…the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.
– 1 John 2:16
The Cyclical Theory of History and the Dependence of the Nation upon “Strong” People
There is a certain theory of history popular amongst reactionaries outlined by the picture below:
Despite the simplistic attraction of such a theory, professional historians in general point out that the historical facts simply do not bear out their claims. It is however not the intent of this post to articulate objections to the cyclical theory of history, for such a critique I would recommend Niall Ferguson’s masterly article Complexity and Collapse where he argues that there is no such discernible decline (except on hindsight and even then mostly projection) and things can go on for a very long time and only suddenly collapse because of the sensitivity of systems to particular points of change.
This post will be directed to an even stronger and perhaps much more paradoxical claim: A strong nation or commonwealth may in fact be contingent upon both its people and rulers being generally composed of persons of weak or moderate abilities. To justify my thesis I will first need to outline a very ancient Chinese dispute between the Chinese Legalists and the Confucians before illustrating my point with reference how advanced societies work.
Man of Character or Efficient Bureaucracy?
Broadly and simplistically speaking, Confucianism generally argues that the general order of a commonwealth is contingent upon the virtues of its people. Only when the people possess the correct character and virtue will the commonwealth prosper and become ordered.
By contrast the Chinese Legalists argued that character and virtues, while it could work in small societies which are able to form bonds of affection with one another, would be less efficacious in a commonwealth consisting of millions upon millions of strangers. When the number of people in a society grows contentions would increase which would require more than mere virtue or moral suasion to harmonise. While the Legalists did emphasise the competition for scarce resources in a populous commonwealth as one of the key roots of such contentions, they also pointed out that there would also be competition for political power and positions.
The Chinese Legalists argued that to coordinate and manage a complex mass society, and to prevent a Hobbesian competition for power and resources, rigorous laws and bureaucratic techniques were necessary along with the instruments of rewards and punishments for allocating such resources and power.
Unlike the classical ideal of a well rounded person who was good at every activity, the Legalists had a purely functional view of each individuals role within the broader commonwealth. There was a story by Han Fei where the emperor had two servants, one who was supposed to attend to him outside of his sleeping chambers and another servant who was supposed to attend to him within. One night the servant within neglected to cover the sleeping emperor with warm blankets on a cold night. The outer servant however noticed this and went ahead to cover the freezing emperor with blankets. When the emperor discovered what had happened, he had both servants punished. The inner servant for neglecting his duties and failing to cover him with the warm blanket, the outer servant for stepping beyond his appointed task.
As such the Legalists conceived of a commonwealth which was strictly organised according to carefully and definitely prescribed roles and specialisations. Each person was to dedicate himself to his role and needs only be obedient to laws which carefully demarcates each role and prescribes the appropriate rewards for obedience and punishments for negligence. If everyone obeyed the law the state will be ordered, the commonwealth enriched, and the national objectives accomplished. The Legalist commonwealth is more akin to an ant or termite colony rather than a wolf pack. In an ant colony different ants have different functions, some are queens, others are workers and some are soldiers. They each have their own function but they cannot be good at each other’s task.
The Legalists had a contemptuous view of sophisticated learning or wisdom, or people who were “too clever by half”. Their vision of a well ordered state as articulated by Han Fei goes:
…in the state of an enlightened ruler there are no books written on bamboo strips; law supplies the only instruction. There are no sermons on the former kings: the officials serve as the only teachers. And there are no fierce feuds involving private swordsmen; cutting off the enemy heads [in battle] is the only deed of valour. When the people of such a state speak, they say nothing in contradiction of the law; when they act, it is so as to be useful; and when they perform brave deeds, they do so in the army.
The Legalists would argue that sophisticated learning or knowledge of “useless” theories avails nothing for the people, what is necessary is for the people to simply be obedient to the law. Han Fei again:
Yet not to use standards that ordinary men and women plainly understand, but to long for those theories which even the wisest do not comprehend; that certainly is the negation of government. Therefore subtle and mysterious words are no business of the people.
The Legalists in fact had a great suspicion on “great” and powerful men within the commonwealth who would threaten the position of the emperor, who must necessarily monopolise all power within the commonwealth. The Legalists in fact argued that it was important to keep the masses happy and satisfied such that such powerful characters may not arise and seize the commonwealth from the emperor. Han Fei again:
If compulsory labour service is rare, the people will feel safe; if the people are safe, the ministers will gain no extra power; if the ministers have no extra power, powerful and influential men will be extinguished; and if powerful and influential men disappear, all credit will be due to the sovereign.
Thus in a certain sense, the Legalists did accept that an ordered state was very much dependent on the sovereign’s ability to provide the bread and the circuses. Without the bread and circuses, the people would become dissatisfied, and in becoming dissatisfied “great” man may arise to lead them against the imperial order. In a way, the Legalists had conceived of a Weberian bureaucratic legitimacy almost two thousand centuries before Max Weber was born.
A two thousand year old philosophical theory will naturally not be directly applicable to our context, however I think there are two vital points which we can extract from this section:
(1) A well ordered and prosperous state generally requires an obedient people who would perform their specific function within the commonwealth and who are not too clever by half or know too much. In short they must “know their place” within the commonwealth and not get too big for their boots.
(2) A well order and prosperous state needs a contented and well satisfied populace by bread and circuses and to prevent the existence of “great” and ambitious men which constitute a threat to the power of the sovereign.
Josiah Tucker and the Temperate Ruler
So far we have dealt with the quality of the people necessary for prosperity and order of the state, at least at a theoretical level. While Chinese Legalism has developed elaborate theories and arguments for a legalistic order to supplant the need for rulers to be “great” man or man of strong character, it would be more useful in my opinion to simply fast forward to the 18th century and look at the arguments of Josiah Tucker, a sadly neglected British philosopher and economist.
Josiah Tucker in his book A Treatise Concerning Civil Government in Three Parts gives an account for how commonwealths are established and the rule of monarchs justified. After explaining how a political order is usually established by “great man” who perform deeds of historic proportion, he answers objections that such “great man” are not always available and as such cannot be the ground for the commonwealth:
“ACCORDING to the foregoing Hypothesis, the higher Powers in every Country should be Heroes of the first Magnitude;—or if not Heroes in War, they should at least be endowed with the greatest Genius, the most distinguished and useful Talents in the Arts of Peace. For we are told, that it is their Superiority of natural Endowments, which, like Water finding its Level, laid the Foundation of Civil Government. Whereas, were we to turn from this ideal Perfection, to the plain, simple Fact, we shall find that few of the ruling Powers, especially crowned Heads, are wiser, or better, or braver, or more usefully employed than other Mortals. Moreover, according to the foregoing Representation of the Matter it should also follow, That on the Demise of any of these super-eminent, exalted Beings, a Kind of Dissolution, or at least a Suspension of Government ought to ensue, ’till another Non-pareil could be found out, in order to fill [worthily and properly] the vacant Throne.”
THIS Objection, smart and plausible as it may appear, is wholely grounded on a Mistake, which being removed, the Objection vanishes. The Mistake is this, That what was necessary, or expedient at first, must continue to be necessary, or expedient ever after. Whereas the Course of Nature in almost every Instance plainly proves the contrary.
SIR ISAAC NEWTON and Mr. BOYLE had most extraordinary natural Talents and Sagacities in their respective Provinces; which they improved by almost incessant Industry and Application. Their Discoveries in Astronomy, Mathematics, Optics, Natural Philosophy, Mechanics, Chemistry, &c. &c. &c. are wonderfully great and curious. But doth it follow, that every Man must have the Genius of a BOYLE, a NEWTON, in order to be benefited, or enlightened by their Discoveries? And now, that they have led the Way, may not Men of very moderate Capacities, be able to tread in their Steps? Nay I will go farther, and even ask, may not an illiterate Mechanic [illiterate, comparatively speaking] by Dint of mere Use and Practice, and by the Advantage of having good Models before his Eyes;—may not even such an one be able to construct, or to manage some of their most curious Machines in a much better Manner than the great Philosophers themselves could have done, had they been alive? Surely he may: For nothing can be more obvious, than that the Man, who cannot invent, may nevertheless by Means of daily Use, and Habit, be able to improve on a former Invention, greatly to his own Advantage, and that of others.
THE Case in Politics is much the same; or rather it is a still stronger Confirmation of the foregoing Remark. For tho’ it may be necessary to have an Hero to found an Empire;—or [to come still nearer to the Plan of the preceding Chapter] tho’ it may at first require some extraordinary Efforts of an uncommon Genius, to form an Hundred Pair of independent Savages into a regular Community, and to bind them together with the Bonds of Civil Society,—yet when this is once done, and good Order and Harmony well established,—Things will then go on, in a Manner, of their own accord, if common Prudence be not wanting.
Nay, what is still more to our present Purpose, it is observeable, that great Geniusses are likely to do more Harm than Good, if there should happen to be a Succession of them in the same Government, for two, or three Generations. The active Spirits of such Men, and their excentric Dispositions will not suffer them to remain in a neutral State; so that they will certainly be employed either for the better, or for the worse. And as Ambition, and the Lust of Power are the reigning Vices of the Great, it is therefore but too probable, that they will become bad Neighbours to other States, in Proportion, as they shall have less Occasion for exerting their Abilitics at Home: Or if they should confine their Attention chiefly to their own Territories;—can it be a Doubt which Course they will take. Whether to encrease, or diminish the Privileges of their own Subjects?—In short. Woe be to the Country, which happens to be cursed with a successive Race of Heroes: Long Experience hath too fatally confirmed this Observation. And the Misfortune is, that the Subjects of these victorious Princes, are, generally speaking, so blinded with the Glare of Glory, and so intoxicated with the Fumes of Conquest, that they will be content to be enslaved themselves, provided they shall be so happy as to be employed in the glorious Work of enslaving others.—It must, I think, be allowed, that a Romulus was necessary to found Rome, and to bring that Set of Banditti, which he first drew together, into some Degree of Order and Regularity, by obliging them to submit to the Rules of Justice among themselves, and the Laws of Civil Government.—But after those good Ends were in Part accomplished, the mild, pacific Disposition, and the steady and temperate Conduct of a Numa, were much fitter to constitute a Successor, than the dangerous Abilities of another Romulus.
While the first half of Tucker’s reply argues that great man are not necessary for the continued functioning of government, it is the second half of his argument which is of greater interest to us. He argues that after a political order has been established, not only are great man unnecessary but may in fact even be detrimental to the stability and well being of a commonwealth. “Great” spirited man tend to be unable to rest content with what they have and seek for more. They tend to despise regulations and restrains and a need for stability over “greatness”. Their ambitious disposition are such as to drive them towards greater acquisitions of power and conquests to the ruin of themselves and the commonwealth.
Napoleon is universally acknowledged to be a very great man who accomplished extraordinary deeds, however he incurred the wrath of all Europe in the process and saw his own empire collapse and France occupied right before his eyes. All he had left was the memory of his momentary glory before France faded back to its “natural” borders.
Otto Von Bismarck was a genius of the first rate and a great strategist, unfortunately being so intoxicated with the royal power he could wield without the constitutional regulations, whether conventional or legal, he fell victim to this arbitrary system and was forced out of his position as chancellor as Jonathan Steinberg observed in Bismarck: A Life:
The old servant, no matter how great and how brilliant, had become in reality what he had always played as on a stage: a servant who could be dismissed at will by his Sovereign. He had defended that royal prerogative because it had allowed him to carry out his immense will; now the absolute prerogative of the Emperor became what it has always been, the prerogative of the sovereign. Having crushed his parliamentary opponents, flattened and abused his ministers, and refused to allow himself to be bound by any loyalty. Bismarck had no ally left when he needed it. It was not his cabinet nor his parliamentary majority. He had made sure that it remained the sovereign’s, and so it was that he fell because of a system that he preserved and bequeathed to the unstable young Emperor.
This of course was a great tragedy for without his genius and carefully calibrated approach to foreign affairs, Germany was plunged into the First World War under an unstable Kaiser to the ruin of Germany. The greater tragedy perhaps is that Bismarck might not have been able to do great things for Germany without the very same arbitrary power which eventually pushed him out of power and passed onto an entirely unsuitable Kaiser, illustrating Josiah Tucker’s point about how great man are good for setting up things but not sustaining them. The lack of caution and inability of “great man” to rest content with their own possessions would also lead to Germany’s ruin the second time around with Hitler, also no doubt a tactical genius but whose flaw was too great an ambition.
As such, contrary to common narratives of the necessity of “great ruler” for great commonwealths, it is occasionally the case that such “great rulers” would frequently be their ruin and that great man or rulers do not necessary lead to stable or prosperous commonwealths.
Mobilising an Obedient People for Industrial and National Objectives
If great rulers may occasionally lead to the ruin of the commonwealth, overqualified workers may lead to a dissatisfied and unproductive populace. The ability of a nation or industry to accomplish their objectives are in many cases much more dependent upon their unlearned trust and obedience to the bureaucratic or technical experts above them than profound wisdom or learning.
Joel Mokyr in his book The Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain 1700-1850 points out that the success of the British Industrial Revolution doesn’t seem to have much to do with investments in “human capital”. In fact, the primary role of schooling wasn’t so much to equip workers with great knowledge or understanding of how the machines worked but rather an attitude of obedience and industry.
In any event, to the extent that the data available permit us to make any inferences, the notion that the Industrial Revolution depended a great deal on human capital as customarily defined is not sustained. Nicholas and Nicholas (1992) show that according to their data there was little difference in literacy rates between the industrializing north and the as yet mostly agrarian south… Even more surprising, their data suggest that the literacy rates among skilled workers were actually declining after 1800.
Inventors could leave a great deal to the ingenuity of the worker, or they could try to dumb down the tasks, and relieve the user of the need to find skilled workers. During the Industrial Revolution, much inventive activity has been termed “de-skilling,” that is, the ingenuity and cleverness was front-loaded in a user-friendly design that reduced the skills necessary for implementation. Such inventions supplied the employers with what Marx called the “weapons against the revolt of the working class” by reducing the specific skills (and thus the bargaining power) of workers. The classic and most-cited example is the invention of the self-acting mule by Roberts in 1825, which simplified the process of mule-spinning. But the machine tool industry in general was capable of creating devices in which the ingenuity was concentrated in their construction and not operation. The Committee on the Exportation of Machinery concluded that thanks to the new machine tools, “machinery may be constructed by mere labourers much better than it was formerly made by first-class workmen” (Great Britain, 1841, p. vii). As a result, the demand for human capital became more skewed as the Industrial Revolution progressed: the economy demanded more highly skilled engineers and technicians, so as to reduce the demand for skills at the lower levels of the labor hierarchy. The role of educators and teachers in the development of the British economy was thus clearly circumscribed to produce highly competent mechanics and technicians, whereas the overall level of skills of most of the labor force may not have mattered all that much, as long as they were submissive and obedient. Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith’s contemporary and friend, noted that “Many mechanical arts require no capacity … ignorance is the mother of industry as well as superstition … Manufactures, accordingly, prosper most where the mind is least consulted” (1767, p. 273).
As such, the more dronish a populace is, the better they would be able to work.
Furthermore when it comes to waging modern wars, it is not enough to have “courageous” or brave man fighting such wars. A friend of mine pointed out how the ability to organise, coordinate, and marshal resources during a war was much more critical to victory than sheer size or possession of such resources:
It would seem at first glance that the aggregate populations and wealth of the world outside Europe would be extremely formidable in combination. But the problem there is that combination was impossible and even disjointed efforts were out of the question. What GDP non-European states had was essentially in local agricultural consumption with proportionately insignificant raw materials exports. They had no industry to speak of. No shipping.
This is absolutely inadequate for the waging of modern war, which has become infinitely complex, sophisticated, and demanding. You would need a very strong and reliable government, trusted by the people, and administratively efficient able to mobilise all manpower resources and allocate them to their optimal stations.
Churchill as Minister of Munitions wrote the PM on how to alleviate the manpower shortage in 1918 by shifts of workers here and moving women into the workforce there, by raising the conscription age here, and relaxing conditions there. A government fighting modern war would need to possess the information and the executive ability to affect these changes.
Elsewhere he points out how personal courage and bravery cannot compensate for the lack of logistical and tactical coordination:
Most people have no conception of what the object of military operations consists of, and are wont to attribute defeats to nebulous sentimental reasons, as if one side was somehow inherently superior in terms of subjective psyche. Even when troops achieve victory for reasons of simply being more competent soldiers, this is because they are more experienced and more disciplined, not because they are more courageous or some insulting nonsense.
The primary one, perhaps because it is the most recent, that many people pontificate about is France in 1940, France lost because her soldiers were big old cowards, they contend. They lost because the Germans were inspired to superhuman abilities by Hitler and the French were exhausted and dejected from their interwar politics, as if every Frenchman was upset about the fall of this or that ministry.
This was absolutely not the case. The French lost because they advanced too far into Belgium and the Germans severed their communications with their base, giving them the choice of surrender or starvation. This wasn’t a choice they accepted lightly either, they fought like hell to break out, but failed. If you have no bullets and no food your resistance cannot continue regardless of how ‘brave’ you are, and the Germans would just as inevitably have laid down their arms if they were in the same situation. Bravery does not trump hunger for long, and without munitions courage is no substitute.
The French lost because the Germans outmanoeuvered them, not because they outfought them. In fact, the bulk of the French forces were never even engaged. Where they were; at Hannut, at Gembloux, at Sedan, at Montcornet, at the perimeter around Dunkirk, they displayed impressive martial qualities and inflicted serious damage on the Germans. No army ever wins because it’s more brave, for most groups of men are equally brave collectively. Demoralisation is more often a symptom of defeat than a cause, who gets demoralised when they haven’t lost yet? Though it can become a serious factor once a severe setback has been inflicted upon them, it only very rarely precedes defeat.
In sum, the accomplishment of national or industrial objectives rarely relies or depends upon a robust populace or a “great” people. Normally only persons of average abilities and characters performing very specific delimited tasks are sufficient for the accomplishment of national or corporate objectives.
One can even go so far as to say that an educated or learned populace may in fact lead to social disorder and chaos. No less than Zizek himself have noted the uncomfortable truth that irony of the Arab Springs was that it was only possible with a rising educated middle class populace who had become dissatisfied with the status quo. However this dissatisfaction would ultimately lead to the ruin of those Arab states as the Arab Springs flopped spectacularly and some regions descended into chaos while others fell back into military or dictatorial rule.
Conclusion: The Confucian Confusion
It would be fitting to conclude this discussion by visiting what must seem to be an “obvious” Confucian inferential step. The Confucian conception conceives of social order being built up from the bottom up, from the individual to the family to the community and the imperium. As such, the idea is simply that the health, strength and flourishing of the whole is a function of the health, strength, and flourishing, of its parts.
However why believe in such a simplistic linear function where the “goodness” of the parts flows directly to the whole? As the Legalists have long ago pointed out, what is good for smaller scale societies does not necessarily “carry over” to larger scale societies. Different social and civic conditions calls for different sets of requirements and responses.
The health of complex commonwealths are not purely a linear function of its parts. As Niall Ferguson pointed out in his article given at the beginning of this post, modern societies are complex systems with many interacting parts in a constant state of adaptation and revision. The causal relationship between the various parts are generally nonlinear, different inputs or increases may have unpredictable nonlinear effects. Too little of something may be ineffective, too much of something may throw the entire system into chaos (the example Ferguson uses is that of how vaccines work, a little may stimulate the immune response but too much kills the patient). Such systems may be able to tolerate a lot of redundancy in certain variables, but suddenly go critical when certain vital points are hit.
As such, while it can be argued that a certain amount of virtue or ability in a populace or its rulers is necessary for the well functioning of the whole, it is difficult, if not impossible, to argue that the health of a commonwealth is purely a linear function of the health of its parts. An overeducated populace may lead to dissatisfaction and chaos, the emergence of too many great man or great man in succession may lead to civic disasters. Some skill is necessary but too much knowledge and learning may stifle the trust and obedience necessary for centralised coordination of resources and personnel. On the other hand we observe that a sane King George III lost the American colonies, while the same king when insane beat Napoleon.
The cyclical theory of history as such is dependent upon a straight forward linear relationship between the flourishing of the people/ruler and the nation or times. They think that they can trace a direct relationship between “bad people” and “bad times”. But it is rarely that simple and often “good times” need only moderate or even weak people to run and sometimes even with the best of persons “bad times” remains.
So here is my alternative model for the development of commonwealths:
Strong men leads to competition;
Competition leads to chaotic times;
Chaotic times leads to exhaustion;
Exhaustion leads to compromise;
Compromise leads to peace;
Peace leads to cooperation;
Cooperation leads to organisation;
Organisation leads to industry;
Industry leads to prosperity.