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Monday, February 8, 2010


It is difficult, in the midst of the flood of information and commentary on public affairs, to maintain any distance from the immediate moment. As a philosopher, I am supposed, professionally, to view things sub specie aeternitatis, or at least within a time frame more extended than that of a Mayfly, but I do not have a Merlin who can change me into a mountain, as he did to Wart [the little Arthur] in The Sword in the Stone, so that the future king could see things from their perspective.

Nevertheless, in this post, I propose to step back from the moment and ask, of this country and its people, Where are we? And, perhaps more to the point, Why are we? I am now seventy-six years old, and though that does not give me the perspective of a mountain, or even of a redwood tree, it does allow me to achieve some distance from the affairs of the moment.

The first thing to recognize is that the United States has been continuously at war for close on to sixty-eight years, and there is in this country neither the will nor the interest in bringing this condition of war to an end. It might be objected that though, to be sure, there have been periods during that seven decades when we were at war, there have, after all, been as well periods of peace. But I think that is a faulty construal of the situation in which we find ourselves. Since the seventh of December, 1941 [a day, as Franklin Roosevelt said, that shall live in infamy], this nation has been on a war footing. Indeed, it has been at war. I take as my authority here the great English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, who, in the thirteenth chapter of the First Part of his masterpiece, Leviathan, wrote these words:

"For WAR consisteth not in battle only, or the act of fighting; but in a tract of time, wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known: and therefore the notion of time, is to be considered in the nature of war; as it is in the nature of weather. For as the nature of foul weather, lieth not in a shower or two of rain; but in an inclination thereto of many days together: so the nature of war, consisteth not in actual fighting; but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is PEACE."

Why have we been at war continuously for seven decades? The conventional answer is that we have been confronted first by the threat posed by the Soviet Union, and then, when that passed, by the threat [conveniently] posed by militant Islam. But neither of those claims is true. The Soviet Union was a territorially continuous empire whose rulers exhibited no interest in engaging militarily beyond the contiguous area they ruled at the end of the Second World War. Unlike the United States, which has repeatedly sent troops beyond its borders since 1945, and indeed has permanent garrisons of its troops in nations around the world, the Soviet Union ventured only once beyond its contiguous sphere of influence, and that, after all, was into a country -- Afghanistan -- that has common borders with three of what were then Soviet Socialist Republics -- viz., Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.

The permanent war footing of the United States since World War II has wrought enormous, devastating, and irreversible changes in the politics, economics, and culture of this country. The most immediately obvious effect of the endless war is a dramatic shift in the power exercised by the three branches of government. The Constitution was written so as to severely rein in the powers of the executive. Although the President was designated as Commander in Chief, the power to declare war was reserved for the Congress, and that, together with their control of the purse strings and the power to impeach, try, convict, and remove officers of the other two branches guaranteed, the founders thought, the ascendancy of Congress in the American political system. This balance was upset during the Civil War, but then immediately reestablished itself one the war was ended. In our world today, the Presidency looms large, with unlimited power to make war, total control of the information needed to judge the wisdom of military action, and -- with the current compliant Supreme Court majority -- liberty to ignore the few restraints on presidential power that have survived three quarters of a century of war. Let us understand that this is in no way a point of contention between Democrats and Republicans. The permanent war was launched under Harry Truman, continued [though with hesitation and concern] by Dwight Eisenhower, expanded by Jack Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, and reaffirmed by every subsequent president, up to and including Barack Obama. War has long since become its own justification in America.

The economic dislocations occasioned by permanent war have distorted American society in two ways: First, unimaginable quantities of resources, over seventy years, have been diverted from socially productive uses to what is essentially waste, thereby dramatically lowering the standard of living of most Americans and all but destroying the public infrastructure of America; and Second, the processes of allocation and expenditure of these vast sums has made every state in the Union, and therefore every politician in America, dependent on the continuation of the war economy. It is not even possible, save by the sort of fantasy thinking that economists call economic modeling, to form a coherent idea of what America might look like now, had it not embarked seventy years ago on a policy of permanent war.

As for the culture of America, it is thoroughly steeped in and interpenetrated by martial imagery. America has become the Sparta of the modern world.

The second thing that stands out as we strive for perspective on the condition of America is that this country no longer has a strong, effective labor movement capable of constraining and combating the pernicious effects of unrestrained capitalism. [I am not talking about a revolutionary movement, aimed at replacing capitalism with another form of economic organization. I reserve such dreams for the night time hours.] It had such a movement at one time, of course, even though labor unions have never managed to organize the preponderance of American workers. The pyramidal distribution of wages and salaries in the United States has remained fundamentally unchanged for a century, save for a widening of the gap between the rich and everyone else in the past twenty years. But despite the frenzied and absurd right wing talk about "Obama the socialist," there is no serious energy anywhere in America for an overturning of the present structure of economic inequality.

In summary, America is a nation on an unnecessary and unjustifiable permanent war footing, with an economy characterized by large and growing inequality. It is, to state it clearly and openly, not a country I can happily call my own. My time horizon is necessarily somewhat foreshortened, since even under the best of circumstances I have only another two decades or less to live. But it is impossible for me to imagine that these two fundamental facts about America -- permanent war and deep inequality -- will change in any significant way in the lifetimes of my children, or even of their children.

What is to be done? [If I may echo Lenin.]

Despair is not a plan. It is a sentiment. Revolution is not an option. It is a fantasy. What remains is incremental action to ameliorate evils, reduce suffering, and protect the vulnerable, all the while recognizing that even many successes will not alter the framework within which we are condemned to live our lives. There is some comfort for me, but precious little, in the knowledge that I have been questioning the justifications offered for the war footing and for the economic inequality at least since the late 1950's. Were I fortunate enough to believe in God, I could comfort myself with thoughts of a heavenly reward. As it is, the most I can do is utter a loud and self-justificatory "I told you so!"


Ann said...

Please consider a slight variation (amid some horrendous generalizations).

Hypothesis: the liberal state is always at war:

1) The first such state, the UK, protected property rights at home but violated them abroad in the extension of its empire;
2) even in the 19th century, the US was also expansionary, conquering new territory; in the 20th participation in world wars helped establish US economic hegemony, which is continually protected by a series of "small" wars ever since, often about control of oil.

That is, the liberal state unifies domestic property owners in the common cause of expansion of markets abroad, by force if necessary. The only "public good" on which all can agree is expansion of markets abroad (for Smith this extends the division of labor; for Marx this offsets the tendency of the rate of profit to fall).

Comments? Corrections?

d said...

Well done. This is a post filled with honesty and compassion. Your words take away some of the bitterness I feel at the moment.

You touch on many of the themes Roger D. Hodge writes about in his essay "The Mendacity of Hope," which is in the February 2010 issue of Harper's. This essay may interest you (I have the .pdf file if you are unable to access it).

Ann said...

With the Tea Party Revolutionaries, and their rallying cry of "property rights" pushing American politics ever further to the right, I think there is a need to articulate another side....rather than sit on our hands and resign ourselves to irrelevance....with dignified resignation.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Could you give me the link, d? Thanks.

Ann, I am all for articulating an alternative, and fighting for it, but I have never believed that refusing to recognize reality was a precondition for political action. I stand here with Marx against those whom he called Utopian socialists. But whereas Marx lived at a time when it was possible for him to believe [falsely, as it turned out] that events were moving in his direction, we live at a time when I, for one, cannot find those tendencies on the ground. In my head, in my dreams, no doubt, but not on the ground. It takes a strong stomach, and a stout heart, to keep fighting when the most we can realistically anticipate is small victories and marginal improvements. That realization makes some people conservatives. It makes me a pessimistic radical.

Ann said...

There is a showdown coming. I can see it now: Sarah Palin vs. Rachel Maddow!!!! :-)

Robert said...

The main idea of this fine blog -- that the U.S. has been on a permanent and unjustifiable war footing since WWII with enormous deleterious political, economic, and cultural consequences -- has been the basic theme of Tom Engelhardt's extraordinary online Tom's Dispatch for years. Tom's Dispatch, which should be essential reading for any readers of this blog interested in the subject, has documented the ominous, steady, and totally unnecessary growth of the military in alarming detail. It is indeed very difficult at this point to see any significant change in this direction until some kind of catastrophic collapse occurs.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I have added Tom's Dispatch to my list of favorites.