Topics in Middle East History

Addendum to Chapter 1: How to Stay in Power
(Or what the Jews have in common with the Swiss guards of the Pope)

Copyright ©2009 by T, Pavlidis

In contrast to a popular belief, the rulers do not worry so much about a revolution of the poor as for a push from those directly under them. In his famous work 1984 George Orwell has included a book within a book called "The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism by Emmanuel Goldstein". Chapter 1 of that work is titled "Ignorance is Strength" and there it is observed that "there (always) have been three kinds of people in the world, the High, the Middle, and the Low" [p. 185 and 202-203] He goes on to say that revolutions are not the actions of the Low against the High but those of the Middle against the High. Both of these two groups try to obtain the alliance of the multitude of the Low. If the Middle succeeds in obtaining the alliance of the Low, a successful revolution occurs. On the other hand, the High can forestall revolutions by turning the Low against the Middle.

There are several groups that can challenge a ruler. The millitary and the religious leaders are just two. Another group is the large landowners because in traditional societies (before the Industrial Revolution) the main source of wealth has been arable land. A fourth group is the merchants who could also be quite wealthy, although (in pre-industrial times) not as much as the landowners. Finally there is the imperial bureaucracy and the imperial bodyguards. It seems counter-intuitive to include the latter as a threat to the ruler, but there are historical precendents. Most notable is the case of the Roman Praetorian guards who were supposed to guard the emperor, but during the Roman decline they became literally king makers. If we think of the rulers as HIgh, then we can consider these groups as the Middle. Imperial regimes have used different ways to set the Middle apart from the rest of the population.

The Persian Empire and what we call the Byzantine Empire used eunuchs to staff their bureaucracies. They were certainly a group apart. They could not have heirs so they posed no long term threat to the rulers. (The Chinese emperors also had eunuchs in their palaces.)

The Byzantine emperors also made extensive use of foreign bodyguards. While rulers in Western Europe never used eunuchs they also used foreign bodyguards. The Swiss guards of the Pope are the most visible remnant of this practice. The ethnic difference ensures that they will not ally with the majority population against the ruler. Also the ruler can always keep them in check by turning the locals against them.

Imperial administrators and imperial body guards are under the direct control of the ruler and therefore membership to these groups can be made precise. The most difficult Middle group to control is that of the merchants and entrepreneurs. Some regimes may chose to abolish such groups and have a state directed economy. This was certainly the case with the Soviet Union but the results can be disastrous. Another "solution" is to have the merchants and entrepreneurs (entirely or mostly) members of a distinct (minority) population. Such a composition can be assured by discouraging members of the majority population from acquiring an education or engaging in certain activities and leave those activities open only to a minority group.

This brings us to the concept of Middleman Minorities that has been popularized by Thomas Sowell. His book Black Rednecks and White Liberals, (Encounter Books, 2005) contains a 50+ page chapter titled Are Jews Generic?. He observes that "Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, Ibos in Nigeria, Marwaris in Burma, overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia, and Lebanese in a number of countries" had similar "economic and social roles" as the Jews in Europe.

Other means to control the Middle can be found in China and the Japan of the shoguns. In China there was the imperial exam for mandarin positions. That may appear as meritocracy but it had the added advantage that no family from the Middle could attain long term control of the imperial bureaucracy. The Japanese shoguns had established four classes. The top were the samurai, next, surprisingly, came the farmers (who were generally poor), then the craftsmen, and finally the merchants. Because the latter were rather affluent they formed the Middle, but their lowl social standing meant to keep them "in their place." Eventually an alliance of merchants and low ranking samurai brought the shoguns down in the Meiji restoration.

Thus when we study history we may look how the top rulers (High) try to mark those in helping them in the exercise of power (Middle) as to make them different from the multitude of their subjects (Low). Of course this distinction is more important in rigid societies than in societies that allow significant mobility. Obviously, the more authoritarian a regime is the more it has to be concerned with control.

While a set of rulers may have tight control over their subjects, this does not guarantee that they will stay in power because they may face external threats. A population unhappy with its rulers is not likely to rush to their aid in the face of an outside invader. Ironically, the more an authoritarian regime solidifies its internal position, the more vulnerable becomes to external threats.

A society where the delineation of the three groups is not rigid and significant social mobility is possible it has several advantages over a tight society. Not only it is more likely to deal successfully with an external threat, it is also more likely to see internal development.

The countries of the Eastern Mediterranean have been part of a big empire from, at least, around 700BCE to the end of World War I, a span of over 2,600 years. Western Europe was part of the Roman empire from around 100BCE to no around 400CE, a span of about 500 years. The "barbarian" invasions that destroyed the Roman empire have been a blessing in disguise.

First Posted: December 14, 2009. Latest Revision: January 12, 2020.

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