I recently read a book called "The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class" that speculated that a large drive for democracy was the equalizing power of guns.

The idea is that feudalism was sustainable because the military technology of the time (calvary) allowed for a warrior class to support the nobility, and that modern technologies are once again allowing for this concentration of power. AI and drones are much less democratic forms of weaponry and allow for more complicated controls of the populace like what China is doing with their algorithms.

I read a similar book called "The Dictator's Handbook" which put democracies and autocracies along a spectrum of what percentage of the populace's consent you need to rule, and I also read Robin Hanson's "Elephant in the Brain" which similarly tends to attribute everything to power and self-interest. 

What are the limits of this style of "cynical-economic" political theory? Do you think the neo-feudal assessment is accurate?

I think if the neo-feudal theory turned out to be untrue, it would be most likely to be because it's incorrect in its assessment of the democratic leanings of new technologies and not because it misunderstood human psychology. 

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There's probably no test for whether a simple model of large-scale social organization is "correct".  It pretty much can't be complete, but it may have useful elements embedded in it.

Personally, I think this VASTLY underplays the role of culture and willingness to kill/die for a cause.  "consent" is a continuum, not a binary.  The level needed not to revolt is much lower than the level needed to be a productive member of a regime you don't fully support.  Which is different from voting or canvassing, which is different from actually working directly for the jerks.  On the other side, the level of commitment to a particular revolutionary plan can vary quite widely while still destabilizing the power.

Willingness to kill can be increased by proper use of blackmail. For example, when communist countries needed to crush a civilian rebellion, they sometimes sent two lines of soldiers: the soldiers in the first line were supposed to kill the civilians, and the soldiers in the second line were supposed to kill those soldiers in the first line who refused to kill the civilians. Suddenly, the soldiers in the first line were quite willing to do whatever they were told to.

Sure - that's the "slash die" part of things. Culture is always contextual, and it's very hard to predict how members of a group will react to very new circumstances. Whether members in the first line of soldiers consider it sufficiently honorable (insert your preferred utility or psychological analog as desired) to die rather than killing is quite contingent.
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Not a direct answer, so I'm leaving this as a comment, but the United States has for some time now been able to control the vast majority of its populace through military force if they wanted. The idea that citizens can stop a coup or revolt with guns seems relatively absurd considering the gap in "the weaponry citizens have, like rifles" and "the weaponry the military has, like tanks" although I'd be happy to have someone prove me wrong.

I am not an expert on military strategy, but it seems to me that you underestimate the difficulty of ruling a country, even a defeated one. The goal of the conquest is to gain resources. In current era, the most important resource are the people. You need to make them obey, without killing (too much of) them. You want them to do their jobs and then pay taxes to you. In other words, you want peace... perhaps after the short necessary conflict that puts you (again) on the top of the ladder. Can your military make sure that this happens?

In a population largely without guns, a small group of soldiers can easily terrorize a small town. They can simply walk from house to house, beat up everyone who disobeys, and shoot a few who resist, to make an example out of them. They can make the workers go to the factory, and the factory owner pay the taxes.

In a population with lots of rifles, a small group of soldiers would probably not survive the first day. Unless they keep walking the whole day in armor, or keep hiding in the tanks, once in a while a bullet will be fired unexpectedly from some hidden place, and some of those bullets will hit their targets. You could call more solders to that town, but that means they would be absent from some other town. You will be able to keep control over some places, but it will cost you more resources than those places will generate.

As an example, this is not an exact analogy, but Switzerland remained neutral because giving each male citizen a rifle made the country too expensive to conquer. Sure, they also had an army with tanks. But some other countries had more tanks, and yet they decided not to try their luck there.

In situations where the most expensive resource is not people, but land or diamonds or oil, just coming with lots of tanks and killing everyone in sight can be a profitable action.

In future, with lots of cheap autonomous drones, you could program them to kill anyone who is not your soldier and who holds a rifle in their hands. Then a small group of soldiers will be able to terrorize the whole town again. Or you could give the loyal people some visible symbols (which need to be updated every week e.g. at your workplace), and have million cheap drones patrol the land and kill anyone without the symbol.

The point that humans are the most valuable resource in the modern age is a really great point and makes me much more optimistic for the future of democracy. It makes it look like supporting a middle class would be very much in everyone's best interest, so any failure to that end is more likely to be a coordination problem and not oppression or something. Thank you for that point.

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