Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Radha D'Souza

The Price of Peace

By Radha D'Souza

Ideas and Institutions

The story of how Jean-Jacques Rousseau developed his social and political philosophy provides and interesting analogy to reflect about questions of war and peace today. Rousseau's work the 'Social Contract' became one of the most influential works in political philosophy and social theory. In his autobiography, 'Confessions', Rousseau speaks of his relationship with Therese le Vasseur. Therese was a servant girl. In 18th century France, she lived "in sin" with Rousseau.

Rousseau, the philandering philosopher (his 'Confessions' record this) was rudely shocked when Therese became pregnant. However, to Rousseau the philosopher, children were a serious impediment to his intellectual freedom and what today we would call 'life style'. All their five children were left at the Foundling Institution. To Rousseau, Therese was the most stable factor in his life, his intellectual companion, friend and spiritual guide, besides being his mistress. Often, when writing, he read it out to Therese.

In his first draft of the famous 'Social Contract' he began with the opening lines: "man is born free". When he read it out to Therese she rubbished it straight away. For Therese who had to leave her children routinely at a Foundling Institution 'man' could hardly be 'born free'. Therese's criticism raised the important issue of the institutional context for freedom.

Rousseau did not solve the philosophical and ideological issue by taking up a job, earning a regular living and supporting his children. Instead, he turned to Plato for his answers and resurrected ideas of the 'philosopher king' and the state as an institution that would become the guarantor of individual liberties and freedoms. The state should be responsible for caring for the old, the young, the sick and the disabled, so men could be 'free'. Subsequently he modified the opening lines and added: "man is born free yet everywhere he is in chains."

Implicit in the institutional framework for freedom was the idea that human wellbeing could be divorced from the emotional, psychological and biological relationships and hitched on to state politics, economics and public policy: an idea alien to most indigenous cultures and philosophies. Divorced from emotional and psychological wellbeing, freedom in Western intellectual traditions became, and remains, an abstraction, an elusive ideal that has been used over time for wealth, power, repression and domination world-wide.

As with freedom, so with peace. To Rousseau's intellectual heirs in the West, the fact that the more we talk about peace the less peace we have is a paradox that the state and the 'philosopher kings' of our times must fix. They do not question the disjuncture between the emotional and psychological wellbeing that visions of peace entail and the institutional structure of the state, premised on discourses of political-economy and power.

John Maynard Keynes, the father of welfare state economics was candid when he wrote: 'war like pyramid building and earthquakes may serve to increase wealth.' In today's political spectrum on the 'left' of various hues there are many opponents of war who are supporters of Keynes's welfare state or modified and improved versions of it. The underlying assumption is that it is possible to separate the military and the civilian functions of the welfare state, keep one face and dismember the other. Is this possible?

The price of peace

Many believe the end of the Cold War produced the conditions for peace in as much as the money that was used for defence could now be used to address poverty and welfare. However, the end of the Cold War has brought with it instability and new wars that threaten to get out of control. The argument that the end of the Cold War would herald a new era of peace put the cart before the wheel. It overlooked the fact that the state in Western democracies depended on and has always depended on wars as a driving force of their economies, their wealth, their technological superiority and their 'development' and 'progress'.

In a civilisation founded on wars: the crusades, the hundred year war, the ten year war, the seven year war, the colonial wars in all continents of the world, the World Wars, Korea, Indochina, and now, Iraq, Palestine, Columbia, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Serbia, Sudan and others, the hiatus between the desire for peace and the conditions necessary for peace may be far more institutionally entrenched that may appear at first sight.

The Stockholm Peace Research Institute estimated in 2001 that the world military expenditure was $ 839 billion. Five countries accounted for 50% of this and 15 major spenders accounted for 75 % of it. An Indonesian worker producing Nike shoes at the end of the production chain earns US $ 1.20 a day.

It is frightening to think that a large number of people in the "developed" countries readily believe that the states accounting for 75% of the world's military expenditure do not count as 'war-mongers' while states with a fraction of that as their national income and populations earning less than US $ 1.20 are. Those who fight with kitchen knives and teenage kids transforming themselves into human bombs are seen as "equal" to most heavily armed nations ganging up to fight them. Common sense, it appears, is no longer "common".

The end of the Cold War was welcomed by many for different reasons. To some it signalled the end of "communism" and to others it signalled the beginning of world peace. Instead what happened was the opposite. Iraq was the beginning.

According to estimates, the defence share of demand on the total US economy in 1987 was: 23.3% in durable manufacturing and this dropped to 8.1% by 1997; it was 3.8% in agriculture, mining and construction, and it dropped to 3.2%; it was 3.9% in nondurable manufacturing and it dropped to 1.8%; it was 2.7% in services and dropped to 1.7% by 1997. In 1987 the defence share of total employment in the US was nearly 4.7 million and it dropped to 2.8 million.

These figures (taken from Douglas Meade, INFORUM, April 1998) relate to direct demand and employment. Direct demands generate a chain of follow on demands in different sectors of the economy from housing and education to tourism and consumer goods. The figures relate to a decade and only in the US.

The economic implications of the end of the Cold War for the fourteen other major spenders; the implications of global military spending on the international economy, on international divisions of labour, and on international relations; fuller statistical analysis of direct and indirect implications of defence and military spending for jobs, for prices of goods and commodities, for technological innovation, remain to be computed. The co-relation between the end of the Cold War, the uncertainties in the economies of 'developed' countries, the rising unemployment there, the rise of xenophobia and racism and the increasing number of wars are at best tenuous.

Does this mean citizens in Western democracies are essentially selfish or that their concerns about poverty and peace are sophisticated means of ensuring they remain on the top of the global pyramid of power and wealth?

Wealth and Wellbeing

The 'developed' countries that account for 75% of the world's military expenditure are also societies where people spend billions of dollars on New Age spiritualism seeking short cuts to Nirvana. An article in the New Zealand Listener in 1997-98 (I write from memory) put the economic turnover of the New Age religions at millions of dollars in a small country with a population of 3.2 million.

One of the highlights of elections in New Zealand this year was the return to parliament of 9 members of the United Future Party, led by Peter Dunne. Dunne's party had a one- point election programme: family is important. The issue is not what the party leader Peter Dunne means by family values or the politics of family values. The more important issue is that around 9 to 10 percent of New Zealand voters think family is the most important issue for them.

At a personal level, the seekers of Nirvana, the voters for family values, are seeking something that is not captured by the statisticians and institutions. Modern world is premised on the founding idea of economic rationalism, where human beings are conceptualised, discussed and presented day in and day out, as being driven by economic self- interest. Yet, it is paradoxical that after centuries of economic rationalism, economically rational people in the West are prepared to put their hand into their pockets and pull out billion dollars for an illusive sense of peace and wellbeing.

In the structure of society as it is, the political arena does not capture this wellspring of basic human sentiments that continues to exist despite the entrenched assumptions about the primacy of economics. Somewhere political movements, even the radical ones, appear to have lost their way in the quagmire of statistical analysis, economic arguments and fragmented single issue arguments that appeal to reason and reduce reason to numbers. Somewhere down the track even radical politics has succumbed to 'economic rationalism' and blurred the distinctions between the human intellect and the human spirit.

The rational economic man is a man without history, a man without context, a man who lives here and now. The debates about war in the Western democracies are invariably about events that happen elsewhere. Political protests against wars talk about Afghanistan and Serbia; Iraq and Palestine and other distant events in distant places.

Why should the voters who voted for Peter Dunne, or his likes elsewhere, worry about those issues when they are anxious about family and family values in their everyday lives? When they are worried about unemployment and paying their bills? When the good life they inherited from their history suddenly appears to slip beneath their feet? Have peace movements in Western democracies computed the social costs of peace for their own people?

Quantitative reasoning and economic analysis, by reducing people's lives to incomes, wages and benefits, gives them a sense of false belief that their lives are somehow better because they are earning more than the Indonesian worker producing Nike shoes. However, their 'irrational' actions in spending money on instant Nirvanas and quick fix family solutions tell a different story. Social movements have yet to begin to "deconstruct" their lives and making the connections between war, peace, family, jobs and a sense of wellbeing, call it 'spiritualism' or anything else.

Will the citizens of Western democracies be prepared to pay the price of peace if it were to be computed in terms of jobs, standards of living, consumption levels? If the question was posed as: 'the Cold War cost us x million jobs, do we want peace?', how many will still want peace? Alternately, if the question was posed as: 'keeping full employment, standards of living and consumption requires going to war with Iraq, Afghanistan, China and whoever else, how many will still want peace?

Posing the question in this way could invite accusations of cynicism, lack of intellectual sophistication and outright demagogy. Yet the question is a valid one: why should people living good lives want to give it up? Is it only because of moral squeamishness? Or is there more to life than Nike shoes and holidays on idyllic tropical islands? The answers to the intellectual and ideological challenges to peace movements in Western democracies are fettered by the perception that war happens 'out there' somewhere. It mystifies the reality of their own histories and their social institutions.

Assumptions about economic man is premised on a fallacy that is deep rooted in our education and worldview: that society is a sum of individuals. This view mystifies social institutions within which human beings must necessarily live. Failure to differentiate between society and human life does two things: it inhibits the human spirit from transforming society and it deflects attention from the need for institutional change and transformation. By de-linking values from the social and institutional context within which they must exist, it idealises values and de-contexutalises them so as to make values, remote and unattainable.

Rousseau could avoid responsibilities of fatherhood by resorting to the Foundling Institution and theorising about it as the ideal normative order for society. However, in his later years Rousseau went looking for his children and could not find them. They had died. He married Therese after living with her for 28 years. He died an unhappy man.

Analogously, the inheritors of Rousseau's intellectual traditions, the citizens of Western democracies, have left the issue of their wealth and material wellbeing in the hands of the state in the hope that the state will protect their children, families and communities. However, the state it appears can pay them money but cannot guarantee their emotional psychological and spiritual wellbeing. The process of generating wealth entails wars, which in turn destroys families, communities and children leaving them to seek Nirvanas through credit card payments.

Therese recognised intuitively that man is not 'born free' and that freedom is what man must acquire. We do not know how Therese would have written her essay on 'freedom' if she had had the opportunity of doing so. Rousseau's intellectual inheritance leaves those seeking peace in our troubled times with a big challenge: the challenge of liberating the idea of peace and wellbeing from the iron walls of the state and corporate driven economics where it has remained imprisoned for too long.

This article was first published on ZNet, Daily Commentaries, October 3rd, 2002.
The University of Waikato - Te Whare Wananga o Waikato

Radha D'Souza - Senior Lecturer

BA (Philosophy) University of Bombay, India
LLB University of Bombay, India
PhD University of Auckland, New Zealand

Photo of Radha D'Souza Radha practiced as counsel in the High Court of Bombay for 18 years as public interest lawyer representing non-governmental organisations, community, environment, and labour groups. Her areas of specialization include law and social sciences. In law, her interests include constitutional law, administrative law, labour law, UN law and international organizations and human rights and law and development. In social sciences her interests include development, social theory, "North-South" relations and social movements. She has taught sociology and law and published book-chapters, working papers, refereed articles and commissioned research papers.


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