The senility that afflicts ruling elites in their last years, the theme of the previous post in this sequence, is far from the only factor leading the rich and influential members of a failing civilization to their eventual destiny as lamppost decorations or come close equivalent. Another factor, at least as important, is a lethal mismatch between the realities of power in an age of decline and the institutional frameworks inherited from a previous age of ascent.
That sounds very abstract, and appropriately so. Power in a mature civilization is very abstract, and the further you ascend the social ladder, the more abstract it becomes. Conspiracy theorists of a certain stripe have invested vast amounts of time and effort in quarrels over which specific group of people it is that runs everything in today’s America. All of it was wasted, because the nature of power in a mature civilization precludes the emergence of any one center of power that dominates all others.
Look at the world through the eyes of an elite class and it’s easy to see how this works. Members of an elite class compete against one another to increase their own wealth and influence, and form alliances to pool resources and counter the depredations of their rivals. The result, in every human society complex enough to have an elite class in the first place, is an elite composed of squabbling factions that jealously resist any attempt at further centralization of power. In times of crisis, that resistance can be overcome, but in less troubled times, any attempt by an individual or faction to seize control of the whole system faces the united opposition of the rest of the elite class.
One result of the constant defensive stance of elite factions against each other is that as a society matures, power tends to pass from individuals to institutions. Bureaucratic systems take over more and more of the management of political, economic, and cultural affairs, and the policies that guide the bureaucrats in their work slowly harden until they are no more subject to change than the law of gravity. Among its other benefits to the existing order of society, this habit—we may as well call it policy mummification—limits the likelihood that an ambitious individual can parlay control over a single bureaucracy into a weapon against his rivals.
Our civilization is no exception to any of this. In the modern industrial world, some bureaucracies are overtly part of the political sphere; others—we call them corporations—are supposedly apart from government, and still others like to call themselves “non-governmental organizations” as a form of protective camouflage. They are all part of the institutional structure of power, and thus function in practice as arms of government. They have more in common than this; most of them have the same hierarchical structure and organizational culture; those that are large enough to matter have executives who went to the same schools, share the same values, and crave the same handouts from higher up the ladder. No matter how revolutionary their rhetoric, for that matter, upsetting the system that provides them with their status and its substantial benefits is the last thing any of them want to do.
All these arrangements make for a great deal of stability, which the elite classes of mature civilizations generally crave. The downside is that it’s not easy for a society that’s proceeded along this path to change its ways to respond to new circumstances. Getting an entrenched bureaucracy to set aside its mummified policies in the face of changing conditions is generally so difficult that it’s often easier to leave the old system in place while redirecting all its important functions to another, newly founded bureaucracy oriented toward the new policies. If conditions change again, the same procedure repeats, producing a layer cake of bureaucratic organizations that all supposedly exist to do the same thing.
Consider, as one example out of many, the shifting of responsibility for US foreign policy over the years. Officially, the State Department has charge of foreign affairs; in practice, its key responsibilities passed many decades ago to the staff of the National Security Council, and more recently have shifted again to coteries of advisers assigned to the Office of the President. In each case, what drove the shift was the attachment of the older institution to a set of policies and procedures that stopped being relevant to the world of foreign policy—in the case of the State Department, the customary notions of old-fashioned diplomacy; in the case of the National Security Council, the bipolar power politics of the Cold War era—but could not be dislodged from the bureaucracy in question due to the immense inertia of policy mummification in institutional frameworks.
The layered systems that result are not without their practical advantages to the existing order. Many bureaucracies provide even more stability than a single bureaucracy, since it’s often necessary for the people who actually have day to day responsibility for this or that government function to get formal approval from the top officials of the agency or agencies that used to have that responsibility, Even when those officials no longer have any formal way to block a policy they don’t like, the personal and contextual nature of elite politics means that informal options usually exist. Furthermore, since the titular headship of some formerly important body such as the US State Department confers prestige but not power, it makes a good consolation prize to be handed out to also-rans in major political contests, a place to park well-connected incompetents, or what have you.
Those of my readers who recall the discussion of catabolic collapse three weeks ago will already have figured out one of the problems with the sort of system that results from the processes just sketched out: the maintenance bill for so baroque a form of capital is not small. In a mature civilization, a large fraction of available resources and economic production end up being consumed by institutions that no longer have any real function beyond perpetuating their own existence and the salaries and prestige of their upper-level functionaries. It’s not unusual for the maintenance costs of unproductive capital of this kind to become so great a burden on society that the burden in itself forces a crisis—that was one of the major forces that brought the French Revolution, for instance. Still, I’d like to focus for a moment on a different issue, which is the effect that the institutionalization of power and the multiplication of bureaucracy has on the elites who allegedly run the system from which they so richly benefit.
France in the years leading up to the Revolution makes a superb example, one that John Kenneth Galbraith discussed with his trademark sardonic humor in his useful book The Culture of Contentment. The role of ruling elite in pre-1789 France was occupied by close equivalents of the people who fill that same position in America today: the “nobility of the sword,” the old feudal aristocracy, who had roughly the same role as the holders of inherited wealth in today’s America, and the “nobility of the robe,” who owed their position to education, political office, and a talent for social climbing, and thus had roughly the same role as successful Ivy League graduates do here and now. These two elite classes sparred constantly against each other, and just as constantly competed against their own peers for wealth, influence, and position.
One of the most notable features of both sides of the French elite in those days was just how little either group actually had to do with the day-to-day management of public affairs, or for that matter of their own considerable wealth. The great aristocratic estates of the time were bureaucratic societies in miniature, ruled by hierarchies of feudal servitors and middle-class managers, while the hot new financial innovation of the time, the stock market, allowed those who wanted their wealth in a less tradition-infested form to neglect every part of business ownership but the profits. Those members of the upper classes who held offices in government, the church, and the other venues of power presided decorously over institutions that were perfectly capable of functioning without them.
The elite classes of mature civilizations almost always seek to establish arrangements of this sort, and understandably so. It’s easy to recognize the attractiveness of a state of affairs in which the holders of wealth and influence get all the advantages of their positions and have to put up with as few as possible of the inconveniences thereof. That said, this attraction is also a death wish, because it rarely takes the people who actually do the work long to figure out that a ruling class in this situation has become entirely parasitic, and that society would continue to function perfectly well were something suitably terminal to happen to the titular holders of power.
This is why most of the revolutions in modern history have taken place in nations in which the ruling elite has followed its predilections and handed over all its duties to subordinates. In the case of the American revolution, the English nobility had been directly involved in colonial affairs in the first century or so after Jamestown. Once it left the colonists to manage their own affairs, the latter needed very little time to realize that the only thing they had to lose by seeking independence was the steady hemorrhage of wealth from the colonies to England. In the case of the French and Russian revolutions, much the same thing happened without the benefit of an ocean in the way: the middle classes who actually ran both societies recognized that the monarchy and aristocracy had become disposable, and promptly disposed of them once a crisis made it possible to do so.
The crisis just mentioned is a significant factor in the process. Under normal conditions, a society with a purely decorative ruling elite can keep on stumbling along indefinitely on sheer momentum. It usually takes a crisis—Britain’s military response to colonial protests in 1775, the effective bankruptcy of the French government in 1789, the total military failure of the Russian government in 1917, or what have you—to convince the people who actually handle the levers of power that their best interests no longer lie with their erstwhile masters. Once the crisis hits, the unraveling of the institutional structures of authority can happen with blinding speed, and the former ruling elite is rarely in a position to do anything about it. All they have ever had to do, and all they know how to do, is issue orders to deferential subordinates. When there are none of these latter to be found, or (as more often happens) when the people to whom the deferential subordinates are supposed to pass the orders are no longer interested in listening, the elite has no options left.
The key point to be grasped here is that power is always contextual. A powerful person is a person able to exert particular kinds of power, using particular means, on some particular group of other people, and someone thus can be immensely powerful in one setting and completely powerless in another. What renders the elite classes of a mature society vulnerable to a total collapse of power is that they almost always lose track of this unwelcome fact. Hereditary elites are particularly prone to fall into the trap of thinking of their position in society as an accurate measure of their own personal qualifications to rule, but it’s also quite common for those who are brought into the elite from the classes immediately below to think of their elevation as proof of their innate superiority. That kind of thinking is natural for elites, but once they embrace it, they’re doomed.
It’s dangerous enough for elites to lose track of the contextual and contingent nature of their power when the mechanisms through which power is enforced can be expected to remain in place—as it was in the American colonies in 1776, France in 1789, and Russia in 1917. It’s far more dangerous if the mechanisms of power themselves are in flux. That can happen for any number of reasons, but the one that’s of central importance to the theme of this series of posts is the catabolic collapse of a declining civilization, in which the existing mechanisms of power come apart because their maintenance costs can no longer be met.
That poses at least two challenges to the ruling elite, one obvious and the other less so. The obvious one is that any deterioration in the mechanisms of power limits the ability of the elite to keep the remaining mechanisms of power funded, since a great deal of power is always expended in paying the maintenance costs of power. Thus in the declining years of Rome, for example, the crucial problem the empire faced was precisely that the sprawling system of imperial political and military administration cost more than the imperial revenues could support, but the weakening of that system made it even harder to collect the revenues on which the rest of the system depended, and forced more of what money there was to go for crisis management. Year after year, as a result, roads, fortresses, and the rest of the infrastructure of Roman power sank under a burden of deferred maintenance and malign neglect, and the consequences of each collapse became more and more severe because there was less and less in the treasury to pay for rebuilding when the crisis was over.
That’s the obvious issue. More subtle is the change in the nature of power that accompanies the decay in the mechanisms by which it’s traditionally been used. Power in a mature civilization, as already noted, is very abstract, and the people who are responsible for administering it at the top of the social ladder rise to those positions precisely because of their ability to manage abstract power through the complex machinery that a mature civilization provides them. As the mechanisms collapse, though, power stops being abstract in a hurry, and the skills that allow the manipulation of abstract power have almost nothing in common with the skills that allow concrete power to be wielded.
Late imperial Rome, again, is a fine example. There, as in other mature civilizations, the ruling elite had a firm grip on the intricate mechanisms of social control at their uppermost and least tangible end. The inner circle of each imperial administration—which sometimes included the emperor himself, and sometimes treated him as a sock puppet—could rely on sprawling many-layered civil and military bureaucracies to put their orders into effect. They were by and large subtle, ruthless, well-educated men, schooled in the intricacies of imperial administration, oriented toward the big picture, and completely dependent on the obedience of their underlings and the survival of the Roman system itself.
The people who replaced them, once the empire actually fell, shared none of these characteristics except the ruthlessness. The barbarian warlords who carved up the corpse of Roman power had a completely different set of skills and characteristics: raw physical courage, a high degree of competence in the warrior’s trade, and the kind of charisma that attracts cooperation and obedience from those who have many other options. Their power was concrete, personal, and astonishingly independent of institutional forms. That’s why Odoacer, whose remarkable career was mentioned in an earlier post in this sequence, could turn up alone in a border province, patch together an army out of a random mix of barbarian warriors, and promptly lead them to the conquest of Italy.
There were a very few members of the late Roman elite who could exercise power in the same way as Odoacer and his equivalents, and they’re the exceptions that prove the rule. The greatest of them, Flavius Aetius, spent many years in youth as a hostage in the royal courts of the Visigoths and the Huns and got his practical education there, rather than in Roman schools. He was for all practical purposes a barbarian warlord who happened to be Roman by birth, and played the game as well as any of the other warlords of his age. His vulnerabilities were all on the Roman side of the frontier, where the institutions of Roman society still retained a fingernail grip on power, and so—having defeated the Visigoths, the Franks, the Burgundians, and the massed armies of Attila the Hun, all for the sake of Rome’s survival—he was assassinated by the emperor he served.
Fast forward close to two thousand years and it’s far from difficult to see how the same pattern of elite extinction through the collapse of political complexity will likely work out here in North America. The ruling elites of our society, like those of the late Roman Empire, are superbly skilled at manipulating and parasitizing a fantastically elaborate bureaucratic machine which includes governments, business firms, universities, and many other institutions among its components. That’s what they do, that’s what they know how to do, and that’s what all their training and experience has prepared them to do. Thus their position is exactly equivalent to that of French aristocrats before 1789, but they’re facing the added difficulty that the vast mechanism on which their power depends has maintenance costs that their civilization can no longer meet. As the machine fails, so does their power.
Nor are they particularly well prepared to make the transition to a radically different way of exercising power. Imagine for a moment that one of the current US elite—an executive from a too-big-to-fail investment bank, a top bureaucrat from inside the DC beltway, a trust-fund multimillionaire with a pro forma job at the family corporation, or what have you—were to turn up in some chaotic failed state on the fringes of the industrial world, with no money, no resources, no help from abroad, and no ticket home. What’s the likelihood that, without anything other than whatever courage, charisma, and bare-knuckle fighting skills he might happen to have, some such person could equal Odoacer’s feat, win the loyalty and obedience of thousands of gang members and unemployed mercenaries, and lead them in a successful invasion of a neighboring country?