The history of politics is the history of factions jostling for power, by methods seldom peaceful and rarely if ever honest. War is much the preferred means of obtaining and augmenting domination of the political landscape and the enrichment of the ruling faction.
In many times and places, this has meant (and still means) violent civil strife within the state itself. At other times, the political tool of war is directed outwards, at a demonized enemy that poses an "overwhelming threat" – almost always bogus or wildly exaggerated – to national existence. Without fail, the warmaking faction's political opponents are identified with the enemy, either as direct agents or more usually as unpatriotic abettors whose criticisms of the rulers give "aid and comfort" to the foe.
Blood is an excellent sealant for factional unity. Once lives have been taken in pursuit of the faction's interests (which are invariably dressed up in the rhetoric of moral purpose), it becomes much harder for faction members to question or quit the cause. To do so means confessing not just to error but to complicity in murder. Few are those who can face such a stark unmasking. Self-deception is vital coin in the economy of factional partisanship.
Some factions are more venal, more violent and more ambitious than others, of course. Many factions are content with a mere piece of the action, a cut of the spoils. Although occasionally they might win through to the top rank of power, they don't seek to eliminate all rivals and establish permanent rule. But history provides many examples of ruthless factions whose thirst for control are unlimited. They seek and will accept no less than a profound transformation of state and society into the image of the faction itself. They will use any method to achieve this goal, which holds ultimate worth in their eyes. They will begin with peaceful means but will not balk at bloodshed if required. And of course to impose a narrow partisan vision on an entire society always requires mass bloodletting in the end.
Such towering ambitions are by no means always unsucessful. This is one of the great unspeakable truths of history. In many different places and times, empires, caliphates, dynasties and other systems of factional dominion have been established through enormous evil – and then persisted in power and honor for centuries. In time, their domination comes to be seen as a fact of nature, the way things are: there is no other way to think, to operate, to exist, outside the parameters imposed by the ruling worldview.
Western civilization is founded upon this kind of enduring factional triumph. Octavian, the teenage adventurer adopted by his distant kinsman Julius Caesar, parlayed the chaos of partisan strife in Rome into supreme power, using corruption, deceit, betrayal, murder, civil war and foreign conquest. With a bloody singlemindedness and scope that would not be seen in Europe again until the 20th century, he subsumed the entire state into his faction, merging and equating the two, leaving nothing outside the new reality created by his success.
There was no ideological, moral or even genuine political content at the heart of his faction. Its only goal was power: Octavian's personal power, from which his adherents hoped to obtain offices, land, loot and prestige – or protection from the ravages of other factions. Only later, on the razed ground of total victory, was this remorseless, murderous game mythologized into a selfless crusade for national security, for order, liberty, prosperity, and, yes, for "family values." Only then, when the dead lay rotting in their hundreds of thousands, was the young man accorded the lofty title that carried him into history as a beacon of civilization and enlightenment: Augustus. The system he established so brutally was maintained – with equal brutality for all who opposed it – for more than 1,400 years.
It might seem absurd, at first, to compare this world-historical figure to the gang of apish, third-rate poltroons now camped out along the Potomac. But although the faction of Octavian contained a handful of remarkably able figures, for the most part it was a collection of schemers, time-servers, cynical money-men, stunted ideologues, bootlickers, propagandists and thugs. Through bribes, threats and the reflected glory of Caesar's name, Octavian was able to augment his tawdry crew with the fearsome military power of many legions. Armed might – and the willingness to use it without remorse or moral compunction – is always the decisive factor in politics.
The brutal system of torture, corruption, lawlessness and war established in Washington by the faction of President George W. Bush is now backed by the greatest military power in history, able to wipe whole nations from the face of the earth in minutes. With the illegal invasion of Iraq and the illegal imprisonment of thousands of people in its global gulag, this faction has shown its willingness to use military force without remorse or moral compunction in pursuit of its openly-stated totalitarian vision: "full spectrum dominance" over geopolitical affairs, coupled with a radical "transformation" of domestic government into a centralized, militarized "instrument of national power" that breaks down "the old, rigid divisions between war, peace, diplomacy, conflict and reconstruction," as Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld outlined in a speech last month. This "instrument" is designed not for the people's benefit but to provide "maximum flexibility" for the Commander-in-Chief -- whose powers are not subject to U.S. or international law, according to Bush's legal team.
Is such a faction, so steeped in blood and lies, so ravenous for domination, ever likely to resign its power voluntarily through free, unfixed elections? Or will it not seek to extend its rule, by any means necessary, into the years and centuries beyond?