. The way they pull this off is to ingest a liquid that makes them vomit between periods of gorging. This occurs even in periods when the Capital is trying to starve the people of rebellious districts into submission or death.

Yet, if within the world of the Capitol dystopia takes on the form of a Brave New World the way the Capitol brutally treats the districts is straight out of 1984. It tortures, murders, terrorizes, and commits acts of genocide.

Collins could not have anticipated that within several years of writing her novel the whole scene of the Capital trying to bring the rebellious districts to heel would be replicated in the real world as challenged tyrants resorted to the fear of extreme violence to keep themselves in power: Gaddafi in Libya, Assad in Syria where the horrors continue. Only where the forces of the regime refused to kill their own people, such as Egypt, was enormous bloodshed avoided.

The Panem analogy could also easily be applied to the US if one sees America itself as the Capitol and the world at large as the districts. We are a consumerist and entertainment paradise that spies upon, brutalizes, and attempts to control the rest of the world.  No matter if this analogy holds or not it’s pretty certain that if Aldous Huxley were brought to early 21st century America he’d think he’d stepped into his Brave New World, but Orwell could not say the same for 1984, at least not within the United States itself.

Still, the best real world version we have for Panem is not, despite all its flaws and injustices, the United States, but China. The developed eastern China is enthralled to a versions of consumerism that would make even Americans blush. As long as the Chinese Communist Party can keep the money flowing they remain largely unchallenged even if a blind renegade such as Chen Guangcheng
can periodically bring the injustices, of at least local governments to light. If eastern China is Collin’s Capitol, its Tibetan and Xijiang regions are its districts, which inspire brutal crackdowns wherever their inhabitants get a little too uppity for the PRC’s taste. It will be interesting to see how the Hunger Games movies, and the inevitable copycats they will spawn will play in China. This potential of a now global film and media industry to pose deep questions may be the only way to balance out its tendency to lull society into a state of passive acceptance of the current order.

No one in the West should become smug on the basis of this characterization of China as Panem.  Rather, we should remain ever vigilant for any movement in the direction of 1984 and push back hard on any extension of the power of the state to imprison, silence, torture, spy upon, or lie. Huxley’s dystopia, which is probably the one we live in, is based upon the state having solved the problem of scarcity and stuffing the people until they no longer know what freedom is for. This may be characteristic of a very particular period of human history following the Second World War, but this might prove to have been a golden age of economic equality which we have exited permanently.

If we do not, sometime soon, emerge from the current economic crisis, if the model of middle class consumer society proves irretrievably broken, then all bets are off. Elites may be challenged in ways they have not since the early part of the last century and one of the possible, if unlikely, dystopian outcomes would be a return of at least some of the features of the tyranny on display in 1984.

The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom

If as mentioned previously the First Opium War opened China to British drug pushers, it also opened up China to the cultural influence of the West, and one of these influences stemmed from the flood of Christian missionaries who thereafter inundated the country.Obviously there was a lot lost in translation between these Christian missionaries and the Chinese, for after Hong Xiuquan, a member of the Hakka ethnic group in southern China, encountered Christianity he became convinced that he was the brother of Jesus who had been sent to China to rid the country of “devils”.

The devils Hong Xiuquan was talking about included the Confucian meritocracy, themselves the heirs of a practical variant of utopianism.  This resentment towards Confucians was not surprising given that he had failed the civil service exams, based on the Confucian classics numerous time, and thus found himself  barred from a government post that would have granted him a stable income and place in society.

This is one of the stupendous what-ifs of history, like Hitler not getting into art school in Vienna, and going on to almost destroy Europe.  Would the Taiping Rebellion have never happened, would 20-30 million people not be killed if one man was better at taking standardized tests? Can the gods be so cruel in their irony?

As it was,  Hong Xiuquan set to preaching and soon had himself a sect.  In part, the attraction of the sect was a reflection of the dystopian environment around him. Bandits robbed seemingly at will, the Hakka people fought incessantly over sparsequality farmland,  natural disasters rocked the country . The civil and population pressures gave rise to a pernicious practice of female infanticide that overtime caused the natural ratio of males to females to become all out of whack.  Young hot-bloods had too much testosterone in their veins and too little food in their stomachs, and were thus a volatile mix in which  Hong Xiuquan served as a match.  Much of the popularity of the Taiping movement, like the modern day Taliban, stemmed from their ability to bring a semblance of order and security to this otherwise chaotic and dangerous world .

Yet the the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, established in modern day Nanjing, was something much different than the Taliban.  It was a strange hybrid form of utopia, a kind of marriage between what we in the West would understand as Puritanism, abolitionism, feminism, Spartan or  pseudo-totalitarian military organization, and perhaps even a version of Malthusian environmentalism.

The Taiping replaced the Confucian classic that had served as the gateway to government office with the Bible, vice laws were passed  and came down hard on opium users, gamblers, consumers of alcohol, and prostitutes.  The sexes were strictly separated, and, in one of those classic examples of utopian overreach, sex, even by married couples, was discouraged.

At the same time, the Taiping launched a program of radical egalitarianism that gave the rebellion characteristics somewhere between the French Revolution and the American Civil War.  In a stroke, they abolished private property, banned the barbaric practice of foot- binding women, and declared the sexes equal, permitting women to take exams and serve in government.   They also, before the Emancipation Proclamation was even conceived, abolished slavery (of the Chinese variety).

It was their tight military structure and totalitarian organization of society that made the Taiping so hard to defeat.  They proved as effective at mobilizing society as the civic-republicanism of the French people mobilized against Europe only a few decades before. The degenerating Qing Dynasty that ostensibly ruled China had a much harder time putting down the Taiping separatist than the Union armies had bringing down the Confederacy almost simultaneously.  And unlike with the American war, the British took sides in the conflict and supported the Qing, which may have been a decisive element in their eventual victory.

Many of the policies of the Taping Heavenly Kingdom might be understood as utilitarian responses to a Malthusian environment.  Their prohibitions on sex were efforts to drive the population down,  and sexual equality offered an answer to the distortions of female infanticide.  Women in the kingdom were just as valued as men.

This weird mash-up of different, and contradictory, forms of utopia to Western eyes seems not to make sense.  Yet, when seen from the perspective of what was happening elsewhere in the first half of the 19th century, the strangeness of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom becomes less bewildering.

The Taiping Rebellion occurs in the historical space between the French  Revolution and American Civil War and contains aspects of both.  Perhaps revolutionary concepts blew like pollen across the Central Asia and the Pacific and cross-fertilized with native Chinese elements to create the strange hybrid of the Taiping Heavenly kingdom.

What the French Revolution, American Civil War and Taiping Rebellion all shared is that they were attempts to create what we now understand to be a modern, sovereign state.   What the founding fathers of modern China, Sun Yat Sen and Mao saw in the Taiping utopia was a hopeful harbinger of this new form of the state in China, and therefore, despite their differences in vision from it, admired the rebellion as a failed attempt at necessary transformation.

The current plutocrats ruling China, however, see in the Taiping a dangerous historical precedent that must be guarded against at all costs. What was once the source of partially irrational utopian hopes of the Chinese leadership has become the source of equally irrational dystopian fears. Anyone wondering today about China’s often cruel and  seemingly paranoid treatment of Christians, Tibetans, or fringe religious sects such as the Falun Gong needs to keep the historical experience of the Taiping Rebellion in mind in order to understand the root of Chinese fears.

What relevance does any of this have today? Some have suggested that we keep the experience of the Taiping Rebellion at the forefront of our minds when we think any future large scale disruptions to Chinese society.   One might wonder out-loud how China is going to deal with its massive demographic, environmental and political challenges. One might also wonder how China, now the “workshop of the world”, like the British who cleaned their clock in the Opium Wars, might deal with another tectonic shift coming from automation and localized production that challenges that status.

Given how purely speculative all this is, what interests me most is what kinds of strange cross-fertilizations, like that between the Taiping Rebellion and intellectual flora that originated in the West,  are going on today, and, more important may occur in the near future.

As I wrote in a recent post, it might be a good idea for people in the West to start looking for novel ideas about politics, culture, technology, art to start emerging from the more dynamic developing world, and that would include China, even though it is rapidly aging and therefore probably missing something of the natural utopianism and innovation of youth.

When the history of the Occupy Wall Street Movement is written one of its most interesting aspects might be that it was inspired by a similar movement in the developing world- the Arab Spring.  (Though it might be more accurately called a Mediterranean Spring and have its origin in Greece).   One can only imagine, should China ever bloom into its own spring, what strange and interesting ways of thinking and being in the world might emerge there.  What bloomed in China might eventually make its way to our shores to combine with Western traditions giving rise to something we have not seen before, perhaps for ill, but let us hope, for good.