In the context of my writing concerning division of power, I want to make a distinction between personal power and collective power.
That is not the same as the distinction between absolute power and limited power. Absolute power can be collective, for example if a state is under the control of a committee, and limited power can be personal, if an individual has control over a particular department or aspect of policy.
There is a continuum of collective power, depending on the amount of personal influence. At one extreme there is a situation where a group of two or three people who know each other can make decisions by discussion; at the other is the ordinary voter, whose opinion is aggregated with those of millions of strangers.
Towards the latter extreme, collective power is no power at all. A collective does not reach decisions the same way an individual does. An individual can change his mind, but that has small chance of altering the action of the collective. To change the action of a collective, some more significant force than an individual impulse normally has to act on it. That’s why, when we attempt to predict the action of a collective, we do not talk about states of mind, we talk about outside forces: media, economics, events.
In many cases, we can predict the action of the collective with virtual certainty. The current US presidential election is finely balanced, but we can be sure Gary Johnson will not win.
This feature of collective power has implications for the consideration of divided power, because in the right circumstances a collective power can be completely neutralised. An absolute ruler is not omnipotent, in that he depends on the cooperation of many others, most importantly his underlings and armed forces. But as a rule they do not have personal power; they have collective power. Any one of them can be replaced. An individual can turn against the sovereign, but if he would just be dismissed (or killed) and replaced, that is not a realistic power. If too many of them do not act as the sovereign orders, he would be helpless, but that requires a collective decision, and one which with a bit of work can be made effectively impossible.
There are exceptions to this. If the sovereign is utterly dependent on a single particular individual, that individual has personal power. There have been historical cases of sovereigns in that position, and it is observed that that constitutes a serious qualitative change in the nature of the government.
Where a person can covertly act against the sovereign’s power, that is a personal power. Competent institutional design is largely a matter of making sure that rogue individuals cannot exercise power undetected by anyone. As long as there are any others who can detect this abuse, then the power once again becomes collective power, held by the individual and those placed to stop him. Again, where collectives do act in this way, it is a sign of a breakdown of government institutions. As an example, see this article describing the upper ranks of the army working together to deceive the president. If the president had absolute power and a moderate amount of sense, this sort of conspiracy would be suicidally dangerous. Once power is formally divided, then the capability to prevent this kind of ad-hoc assumption of power is massively eroded.
That is the fundamental reason why division of power is bad: whatever division of power is formally made, these gaps for further informal division will tend to be opened up by it, because limited power denies the power to enforce necessary limits on others. If anyone has power to punish those who take powers they are not formally entitled to, then that person effectively is absolute. If nobody has that power to punish, then any ambitious crooks can run wild.
If there is no single person other than the sovereign who has personal power, then I would call the sovereign absolute. His power is not infinite: he has to maintain control over the collectives which necessarily have power, but that is a lesser constraint than having to cope with personal power held in other hands. It is more akin to the other constraints on his power imposed by such things as the laws of physics and the existence of foreigners and wild animals.
Note that the nature of feudalism is that feudal aristocrats are not replaceable, and do have personal power—limited, but not collective. Feudalism is thus not a system of absolute power even under my refined definition.
The great significance of collective power is that it is subject to coordination problems. Or, since from the point of view of the sovereign, the problems of coordinating a collective can be an advantage, I will call them coordination obstacles. That is why it is not voters who have power, it is those who mediate the coordination of the voters: parties and media. A change in the way that voters can be coordinated is a thoroughly material change in what I have called the Structure of the state. The US does not have the Structure that it had 25 years ago, because (among other reasons) social media is part of the current Structure. That is an actual revolution, and why the fights over use of social media for political coordination are so significant. Note that since the Constitution doesn’t say anything about social media, the constitution in itself obviously does not define the Structure.
It also means that for a formally absolute ruler, obstructing collectives from coordinating is an important tool. In the period of formally absolute monarchy, any attempt by people of importance to coordinate in confidence was suspect: prima facie treason. The most basic right claimed by parliaments was the right to meet: simply allowing aristocrats and city leaders to meet together and discuss their interests was giving them a power that they wouldn’t otherwise have.
This is the problem with the formalism that Urielo advocates: formally establishing any power that anyone in a given Structure happens to have. Power that is held collectively and is not legitimate is often neutralised by coordination obstacles. If you make that power legitimate, that goes some way to dissolving the coordination obstacles, and thereby increases the effective collective power.
Modern political thought does not generally respect the idea that coordination by those with informal power is not legitimate (though we retain the historical unfavourable associations of the word “conspiracy”) but it went without saying for most of history. Organisations that have existed in England for hundreds of years, such as guilds and the older schools and colleges, generally have royal charters: the charter is their permission to exist.
There are a couple of interesting exceptions to the modern toleration of conspiracy: one is anti-trust law, and another is insider trading law. Those both deal with economic activities.
They do show, however, that legal obstacles to coordination are not obsoleted by technological effects. Indeed, modern communication doesn’t mean that coordination obstacles are easily overcome, especially if the obstacles are considered legitimate. No matter what messaging options are available, if you need to identify yourself for the communication to be useful, and you cannot trust the other party not to expose your attempt to conspire, then attempting to conspire is dangerous.
Here is another example: in investment banks, it is generally not permitted for employees to coordinate on pay. It is a disciplinary offence to tell anyone how much you are paid. This is taken seriously, and is, in my experience, effective. That is an example of an obstacle to coordination imposed as part of a power structure.
Legal obstacles to treasonous coordination were removed for ideological reasons, because division of power and competition for power were considered legitimate. Effectively, “freedom of association” was one more way to undermine the ancien régime and unleash the mob. As with the other historical destabilising demands of progressives, things are starting to change now that the progressives have taken permanent control of the central power structures.
You no longer need a Royal Charter for your golf club or trade association, but that doesn’t mean you are free to coordinate: if you don’t have sufficient female or minority members, you may need to account for yourself in the modern Star Chamber. The Mannerbund is the same kind of threat to today’s status quo as a trade union was to that of 1799.
The useful point is that it is not proved that you can run a stable society with complete freedom of association. That makes it more acceptable for me to recommend my form of absolutism, where people other than the sovereign inevitably have the capability to act against his policy by acting collectively, but such collective action is both illegitimate and made difficult by deliberate obstacles put in their way.
Update: just come across this 2004 piece from Nick Szabo, where he talks about dividing power to produce “the strategy of required conspiracy, since abusing the power requires two or more of the separated entities to collude”. However, as I see it doing that is only half the job: the other half is actually preventing the separated entities from colluding.
In my previous post, I explained why Neocameralism is not a division of power in Montesquieu’s sense, but rather a special case by which the benefits of power can be divided without dissolving responsibility.
However, while dividing power is not desirable, there is no Ring of Fnargl, and power is never perfectly concentrated. A real sovereign still has to deal with forces beyond his control, most obviously those beyond his borders; the loyalty of his subjects is always a real issue. Sufficient incompetence can destroy anything.
The reason that division of power is undesirable is that it erodes responsibility. Government is responsible if whoever has the power benefits from exercising it well and is harmed by exercising it badly. If the single absolute sovereign owns all the extractable product of his realm forever into the future, then it is in his interest to make it a successful, functional, realm. His interests may not be perfectly aligned with those of his subjects, but they are not all that far away. It is better to live under a secure sovereign who rules in his own interest than under a chaotic parliament which attempts to rule in yours. This is an analogous argument to the superiority of for-profit services to government-provided services in other spheres.
If power over the corp is divided, each individual with power now has two sets of incentives: to maximise the value of the corp and its product, as for an absolute ruler, but also to maximise their power over and benefit from the corp. Division of power is harmful to the extent that the second set of incentives exist and contradict the first.
The two largest classes of undesirable incentives are to extract value from the corp for oneself, and to increase one’s power over the corp at the expense of one’s rivals. The first is more obvious, and the second, in historical experience, more extensive and more damaging. Conversion can be restricted if the number of participants in power is reasonably limited, as it tends to be obvious. However, if power is distributed flexibly, then it is easy to provide rationalisations for a change in policy that is actually directed at increasing the power of one participant.
The fundamental problem is that power, whether formal or informal, is fungible. As I wrote in 2011:
A realistic chance of power is power in itself. It can be traded, borrowed against, threatened with. A “politician” is one who holds “Virtual Power”, and tries to increase it, just as a fund manager tries to increase the assets he holds.
If making power formal doesn’t help, then what is “formalism”? Formalism is Neocameralism. Formalism’s solution to persons with practical but informal influence over the government is not to formally define and legitimise their influence, it is to buy them out. It is to put a value on their influence, and to have them give up that influence in exchange for dividend-bearing securities.
As described in my previous post, the point of that is to take away their incentive to steer management in one particular direction or another, and to give them instead an incentive to have the management maximise shareholder value.
Clearly, then that is not a perfect solution to all problems of politics. It only works to the extent that a participant’s power, whether formal or tacit, is seen as legitimate. If a participant’s power is informal but legitimate (which is a common situation in the Modern Structure), it should indeed be made formal, but only as a preliminary to removing it.
It follows that formalism does not solve the problem of necessary division of power: the fact that however legitimate power is defined, there are those outside it who have influence over those inside it. It doesn’t solve, in general, the principal–agent problem. (The CDCC is designed to partially solve one particular instance of the principal–agent problem, of the armed forces openly defying rightful instructions; by providing a specific solution it implies that there is no general solution).
What formalism does is to leave the fundamental problem unsolved, and then insist that it is the fundamental unsolved problem, and that as a matter of day-to-day competence it must be limited at all costs. Take a moment to see how far that is from the conventional wisdom, which celebrates and actively encourages all division and distribution of power.
If any slope is slippery, it is the division of power. Division proceeds from division. Complete power is inviolable, small allowances of outside influence can be monitored, limited and reclaimed, but once substantial centres of power become strong enough to defend themselves, the remaining power will be shredded in the inevitable conflict.
The problems of people trying to influence a near-absolute ruler are not a different kind of problem to those we are used to. They are the normal problems; the exact same problems that utterly cripple any kind of competent government of modern states, only much smaller and more manageable.
There is no magic formula which will make good government out of an unviable realm. The possibility of concentrating power sufficiently for stability is the sine qua non of independent government. What is the ideal form of government for Mauritania? What is the ideal form of government for Marsh Farm? In both cases, it is for them to be ruled by outside forces that are strong enough to be secure.
Compromising the integrity of the structure of centralised power is to be avoided. Take for example, the hypothetical case I raised when I discussed the issue before, in Aretae’s day: the Pineapple Computer Co who want the King to appoint a judge under their control, to get them out of a PR problem.
By the logic above, the worst thing the King could do would be to agree to Pineapple’s request. That is giving away power, and there is a danger of not ever getting it back. Telling them to go fuck themselves would be better. Offering to match Queen Tamsin’s duty-free zone would be better.
A formalist answer, if instead of a King there was a Neocameralist CEO, would be to hold merger talks: if the sovcorp buys out Pineapple in a stock-for-stock transaction, then the interests of the sovcorp and the factory are henceforward aligned. I’m not convinced it’s a good idea for a sovcorp to own too many nationalised industries, but if the factory is genuinely essential to the wellbeing of the state, that is a reasonable solution.
(If the King is really a King, but the Pineapple company is privately owned, the same end could perhaps be achieved by having the owner of Pineapple marry the King’s daughter).
The most pertinent objection from outsiders to anyone advocating neoreactionary, formalist beliefs is that, historically, single-person rule as a mechanism for overcoming politics and discord has been tried, and failed.
I have explained previously why it is it failed: it was too successful too quickly. When European monarchs used the power of written communication and efficient transport to eliminate their traditional rivals for power—barons, abbeys and guilds—the result was an almost immediate flowering of wealth, technology, culture and philosophy. That flowering empowered other groups to step into the shoes of the displaced medieval trouble-makers.
The first lesson, then for future formalist rulers, is to be less easy-going and tolerant of opposition than predecessors such as Louis XIV or Charles I. Getting rid of the old mess does not buy you very much time at all if you permit the concept of shared power to survive.
But even with that knowledge, accidents happen. Formalism does not promise a Utopia of endless peace and prosperity. A new trick, like cryptographic weapon-locks, might work for a few decades, but contexts inevitably change and new threats arise. Some of them will be successfully resisted, and some will not. Two centuries of peace and prosperity would be a great achievement of any system. Of course, absolute monarchy in Western Europe did not manage anything close to that.
The real tragedy of modernity is not that the absolutism failed. It was likely to fail sooner or later, and it is a shame that it did not last longer, but not a tragedy. The tragedy is that in the process, the clumsy and ad-hoc propaganda of its opponents got enshrined as holy writ. And while systems of government almost inevitably fail, and yet can be restored, that was not inevitable, but a terrible fluke.
When new religions are born, the details of their doctrine are massively unpredictable. Of course, Gnon filters religions for viability, but that is dictated by a few macro-features, leaving enormous scope for random features to be picked up and carried on in the religion’s germ line. Looking at something like Mormonism or Baha’ism, you are struck by the sheer weirdness of what is included, usually just because it was one guy’s pet idea.
The burst of cultural exuberance triggered by the arrival of effective absolutist government produced a new religion with some pretty random beliefs about the nature of Man. That religion became entrenched, as successful religions do, and the history of the last two centuries has been the history of its random doctrines being gradually applied by its culturally dominant devotees, starting with the most realistic and practical, and by now concentrating on those that are left, the most bizarre and indefensible, such as the total malleability of human nature.
That is the problem with modernity. Yes, we have bad systems of government, but that is something that happens from time to time, and can be fixed. Yet for us it is not being fixed, because along with the bad systems of government we picked up something far more damaging and harder to cure: a bad religion.
celebrated blog post
of April 2013, neoreaction has been seen as a trinity, or “trichotomy”
of three principles: the Ethno-Nationalist principle, the
Techno-Commercial principle, and the Religious-Traditionalist
At a shallow level, neoreaction might appear nothing more than a
fragile aggregation of advocates of the three very distinct
principles—a coalition of rejectionists of the modern consensus. Most
outsiders, and some insiders, have seen it that way, leading to an
undercurrent of “fissionism”, of splitting up into three factions.
In spite of that there has always been at the core a dim awareness
that the three principles make up one whole, that neoreaction is more
than the aggregation of its parts. For all that, it has been unclear
whether that is meant as one agenda that embraces the three
principles, or rather one movement that encompasses three factions.
We talk about three, but in Spandrell’s original statement, the
Religious–traditional element is only grudgingly mentioned as a
possible third stream, and not examined. He is eloquent in his account
of being torn between the two other principles:
“If I had to say where I am, is the nationalist branch. But I used to
be more on the capitalist camp. The capitalist argument is quite
powerful: ethnic kinship is cool but the necessary corollary of it is
National-socialism. Or socialism itself. We used to have more
asabiyyah than now, but we also had no economic growth. For all the
nostalgia for the Victorian age, who wants to go back there? Who
prefers ethnic solidarity and purpose to modern medicine and
technology? Reaction is based on a fear of where we are headed,
certainly not on a dislike of how life is right now. Yes the proles
have become barbarians, but they never were that pleasant
anyway. Ethnic solidarity by itself is not necessarily conducing of
scientific progress and economic growth. And those I agree are good
“But the capitalism argument is to allow the market to do its
bidding. But what is its bidding right now? In the last decades it has
been towards a re-concentration of wealth. Plutocracy is coming back
with force. And yeah the plutocrats have made a lot of good stuff. The
argument goes that they might do even better stuff if the government
wasn’t messing with their ambitions through socialistic
regulations. Imagine all the economic growth they might unleash if
they were allowed to employ the proles for peanuts! What’s wrong with
slave camps if you get cheap cotton, huh?”
This argument is really the heart of neoreaction. In more recent
months we have employed the language of Gnon—the God of Nature or
Nature, reality which cannot be defied. In terms of Gnon, Spandrell’s
conflict is vivid.
Gnon requires creative destruction. There are more effective ways of
manipulating the physical world than those we currently employ. The
future belongs to those who find and employ those more effective
ways. Anything that ties us to the current ways, that prevents us from
trying new ways and using them if they are better, will incur the
wrath of Gnon.
The Techno-Commercial principle of Neoreaction is aligment with
creative destruction, with bankruptcy and the elimination of the
failed and the false.
That political identification with creative destruction—markets,
competition, freedom to innovate is where Moldbug came from, where I
came from, where, according to the extract above, Spandrell came
from. But it is not adequate. Gnon is not satisfied with creative
destruction alone. Gnon requires power.
A system can be designed, by libertarians or anarcho-capitalists, to
maximise creative destruction. But it cannot live. The society which
creates it might eschew power, leaving the forces of competition to
find the optimum solutions to problems. Others, however, will defect
from this view, and occupy the power vacuum. They might come from
outside, or from within, but they will come, and they will either
succeed, and reshape the society according to their particular group
interests, or the attacked will organise themselves to resist, forming
their own power centre, which will itself reshape society according to
its particular group interests. The potential of loyalty to a
succesful group is in human nature, it is given by Gnon. A society of
those who deny it will come to be ruled by those who do not.
If Creative Destruction is made concrete in technology and commerce,
group loyalty is made concrete in ethnic solidarity and
nationalism. They are not the only group loyalties possible, indeed
they are not the dominant ones in today’s West, but they are probably
in the long run the most stable and reliable. The neoreactionary study
of thedes is the science of this principle of Gnon.
The true neoreactionary, following Spandrell, attempts to balance the
creativity of techno-commercialism with the stability of
ethno-nationalism. Really, that is the whole problem. It being the
whole problem, nobody should expect it to be easy, and it is not. In
practical application, embodied in the culture of a society,
Techno-commercialism is in deadly conflict with
Ethno-nationalism. Markets undermine stable positions of power, blur
boundaries between in-group and out-group, invite cosmopolitanism and
compete away loyalty. National loyalties obstruct trade, splinter
markets, paralyse innovation, preserve the unfit in defiance of
Gnon. There is no equilibrium to be reached between the two, no
dividing line between where each one can act. In a thousand decisions,
the choice must be made again and again between the right
techno-commercial answer and the right ethno-nationalist answer.
This unstable mix can, when the proportions are right, survive and
prosper. But the long-run danger is always that one will overpower the
other completely, collapsing the society into unproductive socialist
nationalism or into hostile memetic capture by an acquisitive
thede. It could even be argued, that in today’s West, the principle of
balance has survived, but we have the worst of both worlds: a society
ruled by a minority thede, in which the point of compromise is to
suppress creative destruction. The ruling thede is not a nation or an
ethnicity, but a fluid ideologically-based club whose members must
endlessly and destructively compete against each other to retain their
membership. Competition in the ruling thede, stagnation in the market.
What then is the neoreactionary solution to the hard problem of
getting the benefit of both techno-commercialism and thede loyalty at
the same time in the same society? There must be an active management
of the competing needs. That management cannot be built on either
principle, or there can be no balance. It must come from outside
both. But, since both have the force of Gnon between them, it must
have some power of its own, some authority independent of both
commerce and thede, which can impose on either or both as the
What can fill this role is, frankly, still an open question for
me. The most promising possibilities so far suggested are the
authority of tradition and the authority of religion. Either one can,
in the right cultural setting, empower a judge to rule for competition
or for loyalty as necessary for the long-term good of the
society. This is the role of the third principle of the neoreactionary
trichotomy: to be the respected arbiter between the first two.
The trichotomy therefore in its most general form consists of creative
destruction, thede loyalty, and authority, but makes most immediate
sense as techno-commercialism, ethno-nationalism and
On this framework, a huge amount of very productive earth becomes
available for working. What have the effects been of thede alignments
divorced from ethnicity? (I only touched on that above in the barest
sense). How, and how effectively, have present and past societies
achieved balance between the competitive and stabilising forces? Has
such success as they have achieved been accidental, or is it
repeatable? How have conflicts within each of the three elements
affected the overall balance: church and state, nation and region,
corporation and entrepreneur? The value in my analysis lies in the
degree to which these questions can be answered usefully.
@Outsideness asks for
a scale-free model of reactionary order. What
he means by this is, why do neoreactionaries of the Moldbug variety
recommend central authority within a single state, but many small
independent sovereign states in the international realm. If one
central authority is good for the state, why isn’t it good for the
A case for independent sovereign states can be made on
ethno-nationalist grounds: there is such a thing as a people, and the
customs of one people are not the customs of another people. If
another people’s customs are incompatible with my people’s customs,
then put a border between us and minimise the conflict.
The Moldbuggians are
not primarily ethno-nationalists,
is not a vision of distinct nations, but of distinct states, small and
Why small states? @Outsideness suggests:
Is it not Moldbug’s ultimate conclusion that domestic authority is parasitic upon global anarchy, which trains it through exit?
Meaning, the absolute rulers of states are required to make their
realms attractive to live in, in order to compete for productive
inhabitants with rival states. If a state grows large enough that exit
becomes difficult—through effective border control, or non-existence
or scarcity of rivals—then rulers will be more extractive towards
Hence the request for a scale-free theory. If two (or more) sovereigns
within the Kingdom of California are a bad thing, but several
sovereigns within the continent of North America are a good thing,
where is the line drawn, and why?
My take is that, attractive as Patchwork is, a world of small states
would not be stable or sustainable. The Moldbug post linked above, and
the three preceding it, describe a world-system of joint-stock
sovereign authorities enabled by mechanical, cryptographic enforcement
technologies, which I see as not fundamentally impossible, but fragile
and highly implausible. If you reject the internal state structure of
Patchwork, as most neoreactionaries do, you probably lose the external
Historically, small states have tended to be swept up by empires. The
surviving small states, have survived as compromises between
empires—buffer zones or bargaining chips. Thereafter, they have often
been exceptionally successful, but their integrity has depended either
on agreements between others of the “if you don’t try to annex it, we
won’t either” type, or on being a de facto protectorate of an empire
that simply can’t be bothered with ruling it actively. That situation
assumes that there will be empires; in a world of only small states,
some will, by union or conquest, become empires, and the independence
of others depends on the action of the empires.
Why not one empire then? That is what the logic of neoreactionary
The prediction of rational rule leading to world government is
parallel to the old Marxist one of capitalism leading inevitably to
monopoly, and I think the flaws of the one argument are essentially
the flaws of the other—Change and Diseconomies of Scale.
The Marxist argument is actually correct, in isolation. The example I
always used to use to discuss this was zip fasteners. Two companies
making zip fasteners will make less profit than one, because the one
will be able to extract monopoly rent, and reduce inefficient
duplication. And indeed it came to pass, ten years ago when I used to
talk about this, that practically every zip fastener in the world was
made by one company. I would ask whoever I was talking to about the
subject to check the clothing they were wearing, confident that they
would find the letters “YKK” on the handle of the zip.
The punchline was that the world zip-fastener monopoly was so
economically insignificant, that it was run as a sideline by a
Japanese architectural manufacturing company. Because the industry fit
the Marxist model—everyone knew how to make zippers, they had been
made the same for decades, they were the same in every country—the
profit margins had become negligible, and there was little incentive
for anyone to compete with YKK for the market. In fact, the argument
doesn’t even work any more: zippers are more often plastic than metal,
and more variety of products and of manufacturers have emerged.
I think the same considerations apply to states. Microstates suffer
from economies of scale in external defence, and outside a variety of
niches, are likely to fall to larger, more efficient states. But the
returns to scale diminish, and while a state with a population of a
billion may still have an advantage over one with a population of a
hundred million, other factors could very easily outweigh that
advantage. (The ethno-nationalist considerations alluded to earlier
serve as one of those other factors).
If the world develops in a way favourable to neoreaction, I would
expect the international climate to remain recognisable. There will
still be empires, still largish states which have factors such as
physical geography or ethnicity preventing them from enlarging or
being absorbed, still small states surviving because it’s not worth
the cost or inconvenience of annexing them. Probably there will be
a good deal less wars fought for the sake of warm fuzzy feels.
Finally, while the option of exit is desirable and beneficial, the
neoreactionary argument does not absolutely require it. A world state
would presumably be secure enough that he would have no reason to
diversify his assets by extracting value from his subjects and
investing that value elsewhere; rather, his returns would be maximised
by allowing the value of his subjects to grow, which is a good
situation to be in for the subject.
OK, so a couple of outside websites have stirred the murky pool of
neoreaction — a welcome development, I think.
Because of the angle they came at it from (via Mike Annissimov, via
Scott Alexander), they rather overstated the importance of monarchism
to neoreaction. Monarchy is important as a point of comparison, but
it is only one possible approach among several for a neoreactionary
Having said that, Anomaly UK is where future monarchy
gets seriously proposed,
so I’ve pulled together what I think are the main failure modes of
monarchy, to put the dangers in the proper perspective. Most of them
have been discussed here before, so this is largely an exercise in
consolidation and better explanation.
By “failure”, I mean either that the system collapses and is
replaced with something else, or that the system survives but is very
unpleasant to live under.
There are some failure modes that are common to all systems of
government: any system can be invaded by foreigners, or be overthrown
by a demagogue. Monarchy, because its distinctive feature is the lack
of selection applied to its rulers, and the lack of regular
mechanisms for replacing them, has, or is perceived to have, its own
peculiar failure modes. Here they are:
- King is an evil psychopath
- King is a liberal
- King is uninterested, politics ensues
- King is sick, insane or senile
- King is a child
- Succession is unclear
- King has odd ideas short of insanity
Evil Psychopath — I can’t think of any. Democracy (particularly
one-party democracy) seems to have a far stronger track record of
putting evil psychopaths in power than monarchy does.
Liberals — this has historically been the major failure mode. The
solution is to permanently discredit democracy and liberalism. The
Roman Republic managed to achieve that for Europe for over a thousand
years, so I’m optimistic on this point.
Uninterested — this was
a major concern
throughout the monarchical period, but I struggle to think of
examples, at least from English history. Edward II maybe? That’s a
long way back.
Sick or insane — this has been troublesome. Modern medicine greatly
reduces the risk: the best-known examples have been the result of
syphilis or other treatable conditions. Senility is a major worry for
a modern monarchy, though.
Child — again, historically a big worry, but not common: it hasn’t
happened in England since Edward VI. Better health makes it less
likely. The British royal family currently has three generations of
mature adults available.
Unclear succession — again, better health makes shortage of heirs a
very minor concern. Disputed legitimacy might become an issue: even
with the availability of genetic testing, there is the question of who
does the testing and whether they are trusted. My impression is that
while disputes over legitimacy or rules of succession are not that
rare historically, they are usually cover for some deeper underlying
problem, often religious.
Odd ideas — this seems like a worry. Historical examples are again
scarce, though. Most odd ideas can be indulged as hobbies at miniscule
cost to a modern nation.
The most dangerous odd idea is liberalism; such a damaging and
plausible outcome that I already listed it separately. Most European
monarchies did in fact succumb to liberal kings. The next most serious
threat is religion. If the king adopts a minority religion, or even
the majority religion with too much enthusiasm, he risks stirring
dangerous levels of opposition. The Stuarts’ problems mostly stemmed
from this (though the reformation in Europe necessarily made things
difficult for them). My solution is
The common element in many of the perceived dangers of monarchy relate
to what the intentions of the monarch will be. The intentions of
monarchs seem to nearly always be to preserve his kingdom intact for
his family, to be remembered as a success, and, quite often, to get
laid a lot.
These motives can cause problems — heavy-handed policing employed
against even remote threats to the regime, wasteful vanity projects —
are common to all forms of government, particularly democracy. The
failure modes that really are specific to monarchy are
well-understood, and steps to avoid them have been taken — it is
well-known that the chief responsibility of the young royal is to
produce more than one legitimate heir at a relatively decent age.
We see this today in the non-ruling royal families of Europe, along
with a relatively recent development, that elderly monarchs are
routinely either abdicating in favour of their children, or less
formally delegating to them. This is an important response to modern
longevity. A monarch with strong family loyalty who found himself
incapacitated by illness would be likely to do the same.
A tight family group provides these benefits to a monarchy, but if the
family is relied on as the most trusted set of allies for the monarch,
then family members are going to be competing to some extent for power
and influence. This is normal, and happens under every form of
government. The fact is that members of a royal family are closer to
having a common long-term interest than members of other ruling
organisations — political parties, civil service departments or
military commands, and so are less likely to be destructive in their
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
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:
- centralization versus regionalism
- feudalism versus bureaucracy
- hereditary right versus merit
- military versus civil interests
- inner court versus outer court
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
the war of ideas.
To demonstrate, consider yet again the tension between feudalism and
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
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
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.
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:
- It provides a pool of officials under higher than normal
expectations of loyalty and good behaviour
- Hereditary privileges are a reward for loyalty and achievement
- It prevents some other institution with an important purpose from
becoming a de facto aristocracy
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.
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.
Hertzlinger points out, accurately, that absolute monarchy is a recent innovation. He also calls it “regrettable”. In a comment, I put forward the “history of liberalism in a nutshell”. It’s nothing I haven’t put here before, but it’s been spread over posts on a lot of different subjects, so I’m pasting my comment here (with minor editing) as a post:
Absolute monarchy was an innovation made possible by new technologies of transport and communication. When subordinates could not be supervised because of the difficulty of travel, it made sense to give them a large degree of independence, and ensure that they, like the Monarch himself, had permanent power and therefore a long-term view. When the Monarch became able to supervise subordinates closely, it made more sense for him to delegate to temporary appointees instead.
Monarchy died out because the enlightenment political philosophy, along with the propaganda pumped out by the English Whigs, became so intellectually dominant that even the monarchs believed it. By the end of the 18th Century, European monarchs were deliberately acting like democratic leaders, which hastened their end.
As Moldbug put it the other day, while technological competence is certainly an indicator of a successful civilization, it is also a lagging indicator. The story of the growth of demotism as I see it goes like this:
- As above, technology (roads, literacy) improves, very gradually over hundreds of years, to the point where a King can actually control his realm and his armed forces without delegating permanent power to feudal vassals.
- This creates a stable economic basis which produces an enormous boom of technological development and prosperity.
- Scientific discoveries undermine the religious world-view which is the traditional justification of the political regime.
- At the same time, many small landowners obtain, as a result of the economic boom, a degree of wealth previously associated with actual political power in the form of major feudal rights. They saw political power as a necessary accompaniment to their wealth.
- Those two developments led to the overthrow of the absolute monarchy that had triggered them, and to the first liberal regimes.
- The intellectual, technological and economic boom continued. It was erroneously seen as the result of the liberal political order, rather than of the absolutist political order that had initially caused it.
I take this as an encouraging sign
As a supporter of the principle of absolute monarchy, I do not believe that the problem with North Korea is that it has a hereditary ruler. Indeed, now in the third generation, I would expect to see the benefits of hereditary rule to be starting to show themselves.
So far I have been disappointed. North Korea’s government remains terribly bad. As I have written previously, I attribute this to the fact that, while hereditary, the government does not rest on the principle of hereditary right. Its political formula is built on a form of Marxism, and while the extra stability given to it by its ad-hoc monarchism has served to preserve it well beyond the normal lifespan of Marxist states, it doesn’t confer the full advantages of an explicitly hereditary system.
What I am interested in, when it comes to the guessing-game of looking at the politics of North Korea, is whether the Marxist-politburo “scientific” government or the early-modern Monarchical government has the upper hand. The first is bad, the latter good.
The story that has leaked out of North Korea is that Kim Chol has been executed for unfeelingly carrying on with high living during the mourning period for the late King, Kim Jong-Il, and further, that the young King, Kim Jong-Un, was so outraged that he demanded “no trace be left”. Therefore the unhappy vice-minister was stuck out in a field to be blown up with heavy weaponry.
That is seriously badass — we’re talking Tudor. The vital points are that (a) the offence was against the Royal Line, not the state or the politburo. And (b) the punishment was driven by personal anger, not a scientific principle of government. The Soviet Union was famously practical and humane about executing the deviationists, this is the opposite. Finally, it suggests that, if there is still some kind of internal power struggle going on — perhaps a continuation of some struggle over successsion — those with power are determined to win it absolutely. These three elements all point to better government for North Korea going forward.
Does this mean I want future King William V indulging in such Bond-villan escapades, come the Restoration? In extremis, yes. If senior, trusted members of the administration back the wrong side in a civil war, there is much to be said for going 16th-century on their arses. In peacetime, not so much. A good administration is one where the rule of law can be counted on. Once it is established that the King can rule by personal whim, he has little need to, since he will gain more by running a successful state.
Of course, with North Korea, it is not clear that the best thing would be for the government to improve. If the government failed and collapsed, the natural outcome would be a reunification under the South Korean government, which has an enviable track record over the last half century.
However, South Korea’s government has only one way to go, and that’s down. It is not twenty years since the country stepped onto the democratic conveyor belt, and it is not reasonable to expect the quality of governance that the DJP exercised to continue into the future. That doesn’t mean we should expect rapid decline in the quality of life there — One of the major misunderstood patterns of history is that secure autocracy produces peace and prosperity and, enjoying wealth and freedom, the subjects, associating wealth and freedom with the ruling class, expect that as they have the wealth and freedom of the ruling class, they should gain political power as a natural consequence. The autocrat is replaced or shackled, and the momentum of the former peace and prosperity produces a flourishing of improved life that the new regime first unfairly takes credit for, and then gradually proceeds to destroy.
Those who benefit most from their government are least loyal to it.
So, the story coming out of North Korea is consistent with a hereditary ruler cementing his dominance over rival power centres within the régime. That is by no means the only explanation, so any optimism should be very tentative.