The contemporary relevance of bellicose thought

In document The Sociology of War and Violence[1][1] (Page 57-62)

The horrifying experience of the two twentieth century total wars – the result of which was nearly 70 million human lives lost – had a profound impact on sociological theory too. Any association with the concepts and ideas that interpreted war and violence in analytically neutral or even an indirectly positive light found no place in academic life. On one hand, fin de siecle intel-lectual militarism was in part held responsible for the horrors of the two wars, and on the other hand, the ‘bellicose’ comprehension of social life was deemed irrelevant for understanding the social realities of post-WWII indus-trial society. As a result the ‘bellicose’ tradition of classical social thought was largely forgotten – either through outright rejection, or via socially uncon-scious suppression. Any attempt to seriously revisit these works was simply labelled as an attempt to rehabilitate social Darwinism, thereby invoking instant condemnation as being morally reprehensible. In consequence, much of the second half of twentieth century social thought was dominated by the ‘pacifist’ theories that drew upon ‘non-bellicose’ interpretations of Marx, Durkheim and Weber and articulated class and political inequality (neo-Marxism, conflict theory), normative system functionality (structural

functionalism) or bureaucratic rationalisation (neo- Weberianism) as key themes of social life in an industrial age.

However, as the second half of the last century and the beginning of this century clearly demonstrate, collective violence and warfare have not evapo-rated. On the contrary, while the Cold War generated numerous third-world proxy wars between the two superpowers, its ending saw a proliferation of collective violence and warfare throughout the world, not least among the successor states of the former communist federations. As Holsti (1991) and Tilly (2003) document well, the twentieth century was by far the bloodi-est century in recorded human history, with 250 new wars and over 100 million deaths. With the dramatic increase in organised terrorist violence and continuing wars in Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan and many other places, this century is not looking promising either. In other words, rather than being an aberration, violence and war remain an integral part of human social experience and as such require serious sociological engagement.

Nevertheless contemporary sociology, for the most part, tends to ignore war and collective violence. Still coloured by the strong normative bias inher-ited from the legacy of the two world wars, much contemporary sociological research combines an intensive rejection of violence with the blatant neglect of its presence (Joas 2003).

Although there is a relatively long tradition of (mostly American) mili-tary sociology (Stouffer et al. 1949; Janowitz 1953; 1957; Segal 1989; Burk 1998) and since mid 1980s there has been a revival of interest in warfare by comparative political and historical sociologists (e.g. Giddens 1985; Tilly 1985; Mann 1986; 1988; Hall 1987) – which I explore extensively in the next chapter – their focus is either on the workings of military organisation or on the historical impact of warfare on state formation and less on the sociology of war and violence per se. As Wimmer and Min (2006: 868) rightly point out: ‘sociologists have discussed war as a cause for other phenomena of inter-est to them, but rarely as an explanandum in its own right’.

Therefore, to help articulate a potent contemporary sociology of war and violence which would directly engage with these processes it is paramount to revisit classical social thought, which, as I attempt to show, provides a source of versatile sociological concepts and theories of war and violence.

To make classical approaches relevant it is vital to eliminate the normative militarist baggage present in some of these theories and to read, interpret and utilise them not as ontology or ethics but as analytical sociology. That is, re conceptualising these heuristic models in a non-essentialist, non-rei-ficatory and non-moralist discourse will allow us to develop a constructive

conceptual apparatus for the sociological study of war and violence. In some respects the revitalisation of sociological interest in warfare as a catalyst of state-making that occurred in the late 1980s has indirectly rehabilitated some of the ideas developed by the classical theorists. As I demonstrate in the next chapter there are clear links and overlaps between the theories of the contem-porary political and historical sociologists and those of the classical ‘belli-cose’ tradition. Nevertheless these similarities and the direct influence of the classical theorists are almost never acknowledged and there are no serious attempts to rehabilitate the classical ‘bellicose’ tradition. However, if our aim is to understand and explain the continuing impact of war and collective vio-lence on social relations and vice versa it is essential that we seriously engage with the classical works as they offer rich conceptual apparatus that requires sober scrutiny, application and further articulation. Forgotten concepts such as Gumplowicz’s syngenism, Ratzenhofer’s distinction between the conquest state and culture state, Rustow’s superstratification, high culture and culture pyramid as well as Simmel’s understanding of war as an absolute situation and Sorel’s heroic aggressiveness are still highly relevant and useful starting models capable of illuminating an analytical understanding of the role vio-lence and war play in social orders. While syngenism focuses our attention on the role of culturally framed group solidarity in mobilising and popu-larly justifying war actions, heroic aggressiveness points in the direction of exploring the hypothesis that violent confrontation is the basis of most moral virtues, since a willingness to endanger oneself in combat for the sake of a group is often perceived by the group members as the height of group mor-ality. As I elaborate in more detail later (see Chapter 7), recent sociological, historical and psychological research into battlefield behaviour confirms the explanatory utility of these conceptual models as small-group solidarity – rather than strong ideological commitments or self-interest – is found to be a decisive factor in mobilising soldiers to fight. Moreover these studies clearly corroborate Gumplowitz’s argument that micro-level solidarity and the syn-genetic quality of social relationships are the cornerstones of joint collective action. They also empirically support the view that the cataclysmic context of war reinforces inter-group morality whereby in combat situations most soldiers come to perceive their platoons and regiments in intensive kinship-like terms.

In addition, the usefulness of the concept of war as an absolute situation that transcends and radically and utterly transforms social relations, cen-tral values and everyday life depends on having obtained sound empirical evidence of this in the context of large-scale warfare. Extensive research on

social behaviour in the two world wars and the Vietnam War has already demonstrated that, contrary to popular perceptions, killing does not come

‘naturally’ to trained soldiers but requires intensive coercive regulation and control (Grossman 1996; Collins 2008). Moreover self-sacrifice for a close group is often preferred to killing the supposedly hated enemy. As I attempt to show later (see Chapters 6 and 7) not only are war experiences and propa-ganda regularly inversely proportional, as the dehumanisation of the enemy progressively increases with the distance from the battlefield, but also as the soldier’s sense of sociability is dramatically intensified in this ‘absolute situ-ation’ and his life hinges on the strength of small group ties then these ties become sacred and the group itself becomes greater than any of its members (Bourke 2000: 237; Collins 2008: 74).

Similarly, the theory of the historical transformation from the conquest-driven state to the culture state, whereby the refinement of civilisation is rooted in a culture pyramid which originated in the violent superstratifi-cation, needs thorough historical and theoretical examination to assess its merits. The recent research on the ‘new wars’ (Kaldor 2001; Bauman 2002b;

Shaw 2005) shows that, as predicted by Rustow, the former colonial pow-ers (conquest states) have become internally pacified and highly advanced (culture states) often at the expense of exporting war to the poorer parts of the word (superstratification). These studies might be interpreted as sub-stantiating Rustow’s ideas since they see new violent conflicts as predatory wars resulting from the rampant economic liberalisation that undermines already weak states in the South. The leading proponents of the ‘new-wars’

paradigm, such as Bauman and Kaldor, build indirectly on Rustow since they perceive globalisation as a force that leads to state failure that, eventually, creates a Machiavellian environment with armed warlords utilising identity politics to spread terror and control the remnants of state structures (Kaldor 2001; Bauman 2003). Although, as I argue in Chapter 10, this economistic interpretation overstates the historical novelty of ‘new wars’ it clearly opens avenues for new research that owes a great deal to the unacknowledged pre-decessor, Alexander Rustow.

None of this is to deny that some or even most of the concepts and theor-ies developed by the classical theorists may be problematic or not applicable to contemporary forms of violent conflicts and wars. It may be the case that the results of more recent archaeological, historical or psychological research have made some or many of the claims made in these classical theories redundant and obsolete. Nevertheless as sociology is, for the most part, not an unambiguously cumulative discipline where it is possible to draw a simple

distinction between fact and value, the ‘old’ concepts are not necessarily prone to academic ageing and respectful burial. As Alexander (1987) notes, in the social world there is no empirical data that is not already tainted by theory, so new empirical evidence nearly always requires significant theor-etical shifts to initiate foundational paradigm changes. As a consequence, rather than discarding their predecessors as irrelevant and outdated, sociolo-gists remain indebted to them for ideas, concepts and theories that are made afresh through the ongoing debate with contemporaries and by a constantly changing social environment. Hence, what really matters is whether the con-ceptual apparatuses articulated by classical ‘bellicose’ social thinkers still retains heuristic value for the contemporary study of war and violence. As much of mainstream sociology continues to shy away from the proper study of violence and warfare it seems reasonable to start from the already existing concepts that the classical theorists provide rather than from scratch. And as we will see in the next chapter, the fact that some of the classical ideas have been indirectly revived in recent political and historical sociology suggests that they have clear explanatory value. However, to succeed in this analytical enterprise of revisiting the classics it is important to leave our post-WWII normative biases behind and to try to understand, as the classical theorists did so well, that whether we like it or not, war and violence are not patho-logical aberrations but integral parts of social life.


In document The Sociology of War and Violence[1][1] (Page 57-62)