Uber, but for Violence

The dawn of the Roman Republic is traditionally dated to 509 BC, when the last king of Rome was exiled. Shortly thereafter, around 495, the lower classes, the plebs, began to demand relief from taxation and the forgiveness of debts. The Senate was rather unsympathetic to this request, and tensions mounted, until Rome was invaded and had to raise an army. The plebs refused to enlist without the promise of concessions, and the Senate in accordance with grand universal tradition punted. Anybody who enlisted would not be punished for outstanding debts, and anyone in prison for the default would be let free if they joined the army. They further promised to consider some relief measure after the war was over. This produced the desired effect, and the invasion was quickly repelled, and the army disbanded to await their relief. In accordance with grand universal tradition the Senate decreed that everyone who was released should go back to prison, and that people whose imprisonment was deferred by service should be locked up with them. This did not go over well, and there followed a period of recriminations and revenge taking

The next year, 494 BC, Rome was again invaded, and again the Senate sought to raise an army, and again the plebs decided that perhaps they would be happier not fighting on behalf of their creditors, but thank you for asking. The senate, responded by appointing a dictator to restore order, and passing limited debt relief for the people who joined the army. Again the people joined the army, and again the invaders were repelled, and again, upon their return to Rome, the Senate refused to relieve their debts. Now the plebs decided to go on strike, and decamped to a near-by mountain, and await a response from the Senate. The Senate, aware of their dependence on the plebs for soldiers, and their inability to defend against a concerted attack by the plebs, took the only available option, and utterly caved. Thus the office of the Tribune of the Plebs was born, giving the lower classes some say in how they were governed.

Now fast forward to 73 BC. Roman legions have conquered most of Italy and large parts of North Africa and Spain. The army is no longer comprised of free plebs defending their homeland, but professional soldiers, fighting for pay and a share of any land that was conquered. Rome’s conquests mean that the land that was previously farmed by plebs is instead owned by equestrians and patricians, and the labour is provided not by plebs, but the nations who had lost their wars with Rome and been enslaved as punishment. Slaves being cheap and expendable, they were mistreated horrendously, and so it was not a surprise when a few thousand of them decided they would rather not be slaves after all, and got together to begin sacking cities. The slaves crushed a hastily assembled militia, and as word of their exploits spread, more and more slaves went to join them, and their ranks eventually swelled to 120,000. A second, more professional army was assembled to defeat them, and, after some initial success, was defeated. The Senate became alarmed, and assembled a third, much larger army to deal with it, and, after some intrigue, it did. Crassus, one of the commanders of the army captured 6000 of the slaves, and had them crucified at regular intervals from Capua to Rome as a reminder of the price of failed rebellion. Crassus and Pompei took their armies as close to Rome as they were allowed, and then stood for Consul, the highest elected office, and, despite Pompeii being legally ineligible, both won, due in no small part to the implied threat of the armies encamped nearby.

Now further ahead. It is now 532 AD, in Constantinople. In a manner somewhat similar to Irish football clubs, 6th century Constantinople expressed it’s divisions through it’s sporting clubs, and the most popular sport was chariot racing. Though there were four major factions, at this time only two had real influence, the Blues and the Greens. Meeting at these events, and with the supporters of your favorite team, would be a natural time to talk about the controversies of the day, both political and religious, and aristocratic families looking to make connections within the power structure would sponsor the teams, and thus curry favour and get invites to more exclusive parties. After one particularly fractious race, as this rivalry began to break into open warfare that left several on each side dead, the Emperor intervened, and attempted to help restore calm, succeeding only in uniting them in their annoyance with the Emperor. At the next race, the two sides began shouting abuse at the Emperor, and wound up besieging his palace. Justinian, however had a plan. He sent an envoy to the blues, reminding them that, after all weren’t the greens the real enemy, and if he were deposed, wouldn’t it be a green who would now rule? In accordance with grand universal tradition he had his confidant present the leader of the blues with a giant sack of money, and the blues decided that really Justinian wasn’t so bad after all, and left the stadium. The greens were rounded up by the army and slaughtered to the man, and their allies in the nobility were executed as well for good measure, ensuring peace and stability for years to come.

Slaves in the Roman Empire were a non-renewable resource. Forced to live in barracks and with a very short life span, slaves mostly did not replace themselves, and without a ready source of new slaves, mass slavery died out, to be replaced with serfdom and peasantry, who were expected to marry and raise families, and thus could be expected to provide future generations of peasants for toil. The loss of the Middle Eastern and North African trade routes to the House of Islam, and internal trade being lost to banditry, the kind of specialization that allowed cities to flourish was no longer feasible, and Europe became thoroughly rural. All politics is local, and so while we have stories of servants murdering their lords and so on, the networks were not in place for a proper peasant revolt for most of the early and high middle ages, and the exceptions come mostly from outside the feudal system or where the feudal system was inchoate, like the Stellinga who protested their enserfment and forced conversions after the Carolingians subjugated Saxony. The first wide scale peasant revolt of the late middle ages (so far as has been recorded) happened in Flanders, one of the first regions of Europe to re-urbanize, in the 1320s. Despite some initial success capturing cities, peasants were no match for armour and cavalry in the field, and the revolt was crushed, the leaders killed. The peasant army at Cassel lost nearly half it’s force between 10,000 and 20,000 men. The French armoured force fighting them on the other hand, only a handful, and of the cavalry perhaps only 17 knights were killed. The major cities of the rebellion were forced to dismantle their fortifications, pay heavy fines, and lost all of their privileges to the Count of Flanders.

This was the first of a wave of revolts, throughout western Europe. In France, England, Germany, Italy, Hungary and Spain and so on a familiar tale would play out, as, upset with the heavy tax burden, or the loss of privledges, or in protest of restrictive laws, commoners would rise up and be crushed mercilessly, and their oppression would deepen for their troubles. However, towards the end of the 18th century, the outline of a new pattern began to take place. For most of the previous thousand years there was an advantage to being the defender. A Lord or Baron under attack could retreat behind his castle walls and await relief, or if it became necessary, to ride out encased in heavy armour, nearly impervious to the meager weapons of the peasantry. Agincourt was the announcement that armour could no longer be relied on, and the advent of artillery sounded the death knell of the castle as an impervious base of operations. Gradually, a King could hire, equip and train an army that did not rely on the military aristocracy, and, eventually, cities could as well. Soon projecting power was not about how well the knights were armoured, or how thick the walls of the castle were, but how much firepower could be brought to bear. The aristocracy receded in importance, the castles became antiquated curiosities, and the state was born. But a ruling class that had long grown used to treating their lower classes as irrelevant would be in for a shock. Rebellions and revolutions still failed far more often than they succeeded, but in sharp contrast to earlier eras, instead of slaughtering the rebellious subjects, the subject often succeeded in inflicting tremendous damage, and the victory of the state depended as much on the allegiance of the army as the force of the King’s arms.

Indeed you can track the faction that controls France by knowing the Faction that guards Paris. In the Early and High middle ages, guarding Paris was the responsibility of the King’s vassals and Castellans. Towards the end of the High middle ages however, Paris had begun to grow too large, and the King had defeated most of the castellans around Paris, and responsibility passed to the guilds to create a Royal Guard for the city. Naturally the guard was still under the command of an aristocrat, but the men who served in it were tradesmen who lived and worked in the city. As the city grew richer and the men softer, they stopped serving in the guard themselves, and instead hired a professional force to do the work for them, and positions in the guard were increasingly filled by the king’s former soldiers. At the height of the Absolute Monarchy a separate Police force was created, and, as power flowed away from Paris and towards Versailles, the Guard and Police force were merged, under the command of an officer appointed directly by the King. At the crucial moment of the revolution, when it came time to choose between the King and the National Assembly the Paris Guard chose to obey the assembly. As local distinctions and privileges were abolished, the Paris guard was disbanded, and the safety of Paris was left to the National Guard commanded by the liberal nobility. When the radicals took control on the 10 August, it was in large part because the National Guard in Paris abandoned their officers and joined the republican side. In turn, they transferred their allegiance to the Thermidor reaction, leaving the committee for public safety undefended in the city hall. Their inability to suppress the royalist uprisings led to the famous whiff of grapeshot, and directly contributed to the rise of Napoleon, who disarmed the guards and replaced them with a professional police force under his control. During this time, the guard regained again it’s status as a middle class militia, and when the bourgeois monarchy was restored, the guard was restored with it. A similar process plays out in London, and in all the capitols of Europe. The great wave of revolutions in 1848 mostly failed, but the rebellions in Berlin succeeded in getting the Hohenzollern King to transfer control of Berlin from the Royal Army to a citizen militia, in addition to a constitution and an electoral assembly.  In general, the rise of the middle classes was accompanied by the rise of middle class militias and guards, often explicitly excluding both the nobility and the lower classes.

These changes are, in part, about wealth, but also about technology. The fall of the military aristocracy was partly about state-building, the centralization of power, and the movement of the centre of financial power from land and rents to cities and trade, but also about the fall of the castle and the death of heavy cavalry as an effective fighting force. When the plebeians revolted, they exacted concessions because smallholders formed the backbone of the army, and the patricians could not defend themselves against their enemies without them. By contrast, when the slaves revolted, despite forming the economic backbone of the empire, slaves did not form the armed defensive backbone of the republic, and so the interests of the slaves could be ignored. When Constantinople revolted, the Emperor was threatened, in no small part because his power base turned against him, and so he had to pay them off. It was only after he had placated his base that the army could be used to crush the remaining dissenters. In the west, military force became increasing centralized in the hands of a small military elite, and the interests of the peasants became increasingly ignored, as they successively lost their rights and privileges to castellans and the cavalry. It was only when trained forces of commoner infantry developed the tactics and weapons necessary to defeat the castles and cavalry that the power of the crown again waned, and as weapons became more widespread and easier to use that power started falling into the hands of the middle classes, and so it became necessary to consider their interests when making decisions.

In effect, as the technology needed to effectively resist coercion became more and more widely available, the number of people from which the system needed buy-in increased. It was entirely possible for French nobles to ignore the rights and desires of the French peasants in 10th century France, increasing the taxes and duties owed to landlords. Peasants never successfully overthrew their Lords after all.  The Kaiser in the tenth century would never have bothered sending the french equivalent of Lenin into France, that the Kaiser in the twentieth felt it worthwhile is only because the revolt of the lower class would need to be taken seriously in a way that peasant rebellion in the tenth did not. The great liberalizations of the late 19th century, universal male suffrage and constitutional democracy, happened against a background of anarchist violence against the aristocracy, and the threat of a widespread workers revolt. The backdrop of the construction of social democracy was the spectre of revolutionary communism. Decolonization, and the great civil wars of the third world, are necessarily complicated, but a prime enabler has been the widespread availability of a cheap, easy to build, easy to maintain weapon, the AK-47 and it’s derivatives, that narrowed the technological gap between colonizer and colonized, and reduced the barrier to entry of meaningful resistance to established authority. This is to say, that the modern history of the rise of the common man, is the history of the disruption of the means of violence.

2 thoughts on “Uber, but for Violence

  1. Pingback: El mayor proceso concursal de la Historia de España no ha sido el de las Cajas de Ahorro: ha sido el del sistema eléctrico | Almacén de Derecho

  2. Pingback: La persistencia de una institución no garantiza su eficiencia | Almacén de Derecho

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