The Return of "I'll Fight You for It" Rules

Heidi Burgess
Guy M. Burgess

Spring 2016 Revised November 2019

You can download this video from Vimeo for offline viewing.


This video starts with a description of an old Jules Fieffer cartoon that illustrates what we call "I'll fight you for it rules"—the notion that you can get what you want by fighting for it and the most powerful wins (a power-over" approach.)

This was originally presented as a joke in the years following World War II, the breakup of the European colonial empires, and the US civil rights movement.  This was a time when hopeful people thought we were ending the era of 'I'll fight you for it rules" and instituting a new "power-with" approach to human relationships.  

It Now, unfortunately, appears that "I'll fight you for it" rules" are making a comeback.

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Full Transcript 

Lightly edited for readability.

Years and years ago, long before the Internet, I remember reading a political cartoon that stuck with me, written by Jules Fieffer.  I have been looking for it ever since and I can't find it. So I broke down and did a lousy job of redrawing it. 

It features two guys who are angry at one another. One says “I want your land.” The other guy says, “You can't have it.”  “Why?” “Because it’s mine!” “Where did you get it?” “From my father.”  “Where did he get it?”  “From his father.”  “Where did he get it?” From his father.”  “Where did he get it?”  “ He fought for it.”  “Well, then, I’ll fight you for it!”   

The thing that was so stunning about this was that it was clearly a joke at the time. There was a general sense that we don't do it that way anymore. For folks of my generation, who grew up in the shadow of World War II, the sort of overarching priority of the global international system, and domestic system as well, was never, ever repeat the horrors of World War II.

If you look at the casualties, especially in the Soviet Union and China which were so, so much worse than what we suffered in the United States—you get some sense as to just how much our parents wanted to avoid another war like World War II.  So a whole set of institutions were created and charged with making that a reality—starting, most obviously, with the United Nations, which came out of the ashes of World War II.

The other thing that emerged was the dissolution of the European colonial empires.  Those empires had basically had governed the world with I’ll-fight-you-for-it rules for centuries. After World War II, we saw an explosion of the number of UN member states, as these colonial empires were abandoned. Now, there are obviously lots of stories—horror stories really—about the way in which the states were created.  But nobody had ever been in the business of creating states from colonies before.

The other thing that was stunning was the rise of the European Union. Here you had a continent that had been through countless wars over the centuries and then, suddenly, you had this transition to a single union with the elimination of barriers for crossing borders and the establishment of a single currency.  That was an incredible accomplishment!

There was also a global sense that democratization was the wave of the future. In country after country after country, there was this shift toward some sort of a more democratic rule. 

The next big event, of course, was the end of the Cold War and, in a sense, the end of the last great colonial empire, the Soviet Union. There was an emerging global neoliberal consensus on how to manage the global economy based on capitalist principles and democratic forms of political organization.

Some of this was also reflected in the civil rights movement. The 1964 Civil Rights Act in the United States took us from the segregation era to President Obama being the first African-American president.  That happened in only a couple of  generations—another enormous accomplishment!

You also saw parallel developments in civil rights and human rights on the international scale. The notion was that we were creating a kinder, gentler form of competition but one that was still pretty competitive.  Still, I would much rather live in the world that was then emerging than the world my parents had to deal with, with the Nazi expansion. The underlying assumption was the great march of history was toward a “power-with” world rather than a “power-over” world.

You saw folks like Stephen Pinker making pretty persuasive arguments that over the long term, and even the time scales of decades, we were making enormous progress, toward ending violence and war, though, obviously, there was much, much more to do.

What has me worrying at the moment is that it seems like this progress is coming to a halt. We seem to me to be backsliding into a world of  “I’ll-fight-you-for-it rules.” We see the disintegration of the Middle East into a whole series of wars between and for Islam, and the enormous casualties coming out of Syria and the fear that this could spread.  Also very worrying is the notion that the European Union is on the verge of breaking up over problems with the structure of the Euro, the flow of refugees, and tensions between urban elites and the larger population.

We also live in a time of renewed superpower tensions. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, we’re really starting to worry about large-scale, high-tech military competition, arms races, and potential confrontation.

In the United States, we also see a shift towards increasing political polarization. The Pew Research Center has done a number of really stunning reports that document how rapidly and radically the U.S. population has shifted politically. You see the shift especially prominently on the extremes. With the consistently liberal and the consistently conservative, you get the “true-believer effect.” These guys are convinced that if their side doesn't prevail, the alternative will be an unimaginable catastrophe. So they fight hard, they don’t compromise, and their image is that they want to—have to—push the enemy (figuratively at least) into the sea, as you see with this image from the Battle of Dunkirk.

We also have a time where compromise on the political right is becoming a really bad word. You have political figures like Donald Trump who keep talking about winning, winning, winning. And the reaction on the political left is pretty much the same—go for the big win. Increasingly, it seems like Democrats are attracted to candidates who promise them everything that they ever wished for. It doesn’t matter what the other side thinks or wants.

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