False Spirits & Jacobin Jackals

The deceptive fragility of institutions

Societies are defined by their institutions, which wield power and influence among groups, individuals, lesser nodes of influence and power and are fueled or incinerated by their Davenports and the march of history. Typically, institutions include the government (that entails systemic power such as bureaucrats), government leaders (king/queen), church/religious leaders, the very wealthy (often, land owners), military leaders (who may or may not be aligned with any of the foregoing), and many others. Regardless whether an institution is good or bad (whatever that means), they are stabilizing forces because they are known quantities. Known quantities are always better than unknown quantities for social cohesion and stability, even if one is opposed opposed to them, one is at least opposed to something and has a target.[3] And this stabilizing quality also makes them targets.

The long march to les pantalon enflame

Since about the second century, feudalism provided the general framework that enabled more stable institutions, which established themselves not merely as a source of influence and power but also within the ordered ecosystem of influence and power of the feudal structure. Feudalism promised an orderly and stable universe at the price of freedom and mobility. The first strike against feudalism was in the Catholic Church’s tenth century establishment of equality before the law; the Church operated moral courts (essentially analogous to modern criminal courts). If all Christians had souls and hence would be judged equally before God, then they would be judged equally before the court.[9] The argument extinguished Christian slavery. And while slavery metastasized to non-Christians, about whom Christians were optimistic did not possess souls, the recognition of the individual soul was the primogenitor of agency.[10] And agency is fertile soil for growing friction.

“The people are drinking, the educated youth are burning themselves up in idleness, in unrealisable dreams and fancies, crippling themselves with theories.”

And so in the first millennium, we have the establishment of institutions — government, church, military. Adjacent institutions, such as the law and entertainment, begin to form (often from and increasingly independent of these initial institutions, as evidenced by the relationship between the Church and medieval theater).[20] By the middle of the second millennium, these initial institutions suffer from irreversible entropy, at which point competitive threats become existential threats; the Reformation, the press, an ever-growing franchise, urban merchants and rural machines all menace the ordered universe of agrarian feudalism. By the nineteenth century, these institutions are fundamentally weak and generally replaceable. The press expands, individual identity and agency broadens in force and application, education-as-institution takes root. By the twentieth century, we find collapsing in quick succession the empires and institutions of millennia past. And challengers rushed the field from all directions.[21] The establishment of feudalism required centuries and so will its dismemberment; digital institutions will not replace traditional institutions more quickly but rather their viability to do so can be assessed more quickly. And many institutions sense their own fragility, which is perhaps one explanation why Facebook demonstrates such morally questionable behavior. Facebook is aware that as it established itself quickly, so too can it be quickly replaced. Thomas Jefferson, reflecting on the Revolution, wrote, “What country before ever existed a century & half without a rebellion? & what country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms.” He was, of course, referring to not just government but all institutions, including Facebook and the components of the Dow.[22]

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