Dynamics of the West

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* Book: La dynamique de l'Occident. Par Norbert Elias.


From the reading notes of Michel Bauwens, 2005:

These notes start with chapter 4.

In the previous chapters, Elias reviews the process of monopolisation in feudal France, up to the Hundred Year War, which would isolate the Plantagenet in Britain, and lead to the domination of the Capetian king in Paris.

But the ouster of London would lead to renewed rivalry within the Capetian dynasty itself. Principally with the Burgondy/Flanders nexus, who are trying to resurrect Lotharinge.

Part 1

Chapter IV: Victory of the royal monopoly at the end of the XVth to the XVIth cy.

Elias stresses that the political and the economical were still fused and that production was subject to violence, not yet a 'free competitive activity'. Follows a recapitulation of the inevitability of the monopolistic process. In a a context of limited chances, competition leads to domination by the few, and standing still is impossible. Stagnation means decay.

But Elias stresses that this monopolisation creates the security of a regulated competition, which in the end allows for more interdependence and cooperation. But the potential losers do not accept their defeat and loss of independence, and would fight hard in the second half of the 14th cy, to prevent royal concentration. After describing the elimination of all rivals of Paris within France, we arrive at the early XVIth cy. It is now France against the Habsburg dynasty of Charles V.

Chapter V: Le mechanisme absolutiste

Elias has distinguished 2 phases in monopolisation. The first phase of free competition leads to private monopolies; in the second phase they are 'socialized' into 'public' monopolies. Monopolies can only harden and stabilize themselves when financial property overtakes land.

There are two aspects in the growth of central power:

   - 1) the already discussed competition between units of domination ('foreign affairs'), but also
   - 2) interior tensions within a unit

The latter is a function of a growing division and interdependence of functions, which on the one hand permits a strong state system, but also renders the sovereign dependent on that system, i.e. we see an evolution towards 'public' forms of power ("la fonctionarisation du pouvoir central").

But how then to explain absolutism ?

In societies of low dependence, such as the early Middle Ages, relations are simple, i.e. friendship or enmity. But in situations of high and complex dependence, relations are multiple and ambivalent. (“on a plus rarement l’occasion de nourrir une hostilité implacable que n’adoucit aucune ambivalence”, p. 108).

This process is an important driver of civilized behaviour. For Elias, central power grows when social groups are in struggle, but cannot achieve full dominance because of their interdependence, and they have to rely on the masters of the central coordination organs (the forces are in conflict, but want to maintain the existing system.

- Le mécanisme absolutiste: “L’heure d’un pouvoir central fort dans une société à haut niveau de différenciation approche, quand l’ambivalence des groupes fonctionnelles les plus importants est si marquée; quand les centres de gravité se répartissent si également entre eux, qu’il n'y ne peut y avoir, de quelque côté que ce soit, ni compromis, ni combats, ni victoire décisive." (p 111)).

Elias stresses that the central authority cannot be equated with its social origins (feudal lord and bourgeois functionaries), that it has its own agenda and interests, congruent with the current configuration of society on which powers depend, and it imposes its culture ('socializes') its members.

The central power cannot side with one social force, it needs the tension, and will most likely seek the support of a less important secundary force. In the period of absolutism, the nobility was strong but losing influence, while the bourgeoisie was in ascendance. The bourgeois of this epoch did not want to abolish feudalism, but rather to become a new branch of the nobility themselves ("la noblesse de robe vs la noblesse d'epee"). They were most often government officials, in service of the king. Like the other orders, they were also dependent on privileges. (The French Revolution occured through new sectors opposed to privileges and who were enemies of the nobility, the corporations, and the 'corporated bourgeoisie'!)

The king was strong because the conflicting parties were in equilibrium, unable to deal a critical blow to the other, as they all relied on the same system. In a disgression on the Xth cy., he shows how the Capetian royalty had allied itself with the clergy, the second social force at that time. In every society there is a 'central' tension and it moved from the feudal warrior class vs the clergy, towards the feudal lords vs. the city bourgeoisie. The latter succeeded in dominating the administration (in France especially), and the kings saw in the monetized cities a trend they could rely on.

Elias describes ow the royal household functions gradually became public and how the sons of the bourgeoisie specialized in such functions through elite struggles. Describing the regulation of activities, Elias describes how bourgeois activities were forbidden to the nobles (or they had to temporarily relinquish their privileges). Under Louis XIV, a courtly aristocracy is created, characterized by its 'proximity to the king', which gives a new lease of life to a 'aristocracy of the court'.

The latter would be used when the bourgeoisie became too strong. Because many of these positions had to be bought ("les charges venales"), hey were increasingly out of reach of aristocrats, and this is when the king started reserving these posts to the nobility (they kept being excluded from political posts).

- “La cour absolutiste est à la fois instrument d’asservissement et d’entretien de la noblesse.” (p. 139)

Chapter VI: La sociogenese du monopole fiscale

Context: this is the last chapter in part I, before Elias' theory of civilization described in part II

Elias insists on how new absolutism was, as a break with medieval feudalism. In that epoch, taxes were an occasional and hated occurence. It was considered a form of theft, and ruined many in a system without much money. The growth of cities in the XIIth cy would bring the first financial contributions, sometimes in the form of 'paying for mercenaries'. They would be gradually transformed into a system of taxes. The 14th cy would see taxes becoming regular instead of exceptional, as well as the emergence of a specialized administration in charge of it.

Describing the role of the cities, Elias shows how the internal antagonism between the top and the other layers led to royal intervention, eventually making municipalities an extension of the central administrative apparatus.

A crucial transition was Charles VII after the close of the Hundred Year War: having regularly received 'aides' (taxes), for the war effort, he decided to make them permanent, without consultation. This was a proof of growing royal power, which showed fiscal, and therefore also military monopolies. For contemporaries, this growth of royal power was a source of surprise - and indignation, it was seen as a loss of freedom. It was from the people then, faced with royal monopoly, that the call came to make royalty into a 'public institution'. Thus we see the gradual emergence of the 'state'. The king now has money to compensate for services and no longer has to give away land. In any case, in the absolutist period, the king starts resting on the nobility again, through the courtisans, which he maintains purposely as a top layer.

A dual system exists

   - the landed layer of poor peasants middle nobility, and courtisans, and
   - a city-based system of poor workers, middle artisans and high bourgeois, including the high functionaries.

It is the system of privileges that would be destroyed by the French Revolution, as the bourgeoisie saw no real function for the courtisans.

Part 2: A Theory of Civilization

"Deuxieme partie: Esquisse d'une theore de la civilisation"

Chapter 1: From social constraints to self-constraints

"De la contrainte sociale a l'autocontraine."

The first part of the book was a history of the monopolization of feudal power in France, ending with the advent of the absolutist state. In this second part, Elias will investigate the relation between this process of centralization, and the process of civilization. This process was not the result of a rational human will, but an involuntary result of human interdependence (but it is not irrational either).

In a highly interdependent and specialized society, where everybody depends on each other in complex ways (past cooperation, past competition), emotional reaction must be regulated. The monopoly of violence creates large pacified territories where the fear of violence greatly diminishes. Emotional life is then strong stabilized and 'managed' for its possible consequences. The centralized monopoly is regulated, and exerts constant pressure, compared to the imprevisible violence of warrior society.

But this internal and external modelisation of the individual creates new tensions, given the impossibility of living out one's own desires. The whole process of social reproduction is also largely unconscious and not intentional. The adjustment process can be positive (congruent social habits, with ability for pleasure), or negative (failure of adjustment, or adjustment without happiness). Most of the time, the balance is mixed. Elias adds that the western civilizational process is particularly different and takes a long time.

Chapter 2: La diffusion de l'autocontrainte

When describing the process of:

   - 1) increased interdependence
   - 2) stable fiscal and military monopoly, 

and the resulting pressure for self-regulation of individuals, Elias maintains this was unique to Europe. Elsewhere it had always been confined to ports and central cities, never so uniformly spread in the back country. As a consequence, the lower classes are included, and as Western influence spreads, they play a civilizing role towards the rest of the world. In the West, the consequences of the dilution of class differences, in terms of behavior, and the same is true on a word scale, where differences are diminishing.

(Elias' views on the civilizing effect of the West might strike as colonialist arrogance, but they may have been true for its time, when the West indeed ruled and served as a model).

Despite the intention of the elite to distinguish itself: uniformisation nevertheless occurs: between the nobility and the bourgeoise; between them and the middle and working classes; between town and country; East and West. Behavioral constraints are at first external (induced by the fear of the reactions of others), but eventually become internal and 'matter of fact' like.

Chapter 3: La civilisation des guerriers

Self-control and predictive behaviour starts first of all first in the central powers, i.e. the court system and its ceremonial. Crucial for the civilizational process is the transformation of the nobility of war, i.e. the warriors, into a domesticated court nobility (= 'curialiation').

The songs of the troubadours show it already at work in the small courts, but it was not generalized nor fully internalized ('par un surmoi'). In medieval society, cultural transfer is within the orders, not between them; the courtly habits are part of a greater whole based on constant war and physical threat, not requiring a permanent control of emotions.

The absolute court could emerge, not just because it offered economic opportunities, but because it satisfied the need for a prestigious lifestyle by the nobles.

Chapter 4 - Le refoulement des pulsions

The new absolutist court was a ruthless reputation game, where one's position, and the favours of the king, were constantly assessed. Differing with later bourgeois society is that:

- 1) the constraints are still localized in the court itself

- 2) the suppressed emotions are still visible to consciousness ("l'homme de la cour a conscience qu'il se fait violence pour des raisons sociales", p. 238)

Human relations become psychologized: (“A la cour, un calcul emporte l’autre, dans la société non-civilisé, une pulsion emporte l’autre”, p 239). Everybody is observing one's self and the others, "in their relations", and in the longer term. This expresses itself in the birth of a new literature. But books are still collective, i.e. 'read together'. This increases differentiation between emotions and the 'center of the self', and leads to the development of rationalization. Elias uses as an example 2 members of the mobility who oppose the king: one, still a knight, charges without thinking and therefore loses; the other, Saint-Simon, works through long chains of communication, in the hope of convincing his successor of the king, the Dauphin, to curtain the power of the bourgeoisie.

This kind of court rationality, says Elias, was a much larger influence on the Enlightenment, than the mercantile mentality. Elias deplores that the this interplay between the structure of society and of the psyche, is so often ignored. The chapter ends with the methodological considerations, urging a combined understanding of the total social field; the parallel psychic changes, both rational and emotional; and all of this need to be thoroughly historicized. Doing this shows that neither the bourgeoisie, nor great individuals, were responsible for the process of rationalization.

Chapter 5: La pudeur et la gêne

- “La civilisation est characterise par la progression du seuil de la pudeur et de la gêne.” (a fear of the feelings of superiority of others, which we have internalized).

An example is the changing attitude to nudity. At first, it is no longer OK to show oneself to someone of superior rank; later it becomes a generalized feeling, which seems natural. Elias distinguishes 'pudeur' for one's own actions, from 'gene', towards those of others. He notes the increasing 'psychological' refinement, the ability to see more nuances; and the changing experiences of a pacified nature, now seen as a space of repose, rather than danger. Open usage of the knife becomes increasingly taboo. In general, what is happening is this: the fear of the other diminishes, as the fear for one's own emotions ('pulsions') increases.

Chapter 6: La civilisation et la mobilite sociale

Social prestige in the absolutist courts starts to depend from the 'savoir vivre' and this causes a certain social differentiation to occur. The vulgarity of the lower classes is abhorred and starts to disappear from artistic representations; but the refinement is also directed against the bourgeoisie. The court nobility suffers from the joint pressure of both the king (whose favours it needs) and the socially advancing and economically privileged bourgeoisie. These tensions can no longer be resolved through armed conflict, and become a permanent fixture. The 'hyper-etiquette' of court life would become less important and a 'private affair', for the bourgeois classes. But at the same time, the new civility would be spread more evenly . In the latter sense, we are all inheritors of the courtly habits. But the first generation of a mounting class can only imitate the habits of the superior class in a partial manner, which is why they are the subject of ridicule.

The chapter ends with a comparison between Germany, England and France, regarding the nobility vs bourgeoisie relationship.

Concluding Chapter

Once a certain level of monopolisation has taken hold, it may be inadvisable or impossible to 'undo them', but in this case new power balances may attempt to re-organize them. This is what the bourgeoisie did with the royal state; and was also attempted by socialism with the private economic monopolies. Our situation is more complex in that both the fiscal/military (state) and economic ones, would have to be tackled together.