Trade makes war: A social theory of violence

War and violence are words that denote extreme forms of social behaviour, even referred to as asocial or antisocial behaviour, in keeping with the immoral and dehumanising acts they accompany. But this was not always the case. War and violence were once seen as far more normal parts of the human conditions than they are today, and ways in which communities are bound together, not torn asunder. This step-change in attitudes to conflict accompanies the rise of the modern world and the eclipse of the old codes of chivalry and piety which accompanied a more unkind world. But this old world never left, and the new world is no less violent than the old. We have de-normalised war and violence, but these things are no less normal than they once were. Why, then, have our attitudes to them changed so much?

The Roman Empire at its height.

The modern world is sometimes identified with capitalism, which intellectual historians trace to the ‘commercial society’ developing in the womb of eighteenth-century society. The rise of trade prompted a new era of war based on the accumulation of sovereign debt, which also accompanied the rise in revolutionary movements to relieve the public purse of its newly-acquired monetary burden to international investors. Trade in commodities in the ‘real economy’ went hand-in-hand with the expansion of trade in luxury goods and, significantly, financial bonds to enable trust in the security of future trade. The French Revolution, politician and philosopher Edmund Burke maintained, arose from precisely this dynamic of capital accumulation and civic division and loss of chivalry arising from the rise of money as the central motive of modern society.

Revolutions are a form of sometimes-violent conflict that are analogous to wars, as acknowledged by political theorist Hannah Arendt. In Marxism, revolutions are identified with class warfare between masters and slaves. For philosopher Nietzsche, who like Marx took his cue from philosopher Hegel, Christianity arose from a ‘slave revolt’ against the morality of ancient city-states founded on slavery. Max Weber sees Christianity as driven by middle-class, educated traders like the apostles, who oversaw an early form of the Renaisssance ‘republic of letters’ to which post-medieval commercial society gave birth.

In the Middle Ages, the downsizing of the territory of states after the fall of the Roman Empire led to a narrowing of the vision of society as a totality. Instead, society gave way to local community, and war on behalf of (or even against) the empire of the world gave way to violence on behalf of the lord or vassal of a community of peasants, who enjoyed only meagrely superior positions to those of ancient slaves. Their successors, the wage labourers of early-modern cities like London and Manchester, manufactured the goods originally collected by slaves in the Caribbean and east Americas, shipped there by European slavers from west Africa (an oceanic extension of the trans-Saharan slave trade which began in the Middle Ages). It took many wars to foster the technology that allowed wage-labourers to gain an economic upper-hand over their straightforwardly enslaved counterparts, leading to the abolition of slavery as an impediment to the growth of industry in the modern market economy. The moral arguments were, in this sense, masks for the economic interests in which they are founded, and which both sides (for and against slavery) shared (with agriculture being the economic foundation of southern American slavers, and industry being the economic foundation of northern American industrialists, who preferred wage-labourers as servants of their appetites). The slaves did not gain control inasmuch as slavery mutated and evolved in tandem with the substitution of one set of masters with another.

In the twentieth century, the peaceful and democratic dreams of the nineteenth century, owing to the rise of a new middle class between the masters and workers of modern industry, gave way to extremes of violence, revolution, and war that the western world had not seen for a generation. The First World War followed the ‘political emancipation of the bourgeoisie’, as described by Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism, while the Second World War followed the crisis of the Great Depression, when the absence of stabilising hegemony of either Britain or America led to the collapse of world trade following the triggering event of the New York stock market crash. Country after country fell from democracy to dictatorship. No-one was safe from the coming war, which forced even the isolationist old and new hegemons of Britain and America into the fray of violence across the Eurasian plain.

But the Eurasian continent is dominated by the Eurasian steppe, which borders the empires which tend to form in the east (China) and the west (Europe, once dominated by the republican empire of Rome). Each time when a European would-be hegemon sought to conquer Eurasia, they found the Russian winter inhospitable for fighting by troops trained in the west. Geography still rules much of power politics, and the advent of man-made climate change is unlikely to turn this hard rule of our Earth-bound condition around.

Charles Tilly once argued that ‘war makes states and states make war’. By way of the institution of bureaucracy, states leverage taxes on their citizenry to finance the war effort, requiring a complex and streamlined administrative apparatus. Max Weber and, more recently, Francis Fukuyama identify the state with the bureaucracy, just as the state of Prussia was once elided with its army. Napoleon Bonaparte’s civil code, imposed on the countries he conquered, expanded the reach of bureaucracy by way of warfare. The aim? To create such civil order that the internal peace of states was guaranteed, following the pacifying maxims of Thomas Hobbes. Alas, the same pacifying dreams of Immanuel Kant for the international sphere could not be satisfied, as governmental efficiency facilitates international military conquest just as much as it lubricates the wheels of domestic economic commerce. As student of eighteenth-century commercial society Istvan Hont maintains, the ‘logic of trade and war’ is much more integrated than recent liberal arguments for the peaceful effects of trade maintain.

It is sometimes even said that trade makes peace, by way of the mutual interests it secures. A somewhat recent article in The Review of Economic Studies by Philippe Martin and colleagues, entitled ‘Make Trade Not War?’, employs calculus and statistical analysis of conflict date in the twentieth century to evaluate the relationship between trade and war. Their conclusions? That bilateral trade between particular countries decreases the risk of conflict, while countries’ openness to multilateral trade multiplies the risk of conflict among several states. They thus ‘find robust evidence for the contrasting effect of bilateral and multilateral trade openness’.

What might explain this asymmetry? And does it make sense? America and China have a bilateral trade dependency that was once referred to as ‘Chimerica’, and apt name for a chimerical unity of geopolitically opposing countries. The fall of this chimera and the rise of U.S.-China trade war suggests that trade and war are not so alienated even at the bilateral level. What Martin and colleagues show is perhaps that, while bilateral trade lasts, conflict is low in probability. What happens after trade ends, as with the Great Depression and the return of interstate violence in the 1930s? Equally, in the First World War, trade continued despite interstate violence, and the rise of the dollar to its current hegemonic position was facilitated largely by borrowing on the back of American loans in that conflict and its aftermath. This system of trade, however, collapsed in the years following the 1927 crash, and the unwillingness of America to fulfil its hegemonic obligations, not just exercise hegemonic liberties, accompanied the world’s slide from the dreams of peace to the devastation of war.

Since then, America has learned the lessons of the dangerous complacency of ‘glorious isolation’ as practised by Britain in the nineteenth century. But America after the Cold War entertained an equal and opposite form of complacency, in the form of sporadic military interventions in the Middle East which have caused chaos in the region and fear and dread worldwide. China is now adopting some of the lessons of the ‘War on Terror’ to discipline its own terrified population, instilling an internment camp (a polite term to use) in which one million people are forcibly contained.

The shadow of the twentieth century lingers over this new age, but so does the long shadow of previous centuries and millennia of economic exchange and ensuing military expeditions to claim as-of-yet un-possessed commodities. Misfortune in trade leads countries to believe they may have better fortune in war. On a sociological level, trade makes war because trade makes classes, and these classes make war within and among countries. The rise of capital as the hegemonic class of the modern world accompanied the rise of Britain as the hegemonic state, while the hegemony of America and capital is now seen as undisputed. This is documented by Adam Tooze’s history of the financial crash in which America took an outsized role in learning from the Great Depression, saving the world from a repeat of that catastrophe through a combination of fiscal stimulus and monetary liquidity. Dollar swap lines were established with countries in need, and these lines were reopened in tandem with other larger-scale crisis-fighting strategems during the coronavirus crisis. Alas, these same methods of averting depression now pave the way for a new age of inflation, as occurred in the 1970s after the luxurious growth decades of the 1950s and 1960s. The austerity of the 1980s mirrors that of the 2010s, as both followed crises that were seen as the result of public luxury, while the true roots of these crises were most likely the private luxury of debt and capital accumulation, monopolised by a particular class.

In the First World War, millions paid the price of the imperialism to which advanced capitalism gave birth. J. M. Hobson’s Imperialism echoes Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution in tying financial profits to rise in military power. As profits concentrate in a particular class, the state in which this class finds refuge is compelled to appease that class in any way possible. As capital ran against the limits of national accumulation, Hannah Arendt argued of this period, it sought expansion through international robbery, by way of imperialism, a return of the strategies of international accumulation of early-modern colonialism. The link between the two was capitalism, a system of wage-labour underpinning capital investment across the industries in which workers slave away for a precious nickel and dime. Safe to say, their masters did not have to work so hard for so little — although, unlike their aristocratic predecessors, capitalists do work, as shown by Max Weber’s seminal study on early capitalists and their pietist lifestyle, echoed by the early wake-up calls of modern masters of digital industry.

Trade makes war through two mechanisms: trade distributes power among states, weakening the hegemony of the central state and emboldening other claimants to the hegemonic throne; and trade concentrates power within states in the profiteering class of capital owners. Wage workers must find their own way in this world, whether on the battlefield, in the factory, in the office, or — increasingly — in the abstract digital space in which seemingly incalculable transactions are made. States are falling behind the complex legal implications of global trade at the smack of a keyboard, just as the Papacy found the stroke of a pen to be a dangerous thing in a world bound by superstition and faith in apostolic authority. The modern nation-state, the deliberate ruler of transnational trade and unwitting enabler of a international war, may find a similar fate awaits for itself in the coming chaos of the third millennium, just as the Roman system of republican politics and imperial law collapsed in the first millennium and the Christian dominion of the Middle Ages saw a gradual death at the hands of modern war and trade in the last millennium.

If trade makes war by way of class conflict, the only entity capable of reigning in these forces of chaos is the modern state itself, the true Leviathan capable of preventing the chaos of the Behemoth and the false Leviathan of capital from destroying the last vestige of ancient human community. For Thomas Hobbes, the civil order of the ‘Leviathan’ or sovereign state is always preferable to the anarchy of the ‘Behemoth’ or civil war. The result of this cycle of extremes in the mid-seventeenth century, including the English Civil War and the contest between the aristocratic monarchy and the bourgeois Parliament, was a synthesis in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which paved the way for the modern world and the system of democratic capitalism. But while the cycle of trading classes and warring states continues, the peculiar institutional configurations to which they give rise, and the peculiar stories we tell ourselves about these institutions’ ‘natural’ or even ‘immortal’ foundations, are riddled with contingency. For in this world, only one thing is for sure: Everything ends.


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