Since I research what could be broadly described as early medieval cultural history, Im used to intermittent objections to this approach by proponents of socio-economic history. Ideology, to them, is secondary: people are motivated primarily by their own material advantage. While historical materialism is predominantly Marxist, there are also non-Marxist strands of economic/political history that also regard ideology as merely propaganda, simply fine words concealing self-interest. I want to argue, however, that even if you take a self-interested view of peoples motives, theres a considerable need for ideology/propaganda in any non-democratic society, whether medieval or modern. (Ill leave aside modern democratic societies for the moment, because there are potentially different dynamics there).
Many modern dictatorships or quasi-dictatorships show us in stark form the kind of dynamics that seem familiar from premodern European societies. The basis for power is a combination of wealth and office/political power. Office brings officeholders wealth via corruption; in turn wealth is used to ensure that the political and legal system continues to support the wealthy. And its also clear that in every society power and wealth rests ultimately on coercive force. This can take various forms, from the lord demanding dues from his peasants backed by a band of men on horses with swords, to the pay this charge or well send round bailiffs to seize your goods. Behind even the most sophisticated political and legal system is ultimately the threat of physical violence from armies, police or militia.
The question then becomes what motivates the enforcers. The first point to make is that coercion is rarely risk-free. At a certain point most oppressive societies have to deal with putting down revolts or rebellions and its these enforcers who are on the front-line.
There are a few relatively risk-free way of coercing or punishing opponents, but these rely on being prepared to destroy the area youre trying to retake: burning cities/villages (in pre-modern times) or bombing/gassing them (since the twentieth century). But if you want to keep most of the population intact, to use as a workforce, defeating opponents is potentially dangerous, especially if theyre tactically clever. As a lot of military history has shown, there are ways to defeat even elite weapons (such as heavy cavalry or tanks) on the right kind of terrain.
Being an enforcer can be a dangerous job, but its rarely the ruling class themselves who are the sole enforcers. The medieval aristocracy may have led armies or raids, but they relied also on a lot of non-noble troops; the early medieval milites who became the knights were often originally jumped-up (literally) peasants. And in modern military dictatorships, while those at the top of army may be rolling in it, there are a lot of far poorer troops at the sharp end of military activity or policing.
So what motivates such enforcers? The obvious answer is money: they get their pay or a share of the loot from their enforcement activities. In a society with some approximation to the rule of law that may be enough, but in non-democratic and corrupt societies, enforcers can get more on their own account than by staying within the system. Why dont they keep the proceeds of the coercion themselves, rather than handing it over to their superiors? And to reduce it to the most basic level: if youre a group of guards being paid by a king to guard his treasure and/or his person, why dont you band together, kill him and split the treasure between you? If youre faced with putting down a serious revolt, why dont you instead switch sides and join it?
All this suggests that relying on purely material factors is a bad move for a dictator/non-democratic ruler. Its at this point that the arseholes come in. This is a phrase coined by the economist Dan Davies, who argued that every would-be dictator needed a reactionary citizens militia: a large population who are a few rungs up from the bottom of society, who aren’t interested in freedom and who hate young people. In other words, arseholes. Such people can be mobilised to put down revolts with relatively little training because their main role is to carry out group attacks on those who are individually weaker.
To encourage such groups, Davies thinks the dictator should concentrate on nurturing their sense that they, despite appearances, are the backbone of the country, and allowing them to understand that although rules are rules, there are some people who just need a slap.
Davies is talking about the specific case of modern, semi-industrialised countries (he mentions the Iranian basiji, eastern European miners and Zimbabwe ex-soldiers), but the general point is wider: what a non-democratic government really needs is people who are willing to help support it by force for ideological reasons as well as purely economic ones. His examples also show that these enforcers dont need to be taken from a different class in a Marxian sense, those having different relations to the means of production. To take a modern British example, the police are also workers and have a strong trade union in the Police Federation.
Marxists tend to see the main purpose of ideology as a peaceful means of keeping the oppressed down: provide them with false consciousness so they accept their oppression peacefully. But maybe we need to emphasise more the role of ideology on the oppressors own side: encouraging feelings of superiority and solidarity both among themselves and with the group of (lower-class) enforcers, so that no-ones tempted to defect. The general tactics of divide and rule by the ruling class are well known from modern politics, but how was such ideology specifically targeted at enforcers in earlier societies? Arguably, such a technique is behind the original development of chivalry, which linked together ideologically everyone from the ruler to men who possessed nothing more than a horse and some expensive weapons, possibly only as a gift from their lord.
Dan Davies definition also suggest that what modern dictators really need for securing their enforcers is an ideology closely tied to elements of social class. To put it a different way, its possible to be an ex-Nazi or an ex-Communist or an ex-Baathist. One of the main factors determining whether a dictatorship survives is when its enforcers cant easily change side when the revolution begins. If you have an ideology to which almost anyone in any social position can subscribe, its easier to switch away from it when the going gets tough, at least for the junior ranks. Take off your army uniform and you can be a revolutionary too (or at least pretend to be while you run away).
In contrast, whats been noticeable about recent Middle East conflicts is how tenaciously many people have been willing to stick to the losing side. The key point here seems to be the role of ethnic and religious identities, which cant easily be changed overnight. If youre an Alawite, youre likely to stick to the Assad regime to the bitter end, because a Sunni government is going to be hostile to you.
In most premodern European societies, however, the ruling class (and their enforcers) werent predominantly from an ethnic or religious minority. (The obvious exception is Norman England). I suspect that therefore there would have been more need either for a fine-grained class ideology (the people you have to put down are stupid and lazy, unlike you) or identifying those who need to be oppressed with outside threats to society (theyre all Catholics/Protestants/Communists/heretics/in league with the Jews). For the early Middle Ages were unlikely to be able to find many traces of such kinds of ideology/propaganda being addressed to the enforcers (who are essentially illiterate warriors), but for those working on later medieval periods, it might be worth exploring how the good lower classes can be encouraged to repress the bad lower classes.