The Big Man, Part II

Any form of human political organization larger than the tribe always fails in the long run, for basic sociobiological reasons: We’re primates; we’re built to live in baboon troops. As history shows, if you want your regime to survive, make it as close to a monkey troop as you can — ancient Egypt survived on this model for many thousands of years, as did the Chinese Empire. Both were so successful at preserving their character, in fact, that some of the longest-reigning dynasties in both cases were composed of foreigners who’d gone native — the Ptolemids; the Qing. Both got really weird towards the end, but ya gotta admit, a few centuries is a hell of a run.

If this is true, you’d expect purely ideological regimes to be the shortest-lived, as ideology is by definition contrary to human nature, and therefore the most ideological regimes would implode the fastest… which, yep, seems like that happened across the board. The world’s first purely ideological regime of any significance was England’s Protectorate — a mere six years, followed by a return to monarchy.* Given the dependence of their ideology on war, we could say that the Third Reich was even more ideological than the various Communist regimes; they famously lasted 12 years. The longest-running ideological state still in existence (North Korea) dates from 1948; the overall longevity champ, the USSR, made it 74 years.

Even there, longevity seems to be directly correlated with reducing ideological conformity. Whatever they’re doing in China and North Korea, it ain’t Communism in any but the loosest nominal sense; the same was true with the late-stage USSR (and isn’t it the Left themselves who keep insisting that “real Communism has never been tried”?). I suppose it’s possible there are some “pure” Communist regimes still out there somewhere — Angola or some such — and if you want to make that case, be my guest, I’m Sgt. Schultz, I know nossink. So I’m going to go ahead and say that the law holds: “Regime survival” and “ideological conformity” correlate inversely.

Whatever their ideology, then, dictatorships seem to follow a predictable pattern. (I’m assuming here that the very word “dictator” contains at least some ideological content, as even the most brutally instrumentalist dictators — your Kim Jong-uns and whatnot — still seem compelled to go through the sham of “elections” or something similar every now and again, to pretend they embody the People’s will). They all seem to end in palace coups, though (or military defeat, like the Nazis, which are uninteresting), so it’s worth taking a look at how they function when in power, and the steps they take to prevent being overthrown.

The riskiest anti-coup measure seems to be “making the dictatorship hereditary,” North Korea-style. This buys you all the trouble of a hereditary monarchy, but with the added instability of ideology. Since the son will almost inevitably be a lesser man than the father, and the grandson a pale shadow of either, by keeping the ideology you hand your disaffected “nobles” a ready-made reason to overthrow you. If I had to guess, this is how North Korea’s end will come — some disaffected general overthrowing the Kims in the name of Communism. See also: The Ba’ath Party in Iraq. Does anyone think either of Saddam’s goofy playboy sons would’ve inherited the purple when the old man finally kicked the bucket?

The Tao of the Politburo seems to be a safer choice. The Soviets, Chinese, Vietnamese, etc. seemed to make this work, with the above-noted caveat that they move hard away from ideology the minute the dictator is in the ground (the North Vietnamese, as they were then, were doing that while Ho Chi Minh was still alive; smart move, boys). The problem, though, as we’ve noted before, is that there comes a time when the last of the dictator’s enablers are themselves in the ground. At that point, ideology can rear its ugly head again. Nikita Khrushchev, for instance, was a true-believing Communist, but he also came up in the hardest possible school and knew exactly how far to push ideology. When he kicked, the mantle devolved on a guy like Gorbachev, who was a true believer without all the hard experience. It didn’t end well.

The best case scenario seems to end with your Politburo Chairman being more or less a Renaissance Pope — an affable nonentity that’s no threat to any of the organization’s real players, but who is an acceptable face to the monarchs who matter. It’s a tough needle to thread — get it wrong, and you end up with schisms, antipopes, Bablyonian Captivities, the whole Avignon schmear, not to mention stuff like the Reformation. China’s doing ok so far, but watch what happens when their economy collapses… which is, in all likelihood, just around the corner. Fun stuff. See also Mexico, where the collapse of the PRI — the Institutional Revolutionary Party, let us note — coincided with the collapse of central government authority, making the whole place a narco-state controlled by various cartels.

There’s a third case: Actual reform, and a transition to constitutionalism. Russia arguably went through this; Chile less arguably. It happens, and it’s interesting in the world-historical sense, but does anyone want to bet it’ll happen again, anywhere in the world? We like to joke about Trump as the American Pinochet, but Pinochets are one-offs.

But then there are those fascinating cases where the dictator seems to make no provision at all for the succession. You can forgive someone like Hitler, I suppose, for not making any plans, given that he was determined to do or die for the world revolution, but you’d think that even the goofiest of Los Caudillos del Momento would have some sort of plan for handing off the generalissimo outfit to his heir-designate….

[to be continued]



*Leaving aside Calvin’s Geneva, which while intellectually fecund was politically insignificant, and anyway didn’t survive the leader’s death (see the discussion of hereditary dictatorships, above).


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10 thoughts on “The Big Man, Part II

  1. Maus

    Perhaps the exception proves the rule with respect to ideology and regime duration. The Catholic Church is pure ideology, yet it has had a continuous temporal sovereignty (at times vigorously contested and geographically constrained to the point of near extinction) for well over a thousand years. You may echo Stalin’s quip regarding the number of papal divisions; but the historical fact remains that the Holy See still exists and Stalin’s Soviet Union does not.
    Smaller does seem better in the longevity game. I am fascinated by the tenacity of such “microstates” as the Principality of Andorra (from 1278) and my favorite, the Most Serene Republic of San Marino, which was founded in 301 and has been governed by a constitution ratified in 1600.
    It does seem like the greatest necessity of our age, particularly given the decline in TFR and the looming prospect of demographic replacement, is determing practical ways to restore the tribe as a viable social organ. Here, you argue against ideology as a means. Zman similarly exposits that ideology comes after rather than before the ‘victory.” How then do we build tribes that will survive the “battle” and thrive? Do we rely on shared values, or are they too indistict from ideology? Do we favor shared cultural touchstones like art, music, food etc., or are these too attenuated by the ruling dictum of the post-Enlightenment that de gustibus non disputandem? Is it pure biology, or is this too materialist and prone to flirtation with Marxism or a broader scientism (e.g. global climate change)? I find this challenge to be a real quandary with no easy answers. Please, 14+ Readers, hold forth…

  2. Publius

    Given that the US of A is built on Enlightenment-era Liberalism, the fact that we’ve made it near a quarter-millenium is impressive, as that’s an ideology, albiet a fairly low-key one.

    I suspect the answer lies in geographic isolation for the first century-plus or so. Once we decided we needed to throw our weight around on the world stage, the Demographic Fate of Empires (first you conquer the Empire, then the Empire conquers you) was seeded.

  3. contrariandutchman

    I’d say that -every- government is ideological in that it requires a legitimizing ideology to remain stable for a generation or longer.

    The “King by the grace of God” and the “rightful emperor holding the mandate of heaven”, is legitimated in the way “Comrade Stalin, protector of the proletariat” is. Where communism went totally wrong is that you dont want your legitimating ideology to require utterly impracticable real-world actions such as “collective ownership of means of production”.

    Communist regimes have basically never tried to remain properly communist for more then a generation. When the going got rough in 1941 Stalin wrapped himself in the cloak of the Motherland and the orthodox church. The regimes in the warsawpact were always quislings desperately attempting to shore themseves up by appealing to nationalism (didn’t work, couldn’t since they were quislings).

    Pinochet, like Franco after he gave up on fascism, never had an ideology that could legitimate dictatorship, so the only regime that could be legitimate in their ideological sphere, “democracy”, followed them.

    The ccp and wpk have given up on actual communism many years ago, they now seek legitimacy through nationalism and in the Chinese case proving that they are worthy of the traditional mandate of heaven.

    An ideal legitimating ideology will also put the brakes on government official misbehavior by making the legitimacy conditional on living up to certain ideals. Corruption will still happen but cant be too blatant and in power struggles the cleaner side will have a clear advantage, evolving the regime toward good behavior to counteract the constant pull of corruption.

    If Our Thing is to rule and make it last it will need a legitimating ideology that 1. makes no impracticable real-world requirements, on the contrary, 2. makes legitimacy conditional on good behavior 3. fosters the wellbeing of our tribes (cloesely related to 2)

    Devising such an ideology certainly can be done before the revolution and would help a revolution by its innate pull at people disgusted at the corruption of the present regime.

  4. contrariandutchman

    Patrimonialism, lacking all legitimating ideology, is hopelessly unstable as a consequence and inevitably results in sgt Doe and general buttnaked and their gangs fighting it out over the ruins of the capital.

  5. Recusant


    “Given that the US of A is built on Enlightenment-era Liberalism..”

    Which is dying a rapidly accelerating death. Personally speaking, not before time. It’s inevitable decay, caused by its having the rights of the individual as the highest good, was written into it at the start.

    What to replace it with? Well, if you are a crusty old reactionary like me, proper Eighteenth century Toryism would be a start: we are not atomised individuals, but a living part of a society, with history and traditions and culture. Duties should be privileged over rights. Government should be directed to the common good and the protections of its peoples traditions and culture. Plutocrats, as much as socialists, are enemies of that common good.

    Additionally, and this will really piss people off, no culture, yet alone a civilisation, can survive without a transcendent religion and that doesn’t mean ‘Pastor Bob of the Church of the First Intersection’, but a proper, catholic, hierarchical religion.

    1. MBlanc46

      Some decent ideas in your post, Recusant. I think that I could get on board with eighteenth-century Toryism. I’m not so sure about the hierarchical, catholic religion. The ancients seem to have gotten along for quite a while with a hodge-podge of myths and legends, so long as the required ritual was observed. I’m not even sure that it’s required for eighteenth-century Toryism. By the eighteenth-century, the C of E had pretty much devolved into “the English ruling class at prayer”. Agreed that we need more than a merely political ideology to foster social cohesion, but it sure looks to me as if belief in the supernatural is just about over. We’ll have to look elsewhere.

      1. Recusant


        That’s why I said ‘catholic’, not ‘Catholic’. In other words, Universal not necessarily Roman.

        Belief in the supernatural, on the other hand, seems to be multiplying exponentially. I give you gender theory, critical race theory, white supremacy – tell me when to stop………

        1. MBlanc46

          I got your meaning of “catholic”, Recusant. It’s the universal bit that I don’t see, absent supernaturalism, as possible in modernity or postmodernity, or wherever it is that we are now. When everyone, or almost everyone, believed in a god or gods (and those that didn’t learned pretty quick to keep quiet about it), there was a decent chance of steering significant numbers of them into a particular theology. Without that basic belief, there’s not much of a foundation upon which to erect a coherent worldview. Perhaps it’s the case that only small, homogenous groups can now maintain social cohesion. The alternative appears to be a police state, perhaps on the Chinese model.

  6. ryan

    Two thoughts. Qusay Hussein was Saddam’s appointed heir. He was a functioning part of the Iraqi government and generally thought to be a competent bureaucrat. Uday was a real piece of shit and everyone including Saddam knew it. Such a bad reputation really that Qusay probably wouldn’t have even needed to have him killed to cement is grip on power.

    Moldbug has finally come up with a nice description of the present American government: materialist clerical oligarchy. Rule by many secular thinkers. It’s much more stable than rule by communist ideology because everyone involved believes they are not producing ideology, but rather objective truth.
    And to a certain extent it’s actually true. The system that produces ideas like free trade benefits the working class is the same system that produces single photon detectors. Our bureaucracy does not exercise power, it administers scientifically derived public policy. What science deems the best policy can change over time, it doesn’t have to be stuck in 1848.

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