IdleTheory The Origin of Political Power

In a society of tool-making and tool-trading individuals, who are all more or less equally idle, and none of whom are any more able than any other to exert any power over others, the emergence of any hierarchical power structure requires an explanation.

This essay outlines a number of ways in which a society may develop a power structure.

1.   Subjection

Perhaps the simplest way a society acquires a power structure is by having one imposed on it from above. Some army overpowers it by main force, and reduces it to subjection. The victors become its rulers, and the vanquished become their subjects. A clear stratigraphic division is created between the rulers and the ruled.

But since an army is itself a hierarchical power structure, with a leader at its head, and generals and subordinate officers below, and foot soldiers at the bottom, there has to be an explanation of how such armies come into existence.

2.   Concerted Action

But a hierarchical power structure may not necessarily be imposed from above, but may rise up spontaneously from below, from the shared needs of a mass of individuals.

For another explanation for the emergence of political hierarchies is that there is a periodic need for otherwise amorphous mass of individuals in any society to act together in concert.

For example, in a hunting society there may be a regular requirement for individuals to act in concert in hunting animals, with some of them driving the game in some direction, and others waiting with nets or spears, and some hunt master coordinating their various activities. Such hunting societies, with a clear chain of command, armed with weapons, and possessing the virtues of courage, discipline, obedience, and so forth, would appear to be the most obvious candidates as the precursors of military organizations.

Equally, in any society, there may occur periodic disasters which require the concerted efforts of everybody to survive or repair. Given epidemic disease, flood, earthquake, or invasion, the regularity of everyday life is interrupted and replaced by a state of emergency, in which all leisure vanishes as individuals take concerted action to meet the threat. As on some pleasure cruise, a ship strikes a rock, and takes on water, and all hands aboard form lines to pass up pails of water to keep the ship afloat.

Or again, some kinds of public works - the building of roads, the clearing of woodlands, the fording of rivers - may have only been possible through concerted effort of all able-bodied members of a society. And these public works, once constructed, will need to be maintained.

And in every case where there is concerted action, where a society acts as one body, there must be a head which issues instructions, and a body which obeys them, and therefore a chain of command.

3.   Seniority

Another quite different means by which a command hierarchy may arise is through seniority.

The primary exemplar of this kind of hierarchy is the family, in which children are naturally dependent upon, and therefore subject to, their parents and older siblings.

In any society, the youngest are dependent upon their elders for their survival, and consequently are indebted to them. And also where the youngest are taught everything they know by their elders, they incur a debt through learning the various skills that they will need in later life.

And so in any society there will be a natural hierarchy of indebtedness down from the oldest, who may be relatively few in number, to the youngest, who may be far more numerous.

And where debts are unpaid, they may pass from parents to children, so that any one generation may be paying debts acquired in previous generations.

And there may also emerge hierachies of families, in a form of aristocracy, with the oldest families in a society as the most powerful, because owed the most, and the newest families indebted to older families.

4.   The Restitution of Debt

In any society, debts are regularly acquired and repaid. The buyer of any good acquires a debt - its price - to the seller, which he is expected to pay. Anyone who makes a promise to do something acquires a debt which they pay when they have done what they promised. Anyone who causes another an injury or nuisance or trouble owes them the debt of making good the injury or nuisance. Every purchase, promise, or agreement brings with it some debt to be discharged. And in the everyday ebb and flow of life, as these multiplicity of debts are acquired, they are repaid, and the everyday business of society proceeds harmoniously and equably.

But if debts go unpaid, and those owed these debts have not the personal means or power to make the debtors honour their debts, they can only call upon the society around them to oblige the debtors to pay. And the response of a society - in whose vital interests it is for debts to be paid - must be to arrange for such calls to be answered, and judgments made, and debtors required to pay their debt or face some penalty. And so first informally, and later formally, there appear police, courts, and penal institutions, with powers over individuals in society. And this legal system becomes a political power within society.

Underlying all these accounts of the emergence of political power there is a primarily economic explanation. And invading army is a band of robbers after land, booty, slaves, tribute. And an army is one example of various forms of concerted action which either have some kind of economic improvement as their goal, or the minimization of economic losses. And societies which are organized by seniority are underpinned by the indebtedness of children to parents, of the young to the old. And societies which assemble legal institutions are again concerned with enforcing the payment of every kind of debt that may accrue within a society.

And all these political organizations are in some senses temporary. Once an army has completed its mission, its soldiers disperse into civilian life. Once a disaster has been averted, the emergency ends, and all return to everyday life. Once a large public project has been completed, it needs only to be maintained. Once children have paid their debts, they are free to lead independent adult lives. And if everyone paid their debts, or found amicable agreements to disputes, there would be no need of formal legal institutions to intervene. And when a debtor repays his debt, he becomes free to return to ordinary life.

And so the ordinary state of society is one in which political power is absent. The various organs of state power only exist for the maintenance and increase of the repose and leisure of the body politic. And therefore, in the best societies, there will an abundance of leisure, and the organs of the state will be largely inactive, the army stood down, the police off duty, the courts empty, the legislature on vacation. To the extent that the army is on active service, the police on the streets in large numbers, the courts filled with cases to be tried, and the legislature enacting new laws, the prisons overflowing, all these indicate a society in distress.

Political power, either in the sense of commanding forces, or supervising the construction and maintenance of public projects, carries with it responsibilities which demand that its holders be accordingly recompensed. If someone devotes their time to the production of some great public good, then they should be paid in some proportion to that good. And at the same time, the powers invested in any commander or supervisor are such that they may frequently be able to arrange for their headquarters to be enlarged and suitably furnished, and the chores of cooking and cleaning and conveying be taken over by chefs and housemaids and chauffeurs. And again the powers invested in such officeholders may allow them to grant favours to friends, and thus gain debtors. And so political power is very often a route to considerable personal wealth, and with those at the top of political power structures the wealthiest, and those at the bottom the poorest. And, in the worst case, a commander may simply regard his army as so many personal servants, or a public official may regard tax revenues as personal spending money.

And political power always has the nature of a monopoly. An army can have only one commander. A ship only one captain. And a society only one government. And this monopoly gives its holders considerable security. Once in place, it is difficult to dislodge. Once political power emerges, in whatever way, there is a regular tendency for it to perpetuate itself - for armies to perceive military dangers which require their continued maintenance, for government bodies to invent public projects that require new taxes, and for the legislature to enact new laws. For once there are professional soldiers, professional legislators, professional police, they all have an interest in maintaining and even enhancing their paid professions, and increasing their numbers. And at this point, instead of lightening the burden of everyday life in society, they begin to add to that burden. And then the army and the police and the legislature begin to take on the character of an occupying army, exercising arbitrary power over a subject population.

But where this happens, the idleness of society must always decrease, and as it decreases, so also must the ability of society to support an overblown state superstructure also decrease. In democratic societies, where state officials periodically face re-election, a society may vote them out of office. Otherwise, the only alternative is revolt, when the costs of enduring oppression outweigh the costs of removing it.

An occupying power that devastates a land faces the same problem. If it takes too much, it destroys a society's ability to create wealth, leaving only death and destruction. Therefore far-sighted occupiers will only take as much as allows the society to continue to function, and provide a revenue of tribute. And an even more far-sighted occupier would even act to improve its captured domains, building bridges and roads, so as to increase social idleness, and increase the stream of revenues. And to the extent that it acted to improve society, while minimizing the tribute it required of its subjects, to that extent it would begin to be accepted by those subjects, and the need to rule through naked force would diminish. And so, by degrees political power imposed from above is likely to be transmuted into something akin to political power that has grown up from below.  

Idle Theory

Author: Chris Davis
First created: 12 May 2003