After refusing for years, I finally yielded to a friends’s insistence that I watch Game of Thrones. And it’s actually pretty good. Quite oversexed, you might say, but not comically so, as the infamous Rome series, which had Augustus fucking his elder sister, out of the blue. I have no trouble believing that a quarter or so of the medieval elite were oversexed whoremongers. We do have an unrealistic image of the Middle Ages as a time of piety and boredom and sheer peasant stagnation. Then again it does nag me to read that the author of the series, George R. R. Martin is an Obama supporter, and a Carter worshiper. Of all people. I wonder what Jimmy Carter would think if he watched the series, with all those naked women and guts spilling out of soldiers.
The fun point of the series is to see how power is grabbed, lost, used and fought about. It’s mostly about petty disputes, personal dislikes and other middle-schoolish personal relations. Revenge as the ultimate human emotion. And if you know something about how Feudalism worked, it all does ring a bell somehow. You read in a book how this lord had this lover, or killed this man or whatever, and well that’s just something you read. Seeing it on a movie though, and quite vividly, gives another impression. Which makes it all so much real. I’ve said before I am a great believer in the dictum that all politics are local. But local not as in town, but as in house. Or castle, or palace, or whatever it is. Politics is about the monkeysphere, or perhaps only the innermost circle of it.
When you think about it, monarchy is a pretty strange system. Why should one guy hold power over vast amounts of people he doesn’t even know? And get to rule for life? And he gets to do what he pleases, which is generally a bad thing for your character. In fact many kings suffered of severe bad character. Many even sunk whole kingdoms, with millions of people, just by being stupid, or greedy, or just an ass. Whatever you say about monarchy, it’s pretty bad risk management.
Which is the economist way of thinking. Thankfully I don’t think like that, I have the habit of thinking like a historian. A good one, that is. So I think of how a system such as monarchy might have come to be. And it’s not that hard really. Lands are conquered through war. Armies need a commander, so when an army conquers a piece of land, the commander becomes king. He rules and collects taxes which he funnels to his war brothers, who become noblemen.
Then the king dies. What happens? Well different peoples had different systems to arrange for succession for a ruler. What would happen in most armies when the commander dies, is that the generals will get together and choose one of them as the successor, if the king didn’t arrange for it himself. And that evolved into elective monarchy. Problem is it’s hard to get people to agree to choose one king. The stakes are too damn high. So what you got was all the contenders gathering their armies in anticipation of the king’s death, and total war among the elite every 10 years or so.
The solution which was most widely adopted was that of hereditary succession. The metaphor for the kingship changed, from that of commander of an army, to that of owner of property. Since time immemorial property of all kind has been inherited in the family; in patriarchal societies it would be inherited by the sons. And so most kingdoms eventually adopted the system of hereditary succession. The king dies, the son takes over.
What if there’s more than one son? Well, the inheritance of property itself has two sorts of arrangements. To this day, some people divide their inheritance more or less equally onto their sons. And some give the whole estate to the eldest son, and screw the others. There are pros and cons to both approaches. Partible inheritance tends to break up the estates, which become ever smaller and smaller, and eventually not very profitable, which is bad for the family name, and makes them prone to be bought up or taken by richer, stronger people with bigger estates. Primogeniture ensures the estate doesn’t shrink, and with it the family honor. But it creates a huge incentive for the younger brothers to kill the eldest.
Partible inheritance was popular in medieval Europe. But it eventually disappeared, for obvious reasons. If there’s only one guy who doesn’t do it, and keeps his big estate, he’ll be able to field a larger army and take the small estates that your oh so egalitarian father left you. And so we see that on most of the world, primogeniture monarchy ended being the most widely adopted system.
But forget all I said. Imagine you don’t have a historical mind, you don’t track things to the beginning to see how they happened. No, you just see things as they are, and you ask yourself: why? Why is that guy over there the king? Because his father was king? How fair is that? His father was a good man, while he is an evil bastard. Why should he rule? It’s not fair.
Of course it’s not fair, but that’s not how human societies are arranged. Human societies are organized over Schelling points. Primogeniture is a Schelling point. Monarchy is a Schelling point. And primogeniture monarchy is another Schelling point. Schelling points happen through trial and error. Lots of error really. And they don’t assure there won’t be any more error. But given the huge and numerous constraints which exist, this was the best arrangement possible.
Schelling points are fixed in place not because of an explicit understanding of their origin and importance. They just stumble upon existence, after which the people involved come up with some bullshit that sounds right. Or may I rephrase, people see Schelling points and come up with elaborated post-rationalizations to justify them. How do you justify that some kid, who has done nothing of merit in his life, who is ugly, dumb, clumsy and of bad character, becomes king just because his father was? Well I don’t know. But it’s always been like that, so if sons have a right to the kingship… well, it must be about blood. Yes, the bloodline. That’s it. It is of utmost importance that all the kings must be of the same blood as the previous king, as this is the blood of the founder, which was awesome. We can’t afford losing this awesome blood. It doesn’t matter that the lawful heir of this bloodline is ugly, dumb, clumsy and of bad character. That’s… uh… the fault of his teachers. Yes, bad teachers. The kid shares the bloodline so he must be king.
On the face of it the theory is quite stupid. Let’s assume blood alone makes you awesome. Even if you keep the father’s line, sons have mothers too, so the ‘bloodline’ gets diluted each time. By the 5th generation the new king shares very few genes with the great founder. And that’s if you are lucky and you don’t have a slutty queen who fucks someone else and fathers his children. Surely someone must have noticed this fact, but of course the solution to it is even worse. You keep using women from inside the family to avoid diluting the precious bloodline, and what you get is a monster. So you gotta worship the bloodline while doing all you can to dilute it. Hypocrisy is by no means an innovation of our times.
Dynasties in most of the world changed quite often, especially in Europe. So the common rationalization for the legitimacy of kings was not so much the bloodline, as simply the law. There are inheritance laws that say who has titles, and sometimes kings agree to leave the crown to some guy. And law is sacred. Most of the time anyway, European history is full of succession wars where people didn’t quite agree on the sacredness of laws, and everybody with a big army always found a plausible legal claim to the throne they wanted. But the emphasis was still in the law, which is a funny thing to take as sacred. Surely there are more important things that some agreement reached at some point of time, in some state of mind, by some old guy who didn’t really know what he was doing. But hey, another Schelling point, can’t touch that. Perhaps the famous legalism of Europeans, which is quite distinct to other civilizations, comes from the fact that we had no other concept in which to base our politics.
Other places took monarchy more seriously. See for example Japan. The Japanese imperial family has officially ruled Japan for 125 generations. The first emperor was the grandson of the Sun goddess, came to Japan in 660 BC, and ever since, the same bloodline has ruled the Japanese islands. Of course the date, and the number of emperor don’t make any sense; archeology tells us that in 660 BC the Japanese didn’t even have agriculture. Not much is known of the early stages of the Japanese monarchy, but there is reliable historical evidence of a Yamato clan around the 6th century AD. And again all evidence says that the patrilineal succession has continued, uninterrupted, to this day. That’s still very impressive, and if you count from then, you still get around 100 emperors. From the same family.
How did that happen? How does a family get to rule for 100 generations? That’s some rock-solid Schelling point there. Except it isn’t. The Japanese imperial family didn’t actually rule for that long. Actually it didn’t rule for very long at all. From a very early stage, the big clans of Japan, the Soga, the Fujiwara, etc. fought for influence over the imperial house, and they settled on a very straightforward system. You marry the emperor’s heir to a high rank girl from your clan. Then you get the emperor to appoint you Supreme General in Charge of Everything. If the Emperor disagreed, you kill or exile the bastard, and appoint yourself Regent until his son, i.e. your grandson comes of age. Still the patrilineal line continued, even if actual power was transmitted through the maternal line. Hey, it’s still blood.
Eventually, around the 12th century the centralized state based on the imperial house collapsed, and Japan fell into Samurai feudalism. Still there was no Odoacer who killed the emperor and took his place. The empire had collapsed, feudal lords were taking land for themselves and fighting each other without regard to imperial edicts, but the emperor was left in his palace, pretty much undisturbed. They even stopped calling him Emperor. He became the “Mikado”, i.e. the holy gate. The gate of the imperial palace, that is. So while a new military based polity grew out of Samurai bands 500 kilometers in the East, the old majestic Emperor was just “that guy in the palace”. Still the Shogun did get out of his way to get the emperor to name him “Great Shogun”.
The old Schelling point that said: “the king must rule because he has royal blood” lost effective power, but not so much that you could go and kill the emperor and take his place. Not like the emperor didn’t ask for it, as he more than once raise an army to battle the Samurais, only to be defeated. But he was never harmed, at worst he was forced to surrender his place to a brother. The imperial blood was still holy, and was the source of legal sovereignty. He had lost power, but he was kept in his place. The Schelling point stood. Quite similar to the way that the Abbasid caliphs were kept in their Baghdad palaces while his Empire fell to every kind of Turk. Or the way European constitutional monarchies left the Kings as sovereignty symbols while stripping them of any legal power. Eventually Hulagu Khan killed the last caliph, and republicans keep trying to abolish the ceremonial monarchies of Europe.
Nothing like that happened in Japan though. The imperial palace in Kyoto kept this sort of august aura, this Schelling charm that made every power holder wanted to be close to it. Of course it has to do with the fact that Japan wasn’t invaded by Hulagu Khan, or Wilsonian State Department apparatchiks. The Schelling point had evolved into saying: whoever gets appointed by the guy in the palace as Great Shogun, wins. And so we get the Ōnin war, and the subsequent Warring States period, where all the warlords in Japan go in a fighting spree to see who’s first to invade Kyoto and force the emperor to say he’s the awesomest Samurai in the world. Kinda ridiculous in the face of it, and it was. Getting to Kyoto didn’t stop Oda Nobunaga from getting killed. And in the end the big winner of the Warring States period, and final reunifier were the Tokugawa, based in the eastern plains where Tokyo is today. He overturned the Schelling point through the old trick of having the biggest army.
Still even the great Tokugawa didn’t go as far as getting rid of the guy in the palace. Again he kept him there, well fed, tightly controlled through a bureaucratic agency setup for the purpose. Tokugawa even went as far as make himself called 大御所 “big holy palace”, which is obviously bigger than the name for the emperor, 御所 “holy palace”. So it’s not like he was full of reverence towards the holy blood of the imperial family. For the most part the Tokugawa’s didn’t give a shit about the emperors, and didn’t even bother to force the emperors to marry their daughters (they tried once at the beginning, didn’t work out).
In doing so the Tokugawa shoguns made a big mistake. You can respect a Schelling point, or you can break a Schelling point, trying to bring a new one into place. But you don’t ignore a Schelling point. You don’t just close your eyes and wait for it to disappear. For chances are it won’t.
The Tokugawa inaugurated the rebirth of the Japanese nation. It reunified the state, closed the borders, promoting native industry and agriculture, and the suppression of Buddhist sects created a new secular popular culture which evolved into most of what we recognize as Japanese today. The Tokugawa shogunate was a strong state, but it wasn’t without enemies. The shogunate run a very peculiar form of territorial control, a sort of finely bureaucratized feudalism. Most of the old Samurai bands of the warring states period were granted a fief, to be ruled at their pleasure. Lords who had been friendly to the Tokugawa during the war, were given big fiefs, hostile lords were given smaller fiefs, far from the center. Taxes were paid according to the rice production of the fiefs, and lords were to spend every other year in the capital, where their wives and children were held hostage permanently.
The big fiefs themselves contained smaller fiefs for junior lords. And this patchwork of feudal fiefdoms was controlled by a central bureaucracy, who could anytime they wanted strip a lord of his title, take away his land or move him to somewhere else. All in all it was a very smart, surprisingly modern system, and clearly the reason why it lasted so long. But while it kept the Samurais peaceful, it didn’t make them happy. In made a lot of them real pissed with the government. With war being out of the question, the opposition started looking for some good rationalization for their hating the government. They needed something to converge upon, a rallying point. Or should I say, a Schelling point. Conveniently there was a guy in a palace in Kyoto who was the perfect candidate. The imperial house had been suffering decline for several centuries already, but something was about to change.
The Tokugawa era, the Great Peace as it was called back then, had produced this very funny society, in which all Samurais, friendly or hostile, had nothing to do. They had their legal status as 武士, warriors, and they could, actually had to carry their fine katanas all the time with them. But there was no war to be fought. Yes there was a lord to defend, but nothing to defend him from. Still they couldn’t just grab a piece of land and grow food, or start a shop in the nearest town; even if they could go stand the thought of downward mobility, there were laws against that. There were 4 castes, warrior, artisan, peasant and merchant, and they had to respect their jobs. So what’s a warrior, millions of them, to do when there’s no war? They did like any other politically-connected class do. They manned the civil service. Oh, and the schools. Sounds familiar? Yes, the Samurais had their own mini Cathedral going on back then. They became a clerk-class, which means literate, and when a lot of people became highly literate, interesting ideas are bound to come out.
The Edo period saw the birth of the Kokugaku, the national studies, which saw many breakthroughs in philology, history and political theory. They deciphered the old classical texts, started to read them, and found that the imperial family actually was pretty damn awesome. Hey, did you know they descend form the Sun Goddess? That’s what this book commissioned by the imperial house in the 8th century says anyway. The knowledge of the ancient past of the country spread quickly, even to the imperial palace, who had forgotten itself. The Kokaku emperor in the 1800s found out that he wasn’t just the Guy in the Palace. He was the Emperor, or in the original Japanese, 天皇 the Heavenly Sovereign. That has a different ring to it. So he restored the title, mostly unused for a whopping 900 years.
The reappraisal of the awesomeness of the Unbroken Imperial Line was of course a loaded weapon in the hands of hostile Samurai fiefs, which found it made a good rallying point for opposition to those perfid Tokugawas in the capital. We should overthrow those bastards, not because they took away half our land in the 1600s. No, it has nothing to do with that. They must be overthrown because they are not nice to the great Emperor in Kyoto, the real sovereign. How’s that for a Schelling point? Suddenly all opposition to the government had a very strong rationale. It didn’t help that the Tokugawas had adopted Neoconfucianism, of the Zhu Xi variety, as their official ideology, taught in the official schools. Confucianism teaching basically tell you to obey to the real King, and it happens that the Tokugawas were nominally just a military commander appointed by the King, and in reality they were just a bunch of stationary bandits which had seized the capital centuries before.
So it’s not surprise that that guy in Kyoto, who had no army, little land, and had wielded no real power for almost a millennium, suddenly found himself being held as the greatest King of all time. The only unbroken line of kings in the world. “Japan is the real Middle Kingdom”, said some overenthusiastic scholar. If legitimacy is about blood, the Japanese Emperor is the most legitimate ruler there has ever been. The Tokugawa regime stood fast, but when the going went tough, after the American pirate Matthew Perry forced the Shogun to open the countries ports to American ships, the opposition very soon started rallying around the emperor and overthrew the shogunate in 1868. The Meiji Restoration.
Suddenly that poor old family that lived off the ancient capital accumulated by their ancestors in the form of a small, tiny, yet firm Schelling point, was now the effective ruler of the country. Or was he? The Meiji Constitution sure put him as the Lord of the country, commander of the armed forces, son of the Goddess and source of everything fine and nice. Yet we know that the Meiji Emperor, despite his very kingly looks, didn’t have much input at all in the real works of government. And he certainly didn’t lead his army in the wars against China and Russia. Nor he decided to go to war. The actual power dynamics were controlled by the old Samurais from Satsuma and Choshu, who manned the armies which overthrew the Shogunate. It was their armies who put the Emperor in his new Tokyo throne. Sure, the Emperor made a fine Schelling point for the Samurais to rally upon. Much better to say “we are joining this war to restore the Sacred Monarchy” than to say “we are joining this war led by these two peripheral fiefdoms who have held a grudge against the Shogun for 270 years”. But there’s a long way from saying “Hail our King, descendant of the Goddess”, to actually giving command of your armies and your money to that guy from the palace.
I remember reading about an English advisor, or perhaps it was the ambassador of the time, who told the Meiji government people to tone down with the deification of the emperor, that it was a bunch of crap and they know it. And the Japanese minister answered saying basically that oh they know it’s crap, but it gives strength to the masses, and what’s wrong with that? I’d give a leg to find the quote, but I read that before Google, and I just can’t remember the names.
There’s this quote in Game of Thrones, “power resides where people believe it does”. I’m sure the author took it from somewhere else, and there’s quite a point to it. It doesn’t matter if the king is naked if everybody believes he is finely clothed. Mao Zedong had a better quote: power resides in the bottom of a gun barrel. But there’s lots of guns out there, and power resides in the ability to make them do your bid. So in the battle between the pen and the sword? Who wins? Surely it is neither. It is not faith where power resides, but loyalty. And loyalty is much harder to earn than faith. It takes a whole lot of Schelling points to get large scale loyalty. And it takes massive resources to force it into the populace. Faith is orders of magnitude easier to achieve. Christians were many in the 5th century. People loyal to the Roman Emperor… not so many.
In the end yes, Monarchy was restored in Japan. Except that it wasn’t. A broad oligarchy ruled the place, then the military, then the bureaucrats, then McArthur, then the bureaucrats again. The King didn’t do shit, his descendants didn’t do shit, and even though he was a very strong spiritual symbol (the Japanese troops in WW2 are famous for running to their deaths at the shout of “Long Live the Emperor”), His Majesty never had much input in the actual works of government, besides what his advisors found convenient to tell him, which wasn’t much. In the end it was a good thing, for he could avoid taking responsibility for starting WW2, and so USG did not depose the Unbroken Imperial Line, which would have been tragic for the cultural continuity of the country. The Emperor was left where it is, and the new constitution, in a quite unprecedented bout of honesty, names him the “Symbol of the nation”. Not head of state, mind you. Symbol of the nation. Might as well called him Schelling point.
There is an old division in linguistics, older than the field really, between the prescriptivists, who focus on deciding what is correct language, and fix the standard, and the descriptivists, who analyze language as it is actually spoken by the often not very correct speakers. You probably can guess than in the old days prescriptivists were multitude, while today the majority are descriptivists who deride the very concept of ‘correct’. Humans are moral, moreso in the old days, so it’s not surprise that people were more preoccupied with what is right, instead of what is real.
Ironically our political science is still stuck in the old prescriptivist paradigm, where all we care about is what are the right policies, what is good government, what should we do to have better rulers. Compared to that, very little attention is put to describing how power really works, how the powerful get where they are, and what are the mechanisms that make the whole thing work. The prescriptivists are legion, and they disagree with our ideas. It is perhaps the better strategy to go descriptivist for a while. James Goulding promised to do so months ago (never to be seen again). Nydwracu is toying with the idea lately. I shall strive to do my best too.