I used to occasionally see an opinion article appear in the newspaper lamenting the democratic process because of the kind of people that were allowed to have a say. This was usually written by a some leftist who’d just seen another election not go quite his way, but there was the odd right-winger who wrote the same thing from time to time too. I used to be quite disgusted at this sort of talk even though I am rarely in agreement with the general public. It wasn’t about whether the public was right or wrong that bothered me, it was that this person thought they knew better than everyone else.
Though his is not a sentiment that I would say I have abandoned, I have begun wondering whether or not the hierarchical systems were better suited to humanity despite their flaws. What follows will be a collection of thoughts why.
A good place to start is the relatively recent invention of the smartphone. This might seem like a strange place to start but it is actually an example that demonstrates the general equality of society with regards to access to knowledge. Smartphones have now gone through multiple generations for over a decade and wealthier people regularly upgrade meaning there is a large market of older models available to people with lower incomes. I regularly walk past people who literally sleep on the street sitting on a bench staring at one. In fact, people with lower incomes often have a nicer model than I do.
If you understand English, having a smartphone means you have access to virtually all human knowledge in one form or another. When I make this statement I am not taking paywalls into consideration, I am talking about practical knowledge that is available for free. The previous link is to open courses at MIT and many such courses on a wide variety of subjects can be found on blogs, YouTube and enthusiast websites. The point is that if you want to know something or make an effort to learn something — you almost certainly have access to it with a smartphone. Yet despite having this available, most people use these devices for entertainment of various forms both good and very bad. I would say that smartphones are generally unproductive even among the more motivated of us too.
Areas of society that used to be closed off to the majority of society are also now available to all. Consider wine tours, horse racing carnivals, dinner parties and golf clubs. People on low or middle incomes can afford these if they have any interest in them. Yet people who can now be included don’t behave as would be expected on such occasions which has lessened the appeal. Two examples can be seen here and here. The latter requires a bit of reading between the lines but I can safely assume these women were loud and obnoxious in a setting that expects the opposite. I have been on wine tours and for many (including my younger self), it is just another way to go about getting drunk. The point to be drawn here is that having access to the finer things doesn’t mean you’ll behave in a finer way. One recalls the adage about the girl and the trailer park.
There are plenty more examples I could detail including availability of education, transportation, clothing and anti-discrimination laws enforced more zealously than those for more heinous crimes. Once again, people with the will, do have more opportunities than they had in the past but most people don’t take advantage of it.
It is easy to imagine life in the nobility of the past as much more pleasant than being a peasant. And compared with most of the lower-classes of the time, it certainly was. A lot of this didn’t come from the structure of society but from the technology available at the time. Everyone today has access to much better medical care than even the richest had a century ago. My simple clothing is more comfortable than the finer garments the rich owned in the past. This is a result of technology and availability of resources. Being able to produce finer textiles with a fraction of the labour, at a fraction of the price makes an enourmous difference.
This is also true of education. Books used to be rare and expensive and only began to become more available with the printing press. While books are widely available today, publishing is still an expensive and risky venture and many academic textbooks cost a lot of money. Even with the wide availability of books and high literacy rates, the average person still won’t read more than they have to. I am not saying that because you read, you’re smart. This really depends on what you read and other variables, All this is just to show that giving everyone an education was once unfeasible due to the technological and resource limitations of the time.
What is also missing when considering nobility and the peasantry was the system of obligations. The nobility had comfort but they also lived a in highly structured culture with a multitude of expectations. It is true that many could choose instead to become wastrels, but whenever this was widespread, it was a sign of the end of that society. It also didn’t mean that peasants couldn’t themselves be quite idle.
At the time of writing, I am reading a biography of Saint Thomas More who was born into the highest levels of his society and who literally had the ear of the king. My childhood and life thus far has been far more comfortable and that is even so when adjusting for the comforts brought from technological progress. From a young age he was at school from twelve hours a day and had to become fluent in multiple languages. Even though he was a brilliant student, his life would not have been all comfort and I mused while reading on how well I would have been able to cope with it.
As a bit of an aside, I think people only find their state in life uncomfortable when they know there is something far less comfortable within easy reach. If you don’t know any better you won’t crave for what you don’t know. So while I would hate to be put into the living conditions of a medieval peasant, this is mostly because I have lived with far more comfort for my entire life. I know there are people that are more comfortable (particularly financially), but because I view that as out of reach, it doesn’t bother me on a day to day basis.
So to sum up what I’ve been rambling through up until now, I think the problem with looking at the negatives of the previously more hierarchical societies is that we focus on the vast technological and resource disparity between our society and those of the past. One could argue that part of the reason for this disparity is due to the same structure but I don’t necessarily think this holds true. Far more authoritarian countries have managed to adopt the same technology in much of their respective societies for a start. I think that is a discussion for a separate post.
One more thing is that despite the supposed lack of hierarchy in our society, there are still families and groups that tend to dominate the higher reaches of society and significant barriers to reaching those heights. They might not be quite as hard to penetrate as they were, but they still exist nonetheless.
So there is an argument given in particular the moral decline that exists for restoring these old arrangements though how this is to be done is not something I would want to consider. Such things can not be realistically planned or arranged and come more organically through a mixture of the will, competence and (yes), ruthlessness of different groups and persons. And when considering this, I am by no means assuming that I would be included among the elite. Far from it as I certainly don’t have the ambition nor I believe the competence to be in such a position.
I would be quite content in a position where my natural advantages are utilised and my path in life is sure than in the chaos we live in. I want to add also that I’d be willing to sacrifice some of my comfort for this to happen. I am conscious that this is easier said than done though.