Rise and Fall, Push and Pull (Pt. VIII)

In The Politics, Aristotle describes the ways constitutions are changed and regimes overthrown:

Democracies often suffer from intolerable internal contradictions: demagogues, in their quest to gain and maintain popular support provoke the ire of wealthy who conspire to remove them from their positions by force. “In democracies the most potent cause of revolution is the unprincipled character of popular leaders. Sometimes they bring malicious prosecutions against the owners of possessions one by one, and so cause them to join forces; for common fear makes the bitterest of foes cooperate. At other time they openly egg on the multitude against them.” Competition between strong elite personalities creates chaotic competition. The strongest work to regulate decadent and destabilizing pluralism, arrogance and narcissism. This frequently produces oligarchies. (5.5)

Oligarchies, resultant from the conspiracies of the rich few and designed to exclude the masses, are overthrown when the ruling caste offends the people. A demagogue, from the oligarchy or elsewhere unites the people against the oligarchy, bringing it down. Horizontal competition within the elite is another cause for the downfall of oligarchy. Alternative bases of power form, diluting the capacity of the center. A similar process causes alternative poles to develop from below, as the weak become strong through their own initiative or outside sponsorship. Pluralism lessens the distance between center and periphery, pulling the core in multiple directions and spreading it thin. This often happens in war-time, because oligarchs fear their people and hire mercenaries or rely on other armed elements to fight their enemies; the military commanders then set up their own lines of power and authority; they reconsolidate power around themselves. This leads to elite pluralism or simply the replacement of the dominant element within the oligarchy by another. (5.6)

Aristocracy, a form of oligarchy where the “virtuous” few rule, faces trouble when honors and promotions are not doled out according to virtue — or when aristocrats feel that this is the case. “The chief cause of overthrow, for aristocracy as well as polity,” according to Aristotle, ” is deviation from justice in the constitution itself.” That is to say an imbalanced mixture of oligarchy with democracy where oligarchy dominates (with the reverse being the case in polities). This imbalance makes aristocracies less stable than polities because in polities men can have larger “shares” of the pie because power is not restricted to a narrow clique. Aristocracies grow more democratic “when the poorer people suppose themselves wronged and exercise a pull in that direction; and polity may change to oligarchy, once it loses the only qualities that make it last, namely private property and equality according to deserts.” Still, “changes in aristocracies generally take place unobserved, because the dissolution is a gradual process.” Small changes to the constitutional order grow greater over time; after the citizens make even a small amendment “next time they will with an easier mind tamper with some other and slightly more important feature, until in the end they tamper with the whole structure.” Institutions weaken because the individuals’ will overpowers them more and more; laws are not obeyed when they conflict with immediate desires, they are merely changed. Aristotle gives the example of Thurii:

There the generalship could legally be held only every fifth year by the same man. Some of the younger men grew combative, and the rank and file of the garrison troops esteemed them highly. This group had no use for the men of affairs and believed that they would easily prevail. They first set about annulling that law, so as to make it possible for the same men to be general continuously; for they saw that the people would eagerly vote them into office. Those of the officials who were charged with responsibility in the matter, Councillors as they were called, while at first inclined to oppose, were eventually won over with the rest; they supposed that after tampering with that law the young men would be leaving the rest of the constitution intact. But later, when other things were tampered with which they wanted to stop, they proved powerless to do anything. So the whole set-up of the constitution was altered and it passed into the hands of the power-group that had started the process of innovation. (5.7)

In all of these there is evidence of the “iron law of institutions” (“the people who control institutions care first and foremost about their power within the institution rather than the power of the institution itself”) and the “iron law of oligarchy” (all institutions tend toward oligarchy over time); one can easily finds justification for totalizing theories practically anywhere. Many of the causes for the crumbling of democracies or oligarchies and especially aristocracies would be chocked up to corruption in today’s world. Corruption stems from vulnerability; in political life vulnerability often comes from a weak rule of law and weak institutions. The strong take their “share” and leave the crumbs for the commoners.

Sallust links Rome’s broader moral and social decline to pervasive corruption in the Roman aristocracy. Catiline and Jugurtha (or rather Jugurtha’s Roman partners) symbolize this in their own ways and he is in no way subtle in this respect while describing either case. Narrow interests and personality come before the functions and duties of institutions and offices. “High” purpose is lost and political life is distilled to its most basic element: the search for agency and the capacity for control — power. This may have its origin in good intentions; there are often men who sincerely believe that their agenda and their personal qualities transcend the formalities that restrict their action — occasionally they are correct. More often they are not and as they carry on they weaken their offices and the systems those offices supposedly support. “For after those times,” Sallust writes of the Senators on the eve of the Social War, “no matter who stirred up the commonwealth on honorable pretexts (some as though defending the rights of the people, others to maximize the authority of the senate), each of them, despite his pretense of the common good, was competing for his own powerfulness.”

Then there are the more common instances where parochial interests — patronage and clientelism — become more prominent as overarching concerns of the governing unit, often formed by a unifying fear or economic principle, grow ever weaker. Those at the top always have the longest to fall; this becomes an exotic and nonsensical concept for the complacent while the enlightened make sure to move their monies and resources to higher ground before it all comes crashing down. There is little fear of attack or subversion from without and so internal bacteria accelerate the process of decay. Sallust wrote of hungry young politicians by whom “the utmost power was acquired, whose age and spirit were those of defiance, and they began to stir up the plebs by accusing the senate and then to inflame them still more by bribery and promises.” Sallust, the bitter class warrior, derides such men for exploiting the plebs “who in their hatred of their own circumstance are enthusiastic for everything to be changed”; here one must recall Sallust’s own position in opposition to Catiline’s struggle and that De coniuratione Catilinae is largely an act of character assassination against Catiline. But what is important is that he is describing the desperate lengths to which Rome’s leaders were willing to go to reach their goals, the result of poor leadership from Sallust’s faction and perhaps even Catiline. Whatever sense of false consciousness existed in the various peripheral circles beyond the core elites begins to fade as ruthlessness and malicious intentions characterize horizontal elite relations. Those outside the ruling set become restless. Political order begins to fragment, the strong do what they will, the rest of society suffers as it must.

Burnham had it that the first priority of the ruling class is to maintain its privileges and power. Leaders need followers for this reason. Control of force and public support are critical to survival, and the latter is frequently achieved through patronage and clientelism. Traditional associations — tribes, clans, families, ethnic groups, religious leaders, traditional landowners and so on — can make achieve these methods efficiently; where such associations fail or are hostile, formal structure — the military and bureaucracies especially — of high value in compelling conformity by force and coercion. Through these mechanism rebellious or non-compliant populations can be suppressed or empowered and land owners can be forced from their property and disposed from their inherited status (or backed up in the face of peasant and worker upheaval). In tightly controlled and narrow regimes, business communities, especially in light and semi-heavy industries are among the most important “outlets” for the non-official elite to find expression and satisfaction. In this role they become dependent on the favor of the governing elite, cultivating networks of patronage and indirect influence without changing or challenging he fundamental pillars of the state. They also help to grease relations with foreign powers and their people in controlled and monitored circumstances. Such environments are also ideal for spying (in both directions) and for the regime to more deeply control potential centers of power through corruption. Balancing these forces so that violent exchanges within society are unnecessary is a primary task for leadership and success in this effort generally translates into longevity for the regime.

Among their populations, narrow regimes attempt to dampen the character trait Sallust calls “prowess” (uirtus), often deliberately though sometimes inadvertently; at the same time they cultivate prowess among themselves for their own purposes. In De coniuratione Catilinae, Sallust writes that in better times, “prowess had tamed everything” for the Romans. Prowess made Romans “hungry for praise, generous with money; they wanted mighty glory, honorable riches.” Such people “at home and on campaign, concentrated on quickness, preparation, mutual encouragement” and “all the best men preferred to do rather than to speak, and that their own good deeds should be praised by others rather than they themselves should narrate those of others” and “citizens competed with citizens in the area of prowess”. And then something changed.

Those who had easily tolerated work, danger and uncertain and rough conditions, regarded leisure and riches (things to be craved under no circumstances) as a burden and a source of misery. Hence it was the desire for money first of all, and then for empire, which grew; and those factors were the kindling (so to speak) of every wickedness. For avarice undermined trust, probity and all other good qualities; instead it taught men haughtiness, cruelty, to neglect the gods, to regard everything as for sale. Ambition reduced many mortals to becoming false, having one sentiment shut away in the heart and another ready on the tongue, assessing friendships and antagonisms in terms not of reality but of advantage, and having a good demeanor rather than a good disposition. At first these things grew gradually; sometimes they were punished; but after when the contamination had attacked like a plague, the community changed and the exercise of command, from being the best and most just, became cruel and intolerable.

He goes on to say that “the good man and the base man have a similar personal craving for glory, honor and command, but the former strives along the true path, whereas the latter, because he lacks good qualities, presses forward by cunning and falsity.” The clinched fist at the top of the food chain promotes these qualities among his underlings and in civil society because “to kings, the good are more suspect than the wicked, and prowess in another is always a source of fear to them.” It would be a terrible insult for someone like Sallust to describe a leader as a “king” (rex), as the Roman experience gave the word a connotation not unlike “dictator” or “despot” in modern English. An autocrat requires prowess in his inner circle (particularly his guardsmen) but it serves his purposes better to have allies and foes in political and civil society wrapped up in the kinds of ambitions and personality flaws Sallust derides. Privatized industries often fulfill this purpose at an institutional level; rubber stamp parliaments and public works function similarly. Especially clever regimes with these features orchestrate competitive clientelism; as an Algerian saying goes, “letting the hares out of their cages for a few hours so they grow tired and quit fussing.”

Parliamentarians may not make laws, but they can use their position and influence to pressure ministers and bureaucrats into dispensing jobs, licenses, and other state resources to their constituents. They do so, in part, by using the floor of the legis- lature and their access to the media as leverage, threatening publicly to cast doubt on officials’ performance should their requests go unmet. Consequently, many call parliamentarians naìb khidma (service deputies), referring to their role of providing services rather than legislation or executive oversight.

Corruption below strengthens the hand of autocrats at the top who can use the corruption of those around them as a foil; the foil can be use for rhetorical or practical contrast, and the ruler can use their crimes as an excuse to appear more virtuous than he might be by using his power to punish unpopular and corrupt oligarchs. At the same time, these underlings’ fear of being exposed helps to push them into line for the rulers have given out positions and riches and they can take them away just as quickly. Wide nets of corruption eventually get tangled and take everyone one involved down in the process; this is why they are best used discreetly. But they can be of great tactical utility for those at the center and the margins of power. Their limitations are well laid out in the story of Jugurtha of Numidia, a forefather of the proud and clever people of the modern-day Aures Mountains in eastern Algeria.

In Bellum Iugurthinum, Sallust uses Jugurtha’s “prowess” as a foil for Rome’s insolence and corruption. On his death the Numidian king Micipsa hoped for his three sons (Adherbal, Hiempsal and Jugurtha) to share the crown together. Jugutha quickly had Hiempsal assassinated hoping to take the throne for himself. Adherbal then fled to Rome in hopes of getting Roman support against Jugurtha. The Senate sent a Commission to Numidia to mediate the situation and divide the country between the brothers; Jugurtha bribed members of the Commission into dividing out the best land for himself. He then made war on Adherbal’s portion of Numidia, attacking the capital at Cirta. A second Roman Commission was sent and Jugurtha again bribed its members who then allowed him to take Cirta. Jugurtha then executed his brother and his Italian supporters, causing the Roman Senate to declare war on Numidia. He surrendered to Lucius Calpurnius Bestia on favorable terms after bribing Bestia; the Senate opened an investigation and summoned Jugurtha to Rome. To protect himself, Jugurtha bribed a pair of Tribunes made sure he would not testify before the Senate. The Senate expelled Jugurtha from Rome after he attempted to assassinate a Numidian rival in the city. His prowess retuned him to Numida unmolested. Not long after, Jugurtha defeated a Roman army and demanded that the Senate recognize him as the ruler of Numidia, a demand the Senate refused. The Romans sent a consul to tame Jugurtha by cutting his supply lines but this failed; Jugurtha’s guerilla tactics defeated another expedition as well. By this time Jugurtha had allied himself with his Mauretanian father-in-law, Bocchus. After sending Gaius Marius to Numidia, the Romans realized the futility of their kinetic strategy and shifted to the political sphere. They convinced Bocchus to betray Jugurtha and end the war — turning Jugurtha’s own political strategy against him. Jugurtha was finally captured by Lucius Cornelius Sulla. Through Sallust’s narrative, it should be mentioned, the exemplar of prowess is frequently Jugurtha and not the Roman Senators or consuls. As a particular irritation, Jugurtha is done with; but the culture, if not many of the very men, that enabled him remained in place.

The capture of Jugurtha did not stem corruption and avarice in the Roman elite and it did not resolve the underlying class tensions in Roman life, importance sources of Jugurtha’s power; the Social War would rage on in any case (though Sulla would help to temporarily dampen some of these anxieties). His remorselessness at trial is especially instructive with respect to a political economy afflicted by horizontal and lateral polarization and corruption:

Jugurtha, however, although he was clearly responsible for so flagrant a crime, did not cease to resist the evidence, until he realized that the indignation at the deed was too strong even for his influence and his money. Therefore, although in the first stage of the trial he had given fifty of his friends as sureties, yet having an eye rather to his throne than to the sureties, he sent Bomilcar secretly to Numidia, fearing that if he paid the penalty, the rest of his subjects would fear to obey his orders. A few days later he himself returned home, being ordered by the senate to leave Italy. After going out of the gates, it is said that he often looked back at Rome in silence and finally said, “A city for sale and doomed to speedy destruction if it finds a purchaser!”


4 thoughts on “Rise and Fall, Push and Pull (Pt. VIII)

  1. Kelo was directly related to the rise of America’s oligarchy that worked to the advantage of the power elite in this predominating culture…….and the rest is history….due to Executive Order, and Congressional insider trading. There is more truth in these patterns for many nations that most would care to admit. It might be titled, how democracies fail.

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