Clausewitz, War, Dialectic and Political Economy

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog

I’m following on from remarks I made yesterday at the end of my post on Carl von Clausewitz’ On War. Something I’ve mentioned before is the link between Clauswitz’s approach and German Idealist philosophy of the time. I’m not concerned with details of influence here, but with significant similarities with regard to ideas and methods which did not appear before. There is a ‘dialectical’ approach in Clausewitz’ book in its concern with the relation between part and whole and between opposites. Tactics and strategy only exist in comparison with each according to a boundary which shifts according to context. The success of Napoleon’s battles and campaigns changes according to how much we think about the overall consequences of a battle and consider what might have happened if Napoleon had done something different, or if his opponents had judged the situation more accurately. What I didn’t talk so much about yesterday is how far Clausewitz suggests that the success of one side in a battle depends on its relation to original goals. A battlefield victory in which the general does not achieve goals with regard to destroying the enemy’s army or occupying territory is not a real victory. A defeat in which the general was intending to retreat to predetermined lines while destroying as much of the enemy as possible is not a defeat.

This does parallel Hegel’s idea of dialectical method in philosophy, which emphasises context, relation between part and whole, the move from particular to universal and simple to complex as all relevant concepts are brought in relation to a single concept, the importance of conflict and resolution between differing ideas.

It also parallels political economy, which must have had some impact of Hegel. What I mean by political economy is largely Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). What Smith is concerned with is how trade and commerce integrates differing and competing interests from different parts of a country and even the world. On a very simple level, we can only understand why a village bake makes bread in relation to the demand for bread from other villagers. At a slightly more complex level, we can only understand why wheat is grown in certain parts of a country because of the demand from bakers for the materials to make bread. Economic processes allow the mergence of very complex co-ordination of a mass of different points of production and demand through a mass of individual decisions to respond to demand and production. What happens at any one point can be partly understood through a simple relation, people in that village want bread, but only fully understood through the complex set of intersecting relations in the economy as a whole.

Some of what Clausewitz says about military organisation and decisions applies to economic activity. Smith referred to the economic gains of dividing a production process between simple repeated actions carried out by distinct individuals. Famously is model was a match factory. Clausewitz recognises the value of routine to reduce friction in the operations of an army. He sees the battle as made up of a complex interaction of decisions made by junior officers, which the commander-in-chief cannot control.

Clausewitz is very concerned with an overall estimate of costs and benefits, and the hidden costs of not following a certain course of action. This is the sort of thinking with which economists are very concerned, what are the hidden costs of an individual, corporate, or governmental decision; how to calculate the opportunity cost of lost benefits from another decision and the ways that not thinking about opportunity costs. Smith has a classic account of this at the governmental level in Book IV of The Wealth of Nations, ‘Of Systems of Political Economy’.

Some of this might sound very commonsensical, but as I pointed out yesterday Clausewitz explains that the importance of numerical supremacy had largely been ignored in war. What can seem like the obvious now, may not have seemed at all obvious for millenia of previous history.

Adam Smith’s attention to the basic forms of economic interaction and the appearance of complex systems, was certainly known to Kant as he refers to the role of self-interest and trade in creating human communities and unifying human communities. Before Smith it may have seemed to bizarre to think that humans come together because of self-interest, but Smith explains who competitive self-interest and co-operation need each other and even if they conflict sometimes they also depend on each other.

Kant rejected the idea of ‘dialectic’ in philosophy, nevertheless his philosophy is dialectic in the sense that it deals with complexity, parts and wholes, interaction. Kant rejected ‘dialectic’ because he thought it was a kind of reasoning that lacks reference to experience, but in Smith we see a dialectic in an area of empirical study. We don’t have to call it dialectic, Smith did not, but it we describe Hegel’s ‘dialectic’ in the simplest terms possible we can see a connection. The connection goes indirectly through Kant, but also directly as Hegel thinks of law arising from the need to mediate property disputes within the kind of economy described by Smith. This is a dialectical move, law which is universal within a community emerges from conflicting particular interests.

It maybe that Hegel’s attempt at a dialectic of spirit or logic, is too abstract and speculative, but even if we think that, we can still take bits of Hegel independently of that grand project. This kind of social-political argument in Kant and Hegel, has an impact in their philosophy as a whole.

There are certainly other things to be taken into account, the development of science, the influence of slightly earlier and contemporaneous philosophers are among the most obvious; but the methods of German Idealist philosophy have some connection with political economy. Clausewitz could not have written On War before the era of political economy and German Idealism.


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