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|Civil Polities vs. the Prime Divider|
Civil Polities vs. the Prime Divider
I include this essay on civil polities and the prime divider partly because Liberal Cognitive Egocentrism (LCE) fosters a remarkable naiveté about how difficult and rare it is to establish a civil polity. This failure to appreciate civil society may be the single most dangerous factor in our current inability to recognize and cooperate with its friends on the one hand, and to beware its enemies on the other. For the purposes of the discussion at this website, I define civil society somewhat differently from the somewhat problematic way political scientists do. The definition most scholars use emphasizes voluntary associations independent of the state, a component, but not the defining element of the definition here proposed.
Civil polity as I use it here, arises from a cultural project best described as the systematic substitution of consensual discourse of fairness for violence in dispute settlement. The definition entails a series of interlocking elements:
In the West, as commitment to the values of civil society reached a significant portion of the population and gained a public voice (free press), entire polities (US, France, Britain) shifted from traditional authoritarian, “top-down” styles of governing to ones based primarily on voluntary participation (social contract and constitutional states). “Conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” such civil polities explicitly adopt civil society’s principles as their founding principles: a discourse of fairness (equality and freedom) replaces violence in dispute settlement.
Civil polities depend on high levels of trust and the commitment to positive-sum outcomes in most transactions. Civil societies place high educational value on moral autonomy and voluntary acceptance of the rules. The dominant civil polities of the last two centuries have been cultures of abundance, using technology and legal egalitarianism to put an end to famines and to allow large numbers of people to raise their living standards and education well above subsistence.
Of course, no society so conceived and so dedicated can live up to such a lofty goal as true equality of justice for all, or a fair share of abundance for all. At this stage at least, such experiments can only hope to change the condition of the large majority of the population, not create an egalitarian utopia. Failing perfection, however, should not be invoked to argue a moral equivalence between civil societies and prime divider societies. Endowed with enough healthy self-criticism, any civil society can continue to improve. But human nature what it is, any culture will have its share of inequalities and injustices. The question is not do they or do they not exist, but how pervasive is the injustice? And how does a society respond to revelations of that injustice?
This praise of “civil society” is not an “ethno-centric” argument, but a cross-cultural one with a great deal of room for variety. Democracies are neither the only, nor even necessarily the optimum, shape that a civil society can take. One can also imagine, for example, affiliated communities governed by judges through whose decisions the public discourse of justice shapes social relations. To each political culture, each religious tradition, falls the ultimate task of finding its passage from violence to fairness. With the emerging global community bringing on exceptional levels of culture contact, our ability to live fairly with ourselves and “others” demands high levels of tolerance. At least democratic civil societies demand that tolerance in insisting that people in positions of authority accept criticism and challenges from highly educated and motivated commoners who speak their mind (public education, meritocracy, freedom of speech and assembly).
But civil polities, however much we in the West may be familiar with them, are neither the natural, nor the most common form of social and political organization. On the contrary, most agriculture-based societies tend towards a far more authoritarian style that imposes order from above, favors hierarchies, and keeps the “masses” out of the public sphere. These “traditional” or “pre-modern” societies (Gellner calls them agro-literate), tend to create a strong dividing line between the elites and the commoners. This barrier, or the prime divider, characterizes the aristocratic empires of pre-modern, “high” cultures, from the ancient empires (Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, China and India) to more recent ones (Islam, Medieval and Early Modern Europe, Communist regimes and contemporary dictatorships). In order to have a successful civil society, the cultural barrier between elites and commoners must be dismantled and that is no easy task. Only at some key moments in the recorded history of man has an experiment with dismantling the prime divider succeeded even momentarily… rarely surviving more than a couple of centuries.
Prime Divider societies generally consist of the following traits:
- legal and cultural privileges for aristocratic elites, both of the sword and of the pen
Behind these various institutional and attitudinal traits lies a political axiom one might call the “dominating imperative” – rule or be ruled. Once a group of elites holds power, they prevent a rival group from overtaking them by subjugating the other first. The ancient Romans called it libido dominandi (the lust to dominate), and proudly claimed it as their great virtue. Nietzsche spoke of der Wille zu Macht (will to power), for him, the basic principle of human and natural behavior.
This dominating imperative, with its political and cultural manifestation, prime dividers, operates on a zero-sum assumption: I win, you lose; you win, I lose. As a result of such thinking, most traditional societies have a notable split between an extremely wealthy elites (winners) and a majority of losers, commoners (mostly peasants) living at the margins of existence, with a restricted “middle” class that enjoys stigmatized wealth. The willingness to use force, massacre restive populations, and dispossess wealthy and successful commoners, are hallmarks of these hierarchical cultures, and reflect the profound contempt that most elites have for their “masses.”
The path to wealth in such cultures is “take, not make.” In contrast with civil societies, prime divider societies impoverish the many for the sake of the few, discouraging the initiatives of manual laborers. Here the elites expropriate the fruits of the commoners’ labors, wasting more on conspicuous consumption than on productive work. Such societies, despite the wide range of cultural forms they take, have a tell-tale signature: small elites, limited middle class, and large population of poor and illiterate commoners.
On the Great Benefits and Great Costs of Civil Polities
The advantages to dismantling the prime divider are numerous but so are its disadvantages. In Western intellectual experience, the legal victory of civil society since the late 18th century (liberalism) has had a tremendously creative impact – both culturally and materially (industrial revolution, academia, end of famines, modern technology), of which intellectuals are among the greatest beneficiaries. Indeed, the spectacular success of the West’s technological and cultural creativity has so dazzled the rest of the world that, at the turn of this millennium, nations and cultures the world over want “in.” The best lesson we westerners can provide – equality before the law – is something that we have achieved through great pain and much suffering. Perhaps some of those non-Western cultures can do a better job of this process than we have. Hopefully. Then we can learn some important lessons that our position of dominance makes it hard to absorb.
But, as Peter Brown once put it, our greatest enemy in understanding the past is the “patina of the obvious that encrusts human actions.” Nothing that consolidates, began that way, whether it be a volcanic eruption, a religious ritual, or a dominant cultural attitude. And when we do not understand the process, we take things for granted that we should not. Westerners think that human rights are obvious, self-evident. We therefore greatly underestimate the power of the dominating imperative, the persistence of the aristocracy, the huge resistance that cultures – from people both above and below – have to the dismantling of the prime divider.
And yet, when one considers the immense vulnerability that civil society demands – a disarmament of factions, private armies, a commitment to trust and be trusted – one can well imagine that many would find it hard to tolerate. In the most common political conditions of the last 10,000 years of our existence, it would be mad to argue that we set aside the dominating imperative and trust others to do the same. To imagine everyone won over to our enlightened way of negotiating peaceful relations, vastly underestimates the rational power that “rule or be ruled” has, especially when so many others play by those rules. One should not treat such venerable rules lightly.
Dismantling the Prime Divider and Social Turbulence
Renouncing and dismantling the prime divider creates important psychological and political resistance and rouses enormous social turbulence. It’s self-evident why the elites would resist dismantling the prime divider: they lose their ability to run the show the way they want to. But why so much resistance from among the commoners? To understand that resistance, we must appreciate two things. One, that hierarchy not only regulates relations between elites and commoners, but within the ranks of commoners. In hierarchies, where ordering another provides the source of social stability, everyone has people who order them, and people whom they can order. Egalitarian rules between morally autonomous agents challenges the hierarchy at every level, from political organs to family relations.
Civil polity demands high levels of restraint and discipline. “Self-help” justice – honor, revenge, vendetta – must give way to law courts, discussions of rights and fairness, and living with the court’s judgment. It is not easy to give up the right to rough and ready “justice”; and without extensive education in justice and civic commitment, such attempts often fail.
When discourse trumps violence, women, traditionally relegated to private space in prime divider societies, have much greater freedom and influence. When market forces and private property prevail, little people can become big. To many commoners, especially the “big men” who dominate their local scene, the advent of “civil society” and the market capitalism that accompanies it, all too often seem like a coordinated assault on their control over their inferiors and their women. Demands to give up the dominating imperative trigger anxiety and defensiveness even among those who, from the perspective of class conflict, seem part of the dominated subaltern class.
If such an transition can provoke discord even among commoners, that anxiety intensifies when the prime divider falls. The “revolutionary forces” find themselves in uncharted territory, the reaction of the dispossessed aristocracy violent, and the ability of the new social polity to sustain relations of trust severely tested. The tendency towards panic (Great Fear of 1789) and paranoia (Revolutionary Terror of 1793-4) are regular features of efforts to eliminate the prime divider.
If, on the other hand, the situation can stabilize into a working constitutional state (Lincoln’s “so conceived and so dedicated”), the new rules benefit many, destroy a few, and leave most of the old elite diminished but not powerless. Societies that dismantle the prime divider are dynamic, ever-changing. For the the proponents of civil society (liberals), change is growth and progress, for the opponents (reactionaries), it is instability and chaos.
For the “losing” older elites, the advent of modernity is a nightmare. Everywhere they see chaos, the breakdown of public morality, the degradation of religion. Civic values repel them. It is all a conspiracy, all a dastardly plot to steal (my/our) power.
These men (and women) know that democratic license leads to chaos, and as Greeks such as Plato felt, democracy is a recipe for anarchy. These elites look for every weakness, encourage every failure. They thrive on conflict and see it everywhere. They assume that anyone who supports democratic polities and civic values is a demopath: for them democracy is a recipe for chaos, and any supporters of democracy must want that chaos as a cover to establish their own dominion. This is the core of the message of the genocidal forgery, Protocols of the Elders of Zion: the Jews are demopaths. They are the force behind democracy, which they preach so they can dupe the commoners into overthrowing their natural protectors (their own aristocracy). Under cover of the inevitably ensuing chaos, they plan to enslave mankind. Those who use the Protocols to promote their cause (e.g., Hitler, Stalin) have characteristically projected their own desires onto the Jews.
The Gamble of Civil Polities and the Liberal Accomplishment
The anti-modernists are, in fact, partly right. They not only look for conflicts, they find them aplenty. Liberality does give license, and many people – free riders – abuse it. Civil society is a gamble that can fail. The core of the civic challenge is that citizens must not only trust each other, but they must also prove themselves trustworthy. Even though it often involves no more than a spread of elite weaknesses to the whole population – say white color crime to commoners, or sexual promiscuity to women – the process of extending autonomy, rights, education to commoners creates enormous social turbulence that can threaten the “system” with collapse. The core of the aristocratic argument insists that commoners are like animals, incapable of self-control and in need of strong, even ruthless, control.
The price of dismantling the prime divider is an unusual (if unusually fruitful) social turmoil, a thrash of cultures that leads to constant and cumulative change. It demands levels of tolerance and flexibility that eventually challenge any society’s capacity. At the end of the 20th century it would be superficial of Westerners to argue that we have the process under control. One need not be anti-modern to see that modernity, like other unstable social experiments, is both capable of and maybe even likely to self-destruct.
When we ponder the forces working against civil society, we begin to appreciate the social miracle that civil society constitutes. This leads to two points that some may consider self-evident, while others find anti-scientific heresy.
First, rationality alone will not do the job. One cannot launch a civil society by convincing people that it is reasonable to abandon the rational paranoia of the dominating imperative. Only ex post facto does civil society “make sense.” In a world dominated by the dominating imperative, the public and anonymous expressions of trust that civil society calls for make no sense at all. They are irrational.
Second, only very strong emotions can move people to abandon a defensive posture like the dominating imperative that, for better or worse, is tried and true. And the most likely source of that emotional force is religious. The equality of human beings represents an ideal that only makes ontological sense – we hold these truths to be self-evident – in a framework where our sense of solidarity with “others” can transcend our ego needs.
Such concepts open up a role for certain kinds of religiosity (demotic as contributors to civil society, unlike the common view that secular (i.e. anti-religious) beliefs lie at the heart of modernity. While this may come as bad news to those who consider religion an infantile superstition, this is good news, among others, to those aware of how an aggressive secular modernity can alienate, even infuriate, religious people. A close study of the American revolution – when for the first time in Christian history, tolerance was a winner’s creed – suggests that the path to civil society lies in modest, passionate religiosity rather than in indifferent, triumphalist secularism.
The establishment and maintenance of civil society in the West, however messy and dangerous, represents a major step forward in the extension of human rights and dignity to others, if only on a domestic level. However inadequate it may seem when we look at the rest of the world – in many cases made much worse by our imperialist and capitalist interventions – it represents an astonishing achievement in human history. (Those poor commoners around the world would still be poor if the modern west did not exist.)
In an age when progressives dream of extending these benefits to the rest of the world, we must be careful not to dismiss this accomplishment as either so easy anyone can do it (PCP1), or a mere facade for a new form of dominion (PCP2). The decision by western insiders, working with the military, to create the internet in a decentralized fashion so that as many people could use it independently, represents one of the most exceptional deeds in the history of the media. It has permitted the blogosphere to exist. If we do not appreciate the immensely difficult struggle that produced such a society, then we run the risk of destroying it.
Not every culture need dismantle their prime divider, although who makes that decision and how they make it raise important questions about cultures and justice. Each culture that does, however, has to find its own way to dismantle its prime divider and change the relationship between political elites and commoners in its society. The lessons western democracies offer teach about what to avoid as well as what to imitate. What other cultures learn from us may, like the American model, actively involve religion, or unlike the western models, not use democracy. The challenge is not to get rid of elites (all societies have them and need them), but to change the relationship between them and the vast majority of the population, to emphasize voluntarism and mutuality, rather than fear and command.
This is not an “ethnocentric” argument. On the one hand, it leaves open as many cultural variants (and more) than the ethnic and cultural variants in “prime divider” societies. On the other, it does not even insist that other cultures adopt some version of civic values. It just means that we need to consider another culture or religion’s attitude towards this fundamental distinction between civic and authoritarian styles, and we should not imagine that the representatives of prime divider cultures represent reliable friends, nor that their narratives deserve the same credibility as the significantly more self-critical ones of civil societies.
Eyes on the prize. For progressives to despise the very ancestors who, in founding a civil polity, gave birth to them seems dysfunctional to say the least.
Can we afford such folly? Now?