Why Can’t We Be Friends?

by Mike O’Brien

A very bad man once said that essence of politics is constituted by the distinction between friends and enemies, with enemies being the more important of the two. A very silly man later turned that around and articulated a politics of friendship. But let’s not indulge silliness.

The sense of enmity imagined by the very bad man was carefully distinguished from other kinds of opposition. It was not the rivalry of contestants trying to win a competition bounded by rules. It was not the opprobrium of judging some other to be morally unworthy. It was not the animosity bred by personal or parochial vendetta.

Pure enmity, which frames an opposition of properly Political character, consists in this: that in order for one’s enemy to create the world they desire, they must preclude the creation of the world which one desires oneself. And vice-versa. One may even like one’s enemy on a personal level, and attribute no moral fault or ill will to them. One may imagine that one’s enemy has no idea that they are an enemy. No matter. If, in realizing her ends, Alice (or the Republic of Alice) is likely to deny Bob (or the Commonwealth of Bob) the possibility of realizing his ends, they are politically oriented towards each other as enemies.

It need not be quite that dire. Many conflicts of interest and disputes can be resolved, or mitigated by some compromise. That is the stuff of much small “p” politics, the transactional and procedural grind of jockeying and brokering. It is infused with a logic of procedure and careerist ambition, and often some good faith attempts at governance. But such “normal” politics, the grist of political gabfests, is not a matter of existential or transcendental importance, despite histrionic appeals to the rubes about how some fiscal tweak will precipitate the end of civilization.

But some matters really don’t admit of compromise, at least between those people who take them to be the issue of their Political existence.

Slavery abolitionists would not accept a compromise with slavery defenders, such that slaves would only be in bondage for three, or two, or even one day a week. Similarly, abortion abolitionists would not be satisfied with regulatory guardrails ensuring that the practice that they abhor is only rarely sanctioned by their state. I suppose that, if someone really and truly believed that abolishing inheritance taxes was the most vital dictate of their moral identity, this too would be a line by which the distinction between Political friends and enemies could be drawn.

The very bad man who put forth this transcendental category of Political relations was particularly hung up on crises and wars. I think he was bored by normal politics. Too venal, too grubby, perhaps too handily won by movements and factions to which he was opposed. Those who see themselves losing in “normal” politics long for the eruption of “real” politics, “real” history; revolutions, wars, crusades and divine interventions, the feeling that, at long last, things are once again happening. Often, these people are on the wrong side of history, and should be losing. Often, they attribute their poor fortunes in the marketplaces of ideas and votes to some conspiratorial trickery, and badly underestimate the attendance at their rebellions.

A less ad hominen explanation for the linkage between war and capital “P” Politics is that, prior to our awareness of the risks of environmental disaster, the deliberate destruction wrought in war was the only form in which we might imagine our human enemies posing a an existential threat. I suppose theists of the fire-and-brimstone persuasion might also believe that a people’s annihilation could be brought about by angering the divine powers that be, and as such could see as enemies those who would spread impiety and iniquity through the land. But that is, at least in my neck of the woods, a minority view. Such a position bears more than a passing resemblance to the eco-moralist anxieties that, through prior and continued environmental sins, we are sowing our own destruction both causally and as a matter of desert.

We can now imagine, however, an Apocalypse brought about by accident. And this calls for a disentangling of the idea of enmity from the idea of war. In war, the opposing sides are presumed to recognize themselves as being so opposed, even in a one-sided aggression. The ranks of Alice are presumed to intend the destruction that they threaten upon the ranks of Bob, and vice versa, and in such recognition they manifest the category of Politics. But what if Alice is merely tinkering with technology that may accidentally wipe both Bob and herself off the map, and the two of them differ on whether the benefits of such meddling are worth the risk? What if Bob is entirely unaware of Alice’s imposition of risk?

As humans acting within a technological society, notionally participating in decisions that impact the world, we are both Alice and Bob in that last sense. But other animals are just Bob. They are entirely at the mercy of our decisions, even of the consequences of our actions that are not chosen but simply done. We are destroying them by design and by accident, and while the analogy of war is most applicable to the former mode, it is the latter mode by which we do the most damage. While the framing of “war against nature” or “war against animals” is richly interesting to those thinkers who have invested much attention in humanity’s intra-mural fighting, it is not apt to the dominant paradigm of our destruction of nature.

It is interesting, though. As much as I scoff at “theory” which pretends to do philosophy but merely “reads X with Y”, treating the corpus as a branch of literature rather than of science, I do rather enjoy bombastic, strange thinkers who impress nothing original upon the reader beyond “isn’t that neat?”. There is a reason that popular history media features more battles than agrarian reforms (although the most consequential agrarian reforms often precipitate, or are precipitated by, rather nasty battles). Given my preoccupation with humanity’s destruction of nature, which invites metaphors of war, my antennae are piqued by cases that approach more closely the paradigm of warfare than does the usual Thanatic grind.

Hunting (of the sport and subsistence varieties) and husbandry are exploitative and subjugating, but not eliminative. There have been times, however, when humans have judged some species to be incompatible with their survival, or more properly, with the survival of a way of life to which they feel committed or entitled. Thus the culls of wolves, coyotes, snakes, prairie dogs, sunfish and other nuisances, not because they threaten to devour every last human, but because, when we project our desired futures forward, we see no place for them in it. We do not wish to endure the threat or competition that their existence imposes on us. This is eliminationism, so often aligned with the worst of murderous totalitarianism when it is applied to human populations.

Such campaigns of extermination have retreated in some areas, where the contest for occupation was irrevocably won by cities and farms, and some victor’s pity is accorded to the near-extinct vanquished. But in other areas, new campaigns are pursued, not to further our own possessions, but on behalf of those forms of life which we deem proper to a place. The most oft-reported (at least in the linguistic ghetto of the Anglosphere) of such campaigns are in Australia, for several reasons. First, Australia still occupies a wild hinterland character that makes everything that goes on there at least 25% more interesting. Second, the project of Euro-style mass settlement is recent enough that a few native species are still present in large enough numbers to be preserved. And third, these campaigns are sometimes waged against cats, which occupy roughly the same status on the internet that they enjoyed on the Nile.

I like cats. I have lived with several. But I have no illusions about their efficacy in killing everything they can get their mouths around. In Australia, they can get their mouths around lots of things that did not evolve to contend with such predation, such evolution having occurred prior to the arrival of Mr. Whiskers’ and Ms. Marmalade’s feral offspring. The government, representing the settler nation who bears responsibility for the feline presence, faces a choice: do they allow a new balance to emerge, with more cats and few to no tiny edible native species (and then, presumably, fewer cats), or do they become partisans of these species’ flagging cause and foreclose on the future of feral cat-kind? They have chosen the second path, over the objections of cat lovers and principled animal rights supporters, scattering cat-tempting poisoned baits with trade names such as Eradi-cat and Curiosity. I am sure that I have mentioned that last tid-bit in a previous column, but it’s in such terribly bad taste that it bears repeating.

Of course, the cats don’t know that they are enemies of the state. And the mice and snakes and toads and assorted pouch-bearing mammals don’t know that the Crown has taken up arms on their behalf. Well, maybe not the mice’s behalf, as parts of Australia are overrun with a disastrous surplus of them and they’ve earned a spot above cats in the government’s “disposition matrix”. (By the way, this missing element of mutual recognition of enmity is what makes Planet of the Apes such a captivating world of fiction. Also, unlike extra-terrestrial invasion scenarios, the ensmartened apes are not overwhelmingly superior and possess compelling moral standing for their territorial claims. I don’t know if that makes the recent films engaging animal rights thrillers or just sympathetic war movies with ape costumes.)

It’s worth mentioning that the technologies of invasive-species eradication are similar, sometimes identical, to those applied to the annihilation of human insurgencies. In particular, the use of drones permits the persistent surveillance of vast swathes of territory that are not inhabited by the powers carrying out the extermination campaign, but are occupied by their devices and designs. Surveillance is not the only task assigned to these silicon mercenaries; artificial intelligence is being developed to allow for automated identification and killing of invasive marine species, carried out by autonomous submarine. Today, the sea cucumber; tomorrow, John Connor.

The cat wars demonstrate a parallel in modern Political identity, which is that one’s partisanship and enmity are less and less determined by accidents of geography, family or nationality. As with supporters of Napoleon who backed that invader against their own princes and emperors, or German anti-fascists forsaking country and safety during WW2, personal conscience (as filtered through a moral and historical perspective) can give one a Political orientation that transcends the obligations of citizenship or the considerations of prudence and advantage.

So it is that we can take up the cause of animals not only against other animals, but against our own species (yes, we are also animals, but the sentence scans better with the dichotomy preserved). The very bad man made a distinction, usually ignored, between real and absolute enemies. The real enemy is that agent (faction, nation, movement) who, due to present circumstances arrived at through some particular historical path, is on a course to deny us the future that we must have. That enmity is conditional and, while it always contains the possibility of leading to war, the enemy it identifies could become a friend if they (or we) change our goals, our values, our identities, etc. The absolute enemy is different. We bear an enmity to them (and vice-versa) because of something essential, something that they are and must be. Even when they are not doing something that is incompatible with the kind of world that we must have, they are being something that is so incompatible. Elimination seems the only remedy. Those leaders and followers who are inclined to whip up militant fury and existential panic tend to favour the absolute enemy, because it involves no understanding of the complex human interactions by which people come to be opposed in real enmity. It also admits of no peaceful solution.

Are humans the absolute enemy or merely the real enemy of nature? It seems clear that our continued existence, carrying on as we have done for the last few centuries, guarantees that many populations, species, even whole biomes will disappear. An existential threat if there ever was one. Is it possible that our present status as industrial life-destroyers is temporary, and that we have a future as reformed co-inhabitants of the planet, which whom other complex organisms can share a world? If that is the case, we are merely a real enemy, and may cease to be. But if we are simply not the kind of creature that can collectively self-correct, if we are incompatible with other forms of life because of how and what we are, then we face the worse conclusion. We are the absolute enemy of nature, and will continue to be so until one or both of us is gone.