The Centralization Trap

Or why you need aristocracy. Kings in the 17th century got the idea, generally, that they could stabilize their rule by cutting out the feudal nobility and consolidating their power. This represented a kind of ‘pure’ monarchy that kings had occasionally aspired to, and which was discussed in medieval political theory as the ideal state of government, from Dante through Hobbes. We call this Absolutism. Some people will call the 17th century the “Age of Absolutism”, something you’ve probably heard before. Moldbug uses “pure” absolutism as a thought experiment, by giving a King a magic wand that lets his political will instantly be done. It’s not quite that simple in real life, because you can’t be everywhere at all times with an instant-kill button that lets you enforce your will. Power needs people, if you want to exercise it further than you can shoot a gun.

Here’s our case study. Louis XIV. Louis really didn’t like his nobility. In fact, when he was young, he had to fight a civil war against them. Unruly nobles stirring up trouble and fighting the King were fairly common. The liberties granted to the nobility, to hold and rule their land, were a legal grey area. There’s ultimately a good reason for this, but we’ll get to it. But Louis XIV, at any rate, thought that France would be richer and more peaceful if he could personally govern it. The problem, of course, is that Louis is one dude and France is a big place. He can’t practically run France by himself. In fact, it’s impossible. That’s kind of what the aristocracy is for in the first place. But your nobles aren’t a bunch of bureaucrats who faithfully carry out orders. They’re a collection of warlords with big balls who practically shit will-to-power. That’s how they and their ancestors got their titles in the first place. (And also why they make effective rulers)

But XIV didn’t like giving them the freedom that they needed to govern their lands, because sometimes they would get uppity or offended, and rebel against the Crown. He couldn’t do it all himself though, so he decided to do it through proxy. He created a massive civil service of bureaucrats. Who couldn’t tell the feudal nobility what to do, but who were invested with the actual powers of government. I.e. they had the powers of the courts, legislation, and law enforcement. As far as they were carrying out the King’s will in an official capacity, they were invested with the King’s authority. These civil servants were all commoners, despite being educated (in fact, XIV could only do this because of mass education of commoners). He also “reformed” the army to take it out of noble control and bring the appointment (and firing!) of officers under his direct command.

Now, the nobles would probably be pretty pissed about all of this. And it’s not like Louis came out and told them “Hey guys, I’m taking away all of your power. Suck my Sun-cock.” He did it behind the scenes. And his nobility did just lose a civil war. It’s not like they were in a position to complain. XIV also did something really smart. He invited everyone important and powerful to Versailles, to live at court where he could keep an eye on them. The nobles probably thought they could get back in his good graces by coming along. But in reality, XIV kept them all distracted with the sublime hedonism that only the Baroque could provide. These nobles, and especially their sons, became more concerned about who was in royal favor at the moment, who was dressed on the cutting edge of fashion, whose taste in music and food was the best, who was fucking who in secret, and so on. It absorbed and deflected their status-seeking tendencies.

I don’t really fault the Sun King for what happened. Politically, he was treading into uncharted waters. What he was doing made sense both to the pre-Enlightenment monarchist and the Enlightenment itself. It’s only the hindsight of jaded reactionaries that can see his disastrous mistake. Which is assuming that since he gave these commoners power, and that they were nothing without his support, that they would be totally loyal to him. It was actually a mild form of bioleninism. But the people he appointed weren’t total underclass, the type of people who couldn’t feed themselves. They were the sons of successful merchants and artisans, solidly middle-class. And Europe’s middle classes are a smart, cunning bunch of guys.

See the problem yet? Louis couldn’t rule France on his own, which also means that he can’t supervise all of his bureaucrats either. He can’t tell if his civil servants in Calais or Marseilles are actually carrying out his orders, unless he hires more bureaucrats. Whose loyalty isn’t any more guaranteed. His bureaucrats realize that they’re effectively operating independently with near-unlimited political power. And a bureaucrat becomes more important the more problems he solves. So eventually, he begins finding problems that aren’t there, or even making them out of nothing. A lord doesn’t get richer and more important the more he meddles with his people’s lives. In fact, it’s a lot of work for one dude. So he’s going to be pretty hands-off unless he absolutely has to do something. Which is pretty much the way government should be unless you’re at war.

Louis’ bureaucrats ruled pretty effectively for a good thirty years. XIV himself was under the mistaken belief that ancient loyalties and the ideal of the King would keep his civil service in line. And it worked that way for a generation, but not too much longer. Eventually the bureaucrats realized that they were effectively in charge. Collectively at least. So what did they do? They used a crisis as an excuse to whip up an angry mob, capture the King, (now Louis XVI) and set up an English-style parliament. Nothing effectively changed at first; all they did was formalize the political reality that had existed for 30 years. I always wondered, when I read Carlyle’s French Revolution, where all these initial revolutionary characters came from in a feudal society. They seemed to spring into existence, hundreds of experienced legislators and administrators. Turns out that they were already working for the government.

See what happened? Louis XIV wanted to consolidate his power, so he made his aristocracy into figureheads. Which in turn made him, the King himself, into a figurehead! So we can surmise that, somehow, the King’s effective power is intrinsically tied to his noble class. More on this later.

Now about this crisis. The bread shortage. Calling this, alone, the cause of the French Revolution, is stupid. Or it has an agenda behind it. Let’s debunk it in one sentence: Famine was an occurrence inherent to Malthusian society, and had happened cyclically for hundreds of years, but suddenly now it’s the King’s fault? Just when a new elite class, thirsty for power, is on the scene? Give me a break. Again, no peasant revolutions in the past 1000 years due to famine. Peasants overbreed when a realm is rich and successful, but food production doesn’t rise concomitant to population because this surplus population starts to move into cities. And if they’re not making enough money to import food from other kingdoms, people will start to starve. One can even see this as a good thing, in Darwinian terms, but that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms.

England managed to avoid this because its surplus population went out to settle the Empire. France’s colonies were, by and large, not settlement colonies. Think how many Frenchmen lived in the Louisiana purchase compared to the American colonies. Hardly fucking any. A bunch of fur trappers, mostly, a few traders in New Orleans, and a few Cajuns who went out into the swamps. I couldn’t say why history turned out this way, but England staved off famine through colonialism while France did not. Most of France’s revolutionary civil servants, at first, were Anglophiles. They attributed the success of England’s Empire to England’s constitutional parliamentary monarchy (I attribute the lack of civil war in England’s Whig constitutional monarchy to the success of its Empire).

(I’ll head off a likely objection and say that it wasn’t Descartes and Rousseau and Voltaire either. Enlightenment philosophy, like Protestantism, only became popular because there was already a market for its ideals: wealthy educated commoners who were salty about not having noble titles and thought that they knew better than Church and King.)

These people, as in all revolutions, took over with the best of intentions. They wanted their Lockean Enlightenment constitutional monarchy, perfectly moderate in its whiggishness, sensible in its electoral franchisement, and humane towards its peasantry. Just like the Russian Revolution. And just like the Russian, 130 years later, the moderate faction got outflanked by the Left, as it always does. Lafayette and Mirabeau were good, but misguided men. They were destroyed by demons in human skin like Robespierre. Louis XVI was a pussy of a dude, and he would’ve been more or less content to be a figurehead. Which is why he lost his head, and why France took a blow it has never recovered from.

But the purity spiral is something we understand quite well. What is less orthodox is the need for an aristocracy. The King relies on them, and they rely on the king. Like I’ve said before, feudal society is one big bandit clan. The nobility are first and foremost military officers. The experience they get in war helps them govern in peacetime, and their duties and obligations as peacetime leaders help make them an effective military force. It’s not uncommon for the King and the nobles to fight, or the nobles to fight each other. But this bond of personal military loyalty is the basic unit of Western society. There’s no trying to circumvent it, as we just proved. I’m a reactionary because I don’t believe in perfect government, or perfect society. This tension between King and Lord is perfectly acceptable compared to the alternative. And that’s why the alienation of the King’s sovereignty is a legal grey area. (It wasn’t designed that way, but it ended up working out pretty well)

If the Lord is just a bureaucrat, he needs to meddle in people’s business to make it look like he’s doing a good job so that the King doesn’t end up firing him. And if his position is replaceable, well, maybe he’s incentivized to overthrow the King and create an egalitarian parliament of bureaucrats that ends up fucking everyone over. But the Lord can’t have total rights over his land, total alienation of sovereignty from the King, because then he has no reason to obey the King. He’s just a King now. And when you scale sovereignty down to the totally local, your state is prone to being invaded by any asshole with an army. And then that asshole makes you a noble, if you don’t die fighting, and calls himself a king. Which is pretty much how feudal monarchy was invented in the first place. After Rome fell, you had a bunch of minor kings with tiny kingdoms. And then some dick, whose tiny kingdom was a little bit bigger, would invade you and tell you that if you took your men and fought for him, you’d be big and important once he was finished invading everything he could. And maybe your kids might have the chance to marry his down the road, and you get your genes into the royal bloodline.

And since he was just a dude, he didn’t really bother to stick his nose into your territory once you were a Duke. As long as you kept the peace, protected the Church, and all that, you were pretty much in charge. And all the guys who fought for you were promised pretty much the same thing you were by the King, and they get some land and some legal independence and now you have freeholders. Everything I said about monarchy and aristocracy scales down to the aristocracy and its freeholders. If you don’t give your responsible, trustworthy men some independence, you end up with a class of unaccountable bureaucrats that effectively wields all of your power. And will end up killing you and an appreciable percentage of your population.

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4 thoughts on “The Centralization Trap

  1. The aristocracy/absolutism dichotomy seems homologous to the comparison between demonic possession and faustian civilization you made in your previous post. A civilization’s ideal of what government should be like is a macrocosmic imitation of their model of cognition. Medieval Christians, Enlightenment whigs and modern Progressives share a belief in a singular will capable of knowing the good, which is also singular in nature. The government should therefore be able to compute how to maximize utility for every province, town and hamlet under its protection using all taken together. What’s the point of having local governments to double check the central government’s math? The truth is the same everywhere.

    Decentralized goverment is more analogous to the shamanic notion that the mind is crowded with a host of demons each pursuing its own ends. It is fair to criticize African culture for its evasion of personal responsibility, but to their credit, their model of cognition is closer to how the brain actually works than the faustian model. Faustians are doomed to repeatedly underestimate the power of the demonic and to undervalue the principle of subsidiarity, which is adapted to channel, combat and constrain demonic forces on a societal scale.

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    1. In ideal terms, the singular will and its knowledge of the singular good is the ‘pure’ expression of Faustian spirit, yes.

      In practical terms, about as achievable as Plato’s perfectly Apollonian Republic. Power only works on a personal basis. Which is why our soldiers get their orders from a Sergeant, who gets them from a Lt, who gets them from a Captain, and so on and so forth. Instead of through a TV screen direct from the General.

      Because power works this way, we are tempted to set up a System or Ideology to transmit our wills over a long distance, or through time, to enact this singular good.

      The Faustian spirit is capable of its own evils, and throwing thousands of real, breathing human beings into the meat grinder in the name of an ideology is one of them. Socialism is another purely Faustian creature, but that does not mean we need embrace it.

      So rather than a singular will and a singular truth, I will settle for the particular will and its particular good. Which is in turn arranged in a hierarchy. As I’ve written before, the Devil was a minor figure in medieval times because they had him so well contained. Ultimately, my argument against centralization and absolutism is an argument for subsidiarity against the harmful excesses of the Faustian spirit.

      I do not believe that subsidiarity and decentralization are analogous to the Shamanistic soul, because the Shamanistic accepts man as thrall to a tumult of spiritual forces and attempts reconciliation with them. Whereas the hierarchy of feudalism puts it the other way round.

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  2. Good post! I see too many “reactionary-ish” articles out there praising absolutism like the last four to five centuries never happened. Maybe we’ve read so much Moldbug that we think the Ring of Fnargl exists.

    It seems civilizations and governments evolve in cycles (from tribalism to feudalism to absolutism to oligarchy to democracy and bioleninism to collapse and anarchy and back to tribalism again) where the previous government is powerless against the previous one.

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