Misperception and Reality

Government is Incomplete Conquest

October 22, 2015

Political parties are alleged to provide their electorates with choice. Cynics might object that, while elections give an electorate the feeling that they have choice, this is only an illusion. Soviet propagandists used to like to point out that the choice is only between Rockefeller millionaires and Kennedy millionaires, that is, among factions of the ruling elite.  What parties and candidates argue about during election campaigns is always "small stuff." Fundamental questions like the distribution of wealth, power, and prestige almost never arise. And when they do arise, it is only at the margins of political debate. In those rare instances when an existing political order is challenged, such things as populist movements and "color revolutions," elites almost always find ways to diffuse them. There may be excellent reasons why the state of conquest is almost never challenged. Yet the fact is that it very rarely is challenged.  Government everywhere, even in democracies, is not really about consent or choice. Governments are founded on conquest, and rest on conquest. The distinguished American Political Scientist, Theodore Lowi, develops this view, not in an outrageous essay in some fringe journal, but in one of the American government text books he authored--American Government: Incomplete Conquest (1976).  It all started in the Americas when when European explorers planted the flags of their countries in the New World. The message sent loud and clear was: "This territory belongs to us. If you try to take it or use it without our permission, we will kill you." Conquest had taken place much earlier in Feudal Europe when "the thugs," as Ernest Gellner liked to call them (Liberty, 73-74), fought and killed each other. Incidentally, we usually think of Gellner’s thugs as knights in shining armor. The loser performed an act of homage and took an oath of fealty. To be sure, this established a contractual relationship. Yet, having been defeated, the loser didn't have much choice as to the terms of the contract. The victors, that is the thugs, emerged cleansed and sanctified as the feudal aristocracy.  When Thomas Hobbes grounded his theory of government in the consent of free individuals born with inalienable rights, he didn't represent them as having much choice either. They had either to face constant fear of violent death, or surrender all their rights to an absolute sovereign who would ensure peace and order. John Locke put forward a more palatable view of the social contract, much closer to the liberal-democratic ideals widely shared in contemporary politics.  Yet this was possible only because conquest and order had been conclusively established by the time Locke wrote. The Hobbesian problem had been settled and its solution had sunk to a subconscious level.  Complete conquest, that is, total submission of the ruled, is never anywhere close to a realistic option. Force, terror, and fear may be useful instruments in the arsenals of rulers. Yet by themselves they are crude, inefficient means of governance. To be sure, they play a crucial, though usually masked, role under all political regimes. Yet they are not sufficient in themselves. Legitimate authority, that is systemic patterns of voluntary compliance, is essential to governance. Victorious thugs cannot govern without the cooperation and support of the thugs they have defeated.  Grand Prince Vladimir Svyatoslavich of Kiev (also known as Saint Vladimir) may have sincerely cared for the souls of his subjects, whom he had baptized en-masse in the Dnieper river in 988. Yet the main reason for making them Orthodox Christians was to make them more obedient (Daniel, 2006: 10-13). Obviously, it is easier for rulers to secure the compliance of people who believe that obedience is obligatory, that disobedience is blasphemy. Even a ruler who seeks to secure compliance by holding guns at the heads of all subjects needs the cooperation of at least those holding the guns and those managing the gun-holders.  Foundations of legitimacy have varied greatly across the many kinds of regimes that have existed throughout history. Foundations of legitimacy change, sometimes slowly and imperceptibly. It is instructive that the monarchs who established modern centralized states in Europe were able so easily to drain away the traditional powers of the feudal aristocracy through the establishment of strong central bureaucracies (de Tocqueville, 1856). 


It is interesting that King Louis XVI of France felt compelled in 1788 to convene the Estates General for the first time since 1614, to approve a new tax to finance his wars. Although the King had not realized it when the financial crisis of his government came to a head, it quickly became clear that it was no longer possible to extract taxes from people who did not feel represented in the levying of the tax (Doyle, 2001: 33, 35-36). King George, III of England had earlier learned a similar lesson when the American colonists resisted taxation without representation, eventually leading to the Boston Tea Party and the Declaration of Independence. 


Stories of how political order developed beyond the kind of order found in tribal societies usually begin with thugs and bandits. Once the thugs and bandits have consolidated their power and wealth, they are often transmuted into heroes and benefactors. I have in mind, not only the knights in shining armor.  Consider the American Robber Barons who became America's great philanthropists (Josephson, 1962). In Russia, the former Komsomol apparatchik, Mikhail Khodorkovsky amassed his fortune by dubious means. He then turned to transforming his oil company into a paragon of corporate good governance, and to supporting parties championing high Western political values. This pattern has been followed by other Russian oligarchs who, once having become wealthy and powerful, transformed themselves into fighters for public good, at least as they saw it. And who were the Nobel Peace Prize winners, Yasser Arafat and Yitzakh Rabin? They were warriors. In fact, many of the leaders of both Israel and Fatah started out as terrorists, later transformed into peace-loving statesmen.  Edmund Burke noted that it is best to draw "a secret veil...over the beginnings of all governments," and not dwell too long over the unsavory facts of a state's origins. Burke was worried that a frequent and open discussion of a state's immoral past might both undermine faith in its disciplined rules, and worse still, encourage an imitation of vices inherent in the dark and bloody moments of a government's founding. Burke reasoned that for the sake of righting present wrongs, it was better to imagine a virtuous past even where none truly existed (Smith, 2008: 81). European elites, derived from both the Feudal aristocracy and from the rising elites of trade and commerce started out adamantly opposed to democracy. They feared and resisted extension of the franchise, and democratization more generally. Most of the Framers of the American Constitution were suspicious of democracy. The word "democracy" does not appear at all in either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. And, although the Constitution incorporates representative institutions as checks against executive tyranny, it also provides for a range of safeguards against democracy. 


When I was an undergraduate in the United States, there was an organization on campus called Young Americans for Freedom. They liked to say that "This is a Republic, not a democracy. Let's keep it that way." This was also a slogan of the John Birch Society (Knight , 2013: 164 ) In fact, although the U.S. Constitution stipulates that the "United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government....," it says nothing about guaranteeing a democratic form of government. 

Over time, elites lost their fear of democracy and came to terms with it. Elites came to realize that enfranchized common peoples rarely threaten the status of elites. It also became clear that relatively few among the electorate are interested in taking part in the processes of government, or in pushing for fundamental change.  Most elites in the world today are enthusiastic advocates of democracy.  They have learned how to use the rhetoric, and institutions of democracy to safeguard and promote their own interests.   Daniel, Wallace L. 2006. The Orthodox Church and Civil Society in Russia. Texas A&M University Press: 251 pp. 

de Tocqueville, Alexis. 1856. The Old Regime and the Revolution, trans John Bonner. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1856: 12/09/2015. <http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/2419>

Doyle, William. 2001. The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: University Press: 152 pp.  Gellner, Ernest. 1994. Conditions of Liberty; Civil Society and its Rivals. London, Hamish Hamilton: 225 pp. Josephson, Matthew. 1962. The Robber Barons. New York, Harcourt, Brace & World: 474 pp. Knight, Rolf. 2013. Voyage Through the Past Century. Vancouver, New Star Books: 336 pp. Lowi, Theodore. 1976. American Government: Incomplete Conquest. New York.  Smith, Brian. 2008. Polity, 40 (1): 70-94 ------------------ Note: I wrote Professor Lowi in March 2008, asking if he had further developed his ideas on “incomplete conquest.” Here is an excerpt from his reply: “I consider that original textbook (1976) possibly the best book I ever wrote. And it was distinctive in particular because of the thematic and my sustaining of that as a theme throughout the book. The book was widely praised, but was a flop from the standpoint of the publisher and its income. It went through a second edition, and at that point I was ready to let it go out of print. … I [hoped] that one day I would write a book with that as the only theme rather than the supportive theme.”

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