29 March 2013
Further to my previous post on how I can call myself a reactionary while supporting the dangerous new-fangled innovation of absolute monarchy, let’s look at feudalism.
There have been various forms of aristocracy. When I started to advocate monarchy as a practical from of formalism, “Degenerate Formalism”, I saw no reason to include aristocracy. The monarch should have complete sovereignty, so there is no reason to privilege some subjects over others.
I was setting myself primarily against the feudalist position of Nick Szabo, who makes a case for the medieval structure of “interlocking property rights”
Once I tried to describe a future monarchical regime in detail, I found myself edging back towards an aristocracy, though not in a full-blown medieval form.
Unsurprisingly, given the emphasis of my blog over the last year, the key issue is loyalty.
The medieval noble vassal was supposed to be loyal to his lord. However, the practical implications of this loyalty were limited by transport and communication capabilities. From year to year, he had full authority over his demesne. The major requirements on him were to provide resources to the King when he turned up, to provide armed force when required, and to withold support from the King’s enemies. Beyond that, he wasn’t required to follow the King’s policies, because the King didn’t have any policies for him to follow — he was too far away.
Once the King could be in regular contact by mail or by regular visitors, the situation changed. With regular and reliable information from provinces, the King would inevitably form a view of how they should be managed in detail. This caused conflict with local nobles who had had virtually complete autonomy for centuries. Even if the King recognised a noble’s claim to that autonomy as an established right, the fact of his defying the King’s wishes weakened the relationship betwen them.
If we were to return to a medieval technology level, feudalism could work well. Otherwise, we are forced to this contradiction of the baron professing loyalty to his sovereign while claiming the right to obstruct his policy. That is what I see no point in.
However, I do see a need for the monarch to have a class of subjects from whom he expects positive loyalty, but who do not have independent partial sovereignty. Their position represents not a right to any political power, but rather an eligibility for political power. This is the arrangement I put forward in “Kingdom 2037”. Born aristocrats would be expected (but not required) to move in the direction of royal service, and their behaviour and associations from an early age would be judged with that in mind. If you spend your first twenty years cultivating an image of being loyal and conscientious, you are likely to end up somewhat loyal and conscientious. If you grow up in an elite community, and are stupid, reckless, or crooked, the elite community is going to know. As in elitist societies like today’s Hollywood, noble birth wouldn’t get you into the government, but it would get you looked at.
Such a system might also produce pressure towards mediocrity and excessive conformism. That is why a wise king will build a court mainly from the aristocracy, but including some others. The vital point is that the values of the ruling institutions will be maintained, and the outsiders coming in will acculturate to them, rather than replacing the culture with their own.
What are the drawbacks of this arrangement? There chief danger seems to be that the aristocratic class forms a power block in its own right. If set in competition with the King himself, it would inevitably become rapacious, in the way that a secure ruler is not, because resources plundered from the population would enable it to strengthen its position versus the crown. There is considerable precedent for aristocracies behaving in that way.
My feeling is that the problem is fundamentally one of feudal aristocracies, and there is no reason why a post-feudal monarch would want to tolerate it. That possibly means that, while having something like an aristocracy is useful, it should be symbolically distinct from the old aristocracy which continues to exist in present-day constitutional monarchies. Possibly it should not exist formally at first. The useful features are that the King appoints those he knows and trusts, and that senior Royal appointees are given some kind of permanent status that ties their long-term interest to the regime.
One-line summary: Aristocrats are not better than everybody else, but we can have a better idea of how good they are than we can of everybody else.