Sunday, 1 February 2009

New model armies

Josiah Ober’s Democracy and Knowledge (Princeton 2008) (or, to be precise, this LRB review of it by David Runcimann) raises some interesting question. The premise is that ‘knowledge aggregation’ (the wisdom of crowds, infotopia, wikinomics) is a positive feature of contemporary life: ‘lots of people knowing many small things can result in a very big deal for everyone’. Democracy ought to be the paradigm for this, but isn’t. Modern democracies, unlike the successful bottom-up collective endeavours such as wikipedia, are not truly democratic: ‘they are not direct but representative, which makes them top-down keader-oriented popularity contests, not exercises in knowledge aggregation. Ober, though, argues that ancient Athens was precisely this sort of democracy, and that it owed its success as a polis to that fact.
Athens had many things going for it—philosophy, oratory, drama, magnificent buildings—but it was also a violent, faction-ridden, capricious, war-mongering slave-owning society, clinging precariously to its privileged position and regularly picking fights it couldn’t win. It doesn’t exactly sound like the Google (company motto: ‘don’t be evil’) of the ancient world.

Ah, but:
Josiah Ober is here to tell us that we have this last point completely wrong … Athenian democracy really was an open, flexible, dynamic and remarkably successful political society, able to marshal its resources and outperform its rivals. … Essentially his argument has two parts. First, he needs to show that Athens did indeed outperform its rivals to become the most successful polity of its age. Second he needs to show that this advantage was a direct result of its being a democracy, because as a democracy it was able to acquire, aggregate and codify knowledge in ways that its non-democractic rivals couldn’t match.
Ober thinks he can demonstrate both these points; Runcimann isn’t quite so sure. But it’s a fascinating, and of course relevant, question.

One thing it makes me think is the way political debates of the 1930s and early 1940s sometimes restated these premises. For instance, a good number of people believed that World War II was effectively a fight to see whether a democratic system could beat an authoritarian one. Fascists argued that democracy was necessarily riddled by internal contradiction; that for instance no democracy could focus the will to stay in a long, destructive and expensive war. On the other side the allies’ victory was taken by many precisely to be the victory of democracy over authoritarianism. We might object that the allies ran their democracies in pretty authoritarian ways—people who opposed the war tended to be silenced, or locked up, or if they disagreed vocally enough shot. But this in fact speaks to the effectiveness of ‘representative democracy’ rather than actual democracy to do things like, for instance, win wars.
Around 500 BC Athens got democracy, but less than twenty years later they also got lucky, and rich, with the opening up of a new group of silver mines in southern Attica which produced a substantial windfall profit for the state. … Ober weaves this big slice of natural advantage into his story of democratic achievement by pointing out that when the assembly had to decide what to do with the first influx of extra wealth it chose to spend it on building the navy that went on to defeat the Persians at Salamis in 480BC rather instead of distributing it among individual citizens. Compare and contrast, say, with Sarah Palin’s Alaska (admittedly one of the least plausible candidates ever for that hotly disputed title ‘Athens of the North’) With oil prices high early last year, Palin decided to use the extra state income to fund $1000 credits to every Alaskan to help with their fuel bills. Ancient democracies used their good fortune to take tough decisions in the common interest; modern democracies use it to bribe the voters with handouts.
I’m not sure about that last line (neither, as it goes, is Runcimann). But the article as a whole is very stimulating, and I’ve been wondering about joining up its dots. New e-democracy utpopianism is fuelled by new technologies that make it much simpler to canvas everybody’s opinion quickly and efficiently. One of the shaping ideological forces of the second half of the twentieth century is that democracy is not just ethically better than dictatorship, it is practically superior—viz. the number of wars fought between the two regimes and always won by the former. This is fair enough; and personally I’m very glad that the democratic allies won WWII rather than the fascists. But although armies from democratic nations (USA, UK) fought armies from authoritarian nations (Germany, Italy, Japan) and won, nobody suggested that the armies themselves should be run on democratic lines. There has never been in the history of humankind a properly democratic army; not even Cromwell’s new model force was that.

But why not? The obvious objection—that it would be impracticable to orchestrate the trappings of democracy, the hustings and votes, in the heat of battle—is rendered null by new technologies. The conceptual objection (that soldiers would tend to vote to run like cowards rather than engage the enemy) seems to me equally unfounded: the history of democracy suggests the reverse. Indeed, morale (military code for: making sure that feudal soldiers don't feel too much like slaves led by people who don't especially care if they live or die) would be much less of a problem; logistics would be easier -- new model soldiers would not specialise; specialisation is the bane of feudalism ... all would have net-access to enormous bodies of expertise, practical, medical, tactical, and all would weild it. They'd revolutionise warfare.

I'll write a book about it to show what I mean.

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