The Resumption of History: Part 3 — Of Justice and Power
by Carlo Graziani
Part 2, The Age of Anxiety, ended like this:
And how do you even retrieve a political discussion that’s so hopelessly confused? How did we allow it to get so muddled? Why did we allow ourselves to be intellectually cornered into defending capitalism, as if that was the point, as if free enterprise were the aspect of our societies that, if someone were to place limits on it, we would say “no, sorry, now our societies are not worth defending after all”? What the hell happened to our actual political values?
The Problems of Governance
Which is to say, it’s past time that I made good on my promise to actually say what I mean when I write about “Enlightenment” ideology, because we need to unpick this mess. To do that, though, I need to ask your indulgence while I review some foundations of governance. I apologize for the parts that will seem obvious, although I hope that at least the framework will look somewhat unfamiliar to at least some readers.
From the earliest gatherings of people into large organized societies, certain types of problems had to be addressed by rulers and bureaucrats on a recurring basis across geography and time. Taking an anachronistic view of these problems, we can fit them in two broad categories, which, for want of better terms can be called The Problem of Justice and The Problem of Power. These terms need some explanation, because while they are evocative, they are not exactly self-explanatory. They are also not standard terms of art: rather, they are shorthands that I need for the discussion that follows. If they seem terminologically quirky, please indulge these quirks for the space of this essay.
The Problem of Justice
The Problem of Justice stems from the commonplace observation that when individuals agree to live in society, that agreement creates benefits: intangible benefits, such as collective security; but also tangible benefits—exponential growth of wealth, consequent on the ability of a few individuals to grow food for many; and on the specialization of skills that the labor thus freed from subsistence can thereupon engage in.
The intangible benefits raise problems of mutual obligation within society that I will not address here, not because they are uninteresting, but because for reasons that will become clear below, the tangible benefits are the ones that concern us here. Those benefits raise the following problem: society created the wealth, but society is a construct. How are individuals to benefit? Who, exactly are the stakeholders of society, who are entitled to a payout, and in what measure? The natural process of wealth creation will not land the wealth in the laps of the designated stakeholders, whoever they may be, nor in the designated amounts. How is that wealth to be collected and redistributed? What part is to be used for the common good, and in what way?
These questions have been answered in many ways over time and geography. Stakeholders have been those who held monopolies over edged weapons, or white men, or bourgeoisies, or proletariats, or mandarins, or members of ethnic groups, or everyone born on a territory over some age, and so on. Fiscal systems have included contract tax-farming, various aristocratic hierarchies, clerical tithing networks, the IRS. And so on. Much of this was not really well-thought out, or thought out at all, really. Until Marx.
Karl Marx furnished the first modern, systematic theory of Justice, in the sense above. Which makes sense, because as I’ve set it out, “Justice”—at least the part of Justice having to to with the tangible benefits of living in society—is really a materialist resource allocation problem. And Marx was, before everything else, a materialist philosopher. He wove together economic theory and historical narrative in such a powerful combination that nowadays even scholars who violently dissent from Marxist views would never dare sever the link that he forged. He hammered home the fertile cross-pollination of economic and historical thinking, and singled out the importance of the social class as a key tool of socio-historical analysis, one of his many durable contributions. Marx is one of those rare writers, like Aristotle or Freud, whose work is so powerful that they can be wrong on many, even most details, while the systems of thought that they create condition the work of scholars, and even change the habits of mind of entire societies, for centuries after their deaths.
If you happen to think as I do, Marx is still conditioning your thoughts today on the proper stakeholders in society—to the extent that we feel that capital and income is not the same as human worth—and on how wealth should be collected and redistributed—by taxation rates that do not respect self-important and self-serving assertions of the societal good inherent in conspicuous consumption and accumulation. Thinking that way does not make one a Marxist: it merely acknowledges the important and positive ways in which the world that we live in is still shaped by Marx’s thought.
The Problem of Power
The trouble with Marx is that he was utterly uninterested in the other key problem of governance, the Problem of Power. Which is this: Suppose that you have created institutions of government designed to carry out your design of Justice. You must now animate those institutions by installing officials, whom you must invest with functions and mandates. And you must entrust them with the power of government to carry out those mandates. At which point you will immediately run into the most immutable, best-known, iron law of politics: power corrupts. It doesn’t matter how you choose or train your officials, they will be tempted to abuse their power every day, and, inevitably, some of them will.
“Corruption” here does not mean merely or only pecuniary corruption. A government official may refuse to take even a penny in wrongful compensation, but if that official should improperly shield a family member from a judicial process (say), that is corruption, and it is the type of institutional rot which, if unchecked, can spread and destroy any scheme of Justice ever devised. In order to ensure that this does not happen, the institutions of government need to be somehow designed to prevent this kind of corruption from occurring by limiting the authority of officials, even if doing so means that the ability to provide Justice is impaired.
That is the paradox and tragedy of governance: the problems of Justice and Power are in tension with each other. Without limitations of authority designed to prevent corruption, institutions of Justice soon rot. But if those limitations are too effective, Justice will be hamstrung.
People who care deeply about Justice frequently chafe at those restrictions, often (in my view) without acknowledging the importance of their function. For example, the right to “Freedom of Speech”, which enables so much enraging speech that many would prefer to see suppressed, is a restriction on Power: it prevents government from deciding what political statements people may or may not make. Weakening that restriction could have dreadful consequences for all speech, irrespective of what awful political speech it permits now.
Another example of a problem of Power has to do with the “Rule of Law”. That phrase is vague, and covers a lot of ground, but in my opinion the most important claim under its aegis is the total and uncompromising requirement that our rulers be themselves bound by laws that they cannot change or evade as it suits them. Obviously this is a problem of Power—in fact, it is the principal Problem of Power.
The framework of Justice and Power allows us to make a key observation: the Problems of Power are prior to the Problems of Justice, in the sense that it is a higher priority to resolve Power-related issues than Justice-related issues. This is an assertion that is likely to raise immediate objections in some quarters, but it is easy to defend. If institutional corruption is limited—if solutions to Problems of Power are addressed at the institutional level—then the possibility exists to provide a durable design of Justice. If institutional corruption is not limited, no such possibility exists.
Note also how this framework allows us to analyze that slippery phrase, the “Free Market”, that I alluded to in Part I: used in its non-technical, ideological sense, the phrase is a compound of terms pertaining to Power (“Free” as in free of overbearing goverment regulation) and Justice (“Market”, a choice of resource allocation algorithm), which uses rhetorical legerdemain to press into service the priority of the former in order to justify a particular family of distributional schemes belonging to the latter. Neat trick, eh?
As I said, Marx had no interest whatever in problems of Power. As near as I can tell there was still widespread belief in an idea of human perfectibility associated with faith in the possibilities of science when Das Kapital was written that may have made it easy to ignore the problem of human corruption. The intellectual toxins of Romanticism had not quite set in by that point. And, of course, if the State withers away, I suppose there is less of a concern about corruptibility of leaders. Consequently, Marxism is, taken as a theory of governance, at best half a theory.
None of the intellectual ankle-biters who followed Marx appeared to even notice that there was a gap to be filled here, least of all the opportunistic pseudo-philosopher polemicists who led the Russian Revolution. Their Theory of Power was Vanguardism: an elite, educated in “Revolutionary Consciousness” would furnish a “Vanguard of the Revolution” that would safeguard the interests of Marxist(-Leninist) Justice. To even call this scheme a “theory” is to endow it with too much dignity. It was word salad covering preparations for a politics of violent coercion.
I believe that this disinterest in the Problem of Power—the wilful inability to even understand that a problem exists—is the feature to which we can trace the depressingly unfailing habit of purely Marxist governance projects to collapse, over and over again, in savage orgies of violence directed against the proletariat (or agrarian class) that they nominally exist to defend, while officials enthusiastically knife each other in the back, before eventually settling into an equilibrium state of self-dealing, corrupt bureaucracy at the expense of the nations that they govern. I cannot think of a single exception to this rule. And it’s been 105 years since the Russian Revolution.
So we cannot look to Marx for usable thinking about Power. For that, we must turn instead to the “bourgeois” political philosophers of the American Revolution.
Tomorrow: The Sources of American Soft Power
All 5 parts, once published, can be found here: The Resumption of History
Gin & Tonic
How you can go on for hundreds and hundreds of words about “wealth creation” and “justice” without even a word about slavery is mind-boggling.
These essays are beginning to look brilliant, by which I mean presenting ideas that seem utterly obvious only after the ideas are presented. I read them and think “Duh! Why did I never see that before.”
@Gin & Tonic: I bet he’s getting to that.
My knowledge of Marx is paper thin, but it seems to me that while capitalism is worried about wealth creation and not about distribution, Marxism is concerned with distribution, but doesn’t have a theory about how society creates wealth. At least none that I’ve ever heard. What little Marxist thought I’ve seen assumes the existence of wealth producing mechanisms.
A very interesting and provocative post. There is much to think about even if I am not persuaded by the argument or the conclusions.
A major disagreement here. I don’t think that Marx is right about anything, or that his work is well thought out. To me, he is an intellectual dead end.
It is ironic to note that neither Trump nor Boris Johnson believed that they themselves were bound by the Rule of Law. Or that they pretend to be bound by the law, but use lies and deception to flout laws they pretend to obey.
Another, ongoing problem is that the rule of law is sometimes used to persecute specific groups of people. In India, the US and the UK, laws are currently used to hurt Muslims, women and gay people, and immigrants. And much of this is done with the consent of a large segment of the population.
The rule of law is one of the most powerful principles that can bind a democracy. It is possibly essential in defining a democracy. And yet it is regularly abused or ignored.
@Baud: Isn’t that where the labor theory of value comes in? That is, if the value of any good is defined as the amount of labor that produced it, then to a Marxist, labor is what generates wealth by definition. Or do you mean mechanisms for incentivizing labor?
@Brachiator: I’m not sure Trump could even conceive of what it meant to be bound by the law. If you’re a winner you don’t have to follow any rules, right? Those are for losers and the President is the biggest winner there is.
@Baud: Well, no, I don’t really agree with this. Marx was watching the English Industrial Revolution very closely, and reading the literature of the Dismal Scientists, if with a very critical and adversarial eye. He had a great deal to say about “means of production”, after all.
This. What coalesces labor into productive groupings in the absence of capital controlled by someone or something?
That’s not much of an explanation of his theory of wealth creation.
ETA: put another way, how do means of production come about in the first place in his theory?
We’re going to have to agree to disagree on Marx. I think he’s going to be influencing thought—in history, in economics, in sociology, in culture, and in many other fields of human endeavor and intellect—well after all of us are dead. Of course, many people will still loathe him then too.
As to rule of law, and Trump, stay tuned to tomorrow’s installment. It’s pretty much central to the story.
Too true about Trump. Rules are for losers. And his base loved that he got things done, gave them what they wanted, by ignoring the rules.
The right wing Supreme Court seems to believe that liberal interpretation of the law has led to the collapse of civilization and that established law must be discarded in order to save white male patriarchy.
Boris Johnson stood up in Parliament and both admitted and denied that he had broken any laws. And yet the heart of his offense openly declares that rules are for little people, not him or his Tory friends and ministers.
New Deal democrat
“Isn’t that where the labor theory of value comes in? That is, if the value of any good is defined as the amount of labor that produced it, then to a Marxist, labor is what generates wealth by definition.”
The English Revolution of 1688, in its division between Whigs and Torres, was ideologically very much about this, I.e., how is wealth created? Is it by land, which is a fixed quantity, or by the value added by physical or mental labor?
Locke’s Second Treatise spends a great deal of effort on this issue. So I am surprised to hear it claimed that nobody dealt with this before Marx.
ETA: The freed slaves after the Civil War, who presumably weren’t well schooled in Marx, also had some pretty specific thoughts about this.
@Brachiator: I have always thought one half of Marx’s work was brilliant and one half was nonsense. He described the problems of Industrial Revolution era capitalism unbelievably well. He explained how those problems came about. As a social and economic historian and journalist, he was more clear eyed, accurate, and detailed that almost anyone has ever been. As an advocate for economic justice, he was very good. But then, he got predictive and things went off the rails immediately.
Thanks for this.
I don’t remember enough about Marx to comment.
You mention “rule of law”. Even that seemingly obvious concept apparently needs to be fleshed out among the powerful. E.g. Leah Litman’s review of Breyer’s book (mentioned downstairs):
[ In-line footnotes elided. ]
Defining the terms sets the field for the contest. It’s not as easy as it seems…
@Omnes Omnibus: Math was not Marx’s strong point. His analysis of the problem as you put it was spot on but his solution was hand wavy.
@Baud: I never studied Marx very intensively myself. I think he got some things right and some things wrong, and what he got wrong inspired his followers to bring a lot of misery into the world.
When I look at the society Marx lived in and critiqued, though, I’m inclined to cut him some slack as a person. In the London that Marx lived in during the mid-19th century, 10 year olds were cleaning chimneys. And while several hundred thousand Irish starved to death during the potato famine, English landholders were exporting grain from Ireland. Much of that grain was fed to the fine horses of England.
Yeah, I can certainly understand how the world he saw affected his views. But I think Marxism gets too much love since it was the OG challenge to capitalist exploitation of workers, and people hand wave away the problematic parts and effects in the real world.
@Baud: Marx’s economic theory is shoddy and does not work in principle or in practice.
@Another Scott: I had some qualms about using the term “rule of law” because it is so broad, but in the end, there is no other term I could think of that applies to the notion that “rulers should themselves be ruled by the same laws as the ruled”. There ought to be another term, but damned if I could think of one.
The sense that I want, however, is that one.
Marx seems like the quintessential example of the principle that it’s easier to criticize than to solve.
@Gin & Tonic: I don’t have high hopes from someone who writes The Blacks..
Marxism as a system – no. Just no. Marxism as an analytical tool, very useful.
@Danielx: I think that’s a good point. It’s a valuable intellectual tool. It’s just not a good basis for a system of governance.
Gin & Tonic
@sab: Seems that is a bet you’ll lose.
@Baud: Indeed. Economics is not a good predictor of politics. Cultural issues almost always trump economics.
As for economics systems, capitalism (market based economy) like democracy is messy but it works. It needs to be tempered by a strong regulatory welfare state that levels the playing field and creates a floor.
Keynes got it right for the most part.
@schrodingers_cat: So did Adam Smith for those who actually read him.
@Omnes Omnibus: I thought we were discussing macroeconomics. But yes on Adam Smith.
There is an interesting article about the rise of civilization. I quote part of it below. I am posting on the fly on my smartphone. Please excuse the bad formatting and naked link.
The dawn of human civilization is often pinned down to the rise of farming. As food production grew, so did human populations, trade, and tax…
Economists have now put forward a competing hypothesis, and it suggests a surplus of food on its own was not enough to drive the transition from hunter-gatherer societies to the hierarchical states that eventually led to civilization as we know it….
Even when some parts of the world adopted farming and began producing a surplus of food, it did not necessarily lead to complex hierarchies or tax-levied states.
Only when humans began farming food that could be stored, divvied up, traded, and taxed, did social structures begin to take shape.
That’s probably why cereal grains like wheat, barley, and rice – rather than taro, yams, or potatoes – are at the root of virtually all classical civilizations. If the land was capable of cultivating grains, evidence shows it was much more likely to host complex societal structures.
I agree the Problems of Justice & Power are equally important, but I think framing the solving of Problem of Power as foundational (unless I am mistaking your point) to solving the Problem of Justice is a First World mindset. I am also assuming that the challenges of basic human survival & comfortable living fall into the Problem of Justice in your framing.
In the industrialized & developed countries, the pie have grown large enough to have a reasonable share for everyone, & there are more than enough resources that can be leveraged/mobilized to overcome the distribution issues. The mortal challenge is the concentration of the pie in the hands of the few, a dynamic that is perpetuated & exacerbated by the Problem of Power, through the capture of the power structure by the few who has hoarded the largest portions of the pie (i.e. corruption, legalized or not).
In the developing countries, OTOH, the more pressing issue is the small size of the pie. When people are still fighting for basic survival, or for more comfortable living, they will look to whoever that can deliver, or merely promises to deliver. Power indeed corruptions, but scarcity is another driver for corruptions. Most people living in scarcity will seek whatever means necessary to escape from the pressures imposed by scarcity (unless everyone has been brainwashed into thinking they are actually living in abundance). Any power structure that governs over persistent scarcity will lose credibility, & in these days of modern telecommunications & globalized social media, people will be impatient for positive change, credibility can be lost quickly. That is why there is such a concept as performance legitimacy in E/SE Asia, & that concept applies to both the authoritarian & the (relatively) newly democratic regimes in the region. There is a reason that most of the authoritarian states in E/SE Asia only democratized after reaching high middle income or high income status, when scarcity is no longer an overwhelming weight on the popular consciousness. For the ultimate example, there are few constraints power of the CCP regime (& its top leaders specifically), but the overriding one is fear of strong popular discontent, culminating in violent rebellion. That is why the regime constantly keeps a close tab on popular sentiments, & seeks to influence it as much as possible (but it is impossible to control, especially on domestic “Justice” issues that directly affect people’s lives). As long as the regime is checked that fear, & capable of responding to emerging popular discontent (“Power”), things are unlikely to fall apart. It is the reason the regime has survived far longer than conventional expectation. There is inherent instability, & an open questions as to the sustainability, but I think the enormous challenges of achieving the centuries old “China Dream” of prosperity & strength, the great power competition, & the tremendous disruption of AGW will likely give the regime additional leases on life (assuming it can meet those challenges).
BTW, I think this failure to appreciate the more pressing needs in the Global South explains the abject failure of the decades of aid programs that the US & Europe had embarked on. These programs conditioned economic aid on anti-corruption, good governance, & transparency, all worthy goals. However, aid does not really promote development (trade & investment do), & the material benefits of the aid were often more than offset by the damage caused by neoliberal dogma infused in the coercive conditions for “structural adjustment”. Thus gains from the governance reforms were hampered by lack of progress on “Justice” & often proved illusory. For all of the (erroneous) claims about China’s “debt trap diplomacy” in the Global Souths, its economic relationship w/ the developing world is that of straight forward trade & investment, & very little aid or charity. The loans appear to have predatory interest rates only if they are viewed through the lens of economic aid, but they are actually commercial deals w/ commercial rates (comparable to the Eurobonds the developing countries gorged on in the 2010s), & the higher rates are justified by the greater risk presented by the counterparties. For all of the legitimate criticism of the practices of Chinese entities (private & state owned, large corporates & small time merchants), the Global South appreciates such a relationship more than what the West has traditionally offered.
I realized that you are mainly writing about overcoming the challenges in the US & the larger “West”. However, if we are to build a better world, then the realities & the priorities of the developing parts of the world need to be accounted for. In a world of “grown ups” (as you have put it), it actually offers opportunity for cooperation between China (& other countries that have focused on promoting economic development to realize commercial gains, such as Japan, South Korea, India, Turkey, Gulf States, etc.) & the US (& other countries that have focused on governance reforms, such as the EU). Development from trade & investment provide firmer foundations for good governance, & Chinese government & entities (like everyone else) actually prefer to operation in stable, predicable & less corrupt environment. Instead, China continues to overlook governance improvement (just starting to change), & the US/EU are rhetorically gearing up to compete w/ China on delivering physical infrastructure to the Global South (still PowerPoints at this stage, & in any case physical infrastructure is no longer something they have competitive advantage in, outside of niches).
@Carlo Graziani: Agree w/ you on Marx. His solutions to the problems he identified, though…
@Gin & Tonic:
From your tone, I infer—perhaps incorrectly—that you think there’s a story that is relevant here about American slavery. Which is an enormous story, that I can’t even begin to tell here. Or, perhaps, you believe that there’s a connection to the even larger history of slavery connected to the history of war going back to deep history. Honestly I can’t tell what point you are trying to make.
The point that I am trying to make here is one strictly about some aspects of the foundations of governance, connected to the narrative that I am attempting to relate. There is no direct connection to slavery that can be made to that point, which would not amount to a purposeless distraction.
I would suggest, respectfully, that—if you can bear it—you wait to see if I’ve made a cogent case of any kind by the time the final installment is in, on Friday. At that point I’ll be more than happy for you to tell me where I should have inserted a discussion of slavery. Right now, I have to tell you that it would basically be a non-sequitur.
Villago Delenda Est
@Omnes Omnibus: This is pretty much my take as well. Marx cribbed a lot from The New Testament and the obscure Scotsman. So much so that you can quote Marx to a libertarian type and the libertarian has NO CLUE that Marx drew it from Smith.
Villago Delenda Est
American slavery was a new thing in that it made the color of skin the mark of slavery. The Romans made no such distinctions, for example.
@YY_Sima Qian: That’s a very useful different perspective.
Gin & Tonic
@Carlo Graziani: Not about slavery in the US at all, and not a non sequitur either. You start this segment by talking about the division of labor in (initially) agrarian societies. Labor necessarily divides differently if the laborers are relatively equal than it does if one group steals the labor of another by force of arms. Since the latter mode has not been uncommon in human history, your omitting any mention of it is striking to me. But I guess I’m not your target audience.
And yet you have to squint real hard to see this as exploitation of the working class. The Irish were more a persecuted religious or social caste.
The vanguard of elite cardres reminds me of discussions in the 60’s and 70’s in the west about the communist countries. Stalin had to “root out people and groups that were opposed to the glorious workers’ revolution”. There was similar blather about Mao. Many horrors were justified by the belief that the elite, well educated, cadres would guide the proletariat to riches abd glory. That the well off educated elite led the revolutions belied the fact that these revolutions did not arise from the working class. They were, in their essence, a top down restructuring. The old school ruthless capitalists exploited different working and middle class people.
In the US today we have a tension between conservative, reactionary and authoritarian by nature, social media and economically and / or progressive social media. Two identities are at war and free speech may be the victim.
Villago Delenda Est
@Brachiator: One of the reasons we have to put up with Andrew Sullivan is he left the UK precisely because he could never be part of the UK upper class. Irish, you know.
@Gin & Tonic: Very well, I see your point. I guess I would say that slaves would not be admitted among the early “stakeholders”, entitled to any sort of “payout”. They would be simply assets. Nonetheless, I would still assert that an argument such as the one that I am making is so schematic, and breezes by so many factors that would in principle be worth dwelling on, that to call out this one in particular strikes me as a bit odd.
For example: I’m surprised that nobody has called me on the “intangible” benefits of living in society that I just dismissed, while moving right along to the tangible ones so that I could get to Marx. It would have been a perfect opportunity to call me a Marxist! (Spoiler alert: I’m not a Marxist.) Those “intangible benefits” such as collective security furnish the basis for the discussion of little things like our civil society laws, which I haven’t said the first thing about (except when I talk about “Free Speech”)
See? This thing is full of holes like that. So if you like, and if I’ve pissed you off for other reasons, you can have a field day finding them. But if you want to find a serious argument to engage, there is one of those too.
@Villago Delenda Est: the color caste system of slavery started before the Columbian exchange. The Portuguese were expanding down and around Africa’s coast, and often traded with Africans for captured members of other tribes/nations. These were sold to landholders in the Canary Islands, Madeira, and Sicily, where the backbreaking work of sugarcane production was causing peasants to run away. So the feudal landholders wanted laborers who they could easily identify if they ran away and whose homes were outside the continent. These landholders were all under the crowns of Castile and Portugal, and exported their system to the New World. When the natives they attempted to subjugate there died in incredible numbers, they returned to African labor.
Not that any of that is consolation for people who were murdered, died of diseases, or became enslaved, but the system predates modern European colonization of the new world. Henry the Navigator of Portugal is probably the one person most responsible for creating it.
Gin & Tonic
@Carlo Graziani: I am attempting to engage it as a serious argument, in fact. Slavery has such a long history as a means of social organization, and has been such an important economic factor in so many societies that I find your omission of it more odd than my mention of it.
@YY_Sima Qian: I’m not certain I agree that what I am describing is culturally specific to the West, if that is what you are suggesting. However the level of social consensus required to come to such “clinical” attitudes concerning governance may presuppose a certain level of prosperity, if only for the sake of creating sufficiently large, well-educated groups of people who see a stake in such institutions. This may be the real barrier in the Global South.
@Gin & Tonic: Doesn’t YY Sima Qian’s comment at #30 explain some of it?
@Omnes Omnibus: Marx brilliantly described Industrial Revolution Capitalism in Manchester. There a fabric production system based on individuals using hand operated machinery had been transformed into a few giant mechanized enterprises, Blake’s ‘dark satanic mills’. It was the inequities caused by this that lead to the Luddite riots. Marx had very good information on this Engels’ family owned one of those mills. Had the Engels family been based in Birmingham a 100 miles South he’d have found a very different landscape, there it was hundreds of small enterprises ( & Cadburys*) leading a very different economic framework. Seebohm Rowntrees pioneering work on poverty was based on Birmingham
*The Cadburys and Rowntrees were exceptions to the rule in many ways. Devout Quakers they had a very ‘paternal/benevolent’ attitude to their workers based on a mix of Robert Owens** example and their desire for general model improvement. eg their model village of Bournville provided good quality housing and environment but all alcohol was banned ( it still is, the place is ringed by liquor stores)
**Marx used the term communism rather than socialism because he didn’t want people to think his ideas owed anything to Owen
@YY_Sima Qian: The other thing that I was musing on recently, as I was looking for alternatives to the West in history for the Power limitation, was actually the older Confucian governance system.
Which was, of course not democratic, but that’s not the point. It was very resistant to corruption, as I understand matters, because of the extreme culturally-embedded devotion to rectitude of the mandarin class who ran the bureaucracy, and trained their civil service with exactitude. Given the Justice goals of the various reigning dynasties over the course of many centuries, it actually strikes me as an example of “unwritten constitution” guaranteeing incredible stability to the institutions implementing those goals. I wonder whether you would regard this as an oversimplification?
@kalakal: eta model improvement = moral improvement
@Carlo Graziani: I am not suggesting “First World” perspective is entirely cultural in root, thought that is part of it. Priorities are different when one can take meeting material needs for granted. Historically, everywhere, attempts to solve the Problems of Justice & Power march shoulder to shoulder, some times there is more progress on one, sometimes on the other. I do not believe one can realistically or in principle prioritize one over the other, taking the “long view of history”. I do agree that things has reached a point in the US/UK in particular (& rest of the EU to lesser varying degrees) where problems in Power structure must be solved if there is to be sustained progress on “Justice”. The rot & sclerosis has gone that deep.
Maybe “rot & sclerosis” is actually the wrong framing. The challenge for governing by Enlightenment principles is that a substantial portion of citizenry (any citizenry) actively militate against these principles (whatever their professed rhetoric), & in a liberal democracy w/ nearly unrestrained free speech, they will have influence & can alway be in a position to seize power. There is another substantial portion of citizenry that do not have strong principles at all & are easily swayed, they are the ones who allow the reactionaries to seize power.
Communism proved untenable as a system of political & economic organization because it ignored human nature. I too once believed as a matter of faith that something along the lines of liberal democracy founded on Enlightenment principles is the best & most humane way to organize polities (relatively speaking). I still do, but no longer as a matter of faith. As ideals & values, they are indeed the best to uphold; as accurate descriptions of humanity in total, no. Plenty of systems are great in theory, but I am starting to question whether the assumptions that underpin liberal democracy are in fact valid wrt human nature, & how is liberal democracy to survive in the long term in face of such entrenched hostility to Enlightenment values. (Many of the things claimed to be self-evident were & are not in fact believed by all.) Any system of government also need to be able to meet the coming world changing challenges, of which AGW is only one of several (though perhaps the biggest). I would very much like to believe that liberal democracy (as practiced in real life) will prove to be the best equipped to meet the challenges, but IMO that needs to be proven, & not just proclaimed. Parts of Europe give me hope, US/UK not so much.
A parallel problem for any authoritarian system of government, BTW, there will always be a large portion of the citizenry that will chafe at & militate against the constraints & oppression, even under a highly functioning authoritarian regime. Many people do, after all, find liberal Enlightenment values attractive and hold them strongly.
@Carlo Graziani: There was tremendous corruption among the mandarin class in Imperial China, but when the system functioned the mandarins were also motivated by (& effectively measured against) performance in service of improving people’s livelihood – performance legitimacy. The entire concept of Mandate of Heaven is the ultimate expression of performance legitimacy.
Corruption in all its forms are corrosive, but not all of them equally so. Some forms of corruption serve to grease the machinery of commerce & governance, in spite of the over-rigidly constructed system (by letters of the laws). Some forms of corruption serve only to entrench the already favored & powerful).
@YY_Sima Qian: This I should read more about.
@YY_Sima Qian: Starting tomorrow, and certainly by Friday, I hope to start injecting a lot more of the optimism that I feel into this narrative. And I hope to at least cheer up a few people here, at least for a bit.
@Carlo Graziani: Look forward to it! :-)
BTW, this kind of discussion is why I have been drawn to this community for so many years, most of which as a lurker.
This is almost always, if not always a bad thing.
@YY_Sima Qian: Ditto.
While I’m also curious about how a few un-(or lesser)-mentioned topics organize themselves in this ambitious schematic, there is TREMENDOUS value evident already in Carl’s effort. The full portrait seems well worth waiting for before it heads to the cutting table in earnest (and regrettably, the session will be all too brief, absent a dedicated format).
Deeply appreciative of your efforts here, Carl! Thank you for sharing what could easily serve as multiple semesters of engaging university level topics.
(You will be providing a suggested reading list, oui?)
To address your specific question: I think the Confucian-Legalist (the latter half equally important, but far less well know) governing ethos of the mandarins had been remarkably stable across the millennia (starting from ~ 2nd century BC), the general government structure proved enduring across the dynasties. There were major innovations along the way that brought disruption, 1st & foremost being imperial examination system (introduced in the 6th century, matured in the 10th, ossified from the 15th – 18th) that established a nascent professional civil service (& inspiration for the English one). Before that, the mandarin class was indistinguishable from the nobility & landed gentry, some of the families would remain prominent through centuries & multiple dynasties. The examination system afforded tremendous social mobility (relative to its time) that allowed (in theory) a path for a commoner to become a chancellor. In reality, the well off were always more likely to attain the education necessary to pass the rigorous examinations.
However, the stability of the empires itself, which the mandarins sought to preserve, proved fleeting. The grandest dynasties achieved several decades or a century of internal peace & prosperity before starting to decline (some rapidly & some slowly). Rebellions became larger & increasingly frequent (disrupting commerce causing destruction), worsening government finances limited ability to subsidize peasants fleeing warfare or natural disasters & maintain infrastructure & defenses against the nomadic marauders to the north, public works start to fall into disrepair (decreasing agricultural output & worsening the effects of natural disasters, which worsen tax receipts), greater dissatisfaction worsen the internal rebellions (leaving the dynasty open to either internal overthrown or external invasion). There is a definite rhythm to the Chinese dynastic cycle. Rude encounters w/ European (then Japanese) imperialism finally broke the dynastic cycle. Nevertheless, the ethos of the ideal mandarin (a sort of benign paternalism) remain influential to this day, & so is the implicit social contract between the rulers & the ruled – continue to deliver & the legitimacy is relatively secure, the ruled are content to be ruled as long as the rulers deliver.
Villago Delenda Est
Libertarianism has the same fundamental problem. Both systems break down after 100 people or so. So useless as a means of dealing with millions.