Aphoristic Observation: (Statist) politics is the continuation of war by other means.

A while back, I was watching the movie Crimson Tide and made the following observation.

There was mention of the famous dictum by the Prussian general, military historian, and theorist Carl von Clausewitz: “War is the continuation of politics by other means.”

There is a profound truth in that dictum. It identifies shared characteristics of statist politics and war: anti-social conflict, some imposing their will on others, destruction and redistribution of wealth, and so on. When statist political means fail to have the desired result and recourse is made to naked war, the true character of both the aggressors and the statist political process is revealed.

But I think that von Clausewitz got it backwards; the observation would have been more profound and true had he written instead: “(Statist) politics is the continuation of war by other means.”

Ballots replace bullets within the democratic state but conflict persists with special interest groups vying for the reins of power so that they can use the perceived legitimacy of the state to impose their will on each other. Beneath the sophisms that grant the state legitimacy there lies the same threat or use of initiatory violence that is present in war. Open war is traded for the illusion of peace.

Might this quip from Ronald Reagan touch upon a similar insight? “Politics is supposed to be the second-oldest profession. I have come to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first.” Is he referring to war? Or prostitution? Both analogies would be apt. War is often a boon to both prostitutes and politicians, though prostitutes at least are usually more honest about what they do and can conduct their business peacefully.


Update: I may well have been influenced by Gerard Radnitzky’s chapter, “Is Democracy More Peaceful than Other Forms of Government?” in Hoppe’s The Myth of National Defense. Radnitzky wrote: “Clausewitz’s dictum — “War is the continuation of politics by other means” — is generally accepted; but the converse — “Politics is the continuation of war by other means” — also holds” (p. 150). I don’t think I was conscious of this at the time I wrote the original version of this post (in late 2007). If I had been, I’m sure I would have referenced him. Fellow TLS blogger, Brutus, also drew upon this passage in a 2009 blogpost on Who’s Your Nanny?


Slightly revised from the original at Is-Ought GAP.

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  • I’ve generally viewed politics as a form a ritualized combat. Basically, we avoid real combat be choosing some activity as a proxy, where that activity shares components with real combat.

    For animals, brute strength is often brought to bear in ritual combat, as it would in real combat. In ancient warfare, a battle between champions may be indicative of the general strength and skill of the opposing forces. In modern politics, as in modern war, it’s all about being able to organize and motivate large groups of people.

    This is one of the reasons that I believe that the goals of campaign finance regulations are unobtainable — political influence must be tied to general social influence, or else the political system will be unstable.