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Chalmers Johnson and the Roman analogy

March 3rd, 2007 · 1 Comment

Chalmers Johnson in Nemesis is very very worried about the American republic/democracy, and proceeds in the book to pose a series of analogies to the Roman Republic and its decline into empire.

I have had frequent occasion to criticize the ‘Roman analogy’ in one of its other forms, the Spenglerian ‘decline and fall’ version, based, not on the Republic, but the later empire as this undergoes the classic disconbobulation described by Gibbon. Endless numbers of writers have trotted out this analogy to flog America, but the analogy doesn’t work.
First, there are two usages of the term ’empire’. A republic at home can have an external empire. And a non-republic at home can be an ‘internal empire’ or tyranny with an ‘external empire’. The two cases are often scrambled, but aren’t the same. We see the two cases in succession with Rome, but they are different.

These critics of the ‘American Empire’ don’t distinguish the two, although, from a Marxist viewpoint, the distinction would be declared egregious since they see the ‘republic/democracy’ as a facade. But that is a bit hasty.

Based on my study of history in the eonic effect this Spenglerian version is misleading because, as can be seen from eonic periodization, the periods compared simply don’t match, and we see one of the reasons.

And cyclical recurrence simply isn’t an historical reality.
However, progressive cyclicity is a possibility. Different times may show similar experiments initializing at cyclical progression points of initialization. That’s not nonsense, the way cyclical recurrence is. And this is the case, remarkably, with the two experiments in democracy/republics that we see in the Roman/Athenian and American (and British…) cases.

Chalmers Johnson’s version doesn’t make this mistake of the later Roman empire comparison, and is a little bit closer to the mark, and a useful question about the politics of the current American system. That’s not an endorsement of his model, only a suggestion that there is a relevant comparison, believe it or not. If you study the discrete freedom sequence in the eonic model, the reason for this relevant comparison suddenly becomes clear.

Of course, what is the eonic effect, and how could it clarify this? The answer is long, but in a nutshell it is question of the simple periodization based on the sequence
1800, etc, you will need to study the eonic model….

The point is that around -600 is the beginning of the great Athenian takeoff, Solon’s generation, and the subsequent emergence of democracy, which, sadly, is virtually all over after -400 (although technically it endures into the Alexandrian period). Nearby the Roman Republic comes into existence in parallel, for reasons the eonic model clarifies, and its sturdy character endures for a good five hundred years, although it is suffering severe strains from early on as its empire and its republic create a contradiction. Just as Johnson describes it.
The American case is almost isomorphic to the Athenian, strangely enough, given the distinction of progressive cyclicity (which voids rigorous comparison and prediction).
If we use the Roman analogy, then we are not five/six hundred years after 1800, so what’s the gloom and doom, if you use this comparison at all?
Thus the relevant comparison is really with the Athenian experience, because of the phenomenon of the ‘divide’, discussed in the eonic model. Its democracy is a smashing success (the open society effect). But, this success leads to imperial complications, and two centuries after the divide Athens is in trouble, and the great era is over.

Now in the American case, an identical periodization is visible! That is what is unnerving to those who sense the comparison.

The takeoff starts at the modern divide, 1800, and the result is a smashing success that rapidly begins to suffer imperial complications. Once again, exactly two centuries after the divide the American system is in deep trouble, for exactly the same reason as the Athenian. Exclamation marks!!!! And the eonic model shows this is no accident.
There is a comparison here, made clear from the eonic periodization.
So, in a way, Chalmers is right, we are AT A SEVERE DANGER POINT.
Keep in mind, again, that the ’empire’ is external, and the late Roman empire decline and fall is the wrong analogy. The analogy, as Chalmers shows, confusing the Roman and Athenian cases, is the way external empire can destroy the internal republic or democracy.
Let me repeat the point: two centuries after the divide in both cases a strain on the democracy arises instantly. Why two centuries? There is no inherent reason it should be so, save likelihood of some kind. Again if we study the eonic model, we can roughly see the reason: the period of ‘maximum eonic determination’ wanes after the divide and the system is left to its own devices. We can see the problem from American history.
Compare the Founding fathers with Andrew Jackson and those who come later. The caliber of leadership plummets, beyond recovery, save for exceptional rarities, and lucky mysteries like Abraham Lincoln.
Why did that magnificent great generation occur near the divide ca. 1800 (actually a generation before, the figures are approximate). We don’t know, except that it is exactly correlated with the eonic periodization. So it is not chance.

Thus, to continue, I think his Roman analogy is less successful, although for all and intents and purposes the ‘Roman republic’ version produces a similar behavior, with a difference: Chalmers quotes Parenti who points to the obvious fact that Rome was a republic, but not really a democracy, and Caesar was a populist, etc… Fair enough. But that vitiates the analogy a little bit.

So the American/Athenian analogy is more cogent (or the Athenian/British).
The issue here is that Athens was a democracy, but was such a smashing success that it rapidly began to become imperial in the Greek system, and this was the source of its woes and the rapid undoing of its brief flowering as a true democracy.
Ditto in the American case.

The problem with these analogies, and this one is spooky, almost eerie, indeed provably significant, is that cyclical comparisons are always misleading. Cyclical recurrence and progressive cyclicity are confused. Cyclical recurrence is impossible in history. The exact same event in different times. Progressive cyclicity is like the cycle of mondays, periodization in circles, like a clock, but this doesn’t refer to the content, to what happens on mondays, only to the timing. So it works, because it is trivial.
Nothing demands cyclical recurrence. We can realize our problems and take action.
However, you could repeat a similar experiment on successive mondays, and the results might resemble each other because the phenomena of the experiment are similar. But that’s not Spenglerian doom and gloom decline and fall cyclical recurrence. These critics get overtaken by the doom scenario, with a dash of Marxist ‘despair’ used to abet the wished for downfall.
But Chalmers could be right: he shows clearly the dangerous, hard to change, dry rot, worms in the ointment that have emerged to vitiate the system of checks and balances. With monstrosities like the CIA and corporate jackels running wild we are confronted with a reality we might be powerless to change, as virtues turn into unchangeable vices killing the republican patient. It is obvious, but quite forgotten: the founding fathers DID NOT condone such things, such things were what they were afraid of. A democratic renewal that solves such problems can’t be expected for the wishing. One must fear the Chalmers scenario.
So, anyway, the eonic effect shows a good reason for us to compare, up to a point, the Athenian and American democratic experiments.
But just at that point I have to challenge Chalmers conclusion: we are not enjoined to fatalism, and don’t have to repeat the mistakes of the Romans/Athenians, this is not cyclical recurrence with a fixed future, but a relevant repetition in a context of progressive cyclicity and an open future.
Johnson actually shows the answer: the British came to the point of choice: democracy or empire, and gave up their empire. So there we have it.

Someone tell George Bush.

Tags: 1848+ · History · The Eonic Effect

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Darwiniana » We aren’t Rome // Sep 6, 2007 at 5:43 pm

    […] I get a little impatient with these Rome analogies, and have previously commented on this in a review of Chalmers Johnson, author of Blowback: Chalmers Johnson and Nemesis. […]

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