Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The Evolution of Political Thought

I just finished reading The Evolution of Political Thought by C. Northcote Parkinson. It's a 1959 publication, so it reflects some of the concerns and prejudices of the time, but on the whole, it was very educational. Parkinson describes the four primary types of human government--monarchy, aristocracy, democracy, and dictatorship--and shows how one type can flow into the next through its own natural defects.

Following the Greek logic, Parkinson explains that a state arises under one leader, a monarch, who was usually able to combine the dual roles of priest and military leader. This monarch (or his/her successors) can have many collateral relatives over the course of time, leading to the growth of semi-royal relatives with no official claim to the throne, but some desire to share power, thereby leading to aristocracy. An aristocracy, if fluid and based on merit, can result in more and more people being given the rights of "nobles," leading inevitably to democracy. Democracies begin to perish when political equality can no longer be squared with financial inequality, leading thence to socialism or some other collectivist structure that seeks to level the playing field for all. This slide toward socialism usually leads to instability and unrest, to the point where people prefer one leader over an expanding and intrusive bureaucracy, thus giving rise to dictatorship. Dictators dare not step down and dare not allow anyone to share power--that was not a condition of the dictator's rise to power--and so the able are suppressed or killed and little room is made or left for a successor. The power vacuum left by a dictatorship can often lead to a desire for monarchy, which is similar to dictatorship but more stable and amenable to succession.

And so it goes. There were some surprises in this book: one of which was Parkinson's declaration that the Soviet Union was a theocracy. And yet it's hard to argue with his logic: they had a holy text (Capital), a God (Marx), and a living incarnation of the deity (Lenin, Stalin); they were concerned primarily with "orthodoxy"; and they viciously suppressed any who disagreed with the Laws. One need only look to Ahmadenijad's Iran for similar practices, though in more blatantly religious form.

On a similar line of thought, Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind described the United States as an aristocracy (of merit), which only gradually shifted to becoming a democracy. The Civil War can be seen as the last battle between aristocratic and democratic forces in this nation. Fascinating.

Another point that made Parkinson's book unique was that he finishes up in his Epilogue by stating no preference of one governmental form over another. His primary point, he states, is more to show how the weaknesses of one form can (usually but not inevitably) lead to the next. To overcome this "wheel of history," Parkinson recommends that political science do what the physical sciences did around the time of the Renaissance: throw out all of the "known, revealed truths" and start examining the world as it is. He argues for scientific studies of political forms, specific measurements of behavior and activity, and most importantly, performance.

This reminded me of a line from Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers. A teacher is asked why their particular form of government--rule by veterans and those who give at least three years of their lives to federal service--continues. He responds, simply, "because it works." Parkinson believes that until we better understand how people function in groups, how different solutions work in different contexts (large areas vs. small island nations), and what is meant by "working," we will continue to live with the wheel of monarchy-aristocracy-democracy-dictatorship. He does state, however, that he doubts if any "solution" can last more than 20 years. He describes any long-term solution to stable human government as utopian. For examples, one need only reference all of the different nations, kingdoms, and empires in his narrative that have all fallen into the dustbin of history.

One reason space settlement is so important is that distant colonies offer new opportunities for experiments in government, such as Parkinson describes. Of course as an American I would ardently hope for the establishment of free societies in space, but I reckon that we will see many different experiments, especially if China and India are serious about their desires to explore the solar system. The most detailed experiment in political utopianism in space is Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy. I absolutely disagree with its anti-capitalist and socialist premises, but at least KSR took the topic of political organization on other worlds seriously.


lin said...

This is an outstanding review. I almost feel as though I have read the book. If you are okay with it, I'll copy and paste it for re-reading offline.

Bart said...

Fire away.