The King Is Dead – Long Live The King

We’ve seen how hierarchical societies have properties suggesting they could be a stable form of organization of self-interested agents that have a need to expend the usable energy they can obtain in a manner that will optimize their survival probability. Indeed such hierarchies of co-operating semi-autonomous parts are, for groups of energy-conserving intelligent information-processing agents, probably a near-optimal solution arrived at by evolution.

A corollary of this hypothesis is that as humans, we get to choose some details of the form of hierarchical governance we get, but we do not get to choose whether we get hierarchical governance. The energetic efficiency and hence survival-adaptive considerations, and the stable manageability properties of a hierarchical form will almost certainly overpower ideas and ideals, such as libertarianism or anarchy, which do not give hierarchy its due.

We may choose, for example, to elect our leadership democratically, but we may not choose not to have leadership. If we reject representative democratic hierarchy, then hierarchy over us will be imposed by those individuals who are effective at building, harnessing, and wielding the power of hierarchical groups. There are always latent empire builders and latent power groups in society. The only question is which hierarchies will come to the fore, and what their scale and compass will be in a given historical time period.

The hypothesis would also predict that there should be no such thing in human history as a total societal collapse of any prolonged length.

Instead, what we should see is that hierarchy gradually builds up in each historical era to the size and number of layers that the underlying technologies of the era will support. We have noted that there are costs of co-ordination (governance), and despite hierarchical grouping being an efficient shape for the organization of such governance, the possibility of effective governance will run into limits with increasing population size and increasing geographical size of the governed region. In other words, beyond a certain size, co-ordination requires too high an energy tax on group members, and so a larger group becomes infeasible energetically. Where this limit is encountered will depend on the efficiency and effectiveness at various spatial scales of the society’s technologies and cultural affordances for

  • communication and information conservation (for co-ordination of collective action, for ethos teaching, law creation and promulgation, monetary system (i.e. regulated exchange of process outputs) development)
  • transportation (economic flows, enabler of force projection at a distance)
  • force projection (internal policing, and resistance to external threats by other group of various sizes and at various distances over various terrain/ocean barrier types.)

More precisely than saying that hierarchy gradually builds up, we should say that it would be predicted to evolve in punctuated equilibrium fashion toward the maximum supportable size in a given technological/cultural era. The reason for that is that each particular hierarchical society of necessity builds homeostatic mechanisms into its governance rules and procedures; mechanisms which resist any change to the status quo.

Such homeostatic systems of the hierarchical order include laws against treason, laws against usurpation of or ignoring of “legitimate” authorities within the society as established, laws requiring payment of taxes, laws against internal violence, laws enforcing behavioural constraints designed to prevent internal unrest and violence, historical education that builds and encourages loyalty, stories and rituals that communicate and motivate shared aspirations, and of course, law enforcement including policing, and sovereignty maintenance including diplomacy and armed forces.

These subsystems of the hierarchical society actively resist change within certain levels of internal and external disruptive force, but then break rapidly when their capacity to resist is overwhelmed.The overwhelming of a society’s homeostatic systems will occur, generally speaking, when the society’s costs of co-ordination, policing, and defense, as a fraction of the society’s ability to harness and channel resources, rises to a ratio where increasing co-ordination, policing, or defense to a level needed to quell the disruptive influences becomes untenable. When this may occur depends on:

  1. the size that the society (or state) itself has reached, compared to the efficiency of its governing technologies in acting at that scale, and on
  2. the extent to which the society’s economic processes and techniques have depleted the resources in its environment beyond its capacity or ingenuity to renew or replace them, and on
  3. the scale and power of any potentially disruptive active threats.

External Threats: Other societies building themselves adjacent to the boundaries of the society, pose a threat to the society’s order. Societies tend to want to subsume and cannibalize the human and other resources of an adjacent society, because an adjacent society is an unpredictable, self-interested, active, thus potentially dangerous part of the surrounding environment. Yet it contains riches and people power if it can be re-organized to be part of the society that is contemplating invasion.

Internal Threats: An internal faction within a society may start using technologies or organizing methodologies that are more capable or efficient at the state’s scale than those of the dominant state.

If a hierarchical society in a given techological/cultural era does break down, we would expect that latent hierarchies, initially shallower and of smaller compass, would fill the power vacuum. In a somewhat turbulent process of conflict and consolidation, one of them, or an evolved enlargement of it, would eventually become the new dominant or legitimate hierarchical society; the new state government. Unless technology and cultural organizational techniques had advanced, we would expect the new stable state to be of a similar size to the one it replaced.

Because technologies of communication, information storage and processing, transportation, and force projection have increased over human pre-history and history, coordination at larger and larger scales has become feasible, and so the average size of the dominant hierarchical societies (states or other governance orders such as organized religions) has also increased over historical time. One might hypothesize that the hierarchy size has been a function of the population increase in the species. I rather posit that the population increase has been a side-effect of the energy-efficiency gains of technological and cultural development, and possibly most significantly, of the energy-efficiency gains per increment of survival probability that larger and better organized hierarchical societies have afforded.Size of Nations over Historical TimeFigure 1: The Red line indicates the maximum diameter in kilometres of the geographic area of a typical top-level societal group (tribe … nation).

Staircase form of the growth is due to quantum leaps in the technology or techniques for communication, information conservation, control, transportation, and force projection.

The blue and green lines show the incorporation of sub-states, and sub-sub-states into federal versions (i.e. hierarchically layered versions) of nations. Sub-states allow the top-level state to grow larger (harness more resources, quell conflict further out from the centre, invent more complex and efficient organized modular processes) while the technology for transportation and communication and force projection at great distance is still only effective or efficient at the size of the substates. i.e. It allows the state to grow larger on more limited governance technology. Federalism is an innovation in organizational technique that compensates for lack of other technologies of large-scale direct communication and transportation.

Today, at the beginning of the 21st century AD, ongoing improvements in technology; notably computing, the Internet, and fiber and satellite communications, continue to shrink geography from the perspective of communication and force projection. Therefore it would be surprising indeed if the average size of the dominant hierarchical societies did not continue to increase. If the cost of effective coordination at larger-than-present-national scales is reduced, by means of these technologies, to feasible tax rates, the hypothesis predicts that there are more energy efficiency gains of increased global security and more energy efficiency gains of global coordination of economic activity to be had.

Perhaps the only question is whether we will end up with two or three top-level federal states/sovereign economic regions in the human world, or just one. One speculation would be that two to three may be more a more stable endgame because they are competition for each other and force each other to continue improving, whereas a single global state would stagnate and frequently be subverted by a few of its dominant substates. Another speculation is that we will go through a two-or-three state phase leading eventually to a single global state having jurisdiction in limited domains such as human rights, amelioration of extreme poverty, mediation and limitation of state or factional conflict, international trade law, and environmental regulation.

If the hypothesis that

  1. energy-efficiency economic benefits of hierarchical governance increase generally with the size of the governed group, and that
  2. ever larger groups can be governed effectively as technology and organizational techniques improve

is correct, then the onus is clearly on political or economic theorists to show why an endgame of further consolidation of power as described above is less likely than a continuation of the status quo.

Explore posts in the same categories: politics, sociology

One Comment on “The King Is Dead – Long Live The King”

  1. Interesting posting. If you are interested in federalism, you might be interested in my post on it. See:

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