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Is the United States drifting toward "war socialism"?

Jay Hanson is a well-known voice on issues of peak oil and sustainability. A systems analyst by trade, he established one of the first web sites (dieoff.org) to discuss these issues in depth in the mid-1990s. His latest web venture is a site called War Socialism on which he describes a form of governance which might become the only viable one in the coming age of scarcity unless we can muster unprecedented global cooperation to manage the decline.

By discussing "war socialism" I am not endorsing it. In fact, Hanson proposes an alternative, a global government that severely restricts human use of the global commons, that is, the natural resources upon which all of us depend. But Hanson is no lightweight. He has thought very deeply about our ecological predicament. He has tried to square what he knows about human behavior with what he believes needs to be done in the world we now face. It is clear from the organization and emphasis of his new site that he does not believe it is probable that the kind of global cooperation he would prefer will actually emerge.

To understand "war socialism" one needs first to understand that Hanson believes that the most likely (though certainly not preferable) trajectory for humanity is a massive dieoff that will claim the lives of 90 percent of the human inhabitants of the Earth. Absent the kind of cooperation Hanson would like to see in managing the coming decline, the only rational strategy may be for one's own country to work to outcompete other countries. The picture he paints is not an appealing one. But when you are trying to be one of the 10 percent who will survive the coming collapse, there is little room for sentimentality.

So, let's look at the war socialism society Hanson describes, and let's see if some of its building blocks are already in place in the United States. Here are the basic principles:

  1. Increase our fraction of global net energy (divert energy from competitors) directly by military action.

    Comment: There is little room to deny that the United States has long engaged in military action to increase and secure its access to resources, especially energy. With U. S. troops all over the Middle East that pattern continues.

  2. Increase our fraction of global net energy economically by increasing asset values (e.g., pumping up the stock market and real estate prices).

    Comment: This has rather successfully been done during the last 25 years though clearly it was not sustainable. We are trying to do it all over again.

  3. Reduce energy demand by eliminating unnecessary economic activity.

    Comment: Nothing has been done in this regard unless you count the shipping of jobs overseas.

  4. Reduce energy demand by reducing human population levels (e.g., closing our borders, deporting as many as possible and discouraging births).

    Comment: There are periodic calls for immigration restrictions but little has been done. Deportations are currently focused on people thought to be likely threats to the country and as such are part of the so-called "War on Terror." While birthrates had been declining for a long time, they have now resumed an upward trend due in part to the influx of immigrants who tend to have larger families.

  5. Plant “Victory Gardens” throughout the country.

    Comment: The local food movement has become surprisingly vibrant in the United States. While home and community gardens still make up only a small fraction of the food supply, their popularity is expanding rapidly.

  6. Heavy funding for basic energy research.

    Comment: While funding is large for basic energy research, much of it is directed at fossil fuels instead of renewable energy sources.

  7. Pollution control rollback, streamline permitting (no Environmental Impact Statements, etc.) for alternate energy. No more permits for fossil fuel power plants. No more funding for roads. No more building permits except in special cases.

    Comment: While President George W. Bush did his level best to roll back environmental rules for power plants and industry and to streamline permitting, he did it primarily on behalf of fossil fuel installations instead of alternative energy projects. Road building continues apace; but the recession (depression?) has slowed new building permits to a crawl.

  8. Full-on conservation, local energy production to minimize grid vulnerabilities, and a crash alternate energy production program. (Conservation will help under a government that limits economic activity).

    Comment: Marginal efforts have been made here and there (e.g. weatherization programs, renewable energy portfolio standards), but nothing that could be characterized as "full-on."

  9. Free mass transit.

    Comment: While mass transit ridership has been rising as the fuel costs of owning an automobile have increased, only marginal efforts have been made to expand the availability of mass transit. In addition, fares for mass transit users have actually been rising.

The report card for the United States as a war socialist society is decidedly mixed. We seem to have the war part down. But the socialist part is lacking. The current administration wants to redistribute benefits in American society, most notably through new health care spending meant to bring all people under some kind of coverage. It has enacted funding for a plethora of public works projects, but many of them are simply more road building. The administration seeks to expand renewable energy, but has a keen interest in the coal industry through such doubtful technologies as carbon sequestration.

But one might ask why the socialism part of Hanson's war socialism society is so important? The answer is social cohesion. In the coming crisis if people don't feel they have a stake in the system, then they will be much less likely to work or fight or submit to the rules for the common good. Hanson believes that without substantial internal cooperation, no society will weather the coming storm. Instead, we may simply devolve into a lawless anarchy.

War socialist ideas are also in the news in Great Britain where the British National Party won seats in the European Parliament. This case is interesting because the BNP is explicit about the danger of peak oil and the world of shrinking resources we can expect. Some of its prescriptions sound harsh, and others seem enlightened. The party has been trying to repackage itself with difficulty because of its racist, right-wing heritage. The basic BNP response is increased self-sufficiency and isolation: 1) a military which defends Great Britain and doesn't seek foreign adventures, 2) a halt to immigration, 3) deportation of illegals and noncitizen criminals, 4) a devolution of power to local governments, 5) a reversal of the privatization of British rails and new investment to expand public transportation, 6) a selective withdrawal from the global economy and increased local manufacturing, 7) food self-sufficiency based on organic methods, and 8) cooperative ownership of power production (with wind given as a primary example).

The BNP website no longer makes it sound like a party that fits neatly within the reactionary right (though in practice its emphasis on a "white" Britain remains central). Still, some of its ideas are actually quite close to those described by Hanson as war socialism. What's not in view is an aggressive foreign and military policy designed to extract resources from competing nations, something that Britain's major parties clearly embrace. The BNP, which is a minor party, is relevant to British politics because major parties often neutralize minor ones by co-opting their ideas. And, Britain is actually further along the war socialism path than the United States.

We and Hanson can still hope for unprecedented cooperation to manage the coming decline. But he may be right that if that cooperation doesn't emerge, we may be faced with a decision about making preparations for an all-out and probably violent scramble for the world's remaining resources--a contest in which a disciplined, cohesive and militarized society has the best chance of survival. Is he missing a viable third or fourth way? Even more important, is there time to implement a different path as nations successively awaken to the realities of peak oil and resource stringency and increasingly focus on self-preservation rather than cooperation?

Editorial Notes: Despite several long email discussions with Jay Hanson, I'm still not entirely clear exactly what his relationship is with War Socialism. I don't think he's advocating it. I've encouraged Jay to write a fuller explanation of what he's proposing. I think - but am not sure - that what he actually favors is something similar to Technocracy, a movement in which M. K. Hubbert was influential. Talk about "inevitability" and "war socialism" always makes me uneasy. It reminds me of the many thinkers during the 1930s who saw either communism or fascism (or both) as inevitable. Certain ways of thinking seem to limit our options, and I think this is one of them. If it's a choice between War Socialism and Transition Movement, I'll take Transition. UPDATE (June 30). Changed "Hansen" to "Hanson" throughout. -BA

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