Thursday, October 29, 2009

Democracy and Imperialism

Teaching another group of level eights today I received the astonishing statement that ‘All Empires are Evil’. I suppose this is the level of sophistication offered by many modern textbooks, but seeing we were discussing the Roman Empire (which had a level of civilisation for its period second to none, and has possibly left a legacy for future societies second to none), I felt compelled to dig a bit deeper.

Why are Empires necessarily evil? I asked.

I am going to assume that the stunned silence that followed was because the students had never had a teacher question their parroting of politically correct sounding shibboleths before, rather than the students were actually dumb.

After a little more pressure I got an even more stunning simplification… “Well Imperialism is done by kings and emperors, and we know they are bad…”

I did not have time in that session to delve deeper into the question of why the constitutional monarchies of Britain, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands; and Australia, New Zealand, Canada, etc (let me see, have I already named most of the richest, longest term, and most stable states in the OECD?), would count as ‘bad’. I am going to assume this is more of the stupidly simplistic propaganda of the pro-Republican movement and move on.

But it did lead me to think about the relationship between Imperialism and Democracy.

It would probably be fair to say that all the Imperialism that pre-dated the invention of democracy was not inspired by democracy. I will grant that. But I am by no means convinced that the majority of Imperialism since the invention of democracy has not been inspired, or at least expanded, by democratic pressure.

Let us start with the founders of democracy, the Athenians. Most adequate historians would probably accept that the great expansion of Athenian imperialism was during the period of fifth century BC democracy. The more honest amongst them would even note that seeing the poorer citizens had the best opportunities in the navy and the imperial/colonial civil service, there may have been a vested interest in the ‘common’ voters pursuing imperialism for their own gain (an interesting example of bread and circuses don’t you think?). The brutally honest might note that it was the Athenian democracy that voted to execute or enslave all the citizens of cities which refused to bow to their will (a concept almost unprecedented in Greek history).

Sp I think we could safely suggest that the founders of democracy found that it lead directly to imperialism. Fancy!
Let us move on to the next great Republic, the Romans. We all know that they finished as an empire, but the question is was that made almost inevitable by being a Republic? I would probably suggest that the answer is yes.

The Roman Republic repeatedly voted for expansion throughout Italy and the Mediterranean. In fact they voted for punitive campaigns that eventually undermined their democracy by breaking the independent small farmer citizens on the wheel of overseas military service. The resulting class of tenant citizens found future opportunities for wealth accumulation fairly tightly tied to following successful generals on successful campaigns. Which led inevitably to emperors who ran campaigns to satisfy the greed of the troops whose loyalties they needed.

It may not have been an inevitable progression, but I think you could safely say it was an extremely likely one for such a republic.

Let us move on to the Venetian ‘Republic’, which lasted a thousand years until closed down by Napoleon. Did Venice develop imperial ambitions? Did Venice ruthlessly manipulate crusaders and others into doing their political dirty work for them? Was Venice an archetypical limited franchise republic? Ticks in all boxes I think.

The next bit of history gets a bit more confused, but it would certainly be possible to argue that the Dutch and English ‘republics’ were at least as imperial minded as the Spanish and Portugese monarchies that the Pope had ordered to convert the world’s heathens. It might be difficult to make a case that they were more imperialistic than the monarchies, but it would be impossible to argue that they were less. (Certainly it would be interesting to trace the influence of democratic pressures in Britain on such later minor issues as the Crimean War and the ‘Scramble for Africa’.)

How about the United States? A republic with two founding goals - allowing the south to continue unfettered slavery, and allowing the Northern States to expand into the Indian territories protected by British treaties. The next couple of centuries saw repeated attacks on the Indians, the Mexicans, the Canadians, the Japanese, the Hawiians, the Spanish, the Central Americans, and other Pacific Islanders, apparently in the name of ‘spreading democracy’. (As long as you are not Indian, Mexican, Canadian, Japanese, etc.) Any sign of a monarch running things?

Next comes the French series of ‘republics’. Anyone remember how the first one ended? Napoleon ring a bell? How about he second? Napoleon III? What about the third? Oh, that would have seen the conquest of most of Africa and large parts of Asia wouldn’t it? The fourth? Anyone heard of the Vietnam war? The Algerian war? At least the Fifth republic hasn’t been particularly imperial… but then who has in the last 50 years?

Oh sorry, forgot the Socialist Republics. They have had a fairly good run of imperialism recently. Ask the East Europeans, Tibetans, Afghans, Chechnyians and the rest. Whoops, did I say Chechnya? Wasn’t that attacked by the new 'democratic' Russian republic? I am sorry.

What about more recent imperialism? Indonesia has had a good run in places. Several Middle Eastern states have had a good go. Africa has seen many attempts. What do all these states have in common? Let me think, oh yes, they are all republics… if not particularly democratic ones. (I am trying to remember if any absolute monarchies in these areas have headed down the imperialism path? Were Jordan or Saudi Arabia ever trying to establish conquered states under their control when they got into wars?)

Then there is the most recent efforts by the good old US of A. Iraq, Afghanistan… Maybe they don’t want to run the places long term, but they certainly fit the old ‘imperial interest’ models.

Now I will point out that some of the states that have supported these things are not republics. Constitutional Monarchies like Britain and Australia have been quite keen to go along with some of this. But I would ask whether these constitutional monarchies are more or less influenced by their democratic elements now than they would have been 50 years ago? Australia joined the First and Second World Wars to save the world from people like Kaiser Wilhelm II and Adolf Hitler because we were part of an international monarchy called the Commonwealth and Empire. Good on us. I think history will bear us out there. Australia joined the campaigns in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan as a very loudly independent democracy. Will history be so kind about those decisions?

Just to jump back to Kaiser Wilhelm a bit. The man led Germany into the Great War certainly, but how much of that was the effect of democracy rather than absolute monarchy? Go and have a look at the populist navy leagues and nationalist associations dominating German electoral politics in the decades before the Great War, and work out for yourself whether Germany would actually have been less imperialistic had it not been trying to develop some sort of constitutional monarchy? Personally I think that it may well have been more aggressively imperialistic if the voters had had their way. (It might even have become as bad as the Americans!)

Need we note that Adolf Hitler was elected to power by the people, and that they specifically wanted him to re-establish Germany’s greatness. Shall we mention Mussolini in passing, since elected leaders who become imperialistic dictators is such a beautiful tradition from Julius Caesar through Napoleon III, to… well you fill in the boxes in modern Middle East, Asia and Africa.

I am not going to bother to attempt to prove that democracies and republics are more likely to be imperialistic than monarchies. Frankly that would be granting monarchies the same idealised status that dumb students seem to be granting republics. (Am I maligning the students? Are they just saying what they know their teachers want to hear? Discuss.)

But it is ridiculous to try and suggest that republics or democracies are morally superior creations, and it is blinkered fantasy to pretend that they are not at lest as prone to imperialism as any other system of government.

I wish I had had time to discuss this with the level eights. It would have been interesting to see if they actually defended their ludicrous statements, or were just spouting what they thought they had to… Hurray for democracy!

Whether imperialism is necessarily a bad thing I will leave to another time.


  1. Defeating Napoleon I Czar Alexander marched into Paris and offended French delicacies by demanding food bystra, or fast. So his nephew Louis Napoleon felt ordered by Virgen Fatemah to combat Fotios Heresy. Greece was occupied by by France during the Crimean War and by Italy during the Cold War. This is why Tricupis deposed the Catholic King Otto and brought a Dane George Glycksburg married to Olga Constantinovna Romanov a direct matrilineal descendant of the Byzantine Empress Euphrosyne Doukaina Kamatera and via Vladimir Rurik's marriage to Anna Vasilyevna Tsmisces.

  2. Hmmm ... I'm just reading a history of ancient Athens, and a similar thought based mainly on Athens, Rome and Washington did occur to me. Found your post in a quick search.

    I do believe imperialism is an unnmitigated evil, apart from the current discussion, and I think in distinction to you, but note with some alarm the tendencies of democracies to practice that evil ... whether for material gain, or the pride fostered by active participation in the machinery of state.

    The argument is convincing that democracy is no proof against imperialism ... whether it is causal is another whole consideration. It may be a case of the 'least bad of evil alternatives'. It may be a case of our state of social and political development over and above the way we organize ourselves. It may be the fate of rational life on a planet with insufficient energy reserves to support locomotion without predation. We don't know. But we should find out.

    1. I agree with most of your comments, but find the idea that Imperialism is an unmitigated evil a bit silly. Historically Imperialism = Civilisation. You can't have one without the other.

      You can only say we could do without imperialism, if you are one of the state of nature tribal group nuts who fail to recognize how 'nasty, brutish and short' life WILL be without empire coming along to fix it.

      Indeed I would happily suggest that the current problems in much of Africa are mainly to do with taking 'trade Imperialism' (British sort) away too early, before stable societies with literacy and rules of law got developed enough to survive on their own.

      [Less said about 'pillage Empire' (Conquistadore to Belgian Congo) the better. Mind you that is best represented by the democratically elected Empires… Athens, Venice, fascist Italy and Germany, etc.]

  3. Not only are empires evil, they are all destined for failure. Why? Because the ruling class is always corrupt, or becomes corrupt. If you read the Republic, you see exactly what Plato means by not allowing the rulers to accumulate wealth. Wealth leads to excess. Excess leads to corruption. On the subject of justice (in which democracies are built), even the purity of the form is corrupted by the ruling class. The ruling class basically imposes a version of justice that benefits them...thus committing the ultimate injustice---inequality.

    e d d i e j a c k s o n . n e t

    1. Just forget the 'Empires are Evil' bit, and accept that any system run by humans - government, politics, religion, trade, economics, law courts, etc, is fundamentally destined for failure because they are in fact run by humans.

      The only way to prevent (or perhaps redirect) failure, is to have massive self correcting redundancies built in, and enough flexibility to fight back somewhere in the system.

      Ie: It is much more accurate to say that Republics are 'destined to fail', than it is to say 'empires are destined to fail'. Both statements are correct, but empires is a far wider and more flexible (and historically more survivable) concept than anything going under the name of a 'republic'. (Except perhaps the Venetian republic… suggest you have a look at its very fascinating electoral structure…)

  4. I'm 26 and only recently became convinced democracies bring as many wars as empires and dictatorships. There is so much long-running propaganda and regurgitated misunderstandings that dictatorship = inherently evil, and therefore the only other known option of a more consensual government must be good.

    As a kid I believed empires were bad because of evil kings drunk on power. That's about the extent of what kids know. You can't expect them to draw deeper inferences about their own government without a vaster database of information. Oh and religon also affects kids = democratic governments are good, and the USSR is the devil because dad said was.

    1. What children accept or assume from experience and education is the hardest thing for 'rational' debate to overcome.

      I am sure that New Guinea head hunters and cannibals (use there are still isolated tribes with 'traditional values'), are as convinced of their moral virtue as the far noisier American 'democrats' have been for 200 years. (And possibly with better reason, as the head hunters have no chance to know better, whereas American slave owners campaigning for 'liberty' were rank hypocrites who clearly should have.)

      I was amused to read of a recent Yale study that tested adults on mathematical analysis. They gave the same maths with two scenario's. If it was a non value loaded scenario - such as skin care - people got the maths fairly well. If it was value loaded - say, gun control - people seemed to have an amazing ability to get the maths to work to their political predisposition.

      2 + 2 really does equal 5 if you really want it to!