War is the Health of the State

“War is the health of the State” – Randy “Cold as Ice” Bourne

Bourne’s argument proposes a theory of the state in the era of the Jus Publicum that attends the accretions and subversions of will to power which consolidate national collectives into resolved political, social and cultural unities charged with preparing for and waging war, conscripting individuals, material and institutions, suing for peace and so on. Writing after the American entry into WWI, Bourne’s essay weds a kind of tireless Nietzschean scorn of the herd instinct with a libertarian anti-war polemicism, and can be read as a rebuke of pro-war intellectuals like Dewey, alongside Wilsonian internationalism. The essay might also be read in light of the post-war fascist’s reworking of Neitzschean tropes and conceits, towards which Bourne’s essay develops a prescient counter-discourse. The essay develops in two parts, the prior of which elaborates a theory of the State at war as body politic, the latter of which develops a kind of Weberian genealogy of the American State as an agent of war. The prior is our focus here.

State is essentially a concept of power, of competition; it signifies a group in its aggressive aspects…The State is the country acting as a political unit, it is the group acting as a repository of force, determiner of law, arbiter of justice. International politics is a “power politics” because it is a relation of States and that is what States infallibly and calamitously are, huge aggregations of human and industrial force that may be hurled against each other in war. When a country acts as a whole in relation to another country, or in imposing laws on its own inhabitants, or in coercing or punishing individuals or minorities, it is acting as a State.

Bourne develops an elaborate concept of the State as a kind of body politic, arguing that wartime brings the ideal of the State into sharp relief, revealing attitudes and tendencies which are not fully developed and cannot reveal themselves during times of peace. During the emergency of wartime, the urgency for union intensifies and “war sends the current of purpose and activity flowing down to the lowest levels”. As all social activity is interlinked in support of collective military objectives (defensive or offensive), “the State becomes what in peacetimes it has vainly struggled to become – the inexorable arbiter and determinant of men’s businesses and attitudes and opinions”. For Bourne, war is an endemic condition through which States are conceived and realized. War triggers in the State a kind of auto-immune response that marshals the individual cells of the body politic into obedience, generating a uniformity that projects inward as well as out. War should not be conceived as a force or event external to the State, but rather as a function of it. In this way,

War is the health of the State. It automatically sets in motion throughout society those irresistible forces for uniformity, for passionate cooperation with the Government in coercing into obedience the minority groups and individuals which lack the herd sense…In general, the nation in wartime attains a uniformity of feeling, a hierarchy of values culminating at the undisputed apex of the State ideal, which could not possibly be produced through any other agency than war. Loyalty – or mystic devotion to the State – becomes the major imagined human value.

In so doing, Bourne links this “health” to the values and figures of meaning around which “aristocratic” society coalesce.

War can be called almost an upperclass sport. The novel interest and excitements it provides, the inflations of power, the satisfaction it gives to those very tenacious human impulses – gregariousness and parent-regression – endow it with all the qualities of a luxurious collective game which is felt intensely just in proportion to the sense of significant rule the person has in the class division of his society.

It follows that this ennobling valuation of war generates a kind of class-stratification of state-idealism as herd instinct that is strung-out between two extremes: between the military-patriotic aristocracy and unskilled labourers, both of whom become a kind of half-witting fodder for the autoimmunity of war as health: “In this great herd machinery, dissent is like sand in the bearings. The State ideal is primarily a sort of blind animal push towards military unity. Any difference with that unity turns the whole vast impulse toward crushing it”.

Bourne’s skepticism towards the State as harbinger of war extends into the State’s own remedies and machinations for instating peace as a manageable equilibrium. Think of the concept of “gunboat diplomacy” or, after Bourne, the “armed truce” preceding the First World War. In doing so, Bourne subtly inverts the Clausewitzian maxim:

If diplomacy had been a moral equivalent for war, a higher state in human progress, an inestimable means of making words prevail instead of blows, militarism would have broken down and given place to it. But since it is a mere temporary substitute, a mere appearance of war’s energy under another form, a surrogate effect is almost exactly proportioned to the armed force behind it. When it fails, the recourse is immediate to the military whose thinly veiled armed it has been. A diplomacy that was the agency of popular democratic forces in their non-State manifestations would be no diplomacy at all…The State, acting as a diplomatic-military ideal, is eternally at war. Just as it must act arbitrarily and autocratically in time of war, it must act in time of peace in this particular role where it acts as a unit. Unified control is necessarily autocratic control. Democratic control of foreign policy is therefore a contradiction in terms. Open discussion destroys swiftness and certainty of action.

Cold as ice, Randy. Bourne’s skepticism is total, and the State (which is not equivalent to the nation) must be either reformed or abolished if it is to facilitate a political unity amenable to the life-enhancing forces of a more organically-conceived body politic (e.g. the nation, the country). For

if the State’s chief function is war, then it is chiefly concerned with coordinating and developing the powers and techniques which makes for destruction…The very existence of a State in a system of States means that the nation always lies always under a risk of war and invasion, and the calling away of energy into military pursuits means a crippling of the productive and life-enhancing processes of the national life.

This claim maps fairly neatly to Virilio’s claims about Pure War and the underdevelopment of the citizenry. In fact, Bourne’s analysis is remarkably prescient and forward thinking. He claims, for instance, that the seat of government and State authority becomes in times of war confused with a mystic authority, which seems to anticipate something like the secularization of political concepts theorized by Schmitt. Check it out:

The State is a personal as well as a mystical symbol, and it can only be understood by tracing its historical origin. The modern State is not the national and intelligent product of modern men desiring to live harmoniously together with security of life, property, and opinion. It is not an organization which has been devised as pragmatic means to a desired social end. All the idealism with which we have been instructed to endow the State is the fruit of our retrospective imaginations. What it does for us in the way of security and benefit of life, it does incidentally as a by-product and development of its original functions, and not because at any time men or classes in the full possession of their insight and intelligence have desired that it be so. It is very important that we occasionally lift the incorrigible veil of that ex post facto idealism by which we throw a glamor of rationalization over what is, and pretend in the ecstacies of social conceit that we have personally invented and set up for the glory of God and man the hoary institutions which we see around us. Things are what they are, and come down to use with all their thick encrustations of error and malevolence. Political philosophy can delight us with fantasy and convince us who need illusion to live that the actual is a fair and approximate copy…of that ideal society which we can imagine ourselves creating. From this it is a step to the tacit assumption that we have somehow had a hand in its creation and are responsible for its maintenance and sanctity.

It’s here that Bourne begins to develop his genealogy, which is where I’ll leave off.