Monday, August 18, 2014

A thought about causality in history

I have been thinking about World War I, and just read The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark and the wonderful Introduction in The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century by David Reynolds. I have also been interested in the Civil War which the country has been commemorating since 2011. It occurs to me that the two offer a means to say something about causality in history that might be interesting.

Bombardment of Fort Sumter

The Civil War

The "original sin" of the United States was slavery. There was a world wide historical process of abolition of abolition of slavery. It had a variety of causes, including a broadening consensus that slavery was morally wrong, and an increasing consensus that free labor was more productive than slave labor and a better basis for building an economy. The eradication of America's original sin seems to have been part of this historical process.

Some countries abolished slavery in civil war or insurgency (e.g. the United States, Haiti, France) while some did so peacefully (e.g. the British Empire, the former Spanish colonies in the Americas, Brazil). Thus I conclude that the U.S. Civil War was partially caused by the desire to abolish slavery and partially by the failure to find a peaceful way to do so.

The proximate cause of the Civil War was the decision of state governments of southern states to secede from the Union and fire on a Union fort in Charleston harbor, followed by the decision of the Federal government to fight to preserve the Union. My reading of history indicates that the Union was intended from its first government to be perpetual, and that the Union was more populous, richer and more militarily powerful than the Confederacy and very likely to win the war.

I also conclude that the southern leaders made a disastrously bad decision to go to war. Four years later, slavery was abolished, the southern economy was in ruins, and hundreds of thousands of its young men had been killed or wounded. Thus the proximate cause of the Civil War seems to me to have been a disastrous mistake made by the leaders of South Carolina and other states that seceded from the Union. They surely could have found a peaceful path (as was done in other countries) that would have been better for their states, their people and themselves.

Let me suggest then that an intermediate cause was the way political power had been institutionalized in the south. It was the owners of large plantations with large numbers of slaves who were the richest people in the south. They had the time, resources and motivation to control the political institutions, and did so. However, they perhaps tended to put the interests of their class before that of the rest of the people of their states; moreover, the small population from which the leadership was drawn did not produce the quality of leaders needed to deal with the crisis presented by the results of the election of 1860.

Assassination of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand and his Wife
World War I

World War I was a war between coalitions of empires -- Austria-Hungary, Germany and the Ottoman Empire versus Russia, the French, British and Italian Empires, and eventually the United States. Most of these were multi-ethnic empires, held together by a central authority that had monopoly control of naval and military power, transportation and communications within the empire.

The 20th century saw decolonization and destruction of these empires (even the United States gave up the Philippines). Thus there was a historical process which was tending to destroy the imperial institutions of empire. The institutional form appears to have been historically unstable.

Could the empires have been dissolved peacefully? While tzarist Russia was overthrown by revolution, the Soviet Union broke up relatively peacefully. While the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires were dismembered when the lost World War I, creation of the British Commonwealth after World War I and decolonization of British colonies in India and Africa after World War II were relatively peaceful. So yes, in principle, empires could have been broken up without the mass violence of two world wars.

The proximate cause of World War I was the declaration of war by Austria-Hungary on Serbia, the subsequent declaration of war by Russia on Austria-Hungary and Germany, which in turn triggered more declarations as countries honored treaty obligations. All of this was a response to the assassination of the Grand Duke and Duchess of Austria-Hungary.

Clearly the war was a disaster for the Habsburg government of Austria-Hungary, the Romanov government of Russia and the Hohenzollern government of Germany, and certainly the assassination did not require the world war, but could have been resolved by other means that would at least have allowed the prime mover governments to survive longer and have time to find a better path to accede to the historical trends of history. Thus, I suggest that the proximate cause of the war was the poor decision by these three governments to go to war rather than to find an alternative course that would have preserved them in power longer and allowed more time to find a solution to the problems cased by the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the radical restructuring of the governance in the Balkans.

An intermediate cause of the war may have been the way governance was institutionalized in these empires. Monarchy could and did put people at the head of state and government who were not able to manage the affairs of large empires well; narrow aristocratic classes from which policy leadership was drawn also proved unequal to the job of running empires and failed in the crisis of 1914.

Final comment

Perhaps it is useful to look for long term historical processes that underlie major events, as the abolition of slavery drove the Civil War and as the abolition of 19th century style multi-ethnic empires dominated by a metropolitan central power and monarchy drove the World Wars of the 20th century.

When a decision leads to major disaster for the people making the decisions (as the decision of South Carolina leaders to start the Civil War and the decision of the Austria-Hungary, Russian and German imperial governments to go to start World War II did), perhaps one should look at failures in decision making as proximate causes. Even these are complex, involving the institutionalization of the governmental decision making, the failure to predict the actions of others, and erroneous perception of the relative capabilities of one's own side and the difficulty of the task being considered.

In the two examples, I have suggested an intermediate cause -- an institution of power structures dominated by narrow elites that fail to recognize and foster the interests of the populations that they rule, and that failed to put leaders in place that could make good decisions in the face of existential crises.

I suppose that in both cases the evolution of the technological infrastructure led to a geographic expansion of the state, a growth in the population of the state, a change in the economic structure of the state and an increase in the pace of change. New economic and political institutions had to be developed to better manage the changed socio-economic environments.

No comments: