Imperialism and the logic of war making.

Author:Salerno, Joseph T.
Position:REFLECTIONS - Essay

Commentaries on war stretching back more than two millennia to the Peloponnesian War have enshrouded the fundamental causes of war in an almost impenetrable fog of myths, fallacies, and outright lies. In most studies, war is generally portrayed as the inevitable outcome of either complex historical forces or accidental events generally beyond the human combatants' understanding or control.

Fortunately, we can draw on a science of human action--praxeology--that is applicable to all purposeful activities. Although economics is the most developed branch of this science, its basic principles can also be applied to the analysis of violent action, including warfare. Murray Rothbard wrote: "The rest of praxeology [besides economics] is an unexplored area. Attempts have been made to formulate a logical theory of war and violent action, and violence in the form of government has been treated by political philosophy and by praxeology in tracing the effects of violent intervention in the free market" ([1962] 2004, 74).

As Rothbard suggests, what we might call the "logic of war making" is a relatively undeveloped area of the science of human action. Its elaboration is therefore necessary if we are to dispel the mythology of war and elucidate its true origin and character. The basic axiom of this praxeological discipline is that war is the objective outcome of the human endeavor of war making. As a human endeavor like any other, war making is the product of reason, purpose, and choice. Therefore, a proper analysis of war must take into account the war makers' goals, the means at their disposal, the benefits they anticipate from the war, and the costs they expect to incur in executing it. The analysis must also distinguish in a general way between the individual beneficiaries and the victims of war. These victims include not only the vanquished war makers and the residents of the territory they control, but also the productive inhabitants of the region that the victorious war makers control.

The Meaning of Imperialist War

At this point, because not all violent conflict constitutes war making, it is necessary to define war and to distinguish it from other forms of interhuman violence in order to circumscribe the bounds of the logic of war making within the general praxeological system. War is defined here as violent interaction between two groups of humans, one or both of which is a state. I adopt the definition of the state given by the anthropologist and historian of primitive warfare Lawrence H. Keeley: "States are political organizations [that] have a central government empowered to collect taxes, draft labor for public works or war, decree laws, and physically enforce those laws. Essentially states are class-stratified political units that maintain a 'monopoly of deadly force'--a monopoly institutionalized as permanent police and military forces" (1996, 27).

Precivilized social groups such as bands, tribes, and even chiefdoms are not states because, according to Keeley, "a chief, unlike a king, does not have the power to coerce people into obedience physically" (1996, 27), but instead employs economic means or exploits a belief in magic to enforce his decrees. Although Keeley refers to "prestate warfare" or "primitive war," for the purposes of praxeological analysis I restrict the term war to violent conflicts involving at least one state.

Combat between looser social groupings was motivated most commonly by vengeance for previous homicides or by economic objectives, especially access to natural resources and crude capital goods. For example, in Minnesota the Chippewa and Dakota Sioux tribes battled one another for more than 150 years over access to hunting territories and wild rice fields, whereas tribes in the Pacific Northwest frequently fought over frontage on the ocean and rivers with access to the salmon run (Keeley 1996, 115). Anthropological studies show that although most of these conflicts involved savage violence and extreme cruelty, often resulting in the expropriation, enslavement, expulsion, or annihilation of the vanquished tribe, their purpose was never to establish a hegemonic relationship and to exact regular tribute from the foe. As Keeley explains, "Polities that lack the physical power to subjugate their own populations or to extract involuntary tribute or taxes from them are extremely unlikely to make war against others for these purposes, since they lack the institutional and administrative means to convert victory into hegemony or taxation" (116).

Thus, although both nonstate social groups and states have historically engaged in the violent annexation of territories to acquire natural resources, only states possess the institutional means necessary to pursue a policy of imperialism--the ongoing subjugation and economic exploitation of other peoples. Imperialist wars waged by states in every epoch of history are not accidental; they are the outcome of the powerful tendency to war making that is inherent in the very nature of the state.

War Making and Class Conflict

All governments past and present, regardless of their formal organization, involve the rule of the many by the few. In other words, all governments are fundamentally oligarchic, for two reasons. First, governments are nonproductive organizations and can subsist only by extracting goods and services from the productive class in their territorial domain. Thus, the ruling class must remain a minority of the population if its members are to extract resources continually from their subjects or citizens. Genuine "majority rule" on a permanent basis is impossible because it would result in an economic collapse as the tribute or taxes expropriated by the more numerous rulers would deprive the minority engaged in peaceful productive activities of the resources needed to sustain and reproduce itself. Majority rule would therefore eventually bring about a violent conflict between factions of the ruling class that would terminate in one faction's establishment of oligarchic rule and economic exploitation of its former confederates.

Second, oligarchic rule is rendered practically inevitable by the law of comparative advantage. The tendency toward division of labor and specialization based on the unequal endowment of skills pervades all areas of human endeavor. Just as a small segment of the population is adept at playing professional...

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