The Powers That Have Historically Ruled Over Mankind: Barons, Churches, Kings, and Citizens
In general, four powers have ruled over the citizens of a nation in any era; these are Barons, Churches, Kings, and Citizens themselves.
Everyone knows, state religion used to be common in Sub-Roman Europe, and everyone knows Kings have historically ruled nations. Thus, we can say, nation-states are typically ruled by Kings, and often have a state religion which constitutes a ruling governmental body.
We also know of a few exceptions to Kings and Churches ruling alone, such as “in the time of hunter and gatherers,” in Athens’ Democracy, in the Romans’ Republic, and in the post-Revolution western Republics like America and Britain. In each instance, “the people” ruled to some extent. They may have ruled by their own right in the state of nature, or directly to some extent at certain times in Athens and Rome. At times they ruled through elected governors as it is in the modern West. Rather than the King or bloodline deciding “who rules,” these people had a form of democracy, even in cases where power was limited by class.
However, most people are oddly and blissfully unaware of “the other ruling class,” Barons.
Barons are those who come to power by wealth. In the modern day, they are called the 1%. Marx called them the bourgeoisie. They were called oligarchs in Solon’s Constitution in reference to their pre-Solonic plutocracy. They were called patricians in Rome, and in Revolutionary France, they were called the Second Estate. Barons are a ruling class who do not rule by political power or at least by that alone. They rule through their wealth.
Dismissing Barons is akin to discussing America without speaking of corporations and K Street, it paints only a partial picture.
TIP: A Barons’ war is different than a Peasants’ War, and both are different than a Workers’ revolution. This is true even though they all tend to rebel against “the first two estates” (speaking in terms of the French Revolution). We don’t need Smith’s invisible hand to tell us that individuals and groups are generally driven by their own “special interests“.
TIP: Plato postulated different natural classes of citizens existed in a state. See the closely related metaphor contained in Plato’s Republic. See also a discussion of historic rulers and classes in Democracy In America by Alexis de Tocqueville.
The Options For Who Rules a Given Form of Government
Thus, with the above in mind, in any state, we have these options.
- Rule by Kings and their aristocracy.
- Rule by Churches and their aristocracy.
- Rule by Barons and their aristocracy.
- Rule by Citizens.
- Or, rule by a mix (like, you know, a Mixed-Republic or Polity).
The Invisible Hand and the Ruling Powers
Adam Smith ensures us that any class will follow their self-interest (and Marx tries to warn us, in his Historic Materialism, that the struggle between the economic and otherwise historic classes is what defines the evolution of sociopolitical systems!).
Any authority in power will consolidate power; any authority who loses power will be oppressed and experience economic and political inequality. This is ensured by human nature, which is self-interested (be it compassionate or selfish) if not ensured by culture, ethics, laws, etc.
Thus, if we give Kings power, Kings tend to move toward absolute power and become tyrants and despots (see types of governments). If we give Churches power, they tend to move toward pushing out other religions and enforcing a form of religious socialism. If we allow Barons power, they tend to monopolize and push out other Barons. When we combined Church and State, we got an entity like the Holy Roman Empire. When we combined a state with Barons, we got mercantilism and cronyism. When we combined Barons and Citizens, we got the Gilded Age and workers rose up forming Trade Unions.
So, then. The Citizens alone should rule! Right? NO, not right.
The government does well be respecting “the general will.” Following the whims of passions of the majority is often the most chaotic answer of all.
Sometimes a powerful King, Church, or Baron can draw from the intelligentsia (a hidden fifth power; explained below). They may use power or money to sway them or use state power to ensure order. Having the people as a whole come to a consensus based on emotion rather than science, philosophy, or law, is dangerous. This is especially so when the average citizen suffers from economic and political inequality and has little to lose, as happened in in post-WWI Germany.
When the people have too much power, and when there is no force of law or reason to guide them, we get the tyranny of the mob, gangsterism, anarchy, and general chaos driven by popular sentiment. This sort of popular uprising is the sort of thing that “restarts history” and leads to stepping back into feudalism.
If all of the power configurations that we have experience in our history are equally problematic, what is the answer?
Mixed Governments, the Separation of Powers, and Checks and Balances
The answer has been known for a long time and was stated clearly by Montesquieu when discussing Rome:
At Rome the people had the greatest share of the legislative, a part of the executive, and part of the judiciary, power; by which means they had so great a weight in the government, as required some other power to balance it. – Montesquieu expressing the need for separations of the powers and checks and balances in his Spirit of the Laws. Also, in this section, warning that YES, even the citizens can be tyrannical (see Lenin’s revolution). The answer is balance, not Pure Democracies (and certainly not pure Despotic governments). Even Sparta and Athens had, in practice, a socialist and free-trading-republic respectively.
In other words, we must not only apply the separation of powers and checks and balances principle to our government, giving us a Monarchy-Republic-Democracy mix. We must be wary of the problems of despotism, plutocracy, and anarchy, and must also apply our principles to the authorities who officially and unofficially control that government.
A close inspection of the United States will show that we have applied this concept fairly consistently since the Gilded Age and Progressive era. When the Barons began to take over, we didn’t start another Barons’ war. We began fusing industry and state, welfare and capitalism, lobbying and governing. As many would suggest, what we saw was at least in part, the return of mercantilism and cronyism.
I am not sure exactly what the solution looks like. As much as one might want to separate spirituality from the state, or focus just on one aspect of government (like pure free-market capitalism, centralized power, workers, employers, “pure democracy,” or states’ rights), they should be cautioned against it.
The answer when founding the United States of America was a “mixed-Government” formed after an examination of history, reason, and debate. We can’t get so caught up in fighting against Kings that we forget the danger of Barons. We cannot guard against Barons and forget the danger of Kings. We cannot focus so much on Barons and Kings that we forget the importance of Churches. Equally, we must remember and protect the rights of citizens, but cannot be so focused on liberty and democracy that we allow either anarchy or despotism.
As Alexander Hamilton said wisely, “Real liberty is neither found in despotism or the extremes of democracy, but in moderate governments.” We know that liberty is not to be found only in the bourgeoisie or proletariat, the clever writer, the benevolent monarch, this religion or that one, this race or that one, this governing style or that one, this economic style or that one. It is achieved by balance, contains limitations of power, constantly self-checks with reason, vote, debate, consensus, and critical thinking. Ethics and morals must carry the same weight as laws and practicalities.
Athenian Democracy was won by overthrowing Barons and canceling debts back in 600 B.C. America was won by overthrowing Kings and separating church and state. We can’t eliminate these forces. We cannot not rid ourselves of naturally occurring social systems arising from the human condition. They occur and will always exist.
If we create a power vacuum, the vacuum will be filled. Our three branches of government, higher and lower houses, different classes, public stock markets, unions, and countless other powers have done well to form and balance themselves. We should not forget their importance in offsetting the troubles that have plagued past societies.
We risk revolution when a large part of the population feels oppressed, when they do not own property, when they class does not have ethical spirituality (regardless of official religion), and when they see the law as oppressive, not protective. In King George’s America, a revolution meant gaining liberty from Kings. If the West faces a revolution today, I fear it will be the sort of populist workers revolution Marx predicted. So far that has resulted only in the most destructive forms of Government such as Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany.
Athenian Democracy Solon and Cleisthenes.
TIP: See our Separation of Powers Metaphor where I discuss the relation of this theory into a model involving the separation of powers.
TIP: The “hidden” fifth power mentioned above is “the intelligentsia.” Philosophers like Smith, Locke, Marx, etc. change nations and begin and end eras. A King has his CIA, NSA, FBI, Secret Service, MI-6. A Baron knows the ins-and-outs of banking, finance, and industry and has his analysts. A Church has its preachers and authors. A book like the Bible or Quran may be more well-read and followed than those of the philosophers. All entities can use the media (including the old printing press) to give people an open forum. There has rarely been a philosopher king, but there has always been King’s philosopher.
FACT: The Magna Carta was not a treaty between citizens and Kings. It was between Barons and Kings. See Magna Carta and the Barons’ wars.