Early Modern Statecraft (and Statecruft)

Having defended monarchism in principle, I should move right into a previously-planned post on the problems actual monarchies face. As I mentioned in my previous post, calling someone “King” doesn’t guarantee he’ll rule over a kingdom any more than calling someone “General Secretary” guarantees that he’ll make you coffee. Constitutional monarchies are a thing; pretenders and usurpers are a thing; and of course, even an actual monarch can become less-than-actual if he allows certain crucial capacities to fall into the wrong hands.

Formalists suspect that formal regimes are better than informal regimes, and that most of the grave diseases that afflict modern societies can be traced back to poorly-designed institutions. But monarchy is not formal government and formal government is not monarchy. Rather, that there is nothing bad about royal government is merely one of the most unfashionable implications of formalism, and absolute monarchy is one of the clearest illustrations of a formal power structure. This makes pro-monarchist signaling — deeply unpopular in the broader population — uniquely well-suited for use as a reactionary counter-signal (an “exosemantic gang-sign”, in Nydwracu’s memorable phrase).

But still, an informal monarchy is just as informal as informal democracy. Doesn’t matter whether you call the guy who doesn’t-really-rule “President” or “Prince” if the priestly class continues to pull the strings. So we need to look quite seriously at what can go wrong in monarchies. This isn’t simply a matter of having the know-how to set up a sturdy monarchy, or deciding whether, on the whole, we prefer an absolute monarch or an oligarchy. These nasty totalitarianism-lite “democracies” we live in have failed spectacularly, but part of the spectacle is how quickly they failed. If you want to know what could go wrong in a formal state in general, you need to look at all of the failure-modes discovered during the many centuries of royal and imperial governments.

Failure modes like the French Revolution.

Formal sovereigns – monarchs or otherwise – don’t rule by metaphysical necessity. Their rule is contingent on other people who carry out the sovereign’s will. Consider an analogy: Michael Phelps swims fast, but not by metaphysical necessity. His speed is contingent on how much pressure his muscles can exert on the water, and things like that. If you amputated his limbs, I could swim a lap faster than him.

To say a monarch has formal power doesn’t mean he doesn’t need other people’s help, it means His Majesty’s government has a functioning institutional hierarchy. All the people in that hierarchy provide a valuable service, and they each need some reason to provide that service. The king, in turn, needs to provide the reason. But in a healthy institution, that incentive won’t be a voice in government — or at least, not on a regular basis. Kings do need advisors, and “vizier” is a pretty cool job, so the king may reward some of his servants with ministerial roles.

But there is only so much advising to go around. If you make some nobody your Financial Advisor, then you aren’t going to be able to reward someone who has actually straightened out your finances with the same role. If you multiply the ministerial roles endlessly, you created confusion and gridlock — particularly if you, as king, look to consensus among your advisors as a valuable source of information, or if you want to delegate minor tasks to them.

Kings often need to appoint men who will act as Justices of the Peace. JPs function much like the chief’s lieutenants in a tribal society. The king can’t be everywhere all at once, so he needs loyal allies who can command enough respect within a given region to communicate his orders there, make sure everyone knows what’s what, and knock heads together if there is any confusion.

Even when the Justices of the Peace perform this function beautifully, dependence on JPs and (more broadly) on the small class of men who have the wherewithal to fill the position can create problems. If someone who holds such an important role can’t be replaced easily, and if the pool of potential appointees is small to begin with, the “market value” of their services might be too high for the king to routinely pay them what they’re really worth. He may instead have to rely on overlap of interests. A king should not, unless he is a figurehead, ask his subjects to certify that his decrees are in their interests; but generally, they are in his subjects’ interest. (As a rule of thumb the king is the herdsman and his banker is the butcher.) The alignment of interests is even closer when you look at the sort of local squires and landowners who might serve as JP, since they are the ones who have the most to lose from insecurity of legal titles.

This deep overlap of interests frequently exists between a king and his subjects, and in particular between a king and his lieutenants. It means that a king can often call on some local squire to play a critical local role for little more than a symbolic reward, simply because the squire also wants the job to be done, and done well. But even if such an overlap exists, a king who becomes dependent on it is skirting disaster. His hold over his lieutenants is no stronger than a tribal chieftain’s, and he must always bear in mind how a new policy affects those whom he expects to enforce it. If it is bad for them, it will be enforced lightly or not at all; if it is very bad, the same men may hold their other duties hostage to increase their bargaining power.

In some metaphorical sense, perhaps all rebellions are rebellions of JPs. But the English Civil War especially deserves this description. In the escalation of his dispute with Parliament, Charles I had so heavily alienated the gentry class that county governments were largely outside his control. How he alienated them I will touch on in the next post, but the preexisting problem was that his government relied so heavily on its local lieutenants, and in particular on their own interest in promoting royal policy, that these lieutenants had something like a formal veto on any policies that went against their interests.

I do not mean to describe the use of JPs as “the cause” of the English Civil War. It may well be Charles I had no better option. He should at least have recognized that such a vulnerability existed, and also the importance, if it existed, of keeping tabs on the working consensus among potential rebels. Indeed, that is why parliaments exist. Parliaments build centrality into the lines of communication of the unreliable class. So long as Parliament seems satisfied, would-be rebels know they won’t be able to foment a rebellion, so they have no reason to risk royal wrath by trying.

Charles I called no Parliaments between 1629 and 1640. This period of personal rule was entirely consistent with his right as sovereign — but perhaps it was not wise.

Charles I ruled without consulting Parliament for 11 years. When Louis XVI convoked an Assembly of Notables in 1787, this body had not been consulted in 163 years. When the Estates-General assembled two years later, it had not met for 175 years, and could not even settle what seating arrangements it would use before veering off into Revolution.

What is best is not to have many important lieutenants whose enforcement of royal policy is contingent on their personal approval to begin with. (Ideally a king could limit such sensitive positions to men whose opinions he would solicit anyway, in their capacity as his advisors.) When reactionaries blame the fall of such-and-such a monarchy on “the decline of the aristocracy”, they most frequently mean that the kings were relying on community leaders to administer justice on a volunteer basis as a public service, rather than finding someone who would take charge in exchange for some reward. Rewards (whether seigneurial privileges or simple awards of cash and land) are expensive, and moreover the more rewards flow to the aristocracy, the more powerful aristocrats there are to interfere with dynastic succession.

But assuming you do have little choice but to rely on many independent lieutenants who serve at their own pleasure, it is wise to know what their pleasure is. Calling regular Parliaments is one way to do this — not a law of nature, but certainly a sensible approach to a serious problem. If you are regularly consulting some body to make sure they aren’t secretly getting pissed off at you, don’t forget the “regularly” part. A parliament isn’t like some girl you picked up at the club; it’s not going to think you’re hot stuff because you never return its calls. If you don’t want to use assemblies to keep tabs on the people you rely on, don’t call assemblies. But don’t call assemblies when you think they like you, and stop calling assemblies when you’re afraid maybe they don’t like you, and then start again when your affairs are in total chaos. The whole point of the assembly is to give you a sense of how much they don’t like you.

However, a whole class of very similar problems can arise in different circumstances where the JPs, or some similar group of lieutenants, are not doing their job — indeed, where there is no longer any job for them to do. To imagine how a situation like that might arise, let’s say that your great-great-great-great grandfather, the first king of your royal line, was always at war and so never stopped campaigning. He found it useful to use one of his men as a de facto second-in-command. He had to lead the army and have final say in decisions, of course, but he couldn’t do everything by himself — so he had a right-hand man who was always at his side to oversee logistics, manage access, double-check plans, deliver orders, and that kind of thing. And since he was always right there, he probably doubled as a bodyguard, a taster and even, if necessary, as a valet.

Sounds like an important, grueling job, right? If your quadruple-great grandpa’s new dynasty gets firmly established, his Right-Hand Man is getting a big, fat barony.

And maybe the following kings retained this “Official Right-Hand Man” position when they went off to war, and continued to appoint worthy men to the position… even as the position hemorrhaged duties over the generations. The original Right-Hand Man worked hard for his peerage. The first king’s son’s and grandson’s Right-Hand Men both still had a valuable role to play (and those two probably only earned that appointment after they had already performed invaluable services that merited a peerage in their own right). So they got peerages, too.

Fast forward: now you’re the seventh of your line (long may you reign). Times have changed. Now you have a General Staff. They manage military logistics. The tradition has devolved to the point that the guy you appoint as your Right-Hand Man, is basically just your equerry. He helps you mount. And dismount. Maybe he coordinates with the grooms, too, to make sure that the horses are looking shiny.

You’re not going to give someone a peerage for helping you get on a horse. And you’re probably not going to waste the talents of a servant who does deserve a peerage by “promoting” him to full-time equerry. So it would be really, really unfortunate if this whole “Right-Hand Man” tradition had descended down to your reign in an unbroken line, peerage and all.

No one wants the insult of being the first Right-Hand Man in the history of the kingdom to not get a peerage. If you despair of filling the official Right-Hand Man position and just get some dirty peasant to help you on and off your horse, your loyal servants might not be very happy with that, either: they way they think of it is, the gentlemen of the realm collectively have the privilege of helping Your Royal Highness mount and dismount, and you should reward whichever of them does the job with a peerage.

This may seem like a silly and unlikely example. Certainly I’ve sketched out a huge disproportion between the service rendered (equerry) and the reward (peerage). But this kind of thing really does happen! Consider a more prosaic starting point, where the lieutenants start out as JPs or sheriffs. Over time other parts of the local administration takes over the duties which originally required independent leadership. Eventually this guy’s duties devolve into standing in the town square on Sunday and publicly reading new edict, as a symbolic promulgation. Or maybe he doesn’t even need to do a public reading: maybe he just needs to sign the edict.

In the past, when he was responsible for enforcing the edict on his own authority, signing the edict was a big deal. If the local JP didn’t know about the edict, it wasn’t getting enforced anyway, so his neighbors knew to treat any alleged edict he hadn’t signed with extreme suspicion. If he found it ambiguous or poorly-framed for the local situation, he could request clarification from the king and delay enforcement until he knew how to apply his instructions. If he was only pretending not to understand the edict it still wasn’t getting enforced, which amounted to the same thing. And indeed, returning the edict to the king with more-or-less frivolous concerns could be the JP’s way of escalating towards open defiance.

But once the the edict gets carried out without the JP’s participation, this link disappears. The two responsibilities belong to two different people. The signer’s opinion of the edict no longer reflects the enforcer’s, so a failure or refusal to sign contains no  information about enforcement. All that remains of the link is the salience, in the memory of the population, of the rule “No one obeys the edict until after it has been signed”.

The end-point of the process I’m describing is a cartoon version of the powers of registration of the French parlements (local judicial bodies). I say “cartoon” because I know next to nothing about the judicial system of the ancien régime, and I don’t know how much of the day-to-day operation of the Bourbon legal system actually required the enthusiastic participation of the parlementaires. But what I want to stress is that these bodies simply refused to register royal proclamations they didn’t like, and then claimed that any attempts to enforce an edict without the ceremonial registration called for by tradition were illegal, and encouraged resistance.

Calling a legal activity illegal is bad. It creates ambiguity about what is and isn’t legal, and thus also about who does and doesn’t have authority to interpret the law. Legal ambiguity fuels violence. But calling laws illegal, for so trifling a reason as the accuser’s own refusal to go through with a celebration-ritual, calls for a noose.

But more to the point, no one should be in a position where his participation is strongly associated with a successful use of royal power, but his competence and powers are unnecessary to the success itself. Such a system has many of the problems of systems of semi-autonomous lieutenants like the Justices of the Peace, but none of advantages! Once the real authority of a position has disappeared, its residual symbolic authority must be blasted from the face of the Earth as quickly as possible.

So long as these symbols remain, they create ambiguity and coordinate subversion. But worse still, the continued existence of the symbol as symbol, without any of the earlier powers that originally justified it, gives the impression that the sovereign does indeed intend for this symbolic authority to have a formal status in the legal process. Such an impression cannot be binding on the sovereign, but it can create expectations. A sovereign can change the law at will, but he is stuck (at least for a time) with expectations he has created of his own free will, so he should avoid giving rise to such expectations in the first place.

The great advantage formalism offers is predictability: everyone knows who has title to X, and who will in fact control X when all is said and done. This removes any incentive to squabble and bluster over who actually controls X. If you are certain about the outcome, there is no reason to waste energy fighting over the result, and with no one fighting his decrees the sovereign doesn’t have a lot to worry about.

But insecurity of formal titles isn’t the only way to create uncertainty, and if you create enough uncertainty about something else, then people aren’t going to act as though they consider potential conflicts to have a certain outcome. One of the easiest way to stoke uncertainty is by creating pointless ambiguity about political structure. If people believe their consent (or their allies’) is formally necessary to legal procedure, this will drastically change their predictions about conflicts, leading them to pick dangerous fights. If you allow this expectation to become entrenched and then strip it away, not only will they be disappointed and angry, but — having suddenly “lost” one of the powers they were counting on for self-protection — they will now be worried about what they might lose next, and what means they have available to defend it.

The solution is to euthanize the rancid expectation as early as possible, when it is still weak; and in the case of symbolic authority in particular, when the symbol is still primarily a direct function of independent authority.

This may be the greatest difference between conservative traditionalism in its broadest sense and the reactionary traditionalism of the cult of Gnon. Point out an institution that has outlived its original purpose and faster than you can say “Chesterton’s Fence!” the TruCon will be explaining to you that we shouldn’t second-guess the wisdom of past generations as embodied in inherited tradition. Well, in purely social matters (food, dress, family life) maybe so, but when it comes to throne and altar, things stand differently. The men who have the right to say what is just and what is holy have a unique function in society that would allow them, if they used their positions unwisely, to turn all other traditions upside-down.

If the sovereign allows these positions with symbolic authority (or even positions which create an expectation of symbolic authority) to accumulate needlessly, he is putting his entire state in danger. Change for the sake of change is no good. Old offices do gather strength from their deep roots and the almost-supernatural awe that subjects feel for them. But that same sublime aura that commands respect for the sovereign’s loyal lieutenants also commands respects for disloyal lieutenants, or indeed for ceremonial office-holders the sovereign never considered his “lieutenants” to begin with.

A traditional function with residual symbolic authority is a prehensile appendage dangling off the body politic. The TruCon says “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” but Gnon’s rule is “If it’s not serving a function, saw it off quickly before necrosis sets in.” Then cauterize the stump, just to be sure.

7 thoughts on “Early Modern Statecraft (and Statecruft)

  1. I was expecting a tour of political ideas a la Eric Voegelin, or perhaps of Prussian cameralism and English mercantilism [subjects I’ll have plenty of juicy things to say about], but this is fine, too.

    Since you bring up formalism, I’ll actually be publishing a retrospective on Moldbug on both Thermidor and my blog scheduled for either April 22nd or 23rd to mark 10 years since his manifesto, and I’ll indeed be making some unusual comments on early modern statecraft there.

    However, I do not think the proposed remedy of regular parliamentary hearings is a good one. This obviously depends on the de facto constitution of the state, but if you’re coming from a state of Bodinian absolutism, the parliamentary body can easily seize control after a primogeniture dispute triggering a succession crisis. Case in point is the so-called “Age of Liberty” in Sweden, marked by bitter factional strife and pointless ill-fated wars with Russia [the one in 1741-43] (Sound familiar? It might be soon enough.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. To be clear, I’m not in favor of regular parliamentary sessions; the gold standard is the elimination of the class that you might benefit from consulting in parliament. What I’m against is convoking an assembly to resolve a crisis after having no assemblies while the crisis was brewing. It is the period when the crisis is brewing that you want to keep an eye on the dissatisfaction of your lieutenants.

      How were the Russian wars tied to the role of the Swedish parliament?

      There were a few more political ideas that I originally planned to include, but it got quite wordy already, don’t you think? 🙂


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