"Essentially states are class-stratified political units that maintain a monopoly of deadly force – a monopoly institutionalized as permanent police and military forces," writes anthropologist Lawrence H. Keeley in his book, War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage.
The state's "monopoly of deadly force" means that we hang a man who kills in order to steal a wallet but throw a parade for a leader who successfully kills 500,000 in order to steal the resources of another land.
Whether it's for land, gold, diamonds or oil, there's nothing new about using state violence to rob others of their wealth.
"Both nonstate social groups and states have historically engaged in the violent annexation of territories to acquire natural resources," writes Pace University economics professor Joseph Salerno, a senior fellow at the libertarian Ludwig von Mises Institute.
Salerno contends that "imperialist wars by states in every epoch of history are not accidental." Instead, "They are the outcome of the powerful tendency to war-making that is inherent in the very nature of the state."
Before the age of SUVs and the need for oil, the imperialism was about more simple things. "In Minnesota, the Chippewa and Dakota Sioux tribes battled one another for 150 years over access to hunting territories and wild rice fields," writes Salerno, "while tribes in the Pacific Northwest frequently fought for frontage on the ocean and rivers giving access to the salmon runs."
In short, slaughter an entire tribe for salmon and it's fine – something that calls for a victory dance – but steal a pot from a tepee in your own tribe and you're likely to be strapped to a tree as bear food.
Salerno sees those who run the state, whether they're dictators or elected politicians, as a class that lives off those who produce and pay taxes: "These are historically the tax-consumers and, not coincidentally, the war makers."
For a minority ruling group that's coercively siphoning off resources and lowering the take-home pay and living standards of the majority of the population, war, argues Salerno, has the advantage of directing the attention of the majority to an outside enemy, a foreign state, a foreign ideology.
"Convinced that their lives and property are being secured against a foreign threat, the exploited taxpayers develop a 'false consciousness' of political and economic solidarity with their domestic rulers," writes Salerno. Persistent war making by a nation's governing elite against allegedly threatening aggressors becomes "a perfect way to disguise the naked clash of interests between the taxpaying and tax-consuming classes."
War, rather than being a mistake or an aberration, is as unavoidable as death and taxes because it serves the interests of the governing class, according to Salerno's analysis: "A permanent state of war or preparedness for war is optimal from the point of view of the ruling elite, especially one that controls a large and powerful state."
For the U.S., the "war on terror" provides policy-makers with the pretext and opportunity for "an open-ended imperialist war the likes of which were undreamt of by famous war makers of yore from the Roman patricians to German National Socialists," asserts Salerno.
With no shortage of "evildoers" in the world, no shortage of memories about 9/11, no shortage of places in the world where a domino might topple and harm our national interests or the interests of our allies, and no shortage of official pronouncements about God being on our side, it became not very difficult to convince the majority of the American public to buy the rationale for "preventive war" – to accept the idea that U.S. invasions and attacks, even in the face of no evidence of imminent attack or military provocation, are justifiable as "preemptive" action, justifiable as "self-defense."
Unfortunately, it's likely that the high level of opposition to the war in Iraq currently being expressed by the American public only exists because we are losing. If the post-invasion aspects of the war hadn't been so bungled, the majority of the population would still be saying to stay the course, still be willing to abandon habeas corpus, still be willing to wink at torture and look the other way as the government picks up people and holds them indefinitely.
"It became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it," a U.S. officer was quoted as saying in Vietnam. This time, we were well on our way to destroying liberty in order to save it.
December 13, 2006
Ralph R. Reiland [send him mail] is an associate professor of economics at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh.
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