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Why Republics End Up as Empires

The Constitution of 1787 is the foundation of the American Republic. It remains the basis of how the United States are governed today.
Over the same period, France has declared itself a Republic five times. The first time from 1792 to 1804, the second from 1848 to 1852, the third from 1870 to 1940, the forth from 1944 to 1958, the fifth from 1958 to the present day, and some are campaigning for a sixth.

The original American Republic was made to fit a society whose structure bore a close resemblance to that of republican Rome. That is, patricians (white Anglo-Saxon Protestants), plebeians (immigrants from Europe) and slaves (natives of West- Africa). This was quite a stable structure for both worlds. But, with time, slavery leads to emancipation and finally to civil rights.

In 1792, French colonies were employing slaves. But there was no significant slave labor in France. Having abolished the monarchy and the infamous slave code (le Code Noir), the first French Republic was immediately confronted by the conflicting duality of patricians and plebeians. It failed, and turned to ephemeral empire (Napoleon).

The res publica (the common weal, la chose publique) is fractured along the patrician/plebeian divide. In this sense, it is a lie. The only welfare that matters is that of the dominant class. And, to hide this reality, a common foe is needed. As the Republic is not a commonwealth, only a common danger can maintain the illusion. To exist, the Republic must always be at war. Enemies of the interior (slaves or terrorists) or of the exterior (the rest of the planet) threaten the nation as a whole. War transcends the class barrier. The legions of Rome mingle patricians and plebeians. They face similar hardships in a communion never achieved at the Forum or the Senate.

Protracted war, however, leads to standing armies, successful generals and all of society intent on submitting its neighbors. Republics usher in the absolute power of empire. Because empire (imperium) is what they impose on those they have conquered. Republics cannot avoid becoming imperial.

The republican class struggle must lead to war. A common enemy, interior or exterior, is the only cohesive force which has the power to deny the contradiction between common welfare and the class divide. The Republic needs constant war to avoid unmasking the egalitarian myth. Republics have an internal division which, at its paroxysm, leads to civil or foreign wars. And, whenever possible, the second solution always seems the best. Iraq’s fate reminds one of that of Carthage, with Rumsfeld as Cato. Delenda est Baghdad.

But what of the resilient republics, those that last centuries, those built on a three class system? The traditional aristocratic triarchy of soldier, priest and merchant, being replaced by patricians, plebeians and slaves. Is this really more stable than the face to face, following emancipation? And to what extent does emancipation provoke this confrontation? To which party do the emancipated belong to? Can even civil rights bring them a sense of belonging? Can the bonds of servility be cast off to reveal a plebeian or a patrician?

We know that throughout the Americas this was not the case. Patricians and plebeians came from Europe. But slaves were natives, Africans and a few surviving Americans. They were unable, physically, to mingle unobtrusively with the two classes of citizens.

In Rome, emancipated slaves joined mainstream society, often without even a brand mark. In the Americas no such thing was possible. A third class citizenship persisted almost everywhere, until civil rights were granted and affirmative action was installed. However the mark was still there, unmistakable. And, anyway, by the mid-1960s in the USA illegal immigrants were fast becoming the “dangerous” element of society, as the new “aliens” from south of the border, whose difference united the rest of society. At that same time in France, the native subjects of its colonial past were immigrating en masse and, by their appearance, were filling the same function.

The class confrontation between patricians and plebeians is sometimes out-sourced as war and, potentially, empire. But war only leads to empire for the victorious. And victories, when they are not the result of luck or sheer valor, depend on might and wealth. Empire is costly in means and men. It needs a constant flow of tribute and an increasing number of troops. At some point, the armies of empire cease to be made up of citizens and become mercenary. At some point in time, the flow of tribute is insufficient. How the American Empire collects tribute is explained by Michael Hudson in a Counterpunch interview.

How far it can go remains to be seen. Meanwhile the dependence on mercenary troops is already started. It should also be noted that the Roman Empire at the time of Hadrian started building walls along its frontiers.

KEN COUESBOUC can be reached at



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