Sunday, April 28, 2019

Grievance Politics: A Historical Lens for Functional Analysis

The French Religion Wars

I’m going through Daniel Nixon’s “The Struggle for Power in Early Modern Europe” as a foil for the dynamics of our current Great Religious Awakening and schism.  To what extent do the socio-political dynamics of the original Protestant-Catholic religious wars illuminate our own Progressive culture wars?

I think the answer is… a lot.

Here’s one example.

The steps toward “Castilianization” taken under Charles V reached fruition under Philip, not only because the loss of the eastern Habsburg domains left Castile the clear epicentre of its “Spanish” successor, but alone decisions taken by Charles to consolidate his position in Castile after the Comuneros revolt. Catholicism and Castile conjoined under Philip in ways that limited his ability to engage in multivocal signalling with respect to other domains.  - p. 189

Weak empire "Divide-and-rule" relational network
Nixon’s basic thesis is that division based empires, such as those from the middle ages, survive because each polity has a unique set of accommodations that pre-clude cross-polity unification.  For example, accommodations for Castile come off the back of Flanders. Zero-sum empires gain some dynastic stability via divisional based strategies. This increases the number of small to moderate revolts. But, it minimizes the cohesiveness large revolts require.

The creation/emergence of sacred values within a dissident or uncomfortably ruled population precludes a weak empire’s divide-and-rule governance. What Nixon’s work seems to show is that Protestant grievances weren’t “designed” for easy reconciliation or buy-off. The grievances that had “power” were the ones that evolved into sacred value space and which also precluded easy comprehension by hegemonic groups.  Hegemonic attempts to reconcile doctrinal differences usually resulted in the emergence of finer and finer grained intractions.

Habsburg weak empire's relational network
In one sense, you could say that Protestant evolved into a position where it was impossible not to see the core of Catholicism as anything other than irredeemably rotten. Therefore any meaningful rationalization with it was flawed. (sound familiar structural racists?)

Accommodations could be made, but these ultimately served to empower grievance dynamics and did absolutely nothing to diffuse "true grievances". That’s because viewing dissatisfaction in terms of rational transactions is flawed. I contend that this is because “dissatisfaction”, in these landscapes, has more to do with group level dynamics than simple power or theological/rational issues.


Weak empires are incapable of maintaining cohesion at a higher level of selection. But, the localized polities over which divide-and-rule empires govern, eventually become too low a level of selection. In the 16th century, this was city states.  It was not the bigger duchies, sub-kingdoms and princedoms. These changed hands too quickly. 

Over time, a variety of sacred value experimentations rise up, most of which are unfit and are quickly quashed. But, over time, the adjacent-possible landscape shifts. A revolutionary movement stumbles upon a “good-enough” solution, leverages grievance dynamics and produces a sacred value based bifurcation.

Protestantism forced a weak emperor into a no-win situation where any side he took would alienate one group or another. It precluded divide-and-rule strategy. The only sense I can make of this, is that such revolutionary strategies are less about usurping governance and more about stumbling into a mid-polity sized solution (i.e. a mid-level of selection solution).

Thus, evolutionarily, the 16th and 17th century wars of religion were less about between group dominance (i.e. which socio-political system was more fit) and more about the process by which mid sized groupings were formed and stabilized.

This has some very interesting implications for today’s grievance based culture wars. For one, it implies that Western nations may be experiencing the rise of grievance politics because:
  • they have evolved into de facto divide-and-rule governance strategies
  • their governance systems, while seemingly strong, are actually weak with respect to the levels of diversity they have to manage
  • radical social justice grievance politics have evolved into sacred value terrain in order to de-legitimize hegemonic buy-offs and force no-win governance conundrums
  • nation states and nation state confederacies (such as the US) may see the emergence of mid-sized polities. In the EU, this may be the unification of small country blocks (e.g. Poland + Hungary + Czech or Germany + France + Sweden). In the US it may be the unification of various States (or the de-facto weakening of federalism into smaller competing blocks such as the progressive coastal states and the conservative interior states).


I am certainly not saying that any of this is intentional. What I am exploring is what evolutionary role grievance based bifurcations play in social and political realms. Why do most socio-political schisms evolve into sacred value battles? 

On the surface, one can interpret it as an effective inter-group competition tool. I certainly think this is correct. But, the grievance dynamics make this an incomplete picture. Why not use grievances to gain a better negotiated settlement? Why do grievances seemingly evolve into intractable fights that almost purposefully preclude settlement via sacred value dynamics (and their natural intractability for negotiated settlement)? This is just such an unfit position that it seems there has to be a higher level of selection at play for it to make evolutionary sense...


Point 1
Tests for this rather unorthodox theory might be found during any levels of selection transition. Ideally, tests should be situated at the point where unstable higher levels of selection solidify. This might include:

I'll probably take a quick look at some of these test cases this weak to see to what extent my theory is falsified.

Point 2
The main counterpoint to this theory is that sacred value based grievances induce hegemons into giving away the farm. For instance, how many political concessions did Lutherans and Calvinists get or potentially get during the various conciliatory meetings with Charles?  Modern grievances can be seen as shifting the Overton window for their own benefit without giving up much if anything in return.

This is a solid argument. Grievance sacralization risk is that is inspires the hegemon into treating the group as unwindable, and hence ripe for extermination. Evolutionarily, this may still be fit, if martyrdom inspires insurgency and greater group cohesion. Suicide bombers probably reflect this dynamic.

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