Ideology, enforcement and arseholes

Since I research what could be broadly described as early medieval cultural history, I’m 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 people’s motives, there’s a considerable need for ideology/propaganda in any non-democratic society, whether medieval or modern. (I’ll 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 it’s 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 we’ll 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 it’s 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 you’re 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 they’re 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 it’s 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 don’t 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 you’re a group of guards being paid by a king to guard his treasure and/or his person, why don’t you band together, kill him and split the treasure between you? If you’re faced with putting down a serious revolt, why don’t 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. It’s 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 don’t 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-one’s 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, it’s 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 can’t easily change side when the revolution begins. If you have an ideology to which almost anyone in any social position can subscribe, it’s 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, what’s 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 can’t easily be changed overnight. If you’re an Alawite, you’re 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) weren’t 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 (they’re all Catholics/Protestants/Communists/heretics/in league with the Jews). For the early Middle Ages we’re 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.


4 thoughts on “Ideology, enforcement and arseholes

  1. Channeling Guy Halsall for a moment here, in the very earliest Middle Ages the ruling class were in fact from ethnic, and sometimes religious, minorities, and I wonder whether the ideology which tied their arseholes to them might have been precisely their ethnicity. If you were an anonymous Roman freeman somewhere in the Western Empire, say a small scale landowner caught in the economic reconfiguration that accompanied the collapse of the Roman state without enough surplus to keep going or a merchant whose business had been dependent on government contracts, the prospect of climbing on board the Frankish, Gothic, Burgundian gravy train must have been very appealing. If the price of acceptance by the new boss was to ensure that even less fortunate neighbours shut up and put up, then what were you going to do? The economic cost of the transition to someone like Cassiodorus might have been inconvenient, but in the greater scheme of things it would have been manageable; for lesser mortals, not so much.


    • That’s an interesting suggestion and gets into some tricky issues about different social levels within the fifth-century empire. The normal suggestion I’ve seen for why the barbarian kingdoms became entrenched is that it was the regional elites in the Western provinces that effectively decided to opt out of the empire and look for patronage from the new barbarian rulers on their territory. Peter Brown gives the example of Paulinus of Pella’s sons going to the Gothic court at Bordeaux. But I don’t think Paulinus was the kind of man who would violent stuff himself.

      So part of the questions is who the ‘enforcers’ on the ground were. For the fifth century you’ve obviously got the largely-barbarian armies; I suspect the combination of ethnic loyalty and the prospect of loot kept them loyal as long as they were winning. But there was also probably a lot of spare Roman ‘muscle’ around. We know some Roman aristocrats had their own private armies and I suspect even smaller landowners who didn’t have that had overseers responsible for coercing the labour force etc. Such men would have needed to decide to side with the new regime rather than try to resist them in the name of Rome.

      The question then becomes how much being ‘Roman’ meant to those lower down the social order, given that Romanness was so much an elite ideology. It obviously mattered as far down socially as the curial class that they were Roman, but they could still have ‘local Romanness’ under most barbarian rulers, at least in the late fifth century. Brown makes the interesting point that in Vandal Africa, where there was most ideological persecution by the barbarians (of Catholics by Arians), the curial strata promptly dumped their Catholicism, but were able to keep their social status (or even improve it) by collaborating with the Vandals. I suspect the same may have been true further down the social spectrum as well. So you’re right; it does seem to have been relatively easy for most Romans to change sides where it was economically advantageous, except for a few groups, such as African Catholic clergy.

      On the barbarian side, the key point seems to have been the usefulness of the Roman elite for administering the empire. So you could have ethnic identities as Gauls, Goths etc that sometimes do seem to have been policed (e.g. laws against mixed marriages), but combined with space for Romans at most social levels if they had useful skills. If a Roman is willing to beat up peasants for you, of any ethnicity, why not employ and reward him?

      As a wider point, I suspect if we’re looking at the premodern world, the percentage of society who were willing to fight to the death to protect their ethnic/religious identity is lower than it would be today. At least the persistence of large empires without many ethnically-based revolts suggests that.


  2. NOTHING appears more surprizing to those, who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission, with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers. When we enquire by what means this wonder is effected, we shall find, that, as FORCE is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is therefore, on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular. The soldan of EGYPT, or the emperor of ROME, might drive his harmless subjects, like brute beasts, against their sentiments and inclination: But he must, at least, have led his mamalukes, or prætorian bands, like men, by their opinion.


    • Thanks very much for that quote – I’m afraid I haven’t read Hume, but it’s not really a surprise to see that someone had come up with the same idea beforehand.


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