The evolution of social bargains — operative not normative

By Lorenzo

I was reading Yoram Barzel‘s property rights analysis (pdf) of the rise of Parliamentary government in England, when the full force of his critique of normative concepts of the rise of parliamentarianism and representative government hit me.

That Iraq is busily messily falling apart, following on from–and partly a consequence of–Syria doing so, with the advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, (vindicating the long-ago analysis of T E Lawrence) helped the penny-drop moment.

If we, building on Charles Tilly‘s seminal Coercion, Capital and European States and recent scholarship in economic history (notably the LSE’s economic history working papers), take the crucial element in the rise of the West as being the develop of what might be called the active bargaining state, then it is a great error to see it as the operation of some normative-driven process, some Hegelian necessity working behind history to realise some culminating outcome. (Active bargaining state as even the most autocratic states from the past represented implicit or passive social bargains: the active bargaining state coming in both direct–Parliamentary–and indirect–authoritarian–forms, with ancien regime France being an unstable mixture of the two.)

Norms evolve
The normative approach is an error of historical understanding at two levels. First, because the norms evolve along with the evolution of the bargaining state. The barons at Runnymede in 1215 (Tammany Hall in chain mail, as H Beam Piper called them) lived in a different normative universe than the participants in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 who themselves lived in a different normative universe than those arguing over votes for women in the late C19th and early C20th. If acceptance of the norms of representative democracy as they currently operate in the West is necessary to establish an active bargaining state elsewhere, then the enterprise is doomed. Those norms are the result of very particular histories and experiences.

If, however, the exercise is an operative (i.e. about trade-offs that work for the society in question), rather than a normative, one, then we can be much more hopeful.

Just as Britain tried to export the Glorious Revolution to Mesopotamia and the Hindu Kush, so the US has tried to export the American Revolution to the same places. But both the Glorious and American Revolutions were the product of very specific historical circumstances–as the adherents thereof well recognised at the time. Even such a revolutionary firebrand as Patrick Henry grounded his most famous Revolutionary speech in specifically British traditions.

Evolving trade-offs
Traditions which are too often read from now backwards, instead from then forwards. Hence the second error–not understanding the operative nature of the process and the evolving bargains.

Yoram Barzel’s point is that it the process of the growth of Parliamentary government should not be understood as one long wresting of power from royal clutches, but as process where monarchs often engaged in trade-offs that were very much in their interests. It is easy enough to point to King John being dictated to at Runnymede, the military defeat and execution of Charles I, the overthrow of James II but what these rulers had in common is that you could not make a deal with them. In the case of John and Charles I because they could never be trusted to keep to any agreement and James II because he was fixated on an outcome that was anathema to the bulk of the British political nation.

Runnymede 1215, a reluctant signatory to posthumously enduring bargain.

Magna Carta stuck because it was re-issued under Henry III and by Edward ISimon de Montfort‘s innovative parliament stuck because Edward I saw it as an effective tool of governance. Indeed, the pioneer of summoning elected merchant representatives was a king–Alfonso IX of Leon & Galicia. The Glorious Revolution stuck because William III and Mary II could see a good deal when offered to them. And while these spectacular landmarks of history generate nice dramatic set-pieces, Barzel points out that the history of the growth of Parliamentary government and rule of law was much more a steady evolution, an evolving series of trade-offs, where rulers gained by giving folk a say.

A point that Barzel does not consider much, is that such forums also provided very useful information sources for monarchs. It gave them a way of checking up on their own agents (a helpful monitoring service) and of ensuring they were in touch with the concerns of people who mattered. Even from this distance, it is fairly clear that Edward I was concerned that he not lose touch with the concerns of the powerful–of the wider political nation–in the way his father had and saw in Simon de Montfort’s parliamentary innovations a useful way of doing precisely that.

East Asian contrasts
A nice social bargaining contrast is provided by comparing China and Japan as they confronted the Western challenge during the C19th. The great difference between Qing China and Japan in confronting said challenge, was that under the Song, the Ming and the Qing, China had been ruled by thin meritocratic official layer. There was a clear, very passive, social bargain–the state upheld family authority and provided minimal public goods, taxing relatively lightly, while families did not make trouble. Since the only lever the Emperors had to control their officials was command-and-control, the system was prone to decay into corruption and the dissipating of central control.

Official in a one-track system.

This was somewhat like what happened to the command economies, though they fell apart rather more speedily (given each of the the above three dynasties of mandarin China lasted over 260 years), as the greater technological capacity of the modern command economies was not enough to compensate for the much more overweening attempt to command-and-control everything. Of course, if you regard Mao as the First-Emperor-with-a-telephone, Mao’s attempt did last longer than said Emperor’s regime (as the Qin dynasty only lasted 15 years) with Deng and his heirs subsequently trying to be the new Han. (I.e. the much longer lasting dynasty as result of taking the overweening elements out of what the Qin Shi Huang had created.)

Not only was the Qing dynasty already well into its decay phase as the Western challenge became more urgent, China possessed no mechanisms for more active social bargaining, no real precedent for such, not even the political vocabulary for it. (That the Qing was a foreign dynasty was a complication, but when was the last time England had an English dynasty? The Tudors were Welsh, the Stuarts Scot, the Hanoverians/Coburgs/Windsors German, the Plantagenets French, the House of Rollo Danish. Even the House of Wessex were invaders, if you go back far enough.)

Provincial ruler among competitive jurisdictions.

Japan was in a very different situation. Social bargaining was built into its political structures, both active and competitively passive (between daimyos). It was much easier for Japan to add on to already existing institutions and patterns more formal structures for social bargaining adapted from the West and develop a modernising social bargain able to rise to the Western challenge than it was for a China where any such habits and structures had to be built from scratch.

Back to the Middle East
The problem with Iraq is that it might be able to work as part of a larger empire, but it makes no sense as a nation. (A state which needs someone like Saddam Hussein to hold it together is one not worth keeping.) It was a cobbled-together imperial deal, lumping together three (separately administered) Ottoman vilayets (a Kurdish one, a Sunni Arab one and a Shiite Arab one) into one state. While the recent American adventures there represent the US, yet again, trying (with not much success) to deal with the backwash of European imperialism, it also represents the triumph of the normative over the operative.

The Republic of Somaliland shows what can be created by a genuinely locally-driven arrangement. It is governed by a universal suffrage House of Representatives and a House of Elders, made up of traditional leaders. In other words, their very own House of Lords. Because that reflects how their society operates.

House of Elders

Both Iraq and Afghanistan would have had, or have, more chance of stable futures if their legislatures were more grounded in their social realities. But, of course, the Americans would never consider having some local House of Lords equivalent, because that would require too much knowledge of their own deeper history and be too confronting to their evolved norms.

Nevertheless, the trick is to sell a workable bargain, a useful set of trade-offs. Not some pre-set normative wish-list from a quite different tradition.

Part of the problem being that you have to see other folk as people to bargain with. The Iraqi PM clearly did not see the Sunni in such a way, and is now reaping the consequences. Just as using ethnic membership as an indicator of loyalty can reduce coup possibilities while increasing the likelihood of civil war.

Indeed, it is a depressing principle of contemporary Middle Eastern politics that any minority that does not control its own state or quasi-state gets oppressed. (Hence the Alawites and their minority allies fighting so hard not to lose control of the Syrian state to the Sunni majority.)

That the jihadis reject any notion of the social bargaining state (which may also make them, including in the form of ISIS, less than durable in their local control) makes the need to have socially-and-locally grounded bargaining all the more urgent. Even if some negotiated settlement is (eventually) a likely outcome. But the Iraqi implosion also points to the fact that Europe’s boundaries evolved over centuries, and even now are less than a perfect fit. The Middle East and Africa are dealing with state boundaries that often did not evolve locally at all, but were imposed by outside imperial powers.

The last time the US did a good job of occupying a major country effectively on its own was Japan, and there it had much more similar social material to work with a pro-consul from a family with experience of colonial governance.

The Bush Administration clearly did not think through the genuine difficulties and constraints of Iraq–having too little sense of history and too much American presumption of omnipotence. (Attempts to blame the present situation in Iraq on President Obama are particularly pathetic: though one may well make other criticisms of his Middle Eastern policies, which display a similar inability to think things through.) But the sui generis nature of American historical evolution makes for a poor set of framings from which to understand other societies.

Yes, dividing Iraq was diplomatically fraught, but it is now the likely outcome anyway–or, at least, a very decentralised state–and in much less Western-friendly terms than a deliberately organised divorce would have been. While having some House of Lords equivalent–or equivalents–could have been a very useful way to work through existing social structures and to encourage bargaining that operated according to the contours of the societies in question.

Conversely, the analytical humility required for a better effort would have militated against making the attempt in the first place. Such analytical humility would include taking religious motives seriously–but that is a perennial failure of contemporary Western analysis.

It is revealing that the one part of post-intervention Iraq which is a clear success–Kurdistan–is also the one part with a clear identity where local forces had already evolved workable local bargains. This is the example that could have been built on (and should still be supported). But so building would also have required a strong sense of locality and history. (Of course, hindsight is always 20×20, but that is the fun of historical analysis …)

Perhaps also the notion of instant solutions needs to be abandoned. The open and democratic societies of the West took a long time to evolve. In the longer view, perhaps the overthrow of Saddam has allowed underlying forces to, however brutally at times, work themselves towards social and political equilibriums which do not require rule by the most successful psychopath.


ADDENDA Nice comment about clans and consensus. Nepotistic societies work on different time horizons and need processes that respect that.


  1. Mel
    Posted July 1, 2014 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    Saddam would’ve been in his late 70s if he were alive today. One wonders whether bumping him off 20 or so years before the Grim Reaper would’ve claimed him anyway was worth the two trillion dollar price tag for a war that has to date been a clusterfuck for everyone other than the Kurds (a good outcome) and various cut throat extremist groups (a not so good outcome).

    I originally supported the war. Sigh.

    I now think the West should simply pack up stumps and leave the Greater Middle East to its own devices. The money saved would be absolutely enormous.

    Of course this would mean allowing Israel to sink or swim. I would hate to see it sink but the fate of that thin strip of desert shouldn’t decide the issue.

  2. Posted July 1, 2014 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] If Syria is any guide, Saddam Snr would have been replaced by Saddam Jnr. And I think you have described President Obama’s Middle East policy fairly succinctly.

    And yes, I originally supported the war too. Still think it could have been made to work, if the Americans had had a clue, but clearly that was asking too much.

  3. Posted July 2, 2014 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    Evidently, some places evolve slower than others. (I blame Lorenzo’s wikipedia links a wasted hour that somehow ended there).

    Looking at the Magna Carta, it seems there were a bunch of tennants (aka Barons) that were unhappy with their tennacy agreements (feudal contracts) and how their land lord (the king) was using his property (England) and his collected rents (taxes). So they get together to undermine his property rights with violence and force him use it more for what they deem is the common good.

    It seems the “Founding Fathers” of the English constitution were a bunch of violent anti-property-rights socialist terrorists. They even had to get a Frenchman (de Montfort) to show them how to do it properly. What’s more they weren’t happy with simply using violence to make others do things their way, they felt the need to resort to propaganda, revisionist history and censorship to brainwash people into believing in their system:

    The Charter had no real effect until the Elizabethan era (1558–1603). Magna Carta again began to occupy legal minds, and it again began to shape how that government was run, but in a manner entirely different from that of earlier ages. William Lambarde published “what he thought were law codes of the Anglo-Saxon kings and William the conqueror”. Lambarde would begin the process of misinterpreting English history, soon taken up by others, incorrectly dating documents and giving parliament a false antiquity. Francis Bacon would claim that Clause 39 of the 1215 Charter was the basis of the jury system and due process in a trial. Robert Beale, James Morice, Richard Cosin and the Puritans began to misperceive Magna Carta as a ‘statement of liberty’, a ‘fundamental law’ above all law and government. In 1581 Arthur Hall, MP would be one of the first to suffer under this emerging new ideology, when he correctly questioned the antiquity of the House of Commons and was without precedent expelled from Parliament.

    It’s no wonder that the Americans rebelled against that lot.

  4. Mel
    Posted July 2, 2014 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

    lorenzo: “If Syria is any guide, Saddam Snr would have been replaced by Saddam Jnr. And I think you have described President Obama’s Middle East policy fairly succinctly.”

    maybe but i’m not sure why that would be our problem.

  5. Posted July 10, 2014 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] Absolutely an open question: I was just pointing out that Saddam getting older would not, of itself, changed anything.

    [email protected] On time wasted, think of how better informed you ended up 🙂

    We are so used to the notion that newer=better we find it hard to put our minds into the conception of older=more legitimate. But the stories they feel compelled to tell are themselves revealing.

    Also, the American founding fathers bought into the whole thing, they just wanted to be full participants. The current Runnymede Magna Carta memorial was an American initiative.

  6. Nigel Davies
    Posted July 11, 2014 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    Re Desipis 3.

    THe Magna Carta was not really fully devolved into the parliamentary legal system until minor elements of Common Law and juries (Henry II), Parliamentary systems (Edward I), and replacement of feudal service with tax systems to pay for soldiers instead (by Henry V perhaps?), really start to take effect. But this slow development of concepts from the PRECEDENT of the Magna Carta are exactly what lead to the successful development of a social structure, with only an occasional civil war (Roses and English mainly) to make it stick… This is exactly what we mean when we say that the Americans thinking they can impose a republic in a religiously divided tribal culture in the Middle East, without any developmental spadework (over about 300 years), is idiotic.

    But you are wrong to think the American colonists revolted to get away from such a system. They revolted ‘to regain the birthrights of free Englishmen’, as they put it. (The fact that the North really also needed an excuse to break the English treaties with the Indians and keep expanding, and the South really just wanted to keep its slaves despite English law starting to ban slavery, can just be considered a ‘motivating factor’ to their demand for their centuries old ‘rights’ as Englishmen!)

  7. Nigel Davies
    Posted July 11, 2014 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    For amusement sake I will also note that there has been some good stuff over the years suggesting that the American War of Independence can be counted as the english Civil War part II, and the Confederacy War of Independence (which was fought for exactly the same reasons) can be considered the English Civil War part III…. (It was even between the very literal descendants of the Cavalier and Roundhead factions… sometimes direct family descent.)

  8. Posted July 12, 2014 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    I should probably point out that my previous comment was intended to be quite facetious.

    To make a more serious observation, I think taking Lorenzo’s observations that “expectations matter” in economics and applying it to political structures highlights the problems in Iraq.

    Firstly, if you are expecting your neighbours to politically support sectarian or tribal leadership then you’re unlikely to go out on a limb and support the johnny-come-lately “national” leadership even with their international support and their fancy toys. Secondly, if those currently holding some sort of power expect the best opportunities for them to hold on to power will come from sectarian or tribal politics, they will use their power to reinforce those political structures and undermine the national ones.

    This creates a power-centric and subbornly conservative political culture, that history shows takes a lot of time (and often a lot of violence) to change. Which is why successful empires like the romans, tended to leave the local politics to run itself. The only way that I could see one could forcibly advance an existing polity to adopt entirely different power structures would be to external enforce the desired structures for a sustained amount of time and ensure there is sufficient tanigble benefit for all those involved to continue support it. I suspect it would take an entire generation, having growing up with this new system and therefore having gained power via the new political structures, before the aggregate expectations would shift enough for the new structures to be self sustaining.

  9. Posted July 12, 2014 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] The internet does not do irony well 🙂

    For the rest, a very perceptive comment with which I agree.

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