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6 July 2022

The forgotten politics of personal sacrifice

For the first time in decades, Western politicians are asking people to forfeit for the greater good – and are finding it hard to judge.

By Helen Thompson

Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine has underscored the return of a defining predicament for liberal democracy: the politics of sacrifice. As Gazprom reduces the flow of gas through its pipelines, several European governments are asking citizens to temper their daily lives by taking fewer showers or switching off the air conditioning. President Joe Biden has entreated Americans to bear high gasoline prices for “as long as it takes” to stop Russia defeating Ukraine. These appeals follow two years during which governments frequently required citizens to stay in their homes.

Sacrifice is a seemingly archaic idea in liberal politics. Eighteenth-century liberalism inherited the Christian belief that since Christ’s sacrifice was for everybody, sacrificing any individual is a sin. Surveying the wreckage of the French Revolution in the 1790s, the liberal thinker Benjamin Constant insisted that the Jacobins had ignored this belief and instead demanded the blood sacrifice of individuals in the name of abstract ideals such as the nation and humanity.

[See also: Whatever Moscow’s military defeats in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin is winning the energy war]

Constant’s fears about modern revolutionary politics were well-founded. What he saw in Jacobinism was also evident in Bolshevism: the view that since communism was providentially ordained, the sacrifice of individuals to achieve it never needed justifying. Constant’s trepidation later formed the core of post-1945 liberal thought, which had a deep aversion to the idea of righteously sacrificing lives to future dreams.

But the persistence of war showed that sacrifice was not always a dangerous idea in modern politics. During the American Civil War of 1861-65, Abraham Lincoln cultivated the politics of sacrifice from necessity not ambition. He understood that a rhetoric of renunciation was necessary to give meaning to the enormous loss of life. In a letter addressed to a bereaved mother during the Civil War, Lincoln is said to have written that he prayed God would leave her only the “solemn pride that must have been yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom”.

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During the First World War, politicians compelled their male citizens to offer their lives for the nation-state. The decisive question was whether the political conditions in any given country made that demand viable. In the UK, for example, the government excluded Irish men from the 1916 Military Service Act only to cause a crisis over the UK Union when, in military desperation, it tried to extend conscription to Ireland two years later. Both world wars also saw demands for sacrifices on the home front. One First World War poster in Britain proclaimed: “Save the Wheat, Help the Fleet, Eat Less Bread”. An American counterpart exhorted citizens to “Serve Your Country by Saving Money”.

This politics of sacrifice appeared exhausted in the 1970s. With conscription during the Vietnam War having proved so divisive, Richard Nixon turned the US towards an all-volunteer military. The culture of patriotic savings after 1945 was ended by the return of international capital markets in which governments could borrow much greater sums of money. When Jimmy Carter asked Americans to reduce their energy consumption during the oil shocks, imploring them to view their efforts as the moral equivalent of the American Revolution, he destroyed his chances of re-election.

[See also: As China’s growth stalls and supply chains falter, the West faces a stagflation trap]

But the idea of sacrifice was dormant, not defunct. The intellectual imprint of Christianity on democracy leaves it with a residual idea of self-sacrifice: the conviction that what the individual chooses to renounce in their lives is consequential, including for the survival of the political community. Meanwhile, liberal democratic politics involves the (partial) sacrifice of one or other of the conflicting ideals used to legitimate it. During the civil war, for example, Lincoln’s fight for the American constitutional republic led him to sacrifice the fundamental right to habeas corpus (the right against unlawful or indefinite detention). Trying to apply those ideals to international politics entails even harsher choices, especially when modern economies rest on the extraction of resources arbitrarily distributed in pre-human times with complete indifference to present-day political sensibilities.

This year the problem of sacrifice has returned after several decades in which it appeared absent. Asking Western citizens to make sacrifices for Ukraine’s independence looks more palatable than asking them to reduce energy consumption to manage climate change or resource depletion. And since Russia has violated the liberal assumption that war has no place in the post-1989 world, any suggestion that Ukraine’s independence should be sacrificed to global realpolitik is contested.

But politicians are also entirely inexperienced in judging what demands for sacrifice are politically possible. Appealing to those who cannot afford higher energy prices “that this is about the future of the liberal world order and we have to stay firm” – as one of Biden’s advisers did in a recent interview – is probably unsustainable. Until now, democratic citizens haven’t had to endure extra deprivations for any significant period except when their own country has been at war. The question for Western governments is becoming what sacrifice can be asked of their citizens against what sacrifice can be asked of Ukraine. One way or another, a sacrifice will ensue. It always does. The imperative is to confront the dangers that all sacrifices asked of others entail.

[See also: The 1990s promised a new era of peace, but it was an illusion from the start]

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This article appears in the 06 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Last Days of Boris Johnson