Tag Archives: peasant power

Money is Power—Since Last Week Maybe

So in addition to strategic planning with Habitat, and relaxing, this summer I have been drafting a manuscript on just-war theory and pacifism.  As part of that project, I am conducting a survey of about 150 major wars and conflicts throughout recorded history.  I want to get some sense of what actually causes wars and when they might be justified.  I have finished 40 so far and it is, in a word, fascinating.

I discovered the An Lushan Rebellion of 755-763 in China, where potentially 15% of the worldwide population was wiped out.   I also discovered that Afghanistan was a very peaceful and stable monarchy from 1933-1973 that was progressively modernizing.  Trouble started when a progressive king pushed democratic reforms, which led to communists finding their way into the government, which led to a backlash, which led to a communist coup, which led to a soviet invasion, and the rest is history.

I will post more random observations that may or may not find their way into the manuscript, but I wanted to share one right now that likely will not: it is interesting how in earlier epochs of history military power was surprisingly unconnected to money and economic power.  In an earlier time, though still unlikely, the little guy could really take on the big guy and win.  Today, economic might is tied directly to military might, and the rich country is, almost automatically, the more powerful. Obviously, the country that can produce more tanks, guns, aircraft, ammunition, food, etc., should generally win.  However, before the industrial revolution, a bigger economy did not guarantee your safety and better military technology was not automatically had through vibrant industry.  Consider these examples:

  1. Ancient greece before Pericles or the Aetolian League was, compared to it’s neighbors Egypt and Persia for example, a cultural backwater of poor sots, of city-states trying to scratch out a living on relatively infertile lands and a comparatively fish-less sea.  Egypt was already a well-established and wealthy civilization.  When the Athenians and Spartans fought the Persians, it was roughly equivalent to America fighting Honduras, and Honduras winning.  The greeks might not have had much money, or commerce, or industry, but they had the phalanx, and that was enough to defend themselves against the mighty Persian empire.
  2. Even within the Greeks, Sparta was the dominant power in Greece, and beat the Athenians at the height of Athenian power.  But they were famously poor.  Please enjoy the following quote from Thucydides that I love dearly (I neglected to include this when I first published this post).  It comes at the beginning of his brilliant account of the Peloponnesian War. It seems to me incredibly far-sighted. The man had a proper sense of history, and makes a clear point: wealth does not equal power.”Suppose the city of Sparta to be deserted, and nothing left but the temples and the ground-plan, distant ages would be very unwilling to believe that the power of the Lacedaemonians was at all equal to their fame. And yet they own two-fifths of the Peloponnesus, and are acknowledged leaders of the whole, as well as of numerous allies in the rest of Hellas. But their city is not built continuously, and has no splendid temples or other edifices; it rather resembles a group of villages like the ancient towns of Hellas, and would therefore make a poor show. Whereas, if the same fate befell the Athenians, the ruins of Athens would strike the eye, and we should infer their power to have been twice as great as it really is. We ought not then to be unduly skeptical. The greatness of cities should be estimated by their real power and not by appearances.”  Source.   Emphasis added.
  3. Alexander the Great, a Macedonian, conquered the persians, and the Egyptians, and the Greeks, and others too.  He did not have much more money.  Instead, he had a phalanx too, but one in which they got rid of their shields so they could hold longer spears.
  4. Rome, that pantheon of wealth and economic power, fell prey to relatively poor barbarian hordes.
  5. The mongols were poor nomadic peoples whose hordes conquered the wealthy Chinese civilization, the wealthy Persians, and many others.  Those steppe peoples had excellent cavalry, but very little money or economic power.
  6. The nomadic Arabs conquered Spain, North Africa, Egypt, Persia, the Byzantines, etc., and they also did not have incredible economic might.
  7. The English under queen Elizabeth went up against the mighty Spanish, who were far superior in money and arms, and yet were still defeated.

The list goes on…

It is hard to imagine this world because it is so different from our own.  Our basic understanding of geopolitics is thwarted.  Imagine if the richest countries in the world fearing invasion by poor neighbors who might covet foreign wealth.  This is a world where the United States would fear an invasion by Haiti, and where starving Haitians figure they might try their hand at an invasion, since, after all, it might succeed.

In theory, I like the old world.  I like the romance of powerful peasant countries.  But perhaps, in our new world order, war will become increasingly unlikely because a poor country can’t just invade a rich country because they covet foreign wealth.  But it also means that the rich will get richer, and their wealth will be unavailable to the poor, even if they are incredible soldiers led by Alexander the Great himself.

But maybe I am wrong.  But what about Vietnam?   What about Afghanistan?  Aren’t these modern examples of the little economy beating the big economy?  Perhaps, or perhaps these are exceptions that prove the rule, or perhaps victory of the little guy over the big guy is still possible—at least when the little guy’s military equipment is being shipped in from rival big guys’.