The History of the Culture of War
7. Authoritarian control 5,000 years of increasing monopolization of the culture of war by the state

The History of the Culture of War

What is culture and how does it evolve?

Warfare in prehistory and its usefulness

The culture of war in prehistory

Data from prehistory before the Neolithic

Enemy images: culture or biology

War and the culture of war at the dawn of history

--Ancient Mesopotamia

--Ancient Egypt

--Ancient China

--Ancient Greece and Rome

--Ancient Crete

--Ancient Indus civilizations

--Ancient Hebrew civilization

--Ancient Central American civilization

Warfare and the origin of the State

Religion and the origin of the State

A summary of the culture of war at the dawn of history

The internal culture of war: a taboo topic

The evolution of the culture of war over the past 5,000 years: its increasing monopolization by the state

--1.Armies and armaments

--2.External conquest and exploitation: Colonialism and Neocolonialism

--3.The internal culture of war and economies based on exploitation of workers and the environment

--4.Prisons and penal systems

--5.The military-industrial complex

--6.The drugs-for-guns trade

--7.Authoritarian control

--8.Control of information

--9.Identification of an "enemy"

--10.Education for the culture of war

--11.Male domination

--12.Religion and the culture of war

--13.The arts and the culture of war



Summary of the history of the culture of war


The authoritarian control associated with the culture of war has continued from the beginning of recorded history up until the present time. There were many extreme cases during the 20th Century with Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union being among the most brutal. The list of dictatorial regimes is extensive and applies to all regions of the world. These regimes have been associated with all the aspects of the culture of war including use of enemy images, intensive armament and military training, control of the mass media with propaganda and secrecy, violations of human rights, prison labor camps and male domination. The role of the arts and religion has been divided under dictatorships, some being enlisted in support of authoritarian regimes, and some valiantly and often tragically, opposed.

At the same time there have been powerful movements of democratization, including both violent revolutions (which have usually produced new authoritarian regimes) and nonviolent revolutions such as those in South Africa, Eastern Europe and the Philippines. And it has become fashionable to speak and act in support of democracy, including at the United Nations.

Does this mean that the nation states of the world are turning away from the culture of war and towards a culture of peace? Some would answer this in the affirmative. Many political scientists have claimed that in recent times, "democracies do not make war on other democracies". Their data are impressive, but open to criticism. First of all, they tend to emphasize open warfare and to avoid analysis of covert war. For example, they conveniently ignore covert warfare such as the American Contra War against Nicaragua mentioned above and the overthrow of the socialist government headed by Salvador Allende in Chile. Similarly, they do not consider the embargo that the United States has imposed for many decades on neighboring Cuba as an act of war, despite the fact that in many respects it resembles the sieges that have been an essential part of warfare since the beginning of recorded history. Second, there is a tendency to use narrow definitions of democracy with criteria that derive from the political systems of developed Northern states, multi-party elections, etc. Hence, they ignore the above-mentioned actions against Cuba and Nicaragua by maintaining that those countries were not "democracies."

Despite the shortcomings of the analysis that "democracies do not make war on other democracies" it reflects an important advance of consciousness towards a culture of peace. It can be restated in the form "When bourgeois democracies want to make war on other bourgeois democracies, they are forced to do so in secret because their citizenry would not approve it." The fact that governments are increasingly required by their citizenry to justify war and to obtain their permission indicates that there is an increasing anti-war consciousness which has considerable influence in the political process.

The reaction to the launching of two recent wars led by the United States against Iraq reflects the increased anti-war sentiment among the citizenry. It has been argued that the first Gulf War was kept very brief, without an invasion of Iraq, because of mounting citizen opposition by major religious and labor organizations, as well as rapidly-developing Congressional opposition to the war. For the second Gulf War, the U.S. went to the United Nations to get approval and failed. At that time there was an unprecedented outpouring of people onto the streets in opposition to the impending war with over 10 million people marching, including in the major cities of America's allies. One of the reasons that the United States government has involved itself in the illegal drug trade in conjunction with wars in Iran, Afghanistan and Nicaragua has been its inability to obtain adequate financing through the legal means of Congressional approval. This is rather ironic in view of the U.S. Congress complicity in the "Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex" as described earlier.

But are democracies really democratic?

In favor of democracy, voting rights have gradually been extended over the course of centuries. For example, in the early days of bourgeois democracy in the United States, voting rights were confined to men who were land-owners. Women and men who did not own land were excluded, and, of course, slaves were excluded. By the 1830's in most states all free men were allowed to vote, removing restrictions based on property and religion (at first voting was denied to those from religions other than Protestant). In 1870, following the Civil War, the Constitution was amended to allow African-Americans the right to vote, a right that has yet to be fully respected. And in 1920, a further Constitutional amendment granted women the right to vote. Both of the latter two advances came after long struggle by the Abolitionist Movement against slavery and the Movement for Women's Suffrage. Women's suffrage was first attained in a large country in New Zealand and Australia in 1893 and 1894 respectively, followed by Finland in 1906. In England women gained the right to vote in 1918, while in France and Italy it was not attained until after World War II. In most other countries of the world, women's voting came after World War II, and women still cannot vote in Saudi Arabia (Kuwait allowed women to vote in 2005).

When we drafted the culture of peace document for the United Nations, we avoided the term "democracy" and spoke instead of "democratic participation". On the one hand, this was to avoid dealing with the fact that certain authoritarian regimes such as the Peoples Democratic Republic of Korea include the word "democratic" in the names of their countries. On the other hand, it enabled us to emphasize "participation" as an essential part of democracy which often seems to be lost in practice.

Are the two-party systems of countries like the United States and parliamentary systems like those of Europe truly based on citizen participation? While it is true that there are regular elections and the voters have a choice between several parties, does that mean that the governments that are elected truly represent the interests of the citizenry? Consider the Marxist critique made over a century ago by Lenin in The State and Revolution. He begins by quoting Kautsky that "the modern representative state is an instrument of exploitation of wage-labor by capital." and he goes on to say that bourgeois democracy is the "best possible political shell for capitalism" :

". . the omnipotence of 'wealth' is more certain in a democratic republic [because] it does not depend on defects in the political machinery or on the faulty political shell of capitalism. A democratic republic is the best possible political shell for capitalism, and, therefore, once capital has gained possession of this very best shell . . it establishes its power so securely, so firmly, that no change of persons, institutions or parties in the bourgeois-democratic republic can shake it."

Taking seriously the Marxist criticisms of bourgeois democracy, one cannot help but recognize that wealth continues to determine most "democratic" elections. This comes at a moment of history when nothing is more evident than the increasing gap between rich and poor, both within and between nations. The role of television in the modern election campaign has greatly increased the importance of wealth; campaigns for President of the United States cost hundreds of millions of dollars, while campaigns for Congress or city mayors now cost millions. A large proportion of the members of the U.S. Congress are themselves millionaires.

The Marxist critique is also supported by the fact that democratic elections are aborted or overthrown by the major powers when governments are elected that do not support the international capitalist class. Hence, when socialists were elected in Chile under President Allende, the United States government joined with international capitalist enterprises such as IT&T to subvert the government and bring to power the military dictatorship of Pinochet. When Islamists were elected in Algeria in 1992, European states tacitly supported a military coup to overturn the election results. Since Hamas scored an electoral victory in Palestine at the beginning of 2006, the Europeans, Americans and Israelis have done everything possible to ensure that they could not govern. Although denied by the United States, many people around the world are convinced by the evidence that a recent coup d'état was supported by the Americans to overthrown the election results in Venezuela that brought Hugo Chavez to power.

Perhaps most important of all, there is no pretext in the capitalist states that economic decisions are made with democratic participation. Elected congresses and parliaments do not interfere in the "internal matters" of the capitalist enterprise which, after all, is where the exploitation and transfer of wealth occurs both within the country concerned and abroad. Decisions are made by the owners and share-holders of enterprises, not by the workers or by their elected representatives in government. So-called "free enterprise" in this sense is enterprise that is "free" for the capitalists to rule without question or challenge. Only socialists, and then only rarely, have experimented with workers' elections of their management.

Finally, democracy cannot function if the electorate is not aware of what its elected officials are doing. An increasing proportion of government actions are cloaked in secrecy, under claims of "national defense". This is a fundamental question to be addressed in the following section on control of information.

It is important to distinguish between democracy at the level of the state and democracy at the local level. Very often, at the local level, there is much more citizen participation and free flow of information. For this, and other related reasons, it can be said that at the present moment of history local government is much closer to a culture of peace, while the state is more engaged in the culture of war.

To take part in a discussion about this page, go to the Forum on the democratic participation in the Culture of Peace Dialogues:

World Peace through the Town Hall


1) The difference between "peace" and "culture of peace" and a brief history of the culture of war

2) The role of the individual in culture of war and culture of peace

3) Why the state cannot create a culture of peace

4) The important role of civil society in creating a culture of peace

--Peace and disarmament movements

--Ecology movement

--Movements for human rights

--Democracy movements

--Women's movement

--International understanding, tolerance and solidarity

--Movements for free flow of information

--The strengths and weaknesses of civil society

5) The basic and essential role of local government in culture of peace

--Sustainable development

--Human rights

--Democratic participation

--Women's equality


--Transparency and the free flow of information

--Education for a culture of peace

--Security and public safety

--Some ongoing initiatives

6) Assessing progress toward a culture of peace at the local level

--Culture of peace measurement at the level of the state

7) Going global: networking of city culture of peace commissions

8) The future transition of the United Nations from control by states to popular control through local governmental representatives

9) What would a culture of peace be like?