History is one of my passionate hobbies. I read history books, essays, and articles voraciously. I am interested in how and why humans organize themselves. I am interested in great thinkers, builders, explorers, discoverers, and conquerors. I am interested in empires and language and migration and trade, in what came before us and how we got this way. I am interested in speculating on what’s possible, and what’s reasonable to prognosticate, based on what has happened already.
In my ongoing survey of the many nations on the planet today and throughout history, I have noticed a simple pattern in political organization. I see that all societies are in one of three stages of development: Tribal, Monarchial, and Plural. Tribal comes first, Monarchial second, and Plural third, if at all. Plural is the least likely, the most extraordinary of the three stages.
Stage 1: Tribal
The tribal stage is the default stage of political development for humans. All societies in the world either are, or once were, tribal. It is universal, on every continent and throughout history.
Characteristics of the Tribal stage
Stone-age hunter and gatherer
Led by a chieftain
Raids by, and on, neighboring tribes
High per-capita rate of violent death
Stage 2: Monarchial
A nation is created by welding tribes together. The process, from Japan to England to Germany to Mongolia to Latin America to Africa to the Middle East, everywhere it has happened, has happened in the same way: One warlord dominates (or is imposed on) the other warlords in a given geographical area, and the dominant warlord becomes king/khan/caliph/shah/emperor. Thus are nations born.
Monarchy literally means “rule by one.” It is necessarily a tiny minority ruling a vast majority. A monarchy can be ruled by a King, a dictator, a dynastic family, a single political party, a military junta, or a religious order.
Most nations of the world today are in the Monarchial stage. All Arab nations (with the precarious exceptions of Lebanon and Tunisia) are Monarchies. Most African and Asian nations are Monarchies, and until recently most Latin American nations were as well.
All European democracies were absolute Monarchies for centuries before they industrialized and liberalized.
(America is an exception because it was essentially a slice of England transported across the sea, and the local tribes were pushed aside. Australia is another such exception. Neither America nor Australia became a nation from the convergence of local tribes. Colonies that become nations are not starting from scratch; they are continuing a process that began, long before, in their parent country.)
Nations are almost never formed, nor held together, by plebiscite. Nations are formed and held together by force, by a monopoly of power wielded by a central authority.
It’s not easy to rule a young nation. It takes a long time, often centuries, for a new national identity to congeal from the convergence of tribes. There are centrifugal forces, old rivalries, in a young nation bound to hurl it apart. In the course of a nation’s development, there will be insurrections, tribal assertions, and ambitious pretenders. To keep a young nation from disintegrating, to keep power centralized, a monarch of a young nation must put down insurrections, sometimes brutally.
Over time, a national identity, and the rule of law, may take root in a Monarchy.
Characteristics of the Monarchial stage
Strong sovereign suppresses tribal rivalries.
Congealment. National identity may start to grow.
Development of writing and record-keeping.
Protection from enemies.
Growth of cosmopolitan urban centers.
Culture of law may begin to take root.
Trade, technology, industry, and wealth may begin to develop.
Stage 3: Plural
The Plural stage of political development emerges in a nation if/when legal power devolves from one locus to multiple loci.
Pluralism is a relatively recent creation. It is the least likely and the least common form of political organization. For most of history, the overwhelming majority of people in the world have lived in either Tribal or Monarchial societies. Even today, most nations of the world remain in the Monarchial stage.
But if there is a prolonged period of stability in a Monarchy, and a national identity is established, a culture of law may begin to grow. And the people, if they believe in the law and the government that enforces it, may pledge their faith to it. THEN, you are starting the process of evolving toward Pluralism. It takes many generations, centuries in most cases, for national identity/law to take root and to replace tribal loyalty.
Pluralism depends on extraordinary good luck. Monarchy is often hereditary, and passed from father to son, and the sons of great rulers are often fools. Most monarchs insist on ruling capriciously, and keep the law to themselves, and are reluctant to yield to devolvement of legal authority. Outside threats and/or or deprivation (famines, droughts, diseases) are also disruptive to a nation’s stability. In most cases, the deck is stacked against evolving out of Monarchy toward Pluralism.
Characteristics of the Plural stage
Rule of law.
National identity has replaced tribal identity.
Devolvement of power from the center. Multiple loci of power.
Faith in institutions.
Threat of being invaded is low.
Thriving industry and trade.
Low per-capita rate of violent death.
The Virtue of Order
Order is the most basic thing that a government (whether Tribal, Monarchial, or Plural) absolutely must provide. Order means the ability to stop violence between constituents. If a government cannot provide order, if a government cannot stop its constituents from harming one another, then there is no government. Nothing politically, culturally, or industrially meaningful can happen without order.
In a nation at the Monarchial stage of development, order is provided by a strong central authority.
In a nation at the Plural stage of development, order is provided by the rule of law.
We take the rule of law for granted in America. But this law began in England many centuries ago.
When a nation is in its infancy, mass protests are very threatening to its integrity. There have been demonstrations that have turned into destructive riots in various American cities in my lifetime, indeed many throughout our history as a nation. But neither I nor anyone I know has ever worried that the riots in American cities in recent memory would lead to the downfall of the government. The distance is great between riots and revolution in America today. We trust that ultimately our government can withstand these shocks and settle disputes and maintain order.
But in many parts of the world, especially in places where the concept of nationhood is very young and tenuous, where the tribal and/or sectarian rivalries are very strong and deep-seated, the distance between demonstrations and the downfall of the government is much, much shorter. Therefore a monarch must often be quick and decisive in suppressing them, lest they spiral out of control and the place disintegrate.
The opposite of order is chaos. A sudden disbanding of the existing political order in a young nation will most likely lead to chaos. Chaos is the one of the cruelest conditions that can be wished, or visited, on any people.
Examples in the world today
All of the nations in the Middle East and Africa are young nations, their boundaries drawn by Europeans in the past 150 years from the remnants of various empires. Most of the nations of the Middle East were provinces of the Ottoman Empire only a century ago.
Politically, Western Europe (and America, its offspring) is like a sixty-year-old person. The concept of national law began in England in 1215 with the Magna Carta, probably earlier. America is heir to a very long and highly developed legal tradition.
As nations, Libya, Iraq, and Syria are, by comparison, like toddlers. They are recent creations (1951, in Libya’s case, 1921 in Iraq’s and Syria’s). The culture of nationhood has not had a chance to take root in these places. Monarchy is appropriate, indeed the only option, for such recent creations. Prolonged stability may eventually lead to the rule of law, and the rule of law may then lead to Pluralism. But stability comes first.
Russia has been ruled by monarchs for its entire existence. Boris Yeltsin tried to throw open the floodgates of liberalism all at once in the early 90’s and the place nearly fell apart. It took a strongman to restore a semblance of order and calm. Russia will continue to evolve, albeit perhaps not as rapidly as some think it should.
South Korea was a Monarchy until 1987. Park Chung-hee, who governed from 1961 to 1979, was an authoritarian dictator who helped radically industrialize the country. Now South Korea is a pluralistic republic. Several Southeast Asian countries (e.g. Taiwan, Philippines, Singapore) have a similar profile.
Agrarian nations, without highly developed urban centers, are more likely to be Monarchies. Agrarian people tend to be less literate than urban people. Mass literacy is a prerequisite to Pluralism. Literacy, industry, urbanization, and pluralism tend to go together.
China, like Russia, has also been ruled by monarchs for its entire existence. Unlike Russia, China is today evolving at a breakneck pace. Hundreds of millions of Chinese are making the transition from rural to urban life. As China’s cities grow, as they industrialize and engage in trade with the outside world, the demand and necessity among the Chinese for predictable national and international law will increase, and as the culture of law becomes trusted, power can then be permitted to devolve from the center.
Tribal comes before Monarchial, and Monarchial comes before Plural. There is no escaping this sequence. Everyone starts with Tribal, and in some places, tribes have congealed into Monarchies. After a long time, and with extraordinary good luck, a Monarchial society may evolve into a Pluralistic one. Very few Monarchial societies have survived long enough to do this. If a Tribal society ever evolves into a Pluralistic one, it is because there was a prolonged period of Monarchy in between.
Western nations, they who have evolved into Pluralism after prolonged periods of Monarchy, have lately tended to get impatient with some of the Monarchies of the world, and have judged these Monarchies by inappropriate criteria. A Monarchy is certainly cruder than a Plural society, but crude like an adolescent is crude, from the perspective of a middle-aged person. Yes, adolescence can be crude. But you cannot jump from childhood to adulthood without going through it. Monarchy, like adolescence, is a necessary and unavoidable stage of growth. Unlike adolescence, it may last many hundreds of years.
The less stable the Monarchy, the less it is likely to evolve. Therefore, poking at Monarchies, threatening their stability, actually sets their clock back, and impedes their evolution.