That darn book by Francis Fukuyama, The Origins of Social Order, made me realize how many seminal works in anthropology I’ve had on my shelf for over 50 years, unread. Starting this summer, I’ll start on them.
What was it about Fukuyama’s book that inspired me to think about those books? He laid out a pattern of societal development based on the economics of polities which results in predictable cycles. They are centripetal and centrifugal. They run something like this:
A society reaches the point where strata develop in the society. It may be no more than a particular valley having better soil and so producing more crops; perhaps a village has a larger number of young men who can work and fight; or maybe the very location of a village puts it in a position to take advantage of new trade patterns. Whatever the reason, these divisions occur within the society based on economics. Once that happens, the members of that group begin looking for ways to secure their advantage.
At the same time, such stratification requires a force to bind the society together. This is where the anthropological works give us insight into the transition from an egalitarian society to a stratified one and the rise of government. These disparate elements need to be bound together and guided. Most often it is the advantaged group that heads up this effort. As time wears on, the government requires support from the populace to render this service. Taxes are instituted.
In order to secure and enhance their advantage, the dominant group, especially when it makes up the government, begins siphoning off more and more of the responsibility for the upkeep of the society onto people out of the governmental loop, i.e. they fill the government with their own people and begin instituting tax policies which shelter their own wealth. They then use the wealth to buy the support of people in the government who may not be part of their group, i.e., the ones from that original valley. Eventually, the burden for maintaining governmental services fall more and more on people outside the group.
All of this calls for centralization in order to control the social and economic process. As time goes on, the burden of government grows unwieldy and there is an eventual turn over in the government, peacefully, violently, or simply by moving away (that is a key element in Fukuyama’s schema the closing of people into borders creates pressure). The controls spin outward in a centrifugall pattern. Before long, however, the need for control reasserts itself as the scale of the society requires greater control over resources and centralizing factors rise again. Older societies are often documented cases of this cycle repeating itself, cf. China.
We can see this at the level of schools. Reformers tend to be decentralizers because the center has a lot of power and to change things, you need to get away from them. Anyone who has worked in the same district for a couple of decades has probably seen this cycle. The centralized system ossifies because no one can make a decision without the OK from the head shed. A reformer comes in a decentralizes everything: pretty soon, departments within schools are setting their own curriculum, maybe even choosing their own textbooks, and so on. The custodial staff has its own supply cabinets and the school writes its own discipline policies.
Eventually, a scandal erupts as school janitors are found to be hoarding bathroom towels and then selling them on e-bay or the coaches are found to be padding the team trip expense accounts, etc., so calls for tighter control come forth and soon curriculum directors are hired, central supply parcels out towels and car wax, and policies must all go through the head shed for approval before being implemented. Some economic advantages are seen but before long, the rigidity creates ossification.
Even when the maximum centrifugal force is in effect, individual schools may see advantages in pooling resources with other schools nearby. Such centripetal forces are normal and neither the centripetal nor the centrifugal tendency should be seen as good or bad.
The emotional element cannot be discounted. One example is our own national government: some prefer greater power within individual states, others prefer a more centralized power at the federal level. While I personally enjoy the independence a centrifugal dominance allows, my gut reaction at the national level is to hear a call for states’ rights as a call to ignore the Constitution when applied to African-Americans. That’s my history, and it’s hard to shake.
addendum: I cannot think of a case where reform came from the center. Reform comes from the outside b/c those in the center have the power and don’t want to change things, don’t want to change their base of power. Too many people are invested in things the way they are. That’s almost a truism, almost common sense.
But I could see reform coming from the center of power if that center i.e. the people in it, were far-sighted enough. Can anyone provide any examples? How aboout Vatican II, where did that come from?