The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Category: Politics Page 1 of 2

Politics Series: International Government and Relations

(Previous: Government)

(Introduction and Table of Contents)

Clausewitz wrote “war is a continuation of policy by other means.”

Foreign affairs are government by other means.

They are attempts to control what people do in other countries: what their policies are, how they govern themselves, and often enough, who is in charge.

In foreign affairs, the government trying to control the actions of another government doesn’t have full direct control, though it can have some control.

Take “free trade” and International Monetary Fund (IMF) “structural agreements.” These deals say what governments can and can’t do, or rather what they must or must not do. The government cannot subsidize certain industries or set tariffs in certain circumstances or in various other ways impede trade or the free flow of capital (two different things.) But they go beyond this.

A feature of many free trade deals are “takings” clauses. Investors can’t have their property damaged or removed by government without compensation.

You’re probably nodding along thinking, this sounds reasonable! And it does. But it’s used to stop things like environmental regulations: if a new regulation would damage a company or investors, they must be made whole. The more money they’ll lose, the more damage they’ve been doing and the more expensive it is to stop, especially since the payment is “forward” the government has to compensate for future losses of profits.

These are called ‘investor to state dispute settlement’ (ISDS). Government made a regulation that will cost you future profits? Sue them in a special court. Want the to stop mining that is poisoning groundwater, lakes and rivers? Compensate them. Want them to remove a cancer causing additive from their products? Compensate them.

This is influence on government from outside governments. The biggest ISDS case, against Russia, has been going back and forth in Netherlands courts for years. Most recently, the $50 billion dollar settlement was put aside, and the case referred back to lower courts by the Netherlands supreme court, “But the court rejected Russia’s other arguments that it was not bound by an international energy treaty on which the original 2014 payout ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration was based.” (Moscow Times, Dec 5, 2021).

The thing about treaties, of which trade agreements are only one type is that they are hard to undo. If you don’t like a law that is domestic only, any government can get rid of it with some possibility of internal judicial review. If you don’t like a particular part of a treaty, you have to throw out the entire thing, and many agreements have clauses which state that notice, sometimes years of notice, must be given.

And notice it is a Netherlands court deciding on whether Russia will pay $50 billion, which even today, is real money. In 2021 the entire Russian federal budget was about 311 billion: so this payment would be one-sixth. Of course, the mass Ukraine war sanctions may have made this moot: the Netherlands can rule what it wants, it’s hard to see Russia paying after the West froze hundreds of billions of reserves, though those reserves might be the source of any payment.

Every invasion or bombing is, of course, government by outside governments. The Iraq war was used to impose a new government and government structure on Iraq. After Germany and Japan lost WWII, new constitutions were written for them by the victors. After Austria-Hungary and Germany lost WWI, their monarchs were forced to abdicate and they were turned into democracies: against their will.

Sanctions are obvious government by outsiders, especially when they involve third parties. It is one thing for the US or the EU to say “we won’t sell or buy some things from you” it is another to say “we won’t let anyone else sell or buy these things to you and will sanction or fine or use military force against them if they do.” The Iraq sanctions of the 90s, which caused millions of deaths, were sanctions enforced by the military, but often the West’s control of the financial system is enough: if you can’t pay and receive, you can’t trade.

All of this is government. Back in the last chapter on government, we said, “Government is the people who make choices about law and policy, plus those who implement the policies and enforce the laws.”

If people in another country are choosing your law and policy and enforcing those policies and law, they are government. Remember, there can be more than one government in an area.

When the IMF imposes a structural agreement, which, say, forbids food subsidies so that people go hungry and starve, the IMF is government. When developing world nations were told to get their subsistence farmers off the land and grow cash crops in plantations to pay off loans and “buy development”, that was government too.

Foreign affairs is how one government governs a place and people who aren’t officially under their control, that’s all. Even in states there are often multiple governments in conflict with each other, not all of which are recognized as government. Is Wall Street government? Given the influence it has over government decisions, especially in the Federal Reserve and Treasury department, it would be jejeune to suggest otherwise.

Let’s turn from “foreign affairs is government by other means” to an examination of the conditions which surround government by foreign governments.

The first is whether a world system is a unipolar or multipolar and whether it is global or local. For most of history there were multiple world systems. To be in the Chinese world system during a dynasty was different from being in the Roman world system, or the Persian one, or the Caliphate one or the Mayan or Aztec one.

In a unipolar world system, which may not take up the entire world, but only part of it, there’s one power that matters and everyone else’s primary relationship is with that power. The world from the fall of the USSR is the example we’re most familiar with, but to be near China when it wasn’t divided was similar. Even if you could win a war against China, as its neighbours sometimes did, you’d rather avoid the scenario, because you couldn’t really win, you could only defeat the Chinese invasion. The Japanese came closest to proving this wrong, but even they could only hold parts of China, and that with a massive industrial advantage.

In the same way, to be near Rome during the mid to late Republic and good chunks of the imperial era was to be in the Roman system even if they didn’t rule you. Trade and military and everything focused on them. When Rome fell, and the Church arose, the pagans on the edge of Christianity found the Christian world even worse: determined to change their religion, and if it couldn’t be done peacefully, war was the way. Charlemagne once force-baptized ten thousand Saxons, then killed them all. (Wouldn’t want them to change back, after all.) The Teutonic knights beloved of Germans forced a huge number of pagans to change religion at sword’s point.

Sometimes the world system is multi-polar. Persia and Byzantium, before the rise of Islam. The Caliphates and Byzantium afterwards. Carthage and Rome till Carthage lost the second war against Rome. Greece and Persia before Alexander. The USSR and the US from WWII to the fall of the Soviet Union. And sometimes there are more than two great powers as in the 19th century.

A world system is about how things are done. The structure of what wars are right, what beliefs are right, and so on. The Christian and Muslim worlds wanted you to worship their God, their way and wars were fought to make it happen just as the West has forced democracy and their form of markets on various nations over the last 150 years, sometimes with guns, sometimes with economic coercion.

Vietnam and Korea and even Japan bear huge imprints from China, Korea and Vietnam often by the sword; but Japan thru China’s sheer cultural power and prestige.

All powerful ideologies create ways the world should be, and they rarely stop at national borders. If a way of life is the right way, the legitimate way, then there are always many who believe that all should follow it, and act on that belief.

High prestige and economic power has a weight of its own. The Greek conquests, which were huge and lasted centuries left Greek the educated language of much of Africa, the Middle East and the Mediterranean. As almost everyone now dresses like Europeans and Americans; many people, especially educated classes, dressed like Greeks. Greek was the international tongue of the region.

These patterns “blue jeans and rock and roll and suits and ties everywhere” are not unique to our era and no more eternal than Greek tonsure and robes were.

It should be pointed out that there is often internal support for external interference. Though it will offend many, it’s obvious that there is great support among Americans for Israeli influence and even control over American foreign policy, for example. For every American coup, there are those in the country who worked with the Americans. The British always played different groups off against each other during their conquests and their colonial rule, but so did the Mongols. Genghis Khan was always sure to know which groups internally were unhappy and could be used against the government before he invaded.

Likewise there are factions that want those trade deals we discussed. In Canada the Free Trade deal which was the precursor of NAFTA was passed even though the majority of Canadians opposed it: a powerful minority collaborated with Americans to make it happen.

Ideologies are transnational, and so is legitimacy. For a long time representative democracy has been considered the only really legitimate government, but before that it was monarchy: remember the restoration of the monarchy after France’s defeat in the Napoleonic wars.

Likewise there will always be factions that oppose foreign interference and have ideological ideas that create a legitimacy different from that of the world system’s predominant power. In some ways both the American and French revolutions can be seen thus, and as precursors of a new legitimacy, but so can Switzerland’s long independence and democracy in a world system that was far from democratic.

Britain’s rise arguably starts when England stopped wool exports. They made worse woolens, at first, than the Flemish had, but this created Britain’s first major industry. Genghis Khan created a nation out of the Mongols, in opposition to constant Chinese interference in steppe affairs, among other things, then he and his successors conquered the largest land empire in history and, ironically, were in many ways became similar to those they conquered, the most famous case being how quickly the Mongol rulers of China became Chinese, just as happened to the Manchu (though they were already essentially Confucian even before the conquest, where the Mongols were definitely not.)

In our era, great damage was done to the world system’s legitimacy by the rise of China, because China rose thru policies that did not align with the “Washington Consensus”. They managed their trade, they did not democratize and they kept much of the economy under control of the state. They did not follow the model sold to most developing nations which had failed and by conspicuously succeeding, they made it clear that the Western “development model” did not work. Likewise, constant interference in trade and free money flows by the US government thru various sanctions destroyed the idea that global trade and finance flows were the inevitable future. By acting against their own declared values, the US undermined them.

Internal changes in individual countries or areas can thus drive changes to the world system. Peripheral nations (and even China was peripheral very recently) which create something new can gain an advantage and change the world. The unified Mongols with Genghis’s new tactics and strategies and organization burst upon the world. Britain’s industrial revolution allowed it to create the greatest Empire the world has ever known. Greek  and Macedonian phalanxes, combined with cavalry, created a Greek world thru conquest.

Christian and Arab religious fervor likewise changed huge chunks of the world, some by conversion, much by the sword. The potential for the Arab expansion had already existed but it took and ideology and idea of a legitimate order to make it happen. No Islam,  no Arab conquests.

As with internal political change, externally driven change which goes badly can damage or destroy legitimacy. If a US coup installs a dictator like Iran’s Shah who turns out badly, the legitimacy of the American system can be badly damaged. If war is made to create democracy and it is a disaster, as in Iraq, then legitimacy is damaged.

If it goes well, however, as with the post-war prosperity of Japan and West Germany, and the restoration of Europe, then massive legitimacy is gained.

At the end of the day all ideologies create a legitimacy whose promise is just “this is a good way to live.” If it isn’t, compared to other alternatives, well, that ideology loses legitimacy.

Every time foreign affairs, thru economic pressure, persuasion or force change a country, legitimacy is on the line. It makes things better or worse. If better, then increase legitimacy. If worse, less legitimacy. Better or worse are slippery terms, of course, but an ideology and world system can be judged on its own claims. When policies said to create development and prosperity didn’t, the legitimacy of the post-war and neoliberal orders were damaged. When the USSR couldn’t feed itself or make sufficient consumer goods, their legitimacy was damaged because Communism was supposed to make the proleteriat better off and be superior in doing to so to capitalism.

Rome lost legitimacy when it could not protect the Empire from barbarians. The classic promise was stability, essentially. Jupiter defeats the Titans and rules forever and so does Rome. The long peace in the core of the Empire was the primary promise of Roman Imperial legitimacy (the Republic was quite different) and when it was broken, it broke not just Rome, but Roman Imperial paganism. Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, and his reforms set the stage forfeudalism. This staved off the collapse

When a world system falls, legitimacy changes with it. The end of WWII saw the end of colonialism, and the division of Europe between the winners. The decline of Rome made Christianity legitimate then its its fall led to feudalism; a very different polity than the urban centered classical world.

Foreign affairs, then, are not just government by other means, but ideology and legitimacy and identity by other means. They are, again, about how the world should be, and persuasion, economic power and violent force are used when necessary to create that world.

As with internal affairs, everything flows from legitimacy, because legitimacy controls what humans do. Without it the police and soldiers won’t shoot, so it is primary even to violence.

Let us move now to some concluding remarks on the entire “Politics”.


Next: Concluding Remarks



Politics Series: Government

(Previous: Power)

(Introduction and Table of Contents)

Government is the people who make choices about law and policy, plus those who implement the policies and enforce the laws.

The strength of a government can be measured by how easily they are able to implement those policies and enforce those laws, and by how many non-approved actors are running shadow governments. It is normal for apparently non-governmental organizations to implement the will of government.

In our society, large firms actually enforce or fail to enforce most tax law, private companies build most buildings and weapons using government funds, and so on. These organizations are effectively arms of government.

Organizations like gangs, mafias, or corporations which are able to ignore the government and do what they will against both law and policy are indications of government weakness. Depending on the government’s strength, this can include warlords, churches which cannot be taxed, self-defense militias, and feudal lords who no longer follow the King’s laws.

Government which uses proxies to enforce its will, as opposed to its own internal resources is generally weaker than governments that have their own capacity. This can, most recently, be seen in China’s response to Covid, which, when necessary, has included door-to-door food delivery, testing of the entire populations of millions of people, and so on. This is capacity that does not exist in most other countries, and which existed in China prior to Covid, and thus could be used to help China implement its zero-Covid strategy.

Strong government has both this internal capacity along with the ability to convince external actors to do what it wants.

Power and legitimacy of government are similar, but not identical. A government’s legitimacy can be measured by how much force they must use to ensure compliance. A government with low legitimacy, but a lot of power, can still be effective, but voluntary cooperation is superior to coercion — those who are compelled may work hard, but they are rarely creative or helpful.

One may think of the amount of force required as equivalent to the physical concept of friction; legitimacy reduces friction and multiplies power.

We tend to talk of “government” as if it is singular, but outside of isolated human bands in the distant past, it never is. There are always multiple governments. Ideally the ostensible “top” government is the most powerful, but that isn’t always the case. Voltaire quipped that “The Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy nor Roman, nor an Empire,” and for large chunks of its history, the Emperor was the supposed head, but lower-level governments were more powerful.

In our own world, for much of the past 40, years the Somali government was substantially weaker than various warlords, and many have suggested that various Western governments are controlled not by themselves, but by corporations or outside forces. This “capture of government by other forces” is important, and we’ll discuss it later.

Most of the organizations which actually govern many Westerners’ lives are not officially governmental; if we work for them or go to them, corporations and schools decide the activities of our day-to-day lives, and they decide much of what will be produced, how and who will get it, what prices and wages will be, and so on. To be sure, they do so in the context of policies and laws set down by government, but corporations have proven to be more than willing to break laws if the price of doing so is less than the benefit to them.

In many countries, corporations are law in large areas. Mining firm mercenaries and security forces regularly inflict violence on those who oppose them, often even killing them, for example.

In the past, feudal lords were the primary law enforcement in regions that dwarfed the areas where the law (writ) of the king or emperor held sway, and even today, a ship’s captain in international waters is a law unto himself. For much of European history, free cities made almost all their own laws, and under the Tokugawa Shogunate, the haughty Samurai found commercial law distasteful and let merchants form and enforce their own laws for regulation of contracts and finance.

Government is what government does. If the rules and policies are formed by an organization we don’t call a government, it is still acting as a government.

Governments usually act to maintain and increase their legitimacy, based on their current ideology. As we discussed in the chapter on groups and coalitions, however, this doesn’t mean they’re concerned about their legitimacy with everyone. If a group isn’t part of the ruling coalition, and especially if it is not powerful, government may take actions that group considers illegitimate. This increases friction, but has all the advantages we previously discussed.

Neoliberal governments, for example, are not particularly concerned with popular opinion. As the Princeton oligarchy study showed, such opinions are essentially irrelevant, all that matters is what those with some degree of wealth and power think. New Deal and post-war liberal governments, on the other hand, did care about popular opinion and often acted in reaction to it, having a broader base of support and weaker financial elites.

In the Dark Ages and much of the Middle Ages, legitimacy with the peasantry wasn’t very important, but keeping the feudal nobles happy was necessary, as Kings relied on vassals for much of their military might and income, and those vassals in return had vassals beneath them. The King, in such situations was the first among equals, acting to keep the nobility in power, and himself at the top of the heap. Indeed, in such governments, even merchants were often treated with little respect, and kings and nobles regularly defaulted on debt with little to no consequence. Killing those whom they owed money to, as with the French King’s famous destruction of the Templar Knights, was common.

In our own developed societies, school and universities are the primary ideological education hubs. In some countries, like the US, churches are very important, and their importance in the US has been the prerequisite for the rise of the modern right-wing, which vaulted Trump to power and which recently overthrew the federal US right to an abortion.

As we’ve discussed elsewhere, ideologies change, legitimacy changes, and societies, including their governments, change with them.

In the modern context, it’s good to remember FDR’s quote: “That, in its essence, is fascism — ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power.

It’s not a very good definition of fascism, as this would include monarchies, for example. But it’s an excellent definition of when a state is no longer democratic, whether or not there is voting. By this definition, the US is not a democracy, nor is the UK and nor are a number of other nations who identify as democracies.

But this is why there is fight over ideology and legitimacy. If you redefine what is “the right thing,” then you can change how a society operates — who controls it, and who gets the spoils. If democracy only means, “You get to vote” and doesn’t mean, “the mass of people control what the government does,” then you can try and keep the legitimacy of the word “democracy,” while also keeping the loot and power.

Many, if not most, American universities mandate that arts and social science majors take an introductory economics course in order to graduate. In that course, people are taught (not learn, but are taught), that everyone looks out after their own self-interest, that there are no objective standards for what is good (has utility), and that people acting selfishly (in their own self-interest) leads to the most good.

The great economist Keynes famously quipped that “Capitalism is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone.”

Stated this way, it’s obviously nonsense, but Economics 101 states its axioms (unprovable assertions) as laws, as if they were the equivalent of E=MC Squared.

This is ideological education. Indoctrination. Every society has it. No society I am aware of has existed without it, and I doubt that one ever has or can. Modern capitalism, whose priests are economists, asserts that if you make more money, you get it because you are providing, or did provide, services or goods people want, that what people want always has utility, and that rich people therefore deserve their money and implicitly, deserve even more money than they already have, so that they can produce more utility, which is identified as “good.”

The Divine Right of Kings was fundamentally no different. The Roman cult of the Emperors was similar, and, in the Roman Republic, the gods supported the State as well. All nobles and aristocrats (two different things) have asserted that they are the best people.

So what government is, and who controls it, is always justified by ideology. Ideology isn’t necessarily a dirty word, it’s like sex; it can be lovemaking, it can be just for fun, or it can be rape. It depends on the context.

Change the ideology and the legitimacy and you change what governments can and cannot do. Under feudalism, traditional rights were very important: If your great-great-great grandfather had a right to use the common fields or to 20 percent of the yields of the peasants on the land, so do you. To change those rights is illegitimate.

When absolutist monarchies began to take over Europe, at about the same time capitalism was becoming the dominant economic ideology, is also when we start seeing the enclosure of the commons — lands that peasants had the right to use as a group. It’s when nobles start not being allowed, in many areas, to not have their own troops, or to only have a few. It is when, slowly, nobles start losing the right to be judge, jury, and in some places executioner. The King, through his officials, began taking over those powers.

This change in ideology was driven by changes in technology (firearms and cannons) and by changes in economics. However, these changes were also driven by ideology and legitimacy in ways that are not clear to most people and which are also beyond the scope of this booklet.

It is legitimacy, and ideology, filtered through groups and coalitions, which determine what government can and will do. When governments start doing things that are against the dominant ideology, or physical conditions no longer allow them to keep their ideology, they weaken both themselves and the ideology, and in time, they lose power.

This is what happened in the 1970s, with the oil shocks and stagflation (high inflation and high unemployment at the same time). The promise of the New Deal and post-war liberal orders was increased general prosperity, that all boats would rise together, as John F Kennedy once said. When this was no longer true, and when the government, whether through lack of belief, incompetence, circumstance, or some combination of all three, was unable to meet its ideological promises, it lost legitimacy. The result was the end of the post-war order, symbolized by the election of Ronald Reagan in the US and Margaret Thatcher in the UK.

A government exists, then, to keep the promises of its ideological foundation. Lose the “mandate of heaven” by failing to keep those promises, and you lose power. A government may continue, but that government is based on a different ideology with different requirements for legitimacy.

This isn’t just about individual societies, however, it is about systems of governance which are regional and since the 19th century, global. Government is often imposed from outside a country or society, and it is thus that we will move to foreign affairs in the next chapter.

Next: Foreign Affairs


Politics Series: Power

(Previous: Economy)

(Introduction and Table of Contents)

We have seen that who gets how much of what is a political decision, that the economy and economics is downstream from politics.

Power is the ability to make people do what you want, or not do what you don’t want. Ideology determines what the good life is and power determines who lives it. All political power ultimately derives from control of people’s consciousness.

Violence seems like the exception, but it isn’t, because you must convince some group to be violent on your behalf; those are the people whose consciousness you control. No individual is truly powerful without control of other people’s consciousness, because all individual power is based on “don’t kill me while I’m asleep or knife me when my back is turned.”

Even groups that are controlled by violence usually have some level of consciousness control. It’s very hard to stop people from committing suicide rather than complying. Short of that, in the case of some Native American groups, treatment was so horrible they stopped breeding, and died out. Fear can force a lot of compliance, but even terror has its limits.

That said, using fear and violence is inefficient. It requires too much effort and supervision, and destroys initiative. Slaves, whether they recognized as such or not, do not work enthusiastically. Degrees of power over consciousness can be divided into tiers.

First Tier: People who feel they want to, ought to, or should do what those with power want. These can be quite downtrodden. In many patriarchal societies, where women had and have few rights, and have been subject to violence by their husbands and menfolk, many women believe this is right and good, that they should be controlled by men. There are good peasants, content with their places; workers who think the bosses know best, and; soldiers who volunteer and die in their millions for wars that benefit them not at all.

Herman Goering, the Nazi minister, was interviewed by Gustave Gilbert after World War II, and the exchange is worth quoting in full.

Gilbert asked Goering how it was possible to build and sustain public support for a war effort, especially in Germany, which had barely recovered from the still-recent disaster of World War I.

Why, of course, the people don’t want war,” Goering shrugged. “Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece. Naturally, the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood.

But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship.”

There is one difference,” [Gilbert] said. “In a democracy, the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars.”

Oh, that is all well and good,” replied Goering, “but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”

This is control of consciousness, convincing people to do what you want, even though it is clearly against their self interest, and to do it willingly and enthusiastically.

Second Tier: Informal negative social consequences. Things like disapproval, shaming, scorn, minor violence, and discrimination when seeking housing and employment. This is where there is no official sanction, but some people believe so strongly in what those with power want that they make those who resist miserable.

In World War I Britain, for example, white feathers symbolizing cowardice were given to men out of uniform and women, in particular, scorned able-bodied men who were not in the military. Almost 900,000 British men died in the war, charging machine guns or from disease and other hazards, and many came back maimed. It’s hard to make a case that anything ordinary soldiers gained from the war (in any nation) was worth that.

Third Tier: Formal sanctions to make people do what those with power want. Most commonly, this includes the civil justice system, schools, and corporate discipline systems. If you don’t do what teach wants, there are consequences. If you displease your boss, likewise. If you don’t pay bills on time, you get a bad credit record and can’t rent good homes, etc. A criminal record means you will probably never have a good job again.

These consequences work on people who don’t want to what those who are in power want, but do them out of fear of what will happen if they don’t.

Fourth: Violent Sanction. For those whom all the other methods of control fail, there is violence. Police, courts, and prisons. In the past, and in some countries still, beatings from teachers. Parental violent discipline also falls into this category; parents have power, and some hit children who don’t obey.

Now, power isn’t always bad. Perhaps those in power genuinely want what is good for you, and you agree and do it, and that’s wonderful. Take your medicine, see the doctor regularly, don’t drink and drive or do meth. Perhaps a little mild social disapproval makes you not bully people, or steal, or drink too much, and that’s likely a good thing, though it’s still coercive.

But ultimately, power is about someone else deciding what you do, and when it works smoothly and well, controlling your consciousness so that you want what they want, whether it’s good for you or not.

Let’s bring this back to legitimacy, to the start of our chain. We conceive of some uses of power as legitimate, and others not. If police arrest a rapist or murderer violently, we think that’s good (unless we’re right-wing religious types who think husbands can’t rape wives). If we think drugs are bad, we will think it’s okay for government to restrict access to them and hurt those who insist on using them anyway. If we think that property rights are the most important thing, we will be okay with police rousting homeless people who are reducing property values. If we believe in vaccination, we will feel coercing people who don’t want to be vaccinated is acceptable, and in fact, even good.

Coercion causes legitimacy damage to decline when a group doesn’t agree that the coercion is legitimate. If the group is relatively powerless, that may not matter much (US blacks and drug laws that discriminated against them, or Native Americans and various genocidal policies), but if they do have power or if some of those with power identify with them (and thus feel with them), this can cause great legitimacy damage.

In the Russian revolution, when the palace was surrounded and then invaded, the armed guards did not fight back; an important chunk of the enforcer class no longer felt it had the legitimacy to resist. With those taking the palace were many members of the Russian navy; for them legitimacy had switched entirely.

When the USSR and the Warsaw pact fell, the Communist leaders declined to use the Red Army to keep it together. The Red Army was certainly large enough to stop any breakup, but Communist Party legitimacy was too low to allow its use.

Coercion works when elites and enforcers are willing to use it, and not when either of the pair won’t. Coercion is thus downstream from legitimacy, and coercion by force is usually a sign that more efficient forms of power are failing to reach certain groups in society.

The exception is that coercion by force is often used on outsider groups as a way of increasing legitimacy in core groups. If a group is not considered “one of us,” or if core identity groups don’t identify with an out-group such as blacks, or slaves, or natives, or poor people, or Irish, or whatever, then enforcement against them does not reduce legitimacy. Instead, it increases legitimacy with those who aren’t in the out-group.

What is seen is the ruling ideology being enforced. That provides good feelings because of identification with the ideology, without negative feelings because the groups it is being enforced against is not identified with.

As long as whoever enforcement is used against can be made into “not one of us,” enforcement is a positive for creating legitimacy and identification with the ruling ideology. Entire groups are possible, but when someone is accused of a crime, the process is meant to strip them of as much of their in-group identity as possible, to make their punishment feel good. (Again, remember, if we identify with someone, them being hurt, hurts us.)

There’s a corollary to this: Because coercion is done for ideological reasons (because people are not obeying the “rules”), if the “rules” are not seen as legitimately part of a group’s ideology, it renders any coercion illegitimate. For many Americans, locking people up for drug use is illegitimate. For others, any protest by someone they disagree with obviously requires those people be locked up. Stopping blacks from voting was and is considered legitimate by many, but for others it is a wrong, and so on. You can come up with hundreds of examples, historical and contemporary.

However, when coercion, especially violence, fails, it is powerfully de-legitimizing. Coercion in service of an ideology / an identity is an extreme form of ritual, and if the ritual fails, then legitimacy is harmed. In extreme cases, like the Russian defeat in World War I, it can lead to revolution.

Coercion, then, both relies on legitimacy to even be possible, and its exercise increases or decreases both the legitimacy of the people who do it and the ideology with which they identify. If a group or ideology’s legitimacy collapses, so does the ability to coerce. All power does not come out of the barrel of a gun, as per Mao, bur rather from the ability to convince someone to use that gun.

Powerfully legitimate ideologies often barely need to use force at all to sustain themselves, except against any out-groups — members self-regulate and deal with almost all deviation through social pressure at most.

An out-group can be a powerful source of legitimacy to the ruling ideology, though, by allowing the ideology to be seen to be enforced without any backlash in the form of feeling bad about those who are hurt during enforcement.

The most important user of power and legitimacy is the government, and it is to them we will turn next.

Next: Government


Audio Recordings of “Political Concepts” to Chapter 3

An enthusiastic reader has made recordings of the first few chapters for those who prefer to listen rather than read.


Chapter 1: Politics Itself

Chapter 2: Legitimacy

Chapter 3: Ideology

If, on the other hand, you prefer to read the Table of Contents and Introduction, has links to all published chapters.


The Economy: Politics Series VII

Previous: Environment

(Introduction and Table of Contents)

The economy turns the ideology of who should have a good or bad life and what sort of life that is into reality.

An economy is a way of deciding who is allowed to use resources and in what ways they can use them.

In modern capitalism, money is power: It lets you determine what other people do. You can do that directly by hiring them, or you can do it indirectly by buying what they offer. Either way, your money directs their efforts.

Not all economies are like this. In feudalism, money was not the most important thing, land and serfs were. You controlled land and serfs by being part of a web of feudal obligations such that other members of the feudal nobility would send you knights and men-at-arms. Military force and feudal ties determined who had the power to control what the peasant majority did.

There are always limits on what you are allowed to do. In an economy, these are political limits. In the modern developed world, slavery is usually illegal and children don’t work. You may not be allowed to work people more than a certain number of hours a day. Some areas won’t let you own water rights or restrict access to beaches; some separate “above ground” land rights from mineral rights (to the ruin of many farmers).

Children are forced to go to school by government, thus claiming the right to choose what children do away when they’re away from their parents (and the right was taken away from parents who did choose what their children did previously). There may be environmental regulation, there are certainly taxes which change costs, and there are subsidies as well. Railroads are far more efficient in physical terms than roads for transport, for example, but roads are far more subsidized and, thus, often cheaper.

How an economy works: What can be sold or earned. Through regulation and taxation, what the cost structure is, and thus what types of people and businesses make how much profit are political decisions. This is why businesses spend so much time and money lobbying government: Government is the ultimate determinant of their success.

Modern stockholder capitalism would be impossible without a vast array of legal rights and their enforcement. The limited liability corporation is a political creation (and was opposed by many businessmen when it was created). Corporate person-hood is not obvious, and many would argue, it is obviously incorrect (corporations aren’t people) but it is legal reality.

Property itself, is entirely a political creation and requires vast enforcement by the state. Owning ideas is something you couldn’t do for most of history, but so-called “intellectual property” is core to modern capitalism. Indeed, for much of history most societies didn’t even allow the ownership of land, and personal possessions were often freely shared. It takes immense amounts of force and huge institutions to keep our complex property systems going; accountants, bookkeepers, and banks are best viewed as keeping track of complex ownership relationships.

You will remember that, in the legitimacy and ideology chapters, we discussed the idea of the “good life” and of who the “good people” were. Economies are designed to translate that into reality. So, for example, the US has had vast subsidies for suburbs for about a century, because suburbs represent the “good life.”

While governments set the rules of economies, decisions within that rule-set are made by people who control a lot of money, whether personally or through companies. When those people do something bad, even often something which is illegal, we often don’t punish them at all (as in the 2008 financial crisis), or we fine them for less than they made. This is because rich people who make decisions are acting legitimately; they are the people who are supposed to make decisions.

If drug companies make insulin so expensive that many people die, that isn’t murder, even though far more people are killed than even by the most prolific serial killer. As with politicians declaring war, rich people are considered to have the right to kill or harm others, so long as it is done through markets.

Where the line on this is varies by time, with much more permitted before 1933 and after 1980 in the US, but because basic legitimacy, in a capitalist system, resides in markets, those who control markets are “good” and have the legitimate right to hurt people.

Capitalists use the state to obtain the resources they need for business: road and railroads, employees trained by schools and universities, basic and advanced research, the court system and the police. All of these resources are used far more by capitalists than ordinary people; they benefit more than they pay. Likewise they often have the right to pollute, injured workers have only limited ability to sue them, and so on. Direct subsidies of billions to trillions are common.

All of this is so because capitalism is legitimate, so doing what is required to make business profitable is legitimate.

The word profitable is important here: It is usually government which decides which businesses make money and which don’t. The combination of property rights, enforcement, and subsidies, along with letting businesses pollute or not, pay other damages they inflict, determines not just whether money is made, but how much.

The best business to be in is generally the financial business, as banks and most financial institutions can create money literally out of nothing, which is what happens when a bank makes a loan or a brokerage extends credit or leverage. It’s hard not to be profitable when you can just change a computer legerd and, “Voila, money!”

Joseph Schumpeter regarded banks as the command centres of capitalism because of this ability to create money and because lending a business money to do something is deciding if that something should be done. and In general, financial institutions plus the state determine who can do what, and who makes a profit. Because financial institutions are, or can be, regulated by the state, and because just anyone isn’t allowed to create money, this is all, ultimately, a creation of the state or at least allowed by it.

The economy, then, is how the ideology of legitimacy, of what the good life is and who should enjoy it, is brought into being. The right activities are made profitable, the wrong ones are made less profitable or unprofitable, or are made illegal. Taxes are arranged to distribute money from the rich to the rest of society, as from 1932 to 1979 in the US, or they are arranged to distribute money from the majority to the rich, as from 1980 to the present.

Money and power thus move to the chosen and legitimate groups of people, and those people use it that money to create society in the image of their ideologies.

The economy then, is not a result of inevitable economic laws, but of choices made by those in power, who are in power because enough people identify with them and agree with the ideology they claim to champion.

Economies result from power and confer power, and power is what we will discuss next.

Next: Power

Table of Contents


Environment: Politics Series Chapter VI

Previous: Groups and Coalitions

(Introduction and Table of Contents)

I struggled a bit with what word to use for this chapter; to most people today, “environment” means the natural world, but here I’m using it to include not just that, but the social and the built environment. The social environment is the people around us and how they act: a nomadic clan is very different from a peasant village, and both are different from an American city, which is different from a Chinese city or the rural areas in both countries.

The environment, things like geography, technology and upbringing, determines what politics are possible, but how which politics happen.

Time also matters. Growing up in the 1930s was very different from growing up in the 1950s, let alone in the 2000s. Although it’s controversial, generations do have shared characteristics, because they have shared experiences due to similarities in their lived experience.

Environment is not separate from ideology and identity, of course — what the people around you believe and try to make you believe is important. How they act based on their beliefs matters. What identity groups exist for you to join or reject also matters.

Environment forms people; it is a large part of what creates their characters and their abilities. Even if you reject something about your environment, even if you hate it and can’t wait to leave, by reacting against it, you are being formed by it. (Our relationships with the people who raise us is similar — there is no escaping their influence.)

Ideologies must explain the environment we live with in. Hunter-gatherer religions tend to be polytheistic and animistic and concerned with luck, cycles, and the bounty of nature, because hunting is an activity where luck matters a great deal. The deer can bolt at the last second, the seal can dive, and you’ll have nothing. Gatherers manage the environment more than most realize, but it’s still a gift from the spirits or the Gods.

Agrarian communities, on the other hand, tend to have all-powerful sky Gods. You must have rain at the right time and no early or late frosts, or the crops fail, and many starve. The earth is seen as more passive, and the farmer plants the seed, but the sky can be fickle.

The modern American equivalent is “job creators.” All good things come from money and you get money from jobs, so “job creators” are the modern Gods: Billionaires, in older times inventors, entrepreneurs, and so on. Because they are the the people who give others good things, they must be treated with reverence and not taxed too much, so they can keep showering their beneficience upon the people.

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From about 1930 to the 1970s, almost no one believed that “job creators” were a thing. The Great Depression had taught them that capitalists, bosses, and bankers were clueless idiots who if not kept in an arm-lock at all times would crater the economy and create untold hardship. So we regulated them tightly and taxed them, often at over 90 percent marginal rates and we saw government, which had gotten us out of the Great Depression as good, and believed in spreading wealth and income to increase demand, since a demand collapse caused the Great Depression.

But that distrust of business and the rich, and that belief in equality was a function of environment; it explained the Great Depression. In the 50s and 60s, business operated well, provided a lot of good jobs and didn’t overpay their executives. But then the government couldn’t handle the oil shocks and an ideology was presented, created by people like Milton Friedman and pushed hard by big money interests, that said that government regulation of business and taxation of rich people was the problem, and that private enterprise would create a new dawn in the US. Enough people believed this to swing the 1980 election to Reagan, and neoliberalism took power.

Now, in the early 2020s, private enterprise and government both look incompetent, and young people have huge debts and little chance of ever owning a home. The stage is set for another explanation to rise.

When written narratively like this, we could go back through ideologies and sub-ideologies for hundreds of years if we wanted to, it sounds inevitable. This is, in essence, the crude Marxist’s argument: Material circumstances control superstructure like ideology, so look at the material circumstances.

But this is only half-true; ideology is constrained by material circumstances, absolutely. It has to explain both the environment in which people live and the material support of ideologues often constrains them. The 17th century philosophes who created the Englightenment values which powered the American and French revolutions could not have happened without French Salon culture, a multiplicity of possible patrons and a robust book and pamphlet publishing industry. Before the printing press and during the time when essentially all intellectuals were under Church control, the rise of the bourgeousie and the Philosophes could never have happened.

So ideology is definitely related to material circumstances, but there are always multiple ways to explain the environment. Even within a major ideology, there are sub-ideological transitions — as with the one between New Deal/post-war capitalism and neoliberalism which we have discussed so much in this booklet.

None of this is predetermined. The 70s did not have to lead to neoliberalism. There were other threads to follow, including one which suggested the initiation of a green transition to reduce dependence on oil.

In the early- to mid-20th century, wars were fought to determine which political ideologies would be most important: Communism and Democratic Capitalism defeated Fascism (a capitalist ideology, but not a democratic one), then Communism collapsed later. There’s a very strong argument that capitalism won not because of any innate superiority (as its ideologues argue), but simply because it had a stronger geographic and economic position all through both wars and the Cold War, and that superior position was largely a historical accident.

Environment has other effects. Some of them are obvious and often commented on in geopolitics: location, climate, resources, whether there are defensible borders like rivers, mountains or coasts (Britain’s history is impossible for any non-Island state, the same is true of Japan). As they are often discussed, we’ll pass those by, and move onto how our lives create our character and abilities.

The Mongol conquests, nor any of the other great horse nomad invasions wouldn’t have been possible if horse nomads hadn’t learned to ride and shoot starting as very young children. The signature Mongol military maneuver of firing accurately behind them as they rode away from attackers, for example, is something most people simply could not do. Likewise, in the Middle Ages, knights trained from childhood, and it was said that anyone who didn’t start as a child would ever be any good.

Our lives give us our abilities, but they also form our character. In modern life, most people spend at least 12 years in school where they are taught to not speak unless given permission, to do what they’re told in exactly the way they are told, and are ranked by how well they do what they are ordered to do. Those who rebel or are otherwise bad at doing what they’re told when they’re told, sitting still and shutting up unless called on, are filtered so that most of them will never have good jobs. Those who succeed have shown exactly the abilities bosses want: Subservience to authority and willingness to do exactly what a boss orders in exactly the way the boss wants it done.

That we then expect a population trained this way, who in both their childhood and adult lives make almost no decisions, to be “free” is one of the grand ironies of our age. We march to war, in the millions if necessary, do what authorities tell us to, and are generally compliant to the demands of power. That’s our character, and it’s what our daily lives train us to be, not just in school but at work.

This is why people like Jefferson thought democracy required a base of Yeoman farmers: People who made their own decisions about what to do each day, even if constrained by weather, soil, and other natural demands. The term wage-slave was coined in the 19th century precisely because employees lost so much relative freedom, and, in many places, universal state schooling had to be imposed with military force against parents who felt their children were being stolen from them.

The great period of unionization was built on huge factories; where everyone was treated almost identically by employers. They did basically the same thing all day, in the same few factories owned by any employer. They saw each other regularly and were used to working together already — plus, factories of the time were places of hard, brutal, and dangerous manual labor, so early workers were often willing to risk physical confrontations. The same thing could be seen in China during its recent industrialization, with riots where workers would tear up beds in dorms to get the steel rods to fight with.

The environment, then, inevitably forms our character and our abilities — how brave we are, how used to thinking for ourselves, but it also it helps create our social ties. In a highly anomic society, where even families often live far apart due to traveling to get jobs, such as in the late 20th century US, social ties become thin, and concerted action becomes difficult.

Then environment also includes technology, especially the technology of conflict. Armored knights as the pre-eminent military force could never create an egalitarian society. Firearms, where anyone can kill anyone and where mass armies make sense and are feasible, did. Republican Rome and Greek City states exactly made citizens of those who could afford to fight in the Phalanx or row galleys and Rome had a class above the commons, the Equites, made up of those who could afford a horse and thus fight as cavalry.

The Swiss cantons, with their Pikemen, who regularly defeated cavalry, were a late Medieval equivalent, and while one of the first nations with male suffrage, were one of the last to give women the vote. But they also could not have existed outside a mountainous area like the Swiss Alps, because cavalry could have easily swept past pikemen.

By World War I and II, industrial production became key to winning wars, and with so many men conscripted, women went to work in the factories en mass during wartime and women soon gained the vote.

This relationship of voting to production was also based on how the economy was organized during the late 19th through mid 20th century. It’s the economy, and its effects on politics (and vice versa), which we will discuss next.

Next: Economy


Table of Contents

Groups and Coalitions: Politics Chapter V

Previous: Identity

(Introduction and Table of Contents)

Politically active groups form because of ideology and identity: they have beliefs about how the world should be; those beliefs are emotional and create both identification with other people who have the beliefs and shared desire to change the world or keep the world in line with the ideology’s prescriptions.

Identification is necessary, but without ideology there would be no direction: a group wouldn’t know who should rule or what they should do. Should we convert everyone to our religion and dis-empower or even kill those who espouse the wrong way to know and worship God? Or alternatively, is religion something which should be kept separate from politics? Should we elect our leaders, or should they be the sons of those who had power before? Who should be allowed to be a leader? Men only? Property holders only? Members of the aristocracy? Religious officials? Once in power should they try to make everyone equal and help those in need, or should they work to keep power and wealth only in the hands of those worthy of it, like the nobility?

Should you be able to buy land on the market? For much of history almost all land could not be bought. Should people buy their goods in the market, or make it themselves as part of group activities and distribute it based on something other than money? Again, for most of history, most good goods, including food and housing, have not been sold for money.

And so on. Ideology is the content of what any group wants. You can see it today in the differences between conservatives, liberals, socialists, identity politics, social democracy, fascism, and so on.

The power of groups is multiplied by their organization and their self-identification. An isolated union has only a small amount of power, but if there are many unions and they won’t cross strike lines and will support strikes, all of them become much more powerful. When unions make up almost half of all workers, as was the case in most Western countries in the 50s thru 70s, they are obviously more powerful than when they make up under 20% as is the case in many countries today.

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The more cohesive a group is ideologically, the more power they have. This means agreement on goals and methods. If some union members are willing to cross strike lines, unions are weak. If almost all unions or almost everyone in a major political party agree that women should or shouldn’t be able to work, feminism is far more powerful or far weaker than if a group is split on the issue.

If a group is split ideologically on important issues, in fact, it really isn’t a group; it’s a coalition: groups work together when they agree or don’t agree; coalitions and alliances work together only on specific goals they hold in common.

Just because there is disagreement, however, doesn’t make a group a coalition: if group members disagree but once a decision is made will pull together for a goal anyway, they’re still a group, at least politically. If, on the other hand, they will work against each other, they’re a coalition. You saw this in the 1972 American election, where powerful liberals inside the Democratic party actually worked against the party nominee, George McGovern^, because they disagreed with what they considered his radical agenda. To him them, McGovern wasn’t a legitimate candidate, he didn’t believe the right things, therefore he wasn’t a “real Democrat” and opposing him was fine. As a result, McGovern lost to Nixon and that split can be seen to presage the loss of the Democratic party’s status as the ruling party of American politics in 1980, which lead to the Republicans taking power, and the new ideology of neoliberalism becoming the hegemonic ideology of not just America, but of the West in general.

Small groups and homogenous groups; groups whose members have many similar characteristics are easier to keep coherent and to organize. As a result, elite factions are always powerful, not just because they have more money or power in the current system, but just because they are small and members have so much in common, they coordinate with one another easily.

You can see this fairly clearly in both Britain and the United States, where elites tend to go to the same private schools and then the same universities: the Ivy League and a few small private liberal colleges in the US, and Oxford and Cambridge in Britain. Elites in both country were raised and educated together in very similar fashion and they know each other personally. It is no wonder they can act together to create a world in line with their ideology and perceived interests. (Remember that perceived interests are based on ideology.)

Even small groups that aren’t elite, but are homogeneous and organized can punch well above their weight. In America think of New York’s orthodox Jews, or Miami’s Cuban exiles: they are solid voting blocs and are pandered to, because they can deliver votes and resources, including money.

At some points such groups included medieval guilds, unions, Masons and other fraternal societies, and Indian Zoroastrians (the Parsi) and so on.

Marxists emphasize class, but classes often aren’t political groups. Marxists who talk about class consciousness recognize this: a class (industrial workers) is only a political group when they identify with each other and have a common ideology, and they are only an effective political group when they have some form of organization, as was the case with unions from the mid 19th century. American farmers up until World War II organized not just thru political parties, but through fraternal (and in some cases sororal) lodges which had vast power and could mobilize money, political workers and voters.

The most effective groups are all what are known as mobilized groups: they are conscious of themselves as groups, have shared identity and ideology and have some form of organization, whether formal or informal.

Often enough people’s political groupings are not horizontal: not class based class-based, but based on vertical alignment. Married women are more conservative than unmarried because they vote with their husband, who they identify with and who is often the primary provider: what is good for him is good for them. People may want what is good for their industry, and so oil workers may vote the same as their bosses: the vertical ties to their superiors is are more important than the horizontal tie to workers in other fields.

In everyday life, a workers who wants to be promoted finds their closest competition isn’t the boss, it’s their co-workers, who they must “beat” to impress the boss. Workers cohere together, in part, when they see that most of them won’t be getting promoted and that their best chance for a raise isn’t to beat other workers, but to beat the bosses.

Such perceived interest is two-way: it is informed by ideology and identity, but it also informs identity and ideology. Movement of individuals between self-perceived groups and changes of ideology and identity happens. In a society with multiple ideologies, identities and political groups, it can only take a relatively small shift to shift the ruling ideology. In 1980 so-called “Reagan Democrats” gave Reagan his margin of victory, just as in 72 anti-McGovern democrats gave the election to Nixon. In neither case did most Democrats shift, just a minority.

Since the Reagan Democrats had changed their ideology, however, they became a permanent vote for neoliberalism, and to get some back Bill Clinton himself became a neoliberal. Such shifts are part of the causal chain of ideological shifts.

But, without the oil shocks, inflation and high unemployment of the 70s: without it being seen for over a decade that post-war liberalism was failing to deliver on core promises, there wouldn’t have been enough Reagan Democrats to flip the sub-ideology.

Coalitions of groups are most effective when they have the policy of war allies: no separate peace. In such situations, groups in a coalition won’t cut ^side-deals that go against their allies core interests of their allies.

In the US, as of this writing, the Republican party could be seen ^as an alliance between traditional fiscal/corporate conservatives, libertarians and conservative “populists”. They vote together and can rarely be broken apart: they rarely make a separate peace with Democrats. The Democratic party, however, has some neoliberals who will make separate peace, and since the Senate is 50-50, that means Biden can’t pass his agenda since he can’t hold all 50 votes, while Republican leader Mitch McConnell can hold all 50 of his votes.

This is to a large extent based on legitimacy: to neoliberals doing left wing things like give poor people money and fighting climate change isn’t legitimate: it’s not how government should act. Left-wingers shouldn’t be in power, they aren’t the right type of people, and the policies they want are just wrong. It’s OK to stop them.

The Democratic party itself is at best lukewarm to progressives: Bernie Sanders, who ran for the nomination was an independent, and while independents preferred him, registered Democrats did not. The split in the party is real, and to neoliberals left-wingers don’t have legitimacy.

But many of the ideas that progressives push are just what would have been mainstream during the New Deal and post-War liberal periods: the ruling ideology has changed, and along with it legitimacy and with those shifts so also has changed which party is dominant, and how strong the internal alliances within the parties are. (These shifts happened over time, there used to be more members of both parties willing to vote for the other side’s agenda.)

What caused the change in ideology and identity and legitimacy, cascading to groups and then to government control was in large part a change in the environment. Not just oil shocks, but much more.

All ideologies are influenced by their environment, and it is thus environment to which we turn next.


Next: Political Environment


Identity: Political Concepts Chapter 4

Previous: Ideology

(Introduction and Table of Contents)

Identity is “when you’re cut, I bleed”, no ideology, religion, union, nation or political party can work without it. It is the glue that makes all politics and power possible.

Without identification, no ideology or legitimacy works. If you are a Christian and someone disrespecting the word of Christ doesn’t bother you, you won’t do anything about it. If you don’t think Jesus showed the way to salvation, you won’t act on his words or try and convert anyone, and if there hadn’t been Christians who did both those things, there would be no Christianity and no one would remember Jesus.

Likewise if it doesn’t make you angry when people cheat in an election, or when people aren’t able to elect politicians, you don’t believe in representative democracy in any way that matters: democracy spread because people believed in it and fought for it and in many cases died for it, just as all the Christian martyrs died.

In modern society we tend to think of identity in ethnic terms or in terms of personal shared characteristics: blacks and Chinese, and African-Americans and gays and trans people and women, white men, and perhaps as nationalism, “I am proud to be American. I always salute the flag and I thank our men and women who serve!”

But people can identify with almost anything including political parties and ideal such as voting, human rights, honor, nobility, and so on. Any ideology which does not have people who deeply care about it, believe in it and identify with it, will go nowhere, and if it once had such people, but the identification is gone, the ideology will die.

Legitimacy, even in the harshest of cases where it’s an autocrat and his band of soldiers ruling everyone else, rests on identity: “I am a servant of the KING,” or “I stand with my band of brothers” or in Feudalism “only the nobility have the right to rule, we are better and superior to peasants and money-grubbing merchants without honor!”

We identify with other people like us, it is true, but that encompasses far more than “we have the same skin color.” We identify with people who like what we like, who do what we do, who believe what we believe and who live like us.

You don’t need all of these things: Christians can identify with other Christians who have different skin color, live thousands of miles away and otherwise have different lives entirely: so long as they are Christian. The same is true of Islam, believers in democracy, or those who are for secularism and against religion.

Ideologies power legitimacy, but without identification with an ideology, there is no power behind an ideology, and thus no power behind legitimacy.

Identification, most simply, is produced by rituals. The classic rituals are the big religious ones, though for many people they have lost their power. A ritual creates an emotion and attaches it to something: most often people, objects or ideas.

The general idea in mass rituals is to have everyone doing and feeling the same thing at the same time, with the same focus. Think of the various forms of Christian ritual, with everyone focusing on the priest, the altar, the words of the Bible, singing together, praying together and so on. The more people move together, or focus on the same objects at the same time as they feel any emotion, the more they identify with the symbols and with other people who perform the same ritual.

A secular ritual is the concert, with people all focusing on the musicians, the music and moving, often dancing, together. Large sporting events, with human waves, and perhaps recitations of the “Oath of Allegiance” or the national anthem, have similar characteristics.

Rituals also include what sociologists call interaction rituals. Simple things: as a student you sit lower than your teacher and don’t speak unless the teacher gives permission. When you meet a friend you hug or shake hands and ask how you are and when you leave, you say goodbye and perhaps wish them well (and often hug again.) In Japan you might bow, with the depth of the bow determined by the relationship If you think these rituals don’t have power and emotions attached it’s simple to check: next time you meet a friend (or family member) you’d hug or shake hands with or bow, don’t. Don’t ask how they are, and when you decide to leave just turn around without a word and say nothing.

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Or stand up and start talking loudly when the teacher hasn’t given you permission to speak. Or stand too close to someone in an elevator, even. Or walk into the boss’s office and sit on his desk and say “Hey, Bob, how ya doin’.” Be sure to stare down at him. (Well, only do this if you’re OK with losing that job.)

Interaction rituals are usually low emotion, but they happen so often they create stories and relationships and identification: the teacher has the right to control the class, and when someone violates that, others are generally offended, or sometimes amused.

Implicitly or explicitly, all identification comes back to some sort of story, and an emotion attached to it. In the Catholic Mass, the last supper is re-enacted, and the participants because Christ’s disciples, with the priest taking the role of Christ. This ritual, in various forms, was powerful enough to enthrall most of Europe and various other regions of the worlds for almost two millennia.

Great rituals create powerfully charged symbolic objects: a Christian can simply think of the Cross, Jesus or the bible to experience the emotion again, and can perform small rituals alone, such as prayer, or the blessing of meals (which was common when I grew up, but seems to be much less common today.)

While rituals are more powerful when done with other people you can create identification while you are alone, as when reading a book or watching a movie. Great books and movies generate emotions about characters, ideas and symbols. If you don’t believe this, go to a comic convention (or social media) and insult a beloved comic book character. Completely fictional, but people CARE.

Such people have usually read hundreds of comic books or seen many movies and TV shows about the characters. They have strong emotions about those characters; they matter. Much as people who love Jesus have been told many stories about Jesus and had many emotions about Jesus, though religion often ads a belief that when something good happens their god made it happen, and that the god loves and cares for them. Unlike people in the world, a god’s love is often believed to be unconditional, something we otherwise get, perhaps, only from our mothers, and often not even from them.

Religious identification is, thus, identification on steroids, when it works,.

Often identification can be as simple as liking people who are like us: farmers from thousands of miles apart have some identification with each other. Likewise, go overseas where there is almost no one of your nationality, then meet a fellow citizen and you’ll find out how much identity nationality provides when you have an instant bond with someone based only on citizenship.

Just living in the same community, especially a small community, provides a lot of identification, because you know all the same people and places and grew up with very similar interaction rituals.

But a 5 foot tall black female who is a farmer in Nigeria has an identity in common with a 6 foot white male banker who lives in Norway if they’re both Christian or Muslim or Buddhist. A common identity could exist if both believe in human rights, or even if they both love the same author and books, or the same movies.

In essence, all identification makes things sacred: ideas, stories, characters, people (priests, the pope, rock stars, great scientists and novelists). Everything that happens to something sacred to you produces emotions. The pope is just some guy, but to a Catholic what he does is important: as Pope Francis is proving as I write, even Catholics who hate a pope are in a strong sacred relationship with him.

The American Constitution is just a bunch of words, but to many Americans it is sacred and if someone was to burn the original document they’d be offended. Even saying “no, people don’t have a right to happiness and aren’t equal, the Constitution is bullshit” would offend many and might get you punched.

Or burn a flag in many places in America: then run.

No idea has any political power without identification. No social group has any political power if the members do not identify with each other, because if they don’t, they won’t act together. A union dies not when it disbands, but when members break solidarity, which is why companies try and create “two tier” contracts where older employees are treated better than the new ones. A political party that has no partisans is a zombie, just waiting to be replaced.

Identification plus ideology is the creation of the sacred: of actions, ideas and people which must be treated in specific way. It is because of human rights that many are offended when they see someone beaten by police, and because of identification with authority that many others are pleased, “they must have had it coming, they should have obeyed.”

But, bottom line, just remember that identification is “when they are cut, I bleed”. If you don’t have an emotion when an idea, or person, or symbol is treated badly or well, then you aren’t identified with it. Without those emotions to drive action ideas, movements, political parties and ideologies have no ability to change the world, or even keep it as it is. When the objects which create emotions change, or the emotions themselves change, then the ideology has changed.

Identity and ideology are the base of all groups and coalitions; all political actors rely on and are created by story and identification: about how the world should be and create a group which feels the same.

Group action is the basic building block of politics, and it is that to which we will turn next.

Next: Groups and Coalitions

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