29 October 2005

Liberal Democracy, the 2nd Amendment, and You

Just because Mao Zedong was a very bad apple, does not mean that every idea he thought and every word he uttered was false.

Specifically, and famously, he said one really important thing:

Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.

This is an axiom of politics.

Just look at Mao's career... applying this idea didn't hurt it one little bit.

Even our own beloved enlighed Monarch - long may She reign - is, at bottom, the descendant of a thug who was simply bigger and badder than the other boys in his village, could buy or simply take a sword, had sufficient charisma to lead a few lesser thugs, and sufficient smarts to run a protection racket.

So how on Earth did we end up with our liberal semi-democracy?

Let's examine the origins of democracy.

I once read somewhere [I wish I could credit the author of this idea] that the Greeks invented democracy not out of thin air, but because of a shift in the conduct of warfare.

[Purists please contain yourselves - what follows is a gross simplification.]

Athens had previously been an aristocracy, a kind of broad oligarchy. An aristocrat was a large farmer, from a long line of large farmers, who could afford a suit of armour for himself or his sons. Now, a late mediaevel Italian suit of armour hurt the hip pocket nerve rather like a Ferrari does today [credit the source!]. So if you can and do own a Ferrari, you basically meet the major qualification for being an aristocrat and thus being politically enfranchised.

You see, this was in the days when warfare was conducted by heavy infantry. (A heavy infantryman was called a hoplite.) Therefore the heavy infantry hold the political power. And therefore the heavy infantry try to use their political power to keep the conduct of warfare of on a heavy infantry basis.

Methods of warfare however change. Along comes an outsider who doesn't think within the conventional paradigm. [I used the word 'paradigm'! What a pity the 90s are already over.] Along comes a technological innovation. Along comes someone who's too poor to care about fashion, or is on the brink of annihilation and desperate.

For example, (putting aside current anti-longbow theories), Henry V can in no way compete in knights with the French, so to hell with honour and glory (I never get invited to those fancy parties anyway), bring on the longbowmen!

Times change. Warfare, like everything else, goes through cycles of fashion: heavy cavalry or infantry to mercenaries to citizen armies to mass conscript armies to stratobombers + special forces back to mercenaries and so on. They fight to the death, then one day someone finds himself outmanouvred and strikes a deal that his army can leave freely if they admit defeat and suddenly the art of warfare by dainty manoevre is born. The word fashion however implies something superficial and arbitrary. Military fashion is something fundamental and necessary. It is derived from military reality: a knight has a real advantage over a dismounted swordsman, demonstrable by the death of the swordsman 9 times out of 10; the swordsman has a very real advantage over the pikeman - he deflects the point of the pike with his buckler, slips under it and gets in close with his sword 9 times out of 10; the pikeman has real advantage over the knight, and so on.

There are 2 basic theses that I am aware of. 1) Athens found itself in a world where it could seize the advantage by becoming a seapower. Ships were powered by oarsmen - not slaves, but free albeit poor citizens. 2) Athens was conquered by Sparta who set up a puppet government supported by its own hoplites based on the Acropolis. There was a spontaneous uprising by the ordinary citizenry, who succeded in driving out the occupation force, thus achieving victory where the aristocratic hoplites had been defeated. Whatever the truth (perhaps it was both), Athens suddenly found itself militarily dependent on the great mass of its poorest citizens. Now, are they going to allow the aristocrats to continue to misgovern the place as they heretofore had been? I don't think so. They're going to want to misgovern it for themselves.

Thus, in the late Middle Ages, as societies become more centralised and sophisticated, allowing the Monarch to directly fund his own sources of military power and thus decrease his reliance on those politically and militarily unreliable egotists, and as gunpowder weapons developed making armour less effective, and as impoverished Swiss peasants resort to sharpening long poles and discover that knights can't touch them, one can see the decreasing military importance of knights, the decreasing political power of lords, the reduction of knighthood to a social distinction and the increasing economic and military-therefore-political power of the bourgoisie. In England, for example, you have the gentry and bourgoisie usurping power in the English Civil War.

So you get to the French Revolution, an uprising by the bourgoisie and lower classes. France is surrounded by enemies wishing to crush this example and, vastly outnumbered, responds by conscripting everybody and thus democracy is born. (Yes, yes I know Napoleon was a dictator and the revolution came first. I know all of that. I am talking about broad unconscious collective social forces, not causal networks of traceable chains of specific events.) It ushers in the era of mass conscript armies, industrialised warfare, total war, whatever. You see professional armies in Anglo-Saxon countries where previously no standing army had existed. This era is only just coming to an end now.

The French Revolution also ushered in the era of democracy. (Neither England nor the United States were democracies at that time, democracy being defined as "all adult male subjects/citizens have a vote regardless of whether they own real estate".)

The other great cause of democracy being of course the development of the firearm to a level where it is easy to use, relatively cheap, highly reliable, and conflated with the pike by the invention of the bayonet. (Hence the much-maligned 2nd Amendment.) (The later deveklopment of the assault rifle, the ultimate equaliser, would make possible the political enfranchisement of women and children.)

So what does this have to do with liberal democracy?

While living in Vietnam, I thought a lot about these things and also about how it was that 3rd World countries ("developing countries" is the current euphemism, especially as the collapse of the 2nd (Communist) world made the term obsolete) life was so much worse than in ours. Economic and political unfreedom have very much to do with it. And the people in Vietnam can't do anything about it, as, amongst other things, they are totally disarmed.

One of the shocking conclusions I came to was really simple and quite (in light of the above long essay) obvious: when I returned to Australia I was going to join the Army Reserve [the Australian National Guard].

Because riding on my motorbike through the wet night discussing these very things with Leszek Sobolewski (who deserves full credit as the midwife of this thought) sitting on the back, I realised that our Holy Cow democracy is nothing other than the politically enfranchised-because-armed masses. We are shocked at the selfishness of bloody kings who have people murdered merely (merely!) to preserve their power. But to be a liberal democrat is nothing other than to necessarily ask oneself this question:

Am I prepared to kill (merely!) to preserve my own political power?

And a chill ran over my body and my stomach sank when I faced this dark monstrous existential question and I thought about the miserable Vietnamese too tired to rise up against the Communists and the answer was:


Just like a murderous king!

And in fact we only enjoy the lifestyle we do precisely because our many anonymous ancestors to whom we have never felt for a second a single drop of profound gratitude had the courage and selfishness and ruthlessness and cruelty to answer Yes! to this very question. I am not talking about the Somme. I am talking about the English Civil War, the Baron's Revolt, and many wars and battles before and after and especially in between.

And so it follows that I have a duty - not to 'society' or to the nation nor to the State nor Queen and country but to myself - to take up arms in defence of my life and property but above all my political rights.


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