When are armed societies stable, and when do they lead to chaos?

Please note that this is NOT about domestic crime, individual killings, etc. This is about how armed societies fare at the national-political level. Especially, the issue of civil war.

One the one hand, we have the Swiss, broadly considered the very example of how a nation of armed citizen-soldiers can be. Or longer ago, the Roman Militia, or the Athenians as examples of how armed citizens and democracy go hand in hand. And you have proponents of the ideal of the citizen solider ranging from the Founding Fathers to Robert Heinlein.

On the other hand, we have places like Lebanon during the 1980s, Yugoslavia during the 1990s, or Iraq today. Where armed citizens seem to inevitably split into multiple rival factions that tear nations apart in internecine warfare. Where you would be hard pressed to explain exactly how an armed citizenry is supposed to lead to a free and prosperous democracy.

The United States is perhaps the most ambigous example of all. Originally founded after a successful war of independence, the ideal of the militiaman was lionized. Yet the newly established government stomped down hard on populist uprisings and rebellions, and for two hundred years has moved more and more towards centralized authority backed by an effective monopoly on military force.

So in some times and some places armed societies seem to work, and in others they’re a dismal failure; what makes the difference?

My guess is that a stable armed society requires a shared culture and possibly shared institutions. If Group A and Group B do not perceive themselves as having anything in common, it’s all too easy to rouse the old Us-Versus-Them killer-ape instincts, and warfare results.

My speculation is shared, overriding national loyalty, combined with respect for the rule of law. Loyalty stronger in the great majority of people than that of tribe or religion. Societies dominated by tribal loyalties are generally at best metastable; any change in circumstances can cause the stability to violently collapse. Religion works somewhat better, but has a very strong tendency to fragment into mutually hostile groups.

And if a society doesn’t respect the rule of law, then it’s pretty obvious why arming everyone isn’t going to lead to stability.

It depends on organization. If they’re armed as individuals, they’ll either form their own groups or look out for themselves, in which case you’ll often have chaos. If they bear arms as members of a trained, disciplined army or militia, they’ll only use their arms in a lawful manner - or at least, in the manner dictated by their state.

Tribalism isn’t neccesarily detrimental - it depends on the size of the tribe. The Athenians are a tribe, as were the Republican Romans; so, in a way, are the Swiss.

You need for the society to be extremely homogenous, both ethnically and religiously. The three examples you cite of countries that descended into chaos were countries that were split along ethnic or religious lines (or both). Humans naturally dislike those who are different from themselves, and difference will probably always be a cause of strife. Switzerland is very homogenous; ergo, it is very stable, even if it is armed to the teeth.

Something that all of these places have in common is not the presence of weapons, but of being invaded by an outside power and of having several ethnic or religious factions within them. The roots of the conflicts were often stewing for a long, long time before outside control was released in one way or another. In other words, it had nothing to do with the presence of guns, and everything to do with instability and grudges.

Lebanon was part of the Ottoman Empire for about 400 years. Outside control took care of any factionalism. It was under French control following the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after WWI, then got invaded by several powers during WWII. Their first elected government after being granted independence was imprisoned by the French. Guess the French didn’t like who the people chose.

A few years after Lebanon’s independence was reluctantly recognized, the country invaded Israel, in collaboration with other countries in the region. They took in a bunch of Palestinian refugees, and there was another period of unrest during the Six Day war. Only a few years later, there was a civil war, mostly because of long-standing ethnic conflicts dating back to the Ottoman days, but the influx of refugees, the PLO using Lebanon as a staging point for attacks on Israel, and Israel shelling and bombing the crap out of them didn’t help things settle down any.

The Balkans had been a pain in the ass of Europe since before WWI. Again, the Ottoman Empire was involved way back in the 1600s and served to control most of the problems through being a bigger badass than any of the locals. The region has been fragmented by strong ethnic and ideological divides, and at various times in history most of the main factions you heard about post-Cold War were guilty of oppressing some of the other factions. Before the Serbs were famous for “ethnic cleansing” the Croats were doing it during WWII. You also shouldn’t forget that WWI was started by the Austria-Hungarian heir being assassinated by a Serbian nationalist.

The only reason the whole place didn’t explode into nasty factional warfare after most of the rest of the European conflicts were winding down was because of outside control again being imposed in the form of the Soviet Union. Once their control lapsed, the various groups went right back to raping and killing each other like there hadn’t been a few decade break.

I trust you don’t need a history lesson on Iraq.

I’m generally in agreement with Alessan and Der Trihs. People either need to see themselves as part of a bigger group than their tribe, or they need to see the advantages of working together with other groups. It really, really helps if you have some things in common and aren’t so different that the usual monkey-brain “danger! outsider!” instincts aren’t tripped.

For the Colonies, the subordination of the groups meant establishing a central government, while still giving enough independence to the groups that the people didn’t balk. Note that the first loose Confederation didn’t work as the various States immediately started to fight against each other, at first economically, and going to the brink of armed conflict with each other in some cases. All those smart, influential leaders who carried them through the War got back together to create an ideology of independent cooperation, and more or less conjured the idea of Americanism out of shared experience during the Revolutionary War.

It helped a lot that there was still the outside enemy of England for them to focus on, and a horrible example in the French Revolution of what could happen if they let things get out of hand. It also helped that the Revolutionary leaders were still around and still influential, contentious but willing to cooperate with each other, and most of all that no one seemed to be willing to make a grab for power.

Also, I totally agree that respect for a rule of law is necessary. One of the reasons that countries new to democratic governments don’t always succeed at first is often because there’s no history of rule under a relatively fair code of conduct. It’s hard for people to trust laws if their creation, interpretation, and enforcement have been capricious or corrupt in the past. New democracies seem to be especially unstable if the people didn’t earn it the hard way, and it was instead imposed upon them by an outside power.

I have to agree with Sleel and der Trihs (call CNN!), but the example of Switzerland still stands out as unique. If I understand things correctly, the swiss speak a few languages as they are made up of 2-3 different “ethnic” groupings. And yet, they still manage to get along for the most part. How’s that work? What makes Switzerland different than the other examples? Or Belgium?

Is it the rule of law?

If a society’s people, by general consensus, accept the legitimacy of the existing state and the social order, that society will be stable whether the people are armed or not. Otherwise, it will be unstable and an armed populace will only aggravate the instability.

It’s that they think of themselve as Swiss.

I largely disagree with the consensus developing in this thread. My opinion is that the keys to a stable society are:

  1. Self-government, as opposed to government by foreigners.

  2. Democracy, as opposed to dictatorship.

  3. Meeting the economic needs of the people.

  4. Government adopting a ‘live and let live’ approach to cultural issues.

When these four factors are present, there’s little chance for a revolution, regardless of whether the people are armed, regardless of ethnic tensions or religious divisions. The USA, Australia, and New Zealand have populations gathered from countless groups from around the world, yet have not experienced violent revolutions in recent years.

When one or more of the four factors fails severely, trouble starts to brew. And when a society collapses into violence, the presence of many heavily armed citizens will make the violence worse.

I couldn’t disagree more with this one. In a multiethnic society, sometimes the only thing keeping it together is a dictator. Yugoslavia had Tito, Iraq had Saddam…when Tito and Saddam left power, all hell broke loose. Many Middle Eastern countries, for example, would descend into anarchy if their monarchies or dictatorships fell.

There are many examples of societies falling apart into chaos when a dictator leaves power, going all the way back to Qin Shi Huangdi in 2nd-century BC China. A strong dictator being replaced by a weak one can be just as bad (that’s what happened in the case of Qin Shi Huangdi).

Is the Middle East (especially Israel and its neighbors) a more or less stable society now than when it was ruled by foreigners (first the Ottoman Empire, later the British)?

Are the countries of sub-Saharan Africa more or less stable now than they were under colonial rule?

Sometimes foreign rule can unify a society, rather than dividing it. It does give everybody a common enemy in the hated foreign rulers. It certainly worked that way to unify the thirteen American colonies, for example.

Saudi Arabia is a fairly stable society, and it certainly isn’t a democracy and does not have a government that takes a “live and let live” approach to cultural affairs. I have trouble imagining a government failing in a worse way on those two counts than Saudi Arabia’s does.

The Communist governments of the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc also failed on those counts, and didn’t supply the economic needs of their people, either. But the event that led to their collapse was a liberalization effort, not a tightening of cultural controls.

Present-day China is stable, but it certainly isn’t a democracy. It has certainly not always taken a “live and let live” approach to cultural affairs (Cultural Revolution, anybody?), but there still was not a large-scale uprising of the population.

North Korea isn’t a democracy, doesn’t supply the economic needs of its people, and doesn’t live and let live (I have heard (don’t remember where, sorry) that there are literally sirens going off in cities there- the government telling people when it is time to wake up). Yet its people don’t revolt.