Here’s the problem: Any society much bigger than a village needs an organizing myth, and ours — Blank-Slate Equalism — doesn’t work anymore.
Nobody in Current Year America can possibly still think, for one hot second, that “all men are created equal.” We’re not physically equal — cf. all the boys calling themselves “transgender” and setting records at girls’ track meets. We’re not mentally equal (insert your SJW IQ joke of choice here). And as for the proposition that we should be equal, at least under the law (which was ol’ Tom’s plain meaning in the Declaration), take your pick: The judiciary (“bake the cake, bigot!”), the educational system (___ Studies), and the media (everything) are deeply, fanatically committed to the fundamental unequality of men. And all that’s before you get to modern genetics and what it tells us about heritable group characteristics.
Tl;dr — If I can declare myself a yellow-scaled wingless dragonkin and get a guy fired for not pretending to believe me, Blank-Slate Equalism is dead, no matter what genetics says (and genetics says it’s deader than disco).
And that’s a problem, as the kids these days say, because our entire political system is based on Blank-Slate Equalism. I’m not going to recap the history of the Social Contract Theory of government (been there, done that, feel free to trawl the archives for book suggestions). Rather, I’m going to explore some other, failed options for organizing myths, then suggest one you may not have heard of.
First, Athenian democracy. Whatever Cleisthenes and the gang actually practiced, it wasn’t based on a social contract as we’d understand it. As you probably remember from your high school Social Studies class, the Greeks were world-class chauvinists. Aristotle famously ranked women just below slaves on the rationality scale, and the word “barbarian” simply meant “not-Greek.” You probably couldn’t play a pickup softball game with the total number of Athenian “voters.” But it didn’t matter, because Athens was so small that Demosthenes himself could come over to your house and personally demagogue you. Socrates, too, for that matter (he fought at Potidaea). Athens’s organizing myth, then, was “democracy” in the football hooligan sense — you voluntarily joined up, but mostly just to have a row with the wankers. Needless to say, this doesn’t work in anyplace bigger than a Greek polis. (The early Roman Republic worked the same way, and yes, I’m aware that I just called Romulus and Remus the original soccer yobs).
Divine Right Monarchy solves the scale problem. China, Rome, and Egypt had good runs with this system (the latter for thousands of years). The problem here is communication speed. When you’re wading the Euphrates and the Emperor is in Rome, the Cult of the Divine Augustus seems reasonable enough, especially with a few cohorts backing it up. When communications speed up, though, it becomes too obvious, too fast, for too many people, when the King and the Gods are on the outs. Pick your typical Early Modern monarch — if that guy is the Anointed of Christ, then Christ done screwed up good. The English Civil War, for example, happened because Charles I tried to impose the Book of Common Prayer on Scotland, as he believed it was his Divine Right to do. The Scots disagreed, and ten years later Charles’s anointed head was rolling in the dust. Divine right monarchs are themselves, personally, the refutation of the theory of Divine Right Monarchy.*
The English Civil War — or, more correctly, the Continent-wide conflagration known for convenience as the Thirty Years’ War, of which it was an offshoot — is a watershed. The key word in the phrase “Early Modern army” is modern. Modern armies are equipped with guns. Guns require discipline, precision, and the ability to function in the field year-round — the exact opposite of the aristocratic ethos. Infantry is the queen of battles, and he who keeps the most infantry in the field the longest wins. To do that, you need buy-in from the peasantry. The Royalists in the English Civil War, for example, were fairly consistently outnumbered, but even when they weren’t, the Roundheads fought better despite a glaring lack of experienced commanders. Cromwell’s New Model Army was history’s first politicized army, which explains both its remarkable effectiveness and its notorious brutality.
This suggests a third organizing myth: Defense-of-the-realm. They wouldn’t put it this way, but liability to military service was one of the major underpinnings of the notion of the King-in-Parliament, from which all authority in the UK still theoretically derives. Well into the 20th century, anyone with the ability to vote would be on the business end of a war, one way or the other (only men could vote, and those men too old to actually serve paid the taxes for those who did). As the King’s authority ultimately rests on his ability to defend his realm, King-in-Parliament gives everyone a stake (even Hobbes agreed, at least to the first part — though he shuddered at the “-in-Parliament” part, he made his peace with the Protectorate and came home, because an actually existing sovereign power must be sovereign).
Technology makes this one obsolete, though. America’s realm could be defended by a small navy with tactical nukes, plus a few ICBMs. (N.b. I’m not saying this should be our national defense posture. I’m just pointing out that some nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, combined with a steely-eyed determination to use them, would keep the Hun from our shores, and the rest of the world quiet. Are the Mullahs really willing to risk a limited nuclear exchange over the Straits of Hormuz? How about China, over Taiwan? The point is that the days of mass conscription are over, which makes defense-of-the-realm useless as a modern organizing myth).
And…. that’s about it. Pick your state, and if it qualifies as a state — if it’s not modern Somalia or equivalent, in other words — it will be organized around one of those three, or some combination of them:
Yes, even the USSR — Communism is just your basic Divine Right Monarchy, with “the forces of History” subbed in for “Divine Right” and “the vanguard of the Proletariat” swapped for the drooling idiot inbred aristocracy.
The American Revolution was a conflict between “defense-of-the-realm” and “football hooligan democracy.” The Colonials were expected to defend the realm, e.g. in the Seven Years’ War, but without being part of the Parliament. But they couldn’t have been — technical limitations aside (it took at least a month to cross the Atlantic), and leaving aside the fact that they’d still be outvoted on everything, Colonials practiced football hooligan democracy. British officers in the Seven Years’ War constantly complained about Colonial soldiers. They’d fight, and could fight well, but only if you negotiated everything beforehand — they left England specifically to get away from bluebloods just ordering them about. George Washington was a 4th generation American, but most Colonials were recent immigrants (the Colonies’ population quadrupled before 1776). Football hooligan democracy won — America was a rough frontier society until the Civil War, and well into the Gilded Age the only contact most people had with the Feds was at the post office.
And so on, with one exception: The ethno-state. Japan is a prime example. Technically Japan is a Divine Right Monarchy — the current Emperor is the 125th, going all the way back to an offspring of the Sun Goddess — but Japan’s real ruler is “Japanese-ness.” They went from a backwards feudal empire to a modern world power in a single generation — !!!! — in an all-out effort to preserve Japanese-ness. They saw the British in Burma, the French in Vietnam, the entire West in China, and saw their future… unless they got into the imperial game themselves. The Charter Oath was 1868; by 1895 Japan had defeated China in the First Sino-Japanese War; and ten years later they defeated Russia — unquestionably one of the Great Powers — in the Russo-Japanese War. Japan’s official form of government changed many times over that span, and would change many more, but always with the same goal: The preservation of Japanese-ness.
The ethno-state is the most powerful form of government known. Ask anyone in the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere — a tiny, virtually resourceless nation, whose armies were sword-wielding samurai so recently that a man born when Perry came could still be alive, conquered pretty much the entire Pacific. The rights and wrongs (mostly wrongs) of that conquest are irrelevant; focus on the thing itself. You won’t find Meiji Japan in too many political science textbooks (except, of course, as “Westernization”), but its transformation is nothing short of miraculous. How did they do it? And can it be done in the West?
*I’m leaving aside, of course, the question of which god or gods sanction the monarch. This was the Romans’ main problem with Christianity. The Roman Empire worked on a kind of distributed sovereignty — in return for acknowledging the supreme authority of the Emperor, the Emperor’s administrators would rule you according to your own laws and customs. But Christians are explicitly stateless. A Jew, Egyptian, Greek, whatever is still a Jew, Egyptian, Greek, whatever in Rome, and can be tried there as such (or extradited back to his homeland for trial there). But Christians reject all that, so where and how are they to be tried? Julian the Apostate had a lot to say on this point — as you might expect from a Roman Emperor.