A Theory of Victory


In this world of desperate quantification (numerical support providing objectivity in all things), there appears to be a fierce urge to measure something as unmeasurable as politics.

Presently there are two ways of doing this: polls and elections. Thus, if a party is polling poorly, they are likely to lose an election. They have therefore failed. QED.

But what if – what if – by achieving its stated aims from 2007, the ALP have already won? There’s something cheapening, and frankly distasteful, about the idea that the purpose of winning election is winning further elections.

Ed Butler poses the question: what if Labor has already won?

Butler cites several major policy reforms: the carbon price, the mining tax, ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, the Apology to the Stolen Generations. Repealing WorkChoices. The national disability insurance scheme. I would add the stimulus after the Global Financial Crisis; the Education Revolution; repealing VSU; indexing higher education funding; introducing the Fair Work Act; the health reforms; and more.

Butler writes: “Labor may well lose the next election, but perhaps they’ve won this war.”

This naive view underscores an interesting dilemma in politics. There is no “Theory of Victory“. While there is winning and losing (measured by elections) and tactical success and failure (passage of legislation, maneuvers on the floor of parliament), there is no real idea of victory. It kind of goes unspoken, an assumption or mentioned only in passing. The nature of parliamentary democracy, with elections every four years also means that there can be no “final” electoral success; the enemy can never be completely defeated, especially in a two-party system.

There are untold millions of words spent on how to win election campaigns, but not even a rudimentary theory of victory.

Given the parlous state of contemporary Australian politics, it’s worth thinking about political victory.

This post is really just an introduction to the idea, and to an interesting article by J. Bartholomees on the military discussion of the ‘theory of victory’. In the vein of my earlier post about the Greens Party and guerrilla warfare, and given the fact that military language, theory and terminology saturates political theory and discussion, I think it’s uncontroversial to apply the military discussion to Australian politics.

The characteristic of perspective allows observers to think of victory in war as three-tiered: tactical, operational, and strategic. Because winning tactically is a fairly straightforward and almost exclusively military activity, it is best understood and generally assessed using reasonably quantifiable criteria. Measures of effectiveness such as comparative casualty ratios, ground taken or lost, and prisoners captured all have weight and can produce a reasonable estimate of victory or defeat that is likely to be widely accepted. Operational victory is similarly transparent at least in its purest form; the campaign succeeds or fails based on criteria that are usually well understood and quantifiable. Strategic victory, however, is a more complicated issue.

Which level is most important? It is tempting to respond that all are equally important, but that would be incorrect. What counts in the end is the strategic outcome. …Tactical and operational successes may set the stage for strategic victory, but they are not sufficient in themselves.

Finally, as Colin Gray and William Martel point out, victory occurs on multiple sliding scales. Victory and defeat, although polar opposites, are not binary. There are thousands of points along the scale that delineate degrees of success. Winning may or may not be decisive in the sense of settling the underlying political issues, again across a whole range of degrees. Gray uses separate scales for achievement and decisiveness. In a sense the two are so closely related that decisiveness might be considered part of the definition of winning. It is, however, a separate and useful concept, especially since the important interaction is the effect between levels (not to discount the fact that one might win on one level and still not produce decisive results). So a great battlefield victory may not decide anything either militarily in terms of the campaign or politically in terms of the war. Just as one can succeed to varying degrees, one can fail to varying degrees. Thus, the achievement scale has a negative component.

… While the words are often used interchangeably, they offer a unique opportunity to distinguish important gradations that exist in the condition of success in war. The assertion here is that victory will be essentially total and probably final; that it will resolve the underlying political issues. It is certainly possible, however, to succeed in a war without achieving everything one sought or resolving all the extant issues. Winning implies achieving success on the battlefield and in securing some political goals, but not, for whatever reason, reaching total political success (victory). Lesser levels of success reflect lesser degrees of battlefield achievement or lesser degrees of decisiveness in solving or resolving underlying issues. On the losing end, defeat is also a total concept. It implies failure to achieve battlefield success or to attain political goals and simultaneously not only not resolving underlying issues but actually exacerbating them. Thus, the two components of success in war are portrayed here as the scales of achievement and decisiveness. These are related yet independent variables.

Decisiveness also reflects a range of potential outcomes. The decisiveness scale shows potential outcomes varying from completely resolving the political issues at stake through various degrees of partial resolution to no effect (or status quo), worsened or deteriorated political conditions, to the final potential outcome that the war does not solve the problems for which it was fought, but actually exacerbates them. Decisiveness assesses the effect on the political issues.

Carl von Clausewitz, regarded as the world’s greatest strategist said of victory: “If in conclusion we consider the total concept of a victory, we find it consists of three elements: the enemy’s greater loss of material strength, his loss of morale, and his open admission of the above by giving up his intentions.”

Clausewitz also said: “If you want to overcome your enemy you must match your efforts against his power of resistance, which can be expressed as the product of two inseparable factors; the total means at his disposal and the strength of his will.”

Bringing Butler and Bartholomees together, I think it is clear that an idea of ‘total victory’ cannot be achieved — either in traditional warfare or politics.

Victory is about willpower and the breaking of wills.

The fact that even after their humiliating loss in 2007, the Liberals were, less than three years later, willing to entertain bringing back WorkChoices, denying climate change and willing to trash every institution of parliament. Hardly evidence of a broken will.

As Bartholomees notes, “there will always be one enemy soldier armed with a knife who is willing to give their life to continue the fight”. This is because, in my view, contemporary politics is trench warfare: attrition is the name of the game.

While the idea of winning elections being the purpose of winning elections may be distasteful, it is one of the primary measures of victory, and is enormously important in achieving long-term objectives. As others have noted in the comments on Butler’s article, although Labor has implemented many reforms, a Tony Abbott majority government could unwind many of those reforms. One election and one round of reform is not enough — policy successes must be entrenched over a generation before they can be considered a permanent part of the political and policy establishment.

Further reading: What’s the matter with being a strategist (now)? by Charles Moore.

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