Monday, December 28, 2009

War, Peace and Morality

One of the most valuable tools to anthropologists is the study of micro-cultures (my term). I am referring to isolated cultures whose development helps us understand the way human beings behave in groups. Examples of these analogs are the Cherokee Indians, Zulus, Peruvians, etc. These cultures contribute to our understanding of the people of European antiquity when knowledge about them is lost or incomplete.

I ran across a discussion of the Cherokee Indians society which posits an interesting idea about primitive society. The Cherokee were divided into a warrior group separate from the rest of the tribe and its religious leader. It is thought that this was a necessary division because the warriors needed to know how to fight and not make peace. Similarly, the religious leader was responsible for the anti-war point of view – that is the pursuit of peace and negotiation with outside groups. In this case, war and peace created a separation of powers because it was impractical (and possibly dangerous) to put both in the hands of one individual.

A Cherokee-like division of power is not as well differentiated in ancient Greece and Rome, although one would not expect it to be in a complex society. The Athenians elected ten Archons, and of them, one was the overall leader, one was the military leader, and one was the religious leader. But the Archons as a group made decisions on peace and war. In Rome, after the time of the kings, the religious function was separated from the administrative function, and the Pontifex Maximus was given the sole purpose to maintain the religious apparatus of the Republic. He had no say in any decision on war, which was the prerogative of the Senate, although some Pontifices were also Senators.

Protection from attack has been a unifying aspect of human society since the first time people came together in groups. In the primitive world as the Cherokee world, there was no concept of morality of war. If you were attacked, you fought back. In the more advanced political systems (Polis, Republic) that came later, the unified fear of an enemy was not enough, in itself, to bring on war. The government was structured to force rigorous debate before moving ahead.

Does religion have a place in this? Not in Greece and Rome. There were war gods and peace gods and warfare was considered part of life. Religion was a state activity, managed by officials of the state, so individuals played no part in the decisions regarding war and its morality.

Fundamental to Christianity is the concept of morality in life and in war, so in the United States, were religion is separate from government, the morality of war becomes a sharp debate when our justifications are weak. The historical notion of attacks on our culture have been replaced with an abstraction. Attacking Viet Nam was designed to block the designs of China – a step the government felt necessary to assert superiority in the cold war. Now we have a terrorist enemy who has no borders, and we don’t know how to attack him.

This means that a unifying perception of an outside threat to our culture is missing! We’re not threatened as Americans; we’re threatened as individuals – whoever happens to be close by when the explosion occurs, suffers. In other words, a physical threat has been replaced with a psychological threat, something that is less direct and harder to deal with from a moral standpoint.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Thanks for Visiting

I want to end 2009 by thanking all the people who visited this blog in 2009. I have made some new friends and collected many great comments relating to the 120 articles posted this year. There have been over 10,000 unique visitors to the site and over 1,500 good friends who have come here least 10 times. I feel strongly motivated by my readers and I’m impressed with the number of people out there with an interest in ancient history.

The stories of antiquity are important because they tell us about human behavior – how human beings act in groups and how they build cultures. I believe that human motivations and human behavior are essentially the same today as they were in antiquity, so it is our responsibility to figure out how to use history to learn about ourselves. If more people saw history as a tool to look at their own culture, perhaps they would demand that their governments pursue that which is positive and practical rather than negative or idealistic.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Conflict and Change in Political Systems

I continue to admire the work of Elman Service and his efforts to lay out the anthropological aspects of human society and political systems. In Origins of the State and Political Systems, Service spends a chapter on theories of government – surveying writings on the subject back to the original authors. These early political theorists included Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) of Tunis, Machiavelli, and Jean Bodin (1530-96), who influenced Montesquieu.

Khaldun’s fundamental belief was that conflict drives governmental change in a positive rather than negative way. In other words, conflict purifies political development in the way natural selection purifies species. If two political philosophies are in conflict within a state, the stronger will win, push the state forward, and make it better.

Bodin is like-minded on the importance of conflict in government, but had a more developed approach. He believed that statis (stability) in a culture is unattainable because of the character of man, so good political systems must be able to adapt and change.

I wonder whether the United States is too stable and unable to make itself better. The founding fathers felt (and stated), at the end of the Constitutional Convention, that the resulting document was imperfect, so they built in the amendment process to improve the system to correct any errors or omissions that revealed themselves later. Washington was quoted as saying he would be happy if the document survived for twenty-five years.

How has this theoretical flexibility served us? Take a look at a list of the amendments added since the Bill of Rights.

11th Immunity of states from suits from out-of-state citizens and foreigners not living within the state borders. Lays the foundation for sovereign immunity, 1794

12th Revises Presidential election procedures, 1803

13th Abolishes slavery and Involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime,1865

14th Defines Citizenship and deals with post-Civil War issues, 1866

15th Prohibits the denial of suffrage based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude, 1869

16th Allows federal income tax, 1909

17th Direct election of Senators, 1912

18th Prohibition of Alcohol (Repealed by 21st amendment), 1917

19th Federal recognition of women's suffrage, 1919

20th Term Commencement for Congress (January 3) and the President (January 20). This amendment is also known as the "lame duck amendment", 1932

21st Repeals the Eighteenth Amendment; state and local prohibition no longer required by law, 1933

22nd Limits the president to two term, 1947

23rd Representation of Washington, D.C. in the Electoral College, 1960

24th Prohibition of the restriction of voting rights due to the non-payment of poll taxes, 1962

25th Presidential succession, 1965

26th Voting age nationally established at age 18 (see suffrage), 1971

27th Variance of congressional compensation, 1992

This is a pretty sorry list, because it contains zero structural changes in our government for two hundred years. Seven of the amendments extend rights or freedoms making us more democratic. The rest are procedural.

Lately, we have been discussing the Polis which as we have seen was an dynamic and adaptive political system over 350 years. The Roman Republic experienced a conflict of the classes from 509 B.C. to 287 when Lex Hortensia was adopted. The Republic continued on for another 200 years before it collapsed. Changes in the Republican government were dramatic: whole new legislative bodies were added, new magistracies created, and rights to govern extended to the Plebian Class.

At the present time, conflict in the United States is ideological, operating below the level of government, and unable affect change in the political system. The conflict Bodin requires is not possible because our political system is inert. The theoretical solution to this problem is the amendment process but amendments are too difficult to pass, so real change is impossible.

I dismiss quotations that venerate the Constitution as the perfect document because even the founders didn’t believe that. I also dismiss quotations that rave about how stable our political system is, because too stable is not a good thing. The fundamental problem is that no one represents all the people. When elected officials represent all the people, the whole country moves forward. When they represent only special interests, progress is diluted or not achieved at all.

There are only two forces that can change things: a push for changes in governmental structure so that the interests of all the people are represented, or some external factor that would unify the country. When the country is unified, the people as a whole force their elected officials to take action.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Why Civilizations Fail

The current world turmoil, economic, political, and religious, is unsettling to anyone with a sense of history and its lessons regarding the human tendency to ruin that which is good. We find ourselves, at the same time, wavering between a sense of pessimism and the “head in the sand” notion that everything is all right. Of course it’s tempting to become a doomsday predictor and turn the sum of what’s wrong into catastrophe – to throw our hands up and join the pessimists.

But this kind of emotional pessimism is a mistake because we have to be rationalists, put reason behind our thoughts, and dispense with the emotion. Let the emoters cry wolf at every turn like they always do.

I have recently become acquainted with the work of Elman Service, one of our great cultural anthropologists. In his book Origins of the State and Civilization, Service speculates about the subject of this post. He presents six civilizations, including China, Egypt, Peru, and Mesoamerica, delving into the reasons for their collapse.

All came to and end due to a failure of bureaucratic governance. That is all failed in their reason for being – protection of the society from external and internal threats to its integrity. Throughout generations of historical analysis, many theories have emerged to explain the collapse of civilizations including failures of leaders due to arrogance or complacency, a natural cycle of things (rise/fall, growth/decay), and growth beyond the capability to control. Service sees all these as partial explanations, not fully describing the real world.

He believes collapse is the result of expansion and a resulting conservatism that makes a civilization less flexible. When a civilization expands, it encounters its neighbors and adapts to that new interface. Success in adaptation eventually breeds conservatism and makes the dominant power less flexible. Meanwhile the dominated cultures seek to overcome domination through their greater flexibility for innovation and experimentation. As Trotsky said, “the dominated suffer from the privilege of backwardness.” In this condition, they can borrow the latest techniques from advanced civilizations AND skip developmental steps that take time, resulting in the ability to create in themselves an enormous revolutionary potential. That power eventually becomes competitive with the dominant civilization allowing them to free themselves or become dominant over their complacent neighbor.

How does this model relate to the United States? In our world today the expanding boundaries interface is economic rather than military. Our dominance in business is under attack by the rest of the world who seek to break off shares of our success.

Smaller countries or groups of countries can be more agile than us, particularly where low cost labor and natural resources give them an advantage. It remains for us to regain the agility required to protect our position.

It also feels to me that in this post-modern world we have started to decay internally from a culture of relativism. Perhaps this derives from the fact that the major influence on government action is lobbying. Since lobbyists represent groups, you have to be in group to be represented. You just can’t be an American. African-Americans, Hispanics, union workers, feminists, and teachers all have specific agendas which they bring forward, so government never acts on the whole body of Americans, only the sub-groups.

Take our current health care bill for example. It attempts to satisfy all constituencies but in the end satisfies none. The reason a majority of Americans oppose the bill is because they are happy with their health care and oppose a change to the unknown. But the whole has no lobbyists – only the parts do.

If our government fails the whole, it abdicates its reason for being – protecting its people from internal threats to its integrity. When a civilization is not integrated, it disintegrates.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Democracy and Republic in America

We all know the terms Democracy and Republic, but may not know their history and the context of their definitions. Let’s take a look at them in more detail -- you may be surprised by what we discover.

The original usage as defined by the Romans and Greeks are not the same as those in use today, so it is instructive to follow the history. Once we understand the words, we’ll relate them to the political system of the United States which isn’t a Democracy or a Republic.

Democracy comes from the Greek (dēmokratía) or “the power to the people”. It began to be used after Clisthenes re-organized the Athenian tribes into Demes in 508 B.C. The original definition of democracy, then, is the political system of Athens in the late six and fifth centuries B.C. Beyond this practical definition, we have the theoretical, which defines the characteristics of a democracy as a political system which provides equality and freedom. Furthermore, in a typical democracy, an individual’s rights are protected by a constitution which lays out the governmental structure to support the its laws. Citizens participate in elections where they cast ballots and choose magistrates who will govern. In the case of Athens, the Constitution had been written by Solon and the laws and balance between the branches of government was fine-tuned up to the time of Pericles.

A long time passed between the Athenian Polis and the the rise of modern democracies. Those few examples in between are hardly more than anecdotes. In the western world, monarchies dominated from the fall of Rome until the time of the American Revolution.

The word Republic comes from the Latin res publica or “thing of the people”, implying the participation of the people in their political system. In antiquity, a Republic was defined simply as a political system with no monarch -- the Roman Republic being the most well known example. In Rome, there were three branches of government: Consuls (chief executive magistrate), Senate (wise experienced leaders), and the Assemblies (the people). The Roman Republic was in actuality an oligarchy, because Senators had the power and wealth to influence the way the Republic was administered. The Senate made foreign policy and introduced new laws to be voted on by the assembly. Citizens could only vote if they were landowners: woman, slaves, and the landless were out of luck.

Republics live in fear of tyranny so they create a structure to lower the risk of revolution. In Rome, two consuls were elected for one year terms and had veto control over each other. Other magistrates, such as tribunes, were also elected for a single year. Proconsuls were administrators of foreign territories and as military leaders were not allowed to bring their army onto the Italian peninsula – a rule broken by Caesar when he crossed the Rubicon.

Republics were only marginally more successful than Democracies in the period between antiquity and the modern age. One could cite Switzerland in the middle ages and Florence during the renaissance as examples. Again, innovative political models with equality and freedom were stifled by the medieval monarchical view.

So now we come to colonial America and its path to independence. The colonies, in the pre-revolution days, were Republics just like Rome. Each legislature had an aristocratic upper chamber and a lower chamber of ordinary citizens. The one difference was the governor who was either a toady to the British government or a company chartered by the British government.

As we all know, the American Revolution was an emotional event inspired by the oppressive laws the British government created to exploit the colonies. The colonies had not given much thought to the kind of political system they would need after independence was achieved, so there was a period of weak governance in the period before the Constitutional Convention. The Articles of Confederation had created a loose governmental model but it had too many flaws (no executive) to be effective. That’s why a convention was called in 1787 to amend the articles. Fifty-five men attended the convention as representatives of the colonies, and endured a hot summer in Philadelphia with the windows closed so no one could overhear their debate.

Political philosophies ran the gamut from those who felt no central government was necessary to those who wanted to eliminate the states. Many who liked the Articles of Confederation felt they had been tricked when the discussion of a new political system commenced. Most delegates were literate in Latin and well versed in the Roman and Greek political systems. They looked to antiquity to guide them past the monarchical model that had dominated the western world.

Many feared Democracy as “mob rule” citing the need to have controls against the lower classes, a problem faced by both the Romans and Greeks. The resulting Constitution created a Federation of states with a central government that was essentially an oligarchy. The president was to be selected by state legislatures (electors), the Senate by state legislatures, and only the representatives were to be directly elected by the people. The initial group of Senators included some of the richest men in the colonies, who were able to exert their individual influence over the business of the nation.

Washington was essentially a figurehead. The battle over the philosophy of the new government was waged between Hamilton and Jefferson, the former wanting a centralized government and the latter embracing the principles of Democracy. This was the Romans versus the Greeks redux. Jefferson eventually won the battle when he was able to build his Republican (his term for the opposite of Federalist) party through grass roots efforts in the states. The Federalists never won an election after 1796 and the government became more Democratic. Still, the vestiges of the Oligarchic Republic remained for a long time. The property ownership requirement for voting lasted until 1850 and Senators continued to be selected by the states until 1910.

Today, the American model sits somewhere between the Greek and Roman – maybe more on the side of Rome. Nowhere in America are officials nominated or elected by lot as the Greeks did. Broad public participation in government has been replaced by lobbyists who influence legislation by acting for large corporations or groups - the new oligarchy. The people have been removed from the process and even though Americans take pride in the voting franchise, they have less and less ability to control the way government operates.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Three Political Systems Compared

I thought it would be interesting to create a timeline to show the evolution of three great political systems: Greek, Roman, and British.

Between them we cover the two great civilizations of antiquity and their political systems – Democracy and Republic. Britain is, perhaps, the father of the great modern political systems.

The Greeks were at it early as they were influenced by the empires of the Eastern Mediterranean: Egypt, Persia, Crete, and Mesopotamia. They had a mature Polis when Rome was just starting its Republic. Neither Greece nor Britain could move forward to the Middles Ages until Rome collapsed.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Lessons of History

We all know that history is underappreciated. It is variously described as boring, a waste of time, and irrelevant to everyday life. Part of the cause of this misconception is the way it’s taught – too many names and dates rather than good stories. But there is also a lack of respect for those that came before us – no sense among us that we’re part of a great line.

The quote, “Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it” rings true, because when we ignore history, it costs us human talent and treasure. So why do we do we ignore history? Because truth dies when it flies in the face of the political winds.

Let’s look at a contemporary example. The United States is mired in a guerrilla war in Afghanistan which began as a response to 9/11. We went in there to get al-Qaeda, which took about a year, but then our mission lost its definition. No plan for staying, no plan for leaving.

To stay as long as we have, is to ignore geography and history. This geography is uncontrollable and of little value. Afghanistan is covered with mountains and only 12% of its land is arable. It's also landlocked and for centuries has been overrun by hordes passing back and forth through Asia. The current social structure is tribal because the geography cannot support a higher socio-economic system. In the classical anthropological model, clans become tribes which become agrarian societies and then industrial states. It can’t happen everywhere because of geography and other factors, but Afghanistan was never in the model – it’s stuck in the Neolithic Age.

We ignored history there too. The English fought two Afghanistan Wars in the nineteenth century and lost an entire army in the first. The Russians fought the Afghans from 1979-92 and gave up. We should know that the same can happen to us if we continue to ingore the history.

Let’s bring Greece into the discussion for a minute. After all this is an ancient history blog, so we need a connection. Greece is mountainous like Afghanistan, and 25% arable. Not much better, right? Oh, but what a difference being landlocked makes. Greece has the Aegean which has always facilitated communication to other cultures and the economic benefits of trade.

Greece could never be an industrial society, but its geography supported the agrarian model. It could incubate an advanced political/legal model because its mountains divided the people into small groups. Those groups, in isolation, were free to develop their own political systems, so there were hundreds of Poleis that influenced each other and pushed the model forward. In the end, two rose to the top – Sparta and Athens. Sparta developed a military society because it was landlocked. Athens developed a seafaring society because it was close to the Aegean.

Greece went on to be the foundation of western civilization. Afghanistan remains a black hole for those who forget history.