Randolph Bourne, an American pacifist, famously wrote during World War I:
War is the health of the State. It automatically sets in motion throughout society those irresistible forces for uniformity, for passionate co-operation with the Government in coercing into obedience the minority groups and individuals which lack the larger herd sense.
Was he right? Only some of the time.
Recall the context. America’s entry into World War I gave the Progressive movement of the day, led by Woodrow Wilson (our first totalitarian president, and a key influence on the development of Fascism), the opportunity to dramatically reshape the relationship between citizens and state. Before the war, American government had a light footprint, and states jealously guarded their powers from Federal intrusion. But during the war, the Federal government greatly expanded its powers due to the wartime emergency; and it set a precedent which would be eagerly seized on during the New Deal fifteen years later.
In early modern Europe, frequent war was a great spur to the development of powerful states, but also to the increasing role of popular representation in government and strong social-welfare policies. As the eminent political scientist Charles Tilly put it, “War made the state, and the state made war.” His thesis, briefly put, is that rulers desperate to raise soldiers and money to pay them had two options: ratchet up their control over the populace and squeeze them until they comply, or else offer them valuable rights and privileges to get their willing cooperation. (Or both.) The enduring effect was that the state’s power over citizens grew, but in some states frequent wars also laid the groundwork for expanded political rights.
The story gets more complicated, of course, but it seems to be a recurring pattern. Peter Turchin argued convincingly that most empires first developed under the pressure of frequent barbarian invasions, which forced the rapid growth of strong state structures to defend against them. More contemporary examples come easily to mind. So is that the end of the matter? Should all states be fomenting wars in order to extend their control over the populace?
Not quite. Miguel Centeno reminds us that not all states grow stronger during war. War is a tremendous stressor, and some states crack under the strain. States that began the war with weak institutions, with tenuous control over their populaces, may never achieve the longed-for unity in the face of the enemy. Instead, the desperate need for money and manpower may force states into bad deals, where they accept long-term problems for the sake of short-term survival. Different factions may harden among the people, undermining the development of healthy patriotism and breeding disloyalty for generations to come. Struggles over government power and taxation may hobble the state likewise.
The key question seems to be: is a state that is facing wartime stresses stable enough to survive them and thrive? If so, then its power will likely grow, justified by the emergency but lingering long after the war is over. If not, then state dysfunction may be the result.
(Of course, in real life you can get both outcomes, in different domains. The military-industrial complex is many things, but a rational exercise of government power is not one of them.)
(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series. Many of the previous posts in this series eventually became grist for my handbook for authors and game designers, Beyond Kings and Princesses: Governments for Worldbuilders. The topic of this post is at the intersection of the planned second and third books in this series, working titles Tyranny for Worldbuilders and War for Worldbuilders. No idea when they will be finished, but they should be fun!)