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Monthly Discussion

 

 

 

The Missing War

 

 

According to the Kondratieff 56-year cycle (amply discussed in Predictions) world economy reached rock bottom during the mid 1990s and should recover slowly to reach another boom in the 2020s.* The previous worldwide economic rock bottom was 56 years earlier, in the late 1930s. At that time the road to recovery was greatly stimulated by the need for reconstruction following World War II. But the recovery from the 1990s rock bottom lacks such stimulation. The Gulf war did not produce significant damages, and no other major war seems in sight. Yet, a period of rapid growth, such as the one predicted for the first decades of the 21st century, is usually preceded by major destruction.

This logic for stimulating growth has probably been one factor behind the renewal rituals practiced by earlier societies such as the Aztec Indians. All Middle American civilizations, including the Mayans with their extraordinary refinement of mathematical and astrological knowledge, used two calendars. A ritual year of 260 days ran in parallel to the solar year of 365 days. The least common multiple of 260 and 365 is 18,980 days, or 52 years. At the end of each 52-year-cycle, the Aztec's performed a rite in which pottery, clothes, and other belongings were voluntarily destroyed, and debts forgotten. A ceremony called tying up the years culminated with the renewal-of-the-fire ritual to ensure that the sun will rise again.

Such a voluntary destruction of assets would seem unacceptable to us today. Thus, excluding a major war, it is difficult to imagine a source of destruction for Western society in the mid-1990s that would cause large-scale material damages and stimulate the next growth phase of the Kondratieff cycle. Yet the cycle predicts that important economic development and reconstruction efforts should dominate the following twenty-five years. What, then, will trigger them?

At the time I was writing Predictions I was at an impasse with the forecast of an imminent worldwide catastrophe until I came across an unusual book where I found a resolution for my conflict.

 

 

On the Possibility and Desirability of Peace

In 1967 a little book was published by Dial Press titled Report From Iron Mountain on the Possibility and Desirability of Peace. In the introduction, written by Leonard C. Lewin, we are told that "John Doe," a professor at a large Midwestern university, was drafted by a governmental committee in August 1963 "to serve on a commission 'of the highest importance.' Its objective was to determine, accurately and realistically, the nature of the problems that would confront the United States if and when a condition of 'permanent peace' should arrive, and to draft a program for dealing with this contingency.**

The real identities of John Doe and his collaborators are not revealed, but we are told that this group met and worked regularly for over two and a half years, after which it produced its report. The report was eventually suppressed both by the government committee and by the group itself. Doe, however, after agonizing for months, decided to break with keeping it secret, and he approached his old friend Lewin, asking for help with its publication.

Lewin explains in his introduction why Doe and his associates preferred to remain anonymous and did not want to publicize their work. It was due to the conclusions of their study:

 

Lasting peace, while not theoretically impossible, is probably unattainable; even if it could be achieved it would almost certainly not be in the best interests of a stable society to achieve it.

That is the gist of what they say. Behind their qualified academic language runs this general argument: War fills certain functions essential to the stability of our society; until other ways of filling them are developed, the war system must be maintained預nd improved in effectiveness.

 

In the report itself, after explaining that war serves a vital subfunction by being responsible for major expenditures, national solidarity, and a stable internal political structure, Doe goes on to explore the possibilities for what may serve as a substitute for war, in as much as the positive aspects of it are concerned. He writes: "Whether the substitute is ritual in nature or functionally substantive, unless it provides a believable life-and-death threat it will not serve the socially organizing function of war."

In Section 6, entitled "Substitutes for the Functions of War," Doe quantifies the economic conditions that must be satisfied:

 

Economic surrogates for war must meet two principal criteria. They must be wasteful," in the common sense of the word, and they must operate outside the normal supply-demand system. A corollary that should be obvious is that the magnitude of the waste must be sufficient to meet the needs of a particular society. An economy as advanced and complex as our own requires the planned average annual destruction of not less than 10 percent of gross national product if it is effectively to fulfill its stabilizing function. When the mass of a balance wheel is inadequate to the power it is intended to control, its effect can be self-defeating, as with a runaway locomotive. The analogy, though crude, is especially apt for the American economy, as our record of cyclical depressions shows. All have taken place during periods of grossly inadequate military spending.

 

Among the alternatives that the study group considered were war on poverty, space research, and even "the credibility of an out-of-our-world invasion threat. The most realistic, however, may be war on pollution. In Doe's words:

 

It may be, for instance, that gross pollution of the environment can eventually replace the possibility of mass destruction by nuclear weapons as the principal apparent threat to the survival of the species. Poisoning of the air, and of the principal sources of food and water supply, is already well advanced, and at first glance would seem promising in this respect; it constitutes a threat that can be dealt with only through social organization and political power. But from present indications it will be a generation to a generation and a half before environmental pollution, however severe, will be sufficiently menacing, on a global scale, to offer a possible basis for a solution.

After the publication of the Report, guessing games of "Who is Doe?" and "Is the Report authentic?" started circulating among academic and government circles. The White House conducted an inquiry concluding that the work was spurious. However, at the same time the Defense Department ordered 5,000 paperback copies for "routine distribution to overseas libraries". Then, in 1972 Lewin admitted authorship of the entire document as a piece of fiction conceived to satirize the think-tank mentality and to extend the public discussion of "peace planning" into new domains.

Despite the fictitiousness of Lewin's report, its thesis is utterly sound溶o wonder critics at the time attributed the book's authorship to John Kenneth Galbraith預nd its prediction on pollution deadly accurate. One to one-and-a-half generations from the mid-1960s brings us to nowadays and the damage we have done to our environment during this period can be equated to the major destruction caused by war. So my conclusion in Predictions that war on pollution could be the "missing" war is still valid. But as of September 11, we have yet another possible surrogate for a major war: war on terrorism.

If war on terrorism is to play the role of a bona fide war, then it must be costly (wasteful), much beyond the combined costs of cleaning up New York, and rebuilding the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The "recipe" given above specifies that the expenditures must rise to at least an annual 10% of GNP. There may not be enough money for both Star Wars and an effective antiterrorist program. Neither does it mean that billions of dollars worth of bombs should be dropped on Afghanistan or other rogue states. A preventive punishment is certainly warranted; it should aim to effectively eradicate terrorist-breeding grounds and organizations. But in the long term it would not be on Americans' interest to alienate themselves from the rest or the world. 56 years ago the Americans were welcomed in Europe as saviors. They can do it again. Kondratieff's cycle says the time is right, and globalization says that this time the whole world is concerned.

Let the American dream extend to making the whole world a better place for everyone.



* Americans felt this recession only during the early 1990s because they jumpstarted their economy later in the decade for which they are paying the price now (see Newsletter discussion of 23-Apr-2001.)

** John Doe's [pseudonym] Report from Iron Mountain on the Possibility and Desirability of Peace (New York: The Dial Press, 1967).