Three shapes of journalism
"Anyone they trust to inform them is someone they trust to control them."
Power is about journalism because power is about who (or what) humans are loyal to. Loyalty implies trust. Since each human has only two eyes, humans must see the rest of the world beyond their eyes through the eyes of humans they trust. When they act in the world beyond their eyes—when they act politically—they depend on this trust. Therefore, anyone they trust to inform them is someone they trust to control them. Such trust has always existed—even a weekly church service is literal journalism.
Since journalism is power, the shape of power is the shape of journalism. This means we can find the forms of journalism in the world today, and read the shapes of power from them. Since power is abstract and elusive and hard to describe directly, whereas journalism is concrete and easy to describe, journalism makes a perfect map of power.
When we describe a regime as of some form—monarchy, oligarchy or democracy—what we mean is that power in that shape dominates power in the other shapes. Any regime must suppress all other potential regimes. An oligarchy must enervate or repress any alternative that seeks to inhabit the shapes of monarchy or democracy.
Nonetheless these suppressed power forms still exist, in some enervated, subjugated, or otherwise ineffective version, in all societies. Defanged, they can still be observed—letting the student of power study all three forms in the present tense.
Today, we will try to see all three through the lens of a thing called “journalism.” As we will see, there are three forms of so-called journalism in the world today. These correspond to the three Aristotelian shapes of force: monarchy, oligarchy, democracy.
With a clear picture, illustrated by real-world examples, of monarchical journalism, oligarchical journalism, and democratic journalism, we can learn the proper use of the Aristotelian categories. This simple tool can teach us not only where we are on the map, but also where else we could get to—and maybe even how we can get there.
Corporate, state, and nonprofit media
Let’s categorize seven institutions of English-language journalism—the People’s Daily (Xinhua), the BBC, the New York Times, ProPublica, the New York Post, the Epoch Times, and the Daily Caller. Can we fit all these worthy voices into three categories? Well, what about—state, for-profit, and nonprofit?
If an essay should solve a mystery or at least answer a question, here is one. Readers may have heard labels like “corporate press” or “state media.” At first glance, it seems as if these are the right categories for five of the seven institutions—based simply on their ownership and management structures.
After all, Xinhua and the BBC are government agencies (“state media”), whereas the New York Times, the Epoch Times, and the New York Post are private corporations (“corporate press”). Whereas the Daily Caller is, of all things, a nonprofit foundation, and so is ProPublica—which makes them both okay? All of this does not seem right.
Intuitively, to anyone who knows anything about how the world really works, the right answer seems to be something like: the People’s Daily (state agency) is in category A; the BBC (state agency), ProPublica (nonprofit) and the New York Times (for-profit) are in category B; and the New York Post (for-profit), the Daily Caller (nonprofit—sort of), and the Epoch Times (mysterious kung-fu cult???) are in category C.
But what logical analysis can justify this intuitive answer? And what do categories A, B and C mean? They are clearly not about management structure. They are clearly about the institution’s role within the political system it inhabits.
To understand that system, we need to understand politics. Let’s start with Aristotle.
(Aristotle had direct access to centuries of history, since mostly lost, from hundreds of genuinely independent city-states. You inhabit a planet that since 1815 has been owned by one power center—the London-Washington axis, just as continuous as Rome-Byzantium. For over two centuries, this global regime has had no true peers. You may be as smart as Aristotle—his sample size is two orders of magnitude larger.)
Power, shape and camouflage
Aristotle described three forms of government—more exactly, three shapes of power: monarchy, oligarchy and democracy. Monarchy is the rule of one. Oligarchy is the rule of a few. Democracy is the rule of the many.
Each of these shapes of power is actively operating in the modern world. No shape is inherently good or bad. No other shape ever existed, or ever can. And no community has ever been ungoverned—government is a human universal.
It would be easy to describe power directly, except that power likes to hide. Power is always desired and always a target; power that is not seen cannot be attacked; power hates to admit what it is. Power loves a decoy.
Thinkers from Bagehot to Burnham have noted that regimes often solve this problem by spoofing Aristotelian forms. Bagehot talked about the dignified and the effective institutions of government; Burnham, about formal and real institutions. Anyone studying the decoy, the formal, dignified symbol, as if it was the actual animal will learn less than nothing. Anyone targeting it will be targeting nothing.
If a regime pretends to be a monarchy but is really an oligarchy, assaults on power tend to attack the visible monarchy, not the hidden oligarchy. It’s a great camouflage. These mummeries need not even have a short half-life. Japan has had a ceremonial monarchy for approximately the last millennium.
Of course, there are also symbolic oligarchies and symbolic democracies. A regime may pretend to be a monarchy, and really be an oligarchy (like a parliament with a costume-party king). It may pretend to be an oligarchy, and really be a monarchy (like a king with a rubber-stamp parliament).
Such masquerades are necessary because every government, to remain stable, must preclude every other possible government. Since the easiest way to switch regimes is often to change the form of the regime, suppressing the other two shapes of power is an effective defense against that attack. The most elegant way to suppress one of the Aristotelian forms is to pretend to be it—then be something completely different.
Clarifying the three forms
Again: monarchy is the rule of one. Oligarchy is the rule of a few. Democracy is the rule of the many.
In the modern mind, each of Aristotle’s terms has acquired irrelevant, confusing connotations—yet the terms themselves are essential. To use them properly, we must banish accreted assumptions and associations, returning to clear, neutral definitions.
It is essential to remember that any form can be good or bad. Showing that a regime which purports to be a democracy is actually an oligarchy does not disprove the virtue of that regime. It does reveal that the regime must defend itself by camouflage—one of the most common regime defense strategies. Well—every regime must defend itself.
Every form can be good or bad. Every form must defend itself. If a good oligarchy must defend itself by pretending to be a bad democracy, we have no moral obligation to oppose it. Ideally every good regime could defend itself within the truth. The rules of self-defense are the rules of war—in which the first rule is survival.
Aristotle went so far as to invent separate words for the good and bad versions of each form. There is no need to associate moral valence with these diagnoses. We would do better to separate functional and ceremonial powers (in Bagehot’s words, “effective” and “dignified”), by using different words for a real autocrat and a mere costume-king. But prefixing “symbolic” or “ceremonial” to the latter is a good enough convention.
When we hear monarchy, we think about a monarchy both hereditary and ceremonial—neither of which has much to do with the simple “rule of one.”
A ceremonial king is not the ruler of anything, and while hereditary monarchy is a human universal (by far the most common form of government across time and place), it is by no means an exclusive universal. Hereditary kingdoms come in dynasties, and by definition the first king of any dynasty is not chosen by heredity.
The word autocracy is more clearly bound to the rule of one. But most struggle to use it outside the modern world—where it has grown invidious connotations. Students of history should remember that, as Ranke put it, every era stands equal before God, and every century is equally important—even the 20th. Hitler and Stalin were autocrats. So were Louis XIV and Peter the Great. The form seems very varied in its performance.
Historically, there are many ways to select (and/or replace) a monarch. Some are peaceful. Some are violent. Some are even democratic. Kings and queens chosen in every way have been everything between good and bad. Modern technology even suggests new ways of choosing monarchs that have never been tried.
Periods as disparate as the first century BC and the 20th AD have found themselves addicted to temporary autocracy—the proper use of the Roman term “dictator.” Afraid of the long-term consequences of monarchy, but attracted by its obvious efficiency, oligarchies and democracies often try to split the difference with a time-limited king.
This terminus may be definite or indefinite; either way, it implies a period of effective anarchy when the dictatorship reverts. Even if the reversion is to the old constitution, the political balance of force after the interregnum will differ from the balance before. The resulting instability is perilous to regime and nation alike.
In general, the more absolute and permanent an autocracy, the stabler it is—and the stabler it is, the less lawless force it has to use to stay in power, and the more ordered liberty it can grant its subjects. The most dangerous and unstable autocracies are those whose legitimacy is insecure, which are fighting for their lives against credible and lethal external or internal enemies. Weakening a monarchy does not make it safer, or its subjects safer from it.
One unsolved problem in historical political engineering is the accountable monarch. Whatever process selects the next king, that process can go wrong; and even the best king can develop a brain tumor, go insane, and order the extermination of the Irish.
The private sector has solved this problem with corporate governance, which is not actually corporate management; it is corporate accountability. If the board or still worse the shareholders are managing a company, that company is on death’s door. But the CEO remains accountable to external directors, not involved in management, only interested in results, who can appoint a new CEO at any time for any reason.
The only problem with porting this design to the sovereign layer is that private-sector governance depends on a higher layer of sovereign law, which prevents the CEO from just having the board arrested. A sovereign CEO is responsible to no higher power—if a court declares the action illegal? Well, judges can be arrested too…
Blockchain technology offers a possible solution, since a smart contract is a layer of law above even the sovereign. If the board of directors are anonymous tokenholders on the Internet, and if the powers of the CEO are conferred by a token that literally grants cryptographic control over the security forces’ weapon systems, an Ethereum contract can execute a bloodless, pushbutton Putsch—without otherwise impairing the CEO’s absolute management authority.
You laugh. One day, this will happen. You will laugh then, too.
Similarly, there are many modes of oligarchy.
Our first thought is often of plutocracy, an oligarchy of money or property. Yet across three millennia, from the priests of Amun to the mullahs of Qom, we see theocracy, an oligarchy of esoteric knowledge; and the procurators of Diocletian would recognize the commissars of Brezhnev as fellow practitioners of bureaucracy, an oligarchy of rank. Finally, we see aristocracy—oligarchy of heredity; gerontocracy, oligarchy of age; and kleptocracy, oligarchy of crime.
Plutocracy, theocracy, bureaucracy, aristocracy and gerontocracy tend to be found at varying levels in every oligarchy. For instance, all of them can be found at Harvard. It is easy to find simple principles which generalize across all modes of oligarchy.
An oligarchy, being the rule of the few, implies a rule for selecting those few. An oligarchy implies a distinction; the few who rule must be distinguished. Distinction defines the shape of an oligarchy. Wealth, prestige, rank, genetics, age or violence? Most oligarchies in practice gravitate toward an unlovely mix of these distinctions.
Generally the process of distinction involves some formal or informal credential that confers oligarchic authority. Informal credentials are stronger—they are harder to see, and harder to confiscate. Sometimes the credential is issued directly by the regime; in other cases, it is issued in a two-level system. A common case is a formal credential issued by an institution whose prestige is informal.
Institutions are the bones of power. Institutions act as units, virtual individuals at arbitrary scale above the individual. Yet these institutions are made of people—and their path to joining and rising defines the form of power.
Bones are useless if connected to nothing. The connections of a bone are the other units that connect to that bone. Some bones connect by ligaments to the people; some bones connect by tendons to the organs of power; some bones connect to both.
Who or what is loyal to an institution? Which people, and what other institutions? The Catholic Church, in its heyday, commanded (or at least contested for) the loyalty of both individuals and governments. Rome could tell every Christian what to think—and every Christian king what to do. Rome’s credentials were legitimate credentials.
Since power is ultimately the will of the public, it makes sense that other institutions would come to serve the will of the public—which means they would come to serve the will of whatever agency directs the will of the public. Eventually, there is no need for the indirection—power will listen directly, and submit. To inform loyal Christians is to command loyal Christian kings—who have no need to pass such orders through the tin-can telephone of the voting layman.
A good general principle is that the power of an oligarchic institution will converge with its prestige. Instances of either powerful institutions which are not prestigious, or prestigious institutions which are not powerful, are hard to find.
In a real sense, the power of an oligarchic institution is its prestige—which defines its influence over other “independent” institutions, both through direct institutional loyalty or, indirectly, by influencing the public.
If an institution has no direct prestige with the regime or other institutions, if it has prestige only with the public, it is a democratic institution, not an oligarchic one. But an oligarchic institution with a genuine command of public opinion is even stronger.
Which institutions are prestigious? What is the financial, spiritual, hereditary, etc, origin of prestige in a regime? Asking this question, in an oligarchy, is like asking the ruling dynasty in a hereditary monarchy why only its firstborns get to be king. The only answer is: because. Why is the bishop of Rome, not the bishop of Paris, the Pope? The answer is the same: because. These facts are historically contingent.
Ultimately, all regimes are based on inertia—they are in power because they are in power. The prestigious institutions in oligarchies are prestigious because they are in power, and in power because they are prestigious. And because they are prestigious and in power, they attract the most talented personnel—augmenting their prestige.
While whether these cycles are virtuous or vicious depends on the perspective of the observer, a self-sustaining cycle is the essence of inertia. If this cycle can be broken, the institution ceases to hold power, or even contend for power, or even exist.
In the fall of the German Democratic Republic, from one day to the next, the Ministry of State Security (“Stasi”) ceased to be prestigious, and became shameful. Once shameful, it instantly dissolved and could never be restored, like Humpty Dumpty.
But the Stasi could never have been reformed. Those who ignore this lesson are doomed to relearn it. Oligarchies cannot be reformed, only replaced. And replacing them is quite difficult; it does not require violence, but rather comprehensive force.
The process of regime change begins with the erasure of the previous regime’s inertia. Oligarchies are difficult to dissolve because their inertia is so decentralized; they run on prestige, not position, influence rather than command; there is not a single formal “public” government to shut down, but also a web of powerful “private” institutions.
Nonetheless, it is not hard to make a list of these entities. But this list, fundamentally informal in nature, can only be composed in a fundamentally informal way. Therefore, dissolving an oligarchy requires a state of legal emergency; it demands fundamentally lawless and absolute action to set the country on an orderly path to a new order. There is no regime change without a full state of exception—not starting from an oligarchy.
The ultimate test of an oligarchical regime is whether its prestige tracks real wisdom. Are prestigious ideas always wise ideas? Or can folly acquire prestige? If folly in an oligarchy commands prestige, folly commands power. Since oligarchies are highly stable, folly becomes hard to uproot.
There is only one form of democracy, the power of the many. Since democracy implies open, unorganized and unselected participation in power, any open process can be considered democratic—with respect to the community of those whom it is open to.
Across history, most regimes are monarchies; almost all the rest are oligarchies. Real democracy has an unmistakable flavor, usually present only at low levels—the scent of democracy out of power is totally refreshing—but in power it becomes noxious and intolerable. As John Adams wrote, “it soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself.”
It was democratic power that executed Socrates; even lynching is a fundamentally democratic exercise of power. Lynching is mob violence; mob violence, unless the mob is an organized mob, is democratic violence. It is useless to pretend that mob violence was not an essential aspect of the American Revolution, for instance. Dear conservatives: how does this make you feel?
(If “democracy” is an inherently positive label for you—if it is impossible to rid your mind of the encrusted associations of this neutral technical description—try substituting the word “politics” or “populism.” If you think “politics” is some different thing, explain your interesting idea of “democracy without politics.”)
An election is democratic—to the extent that the winner is granted actual sovereignty. A social-media cancel mob is no less democratic. What the Chinese call a “human flesh search engine” is the soul of democratic power, as is any riot or demonstration. By definition, all these processes are both open and powerful—though not necessarily sovereign. But what democracy, true democracy, would do with sovereignty, can only be guessed from what democracy does without it.
Democracy is power outside or without institutions. A wildcat strike, a spontaneous riot, a write-in winner, are all deeply democratic phenomena. Pure democracy is an unachievable asymptote—there is always some organization, structure, leadership. And the longer democracy persists, the more undemocratic infrastructure develops. But we can always see the picture of power with little or no organizational structure.
Here are two almost perfectly democratic phenomena in the last five years, as I write: the gilets jaunes in France and the “Freedom Convoy” of truckers in Canada. Again, zero coordination is impossible—but the difference between a Facebook group and the Ford Foundation is great enough to remind us of Stalin’s charming witticism that “quantity has a quality all its own.”
It should go without saying that this categorization is not praise. The gilets jaunes achieved exactly nothing—another version of symbolic democracy—and the power of the Canadian truckers to achieve less than nothing seems well within the possible. This does not make them bad people. It does not even make their tactics useless. But useful tactics within a useless strategy, or no strategy, can be worse than useless.
Ultimately, the question of whether any body—a country or a community—can be governed democratically is a question of virtue in the Roman sense, not the modern sense—not whether the populace is wise, but simply whether it is strong.
A weak public is like a seven-year-old king—a piece of paper may proclaim that he holds power, but there is no way he can hold actual power. If democracy is not strong enough to defeat organized power, oligarchic or monarchical—or if it can be satisfied with symbolic power, not real power—democracy will be defeated.
And since it is an abuse of the natural order for weakness to rule strength, democracy should be defeated—it is rare to find that the weak are wise. Are America’s weak wiser, in some ways, than their rulers? In some ways they are. Unfortunately, this bar is low.
Seven organs of journalism
Now that we have these clear definitions of the Aristotelian forms, we can see easily that our intuitive sense of the categories into which these seven outlets fit matches the Aristotelian shapes of power.
The People’s Daily is monarchical journalism. The NYT, the BBC and ProPublica are oligarchic journalism. The New York Post, the Daily Caller and the Epoch Times are democratic journalism.
Again, these labels, used properly, have no valence. Even in quality of journalism, we cannot tell a priori which shapes of power will outcompete the others—let alone which are good, and which are evil.
Monarchical journalism is journalism under the command of the state. Power flows from the regime downward to the journalist, who is a mere organ of that power. For power to flow upward—for the journalist to influence the state, rather than the state commanding the journalist—is as impossible as water flowing uphill.
Since Xinhua is under the command of the Chinese state and its ideological organ, the CCP, it is important for everyone in China to read Xinhua. It can be assumed that anything the People’s Daily writes is authorized by the regime which commands it. Certainly, if not, heads will roll. Xinhua has preached the party line since 1931 and is certainly not about to deviantly deviate. Xinhua will never be the CIA’s running-dog! Xinhua is the true voice of the Chinese people’s revolution…
In China, legitimate journalism is not a path to power. Journalism is not responsible for either determining the truth, or shaping the narrative. In China, there is only one path to power—the Chinese Communist Party. Say what you want about the tenets of “socialism with Chinese characteristics”—
Xinhua is the type of organ that in European history was called a gazette—a paper of record under direct central command. In theory it is possible for this monarchical, militaristic form of journalism to be under the command of a nonmonarchical state. In practice this seems, if not impossible, unusual. No form of regime but monarchy has the stones to command an institution of journalism—like keeping a pet tiger.
Oligarchic journalism is prestige journalism—mainstream journalism, the dreaded “mainstream media.”
There is a regrettable trend among conservacons toward “corporate media,” perhaps one of the most misleading labels ever. The New York Times is a corporation, if one with an unusual governance structure (there are not a lot of public corporations whose management structure is a fifth-generation hereditary monarchy). But the BBC is a government agency (like Xinhua) and ProPublica is a nonprofit foundation (like the Daily Caller).
Yet the NYT, BBC and PP are obviously all the same general thing. Staff will circulate freely among them—a resume with one of these employers on it will be received well at the other two. A story covered at one will draw attention from the other two. Maybe they have different levels of prestige—but not very different. Clearly the management structure of these institutions is distracting and irrelevant to any diagnosis.
Ultimately, prestige means connections to other institutions. The prestige press is the prestige press because other institutions are loyal to the prestige press. In theory, they are also loyal to democratic power, which the prestige press influences by convincing—but the power of the press over the government is immediate and direct. It does not have to pass through elections to take an effect. If the New York Times finds out that someone is a villain, the Justice Department may look into whether he is a criminal.
But hell would freeze over before the Justice Department, or even the President, told the Times what to print. The informal connection between official authority and the Western prestige press looks nothing like the formal connection between the Chinese regime and the People’s Daily. There is no command relationship at all. Not even God is in command of the New York Times—the condition of any true sovereignty.
What gives the prestige press its power? What even determines whether institutions are part of the prestige press? Inertia is one answer—but it is not answer enough. It is true that the New York Times is old and the BBC is fairly old. ProPublica is young; yet ProPublica is clearly part of the prestige press.
The answer is that the prestige press is ultimately an oligarchy of human beings, not of trademarks. Journals can grant journalistic rank. But they could not grant this rank if they did not respect it, and if they did not follow its normative rules. ProPublica, though new, is an arm of the prestige press, because it only hires prestige journalists, and it operates editorially according to the normal institutional standards of the guild.
In return, the regime favors the prestige press—not just by taking its opinions as the definition, or at least the asymptote, of democratic public opinion, but also by giving it exclusive access to otherwise secret government information, a straight-up subsidy.
The prestige press is always subsidized. It is subsidized in two ways: by granting its output trust, so that government decisions take its observations for granted; and by granting it trusted input, so that the prestige press has the best information first.
This trusted input may be transmitted in two ways: openly, to pools or cartels only staffed by prestige journalists; and covertly, through secret “leaks.” Only if they serve the interests of both the press and the regime do leaks occur. It is nearly impossible to say or see who is manipulating whom—journalist or source.
If there were no leaks, oligarchical journalism would have no inherent commercial advantage over democratic journalism. With leaks, the prestige press is granted the best and freshest information—with the implicit expectation that it plays ball. If a journalist is cut off by his illicit “sources” in the government, his career may be over. Few readers of the “newspaper of record” understand the complexity of the marriage between journalist and source. But whatever it is—it is systemic lawlessness.
Oligarchical journalism, of course, pretends to be democratic journalism. Fortunately, we have actual democratic journalism to compare it with.
It is easy to see what the New York Post, the Daily Caller, and the Epoch Times have in common: no one trusts them.
To be exact, no one trusts them but their readers. Plenty of people trust such journals. However, there are no institutions that trust them. Therefore, they must be categorized as democratic.
The democratic outlets have no connection to the regime, either direct (literally speaking to the government proper) or transitive (speaking through a chain of other institutions). They can only exercise indirect power, changing the minds of the public and thus, if the regime is sensitive to public opinion, giving it an incentive to change. Depending on the power of the public, this power may be something or nothing.
A democratic journal does not have the input connections that allow systematic and regular “leaking.” It does not have the output connections that produce influence over the decisions and process of the regime. All it has is its effect on the public, and any indirect consequences of that effect.
It is easy to see why the indirect effect of the NYP, DC and ET is almost zero. There are only two ways that a democratic journal may exercise power—it may convert its opponents into its supporters, or it may organize or energize its supporters.
No one who is not an opponent of the current regime reads any of these journals, ever. Stray links may sometimes have an impact—they are not exactly designed to have one. Everything in the style and presentation of these websites turns off the ruling class, from the fonts to the penis-pill ads.
So all that a democratic journal can do is to organize and/or energize its supporters. For example, upon discovering the laptop of the Presidential candidate’s louche son, certain Boomer-American worthies decided it should be given to the Press—instead of uploaded instantly to Wikileaks, or Instagram, or Kiwi Farms, or whatever. Perhaps someone had been watching too many Superman movies and decided it was still 1928.
Of course, the only press that would take this feed was the democratic press. (Imagine if it had been the other candidate’s son.) So the scoop was given to the New York Post, which wrote… stories. Those stories generated… clicks. Those clicks sold… penis pills.
While it is true that certain Post subscribers, and even non-subscriber visitors, may have been enraged by the story of large-living Hunter and “The Big Guy,” what was the actual impact of their rage? What are Republicans going to do—vote twice? It’s not like anyone reads the New York Post but doesn’t care enough to vote (once).
If this story had been meant as an effective weapon, it would need to have had these origins and connections not highlighted, but disguised. (Actually, the emails were DKIM verified—unforgeable—but this hardly matters.) To find its way to the real target—people whose minds could be changed—it would have to be passed through a small and ever-changing set of people who still have oligarchic prestige, but who are also both unusually honest and unusually capable of sympathizing with the enemy.
But the role in disseminating the truth that was played by unprestigious voices in this case instantly discredits the truth among all prestigious voices. So the story circulates among the powerless, at the cost of circulating among the powerful. Nice job, Rudy.
Because a democratic journal is not a true organ of power, but has no role other than to incite the base (whether for profit or for conviction), it tends to ignore the kinds of qualifiers to official legitimacy that the prestige press has developed—like obsessive fact-checking. Whether fact-checking actually makes the press more trustworthy can be doubted, but this is not its value—which is to maintain an internal esprit de corps, a sense of righteousness behind the assertion of infallibility, providing the right to rule. All these spandrels of the prestige press are part of the ritual of state, as unnecessary as it is essential.
The democratic press, which has no idea of claiming any kind of right to rule, but only exists to throw bombs and harvest clicks, simply does not need this pretension—and does not have it. Usually it gets facts right, which is the highest standard it has to hit.
Some pictures of the three forms
Again, suppose institutions are bones. Democracy is boneless—a jellyfish of power. Both monarchy and oligarchy are bony. They both have institutions.
But in a monarchy, those institutions are responsible to a single command point; in an oligarchy, the same institutions are “independent.” This does not mean that they are right, or even that they are uncoordinated—in fact, they often uncannily agree with each other. But no one, no one at all, gets to command an “independent” institution.
An X-ray of a democracy shows no bone at all, only soft pulsing tissue. An X-ray of a monarchy shows a skeleton of power reporting up to a single central head. An X-ray of an oligarchy shows a decentralized network of tissue, a random teratoma, with odd nodules of bone amid webs of collagen. Each form has its pros and cons—democracy is hard to beat, monarchy is hard to compete with, and oligarchy is hard to kill.
Democracy is hard to beat because no regime can resist the committed and cohesive energy of even a small percentage of its population. A million people can do whatever they want, especially since no army in the Western world today will shoot at a crowd. A million people can do whatever they want—but doing so has to be their true will. In most periods, the people do not want to rule and are not capable of ruling, precluding any meaningful continuous role for democracy. Sometimes they can act but not rule—showing up for one event (an election, demonstration, riot, etc) on one day. Sometimes even a risk-free, cost-free, symbolic action like voting is beyond them.
Monarchy is hard to compete with because all effective institutions are monarchies. If there was a better way to operate a company other than under the absolute authority of a CEO, or run a restaurant other than the absolute authority of a chef, or direct a movie other than under the absolute authority of a director—someone would probably have invented it. Everything you own was made by a monarchy—a corporation under a CEO. And if it was made in China, it was made by a monarchy, in a monarchy.
Oligarchy is hard to kill because it has no head to cut off. Its inertia is spread across many institutions and/or individuals. Regime change requires negating all the inertia of the old regime. Since the old regime was decentralized, cleaning up its institutions requires the application of central power on a decentralized scale. This alone ensures that only a monarchy can replace an oligarchy, a disappointment to many democrats.
The aqua regia of oligarchy
But a monarch out of power has no power at all. Therefore, the only possible force that can displace an oligarchy must be some compound of monarchy and democracy. Democracy is the rocket; monarchy is the satellite.
The people act, not to take power themselves, but to give power to a stable, efficient, and sensible new regime. Democracy does not have the energy for continuous action. Democracy in the 21st century is not a battery, useful for continuous sovereignty; it is a capacitor, useful for transferring sovereignty.
Ideally, the transfer is irreversible. The satellite is in orbit. If there is a mechanism for revoking launch, it must be structured carefully to avoid destabilizing the new regime. Some risk and degradation of performance will be inevitable, but it might still work.
The fall of the Soviet empire, especially as it took place in East Germany and Czechoslovakia, is the best modern illustration—except that the targets of this unplanned transfer were not always well-chosen. The crowds that overthrew the Eastern regimes did not take power; they gave power to more responsible authorities, or authorities perceived as responsible—in this case, to the Western regime.
But since the West has no West, the new regime must actually be new. And for the reasons explained above, it can only succeed by joining monarchy with democracy.
This compound of monarchical democracy is of course common in the last century—but it is not exclusive to the 20th century. It is found wherever oligarchies are failing, because it is the only way to displace an oligarchy. It has a shorter name, of course, but that name is exclusively pejorative.
In this formula, democracy delegates its complete political loyalty and support to a party, led by a leader. If the party wins, it becomes the regime, whose leader is king. The voters, demonstrators or other public actors will never need to act again—their work, if successful, is a one-time event.
This party can only develop around a leader with a direct parasocial connection to a highly loyal following. A party that selects its leader is already oligarchical—rather, the leader must select the party. Counter-monarchical institutions in which power flows up or sideways, not downward, are precluded until the vehicle reaches orbit.
Once the party takes power, it must not remain a party. It must reach its final form, becoming a regime which is not in any way sectarian, which loves and nurtures all its subjects. Whether some person, group or class helped bring it to power, or opposed it bitterly, does not matter to anyone; the conflict is over and the sides are irrelevant.
And the leader should adopt an accountability system: a succession architecture that ensures an infinite series of capable monarchs, managed by no one, but accountable for results to some independent power without the capacity and/or incentive to usurp the sovereignty itself. This is a difficult engineering problem; even with a blockchain, it is at most barely solvable.
Form of the new institutions
One institution of any such party is a monarchical institution of journalism. Once in power, this organ will become the state press agency of the next regime. Building the next regime’s state press agency as a corporation or foundation, operating needless to say with perfect compliance and legality under the current regime, seems conceivable.
While today’s living organs of monarchical journalism are much lower in quality than the leaders in oligarchical journalism (as are the organs of democratic journalism), no force enforces this failure. Isn’t the New York Times itself a corporate monarchy? And as anyone from startup land knows, new things tend to work better than old ones.
Indeed, one way that a prospective regime can demonstrate, in a language of prestige that the old regime can understand, its clear, manifest and irresistible superiority, is to produce prestigious work of a manifestly superior objective quality in the sciences, arts and letters. Journalism is just one case of this principle—but an especially urgent and accessible case. Again, all this work can be done with perfect compliance under the formal law and actual power of the old regime—nothing has to wait for anything.
A defeated regime needs to feel defeated. No power is beaten until it has been beaten on its own terms. A military regime’s general must be captured or killed; a bureaucratic regime’s buildings, demolished; an informal nomenklatura of the intelligentsia must be outbrained, mogged at its own blackboard, with secret meetings every night on every campus, and a little bird taking secret snapshots of the NYT’s newsroom Slack—and above all, a content stream that shames the strong with erudition, freshness, wit and wisdom that no legitimate source under the present regime will be able to match.
The dynasty that can create and sustain such a feed demonstrates its right to take power and keep it, so long as it maintains such a quality of service. As Napoleon put it, every government is safe in which the best people are in charge. In a monarchical content factory, the creators are not in charge—but even better people, often older, wiser people who have aged out of their own creative juices, are in charge of them. Again, the Times itself is a monarchy—and much can be learned from its history.
With only narrow, technical exceptions (there is no pressing political need to purge the FAA, the Coast Guard, etc), it is not safe for a new monarchical regime to reuse any of the institutions of an oligarchical old regime. These institutions were formally designed to serve, but actually made to rule—power flowed upward in them. Power must not flow upward in monarchical organs, or they will become oligarchical.
Two obvious critiques
It seems impossible for a new regime to build its own institutions, for two reasons—the institutions of power are too big, and a party out of power will never have enough loyalists. These reasons are reasonable, but they are wrong for three reasons.
First, it is a mistake to measure the size of a task by the size of the workforce doing it. If the organization of that workforce is a bloated, unaccountable monopoly—and any Western government today makes IBM look like a startup—once the actual problem behind its busywork is identified, it may well require orders of magnitude fewer staff. And previous experience in the old regime is in most cases disqualifying, since it will be experience in solving the problem badly.
Second, a monarchical institution in which power flows downward does not have to hire only loyalists—because such an institution is actually managed. Staffing up a managed institution is much easier than staffing up a diffuse network of prestige.
Loyalty is great, but loyalty plus management is even better—and usually, if you as a manager have to pick one, you should pick management. Staff should not be loyal to the enemies of the party or regime—but if management is sound, any infiltrators will be no more than malcontents, barely worth firing.
Third, it is erroneous to assume that the institutions of a new regime can only be built under its own sovereignty. Usually, an enormous amount of work—especially in the information space—can at least begin in a private, legal capacity under the old regime.
Questions for Confucius
We have now shown how the Aristotelian political shapes of monarchy, oligarchy and democracy manifest in the modern world, specifically in the area of journalism. The camouflage of Aristotelian oligarchy as “true democracy” and Aristotelian democracy as “populist politics” is a particularly fruitful trick to have unraveled. As Confucius said: to reform the state, call everything by its true name.
Moreover, once we unravel the camouflage, it is easy to see the only possible roadmap for political change. This road runs in the exact opposite direction from the historical instincts of most populists. Possibly, this analysis is wrong—what if it is right?
What if the only possible shape of the next regime is not more democratic than the present oligarchy, but more monarchical? What if the path to stable, ordered liberty runs not through a weaker government, but through a stronger government? What if not only the public departments of the old regime, but also its prestigious private institutions, have to be replaced, not reformed, in any successful regime change?
Most students and practitioners of political science are not ready to function in a frame in which the answer to all these questions is yes. Maybe they should be.
[To discourage low-effort comments, I am disabling comments for an indeterminate period of time—maybe a day or two.]