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Nov 4, 2019

The Murderous Modern State

The advent of the modern state did not usher in an era of unprecedented peace.

The “Long Peace” Thesis

Having considered the modern nation-state as a unique subject of historical and political inquiry, we turn to the widely popular notion that we are right now living amidst a “Long Peace,” characterized by falling rates of war and violence more generally. Among the intellectuals notably associated with this thesis is the Harvard cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, who argues that wars between the world’s great powers have steadily declined, and that even the nightmarish violence and genocide of the last century was, population sizes properly weighed, a move in the right direction. We have described the emergence of the modern state as a process “of centralization, concentration, and absorption,” in which other sources of power in society were consolidated, the state eliminating rivals. This process, a violent one, is among the historical facts generally ignored or downplayed by the Long Peace thesis. As Reinhart Kössler notes, “the pacified environment provided by the modern state (at least, according to its own pretensions), rests on a history not only of violent disarmament of competitors and elimination contests, but also of the equally violent process of disciplining people.” Or as Peter Kropotkin observes of England under Henry VIII, the state forcibly expropriated and supplanted the network of voluntary associations and guilds that had grown up over the course of centuries, robbing them in broad daylight “without bothering with formalities or procedure.” Such episodes, largely forgotten in any case, are not deemed violence or coercion by the contemporary defender of the modern state, who tells us that it ushered in a new age of peace. The acknowledgment or retelling of such crimes doesn’t fit a narrative that sees the birth of the Westphalian nation-state as a propitious event for human liberty and prosperity. To understand the problems with the Long Peace argument thus requires a close reassessment of the bureaucratic state: though today regarded as the benign vehicle of qualified, scientific expertise, this new form of total government creates the preconditions for the worst, most thoughtless exterminations of human beings in the world’s history.

The principle of bureaucracy, Kropotkin says, “destroys everything,” because through it is enforced a suffocating pattern of uniformization, the determined elimination of foci of social power outside of the state and the active preclusion of their reemergence—as well as the erasure of the popular memory of these cooperative alternatives to state power. This accession of unrivaled, anomymous power (and the anonymity of the bureaucratic state is important in this discussion) brings along with it a system of incentives creating a fertile ground for the germination and growth of the mass-murder state. Mary McCarthy has a famous quote on bureaucracy: “Bureaucracy, the rule of no one, has become the modern form of despotism.” The modern nation-state’s characteristic bureaucratic form seems to have made possible the mechanized mass slaughters it has carried out since its appearance. For if no one rules, then no one really kills—that is to say, no one must take responsibility for killing, the murder of millions becoming an exercise in bureaucratic anonymity and detachment, everyone mechanistically following orders, no one choosing.

Political modernity, incarnated in the nation-state, seems, then, to admit the fundamental libertarian truth that no one could attain the right to rule. But instead of treating this as a good reason to subject the state to a searching analysis, it accepts social contract theory’s counterfactual and concludes that we are the authors of our own oppression. As the great liberal Benjamin Constant wrote, the social contract theory articulated by Rousseau is “the most terrible auxiliary of all kinds of despotism,” for it operates to remove all constraints on political power. There can, after all, be no limits on political power in principle if that power only an expression of the citizen’s own will.1

And indeed the twentieth century was an experiment in limitless political power. The internal logic of the modern nation-state reaches its conclusion in authoritarian political systems like Italian Fascism, German National Socialism, and Chinese and Soviet communism. As I’ve discussed previously, defenders of the modern state have attempted, against the weight of available evidence, to read such brutal, murderous regimes out of the modernist project, to distinguish them as deviations from or deliberate reactions against the dominant trend. Detlev Peukert argued compellingly that in fact German National Socialism “pushed the utopian belief in all-embracing ‘scientific’ final solutions of social problems to the ultimate logical extreme,” stamping out genuine social ties in favor of a bleak coherence derived from “bureaucratic procedures.” An examination of the familial connection between Progressivism and National Socialism reveals that the “logic of segregation and exclusion” was always there, latent in the very Progressive ideas that had been the foundation of the Weimar welfare state.2 Making matters even more ridiculous, the horrors of the twentieth century transpired during a period in which the nation-state was supposedly in decline, in which the growth of international organizations (both business corporations and treaty organizations like the League of Nations and, later, the United Nations) grew in power. Premised on the idea that there is a rationally discoverable natural law preceding positive law, international law does, at least in principle, posit a challenge to the sovereignty and authority of the state. But as historian Quentin Skinner has observed, reports of the death of the state have been greatly exaggerated, as states have arguably become “more aggressive of late, patrolling their borders with increasing attention and maintaining an unparalleled level of surveillance over their own citizens.” Skinner further notes that states intervene decisively in the economy (to rescue failing banks, for example), print money, tax and imprison their citizens, and “legislate with an unparalleled degree of complexity.”3

The Devastation of Modern War

Still, notwithstanding the unique power of the modern state and the bloody history of the twentieth century, is it possible that Pinker and others trumpeting the “Long Peace” are right? Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center recently assured me that “advent of the Westphalian nation state brings in its wake plummeting death rates from war.” This seems, however, to be far from the truth—indeed, the empirical record shows us that just the opposite is true. In the roughly four centuries since the Westphalian treaties were signed,[4] the world has played host to a series of bloodbaths that would have been inconceivable before the modern era and its unique political institution, the state (on which more below). But during the relevant period, the number of human beings on the planet skyrocketed, from little more than half a billion in 1648 to nearly 8 billion today. The Long Peace theorists argue that “even if wars have become deadlier in absolute terms,” those deaths account for a smaller percentage of the population.

This seems a strange way to think about the destructiveness of war, for we don’t ordinarily believe that the value of one person’s life is reduced by the mere fact that there are more people currently alive on earth. The inexpressible value of any given individual has not been diminished as the global population continues to climb. Human persons are not fungible cogs that can be readily substituted for one another, void of unique characteristics. This kind of statistical analysis reduces the human person to a commodity, a mere chattel. It is, at this juncture, important to point out that this relative vs. absolute debate is a philosophical one, a question that by definition cannot be decided on the basis of the raw data alone (even assuming that the data themselves were perfectly validated and not subject to any meaningful disagreement). The philosophical question precedes, and must precede, the data-analytical question, as any interpretation of the data will assume certain philosophical priors. While proponents of the Long Peace thesis see it as obviously true that we should use the relative standard, this is not at all obvious, and there are compelling reasons that favor the absolute standard when we’re talking about something like the lives of individual human beings. We can’t mitigate the loss of one life with the substitution of another, i.e., by gesturing at the existence of additional other persons. The loss is fundamentally immitigable, because each individual is irreducibly unique. If your empirical approach is telling you, roughly immediately following the bloodiest century ever, that there’s been a “Long Peace,” then that approach is broken at a fundamental level. That this is not immediately obvious reveals much about the normative philosophy that today’s intellectuals use to frame their definition of empirical rigor. Mao’s communist government alone was responsible for approximately 70 million peacetime deaths. Pinker, and his defenders like Wilkinson, apparently mean us to believe that such a staggering, almost unimaginable, death toll is reconcilable with a general downward trend in violence because, well, China has lots of people.5

Setting the matter aside, war-related deaths actually increased in absolute terms more than they should have given population growth alone, with exponentially more such deaths in “modern organized societies” than in primitive nomadic societies. Further still, as we shall see, the twentieth century saw a uniquely high death toll, even if we (1) employ the relative/per capita standard preferred, I think implausibly, by the supporters of the Long Peace thesis, and (2) include only deaths in conflicts (see Max Roser’s graph “Global deaths in conflict since 1400”). To reckon that the world has grown more peaceful in the centuries after the Peace of Westphalia, we must define “peace” in a way that can accommodate the liquidation of millions in what is in fact an extremely short period.

Indeed, some estimates of World War II casualties are as high as 120 million, with World War I as high as 65 million. Political scientist Rudolph Rummel, who coined the term “democide,” observes that even looking solely at the number of conflict-related deaths as a share of global population (as opposed to the absolute standard of total conflict-related deaths), the twentieth century comes out on top as compared with the four centuries immediately preceding it; he notes, too, that the conflict-related values do not “take into account the massive democides accounting for about 170 million deaths,” which largely occurred in “peacetime”—for example, the mass murders perpetrated by the Soviets and the Chinese Communists. Rummel later remarked that “this total could even reach near 341,000,000 killed.” Democidal governments have “murdered 6 times more people than died in combat in all the foreign and internal wars of the [twentieth] century.”

There are still other problems: Steven Beard argues that even if we forecast using the data from the more peaceful period following World War II, it is still not at all clear “that that this recent peaceful period represents a long-term decline in interstate war.” Beard goes on to explain that the changes we observe in the data “appear to be either temporary or random variation around a flat base probability.” The idea that we’re living in a uniquely peaceful time is simply not grounded in what we know. We should expect the waxing and waning of war deaths, and thus we don’t yet have sufficient reason to believe the current apparently-peaceful moment is sui generis. Ohio State political scientist Bear Braumoeller agrees that Pinker’s identification of a trend is premature, noting that his research found no “downward trend in the incidence or deadliness of warfare. If anything, the opposite is true.” Braumoeller says that the “escalatory propensity of war is the scariest thing [he] found” in his research, finding a fairly good chance that the world could, within the relatively near term, see a war that kills 70 million. He further points out that war follows what is called a power-law distribution, meaning that while there may be many small wars, random chance can turn one into a catastrophically deadly event—an event “unbelievably huge even by the standards of other unbelievably huge things” (emphasis added). Braumoeller’s work suggests that it would be “frighteningly easy” for humankind to walk a path that is even more violent than ever.

What, then, explains this absurd claim that the Westphalian state has ushered in a new era of peace? Simple myopia provides perhaps the best explanation: that very recent history has been particularly peaceful seems to have left some neoliberal optimists with the misimpression that this as yet short-lived peace represents a sea change. It has simply become too easy for people today—particularly those living in the rich West—to forget both the history of the modern state’s emergence and the horrors it has left in its wake. Exemplifying this myopic, overly sanguine view, Steven Pinker cites a falling rate of deaths in war over the last 25 years in support of his claim that there’s been a “long-term historical trend” of declining violence. Pinker and other such committed Pollyannas have either forgotten the horrors of the last century or are completely immune to evidence. As anthropologist Dean Falk remarked in 2017, even the decades that have passed since the end of World War II represent “a proverbial drop in the bucket compared with the five [million] to seven million years humans and our ancestors have been around.” It is furthermore important to point out that the character of war has changed in the years since World War II, with wars between the great powers being replaced by proxy wars and civil conflicts, the frequency of which have increased.

It must be granted that the Long Peace argument is certainly not without appeal, as another attempt to claim that we have arrived at the end of history. Alas, this is just too easy a story. The modern state was born of and designed for warfare, and it has delivered on the promise of its roots. As Charles Tilly notes, “Preparation for war has been the great state-building activity,” this process continuing largely without interruption for the last 500 years. Christopher W. Morris writes similarly, “The nature and scale of modern wars are made possible by the modern state, and what the future threatens may be worse than what we have already experienced.” Let us hope that Morris is wrong and that a Long Peace does in fact await us. I’m afraid I do not share Pinker’s optimism.


  1. Crispin Sartwell, Against the State: An Introduction to Anarchist Political Theory (SUNY Press 2008), page 11.
  2. Young-Sun Hong, Welfare, Modernity, and the Weimar State (Princeton University Press 1998), page 240).
  3. Quentin Skinner, “A Genealogy of the Modern State.”
  4. Whereas I have mostly referred here to the modern state or the nation-state, Wilkinson refers specifically to Westphalian nation-state, so while the modern state arguably emerges before the Peace of Westphalia, which ended a period of sustained violence among the European powers, I will attempt to deal with the period from the middle of the seventeenth century (1648).
  5. See, in general, Rummel’s resources on death by government.

 

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