The Spiral of Conflict and Trauma

Why do we continue to fight, even when there is no longer an objective reason to fight?

There was a time, not long ago, when there were two systems of social organisation in the world that were mortally opposed. One tried to run everything by cooperation, with no competition. The other tried to run everything by competition, with no cooperation.

Each was equally misconceived. Healthy humans cooperate and compete, and wisdom is knowing how to balance the two.

One system allowed great accumulations of financial power, the other allowed the acquisition of extreme political power. Although financial and political power tended to converge, so reducing the difference between the systems, nevertheless the systems were incompatible. If one prevailed the other was banished.

Each tried to banish the other from the world, and came close to banishing humanity from the world. For the sake of one kind of power or another. Power over other people.

The funny thing is, one of those systems is gone. Neither is healthy, neither will last, but the attempt at complete cooperation failed first. The other system has pretty much become universal, for now. So what are we fighting about?

People want power because they are afraid. They are mistrustful. They are afraid of what other people might do to them, so they want to be in control of everyone else, so no-one will threaten them. The biggest threat becomes the loss of that control, that power.

People who fear others generally have been traumatised, one way or another.

Untraumatised people are generally trusting. Human beings are highly social – otherwise why would language be so integral to our makeup. Our social responses are tuned to maintain bonds within whatever group we perceive ourselves to be part of. In the old days that would have been our village, our clan or our hunter-gatherer band.

When we started living in large groups – cities, nations – our cooperative responses became ineffective, because you can’t look ten thousand or ten million people in the eye and engage each of them as a person. Conflicting wants were unmediated. When large groups fought as a result, it was large-scale war of a kind that did not exist before.

War traumatises people, who then become fearful. Their response to conflicting needs or wants is to fight. Thus war perpetuates itself. Perhaps that is why written history, the kind that tells the stories of cities and empires, is such mayhem. Perhaps it is why many people claim we are innately evil, even though most of us usually live peaceably in our neighbourhoods.

So here we are. We have several large power blocks in the world. Let us note the United States, Western Europe, Russia and China in particular. By now they each have systems of competitive markets, though operating within somewhat different sets of rules. Their systems are no longer fundamentally incompatible. They should be able to get along, right?

Well apparently not. The US gets along with Europe, but not with Russia or China. You can get lost in all the details, the history, the indignation and the rationalisations, but there is the simple truth about the present situation. Two of those power blocks get along. There is hostility between them and the other two. What’s the difference?

I will venture a few factors that are often not noticed in all the shouting.

US and European societies have a lot in common. There has been conflict between them, but not for quite a long time. Many US families know their roots in Europe. A level of trust has grown up.

Russian society had a lot in common with the rest of Europe, but it transformed itself into an incompatible form, through the attempt at complete cooperation. The US and the rest of Europe became viscerally opposed to Russia because it threatened the power of the powerful, especially in the US. A wise person once noted, regarding communists, that most Americans have never lifted a beer with the enemy, whereas Europeans commonly have.

Fear and loathing of the alien, unknown, threatening communists still festers in the US. It is clear there is a powerful faction in Washington that wants nothing less than the military defeat of the Russian state. Although the level of hostility dropped dramatically after the Soviet Union collapsed, those cold warriors could not abide peace breaking out. They have kept pushing, interfering with Russian neighbours, working to confront Russia.

Russian paranoia resurged along with US paranoia, as paranoia does. Eventually Russia was pushed too far and lashed back, attacking Ukraine. There is serious danger of that conflict becoming nuclear.

The situation with China is rather different. The US has been a global bully boy, unchallenged for three decades but extending back through much of its history. It has interfered in many states and conspired to overthrow many governments, including democratically elected ones. It has military bases all over the world. It is an aggressive, expansionary power.

China’s economic and military power has increased dramatically over the past few decades, though still, despite the propaganda in our media, well short of US military power. Bully boys do not like their power being challenged. The US is having a hissy fit.

Hostility is focused on the fate of Taiwan, that all sides agreed was part of China. But the US staked its credibility on preventing the communist revolutionaries in mainland China from claiming Taiwan as well. Even though the mainland is no longer communist, the bully boy’s pride is at stake.

In the meantime the US has been increasingly hollowed out by the misconceived assertion of selfish competition throughout its society. Financiers broke loose and have been sucking the lifeblood out of the real, productive part of the US economy (thanks for that Ronald Reagan). The US economy is weakening, and US society is conflicted to the point of being close to civil war.

Many Americans would be enraged if it became obvious they were weakening internally and another bully boy was challenging them externally. They could not bear the thought of US dominance slipping, and of having all the traditional hokum about being the light of freedom for the world shown up for the nonsense it has long since become.

A declining superpower is a very dangerous animal. It still has access to completely destructive power. There is a serious danger it will lash out, and take us all down with it, along with much of the living, habitable little planet that has been our life support system for far longer than any of those deluded, terrified, traumatised upstart apes can conceive.

Australia is profoundly foolish to align itself closely with the US. We should be doing everything possible to ease the fears and hostilities, and to calm the world back to where it is not threatened with imminent, total destruction. Such are the powers of fear and delusion that our so-called leaders do not seem capable seeing the danger.

It is open to us to let go of our hostility to Russia and China. We would want to be on defensive guard while some trust built, but there is no fundamental reason why they threaten us. Trade with China gives them a reason to get along with us, too. Indeed they have been offering as much, though Australian politicians and media have, to our discredit, responded with derision.

According other powers some space and influence is not all good, but as they felt less threatened then they would feel less need to be domineering of their neighbours. The world might find it can relax into non-lethal rivalries, and allow some of the widespread trauma to heal. We would doubtless still find plenty to squabble about, but the world could begin to move on from the era of potentially apocalyptic hostilities.

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