Saturday, July 7, 2012

Confusion of Tongues

Is there anything as a political system, independent of its cultural context?

"Feudalism" has been used for a variety of ancient political systems, from Northern Europe where it was born to the Mediterranean agricultural estates to even East Asian contexts.  But a closer look, even a cursory glance at that great repository Wikipedia, will show that "feudalism" is but one kind of agricultural-military-political exchange.  There are myriad differences between Roman politics, German politics, the Anglo-Saxon system, the Norman system of land tenure and so on.  Can we really use one name to define these?

Where does power flow?  Power flows from people first and foremost, from the ability to make others do what you want, from the ability to do what you want from the land and resources you hold.  But no one man can work the land by himself.  Others breed the draft animals, others provide the seeds and the fertilizer (whether it's pig shit or synthesized concoction), others provide the defense of fields...  So power is, must be, seen as relational, as a thing that is wielded between people.

But the organization of power is what blocks us from changing things.  Kings can do what they want, right?  But not if their rights are stripped away by nobles and their assemblies, if soldiers swear fealty to subordinates or cities first, which in turn swear allegiance to the king.  And who names a king?  In some countries it was a noble council.  In other places, it was the priests who anointed kings the representative of God or some other divine force.

What we have now is the republic, and the republic is as diverse as any other set of conditions that use a common name.  If Syria calls itself a republic, if China calls itself so, how are we to say that we are more so and they are less?  What do any of these names mean?  Have we lost the ability to describe political systems, or did we ever have the ability to begin with?

This is why leftists are so critical of private wealth.  It is all very well to believe that we have our little bit in accordance with the same law that preserves the right of the rich to their very much.  We "have," but do we really have in the same way?  Is the owner of a factory enriched by the same flow of property and power that modestly enriches his employees?  I don't see it if there is.

Likewise, with our rhetoric that states are all the same, that a president is a king is a pope is an emperor and so on, perhaps we blind ourselves to the ways that all these people are empowered and enriched.  Perhaps we are as blind as those who believed that kings' power stemmed from bloodline and destiny, until we come up with a real mechanic that can explain all of human circumstances--at least in the political dimension.  What we need, what I need to understand things, is a political physics, an understanding and a diagram of how people become more powerful than others.  It is a joint interest to find that kind of understanding between both reformers and dismantlers.  At the present, each is as blind as the true believer in the systems' justness.


  1. I probably use a different approach because physics zooms over my head. Someone with facility for physics would be very wise to look at politics and social workings with the eye used when doing physics.

    No matter what other field chosen, the essential starting point probably is: genuine political curiosity with a willingness to depart from one's tribe.

  2. Power flows from people first and foremost, from the ability to make others do what you want

    Only metaphorically speaking. No one has the literal power to make anyone do what they don't wan to, though I am sure science will eventually give us the means and ability to take over a person's nervous system.

    Your point about kings - I disagree. Kings are not free to do anything, they are constrained by their institutional role.

    The funny thing about hierarchy is that I suspect it looks the same from every vantage point; from pauper to king, there are things we all do which we do not necessarily agree with, but feel powerless to stop doing.

  3. Just a hope you are well bump.