(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series.)
Some time ago, we mentioned the four potential ruling groups laid out by Samuel Finer, and discussed the Palace Polity; in the second post in this set, we discussed the Nobility and our first hybrid polity, Palace/Nobility. Now, let’s add the Forum into the mix, along with the Palace/Forum.
While in the Palace it is the autocrat who rules, and in the Nobility autonomous aristocrats hold power and scheme jealously against each other, in the Forum, power is vested in the people. In earlier posts, we have briefly noted egalitarian societies in which no true state exists, in which the people of the society share a voice in the major decisions of that society. In the Forum, the rule of the people is explicit and formalized. State institutions exist to carry out the needs of society, but they are subject to the people and depend on it for their orders. Formal mechanisms such as voting, written law and public law courts, and public debate translate the opinions of individuals into a collective imperative, that is sovereign over the government administrators.
Forums can take several forms, of which democracy is only one—and they need not include everyone in the population. In Greek democracy, for example, the vote was restricted to free males who were heads of their households, and often who met certain criteria of wealth. Most of the time, fewer than 10% of the residents of ancient Athens were eligible to vote. But for Finer, that is sufficient, because the franchise was broad enough to go beyond a narrow aristocracy or oligarchy, broad enough to include significant parts of the people itself in its self-rule.
Ancient Israel, which Finer believes was the very first Forum state in history, was not a democracy; but it was a tribal society in which decisions were made by a consensus of elders, until the rise of the monarchy—and even then, the kings had to be careful not to ignore public opinion or the tribal leadership, as could be seen by Ahab’s hesitance to simply confiscate the land of Naboth, or the secession of the northern tribes from the obnoxious rule of Rehovoam, successor to King Solomon.
In both cases, and in pretty much every durable Forum, the political power of the people rested on a foundation of popular military participation. Usually, a Forum was made up of a nation in arms. One of Finer’s main arguments is that political power tends to correspond to the distribution of military force. In early pre-state societies, all able-bodied men (and occasionally women) were considered warriors. Weapons tended to be simple and were widely available, so that the distribution of power between people was fairly even. This is one of the factors sustaining an egalitarian social structure. (By contrast, one of the key processes involved in the emergence of Danish chiefs, over a society that had previously been egalitarian, was the chiefs’ strategic control over the new technology of iron swords, and their careful distribution of swords to their favored supporters.)
Popular military power was true of the Greek polis, where to be qualified for citizenship you had to be able to serve as a hoplite, a spearman in the famous Greek phalanxes. But it was also true of the tribal confederation of ancient Israel. In its earliest, pre-kingly phase, the Israelites served in the popular militias, largely on foot and without heavy armor. (Thus, in the Biblical account of Deborah’s war against the Canaanite general Sisera, the Canaanites possess heavy chariots which the Israelites could not match. They therefore forced battle in the hill country, where the light infantry of the Israelite militia could negate the Canaanites’ advantage.)
The power of the popular militia restrained the growth of centralized political structures in Israel, for a time. Later, the arrival of heavy armor, chariots, cavalry, and foreign mercenaries provided increased military power to those wealthy enough to afford them, creating the basis for a ruling class; the first monarchy emerged shortly after. (I discuss the social effects of weapons technology in a bit more detail here.) But even during the time of the monarchy, Israel was unique among any polity for over a thousand years in that the Forum remained important. The king was the first limited monarch in history; he was subject to the Divine law, and was not its author or above it in any way.
More recently, the Forum polity of the United States was founded on the colonists’ successful rebellion against the British, made possible by the widespread ownership of firearms; the French Revolution, too, was sustained by the invention of the “citizen’s army,” which resisted the combined invasions of the other major powers of Europe. But wait—the French Revolution was hardly a Forum, you may say. It was a cruel totalitarian regime, soon overthrown by self-styled “Emperor” Napoleon! So why include it here?
The French Revolution may not have been a pure Forum, but it was a classic example of a very important hybrid type: the Palace/Forum. In this regime, though most power resides in the Palace, the legitimating ideology is very different. While a pure Palace draws legitimacy from itself or from the gods, the Palace/Forum claims the right to rule on behalf of the people. In principle, the autocrat is simply a trustee of the people, rather than its master. In practice, this might even be true; the modern United States is effectively a Palace/Forum that, even though imperfect, is far better at actual representation (for now) than are other Palace/Forums such as Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, or any one of a dozen caudillo rulers in South America. But as my examples make clear, even nominally democratic Palace/Forums need not remain so for long, if too much power accretes in the hands of the Palace. As long as the Palace claims legitimacy as a trustee of the Forum, its behavior will be markedly different from a pure Palace. (But not necessarily better.)
(On a related note, popular legislatures today are a poor protector of the rights of the Forum. In the early history of legislatures, the rulers had to pay attention to them because it was the legislatures who collected taxes. Ignore the legislature, and the ruler went broke. But ever since rulers have been able to build their own tax-collection machinery, the “power of the purse” in legislatures has become more and more attenuated.)