Civil Polity vs. Prime-Divider Polity


I include this essay on civil polity partly because Liberal Cognitive Egocentrism (LCE) fosters a remarkable naiveté about how difficult and rare it is to establish. This failure to appreciate civil polities may be the single most dangerous factor in our current inability to recognize and cooperate with its friends on the one hand (the Atlantic Alliance), and to beware its enemies (Eurabia) on the other. For the purposes of the discussion at this website, I define civil society somewhat differently from the (from my perspective) somewhat problematic way political scientists do. The definition most scholars use emphasizes voluntary associations independent of the state, e.g., NGOs. These voluntary organizations that mediate between the state and the individual, are a component, but not the defining element of the definition here proposed.

Civil polity as I use it here, arises from a cultural project best described as the systematic substitution of consensual discourse of fairness for violence in dispute settlement. The definition entails a series of interlocking elements:

  • Same rules for all (equality before the law, what the ancient Greeks called isonomia
  • Independent law courts that determine fair judgments and pre-empt private (self-help) justice.
  • Public transparency and accountability of people in power (free press, freedom of speech).
  • Commoner populations empowered by education to assert and protect their own legislated rights
  • Commitment to voluntarism as a principle form of social interaction and political organization, emphasizing, mutual trust, contractual obligations, and moral autonomy.
  • Manual labor is not stigmatized, and manual laborers and their children can participate in public discourse and if sufficiently successful, enter the elite.

It is important to understand that these commitments are neither the norm, nor even a relatively common feature of most civilizations. On the contrary, the overwhelming majority of civilized polities for the last 5000 years, from the ancient empires of the iron age to the early modern period in Europe to today’s conditions in much of the world, are structured along a fundamental fissure — a prime divider — between elites and commoners that structures most of the features of political and social life in basic ways. These societies are based on the political axiom “rule or be ruled” and permit even require the use of violence to defend one’s honor. They contain following main features.

  • legal privilege for the elites (including exemption from taxation, lighter sentences for their misdeeds and heavier penalties for offenses against them).
  • self-help justice in which clans defend their members regardless of legal issues like intent (blood revenge, vendetta, feud, duel)
  • mystery surrounding political authority (e.g., monarchy above the law)
  • commoner populations illiterate, controlled by intimidation (Machiavelli’s: a ruler should be feared not loved)
  • manual labor stigmatized, vast majority (masses) excluded from public sphere except on choreographed occasions
  • elites with a monopoly on literacy, weaponry, rapid transportation, and political power

Societies with prime dividers have extremely powerful and wealthy elites (ca. 2-10% of the population) and vast masses of peasants who live close to subsistence levels. They are largely agrarian societies (Gellner called them agro-literate societies), and by the standards of modern civil societies they are poor. They are much stabler than civil societies, replicating patterns and structures from generation to generation. Prime divider societies comply with the hierarchical gravitational pull of most human societies; they contribute to their own poverty in that the elite would rather rule in poverty than share the wealth.

The passage from a prime divider society to a civil polity is rare and difficult. It has only happened a few times in history, and the civic experiment in egalitarianism has almost never survived for more than a couple of centuries (ancient Greece, medieval urban communes). In the West, as commitment to the values of civil polities reached a significant portion of the population and gained a public voice (free press), entire polities (US, France, Britain) shifted from traditional authoritarian, “top-down” styles of governing to ones based primarily on voluntary participation (social contract and constitutional states). “Conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” such civil polities explicitly adopt these principles as their founding ones: a discourse of fairness (equality and freedom) replaces violence in dispute settlement.

Civil polities depend on high levels of trust and the commitment to positive-sum outcomes in most transactions. Civil societies place high educational value on moral autonomy and voluntary acceptance of the rules. The dominant civil polities of the last two centuries have been cultures of abundance, using technology and legal egalitarianism to put an end to famines and to allow large numbers of people to raise their living standards and education well above subsistence.

Of course, no society so conceived and so dedicated can live up to such a lofty goal as true equality of justice for all, or a fair share of abundance for all. At this stage at least, such experiments can only hope to change the condition of the large majority of the population, not create an egalitarian utopia. Failing perfection, however, should not be invoked to argue a moral equivalence between civil societies and prime divider societies. Endowed with enough healthy self-criticism, any civil society can continue to improve. But human nature what it is, any culture will have its share of inequalities and injustices. The question is not do they or do they not exist, but how pervasive is the injustice? And how does a society respond to revelations of that injustice?

This praise of “civil society” is not an “ethno-centric” argument, but a cross-cultural one with a great deal of room for variety. Democracies are neither the only, nor even necessarily the optimum, shape that a civil society can take. One can also imagine, for example, affiliated communities governed by judges through whose decisions the public discourse of justice shapes social relations. To each political culture, each religious tradition, falls the ultimate task of finding its passage from violence to fairness. With the emerging global community bringing on exceptional levels of culture contact, our ability to live fairly with ourselves and “others” demands high levels of tolerance. At least democratic civil societies demand that tolerance in insisting that people in positions of authority accept criticism and challenges from highly educated and motivated commoners who speak their mind (public education, meritocracy, freedom of speech and assembly).

57 Responses to Civil Polity vs. Prime-Divider Polity

  1. […] Civil Society vs. Prime-Divider Society […]

  2. […] Civil Society vs. Prime-Divider Society […]

  3. […] to assert and protect their own legislated … commoner populations illiterate, controlled by ……fads hip hop jewelry musicpaterson nj hhistory of puerto rico in the 16 century daily life kelvx st […]

  4. […] 4 year old daughter) and four others for the remains of 2 dead Israeli solidiers another example of the strategic exploitation of liberal society in order to destroy it? I wish to think that liberal values are too precious to lose in the fight against one’s […]

  5. […] Civil Society vs. Prime-Divider Society […]

  6. […] Sheehan does not do, actually corresponds with the perspective of an “advocate” of civil society. The Israelis fear that Hamas will use the calm to regroup its militia of perhaps 15,000 men and […]

  7. […] imagine, and then turned that paradigm against the only culture that makes PCP a viable option, the civil polities of the democratic West. Although Kagan focuses on the anomaly, my comments attempt to explain how […]

  8. […] 3. Civil Society Vs The Prime Divider: No pain, no gain […]

  9. […] (Scandinavians), and Turks (Muslims again). So, yes, in the “longue durée” it’s conquer or be conquered. But that just leaves us at, Muslims are trying to conquer and Europe wants/should defend itself […]

  10. […] honor. The overall effect of so foolish an a priori concession is to make us all prisoners of this pre-modern mentality which he is about to claim, no longer exists. At the dawn of the twentieth century, in the twilight […]

  11. […] is an eloquent expression of the arrogance of prime divider elites. They will speak for their people without the slightest hesitation. Essentially, ‘Ariqat […]

  12. […] part of a chapter on the “Prime Divider,” I include a discussion of the efforts of Christian missionaries to convert the warrior […]

  13. […] fine anti-Zionist cloak comes unraveled. These are critical moments in the emergence of a civic polity: when the public can openly challenge the scape-goating narratiive with which an authoritarian […]

  14. […] Civil Society vs. Prime-Divider Society […]

  15. […] The Second DraftCognitive EgocentrismDemopaths & DupesMoral EquivalencePallywood: A HistoryCivil Society vs. Prime-Divider SocietyEurabiaGame Theory and Social EmotionsIslamophobia and Criticism of IslamJudeophobia: Anti-Judaism, […]

  16. […] The Second DraftCognitive EgocentrismDemopaths & DupesMoral EquivalencePallywood: A HistoryCivil Society vs. Prime-Divider SocietyEurabiaGame Theory and Social EmotionsIslamophobia and Criticism of IslamJudeophobia: Anti-Judaism, […]

  17. […] The Second DraftCognitive EgocentrismDemopaths & DupesMoral EquivalencePallywood: A HistoryCivil Society vs. Prime-Divider SocietyEurabiaGame Theory and Social EmotionsIslamophobia and Criticism of IslamJudeophobia: Anti-Judaism, […]

  18. […] – constitutions, judiciaries based on equality before the law, elections, legislation – but the culture underlying it, are not so jejeune and optimistic. Social contracts demand mutual trust and an expansion of the […]

  19. […] from Isaiah Berlin’s essay, “Two Concepts of Liberty” rejecting what Eli Sagan would call the normative political principle of virtually all pre-democratic societies, the dominating imperative of “rule or be ruled.” This maxim claims respect, not as a […]

  20. […] Civil Society vs. Prime-Divider Society […]

  21. […] are we positive-sum people, zero-sum people or negative sum people – on which side of the ‘prime dive’ do we fall?  Are we pirates?  Are we being […]

  22. […] Civil Society vs. Prime-Divider Society […]

  23. […] University, has written extensively about civil society and honor/shame dynamics in his blog The Augean Stables. His writings and opinions on the characteristics of civil societies are enlightening.  You may not […]

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