Earlier this week, Adam Elkus tweeted a Diplomat article, by Chun Peng, about the political passivity of the Chinese citizenry. Chun explains the Chinese state’s abiding resilience through a confluence of cultural and organizational-political factors. Historical patterns of gratitude towards authoritarian institutions–“protection rackets,” via Charles Tilly–inform contemporary relationships between Chinese communities, writ large, and various state organizations (the Chinese Communist Party, especially). In the crudest terms, we can describe this as the Neidermeyer theory of state-building: the state giveth, and the state taketh away, but at least it’s something to be part of.
Chun’s fallacy is empirically lacking for all the reasons Jay Ulfelder describes: the cultural broad-brush, the homogenization of “Chinese culture,” the conceit that, in fact, Chinese citizens are regularly disobedient, if irregularly successful. The tipping point of Beijing’s resilience is difficult to anticipate, but the environmental and social consequences of China’s authoritarian excesses probably disrupt Chun’s historical continuum of obedience. A critique of Chun’s causality, however, is unsatisfying. The Chinese state is simultaneously resilient and embattled, and the origins of this dialectic–both in the Chinese context, and in general–merit explanation.
When Elkus described Chun’s point-of-reference as “familial politics as sources of cohesion,” he was onto something. In China, as elsewhere, familial politics are an observable form of micro-relationships, through which individuals interact with with communities, societies, institutions, and the state. These interactions, however, exceed Chun’s cultures of obedience, and shape the varied dimensions of political decision-making: who gets which resources, who participates in public, private, and mixed (club, common) goods. Francis Fukuyama, in his Origins of Political Order, aptly describes “family” as a precursor to evolved forms of political order. Fukuyama’s “family,” however, is a diverse classification. Genealogical lineage may be the most common form of familial politics, but it’s not ubiquitous:
Chinese lineages often have memberships in the thousands; entire villages share the same surname, which suggests the fictive and inclusive nature of Chinese kinship. And while the Sicilian Mafia speaks of itself as a “family,” the blood oath only symbolizes consanguinity.
The familial vocabulary is a consistent indicator of who gets what, and who’s included in which community. Consider, for example, the Hollies’ kitschy pastoral ballad, “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,” released in 1969: “So on we go / his welfare is of my concern.” Allan Clarke’s lyric companion is a metaphorical sibling, and benefits from his labor as a result.
I just read Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou, a cornerstone of microhistorical scholarship, which subtly addresses related themes in the proto-history of state-building. Montaillou captures a small village in France’s Languedoc region on the cusp of the Inquisition, which Ladurie vests with a explanatory significance. In the words of Carlo Ginzburg, Ladurie’s Italian contemporary, the microhistorical craft leverages studies of small, “modest” historical institutions–the individual, the village, the parish–“to trace, as in a microcosm, the characteristics of an entire social stratum in a specific historical period.” From a methodological standpoint, microhistories mirror the social-scientific case study. If done well, they construct historical patterns from the idiosyncratic; if done poorly, they overstate the general at the specific’s expense. The political dimension of Ladurie’s Montaillou–in particular, its insight into the security dimensions of the Languedoc community–may cast the micro-politics of contemporary state-building in a relevant light.
Ladurie divides Montaillou into two sections, which reveal the narrative development of Montaillou’s politics. The first, on the “ecology of Montaillou,” outlines the ecosystem of local authority, comprising the structure of intra-family relations, the maintenance of authority and control, the impact of Inquisition interventions on local Cathar (heretical) organizations, and the hierarchy of (predominantly agricultural) resources. The second section, on Montaillou’s “archaeology,” describes the subsequent characteristics of the village’s political economy, with a particular focus on the ideational impact of competing Church doctrine on local theologies and superstitions. Ladurie’s analytic concerns resemble the topical inverse of Chun’s: how is it that, amid the cohesive civil society of Catharism, the Inquisition’s authoritarian institutions gained a foothold?
According to Ladurie, several organizational forms defined Montaillou’s social relations and, perhaps most importantly, divisions. Nuclear families were common, but not universal, and were generally subordinated to the domus, a physical and social grouping of Montaillou residents. The village’s (male) shepherds, an economic staple, maintained a separate form of social organization, which as a result of the ecosystem’s gender imbalance disrupted nuclear-familial institutions. The Inquisition’s influence placed often-existential stress on Montaillou’s Cathar domus, which could not withstand the inquisitors’ incessant efforts to infiltrate and upend heretical ecosystems. The Inquisition’s efforts were authoritarian in nature, and frequently violent in practice. The Clergue domus, the wealthiest clan in Montaillou, reflected the Inquisition’s debilitating impact: Bernard, the tax collector, and his brother Pierre, a corrupt priest, submitted to the Inquisition’s violence (torture, mostly) and espionage. “The apparatus of power was not a ‘police’ apparatus in the modern sense of the term,” writes Ladurie, “but for anyone who did not keep absolutely to the straight and narrow path it was a Kafka-esque world of spies and betrayals.” The clans’ patriarchs–for the Clergue’s, Bernard and Pierre–were responsible for protection, and the survival of their social institutions in space and throughout time rested on the elites’ ability to provide it. As in any ecosystem, scale effects mattered: as the Clergues, the elite-of-elite, became less resilient against the Inquisition’s anti-heretical efforts, so too did the domus network:
The manorial judge and his colleagues only had to arrive for a few years (after 1300, for example) at a valid compromise on the question of tithes or on the tolerance of heresy in order to win the support of the great majority of the village. Needless to say, there was never any question of a revolutionary solution to these conflicts. The clan which aspired to domination did not seek to bring down the manorial authorities but only to annex them.
As Ladurie describes, Montaillou’s cultural environment was an outgrowth of this uncertain ecosystem, rather than a driver. The regional development of millenarianism–post-apocalyptic theology–amid the Inquistion illustrates this causality. As a historical phenomenon, popular enthusiasm for milenarian ideas often occurs during periods of great social upheaval, as during the Black Plague. According to Ladurie, Inquisition officials were variously sympathetic towards millenarian moralism, which contradicted the dualistic theology of the Cathar opposition–he tells one story of a man, Arnaud de Savignan, who was “rebuked by the Inquisition for believing that the world was eternal.” Under cultural-driven theories of the history of ideas, the confluence of social upheaval and Inquisition tolerance should have generated popular support for millenarianism; to the contrary, however, millenarianism found scant support throughout Languedoc. The moral texture of the region’s institutions, which under Chun’s fallacy would stem from uncertain cultural norms, proved historically subordinate to Montaillou’s political ecosystem.
Rather than conclude with an assertive statement of Ladurie’s microhistorical findings, I’d rather end with a question: if the politics of protection inform the resilience of order-maintaining institutions, as they did in Montaillou, how can we evaluate the drivers of institutional continuity and survival in contemporary systems, like Chun’s China?