The General 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 correctly 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, either by their own right (in the state of nature), or directly to some extent at certain times in Athens and Rome, or via elected governors as it is in the modern west (rather than the King or bloodlines deciding “who rules”, these people had / have 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 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, in Rome they were called patricians, and in Revolutionary France they were called the Second Estate. They are a ruling class who does not rule by political power (or by political power alone at least), but by wealth.
Dismissing Barons is akin to discussing America without speaking of corporations and K Street, it paints only a partial picture.
The Options For Who Rules a Given Form of Government
Thus, 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.
The Invisible Hand and the Ruling Powers
Simply put, any power in power will consolidate power, and any power out-of-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 will move toward absolute power and become tyrants and despots (see types of governments). If we give Churches power, they will move toward pushing out other religions and at best enforce a puritanical form of socialism. If we allow Barons power, they monopolize and push out other Barons. If we combine Church and State, we get the Holy Roman Empire, when we combine state and Barons we get mercantilism and cronyism, when we combine Baron and Citizen, we get the Gilded Age and workers rise up via trade Unions.
So, then. The Citizens alone should rule! Right? NO, not right.
The government does well be respecting “the general will“, but following the whims of passions of the majority is often the worst answer of all.
Where a powerful King, Church, or Baron can draw from the intelligentsia (a hidden fifth power; explained below), using power or money to sway them, or use state-power to ensure order, the common-Joe-and-Jane come to consensus through emotion, not science, philosophy, and law, and this is dangerous… especially when the average citizen is suffering from economic and political inequality and has little to lose (such as 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 just the sort of thing that “restarts history” and leads to feudalism, and this isn’t desired.
So then, if all of history’s powers is equally problematic, what is the answer?
Mixed Governments, the Separation of Powers, and Checks and Balances
The answer is one that has long been known, but 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, and be weary of their vices despotism, plutocracy, and anarchy, we must also apply the principles to what powers officially and unofficially control that government.
A close inspection of the United States will show we have applied this concept fairly well 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… but, as many would suggest, what we got was at least in-part, a return of mercantilism and cronyism.
I am not sure exactly what the solution looks like, but I will say, as much as one might want to separate all spirituality from state, or focus just on pure free-market capitalism, or centralize power, or only favor workers, or only favor employers, or embrace “pure democracy”, or just stick with states’ rights, they should be cautioned against any of it.
The answer when founding the United States of America was a “mixed-Government” formed from 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, so against Barons that we forget the danger of Kings, or so fine with Barons and Kings that we forget the importance of Churches… or so interested in any that we forget the rights of citizens…. or so in love with liberty and democracy that we need to crawl back to Barons, Churches, and Kings.
As Alexander Hamilton said wisely, “Real liberty is neither found in despotism or the extremes of democracy, but in moderate governments.” Here we can say, no it isn’t 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 a mix and balance filled with checks, constantly itself checked by reason, vote, debate, consensus, and critical thinking where ethics and morals matter just as much as laws and practicalities.
Athenian Democracy was won by overthrowing Barons and cancelling debts back in 600 B.C., America was won by overthrowing Kings and separating church and state…. but we can’t eliminate these things, one does not rid themselves of naturally occurring social systems born from the human condition! They occur naturally! These powers have and will always exist.
If we create a power vacuum, a power 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, and we should not forget their importance in offsetting the troubles that have plagued past societies.
When a large enough class feels oppressed, when that class does not own any property, when that class does not have spirituality (regardless of if they have religion), and when that class sees the law as oppressive and not protective… then we risk a revolution. 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… and so far that has only resulted in the worst 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 work this theory into a model related to the separation of powers.
TIP: The “hidden” fifth power mentioned above is “the intelligentsia“. Philosphers change nations and begin and end eras, Smith, Locke, Marx, etc. 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 their preachers and authors, and if any book is more well-read and followed then those of the philosophers…; all entities can use the media (including the old printing press); and the citizens have 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.