Oligarchy and gerontocracy

For those of us who hope that the democratic republic will turn out to be the only long-run-stable form of governance, the biggest threat comes from the self-perpetuating semi-meritocratic oligarchy; the hereditary principle eventually promotes too many dopes, let alone the problems of minorities and succession struggles.

The best example of the self-perpetuating semi-meritocratic oligarchy at the national level is the Communist dictatorship, which kept control of the Soviet Union for more than 70 years and seems likely to go on even longer in China and Vietnam. (Singapore is a comparable case, despite its democratic trappings.) But corporations, universities, and professional-services organizations such as law firms also embody the process where the current leadership co-opts its own successors.

The most successful implementation of that model is the Roman Catholic Church, which has enjoyed some 15 centuries of continuity (modulo the Avignon period and a few anti-popes here and there).

As the characteristic risks of the democratic republic are corruption and demagogy, and the characteristic risks of hereditary rule are incompetent rulers and succession struggles, the characteristic risk of the self-perpetuating oligarchy is gerontocracy. The Chinese innovation of pushing Politburo members out to pasture at around age 75 may turn out to be a truly epoch-making development.

The Soviet Union never solved that problem. Brezhnev hung onto power far into senility; by the time he finally died – to be succeeded by two other members of the Over-the-Hill Gang – the writing was probably on the wall.

For most of the history of the Catholic Church, even the well-fed and well-cared-for tended to drop off by around age 70. So gerontocracy wasn’t a big threat. But modern nutrition, sanitation, and medicine have extended the life of the body by more years than they’ve extended the acuity of the mind. John Paul II put in a rule to get rid of aging Cardinals – mostly so he could complete the process of packing the College with members of his own faction – but didn’t apply the rule to himself, and continued to wear the Triple Tiara Ring of the Fisherman until he was long past it.

So – from a secularist perspective – here’s wishing a very long life to Pope Benedict XVI. I doubt that his commitment of the Church to the side of reaction and plutocracy around the world – continuing the work of John Paul II – is now reversible. So the faster the whole thing crashes and burns, the better.

Comments

  1. says

    You said “The best example of the self-perpetuating semi-meritocratic oligarchy at the national level is the Communist dictatorship, which kept control of the Soviet Union for more than 70 years and seems likely to go on even longer in China and Vietnam. . . . But . . . professional-services organizations such as law firms also embody the process where the current leadership co-opts its own successors.”

    Apparently, you have not been reading the stories of the death-throes of Dewey & LeBoeuf. See here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_s9ycZ1cUDA This is not a isolated case with many big law firms going under in recent years. The reason is not the heavy hand of older oligarchs, but the need to chase and obtain the services of the current “hot rainmakers.” All too often, however, firms overpay the stars and find themselves in a cash and/or credit crunch.

    Accounting used to be dominated by the “Big 10″ which contracted to the “Big 8″ and then, ultimately, to the “Big 4.” (It can’t go below four due to SEC issues: Only a really, really big accounting firm can perform certified audits on large publicly-held corporations.) I remember when all Wall Street brokerage firms were real partnerships, both as a matter of law and a matter of culture. That is no longer the case.

    The difference between personal service firms and capital-intensive businesses is that, in the case of personal service firms, all of the inventory walks out of the office at 5:00 each afternoon.

  2. says

    It’s a minor point, but John Paul II never wore the Triple Tiara. The papacy is still offensively monarchical in various ways, but that is one reform that has stuck.

  3. dave schutz says

    Doug La Folette? Patrick Kennedy? Chelsea Clinton? George W Bush? The many many dietmen who are sons or nephews of dietmen? Bo Guagua? Jerry Brown? Taft IV? Who do you have in mind?

  4. Anderson says

    As I said at nyrb, rule by evil men is nothing new for the RCC. Don’t count them out yet.

    … A good alt-history novel would work out the results of Rome going Jewish not Christian, and Judaism’s being melded with the Roman hierarchy. For kicks, Christianity could hang on as a fringe religion.

    • says

      So Mohammed would have to adopt the Jewish holy books to cobble together the Koran in order to legitimize his conquests? That would be interesting. And the reason the Persians adopted the Shia heresy was to gain the legitimacy of a state religion other than Sunni Islam. That, too, could throw some kinks into the history.

      From what I can see every world religion gained it’s local dominance by providing legitimacy to the government of an empire. That includes Buddhism (Ashoka’s Empire in the Indian subcontinent.) Christianity was a heresy of Judism that did not require the strict dietary laws, so it suited the traders around the Mediterranean who could not get to temples. I don’t think the split between the two branches of Judaism could have been prevented. What we know today as Judaism simply could not be adapted to a large empire with great social, linguistic and cultural diversity as would be required for an imperial religion.

      Just sort of working out the rationale as I write, but what do I know? Still, I think that every Empire in agricultural times required a religion and priests to legitimize its government. In contrast Judaism as we know it was designed by Rabbis to keep a sub-population exiled in foreign cities in touch with the home culture through strict adherence to the religious laws. The very existence of Christianity (as a heresy of strict Judaism) demonstrates that the two social functions could not be performed by the same institution.

  5. says

    Extended lifespan is creating problems in the US court system, esp. the Supremes. We definitely need term limits for those guys and gals.

    Re economic entities, there’s a sink/swim/get-replaced quality to them that makes bad decisions by oligarchies much less consequential than on a national level. Kodak dropped the ball, Instagram picked it up. Whether shareholder democracy works isn’t quite as important as national democracy.

  6. Sd says

    Its 20 centuries, not 15. You do realize you’re recycling the rhetorical talking points of fundamentalist anti-catholic bigots? You and Jack Chick deserve one another.

    • Mark Kleiman says

      I don’t know who Jack Chick is, and probably don’t want to. But you do realize you’re recycling bigot William Donohue’s rhetorical trick of conflating hostility to the institution with bigotry against Catholics? As to “20 Centuries,” try to find me a Pope at, for example, the Council of Nicaea. For a long period after Constantine, the Bishop of Rome was the appointee of the Emperor. The self-perpetuating oligarchy did not arise until sometime after the Fall of Rome.

      • John M says

        You didn’t merely express “hostility” to the institutional Church, you expressed a hope that it might soon cease to exist. I’m a middling Catholic who is well to the left of the useless Bill Donahue, but I’m surprised that you are surprised that Catholics, even those who might disagree with the Pope on any number of things, would take offense.

      • sd says

        “As to “20 Centuries,” try to find me a Pope at, for example, the Council of Nicaea.”

        The Pope at the time of Nicea was Pope St. Sylvester I. I’m not sure whether he attended the Council personally – most of the invited Bishops didn’t given the fact that there weren’t a lot of direct flights into Asia Minor in 325 AD. Sylvester stood of course in a line of Bishops of Rome dating back to the first century AD.

        One may of course deny that the Bishop of Rome has unique doctrinal authority in the Christian Church (as do, for example the Eastern Orthodox, who believe that the Bishop of Rome has no greater doctrinal authority than the Patriarchs of Constantinople, Antioch, etc., or the Protestants who believe that Bishops per se don’t have any unique doctrinal authority).

        But to assert that the institution that is the Catholic Church dates back only 15 centuries is ludicrous – and a favorite argument of a certain variety of Protestant apologists whose opinions on gay people, non-Christians and others I’m not sure you’d much like. Strange bedfellows indeed.

        “For a long period after Constantine, the Bishop of Rome was the appointee of the Emperor. The self-perpetuating oligarchy did not arise until sometime after the Fall of Rome.”

        This is a fairly incoherent sentence. The Bishop of Rome was chosen by a number of methods over the centuries. But changes in the method by which the Bishop of Rome were selected have never changed the Church’s understanding of the nature of his ministerial office. By comparison, the method by which US Senators are selected has changed over time too – but these changes in no way altered the authority of the institution of the Senate or the role of Senators themselves.

        • says

          Whatever – but the problem with the Church of Rome today is that the current occupant of the throne of St. Peter is packing the House of Cardinals with members of his own choosing who will be expected to replace him with a like-minded Bishop of Rome. The celibate all-male upper hierarchy of the church is working hard to perpetuate the church of an agricultural society in the very strange and different cultures of modernism.

          You can already see the Catholic church becoming irrelevant outside class-structured third world nations. As that becomes more clear the self-selected Bishops will become even more radically out of touch until they have destroyed the Catholic Church.

        • Mark Kleiman says

          Sorry, but if you want to scare someone by pointing out that a true statement he made has also been made be people he disagrees with on other topics, you’ll have to find someone else. Doesn’t work with me.

          The self-perpetuating system in which the Pope chooses all of the Bishops, and also chooses the Cardinals who choose the next Pope, grew slowly during the Dark Ages. I have no interest in the doctrinal issue; as a matter of historical fact, the Roman oligarchy is not 20 centuries old. But it’s plenty old enough to demonstrate that co-optation can be a long-term-stable form of governance, which was after all my point.

          • sd says

            “The self-perpetuating system in which the Pope chooses all of the Bishops, and also chooses the Cardinals who choose the next Pope, grew slowly during the Dark Ages. I have no interest in the doctrinal issue; as a matter of historical fact, the Roman oligarchy is not 20 centuries old. But it’s plenty old enough to demonstrate that co-optation can be a long-term-stable form of governance, which was after all my point.”

            You’re trying to weasel out of a sloppy statement. Your original statement was:

            “The most successful implementation of that model is the Roman Catholic Church, which has enjoyed some 15 centuries of continuity (modulo the Avignon period and a few anti-popes here and there).”

            The Catholic Church as an institution is more than 15 centuries old. The College of Cardinals as a means of selecting the pope is less than 15 centuries old. The direct appointment of Bishops by the Pope is MUCH less than 15 centuries old. There are various ways of interpreting your statement. The clearest interpretation is that the Catholic Church is 15 centuries old. That’s simply false. The less clear but possible interpretation (which you suggest in your comment here) is that the system of selecting leaders within the Church is 15 centuries old. That’s also false.

            And I’m not attempting to “scare” you. I pointed out that you said something false (i.e. that the Catholic Church is 15 centuries old, which is the plainest meaning of your original post) – and that it happens to be a falsehood that is much beloved of the seemlier quarters of the fundamentalist apologist community. If I say that the molecular weight of carbon is 18 I’ve uttered a falsehood. If I say that Jews control banking I’ve uttered a falsehood with baggage.

          • Mrs Tilton says

            sd,

            The Catholic Church as an institution is more than 15 centuries old

            In the indispensable Modern English Usage, Fowler remarks that it is the prerogative of Roman Catholics to use the word “Catholic”, tout court, to describe their religion; but others should be more precise. Similarly, it is the prerogative (indeed more or less the obligation) of Roman Catholics to assert that a community formed at Rome in the decades following Jesus’s execution, led by somebody called an overseer, and the institution existing today with a pope at its head and branch operations in most parts of the world, have been an instituional and doctrinal continuity over 20 centuries. The rest of us will form our own judgement.

            It requires truly masterful question-begging and hand-waving to argue that what we now know as the Roman Catholic Church is in any important way recognizable in the 1st c. CE institution. The institution we now call the RCC had its beginnings some time after that, arising through accretion, syncretism, evolution and just plain making stuff up. You’ll find a lot of people who see the emperor Constantine as the man who established what would become the RCC (though people taking that line would be better advised to plump for Theodosius). I don’t agree, myself; I see the RCC as neither quite so old nor quite so universal as that. I’d give the credit to Leo I (so my reckoning basically tallies with Mark’s, though I do not know whether it does so for the same reasons). I could even see a plausible (though to my mind incorrect) argument that it was Leo IX.

            Which is not to say that Leo I, or even the IX, would necessarily recognize everything he saw in today’s RCC, if he were able to see it. But the RCC can make a plausible claim, on other than doctrinal grounds, that it is an institution with continuous existence going back to that time.

            And 15 centuries is quite respectable, after all. Even if we were to spot the RCC those five extra centuries, it would still never be as venerable as Judaism or Hinduism or Buddhism. But even 15 centuries is a good long run, something of which people who take pride in that sort of thing may be every bit as proud as they like.

            By the way, though I am not a fundamentalist Christian (or the adherent of any religion, Christian or otherwise), I will tell you quite openly that I dislike the RCC. I regard it as a baleful institution whose disappearance would be a clear net boon for humanity. Yes, I know that unpleasant and disreputable fundamentalists believe something superficially similar (though their being seen as any more unpleasant and disreputable than a Roman Catholic pope or bishop I can only chalk up to bigotry). But it isn’t quite the same, you know. Fundamentalists dislike the RCC because both it and they base their claims to authority on closely related but mutually irreconcilable variants of the same foundational myths. Fundamentalists are not enemies of the RCC; they are merely competitors.

          • sd says

            “Similarly, it is the prerogative (indeed more or less the obligation) of Roman Catholics to assert that a community formed at Rome in the decades following Jesus’s execution, led by somebody called an overseer, and the institution existing today with a pope at its head and branch operations in most parts of the world, have been an instituional and doctrinal continuity over 20 centuries. The rest of us will form our own judgement.”

            The United States Senate, in 1790, consisted of 26 members. They were selected by the state governments of their respective states – each a relatively unimportant regional agricultural backwater only recently separated from a European colonial empire. Those states each had democratic governments, at least in so far as one can call a system in which women and non-landholders were excluded from voting “democratic.” Not to mention the human slaves held in bondage in a subset of those states. The Senators themselves understood the scope of their governing mandate to be remarkably limited.

            So the question is – in the US Senate of 2012 the same institution as the US Senate of 1790?

            If yes, how in the world can one plausibly claim that the Catholic Church of the 1st century AD is not the same institution as the Catholic Church of 2012? After all, it’s geographic scope, worldly influence, governance model and doctrinal self-understanding are all very much evolved since the 1st century.

            If no, then how in the world can one plausibly claim that the Catholic Church of the 5th/6th century AD is the same institution as the Catholic Church of 2012? After all, it’s geographic scope, worldly influence, governance model and doctrinal self-understanding are all very much evolved since the 5th/6th century.

            Why, its almost as if those folks who “regard it as a baleful institution whose disappearance would be a clear net boon for humanity” (charming – that) have an ideological motivation to make sure nobody associates the Catholic Church of 2012 with Jesus, but that everybody associates the Catholic Church of 2012 with (insert corrupt Late Medieval Pope of choice here).

          • Mrs Tilton says

            Yours is an essentially theological position, sd. Roman Catholics will (understandably) view the Christian community at Rome in the 1st century CE as the same institution they know as the Roman Catholic Church. Other Christian denominations to which some concept of “the catholic church” is important — Orthodox; almost all Anglicans; many Lutherans; some from the Reformed tradition — do not, or do so only with reservations; other brands of Christianity (not all of them fundamentalists, either) do not, full stop. The conclusions they reach are dictated by their respective theological beliefs. I am not interested in their theological beliefs, all of which I regard as having precisely equal merit.

            Why, its almost as if those folks who “regard it as a baleful institution whose disappearance would be a clear net boon for humanity” (charming – that) have an ideological motivation to make sure nobody associates the Catholic Church of 2012 with Jesus…

            It is of no importance or interest to me whether or not anybody chooses to associate the 2012 RCC with Jesus.

            …but that everybody associates the Catholic Church of 2012 with (insert corrupt Late Medieval Pope of choice here).

            Oh, not at all. I am perfectly content for people to associate the RCC with Ratzinger and his bishops.

          • sd says

            “Yours is an essentially theological position, sd. Roman Catholics will (understandably) view the Christian community at Rome in the 1st century CE as the same institution they know as the Roman Catholic Church.”

            It may be a theological position in my case specifically, but its by no means a position that one can only hold theologically. Its perfectly reasonable for example for a non-Christian to think that the Church in Rome in 100 AD is the same institution as the Roman Catholic Church in 2012.

            My point was that there are two logically defensible positions. The first is that the Catholic Church is roughly 20 centuries old. The second is that the Catholic Church is roughly 1-2 centuries old (or even perhaps that it’s about 50 years old). Either you think that large scale changes in the geographic scope, governance model and self-understanding of an institution represent a definitive break with that institution’s past or you don’t.

            But what is not logically defensible is to assert that the Catholic Church is 15 centuries old (or 10 for that matter). Because there is no criteria set under which the Church today is in institutional continuity with the Church of 500 AD or 1000 AD but under which it is not in continuity with the Church of 100 AD.

          • Richard Hershberger says

            The problem is that the two of you are talking past each other. This is on the one hand a discussion of the bureaucratic method by which the papacy, and the church generally, perpetuates itself. The method in place today developed gradually, and bears little resemblance to how it was initially. This is what interests you for purposes of this discussion, hence the approximation of 1500 years. sd, on the other hand, is talking about institutional continuity, which does indeed carry unbroken from the first century. And also the specific claim of apostolic succession of the episcopacy in general and the papacy in particular. This is almost certainly a pious fiction, not claimed until several centuries into the game. I actually agree with sd that you didn’t express your meaning well. I did a double take, but understood your intent. But this is a question of editing for clarity, not of any substantive issue of fact.

  7. Ebenezer Scrooge says

    Before the Mexicans rediscovered competitive politics, they had nicely solved the gerontocracy problem of a self-perpetuating oligarchy. Every six years, the current President was expected to pick his successor, and completely retire from politics. The Venetians and some other Italian republics had similar solution: constant rotation in office.

    The corruption-demagogy problem of a democracy is a bit harder to solve. (Actually, I think that the problem is worse than that: fascism is a disease of democracy. It did not exist before the mass franchise.)

  8. Josh G. says

    I think that the Catholic Church hierarchy as a self-perpetuating oligarchy only goes back to the reign of Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085). It wasn’t until Gregory successfully stared down Emperor Henry IV and won the Investiture Controversy that the Church was largely free to appoint its own bishops, including the Bishop of Rome. Prior to that, secular powers retained a large role in this. Emperor Henry III, in 1046, had deposed three papal claimants and appointed his own candidate in their place. During large parts of the 9th and 10th centuries, the papacy was completely under the secular control of wealthy Roman families, and this resulted in the appointment of some of the worst Popes in history (Sergius III and John XII being perhaps the most notorious of the era). Nor was this limited to the Pope; lesser bishops were often appointed by secular rulers for secular considerations, and indeed this is what the Investiture Controversy was all about. Only after Gregory VII’s papacy could the Church be said to have a reasonable amount of autonomy in staffing its hierarchical organization.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] But corporations are only weakly self-perpetuating, since boards usually don’t have a lot of loyalty to a particular style of management and CEOs usually don’t care all that much who takes over after they retire. Beside, CEOs can be fired. A much better example is the Catholic Church: popes appoint cardinals unilaterally, and the College of Cardinals elects a pope when the old one dies. What’s more, popes can’t be fired and they care a lot about appointing cardinals who are ideologically sympatico. Mark Kleiman, after reading about the Church’s recent humiliation of American nuns for being insufficiently anti-sex, comments: [...]