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Are politics simply civil war by other means?

March 16, 2017

In a recent blog post I shared a typology of conflicts. Presenting this in a workshop recently, I was asked why bother to categorise conflicts in this way? The response – helpfully provided by someone else at the seminar – was that framing or categorization is important, as how we explain and understand phenomena determines how we approach and address them.

I was reminded of this when reading David Armitages’s new book Civil Wars: A History in Ideas (Yale University Press, 2017). Armitage uses his book not to tell the story of civil wars in history but, as his sub-title suggests, to tell the story of how civil war has been framed through (western) history, and in so doing reminds us that history weighs on how we see the world, shaping how we define and deal with the phenomena of our day. Essentially, the baggage which all language carries shapes how we make sense of the world – and therefore how our world is.

Civil wars are the wars of our era. Of the 484 wars fought between 1816 and 2001, over 60% were civil wars. There have been on average 20 civil wars per year since the end of the Cold War (compared with only two per year between 1816 and 1989). 25 million people have died in battle in civil wars since 1945, and civil wars have cost around $125 billion per year during that period. So his book is highly relevant today. In his telling, ‘civil war’ is a relatively recent idea, born in Roman times.

Definitions and tropes entail and constrain other definitions and tropes. For the ancient Greeks, where citizenship was a matter of birth and breeding, what we now call civil war was not seen as war at all, but more as sedition – a conflict between citizens and the state: for how could citizen be at war against citizen when each was a part of a natural whole? Thus the Greek word for war, polemos (recognisable in our own polemic) was not used to describe internal conflicts, which were seen as stasis – meaning things were internally out of balance. And even in Rome until the first century BCE, where for many years political factions had used mobs and street gangs to express their politics through violence and assassination, this was part of political life, and not a “civil war” – i.e. not a war of citizen against citizen.

But once the genie was out of the bottle – according to Armitage, when Sulla fought against Marius around 80 BCE – when Roman generals and their troops under arms entered Rome and fought battles against other Romans – against other citizens – for power over the Roman State, this became a trope which Roman commentators and historians would never forget. (Although not the first Roman general to do so, Caesar’s decision on returning from Gaul, to cross the Rubicon under arms, thus breaking the terms of his commission, became emblematic of this new phenomenon).

Cicero is thought to be one of the first to use the term bellum civile around 60 BCE, but within decades it became part of the received wisdom of Roman ideas that the Roman polity was destined (‘cursed’) to suffer frequent eruption of civil wars – almost as though it was a price to pay for having developed a civilised political system in which citizenship (vis-a-vis the “civil” state) was such an essential feature. To be civilised entailed a concept of citizenship no longer linked to ethnicity but to class status and civic obligation. But to be civilised was also to be prone to civil war. And so, as Rome’s political scientists and historians described their past, their future was also to be: Rome undergoing periodic episodes of civil war throughout its history. As Rome succumbed to barbarian invasion centuries later, St Augustine noted that bellum civile had long been fundamental to the Roman political model, which thus contained the seeds of its own weakness and destruction. As we define our world, so it comes, perhaps, to be…

Armitage goes on to chart the evolution of concepts of civil war (its “history in ideas”) with stops in the 17th , 18th and 19th Centuries – and a brief look at modern times. In the first of these stops we see how contemporary events again reshape the idea. In the turbulent English 17th century, the Roman idea of citizen versus citizen, with each side having a theoretically equal legitimacy in its fight to gain the state – which had persisted through the Wars of the Roses in the 15th century – gave way to a new model of interpretation in which one side had greater legitimacy, based on its ideology, than the other – with supporters of each side expressing their preference accordingly. The English Civil War being a useful illustration, in that each side was not simply trying to capture or keep state power, but brought with it a significantly different view of what the nature of the state and citizenship should be, and how state power should be used: an ideological civil war.

Political thinkers in the 18th and 19th Centuries took this still further. Swiss enlightenment writer Emer de Vatel declared that war against the state – against the status quo – is acceptable if the status quo is unbearably unjust, and that in such circumstances the rules of war – of jus in bello – apply. This was a major turning point, as hitherto it had generally been considered that civil war was by definition a most brutal and unregulated kind of conflict, in which participants were not bound by normal rules. The declaration of independence by rebels created a situation of de facto state against state – civil war, again – and further legitimized other nations intervening on one side or the other in a way they should not if the conflict were merely seen as citizens rebelling against their state. Edmund Burke, an Anglo-Irish radical turned reactionary by the horrors of the French revolution, used this argument to claim Britain’s right and responsibility to intervene on the side of reaction in revolutionary France. John Stuart Mill took this further claimed there were two circumstances when intervention in others’ internal civil war was justified: when people were trying to throw off a foreign yoke, or when the war was creating prolonged suffering through the inability of one side to beat the other, so needed to be brought to an end for humanitarian reasons. (Here perhaps, we see the stirrings of what later became the international doctrine Responsibility to Protect…).

The idea of civil war evolved further in the 19th century, with the US Civil War playing a pivotal role,  with the Union side deciding that the rules of war applied – not as a humanitarian gesture, or at least not only that, but as a way to reinforce its legitimacy and tactics in crushing the other side. Lincoln saw the war as not just a rebellion but a civil war – a “great civil war” as he put it in the Gettysburg Address. But he was clear that it was an ideological attack against the whole United States, and not simply a war of secession from it.

As an illustration of how important labels, categories and concepts are, and of their interplay with politics, the US Civil War was not legally recognised as such by Congress – i.e. as a bellum civile, rather than a rebellion or ‘Abolition War’ –  until 1907 – and perhaps to this day is not so recognised by some Americans.

The book charts many other twists and turns (or layers, perhaps) in the building of the definition of civil war. So where does that leave us today? Absurd political debates about whether Iraq was in a state of civil war persisted even as tens of thousands died in violence. Of course it was a civil war: different factions were fighting violently for power. Is Syria in a state of civil war? That too was debated, absurdly, before the ICRC declared definitively in 2012 that it was a civil war. Surely if it looks and sounds and smells like civil war, then it is a civil war: when the people of a single polity are waging organised armed violence with recognisable factions or sides, it’s a civil war and needs to be treated as such?

But the concept of civil war is still evolving, and definitions do matter, as Armitage argues: ‘civil war is a contested concept about the essential elements of contestation’. As such, definitions inevitably reflect political interests. In this era of globalisation, when the nation-state is gradually being eroded by supranational rules and norms, and the presence of powerful economic interests and entities not bound by national borders, then we may need to reconsider the boundaries of civil war again. For the Romans, bellum civile was a war of citizen against citizen: Roman against Roman. And just as the concept of citizenship had shifted from an ethnically based – natural – identity in ancient Greece, to a civic – conferred – identity in Rome, we are perhaps seeing today the gradual emergence of the idea of global human citizenship, with universal rights and obligations inferred from international norms of human rights. If civil war in Rome was war of “brother against brother”, and if all citizens across the world are in some senses part of a global polity, does that mean that all wars are in some sense becoming civil wars? And if so, what does that say about our right to intervene?

Armitage’s book is a fascinating read – an intellectual pleasure. But teasing out its practical implications for peacebuilding today is not easy.  I think the key message remains his underlying premise that how we describe the world shapes how we respond to and address it, and thus how we shape our circumstances. If we define the wars in Syria as primarily a war of ‘the Syrian opposition’ against the Assad regime, then we not only miss the point that the opposition is multi-faceted, with all sorts of axes of ‘opposition’ in play, but that it is also a war about the nature of the Syrian state and of Syrian citizenship, with many different models being proposed; a war about the protection of minorities; a post-colonial war; a war about religious ideas and identity; a war about access to the economy; and many other wars as well… And that is without adding in the multiple regional and other geopolitical layers to the mix. Hence the risk in placing too much emphasis on the removal of Assad as the only path to peace.

And, now that the historic ceasefire deal has been signed between the Philippines government and the long-lasting rebel group National Democratic Front, following last years’ peace agreement between the government of Colombia and FARC rebels, perhaps the underlying  grievances over access to land and economic opportunity which spurred both rebellions many years ago can now be dealt with through politics instead of violence. If so, that would reinforce Armitage’s idea that ‘politics is civil war by other means’.

I think his book also reminds us that the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is a doctrine of profound importance in the right hands, and that those hands really do have to be those of the UN. Edmund Burke’s view that Britain should intervene against the French revolution may look in hindsight like a version of R2P, but it was not. It was his desire to push back the tide of change, and prevent the spread of dangerous ideas to Britain. Thus political, not humanitarian in nature. R2P is still new, and still being shaped, in practical terms, and is an immensely sensitive concept as it pits international human rights norms against the norms of state sovereignty. We can’t leave the task of shaping how this tension will be resolved, in the hands of those with the most power to intervene: it must be a doctrine owned universally if it is to take root.

Finally, Armitage seems at the end of his book to hark back to Hobbes, when he turns von Clausewitz’s famous dictum on its head in saying that politics is civil war by other means. In this, he gets to the heart of the idea of positive peace: the idea that in human society at every level we need a combination of systems and culture allowing us to resolve and address our differences, and a sufficient degree of equality in access to welfare, to economic and political participation, and to the means of achieving justice and security, to be able to resist the call to arms against our fellow citizens. Surely Romans were wrong that civil war is inevitable, but they were right that the kinds of pressures which give rise to civil war will always exist. Unless the level of grievances within society is minimised and there are adequate mechanisms in place to work through our differences without recourse to violence, there will always be a risk of war.

(A shorter version of this is posted at International Alert’s website)



2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 20, 2017 6:44 am

    Politics is a peacefull way of solving conflicts, the same way the roots of the word debate comes from conflict, conflict of oppinion and arguments.
    The problem of debates and politics are that they focuse on taking advantage on any way possible and it’s focuse on their own proposal, not bringing up the best of all contributors ideas. We could work more for a peace and just world


  1. What people say about peace | Phil Vernon's blog

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