Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831), famed Prussian general and author of On War, defined war as “the continuation of politics by other means.” The clear presupposition of von Clausewitz’s definition is that politics and war have the same end in mind, defeating and dominating all opposition. Only the means differ. Of course, we may object to the Machiavellian nature of von Clausewitz’s realpolitik. But as a description of how nations actually relate, it often fits the facts. As I try to make some sense of the upheaval that characterizes contemporary society, von Clausewitz’s definition of war comes to mind. Only, it needs to be flipped on its head, so that it fits contemporary social facts. It’s flipped form reads as follows:
“Politics is the continuation of war by other means.”
Follow me one step further. In times of national crisis, everything you do and say and every relationship becomes political. The novelist and Nobel Prize laureate (1929) Thomas Mann, writing about German culture just before WW I, said, “Everything is politics” (The Magic Mountain, 1924). Perhaps you have heard the feminist assertion, “The personal is political.” This slogan entered popular culture with the publication of Carol Hanisch’s 1969-essay by that title. It was used by Gloria Steinem and other feminists of the late Twentieth Century to make all dimensions of male/female interactions matters of public debate and policy.
It seems to me that the idea expressed in the assertions “everything is politics” and “the personal is political” has been taken up and generalized by contemporary post-modern culture. They are no longer merely theoretical and aspirational but are descriptive of the facts of the present state of society: every social interaction is a political act and every person is an ally or an enemy in a political cause. All relationships have become relations of power. In every interaction, we oppress or are oppressed, dominate or are dominated, we act as racists or anti-racists, or we win or lose. The logic goes as follows:
War is politics (von Clausewitz).
Politics is War (Highfield’s inversion of von Clausewitz)
The Personal (everything) is political (Post-Modernism)
The personal (everything) is War.
Think about it: social media, the press, sports, business, entertainment, education from kindergarten to graduate school, science, family life, and marriage—everything is political! Everything is war. And in war everything is fair: Pandora’s Box is opened. Legions of demons are unleashed: hatred, lies, slander, theft, murder, rage, betrayal, and spying. No evil is forbidden as long as it helps our side. “Truth” is only an idea that can be plausibly used to justify our cause. “Reality” is a state of affairs (in military terms, “facts on the ground”) to be created by power. “Justice” is a vision of our interests realized. “Peace” is but hidden preparation for war.
Genuine peace is possible only if we deny and resist the philosophy that asserts, “the personal (that is, everything) is the political.” The peacemaker denies that every relationship is a power relation. Peacemakers seek to replace win/lose with win/win interactions. They seek unity among differences. They expand rather than contract the space of the personal.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God” (Matt 5:9).
Next Time: What is the difference between ethics and politics, between what is right and what is legal? If “everything is political” there can be no difference between the two. But peace is possible only if the two differ.