by Michael Churchill

Mosca on of the standing army:

In Gaetano Mosca’s political philosophy, there are five groups that always want to rule: priests, the rich, politicians, workers and the army. Ideally, these groups constitute a balance of social forces.

An interesting question emerges: Since the army has the guns — and knows how to use them — why doesn’t the army ALWAYS rule? Why do advanced civilizations have civilian rule?

Mosca has an insightful take on this, arguing that in every society there are men who are natural adventurers, who enjoy risk and violence. The standing army came about organically, as an institution to “channel” these violent impulses and contain them within a hierarchy. For this reason, it is important that armies are ruled by an elite capable of insuring that the violence is properly channeled.

All modern armies today feature a strict hierarchy of rank that roughly mirrors levels of social sophistication. Majors and generals are generally smoother and better educated than privates and corporals.

But this still leaves us with the question, “Why don’t those majors and generals take over?” Mosca’s answer is that since the top brass are drawn from the broader society – mirroring it, identifying with it, belonging to it – they will feel far more compelled to support it than overthrow it. Moreover, within the army’s elite there will be varying political views similar to that seen in civilian society.

Mosca argues that the one thing you never want to do is democratize the army, because then there will be no systemic check on the violent impulses of the enlisted men. Seems like good advice.

So then how do we account for military coups, like those in Venezuela in the 90s, and Brazil, Argentina and Chile in the 70s and 80s? What went wrong?

Mosca would likely say two things happened:

A) the army, being naturally reactionary, did not identify AT ALL with the ruling class in power once it became overtly socialist (Allende in Chile), so that natural brake on military ambition was removed.

B) Civilian leadership completely failed, completely broke down, leaving society in chaos. Thus, as the army leadership mirrors the broad society, they sympathized with it and viewed a coup d’etat as their rightful duty.

The opposite question is posed by the responses of the military during the rise to power of fascist forces in Germany and Italy during the 20s and 30s. Why did the armies of those countries not stop it? Here again, the leaders of armies identify with the broad swathe of the populace and derive their sense of honor from the role they play in upholding civil institutions. They’re not going to step in and thwart a broadly popular movement (especially because, as noted above, army leaders themselves will have widely differing views on political matters of the day).