I’ve mentioned political realism a few times recently, including in my recent appearance on the Daniel 3 Podcast, so I figure that it might be nice to have a one-stop shop for what it is.
Political realism is distinct from opportunism. The term realpolitik is not equivalent to political realism. One reason for this is that political realism is a scientific framework for understanding politics, and does not espouse any particular policies.
The Bolsheviks, for instance, were at least partly inspired by political realism. We can trace every influential ideology of the 20th century, except perhaps progressivism, back to political realists via the Machiavellians.
James Burnham’s book, The Machiavellians, is an oft-cited overview of Machiavellian elite theorists, who laid the framework for political realism. While it is certainly one of the better texts in the realm of politics, I don’t like Burnham.
I would go straight to the source and read Mosca’s The Ruling Class, which is a political treatise akin to economic treatises like Mises’ Human Action and Rothbard’s Man, Economy, and State.
I use the term political realism to cover a blend of elite theory, praxeology, and political science terms not inherent to elite theory itself, but a shared conclusion of political realism is, even for those who do not explicitly derive their work from elite theory, that there are power structures that guide society.
Political realism is “Vertfrei,” or value-free. This does not mean that political realists lack values in other domains—indeed, many political realists are idealists in a philosophical or ethical sense. Many of the conclusions of political realism are cynical, but they do not mandate surrender so much as vigilance.
Value-free analysis is important because sentimental analysis fails. Any claim that concrete evidence can not support must be rejected. The ancient Chinese doctrine of the Mandate of Heaven, while holding explanatory value, means different things to a political realist and a political idealist. If problems show a metaphysical issue with the ruling class, the ruling class still enjoys absolute authority so long as there are no problems.
The political realist looks at the Mandate of Heaven through multiple lenses. From a leader’s view, this protects their absolute authority so long as they can claim to have served as a guardian of their people against the vagaries of an uncertain world.
From a middle-level bureaucrat’s view, the Mandate of Heaven is useful because it permits some autonomy and a shield against overt cruelty.
And from the people’s view, the Mandate of Heaven is a manifestation of a right to rebellion, a pressure valve that justifies their action against what would have been legitimate authority in better times.
The political realist observes how the Mandate of Heaven is cited, but never proven. As opposed to the political idealist, who might argue that this is a noble humanitarian creation or the mere product of religion and culture, the political realist sees that it is part of a larger picture of legitimation.
The importance of value-free analysis is that it permits one to look at what is, rather than what ought to be. This does not mean that many idealists have not aligned with political realism, but many of them come to it by force, whereas the inherent realist pursues realism as an end of itself rather than just a means.
For instance, the Soviet Union quickly became a bastion of political realism after its formation, with the NEP reforms and other steps away from “true” socialism.
Indeed, one reason the Bolsheviks triumphed over Kerensky’s liberal social democratic faction was that Kerensky lacked the savvy, and while they were victims of Marxism’s idealism during infighting both Lenin and Stalin, along with most of the later Soviet leadership, had a duplicitous realism underneath their communist trappings.
The theory of legitimation argues that most stated principles, whether sincerely held or mere statements made for cynical gain, exist to defend against threats to the power hierarchy.
Legitimation is important because it is more efficient for a regime to lack a meaningful opposition than to have to deal with one.
This can happen, for instance, with the creation of coalitions within democracies. For instance, the Macron government in France is the beneficiary of a broad coalition against right-wing factions. Although his own ability to win on the merits is low, he secured a second term because none of the other options was as powerful as he was.
Regimes usually achieve legitimation through propaganda in the modern day, but other forms of coercion can also accompany it. When Machiavelli’s The Prince muses on whether it is better to earn love or fear, he refers to this process.
The point of legitimation is to make it impossible for anyone else to cite a clear heir to the power structure. If no alternative to the government exists, or at least no palatable alternative, then the ruling class needs to worry much less about problems, though this cannot suffice on its own.
One element of the legitimation process is silencing dissent.
This is not partisanship within an elite. As much as Republicans may complain that Democrats try to censor them (and they do, and we would probably see the same if the tables turned), there is little danger to the ruling class from having one internal faction triumph over another. The inner party and outer party may change places, but they will not prosecute each others’ serious crimes if they would cast the state into disarray.
And, indeed, this is a good point to examine. Anyone who would actually make significant changes to the ruling class is a dissident. They may hold fundamentally simialr aims and strategies, but probably not (since if they were largely in agreement, the natural incentive would be to join rather than castigate the ruling class, but anti-corruption campaigners can fit this bill).
The dissent most likely to be silenced is that which is palatable enough to be mainstream yet extreme enough to expurgate the current ruling class.
For instance, as an avowed anarchist I face relatively little political persecution. There may be some who think of historical left-wing anarchists’ random acts of violence (something that most anarchists—even many left-anarchists, but especially right-anarchists—reject on principle) and the modern left-wing action groups that disguise themselves as anarchists despite usually being communist or syndicalist.
However, despite the fact that I openly consider every current politician a criminal liable to prosecution, I am not a target of the regime.
Should something change, and the anarcho-capitalists achieve enough influence to become a threat to the ruling class, I would, of course, be targeted immediately.
This explains something about the fascists and communists.
The fascists are heavily targeted because they are potentially viable dissent to the current system, though this is based more on a perception of their capability (since they actually ran several countries in the 20th century) rather than an earnest assessment of their role in the current American system.
By this logic, the communists should be equally maligned (since there were 20th century Communist regimes), but because they are more in step with the American political system than those in it would care to admit. The Republicans have heavy Trotskyite infiltration in the form of neoconservatives, and the Democrats have adopted social-democratic principles and harbored fellow-travelers of Communist regimes world-wide.
One strategic consideration most states engage in is distinguishing friends and enemies of the regime.
This goes beyond the usual rhetoric and mud-slinging of a political season, where various parties will have their reputation besmirched or face wild accusations of misconduct.
Rather, the friend/enemy distinction involves actively crushing all members of the enemy class. For instance, despite making up a very small portion of the American populace (maybe 0.1%, if we count adjacent movements), there is a disproportionate amount of focus on crushing fascism in the US. This is used, of course, as a slur against all right-wingers. This is wrong; fascism descended from syndicalism, a left-wing movement, and the nationalism it purports is at most aesthetically right-leaning and not tied to the deeper traditions that we would consider being “of the right,” but the leftist propaganda trying to distance fascism from its left-wing roots isn’t relevant to this discussion.
All that is necessary is that fascism is an example of an ideology that everyone outside a fringe faction considers leprous. This is ironic, in part, because the most explicit statements of friend/enemy distinction began life in fascist states, though from a political realist’s perspective the distinction is important—we do not endorse the practice, being value free, but one would have to search far and wide to find a state that doesn’t practice it.
One element that factors into modern political realism is the idea of human action. Ludwig von Mises lays out the idea of praxeology in his book Human Action, and although his primary focus in that is economics there are a few lessons to apply to politics.
One is that people will support whatever system satisfies their discomforts. The term discomfort is important here. If they believe the system will satisfy a need or want, it will be more appealing to them than an alternative that does not.
And not all needs or wants are physical. Someone may have a strong desire to adhere to a particular way of life—in short, they may choose something materially suboptimal to have a way of life they consider best. A person may be virtuous, such as someone who demands a system in line with their moral code, or vicious, such as the envious person who would damage the economy to make it more equal at the expense of the average person’s quality of living, but this does not change the axiomatic nature of human action.
As a result, political realists can account both for strict tit-for-tat reasoning, where people engage in a political system just for their raw benefit (the Marxists call this “class consciousness,” though most of their applications of it are dubious) but also because they have a psychic preference—a liking for—a certain type of system.
This can help explain why states behave the way they do when it comes to dissent in particular, since a state thinking honestly needs to make sure that people prefer it to the alternatives. Fear or love both play powerful roles in this, as Machiavelli stated.
The Iron Law of Oligarchy
One presupposition of most political realists, regardless of how they wind up at their conclusion, is that there is a core power cadre that runs societies.
This does not mean that they have ultimate power.
Etienne de la Boetie is every ounce as much a part of the political realists’ tradition as any other thinker, and his core thesis is that all governments rely on the support of the governed, though not in the modern democratic sense.
Rather, this oligarchy emerges in all societies as an affront to the classical endeavor to classify civilizations as democratic, aristocratic, or monarchist.
To borrow a theory from Hoppe, we may have civilizing and constructive oligarchies or decivilizing and degenerate oligarchies.
Depending on the philosophical assumptions, the final form of a good versus a bad oligarchy is down to the beholder. For an anarcho-capitalist such as Hoppe or myself, it is maximizing voluntary exchange—that is, the removal of all arbitrary state power and the political option and instead the exclusive domination of trade and productivity.
But it could also be said that any moral leadership is a civilizing and constructive one, and any immoral leadership is a degenerate one.
Why Democracy is a Sham
There is, of course, no full democracy. There are always those who choose not to execute political power, who are swayed by demagogues, or who are on the losing end of political decision making.
But this does not inherently imply that there is no democracy. After all, 51% of the population agreeing on something and the political structures attempting to bring it to bear is technically democratic. Further, that some are effectively disenfranchised is not an antithesis to democracy.
We may consider them (and I think this is the most damning sin of democracy) not part of the people and the government at all. The Senate and People of Rome does not consider its colonists Roman, at least not automatically.
Another point here is that the vast majority of democracies have been effectively representative. There are a few attempts at direct democracy, but since most democratic governments include either strong representative or only representative characteristics, they are really more of an oligarchy led by a popularity contest.
An underrated factor that Mosca—and Rothbard—pick up on in their analysis is that even in a direct democracy, the balloting process still requires some element of guidance. The average voter does not write out all their ideas for society and the people tallying votes do not attempt to read hundreds of thousands of manifestos and find the points of comparison.
Instead, in both representative and direct democracies someone makes the ballots.
Indeed, democratic societies often have more “unpopular” leadership, if democracy aligns to the correspondence between the leader and the will of the masses, because policies favored by 55% of the population, but which leave the other 45% rabidly unhappy, are justified as having a mandate.
No king or cabal would govern by knowingly antagonizing 45% of the population, and it is only the attempt to persuade people that one day they will be in charge that prevents democracy from devolving when this mode of governance becomes real.
A core theory of Hoppe’s Democracy, the God that Failed but also other political realists on the right is the consideration of democracy as a mode of seeking legitimacy, rather than merely a process.
In this sense, a Napoleon, a King George Washington, or a Lenin is as democratic (at least as far as classification goes) as a Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a Winston Churchill, or a Ronald Reagan.
This is not an endorsement of autocracy, but a recognition that the fundamental legitimation process for most autocracies is democratic in the modern day. When the Democrats in the US complain about threats to “our democracy” they are both correct—in the sense that there could be disruptions to their hegemony—but they neglect the fact that their feared populist strongman will get in power and pull the ladder up behind them is still essentially democratic, legitimated by the process of democracy and representing the popular will, and in fact is not so dissimilar than what the four-year election cycle enables them to subject others to.
Democracy is also not a universal guarantee that all people will be represented.
Of course, whatever level of consensus is required to pass laws (whether 50%+1, 2/3rds, or otherwise) will effectively disenfranchise the minority.
But there is an unexamined assumption that everyone votes in a democratic society.
This is, of course, the liberal social democratic fashion, and people frequently reference the idea that any absence of suffrage is a crime against democracy.
Democracy always disenfranchises some people, even beyond the minorities who cannot have their preferred policies pass, namely those who would prefer non-democratic means of governance. Barring a referendum to end democracy, there would be no way to satisfy these people.
Most democracies have excluded people from the franchise. Unrepentant felons, for instance, have demonstrated a penchant for aggression and many regimes exclude them from the political process for everyone’s interest (or so goes the narrative).
But it is just as likely that a democracy would argue that non-citizens and people of minority ethnic, religious, and political factions should be explicitly disenfranchised, even to the point of, as in the Soviet Union, barring all non-regime political activity.
This is oppressive, but it is not undemocratic when one considers democracy as a mode of government rather than the ideal brought forth by propaganda.
One theorist associated with the Italian elitists is Vilfredo Pareto, who is famous among other disciplines for the idea of the Pareto distribution, sometimes known as the 80/20 Law or by other catch-phrases.
Realists ought to be careful when considering formulas that could smuggle in an agenda through the value-neutral processes, but the inherent difficulty with dealing with Pareto is that he seems to be unassailable. Not only does his work seem to hold true in most fields, but it has held up despite deliberate efforts to undermine it, given its anti-egalitarian conclusions and the implications they have for society.
In political realism, however, we are most concerned about what the Pareto distribution means in politics.
For a start, the Pareto distribution explains the Iron Law of Oligarchy. While we have other reasons to come to this conclusion, the distribution confirms that these are real. In short, for whatever hierarchy there is, there is a person or group of people who are fit for the top, and a person or group of people who will sink to the bottom.
We can distinguish, as Hoppe does, between different sorts of hierarchy values. A natural hierarchy could be that in which the “best” rises to the top with no interference. We might call this a competence hierarchy. It will vary from society to society and place to place, but there are some universal traits of the natural hierarchy—a combination of ability to cooperate and ability to execute.
A hierarchy by definition involves many people, and every hierarchy has systems that mitigate the effects of a lone wolf—they may succeed beyond the wildest standards, but only in ways that set them apart from society. In practice, the person who rises to the top relies on others, but does so in a way that encourages them to cast their lot in with him or her, instead of simply exploiting or serving them.
Likewise, execution is important. A good network doesn’t do anything if not applied.
Artificial hierarchies may select for other traits than natural hierarchies, though their ability to function depends on not totally strangling the natural hierarchy, because highly competent people need that outlet. A clear sign of an artificial hierarchy is that it elevates those who network well or those who perform well to the exclusion of the other quality of naturally competent people.
However, artificial hierarchies can also be based on things like seniority, which have no actual impact on one’s ability despite perhaps correlating on it.
Artificiality can creep in for non-ideological reasons, though ideology and politicking can have a role. Measurement instruments for competence, and even competence itself, depend on technology and science, and any misunderstanding of what will be the most fit course of action in an environment will lead to errors.
This leads itself, when artificiality hits a certain point, to a revolution. This can be a soft revolution—new blood entering the ruling class and redirecting it toward less artificial methodology—or violent.
And artificiality occurs because of social change, but also when people make deliberate actions to adjust for social change, so systems always wind up becoming artificial. The degree to which they can survive depends on the internal consistency of the system, which is a topic beyond the scope of this essay.
The Civic Religion
The civic religion is a theory explained well by Gaetano Mosca in The Ruling Class.
We can think of humanity as having two religions at any point (here in the older sense of social binding institutions, not strictly codes of faith): a humanitarian religion and a civic religion.
The humanitarian religion usually looks like what we would think of as a religion: Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, or Humanism are all humanitarian religions.
The goal of a humanitarian religion is to tell people how to live their private lives: that is, the lives inside their households.
The civic religion is something different. It may be prescribed by a humanitarian religion (e.g. Islamism, medieval Christendom, secular liberalism), or it may be entirely separate, though since humanitarian religions instill moral values, it is necessary to have something that at least pays lip service to those values.
And the civic religion tells people how to live their public lives: that is, the lives outside their households.
Religions are interchangeable, though they are not equally capable in either role. Democracy, as a humanitarian religion, leads to the horrors of the French Revolution, National Socialism, or Bolshevism. Christianity as a civic religion may lead to theocracy.
This is a simplification, of course, since there will be countless sects and interpretations. For instance, I take my Christian faith to lead me toward anarchism (thou shalt not steal, and what are taxes if not theft?), not a church-ordained state.
There are also issues with corruption seeping into humanitarian religions when they align with civic religions, and into civic religions when they are not tied down by humanitarian religions.
Another metric of adherence to a civic religion is juridical defense.
Juridical defense is the ability of a system to put its own power over the power of any individual member of the elite. This obviously collapses in the case of a revolution, but also is a sign of bad corruption.
To the non-realist, the idea of good corruption may seem absurd. But as Rothbard points out in Man, Economy, and State, some corruption may actually be a form of stress relief when a system has poorly adjusted laws.
If there is a business license fee that far exceeds peoples’ ability to pay, but the police officer enforcing the requirement turns a blind eye for $10, the society is measurably better off.
If the police officer, however, were to begin selling licenses and refusing to acknowledge others’ licenses, this would reflect a failure of juridical defense. By making his own licensure scheme superior to the state’s, this individual has put himself above the ruling elite.
Juridical defense can also be used to restrain the ruling elite as a class in certain systems, such as in a constitutional monarchy or democracy. However, when the whole ruling elite agrees to simply ignore these rules they can be ignored, as we have seen with the Ameircan constitution (which has been re-interpreted so that it no longer has any semblance of its original meaning in many sections).
How Systems Fail
Systems fail due to corruption, artificiality, and demand for other systems.
If the ruling class is widely regarded as little more than a bandit gang made up of exploiters and malevolents, then there will be little incentive to keep them around.
Since even openly elitist regimes depend on popular support, this is a fatal flaw.
A system fails once faith in it flounders, which is made more significant because regimes are not simply a psychological phenomenon. Even if everyone believes in a government but it has become too weak to work, it will ultimately flounder. The Soviet Union, for instance, ended with a whimper because even though it had mass disillusionment, the strength simply ran out.
If there were disillusionment alone, there would have been a revolution to maintain the holdings of the regime—a ready-made state is more desirable than a patch of dirt in the shade of a former empire.
But the system fails when either the society’s technological limitations catch up with it or the quality of the ruling class becomes too low to maintain the system. The reason the Soviet Union balkanized was, in part, the lack of any competent elites. One can try to use the NKVD to suppress dissent and enforce conformity, but they still need managing. The terrors cannot roll along on their own steam.
This isn’t an instant failure. It is an erosion, but it ends like an opening of a sinkhole, not the process of a rock turning to sand. One can usually spot the signs if one knows what one is looking for.
Disloyal subordinates (self-serving subordinates are universal, disloyal ones are unhealthy).
Corruption exhibited by the end of juridical defense.
A feeling of leaderlessness.
There is a vicious cycle involved in the collapse of a political system.
If it begins with a loss of faith, then there will be fewer highly competent people willing to enter the process of joining the hierarchy—none will seek to join the cursus honorum that leads only to a desk shaped like a prison.
If it begins with a lack of competence, then there will be a loss of faith as blunders denude the faithful of their confidence.
Then the process continues, incompetence and demoralization resulting from each others’ dismal presence.