Thursday, 11 December 2014

Who rules the West: Sword and/or Book?... or something new: the Mass Media?

In Plough, Sword and Book: the structure of human history (1988), the international superstar anthropologist Ernest Gellner expressed in his title the classic tripartite division of all agrarian, pre-industrial societies into a ruling class of 'sword' and 'book' - i.e. warriors and priests - in various combinations; presiding over a mass of productive peasants (i.e. 'plough').

This is, of course, a simplification - in particular leaving-out the skilled middle class (craftsmen, merchants, doctors) who neither function neither as priests nor warriors yet have a highly significant role.

Nonetheless, as a description of the ruling class, Gellner was expressing what most people believe is not just true - but necessarily true: most analysts believe, or at least they assume in practice, that all past and all possible societies are ruled by a combination of warriors and/ or priests.


The Neoreactionary Right certainly believe it; and interpret modern society as a variant of rule by priests or theocracy; with the priestly class termed The Cathedral (or, previously, the Clerisy; sometimes the Establishment); and modern Leftist/ Liberal/ Progressive politics are therefore regarded as a sub-type of a priest-dominated religion.

However, I think this is a mistake; and that in fact in modern developed societies, especially since the mid-1960s, the traditional Sword and Book ruling classes have been subordinated by the Mass Media.


I argue this in numerous previous blog posts on the mass media, and in my recent book Addicted to Distraction

So I believe that the Mass Media is now the primary ruling social system, and that it is functionally different from a social system based on a priestly class.


The main difference is that a priestly ruling elite - or theocracy - functions by imposing a church at the head of social organization; and the church has a definite, relatively specific, structure and personnel.

However, the modern society ruling class of the Mass Media has no definite or positive structure and no definite priest-like personnel - because its primary and essential function is negative rather than positive.

The modern ruling elite is not accurately termed a theocracy because it has no god - and no-god is a crucial deficiency for any theocracy! The modern elites is, indeed, an anti-theocracy - because is does not just passively omit, but actively excludes serious god-talk from the public arena.

It is anti-theocratic because it regards no god as real, and all gods as arbitrary, relativistic constructs - constructs which are made, and can be remade, by the mass media and associate subordinate social institutions (e.g. government, civil administration, NGOs, the legal system, police and education).


In a nutshell, the modern supreme ruling elite centred in and around the mass media is not - over the long term - in favour of anything in particular - certainly not god or any specifiable kind of religion; rather it is against things - and the things it is most-actively against vary over time. Over time, it is against everything.

The modern elite's aim is not to define, impose and maintain any particular religious utopia; rather its aim is to subvert, destroy and invert many (and in principle all) spontaneous and actually-existing forms and structures.

The modern ruling elite is therefore not located in any specific institution (such as Harvard or Oxford, or the Supreme Court, or the civil administration) - because all of these are themselves subject to continual subversion, destruction, and inversion - all elite institutions have-been and are continually being re-made.


Nobody is in control, nobody is going anywhere in particular; but the dominant class are subverting, destroying and inverting everything, everywhere, including themselves - not all at once, but in rotation and over time.

They are not self-consciously aiming at total nihilistic destruction (at least, only a handful of them are) but total nihilistic destruction is the modern elite's revealed preference.