The road between palace and forum

The History of Government from the Earliest Times
September 19, 1997

Sammy Finer's The History of Government is a most remarkable legacy. For a book of well over 1,500 pages, much of it written while the author was very gravely ill, it is impressively fresh and invigorating. For a work covering the great bulk of human history and left unfinished by its author's death (though worked over with patience and generosity by many of the intellectual colleagues and friends who survived him), it is also in enviably good order throughout, a tribute to the editorial efforts of Catherine Jones Finer and Jack Hayward. Finer carries the study of human government (the government of humans by humans, for whatever purposes and with whatever results) from what he sees as its inception in ancient Sumer up to the first world war, very much on a world scale. What is missing is the remainder of our century and the conclusions which Finer would have permitted himself to draw from his story as a whole. While undeniably tantalising, there is nothing intellectually or educationally disabling about these omissions. What is there is splendid: generous, vivid, direct, and consistently instructive. If we will never know exactly what he would have concluded, what he has left behind him challenges the least reflective and energetic of readers to draw their own conclusions, and do so with due attention to the long, perturbing, and overwhelmingly important story which he has to tell.

As a legacy The History of Government is in the first place surprisingly personal. Fittingly, the back jacket of all three volumes is filled by the same delightful photograph of Finer at his most reflective: clever, alert, quizzical, amused, and notably unabashed. I never knew him, even distantly, though I do remember one fleeting encounter in a dimly lit university corridor while he was still at Manchester, dominated by a luminously lilac shirt with a good deal of lace on it. Book and photograph taken together make me wish very keenly that I had. This bears emphasis since the last effect one could reasonably expect an unfinished three-volume history of government written by a contemporary political scientist to have on the reader is to prompt a strong desire to have known them personally.

On this evidence Finer must have been a superb teacher (a brilliant lecturer, as Jack Hayward has pointed out, but also an excellent expository writer, with a flair for clarity and illuminating simplification). What is clear from the form of legacy that he chose to leave is how seriously he took teaching: the endeavour to show others how to understand. What is also evident from the choice of subject matter itself is the steadiness and unpretentiousness of his conception of the features of politics that they most need to be helped to understand. All three universities for which he taught at length took teaching very seriously: Keele, to which he was brought by its first vice chancellor A. D. Lindsay as inaugural professor of political institutions, Manchester, in whose government department he worked for some time while it was in many ways the most impressive in the country, and Oxford, from which he came and to which he returned as Gladstone professor of government and public administration. It is hard to think of a more prepossessing shape for an educational career.

What exactly was it that he wished to teach? What did he think it was important for his students and readers to grasp about government and its history: about what it has been and is, what it did and does, and what it means? With most scholars who might have the motivation and self-assurance to settle down in their retirement to working on this scale, the answers to such questions would be all too obvious. But with Finer they emphatically are not. He did not choose to begin by dilating at length on how he saw the nature and significance of government, let alone on why his way of envisaging these was superior to those of many other competing scholars. His first volume is prefaced, it is true, by a lengthy conceptual prologue; but this serves more to speed the author on his way than to vindicate his judgement (or his spiritual qualities) against market antagonists. He knew throughout that he had a hard journey ahead of him, and miles to go before he slept. It was not that he was incapable of disagreeing with colleagues and rivals - merely that he had better uses over these years for his time and energies.

The title which he chose is significant in itself. Finer was trained as a historian. His first book was a distinguished historical study of the great Victorian civil servant Edwin Chadwick. Throughout his work as a political scientist he retained a deep respect for history as a form of knowledge and a strong sense of its indispensability for understanding politics. To judge what government is, what it does, and what it means, he plainly thought it necessary to inspect its presence in human societies over time, to see how and why that presence changes, and how its consequences change with it. We cannot safely start off from the presumption that we already know more or less what it is, why it is as it is, and what its consequences are, and apply that personal comprehension to the past record. Instead we must look patiently and attentively at that record from start to finish, and conclude at the end, tentatively and carefully, just why it has gone as it has.

Finer himself, as we have seen, never reached his own conclusion. But with him this matters decidedly less than it might with many, because his clearest and most important conclusion was already embodied in the approach that he adopted at the outset. He was an immensely confident educator. But The History of Government is far from being a didactic work. What it attempts to do is to show the reader, in Finer's judgement, how to understand that history, not to compel them to see it just as he did himself, let alone to feel about it as he happened to feel. It is an invitation to imagination, alertness, and range of knowledge, not a quest to induce passive assent or intellectual submission. No one crippled by modesty could set out on such a venture. But it is striking how little of Finer's confidence depended on professional impression-management, the pretentious arrangement of historical or intellectual materials, or the use or invocation of recondite principles of understanding. The range of learning deployed is an expression of personal gusto and relatively ingenuous curiosity, not an exercise in self-authorisation. It is hard to imagine anyone still employed to teach politics in a British university mustering the nerve to write such a book today; and we are scarcely the gainers from the changes that have made this all but inconceivable.

One thing which is missing from the three volumes (in no sense culpably, but still regrettably) is enough information about his own education and the development of his professional interests to enable the reader to understand quite how he developed his approach over time. The confidence, presumably, was a gift which he brought to it from distinctly earlier: no doubt from childhood.

When he retired Finer had had a very distinguished career and published a great deal, in intellectual and political history as well as comparative politics. All of it was in a sense concerned with the relatively modern history of government and all was fairly confident in tone. But none of it, not even his 1970 textbook on Comparative Government, had the amplitude of ambition, the range or the scale of his posthumous undertaking. What held his work together was not a chronological or geographical specialism, let alone a taste for any particular intellectual method. It was an eminently political interest in how power in human societies is constructed, how its exercise is constrained, and what exactly it means for those over whom it is exercised.

In the round government is a far from exhilarating topic. Most of those who choose to devote a lifetime to studying it do so either because they are somewhat obsessive and relatively immune to boredom, or because they have more or less insistent political tastes, preoccupations, or purposes which they wish to press upon others. Most of its students who are neither seduced nor repelled by it, at least wish to recommend or disrecommend particular uses to which it may be put, and do so with all the authority they can muster. Finer, I would guess, cannot have suffered greatly from boredom and was not readily obsessed. He also seems to have had remarkably few axes to grind. (It is clear from the text, however, that he had little enthusiasm for many aspects of the professionalisation of political studies, and that he strongly disapproved of the readiness with which Chinese governments across the centuries have had recourse to forced labour.) What he was interested in was one very large and, as time goes by, increasingly prominent and consequential aspect of human collective life: the extent to which, and the processes through which, human beings are subjected to rules that are backed in the end by the threat or practice of coercion.

Sporadic coercion, of course, is virtually coeval with human society on any scale. But government is somewhat different. What distinguishes it from personal control, Finer quotes appreciatively the Oxford medieval historian Jean Dunbabin, "is its unremitting character. To be governed is to be subjected to the regular pressure of an authority operating according to fixed rules. In the full sense of the word, it is arguable that nobody was governed before the later 19th century." The later 19th century is almost as far as Finer got. But by the time he reached it, it is easy enough to see how he thought the massive diffusion and increasing pervasiveness of government can best be understood.

He was very much a realist, an admirer of the Italian sociologist and economist Vilfredo Pareto, whose Sociological Writings he edited in 1966. Pareto's most prominent contribution to political sociology was his emphasis on the political centrality of elites, a focus which has always seemed virtually self-evident to those who have accepted it but is often regarded as politically or spiritually discreditable by those who are disturbed by it. What has worn best in this emphasis is its recognition that political decisions matter and under most circumstances are likely to be taken by relatively small numbers of people but to affect the lives of very much larger numbers. (Hence the salutariness of keeping a wary eye on those who are habitually in a position to take them.) What has worn less well is Pareto's account of just what determines who can take which of them, for how long, and quite why: not because this is clear, deplorable, and wrong, but because, for all the excitement which it conveys, it is rather thin on content.

Pareto himself can reasonably be suspected of being a trifle seduced by personal power (if scarcely by the routine activities of government). But Finer, while explicitly acknowledging a debt to Pareto on the question of how political authority comes to be seen as legitimate, was too energetically historical in his approach to settle for the limper and more gratuitously self-congratulatory features of the latter's programme of explanation. Finer himself starts very much with the organisation and maintenance of the capacity to coerce, with military force, the resources needed to sustain this, and the organisational basis on which those resources can be secured. The classic realist focus on states, armies, taxes, the bureaucracies required to collect and deploy these, and the military, political, and social consequences of the interactions between each of these is an old and powerful approach to political understanding. The viewpoint that it offers is scarcely exhaustive; but only a political imbecile could fail to see that it is on to something overwhelmingly important.

While Finer himself unmistakably endorses this approach, and points again and again to the impact of military competition on the shaping of political and social institutions, he also clearly affirms a conviction that requires a very different way of identifying what politics is and suggests a quite distinct approach to understanding its dynamics. Even in the ancient palace polities of archaic Egypt and Mesopotamia, he writes: "The belief systems are stronger than the ruling authority because it is by their virtue that rulers rule." A vision of government centred on arms, taxes, struggle and biological survival has to be balanced by one centred on the capacity to induce belief, and hence, if in a less controlled manner, on human susceptibility to belief itself. What induces belief in Finer's view, even in polities whose legitimacy rests finally on the judgements of the ruled, is usually largely a matter of habit (past belief).

Even when they are in some sense rational in form, the beliefs themselves, following Pareto, are to be attributed essentially to interests and passions. But, wherever it comes from, Finer himself has no doubt whatever that it matters whether or not it is there. Besides the classical history of warmaking and organisation for war, accordingly, he focuses throughout also on the genesis and elaboration of interpretations of the point and proper conduct of political institutions and practices, and on the religious Great Traditions that have done so much to mould our conceptions of what has point and why some ways of acting are proper and others are not. No thinker either in past or present has shown convincingly quite how these two perspectives on the constituents of politics relate to one another, though plenty have claimed to do so. It is a mark of Finer's astuteness that he could see that both are indispensable and an index to the limits to his confidence that he did not suppose that even he quite saw how they did in the end relate.

The history of government, as he sees it, is the story of a series of contingent inventions which just happens at present to have produced the generalisation of one particular format (the modern state) across the world as a whole and which, for the present, however briefly, appears somewhat to favour one type of legitimising gloss on that state over others. It is neither the history of a predestined triumph nor of an utterly meaningless catastrophe. What produced the generalisation was a remarkable passage of military conquest and economic incorporation, and the reactions across the world of those who were for a time conquered and who are still being incorporated with ever greater insistence. (It is hard to doubt that the unremittingness of government and the growing insistence of this incorporation are intimately linked.) These reactions, like the process of conquest and incorporation itself, are plainly driven very much by passions as well as by interests. (Finer had a high regard for clear thought, but he cannot have been an unequivocal admirer of the explanatory scope of rational choice theory.)

At the point when he ceased to write he had much else which he still meant to say; but it is unlikely that he had a conclusion to offer which was much more emphatic than those already indicated. He saw the ideological and practical struggle of the end of the millennium, as befitted his topic, less as a collision between two or more imaginative structures in the minds of politically organised populations, than as one between two very different institutional embodiments of largely overlapping ways of conceiving legitimacy. The struggle to which he looks forward towards the end of the book is still one between palace and forum polities: states which are governed very much from the centre and autocratically, and states which have come to be in some measure accountable to their subjects, and whose central political process accordingly consists not of commanding but of somehow persuading. The former states today belong in the zones which were conquered and the latter unmistakably derive from the zones from which the erstwhile conquerors set out. But it remains very far from clear how the capacity to conquer and the propensity to imagine have been related to one another over time. Finer does not really tell us how he saw the relation between them in the past, and it seems most unlikely that he believed that he could see how they must relate to one another in the future.

It is important that his most distinctive and impressive work was on the role of armed force in society (notably the admirably trenchant The Man on Horseback of 1962). We can be quite certain that how this great struggle in the end comes out will depend extensively on the capacity to sustain and deploy coercive power. What is less vivid or careful in the end in his treatment is the at least equally unremitting pressure of economic causality and the oddly dynamic movement of our social, political, and moral imaginations. I doubt if anyone could write the history of government better than this for the present. But we certainly need many other histories of government, if we are to take the measure of this one.

Above all, we need histories of government that see its evolution more insistently within the evolution of productive organisation and the development of markets, and we need histories that place it more precisely within the development of the ways in which human beings have imagined their relations to authority and being governed. The former is a relatively well-established academic endeavour (with a distinguished intellectual past). No serious interpreter of politics today could doubt its relevance, though it is far from clear quite how to execute it. The latter is a more elusive venture. But I see no reason to doubt that Finer was right to acknowledge its huge importance, and every reason to doubt that Pareto got to the bottom of it. To be governed is at best an inherently ambivalent experience. In some ways it will always remain irremediably (if perhaps intermittently) offensive. We will never escape from it. But there is always the hope of changing it and changing ourselves so that we learn to live with one another on better considered and less imprudent terms.

John Dunn is fellow of King's College, Cambridge, and professor of political theory, University of Cambridge.

The History of Government from the Earliest Times

Author - S. E. Finer
ISBN - 0 19 822904 6
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £100.00
Pages - 1,701

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