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Democracy And the Mobilization Society

Uncle Sam Wants YouStudents of government often note something about Democracies. Democracies tend to come out of societies with widespread military service and they extend, often exactly, to the military base.

In Greek city states the people who had the vote were men who had sufficient wealth to arm themselves for war.

In Republican Rome – the same, with an additional class existing who had extra rights because they were rich enough to go to war mounted on horseback (the Equestrian class.)

In Switzerland they fought in massed pike formations and they had male suffrage.

Rome, as is often the case, is a good case study. Because what happened in Rome, decades before the loss of voting rights, was that more and more non-Romans came to serve in Rome’s army, the armies became professional (rather than being called up when needed) and city men stopped serving, except for those with political ambitions.

You can be quite sure that if the legions had still been made up of citizens born in the city of Rome, and had still been mostly people who didn’t expect to make a career of it, that Rome would not have become a dictatorship – because the military wouldn’t have backed men like Marius, Sulla, Caesar, Pompey and Augustus – their first loyalty would have been to Rome – not to their generals, their careers, and the loot from conquests.

After Rome’s collapse there came a feudal period, occasioned in part by the stirrup. Except against disciplined infantry or in very difficult terrain, cavalry was superior – but it took a lot of money to equip and train a knight (if you didn’t start training in childhood you would never be a knight.) Once trained and equipped, however, in his heyday the knight was virtually unstoppable and the equal of many, many more infantry – as well as excellent at putting down peasant rebellions. Many peasant rebellions happened in the middle ages, much more than most people are aware of. The reason they’re unaware of them is that they always got put down, even the ones that showed some success.

Gunpowder brought the end of the age of the knight – and it also, eventually, brought with it mass warfare – where God was indeed on the side with the bigger battalions. At first these armies were made up of semi-feudal levies and large mercenary forces (the Hapsburg wars often included armies that were substantially mercenary). However, over time countries came more and more to rely on regular, non-mercenary armies (mercenary armies being even more prone to mutiny and even more unwilling to risk their lives than regular ones of the time). It is not a coincidence that during this period you had the franchise being extended time and time again, outwards from the original property owners (who were enfranchised not so much because they fought but because they could loan the king money to raise armies with) to more and more of the population, eventually ending with universal male suffrage in most countries.

Which leaves the question of female suffrage open. Since women didn’t fight – why did they gain the vote? In part it’s because during war in a mass conscription society women became a significant part of the labor force. In both World War I and World War II women flooded into the factory, the office and the shop to take up the labor their menfolk could no longer do. Mass conscription warfare in the 20th century was also mass production warfare – it required a lot of materiel and so many men were drafted that women became explicitly integral to the war effort even if they weren’t riflemen – because they were creating the materiel that was used to win the war.

Which leads us to the present day. The US has universal suffrage, but it no longer has a mass conscription army, nor does it have an army explicitly designed as a cadre force for mass conscription. (For example the Canadian army was set up in such a way that it can theoretically expand in size very quickly, with every corporal becoming a sergeant; every private a corporal, and so on.) Instead the US has a relatively large standing force. A large proportion of them are non-citizens serving in exchange for citizenship (a startling similarity with Rome). They vote disproportionately for one of the two domestic political parties, they wear uniforms and lend their favour to one of the two parties and they have been overstepping the boundaries of laws that require them to remain non-partisan and non-political.  The Posse Comitatus Act that made it illegal for the army to operate in the United States has recently been effectively repealed.  (In Republican Rome it was illegal for anyone under arms to enter the old city.)

More than that the army is no longer a mass production army. The US army did not have the best equipment in WWII or WWI – it had the most equipment. It now has the best equipment in the world by far – fantastically expensive equipment that is produced at great profit by an industry which is so entwined with the military that it is hard to tell where one stops and where the other starts. Yet that industry, because it is theoretically not part of the military, is able to and does, lobby government directly.

The US military is also changing itself from a military designed to fight mass conventional ground wars (the Europe scenario) to a force designed to fight colonial brushfire wars and to keep open resource supply chains (most particularly, but not exclusively, oil.) In addition it is moving as fast as it can towards remote operated drones, to remove troops from combat and reduce its personnel requirements.

None of this should make those who value democracy all that sanguine about its future in the US. While all mass conscription societies aren’t democracies (the USSR, for example) few democracies aren’t societies where mass military manpower has been used. The US has been, is, and continues to move away from that model, while having a military that self-identifies with one political party, is trying to reduce its reliance on manpower, uses mercenaries and foreigners extensively and shows greater and greater restiveness at laws that restrict its ability to operate in the US or engage directly in politics. The culture of civilian control over the military has been waning as well, with an attitude throughout the ranks that those who haven’t served have no moral right to so much as criticize anything the military does, let alone tell it what to do.

Great nations, great republics – are rarely destroyed from the outside – they almost always rot from within or are destroyed by their own defenders.

In a few hundred years will historians discuss the fall of the American Republic the way they discuss that of Rome – or of Napoleon and France?

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Ian Welsh

Ian Welsh

Ian Welsh was the Managing Editor of FireDogLake and the Agonist. His work has also appeared at Huffington Post, Alternet, and Truthout, as well as the now defunct Blogging of the President (BOPNews). In Canada his work has appeared in and BlogsCanada. He is also a social media strategy consultant and currently lives in Toronto.

His homeblog is at