In his penetrating book Straw Dogs, John Gray observes that “in the Persian Gulf, poor and rapidly growing populations need high and rising oil prices to survive. At the same time, rich countries need stable oil or falling oil prices if they are to continue to prosper. The result is a class Malthusian conflict.” We are accustomed to a certain way of life, and are by no means inclined to live a less comfortable one. Oil-rich nations, for their part, do not wish to sell oil at prices which serve their interests less than ours. How to deal with this conflict? By occupying them under the guise of liberation.
So much for what’s news in the world. All liberal societies, with their ease and comforts and rights, are founded on conquest, and citizens who want comfort and prosperity, must continue to depend on exploitation, both at home and abroad.
The ignoble lie of the State and the necessity of evil
The truth is that evil has always been essential to collective life; one group is cheated as the other gains, and we are compelled to feel lucky if we are the latter. “What are kingdoms [or nations] but great robberies?” asked St. Augustine. “What are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms [or nations]? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince; it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on.”
Many are indignant when our government uses the language of liberation to gain control of oil in the Middle East, but let’s ask ourselves whether we are prepared to face the truth about what must be done in order to maintain the kind of life we have come to expect. We are not willing to hear the grim reality expressed frankly and straightforwardly, just as we do not want expensive oil or to forgo our First World ease and convenience generally. The hypocritical language functions to keep us from owning up to a dark reality about which we should prefer to be ignorant, like children whose parents tell them their dead pet has gone to heaven. We may feel guilty for our complicity; still, as often happens in life, we are torn between self-interest and the very evils done to others on which it depends.
Here in this interdependence, with one nation gaining as another is plundered, is the strongest argument for socialism; but we know from the last century that that project, even if noble in sentiment, is unlikely to go well. Nor is it plausible to believe other nations would decline our unprecedented power and domination, if it were available to them. Why, after all, do they strive so hard to compete with us? Global politics is not some friendly competition, like miniature golf. It concerns the sustaining of life itself, and here there is much necessary competition, conflict, and evil.
“It makes no difference what men think of war”
So said Judge Holden in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridan. And: “…war endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner.” This is the primary and essential condition of the natural world, prior to all morality, which must frequently revert to it.
Of course, aggression and destructiveness are not unique to human beings. “If hamadryas baboons had nuclear weapons,” says E.O. Wilson, “they would destroy the world in a week.” “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” runs the well-known refrain in the Wizard of Oz, but it was only with the invention of the rifle that such deadly animals cease to lord the earth over human beings. Physics tells us that at the subatomic level the world is sheer energy. It is this that keeps the monstrous killing machine in motion. Here I want to quote an apt and overwhelmingly vivid passage from Schopenhauer’s philosophical masterpiece The World as Will and Idea:
Yunghahn relates that he saw in Java a plain far as the eye could reach entirely covered with skeletons, and took it for a battlefield; they were, however, merely the skeletons of large turtles, five feet long and three feet broad, and the same height, which come this way out of the sea in order to lay their eggs, and are then attacked by wild dogs (Canis rutilans), who with their united strength lay them on their backs, strip off their lower armour, that is, the small shell of the stomach, and so devour them alive. But often then a tiger pounces upon the dogs. Now all this misery repeats itself thousands and thousands of times, year out, year in. For this, then, these turtles are born.
It is with the same ferocious necessity that conquest and empire ultimately stem from insatiable desire itself, which characterizes life everywhere. It is also true, notwithstanding utopian liberal thinking, that there are simply not enough resources on earth for everyone to live as he wants to and, more and more, expects to. Fierce conflict over material goods is inescapable, and accordingly, it is the principle theme of human history. Finally, it should be understood that it is in the (irrational) nature of the individual to subordinate all other considerations to the blind pursuit of his own desires, regardless of the disasters that may follow. Politics, in short, is bound to be a bloody mess.
Necessarily competitive, like politics and the arts, sports provides an illuminating analogy with respect to why some ferocity is essential to life. Anyone who has played sports or seen them from the inside knows that the best athletes are not just the most talented, the most skilled, the most hardworking, and the smartest; they are also, crucially, the fiercest, the toughest, and the most ruthless. Hence Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Isiah Thomas, Larry Bird, John Stockton, Karl Malone, Johnny Bench, Ty Cobb, Pete Rose, Lenny Dykstra, Roger Clemens, Jason Varitek, Dick Butkus, Ray Lewis, Bill Romanowski, Ronnie Lott, Lawrence Taylor, Brett Favre, and so many others.
The nature of this list parallels the highest excellence in the arts. From Dante and Michelangelo to Milton and Wagner and Charles Mingus, the arts number a great many formidable individuals. Time and again it has been said of them that they are obsessive; they will do whatever it takes to achieve excellent works. So it also with the world’s great statesman, who are so single-minded in their vision. Vladimir Putin, for example, is wiser than his critics. Unlike them, he understands that conquest, domination, exploitation, etc., is the inevitable essence of politics. The Obama administration pretends to be indignant about Putin; in truth, its real concern is keeping Russia from becoming a superior world power. And so the world goes, a righteous sham that is rarely seen as such, and in which those who do see it for what it is had better keep quiet.
The essential brutality of politics is a topic about which we can learn much from Ralph Waldo Emerson:
Churchmen and men of refinement, it seems agreed, are not fit persons to send to Congress. Politics is a deleterious profession, like some poisonous handicrafts. Men in power have no opinions, but may be had cheap for any opinion, for any purpose, — and if it be only a question between the most civil and the most forcible, I lean to the last. These Hoosiers and Suckers are really better than the snivelling opposition. Their wrath is at least of a bold and manly cast. They see, against the unanimous declarations of the people, how much crime the people will bear; they proceed from step to step, and they have calculated but too justly upon their Excellencies, the New England governors, and upon their Honors, the New England legislators. The messages of the governors and the resolutions of the legislatures, are a proverb for expressing a sham virtuous indignation, which, in the course of events, is sure to be belied.
In trade, also, this energy usually carries a trace of ferocity. Philanthropic and religious bodies do not commonly make their executive officers out of saints. The communities hitherto founded by Socialists, —the Jesuits, the Port-Royalists, the American communities at New Harmony, at Brook Farm, at Zoar, are only possible, by installing Judas as steward. The rest of the offices may be filled by good burgesses. The pious and charitable proprietor has a foreman not quite so pious and charitable. The most amiable of country gentlemen has a certain pleasure in the teeth of the bull-dog which guards his orchard. (“Power” from The Conduct of Life)
Like Machiavelli and Edmund Burke, and unlike most “political scientists” (the phrase is humorous, as if politics allowed for such precision and rigor), Emerson’s views are based not on theory or abstract principles, but on observation of how people really are. Emerson understands that a certain ruthlessness—“of a bold and manly cast”—is necessary in politics. For like the world whose endless problems it reflects, politics is too too difficult and too messy always to be answerable to morality. Moral compromise is in fact the essence of politics, since the world it tries govern is itself deeply compromised. Knowing this, Socrates insisted that the person who really wants to make a big difference cannot go into politics, it being the worst possible place for that lofty intention.
For the great reformer is always an enemy of the State, and ultimately, of the people themselves: of their bad qualities, to which they are often blind; and the last thing they want is for anyone to draw attention to these. So that the person who sets out to change everybody for the better is lucky to get whatever he can done before being put to death for his “evildoing,” “treason,” “sins,” etc., etc. The ingratitude of the people goes perfectly with their ignorance as to who their true leaders are.
Read More: Let Hard Experience Be Your Teacher