Toward a Dialectical Conception of War
26 May 2009
While on the topic of Clausewitz…
Contradictory concepts are locked in a dialectical relation. Logically, this means that a definition of a given concept yields the definition of its contradictory through negation. If war is the contradictory of peace, and peace the contradictory of war, then a negation of a definition of war yields a definition of peace, and a negation of a definition of peace yields a definition of war.
Things are rarely as simple as this in fact; this kind of conceptual neatness is rare. Concepts — especially old concepts with a long history — tend to be complex and to be related by implication to many other concepts. Conceptual pairs like war and peace — sometimes called polar concepts — are assumed to be contradictories when they are in fact richer in content and the polar concepts imply more than each other. And what concepts could be older than those of war and peace? The emergence of civilization is nearly identical with the emergence of war in human history, and the idea of peace emerges as a hope immediately following upon the depredations of war.
Thus war and peace are not precisely dialectical, not precisely definable in terms of the contradictory of the other. This in itself renders war and peace as dialectical concepts, as any attempt to think them through coherently and systematically engages the thinker in an attempt to reconciling internal tensions within the concept. If successful, this process yields a higher synthesis that transcends the limited perspective and scope of previous definitions of the concept and establishes a more comprehensive concept informed by previous conceptions but more adequate than earlier formulations.
The Dialectic of Conceptual Pairs
Conceptual pairs, like war and peace, that are apparently or superficially contradictory yet integral in fact are common in our intellectual experience. A few weeks ago I mentioned Romero’s distinction between doctrinaire and inorganic democracy. This is a great example of what I am trying to illustrate. What we have are two clusters of concepts that suggest in turn two further contradictory clusters. Doctrinaire democracy is contradicted by non-doctrinaire democracy (each can be defined as the negation of the other), while inorganic democracy is contradicted by organic democracy (which, again, can each be defined as the negation of the other). Thus doctrinaire and inorganic democracy stand in a problematic relationship to each other, as do non-doctrinaire and organic democracy. But systematically setting these concepts within a theoretical context that includes them all may help to illuminate the initial pair of concepts with which we began.
In my Political Economy of Globalization I made similar observations regarding the dialectic of the conceptual pair of globalism and localism:
Globalism is correctly understood as one half of a dialectic, that of globalism and localism, or globalism and tribalism. And this extension of the concept of globalism to the pair of concepts globalism/tribalism emphasizes the departure from twentieth century nationalism that is already becoming a fact of political life: the nation-state appears nowhere in this dialectic. However, the concept of globalism is also extended by another dialectic: that of advocacy and opposition, or globalism/anti-globalism…
Thus the pair of concepts, globalism and anti-globalism, extends the concept of globalism simpliciter, so that the only obvious permutation missing in this twice extended concept of globalism is that of anti-tribalism, and it is here, finally, that we recover the nation-state. For the nation-state is an undeclared anti-tribalism: personal loyalty to chieftain must be abolished so that a territorial loyalty to the nation-state can take its place.
There I also cited section 2 of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil:
“How could anything originate out of its opposite? For example, truth out of error? Or the will to truth out of the will to deception? Or selfless action out of self-interest? Or the pure sunlike gaze of the sage out of covetousness? Such origins are impossible; whoever dreams of them is a fool, even worse; the things of the highest value must have another, separate origin of their own—they cannot be derived from this transitory, seductive, deceptive, lowly world, from this turmoil of delusion and desire! Rather from the lap of being, the intransitory, the hidden god, the ‘thing-in-itself ’—there must be their basis, and nowhere else!”— This way of judging constitutes the typical prejudice by which the metaphysicians of all ages can be recognized; this kind of valuation looms in the background of all their logical procedures; it is on account of this “belief” that they trouble themselves about “knowledge,” about something that is finally christened solemnly as “the truth.” The fundamental belief of the metaphysicians is the belief in antithetical of values.
What could be more true of the opposites of war and peace? The faith in antithetical values has encouraged us to believe that war and peace are precisely contradictory, but we have seen that the concepts are more complex than that.
The Means and Ends of War
We can easily see how the concept of peace might emerge from the concept of war, or vice versa, from Clausewitz’s famous definition of war as the pursuit of politics by other means. Clausewitz restates this principle throughout On War and gives it several formulations, so that it constitutes a point of reference for his thought and is the locus classicus for what Anatol Rapoport called political war (in contradistinction to eschatological war and catastrophic war).
This Clausewitzian principle inevitably invited the formulation of its inversion by Foucault: “politics is the continuation of war by other means.” (“Society Must be Defended”: Lectures at the College de France 1975-1976, p. 15) Thus politics, ideally peaceful, can be transformed into war, and war can be transformed into peace.
In holding that war is the pursuit of politics by other means, Clausewitz implicitly invokes the ends/means distinction, and suggests that the end, aim, and goal of war and politics alike is the same; only the means are different. War is the use of military means — violence — to compel another to do our will, whereas politics employs diplomatic means in the attempt to compel another to do our will. Seen in this context of means and ends, the transformation of war into peace and peace into war becomes obvious. Politicians pursue their ends with diplomacy, and finding the result unsatisfying turn to force in the attempt to attain the same ends. The use of force either attains these ends satisfactorily, in which case the war ends, or the ends are not attained, and eventually the war ends because it is seen as ineffectual in attaining the desired ends, and the politicians return to diplomacy in the attempt to secure that which could be be gotten by force.
Recent history has been rich in indecisive conflicts — the Colombian civil war, the Lebanese civil war, and the recently settled Sri Lankan civil war — in which the combatants have gone between peace table and battlefield as though through a revolving door. In such contexts, “peace” means little, and the temporary absence of armed conflict is only called peace for lack of a better term.
In so far as peace is an ideal — and we are well familiar with this ideal from literature and art — and not merely the cessation of hostility or the temporary absence of armed conflict, the greater part of the world for the greater part of history have not known peace. It was a tradition among the Romans that the doors to the Temple of Janus — called the Gates of War — would be closed in time of peace. This is said to have happened only five times in the combined history of the Republic and the Empire.
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