Saturday, February 4, 2012

Why is there order?

I've touched on this before, but it's still a puzzle to me. Why is there order in society? Why so little rioting? Why the predictable elections? Why is the peaceful transfer of power seen as unremarkable?

Some people seem surprised when I take this view, and challenge my pessimism about human nature. But it's not all humans I'm worried about, just the unscrupulous and impulsive section that I presume exists in all societies. Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test features psychologists who argue that a significant minority (a bit less than 1%) of people are psychopaths, incapable of empathy and content to manipulate and terrorise others for their own gain. In my own teenage years I saw enough low-level cruelty and disorder to learn that some section of a population will loot, steal or destroy for pleasure if they don't see consequences.

I'm prompted in this post now because of two things that have brought it back to mind. First is Mike Duncan's excellent podcast series The History of Rome, which explains how the old Roman Republic (which had never been democratic in the modern sense of equal and universal suffrage, but which did at least spread power amongst a few instead of centralising it under one man) had gradually fallen towards autocracy. A common theme was of political taboos being broached, and finally laws simply ignored.

The consulship, for example, was a powerful office to which two men were elected by the republican Senate for just one year. Reelection was not allowed for a further decade (and at some stage reelection was outlawed completely), so these rulers had little time to establish a tyranny. I don't remember which consul first broke with the tradition, but Gaius Marius certainly did.
Taking advantage of wide popular support and fear of Germanic invasion, Marius won elections to the consulship seven times. The way Duncan tells it, this was the breaking of a legal and cultural taboo, which delegitimised the system, showed that it was not sacred, that it could be challenged successfully.

Marius's populist reforms eventually brought him into conflict with Lucius Cornelius Sulla, a brilliant conservative general and politician who eventually seized power by marching his own army on Rome itself.
Sulla wanted to defend the Republic from populist tyrants, but his march on Rome was another taboo broken, another indication that the system could not defend itself, that rules could be bent or ignored. Corruption.

Another charismatic general was reported to have considered Sulla's march on Rome with the words: 'Sulla potuit, cur non ego?' If Sulla could do it, why can't I? That observer was Pompey the Great, who would break more rules, like becoming consul without being a senator and essentially diving the Republic between himself, Marcus Licinius Crassus, and Julius Caesar. Today we talk about a point of no return as 'crossing the Rubicon'. The Rubicon was a river in Italy over which generals were forbidden from marching their armies, and which Julius Caesar did indeed cross it with his soldiers, prompting a civil war which he would win, kicking another scaffold away from the republican edifice. The Senators murdered Caesar but they were too late to save the Republic. From then on, power went to whoever could kill or bribe their way to it.
At least the Empire occasionally enjoyed competent leaders like Trajan and Hadrian, though these were interspersed with sadistic brutes like Nero and Caligula, who pissed away Rome's wealth on luxuries and games. By the 3rd century new emperors rose every few years, sometimes every few months, as conspirators killed into power and died at the knife of their replacements. Assassination or civil war were normal ways to determine the throne.

The emperor's bodyguard, the Praetorian Guard, grew increasingly destructive. Conspirators needed the Guard's aid to murder the emperor, so promised them great raises and gifts on taking power. Having bribed them thus, the new emperor was forced to keep buying off the Guard lest some other conspirator promise them the same. The Praetorian Guard was complicit in many murders when emperors failed to satisfy them. In one case the Guard confronted the new emperor Pertinax, who, after 86 days in power, was declining to raise their wages because there simply wasn't enough money to go around in the near-bankrupt Empire. A guard lashed out and killed the new emperor on the spot. The disgraced Praetorian Guard then auctioned off the position of Roman Emperor to the city's rich, rewarding Didius Julianus eventually with the position. Julianus was dead within three months.

The armies were no less corrupt and demanding. Emperors bribed them for loyalty with pay increases. When the pay hikes ceased, the armies hailed their generals as a new emperor and marched on Rome. How do we build an army to protect the interests of the state and not a state to protect the interests of the army? Whenever a new emperor bribed the Praetorian Guard or army for support against the old emperor, he was destroying whatever taboos survived about leadership. Now anyone with enough weapons and wealth could seize control, so long as they kept taxing ordinary people to feed the parasitical military.

Duncan remarks in one podcast that while many people ponder the fall of Rome, the real surprise is that it survived the 3rd century at all. Yet when I look around Ireland today, I see strong, strong surviving taboos. Electoral democracy is alive and well. Crimes are detected and punished. Murderous conspiracies are unknown. Even now, in a rough economic climate, there are not riots and chaos and assassinations. Why?

The second inspiration was this jarring article from n+1 magazine, alleging the abandonment by the American political system of the huge imprisoned criminal population. I was prompted by this remark on the Detroit riots:
In 1967, riots broke out after city police arrested eighty-four revelers at a party given for a pair of African American veterans who had just returned from Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson sent in an army division to pacify the city, resulting in forty-three deaths and the destruction of 2,000 buildings.
What! 43 deaths to stop a riot in a modern, developed country! Yet again I think (like Pompey) if then, why not now?
It's this sense of wonder at the order and stability of today that informs my uneasiness over civil disobedience and mass resistance in liberal democracies. I was disturbed when I saw Irish socialists suggesting that we should follow the lead of rebelling Egyptians, even rioting Greeks. I argued that we simply didn't need to, since we already had a representative democracy and, unlike the Egyptians under Mubarak, would be peacefully booting out the government in the election last spring anyway.

But I was also worried about breaking taboos there too. If a mass-movement of angry citizens did manage to overthrow the government, could an active radical minority do so too? If they don't have to wait for election day I worry there would be rising after rising by rival factions, looting by opportunistic thugs during the disorder, economic chaos, a downward spiral. I think we should protect order by keeping the legal taboos that have given us our modern peace and stability.

The only fair concern I can think of is if mass-disobedience is necessary to prevent the corruption of the political system from within. When Irish voters rejected the Nice Treaty in a referendum, the government just ran another referendum, as they did with the Lisbon Treaty, worrying some people that governments might side-step the will of the people by forcing on referenda until the people caved and gave the required response. There was a lot of rage about crazy decisions made by the previous government which saddled us with a gigantic national debt, too.

Still, though. I don't see any greater hope amongst enraged mobs destroying the law, so I want my change to happen within the legal framework. I'm not a historian so I hope I'm wrong about this, but when I do read history I see nearly every form of government ever tried as incompetent, cruel, unstable, exploitative and violent. What we have in modern liberal democracies is Utopian by comparison. Let's not throw it away lightly. No marches on Dublin, please.

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