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.



Andrew E. said...

The Mass Media's power and influence is growing exponentially. It is at the point where massive, coordinated events involving hundreds of people and hundreds of millions of dollars can be entirely scripted, staged and disseminated LIVE on t.v. and everyone accepts it as truth. The Sandy Hook "shooting" being a prime example. It is truly frightening.

Stirner said...

What do you think of simply not plugging in to the media?

Vast numbers of people are dropping traditional television in favor of streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, etc...

Nobody watches television shows, let alone news, and no one reads the paper anymore either.

Most large newspapers and magazines have gone online, and previously good journalism and scholarship has turned into pure click bait...the only thing that can draw eyeballs is pure outrage.

So I think there is another side to this. No one cares about the leftist nihilistic viewpoint and they are slowly being dragged into they scream louder and louder to generate more and more outrage, and are more and more viciously trying to get anyone fired who comes out against them publicly. The best defense, which the vast majority of people are subscribing to, is simply to ignore them. If no one reads their articles, if no one watches their networks, they simply go bankrupt and are forced to do something productive and non nihilistic.

I only hope they go out of business, in a manner of speaking, before they sink the ship.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Stirner - Surely the mass media are more powerful, by far, then ever before - people are plugged in 24/7 by social media: they carry it in their hands, sleep with it by their beds. This is something new, and something different.

Titus Didius Tacitus said...

Bruce Charlton: "This is something new, and something different."

It is new, and it is different.

Assuming that it's a sword, that's not an intellectual problem. Our adversary, let's call him the Accuser, has gotten hold of a magical sword; that's a practical problem.

Assuming that it's not a sword but the Accuser himself, that's an intellectual problem. The Accuser isn't new; he's been here all along.

Bruce Charlton said...

@TDT - I'm not sure what you are saying - but I take sword to mean domination by physical coercion and the threat of coercion - the military/ police; while pen means domination by control of religion/ ideology/ propaganda.

But I am drawing a distinction between theocracy - which is positive propaganda for a particular state of affairs (e.g. revolution to establish a utopia); and the modern anti-theocracy which is negative propaganda, that is - over time - subversive of all actual *and possible* states of affairs (i.e. the state of 'permanent revolution').