Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Nations and Their Future

I've compared the period we've been living through for the last few decades to the transition of the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire.

The parallels are far from exact, of course, but my argument has basically been that the Republic of Our Founders has gone extinct. It is not revivable at this point, any more than the Roman Republic could be revived post-Augustus. Of course, the Republican forms continued long after the expiration of the substance of those forms. There was a Roman Senate (in Constantinople) eight hundred years after the advent of Augustus, and it would last in Rome itself almost as long. But it was an institutional survival with no useful function or -- more particularly -- no useable authority.

Elections continued to be held for Roman state and local officeholders, but they were meaningless as well. The Empire was run from the Palace based on the Palatine Hill in Rome, but it could be anywhere the Emperor designated and was moved periodically, by a large bureaucracy under the direction of the Emperor and whoever controlled him.

Note: "and whoever controlled him." The Emperor was not a free agent by any means. He could not do whatever he wanted whenever he wanted to without running the risk of assassination by his guards or his rivals. The notion that an autocrat can do anything whatever without consequences is absurd, but that's the image we often have of Roman Caesars, particularly of the Bad Caesars, or of any Autocrat or dictator for that matter. Up to a point, their proclivities may be indulged by their families, sycophants and retainers, but beyond that point, no. Where the point of revolt and almost certain death lies, we can't know in advance, but Caesar does well not to test it. Caesar also does well to perform his role as chastely as a postulant. The ideal Caesar is the one who is first among those who serve the People, which ultimately morphed into the "servant of the servants of God," one of the titles of the Pope today.

(As a side note, it is sometimes worthwhile to point out that the Roman Catholic Papacy as both office and institution is a direct survival of the Roman Empire; the Pope has styles and titles that were once the Roman Emperor's, and the pomp and pageantry that surrounds the Pope is no less than that which surrounded the Emperor in days gone by. When the Imperial capital was transferred from Rome to Constantinople and Christianity was elevated to the religious per-eminence in Rome and the Empire, the Pope and the Institution of the Church stayed in Rome where it is today. With no Emperor in Rome, it was easy enough for the Papacy to assume some of the glitz and glamor of the Roman Emperor, a kind of substitute for what once was.)

We have a deeply anachronistic governing system in this country today, one that is observed in the breach more often than is seemly, because what was set up a couple of hundred years ago and periodically, with great difficulty, modified from time to time (mostly to extend its provisions more and more broadly and to protect a wider range of citizens from too much overt depredation by powers and interests which actually control the government) doesn't really function for a vast imperial state such as the United States.

As the state expands, our governing class actually shrinks. There's an entire political party intent on making sure that the shrinkage of "government" is permanently institutionalized, no matter how large the Empire the governing class governs grows.

This parallels in many ways the expansion of empires of the past -- including that of Rome -- during which governance was transferred from something close to the People and which often included the People directly through various means and methods, to a more and more select and distant elite cadre operating in service to the Emperor and those who controlled him, with no obligation to or interest in the People. It was certainly the case in the British Empire.

Familiar forms of governance might well continue at the local and regional levels, but they were operated from the Palace as if by remote control, a Palace none of the People had ever seen, and few of whom had any idea where it was.

It has often been pointed out that the British Raj was actually ruled by around a thousand individual Britons sent from the London to British India. Only a thousand or so to rule a huge overseas imperial province. It seems impossible, but it's true. A cadre as small as that to rule as large a population and landmass on behalf of the British Crown, which in turn served the interests of an even smaller cadre of British aristocrats and business/manufacturing elites, is something of an ideal for those who "hate government" but love what governments can do. To others.

There were nations in name only under the Caesars and under the Raj; the concept of "nations" was found useful to formulate loyalty to the distant Crown among otherwise restive and resistant natives.

The "nations" were constructs, often arbitrary and without any basis in cultures and societies which found themselves grouped into "nations" willy-nilly. This was and is certainly the case in Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere. The post colonial nations of the Americas, including the United States, are ultimately just as arbitrary. The notion that many of the native tribes in the Americas are designated as "nations" -- when the idea is alien to their traditional societies -- is a way to comprehend the notion of "nations" in a more general sense.

"Nations" were conveniences for the rulers of Empires, but in the post-colonial world, these arbitrary constructs were often made permanent, and in the case of India, not only was the nation-state of India encompassing the entire subcontinent made permanent, but all the quasi-national divisions within India, which the British had fostered and maintained in order to make their rule easier, were done away with (replaced it's true with "states" with somewhat different boundaries and ruling structures and institutions), and marginal areas of the British Imperial construct that had been the British Raj were turned loose (Pakistan-Bangladesh, Burma) to make their own way as independent nations.

Let's consider "their own way," and ask whether the break from the British Crown was actually as certain as it was made out to be. The Empire may have dissolved, but did it really go away, or was it replaced with something else?

To be continued....

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