It has now been nearly 20 years since George W. Bush, the son of a president, inherited the grandest ship of state in history and splendidly wrecked it. He could have passed into history as just one bad president but as the people desperately cried out for the ship to steer, it stayed the course no matter who the pilot was. What little remaining illusion that the masses can meaningfully participate in the exercise of power peels quickly away. Even Trump, the avatar of American popular discontent, finds himself powerless to bring decisive change and is only half-ironically called an emperor, as if in hopes he might somehow take up a more authoritarian mantle.
Counter-intuitively in this time of populism, we see conditions arranging themselves in favor of aristocracy and the ebb of the 20th century high tide of the masses. The official state politics playing out before us is just one area where a few become increasingly dominant over the many.
Mass politics ascended toward its peak when firearms combined with industrialized logistics. We may not appreciate now how revolutionary it was to have an army of hundreds of thousands of trained soldiers in the field at once in the Napoleonic Wars for prolonged periods, millions by the mid 19th century, and tens of millions in the 20th century. Mass production, pasteurization, railroads, the telegraph made possible a condition of total war that was new to agrarian peoples.
Political power is ultimately backed by the potential for violence and since the inception of settled agriculture, only a few people could have the equipment and leisure to be skilled soldiers on the backs of massed peasant labor. Among settled peoples war had always been aristocratic by nature. Though there have always been levies, mercenaries, and conscripts, they were support for a backbone of warrior elite whose investment in the system gave strong incentive for loyalty and whose training gave them tight discipline in combat.
Even Roman legions that made heavy use of commoners promoted soldiers on retirement to citizen status for them and their posterity. In our time, any warm body under a state is a “citizen” but for most of history that distinction has meant entry into the petty aristocracy.
Warriors not only need to fight well against others, they also need good reason not to overthrow the government and install one of their own. So it follows warriors are by definition invested in politics. Anyone who is relied on to fight for the state, gets a share in state power sooner or later. Even if kept as slaves, the warriors just make themselves into kings, as the Mamluks did in Egypt.
As more of the population was potentially needed for state violence in the 19th century, suffrage became universal to every male and there the bloat exploded out of control to its conclusion with everyone but children and teenagers allowed to vote. This craze has left us with an enormous political power bubble. If elected leaders simply ignore a bunch of powerless peasants, what do they do about it? “Oh yeah? How are you gonna make me?” applies to state power as much as it does on the grade school playground. If there is no solid backing to claims of power, the illusion fades and reality begins to re-assert itself. Just as the Mamluk warrior slaves could not be shut out of power, the helpless cannot long hold onto it.
Some suppose a coalition of single women, gays, and impoverished races holds the key to political power in the future because their helplessness makes them dependent and therefore fanatically loyal. Yet once reality inevitably returns, a furious trans-genderist in a dress can shriek at the top of his lungs all he likes only to be sent tumbling into the mud with a saber slash to the face from a smug, mounted noble wearing a powdered wig. A coalition of the weakest is by nature opportunistic and requires the support of the strong to hold power at all. At best, they are tools who are ultimately discarded the moment they cease to be sufficiently useful as a legitimizing priesthood. That moment always comes sooner than ascended undesirables think because a successful religion helps pacify the masses, save the ruler energy, and keeps the army inspired and loyal—a church of obnoxious political commisars inflames and sabotages things instead.
It was the possibility of mass conscription that ensured the common man the vote but since the atomic bomb wars of mass conscription have gradually all but disappeared and with it, the impetus for mass political power. The battlefield has returned to being a realm only a small minority participate in directly and consistently. Modern technology and the precise nature of objectives in 21st century war make it so that unskilled, inexperienced, unmotivated conscripts just get in the way and cause trouble.
The US military has relied on volunteers for decades now and over time an increasingly small number of those are relevant to combat. Now, even the tiny front-line military shares even this diminished role with mercenaries who answer directly to factions of elites.
Public opinion no longer supports the reckless wars of a discredited elite, but simultaneously, rulers that no longer rely so strongly on a loyal public to fight wars does not need their consent so much as before. They do not need to fear their subversion either so long as most people are prosperous enough to stay in an apolitical torpor.
In the culture we see the same principle of a warrior elite applies. In an emerging neo-tribal age ISIS forces that may have numbered a mere 10,000 men fought multiple national armies to a standstill for years. Similarly the altright and antifa each likely have no more than 10,000 operatives active in the field. Yet when 300 alt-rightists have an event, their signal is amplified across the world by behaving strategically as a culturally disruptive vanguard. Those 300 have more impact than the next 30 million who cast ballots from time to time and look on in disappointment as nothing happens. In the mercantile modern world, tight group loyalties are far scarcer than money, enabling even a handful who can actually work together to run roughshod over millions of atomized serfs who just want that next paycheck.
In Silicon Valley a handful of people at a few companies hold a few billion consumers in the palm of their hands. A few small cadres at national banks can influence the trajectory of all the wealth in the world. A few incestuous social circles in a few big cities tell everyone what to think, tell all their stories for them, and make all their music and dance. Even those active in the emerging counter-cultures are vanishingly small as a percentage of the population yet their impact is wildly disproportionate.
Meanwhile, the average worker scurrying to and fro from a job has almost no impact or influence on the culture, the politics, on finance, or anything that matters, even if they are among the dwindling number who live comfortably above subsistence. Actually, comfort makes them that much more inert, their only attribute of significance an implacable dead weight for forces of change to push aside.
It becomes increasingly explicit that nobody cares what ordinary people living their lives on facebook and netflix think. Almost every meaningful interaction we see is propelled by just a few and when this is the reality, it is only a matter of time until there is aristocracy.