Monday, April 30, 2018


     [After an interesting discussion with a friend about our many “alliances” and similar relationships, I’ve decided to repost the following, which first appeared at Eternity Road on April 19, 2007. I’ll be back later with additional thoughts. – FWP]

    A recurring social pattern, which repeats in all its essentials over great spans of space and time, is a clue to the alert thinker about the enduring nature of Man. For social patterns don't arise out of the soil, but out of the characteristics of our species that are ineradicable. If we wish to understand ourselves in our fundamentals, we should begin by studying the ways we gather into societies, particularly those that seem never to become obsolete.

     Recorded history recounts many instances of a particular pattern of social organization, which many contemporary commentators would very much like to dismiss as forever behind us. That pattern is depicted most clearly and unambiguously in the social structure of classical Sparta, which was divided into three strata:

  • Citizens: A Spartan citizen was a descendant of a group of privileged families, descended from the original Doric founders of the city, called the Spartiate. He was free in a sharply delimited sense: his interactions with others were not much bounded by law, but he owed an absolute military obligation to the State from age twenty until age sixty. He was a professional soldier; he knew no other occupation.
  • Perioeci: This word, which translates roughly as "suburbanites," describes Sparta's free non-citizens, who conducted its commercial life. A perioecon was forbidden to live within the city proper or own land within it. He owed a lesser obligation of military service to the State, invoked mainly during times of actual war.
  • Helots: A helot was an agricultural laborer without political rights. He was "attached to the land" owned by his citizen-master; unless his master emancipated him, he could not leave it. His labor supported both his own family and that of his master, who took the greater part of his produce.

     This structure arose mostly in consequence of Sparta's conquest of Messenia, a far more populous land whose inhabitants were inclined to resist Spartan rule. Sparta's "helotization" of the Messenians proved an effective way of quelling their impulses to rebellion. The structure proved remarkably stable for several centuries, despite Sparta's many enemies and wars.

     It worked for a number of reasons. First was the Spartiate's intense patriotism and dedication to the idea and ideals of Sparta. Nothing less could have supported a "freedom" rooted in mandatory lifelong soldierhood. Second was the extraordinary level to which the sons of the Spartiate raised their military prowess, which has been justly celebrated ever since. But third, and not to be neglected, was the acceptance of the bargain of protection by the far more numerous helot class: in exchange for their servitude, the helots received the capable and reliable protection of the Spartiate from all foreign enemies.

     The armed nobility / indentured peasantry pattern of social organization has recurred many times in human history. Basically, whenever one class of men within a region succeeded in disarming the rest, the armed would subjugate the disarmed but would guarantee the common defense for that price. From that point forward, until invasion or some other violent convulsion should unhorse the armiger class, the disarmed would live in subjection to the will of their protectors.

     When we speak of "protection money" in our time, it's usually in reference to extortion by threat of violence. But strictly speaking, whenever one pays a tax for the support of mechanisms of violence -- the armed forces; police; court systems with the power to punish -- one is paying for protection. The protection thus purchased is at least as much from those wielders of violence as by them, but the point stands nevertheless.

     Your Curmudgeon has long been fascinated by the social and military dynamics of the NATO Alliance. In outline, NATO was a guarantee of American protection to the states of Western Europe, in exchange for the "price" of permanent American military bases in those nations. (In theory, all NATO signatories are pledged to come to the defense of any of their number that might be attacked, but in practice the guarantee was always by America to Europe. If recent world events haven't made that unpleasantly clear, nothing will.) The basis for the arrangement was America's possession of an undamaged domestic economy and large, capable military at the end of World War II. The states of Europe that hadn't fallen into the Soviet orbit could sense Stalin's eagerness to advance the western borders of his empire, and were happy to accept.

     Thus began the process of transforming Western Europe into the largest and most privileged group of helots in history.

     Unlike their predecessors, our European helots don't pay us a part of their produce for the privilege of our protection. Rather, we pay them, by expending some $150 billion per year on our forces and bases in Europe. During the Cold War years, the states of Western Europe steadily weakened their own militaries, both in relative and absolute terms, while developing ever more intimate relations with the Soviet Union, and stronger dependencies on the Soviets' good will. Military analyst Melvyn Krauss studied this "defense feedback" effect, and concluded that the consequence was to weaken the defenses of the First World by an amount roughly equivalent to sending $150 billion per year directly to the Soviets. It's a measure of our unprecedented economic achievements and military prowess that we felled the Soviets even so.

     Also unlike their predecessors, the Europeans think nothing of undermining us in ways great and small: in their international relations, in their trade policies, and in their ceaseless obstructionism at the United Nations. These helots have grown unappreciative of American protection, and are unabashed about saying so. Their derision has reached no few ears on this side of the Atlantic.

     Were Americans as direct as the classical Spartans, we'd either abrogate the North Atlantic Charter and withdraw all our forces and bases from Europe, or subjugate the entire continent and tax the whey out of it. In tandem, these outcomes will grow steadily more probable unless a dramatic shift in European attitudes and governmental policies should occur. Given Europe's flaccidity before the dangers it faces today, such a shift strikes your Curmudgeon as rather improbable.

     On the domestic scene, the century past has seen many attempts to disarm America's civilian populace. The anti-gun forces have had moderate success, mostly in the major cities along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Despite its claims of respect for "the rights of hunters and sportsmen," its premise is that private persons cannot be trusted to be responsible about guns; arms should be reserved solely for government enforcers. Whether one accepts this absurd notion or rejects it like the insulting nonsense it is, it leads inevitably to the creation of an armiger class -- soldiers and policemen -- sharply distinguished from the people they nominally protect. If history is a reliable guide, this is a dangerously unstable arrangement, overwhelmingly likely to evolve into a Spartiate / Helots stratification of society.

     Some commentators have proposed reviving military conscription, for this reason among others. While that would somewhat offset the tendency toward a nobility-and-serfs caste system, it would not be a complete answer to the hazards embodied in a State whose employees are the only persons allowed to possess weapons. More, it would come at a terrible price: the de facto revocation of the rights to life and liberty. For if the State can command you to suspend your affairs to take up arms, on pain of punishment, you are not free as Americans understand the term. And of course, if a "superior officer" can order you to put your life at mortal risk, your life is not truly yours by right, but solely by the revocable permission of the State.

     What's most poignant about this danger is the erosion of the American tradition of an armed citizenry, the soil from which our magnificent military grew. The predominantly left-liberal urban corridors of the East and West Coasts produce very few soldiers. This stands to reason. How, after all, should we expect young men and women who've been told since the cradle that weapons are bad, that the military is at best a necessary evil, and that American power is inherently imperialist, to aspire to the profession of arms? How, given that they've been taught to distrust guns as the causative agents of violence, should we expect them to respect those who would wield them in their nation's service?

     America's soldiers, especially our officer corps, come preponderantly from those parts of the country where resistance to gun control is still staunch and personal armament is considered an ordinary requirement of life: the Old South, the Southwest, and the Great Plains. Were the denizens of those regions disarmed as thoroughly as the coastal cities, would their willingness to stand for their country survive?

     Would the country survive?

     A great danger looms.

     To return to your Curmudgeon's initial observation, a pattern such as this, which has recurred many, many times in human history, tells us something about our deep natures, if we're inclined to listen. It tells us of our distaste for bloodshed and the risk thereof. It speaks of our willingness to accept an enduring hazard of subjugation as the price for a reduction in our near-term responsibilities for ourselves. It's a reminder of how easily men have succumbed to the temptations of wishful thinking: the willingness to believe that "this time it will be different," despite all evidence to the contrary.

     But other voices speak down the centuries as well. If we had even a modest knowledge of history, they say, we would know that eschewing the bargain of protection is the principal requirement of freedom. They demand that we explain why in all the history of the world, so tragically few men have ever been free. Perhaps most important of all, they speak of how easily our innate aversion for strife and pain can be turned into the very fetters that will bind us to servitude.

     Freedom is not free, free men are not equal, and equal men are not free! -- Richard Cotten
     Before all else, be armed! -- Niccolo Macchiavelli

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