War Is Becoming Obsolete — In 1884

At least coins were more attractive in 1884 (Morgan silver dollar)
At least coins were more attractive in 1884 (Morgan silver dollar)

W.J. Astore

One of the occupational hazards of being a historian is reading old books.  The one in front of me is John Fiske’s The Destiny of Man (1884).  Fiske was an American philosopher and popular writer on Darwinism, Spencerism, and many other representative isms of his day.  Like many thinkers of the late 19th century, he believed in inevitable progress as well as the inherent superiority of men like himself.

From the vantage point of 2013, what is perhaps most striking about Fiske was his optimism that war was coming to an end.  In his words:

The nineteenth century, which has witnessed an unprecedented development of industrial civilization, with its attendant arts and sciences, has also witnessed an unprecedented diminution of the primeval spirit of militancy.  It is not that we have got rid of great wars, but that the relative proportion of human strength which has been employed in warfare has been remarkably less than in any previous age … In almost every case [of war since the Revolutionary War and Napoleon] the result has been to strengthen the pacific tendencies of modern society …[War] has now become narrowly confined in time and space, it no longer comes home to everybody’s door, and, in so far as it is still tolerated…it has become quite ancillary to the paramount needs of industrial civilization …the final extinction of warfare is only a question of time.

War was coming to an end, to be replaced by the reign of law, Fiske predicted in 1884.  Thirty years later, the horrors of World War I came to visit (in one way or another) almost everyone’s door, with World War II proving an even more persistent caller.  Today, the United States finds itself in a self-defined, and apparently endless, “war on terror.”  What happened to Fiske’s pacific progress?

We all have blind spots.  For Fiske one of those was the European imperialism of his day, which he didn’t treat as war since inferior brutes needed civilizing by Whites.  Another was his belief in inevitable progress and the perfectibility of man, as shown by “the pacific principle of federalism” and the “due process of law,” which he believed would settle future disputes without war.

Rather than bashing Fiske, it’s perhaps more useful to ask what our blind spots might be.  American exceptionalism is certainly one.  Just as Fiske believed that the White man was inherently superior – the culmination and fruition of evolution and civilization – many Americans seem to believe that the United States is the best nation in the world, the most technologically advanced, the most favored by God.  This belief that “When America does it, it’s OK; when another country does it, it’s wrong” is one that’s opened many a Pandora’s Box.  A second blind spot is our belief that more and better technology will solve the most intractable problems.  Consider global warming.  It’s most definitely happening, driven in part by unbridled consumption of goods and fossil fuels.  Our solution?  Deny the problem exists, or avoid responsibility even as our country goes whole hog into boosting production of new (and dirtier) sources of fossil fuels via hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

Like Fiske, Americans by nature believe in their own exceptionalism.  Like Fiske, Americans by nature are generally optimistic.  But Fiske dismissed the horrors of imperialism even as he missed the looming disaster of mass industrialized killing in two world wars.

What are we dismissing?  What are we missing?  I’ve suggested we’re dismissing the blowback produced by our own exceptionalism even as we’re missing the peril we pose to the health of our planet.  I encourage you to add your thoughts below.

5 thoughts on “War Is Becoming Obsolete — In 1884

  1. Imperialism certainly preceded the industrial revolution. As soon as man could build ships to cross seas they were hard at acquiring distant territories, where they didn’t belong. Why was Anthony hot after Cleopatra and Egypt? But it is now apparent that Fiske did not understand the fundamental rapaciousness that industrialization of production in the West brought about.
    Fiske…. “(War] has now become narrowly confined in time and space, it no longer comes home to everybody’s door, and, in so far as it is still tolerated…it has become quite ancillary to the paramount needs of industrial civilization ”

    The very early imperial wars were mainly organized against primitive tribal societies who were no match for the likes of the Roman or Greek Empire’s or the later English, and European powers in the 17th and 18th centuries. Most of these were wars after resources solely. With the maturing of the industrial revolution through out western Europe the wars became wars between industrialized nations to secure those resources that other industrialized nations ‘owned’ for their own capitalists.

    Our current rulers seem to feel war has now become necessary in order to maintain unlimited industrialization rather than “ancillary” as Fiske hypothesized. We are now in a state of permanent war which Orwell forecast in the mid twentieth century. These wars are not against “terrorism” ,as we are told, but are primarily over oil and markets with the west pitted against China and Asia for both resources and markets in Africa and the Middle East.

    When will we ever learn.? Columbus didn’t “Discover” America, ( it was always here) he stumbled on it while searching for gold.


    1. That’s a great point, and it makes me think of a societal bias: the idea that our national health depends on a growing economy driven by consumption. We are constantly bombarded with economic measures and propaganda that suggest that we must buy, we must produce, we must consume, else our economy will collapse. No alternative model is offered. Everything is driven by the profit motive. Constant production and consumption drives the exploitation of the environment in the name of profit.

      We need new measures of health in our lives. A “healthy” nation is not measured by GDP. What about the health of our citizens? Their education? Their ability to live lives of dignity even in humble circumstances? Viable futures for their children?

      We are losing George Bailey and increasingly embracing Pottersville.


      1. You make an interesting and true point that “our national ‘health’ ( read economy) depends on a growing economy driven by consumption”.
        I agree with you but what strikes me as so ridiculous is that our ruling class is so obsessed with profit that even sound business logic has put them in the contradictory position of supporting fiscal “austerity” and export of jobs for profit but failing to see that both of these policies have put the kebosh on the domestic consumer market spending.
        So the more they export jobs, drive down wages, and government benefits, the more they are shrinking the domestic market . About the only industries that are doing well in this god forsaken domestic economy are high tech and armaments which sell abroad. Our auto industry is close to death compared to what it once was. Our steel industry is DOA along with textiles, furniture, footwear, clothing, toys, ad nauseum. Hello third world!


  2. Yet even as we become a “service economy” rather than the workhouse of the world, American workers continue to work longer hours than our peers in Europe for fewer benefits. A post-industrial world should create time, should enable a higher standard of living, as measured by health, education, leisure, avocations that nourish the soul as well as vocations that offer some meaning. What happened? Why don’t we have this?


  3. If man does find the solution for world peace it will be the most revolutionary reversal of his record we have ever known.
    George C. Marshall


Comments are closed.