Equality and Political Strategy

July 5, 2016

Foucault is a deep well.  Consider the following, which I failed to recall when writing the earlier post on a general history of the battle between priests and nobility:

The system had to be challenged by asserting [a different] system of right.  The right to basic freedoms, which just happened to be the right of the earliest inhabitants and, at the same time, the right that was being demanded by the poorest, or at least by those who did not belong to either the royal family or aristocratic families.  So, two great systems.  And the older and more liberal system had to prevail over the new system that had – thanks to the invasion – introduced absolutism.  (Society Must Be Defended, p. 143)

This story (about the rise of the British middle just prior to their civil war) does not involve a priesthood, exactly; but the bourgeoisie can certainly be identified with the Protestants (Calvinists).  However one chooses to view it, the form is basically the same: invaders rule by deposing the former nobility; then, another group wishes to come to power and their ambition is hidden, perhaps even from themselves, behind a mask of morality.

Further on Foucault discusses the situation in France whereby the French nobility, thorough the pen of Boulainvilliers, defended itself and asserted its rights against both the monarchy and the peasantry.  The difficult position of the French aristocracy required a more sophisticated argument and analysis of the historical situation than was required of the British middle class.  This analysis involved relating the story of two earlier transfers of power: first from Gaulish rule to Roman rule, and then from Roman to Frankish.

In the first case,

When the Romans first entered Gaul, their immediate priority was obviously to disarm the warrior aristocracy, which had been the only military force to put up any real opposition; they disarmed the aristocracy and humiliated it in both political and economic terms by … artificially raising up the common people and, according to Boulainvilliers, using the idea of equality to seduce them.  In other words, a device typical of all despotisms … was used to convince inferiors that a little more equality for them would do them more good than much greater freedom for all.  And the result of this ‘equalitarization’ was a despotic government.

He continues to explain that the Romans made Gaulish society appear to be (and in some ways actually being).  This was done by humbling the nobility completely, which thereby provided the appearance of raising up the common people.  The effect (a type of divide and conquer) was to garner some support from the commoners, while eliminating the one group of people who could pose a threat.   To solidify their own power over the conquered people, the Romans stoked what might be called ancient class antagonisms and disarmed those who might stand in their way.

This later posed a problem for Rome, however.  Rather than risk rebellion by placing in positions of power whose loyalties were to Gaul, they imported surrogate and raised up ambitious local leaders who would help plunder the wealth and resources of the land and the people.  To replace the deposed and disarmed warrior class/nobility, the land was burdened with heavy taxes to field a mercenary army.  Then, sometime later, the Franks, who had settled (in the) north of Gaul, swept in and conquered the already-conquered Gauls.  (Though it moves beyond the analysis here, it is interesting to note that the Franks did not, according to Boulainvilliers, reestablish a Roman-style government with themselves, at the head, but instead took possession of the land such that each warrior was given some of the conquered lands – not entirely unlike what happened in the US following the American Revolution and the War of 1812.)  They too saw to it that the Gauls were disarmed, and the Franks lived as a warrior class, the Gauls as a subject class – setting the foundation for Feudalism.  Here, the ever-repeating story of the priesthood recurs, as the newly-dispossessed Romano-Gallic aristocracy finds shelter, power, and influence in the (Roman/Catholic) Church – maintaining their power through their continued connection to the Roman empire, transformed from the most worldly to the most otherworldly of empires.

So, a very traditional story, and there are several different ways to interestingly discuss these tales as they relate to the contemporary use of privilege.  I will focus on this bit of text, however: In other words, a device typical of all despotisms … was used to convince inferiors that a little more equality for them would do them more good than much greater freedom for all.  And the result of this ‘equalitarization’ was a despotic government.

A well-worn strategy, if not eternally-recurring, primordial principle of subjugation, is to argue against the privilege of the traditional ruling class and for instituting equality.  That equality, if it comes at all, has historically involved the humbling of the ruling groups and temporary support from the masses for their new leaders.  It is such common practice – I wonder how many times this approach has been unsuccessfully attempted – and what the consequences were for the failure.

Perhaps, in democratic societies such as ours currently, this refrain has become institutionalized – especially within the two party system…

But perhaps it is inscribed in political institutions and practices because what was once a strategy has become a narrative-driving ideology (for the Left of course).  It is now recognized as dogma/truth/first principle/mantra rather than a strategy for securing power.  Rather than a tool, the promise of equality and the stripping of privilege is presented by some and understood by others as morality.


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