A Brief History of Guardianism

Economist Robert Heilbroner identified four types of societies–primitive, imperial, feudal, and capitalist–as stages upon which the forces of domination and participation struggled for ascendancy.12 In each, guardians and dependents reached some kind of understanding, or accommodation, that tilted the balance of power: sometimes in favor of guardianism, sometimes in favor of participation, but generally advancing, at least a little, the cause of shared autonomy. From these accommodations–attempts by each side to preserve and expand its gains while minimizing the gains of the other–a set of ever-expanding “middle liberties” emerged. It is from these middle liberties, the things government neither encourages nor prohibits but that individuals have a right to pursue, that most social progress has come; and as these liberties expand, progress itself comes faster.

Primitive, or traditional, societies some of which exist today in developing parts of the world, openly extend the parent-child relationship to their political institutions. Tribal leaders assumed the absolute–and absolutely natural–despotic powers of a parent over a village, clan, or territory. Even in developed nations, we evoke memories of this fundamental, satisfying relationship when we refer to our country’s “founding fathers” and when business executives talk about their “corporate families”–omitting the all-important fact that families aren’t democracies. To the extent that our position in such artificial families reinforces our psychological view of ourselves and supports our immediate need for community and security, including the satisfactions of dominating those below us in a guardian hierarchy, most of us go along with such fictions and call them good. Anthropologist Lionel Tiger thinks this natural moral instinct–to judge good or evil in terms of how well our artificial kinships function–was bred into us over hundreds of thousands of years when primitive societies were the norm.13 Most guardians today knowingly or unknowingly tap its residual power to keep dependents in their place.

Imperial societies form when primitive societies bump into each other and need new myths to explain why “our” family is better than theirs and why those others are inferior, dangerous, or evil. Imperial hierarchies differ from traditional hierarchies the way sexual assault differs from marital intercourse; primitive guardians are like husbands and fathers; imperial guardians are like rakes and rapists. Both govern through outwardly similar acts, but the psychological conditions surrounding them are vastly different. Under imperialism, the dependent citizen’s childlike obedience changes from an act of filial obligation to one motivated by fear or ambition. In primitive societies, dissenters (such as those wishing to usurp guardianism and participate directly in the major political and economic decisions facing the tribe) are usually punished by ostracism or exile and are forced to leave the “family.” Under imperialism, dissent must be visibly (and often violently) crushed, because fictional kinship cannot be assumed. A wrathful parent-despot can be intimidating, but few are as dangerous as the empire that strikes back.

Eventually, imperial guardians warp the imaginary parent-child relationship so badly that it becomes open exploitation. Imperial guardians no longer pretend to be surrogate parents, but represent themselves as godly heroes: warlords and overlords who demand and receive imperial emoluments, such as semi-holy places to live and work (a palace, a parliament building, a White House) and bodyguards of their own choosing (traditionally, armed soldiers and secret police, but modern political parties accomplish many of the same functions)–and an artificial clan is formed. Once accepted by citizen-dependents, imperial guardians–whether conquerors like the Caesars or a hereditary aristocracy like the British House of Lords, or an elected aristocracy like the U.S. Congress–become extraordinarily hard to remove, no matter how badly they rule. Eventually, citizens seeking to grow beyond childish dependency learn they must either devote themselves to “public life”–seek admission to the governing, guardian clan–or accept the middle liberties offered by private enterprise, which can eventually lead to high economic guardianship and considerable social clout.

This is the dichotomy Aristotle referred to when he declared that a citizen’s world was divided into two halves: societas, those voluntary, cooperative, nonviolent (but often highly competitive) activities we now call economic; and civitas, or civic engagement. Seldom have the twain ever met, even in the democracy of ancient Athens, where the demos was confined to non-slave, property-holding, male citizens who passed laws for themselves, but every one else as well. Direct democracy in imperial Greece may not have been despotism, but it was guardianism for anyone not in the club.

Still, the accommodation reached between Greek guardians and the rest of the population established a few moral principles that advanced the cause of participation in later centuries.

First, it created a moral basis for suffrage: those most affected by a law ought to have a voice in framing and enacting it–although the size of that demos and the method of participation (direct or indirect, active or reactive) was open to negotiation. The second principle was that nation and state are not synonymous. “Nations” were and are amorphous things—an abstraction that includes certain groups with a common ethnic history, creed, and so on, while excluding others who do not share that history or those beliefs. States, on the other hands, were and are geographically particular. They contain the demos, no matter how it is defined, blur the distinctions among “nations” contained within its borders, and inescapably link property–the very land upon which its people live–to political power, and therefore to guardianism.

Nation-states, a fairly modern concept, combined the ideas of group identity, economic and political guardianism, and geographic particularity, and in doing so, created a host of complications. Not the least of these was the question of domain versus dominion: what rights–economic and political–adhere to citizens simply because of where they live, or the place in which they were born? Ancient, imperial Rome addressed this problem with a new accommodation. It invented the notion of open citizenship: the idea that anyone, even someone from a conquered territory, could become a member of the demos, not just those “born into the clan.” This did more than just create another form of artificial kinship within the state; it signaled a fundamental turn in Western civilization–that citizenship and the right to participate, even to become a guardian, was not fixed and limited to existing members of the “family,” but was mutable and expandable. It acknowledged that some form of implied, enforceable social contract existed between those who made the rules and those who were obliged to follow them.

Imperial societies turn feudal when their guardians begin to rely on reciprocity, as well as coercion, to keep their states intact. In the West, the moral authority and physical power of the declining Roman Empire was inherited by a variety of medieval kings, dukes, and princes, including officials of the Catholic Church. To use Aristotle’s terms, civitas became the province of hereditary nobles and religious leaders while societas stayed where it had always been–among ordinary citizens who saw private enterprise as the only way to improve their lives. Eventually, this private power–the ability to claim as lawful property the surplus of economic transactions–was accumulated by an urban bourgeoisie, a new class of economic guardians who admired and wished to emulate the nobility. From this new “regime of capital,” as Heilbroner calls it, wealthy citizens and industrious groups began to exert a great deal of social and political influence–mostly to buy or bribe special treatment for themselves.

This was the beginning of modern liberalism. It was a time when individual rights were negotiated between government guardians and economic guardians within a mutually accepted framework of common law and state power. Society was still divided between guardians and dependents, but dependents with special economic resources now enjoyed more political clout.

This new reciprocity, although of no direct benefit to most people (such as ordinary peasants), advanced the cause of democracy by acknowledging the interdependence between two guardian “regimes”–the regime of capital and the regime of politics–and created an environment in which constitutions, both written and unwritten, could flourish, a development of enormous consequence.

Traditionally, constitutions were unwritten social contracts that specified the general rules under which future conduct would take place and be judged. Under a constitution, laws could not be passed arbitrarily, at the whim of political guardians, but only within an agreed-upon framework that respected the rights of particular citizens–mostly economic guardians. For their part, economic guardians promised to behave in a way that would not destabilize the state, such as inciting peasants to revolt or neglecting to pay their taxes. Both sides agreed that coercion, or threats of force between guardian classes was to be avoided and would be used only as a last resort when other forms of dialog such as petitioning and lawsuits had failed. These practices were the ancestors of the civil codes we know today, and we must never forget that contracts, not just swords, helped forge the modern world.

However, this latest accommodation created new tensions as well as harmony among guardians. Eventually, the demand by economic guardians for more political clout and the need of political guardians to retain their monopoly on violence while enhancing national wealth, led to a fourth societal form, one which eventually integrated both political and economic hierarchies into a single guardian class: capitalism.

Capitalist guardianship had the paradoxical affect of both strengthening guardianism while at the same time promoting wider and deeper democracy. By blending two previously separate guardian elites–the regime of capital with the regime of politics–the schism between ordinary people and their hereditary or self-selected rulers was finally brought into stark relief. The lens for his great revelation was the ancient institution of property.

  1. 12. Heilbroner, Robert L. The Nature and Logic of Capitalism. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 1985.
  2. 13. Tiger, Lionel. The Manufacture of Evil: Ethics, Evolution, and the Industrial System. New York: Harper & Row. 1987.

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