Tuesday, March 09, 2010

delanceyplace.com 3/9/11 - from the sun king to karzai

In today's excerpt - historians argue that the situation in Afghanistan today, with
a central government with little real power beyond the capital city, and relatively
independent (war)lords in the territories beyond the capital, parallels the situation
in most European countries at around 1600 AD:
"Up until the seventeenth century, the European continent was divided into many
small political units with vague and porous borders. Where kings reigned, they usually
were only titular leaders with little power outside a capital city. They had little
contact with, or even direct impact on, their supposed subjects. The dominant authority
figures in most people's lives were religious leaders or local notables, and popular
identities were based on religion, locality, or community rather than anything that
could truly be called nationality. Christian clergy exerted immense social, cultural,
and political influence, and the church carried out many of the functions normally
associated with states today, such as running schools and hospitals or caring for
the poor.
"Responsibility for security, meanwhile, lay chiefly with local or regional nobility,
who maintained private fortresses, arsenals, and what would now be called militias
or paramilitary forces. Political life in this prestate era was brutal: warfare,
banditry, revolts, and religious and communal conflict were widespread. Even in
England, where authority was centralized earlier and more thoroughly than elsewhere
in Europe, one-fifth of all dukes met unnatural, violent deaths during the seventeenth
"Around 1600, however, many European kings began to centralize authority. Their
efforts were fiercely resisted by those with the most to lose from the process --
namely, local political and religious elites. ... Through the sixteenth century,
France was essentially a collection of loosely affiliated communities with independent
institutions, customs, and even languages. It was primarily during the reigns of
Louis XIII (1610-43) and, especially, Louis XIV (1643-1715) that the monarchy expanded
its armed forces, legal authority, and bureaucracy and took control of the country.
"This process was remarkably conflictual. Its first several decades were marked
by peasant revolts, religious wars, and the obstinate resistance of provincial authorities,
which culminated in the series of conflicts known as the Fronde (1648-53) and threatened
to plunge the country into complete chaos. Louis XIV eventually defeated the recalcitrant
nobles and local leaders on the battlefield, but the costs of victory were so high
that he decided to complete the process of centralizing power by co-opting his remaining
rivals rather than crushing them.
"During the second half of the seventeenth century, accordingly, he and his ministers
focused on buying off and winning over key individuals and social groups that might
otherwise obstruct their state-building efforts. Adapting and expanding a common
practice, for example, they repeatedly sold state offices to the highest bidders;
by the eighteenth century, almost all the posts in the French government were for
sale, including those dealing with the administration of justice. These offices
brought annual incomes, a license to extract further revenues from the population
at large, and exemptions from various impositions. The system had drawbacks in terms
of technocratic effectiveness, but it also had compensating benefits for the crown:
selling off public posts was an easy way to raise money and helped turn members
of the gentry and the emerging bourgeoisie into officeholders. Rather than depending
on local or personal sources of revenue, these new officeholders eventually developed
new interests connected to the broader national system. ...
"Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin, the chief ministers to Louis XIII and XIV, respectively,
studied the relationships that allowed local elites to control their underlings
and reward their supporters and tried to supplant those with new relationships centered
on the king and his ministers. They selected provincial brokers who had excellent
contacts in far-flung areas but whose loyalties were to Paris and then gave these
brokers money and benefits that could be channeled to others in turn, thus expanding
the reach of the crown throughout the periphery.
"Another tactic designed to secure the state's authority was the construction of
Louis XIV's glittering palace at Versailles, which was officially established as
the seat of the French court in 1682. The luxury of the palace was more than merely
a celebration of the wealth and power of the Sun King; it was also a crucial weapon
in his battle to domesticate the obstreperous French nobility. Louis XIV made the
aristocracy's presence at Versailles a key prerequisite for their obtaining favor,
patronage, and power. By assembling many of the most important local notables at
his court, he was able to watch over them closely while separating them from their
local power bases. The tradeoff was clear: in return for abandoning their local
authority and autonomy, nobles were given handsome material rewards and the opportunity
to participate in the court's luxurious lifestyle."
Sheri Berman, "From the Sun King to Karzai," Foreign Affairs, March/April 2010.


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