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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Governing through War

When I talk to people about how the "war on crime" transformed American politics and law since the late 1960s (the subject of the book Governing through Crime) one of the most interesting questions I get is whether the problem is more with making "crime" such a privileged target of national anxiety and identity, or whether the problem isn't with the "war on" metaphor itself, whether it attaches to cancer, poverty, terrorism, or crime. My short answer is that "crime" is the problem, and the "war" metaphor is a historically durable feature of at least US national governance. President Obama's first "Oval Office" address last night (read the transcript), brought the question back to the fore.

While President Obama never uttered the "w" word, he all but declared war on the catastrophic oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico and on America's dependence on oil more generally. Sounding downright Churchillian, the President told Americans:

But make no mistake: We will fight this spill with everything we’ve got for as long as it takes. We will make BP pay for the damage their company has caused. And we will do whatever’s necessary to help the Gulf Coast and its people recover from this tragedy.

Tonight I’d like to lay out for you what our battle plan is going forward: what we’re doing to clean up the oil, what we’re doing to help our neighbors in the Gulf, and what we’re doing to make sure that a catastrophe like this never happens again.

The war, as a metaphor for powerful and just governmental action of all sorts, perhaps dates from the Crusades and has been reproduced in Protestant culture by a whole series of revival and social improvement movements in the 19th century. I believe (on pure speculation) that its installation as the preferred metaphor for US Presidents seeking a national mandate for action dates to World War II and FDR's rhetorical mastery in unifying a potentially very divided nation behind the real war against Fascism. The Cold War against the Soviet Union and its allies extended war into a generalized mode of struggle on every front. Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, liberally declared war on poverty, crime, cancer, and drugs. President Obama explicitly invoked World War II and implicitly invoked the Cold War through mentioning the Moon landing project (which was at bottom a Cold War military operation).

But the one approach I will not accept is inaction. The one answer I will not settle for is the idea that this challenge is somehow too big and too difficult to meet. You know, the same thing was said about our ability to produce enough planes and tanks in World War II. The same thing was said about our ability to harness the science and technology to land a man safely on the surface of the moon. And yet, time and again, we have refused to settle for the paltry limits of conventional wisdom. Instead, what has defined us as a nation since our founding is the capacity to shape our destiny -– our determination to fight for the America we want for our children.

While other societies seem much less attracted to this metaphor, its appeal in the US is twofold. First, our national government is extraordinarily weak constitutionally speaking and easily diverted from sustained efforts at social change. Combined with an individualist ideology that yields little presumptive share to the common good, it is understandable that Presidents have found it essential to invoke war metaphor if they want to project national power beyond its current brokered arrangements. Second, most of our wars, and all of them in the 20th century, have been fought primarily on other shores. With inflated spending and normally troublesome young men shipped overseas to kill others, war-time has often been "good-times" in America.

War as a metaphor brings some nasty features including intolerance, excess, tunnel vision, and a general aggrandizement of power and authority. However these are just the flip sides of its virtues. In my view it was the crime part of the equation that caused all the problems. A "war on crime" was especially destructive because it encouraged Americans to push all kinds of social problems into the constricting metaphor of crime with its focus on individual bad conduct, its heavy legacy of racial domination and demonization, and it empowered some of the (at the time, in the 1960s through the 1980s) most repressive and residually racist institutions in American government including local prosecution, police and prisons.

In contrast, a "war on oil" or "carbon" or "infrastructure failure" or whatever, exactly, President Obama has in mind --- is likely to unleash very different (if inevitably unpredictable) dynamics. The focus on large corporations (like BP), highly technical risks (like deep water drilling or climate change), and America's own consumption patterns, is likely to encourage a very different kind of "idealized citizen subject" than the "crime victim" projected by the war on crime. The call to reinvent regulation, produce new technologies, and change how we live, is likely to empower sectors of government at the national and state level that are relatively new and unshadowed by troubling legacies of failure and scapegoating.

Could we govern without fear? Love can work for a lifetime among individuals, and among communities for a summer or two, but I'm afraid at 50 I find myself with Hobbes on the reliability of fear. Not necessarily fear of the sovereign, but more precisely a sovereignty constituted out of fear.

cross-posted at Governing through Crime

Posted by Jonathan Simon on June 16, 2010 at 12:46 PM in Culture, Current Affairs, Jonathan Simon | Permalink


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I think you bring up some really good points here. While I think there's a lot of blame that need to be shoveled towards BP and other large energy corporations designed to make a profit without thinking about much else, it would be a shame to come out of this disaster with corporate America as the sole scapegoat. Americans need to take responsibility for the fact that the ubiquitous oil industry is here because we need it to sustain the lifestyle we crave. And the power of the oil industry will remain until American collaborate to promote a low-carbon lifestyles. That means consuming less, and being willing to pay more in the short term for hybrid and electric vehicles so that we can save in the long term (in terms of cash and safety).

I think the war metaphor is apt, especially when it comes to the race to the moon. I hope to see Obama get stronger and actually double down on a 21st century energy economy divorced from big energy interests fueled oil and gas corporations.

Posted by: Ben Buchwalter | Jun 16, 2010 1:20:27 PM

Jonathan, what a great post. It is of particular interest to me since my current research agenda, including the next 2 books, could be reframed as "governing through war."

I especially like your framing of a sovereignty of fear. It would be so helpful to bring together scholars who work on crime, and scholars who work on war, for a cross-field conference on fear and governance.

While war is often used as a metaphor for dealing with non-war problems, there is also a fusion between the categories. For example, the "war on drugs" is sometimes disconnected from global military engagement, but the war on drugs sits at the intersection between war and crime. Latin Americanists and crim scholars have convinced me that I can't put drugs in a separate category from war.

A couple of small points:

1. "I believe (on pure speculation) that its installation as the preferred metaphor for US Presidents seeking a national mandate for action dates to World War II and FDR's rhetorical mastery in unifying a potentially very divided nation behind the real war against Fascism."
You would actually have to look earlier, even for FDR. His *first* inagural address was permeated by war metaphors applied to addressing the economic crisis. I'm pasting this in from one of my papers (http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=905938):

"Delivering his first inaugural address in March 1933 in the face of unprecedented economic crisis, Roosevelt urged the nation to move forward “as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline.” Larger, national purposes would “bind upon us all as a sacred obligation with a unity of duty hitherto evoked only in times of armed strife.” Roosevelt placed himself “unhesitatingly” at the head “of this great army of our people dedicated to a disciplined attack upon our common problems.” He promised to recommend measures to Congress appropriate to a warlike emergency, “that a stricken nation in the midst of a stricken world may require.” If Congress failed to respond, “I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis – broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.” The speech was celebrated, but Eleanor Roosevelt admitted that it was “a little terrifying” that “when Franklin got to that part of his speech when he said it might become necessary for him to assume powers ordinarily granted to a President in wartime, he received his biggest demonstration.""

In terms of origins, Michael Sherry dates the pervasive impact of militarization on American culture (including the use of war metaphors in domestic politics) from the 1930s. His book In the Shadow of War is, I think, the most important work in U.S. history on this point. I am skeptical about his starting point, however, and may argue that we need to roll it back. And whenever I suggest that this is a 20th century American story, 19th C historians and early Americanists object that I need to look earlier. My precise focus is ongoing war, rather than the political use of war metaphors, but with, e.g., ongoing militarization of the U.S. western border through the 19th C (discussed in Maguire, Of Law & War, and other works), I would be cautious before assuming the utility of war metaphors in American politics dates from somewhere in the 20th C.

2. "While other societies seem much less attracted to this metaphor..."
I am always skeptical of comparative points like this w/o comparative evidence. Without more, I wouldn't say that Isreal, China, North Korea, Egypt, etc., etc., use the war metaphor less than the United States. Perhaps a comparativist could weigh in on this?

Posted by: Mary Dudziak | Jun 17, 2010 10:23:02 AM

Thanks Mary. I'd come to that conference in a flash. Thanks for the Roosevelt quotes. Roosevelt was clearly well versed in a war rich metaphoric grammar. I assume it comes from the Evangelical discourse of the 19th century (Salvation Army) intensified by the spiritualization of the Civil War dead that must have been imbibed by anyone growing up in the late 19th century.

Posted by: Jonathan Simon | Jun 17, 2010 12:02:21 PM

I suggest that another aspect of the war aspect -- and a reason the "wars" on drugs and poverty are shaky -- is an appeal to achieve a final resolution, not an eternal struggle. The idea is not just that we put aside American individualism and act collectively at the government's direction, but that when we do, we can eliminate polio or put the man on the moon, just as we eliminated the Nazis.

The wars on poverty, drugs, etc., are often framed the same way -- LBJ truly suggested that poverty would be eliminated, and the drug war was launched with rhetoric about eliminating drugs, not reducing abuse to some acceptable low level. That eliminationist strain, in my view, carries serious costs, because even if it rallies the troops on the front end, it sets the stage for inevitable disillusion down the road.

It's bad enough when we face a real war that seems never-ending, like the Cold War or war on terror, even though the Cold War did end. And it's also unsatisfying when a real war is fought to a tie, like Korea, as opposed to the clear-cut victory of WWII. Indeed, one criticism of Bush 43, as to Irag, Afghanistan, and the broader ongoing war on terror, is that he was not willing to prepare people for a long struggle, but sold Iraq as a one-month operation -- just a larger-scale Grenada.

For the non-military "wars," the only ones that have a true end seem to be the diseaase eradications (putting aside the possible revivals of some seemingly-ended diseases). I suppose we also achieve 99.9% saturation in getting everyone a phone or a TV, but I can't recall anyone using the war metaphor to expand a good, as opposed to eliminating something bad. (Sure, some are semantic, e.g., eliminating homelessness is expanding home-(ful?)-ness, but was there a war on phonelessness?)

So when people see that the War on Poverty went on for decades without victory, it became time to pull out, like Vietnam.

Makes me want to declare war on the war metaphor.

Posted by: nobody | Jun 17, 2010 5:05:45 PM

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