Monday, May 16, 2011

Preventing Praetorianism

Despite my academic background in political science, I tend to blog heavily on the economics side of things. I blame this on the much more highly developed economics blogosphere and a bloggers' tendency to feed off other blogs. With that being said, this post is pure political science.

In the later Roman Empire, emperor after emperor was enthroned and dethroned by the power of the Praetorian Guard. In poli sci, we've derived the term "praetorianism" from their behavior. The Praetorian Guard was the sole armed force in the city of Rome, which was the seat of the government. One of the fundamental definitions of a state is that it have a monopoly on the use of coercion in its territory. The Praetorian Guard discovered that, within the city which dominated the empire, they had a local monopoly of force, which was often sufficient to establish a new emperor.

Turning to the present day, when you look at the countries undergoing the Arab Spring, you see that the role of the men with guns is pivotal. If the power of coercion is centralized, the regime lives or dies by that power. Even by inaction, by not supporting the regime, the military can oust the incumbent. Libya, however, had a slightly different arrangement. The coercive power was not unified in a single organization. Though the military was predominately pro-Qaddafi, the police forces tended towards the rebels. The situation could have been reversed, with pro-Qaddafi police forces and an anti-Qaddafi military, but the result, a civil war, would have been the same. The revolution would be contested.

Therefore, though the cure may be worse than the disease, a Praetorian-style revolution can be prevented by dividing the powers of coercion so that no single force has a local monopoly of power at the seat of government.

4 Comments:

Blogger Yoel Natan said...

Historians say that German democracy is what ruined the Roman empire. German tribal leaders were installed by warrior acclamation, and then German members of the later Roman empire armies did the same thing--installing their own emperors, like Julian the Apostate.

"Gunpowder empires" and swift locomotion mean that no locale has a monopoly on power in that locale in the Middle East. That's why "the army" brass has been pivotal in enthroning or dethroning Arab despots ever since the 1950s "officers' coupes." Today is no different except that the army may decide to allow for regular, honest elections of the presidents:

http://www.google.com/search?client=safari&rls=en&q=%22Gunpowder+empires%22&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8

2:42 PM  
Blogger Octavo Dia said...

Historians say that German democracy is what ruined the Roman empire.

Historians do come up with some wild theories, huh? They'd be better off postulating that the army's traditional veto over the emperor gradually expanded. Or that power finds ambition.


"Gunpowder empires" and swift locomotion mean that no locale has a monopoly on power in that locale in the Middle East.

This historical analogy is about a century out of date. The gunpowder empires were a unique historical event when new offensive technology overrode all previous technologies, which is no longer the case.


That's why "the army" brass has been pivotal in enthroning or dethroning Arab despots ever since the 1950s "officers' coupes."

Cold War analogies are widely discounted in the literature due to their unique geopolitical circumstances.

9:43 PM  
Blogger Yoel Natan said...

Octavio, You have a double-standard here. You use the analogy of the Roman-era Preatorian guard coups to explain the present Middle East, but when I use the analogy of gunpowder empires to do the same, you say the analogy is about a century out of date. Huh?

The gunpowder empires don't emphasize the technology shift (the means) as much as the result, the sudden end of local monopolies of power. That's what's significant.

Your post was talking about local monopolies of power could decide the fate of regimes. I was just pointing out that since the days of gunpowder empires, there's been fewer local monopolies of power, and that the real seat of power in many countries is the often the top brass of the military. The command is often decentralized, and with their clear chain-of-commands, they can't be easily decapitated by assassinations.

6:51 PM  
Blogger Octavo Dia said...

I was explaining the origin of the term "praetorianism," which is still extant. The gunpowder empire analogy fails because of the resurgence of local monopolies on power.


The command is often decentralized, and with their clear chain-of-commands, they can't be easily decapitated by assassinations.

Any revolution can overthrow a class of people. Military coups tend to come from the senior officers, as the commanding officers are usually beholden to the regime.

9:33 PM  

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