Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A Tale of Two Twits: The Emperor of Brazil and the Shah of Iran.


On a trip to Italy recently I became very aware of how the French Revolution, and Napoleon Bonaparte in particular, burst on the scene and overthrew generations of stability with what appeared at the time to be inspiring revolution and reform.

When Napoleon’s fleet forced its way intoMalta –  then the greatest fortress in Europe – many Maltese ran to their positions at the batteries, only to have the French knights of the order of St John turn them back because they were convinced that the impending changes were too wonderful and inspiring to want to stop. (In actuality the French Revolution, and Napoleon in particular, were brutal and rapacious looters, and the Maltese people were forced to revolt within only a few weeks of watching the French pillage their churches and culture).

Similarly the Doge of the thousand year old Serene Republic of Venice, when threatened by Napoleon’s forces, surrendered, and handed his cap of office to a servant commenting “I won’t be needing that any-more”. This surrender is particularly baffling given that fifty years later the  much poorer and weaker Venetians threw out their new Austrian masters, and endured a year long seige with considerable fortitude. The surrender to Napoleon for the Venetians, as for the Maltese, was again more of a feeling of inevitability than from any real weakness or fear, and again was instantly regretted as the rapacious French sacked the great arsenal and looted the churches.

The theme here is that some things that look both wonderful and inevitable at the time, quite quickly prove to be appalling mistakes. Such are the case in the foundations of the Republics of Brazil and Iran.

Brazil was the greatest treasure of the Portuguese crown, to the point that when the royal family fled there during the Napoleonic wars, the prince decided to stay when his father returned home, and Brazil became an independent Constitutional Monarchy with a parliamentary system of government along the British model. 

Brazil therefore entered a golden age, where the entire focus of the governments power was upon the development and improvementof the colony – rather than on looting it for the benefit of the mother country the way most Catholic empires of the period were doing. (Catholic conquistadores often claimed they were after converts, but in practice were seeking loot. Protestant empires tended to be more settle and trade rather than conquor and loot. Orthodox empires were geographically more attuned to the ‘keep the barbarians further and further away from our borders’ approach of the Middle East. And Muslim empires were of course still into the sort of ‘conversion by the sword’ that the Protestants weren’t any longer, and the Catholics weren’t supposed to be since the Pope’s ruling against it…)

Brazil’s golden age saw massive advances in the economy, in education, in human rights for all, and in integrating the mixed races of the state. Democracy was growing, freedom of the press was entrenched, and slavery abolished. Things leapt ahead in great bounds for 80 years, and Brazil looked like a better bet than the United States (undergoing a horrible and debilitating civil war as it tried to catch up on getting rid of slavery), for becoming the great modernising power of the America’s.

But then, tragedy. The Emperor of Brazil got a good idea. He became fascinated with the advances in democracy in various parts of the world, and went out of his way to encourage his nascent constitutional monarchy parliament to remove him and declare a proper Republic. He felt that this was both a wonderful and inevitable step, and that he should not stand in its way. In fact there was little desire amongst the general population for any change, but the new elites of chattering classes were delighted to play with new power. (Though, as in the US revolution, slave owners who wanted to keep their slaves played a dominant role in the ‘reform’.)

Over the next century Brazil became apathetic backwater, and suffered a series of appalling dictatorships. The economy crumbled into a basket case, the rule of law was lost, freedom of the press smashed, human rights dissolved, and conflict between the racial groups became endemic. Within a couple of decades the advances of a century were reversed, and a new system of repression and economic disadvantage locked into place for several generations.

Hooray for a foreward thinker.

In fact had the Emperor of Brazil kept a firm hand on the development of his parliamentary system over several decades, gradually increasing the voter base as property franchise and education improved along with general literacy and the rule of law, then Brazil might have continued to outpace the United States in the America’s. Instead he abandoned an only partly developed system to the mercies of a newly emerging chattering class BEFORE the rest of the citizens had developed the necessary understanding of structure and cynicism of politicial motive to be able to control the new elite. The result was what it always is, elected dictatorships followed by military coups, followed by violent rebellions, followed by more dictatorships, etc. (Suprisingly, it was one of the military governments that eventually got sick of the whole thing and started to re-impose a democratic system… but this time slowly and carefully ove the course of decades!)

A similar thing happened in the great hope of the Middle East, Iran.

Many of the small independent states of the Middle East granted self government in the last sixty years were tribal groups that worked best under their own traditional monarchs. They would take many years to develop the necessary education, literacy, and rule of law to start pushing towards functional constitutional monarchies (in fact Morrocco and Jordan and some of the Gulf Emirates are only now working towards this properly). Unfortunately several other states were forcibly constituted under monarchs who had little direct tribal association with large elements of the population, and these (particularly Iraq) have always been unstable, either as monarchies or as republics. But not any worse than many roughly structured Republics with similar problems (like Turkey and Syria and Libya).

Iran however, should not have had this problem. The ancient Persian culture was still dominant and strong, and the Shah was from a family with great history and loyalty. Minorities were not persecuted the way they were in other Muslim cultures, and their economy was booming. In fact Iran in the early years of the twentieth century was looking as promising as Brazil had a century earlier. It's 1908 Constitutional Monarchy and Parliament structure being a potential model for the entire Middle East on the route to modern statehood.

Yet again, the rulers are largely at fault for what happened next. Shahs' dropped the ball. They overestimated the advances in democracy, and underestimated that backwardness and ignorance of many of the citizens. They tried to structure a new style state before the population had the sophistication and education and cynicism to be ready for it. They finished with a parliament of shallow new chattering elites, willing to try foolish things that looked exciting or inevitable. One Shah had to be deposed for being too pro-German in World War Two. (Fascism looks exciting and inevitable....) His son was possibly even worse. He encouraged his parliament to nationalise foreign assets (Nationalism looks exciting and inevitable...), and the British and Americans reacted badly and instigated coups (the first recognisable modern US coup against a democratically elected government) and interventions that led to eventual collapse of the still underdeveloped political system. The Shah turned for a while to US support (scoring cold war brownie points looks like the way to go....), but the crisis grew worse over the next quarter century, and eventually ongoing debacles led to a final coup.

The result, inevitably, was that modern Iran is a particularly nasty theocratic dictatorship that has fallen economically decades behind its previously pathetic neighboure, and survives now on the sort of paranoia and irrational fear that used to represent the Soviet Union (and still apparently represents those other great republics... Russia and China and North Korea).

Iran went from being the shining hope of democracy and civilisation in the Middle East to being a basket case that has been economically completely overshadowed by the previously despised and backward tiny Emirates across the gulf. It went that way because the Shahs', like the Emperor of Brazil, and like the French Knights of St John or the Venetian council, fell for the concept of wonderful and inevitable advances, without realising that slow and cautious development is a necessary underpinning to any permanent advance.

Similar things happened in many other places that were thrown into ‘independence’ before devolping more than a rudimentary chattering class of lawyers and civil servant elites. If the literacy and education of the vast majority of citizens was not up to the idealism of the small and overly confident new elites, those countries were doomed to even nastier dictatorships than Brazil and Iran. (See almost anywhere in Africa for example.) 

Worse, many states fell to a particularly horrendous political 'shiny new toy', Communism, that usually inflicted economic chaos, and indeed slaughter and injustice, on its own citizens, beyond the wildest dreams of Ghenghis Khan (all in the name of being exciting and modern and inevitable of course...)

Democracy can be a wonderful part of a functioning constitutional system, but only if it is developed slowly over decades or centuries within a literate population, with a rule of law, a free press, and a firm understanding of cynicism in relation to political promises. Otherwise, overly enthusiastic institution of democracy within a largely illiterate and uneducated culture with little experience of rule of law, and virtually no understanding of the cynicism necessary to deal with the ridiculuous promises of professional politicians: leads to very horrible results.

The worst enemy of developing a stable democracy, is pushing it too fast.

The result of people who have been given responsibility for nurturing the development of a country thinking they can take exciting short-cuts, is inevitably appalling.

God save us from well meaning twits.

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