28 July 2014

What is it good for?

Today is the centennial of the outbreak of World War I, formalized by the Austro-Hungarian Empire's declaration of war against the Kingdom of Serbia. To this day, historians dispute the shares of blame to be assigned the various belligerents. Shall we blame the Serbs for the conspiratorial nationalism that killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand and provoked Austria to punitive action? Shall we blame the Russians -- as I'm sure many would like to these days -- for going after Austria to protect their brother Slavs in Serbia? Typical Russian bullying, right? Or do we stay with the old standby and blame Germany for giving Austria a "blank check" to do with Serbia as they saw fit, for fighting Russia to save Serbia, for fighting Russia's ally France simultaneously, and for drawing Britain into the war by invading neutral Belgium to flank the French? With so many options it's probably better to draw general conclusions about European culture, or 20th century culture. Frederic Morton does this in the current Harper's. A longtime student of the buildup to war, Morton wonders, as many have for the past century, why the working masses of all these countries, and the socialist parties in some of them, followed their flags to the trenches in an uncritical patriotic frenzy? He contends that the jinogistic nationalism of August 1914 was a reaction to the atomization of traditional European society over the previous century, during the Industrial Revolution.

Millions had been torn from their hearths, from their folkways, from the haven of their communal bearings. Deprived of organic roots, they split into precarious, wary atoms. Each atom had only its own strength for support, and only strength stronger than that of all others can promise security....Seething in tenements or on guard in gated glitter, each atom must stay mobilized in offense or defense. Yet at the same time each atom -- that is, each vying shard -- longs for close company that will complete it. 

The call to war, Morton writes, was "a cry for exterior conflict that would relieve the internecine malaise troubling the land. A cry for the thrill of an all-encompassing, collaborative purpose....Thanks to a common enemy people could revive a commonality long lost, could rush forward arm in arm, could regain the village intimacy once enjoyed, by defending -- together! -- the imperiled nation."

War, then, appeals to a yearning for togetherness, but it follows that this yearning has limits, or else war would make no sense. The idea of togetherness with everyone on earth has had only limited appeal over the last 100 years. This, in theory, was the appeal of communism, but in practice -- in the forms of Bolshevism, Stalinism, Maoism -- communist revolutionaries have depended on appeals to fight a common enemy: the bourgeoisie, the imperialists, the counter-revolutionaries, and so on. If no enemies were apparent, they had to be made up, the people whipped up in enmity to them. The roots of all this, I suppose, are in our atavistic sense of scarcity and our feeling that there's not enough of anything on earth for everyone. The best way to secure your share is to purge others. Morton is probably on to something when he suggests that competing on a country-vs-country level alleviates the alienation people feel in their own countries under the pressure of an increasingly competitive economy. It's just too bad that, in order to look around you and feel that "we're all in this together," you have to look across the border and think, "but you're not!" Looking at the world today, it seems that very little has changed. If so, I doubt whether anyone will learn from today's anniversary -- but it's worth taking a chance.


Anonymous said...

It's too bad that, worldwide, the working class people can't share in that "we're all in this together" attitude.

Samuel Wilson said...

Communism probably had better success in its appeal to a global proletariat when people still assumed that the world had unlimited resources in which everyone could share once the capitalists stopped hogging them all. With a greater consciousness or environmental and other limits today, it seems as if more people feel more secure identifying with some sort of tribe that shares what it takes or keeps away from others. Few seem to believe that we could make the world better by working together.