Absolute Monarchy, Revolution, and the Bourgeoisie

So I was thinking about the Russian Revolution (as is my wont,) and wondering why everyone was so vehemently against the bourgeoisie and not, at least in their rhetoric, the nobility. (I’ve long wondered the exact same thing about the French Revolution.)

If there is one thing that all commentators seem to agree on, including the man himself, it’s that Nicholas II (aka Nikolai Alexandrovich Romanov, final Tsar of all Russia,) was not fit to rule. He was not an evil man (though he did send millions of his subjects to their deaths,) and he was not an idiot, but neither was he extraordinary in any of the ways necessary to rule an empire.

But this isn’t reason to go executing a guy. After all, Russia managed to survive the tsardom of Peter the Great’s retarded half-brother (principally by making Peter co-tsar,) so there’s no particular reason why the nobility couldn’t have just stepped in and run things for Nicholas. Poor little Alexei probably wouldn’t have lasted much longer, and then one of Nicholas’s brothers or nephews would have been in the running for tsar–seems like a pretty decent position to hold out for.

But in an absolute monarchy, how much power does the nobility have? Could they intervene and change the direction of the war (or stop/prevent it altogether?)

Louis XIV (1638 – 1715) consolidated an absolute monarchy in France (with the height of his power around 1680.) In 1789, about 110 years later, the French Revolution broke out; in 1793, Louis XVII was executed.

Peter and Catherine the Greats (1672 – 1725; 1729 – 1796) consolidated monarchical power in Russia. The Russian Revolution broke out in 1905 and then more successfully in 1917; Nicholas was executed in 1918. Assuming Catherine was fairly powerful until her death, (and I suspect she likely would have been deposed had she not,) that gives us about 110 or 120 years between absolute monarch and revolution.

Is there a connection?

Obviously one possibility is just that folks who manage to make themselves absolute monarchs are rare indeed, and their descendents tend to regress toward normal personalities until they just aren’t politically savvy enough to hold onto power, at which point a vacuum occurs and a revolution fills it.

Revolutionaries, by and large, aren’t penniless peasants or factory workers (at least, not at the beginning.) They’re fairly idle intellectuals who have the time and resources to write lots of books and articles about revolution. Lenin was hanging out in Switzerland, writing, when the Russian Revolution broke out, not slogging through the trenches or working in a factory.

As I understand it, the consolidation of absolute monarchy requires taking power from the nobles. The nobles get their support from their personal peasants (their serfs.) The Royalty get their support against the nobles, therefore, from free men–middle class folks not bound to any particular noble. These middle-class folks tend to live in the city–they are the bourgeoisie.

Think of a ladder–or a cellular automata–with four rungs: royals, nobles, bourgeoisie, and peasants.

If the royalty and bourgeoisie are aligned, and the nobles and peasants are aligned, then this might explain why, when Russia and France decided to execute their monarchs, they simultaneously attacked the bourgeoisie–but said little, at least explicitly and propagandically, against the nobility.

By using the peasants to attack the bourgeoisie, the nobles attacked the king’s base of support, leaving him unable to defend himself and hang onto power. A strong monarch might be able to prevent such maneuvering, but a weak monarch can’t. Nicholas II doesn’t seem like the kind of person who’d imprison infant relatives for their whole lives or have his son tortured to death. He didn’t even bother taking another wife after the tsarina failed to produce a suitable heir.

I see the exact same dynamic happening today. For the peasants, we have America’s minority communities–mostly blacks and Hispanics–who are disproportionately poor. Working and middle-class whites are the bourgeoisie. College students and striving rich are the nobles, and the royalty are the rich.

Occupy Wall Street was an attempt by student-types to call direct attention to the wealth of the royalty, but never got widespread support. By contrast, student protests attacking bourgeois whites on behalf of black peasants have been getting tons of support; their ideas are now considered mainstream, while OWS’s are still fringe.

There’s a great irony in Ivy League kids lecturing anyone about their “privilege,” much like the irony in Lenin sitting on his butt in Switzerland while complaining about the bourgeoisie.

But in this case, is the students’ real target actually the rich?

Slate Star Codex finds Aristocracy, doesn’t notice

In his recent post, “Contra Simler on Prestige,” Scott Alexander attempts to interrogate why prestigious people are high status. He first distinguishes between dominant and prestigious people, where dominant people are high-status because they can force you to do things. Prestigious people, by contrast, are high-status because they do something that makes you want to obey them, like sing really well. (Here he gives the example of Justin Bieber. Well, maybe you wouldn’t do something just because Justin Bieber asked you to, but there are a lot of girls who would.)

Alexander then quotes a long passage from Kevin Simler’s Social Status: Down The Rabbit Hole–which I am forced to quote in turn because it’s necessary–about a bird called the Arabian babbler:

The Arabian babbler … spends most of its life in small groups of three to 20 members. These groups lay their eggs in a communal nest and defend a small territory of trees and shrubs that provide much-needed safety from predators.

When it’s living as part of a group, a babbler does fairly well for itself. But babblers who get kicked out of a group have much bleaker prospects. These “non-territorials” are typically badgered away from other territories and forced out into the open, where they often fall prey to hawks, falcons, and other raptors. So it really pays to be part of a group. …

Within a group, babblers assort themselves into a linear and fairly rigid dominance hierarchy, i.e., a pecking order. When push comes to shove, adult males always dominate adult females — but mostly males compete with males and females with females. Very occasionally, an intense “all-out” fight will erupt between two babblers of adjacent rank, typically the two highest-ranked males or the two highest-ranked females. …

Most of the time, however, babblers get along pretty well with each other. In fact, they spend a lot of effort actively helping one another and taking risks for the benefit of the group. They’ll often donate food to other group members, for example, or to the communal nestlings. They’ll also attack foreign babblers and predators who have intruded on the group’s territory, assuming personal risk in an effort to keep others safe. One particularly helpful activity is “guard duty,” in which one babbler stands sentinel at the top of a tree, watching for predators while the rest of the group scrounges for food. The babbler on guard duty not only foregoes food, but also assumes a greater risk of being preyed upon, e.g., by a hawk or falcon. …

Unlike chickens, who compete to secure more food and better roosting sites for themselves, babblers compete to give food away and to take the worst roosting sites. Each tries to be more helpful than the next. And because it’s a competition, higher-ranked (more dominant) babblers typically win, i.e., by using their dominance to interfere with the helpful activities of lower-ranked babblers. This competition is fiercest between babblers of adjacent rank. So the alpha male, for example, is especially eager to be more helpful than the beta male, but doesn’t compete nearly as much with the gamma male. Similar dynamics occur within the female ranks.

Alexander then tries to analogize this back to Justin Bieber and the Koch brothers, and finds that it doesn’t really work, but it reminds me of something rather different. From Jim’s Blog, “A Lost Military Technology“:

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, wealthy private individuals substantially supported the military, with a particular wealthy men buying stuff for a particular regiment or particular fort.

Noblemen paid high prices for military commands, and these posts were no sinecure.  You got the obligation to substantially supply the logistics for your men, the duty to obey stupid orders that would very likely lead to your death, the duty to lead your men from in front while wearing a costume designed to make you particularly conspicuous, and the duty to engage in honorable personal combat, man to man, with your opposite number who was also leading his troops from in front.

A vestige of this tradition remains in that every English prince has been sent to war and has placed himself very much in harm’s way.

It seems obvious to me that a soldier being led by a member of the ruling class who is soaking up the bullets from in front is a lot more likely to be loyal and brave than a soldier sent into battle by distant rulers safely in Washington who despise him as a sexist homophobic racist murderer, that a soldier who sees his commander, a member of the ruling classes, fighting right in front of him, is reflexively likely to fight.

Human social networks are based on reciprocity–you give me a chunk of meat, and when I kill an antelope, I’ll give you a chunk of meat. Indeed, all morality works within the context of reciprocity. The powerful establish the relationship with their vassals via the exchange of gifts, in return for which they receive taxes and service on their estates. The vassal receives military protection in return. The top bird puts his life on the line for his community, in return for which he receives food from the other birds and more opportunities to mate.

This is is different from–though not entirely–being highly skilled in some non-war related way. Skilled people are valued because they contribute to society, they just don’t put their lives on the line leading troops into battle. Justin Bieber is a glorified court minstrel, but without any real princes or kings in our society, we may have to make do.

George Washington, who lead troops in battle, was–and remains–our most popular president. #2 Abraham Lincoln did not lead troops, but has a kind of battle aura due to having “lead the nation” during wartime. Teddy Roosevelt, formerly one of our top 4, also lead troops in battle.

This is called “leadership.”

Today, it seems like we are moving increasingly away from this model.

A Structural Proposal

I have read that people are capable of maintaining about 150 relationships with other humans. This therefore seems like a reasonable maximum size for human organizations — churches, businesses, towns, etc. For maximum trustiness, perhaps all humans should live in communities of 150, which could then reasonably organize for their own self-interest, well-being and happiness.

But humans seem to desire to live in slightly bigger communities, and to network between much larger groups of people. So how to manage it?

First, each community of 150 could appoint one person to go to a meta-council of 150 people from 150 other communities.

That would be kind of pressing our meta-council members, but they would probably be able to maintain close relationships with enough of their constituents and enough of their fellow meta-council members to effectively represent their areas and cooperate with each other for regional benefits. This allows for the governing of 22,500 people, or a small city. (For comparison, the island of Palau has about 21,000 people; a few other small island nations have similar population sizes.)

The meta-meta level seems difficult to achieve, as we’re already asking people to effectively have 300 contacts, and anyone appointed to a meta-meta council would really have their primary interests back in their 150 member community, and so would do a bad job of representing the interests of everyone else in their 22,500 meta-community. (This is precisely the problem of Congress.)

The meta-meta level might be doable on a basic referendum level–that is, if the meta-meta councilors simply represent the majority views of their meta-regions in a system that does not require them to interact with or convince each other. This would allow for the administration of about 3.4 million people–a large city or small country. (By comparison, Iceland has 330,000 people; Lithuania has 2.9 million, and New Zealand has 4.6 million.)

However, we might be able to organize a few more people into our system by taking advantage of some sort of network effects at the bottom level. Perhaps instead of including all 150 people in our community in a community council, we utilize 150 heads of households (each household can appoint whoever it wants to the council). If we estimate about 4 people per household, then the basic community has 600 people, the meta-community has 90,000, and the meta-meta community has 13.5 million. (Belgium has 11.2 million people.)

Effective, long-term organization beyond this size probably becomes very difficult (unless you are okay with dictatorship, and even that can fail miserably at organizing things).

Predictive value: If my train of thought is correct, communities of <14 million should generally be stable, high-trust, efficient, and effectively democratic in nature. Communities of >14 million should generally be low trust, unstable, inefficient, or undemocratic.

 

A quick glance at a list of countries by size indicates that there are a bunch of small, poorly-run countries, which may contradict the theory. Perhaps badly run countries break up into pieces until they find an organizational level they can function on.

Here is a list of countries by interpersonal trust. (Unfortunately, this dataset seems to lack many of the tiny countries. Anyone else got a better dataset?) The top scorers–countries where most people reported trusting most of their neighbors, were:

New Zealand: trust level 102.2, population 4.6 mill

Vietnam: trust level 104.1, population 91.5 mill, not democratic

Saudi Arabia: trust level 105.8, population 31.5 mill, not democratic

Switzerland: trust level 107.4, population 8.2 mill

Finland: trust level 117.5, population 5.5 mill

China: trust level 120.9, population 1.4 billion, not democratic

Denmark: trust level 131.9, population 5.7 mill

Sweden: trust level 134.5, population 9.8 mill

Norway: trust level 148, population 5.2 mill

So, it’s a small set of countries and the small ones generally aren’t in the dataset, but the democratic, high-trust countries are all between 4 and 10 million people. The larger high-trust countries are all not democracies.

The worst scorers (countries where fewer than 1 in 10 people said they thought most people were trustworthy):

Trinidad and Tobago: trust level 7.9, population 1.3 mill

Cape Verde: trust level 9, population 500 thousand

Rwanda: trust level 10.2, population 11 mill

Turkey: trust level 10.2, population 78 mill

Botswana: trust level 12.3, population 2 mill

Malawi: trust level 14.9, population 16 mill

Cambodia: trust level 15.6, population 15.4 mill

Indonesia: trust level 16.9, population 255 mill

Brazil: trust level 17.5, population 204.3 mill

Malaysia: trust level 17.7, population 30.6 mill

Looks like unpleasant countries can come in any size.

 

I’d love it if someone made a scaterplot of size vs. trust, with democracies in blue and non-democracies in red. :D