Five Tensions

While pondering the tricky questions that have come to be debated within the reaction — such things as the conservation of sovereignty, I was struck by this lecture in a series of Harvard’s online learning that I’ve been working through on Chinese history.

This lecture, covering the Han dynasty, raises a lot of the questions that we’ve already been looking at about how power should be organised in a reactionary state.

(It doesn’t provide answers, which doesn’t matter since I’m not all that concerned with what Harvard thinks the right answers are, but it’s a good look at the questions).

The key slide is 25:

The lecturer says, “None of these institutional tensions ... is ever stabilized perfectly in Chinese history”

As important as these tensions are, I don’t think there are clear-cut answers to them, even to the closely-related second and third tensions which I’ve previously written about in some detail. I didn’t do more than critique the progressive position which is unequivocally in favour of bureaucracy over feudalism and meritocracy over hereditary right. In attacking that position I did not establish that the reactionary state should adopt the wholly opposite position.

In the absence of simple answers, we can nevertheless talk sensibly about how a reactionary state would handle the tensions.

This whole discussion exists in the context of the long comment chain at Outside In which considered the nature of limitations on power or sovereignty. Crucially, we do not believe we can design a solution to the problems of government. We are not writing a legal constitution for a supreme court to enforce. What I am hoping to produce is constitutional writing in an older sense: a description of how a good government works, that influential people can point to when a question that it addresses becomes relevant, and say, “as described in the collected writings of AnomalyUK, this development which seems to be happening is harmful and should be resisted; rather, the current problems should be addressed in this other way”. It’s not guaranteed to work, but nothing else possibly can. It’s what I mean when I talk about the war of ideas.

To demonstrate, consider yet again the tension between feudalism and bureaucracy.

The reactionary argument for bureaucracy is the Moldbuggian one that power should be undivided. If subordinates serve at the whim of the sovereign, there is no struggle for power between the subordinates and the sovereign, and therefore no policies adopted for their effect on the balance of power between the two, rather than for their overall effect on the realm. Establishing powers of subordinates that can be exercised in defiance of the sovereign historically tends to lead to civil wars between barons and the crown, and to stripping of assets by aristocracies who get all the benefits of seizures, while the long-term benefits of respecting private property of commoners accrue generally.

The reactionary argument for feudalism is that undivided power is an unrealistic aim; that underlings will in fact be able to exercise power in private interests, since limitations of knowledge and time mean they can never be supervised sufficiently, and therefore, on formalist principles, their powers should be established and exercised openly. This actually reduces the conflict over the extent of their powers compared to the case where the powers are informal and exercised surreptitiously. Further, establishing a formal class of aristocrats stabilises the system by giving a large body of powerful people an interest in preserving it. It breaks the link between educational institutions and political patronage that defines today’s cathedral.

There’s a lot more that can be said on both sides, and it’s worth doing, but for now that serves as an example of how to look at the tensions. In teasing out the arguments, we can link them to circumstances, and show what circumstances favour particular approaches and solutions.

It is easy to see how a state can move between bureaucracy and feudalism. Starting from bureaucracy, if the sovereign is unwilling or unable to overrule his officials, they will consolidate their power, and collectively take control over selection of entrants to their ranks, eventually reaching the stage of being able to hold offices within families. Conversely, a stronger sovereign will bypass established families and institutions, and divert influence to appointed officials of his own choosing, loyal to him personally. Both of these courses are familiar.

What I have argued for most recently is a formally established but weak aristocracy. That would not be immune from either being bypassed or growing more powerful, subject to circumstances and personalities. The justifications for it are:

If a strong king can rule well without relying on the aristocracy, that is probably a good thing, but the three justifications above become three dangers. His successors may not have his advantages, and therefore may struggle to find trustworthy underlings either among a disgruntled aristocracy or a competitive and anonymous commons. The powerful may scheme to find ways to privilege their descendants if there is no approved path to do so. Other institutions (educational, media, military) could acquire aristocratic pretensions and compromise their proper function in doing so. If these things start to happen, the cause should not be a mystery.

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