You Can’t Get There From Here

diagram_of_greek_temple-142d477703c1498f773I. Laying the Foundation

Metaphorically speaking, the aspiring architect of a new political order faces the same challenges as any other architect. The political architect will have established his new order when one (sovereign) faction has more power than all the others, and enough power to force them to submit to its laws. By the same token, an architect who works in stone and timber finishes a new building when he has put the roof in place above the top floor, the top floor above the second-to-top floor, and so on all the way down to the foundation.

In fact, can we not say that in the final analysis, the whole field of architecture (including the political subdivision) reduces to the art of elevation? Architects elevate things until they are in their proper positions. Political architects elevate sovereigns high above all their subjects and, more generally, superior above inferior. Other varieties of architect elevate spire above belfry, or pediment above architrave, and in any event upper above lower. We who are unlucky enough to find ourselves but feebly endowed with the gift of elevation can only gape at the virtuosity displayed by architects who lift brick, mortar and steel up to the dizzying heights their tall buildings require.

9526fc4c289dc7934a0e8940acc1779cOr so it might seem.

Consider a simple case of architecture: a sandcastle, perhaps. And let us stipulate that we have in mind a really quite simple sandcastle, perhaps approximating a large mound of sand. An architectural amateur can hardly do better if he wants to practice his elevating. There is really nothing more to building a (simple) sandcastle than filling a bucket with wet sand, elevating that bucket to the top of the existing sandcastle-mound, and unloading your sand at the summit. If you have no bucket, your hands will do just fine. Architecture stripped down to the essential!

If you try this experiment, you will quickly discover something interesting about sand. Sand — especially wet sand — is easy to pour on top of the sandpile, but it doesn’t stay there easily. The weight of each bucketful of new sand dislodges what was there before, causing the sides of the pile to cascade down to the bottom, bringing most of what was just added with it. Sometimes an entire face of an apparently-stable sandcastle will slide off at once, causing a whole line of towers and spires to founder and vanish into the avalanche.

Other simple cases of architecture furnish parallel examples. Playing cards are light. One man can easily lift up a whole box filled with decks of playing cards above his head. But few can take those playing cards and build a card-tower that rises even a few feet off the ground. Elevating the cards is easy: the trick is to get them to stay elevated once they’re in place. A slight tap to the top of the tower causes the cards to tremble all the way down to the base, and just like that the tower collapses.

Slightly more ambitious architectural projects will suggest other failings of the Elevation Theory Of Architecture. Platforms that tip over; decks that detach; supports which crumple under the weight of the finished structure. After the structure itself is completed, of course, you also need to use it, which give it further opportunities to crumple, crack, or otherwise come apart under the weight of the furnishings and the occupants.

So: maybe architectures isn’t really all about lifting things up high after all. Maybe it’s about getting them to stay high after you lift them —and in particular, to prevent everything you’ve piled up from collapsing under its own weight.

II. Power and Ambiguity

Anarchy is the absence of power. To re-establish central authority, the authority-which-is-to-become-central must first have the power to overcome every anarchic faction that might resist it. It may be possible to pacify one rival with the aid of a different faction, but to pull off a trick like that you first would need the power to compel the second faction to ally with you against the third; not to mention the power to resist any far-sighted third party which intervenes to prevent you from subduing one faction for use against the second…

So whoever ends a prolonged period of anarchy will necessarily be powerful. A fortiori, at some point he will have had to pursue power, in order later to use it.

Amassing power seems like a great challenge because it is genuinely hard. Not everyone can be above average; not everyone can be a leader. Most people consider themselves lucky if they have the resources to prevail in a struggle against a landlord or an employer, never mind an entire rival faction in a national power struggle. To a fish, the whole world is a little pond — and to ordinary people like you or me, grave matters of statecraft are just extensions of a lifelong struggle against powerlessness and insignificance.

But the rarity or infrequency of a necessary condition does not, in itself, make that condition an obstacle. Great power is rare, but it will always be rare. The reason why the most influential factions, under circumstances of anarchy, do not make themselves sovereign — or, failing that, do not further augment and stabilize their power — is not that they are too stupid (or cowardly, or whatever else) to see the benefits of pacifying their rivals. Rather, they are ill-equipped to pursue supremacy because their powers, like the spires of a sandcastle, are heaped up high on an unstable foundation.

Sovereigns need to be able to mobilize resources. However, there are two ways to mobilize a resource: at will, or by influencing the consensus among all people with an interest in the resource and an ability to move/use/manipulate it. The latter is just influence, and requires a further question about how that consensus is generated and what one must give up to maintain that influence. To mobilize a resource at will, on the other hand, one must be able to intervene and determine its use regardless of whether other people like that use, or like you.

One way to express this distinction is to say that to mobilize a resource at will, one needs not just influence but formal power: the power that will be at your personal disposal in any conflict over the resource is so great that no ambiguity about who controls the resource can arise.

Unfortunately the extension of this formalist analysis to the conditions which define sovereignty itself would be improper. A distinction between “formal” and “informal” power implicitly assumes that “the power at one’s personal disposal in a conflict” includes power lent by legitimate authorities (the sovereign, or those the sovereign charters) to titleholders. By consistently defending the choices of formal titleholders, the sovereign deters malcontents from challenging titles, and thus indirectly from challenging the whole system of formal powers which the sovereign superintends. But while an ordinary person’s formal power can be defined as “his own personal power plus the power of the sovereign” to contrast it with his influence, applying the same formula to the sovereign yields an empty tautology.

Now, to execute his duties a sovereign must have at his disposal more power than any man could wield individually, in his own person. But he cannot rely on mere consensus among all the conscripts and policemen. In the former case there is no sovereign; in the latter, the sovereign is an assembly of henchmen. It is not that a king/chief/boss-man who leads an assembly of henchmen is an unimportant man. He matters, but he owes his status to his influence over the assembly and he serves at its pleasure. (He is in effect a demagogue in a very narrow sort of democracy.)

I have no intention here to unveil a formula or schema which adequately distinguishes between the sovereign’s ur-formal power, on the one hand, and his overall influence over consensus in the many different groups positioned to intervene in various conflicts in which he has a stake. I have drawn attention to this contrast only to highlight two ways of amassing power, and their very different implications for statecraft.

Doubling the number of people over whom one has influence increases one’s ability to resolve conflicts only within tight constraints, because one accumulates influence over an audience by appealing to its interests and preconceptions. By repeated doublings one could gain influence over an extraordinary number of people, but would simultaneously lose more and more freedom to maneuver without alienating one’s “followers”. The same logic extends to financing, to equipment, to talent; if you double the sum of money you can raise in a certain period, or the quantity of supplies you can stockpile, but these resources are provided courtesy of an audience on whose goodwill you depend, you are heaping more and more sand onto the sandpile. Their money and their supplies may be nice to have, but you will always be their employee — never their sovereign.

III. Transition

M. Tullius Cicero, at the conclusion of a discussion of the duties owed in war, states:

Though one may do injury in either of two ways — namely, by force or by fraud — both are entirely alien to a human being: fraud seems to belong to the cunning fox, force to the lion.

In the absence of a sovereign the law falls silent, and who then is to judge whether the harms men suffer rise to the level of iniuria? Nonetheless, we recognize force and fraud by the same general features whether at war or at peace. A judge is only necessary if there is a sentence to be passed and a legal title to be upheld; otherwise we can discern the violent or fraudulent character of an act without seeking to convict anyone of any crime.

We can admire particularly courageous applications of force, particularly cunning uses of fraud. Indeed, it is hard not to react to the sight of vicious comrades triumphing over an enemy with admiration (not to mention relief, and satisfaction). This goes to show that whether one can recognize the signs of force and fraud in an act is an entirely different question from whether one condemns the act as an injury, or even disapproves of it: how could anyone admire a master of deception without first observing his deceit?

Force and fraud not only appear in times of war and anarchy, but we can classify certain wartime acts as more forceful or fraudulent, others as less, and draw certain modest conclusions about belligerents who triumph without resorting to bestial tactics.

In the abstract, Group X overpowers Group Y if X has more manpower that Y and uses this advantage to physically prevent Y from opposing X’s plans. Conversely, X outwits Y if X contrives to prevent Y from opposing X’s plans by causing Y to believe (falsely) that this course of action serves Y’s interests.

It is generally understood that fraud is unsustainable. That is, it is entirely possible that X’s act of deception succeeds so completely that Y cannot recover from the damage; X’s position grows increasingly dominant, Y’s hopes evaporate and surrender looms. A ruse can work, and if it does work spectacularly, a victory is a victory. The problem is that it cannot work repeatedly. Whatever misleading evidence you offered originally your enemy will learn to interpret as random noise. So if X’s strengths in its conflict with Y have included, to date, successful use of fraud, you expect X’s advantage over Y to weaken as the conflict continues, and Y learns to disregard the misleading kinds of evidence it had originally fallen for.

Furthermore: even if X has triumphed, by fraud, in its war against Y, the power which X used to win the war will be little use in maintaining the peace. If Y remains independent, Y will not fall for the same trick again, and other rivals like Z will have learned from Y’s mistakes. If Y has been subjugated and absorbed, X does not need to deter a formal declaration of war, but does need some way to make the former members of the defeated group fall in line: the lies X told during the war will not work.

In a way, this suggests that fraud may be just a special version of the type of influence we encountered in the previous section. Influence gives you the ability to guide what a group does… provided you want them to do something that is in their interests. Fraud is really the exact same thing, but in the special case where you manage to make their beliefs about their interests conform to your plans, rather than conforming your plans to their interests. Accumulated influence is forfeit as soon as the “influencer” stops currying favor with the audience, in any case; fraud is simply the most drastic way to reveal to your audience that its goals are no longer compatible with your own.

Oddly enough the same sort of analysis applies, mutatis mutandis, to the scenario where X overpowers Y with superior manpower. Here, of course, there is no question of Y making a mistake or learning to correct it. If X has superior numbers at the beginning of a war it can very well maintain that advantage through to the end of the war, and all else equal X will still have superior numbers when the next war runs around. So the strategy of overpowering a rival is not “unsustainable” in the sense of self-undermining.

But a similar sort of regress arises all the same. Any group can be subdivided into smaller groups. For example, if X outnumbers Y, it is still the case that Y outnumbers a variety of possible subdivisions of X: let us in fact subdivide X into two halves, X’ and X”, either of which Y could easily overpower. The fact that (X’+X”) can overpower Y does not by itself imply that X will defeat Y (or any other rival) in future conflicts; to reach this conclusion we must also conclude that X’ and X” will continue to work side by side against “external” rivals.

Why would X’ and X” continue to cooperate? Maybe because X’ can overpower X”, or vice-versa; maybe because one has tricked the other. As a third option, maybe there is an incidental convergence of interests between X’ and X” which allows them them to influence each other to promote mutually appealing projects (like crushing Y). Such a convergence will last as long as it lasts, and when X’ and X” start to push for goals where their interests diverge, X as a whole will split up.

Of course, if X’ has tricked X” (or vice-versa), then one would expect the dupe will wake up and turn on the deceiver soon enough: such tactics are, we have noted, unsustainable. And if X’ preserves the X-alliance by overpowering X”, we have jumped straight from the frying pan to the fire: who keeps the subdivisions of X’ in line so that they can subdue X” (so that they can subdue Y)?

In interstate warfare, two (or more) sovereign states, each with (hopefully) some power base inside its own borders, face off over a disputed territory. Given that we already know each sovereign has the power to maintain internal order, we can infer that they use that same source of power (whatever form it may take!) to maintain military discipline. So even if a state does attempt to outwit or overpower its enemies, and even if these strategies suggest the state is exposed to certain risks (loss of trust, either from the enemy or within its own ranks), there is ultimately no worry about how the state maintains control at all: there is no worry that force and fraud are the only bonds holding the group together.

In anarchy, matters stand differently. There, no faction has any power beyond what it can use (and successfully defend) in its quarrels with its neighbors. If a faction gains power through a successful campaign of deception, it may have nothing left when the truth finally comes out (which it eventually will). More significantly: if a faction gains power through its superior numbers, it may have nothing left when its various internal cliques start to feud.

Thus in a very loose sense, the eventual “victor” who imposes order in an anarchic environment will be the one who reaches a no-force, no-fraud equilibrium. In anarchy, many factions will profit immensely from every sort of deception, lie, and breach of faith, but these same factions will crumble after they have no one left to lie to. Many factions will profit by ganging up on the small and weak, but they will crumble when they start to prey on each other. But a faction which derives its power neither (primarily) from its lies nor (primarily) from its numbers will not crumble and stands to continue consolidating its position into true political order.

So there really is a way in which an institution which is trying to reestablish order after a period of anarchy needs to be “small”, or at least “dense”. Institutions which are “big”, in the sense that they have power by virtue of containing/influencing many men and having many resources at their disposition, are ill-suited to the task in same way a Ponzi scheme is ill-suited long-term investment. An organization which achieves comparable power with less manpower is no better equipped than the “big” organization to accomplish a given goal or defeat a given rival (this is what it means to say they have “comparable power”), but is exponentially more likely to rule.

How does an institution with fewer men achieve better results than one with more men? It could recruit more talented applicants, of course (and it should!) but this only pushes the question back to a more general level: how does an institution with less manpower, fewer talents and human capital of all forms, fewer resources, less of everything, outperform one with more? Presumably it can only do this by being a better institution: better organization, more unity, such that the relationships among its few members form a network that induces the members to pursue the goals of the network and the network to pursue the goals of its members.

Conclusion: to have formal power (and thus potentially: sovereignty) rather than just a lot of influence (but: influence whose accumulation does nothing to end an anarchic state), an entity must be organized.


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