LI’s post on loot was fortunate enough to attract some comments from P.M. Lawrence. We disagree about the reasons for the progress of empire, but Lawrence makes a strong case for viewing the different parts that came together in Great Britain between 1688 and 1789 as parts not of some general ‘program’ or the expressions of class interest, but as, in a sense, a concatenation of independent and contingent developments.
LI’s point is not to deny the place of contingency. However, we’d claim that accident and program are related to one so that elements advantageous to one sector of a society – say the income from the slave trade going to slave traders and their financiers and the plantation owners and their financiers and the merchants of the products produced by the plantations and their financiers - are built upon to maximize and prolong the sectorial advantage in the face of opposition from other sectors and unpredictable, contingent factors – shifts in the environment, or unexpected technological changes, or the like. However, this does not mean that the advance of a given sector eliminates unexpected outcomes on the larger, national level, since there are – as any development economist will tell you – numerous sectors in a nation, and their striving for advantage is not coordinate. Thus, for instance, the fact that Britain developed a system – the national debt – that sluffed the payment for war onto future generations by the use of long term loans meant that, by 1789, almost half of the tax collected by the government was being used to pay back these loans. In other words, the most taxed – the consumers, as there was no income tax – were paying for wars that benefited a changing but distinct establishment of merchants, plantation owners, financiers and the like. As a contingent part of this, public investment by the state in British infrastructure devolved to the private sector. This paradigm of heavy state investment in war and a paucity of state investment in infrastructure was not, I think, the result of liberal or whig ideology, but it did become a model for classical liberal ideology, with its principle that the state should be as small as possible, i.e. not invest in human capital, not invest in land improvement and the like, and leave that to the private sector. In the nineteenth century, the liberal dream was to apply the same idea to the state’s ‘security’ apparatus – that somehow the need for war would vanish in the face of increasing trade.
This, at least, would be my hypothesis about how war figured into the emergence of the liberal order.
The question of the war and loot is not just historical. In the 90s, some scholars around Paul Collier called into question the notion that civil wars are driven by grievance instead of gain. The incentive for Collier’s work was the outbreak of civil wars all over Africa that came after the end of the Cold War. In a much referenced essay, Doing Well out of War, Collier writes:
“The discourse on conflict tends to be dominated by group grievances beneath which inter-group hatreds lurk, often traced back through history. I have investigated statistically the global pattern of large-scale civil conflict since 1965, expecting to find a close relationship between measures of these hatreds and grievances and the incidence of conflict. Instead, I found that economic agendas appear to be central to understanding why civil wars get going. Conflicts are far more likely to be caused by economic opportunities than by grievance.”
To make his case, Collier first has to explain why it seems like civil conflicts stem from grievances.
“Narratives of grievance play much better with this community than narratives of greed. A narrative of grievance is not only much more functional externally, it is also more satisfying personally: rebel leaders may readily be persuaded by their own propaganda. Further, an accentuated sense of grievance may be functional internally for the rebel organization. The organization has to recruit: indeed, its success depends upon it. As the organization gets larger, the material benefits which it can offer its additional members is likely to diminish. By playing upon a sense of grievance, the organization may therefore be able to get additional recruits more cheaply. Hence, even where the rationale at the top of the organization is essentially greed, the actual discourse may be entirely dominated by grievance. I should emphasize that I do not mean to be cynical. I am not arguing that rebels necessary deceive either others or themselves in explaining their motivation in terms of grievance. Rather, I am simply arguing that since both greed-motivated and grievance-motivated rebel organisations will embed their behaviour in a narrative of grievance, the observation of that narrative provides no informational content to the researcher as to the true motivation for rebellion.”
Ho ho. Collier stumbles upon the old philosophical problem of intention, here, and rightly does what we all do to solve it: he looks around for actions, divided into those consistent with an economic or a grievance motive, to confirm intentions.
“I first describe the proxies which I use to capture the notion of an economic agenda. The
most important one is the importance of exports of primary commodities. I measure this
as the share of primary commodity exports in GDP. Primary commodity exports are
likely to be a good proxy for the availability of `lootable’ resources. We know that they
are by far the most heavily taxed component of GDP in developing countries, and the
reason for this is that they are the most easily taxed component. Primary commodity
production does not depend upon complex and delicate networks of information and
transactions as with manufacturing. It can also be highly profitable because it is based on
the exploitation of idiosyncratic natural endowments rather than the more competitive
level playing fields of manufacturing. Thus, production can survive predatory taxation.
Yet for export it is dependent upon long trade routes, usually originating from rural
locations. This makes it easy for an organised military force to impose predatory taxation
by targeting these trade routes. These factors apply equally to rebel organisations as to
governments. Rebels, too, can impose predatory taxation on primary commodities as long
as they can either interrupt some point in the trade route or menace an isolated, and
difficult to protect, point of production.”
Could what counts, here, in civil conflict be extrapolated to conflict between nations within a world system?
This is, I should say, just one part of Collier’s entire schema, which goes like this:
The two other economic proxies are: the proportion of available young men, and the cost of recruitment (“If young men face only the option of poverty they might be more inclined to join a rebellion than if they have better opportunities”), which is a function, in Collier’s model, of education – education creating, for him, a more extensive series of economic opportunities against which to measure violence.
The four factors of grievance are: religious and ethnic hatred; economic inequality; political rights; and government economic incompetence.
The double register of Collier’s economic/grievance factors do seem more indigenous to civil conflict than to conflict between nations. But the first, looting factor – now that interests LI. In inter-national disputes, what seems to happen is that the economic factor exist in contrast to the political factor - that is, the dispute becomes its own justification. Grievance – which has resurfaced as liberal interventionism – is subordinate to board positions, so to speak. Thus, if France “goes into” India, Britain, to ‘defend itself”, has to go into India. If Russia goes into Afghanistan, the U.S. has to counter Russia. Etc. A certain amount of moralizing will follow on the heels of the moves in the game, but it will never be very coordinate with those moves, and will lead to ceaseless confusion among the propagandists for and against the moves, who will always seem to be arguing about issues that aren’t quite relevant to the case.