(Presented at the Champaran Satyagrah centenary celebrations Patna, April 10, 2017)
The timing of death, like the ending of a story, gives a changed meaning to what preceded it: Mary Catherine Bateson
Nihilism doesn’t stand at the door, as Nietzsche told us over a century ago. It has entered the house. We now speak as if belief is the highest form of truth, feelings may freely be substituted for facts, truth is pure illusion and war an eternal condition. Examples of this are visible in all continents; indeed, we are reliably informed that ours is the post-truth era. Let us examine how we have arrived at this situation and what Mahatma Gandhi can tell us about it.
Permanent war: Speaking of Napoleon’s place in the advent of modernity, Marx wrote: ‘Napoleon was the last stand of revolutionary terrorism against the bourgeois society… He perfected the Terror by substituting permanent war for permanent revolution.’ Two observations from this text are significant for our theme: the advent of permanent war; and the dual aspect of the state as an end in itself and an instrument of conquest. The war unleashed by the French Revolution was the first total war of modernity, it was fought by ideologically motivated soldiers, and required total social mobilization. The modern tendency toward totalitarianism became visible in the emergence of war as the centripetal force capable of galvanizing social energy on an unprecedented scale. The democratization of the polity was accompanied by the democratization of the military. Over time, this would lead to the implosion of warfare into the social fabric, its’ about-turn from national frontiers into national societies.
It has been claimed that the arrangements of 1815 resulted in pan-European peace for most of the nineteenth century. This is correct only if we leave out the uprisings of 1848, the Crimean War and the wars over German unification that led to the bloody suppression of the Paris Commune in 1871. However, the French revolutionary wars were global in their reach, because the powers involved were colonial empires. A broader view of the subsequent period shows the upsurge of war consuming the polities of India, China and Africa, with England, France, Belgium and Holland leading the charge. When combined with Russian expansion in central Asia and Siberia, the Taiping Rebellion of 1850-64; the Second Opium War of 1856-60; and the Indian rebellion of 1857; a picture emerges of a world plunged into a vortex of conflict whose locus was European militarism. Man-made famines and epidemics in India and China during the 1870’s and 1890’s resulted in the deaths of between 32 and 61 million people, a catastrophe that has been named ‘late-Victorian holocausts’.
The process continued with the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 and the Great War of 1914-18; which was accompanied by the first modern genocide (of Armenians by their Ottoman rulers). The global influenza epidemic of 1918-20 cost 50 to 100 million lives, an impact accelerated by war-related human mobility. The spiral of war continued into the 1930’s, with the Japanese invasion of Manchukuo, the Spanish civil war, the Sino Japanese war of 1937-1945, and the Second World War - the end of which was marked by several partitions, which cost the lives of lacs of Indians, including Mahatma Gandhi. Thereafter it spilled over into Korea and Vietnam in the 1950’s, the Arab world soon after, and carries on till this day. Depending on how it is calculated, the twentieth century has witnessed the unnatural deaths of between 175 to 250 million people. Frontiers have imploded: terror, war and revolution have merged into one another, as have international war and civil war; militaries and para-militaries; legitimate force and vigilante violence.
Today, language and power are being used to enforce the disappearance of these distinctions. As Orwell put it, war is not meant to be won, it is meant to be continuous. Global capitalism is a society in turmoil, geared toward perpetual conflict. State structures are torn apart by the requirement of social stability and the magnet of militarism. The uneasy balance between capital accumulation and a world order founded on competing nation-states is under constant threat of violent disruption. Capitalism feeds on war, but is also threatened by it – the sobriety of accumulation cannot always accommodate the passions unleashed by organized killing.
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