You can usually tell which ideas the elites benefit most from by observing what non-elites will defend most vehemently.
My original post on nationalism (expanded in my book) dismantles many of the basic misconceptions of nationalism and its euphemism, patriotism, and exposes it as the dangerous delusion it is. But the phenomenon persists. Apparently, it is a force more powerful even than this blog.
Nationalists and patriots are full of illusions. I come bearing inconvenient truths, but the sooner people understand them, the sooner they can see the world for what it is.
You do not have a country of your own. You do not have any control over it. A few powerful people own the territory within the colonial boundaries you live in, and you are not one of them.
Nationalists hold romantic dreams of an eternal spirit of their countries. But that is because they have no historical perspective. Your country does not have a destiny, and what you think is its history is largely based on myth. The idealised depiction of war is the clearest example. Nationalists believe their side has always been righteous, perhaps fighting for God but always fighting only in self defense. But the people who came from nearby where you come from who fought in wars were not fighting for you. They have nothing to do with you. They were fighting because they were told to, and because they would be killed if they did not.
Do you think there is something better about the people who inhabit your corner of the globe? Are they more virtuous than others? If you believe they are, you undoubtedly have superficial, stereotyped views of people in other places. Nationalists see their people as individuals making up a glorious whole and people from other countries as undifferentiated masses that are somehow more threatening than locals. Such stereotypes engender the belief that, while our elites are bad, at least they are not FOREIGN.
The FOREIGN is, of course, to be feared or at least not fully trusted. For this reason, most nationalists want to limit immigration. They worry their compatriots will one day run out of land, or the culture will change. As such, they are willing to use violence to stop the wrong kind of people from entering their country. That is called racism.
Yet, change is constant. Cultures and countries and ethnic groups change. Your country and culture are not eternal. They will change, their values will change, and they will end, like everything does.
For religious people who think your country is the best and is superior to all others, you may want to consult your holy books and see what your god says about idols.
For non-religious people who believe in their countries and sacrifice for them and attack others for criticising them, surprise! You are part of a cult of worship as well.
If you want to believe in something bigger than yourself, how about all of humanity? Or all life on Earth? Or love, or kindness, or peace? Or, if you want to keep it simple, your family and friends? If not, please do not expect my sympathy for your racist exclusion of other humans.
Anarchists are repeatedly informed that anarchy runs counter to human nature. I have already written about why it is in fact in line with our nature, why our nature would suggest not putting a monopoly of violence into the hands of the few and that anarchy has been the norm throughout human history.
One reason they say anarchy and nature are in conflict is the term “human nature” is thrown around so often. Millions of people now consider themselves experts in psychology, whether or not they know anything about life outside their village. This post addresses what statists seem to believe human nature approves, legitimises or renders “inevitable”.
Much of what statists claim to believe falls prey to the naturalistic fallacy. What if anthropological and psychological data find genocide, rape and slavery part of our nature? To engage in them is no less immoral. It is inevitable, they say, that the few will come to rule over the many. If you think rulers are good, feel free to live under them; but why would you want to impose them on others simply because you believe it is natural? If rulers are bad, surely you support the anarchist ideal of taking monopoly powers away from the people who want to rule over others; or at least of letting others live under arrangements without political hierarchy.
What is natural about nationalism? Humans did not evolve in nations of millions of people. Nationalism is an extension of a natural feeling of tribalism (or perhaps even racism–again, whether or not we are naturally racist does not make racism good). But an appeal to human nature surely implies our loyalty belongs with our family and community, not with millions of people we do not know and a system we have no influence over. Having leaders may be natural and good, at least for specific purposes; however, politicians are not leaders. And how having national representatives could be human nature eludes me.
Not only do we have nationalism, but we have borders. Humans are animals, and like all other animals, they will move north, south, east and west to find food, shelter and whatever else they are into. Mexicans’ wanting to cross the border into the US is as natural as a bear walking through the woods from Montana to Wyoming. And yet, we are told this system somehow accords with human nature. Perhaps it is the need for a territory, a home we can call our own, that leads us to believe in borders. However, letting people into a country in no way violates the sanctity of one’s home. Can one fairly claim an entire country as one’s exclusive property? If not, there is no moral argument for borders.
What is natural about widescale, industrial war? And if human nature can explain war, why do we not hear “peace is in our nature” more often? Which of those two options, peace or war, would you, a human, prefer?
What is natural about criminalising food and drugs, and adding fluoride to drinking water? What is natural about central banks, national economic planning and laws regulating every aspect of life? And if statists who appeal to human nature agree these things are folly, they may ponder why such terrible laws and policies are allowed to exist.
If their concern about anarchy versus human nature is the viability of ending the state, objectors might consider the case of slavery. The question was not, “is it viable?”, but “is it right?” Morality alone was a good enough reason to abolish it. The non-aggression principle holds in the case of the state just as in that of slavery. Not only does it accord with our nature; it is the right thing to do.
I do not say “fuck the troops”. It seems pointlessly hateful. I am not against “the troops” but the system that sends them to war and brings them back wounded if at all, and forces everyone to pay them for the dubious privilege of dying for the state. But I do believe the freedom to express such opinions should be valued. Facebook has removed a page called “Fuck the Troops” under pressure. Its action demonstrates society’s contempt for freedom of speech.
A new page of the same name sprouted in its place within the past 24 hours, and it has already been subject to the same venomous insults and threats as the old one. The “Support the Troops” people have returned in full force, replete with swearing and non sequiturs. They claim to value freedom but express their willingness to force others to stop talking or leave the country. They are convinced US soldiers have fought for freedom, but have no evidence of a causal link between whatever freedoms Americans have left and war. (In fact, wars are inevitably an opportunity for the state to expand and take away liberties.) They claim today’s wars are necessary to protect American lives, when they make not only troop deaths but the risk of terrorism rise. More importantly, they betray the very principle they purport to believe in–freedom–by telling others to shut up or risk violence.
Diversity of opinions is healthy, especially on issues of such moral implications. Uniformity of opinion benefits the ruling class so that it can be seen to appeal to it (as, for instance, when a politician gets photographed standing next to a group of soldiers in Afghanistan and his poll numbers rise the next day). The state thus spreads the idea soldiers are heroes through the school system and by honouring them for whatever reason, creating heroes when necessary. It is part of its efforts to spread nationalism, which helps support wars in the name of the nation. But open minds and intellectual honesty are essential for addressing social problems. The arguments of the Fuck the Troops page, along with the equally-provocative “Soldiers are not heroes. They are tools of war.” and “The Troops are Welfare Whores” are the troops should not be venerated as they are. People should listen to them.
In less complex, tribal societies, soldiers are defenders. They train in order to protect their people from aggression. It makes sense for us to respect, admire and support them. But modern nation states do not have such soldiers. War conducted by advanced democracies such as the US, the UK and Israel has nothing to do with defense and everything to do with expanding the state into new areas of the world. Soldiers have become the agents of this imperial conquest. We live in a world of information, where the truth about war (such as US Army Special Forces veteran Stan Goff’s admonition to young people considering a career such as his) is available. The modern soldier, whom I believe is a victim of war, nonetheless has the ability to reconsider working for the military. Removing the social pride that comes from enlisting and replacing it with a stigma could mean more refusal to go to war.
At any rate, at stake in this conflict is freedom of speech. Believing in freedom means tolerating those with different opinions, and taking comfort in the knowledge that if the truth prevails, they will be proven wrong. Telling those who disagree with you to shut up, leave the country or die means you do not believe in freedom.
”If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” – Malcolm X
“When a well-packaged web of lies has been sold gradually to the masses over generations, the truth will seem utterly preposterous and its speaker a raving lunatic.” – Dresden James
“If we choose, we can live in a world of comforting illusion.” – Noam Chomsky
Many people live in a world of comforting illusion. They harbour the impression they are in charge of their democracy; they think the police protect their rights from bad guys; they think the military defends their freedom from foreigners; they do not want to challenge their own ideas; and they are convinced they are thinking for themselves. They are offered these illusions on a silver plate from every corner: governments, corporations, religious leaders and mainstream media. The collective term for the lies we choose to wrap ourselves in—or get caught up in—is propaganda.
The word “propaganda” is a widely used and potentially libelous term, so it requires definition up front. For the purpose of this post, propaganda refers to all lies and misleading images the government, corporations and the media tell you in order to control you. As you can imagine, there is plenty of it out there.
Among people who read non-mainstream newspapers, much has been made of a recent bill working its way through Congress, which Barack will probably threaten to veto again and will sign anyway, making psychological operations, meaning secretive propaganda, legal for use by the government within the US. It should frighten everyone, of course, that what was once used for war on third-world populations is soon going to be the norm for US citizens. But I wonder how much this bill will change what has been the norm for so long.
Because governments take as much of your money as you are willing to put up with, they can afford large “communications” teams. They use them to shape your views on their policies, to make you support their policies for all of their reasons. (Find some examples here.)
But most people realise that the government lies. The real key to understanding how the ideology of statism is disseminated is to listen to intellectuals. Public intellectuals are the ones who come up with the ideas that the people end up taking for granted. Originally, it was the clergy that rationalised the state, and got its share of public revenues in return. Now, the state enlists experts to sell its ideas in the media, and why those experts debate what kind of sanctions or bombs to use against Iran and none of them suggest leaving Iran alone. It pays for public education, giving public-school teachers a stake in the status quo. It subsidises professors to sell its ideas to the best and brightest, which is why few ever teach anarchist philosophy or Austrian economics in school. The apologists for the state are rewarded with jobs, prestige and high positions in the planning of the state. It co-opts the people with the intellectual power in society to spread propaganda.
Propaganda, in its broadest conception, creates what Antonio Gramsci called hegemony. The various elements of society influence our consciousness, but the ruling class has the most influence. Since government requires not simply coercion but also some degree of consent, the ruling class projects an image of what the world is, turning what it wants us to believe into “common sense”. It is common sense that we need to be governed, for instance, and that democracy means the people are in charge. I studied government for years before I realised that it was based on the threat of violence, rather than consent and collective decision making. Hegemony is the pervasive belief in this common sense conception of the world that enables the ruling class to acquire the consent of the governed. The masses accept the morality, customs and rules handed down to them. Only by learning to think beyond the supposed universal truths imposed on their consciousness can the people shatter the illusions and break free of the ruling class.
Consider the national-security narrative we are exposed to over our lifetimes. We are all Americans/British/Chinese/Turkish. When one of us is under attack by foreigners, all of us are under attack. When foreigners attack or threaten to attack us, it is justified to attack them. When attacking them, whatever needs to happen to subdue them is justified. If innocents get killed, that’s the price of it. It is right to take huge amounts of money to build up militaries to enable these things. We are entirely moral in doing all these things, and if you disagree, you hate our country. We take all these things for granted, but why? This and other accepted wisdom is part of the hegemony.
Think of the images associated with this paradigm. Take the photo opportunity. Politicians love going to Afghanistan to get a photo with the troops. It makes their poll numbers rise. Do you think they add that to their calculations when they decide whether or not to prolong the war? But people have been told they are citizens, these are their representatives and their representatives’ visiting soldiers they sent to Afghanistan for a few minutes on their world tour helps those soldiers. As long as they believe all that, the politicians have their mandate for war. A magician will tell you his job is about what the eye sees: illusion, not truth. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
Take David Cameron’s posing with protesters in Tahrir Square in February 2011. All people who yearn for freedom were there in spirit with the protesters. What the shiny smiles hid was the fact that David had just come from touring other restive Arab states with a delegation of British arms dealers. But people do not see beyond the photo op, and are led to believe their government supports freedom.
Terrorism is massively overblown. Everyone is a potential terrorist now. We are programmed to be afraid. How does the use of the word “terrorism” affect us? When we are told that the people killed were terrorists, we are given the opportunity to presume the good guys, the soldiers, are killing the bad guys. Our consciences are assuaged, and the killing can continue. The word militant, for instance, really means anyone who was killed by the US military, such as 16-year-old Abdelrahman al Awlaki. Did more than a handful of people speak out against it?
Could they use another word that would give it a different meaning? Why didn’t they use that word? Why do we undergo ‘liberation’ or ‘intervention’ instead of invasion? Why do we kill “militants” instead of people? Does it change how we think about the thing? When detention and torture without trial are labeled “extraordinary rendition”, most people turn away in boredom. The most despicable acts are cloaked in jargon and made mundane. Do not worry about it: we don’t torture men, women or children; only insurgents, terrorists and the Taliban.
Like most subjects related to government, there is a double standard at work with propaganda. Surely a society that believed in basic freedoms would not criminalise speech. It grants us the freedom to be wrong and to lie, as long as we do not violate the non-aggression principle. The government is wrong (as when it said Iraq had weapons of mass destruction). The government lies (as when…well, all the time). It suffers no consequences when caught. Citizens, however, do. Muslims, the new enemy, are targeted in the US all the time for spreading “terrorist propaganda” by speaking out in favour of anti-US-empire terrorism. The US Department of Justice arrested Jubair Ahmad for uploading a video to Youtube that the DOJ considered “material support” for terrorists. He might be locked up indefinitely. The FBI called what he posted propaganda. One wonders how much of what the FBI says is not.
But who is the real terrorist? Anarchists frequently point out the hypocrisy of the state in its justification of everything it does as criminal (and immoral) for everyone else. In the words of Stefan Molyneux,
I can’t go next door and threaten my neighbour with force in order to get him to pay for my child’s education, but the government can through property rights and the educational system. I can’t find some guy in my neighbourhood who’s smoking some herb that I find objectionable, lock him up in some basement and then call myself an armed warrior for justice through the War on Drugs. I can’t print money based on nothing and use it as legitimate currency; the government can. And I can’t create debt that other people have to pay without any choice in the matter. That’s called fraud. But for the government it’s called deficit financing and it goes to future generations. So government, by definition, is that social entity which legalises whatever is criminal for everyone else in the population…. Law is an opinion with a gun.
(Stefan forgot to mention that invasion and occupation are called democracy promotion and nation building, but then he was in an interview, so we can forgive him.)
Yes, words matter. We are flooded with words like “national security”. Those two words have been used to justify everything from aggressive (sorry, “preventive”) war to secret meetings between politicians and lobby groups. The UK government told the world Afghanistan’s Helmand province is vital to British national security, presumably for the same reasons Guam is to that of the US. The term is ambiguous, because it is used for every priority of the ruling class. It is used so often as to be meaningless.
It is used to glorify military service, along with words like “sacrifice”, “duty” and “honour”. Militaries market themselves to the populaces that support them by various channels. The US military has been in bed with Hollywood for decades. The Pentagon provides moviemakers with real aircraft, tanks and soldiers for all manner of movies, in return for a favourable image. It has created an exciting, video game-like perception of what it does, instead of the reality of raining fire on villages in distant parts of the world to kill one person deemed a “high-value target”.
It is not only in security matters that the state lies. It misinforms and distorts the truth at every turn. Take, for instance, how it has skewed employment figures (in this, an election year) by quietly removing 1.2m unemployed people from the list and celebrating it as a win. People can believe the economy is picking up, even though they see no evidence of it, and will vote for the incumbent, even though Barack has made things worse.
But the state is not the only source of propaganda. Any medium that produces disinformation, lies, coverups, or deliberately misleading images and words is propaganda. The media have been lying to us about war for a hundred years. (Lots of examples here.) Look at the way some of the most popular media soften up the language of the war for Afghanistan. While Afghans protested the repeated killing and descration of their friends and family, media like the New York Times said they were protesting the burning of Qurans only. “Armed with rocks, bricks, pistols and wooden sticks, protesters angry over the burning of Korans at the largest American base in Afghanistan this week took to the streets in demonstrations in a half-dozen provinces on Wednesday that left at least seven dead and many more injured.” Not only were the protesters “armed”; as As’ad AbuKhalil observed, “notice that there is no killer in the phrasing.” People reading do not have to blame the killers—perhaps protesting killed the people. They portrayed the protests as irrational acts of outrage, just anger over a book. Glenn Greenwald gives an apt analogy:
[J]ust imagine what would happen if a Muslim army invaded the U.S., violently occupied the country for more than a decade, in the process continuously killing American children and innocent adults, and then, outside of a prison camp it maintained where thousands of Americans were detained for years without charges and tortured, that Muslim army burned American flags — or a stack of bibles — in a garbage dump. Might we see some extremely angry protests breaking out from Americans against them? Would American pundits be denouncing those protesters as blinkered, primitive fanatics?
There is no reason to trust the New York Times or the Washington Post. Their kowtowing to power in the run up to Operation Iraqi Freedom should have put them out of business and led their heads to hang in shame. Both papers issued apologies (here and here)—over a year too late—and no one in the newsrooms suffered any consequences. Why would we pay attention to them at all anymore?
Various estimates of the real death toll of that war have come out in the hundreds of thousands; the number may have reached a million. But mainstream media outlets do not report a million. They report low-end estimates of tens of thousands, sometimes adding the words “at least”. Regardless, people are more affected emotionally when shown a human face and story. Which Iraqi humans did the media choose to profile? The insurgents. All the more reason to dig in one’s heels and keep fighting.
The mainstream media benefit from the status quo and often end up the lapdogs of the powerful. Even when one TV station appears relatively right wing or left wing, that simply means they will defend a different party when it takes power. However, the task before the media is to give us the information we need in order to understand and question power, not to serve it. All corporations receive legal protection and indirect subsidy; in addition, the media that pander best to the powerful get access to top officials for interviews and sources. Media types socialise with government types. Instead of holding them to account through investigative journalism, many of them accept what the government says without question. They also need to fill in blanks due to deadlines, and may embellish or simply quote an official to complete their stories. Those poor people who cannot turn off their televisions are exposed to news that makes them think crime, terrorism and diseases are everywhere. They see one police drama after another, drinking in the image of the heroic cops catching gang leaders and stopping terrorists.
When all these things are taken together, they become our narrative, what we believe without questioning. It does not benefit us to leave this situation unquestioned; it only benefits the ruling class.
A fixation on the news is not conducive to understanding. Most news media focus on what is happening now. What is happening is a consequence of what has happened before. However, it is easy to forget or not know about what happened before. How many Americans understand the causes of any of the wars their rulers start? Or of 9/11? How many understand why Iran might want to build a nuclear weapon? We do not ask “why?” enough.
I have heard both Al Jazeera and Russia Today called propaganda. Perhaps that is because the angles from which they view the news and the people they interview are less commonly found in the more mainstream news outlets. To close one’s mind by calling something propaganda without having considered it is not wise. The reason we can safely call government communications propaganda is that they are consistently proved to be so. Critical thinkers consider various viewpoints. And in contrast to the records of the mainstream US media, the foreigners have more credibility.
Then there is Fox News. Wait. It’s too easy. (You may want to watch Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism for a look at how Fox has erased the line between journalism and propaganda.) Suffice to say, studies indicate Fox News viewers are less well informed than anyone else who watches television. Whatever Fox News says, I object to attacks on Fox from people who believe what they hear on CNN, MSNBC or other corporate news stations. Do you really believe any one of these channels consistently tells the truth? That they do not try to influence your point of view and subtly manipulate you? Why should we trust this source? Do they know what they are talking about? Why would they tell us what they are telling us? Might they have an ulterior motive? Can we speculate what that might be? Why do we only have the choices we are presented with? Why is it only either intervene militarily in Syria or let genocide take place? Why, why, why? We need to consider why they show what they show and what we are missing that they do not show.
When I am asked which news source I think is most reliable, I reply “none”. Take a look at the sources for this blog: they are from a variety of people and media. (However, I sometimes repeat some I perceive to be informed or wise. I must admit, I am more likely to believe Democracy Now than Fox News.) To truly understand a phenomenon is to know it from various perspectives. To understand a news story, it helps to read various accounts and ask ourselves several questions about what we read.
Without having witnessed an event ourselves, we do not know what happened. Every source has its own reasons to manipulate the facts, though probably not all do all the time. The best we can do is listen to varying accounts, consider carefully each one’s possible motives and assume we cannot be sure about any of them. The worst we can do is listen to accounts that do not vary significantly, pretend each source confirms the other and accept the information as given. At a more fundamental level, we need to question the entire hegemony and move away from thinking the world is as we are told it is.
When one takes action to solve a problem, it is important that one strikes the root of the problem. One sees nowadays a proliferation of JPEG memes on the internet that show that people posting them want change, but they do not know where the root of the problem is. This post looks at some of those memes in order to reveal the root.
If they want to leave me alone, why do they need the government? Aren’t they leaving me alone right now? Power corrupts, not just left- and right-wing politicians but everyone. How about no one gets to take over the government? (See more on power here.)
I think this one is supposed to be anti-libertarian but I am sure many libertarians agree with it. Again, the goal is to reduce or constrain government, usually with a constitution. But if it is about freedom, why do people need to be governed? Why not let them decide, with their communities and other associations, what are the right rules, forms of currency and means of security? Why would any of those things needs to be centralised and monopolised?
The small government envisioned by the Founding Fathers has grown into the largest statist monstrosity the world has ever seen. The constitution has, in the end, done little to stop it.
Why love either? Nationalism and statism feed off each other. If you and your millions of compatriots are truly a nation, you need representatives; hence the government. If you have a government, it will foster a sense of nationalism in order to make you believe you need national institutions and national defense and so on to create loyalty to the state preserving them.
If the state did not cover more than a city or a community, it would have far fewer resources than it has today. Do you think a municipal state would try to track you with spy drones or cause trillion-dollar financial crashes? But nationalism magnifies the power of the state many times, because nationalism legitimises a national state with far greater resources. (See more on nationalism here.)
Just what the world needs—another nation state. It is understandable to want statehood in the present world, as nation states supposedly prevent the rapacious foreigner from invading. (Well, if they are strong enough; and no state anywhere near Israel is.) But they do not prevent the rapacious local from stealing anything; in fact, they institutionalise local corruption.
Palestinian people, if you want a state, consider what life has been like under the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. Surely, what you really want is freedom and justice and peace. Those things are not handed to you when you get a state. They are won when the people overcome the state.
There is no such thing as “majority rule”. Democracy, in its modern form, necessitates a government, and a government is a small clique of rulers. Voting every few years and hoping one’s vote has an effect does not mean one is in charge. All government is minority rule. As Will Durant said, “the political machine triumphs because it is a united minority acting against a divided majority.” Oligarchy is the norm. (More on democracy here.)
SOPA is a great example of how a specific bill can face a wave of opposition, die, then get resurrected sneakily as something even more sinister (CISPA). The problem is not one or more laws, but the fact that a small group has a monopoly on making rules and enforcing them at gunpoint. (Find my assessment of the problem of law here.)
Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron estimates that legalising all drugs would bring in some $40b in tax revenues at all levels if the drugs were taxed at rates similar to alcohol, and we would save another $40b in incarceration and court costs. But as he points out, this might not make much of a dent in the colossal US government budget deficits; and one reason to legalise all drugs is that “all the people who want to use drugs are being somewhere between mildly inconvenienced and grossly harmed by the policy of prohibition. We are not helping drug users in any way, shape or form.”
Moreover, as economist Walter Block points out, giving more money to the government would not be a good thing. “It is sometimes argued that one of the benefits of legalising addictive drugs is that they could be taxed, and the government revenues enhanced,” he says. “From this perspective, this would be the only valid case against legalisation.” How about we legalise drugs and do not tax them?
Likewise, those who say they need to be regulated do not know what government regulations are. Regulations are not there to help all people but special interests. They mostly work to create oligopolies, like we see in cigarette, alcohol and pharmaceutical markets.
But all this talk about marijuana misses the bigger picture. The real reason to end all regulation and taxation of drugs is that no one has the right to tell you what you can and cannot put in your body when the consumption of that substance does not affect anyone else. Our bodies are our property, and no one can take away a free man’s property. Unless we are irresponsible children with no judgment, drug markets should be freed. (My indictment of the War on Drugs is here.)
By now, you may be able to guess my attitude toward the gay marriage thing. I do not care who gets together, as long as it is between consenting adults—it is none of my business—but why does marriage involve the law at all? Why would the state give extra benefits to people because they are married, or deny them anything because they are not. Time to get marriage out of the hands of the state altogether. (Here is David McElroy on the subject.)
Find lots more memes—ones that I agree with—at the Rule of Freedom Facebook page.
“War does not determine who is right, only who is left.” — Bertrand Russell
In Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, socialism was creeping into public life. Social democrats were gaining followers and attempting to forge international links with other left-wing groups. They wanted what is today known as social justice. The elites, the great union of political and economic power, felt threatened. We can’t let these people take power, they thought. Trouble brewed and in 1914, World War One began. World War One turned out to be not only the most costly and deadly war in human history but entirely pointless. But one effect it did have was to turn the internationalist socialists into nationalists; to abandon their hopes of improving their country, and to go to war for it. The elites stumbled into, and to an extent concocted, a war, and the people who had nothing to gain took the bait. They died in the millions as a result.
Distracting the people from problems on the home front is just one of many reasons those with militaries at their disposal choose to use them. Most wars start because of disputes between elites, or to maintain the privileged position of empires, states and corporations. Why should the rest of us get caught up in their personal squabbles? Let them have fistfights or duels and stop killing millions of innocent people and spending trillions of our dollars to secure their wealth. This series delves into the reasons we go to war, and the reasons we are fools to do so.
Part 1: Democratic Wars
Though wars may be started by self-interested, psychopathic elites who feel no compunction about killing millions of people, they are held in place by well-meaning but ignorant people who believe that military power is a reasonable way to deal with the world’s problems. (And if you are a libertarian who supports war, I urge you to read this.) There is a dictator somewhere in the world? Let us, the good guys, go take him out. It’s not invasion—it’s liberation. It’s not occupation—it’s nation building. It’s not installing a friendly dictator—it’s democracy promotion. Most of those same people believe that the Allies—again, the good guys—entered the world wars to stop an evil, save the world and secure our freedoms. It is incredible to me how many people in democracies believe that the reason we should vote is because people died in the World Wars to defend our freedom. These people need a history book.
What makes us the good guys, anyway? Ethnocentrism. Our ideas are so good we would be wrong not to impose them on others. Sure, thousands or millions of people might die, but in the long run, they will have democracy, and they will be just as great as us. At the beginning of NATO’s intervention in Libya, Stephen Walt wrote
Of course, like his predecessors, Obama justifies his resort to force by invoking America’s special place in the world. In the usual rhetoric of “American exceptionalism,” he couched it in terms of U.S. values, its commitment to freedom, etc. But the truly exceptional thing about America today is not our values (and certainly not our dazzling infrastructure, high educational standards, rising middle-class prosperity, etc.); it is the concentration of military power in the hands of the president and the eroding political constraints on its employment.
Now, “America finds itself lurching from conflict to conflict often with little idea of how they will end, other than the hope that the forces of righteousness will prevail,” in the name of humanitarian intervention.
The manichean good guy-bad guy distinction is a great way to rally ignorant people around a war in a place they cannot find on a map. We know nothing about them except that they hate freedom. We like to think that we are the good guys, and our government, who we believe is an extension of our collective will, is the strong arm of our superiority. I am not a moral relativist, but to believe that the US Department of Defense, the Department of State, the CIA and so on are good guys by any measure is a joke. While the good-guy justification might be enough to keep the soldiers showing up and the public overlooking the enormous costs of war in blood and treasure, it is not why elites pick these fights.
My explanation that World War One was initiated to distract the people from socialism is of course incomplete. Different decisions were taken for different reasons by the closed circles of elites in each country that participated in the war. Britain’s, for instance, went to war largely to cripple its rival Germany. The alliance of Russia and France, and later Britain, all boxed Germany in geographically, and being a latecomer to the imperial game, Germany’s expansion would need to be mainly local, rather than overseas. It attacked its neighbours. Certainly, German decision makers (Kaiser Wilhelm not least among them) share the blame for the start of the war; all the powers do. Then came the Treaty of Versailles, which was obviously victor’s justice and not true justice. No one benefited from this war, least of all the lower classes; and everyone paid the price again one generation later.
The incalculable chaos—the post WW1 wars across Europe and the Middle East—caused by three men at Versailles who thought they could reorder the world should not be ignored when considering causes of today’s problems. The point is not that they or their countries were less moral, or that a Hitler or Stalin victory over Europe would have been better for anyone. Rather, the problem is that they were given so much power.
Hitler came to power on the back of the humiliating Treaty of Versailles and its devastating effects: hyperinflation in 1923 and deflation in 1929. (Not all historians will agree that Versailles led to those effects as much as the mismanagement of German governments of the time, but it was certainly an easy scapegoat. What the people can be led to believe always matters.) The closing of borders to trade after the start of the Great Depression also did nothing to help Germany, and in fact showed the Germans that, not only were they crippled by the punishments inflicted by foreign powers, but they were being left in the lurch when trade might have saved their economy. 6m Germans were unemployed when Hitler took office. He found a smooth road to fascism.
People condemn Germany’s bombing of Britain, but what did the British expect? Hitler never wanted to fight Britain, but Britain attacked Germany first. Then they show their ignorance by not knowing or their double standards by not caring about the firebombing of German cities, which in cases such as Dresden were solely punitive and had no strategic value. No one entered the war or bombed anything to end the Holocaust, either. If they had, the British would have allowed more Jewish refugees to enter Palestine, and neither Canada nor the US would have turned away the almost 1000 refugees aboard the MS St. Louis. Moreover, Hannah Arendt and other historians believed the Holocaust was an extension of the carelessness with which colonial bureaucrats signed orders for administrative slaughter of native peoples and the disdain they felt for them.
People say it was moral to defend Poland. But Poland’s government, just like Germany’s, was a racist dictatorship. (France was full of racism too; but I guess being a democracy it was more moral and thus the people deserved more help.) Then people say we should have attacked Germany in 1938 or before. But the only time Nazi Germany had invaded a country before the invasion of Poland was an intervention into Spain to take sides in the Spanish Civil War, and I think it is fair to say that anyone who approves of the NATO operation in Libya can understand that. When this kind of foreign military intervention results in suicide bombings, the whole religion of Islam is blamed and all Muslims look like terrorists, when the real culprit is staring us in the face. But attacking Germany was just and righteous, because they were different from us.
The US did not have to enter the war. Japan did not bomb Pearl Harbour so it could begin a takeover of the continental US. It did so to change the equation, to do something about the sanctions on Japan that were making it impossible for Japan to continue to subjugate China. FDR baited Hitler into declaring war on the US, as Hitler did not want war with the US either. A major overreaction ensued in the US, and FDR had his mandate for war.
Britain was not particularly moral and freedom-loving. It controlled the world’s largest empire and held down indigenous people by force. The scorched earth campaign in South Africa (where the concentration camp was invented), the Amritsar Massacre (not the only massacre in British India, just the most recent) and the killing of thousands of Iraqis in 1920 (in which everyone’s hero Winston Churchill played a major role) were not only immoral; they provided an example the new imperialists could profitably emulate. Territorial expansion and empire were rational. With policies that contributed the Great Depression, the great powers closed their borders to foreign goods; and as Frederic Bastiat once said, “if goods don’t cross borders, armies will.” In the absence of free trade, empires like Britain’s and Russia’s afforded enormous benefits. Countries like Japan that had did not have enough natural resources for industrialisation, and Germany, hobbled by the 1919 borders, saw empires as a great way to get what they needed to grow. Hitler mentioned natural resources that Germany did not have in his writing as chancellor.
(That said, a look at the pre- and post-imperial world gives us no reason to believe that uninterrupted rule by indigenous elites would have been any better than by empires. The liberation of most of the world from the colonial yoke was heralded as a new era of freedom, but in most cases results were very disappointing. Government by locals and foreigners alike leaves the governed wide open to abuse.)
The supposed paragons of democracy (the US, Britain, Canada, etc.) had given women the vote barely 20 years earlier (around the same time as Germany). The US was certainly no beacon of morality by WW2. As Albert Jay Nock wrote in 1939,
in order to keep down the great American sin of self-righteousness, every public presentation ought to draw the deadly parallel with the record of the American State. The German State is persecuting a minority, just as the American State did after 1776; the Italian State breaks into Ethiopia, just as the American State broke into Mexico; the Japanese State kills off the Manchurian tribes in wholesale lots, just as the American State did the Indian tribes; the British State practices large-scale carpetbaggery, like the American State after 1864; the imperialist French State massacres native civilians on their own soil, as the American State did in pursuit of its imperialistic policies in the Pacific, and so on.
And morality was obviously not a major consideration, or the moralisers (the British and US empires) would never have allied with Stalin. Unlike Hitler, Stalin had indeed killed many people—some 20m—and enslaved millions more in the gulags. It is no wonder many indigenous forces in Eastern Europe fought with the invading Germans against the Soviets, the side that had proven its barbarity against them. If the allies had become more moral after the war, they would have insisted on freedom for all people, instead of first attempting to occupy Iran, then escalating the war in Indochina against indigenous freedom fighters, followed by everything else that happened when the imperialists were allowed to go back to the work they preferred. Anyone who studies US foreign policy knows that during the Cold War, the US was responsible for coups, dictatorships, mass killings, wars, and various other crimes that suggest the allies’ winning of the war was not unequivocally good. World War Two had nothing to do with liberating anyone, and everything to do with eliminating a rival empire. The troops did not die to make us free; they died for nothing.
More importantly, the idea of taking out Hitler or the Nazi regime and imperial Japan worked all right in the medium term (notwithstanding the enormous costs in lives and wealth, the Cold War and the Soviet takeover of half of Europe), but simply tackling dictators and then replacing them does not strike the root of the problem. It is the same style of misguided policy that believes in combatting terrorism rather than ending the aggression and occupations that cause it.
The two real problems are, first, the existence of the means to build up a military in the first place, through government power to tax, conscript (or just pay security forces better than everyone else), disseminate propaganda, silence dissenters, and so on; and second, the unquestioning following of authority. If Hitler, Stalin, Mao et al. had not had access to the levers of the state, or if more people had defied them, they would just have been scheming loudmouths at town hall meetings. If we were to eliminate some dictatorship, if it were somehow an easy task, I would suggest building things up from the bottom, perhaps training them in basic security while letting the people figure out their own solutions, instead of imposing a new government on them. I do not believe it would be necessary to do many things on a national level when they could be done locally or regionally, across borders. You do not need the government to build highways or railroads, for example, when there are corporations all around the world that could compete for it.
Either way, World War Two has become a kind of fetish in anglophone culture. Men love to watch the heroic allies duke it out with the evil Nazis and Japanese. We are so proud of ourselves that we say things like “you would all be dead now if not for our boys”, which is, to say the least, a counterfactual that defies credulity. (There is no doubt that many amateur history buffs will be able to pick meat off the bones of my arguments on the causes of the World Wars, which evinces my point.) Hitler has become almost a cartoonish image of evil. Because of our uncomfortable relationship with fact, it is easy to manipulate the masses into believing that the next Hitler is right around the corner. Saddam Hussein, for instance, was compared to Hitler before both the 1991 and 2003 wars against him. We HAVE to eliminate him: he is Hitler!
The myths surrounding previous wars contribute to the next war. The goodness of the Good Gulf War (1991), for example, has been crushed under the evidence. I remember as a kid watching American tv during that time, listening to everyone shout about how bad Saddam was and how we needed to invade Iraq. It made sense to me and my simple mind. What did they say? One thing they said was that Saddam’s troops were ready to invade Saudi Arabia, our good friend, then entered Kuwait and threw babies out of incubators. That turned out to be a lie. No one realised until it was too late, and the public had already given the politicians the go-ahead to invade. And it was just one of the pieces in the propaganda puzzle; and we do not need every piece in place to approve of the war. But even though some of the lies had been exposed, all the public could remember on the eve of Operation Iraqi Freedom from a decade earlier was that Saddam was the bad guy.
The stated rationale for intervening in Iraq both times was that Saddam was evil. But when we declare war on anyone in a country, we are declaring war on that country. Individual countries are neither moral nor immoral. They contain mostly innocent people. When we declare war on a country, we are mostly declaring war on innocent people.
Do we go to war for freedom? Whose freedom, exactly? Certainly not the freedom of those in the country starting the war. Wars tend to produce “emergency” laws that jail people for dissent, muzzle the media, censor unfavourable stories and demonise anyone voicing an opposing opinion. Taxes usually go up (except in the case of Iraqi Freedom, when they went down, creating an enormous hole in the budget that has only deepened). When the war is over, the newly-enlarged and emboldened government, with its taste for higher tax rates and greater control of its people, is less accountable than ever. Is that what we should “thank a vet” for?
We do not fight for others’ freedom, either. Iraq is not, contrary to what you might believe, a “free” country. Predictably, the new regime has become more repressive, authoritarian and corrupt. Those who believe that, whether or not the war was justified, at least Iraqis have democracy, are not only misguided with regard to the value of democracy but to what is happening on the ground in Iraq. (See here, here and here.) Furthermore, in addition to the hundreds of thousands of people who have died and the millions who have been displaced in Iraq since the invasion of 2003, cancer rates and birth defects are exploding. (The Vietnamese might have been able to predict this turn of events.) War has long-term environmental effects that are themselves another reason why only the ignorant would declare war on a country in order to save it. (Find more on the causes of war in part 4 of this series.)
Contrary to common perception, democracy does not make war less likely or less dangerous. Operation Iraqi Freedom was a democratic decision, approved of by a majority of Americans. It was enabled by government fearmongering propaganda, falsified and politicised intelligence and media outlets that did not research government lies. And if you believe we just need to reform government so that it stops lying, you do not understand government very well. (I will continue to use the term Operation Iraqi Freedom to refer to this war. The term is such a distortion of the intended and eventual effects of the war that it reveals the moral bankruptcy of those who made the war happen.) Operation Cast Lead, the 22-day bloodbath in Gaza of 2008-9, was a democratic decision, with over 90% of Jewish Israelis approving. Democracy does not lead to peace; in fact, as Jack Levy (1988) has argued, democracies will often adopt a crusading spirit, attempting to rid the world of evils like terrorism and dictatorship. Democratic governments sometimes come under pressure from their people to start or continue a war in order to stay in power. Governments repeatedly lie and cheat their citizens into supporting wars that do not benefit anyone but a few elites, and have done so for thousands of years.
Whether intended or not, a major outcome of war is the expansion of government power. The American Civil War introduced the draft, which is akin to slavery, censorship, the suspension of habeas corpus and thus perhaps the first major violation of the Bill of Rights (but not the last) and the placing of state power in the hands of the federal government. World War One brought back the draft, more censorship—criticise the war and you are in trouble—deportations and spying. World War Two conscripted people by the millions, introduced food rationing, placed citizens under surveillance and interned over 100,000 Japanese Americans. The War on Drugs has chipped away at the fourth and fifth amendments (which is why it is so convenient for the government to call it a war). The War on Terror introduced the Department of Homeland Security, enhanced pat-downs at the airport, the Patriot Act and Guantanmo Bay Prison. Eric Foner, professor at Columbia University and president of the American Historical Association, mocks the idea that somehow freedom loses a war. “It is hard to see how at any point in American history, whether it’s the Civil War, World War One, the Cold War or the War on Terror, it’s hard to see how these infringements on the right to dissent, infringements on basic civil liberties actually have any military value whatsoever. Does anybody think that Germany would have won World War One if Eugene Debs had been allowed to speak in the United States? Or is it really the case that we can’t allow people basic civil liberties, the right to a trial, the right to see the evidence against them, because otherwise Osama bin Laden is going to take over the world?” But a lie repeated often enough acquires the veneer of truth. In August 2011, 40% of Americans polled believed it was necessary to give up civil liberties in order to curb terrorism. War takes away everyone’s freedom, money and lives, and only a few benefit.
“The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
(I have written extensively on the problems of nationalism elsewhere. See here for the logic for individualism.)
The root of opposition to immigration, along with the root of war and other statist evils, is nationalism. Nationalism is the irrational belief that one’s country is superior to all others. It places the nation above the individuals that make it up, meaning that if for any reason the nation is in trouble, the individual must lay everything on the line for it. And it must go.
I agree with Professor Stephen Walt that nationalism is the most powerful force in the world today.
“[M]odern states also have a powerful incentive to promote national unity — in other words, to foster nationalism — because having a loyal and united population that is willing to sacrifice (and in extreme cases, to fight and die) for the state increases its power and thus its ability to deal with external threats. In the competitive world of international politics, in short, nations have incentives to obtain their own state and states have incentives to foster a common national identity in their populations.”
And today’s strongest states, including the US and China, are ones where nationalism is mainstream and highly valued.
Do you feel pride in your country? Does your heart swell when you see a flag or hear a national anthem? I have trouble understanding why someone would feel anything. A country is not a person; it is just an idea. If you like the idea, live there. But why is it we feel deep affiliation with people from the same country rather than some other of the millions of characteristics that make us who we are? Why don’t we build the community of other people who like reggae? Why don’t we form armies to defend people of the same shoe size? Because we have chosen a different arbitrary distinction from others to kill for. To me, it’s all the same nonsense. And if your heart still thumps an extra beat because of a flag, well, as George Carlin said, symbols are for the symbol minded.
Reactions to the Olympics are a great example of why nationalism is ridiculous. Wow, my country won a gold medal. No. Someone from within the same line on a political map as you won a medal, through his or her own hard work. There may be nothing that is more obviously an individual effort than winning a gold medal at the Olympics (notwithstanding the coach, or the team, whoever is involved). The people from the same country have absolutely nothing to feel proud of. They didn’t do anything. Tribalists find validation in the actions of others from their chosen group, and weak people take credit for other people’s accomplishments. Besides, if I consider myself a citizen of the world (and by the way I do, it is not just something cool to say), shouldn’t I feel proud if ANYONE wins a medal? Whichever country wins the Olympics, it is my country!
We are too proud already. Pride in your own efforts leads to narcissism as much as collective pride leads to collective narcissism. But individual narcissism is not fueled by history text books that gloss over facts and make people believe fairy tales about how wonderful their country has always been. Like collectivism, individual narcissism can lead to war, but only when it comes from a psychopath in power and nationalists follow him blindly. I simply do not see anything to feel proud of aside from one’s own results. But maybe those results are only worth being proud of if they benefit others. So how about we consider everyone in the world when acting, rather than just our country?
Is it ever nationalism that motivates people to improve their community? I doubt it. Some nationalists have that sense of responsibility and some don’t. But if people are aware of the rest of the world, they are just as likely to go somewhere else to help people. Nationalism cannot be moral because it is exclusive, and morality depends on universal values. Obviously, there is nothing more moral about helping people in your own country than helping people elsewhere, since all people are of equal worth, equally deserving of the application of morality such as the non-aggression principle.
But to a nationalist, some people are simply superior. The people in our exclusive club are the best, and the people allied with our country are pretty good (though not to be trusted), and the people we are told are our enemies are evil. It is so easy to manipulate nationalists. Take Americans’ reactions to 9/11. It was immediately assumed that “our country is under attack”. Leaving aside the fact that there was only one attack and it ended, what connection did people in Maryland and Florida and Nebraska have with the people who were killed? None whatsoever. They might well have hated each other if they had known each other personally. And if they had died in car crashes, they would have been completely ignored. But instead, the people went into a frenzy of fear, anger and despair for people they never would have met. Likewise, what did American Muslims (and other minorities) have to do with 9/11? Still nothing. Yet the Center for American-Islamic Relations in Washington, D.C., counted some 1,700 attacks on Muslims in the five months following September 11. Nationalism is used to spread hate, which is good for politicians but bad for minorities and taxpayers. Americans approved of the invasion of two countries that had nothing to do with the attack because they were told that the country and “national values” were at stake.
Those values are largely illusory, however, because they are things like freedom and justice, which people of all cultures want. And belief in the superiority, or just the distinctiveness, of our own tribe blinds us to the many, many things that make us all human and all equally deserving of compassion and respect and almost the same everywhere. And taking pride in an exclusive part of humanity ignores that fact.
The Adventures in Space programme and the Olympics are further products of nationalism. Hosting the Olympics is a big source of national pride, so some people are willing to put up with any number of billions of dollars (a number that is continually revised upward) taken to pay for it. Space travel used to be a source of pride, during the Cold War, when the Soviets launched a couple of rockets out of Earth’s atmosphere and the US spent tens of billions of dollars to feel good about itself again.
Nationalism is also about discriminating against minorities. Politicians benefit from providing the people with an enemy, because an enemy is a reason to give money and power to them. They will protect you from the Jews, Huguenots, Gypsies, or whatever group you have been told you hate recently. They might see others as “dangerous to our way of life”, competing for “national resources” or otherwise a threat to our precious possessions. To people who can be taught to hate others for what they are, power is a zero-sum game among ethnic groups. And all the civil wars we have seen have been caused by this kind of thinking, from Yugoslavia to Rwanda. Everyone different from us is a potential enemy.
As such, minorities, largely or entirely locked out of power, might take to terrorism to achieve freedom from an oppressive majority (separatism) but get tarred as evil terrorists who cannot be reasoned with. The truth is that they keep coming back because they have been denied their freedom. Nationalism requires the integrity of the nation state, which means that anyone wanting to separate must be eliminated. As a result, we get terrorism in Turkey, Sri Lanka, Israel and Spain, heavy repression in Tibet, a highly militarised standoff in the Taiwan Strait, and a strong state wherever terrorism can be used as an excuse to expand it. Nationalism on both sides created the separatist terrorists. As Ilya Somin notes, “playing with nationalism is like playing with fire. It’s not inevitable that you will get burned, but the risk is high…[and] a small nationalistic flame can often turn into a conflagration that burns down the whole neighborhood.”
Governments also like nationalism because they want to be able to sign a deal at the top and assume that it is legitimate for the entire group each party represents. Nationalists believe we need representatives because we are a coherent community. A “free trade agreement”, for example, will contain various handouts to the loudest of special interest groups and it will be imposed over an entire national economy because some people at the top claimed to speak in the name of everyone underneath them. Nationalists might accept the agreement because, though the agreement benefits some individuals at the expense of others, it is all for the elusive “greater good”.
At the extreme, when politicians and generals manufacture threats to the equally-elusive “national security”, nationalists buy in easily. They are thus more likely to sacrifice their money, freedom and lives for the nation. However, if the elites could not count on collectivist sheep, they would not have risked starting a fight in the first place. Journalists will often fall in line in times of “national crisis” (as if a real crisis could permeate or be confined to one country), as Dan Rather did after 9/11, equating “patriotism”, or unthinking loyalty to one’s country, with doing whatever the president told Americans to do. “I am willing to give the government, the president and the military the benefit of any doubt here in the beginning”, Rather said. In other words, he would give up the career of journalism, which means asking the tough questions and speaking truth to power, for that of cheerleading. Nationalism shuts up the minority that disagrees with the president’s war plans, calling them traitors and accusing them of siding with the enemy. Nationalism is thus a means for government control of the willing and coercion of the unwilling.
In the same vein, research finds that it only takes a few hours for us to be conditioned to fear and hate people only superficially different from ourselves. We do not need to know anything about someone else to discriminate against him or her; just being told he or she is different is enough. Being on a winning team (which to people who do not participate in teams or have achievements of their own could be a nation or race) is a source of self esteem, as is denigrating those on other teams. We can be given any number of reasons to believe we are better, and our criteria for what is good about a country tend to be entirely based on things we believe ours is best at. Freedom is the most important thing for a country; our country is the most free; therefore, our country is the best. This of course is uncritical ethnocentrism; and ignorant people fall into its warm embrace whenever the people on top need a favour.
One problem nationalism creates is that of borders—in effect, who owns what. Borders make sense when they are amicably agreed on by owners or negotiators appointed by owners. The borders of your property, for example, or unguarded borders in Europe that now demarcate cultural boundaries rather than the do-not-pass-or-we-shoot variety, actually delineate something. But when nationalism comes into play, and groups that, hundreds or thousands of years ago (before national boundaries were invented), used to control this territory, feel that it is theirs (and by extension, not yours), they are willing to kill each other to secure that border. These are our property and our people and our resources and our little lines drawn on the map.
But where is the logic of these boundaries? Even the idea that “we” used to control this or that territory, or have done for a long time, usually has no merit. Almost every (if not every) national boundary has been created by an empire. The empires of Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Russia, China, plus all the kingdoms that disappeared before the Treaty of Westphalia, all drew lines around their possessions. They needed to be clear what was whose. At the same time, these possessions contained people not native to the empire’s centre of power on them so they needed to keep them in line by inventing nationalities. Almost every (if not every) one of these borders did not reflect the cultural makeup of the people it enclosed: they were arbitrary. But when the empires left, instead of redrawing the borders, the elites decided they wanted to make everyone inside those borders think they were a cohesive group—a nation—because it would help them gain power. No government wants to relinquish control of part of its territory because it means less power; and less power is out of the question for anybody in it. So they invented myths about how everyone within the imperial borders has always been a nation, and since we are the political party who will help keep our nation together, support us. The story of post-colonial electoral politics in a nutshell.
Now, nationalism is an arbitrary expression of desire to kill and die for a space of land within whatever border the government claims to control, wherever the borders are, however many years ago they were set. Some form of tribalism is probably natural to humans, as we, like other primates, are territorial. First, however, we must not assume that something natural is something good. Second, man’s territoriality is an argument for individual property rights, not for nationalism. We all have something to defend against aggression, but to think we should defend an entire nation is to take the idea of property or tribe to ridiculous lengths. Your country is not your property. When I express this individualist point of view, collectivists ask me, “so what if one country was invading your country? Would you defend it with your life?” Quite simply, the answer is no. I would defend my friends and family to the death, and I would organise to ward off any attacks on other innocents as best I could. But my friends and family are all over the world. I have no deeper a connection to someone in “my” country that I do not know than I do to someone in Burkina Faso that I do not know.
Nationalism has always been dangerous, but now it is simply irrelevant. The only argument that is superficially plausible for the continuation of the nation state is the military and its defense of national security. It may have made sense when there were real threats to people from other nation states; hence the union of the Czech and Slovak people, or the Yugoslav republics, during the 20th century to protect against the predation of external empires. However, today’s national security threats are not from empires and foreign militaries (unless you are in the US or Israel’s crosshairs). Now, nearly all wars are intrastate, rather than interstate. The closest thing to national security threats from abroad are terrorists (whose threat is almost always a response to government-sanctioned military aggression), criminal organisations (which would barely exist if drugs, guns and prostitution were legal), and environmental disasters (rescue’s being entrusted to the same people whose main training is in weapons makes little sense; like the nature of the threat, rescue teams could be transnational). There are no national security threats because there is no national security. The nation itself is an illusion, and all countries are based on it. There is no longer any reason to have countries at all.
Though tribalism may be innate, in today’s world tribalist impulses are mitigated by the internationalisation of our society through our exposure to media, people and ideas from all around the world. Exclusive, outdated, national celebrations and traditions such as Independence Day are creations of the elites to sell loyalty to the state. The state and the nation are linked in the imagination, so when the state goes to war, it tells everyone that the nation is going to war. That is why we have the idea of “the national interest” and “national security”. Have you ever noticed that whatever the government wants happens to be in our national interest as well? Nationalism threatens to deny access to the rest of the world through narrow-minded protectionist policies that limit a country’s economic potential, and the creation of enemies that legitimises taking more money and more freedom from the people.
The idea of democracy promotion is related to nationalism, because it is based on a belief that our ideas are the best, because they are our ideas. Again, we are talking about ethnocentrism. Our culture is better and we want you to learn from us, then you will be better people. And as soon as a revolution breaks out somewhere they don’t know anything about, democrats say they are fighting for democracy. My guess is, they are fighting for freedom. Freedom to choose a few of the people who rule you is not real freedom. Real freedom means not being subject to rule by force by anyone. But our ethnocentrism blinds us, and leads us think they want a system just like ours. Maybe they want more freedom than we have. Maybe they only like the idea of democracy because they lack other ideas. After all, most people in the self-righteous rich democracies of the world tend to believe so fervently in the superiority of their system over all others that they have been forcing it down the throats of the rest of the world for decades. You should all be democracies like us, because we are America and so can you. If you want to help the people in a post-revolutionary state like Tunisia or Egypt, help them become self-sufficient, not as a nation but as individuals, communities, or whatever groups they want. Let them trade with whomever they want. Let them travel to any country they want. Help them build independent and voluntary businesses, charities and other institutions to deal with their problems. Teach entrepreneurship, medicine, and other things that healthy communities require. One thing they do not require is a new regime that does not know or care about them to tell them what to do. They can figure that out for themselves.
Why is it negative? Let us ask the hundreds of millions of people who were killed because someone loved his country. Nationalism is an arbitrary distinction created by elites to justify accumulating power, growing governments and starting wars, and if you do not know that, you do not understand nationalism. (Here is a primer.)
Nationalism is an outdated impulse based on our tribal instincts and has no place in modern society. It is another way elites divide us when we could move past such simplistic and dangerous divisions. Anarchy means no nations and no national rulers but cooperation with anyone who wishes to join us. It thus leads to understanding, respect and peace.
We have discussed free markets, but barely touched on the most regulated market of all: the labour market. And the biggest barrier to a free market for labour is the national border.
Which of the world’s borders are the most tightly controlled? Those of the rich world. Why would that be? It has something to do with the privileges afforded exclusively to citizens under the welfare state. Having lots of children means a welfare system is potentially sustainable, though it is largely unnecessary, as children will take care of their parents. Since welfare states were implemented, mostly in the wake of WW2, fertility rates have dropped. Overall fertility rates have historically fallen as prosperity has risen. However, this drop in fertility has made welfare states unsustainable. This problem is particularly acute when people live longer and technology improves: health care systems require more money to buy the equipment to keep more people alive longer. But since the austerity of the War, citizens of the rich world have acquired an entitlement mentality. Now that the austerity generation is nearly gone and the first welfare generation is retiring, the belief that we somehow deserve all the important things is entrenched. Entitlement is supposed to guarantee jobs, minimum wages (or for some “a fair wage”, which presumably means something higher than market wage), schools and universities, recreation centers , hospitals and clinics, medicine, retirement at 65 or younger and pensions. Given the enormous government spending required to maintain all these things, again, in their current forms these privileges are not sustainable. Without a rise in taxes to pay for it, which would mean less money for the productive sector and thus less wealth to go round, the welfare state cannot continue to dole out the same level of benefits it always has. There is, however, an alternative: immigrants.
Though it may seem unfair to ask the poor to pay for our luxuries, there might be billions of people around the world willing to do so. But the people of the rich world do not want immigrants; at least, not many. Immigrants burden our public services, take our jobs and worst of all, threaten “our way of life”. As a result, we tighten the borders. Tight or closed borders, like unions, reduce competition for jobs, raising wages and with thus the costs of doing business. Corporations ship jobs overseas where they can pay lower wages and avoid burdensome regulations (though due in part to that trend, other countries now offer other advantages as well). Workers get angry that they have lost their jobs, and instead of either considering that their lack of competitiveness, the welfare state or the closing of the border had anything to do with it, they advocate policies of violence (arrest and deportation) against the immigrants they think are the reason for all their troubles.
Many people are opposed to immigration, and are opposed to trade that affects their jobs, and are opposed to the offshoring of their jobs. They blame big business for offshoring, as big business is only in it for themselves. Well, labourers are only in it for themselves, too. In fact, so is everyone. That makes us all selfish and greedy, not just rich people. Calling corporate executives selfish is hypocritical, as workers who are protecting their jobs by not letting anyone else into the country could easily be described as selfish as well. When immigrants enter a country, many of them (depending who is allowed in) gravitate toward the lowest-paid jobs, because these jobs are jobs for which you do not need much English, a college education, local accreditation, and so on. If native-born people believe they should have those jobs rather than others who had the misfortune of being born elsewhere, let them work for them. If they cannot do the jobs at market wages, which is whatever the workers who are available and good enough to do the job will accept, then they could either upgrade their skills, look for another job, start their own businesses or figure something else out. Throughout history, when technology and immigration have destroyed jobs, the newly unemployed typically find new jobs. When jobs are destroyed, as thousands are every day, a roughly equal number (depending on conditions such as economic boom or bust) are usually created. There is nothing to fear from job destruction, or from people who will accept lower wages’ taking jobs, because there is no fixed number of jobs to go round. A related economic fallacy is the belief that war would be good for the economy. War employs many men, but the activities they perform are destructive, as opposed to productive. They are employed by the state, which sucks money and people from the productive sector of the economy. If they had been left in the private sector, it might have taken longer for them to find jobs or get their businesses off the ground, but they would have done so eventually, adding far more to the economy over time.
When working people start complaining that foreigners are snatching up their jobs, calling people illegal and demanding deportation and giant fences, corporations are forced to pay higher wages. There is less competition for the same job because the government is distorting the labour market and denying entrance to the country to people who have as much right to be there as anyone else. Who cares who was there first? There is no moral case for immigration laws. When corporations are thus hobbled, they want to reduce costs and thus seek out cheap labour in other parts of the world. If the workers had accepted less, they would not have done so. But people who believe that having the same job for 40 years is somehow a right get self righteous. Instead of improving themselves, they blame immigrants, corporations and the government. The entitlement mentality blinds us to our own faults, and to the irrationality and immorality of fortified national borders.
Borders make sense when they are amicably agreed on by owners. The borders of your property, for example, or unguarded borders in Europe that now demarcate cultural boundaries rather than the do-not-pass-or-we-shoot variety, make good neighbours. But when nationalism comes into play, and groups that, hundreds or thousands of years ago (before national boundaries were invented), used to control this territory, feel that it is theirs (and by extension, not yours), they are willing to kill each other to secure that border. This is our property and our people and our resources and our little lines drawn on the map.
But where is the logic of these boundaries? Even the idea that “we” used to control this or that territory, or have done for a long time, usually has no merit. Almost every (if not every) national boundary has been created by war and empire. The empires of Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Russia, China, plus all the empires that disappeared before the Treaty of Westphalia, all drew lines around their possessions. They needed to be clear what was whose. At the same time, these possessions contained people not native to the empire’s centre of power on them so they needed to keep them in line by inventing nationalities. Almost every (if not every) one of these borders did not reflect the cultural makeup of the people it enclosed; they were arbitrary. But when the empires left, instead of redrawing the borders, the elites decided they wanted to make everyone inside those borders think they were a cohesive group—a nation—because it would help them gain power. No government wants to relinquish control of part of its territory because it means less power; and less power is out of the question for anybody in it. So they invented myths about how everyone within the imperial borders has always been a nation, and since we are the political party who will help keep our nation together, support us. The story of post colonial electoral politics in a nutshell.
So why are there so many border disputes? Why not dissolve the borders and share these artificial creations called countries as equals? Because the empires and post-colonial elites have already made the people feel they are indivisible and proud nations that must retain territorial integrity at all costs. They do not want to share with outsiders. Children know how to share. If children were at the helm, they would share. But adults would rather send people to die before that happens. There is no sharing within our border.
And God forbid one might call those who would deny others access to a piece of land because they are from the wrong country racist. It certainly seems that way to me. Borders and anti-immigrant policies of any kind strike me as inherently racist. There is something superior about people from within our imaginary line, but those outside just do not deserve the same benefits. Of course, that is not how the argument is framed. Instead, it is considered unrealistic to think that a country like Canada, the US, Australia, etc. could ever absorb tens of millions more immigrants. But why not? There is obviously space for them. “Overpopulation” is not a problem anywhere people are free to move and create their own opportunities. The problem is lack of money to feed and house everyone. As we will see below, the claim that integrating newcomers will come at enormous expense or would cause food shortages is largely baseless, especially in a free society. But the racism is still there, under the surface, whether the non-racist people against immigration realise it or not.
Are you afraid your culture will change? It makes sense to think you culture is superior to that of others because it is what you are used to. It is the culture you understand best; every other culture is full of freaks. If we do not understand other people beyond the surface, and we do not try hard to understand, it is easy to see them as inferior. Ruben Navarrette believes that the arguments about border security, lower wages and overburdened schools are nonsense. No, he says, it is cultural change that makes us shiver, and any rhetoric disguising that fact should be exposed.
It conjures up the alarm bells that Benjamin Franklin set off about German immigrants in the late 18th century, who he insisted could never adopt the culture of the English, but would “swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion of ours.” It popped up in the mid-19th century amid worries that Chinese immigrants were “inassimilable,” which led to Congress approving the explicitly-named Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. And it helped welcome the 20th century when Massachusetts Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge warned that immigrants (read: the Irish) were diluting “the quality of (U.S.) citizenship” and others complained that Italian immigrants were uneducated, low skilled, apt to send all their money to their home country and prone to criminal activity.
I think opposition to immigration stems from a combination of factors economic and cultural, but Mr Navarrette’s argument is worth considering.
It is not just the welfare system and jobs that attract the “invaders” (a term used, ironically, pejoratively by many people who supported interventions in Iraq or Afghanistan). It is also the avoidance of wars. The US government’s War on Drugs has killed some 35,000 Mexicans, not to mention Colombians, Guatemalans and other Latin Americans. Not only do they have a reason to leave where they are, an argument could be made that a certain government with a certain agenda owes them something. The war in Libya, along with the overfishing of the coasts of Somalia, have created refugees that have been rejected by the European countries that sponsored those efforts and let innocent people drown in the sea. One commentator describes letting refugees die in Fortress Europe’s moat a strategy for keeping them out. But at least they are not burdening our welfare system.
As with most laws, a few people making money off the status quo are a hindrance to their repeal. Your country as a whole does not benefit from restrictions to immigration, but some people do. Well-connected corporations make millions of taxpayers for locking up undocumented immigrants. The criminalisation of movement keeps prison operators happy. Like workers who fear newcomers, special interests will fight to the bone to influence legislators to retain their legal privileges. A few people win, but desperate people who risk their lives crossing an invisible and arbitrary line on a map for a better job lose. If we want to boost economies, reduce poverty and promote freedom, let us open all borders.
A further reason immigration is so restricted is that the anti-immigrant argument is partly a scapegoat contrived to divert attention to people who are different from the underlying causes of unemployment, violence and other things people blame on newcomers. A government that induces financial crisis and takes away money from people so they have less ability to defend themselves against them has a major interest in pointing fingers. Who better to blame than people who are visibly different, poor and cannot stand up for themselves? There is no longer any case against immigration. Should we do away with borders altogether? Well, have they brought us any benefits?
Are we freer than ever before? Until a hundred years ago, people who wanted to cross borders did not carry passports; they just went. Now, we need passports and visas, obtained following time-consuming and expensive (in fees and taxes) bureaucratic processes. And not everyone can get a visa. We can be denied access to the US-Canadian border for a record with a DUI, possession of a medical marijuana card, shoplifting or arrest for attending a peace rally. You do have legal recourse, which you can apply for after five years, but you need to send in court, police and FBI records, and a $200 fee. It’s a good thing about that fee, eh? Without that, how would the people who don’t let peaceful people cross borders make their livings? The persistence of borders seems to be little more than another bureaucratic rule designed to justify the existence of the bureaucracy.
The argument that national welfare systems would be overwhelmed first ignores the fact that immigrants contribute more to it than they take out, but more importantly underlines the flaws of the welfare state. Why would we get rid of immigrants at great expense in order to perpetuate this expensive and self-defeating system of welfare when we could welcome immigrants, who would contribute greatly to the economy? We would not have the exclusivity of borders and the violence of deportation on our consciences.
The myths are that immigrants steal jobs, commit more crime, go on welfare and contribute poverty. The reality is different. Most immigrants are young men, which one would think would mean more crime and incarceration. But in fact, the incarceration of natives in the US is five times higher than that of immigrants of every ethnic group, without exception. And why not? Immigrants go to work, not to commit crimes. Moreover, welfare case loads have fallen as illegal immigration has increased. Overall poverty have decreased too. It is not simply due to the high-skilled immigrants but the low-skilled ones as well.
A book by the Center for Global Development’s Lant Pritchett called Let Their People Come: Breaking the Gridlock on Global Labor Mobility cites two studies (Hamilton and Whalley 1984; Winters et al. 2003) that reach startling conclusions. Far from harming economies, the full liberalisation of labour markets could result in gains to global GDP at nearly forty trillion dollars. Actually, given what we know about how well free markets generate growth, and given the strict laws preventing a free market for labour, this figure may not be so surprising. Most of the benefits would accrue to the poor, but a rising tide of poor people would probably lift the boats of anyone working for any business they bought from. On a purely cost-benefit analysis, it makes sense to let all immigrants in. Economies would burst with growth, and though temporarily unemployment might increase, over time it would probably remain low. The short-term consideration of losing one’s job should be measured against the potentially enormous long-term benefits to nearly everyone.
Immigration reduces world poverty. Anyone who says they care for the poor and support barriers to immigration is either lying or does not understand poverty. When they support foreign aid to reduce poverty but not opening borders to reduce poverty, they would rather throw a bone to homeless man in order to ease their consciences than integrate him into their neighbourhood. And everyone who sees famines on television and throws up their hands in despair needs to consider that if starving people could emigrate, most of them would survive.
If crops fail in one place, it is likely they will flourish elsewhere, at least if people can move. In a free market, supply almost always rises to meet demand: existing producers produce more and new producers enter market that offer lucrative returns. Naturally, it is possible that climate change, in a much more advanced stage than it is today, would lead most crops to fail all over the world; though as we will see in my post on the environment, it is by no means impossible for a stateless society to have better means of protecting the environment than the status quo. Open borders might be a cure for famine.
But the real reason it is wrong to hold back immigration is that it is wrong to initiate force against peaceful people for any reason, and wrong to close off a country and call it yours. It’s not your country. It’s everyone’s world. Stop being so selfish. Either way, if you believe we should use coercion to keep others out of our country, you advocate violence and exclusivity and you do not believe we should help the poor.