Is geopolitics a pseudo-science?

7 May 2010


Recently I listened to Utopia and Terror in the 20th Century, a series of lectures by Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius (produced by The Teaching Company), for the second time. I listened to them primarily for material for my post on The Threshold of Atrocity, as I vaguely remembered that Liulevicius had discussed population transfer at some length. I was pleased to find that my vague recollection was correct, and I in fact found this discussion to be perhaps the most interesting thing in the entire set of lectures. This listening, however, I noticed that in lecture 12, “The 1930s — the ‘Low Dishonest Decade’,” Liulevicius mentioned geopolitics in a particularly unflattering manner.

I don’t have the complete transcript of the lecture, and I’m not going to listen through it again right now (which I sometimes do to transcribe a quote from a lecture or a book on tape), but the summary from the course guide goes like this:

In Germany, geopolitics became a popular pseudo-science, raising demands for national autarchy (“total economic self-sufficiency), the division of the world into blocs of superpowers, and concern over Lebensraum (“living space”).

So Liulevicius quite explicitly identifies the geopolitics of the 1930s as a pseudo-science. Listening to this again triggered a vague memory of geopolitics being characterized as a pseudo-science in the famous “Why we fight” films directed by Frank Capra during the Second World War and shown first to US soldiers and later to the US public. My memory served me well enough in this respect, as I found what I was looking for in the second film, “The Nazis Strike.”

The “Why we fight” film was similarly explicit in identifying geopolitics as a pseudo-science. I wasn’t surprised by this as these are unambiguous propaganda films. It was a little more surprising to find Liulevicius, a scholar with some claim to scholarly objectivity, calling geopolitics a pseudo-science, but to be fair he was covering a lot of ground in a compressed amount of time, and one can’t do justice to everything. However, he might have added some qualifications to his sweeping remarks. In any case, the film gave me a little more information to go on, because it identified one Karl Haushofer as the mastermind of geopolitics at the time.

So I began to educate myself about Haushofer, who has a long and interesting biography, including a scholarly career, a military carreer, and entanglements both with Nazis and those Germans who later attempted to assassinate Hitler. This is something that I will need to look into in more depth, but translations of Haushofer’s works seem to be hard to come by. I will need to order them by interlibrary loan, so I can’t say anything about them yet.

There is an expensive edition of Haushofer’s Geopolitics of the Pacific Ocean on Amazon, and Brian D. Baird of Groton, CT., wrote the one review available there. It is a highly moralistic review, and therefore falls squarely into the already explicit tradition of treating Haushofer as a tainted scholar, a scholar tainted by Nazism. Baird writes:

Not knowing this book’s history, one would never guess that its author was a harbinger of the greatest evil ever to plague the modern world. Karl Haushofer, for those who study him and his disciples, is the man single-handedly responsible for the second World War. The text itself is actually some of the driest material ever printed… until one realizes that it is a thinly-veiled plan for global domination.

Baird also openly admires Haushofer’s erudition: “The sheer amount of knowledge contained is staggering, as Haushofer displays more intelligence than I have ever seen from any author, with the possible exception of Machiavelli.” But this erudition does not, in the eyes of Mr. Baird, vindicate his intellectual efforts. As I said, I will have to look into this more. The phenomenon of the tainted scholar is all-too-familiar. Nietzsche is viewed by many as tainted because some Nazis professed their admiration for this writings. Heidegger is viewed as even more tainted by his association with the Nazis. There is a not inconsiderable library of works now completely devoted to the question of Heidegger and Nazism. The most superficial research will reveal an extensive bibliography on the question. Even a mind as apparently pure as Frege’s has been tainted by the posthumous publication of his political diary from his later life.

Is geopolitics a pseudo-science? For starters, we must distinguish between this question and the question of whether geopolitics has its origins in pseudo-science. In my Variations on the Theme of Life I addressed this question:

Archaeology of knowledge.—Most of the sciences began with a crippling ideological burden which is only reluctantly abandoned with the development of the science as a science. Many sciences have not yet fully liberated themselves from ancient or medieval (or even modern) presuppositions that amount to little more than superstition and prejudice. Anthropology began as apologetics for racism; cosmology began as natural theology; and today bioethics is, to a large extent, apologetics for speciesism—an elaborate exercise in petitio principii charged with erecting and maintaining the divisions that have been constructed within the continuity of life, and concerned to derive the presumption of this exercise (which was to have been proved) from itself. (section 512)

Whatever its origins, geopolitics is at least taken seriously by some today, and one can hold one’s head up proudly and call oneself a practitioner of its methods. This is not true of all disciplines tainted by the associations of its origins.

Despite this history of association with the Nazis, geopolitics has not suffered from the same degree of opprobrium as eugenics. Before the nazis associated themselves with eugenics, it was discussed openly and with a certain degree of public interest. It was also put into practice — at times abusively — as policy. After the fall of the Nazis, and the magnitude of their crimes were revealed, eugenics became merely a term of abuse. It is common today to see it discussed exclusively as a pseudo-science, and usually mentioned in the same breath as social Darwinism.

Of course, an idea as powerful as that of eugenics cannot be eliminated by guilt by association, nor even by its imperfect and abusive application in the past. The imperfect application of Marxism has not discouraged the contemporary left from continuing to advocate modified forms of Marxism; the imperfect instantiations of capitalism have not discouraged the industrialized world from continuing to put into practice modified forms of capitalism. And so it is with eugenics. In its explicit form it has no friends or advocates today, but the essential ideas have reappeared under other names, such as transhumanism. But this is a topic for another post.

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