Everything Is War and Nothing Is True

The sense that politics has become warlike has been brewing for a while. War metaphors (“culture war,” “social justice warrior”) accumulate steadily, each implying a breakdown of common political ground.

One way to understand the upheavals of the past decade, manifest in political populism and the surge in talk about “post-truth” and “fake news,” is as the penetration of warlike mobilization and propaganda into our democracies.

The principle that military and civilian operations should remain separate has been a cornerstone of liberal politics since religious and civil wars tore through Europe in the mid-17th century. The modern division between the army and civil policing originates in late-17th-century England, when early forms of public administration came to treat (and finance) the two independently of each other. Since then, the rule of law has been distinguished from rule by force.

However, there is an opposing vision of the modern state that also has a long history. According to this alternative ideal, the division between civil government and the military is a pacifist’s conceit that needs overcoming. And it’s not a coincidence that these days nationalists are especially keen to employ the rhetoric of warfare: The wars that fuel the nationalist imagination are not simply military affairs, going on far away between professional soldiers, but also mass mobilizations of politicians, civilians and infrastructure. Ever since the Napoleonic Wars witnessed conscription and the strategic mobilization of the economy, nationalists have looked to war to generate national solidarity and a sense of purpose.

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