Mikhail Gorbachev thinks the world is “preparing for war”. What do you think? You’ve considered it by now, that much is certain. Let us try as best we can to answer the question: is the world gearing up for war?
Wars are often seen as rational contests for scarce resources. I think the truth is much simplier — and much more disturbing. Wars are what happens when an overflow of rage builds up in the nerves of a society. Rage with nowhere to go, no catharsis to relieve it, except to explode outwards. The furies sing. Neighbor becomes enemy, friend becomes prey. Atrocity is born.
The story of World War II is ultimately very simple. A Germany whose economy had been broken by onerous reparations was angry, desperate, enraged. A demagogue came along. He blamed the disastrous economy, which meant empty bellies for the average German, on the nearest scapegoat: Jews. And his answer to stagnation was to conquer neighbours — not to renegotiate reparations.
None of it makes sense. Why? And yet its senselessness makes perfect sense: rage, purge, catharsis. Rage drove a broken Germany to make war on its own people, its neighbors, its citizens, the world. To do everything but what was sensible: to negotiate, compromise, protest, or just default on its first world war debt. Rage with nowhere to go turned Germany into a bomb waiting to go off.
Today, I wonder. Is America that bomb? It is a country that is full of profound and terrible rage, rage that is endemic and white hot and constant. Whites hate blacks, the old hate the young, the rich hate the poor. Perhaps you think “hate” is a strong word. But I am an economist, and I subscribe to the principle of revealed preference: actions speak louder than words. America‘s people choose to deny each other the basics of a good life — healthcare, education, safety, so on — when it costs them nothing, and benefits them everything, in net terms. What else can any sensible person call this buthate?
Rage, the bomb, the war. You can feel this rage in the streets. You can see it on American faces, if you look at what they are really saying. They are hard and bitter and cold now. Where did America’s rage come from?
America has seen a kind of social collapse in the last decade, and does not even really know it. It is not commented on, not discussed, barely even noticed. Everyday people have been turned into zeros, nobodies, invisible losers — and that is why I called this essay “World War Zero”. What do I mean?
There is shattering rage in America today primarily because people were left behind by the recovery, by globalization, by growth itself. A “recovery” touted and glorified by America’s leaders, in which more than 100% of gains were taken by the rich. Can you blame Americans for their rage? And yet. The result of being economically abandoned has been profound social fracture.
Half the country or more rejects modernity wholesale: they have retreated into tribal theocratic alt-clans, where public goods — from information to healthcare — are provided by churches and communities, not by society at large. Thus, they live wholly separated lives: their media, music, literature, art, information, entertainment, theories, facts, ideas — all of it is different to, say, what a New York Times reader (or writer) knows, unfamiliar, and all of it is essentially a symbol of their rage. The price of that retreat is a failure to be civilized: the losers of modernity do not read, they do not understand politics, government, civics, economics, they do not know basic facts about the world — and they do not care to. Just like the people they hate the most — Muslim fundamentalists — their lives are one story: a tale of regress into a dark age. Irony of ironies. And yet. There’s a truer way to see all that: they only know rage.
Rage, senselessness, the explosion. America is quivering like an earthquake, shaking like a hurricane. You can see it building up in the paragraph above now, can’t you? The rage of the rejected, the bitter fury of the loser, who rejects it all now, the society that failed him, the leaders that exploited him, the world that abandoned him. What is there left for such a loser but rage?
We see that rage pouring out everywhere, if we care to look. In the Quebec shooter, an emblem of the losers of modernity — a sad young man, struggling and lost in life, turning to nationalists for a sense of belonging and identity. We can see that rage in the headlines unread by half a nation, who reject the media, finding tribal pride in shared ignorance. And now we can see that rage in the White House, where supremacists laugh, and by whose edicts ethnic cleansing has already begun.
We see that rage deepest and truest, thought, in the new American doctrine: “America First”. What that really means, of course, is allies, friends, partners, second, third, last. So now America is rejecting those very treaties and alliances that it worked so hard to forge after the last world war. This is the greatest portent of all, isn’t it? A world without global institutions has no mechanism to restrain demagogues from the atrocities of war.
The bomb, the explosion, the war. What will it look like this time? It’s hard to say. It always is. War admits no logic. Germany could have started its war with a dozen countries. What is truer is that war was coming. The nearest weakest nation would suffice. And it feel as if it is coming now.
Who will an enraged America lash out at first, hardest? It will scapegoat who it is already scapegoating, members of a certain ethnic minority — and from there, who knows? Perhaps it will bomb that half of the world to dust. The trade wars it is beginning with China are likely to escalate into minor league skirmishes — and from there, who knows? Perhaps those skirmishes will explode into full scale war. Perhaps the soft influence that Russia is peddling over the American elite will spill over into full scale proxy war, and America will begin to subjugate its recent European allies.
War admits no logic. In hindsight, we can find reasons. But all we can really beforehand is what Gorbachev said: war is coming. That much looks not certain, but probable.
Can we stop it? The fates laugh when you ask questions like that. But the furies are already singing.
And that is why every civilized person must.