The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People

by Jonathan Schell 2003, Henry Holt & Co., 433 pp. Review by Lindy Davies

Over the last few years many people have shared a growing apprehension that our nation has come “off the rails” and is careening madly toward some horrifying endgame. We never chose it; we see no sense in it; we do what we can to assemble and petition for redress of our grievances about it — but it seems to be utterly unstoppable. There are various notions of exactly what “It” is, and who is to blame: George W. Bush? Al Qaida? The corporations? The liberals? The WTO? It is, of course, difficult to know whose word to take on anything; every piece of news from every source must be subjected to a wearying process of spin-filtering. Strong, clear visions of what could be done dash themselves against seemingly impregnable walls of denial. We are cursed — in the words of the old Chinese proverb — to live in interesting times.

Jonathan Schell has never been one to shy away from The Big Questions. In The Fate of the Earth (1982) he took on the terrifying logic of nuclear deterrence, urging a sober, sane response to the greatest danger in human history. In a sense, The Unconquerable World updates that vision for a global political dynamic that could not have been foreseen 23 years ago. The book cuts through society’s current fog of pessimism and incoherence to illuminate how we got here, and what can now be done to defuse the terror.

Schell surveys two over-arching trends that led to the system of “total war” which brought such vast destruction in the 20th century: democratization, under which the masses of people came to identify with the policies of their nation, and provided the manpower for total war (as opposed to previous wars whose personnel had been limited to an aristocratic or military class) and industrialization, which led to a grand march of improvements in the technology of war. These trends reached their peak in the unprecedented savagery (and seeming incoherence) of the two World Wars, which were, in many ways, not separate conflicts — but rather two poles of one grand military struggle. The first World War sowed the political seeds of the second; but the second brought the “war system” to its point of obsolescence. Because we now possessed weapons capable of destroying all life on earth, it was no longer possible for one nation to impose its will upon another by means of total war. Nations had to find some other “final arbiter”.

This meant, in the crazy logic of the Cold War, that appearances came to stand for more than reality. This was the key, Schell notes, to how Kennedy and Kruschev resolved the most dangerous crisis of the Cold War: the Cuban Missile Crisis. Both leaders had to strike ultra-secret deals, known only to each other and not revealed for many years, that allowed their nations to stand firm and maintain nuclear “credibility” while privately reaching an agreement to defuse the crisis. It came to light, years later, that the United States was at that time far ahead of the Soviet Union in both quantity and quality of its nuclear arsenal; this came to be understood as the rationale for Kruschev’s seemingly inexplicable aggressive move in Cuba. Yet the Kennedy Administration proclaimed a “missile gap” in the Soviets’ favor — leading to a determination by the United States to beat the Russians to the moon!

Total War became a strategy that could never be resorted to, but always had to be maintained as a credible threat. Meanwhile, in the many struggles for national liberation that came during the years of Cold War, a new kind of military strategy evolved, which Schell calls “people’s war”. In nation after nation, imperial occupiers were cast out by forces that were vastly inferior in military terms — sometimes, as in Ghandi’s satyagraha movement, which led to Britain’s relinquishing control over India, they achieved their goals without using violence at all. In each of these struggles, Schell observes the supreme importance of political forces, and their ultimate invincibility against opponents whose strength was only, or primarily, in arms.

Schell shows that this primacy of political unity over sheer military force has always been the case, even when historians could only see it in hindsight. He describes many such examples in history — starting with England’s astounding “Glorious revolution” of 1688, in which James II’s numerically far-superior forces left the field without fighting at all, because political support for the King had evaporated, and the war was lost before it began. It was political solidarity, not military force, that got the French out of Algeria, the Japanese out of Manchuria, the United States out of Vietnam and the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan. Once Total War had become unthinkable, “people’s war” became not only a viable strategy, but, when it arose from an authentic popular movement, was not only unbeatable, but often needed no violence at all to achieve its ends.

The surprising power of nonviolent, popular movement is seen in the otherwise inexplicably fast decline of the Soviet empire. Václav Havel used the term “living in truth” to describe the small, personal acts of resistance to a seemingly invincible imperial power (this was quite similar to Gandhi’s satyagraha, which was loosely translated as “truth force”). Havel and other Eastern European leaders urged people to tell each other the truth as they knew it, and to look out for each other. In a society where the State intruded on every aspect of day-to-day life, such small acts were revolutionary, and created a political force against which the Soviet tanks had no power. In Poland, Schell asserts, Solidarity’s victory preceded the imposition of martial law, and was, thus, confirmed by it. When Russia itself seceded, the Soviet Union found itself with neither territory nor political foundation, and it simply vanished.

Hopeful as all this may sound, Schell warns of the profoundly dangerous instability of the post-Cold War period. The age of the “balance of terror” is past, and we now face a world in which smaller, more volatile adversaries face each other with the same terrible weapons. Can a “balance of terror” be maintained between India and Pakistan? Between Israel and Iran? Even little North Korea seems to be able to blackmail the United States with the threat of nuclear weapons. In such a political situation, there is some logic to the Bush Administration’s “neocon” strategy of asserting absolute military superiority, and fighting one “war of disarmament” after another. However, Schell insists, this strategy is exceedingly dangerous, and — because of the inescapable fact of nuclear proliferation — ultimately cannot succeed.

Schell holds that the “logic of peace” suggests three initiatives that serve to build cooperative, nonviolent solutions to today’s global problems. First, the United States must give up its attempt to achieve global hegemony, and must join the world’s nations in renouncing all weapons of mass destruction. This renunciation, and the establishment of a strong regime of inspections and sanctions, would not rid the world of the potential for such weapons — for that can never happen — but it would go far toward easing the knife-edge tensions that preclude constructive solutions.

Next, he suggests that the brutal wars of self-determination can resolved by a “de-lamination of sovereignty”. Sovereignty has traditionally implied control of a specific territory, enforced by military power, but that is not the only model available. Schell observes that when the United States established its government, in a nonviolent, cooperative manner, it chose various forms of overlapping sovereignty as a check against any element of the government seizing power. It is no longer necessary for a nation to be the same entity as a territorial administration; indeed, when the territory in question was carved decades earlier by an imperial power seeking to “divide and conquer”, it may be utterly impossible. Such arrangements have already begun to evolve in Northern Ireland; they probably represent to only hope for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Thirdly, he proposes a democratic league of states that would offer assurances to others who were adopting democratic principles — which would become a structure for reinforcing the underlying tendencies for people, beneath and apart from governments, to cooperate in nonviolent resistance to oppressive and coercive structures.

The redemption of society from unsustainable, immoral structures is a favorite topic among adherents of Henry George’s ideas — and so they ought to be interested in this book. A Georgist cannot help but read its final chapters, though, without wishing to sit down with the author and explain one other, utterly vital piece of the solution: the realization that the natural opportunities must no longer be held as private property. Fred Foldvary, for example, has proposed an eminently sensible “de-lamination of sovereignty” as a way of resolving the Israeli/Palestinian crisis — but one which is based, as all real solutions must be, on recognizing each citizen’s inalienable right to the land and its rent — regardless of national affiliation. In making the land question central to his political proposal, Foldvary provides a credible way to find the freedom to unstick the forces that are now stuck. How else can it be done?

Schell’s book is immensely useful. Its careful scholarship elucidates the ripening of opportunity for nonviolent cooperative movements, in which we can find great hope. Yet his case would have been far stronger, if he had applied as searching an analysis to the economic sphere as he did to the political. Ultimately, success depends on bringing if the question of land and its rent to bear on political reality. For us, then, this is what “living in truth” must entail.

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