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Stable political systems emerge from substructural systems

Posted January 17th, 2013 at 11:13 AM by motorbike

This blog derives from a thread on Paganism and Christianity.

A discussion about Chritianity's impact on freedom and democracy arose and I made a statement that a political system arises from society's substructural elements.
The key threads are:

Originally Posted by motorbike
Thanks Beetle, but for me the political realm has always been an outcome of the interactions of the economic/social/cultural/intellectual spheres. the one element it does possess is the monopoly of the use of force over a geographical area to maintain law and order within to allow human society to unfold, and protect it against other competitors. The ruling class can use this monopoly of force to protect its interest against the tide of changes in the substructure against it to a degree, but ultimately the political realm will be dragged in the direction of the economic/social/cultural/intellectual spheres.

Religion as part of the intellectual sphere, must keep pace with economic and social developments. As societies become more sophisticated they need more sophisticated intellectual systems. simpler religious systems must transform or give way to more sophisticated systems. Christianity was originally accepted by the ordinary citizens of Rome as offering something more meaningful, and later by the ruling class for aspects lacking in roman society and threatening its existence. It was the only institution of the Latin-Roman world to survive through the Dark Ages and provided a framework to support states in re-establishing law and order to allow normal society processes to unfold. For new states it offered a short-cut to updating their intellectual systems in line with their advancing economic/social/cultural substructures, as well as gaining respect from other states.

Whether christianity supported individual freedom and democracy is not an issue - it could support any formulation. Even the Catholic Church supported slavery to some degree for many centuries.

Freedom/democracy is an outcome of the substructure. And these concepts can take different forms in line with different configurations and levels of development of the substructure.

Beetle: Do you mind explaining a bit more about freedom/democracy being an outcome of substructure? If I understand your statement, I think it is the case, but can you tell a bit about what you mean by substructure?

I use the phrase substructure to highlight that the political system evolves out of other parts of society - its environment, economic, social, intellectual and perhaps cultural systems - and its function is to lead, administer and manage the substructural systems. It is in the substructural systems that new ideas emerge that eventually will flow onto the political system and bring about change in the society.

A political system out of step with its substructural components can only be maintained with the exercise of force, to prevent changes from the substructure impacting on the political system, or indeed to impose a political structure from the outside. Exercise of force is a very expensive exercise, both in terms of money and other factors.
Freedom is the ability of individuals to organise their own lives without hindrance from any other individual, group or process. Democracy is a political ideology that allows individuals to freely choose their political representatives and leaders. The two need not go hand in hand but often do. Rather than being rigidly defined systems they contain a sliding scale aspect and still be viewed as a singular system.

An individual's level of freedom is firstly defined by his ability to meet his basic needs of survival. The easier it is to obtain it, and the number of paths to obtain it, will determine how dependent the individual will be on a group and consequently how much freedom he has individually. Societies with limited resources and lower technology may find that groups are more important to providing basic needs and consequently the individual's personal freedom will be limited. The greater abundance of resources, of options for attaining those needs and higher levels of technology and sophistication will allow less reliance on groups and consequently greater individual freedoms.

I do believe that an individual has a preference to act on his own for his own interests. However, individuals can achieve more through groups than they can as individuals. Groups need cohesion, identity and goals to be successful and that will mean individuals will need to sacrifice some of their individuality to the group, that is, some of their individual freedom, in exchange for access to some benefit not attainable on his own.

Political systems are just the management of a group operating at the society level. There must be a leader and a "ruling class" to carry out the functions of the group. It needs access to the means of force to protect the group against other groups and to maintain cohesion within the group. It is best if the ruling class has a monopoly on the use of force to reduce the threat to internal cohesion.

Democracy's focus is giving the individual primacy in the system. That is, groups exist for the benefit of the individual and groups should not be allowed to exist for themselves and force people to act in the group's interest rather than the individual's interest.
Democracy and freedom do not need to occur together, but one can see that individuals with high degree of freedom are better placed to develop democratic systems. Ease of fulfilling basic needs - environmental and economic systems primarily - and higher needs - social, cultural, intellectual systems - (think of Maslow's hierarchy of 5 needs) gives people the ability to act freely and not be constrained by groups.

Democracy can still exist in simpler societies. However, once a certain level of sophistication is reached, it will require the need of professional leaders and groups to co-ordinate the activities of society (the group) to successfully achieve its objectives. The tribal level of organization does allow democratic type political systems. Beyond the tribal organisation a co-ordinating centre becomes necessary, so individual freedoms must be sacrificed for group goals.
With sophisticated societies higher degrees of individual freedom and democracy can be regained when wealth levels are high and multiple options for action available. In this way, if an individual acts in a way that is detrimental to group, the impact can be muted or absorbed without changes to the political or sub structures.

Over time substuctures are subjected to changes that will force changes to the political system. That political system must have the ability to respond to those changes positively if the ruling class is to maintain its position and the resulting change in the political system progresses in an orderly manner and does not feed back negatively to the substructure (chaos). Failure of the political system to respond positively will result in a destabilised society that is likely to prevent its subsystems from operating efficiently or meeting its objectives. Force will then be needed to stabilise the political system in face of changes from the substructure. Only if changes can be made to the substructure that then supports the political system can the force be withdrawn.
Its possible for a society to be mixed - where some groups may have a high degree of freedom and democracy while others have next to none - Poland in the 16-18th centuries is a case in point.

Where a ruling class can continue the exercise of force then it can get away with the contradictory situation of a political system working independently of its substructure. But that foce will have to be continually applied.

Consider soviet communism in the 20th century. The Communist Party at the end of the Tsarist era had a strong armed force in line with Lenin's dictum that the proletariat will get control of society only by taking it by force, which they did 9 months after the Russian Revolution. They then went about restructuring society in line with Lennist ideals - a job made easier by the Tsarist regime already possessing institutions and processes amenable to the communist goal. The substructure did to a considerable extent support soviet communism, but force did remain a key part, and while the ruling class was prepared to use that force, it did remain in control and society did function.
Contrast that to Central Europe where communism was imposed from the outside. Unable to make sufficient changes to the substructure to support communism, those central european states experienced major crises every 10-15 years that had to be put down with the use of force. After each crisis adequate changes to the substructure were not made and the crisis was repeated. The cycle ended when the soviets were no longer prepared to exercise that force and the communist political system was abandoned.
Contrast that to communist China where the communist party remains firmly in power in a society that appears to be dynamic and whose influence on the world is increasing.

Back to the pagan/Christianity debate,
Religion is part of the intellectual system. As societies became more sophisticated they needed more sophisticated intellectual systems. For Europe post Western Roman Empire, Christianity provided an advanced religious system with access to intellectual processes such a literacy and learning. For advancing societies like the germanic tribes (and Slavs a few centuries later) adopting Christianity meant they did not have to "reinvent the wheel". It probably needed the exercise of force initially to get the population to abandon pagan ways and accept and develop new religious practices, but once fully implemented, that force could be withdrawn. christianity would then provide a powerful supporting leg for a more sophisticated society, and eventually have an effect, together with other substructures of society, on the character of the political system.
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  1. Old Comment
    Tuthmosis III's Avatar
    Nicely done; thoughtful and interesting!

    Michael Mann [The Sources of Social Power Vol. I (1986)] argued that social power can be measured in the interactions and overlap among the wielders of four main types of power: ideological (belief systems / cultural "wisdom"), economic, political (administrative), and military. Have you come across this work? If so, what did you think?
    Posted July 31st, 2015 at 02:58 PM by Tuthmosis III Tuthmosis III is offline

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