Thursday, 29 April 2010

Early society and its ideas (Part 2)

In the first part, I looked at the nature of early society, such as we would find in England in Anglo-Saxon times and the early Middle Ages, in the Scottish highlands until the 1745 Jacobite rising, and in other parts of the world until much later than this. Such a society lingers on longest in regions which are hard for central government to control: mountain areas, dangerous frontiers and other lawless parts where armed raids and violent feuds are common. The American "Wild West" retained some typical features, and they continue in urban gang culture even now. In this section, I shall suggest what political and ethical ideas are prevalent in such a society.

1. Right and wrong.
Because the central government is weak, and loyalties are personal and local, violence is prevalent. The isolated individual is powerless; everyone's prey; and in self-defence everyone must join a group of some kind, the stronger the better. This imposes certain obligations and leads to a distinct ethical code. Three qualities are particularly admired: physical courage, faithfulness, and generosity; and their opposites are regarded as particularly despicable: cowardice, breaking one's word, and meanness. Other issues considered important in more civilised societies, such as cruelty, are less regarded. The reasons behind this are that in conflict the king, nobleman or gang chief is expected to lead from the front and set an example to his followers by his skill and bravery on the battlefield (this makes sense in a primitive society, where the nobles possess much better weapons and armour than the commoners). Any leader, be he king or gang chief, who shows weakness in battle will not last long: either his followers will desert, or in self-defence they will replace him by a better leader. By the same token, a woman or a child could not rule: competence being far more important than any legal or hereditary claim to authority under these conditions. It is a sure sign that society is becoming more sophisticated when a woman, a child or a deeply incompetent king can retain possession, or when a king can safely leave someone else to command his armies in battle.
Early or lawless societies are held together by mutual loyalties. The people promise to follow and support their chief, but equally, the chief promises always to safeguard his people's wellbeing. In this kind of society, what matters is not how much money you have, or what title you hold, but how many people will turn out to fight for you in a tight corner: this holds good for both Highland clans and street gangs. A man who cannot be relied upon to keep his promises of support in times of danger is worthless. Thus, a gang boss must avenge any insult or injury done to a member of his gang, otherwise his followers will wonder whether it is worth while being in his gang at all. Even a bloody defeat will be less damaging than a weak withdrawal.
Finally, a chief is expected to reward his followers for their pains. A chief who is mean with money, and keeps the profits to himself, will quickly forfeit respect, and his followers will drift away in search of a more generous leader.

2. Social contracts
Such a society's structures are based on bargains. A subject promises to obey a king, but in return the king promises to be a "good lord" towards his subject, to defend his interests and treat him justly. This bargain might be broken by either side, and a king who oppresses his subjects can face justified rebellion. Mediaeval writers drew a sharp distinction between a king who ruled justly and kept the laws and a "tyrant" who did not, and who had thus forfeited the obedience of his subjects. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century felt resistance to tyrants was justified. Three English mediaeval kings were deposed on these grounds: Edward II, Richard II and Henry VI; though in each case the main issue was incompetence as much as alleged tyrannous rule.
Mediaeval monarchs were quasi-elected by their nobles, and in some countries, notably the Holy Roman Empire (Germany) and Poland, actual elections took place until early modern times. In most cases, if the late king had a grown-up son to succeed him any election would be purely nominal, but perhaps there might not be. The word "peers" for noblemen means "equals": the "peers of France" were the equals of the king of France, and had the right to choose the successor to the throne. This had to be exercised in the 14th century, when all three sons of Philip IV died without male heirs, and there was a disputed succession which resulted in the Hundred Years' War.
The notion of an elective monarchy developedinto medern ideas of a social contract between rulers and ruled. The laws passed in Britain after the overthrow of James II in 1688 clearly established that the British monarch is subject to Parliament, which can depose a king and nominate a successor.

3. The "organic society", hierarchies and paternalism
We find little trace of individualism as an idea in early societies, either in the form of individual human rights, of human equality or of humans being in individual competition with each other. This is understandable: if the primitive economic system means that the vast majority of people are poverty-striken peasants, what room is there for individualism? Furthermore, peasant farming works on a co-operative rather than a competitive basis: all the villagers work together to plough their fields and build their huts; nor could anyone imagine that things could ever be different. Contemporary thinkers would liken society to a human body, where each organ had its own part to play and all worked in co-operation: the eyes saw, the heart beat, the legs walked, and so forth. In no sense did they compete, and furthermore, it was futile for the toe to wish it could be an eye! Similarly in society, the peasants ploughed the soil, the priests prayed, the merchants bought and sold, and the nobles ruled. Society worked because there was co-operation and everyone accepted his role. All roles had a function, though some were superior to others. Without the acceptance of these hierarchies there would be a breakdown.
The ideal society was thus seen as consisting of kind lords governing loyal and obedient peasants, and indeed this paternalistic approach is probably the best that can be expected in such circumstances. But the primitive economy and static society would leave little scope for an ambitious young peasant, frustrated in his home village. If he wished for a better life, or simply a less constrained one, his only option would be to run away and become a bandit, and indeed in lawless societies this almost ranks as a sensible career-choice. (See my earlier piece on American gangsters for a modern parallel)

4. Tradition and law
Early societies are governed by tradition. As far as anyone knows, things have always been the same and always will be. There is no expectation of progess towards better times: "progress" as we understand the term only became a concept at the end of the 18th century. Wisdom consists of experience rather than of new ideas, and is therefore found mostly amongst the old. Laws are also ancient and unchanging; probably instituted long ago by God. When our ancestors talked of "laws", they meant not things which get altered every year by government, as is the case today, but something much more like the U.S. constitution, establishing the way of doing things for all time, and not to be altered lightly. The revolt against Charles I was in many ways a conservative revolt, against a king who was said to governed in a new and undesirable manner.

5. Social criticism
There are occasional peasant revolts, but, although violent, these lack effective leadership and clear achievable goals, and are always bloodily suppressed. This is not surprising, since no real revolutionary ideology is ever available to the rebels. Any social criticism is voiced in religious terms; usually on the lines that the current state of society and the conduct of the nobles is not in accordance with Scripture ("When Adam delvwd and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?" asked John Ball in 1381). Again, this is not surprising, since even for the small minority who can read, there is very little available for them to read apart from religious texts. Nevertheless, in the absense of any other material, religious teachings can always have a subversive element

6. What's missing
Several ideas thar are very important in the modern world are wholly absent in primitive societies. One is the concept of nationhood. The idea that we are primarily English or French or whatever, as distinct from inhabitants of a particular district or followers of a certain lord, does not exist in early societies. The idea of nationalism begins to emerge in early modern times, initially amongst the educated classes, and only slowly speads to the peasantry. It has been suggested that the ordinary French peasant only starts to identify himself as a Frenchman some time in the 19th century, and that the idea was unknown to Russian peasants as late as the 1st World War: if questioned as to their identity, they would have described themselves as "Christians" or as "the people of a certain village" rather than as Russians. Nationalism does not really come to the consciousness of the mass of the people before the coming of railways and national newspapers.
There is no concept of a common humanity, with all peoples meriting equal treatment. In a primitive society, especially the tribal societies of the mountain districts, the people in the next valley are traditional enemies, and raiding their cattle or cutting their throats are not wicked deeds but positively meritorious, to be celebrated in story and song. This attitude can still be seen in a few troubled regions, usually mountainous, such as the North Caucasus and the "tribal areas" of Pakistan. It could of course be argued that all that has happened in more advanced societies is that this denial of common humanity has been transferred to people of other countries, religions or ideologies. It would appear that Christian teaching that all souls are equal in the sight of God, and all are capable of salvation, has very little impact on people's conduct.
There is of course no notion of equality between the sexes. In tribal societies, women do almost all the work, while the men spend part of their time fighting or hunting, and the rest telling stories about fighting and hunting.
Finally, there is no concept of progress: that society can and is developing into something different and better. This is ingrained conservatism, and indeed, without major economic changes, society always will be the same. Writing before the Russian revolution, Trotsky pointed out that mere overthrow of the aristocracy and confiscation of their wealth would in itself achieve nothing. If you seize a million roubles from a nobleman and share it around between a million peasant households, nothing meaningful will have changed! Only an industrial revolution, Trotsky argued, could eradicate the poverty and ignorance of peasant society: he was of course completely right.

(Still to come: the fundamental ideological division of Court vs Country)

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