There is No Such Thing as "Absolutism" in Political Reality: A Weberian View

Oct 2012
3,308
Des Moines, Iowa
#1
There is No Such Thing as "Absolutism" in Political Reality: A Weberian View

The purpose of this short, informal essay is to discuss the nature of power and its centralization within an individual ruler or a collective ruling body. In particular, I would like to clear up some misconceptions regarding "absolute power," especially with regards to centralized bureaucratic states (both historical and modern). I believe that much of popular media paints a very misleading picture of these regimes, giving impressions of "absolute control" which in fact never existed (nor could ever exist). I will first lay out the underlying theory behind my views, and then apply the theory to the specific case of North Korea, which is perhaps the most infamous of modern "absolutist" regimes.


I. General Thoughts on Political Centralization and its Inherent Limitations

In the political context, the term “centralization” refers to the amassing of power within a single entity. Following Weber, I define “power” (macht) as the ability to enforce one’s own will in the face of resistance, such that an all-powerful (omnipotent) being would be able to carry out any action that he pleases in accordance with his own will, while a totally powerless being would be totally dependent on the mercy of other, more powerful beings. Centralization is a dichotomous process; every act of increasing the power concentrated within a single entity, whether that entity be a collective body (such as the ancient Indian gana-sanghas, the Roman Senate, or the English Parliament) or a single individual (such as an Indian maharaja, a Roman dictator, or an English monarch), necessarily means that certain other entities have less power for themselves. We can understand this better by considering all human societies as existing somewhere on a spectrum between total decentralization and total centralization. On one end of the spectrum, a totally decentralized society would be one where there is absolutely no concentration of power. This hypothetical society must necessarily have a perfectly equal distribution of power, such that every individual has no more or less power than anyone else, and this society can thus be labelled as a perfect anarchy. On the other end of the spectrum, a totally centralized society would be one where there is a complete concentration of power in the hands of a single person, such that one individual possesses maximum freedom to do as he wills, while all other persons are totally subject to the will of that one individual. Such a society can be labelled as a perfect autocracy.

I hold that neither perfect anarchies nor perfect autocracies are possible in practice, and that neither have ever existed (nor could exist) in human history. Even in the most primitive tribal societies, where there is no concept of “state” and no concept of private property, there still exist differentials of power. These power differences may take many forms, and are often rooted in seniority and/or familial ties; a youngster may be subject to the authority of clan elders, for instance, or a newly-wed wife may be subject to the authority of her overbearing mother-in-law. The reality of such power differences antedate even the evolution of modern human beings, for even our closest evolutionary cousins – the chimpanzees – demonstrate dominance hierarchies within their own primitive, pre-state societies.

However, if the concept of a “perfect anarchy” where every single individual possesses exactly equal power is a ridiculous fantasy, the idea of a “perfect autocracy” where a single individual holds a monopoly on power is just as ludicrous. It is physically impossible for any one individual to completely dominate a large state with a population numbering in the millions, for reasons that should be obvious. Due to various limitations, including limited time, limited skills, limited ability and capacity for work, the limited ability of the human brain to store and process information, and the limited capacity of human interpersonal relationships (the typical human is only capable of maintaining complex relationships with about 150 individuals at any given time), every autocrat has no choice but to rely on a bureaucratic apparatus to carry out the majority of administrative tasks associated with day-to-day governing. This bureaucracy must necessarily possess, as a whole, far more power than the autocrat himself. In such a system, the autocrat can maintain his position of supremacy only to the extent that he can prevent the bureaucracy (and other crucial institutions, notably the military) from forming a coalition against him. However, even an autocrat who enjoys a relatively loyal bureaucracy and army is not “all-powerful”, for the autocrat is constantly dependent on the latter to actually execute his will. The recent events in Zimbabwe (in November 2017) demonstrate how even a “well-established” autocrat like Robert Mugabe, who had ruled his country for many decades, can be overthrown in an instant when prominent factions conspire against the ruler.


II. The Case of North Korea: The Nature of Power in Centralized Bureaucratic Autocracies

Kim Jong-un, the so-called “Supreme Leader” of North Korea, is generally perceived in one of two ways by mainstream media and by the masses at large:

1. The first view, and the more common of the two, is that Kim Jong-un is a deranged despot who wields absolute authority over North Korea without any real checks on his power, thus putting North Korea’s neighbors at the mercy of his whims. This view is epitomized by Trump calling Kim Jong-un names like “madman” and “rocketman,” with the implication that Kim Jong-un’s personal attributes are the root cause of international tensions involving North Korea (which is itself based on the assumption that Kim Jong-un actually wields absolute power within North Korea).

2. The second view, which is less common, is that Kim Jong-un is not a “madman” but actually a “calculating genius,” and that his actions represent an effective survival strategy for the North Korean state. This view has appeared in several Western media sources, including the Chicago Tribune, The Hill, and Foreign Policy, as well as in this YouTube video.

What both of the above views have in common is that they both assume that Kim Jong-un is an all-powerful “absolutist” ruler, and that North Korea’s domestic and foreign policy is a simple function of whatever Kim personally decides. However, such an assumption betrays a ridiculously naïve, cartoonish understanding of the North Korean regime, and is borne out of the astonishing ignorance of history and political sociology by both liberals and conservatives. Because the liberal/conservative media loves the image of a “big, bad, evil dictator” that it can use to sell simplistic narratives to its semi-sentient viewership, the idea that Kim Jong-un possesses “absolute authority” and is the ultimate cause of North Korea’s actions inside and outside its borders (regardless if these actions are borne out of “madness” or “brilliance”) seems to be almost taken for granted.

In contrast to the two views presented above, I am very skeptical of the claim that Kim Jong-un is an all-powerful ruler whose personal intentions and desires direct North Korean policies. I instead propose that North Korea should be understood as a bureaucratic enterprise where administrative officials formulate and execute policies “behind the curtain” of the formal state, which is represented by Kim Jong-un and his dynasty. In my view, Kim Jong-un does not serve primarily as the head of the North Korean administration, but rather as a “front man” through which the bureaucratic apparatus can legitimize its control over state affairs.

We can better conceptualize the position of the bureaucracy in modern dictatorships like North Korea by turning to Max Weber, who wrote at length on the phenomenon of bureaucratization and limitations of an autocratic ruler’s power with regards to his own administrative staff. One of the great tropes of Western political history is that the period between the 16th and 18th centuries saw the emergence of strong “absolutist” states in many countries of Europe, including France, Austria, Denmark, Prussia, and others. It is certainly true that this period saw central governments expand their powers vis-à-vis local power structures, but the growth in power of the central government should not be simply equated with the growth in power of an autocratic monarch. On the contrary, as Weber astutely observes, it was precisely in the centralized “absolute” monarchies where the monarch was most dependent on the bureaucratic apparatus, and therefore, the relative power position of the bureaucracy in absolutist regimes was stronger than in non-absolutist regimes. To quote Weber directly from Economy and Society, Chapter XI, pp.993-94 (all emphasis is mine):

The absolute monarch, too, is powerless in face of the superior
knowledge of the bureaucratic expert - in a certain sense more so than any other political head.
All the irate decrees of Frederick the Great concerning the "abolition of serfdom" were derailed in the course of their realization because the official mechanism simply ignored them as the occasional ideas of a dilettante. A constitutional king, whenever he is in agreement with a socially important part of the governed, very frequently exerts a greater influence upon the course of administration than the absolute monarch since he can control the experts better because of the at least relatively public character of criticism, whereas the absolute monarch is dependent for information solely upon the bureaucracy. The Russian Tsar of the ancien régime, before the appointment of a Prime Minister in 1905, was rarely able to put across permanently anything that displeased his bureaucracy and violated its power interests. His ministries, which were subordinated directly to him as the autocrat, represented, as Leroy-Beaulieu very correctly observed, a conglomerate of satrapies which fought among each other with all the means of personal intrigue and bombarded each other with voluminous "Memoranda," in the face of which the monarch as a dilettante was quite helpless.

The concentration of the power of the central bureaucracy in a single pair of hands is inevitable with every transition to constitutional government. Officialdom is placed under a monocratic head, the prime minister, through whose hands everything has to go before it gets to the monarch. This puts the latter to a large extent under the tutelage of the chief of the bureaucracy. Wilhelm II, in his well-known conflict with Bismarck, fought against this principle, but had to withdraw his attack very soon. Under the rule of expert knowledge, the influence of the monarch can attain steadiness only through continuous communication with the bureaucratic chiefs which is methodically planned and directed by the central head of the bureaucracy. At the same time, constitutionalism binds the bureaucracy and the ruler into a community of interests against the power-seeking of the party chiefs in the parliamentary bodies. But against the bureaucracy the ruler remains powerless for this very reason, unless he finds support in parliament. The desertion of the "Great of the Reich," here the Prussian ministers and
top Reich officials, brought a monarch into approximately the same situation in November 1918 as did the parallel event under the conditions of the feudal state in 1076. [This is a reference to the crisis faced by Henry IV, the Holy Roman Emperor, during the Investiture Controversy] This, however, is an exception, for the power position of a monarch is on the whole far stronger vis-à-vis bureaucratic officials than it was in any feudal or in a "stereotyped" patrimonial state. This is because of the constant presence of aspirants for promotion with whom the monarch can easily replace inconvenient and independent officials. Other circumstances being equal, only economically independent officials, that is, officials who belong to the propertied strata, can permit themselves to risk the loss of their offices. Today as always, the recruitment of officials from among propertyless strata increases the power of the rulers. Only officials who belong to a socially influential stratum which the monarch believes to have to take into account as support of his person, like the so-called Kanalrebellen in Prussia, can permanently and completely paralyze the substance of his will.
The apparent contradiction described in the above excerpt – how a constitutional ruler with more formally “limited” authority could exercise greater influence over an administration than an absolutist ruler with formally unlimited power – may require some additional commentary and explication. On the one hand, many rulers throughout history aspired to concentrate as much power as possible into their own hands, which necessitated eliminating, emasculating, or controlling competing elite groups; some examples of this phenomenon include Tsar Ivan the Terrible’s use of the oprichniki to subjugate the Russian boyars and confiscate their property, or Frederick William’s kidnapping and impressment of the children of Prussian nobility. On the other hand, such a weakening of competing elite groups necessarily means that the bureaucracy (by which we mean the non-elected officials who are employees of the state and who are dependent on the latter for their livelihoods) would monopolize access to the ruler and leave him with no choice but to rely on their superior expert knowledge for the formulation and execution of policy. The ruler must rely on his bureaucracy both for the information needed to make a sensible decision, and for the actual execution of that decision. The lack of important social actors outside of the bureaucracy in an absolutist system means a lack of checks and balances on the bureaucratic apparatus, which means that the bureaucracy largely has a free reign within the state (provided that they do not disturb the prevailing regime, which they have no incentive to do because they themselves are the prime beneficiaries of it). While Louis XIV may have claimed l'état est moi, for various highly centralized “absolutist” states it would perhaps be more accurate to say l'état est le bureau.

Likewise in North Korea, it stretches credulity to believe that Kim Jong-un can simply formulate whatever policy he pleases and execute whatever action he pleases, as if he were playing some video game and all North Korean elites were simply mindless robots with no political interests, acumen, or will of their own. While information regarding the inner workings of the North Korean government is quite scarce, there have been some revelations by regime insiders which point to a reality very different from the cartoonish depiction seen on mainstream media. For example, a former North Korean government official named Jang Jin-Sung has explicitly stated that "Kim Jong-un has very little power" and that he is largely a symbolic puppet or figurehead. The most powerful entity in North Korea is perhaps the so-called Organization and Guidance Department (OGD), consisting of North Korea's elite bureaucrats. According to Hwang Jang-yop, the most high-ranking North Korean official to ever defect, the most influential figures of the North Korean bureaucracy all belong to the OGD; the organization has been described as "the only entity that actually matters when it comes to decision-making or policy-making". Of course, the official ideology of the North Korean state elevates the Kim family to a virtually divine status, but this certainly does not mean that the Kim family rules North Korea as all-powerful demigods. On the contrary, it is in the interests of the entrenched bureaucratic elites to use the public figure of Kim Jong-un for the purpose of legitimacy, while exercising power behind the scenes (where they also remain beyond reproach). We can draw parallels with many other cases throughout history where certain influential actors or organizations constituted the "real power beyond the throne" but never actually took action against the official ruler, since it was in the interests of those actors or organizations to retain a weak, puppet ruler on the throne.
 

stevev

Ad Honorem
Apr 2017
3,034
Las Vegas, NV USA
#2
If your point that absolutism is not absolute, I agree. One person is just one person. The tyrant depends on the loyalty of others to enforce his or her will. However a tyrant in unique control of an army of robots might come close. :)
 
Jul 2010
1,374
N/A
#3
When we talk about absolute power we are not talking about the power centralised in one man. This is impossible. Instead we are talking about the concentration of all power in a cenralised regime. The centralised power of the Kim regime's government. We are also not talking about absolute power over the people as hat is also impossible. We are talking about the absolute power of the centralised regime to act without influence from outside sources.
 

civfanatic

Ad Honorem
Oct 2012
3,308
Des Moines, Iowa
#4
If your point that absolutism is not absolute, I agree. One person is just one person. The tyrant depends on the loyalty of others to enforce his or her will. However a tyrant in unique control of an army of robots might come close. :)
Yes, my point is that in every single state, even ones like North Korea, political power rests on some kind of consensus between multiple parties. It is physically impossible for any ruler, as an individual, to hold an absolute monopoly on political power. Even well-established autocratic rulers are always vulnerable to conspiracies by prominent parties, as we saw in Zimbabwe last year when Robert Mugabe was dethroned.
 
Jul 2010
1,374
N/A
#5
For the Kim dynasty to be where they are they must exert some form of control over the central bureaucracy. That the central bureaucracy is not directly in charge of policy is self-evident. This is little different than any other state (and particularly the United States) where policy comes out of a centrally controlled civil service. That anyone believes the suits are in control of the central government even in the United States is also ridiculous. While the executive has a differing degree of power and prominence in each state the policy guidance always come from an external non elected body, and this is not clandestine in any sense.
 
Jul 2012
750
Australia
#6
Power is the least understood social force mainly because it works through less than transparent channels.

Max Weber is very good at outlining the full rational spectrum of social action, including state power, but power acts on many levels, and some of those levels are important to state power, and others may be irrelevant - such as the charismatic power I may wield at social events.

Yes, there is a limitation to how much actual power any particular actor, or group acting in unison, can wield because they depend on others carrying out functions they rely on. Consequently how much power a single actor can wield depends on the complexity of the situation and the effectiveness of the tools and means of control to it. It is not just that a simple situation makes absolute power easier, if you do not have the means and tools to wield power. Similarly, you can have a very complex and sophisticated system and the appropriate tools and means to wield power.

The limitations of bureaucratic power can be to a degree circumvented by personal ties among key position holders directly and independently to the ruler, as Hitler and Stalin showed are possible.

It is all a matter of degree and the appropriateness of the tools and means to the given circumstances.

For me the giveaway that Kim Jong-Un is not a true absolute ruler is the ease with which he ascended the position without having done anything substantial in the state system.
 

stevev

Ad Honorem
Apr 2017
3,034
Las Vegas, NV USA
#7
power.
For me the giveaway that Kim Jong-Un is not a true absolute ruler is the ease with which he ascended the position without having done anything substantial in the state system.
I think this is consensus so far. Whether power is inherited (Kim, Assad) or gained by various means, there is no absolute power for one individual. Some system of loyalty, intimidation, command and control must be established for the dictator to function as such.
 
Aug 2013
613
Pomerium
#8
Middle Eastern strongmen like Saddam tend to win approx. 99% of the popular vote. Far Eastern despots like Kim could win 120% of the popular vote if they want to. In the West, what, some 60% is considered a landslide? No wonder they hate Western democracy.
 
Jul 2010
1,374
N/A
#9
Middle Eastern strongmen like Saddam tend to win approx. 99% of the popular vote. Far Eastern despots like Kim could win 120% of the popular vote if they want to. In the West, what, some 60% is considered a landslide? No wonder they hate Western democracy.

You can do a lot with 60% of the vote. In most countries in most instances that would equate to totalitarian power. The type (even if we look at Donald Trump as an example at 55.7% of the vote) escaping politics for a second that was used to stack the United States Supreme court with Republican leaning judges maintaining a stranglehold on 2 of the 3 parts of the seperations of powers and a near stranglehold on the legislative branch allowing almost total bias of outcomes. 60% or 55% even 120% There really isn't much difference.
 
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Ighayere

Ad Honorem
Jul 2012
2,563
Benin City, Nigeria
#10
If your point that absolutism is not absolute, I agree. One person is just one person. The tyrant depends on the loyalty of others to enforce his or her will. However a tyrant in unique control of an army of robots might come close. :)
Middle Eastern strongmen like Saddam tend to win approx. 99% of the popular vote. Far Eastern despots like Kim could win 120% of the popular vote if they want to. In the West, what, some 60% is considered a landslide? No wonder they hate Western democracy.
I think that one of the main points that civfanatic is making in his essay is that a figure who is labeled a "tyrant" of a non-democratic system according to "mainstream" (that is, western) media or propaganda is often much less likely to be exercising "tyrannical" powers of government, or any real governing power at all, compared to the head of state in some other seemingly more democratic forms of government, such as those which have a constitution outlining the powers of the head of state and a parliament or congress. However, if I have misread that point, civfanatic can correct me on that.


A quote that I think is somewhat relevant here:


"And that all government but popular is tyranny. From Aristotle's civil philosophy, they have learned, to call all manner of commonwealths but the popular, (such as was at that time the state of Athens), tyranny. All kings they called tyrants; and the aristocracy of the thirty governors set up there by the Lacedemonians that subdued them, the thirty tyrants. As also to call the condition of the people under the democracy, liberty. A tyrant originally signified no more simply, but a monarch. But when afterwards in most parts of Greece that kind of government was abolished, the name began to signify, not only the thing it did before, but with it, the hatred which the popular states bore towards it. As also the name of king became odious after the deposing of the kings in Rome, as being a thing natural to all men, to conceive some great fault to be signified in any attribute, that is given in despite, and to a great enemy. And when the same men shall be displeased with those that have the administration of the democracy, or aristocracy, they are not to seek for disgraceful names to express their anger in; but call readily the one anarchy, and the other oligarchy, or the tyranny of a few. And that which offendeth the people, is no other thing, but that they are governed, not as every one of them would himself, but as the public representant, be it one man, or an assembly of men, thinks fit; that is, by an arbitrary government: for which they give evil names to their superiors; never knowing, till perhaps a little after a civil war, that without such arbitrary government, such war must be perpetual; and that it is men, and arms, not words and promises, that make the force and power of the laws." - Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan


To some people, the claim in the above quote might just seem like a mere statement of the obvious. And to some degree, all of this is obvious to many people, especially those who have an appreciation of the fact that monarchy, and not democracy, has been the political foundation of all "civilizations" everywhere (the fact that the two are so closely linked is not any sort of coincidence). Whether democracy is actually an improvement on a particular "tyrannical" government is dependent on the culture, place, and circumstances. It is not just inherently or automatically a superior system of government for any particular culture or in any context. It is also not necessarily the case that democracy represents a more politically "advanced" or more evolved, higher system of governance, since in fact there have been cultural groups that were, in multiple other areas of development, considerably less advanced than many monarchical societies, yet were actually practicing democracy or a form of mostly democratic governance, even at the generally less complex level of development that their societies were at.

It is curious to me that, although Leviathan is probably the most important and insightful work of political philosophy that has been written in English, some of its most important insights - putting aside the comment by Hobbes about life being nasty, brutish and short, a statement which is of less importance than some of the other ideas in the book - although they have been praised, appreciated, denigrated, rejected, criticized, analyzed, etc. for centuries, never seem to have actually seeped into the public consciousness of people in the English speaking world, or seem not to have been taken seriously by the political leadership in those countries. The reproach given by the author here against the abuse of the word "tyrant", is a particularly striking example of something insightful which seems to have been ignored.

Perhaps many of the claims of the book have been (not explicitly, but more subtly) gradually dismissed or rejected over the centuries as merely being the quaint, but ultimately misguided, ravings of an archaic, overly pessimistic, extreme monarchist who thought he had devised a "scientific" system of politics yet could not even get a handle on basic geometry. The term "Hobbist" was actually a term of abuse for a period of time among the English, centuries ago. Is this author just a curiosity, who belongs in a curiosity shop or antique store of western thinkers - basically someone whose ideas have no real practical applicability in government or politics?

I think of the aversion or unwillingness (outside of certain professors in ivory towers) to engage with the possibility that certain unpopular ideas that Hobbes had were completely right, and the consequences that would follow from admitting that some of these ideas are not just correct, but even applicable in actual politics and international relations, and then I think of Libya and some other countries. Gaddafi was a tyrant so he had to go. The current head of state of Syria is a tyrant so he has to go. Saddam Hussein was a tyrant so he had to go. But does anyone really think deeply about what is likely to happen once the "tyrants" are gotten rid of?

Labeling rulers "tyrants," "despots," and "tyrannical despots" without always considering the facts on the ground or making any real effort to gather verifiable facts about the actual nature of their governments is nothing new. It was a rhetorical device that was also used by some western writers in the 19th century in propaganda campaigns against the rulers of certain states in other parts of the world outside of the west. And those propaganda campaigns often had disastrous consequences as well.

In the case of North Korea, the only positive is that there is already some other very culturally similar country immediately nearby that could justifiably invade and then absorb North Korea into a unified state in case North Korea were to descend into chaos and internal conflict, if the forcible removal of the Kim dynasty were attempted. But that would not be without bloodshed of course.
 

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