Palace, Forum, Church, Nobility (Finer on Government)

Scholars of comparative politics have spent decades arguing over how to classify regimes around the world. To begin with, despite what the media and political rhetoric would have us believe, there are many shades of democracy and autocracy: presidential, parliamentarian or plebiscitarian democracies; strong-man, military, or single-party autocracies, and so on. But what Huntington termed the “third wave” of democratization led to a panoply of countries worldwide that moved away from dictatorship but did not quite reach the standards of democracy. Scholars in American political science wrote about “hybrid regimes”, using such labels as”competitive authoritarianism”, “electoral authoritarianism”, “illiberal democracy” – a veritable cottage industry of typologies which some authors called “democracy with adjectives”.

A core feature with this endless typological debate is its focus on the regimes of the last 50 years or so since decolonization. If you want to learn about regimes in a historical, comparative way you have to look elsewhere, and there are hardly better elsewheres than Samuel Finer‘s massive The History of Government from the Earliest Times (1997).

Finer starts his classification of polities, and specifically of the decision-making personnel wherein, in a deductive exercise: he conceives four poles of a polity space which can give rise to theoretically pure or mixed types. The four poles are: Palace, representing autocratic and monocratic leadership; Forum, meaning the will of those governed; Church, encompassing religious authorities; and Nobility, encompassing a sub-group of society defined by ascriptive (lineage) or granted status.

In isolation and binary combinations (with different kinds of balance) these four poles create 10 types of polities, of which Finer focuses on 5 that are frequent enough throughout history to be significant:

  • Palace
  • Forum
  • Church/Palace
  • Palace/Nobility
  • Palace/Forum

It is truly fascinating to read how Finer delves into the various components, legitimating sources, and political processes of each major type, in a masterful combination of historical knowledge, theoretical intuition, and irreverent commentary. For instance, he cautioned against focusing on what made Palace histories “so entertaining, so dramatic”, but also “very misleading”:

Rulers–or their surrogates, at least–were in the business of governing. How they did this appears in their archives, not in the ‘histories’, and what we know of it is the result of patient reconstruction by recent scholars. We have to distinguish, then, between the interpersonal relationships in the Palace–what we may call Palace-politics, and which are essentially pathological–and the orderly processes by which the palace carried on the business of government.

He was also dkeptical of formal democracy in history, observing than even the purest – and rarest! – expression of the Forum type was more often than not prone to ugly pathologies:

For rhetoric read demagogy, for persuasion read corruption, pressure, intimidation, and falsification of the vote. For meetings and assemblies, read tumult and riot. For mature deliberation through a set of revising institutions, read instead self-division, inconstancy, slowness, and legislative and administrative stultification. And for elections read factional plots and intrigues. These features were the ones characteristically associated with the Forum polity in Europe down to very recent times. They were what gave the term ‘Republic’ a bad name, but made ‘Democracy’ an object of sheer horror.

To me, by far the most interesting of his polity types is the Palace/Forum hybrid, which speaks so directly to many developing and fragile states today. Its characteristic political process amalgams “the appeal to populist sympathies” with government by a ruler “in pure Palace fashion–within a closed circle of dependents”. But in contrat to the pure autocratic type, “this tyrannos is legitimated from below: his authority is conferred on him by popular consent”.

Napoleon was the individual who established our contemporary model of the seizure and subsequent legitimation of power. Having acquired office, he periodically validated it by popular plebiscite. In this case there is no reason to doubt that falsification was unnecessary, for he enjoyed massive and enthusiastic popular support. Napoleon was quite clear as to what he had done and why he did it. First, as he said: ‘In no way did I usurp the Crown; I plucked it from the gutter’. And again: ‘Resorting to the People has the double advantage of legalizing the prolongation and purifying the origin of my power–otherwise it would always have appeared anomalous’. This ex post facto legitimation of irregularly seized power has become the landmark of the numerous so-called ‘dictatorships’ in nineteenth-century Latin America andm particularly since 1945, throughout the entire world.

There is much that we could learn from reading Samuel Finer’s work today. For starters, he was that rarest of scholars: a political scientist who focused on how public administration actually works, something that has lost in the odd divorce between disciplines that has isolated social scientists and management experts from each other. He was also unafraid to engage in broad comparative analysis, but using a strong foundation of empirical material to supplement his generalizations. Again, the niche culture that has taken over academia hardly favors this kind of approach any more. Finally, he had a clear authorial voice, one that shines unapologetically through his text; and lo and behold, that voice does not detract from his analysis – if anything, it makes it more honest and engaging that the artificially dry prose that we are told to use these days to hide subjectivity under a veneer of scientism. Altogether, Finer appears to me as a refreshingly audacious scholar, and that is an ideal we can all aspire to.

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Note: Samuel “Sammy” Finer was a professor of government at the University of Manchester, and this fall we will be honoring  the centennial of his birth with a conference dedicated precisely to the development of government. This post is the first of a series where I hope to illustrate the reach of Finer’s genius as a scholar of regimes, bureaucracy and political history. Here are some useful links: