Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.
- Rosa Luxemburg, "Junius Pamphlet" 1916

Friday, April 15, 2011

Mobilization for national emergency: lessons of World War II for the age of eco-collapse

Michigan munitions factory, Second World War.

I'm currently reading the book War, Economy, and Society, 1939-1945, by British historian Alan S. Milward. It's an economic history of the Second World War. Milward surveys and analyzes how each of the major combatant powers re-organized their economies around the central, overriding purpose of waging a global war for national survival. Milward wrote the book in 1977, but from what I can tell it remains one of the standard works on the subject by a professional academic historian.

Milward delivers non-stop surprises, in the form of facts and interpretations that defy expectation. Prime example: the wartime economy of Nazi Germany. In view of the totalitarian nature of Hitler's regime, you would expect that the administrative apparatus of Germany's economy would be a model of ruthless, centralized, inhuman efficiency. The use of slave labor in the factories fits this notion. And it's true that the Nazi state was fueled by a horrific ideology of racial extermination. Nazi philosophy expressed a mystic reverence for war as a purifying force. The resulting totalitarian government exercised, in theory, absolute authority, unconstrained by any notion of ethics or constitutionalism.

So, then. The regime should have been able, one would think, to forge the German economy into a ruthlessly effective, monstrously machine-like regimentation of perfectly optimized industrial war-making. But, Milward makes clear, this didn't happen. The Nazi war economy suffered ongoing corruption, incompetence, and conflict among jealous bureaucracies competing for scarce resources. On paper, the Nazi government functioned as a massive, draconian hierarchy answering obediently and perfectly to the Fuehrer. In truth, a hierarchy did exist, and it did influence the making of economic policy. Clearly, an organization in the hierarchy that gained the favor of the supreme figure at the top had a political advantage. But the normal laws of petty bureaucratic squabbling still operated, even in totalitarian Nazi Germany. Totalitarianism did not create mechanized uniformity and harmony.

And the Nazi war economy, in Alan Milward's account, did not operate as the perfect engine of endless bomb-making that one might expect. Hitler explicitly ordered German war production to be kept below maximum possible levels for as long as possible. He did this because he feared that draconian regimentation of the economy for war would generate revolution against the Nazi state -- just as the social pressures of war had triggered revolution against the Kaiser after the brutal quagmire of 1914-1918.

You read that right: a government ruthlessly dedicated to totalitarian oppression did not eliminate all conceivable inefficiency or opposition. The poster child for absolute power, Adolf Hitler, did not rule without the possibility of challenge. His fears of dissent would be realized in 1944, perhaps from an unexpected direction, when a bomb concealed in a briefcase under his conference table exploded.

Only around 1943 did Germany's economy truly gear itself for all-out war, according to Milward's statistics. All out mobilization was not achieved, as popular imagination and Allied intelligence of the time would have it, in 1936 or thereabouts. Of course, by the time Germany mobilized fully, the war against the industrial juggernaut of the United States and the slave armies of Joseph Stalin was almost certainly lost. Still Germany fought on, against a strangulating blockade of its continental empire, amidst relentless physical attack on its cities, infrastructure, and resources.

Consequently, Nazi Germany faced increasing strain on its production capacity and its supply of raw materials. German output of oil, coal, steel and other essentials of military power took place under the most extreme conditions. Increasingly, production of raw materials, and hence of finished armaments, faltered.

Nevertheless, even under extreme duress, beset by organizational friction and dysfunction, the Nazi regime and its armed forces remained operational until the spring of 1945. Only when a crescendo of Soviet steel rolled toward Berlin and the armored columns of the Western democracies overran the industrial heartland of Germany did Hitler's regime finally begin to collapse.

* * * * *

Milward's history of the industrial world's first global emergency delivers a cornucopia of possible lessons to ponder as our generation faces the second. Here I will briefly note only some of them.

1) Nationwide industrial production and political organization under conditions of extraordinary resource strain and social pressure is feasible.

Implication: collapsing energy and resource supplies in the remainder of my lifetime -- 2011 to around 2040 -- will not inevitably destroy the effectiveness of national governments. Many scenarios for the next thirty years are possible. Some of them encompass the effective end of national institutions in the United States and elsewhere. Some of them do not. A range of outcomes is possible. In a complex, unpredictable ecological system, whether a rainforest or a society of hominids, multiple outcomes over time are possible in almost all cases, even if some are more probable than others.

2) Eventually, resource strain does become so great that the collapse of a national government is probably inevitable. Nevertheless, this strain had to reach extreme levels in 1945 before Germany -- and Japan -- became unable to organize their societies for effective military resistance.

In the meantime, for at least a short period, under increasingly dire circumstances, German and Japanese economic and political institutions successfully directed available resources to a single, critical goal. For the Axis powers in World War II, that goal was armaments production.

Implication: in the period 2011 to 2040, a similar national effort can be organized under analogous conditions of extreme emergency and increasing physical distress.

3) In World War II, both the Axis powers and their adversaries successfully re-engineered their entire economies in a very short time to serve a single, overriding purpose: national survival.

The nation-states of that time faced the most extreme circumstances imaginable. Except for the geographically isolated United States, the belligerent governments confronted a massive, relentless threat to their very existence. Even American officials believed that Axis victory would, in the long-term, force them to construct a regimented garrison state so unrecognizable as to constitute the end of the country they had known. So the United States and the other warring nations converted their entire economies to meet the threat.

Implication: the major powers could do so again today, even under extreme conditions, facing a different but equally monumental emergency.

4) In my view, the range of possible future histories for the period 2011 to 2040 encompasses one or more of the major nation-states responding to eco-collapse with a national mobilization effort equally as extensive as the mobilization for World War II.

Such a scenario is possible because, in the next three decades, it will become clear to the national elites of today that they face a threat at least as great as that of the 1940s. Any resulting national mobilization would not be undertaken for reasons of altruism, enlightenment, or justice. It would be launched for expediency and reasons of state. It would, in all likelihood, be implemented from above without much regard  for the wishes or well being of those below. The mobilization would be of, by, and for the people in power, serving their interests above all. Corporations involved in the effort would be assured of making money, their executives ensconced in positions of power. The military forces and their officer corps would take a central role. If the general population benefits from the mobilization, they would do so not by the goodness and mercy of the elite but because the elite fear what desperate masses might do.

5) The emergency of eco-collapse will last far longer than World War II. It has in fact begun already, and it will continue for the rest of the existence of the human species on this planet. But the initial decades -- 2011 to 2040 for certain -- will have certain distinctive features. Human beings of that era will live on the initial downward slope of a worldwide collapse, when the psychological shock of its onset will be potentially overwhelming, the speed of its acceleration breath-taking, and the force of its effects ever more devastating.

In all of these ways, the era of initial descent will resemble a period of global war. In fact, given the planetary scale of the crisis, an actual global war may occur. This would inflict even greater destruction than the global campaign of blitzkrieg and counterinsurgency now being waged by the United States. A more intense and massive future war could be exactly the trigger needed for an elite-driven conversion of national economies in the era of scarcity and collapse.

6) Nationwide economic conversion, once begun, can be completed in less than a decade. We know this beyond doubt from the experience of World War II. The mobilization for that conflict demonstrates that the physical apparatus of a modern economy can be quickly re-engineered. National institutions, once mobilized for supreme emergency, can be effectively sustained, even under extreme conditions and resource scarcity. Not forever, but almost certainly for a decade or less, to serve an overriding purpose. One purpose could be making bombs.

Another could be making energy from something other than fossils. And converting the other aspects of the economy accordingly, just as bomb-making required the rationing of every resource and the retrofitting of every factory the nation's industrial plant. Mass economic conversion can be done, even under continuous bombardment, whether the assault comes from literal bombs or a suddenly hostile biosphere. A decade-long crash conversion for a post-carbon society can be done, in principle. And a decade will be enough. Or so my reading of history and today's ecological trends would suggest.

It is more than conceivable that a self-interested national government will reach the same conclusion in the thirty years we are about to live.

* * * *

Human civilization is 5,000 years old, dating to the first cities along the Tigris and Euphrates. In all of that time, civilization and its periphery have been ruled jointly by princes, merchants, and priests (almost all of whom, until the last century, have been male).

The balance of power among the three branches has shifted constantly over time. A feudal prince in Paris, for example, had less power than Louis XIV. But the princes in the area we know as France have never gone away, in the millennia since extensive human settlements began to flourish west of the Alps. The princes have remained, whether they were chieftains of Gaul, governors from Rome, kings of the Franks, monarchs of the Carolingian dynasty, feudal lords of France, absolutist autocrats of the Enlightenment, or ministers of the modern republic.

Now the modern age is passing, giving way to the Anthropocene. The princes will continue. And they won't stay idle when they see the old world falling to ruin. They will try to make the new one theirs as well.

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