It may sound trivial, but a lot of people seem to lose the sight of this simple fact: democracy is not an invention of the 20th century. Nor was it first implemented then — it has been around for a better part of last three millennia, not simply as an abstract idea of governed having a say by whom and exactly how are they governed, but as an actual political organization of a society ever since the rise of Greek pólis.
So how come that it has proven so fragile? Why hasn’t it stuck as a political order of choice since Solon’s Republic in Athens?
Of course, the Greek city-states, while culturally advanced and economically prosperous, proved to be no match to the military might of the army of Macedonian Alexander. But the Roman Republic around the change of millennium was not only uncontested in terms of external threats, but literally at the apogee of its powers. At the time of Republic, both Roman cultural attitudes as well as the political system were extremely wary of concentration of power into the hands of any single individual, and there were elaborate rules and regulations in place to ensure that this did not happen. Politically, this consisted mainly of ‘checks and balances’ and a system of double appointments to positions of significant power — for example, such as consul’s.
And yet, the democracy failed, it collapsed in the very hands of the people whom it empowered in a society it had made the greatest power of the world.
While the influences were numerous as well as varied, the causes of the fall of the Republic were all internal. The military success of the late Republic in the last century BC was coupled with rising social tensions and worsening economic conditions in Rome. Steadily growing immigration had swollen the city’s population and the resulted in an aggressive and populist democracy. At the same time, extensive campaigning abroad had solidified military into a self-contained force, with soldiers’ loyalty being commanded by generals rather than abstract Republic. In less than a hundred years, the social tensions brew over in at least 12 revolts and civil wars (including the three slave uprisings, Social War, and ultimately a civil war which culminated with consul Lucius Cornelius Sulla’s army defeating that of the senate and entering the city in 82 BC). And then, a man was born who had a great political aspiration and an exceptional talent for military leadership — combined with an opportunity to realize them both at the same time. This man was Julius Caesar.
The story of the last days of the Roman Republic sprang into my mind when reading the flurry of columns and articles at the wake of an article on Gen. Stanley McChrystal in Rolling Stone last week, and his subsequent dismissal by the President Obama — both of which caused great controversy. And there seems to be a widely held opinion that McChrystals derogatory remarks towards the civilian leaders he either reports to or had to work with were not an isolated act of insubordination, not a case of a single bad apple. Both NY Times as well as Washington Post make a broader point of a military culture, made possible by the rise of a modern professional warrior class and fueled by America’s never-ending wars. Abolishing the draft and going for the all-volunteer army has caused the US military and civilian population it is supposed to defend to drift apart. Many current civilian leaders have never served in the army while for a lot of top military commanders (including Gen. McChrystal) the army is the only life they know, having been born into military families and grown up in the bases rather than towns. And by turning soldiers into professionals, it has also normalized and legitimized waging a war as a profession in the eyes of the society, rather than seeing it as a temporary, disruptive and unfortunate state of exception.
With Gen. McChrystal now out of the way one could think that the scare is over. But as several people writing recently have made it clear, this was no isolated case, the sentiments so bluntly expressed in Rolling Stone article seem to be widespread, a norm rather than exception among the top brass of the US military. Says Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University:
Throughout history, circumstances such as these have bred praetorianism, warriors becoming enamored with their moral superiority and impatient with the failings of those they are charged to defend. The smug disdain for high-ranking civilians casually expressed by McChrystal and his chief lieutenants — along with the conviction that “Team America,” as these officers style themselves, was bravely holding out against a sea of stupidity and corruption — suggests that the officer corps of the United States is not immune to this affliction.
It is also certainly worthy of notice that McChrystal’s name was immediately picked up and mentioned in connection with the Tea Party movement and 2012 presidential elections. While it is difficult for me to conceive that a military coup could be a real possibility in the United States it is certainly imaginable that people would not have the power wrested from their hands but simply hand it over all by themselves.
It certainly wouldn’t be the first time for this to happen.