March 2022: Ordering a Society Pt 7

Human beings do not need to be governed in day-to-day life. Families do not need a king, a pub crawl does not need a dictator, a neighbourhood street does not need a parliament. However, this is because the individuals in these day-to-day groups are ones who are capable of interacting with every other member of their group as individuals: they know each others strengths and weaknesses, know what they are willing to do and what they aren’t, and can trust them to deal with themselves and each other with a certain degree of truth and good faith. They do not need someone to govern them because every single person in that group trusts the others in that group to govern themselves, and their relationships with each other.

However, life exists outside these small, intimate groups. It has to for our groups to survive. A family doesn’t grow or harvest or build everything it needs, it has to buy from others. A pub crawl needs someone to run the pub and brew the beer and make the coasters so the latter doesn’t ruin the furniture of the former. A single neighbourhood has to rely on outside powers to keep the streets maintained and the water and electricity flowing, and keep the other neighbourhoods from killing them and taking their stuff. Although some well-meaning attempts have been made, there has been only marginal success in scaling up the structure of small, self-governing groups to a size big enough to maintain everything a complex, modern society needs for its members to survive.

This, primarily, is because the societies which are needed to maintain such services and standards of living are simply too big for a human brain to wrap itself around. Most people are capable of engaging with a set number of people as individuals, that is to say, knowing their names, faces, remembering facts about their life, and generally being emotionally invested in them to implicitly want them to be happy. This number is more than enough to account for family and close friends, but when you add the people needed to ensure basic human needs to the list: the people who build shelter and grow food and treat illnesses and so on, that range of people balloons to a size nobody can keep track of. Add the additional bells and whistles of modern society: the plumbers, road technicians, mail carriers, electricians, IT professionals, soldiers, car mechanics, food delivery drivers, the makers of all of the gadgets and machines we take for granted and the makers of the gadgets and machines that make those gadgets and machines and the makers of the tools who make those, and we have a massive sprawling network of humans which stretches across not just valleys and towns, but the entire planet, composed of far more people than we can keep track of individually.

So what do we do? What humans do best: we abstract. Instead of thinking of the people who provide services we need to live as individuals, we see them as categories of people: plumbers, farmers, electricians, road workers, soldiers, and so on – at least, when we think of them at all. Because we cannot necessarily interact with these abstract categories of people the way we might with individuals, we construct a collective framework which allows us to trust that the provision of these goods we’ve come to expect will be constant, a mediating and controlling force which has the authority to both guarantee the uninterrupted provision of those public goods, and the punishment or penalisation of those who would interrupt those services.

This force, effectively, is the state.

For the sake of clarity, I’m going to establish some definitions: “the state”, sometimes referred to as the “Post-Westphalian State” – after the two peace treaties which ended the Thirty Years’ War – is a primarily western and modern concept. There are definitely societies which exist outside of the strictest definition of this concept, but because it’s the term and context which almost all of us are the most familiar with (because almost everyone lives within a state), and because it’s the form which I’m the most familiar with, I’ll be using it as a catch-all for any form of governance. A lot of what I’m about to say applies as much to tribal confederations and feudal kingdoms as they do to “modern” nation-states, so just be aware of that.

Much earlier in this series, I defined “society” as a group of people who exist to provide security for each other. This applies also to the state, as a structure within society. Usually, the responsibility of the state is to provide the types of security considered most important to the people within that society – the kind which nobody can do without. Historically, this has meant two types of security: security from violence, and security from starvation. As a result, many of the earliest and most simple manifestations of statehood (within so-called “city-states” and tribal governments) are ones which exist to organise two things: warfare, and the harvest. With a state apparatus (in the form of a king or a council of senior officials), a society can more easily organise, equip, and command fighting forces. With the many individuals of society abstracted in the minds of warriors (not yet soldiers) as a single entity which represents their homes and loved ones, fighting forces can more easily remain motivated. Likewise, with a single authority ensuring that enough food is grown for all, and that a surplus is distributed, even those who do not farm or hunt for a living need worry less about starvation, which can allow them to focus on other things: handicrafts, arts, and the very act of organising harvests and warbands.

As a result, those societies organised under a state generally prove more capable of mobilising their resources than those which aren’t. Thus, when one such society organises, its competitors have to do the same, or risk being subjugated or absorbed into a society which is larger, better-fed, and more capable of mobilising force than they are. History has generally borne out this point: more organised societies usually win out over less organised ones, and very few of the attempts to build a stateless society in the modern world have avoided coming to grief at the hands of state rivals.

Of course, this security comes at a cost. If someone is leading a warband, then the rest of that warband is taking orders. If someone is telling everyone else who must farm and where, then those people have to obey. In exchange for their safety and security, human beings must sacrifice some of their freedom – something which most people aren’t much fond of. However, glib 18th century one-liners aside, most people would much rather give up a certain degree of their freedom in exchange for a certain degree of security – because however bad it might be to follow orders, the alternative (subjugation, death, starvation, or sometimes all three) is usually considered worse. Thus, a tacit agreement is made between the state and the people it governs: if the state continues to provide certain forms of security, then the people will accept a certain degree of control to maintain that security. This is what we now refer to as a “Social Contract”.

Of course, the Social Contract by itself has no real power. No social construct does unless people believe in it, and people will not believe in things unless they believe it has a tangible effect on their existence: the security which the state promises has to be provided by the state, and be seen to be provided by the state by those who are governed. This belief, commonly referred to as “Legitimacy” can be a difficult thing to build – especially since the governed who must be convinced often include the agents which are supposed to deliver on those promises themselves. If there is a shortfall in this legitimacy, then the agents of the state which are supposed to provide security to the governed do not trust the promises which they are supposed to deliver on, which means they often use the resources provided by the state (money, weapons, local authority) to look to their own security instead of those they are intended to govern. This is the basic foundation of corruption, and as we have seen just recently in Afghanistan, such a lack of belief – of legitimacy – can lead to the complete collapse of a state in the face of threats which it should have the resources to overcome.

Of course, this has been a problem which states throughout our own history have grappled with, especially since up until relatively recently the amount of resources and tools available to states was relatively low. Primitive networks of communications meant it was difficult for different administrative centres to communicate with each other. Societies built primarily on subsistence agriculture could not spare a great deal of surplus labour to become full time administrators. A lack of administrators (which is to say bureaucrats, lawkeepers, tax collectors, and so on) meant that these early states could not act as easily and as effectively as they do now. This generally meant two things. Firstly, it meant that early states provided far fewer degrees of security than modern ones do. A lot of the things we’d look to the government for help with these days (food regulations, social security, and healthcare, for example) weren’t things the state provided. Secondly, it meant that states tended to be more decentralised, in the sense that public goods which the main administrative centre (the capital) was too far away to effectively provide would be instead provided by more local authorities. The kingdoms of Medieval Europe, for example, are often characterised as ones where royalty or aristocracy had complete control, but this was never the case: neither kings nor lords had that sort of administrative capacity. Instead, the provision of public goods were devolved to town councils, village assemblies, guilds, religious authorities, and a vast plethora of other bodies – and the obligations of the governed were likewise distributed. This meant that most people did not so much owe their allegiance to a single king or country, but to a vast array of different authorities, and would act accordingly.

Of course, this would change over time, especially by about the early modern period. It was about this time (basically, the time when the modern idea of the state was defined) that states became both more pervasive, and more extractive. One of the main reasons for this was the increasing burden of warfare. To provide security from their neighbours more effectively, states at the highest level (which is to say, princes, kings, and emperors) needed to spend more money to raise larger, more professional armies armed with more complex weapons. More devolved authorities became less and less effective at providing security, especially security against violence. When the decentralised system of the Scottish Highland Clans fought against the more pervasive Hanoverian state which controlled England and Lowland Scotland, the better organised and better equipped Hanoverian forces were able to absorb two upset losses at Prestonpans and Falkirk Moor, while the Highlanders were unable to recover after their defeat at Culloden. To remain on the winning side of this power imbalance, states needed to extract more from their populations in the form of resources (in taxes), and labour (in volunteer or conscript professional soldiers, who had to devote themselves to war full-time in unprecedented numbers).

Of course, the governed could not simply be told that they would be given the same benefits that they always had in exchange for an ever-increasing price. Instead (in Europe, anyways) two competing schools of thought on how to “compensate” the governed would emerge.

The first school was that of absolutism, based on the idea that the state would compensate for the complete submission of the governed by offering them perfect security. In this sense, the state (which usually meant a King or an Emperor in our world) would exercise complete control over the people, depriving them of any formal freedoms, but also ensuring that the people would be free from fear or harm. Ideally, this resulted in a state which ruled over its people entirely for their own good – a concept which more modern commentators have derogatorily referred to as a “nanny-state”. However, the problem with this model was that it relied on the state itself to craft policy which would successfully fulfil its promises of total security – something which was difficult even for the most talented and energetic monarch. When these “enlightened despots” gave way to less well-advised successors, the state found itself providing types of security which its people didn’t want in exchange for obligations which its people didn’t want to provide. The result was a loss of legitimacy, instability, and in the case of France and Russia – revolution.

The other school, that which most of us are probably more familiar with, was that of constitutionalism – the idea that in return for the greater obligations levied by the Social Contract, the governed should have new rights as well – particularly, the right to have some input into what the state extracts and how it is to be used. This is both the foundation of modern liberal democracy, and the school which first formally codified the idea of the Social Contract in the first place. Most of our political ideologies now use the framework of constitutionalism to define themselves, and even states which are absolutist in practise at least pay some lip service to the idea of popular input. Of course, constitutionalism too, can fall short of expectations: when the state does not craft policy which leads to the results expected of the governed, then a constitutionalist state will lose legitimacy, and as we have seen to some extent is almost any constitutionalist state, such a loss of legitimacy can lead to the rise of anti-government actors, including ones strong enough to overthrow the state altogether.

Of course, this is all a summary of governance and the development of statehood from the perspective of our own history. In a fictional setting, things are likely to be different. For example, a fantasy setting might have magic which allows for instant communication – allowing for the greater centralisation of power at a single administrative hub. Likewise, a fictional crop could lead to greater food surpluses, meaning more people available to become professional soldiers, bureaucrats, artisans, or anything else other than subsistence farmers. A fictional society creates divergences from our history, ones which I can neither predict nor anticipate. But hopefully, with the overview I’ve given, you’ll be able to adjust for those changes yourself, whatever they may be.

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