Why liberals might kill free speech

We’ve got a huge problem on our hands which the 2016 election, along with Brexit, has not so much created as fully exposed. What we’ve witnessed is a kind of short-circuit between the three pillars that have defined our particular form of democratic liberalism over the last century. Democratic liberalism over the 20th and into the 21st century consisted of a kind of balance between the public at large, mass media, and policy elites with the link between the three being political representatives of one of the major parties. As idealized by public philosophers such as Walter Lippmann, the role of politicians was to choose among the policy options presented by experts and “sell” those policies to the public using the tools of mass communication to ensure their legitimacy.

The fact that such a balance became the ideal in the first place, let alone its inevitable failure, can only be grasped fully when one becomes familiar with its history.

Non-print based mass media only became available during the course of the First World War and it was here that the potential of media such as film, radio, posters and billboards to create a truly emotionally and ideologically unified public became apparent- although the US had come close to this discovery a little over in a decade earlier in the form of mass circulation newspapers which were instrumental in getting the American public behind the Spanish- American War and that itself gave rise to real standards of objectivity in journalism.

During WWI it was the Americans and British who mastered the art of war propaganda transforming their enemies the Germans into savage “huns” and engendering a kind of will to sacrifice for what (at least for the Americans) was a distant and abstract cause. Lippmann himself was on the Creel Committee which launched this then new form of political propaganda. Hitler would write enviously of British and American propaganda in Mein Kampf, and both the Nazis and the Soviet would use the new media and the proof of concept offered by allied powers in the war, to form the basis of the totalitarian state. Those systems ultimately failed but their rise and attraction reveal the extent to which democracy, less than a century from our own time, was seen to be failing. Not just the victory of the Soviets in the war, but the way they were able to rapidly transform the Russian Empire from an agrarian backwater to an industrial and scientific powerhouse seemed to show that the future belonged to the system that most fully empowered its technocrats.

The Great Depression and Second World War would prove to be the golden age of experts in the West as well. In the US in was technocrats who crafted the response to the economic crisis, who managed the American economy during the war, who were responsible for technological breakthroughs such as atomic weapons, rockets capable of reaching space, and the first computers. It was policy experts who crafted novel responses to unprecedented political events such as the Marshall Plan and Containment.

Where the Western and Soviet view of the role of experts differed had less to do with their prominence and more to do with their plurality or lack of it. Whereas in the Soviet Union all experts were united under the umbrella of the Party, Western countries left the plurality of experts intact so that the bureaucrats who ran big business were distinct from the bureaucrats who ran government agencies and neither had any clear relationship to the parties that remained the source of mass political mobilization while the press remained free (if not free of elite assumptions and pressures) to forge the public’s interpretation of events as it liked.

Lippmann had hoped the revolutionary medium of his time- television- would finally provide a way for the technocrats he thought necessary to rule a society that had become too complex for the form of representative democracy that had preceded allowing experts to directly communicate with the public and in so doing forge consensus for elite policies. What dashed his hopes was a rigged game show.

The Quiz show scandal that broke in the 1950’s (it was made into an excellent movie in the 90’s) proved to Lippmann that American style television with its commercial pressures could not be the medium he had hoped for. In his essay, Television: whose creature, whose servant?   Lippmann called for the creation of an American version of the BBC. (PBS would be created in 1970, as would NPR). Indeed, the scandal did drive the three major US television networks- especially CBS- towards the coverage of serious news and critical reporting. Such reporting helped erode political support for the Vietnam war, though not, as it’s often believed, by turning public opinion against the war, but as pointed out back in the 1980’s by Michael Mandelbaum in his essay Vietnam: The Television War  by helping to mobilize such as vast number of opponents as to polarize the American public in a way that made sustaining the post-war consensus unsustainable. Vietnam was the first large scale failure of the technocrats- it would not be their last.

From the 1970’s until today this polarization was mined by a new entry on the media landscape- cable news- starting with Ted Turner and CNN. As Tim Wu lays out in his book The Master Switch, the rise of cable was in part enabled by Nixon’s mistrust of what was then “mainstream news” (Nixon helped deregulate cable). This rise (more accurately return) of partisan media occurred at the same time Noam Chomsky (owl of Minerva like) in his book Manufacturing Consent was arguing that the press was much less free and independent than it pretended to be. Instead it was wholly subservient to commercial influence and the groupthink of those posing to be experts. And hadn’t, after all, George Kennan, the brilliant mind behind containment and an unapologetic elitists compared American democracy to a monster with a brain the size of a pin?

Chomsky’s point held even in the era of cable news for there was a great deal of political diversity that fell outside the range between Fox News and CNN. Manufactured consent would fail, however, with the rise of the internet which would allow the cheap production and distribution of political speech in a way that had never been seen before, though there had been glimpses. Political speech was democratized at almost the exact same time trust in policy elites had collapsed. The reasons for such a collapse in trust aren’t hard to find.

American policy elites have embraced an economic agenda that has left working class income stagnant for over a generation. The globalization and de-unionization they promoted has played a large (though not the only) role in the decline of the middle class on which stable democracy depends. The Clinton machine bears a large responsibility for the left’s foolish embrace of this neoliberal agenda, which abandoned blue collar workers to transform the Democratic party into a vehicle for white collar professionals and identity groups.

Foreign policy elites along with an uncritical mainstream media led us into at least one disastrous and wholly unnecessary war in Iraq, a war whose consequences continue to be felt and which was exacerbated by yet more failure by these same elites. Our economic high-priests brought us the 2008 financial crisis the response to which has been a coup by the owning classes at the cost of trillions of dollars. As Trump’s “populist” revolt of Goldman Sachs alums demonstrates, the oligarchs now thoroughly control American government.

And it’s not only social science experts, politicians and journalist who have earned the public’s lack of trust. Science itself is in a crisis of gaming where it seems “results” matter much more than the truth. Corporations engage in deliberate disinformation, what Robert Proctor calls agnotology.

The three legs of Lippmann’s stool- policy experts, the media, and the public have collapsed as expertise has become corporatized and politicians have become beholden to those corporate interest, while at the same time political speech has escaped from anyone’s overt control. Trump seems to be the first political figure to have capitalized on this breakdown- a fact that does not bode well for democracy’s future.

Perhaps we should just call a spade a spade and abandon political representation and policy experts for government via electronic referendum. Yet, however much I love the idea of direct democracy, it seems highly unlikely that the sort of highly complex society we currently possess could survive absent the heavy input of experts– even in light of their very obvious flaws.

It’s just as possible that China where technocrats rule and political speech and activity is tightly controlled by leveraging the centralized nature of internet could be the real shape of the future. The current structure of internet which is controlled by only a handful of companies certainly makes the path to such a plutocratic censorship regime possible.

Returning to the work of Tim Wu, we can see the way in which communications empires have risen and fell over the course of the last century: we’ve had the telephone, film, radio, television and now the computer. In all cases with the noted exception of television new media have arisen in a decentralized fashion, merged into gigantic corporations such as Bell telephone, and then are later broken up or lose dominance to upstarts who have adopted new means of transmission or whole new types of media itself.

What perhaps makes our era different in a way Wu doesn’t explore is that for the first time diversity of content is occurring under conditions of concentrated ownership. Were only a handful of companies such as FaceBook and Google to pursue the task in earnest they could exercise nearly complete control over political speech and thus end the current era. Such rule need not be rapacious but instead represent a kind of despotic-liberalism that mobilizes public opinion behind policies many of us care about such as stemming global warming. It’s the kind of highly rational nightmare Malka Older imagined in her sci-fi thriller Infomacracy and Dave Eggers gave a darker hue in his book The Circle.

Hopefully liberalism itself in the form of constitutional protections of free speech will prevent us from going so far down this route. (Although the Courts appear to think that Google et. al’s  right to police their platforms’ content is itself protected under the First Amendment.) How our long standing constitutional protections adapt to a world where “speech” can come in the form of bots which outnumber humans and foreign governments insert themselves into our elections is anybody’s guess.

The best alternative to either despotic-liberalism or chaos is to restore trust in policy elites by finding ways to make such elites more accountable and therefore trustworthy. We need to come up with new ways to combine the necessary input of real experts with the revolution in communications that has turned every citizen into a source of media. For failing to find a way to rebalance expertise and democratic governance would mean we either lose our democracy to flawed experts (as Plato would have wanted) or surrender to the chaos of an equally flawed and fickle, and now seemingly permanently Balkanized, public opinion.

 

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The First Machine War and the Lessons of Mortality

Lincoln Motor Co., in Detroit, Michigan, ca. 1918 U.S. Army Signal Corps Library of Congress

I just finished a thrilling little book about the first machine war. The author writes of a war set off by a terrorist attack where the very speed of machines being put into action,and the near light speed of telecommunications whipping up public opinion to do something now, drives countries into a world war.

In his vision whole new theaters of war, amounting to fourth and fifth dimensions, have been invented. Amid a storm of steel huge hulking machines roam across the landscape and literally shred human beings in their path to pieces. Low flying avions fill the sky taking out individual targets or help calibrate precision attacks from incredible distances beyond. Wireless communications connect soldiers and machine together in a kind of world-net.

But the most frightening aspect of the new war are weapons based on plant biology. Such weapons, if they do not immediately scar the face and infect the bodies of those who had been targeted, relocate themselves in the soil like spores waiting to release and kill and maim when conditions are ripe- the ultimate terrorist weapon.

Amid all this the author searches for what human meaning might be in a world where men are caught between a world of warring machines.  In the end he comes to understand himself as mere cog in a great machine, a metallic artifice that echoes and rides rhythms of biological nature including his own.

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A century and a week back from today humanity began its first war of machines. (July, 28 1914). There had been forerunners such as the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War in the 19th century, but nothing before had exposed the full features and horrors of what war between mechanized and industrial societies would actually look like until it came quite unexpectedly in the form of World War I.

Those who wish to argue that the speed of technological development is exaggerated need only to look to at the First World War where almost all of the weapons we now use in combat were either first used or used to full effect– the radio, submarine, airplane, tank and other vehicles using the internal combustion engine. Machine guns were let loose in new and devastating ways as was long-range artillery.

Although again there were forerunners, the first biological and chemical weapons saw there true debut in WWI. The Germans tried to infect the city of St. Petersburg with a strain of the plague, but the most widely used WMDs were chemical weapons, some of them derived from the work on the nitrogen cycle of plants, gases such chlorine and mustard gas, which killed less than they maimed, and sometimes sat in the soil ready to emerge like poisonous mushrooms when weather conditions permitted.

Indeed, the few other weapons in our 21st century arsenal that can’t be found in the First World War such as the jet, rocket, atomic bomb, radar, and even the computer, would make their debut only a few decades after the end of that war, and during what most historians consider its second half- World War II.

What is called the Great War began, as our 9-11 wars began, with a terrorist attack. The Archduke of Austria- Hungary Franz Ferdinand assassinated by the ultimate nobody, a Serbian nationalist not much older than a boy- Gavrilo Princip- whose purely accidental success (he was only able to take his shot because the car the Archduke was riding in had taken a wrong turn) ended up being the catalyst for the most deadly war in human history up until that point, a conflict that would unleash nearly a century of darkness and mortal danger upon the world.

For the first time it would be a war that would be experienced by people thousands of miles from the battlefield in almost real time via the relatively new miracle of the radio. This was only part of the lightning fast feedback loop that launched and sped European civilization from a minor political assassination to total war. As I recall from Stephen Kern’s 1983 The Culture of Time and Space 1880-1914   political caution and prudence found themselves crushed in the vice of compressed space and time and suffered the need to make policy decisions that aligned with the need, not of human beings and their slow, messy and deliberative politics, but the pace of machines. Once the decision to mobilize was made it was almost impossible to stop it without subjecting the nation to extreme vulnerability, once a jingoistic public was whipped up to demand revenge and action via the new mass media it was again nearly impossible to silence and temper.

The First World War is perhaps the penultimate example of what Nassim Taleb called a “Black Swan” an event whose nature failed to be foreseen and whose effect ended up changing the future radically from the shape it had previously been projected to have. Taleb defines a Black Swan this way:

First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Secondly it carries an extreme impact (unlike the bird). Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable. (xxii)

Taleb has something to teach futurists who he suggests might start looking for a different day job. For what he is saying is it is the events we do not and cannot predict that will have the greatest influence on the future, and on account of this blindness the future is essentially unknowable. The best we can do in his estimation is to build resilience, robustness and redundancy, which it is hoped might allow us to survive, or even gain in the face of multiple forms of unpredictable crises, to become, in his terms “anti-fragile”.

No one seems to think another world war is possible today, which might give us reason for worry. We do have more circuit breakers in place which might allow us to dampen a surge in the direction of war between the big states in the face of a dangerous event such as Japan downing a Chinese plane in their dispute over Pacific islands, but many more and stronger ones need to be created to avoid such frictions spinning out of control.

States continue to prepare for limited conventional wars against one another. China practices and plans to retake disputed islands including Taiwan by force, and to push the U.S. Navy deeper into the Pacific, while the U.S. and Japan practice retaking islands from the Chinese. We do this without recognizing that we need to do everything possible to prevent such potential clashes in the first place because we have no idea once they begin where or how they will end.  As in financial crises, the further in time we become removed from the last great crisis the more likely we are to have fallen into a dangerous form of complacency, though the threat of nuclear destruction may act as an ultimate break.

The book I began this essay with is, of course, not some meditation on 21st or even 22nd century war, but the First World War itself. Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel is perhaps the best book ever written on the Great War and arguably one of the best books written on the subject of war- period.

It is Jünger’s incredible powers of observation and his desire for reflection that give the book such force. There is a scene that will ever stick with me where Jünger is walking across the front lines and sees a man sitting there in seemingly perfect stoicism as the war rages around him. It’s only when he looks closer that Jünger realizes the man is dead and that he has no eyes in his sockets– they have been blown out from an explosion behind.

Unlike another great book on the First World War, Erich Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Storm of Steel is not a pacifist book. Jünger is a soldier who sees the war as a personal quest and part of his duty as a man. His bravery is undeniable, but he does not question the justice or rationality of the war itself, a fact that would later allow Jünger’s war memoir to be used as a propaganda tool by the Nazis.

Storm of Steel has about it something of the view of war found in the ancients- that it was sent by the gods and there was nothing that could be done about it but to fulfill one’s duty within it. In the Hindu holy book the Bhagavad Gita the prince Arjuna is filled with doubt over the moral righteousness of the battle he is about to engage in- to which the god Krishna responds:

 …you Arjuna, are only a mortal appointee to carry out my divine will, since the Kauravas are destined to die either way, due to their heap of sins. Open your eyes O Bhaarata and know that I encompass the Karta, Karma and Kriya, all in myself. There is no scope for contemplation now or remorse later, it is indeed time for war and the world will remember your might and immense powers for time to come. So rise O Arjuna!, tighten up your Gandiva and let all directions shiver till their farthest horizons, by the reverberation of its string.

Jünger lived in a world that had begun to abandon the gods, or rather adopted new materialist versions of them – whether the force of history or evolution- stories in which Jünger like Arjuna comes to see himself as playing a small part.

 The incredible massing of forces in the hour of destiny, to fight for a distant future, and the violence it so surprisingly, suddenly unleashed, had taken me for the first time into the depths of something that was more than mere personal experience. That was what distinguished it from what I had been through before; it was an initiation that not only had opened red-hot chambers of dread but had also led me through them. (255-256)

Jünger is not a German propagandist. He seems blithely unaware of the reasons his Kaiser’s government was arguing why the war was being fought. The dehumanization of the other side which was a main part of the war propaganda towards the end of the conflict, and on both sides, does not touch him. He is a mere soldier whose bravery comes from the recognition of his own ultimate mortality just as the mortality of everyone else allows him to kill without malice, as a mere matter of the simple duty of a combatant in war.

Because his memoir of the conflict is so authentic, so without bias or apparent political aims, he ends up conveying truths about war which it is difficult for civilians to understand and this difficulty in understanding can be found not only in pacifists, but in nationalist war-mongers with no experience of actual combat.

If we open ourselves to to the deepest meditations of those who have actually experienced war, what we find is that combat seems to bring the existential reality of the human condition out from its normal occlusion by the tedium of everyday living. To live in the midst of war is a screaming reminder that we are mortal and our lives ultimately very short. In war it is very clear that we are playing a game of chance against death, which is merely the flip side of the statistical unlikelihood of our very existence, as if our one true God was indeed chance itself. Like any form of gambling, victory against death itself becomes addictive.

War makes it painfully clear to those who fight in it that we are hanging on just barely to this thread, this thin mortal coil, where our only hope for survival for a time is to hang on tightly to those closest to us- war’s famed brotherhood in arms. These experiences, rather than childish flag- waving notions of nationalism, are likely the primary source of what those who have experience of only of peace often find unfathomable- that soldiers from the front often eagerly return to battle. It is a shared experience among those who have experienced combat that often leads soldiers to find more in common with the enemies they have engaged than their fellow citizens back home who have never been to war.

The essential lessons of Storm of Steel are really spiritual answers to the question of combat. Jünger’s war experience leads him to something like Buddhist non-attachment both to himself and to the futility of the bird-eye view justifications of the conflict.

The nights brought heavy bombardment like swift, devastating summer thunderstorms. I would lie on my bunk on a mattress of fresh grass, and listen, with a strange and quite unjustified feeling of security, to the explosions all around that sent the sand trickling out of the walls.

At such moments, there crept over me a mood I hadn’t known before. A profound reorientation, a reaction to so much time spent so intensely, on the edge. The seasons followed one another, it was winter and then it was summer again, but it was still war. I felt I had got tired, and used to the aspect of war, but it was from familiarity that I observed what was in front of me in a new and subdued light. Things were less dazzlingly distinct. And I felt the purpose with which I had gone out to fight had been used up and no longer held. The war posed new, deeper puzzles. It was a strange time altogether. (260)

In another scene Jünger comes upon a lone enemy officer while by himself on patrol.

 I saw him jump as I approached, and stare at me with gaping eyes, while I, with my face behind my pistol, stalked up to him slowly and coldly. A bloody scene with no witnesses was about to happen. It was a relief to me, finally, to have the foe in front of me and within reach. I set the mouth of my pistol at the man’s temple- he was too frightened to move- while my other fist grabbed hold of his tunic…

With a plaintive sound, he reached into his pocket, not to pull out a weapon, but a photograph which he held up to me. I saw him on it, surrounded by numerous family, all standing on a terrace.

It was a plea from another world. Later, I thought it was blind chance that I had let him go and plunged onward. That one man of all often appeared in my dreams. I hope that meant he got to see his homeland again. (234)

The unfortunate thing about the future of war is not that human beings seem likely to play an increasingly diminishing role as fighters in it, as warfare undergoes the same process of automation, which has resulted in the fact that so few of us now grow our food or produce our goods. Rather, it is the fact that wars will continue to be fought and human beings, which will come to mean almost solely non-combatants, will continue to die in them.

The lessons Jünger took from war are not so much the product of war itself as they emerge from intense reflection on our own and others mortality. They are the same type of understanding and depth often seen in those who suffer long periods of death, the terminally ill, who die not in the swift “thief in the night” mode of accidents or bodily failure, but slip from the world with enough time to and while retaining the capacity to reflect. Even the very young who are terminally ill often speak of a diminishing sense of their own importance, a need to hang onto the moment, a drive to live life to the full, and the longing to treat others in a spirit of charity and mercy.

Even should the next “great war” be fought almost entirely by machines we can retain these lessons as a culture as long as we give our thoughts over to what it means to be a finite creature with an ending and will have the opportunity to experience them personally as long as we are mortal, and given the impossibility of any form of eternity no matter how far we will extend our lifespans, mortal we always will be.

 

 

Waiting for World War III

The Consequences of War Paul Rubens

Everyone alive today owes their life to a man most of us have never heard of, and that I didn’t even know existed until last week. On September, 26 1983, just past mid-night, Soviet lieutenant colonel Stanislav Petrov was alerted by his satellite early warning system that an attack from an American ICBM was underway. Normal protocol should have resulted in Petrov giving the order to fire Russian missiles at the US in response. Petrov instead did nothing, unable to explain to himself why the US would launch only one missile rather than a massive first strike in the hope of knocking out Russia’s capacity to retaliate. Then, something that made greater sense- more missiles appeared on Petrov’s radar screen, yet he continued to do nothing. And then more. He refused to give the order to fire, and he waited, and waited.

No news ever came in that night of the devastation of Soviet cities and military installations due to the detonation of American nuclear warheads, because, as we know, there never was such an attack. What Petrov had seen was a computer error, an electronic mirage, and we are here, thank God, because he believed in the feelings in his gut over the data illusion on his screen.

That is the story as told by Christopher Coker in his book Warrior Geeks: How 21st Century Technology is Changing the Way We Fight and Think About War. More on that book another time, but now to myself. During the same time Petrov was saving us through morally induced paralysis I was a budding cold warrior, a passionate supporter of Ronald Reagan and his massive defense buildup. I had drawn up detailed war scenarios calculating precisely the relative strengths of the two opposing power blocs, was a resident expert in Soviet history and geography. I sincerely thought World War Three was inevitable in my lifetime. I was 11 years old.

Anyone even slightly younger than me has no memory of living in a world where you went to sleep never certain we wouldn’t blow the whole thing up over night. I was a weird kid, as I am a weird adult, and no doubt hypersensitive to the panic induced by too close a relationship with modern media. Yet, if the conversations I have had with people in my age group over the course of my lifetime are any indication, I was not totally alone in my weirdness. Other kids too would hear jets rumbling overhead at night and wonder if the sounds were missiles coming to put an end to us all, were haunted by movies like The Day After or inspired by Red Dawn. Other kids staged wars in their neighborhoods fighting against “robot”like Russians.

During the early 1980’s world war wasn’t something stuck in a black and white movie, but a brutal and epic thing our grandfathers told us about, that some of our teachers had fought in. A reality that, with the end of detente and in light of the heated rhetoric of the Reagan years, felt as much part of the future as part of the past. It was not just a future of our imaginations, and being saved by Stanislav Petrov wasn’t the only time we dodged the bullet in those tense years.

Whatever the fear brought on by 9-11, this anxiety that we might just be fool enough to completely blow up our own world is long gone. The last twenty three years since the fall of the Soviet Union have been, in this sense, some of the most blessed in human history, a time when the prospect of the big powers pulverizing each other to death has receded from the realm of possibility. I am starting to fear its absence cannot last.

Perhaps it’s Russian aggression against Ukraine that has revived my pre-teen anxieties, it’s seizure of Crimea, veiled threats to conquer the Russophone eastern regions of the country, Putin’s jingoistic speech before the Kremlin. Of course, of course, I don’t think world war will come from the crisis in Ukraine now matter how bad it gets there. Rather, I am afraid we were wrong to write the possibility of war between the big powers out of human history permanently. That one of these times, and when we do not expect it, 10 years or 20 years or 100 years from now one of these dust ups will result in actual clashes between the armed forces of the big powers, a dangerous game that the longer we played it would hold the real risk of ending in the very nightmare we had avoided the night Petrov refused to fire.

Disputes over which the big powers might come to blows are not hard to come up with. There is China’s dispute with Japan, the Philippines, other, and ultimately the United States, over islands in the Pacific, there is the lingering desire for China to incorporate Taiwan, there is the legacy conflict on the Korean peninsula, clashes between India and China, disputes over resources and trade routes through an arctic opened up by global warming, or possible future fights over unilateral geoengineering. Then there are frictions largely unanticipated , as we now see, Russia’s panic induced aggression against Ukraine which brings it back into collision with NATO.

Still, precise predictions about the future is a game for fools. Hell, I can still remember when “experts” in all seriousness predicted a coming American war with Japan. I am aiming, rather, for something more general.   The danger I see is that the big powers start to engage in increasingly risky behavior precisely because they think world war is now impossible. That all of us will have concluded that limited and lukewarm retaliation is the only rational response to aggression given that the existential stakes are gone. As a foolish eleven year old I saw the risk of global catastrophe worth taking if the alternative was totalitarian chains. I am an adult now, hopefully much wiser, and with children of my own, whose lives I would not risk to save Ukraine from dismemberment along ethnic/linguistic lines or to stop China from asserting its rising power in the Pacific. I am certainly not alone in this, but fear such sanity will make me party to an avalanche. That the decline of the fear that states may go too far in aggressive action may lead them to go so far they accidentally spark a scale of war we have deemed inconceivable.

My current war pessimism over the long term might also stem from the year I am in, 2014, a solemn centenary of the beginning of the First World War. Back when I was in high school, World War I was presented with an air of tragic determinism. It was preordained, or so we were taught, the product of an unstable system alliance system, growing nationalism and imperialism. It was a war that was in some sense “wanted” by those who had fought it. Historians today have called this determinism into question. Christopher Clark in his massive The Sleepwalkers details just how important human mistakes and misperceptions were to the outbreak of the war, the degree to which opportunities to escape the tragedy were squandered because no one knew just how enormous the tragedy they were unleashing would become.

Another historian, Holger Afflerbach, in his essay The Topos of Improbable War in Europe Before 1914 shows how few were the voices in Europe that expected a continental or world war. Even the German military that wanted conflict was more afraid until the war broke out, and did not end quickly, that conflict would be averted at the last minute rather than stopped. The very certainty that a world war could not be fought, it part because of the belief that modern weapons had become too terrible, led to risk taking and refusal to compromise, which made such a war more likely as the crisis that began with the assassination of Archduke Fransferdinad unfolded.

If World War II can be considered an attempt by the aggrieved side to re-fight the First World War, what followed  Japan’s surrender was very different, a difference perhaps largely due to one element- the presence of nuclear weapons. What dissuaded big states in the Cold War era from directly fighting one another was likelihood that the potential costs of doing so were too high relative to the benefits that would accrue from any victory. The cost in a nuclear age was destruction itself.

Yet, for those costs to be an effective deterrent the threat of their use had to be real. Both sides justified their possible suicide in a nuclear holocaust on the grounds that they were engaged in a Manichean struggle where the total victory of the opposing side was presented as being in some sense worse than the destruction of the world itself. Yes, I know this was crazy, yet, by some miracle, we’re still here, and whether largely despite of or because of this insanity we cannot truly know.

Still, maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps I should not be so uncertain over the reason why there have been no wars between the big powers in the modern era, perhaps my anxiety that the real threat of nuclear annihilation might have been responsible is just my eleven year old self coming back to haunt me. It’s just possible that nuclear weapons had nothing to do with the long peace between great powers. Some have argued that there were other reasons big states have seemingly stopped fighting other big states since the end of World War II, that what changed were not so much weapons but norms regarding war. Steven Pinker most famously makes this case in his Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined.

Sadly, I have my doubts regarding Pinker’s argument. Here’s me from an earlier piece:

His evidence against the “nuclear peace” is that more nations have abandoned nuclear weapons programs than have developed such weapons. The fact is perhaps surprising but nonetheless accurate. It becomes a little less surprising, and a little less encouraging in Pinker’s sense, when you actually look at the list of countries who have abandoned them and why. Three of them: Belarus, Kazakhstan and the Ukraine are former Soviet republics and were under enormous Russian and US pressure- not to mention financial incentives- to give up their weapons after the fall of the Soviet Union. Two of them- South Africa and Libya- were attempting to escape the condition of being international pariahs. Another two- Iraq and Syria had their nuclear programs derailed by foreign powers. Three of them: Argentina, Brazil, and Algeria faced no external existential threat that would justify the expense and isolation that would come as a consequence of  their development of nuclear weapons and five others: Egypt, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Germany were woven tightly into the US security umbrella.

I am sure you have noticed that Ukraine is on that list. Had Ukraine not given up its nuclear weapons it is almost certain that it would not have seen Crimea seized by the Russians, or find itself facing the threat by Moscow to split the country in two.

A little more on Pinker: he spends a good part of his over 800 page book showing us just how savagely violent human societies were in the past. Tribal societies had homicide rates that rival or exceed the worst inner cities. Human are natural Hobbesians given to “a war of all against all”, but, in his view we have been socialized out of such violence, and not just as individuals, but in terms of states.

Pinker’s idea of original human societies being so violent and civilization as a kind of domestication of mankind away from this violence left me with many unanswered questions. If we were indeed so naturally violent how or why did we establish societies in the first place? Contrary to his claim, didn’t the institutionalization of violence in the form of war between states actually make our situation worse? How could so many of us cringe from violence at even a very early age, if we were naturally wired to be killers?

I couldn’t resolve any of these questions until I had read Mark Pagel’s Wired for Culture. What Pagel showed is that most of us are indeed naturally “wired” to be repulsed by violence the problem is this repulsion has a very sensitive off switch. The way it can be turned off is when our community is threatened either by those who had violated community norms, so-called moral anger, or when violence is directed towards rival groups outside of the community. In such cases we can be far more savage than the most vicious of animals with our creativity and inventiveness turned to the expression of cruelty.

Modern society is one that has cordoned off violence. We don’t have public hangings anymore and cringe at the death of civilians at the hands of our military (when we are told about them.) Yet this attitude towards violence is so new we can not reasonably expect it has become permanent.

I have no intention of picking on the Russians, and Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech would have done just as well or better here, but to keep things current: Putin in his bellicose oration before the Kremlin pressed multiple sides of the Pagel’s violence “off switch”:

He presented his opponents as an evil rival “tribe”:

However, those who stood behind the latest events in Ukraine had a different agenda: they were preparing yet another government takeover; they wanted to seize power and would stop short of nothing. They resorted to terror, murder and riots. Nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites executed this coup. They continue to set the tone in Ukraine to this day.

And called for the defense of the community and the innocent:

Let me say one other thing too. Millions of Russians and Russian-speaking people live in Ukraine and will continue to do so. Russia will always defend their interests using political, diplomatic and legal means. But it should be above all in Ukraine’s own interest to ensure that these people’s rights and interests are fully protected. This is the guarantee of Ukraine’s state stability and territorial integrity.

What this should show us, and Americans certainly shouldn’t need a lesson in here, is that norms against violence (though violence in Ukraine has so far, thankfully been low), can be easily turned off given the right circumstance. Putin, by demonizing his Ukrainian opponents, and claiming that Russia would stand in defense of the rights of the Russian minority in Ukraine was rallying the Russian population for a possible escalation of violence should his conditions not be met. His speech was met with a standing ovation. It is this ease by which our instincts for violence can be turned on that suggests Pinker may have been too optimistic in thinking war was becoming a thing of the past if we are depending  on a change in norms alone.

Then there is sheer chance. Pinker’s theory of the decline of violence in general relies on Gaussian bell curves, averages over long stretches of time, but if we should have learned anything from Nassim Taleb and his black swans and the financial crisis, its the fat tails that should worry us most. The occurrence of a highly improbable event that flips our model of the world and the world itself on its head and collapses the Gaussian curve. Had Stanislav Petrov decided to fire his ICBMS rather than sit on his hands, Pinker’s decline of violence, up to that point, would have looked like statistical noise masking the movement towards the real event- an unprecedented expression of human violence that would have killed the majority of the human race.

Like major financial crises that happen once in a century, or natural disasters that appear over longer stretches of time, anything we’ve once experienced can happen again with the probability of recurrence often growing over time.  If human decision making is the primary factor involved, as it is in economic crises and war, the probability of such occurrences may increase as the generation whose errors in judgement brought on the economic crisis or war recedes from the scene taking their acquired wisdom and caution with them.

And we are losing sight of this possibility. Among military theorists rather than defense contractors, Colin S. Grey is one of an extreme minority trying to remind us the war between the big powers is not impossible as he writes in Another Bloody Century

If we, grant with some reservations, that there is a trend away from interstate warfare, there hovers in the background the thought that this is a trend that might be reversed abruptly. No country that is a significant player in international security, not least the United States, has yet reorganized and transformed its regular military establishment to reflect the apparent demise  of ‘old’ (interstate wars and the rise of new ones.

Grey, for one, does not think that we’ll see a replay of 20th century world wars with massive, industrial armies fighting it out on land and sea. The technology today is simply far too different than it was in the first half of the last century. War has evolved and is evolving into something very different, but interstate war will likely return.

We might not see the recurrence of world war but merely skirmishes between the big powers. This would be more of a return to normalcy than anything else. World wars, involving the whole of society, especially civilians, are a very modern phenomenon dating perhaps no earlier than the French Revolution. In itself a return to direct clashes between the big powers would be very bad, but not so bad as slippage into something much worse, something that might happen because escalation had gone beyond the point of control.

The evolution of 21st century war may make such great power skirmishes more likely. Cyber-attacks have, so far at least, come with little real world consequences for the attacking country. As was the case with the German officer corps in World War I, professional soldiers, who have replaced draftees and individuals seeking a way out of poverty as the basis of modern militaries seem likely more eager to fight so as to display their skills, and may in time be neurologically re-engineered so as to deal with the stresses of combat. It is at least conceivable that professional soldiers might be the first class to have full legal access to technological and biological enhancements being made possible by advances in prosthetics, mind-computer interfaces and neuroscience.

Governments as well as publics may become more willing to engage in direct conflict as relatively inexpensive and expendable drones and robots replace airmen and soldiers. Ever more of warfighting might come to resemble a videogame with soldiers located far from the battlefield.  Both war and the international environment in which wars are waged has evolved and is evolving into something very unlike that which we have experienced since the end of the Cold War. The father out it comes the more likely that the next big war will be a transhumanist or post-human version of war, and there are things we can do now that might help us avoid it- subjects I will turn to in the near future.