Democracy and Empire

The thesis for Chalmers Johnson’s book, Nemesis, is that democracy and empire are incompatible. A nation must choose between one or other as the two cannot co-exist.

He writes:

Over any lengthy period of time, successful imperialism requires that a domestic republic or a domestic democracy change into a domestic tyranny. This is what happened to the Roman Republic; that is what I fear is happening in the United States as the imperial presidency gathers strength at the expense of the constitutional balance of governmental powers as militarism takes even deeper root in the society.

It did not happen in Britain, although it was more likely and altogether less noble than either Arendt or contemporary apologists for British imperialism imply. Nonetheless Britain escaped the transformation into tyranny largely because of a post-World War II resurgence of democracy and popular revulsion at the routine practices of imperialism.

Central to his thesis is that the checks and balances of Madisonian Republicanism cannot exist under the almost permanent state of war an empire finds itself in. This means that the Executive ends up dominating the legislative and judicial. There is ample evidence that the Bush Administration has actively pursued this by claiming that a President in time of war or faced with national security concerns must have absolute power. Vice President Dick Cheney and Attorney-General’s lawyer John Yoo have provided the political and legal backing for such a premise even if their arguments directly contradict the US Constitution.

Johnson’s use of Britain in his argument is interesting. The British Westminster system has very poor checks and balances. For instance the Executive is embedded in the Legislative, and in the case of Washminster systems like Australia, representatives of the upper house can be a member of the Executive as well – further deteriorating the doctrine of separation of the powers. The London Westminster system, if anything, is known for its complete centralisation which is only now starting to federalise with Scottish and Welsh self-government. It is an Executive dominated form of government.

I used to be of the opinion that the Westminster system was a hack to route around the absolute power of the monarch. The battles between Pitt the elder and King George were as much about monarch or parliamentary dominance of the executive as they were on foreign and military policy. But Britain’s checks and balances are poor anyway: plus they were progressing from an executive dominated monarchical system of government to an executive dominated parliamentary system. So there wasn’t the same checks and balances to be eroded as their are in the US Constitution or the Roman tribune system.

I don’t think the side-stepping of checks and balances stands up under scrutiny with the British Empire. Which is probably why Johnson sticks to discussing Rome as the historical analogy. I can accept however that the end of empire left Britain with an executive dominated form of democracy. I think it is fairly obvious that in a battle between branches of government the Executive wins nine times out of ten – and usually with party machine or judicial backing.

I think Johnson is correct on the other major issue he raises, that militarism leads to the degrading of democratic governance. President Eisenhower made a speech warning against the military industrial complex in the 1960s. As Johnson points out, it becomes a political economy, not anchored in economic efficiency but in political patronage and corruption. Where the arguments for a weapons system are not how effective it will be, but how many jobs it will create in a representative’s district. A state must be able to defend itself from outside coercion, but not past that point, and certainly not where the military industrial complex becomes what Franklin Spinney calls a ‘self-licking ice cream cone’.

This may be where Britain kept its domestic democracy – it dropped the militarism. I am reminded of Immanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace where he argues that international peace is impossible until all nations get their internal constitution’s in order – that means keeping Executive practice in constitutional bounds.

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Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch(@mark-bahnisch)
14 years ago

Nice and thoughtful post, Cam.

I’ve read Johnson’s Sorrows of Empire and found it excellent. There are a lot of potboilers written on topics like this but he’s a good scholar and has some interesting things to say backed up with evidence.