By What Authority:

January 2005

By What Authority

Book Review: War

A force that gives us meaning

© 2005 Mike Ferner

In his provocative bestseller, War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, Christopher Hedges explores how individuals, groups in society, and whole national psyches are emotionally invested in war.

For anyone actively involved in the movement against the continuing tragedy in Iraq, or even quietly fuming at home, the war is a constant outrage, each day exceeding the next. Some days we can think of little else. And yet, as we shout against the thunder of war I can see that Hedges makes a powerful point, even for the peace movement. Because war"s suffering is so horrible, opposing it gives me a sense of purpose beyond what "normal" life brings, and I sense the same thing within my friends who are similarly committed to ending this war.

Given this emotional power, to say nothing of the money corporations make at it, how are we to abolish war?

Months or years from now, we will end this war against Iraq. What will the peace movement do then? Take to the streets, perhaps more effectively, when CEOs and their puppets in government march the nation to the next war?

How will our work for peace turn out any differently than these other valiant efforts?

Time after time, dedication, hard work and being right were not enough to counter the massive private power that consistently marshals our own government against us. Let me repeat. It is private power -- economic power that becomes political power -- that turns our own government against us. And not just our government, but virtually every institution in society: schools (is critical thinking or Howard Zinn taught anywhere?); the media (corporations blare from every conceivable venue what kind of energy, health, finance, transportation etc. products and policies are good for us); universities (what research is funded); and our national conversations (as informed by Cato, Heritage, Brookings etc.)

How do we strike at the root, not the branches of war?

As an example of how not to, here's an experience I was personally involved with and have since viewed as strategically flawed.

In the hay day of the anti-nuclear movement in 1976, Ohioans gathered a half-million signatures on initiative petitions to put a package of energy-related measures before voters. Utility companies bankrolled a media campaign that crushed the measures at the polls.

What"s the corollary for the peace movement today? I see two areas:

  1. Some communities may be considering placing non-binding initiatives on local ballots to get the U.S. out of Iraq. These efforts open up educational opportunities and if this tactic becomes widespread you can bet vested interests will oil up the PR machines to fight them.

  2. Even without going to the electoral process, the ongoing battle for public opinion is being waged in no small part with enormous sums from corporations profiting from war.

How should we address this perversion of free speech rights on the part of corporate interests? Might the peace movement at least want to consider how this issue impacts our efforts, whether in general or particularly before going to the voters? If we don"t, we are setting ourselves up for the same long-term failures of past movements. To wit:

While activists in the Progressive era and their political descendants including us, were busy trying to keep meatpackers like Armour Co. from selling rotten meat (Pure Food and Drug Act), trying to make British Petroleum Corp. dump a little less toxic waste into our air and water (National Environmental Policy Act), and trying to keep corporate members of the National Association of Manufacturers from killing and maiming workers on the job (Occupational Safety and Health Act), attorneys for all the above, and more, were busy finding ways to use the Constitution for their clients and against us.

They chaffed at the idea that only real humans with tongues and larynxes should have free speech. They wanted to extend the 1st Amendment, the 14th Amendment and entire Bill of Rights to the legal fictions they represented. The best legal minds money could buy argued before their fellow elites on the Supreme Court to get the 14th Amendment to apply to corporate "persons," (Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad 1886, and Minneapolis & St. Louis Railroad v. Beckwith, 1889), 4th Amendment protection against unreasonable searches, including those "unreasonable" OSHA inspectors (Hale v. Henkel 1906, and Marshall v. Barlow 1978), and twist the 1st Amendment to protect perverse versions of free speech (Virginia Bd. Of Pharmacy v. Virginia Consumer Council, 1976), make sure that corporate executives could tell us what kind of energy policy we need (PG&E v. Public Utilities Commission, 1986), what kind of dairy products we could be warned about (International Dairy Foods Assoc. v Amestoy 1996), and how to vote on all sorts of things including health care initiatives (First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, 1977).

Creating a strategy that takes into account corporate usurpation of the Bill of Rights won"t be easy. Exactly what that strategy would contain, no one knows presently. But we ignore the question at our own risk.

Part of the process will likely be learning how our political forebears, particularly the Populists, operated and what informed their activism. In that way we can begin to relearn and internalize something we"ve long forgotten — how to be a sovereign citizen. How we define ourselves shapes our activism, and today we are not citizens but consumers in a commercialized culture where everything, including the pursuit of happiness, is a commodity.

Few answers exist yet for these concerns, and unfortunately, the frenetic press of activism prevents us from even formulating the right questions. If we"re serious about not just stopping this war, but stripping corporations of the privileges they have usurped from us; dismantling their power to govern; and ending their ability to direct our hard-earned wealth into butchery and empire, we need to ask the questions that will get us to a strategy that works better than what we"re doing now.

As we do, we will also find the way to build an actual culture of democracy, a sense of real community to fill the void in our souls that can never be filled by the Shopping Channel or Blue Light Specials. We may even one day see a bestseller called Democracy Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning.