In the last section, I talked about how geographical and sociological conditions shape a society. In this part, I’ll be doing part of the job of explaining how, not only talking about how those conditions create needs which a society must fulfil, but also how the the way those needs are fulfilled will answer the question which ultimately underpins the structure of every society, from the first bands of hominids to our own: who has power?
Power, in short, is the ability to make someone do something which they wouldn’t necessarily have wanted to do otherwise. Yet this is not entirely a one-sided dynamic. Power can only rest reliably on legitimacy, the idea that those doing the obeying believe that they are better off in the long run if they do as they are told than otherwise. A society without that legitimacy will quickly fall apart, even if those in power try to keep it all together with threats of violence or promises of payment: after all, armed guards won’t obey orders either if they feel like there’s no benefit in doing so – and money is only worth something if everyone agrees it is, otherwise gold is just shiny yellow rock.
So how does a society, and the power structure within it, obtain legitimacy? By fulfilling needs.
All human beings have needs. This isn’t a controversial statement. Almost every human wants to have access to a reliable means of keeping themselves healthy and alive – a means to keep them from starving, dying of thirst, or being torn apart limb from limb; as well as the likelihood that they’ll be free from those same threats in the foreseeable future.. This, we generally refer to as “security” or “self-preservation”.. So long as a society is able to fulfil this need for security, and so long as a majority of the members of a society believe that their need for security is better fulfilled within that society than outside of it, that society will continue to hold legitimacy, and its power structure will continue to be upheld.
So, how does this work in practise? And how do societies decide who’s in power in the first place? Let be use a general example with most of us are at least casually familiar with: the feudal system of high medieval Western Europe.
Western Europe at the end of the early medieval period saw the end of the last of the post-Roman successor states, in the partitioning and slow disintegration of Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire. The vestiges of centralised power which had offered some sense of security against outside raiders had failed, as Charlemagne’s many heirs began warring with each other whilst similarly proving themselves unable to face new outside threats from the North and the East. This meant that the villages which previously relied upon the Carolingian monarchy for military protection no longer had it, and the fragmentation of Charlemagne’s empire meant that commerce (most importantly, the importation of food to cities) could no longer be made reliable. A need for security went unfulfilled.
Part of the solution to this problem was essentially to decentralise the responsibility of military protection: villages would secure the protection of groups of professional soldiers by promising to support their upkeep. These soldiers would then, in turn, submit to a supreme war leader to help coordinate them against larger threats, and resolve disputes between different warbands. In addition, to ensure that these different warbands could continue to coordinate with each other on the highest level, and could conduct diplomacy with each other, the religious bureaucracy of the old Holy Roman Empire (and the Western Roman Empire before it) was empowered to enforce a common language of diplomacy, to impose codes of conduct on warbands and their leaders, and to enforce them with both spiritual and material penalties.
Here we see the origins of the three feudal estates: the Clergy (the religious bureaucrats), the Aristocracy (the warbands and their leaders), and the peasantry – or commoners (who kept the warbands fed and equipped).
Yet despite what you might have learned in grade school, at no point was this an entirely static system. This is because security is a subjectively zero-sum resource, which is to say that a human being’s sense of security always comes at the expense of someone else’s. If one group tries to defend itself by arming itself, then all the other groups around it become insecure, because that first armed group now has the ability to take away the resources and lives of the others. If one group of people have more food or resources or more skill in a valuable trade than another, that means they could trade that advantage to that same armed group in exchange for protection. But even then, that alliance is based a mutual fear of losing the benefits their alliance brings – which compels both groups to seize the other’s advantage for their own.
What this ultimately means is that all groups within a society are constantly seeking perceived security through what they see as rational means, even though it comes at the expense of the perceived security of others. Generally speaking, groups within a society do this by creating a situation where they no longer have to rely on the goodwill of other groups to fulfil their needs, either by seizing the advantage which allowed that other group to fulfil the needs which society demanded of them, or by putting that other group in a position where they have to fulfil that need on the first group’s command. In short, the first group has to make the second entirely reliant upon (or think they’re reliant upon) the first, so that they will believe they have no choice to do what the first group says – so the first group has power over the second.
Of course, the second group doesn’t usually want this to happen. They in turn will fight to prevent the first group from usurping their own role in society. What this also means is that the concept of a power “structure” is kind of a misnomer. The term implies a certain level of stability or permanency which doesn’t usually exist. What you have instead are different groups in search of security: constantly trying to secure power over others, while trying to avoid being put under the power of others.
To go back to our case study: to increase their sense of security from the depredations of their peers, feudal aristocrats demanded higher contributions and higher levels of control from the commoners they were ostensibly protecting, while trying to subvert or combat any attempt the Church made to impose peace or codes of conduct seen as unacceptably restrictive. This threatened the security of the commoners by restricting their ability to feed themselves, and threatened the security of the Church by eroding their ability to enforce cultural norms and codes of conduct – their own primary means of maintaining their own security.
As a result, all throughout the high and late medieval period, all three estates were in constant tension with each other, and within themselves, with each of them seeking new means of increasing their security by establishing power over the other groups through usurping or subverting the “duties” of the other groups: the commoners banded together in rebellions and gravitated to towns where they could protect themselves without the need for an aristocracy. The Clergy tried to use their power over the aristocracy and commons to direct them against outside enemies (most evident in the form of the Crusades), while adopting many of the trappings – and the tools of the aristocracy so that they could defend themselves the way the aristocracy could. As the for the Aristocracy itself, they continuously eroded the rights of the commoners to ensure that the people that fed them couldn’t go anywhere else, and were therefore reliant on the Aristocrats for protection – whilst constantly defying and attempting to supplant the authority of the Church – something which would eventually prove a driving force in the Protestant Reformation.
These interconnected and highly complex struggles were what drove the changes within the feudal system. In late medieval and early modern France, for example: the commoners flooded more and more into cities, particularly Paris, where they could operate more or less free of the power of the clergy and the aristocracy. The Clergy, in adapting more and more of the tools of the aristocracy, began to become part of the aristocracy itself, the so-called “noblesse du robe”. As for the aristocracy, they ended up at the top, having power over both church and commons. Eventually the most powerful member of that aristocracy – the King of France, was able to win out over his rivals within the aristocracy by taking advantage of his own position within the noble hierarchy to render his rivals more and more dependent on him, until they were wholly reliant on his largesse for their own security, and thus, entirely in his power – the beginnings of French Absolutism.
This begs a rather obvious question: why the aristocracy? Why was it that the landed nobility was able to gain hegemony over the other estates? Why did the clergy have to subsume themselves into the aristocracy, and why did the commoners have to escape them instead of the other way around? There are a number of potential answers to that question, but the most compelling one to me is the fact that within that time period and those specific material conditions, small, elite forces of professional soldiers were the most effective type of military force, meaning that neither the clergy nor the commons had the ability to compete with the aristocracy in their own roles. Because of this, the aristocracy were able to extract more and more wealth out of the peasantry through the same means that they were intended to use to protect them – military force. The peasantry, who had (with some exceptions) little means of contesting the Aristocracy in such an arena, could only acquiesce, flee, or commit themselves to doomed rebellion. In the meantime, the aristocracy used the additional wealth squeezed out of the peasantry to acquire the same education and skills once relegated to the clergy, allowing them to also fulfil the clergy’s role as administrators and diplomats.
However, the factor which led to the aristocracy being so effective at fulfilling the needs which their society had originally assigned them would in turn deprive the vast majority of their number of the ability to fulfil that role. As the advent of gunpowder and the centralisation of power within the King (which is to say, the state as a separate form from the aristocracy) made the idea of a small military elite increasingly more obsolete, the aristocracy prioritised the idea of serving their own security as a group over the idea of serving the needs of society as a whole. Concentrated in palaces like Versailles and increasingly isolated from the rest of the country, they estranged themselves from their original purpose for existing – to fulfil the need for security from outside threats. Likewise, the commoners – especially in the cities – no longer saw themselves as needing an aristocracy to protect them, while themselves being estranged from their original role as farmers – which led the aristocracy to increasingly see them as superfluous.
This is how societies fall apart. While groups within societies can tolerate certain levels of infighting so long as each group is seen to fulfil a common need, this toleration goes away when certain groups are seen to have power without doing anything to justify it. A peasant can accept the insecurity of being subject to an aristocrat or a priest’s power when they can see the priest and the aristocrat offer different forms of security in turn. But when this ceases to be, when a group can no longer believe that the depredations of the other groups in society are “worth it”, then those people begin to believe that they are better off outside of the current social structure than inside of it. In some cases, society bends to accommodate the new conditions, as the French clergy did when it became less effective than the aristocracy at fulfilling its original roles within the feudal system. However, when a group refuses to relinquish its power and is unable to either fulfil its original societal duties or find new ones to justify that power, then the conditions are set for the other components of society to decide they are better off on their own. At this point, you no longer have a cohesive society – and the stage is set for dissolution, or revolution.
Note that this is, of course, all a massive generalisation. Not all societies have power concentrated in the hands of a military aristocracy, and not all military aristocracies have proceeded in the way that the French aristocracy did. The case study is just that – an example intended to demonstrate how these dynamics have historically played out in one instance. Outside that study, there are societies where religious authorities have held the greatest amount of power, or the wealthy, or an ideological elite, and even in cases (albeit ones which tend to be either very small-scale and isolated or very short-lived) where no group can be said to hold substantial amounts of power over others.
That being said, to sum up:
-People band together into groups within societies to fulfil the needs for security which that society’s geographical and sociological conditions demand.
-So long as each group is understood to be fulfilling their assigned needs, society remains cohesive, as each member of society understands that they are more secure within that society than they are outside it.
-However, this doesn’t mean that individuals within groups don’t continue competing with each other. Nor does it mean that these groups themselves don’t stop trying to gain power over the others to ensure that they have the position of highest security within a society.
-This latter sort of competition manifests primarily as each group trying to fulfil the needs which the other groups would normally fulfil, thus preventing that second group from having the ability to provide or withhold fulfilment of their assigned need.
-A group which succeeds in doing this to another may be said to have power over that other group.
-However, if changing conditions lead to a group in power no longer fulfilling their assigned need, then they can no longer justify having that power. The other groups cease to consider the group in power to be necessary for the security of society as a whole, and group in power must either find a new need to satisfy, or society will dissolve, either to be conquered from without, by another society which sees it as easy pickings, or from within, in the form of revolution.
Of course, just because society dissolves doesn’t mean everything will change. Even in the conditions of a revolution, the new groups which form in the aftermath of violent upheaval often resemble the groups of pre-revolutionary society, often to the point where they even recreate the same kind of abuses which caused the revolution in the first place. Even when the desire for change is there, things often stay the same. Why is that?
To answer that question, I’ll be discussing the effects of socialisation, cultural inertia, and cultural hegemony in the next part of this series.