May 10, 2013

Forms of Government

Bertrand Russell: Power

Except when he feels enthusiasm for a leader, the voter in a large democracy has so little sense of power that he often does not think it worth while to use his vote.
If he is not a keen propagandist for one of the parties, the vastness of the forces that decide who shall govern makes his own part in them appear completely negligible.
[All] that he can do … is to vote for one or other of two men, whose programmes may not interest him, and may differ very little, and who, he knows, may with impunity abandon their programmes as soon as they are elected.

If, on the other hand, there is a leader whom he enthusiastically admires, the psychology involved is that which we considered in connection with monarchy: it is that of the tie between a king and the tribe or sect of his active supporters.
Every skilful political agitator or organiser devotes himself to stimulating devotion to an individual.
If the individual is a great leader, the result is one-man government …
[If] he is not, the caucus which has secured his election becomes the real power.

(Power, 1938, p 133)


Forms of Government


Nobel Prize for Literature (1950).

  • Power: A New Social Analysis, George Allen & Unwin, 1938.


    Apart from the purpose of an organisation, its most important characteristics are

    1. size,
    2. [internal] power over members,
    3. [external] power over non-members,
    4. form of government.

    The question of size I shall consider in the next chapter …

    State Governance

    The powers of organisations other than the State over their members depend upon … the degree of obloquy and financial hardship attached to expulsion.
    The powers of the State over its citizens are, on the contrary, unlimited, except in so far as constitutional provisions may forbid arbitrary arrest or spoliation.
    In the United States, no man can be deprived of life, liberty, or property except by due process of law, ie by the demonstration to the judicial authorities that he has been guilty of some act previously declared deserving of such punishment.
    In England, although the powers of the executive are similarly limited, the legislature is omnipotent: it can pass an Act to the effect that Mr John Smith is to be put to death, or deprived of his property, without the necessity of establishing that he has committed a crime.
    (p 122)

    In democratic countries, the most important private organisations are economic.
    Unlike secret societies, they are able to exercise their terrorism without illegality, since they do not threaten to kill their enemies, but only to starve them.
    (p 123)

    The external powers of private organisations are apt to be regarded by the State with jealousy, and are therefore largely extra-legal.
    They depend mainly upon the boycott and other more extreme forms of intimidation.
    Such terroristic influence is usually a prelude to revolution or anarchy. …
    If the illegality is, that of a single organisation with a definite political programme, the result is revolution, but if it is that of bands of brigands or mutinous soldiers, there may be a lapse into mere anarchy and chaos.

    So long as private organisations can decide whether individuals not belonging to them shall, or shall not, have enough to eat, the power of the State is obviously subject to very serious limitations. …

    [Absolute monarchy is] the oldest, simplest, and most widespread of the constitutions known in historical times. …
    I am considering simply one-man rule, whether that of a hereditary king or that of a [usurper-tyrant.] …

    In general, the ruler leads some tribe or sect to conquest, and his followers feel themselves partakers in his glory. …
    The difficulty of any other relation between men, as a bond uniting them in one community, except that of command and obedience, may be illustrated by the relations of States.
    (p 124)

    There are innumerable instances of small States growing into great empires by conquest, but hardly any of voluntary federation.
    [Even when] some degree of cooperation between different sovereign States [has been] a matter of life or death [it could not] be brought about [— as] is true of Europe in the present day.

    It is not easy to induce men who have the habit of command, or even only of independence, to submit voluntarily to an external authority.
    When this does happen, it is usually in such a case as a gang of pirates, where a small group hopes for great gains at the expense of the general public, and has such confidence in a leader as to be willing to leave the direction of the enterprise in his hands. …
    The psychologically important point is that men are only willing to agree to such a contract when there are great possibilities of plunder or conquest.
    [And] while something like voluntary consent to the arbitrary power of a monarch is necessary from a band of companions who are near the throne, the majority of his subjects usually submit, at first from fear, and afterwards as the result of custom and tradition.
    The ‘social contract’, in the only sense in which it is not completely mythical, is a contract among conquerors …

    It is because the motives of loyalty in an inner group and fear in the general population are so simple and easy that almost all enlargement in the areas of sovereign States has been by conquest, not by voluntary federation …
    [This is the] reason that monarchy has played such a great part in history.

    Monarchy has, however, very great disadvantages.

    If it is hereditary, it is unlikely that the rulers will continue to be able; and if there is any uncertainty about the law of succession, there will be dynastic civil wars.
    (p 125)

    If, on the other hand, the monarchy is not hereditary, there is even more likelihood of civil war. …

    A still more serious disadvantage of monarchy is the fact that it is usually indifferent to the interests of subjects, except when they are identical with those of the king. …
    The king has an interest in suppressing internal anarchy, and will therefore be supported by the law-abiding section of his subjects whenever the danger of anarchy is great.
    He has an interest in the wealth of his subjects, since it makes the taxes more productive.
    In foreign war, the interests of the king and his subjects will be thought to be identical so long as he is victorious.
    So long as he continues to extend his dominions, the inner group, to whom he is a leader rather than a master, will find his service profitable.

    The other cause for the decay of monarchy is [that] Kings acquire the habit of relying upon some section of the population:
    • the aristocracy,
    • the Church,
    • the higher bourgeoisie, or perhaps
    • a geographical group, such as the Cossacks.
    Gradually economic or cultural changes diminish the power of the favoured group, and the king shares their unpopularity.
    (p 126)

    A king or despot can maintain his power if he is astute in internal politics and successful externally.
    If he is quasi-divine, his dynasty may be prolonged indefinitely.
    • the growth of civilisation [inevitably] puts an end to belief in his divinity;
    • defeat in war is not always avoidable; and
    • political astuteness cannot be an invariable attribute of monarchs.
    Therefore sooner or later, if there is no external conquest, there is revolution, and the monarchy is either abolished or shorn of its power.

    The natural successor to absolute monarchy is oligarchy. …
    • A hereditary landed aristocracy is apt to be conservative, proud, stupid, and rather brutal …
      [It] is always worsted in a struggle with the higher bourgeoisie.
    • A government of the rich prevailed in all the free cities of the Middle Ages, and survived in Venice until Napoleon extinguished it. …
      Money made in commerce is made by cleverness which is not dictatorial, and this characteristic is displayed by governments composed of successful merchants.
      The modern industrial magnate is a totally different type, partly because he deals largely with the technical manipulation of materials, partly because his dealings with human beings are preponderantly with an army of employees rather than with equals who must be persuaded, not coerced.
    • Government by a Church or political party — which may be called a theocracy …
    In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this [last] type of government might have been thought permanently extinct.
    (p 127)

    But it was revived by Lenin, adopted in Italy and Germany, and seriously attempted in China. …

    In a country such as Russia or China, where the bulk of the population is illiterate and without political experience, [democracy] on Western lines could not possibly succeed …
    [The revolutionaries] accordingly said:
    We, the party that has made the revolution, will retain political power until such time as the country is ripe for democracy; and meanwhile we will educate the country in our principles.
    [However, under] the stress of civil war, famine, and peasant discontent, the dictatorship became gradually more severe, while the struggle within the Communist Party after the death of Lenin transformed it from government by a Party to one-man rule.
    All this was not difficult to foresee. …

    The merits of theocracies, when they represent some new creed, are sometimes very great, and sometimes almost nonexistent.

    1. [The] believers form a nucleus for social cohesion after revolution, and they can easily cooperate because they agree on fundamentals …
      [It] is therefore possible for them to establish a vigorous government that knows its own mind.
    2. [The] Party or Church is a minority not of birth or wealth, to which it is possible to entrust political power where democracy, for whatever reason, must fail.

    (p 128)

    1. [The] believers are almost sure to be more energetic and politically conscious than the average of the population, to whom, in many instances, they have also been superior intellectually.
      Certain creeds, however — including some that have become powerful — attract only stupid people, apart from the leaven of adventurers in search of jobs.
      Intelligence, therefore, is [not a universal characteristic] among theocracies.

    When power is confined to the members of one sect, there is inevitably a severe ideological censorship.
    Sincere believers will be anxious to spread the true faith; others will be content with outward conformity.
    The former attitude kills the free exercise of intelligence; the latter promotes hypocrisy.

    Education and literature must be stereotyped, and designed to produce credulity rather than initiative and criticism.
    [There] will be heresies, and orthodoxy will come to be more and more rigidly defined. …

    The rulers, in a theocracy, are likely to be fanatics; being fanatics, they will be severe; being severe, they will be opposed; being opposed, they will become more severe.
    Their power-impulses will wear … the cloak of religious zeal, and will therefore be subject to no restraint.
    Hence the rack and the stake, the Gestapo and the Cheka. …

    The principal demerit of [monarchy and oligarchy] is that, sooner or later, the government becomes so indifferent to the desires of ordinary men that there is revolution.
    Democracy, when firmly established, is a safeguard against this kind of instability. …

    [Civil] war is a very grave evil …
    [Therefore any] form of government which makes it unlikely is to be commended.
    [Civil] war is unlikely where, if it occurred, it would give victory to the previous holders of power.
    Other things being equal, if power is in the hands of the majority, the government is more likely to win in a civil war than if it represents only a minority.
    This, so far as it goes, is an argument for democracy; [though] various recent instances show that it is subject to many limitations.
    (p 129)

    A government is usually called ‘democratic’ if a fairly large percentage of the population has a share of political power.
    The most extreme Greek democracies excluded women and slaves, and America considered itself a democracy before women had the vote.
    [An] oligarchy approaches more nearly to a democracy as the percentage possessed of political power increases. …

    [The] problem of government is twofold.

    • From the point of view of the government, the problem is to secure acquiescence from the governed;
    • from the point of view of the governed, the problem is to make the government take account, not only of its own interests, but also of the interests of those over whom it has power.
    If either of these problems is completely solved, the other does not arise …
    [If] neither is solved, there is revolution.

    Apart from [naked] force, the principal factors on the government side are
    • tradition,
    • religion,
    • fear of foreign enemies, and
    • the natural desire of most men to follow a leader.
    For the protection of the governed, only one method has been hitherto discovered which is in any degree effective [—] democracy.

    The Long Parliament decreed that it could not be dissolved without its own consent …
    [What] has hindered subsequent Parliaments from doing likewise?

    In the first place, in the absence of a revolutionary situation, members of the outgoing Parliament were assured of a pleasant life even if they belonged to the defeated party …
    [Most] would be reelected [and return to power], and, if [not], they would gain the almost equal satisfactions … by publicly criticising the mistakes of their rivals.
    (p 130)

    If, on the other hand, they made it impossible for the electorate to get rid of them by constitutional means, they would create a revolutionary situation, which would endanger their property and perhaps their lives. …

    All this would be different if a revolutionary situation were already in existence. Suppose a Conservative Parliament had reason to fear that the next election would produce a Communist majority, which would expropriate private property without compensation. In such a case, the party in power might well imitate the Long Parliament, and decree its own perpetuity. It would hardly be restrained from this action by reverence for the principles of democracy …
    [It] would be restrained, if at all, only by a doubt as to the loyalty of the armed forces.

    [Consequently, a democracy] cannot feel any security that, in a revolutionary situation, its representatives will continue to represent its wishes.
    The wishes of Parliament may, in easily conceivable circumstances, be opposed to those of a majority of the nation.
    If Parliament, in such circumstances, can rely upon a preponderance of force, it may thwart the majority with impunity.

    This is not to say that there is a better form of government than democracy.
    It is only to say that there are issues as to which men will fight, and when they arise no form of government can prevent civil war.
    One of the most important purposes of government should be to prevent issues from becoming so acute as to lead to civil war …
    [From] this point of view democracy, where it is habitual, is probably preferable to any other known form of government.

    The difficulty of democracy … is that it demands a readiness for compromise.
    The beaten party must not consider that a principle is involved of such importance as to make it pusillanimous to yield …
    [And,] on the other hand, the majority must not press the advantage to the point at which it provokes a revolt.
    This requires practice, respect for the law, and the habit of believing that opinions other than one’s own may not be a proof of wickedness.
    (p 131)

    [Due to modern communications] large countries have become more and more like the City States of antiquity …
    [There] is more personal contact (of a sort) between men at the centre and voters at a distance …
    [Followers] can bring pressure on leaders, and leaders reciprocally can exert influence on followers, to an extent which was impossible in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
    The result has been to diminish the importance of the representative and increase that of the leader.
    Parliaments are no longer effective intermediaries between voters and governments.
    (p 132)

    All the dubious propagandist devices formerly confined to election times can now be employed continuously. …

    Corporate Governance

    In an industrial undertaking, there is … a distinction analogous to that between citizens and slaves in antiquity.
    The citizens are those who have invested capital in the undertaking, while the slaves are the employees. …
    The employee differs from a slave in the fact that he is free to change his job if he can, and in his right to spend his non-working hours as he pleases.
    [While] in relation to government [tyrannies,] oligarchies, and democracies differed in their relations to free men [—] in relation to slaves, they were all alike.
    Similarly in a capitalist industrial enterprise the power may be divided among investors monarchically, oligarchically, or democratically [while the] employees, unless they are investors, have no share in it [whatsoever.] …
    (p 133)

    [Likewise, shareholders are largely] excluded from the management …
    [Corporate] oligarchies, often with very small participation in ownership, have acquired the government of vast aggregations of capital. …
    Berle and Means:
    [The management] can virtually dictate their own successors.
    Where ownership is sufficiently subdivided, the management can thus become a self-perpetuating body even though its share in the ownership is negligible.
    The nearest approach to this condition … elsewhere is the organisation which dominates the Catholic Church.
    The Pope selects the Cardinals and the College of Cardinals in turn selects the succeeding Pope. …
    (The Modern Corporation and Private Property, pp 87-88, 1932)
    [For example, the directors of the United States Steel Corporation] collectively own only 1.4 per cent of the shares; yet the economic power is wholly theirs. …

    [Corporate governance] is usually in form an oligarchy, of which the units are shares, not shareholders, and the directors are their chosen representatives.
    In practice, the directors usually have much more power, as against the shareholders, than belongs to the government of a political oligarchy as against the individual oligarchs.
    Per contra, where trade unionism is well organised, the employees have a considerable voice as to the terms of their employment.
    In capitalistic enterprises there is a peculiar duality of purpose [—] to provide
    • goods or services for the public, and …
    • profits for the shareholders.
    (p 134)

    In political organisations, the politicians are supposed to be aiming at the public good, not [just] at maximising their own salaries …
    [This] pretence is kept up even under despotisms.
    This is why there is more hypocrisy in politics than in business.
    [Nevertheless,] many important industrial magnates have … learnt to pretend that the public good is their motive for making a fortune.
    This is another example of the modern tendency [toward] the coalescence of politics and economics.
    (p 135)

    Democracy, Wealth and War

    [In] Egypt and Babylonia, absolute monarchy was fully developed at the period when historical records begin …
    In the Middle Ages, the power of kings was limited by that of the feudal nobility, as well as by the municipal autonomy of the more important commercial cities.
    After the Renaissance, the power of kings increased throughout Europe, but this increase was brought to an end by the rise of the middle class, first in England, then in France and then in the rest of Western Europe.

    Until the Bolsheviks dismissed the Constituent Assembly at the beginning of 1918 it might have been thought that parliamentary democracy was certain to prevail throughout the civilised world.
    Movements away from democracy are, however, no new thing.
    They occurred in many Greek City States, in Rome when the Empire was established, and in the commercial republics of medieval Italy. …

    The two great influences against democracy in the past have been wealth and war. …
    Men whose wealth is obtained by commerce are [generally speaking] less harsh and more conciliatory than those whose power is due to ownership of land …
    [They are] more skilful in buying their way into power, and governing afterwards so as not to rouse violent resentments, than are those whose status is merely hereditary and traditional. …
    An oligarchy of substantial burghers is therefore the most natural and stable form of government for a predominantly commercial community.
    And this easily develops into monarchy if one family is much richer than any other. …

    [During wartime, fear] makes men wish for a leader, and a successful general rouses the passionate admiration which is the obverse of fear.
    Since victory seems, at the moment, the one thing of real importance, the successful general easily persuades his country to entrust him with supreme power.
    So long as the crisis continues, he is judged indispensable, and when it is over he may have become very difficult to remove. …

    [The] German and Italian democracies fell, not because a majority was tired of democracy, but because the preponderance of armed force was not on the side of numerical majority.
    It may seem strange that the civil government should ever be stronger than the commander-in-chief, yet this is the case wherever democracy is firmly rooted in the habits of the nation. …

    Democracy, when it is new, arises from resentment against the previous holders of power …
    [And] so long as it is new, it is unstable.
    Men who represent themselves as enemies of the old monarchs or oligarchs may succeed in restoring a monarchical or oligarchical system …
    (p 136)

    It is only where democracy has lasted long enough to become traditional that it is stable.
    Cromwell, Napoleon, and Hitler appeared in the early days of democracy in their respective countries …
    [In] view of the, first two, the [emergence of the] third should be in no way surprising.
    Nor is there reason to suppose him more permanent than his predecessors.
    (p 137)

    [If,] in order to become stable, [democracy] must become traditional [— what] chance has it of becoming sufficiently established in Eastern Europe and Asia to begin the process of becoming traditional?

    Government has at all times been greatly affected by military technique.
    In the days when Rome was tending towards democracy, Roman armies were composed of Roman citizens …
    [It] was the substitution of professional armies that brought about the Empire.
    The strength of the feudal aristocracy depended upon the impregnability of castles, which ended with the introduction of artillery.
    The large almost untrained armies of the French Revolution, by defeating the small professional armies opposed to them, showed the importance of popular enthusiasm for the cause, and thereby suggested the military advantages of democracy.
    We seem now, through the [advent of mechanized warfare], to be returning to the need for forces composed of comparatively few highly trained men. …

    Much of the strength of Fascism is due to its supposed advantages in war, and if these prove to be non-existent democracy may again spread eastward.
    In the long run, nothing gives a nation such strength in war as the wide diffusion of education and patriotism …
    [And] although patriotism may, for the moment, be stimulated by the revivalist methods of Fascism, such methods, as long experience in the religious sphere has proved, inevitably lead in the end to weariness and backsliding.
    On the whole, therefore, the military arguments point to the survival of democracy where it still exists and its return to the countries in which it is for the moment in eclipse.
    (p 137)

    But it must be admitted that the opposite alternative is by no means impossible.
    (p 138)

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