Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Runciman, the "Implausibility of American Democracy," and Manzikert

The 21 March 2013 issue of the London Review of Books (not yet online) contains an article by David Runciman entitled "How Can it Work?"  He has in mind, of course, American democracy.  Upon seeing the name of the author, I knew this would be an article I would read, rather than skim--if nothing more than out of respect for his great-uncle, famed Byzantinist Sir Steven Runciman.  The younger Runciman teaches at Cambridge, writes about politics for the LRB and, I suppose, waits around to become the 4th Viscount of Doxford.   His thin wikipedia page contains a quote from Lebanese American author Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who described Runciman as "the second most stupid reviewer of his works," the first being an economist.  (A quick check of Taleb's extensive wikipedia entry also convinced me that I needed to become familiar with his writings.)

Well, no matter.   Even though Runciman goes off on some odd tangents--the significance of  first Tuesday in November as election day, for example--his subject interests me.  Scrolling down through our turbulent history, he asks the question:  "Can you really do politics like this and expect it to last."  He finds that there have always been two diametrically opposed answers to the inquiry.

The first answer is:  yes, of course it works.  Just look at it.  It has survived everything that's been thrown at it for more than two hundred years.  During that time the United States has got exponentially richer and more powerful, to become the richest and most powerful nation in history.  This is, by far, the most successful system of government the world has ever seen, certainly as judged by those measures...

The other obvious answer is:  no, of course it doesn't work.  Just look at it.  Commentators find it almost impossible to write about American democracy these days without reaching for the word 'dysfunctional'.  The country is massively in debt, and its elected politicians can't decide what to do about it.  American party politics is toxic and partisan in a way that seems to satisfy nobody....Over the past decade, the country has been getting markedly less powerful and less prosperous.  It has been fighting stupid wars--in Iraq, in Afghanistan--that it neither knows how to win nor how to exit satisfactorily.  Wealth creation is sputtering to a halt and wages have been stagnating, especially for the middle class...A democracy in which the majority is powerless in the face of this sort of rampant inequality looks fundamentally fraudulent.

So there we have it--the parameters of the debate.  He marshalls the ideas of two noted (and prescient) historians for each side of the argument.  Arthur Schlesinger's 1986 The Cycles of American History, advances the idea of cyclicality--that periodically in her history, when push comes to shove, America always pulls out of it and rebounds.  Paul Kennedy's 1987 The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers suggests, "not so much."  Both authors reference Toqueville and each side can point to our current dilemma and make their respective cases. 

The idea of cyclicality is a false consolation, though...American democracy is not doomed.  But it is too easy to suggest that, when the time is right, this flexible democracy will seize its moment to act decisively.  The waiting is likely to get in the way of the seizing.  Moreover, history suggests that the time will only be right when things have gone very badly wrong...    

And even the declinists (among whom I tend to number myself) have no real defined sense of being on the wrong side of an failed existential crisis.  Yet.

I have also been reading The Decline of Medieval Hellenism in Asia Minor and the Process of Islamization from the Eleventh through the Fifteen Century by Speros Vryonis, Jr. (1971.)  Despite its intimidating title, the book is a helluva good read--that is, if you like this sort of thing.  Byzantium on the downside interests me more than its ascendancy and glory days.  The defeat at Manzikert in 1071 is a good a marker as any to start with that.`

The striking thing about Alp Arslan's victory over Romanes Diogenes is the unforeseen consequences of the Byzantine defeat.  The armies of the East Roman Empire had met with loss before.  And this battle occurred on the far borders of empire, out on the Armenian plateau.  Nothing seemed to signal a national catastrophe.  And yet, it was as if the Byzantines suffered a momentarily collapse of the collective will, as most of the Empire swiftly sluffed-off to the advancing Seljuqids.  In short order, the Turks were looking across at Constantinople from the far shore of the Marmara.

To be sure, the Byzantines regrouped under the revanchist Komnenian restoration, pulling the rim of Anatolia back into the Empire.  But the die had been cast, you might say.  The Seljuqids, Turkomen and Danishmendids were in central Asia Minor to stay.

The severe consequences of Manzikert are understandable, according to Vryonis, once the strains of the preceding 45 years are considered.  Outside pressures existed, to be sure.  The rapacious Normans were not to be satisfied with the boot of Italy and Sicily, eying Constantinople with relish.  And the sheer number of Turkic tribes pushing westward off the central Asian steppes could not fail to impact the eastern fringes of Empire.  And yet, the real damage occurred internally: power struggles between the central government and the provincial magnates, the destruction of the free peasantry and the establishment of feudalism, collapse of the tax base due to immunities issued to Anatolian overlords, etc.

The themata system divided the Empire into themes, with the civil and military administration combined under the Strategos.  In case of an invasion, the Emperor could summon these militias from the provinces, under the command of the Strategos.  The soldiers were given free land to farm within the themes, which in time greatly supplemented the extent of the free peasantry.  The sons of these peasants would also be required to provide military service if needed.  And finally, these freeholders paid taxes to the Empire.  The system seemed to work well on all fronts.  The Emperor had a large standing army if needed.  The troops were often tied to the very areas they were defending.  The taxes paid by the free peasants supported the Empire, including the army. 

The system started to fray as the Anatolian magnates within each theme began to amass more land and power.  These well-connected families sucked up the productive farmland of the free peasants, who now worked for them as feudal tenants.  This removed the obligation of military service that was tied to their free holding, as well as greatly diminishing the taxes flowing into the coffers of Empire, as the wealthy Anatolian elite (think 1%) had secured generous tax immunities for themselves.  As their power and wealth increased, the magnates challenged the authority of Constantinople itself.  In turn, the Byzantine bureaucrats sought to weaken, even dismantle, the army any way they could.  The loyal Imperial troops were often engaged in putting down prospective coups generated by the provincial generals' over-weaning ambition.  Constantinople hired mercenary soldiers to supplement its ranks.  The diminishing tax base, however, delayed the salaries paid these foreign troops.  This caused the mercenaries to often raid the very lands they were purportedly protecting.  And so, when the Byzantine army retreated back to the capital after Manzikert, there was nothing left in place to keep the Seljuqids from over-running the entire peninsula.  The remarkable web of provincial militias formed from an indigenous free-holding peasant class had been irretrievably broken. 

I am not sure that any people truly learn the right lessons from history.  America is not Constantinople, just as it is not Rome.  In many ways, we are such a new thing that applicable historical precedents are hard to come by.  This narrative has elements of naked greed, unbridled partisan power politics, the overreach of a wealthy elite hungry for both land and tax abatements, and the destruction of what passed for a middle class.  As such, it should be a cautionary tale for all nations.

Again, I find it interesting that the catastrophe of Manzikert was only understood later on.  The fact that the social fabric had been damaged beyond repair was not immediately apparent.  Even so, these eastern Romans had a lot of life left in them, and quite a drama to play out over succeeding centuries.  Perhaps we do as well.

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