For The Edge Malaysia, 27 April 2016
In an age in which we constantly assert the Paramountcy of the Law and in which we proclaim equality before the law, we carelessly assume that obeying the law, or at least not breaking the law, is all we really need to do for society to function well. But is that really enough? Is that all the contribution one needs to make to society—being law-abiding?
Surely not. Obeying the law and being punished for breaking it are merely the least that is required; the minimalist condition needed for a society to cohere. It cannot stop there. For a society to develop culturally and be in harmony with itself, much more is needed.
What grows forth in any stable society over time is a sense of propriety. Through interactions with others, we sense that whatever we do not like done unto us, we try not to do unto others; and whatever we like done unto us, we try to do unto others. (Well, there are exceptions, but this is profound in its simplicity nevertheless). We can call this mutualism for short.
If we throw key parameters into the mix, such as gender, age, class and ethnicity, then what passes for proper behavior gets quite complicated. How one should treat someone of another age, another gender, another class and another ethnicity will vary from society to society. This explains why it takes so extremely long for a person to feel socially comfortable in a new country; and why strangers in a new land tend to stick together.
The Elite Regulates Itself to Survive
But then there is another dimension to society which goes beyond spontaneously learned social habits—and this is why I started out by mentioning the Paramountcy of the Law. This is the Dimension of Power.
Because we live in what we sometimes call The Democratic Age where all in principle have equal rights, and sometimes The Age of the Individual where social mobility is high and possible for all, we have come to think of the Power Elite as an open class, into which we all can gain entry. We forget the exclusivity of power, which is why we are surprised whenever rudely we are reminded that all societies are run by oligarchies.
Now, my main point is this: whichever way you wish to organize a society, you are going to end up with an oligarchy of some kind. Ancient philosophers knew this. We like to forget that the democracy of Athens was a slave society; and revolutionaries through the ages always ended up suffering suppression sprung from within.
So we should accept this apparently inescapable fact. No doubt we have put in place elections in order to maximize social mobility in the political sphere, but there are limits to even that commendable innovation.
The good news is, if a Power Elite wishes to retain its privileges, it has to regulate itself. When it stops regulating itself is when revolution happens. Moderation in the exercise of power seems to be the key to staying in power. The emperors of China supposedly enjoyed Heaven’s Mandate only as long as they ruled for the good of the masses. What this meant, in actual fact, was that privileges must not be abused too blatantly if power was to be kept. Abused, yes. Who was going to stop you? But too blatantly, no. There is a limit to how much suffering society can take.
So how does the Power Elite regulate the behavior of its members? The rules they follow cannot merely be obeisance of the law. What in fact happens over time within every oligarchy is that rules of propriety, an ethos, develop; distinct from the positive laws that rule the commoner.
Notions such as “honour”, “integrity”, “righteousness”, “respect”, “duty” and “virtue” come into play, and they signify emotions quite different from those associated with “obedience”, “law-abiding” and even “honest”.
And so we read of shoguns and samurais committing hara-kiri to redeem whatever is left of their personal and family honour. They are carrying out the punishment on themselves that their class demands for their failings, in other words. One does not hear of a Japanese farmer committing ritual suicide because his crops failed. The latter does not abide by the elite ethos.
The Japanese case may seem extreme, but it is far from unique in pre-modern times. But as true as it was in the past, it is true today. A society cannot escape having an oligarchy rule over it as surely as oligarchs cannot escape their own distinct ethos.
In short, the threshold for correct behavior is very much lower for the elite than for the common man. Accepting this is what makes the elite an elite, and what gives it the right to retain it privileges.
Wielding power and yet not accepting the ethos of the elite may be a phenomenon one can expect when an oligarchy is new; but when an oligarchy is already established, then hugely inappropriate behavior suggests that Heaven’s Mandate may have been lost to that elite class.