An Austrian Economist and an American Journalist
The breakout of World War I upended many lives, including those of two great thinkers: the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises and the American journalist Randolph Bourne.
The young Mises had just revolutionized the economics of money and the business cycle. And he was on the verge of still more breakthroughs when his career was interrupted by the Great War. Other economists in Austria were given cushy assignments in war planning offices. But Mises, who was radically out of step with prevailing politics, was sent to the front lines as an artillery officer.
Bourne had been pursuing independent study in Europe under Columbia University’s prestigious Gilder Fellowship for travel abroad. The continent-wide hostilities drove him back to the States where he resumed his previous career as a magazine writer. But Bourne was radically out of step with the militarism then sweeping America. His anti-war writing got him censored and shunned, both professionally and socially.
Both men deplored the Great War for upending, not only their own lives, but Western civilization itself. For Mises, it represented the end of an era. Mises called the century prior the “Age of Liberalism,” a time of rising economic freedom and integration, relative peace, and skyrocketing living standards. In 1914 that was all thrown away in favor of war, collectivism, and central planning.
Bourne saw the war as “a vast complex of life-destroying and life-crippling forces” that “devotes to waste or to actual destruction as much as it can of the vitality of the nation.”
Both subsequently worked to explain how such a calamity could come about. What is the fatal flaw in the soul of man that could yield such madness? What are the sociological factors that can drive a nation over the precipice of war and tyranny?
Ludwig von Mises and Warfare Sociology
Mises managed to survive the Russian shells and frigid cold of the eastern front. Immediately after the war, he set to work on a book explaining the Great War’s origins, his 1919 Nation, State, and Economy. Among other factors, he noted that the nationalists who drove their countries into war held a conviction that “between peoples irreconcilable oppositions” existed. He noted that socialists held a similar faith, but concerning classes instead of nations. Mises wrote that, “Marxism and Social Democracy see an irreconcilable opposition of conflicting class interests everywhere…” In his 1922 treatise Socialism, Mises incisively wrote that “Nationalist ideology divides society vertically; the socialist ideology divides society horizontally.”
Mises developed this theme further in his 1929 work A Critique of Interventionism, in which he wrote that Karl Marx,
“…denies that a solidarity of interest exists or has ever existed in society. A solidarity of interest, according to Marx, can exist only within each class. But a conflict of interest exists between the classes, which explains why the history of all societies has been a history of class wars.
Conflict is the moving force of social development to yet another group of social doctrines. For those doctrines the war of races and nations constitute the basic law of society.”
He then characterized both doctrines as variants of “warfare sociology.”
Mises had long struggled to intellectually combat the Marxist class warriors who sought to introduce Bolshevism to Austria. For example, his 1920 article on the socialist calculation problem demonstrated the fatal flaw in Soviet-style planning. Soon Mises found himself also hounded by race warriors. As a Jewish liberal, he was compelled to flee the rise of the Nazis: first to Switzerland, and then to America.
The events of World War II proved to Mises that warfare sociology had won the hearts and minds of the west. In his 1945 paper “The Clash of Group Interests,” he wrote:
“It is a fact that the living philosophy of our age is a philosophy of irreconcilable conflict and dissociation. People value their party, class, linguistic group, or nation as supreme, believe that their own group cannot thrive but at the expense of other groups, and are not prepared to tolerate any measures which in their opinion would have to be considered as an abandonment of vital group interests. Thus a peaceful arrangement with other groups is out of the question.”
Mises added that this worldview was not limited to the extremism of the vanquished Nazis and victorious Soviets. It also drove the special interest “producers’ policies” then being embraced throughout the developed world.
In his 1949 magnum opus Human Action, Mises traced warfare sociology to the belief that, “the gain of one man is the damage of another; no man profits but by the loss of others.” This ancient fallacy was first restated in modern times by the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne, and so Mises dubbed it the “Montaigne dogma,” which:
“…is at the bottom of all modern doctrines teaching that there prevails, within the frame of the market economy, an irreconcilable conflict among the interests of various social classes within a nation and furthermore between the interests of any nation and those of all other nations.”
Mises warned that:
“As long as the peoples cling to the Montaigne dogma and think that they cannot prosper economically except at the expense of other nations, peace will never be anything other than a period of preparation for the next war.”
In his 1957 book Theory and History, Mises developed this analysis further, coining a term for adherents of warfare sociology: “the antiharmonists.”
“As the antiharmonists see it, community of interests exists only within the group among its members. The interests of each group and of each of its members are implacably opposed to those of all other groups and of each of their members. So it is “natural” there should be perpetual war among various groups. This natural state of war of each group against every other group may sometimes be interrupted by periods of armistice, falsely labeled periods of peace. It may also happen that sometimes in warfare a group cooperates in alliances with other groups. Such alliances are temporary makeshifts of politics. They do not in the long run affect the inexorable natural conflict of interests. Having, in cooperation with some allied groups, defeated several of the hostile groups, the leading group in the coalition turns against its previous allies in order to annihilate them too and to establish its own world supremacy.”
Mises then used this framework to explain why militarist societies become police states:
“As they see it, human conditions involve forever irreconcilable conflicts, first among the various groups fighting one another, later, after the final victory of the master group, between the latter and the enslaved rest of mankind. Hence this supreme elite group must always be ready to fight, first to crush the rival groups, then to quell rebellions of the slaves. The state of perpetual preparedness for war enjoins upon it the necessity of organizing society after the pattern of an army. The army is not an instrument destined to serve a body politic; it is rather the very essence of social cooperation, to which all other social institutions are subservient. The individuals are not citizens of a commonwealth; they are soldiers of a fighting force and as such bound to obey unconditionally the orders issued by the supreme commander. They have no civil rights, merely military duties.”
Randolph Bourne and War as the Health of the State
The militarization of society was also the main theme of Randolph Bourne’s unfinished essay, “The State.” The unpublished manuscript was found in his apartment after his death in 1918. Unlike Mises, Bourne did not fight in World War I. His extensive physical limitations (he was deformed, hunchbacked, and stunted) would have made it impossible even if his moral restraints had allowed it.
But the disease-spreading ravages of the war reached him nonetheless. Underemployed and isolated due to his literary efforts against the war, he was struck down by the 1918–1919 flu epidemic that killed over 25 million people around the world, and 3 million in America. Randolph Bourne was a modern day Thersites: the hunchback in Homer’s Iliad who courageosly inveighed against the senselessness of the Trojan War and suffered greatly for it.
While Mises elaborated the ideological factors that drive people toward war, Bourne explored what happens to a society after war is declared. Especially he discussed how a state of war perpetuates itself by spiritually militarizing the citizenry.
The moment war is declared, the people undergo a radical psychological transformation. As Bourne wrote from painful experience:
“They then, with the exception of a few malcontents, proceed to allow themselves to be regimented, coerced, deranged in all the environments of their lives, and turned into a solid manufactory of destruction toward whatever other people may have, in the appointed scheme of things, come within the range of the Government’s disapprobation.”
Bourne characterized this transformation as essentially a reversion to bestial instincts: the regression of a society into a herd.
“Animals crowd together for protection, and men become most conscious of their collectivity at the threat of war. Consciousness of collectivity brings confidence and a feeling of massed strength, which in turn arouses pugnacity and the battle is on. In civilized man, the gregarious impulse acts not only to produce concerted action for defense, but also to produce identity of opinion. Since thought is a form of behavior, the gregarious impulse floods up into its realms and demands that sense of uniform thought which wartime produces so successfully.”
This collectivist herd spirit is what Bourne calls “the State.” In peacetime, the State is relegated to the background of national life. “With the shock of war, however, the State comes into its own again.” Bourne continues:
“The citizen throws off his contempt and indifference to Government, identifies himself with its purposes, revives all his military memories and symbols, and the State once more walks, an august presence, through the imaginations of men.”
This is what Bourne meant when he famously wrote, “War is the health of the State.” And the State is very health conscious. It will not readily countenance an end to a war that nourishes it. So anti-war sentiments and expressions will not be tolerated while the War State is riding high. Again, Bourne wearily speaks from experience:
“The State is a jealous God and will brook no rivals. Its sovereignty must pervade everyone and all feeling must be run into the stereotyped forms of romantic patriotic militarism which is the traditional expression of the State herd-feeling. (…) In this great herd-machinery, dissent is like sand in the bearings. The State ideal is primarily a sort of blind animal push towards military unity. Any interference with that unity turns the whole vast impulse towards crushing it.”
This is a very poignant passage considering that as he wrote it, Bourne himself was being crushed in just the way he described.
The Mises-Bourne Identity (Synthesis)
The analyses of Mises and Bourne are highly complementary. The Montaigne Dogma underlies the tribalistic thinking and indulgence of bestial instincts that lead to the wartime rise of the Herd. In Human Action, Mises wrote:
“The characteristic mark of the “state of nature” is irreconcilable conflict. Each specimen is the rival of all other specimens. The means of subsistence are scarce and do not grant survival to all.”
Under such conditions, the Montaigne Dogma is actually true: no specimen can gain except at the expense of another. And so “biological competition” unavoidably reigns in a Hobbesian war of all against all. “Cooperation” is predominantly a matter of crude amassing, in order outnumber and overmatch rivals for substistence.
But humans are capable of recognizing the benefits that flow from the division of labor in almost all situations. And so they develop basic moral precepts, especially concerning property and personal security, that make such subtle cooperation possible. As Mises explained, this is how civilization arises.
However, most will suspend the precepts of civilization when faced with “lifeboat scenarios”: situations that are so deprived and desperate that they negate the benefits of social cooperation.
When a government declares war, it basically convinces its subjects that they are in such dire straits: that a deadly attack is imminent, or that necessary resources (oil, leibensraum, etc) are dwindling dangerously. Under these exigencies, the story goes, survival demands suspending basic morality toward those considered outside the fold. The killing of innocent outsiders must be sanctioned in order to unleash the massive force necessary to eliminate the threat. Extracting resources from foreigners must be embraced lest the nation’s children go hungry. Social cooperation with the outsiders is no longer beneficial. Regarding the “enemy population,” the Montaigne Dogma obtains: the country cannot gain except through the extermination or expropriation of foreigners.
In such emergency conditions, primal instincts take over, and people start acting bestially, not only toward foreigners, but toward their fellow citizens. For the herd to survive, it must be strong. And for the herd to be strong, it must be unified. In the stampede to war, every herd member must go with the flow, or be trampled underhoof. Increasingly cooperation is no longer a matter of civilization, with all its varied subtleties, but degenerates into the crude and uniform mustering of our savage and inhuman ancestors.
For maximum unity, direction of the entire herd is largely yielded to the “herdsmen” in government. Thus, the government is interested in promoting ideologies of conflict, so as to sow strife (both foreign and domestic) that will send the people clamoring for its untrammeled “leadership.” Man is the only creature that is broken and tamed by being made feral.
In wartime, relations become utterly animalistic. Our fellows are no longer seen as sources of value through mutually-beneficial, voluntary exchange: as partners in the division of labor and civilized life. Instead, out-group fellow humans are seen as devoid of value entirely: as prey or rivals for sustenance, and therefore enemies. And in-group fellow humans are only valued insofar as they join the uniform swarm to overwhelm the enemy: what Bourne called a “blind animal push.” In musical terms, universal harmony gives way to inter-group discord and intra-group unison.
Ludwig von Mises explained how belief in a fallacy (the Montaigne Dogma) predisposes people to tribalism and conflict. And Randolph Bourne explained how fear based on that fallacy can turn a society into a docile herd ready to be driven into tribalistic war. Fallacy plus fear, error plus terror, equals subjection and war. This equation is not lost on the power-hungry.
Understanding Harmony is the Path to Peace
The first great intellectual victory against warfare sociology was won by the classical economists of the 18th and 19th centuries. Their first adversaries were the mercantalists, who were the preeminent antiharmonists of the time, advocating war, protectionism, and monopoly privilege. The classical economists countered them by demonstrating that, with free trade and free markets, not conflict, but a harmony of interests prevails: both among nations and among classes. Mises called the classical economists, and the classical liberals who followed them, the “harmonists.” Indeed, in his 1850 work Economic Harmonies, the great French classical liberal Frédéric Bastiat wrote eloquently about “the harmony of interests” that is illuminated by economics, but that is lost on those who “felt that men’s interests are fundamentally antagonistic…”
As Mises wrote in A Critique of Interventionism:
“We proceed from the position that there are no insoluble conflicts of interest within the private property order, even to the recognition that warlike behavior becomes rarer as the scope and intensity of social association grows. Wars, foreign and domestic (revolutions, civil wars), are more likely to be avoided the closer the division of labor binds men. The belligerent creature, man, becomes industrial, the ‘hero’ becomes a ‘trader.’”
By winning the ideological battle, the harmonists paved the way for the rising peace, liberty, and prosperity of the Age of Liberalism and the Industrial Revolution. But in the late 19th century, new antiharmonist doctrines — Marxism and nationalism — began taking hold. They continued to rise in the new century. The World Wars and the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis and Soviets marked their apogee.
Today, we are embroiled in conflict around the world because we are still afflicted by the Montaigne Dogma and the Herd Mind. But both can be dispelled if we rediscover what Mises called the “Classical Harmony Doctrine.” Understanding sound social and economic philosophy will help us realize that, in spite of government alarmism to the contrary, we are not in a national lifeboat scenario. Therefore, there is no excuse to suspend basic human decency in our relations with other nations (or other classes, for that matter). And there is also no excuse for giving up our own freedoms and turning our own society into a garrison state. Cooperation (free trade, investment, immigration, etc), and not conflict (invasions, occupations, bombings, puppet regimes, sanctions, tariffs, borders, etc), with people around the world is the surest path to our own prosperity.