The Duck of Minerva

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Whither the Praetorian State?

June 6, 2011

As part of a forthcoming project to re-assess the analytical relevance of the concept of the “praetorian state” in contemporary South Asian and Middle Eastern politics, I’ve been fascinated by tracing the history of the phrase.

Although the term “praetor” or “Praetorian Guard” entered the English language from accounts of Roman history in the 13th century, the taxonomic concept (specifically as a Weberian ideal type) of the “praetorian state” first emerged after political upheavals following the Great Depression.  Max Lerner argued in 1942, for example, that a socialist state that becomes totalitarian indulges in the instabilities associated with praetorian states: a succession of garrisons and adventurist leaders (Lerner 1942, 44).  For the most part, however, Lerner associated the concept with the aggressive imperialism of fascism (Lerner 1942, 50). It is notable that while the modern concept of the praetorian state originated in discussions of what were then contemporary European regime types, in the post-war period the concept would only be applied to “underdeveloped states” that were striving toward “modernization.”

Chart 1: Google N-gram history of the phrase “praetorian state” in English language books and journals

Shortly after 1960 the phrase began to increase in usage  — although still clearly an obscure and technical term (see the Y axis in chart 1 which shows the prevalence of this two-word term or “bi-gram” out of all bi-grams in approximately 5 million books) — reaching a peak in the mid-seventies.  Of course, the concept was never as popular as other ideal type categories of authoritarian states such as the “garrison state” or “caudillismo” (see chart below).

Chart 2: Google N-gram history of the phrases praetorian state (blue), garrison state (red), and caudillismo (green) in English language books and journals

In 1961, L.N. McAlister used the phrase to describe a type of regime in Latin America characterized by “the frequent overthrow of governments by military revolutions or coups d’etat for nonmilitary purposes.”  McAlister added, “It tends to be associated with a high degree of social and political disorganization and  a low degree of professionalism within the armed forces,” (McAlister 1961, 343).  McAlister meant to distinguish the concept from both a Gendarmist State (a state in which a dictator or caudillo tames the military and uses it as a gendarmery to maintain power) and Harold Laswell’s concept of the “Garrison State” (a state in which the military attempts to militarize the state and society at large). What is of interest here is the notion that a praetorian state in 1961 was associated with a lack of professionalism in the military.

A separate school of thought which emerged around the same time is associated with David C. Rapoport and Samuel Huntington. In 1962, Rapoport published an essay — based in part on the ideas of his often cited but unpublished 1960 doctoral dissertation at Berkeley — titled “A Comparative Theory of Military Political Types” in Samuel Huntington’s Changing Patterns of Military Politics (1962) in which he used the phrase “praetorian state” to describe a military that maintains the rule of an oligarchy. Huntington would popularize Rapoport’s category a few years later in an essay in World Politics titled “Political Development and Political Decay,” in which Huntington likened the concept of the praetorian state to the Hellenic concept of the corrupt society. For Huntington, a praetorian society is characterized by political instability that oscillates between absolute monarchy and wild democracy and serves as “… the hallmark of a society where mobilization has outrun institutionalization,” (Huntington 1965, 417).

Building on the work of McAlister, Rapoport & Huntington, Amos Perlmutter significantly developed and refined the concept. His 1969 essay in Comparative Politics, “The Praetorian State and the Praetorian Army: Toward a Taxonomy of Civil-Military Relations in Developing Polities,” (which was based on an earlier article he had published in 1967 and a World Politics article on the Israeli Army he had published in 1968) helped to transform the concept by forgoing Rapoport’s emphasis on constitutionalism, consensus, and authority. In particular, Perlmutter emphasized the notion of the military as a core institution that supplies the political leadership of a society. He laid out the political and social conditions which contribute to praetorianism, placing the relevance of the concept in the “early and middle stages of modernization and political mobilization,” (Perlmutter 1969, 384). Perlmutter also created a differentiation between aribitrator-type praetorian armies and ruler-type praetorian armies.  Notably, the former type was considered to be more professionally oriented — thus broadening McAlister’s formulation to include professionalized militaries (Perlmutter 1969, 392).

[For contemporary South Asia scholars, it is notable that Pakistan, which is today considered by many scholars to be a quintessentially praetorian state, was not considered to be praetorian by scholars applying Rapoport’s defintion (Wilcox 1965. 150).]

However the popularity of the concept appears to have declined after the end of the Cold War. So… why did it decline? At this point I don’t really have an answer. If pushed, I would hypothesize (along the lines of Partha Chatterjee 1974) that the need to understand and distinguish between highly nuanced types of authoritarian regimes (i.e our sons-of-bitches from their sons-of-bitches) and to advocate for “political stability” during the process of socio-economic change to prevent a communist revolution became irrelevant to bourgeois scholars with the third wave of democratization and the triumphalist tone in support of liberal democracy and capitalism that emerged at the end of the Cold War… but that is only a guess.

In any case, with the new wave of popular unrest and insurgency in the Middle East and South Asia, it is clear that many scholars will be monitoring civil-military relations carefully and hence this concept may once again become prominent to explain the lingering or emerging impediments to democratization.

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Vikash is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Asian Studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY. His main areas of academic interest are (post-) globalization, economic development, and economic freedom, with a regional focus on South Asia