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Formation of bureaucratic empires

Contradiction and conflict

Imperial decline

The foci of change


The term “empire” has normally been used to designate a political system encompassing wide, relatively highly centralized territories, in which the center, as embodied both in the person of the emperor and in the central political institutions, constituted an autonomous entity. Further, although empires have usually been based on traditional legitimation, they have often embraced some wider, potentially universal political and cultural orientation that went beyond that of any of their component parts. Such “imperial” designation has been attached to a great variety of sociopolitical systems, from relatively ephemeral frameworks like that of the Mongol empires of Genghis Khan and Kublai Khan to the various more modern “colonial” empires, which did not usually evince territorial continuity.

However, the fullest and most succinct development of the major characteristics of empires as distinct political systems can be found in what may be called the “historical bureaucratic empires.” In order to explain the meaning of this term, a number of further distinctions need to be made (for a fuller treatment, see Eisenstadt 1963).

Types of imperial systems . The connotation of the term “imperial,” as it evolved within political and social consciousness in the history of mankind, evinced throughout its development some common characteristics. At the same time, it also changed greatly between historical, premodern, and modern times. Its basic connotation, as manifest in the Latin imperium, is the existence of relatively concentrated authority and rule, focused in a relatively strong center and diffusing its authority over broad territorial contours. In premodern times this designation commonly referred to an authority that extended over territorially contiguous units so that the latter attained some symbols of common political identity. This authority and the concomitant political identity certainly did not connote national sovereignty, but rather the existence of a center of authority that was accepted and hallowed beyond the confines of narrow territorial, kinship, or city limits.

The authority that was enacted in these systems consisted of a special mixture of Weber’s three types: the charismatic, the traditional, and the legal-rational. Such authority was usually rooted in a charismatic personality or group whose major orientations were traditional in the sense of upholding a “given” order hallowed by tradition, but not, as we shall see, in the sense of accepting the traditional organizational confines of this order. At the same time, it often contained important elements of a more legal-rational type of authority.

The connotation of imperial has greatly changed in modern times, when it has come to denote rather a type of political system through which one political community or nation has extended its rule over other political units, mostly territorially noncontiguous ones, without fully incorporating them into a framework of common political symbols and identity.

In this article we shall deal only with the first type of imperial system, focusing our analysis on those historical systems within which the basic characteristics of this type of system became most fully developed and institutionalized. Thus we shall not deal with those “conquest” empires, such as those of the Mongols, where the conquering rulers attempted to establish such authority but in which, for a variety of reasons, no such common symbols of identity became accepted and in which the conquerors retained their separate ethnic and political identities. Nor shall we deal with the colonial empires of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, although this does not preclude examination of their origins.

Formation of bureaucratic empires

Examples of centralized bureaucratic empires are to be found throughout history; the principal ones, which comprise the major historical societies, are as follows:

(a) The ancient empires, especially the Egyptian, Babylonian, and, possibly, the Inca and Aztec.

(b) The Chinese Empire from the Han period to the Ch’ing.

(c) The various Iranian empires, especially the Sassanid and, to a smaller extent, the Parthian and Achaemenid.

(d) The Roman Empire and the various Hellenistic empires.

(e) The Byzantine Empire.

(f) Several ancient Hindu states (especially the Maurya and Gupta) and the Mogul empires.

(g) The Arab Caliphate (especially from the reign of the Abbassides and Fatimides), the Arab Muslim states in the Mediterranean and Iran, and the Ottoman Empire.

(h) European states during the age of absolutism, and to some extent their initial colonial empires, especially insofar as they were built with the idea of the direct extension of the patrimony and its central authority and not as merchant colonies or purely colonial settlements of small groups. Of these, the Spanish American Empire is probably the nearest to the ideal type of a historical bureaucratic empire.

The majority of these empires developed from one of the following types of political systems: (a) from patrimonial empires such as the Egyptian and the Sassanid empires; (b) from dualistic nomad-sedentary empires, necessarily sharing many characteristics in common with the patrimonial type; (c) from feudal systems, as did the European absolutist states; and (d) from city-states,’as did the Roman and Hellenistic empires.

Despite the great variety of historical and cultural settings, some common features in the first stages of the establishment of such polities may be found. The initiative for the establishment of these polities came, in all cases, from the rulers—emperors, kings, or some members of a patrician ruling elite (like the more active and dynamic element of the patrician ruling elite in republican Rome). In most cases these rulers either came from established patrician, patrimonial, tribal, or feudal families, or they were usurpers, coming from lower-class families, who attempted to establish new dynasties or to conquer new territories. In some cases they were conquerors who attempted to establish their rule over various territories.

In most cases such rulers arose in periods of unrest, turmoil, acute strife, or dismemberment of the existing political system. Usually their aim was the re-establishment of peace and order. They did not, however, attempt to restore the old order in its entirety, although for propagandist and opportunistic reasons they sometimes upheld such restoration as a political ideology or slogan. They always had some vision of the distinctly political goals of a unified polity. They aimed to establish a more centralized, unified polity in which they could monopolize political decision making and the setting of political goals, without being bound by various traditional aristocratic, tribal, or patrician groups. Even when they were conquerors, as in the case of the Roman, Islamic, and Spanish American empires, they also had some such vision and attempted to transmit it to at least part of the conquered population.

Of crucial importance in shaping the activities of these rulers was the geopolitical situation of the polity that they tried to organize—as, for instance, the specific geopolitical situation of Byzantium at the crossroads of Europe and Asia or the vast hydraulic arrangement of China and its special relation with the steppe frontiers. These geopolitical factors indicated, in a sense, the nature of the specific international system to which these empires had to respond, as well as the range of problems to which the rulers were willing and able to address themselves.

The aims of the rulers were very often oriented against, and encountered the opposition of, various social and political groups. However great the turmoil, unrest, and internal strife may have been, there were always some groups that either benefited from this state of affairs—or hoped to do so—or aimed to re-establish the old order, in which they held positions of power and influence. These hostile elements, usually consisting of some aristocratic groups or some of the more traditional urban and cultural elites, usually felt themselves menaced by the new aims and activities of the rulers. They felt that their position was threatened by the trend toward political centralization, and they were therefore unwilling to help in the implementation of this trend. Accordingly, they often attempted to deny resources and support to the rulers, plotting and working against them either in open political warfare or by infiltration and intrigue.

The rulers had to find allies, whether passive or active, in order to be able to implement their aims in the face of these various aristocratic forces. Thus they had to forge various instruments of power and policy with which to mobilize the various resources needed by them—whether economic resources, manpower, or political support. Naturally, the rulers tried to find such allies among the groups and strata whose interests were opposed to those of the more traditional and aristocratic elements and who thus could benefit by the weakening of the latter and by the establishment of a more unified polity. The rulers’ allies were therefore of two principal kinds: the more active (mostly urban) economic, cultural, and professional groups who, whether by origin or by their social interests and orientations, were opposed to the aristocratic—traditional groups; and the wider and politically and socially more passive strata, especially the peasants and (to a smaller extent) the urban lower classes.

It was from these various groups and strata that the rulers hoped to mobilize the various resources they needed. But in order to do this they also had to forge some instruments of political and administrative action on which they could rely and through which they could provide various services to their potential allies. Most rulers were able to form an entourage by recruiting from established administrative and political bodies; however, even when such organs of administration were available, they had to be adapted to the rulers’ particular purpose. Insofar as the existing personnel were related to the aristocratic forces, the rulers had in many cases to find replacements. Nor was this enough; loyalty to the ruler had to be secured against bids from opposing forces. Moreover, the rulers had to make sure that these administrative bodies would be effectively organized for their tasks. To this end, the rulers attempted to concentrate the nominations to these positions in their own hands. They tried, as far as possible, to appoint persons who were loyal and who had the necessary administrative qualifications. The rulers also attempted to control the administrative budget, making sure that it was adequate for official salaries as well as other running expenses. This enabled them to lay emphasis on the dependent position of the officials: they were to be “servants,” either of the individual ruler or of the polity that he wanted to establish. Accordingly, representation by officials of group or class interests was henceforth to be eliminated.

Thus, in general, the rulers attempted to make these administrative bodies, as far as possible, independent of the more traditional and aristocratic strata and groups and to give them some power and prestige vis-a-vis these strata. Here the rulers had, necessarily, to allow these bodies some measure of autonomy and independence and had to enable them to perform some services to the population. True, the rulers very often wanted to use these administrative bodies only, or mainly, for exploitative purposes. But if the rulers wanted to perpetuate their rule, they had to allow these services to take into account at least some of the needs of some of the social groups, if only to provide them with peace, security, and certain minimal services.

Thus, the development of an imperial system (in the sense of a historical bureaucratic empire) was dependent on two conditions. One condition was the existence, within the preceding social structure, of a relatively high level of societal differentiation, which limited the place of basic ascrip-tive units—such as family, kinship, or traditional status groups—in the social division of labor and created many forces cutting across them. On the one hand, this differentiation created problems of integration that called for new solutions, while on the other hand it provided the resources needed for new organizations that could attempt to deal with some of these problems. The second condition was the development of a new type of political leader and elite with wider aims and perceptions of political authority and the ability to serve as a focus of the new imperial authority and symbols and to articulate new, more differentiated, and broader political goals.

The existence of only one of these conditions was not sufficient for the institutionalization of an imperial system. Thus, for instance, in the city-states of Greece, as compared with republican Rome (within which there was a similar level of differentiation), there did not develop such an internally new leadership. Contrariwise, in the Caro-lingian and Mongol states (or empires), while there did develop rulers with such new styles of leadership, there did not exist an appropriate level of differentiation; thus the imperial system could not become institutionalized, and these polities remained at the level of loosely integrated “conquest” empires, in which the different regions or groups (conquerors and conquered) were not integrated into a polity bound by common symbols of identity.

Although the general existence of a certain level of differentiation was a necessary precondition of the institutionalization of the political systems of such empires, their concrete structures could range from that of the city-state or feudal system to that of the patrimonial empire. Similarly, the social origins, composition, and internal cohesion of the new ruling groups could vary greatly, and the combination of these variations could greatly influence the concrete contours of the developing imperial systems. This tendency was manifest, first, in the tendency toward political centralization; second, in the development by the rulers of autonomous political goals; and third, in the relatively high extent of organizational autonomy of executive and administrative activities.

But the extent of differentiation of political activities, organization, and goals was, in these political systems, still limited by several important factors. First, the legitimation of the rulers was, in these regimes, usually couched in basically traditional-religious terms, even if the rulers tended to stress their own ultimate monopoly of such traditional values and tried to deny that other (traditional) groups could also share in this monopoly. Second, the basic political role of the subject was not fully distinguished from other basic societal roles, such as, for instance, membership in local communities; it was often embedded in such groups, and the citizen or subject did not exercise any direct political rights through a system of voting or franchise. Third, many traditional ascriptive units, such as aristocratic lineages or territorial communities, still performed many crucial political functions and continued to serve as units of political representation. As a consequence, the scope of political activity and participation was far narrower than in most modern and contemporary political systems.

The existence of both traditional and differentiated political orientations, activities, and organizations created within these empires a complex interrelation between the political institutions and other parts of the social structure. The rulers were in need of both traditional and more complex, differentiated political support and were dependent on both. The rulers’ traditional dependence on other parts of the social structure was manifest in their need to uphold their traditional legitimation and the traditional, unconditional political attitudes and identifications of many groups. On the other hand, however, the rulers’ tendency to political independence and autonomy made them dependent on types of resources that were not available through various traditional ascriptive commitments and relations. In order to implement their various political goals as they pleased, the rulers were in need of more flexible support and resources, which would not be embedded in traditional ascriptive groups or committed for more or less fixed goals (Eisenstadt 1963, chapter 6; Altheim 1955).

Among these flexible resources, the most important were economic and political ones. In the economic field, the rulers needed manpower and goods that could be available not through the fixed commitments of ascriptive kinship and status groups but that could be allocated directly. Among such economic resources, the most important were manpower (military and administrative) for services and for relatively free and flexible occupational choices and various goods and commodities for direct spending or for payment of services.

In principle, such resources could have been the same as those used within the various ascriptive groups and in their fixed interrelations. But the very emphasis on their flexibility entailed the possibility of their greater mobility and hence of their necessary translatability into media of exchange such as money, credits, and their equivalents. Once some such media of exchange were established, it was highly necessary to maintain markets and organizational frameworks within which they could flow continuously. Similarly, it was very important to maintain conditions and frameworks in which possibilities of relatively free occupational choices and avenues of mobility could be realized.

A similar situation developed in the field of political support and organization. The rulers were in need of commitments and loyalties that could be made available without the restrictions of such ascriptive groups, and this necessarily entailed the organization of new types of political organizations and leadership that could mobilize such support. Parallel needs could also be found in the cultural, social, and religious fields.

The political demands made on the rulers by the various groups in the society were of both the traditional and the more complex, differentiated types. On the one hand, the rulers were expected to uphold traditional ascriptive rights and benefits; on the other, they were faced with demands for participation in the formulation of the political balance of power—or even in the process of legitimating their own authority. Thus the authority of the rulers, “traditional” though it may have been, was no longer automatic; merely to raise the question of the rulers’ accountability was to deny them fixed support.

These different types of political activities and orientations did not coexist in these political systems in separate “compartments,” bound together only in some loose and unstable way. They were bound together within the same institutions, and the continuity of each type of political activity was dependent on the existence of both types of political orientation. Because of this, the activities of the rulers were, paradoxically, oriented to maintaining basic traditional legitimation through manipulation not only of traditional but also of non-traditional support and to the mobilization also of traditional resources for politically autonomous goals and through nontraditional channels.

Hence, the political system of these empires could subsist only insofar as it was possible to maintain simultaneously and continuously, within the framework of the same political institutions, both the traditional and the more differentiated levels of legitimation, support, and political organization. The continuity of these systems hinged on the continuous existence of a certain balance between political activity and involvement on the part of some segments of the population and of political noninvolvement or apathy toward central political issues by most segments of the population. The limited political involvement could assure some of the more flexible political support, while the apathy, in its turn, was necessary for maintenance of the traditional legitimation of the rulers.

Contradiction and conflict

It was the interplay between these varied orientations of the rulers—their dependence on both traditional and differentiated resources—that greatly influenced their concrete policies and gave rise to some of the basic contradictions that developed within those policies. The rulers of these empires tended to develop three major types of basic political orientations. First, they were interested in the limited promotion of free resources and in freeing them from commitments to traditional aristocratic groups. Second, the rulers were interested in controlling these resources and committing them to their own use. Third, the rulers tended also to engage in various goals—military expansions, for example—which alone could exhaust many of the available free resources. Between these various tendencies of the rulers, serious contradictions easily developed. These contradictions, although not always consciously grasped by the rulers, were nevertheless implicit in their structural position, in the problems and exigencies with which they dealt, and in the concrete policies they employed in order to solve their problems.

These contradictions were exhibited mainly in the sphere of legitimation and stratification. As we have seen, the rulers often attempted to limit the aristocracy’s power and to create new status groups. But these attempts faced several obstacles. Regardless of the extent of the monarchs’ independent activities in this field, the number of new titles created, and the degree of encouragement of new strata, the symbols of status used by the rulers were usually very similar to those borne by the landed hereditary aristocracy or by some religious elites. The creation of an entirely new secular and rational type of legitimation, in which the social groups or universalistic principles would be the foci of legitimation, was either beyond their horizon or against their basic interest. It would necessarily involve extending the sphere of political participation and consequently increasing the influence of various strata in the political institutions.

Therefore, the rulers were usually unable to transcend the symbols of stratification and legitimation borne by the very strata whose influence they wanted to limit. Consequently, the ability of the rulers to appeal to the lower strata of the population was obviously limited. Even more important, because of this emphasis on the superiority and worth of aristocratic symbols and values, many middle or new strata and groups tended to identify with them and consequently to “aristocratize” themselves.

The contradiction in the rulers’ policies and goals could develop also in a different direction. However tradition-bound the ruling elites may have been, their policies required the creation and propagation of more flexible “free” resources in various institutional fields. Here again, the major types of free resources were, in the economic field, money and easily exchangeable goods, free manpower in general, and free professional manpower in particular; and, in the political and social fields, relatively free commitments and possibilities of support. The propagation of such free resources either gave rise to many religious, intellectual, and legal groups whose value orientations were much more flexible than the traditional ones, or else it promoted such groups. Moreover, the orientations and values of the broader middle strata of the society sometimes were similar to those propagated by these more active elite groups. Although in many cases all these elements were very weak and succumbed to the influence of the more conservative groups and policies of the ruling elite, in other cases—as in Europe—they developed into relatively independent centers of power, whose opposition to the rulers was stimulated only by the rulers’ more conservative policies.

The rulers’ activities in the economic field were similarly inconsistent. Their main economic aims posed a series of dilemmas that could be extremely acute in relatively undifferentiated economic systems and that could give rise to intensive contradictions between long-term and short-term economic policies. Thus, the continuous necessity to mobilize extensive resources at any given moment could often exhaust the available free resources on which the rulers’ economic independence rested. The big landowners and merchants, who constituted important centers of economic power, quite often tried to intensify this contradiction by providing the government with short-term loans or allocations of manpower for very limited periods and purposes; this increased the dependency of the rulers at the same time that it buttressed their own position. Although these allocations were usually insufficient to take care of their long-term needs, the rulers had to pay dearly in terms of the various free resources at their disposal. The rulers had to avail themselves of the various services and other resources of these more tradition-minded groups, giving them in return various concessions that often tended to undermine the long-run availability of free resources. In this way, the position of the rulers gradually became weaker (Eisenstadt 1963, chapter 12).

A similar contradiction existed between the long-range and short-range policies dealing with problems of administrative manpower. In many cases there was not enough manpower available for the execution of various administrative and political tasks, or because of inadequate communication and technical facilities it was very difficult to supervise such personnel effectively. It then became necessary to farm out various functions and positions either to local gentry and landowners or to officials who gradually became “aristocratized.”

The best example of how the social groups created by the ruling elite became partially opposed to its aims and basic political premises is the development of the system of sale of offices, which was closely connected, in these empires, with the entire process of recruitment into the bureaucracy (Swart 1949). At first this system was usually introduced by the rulers as a means of solving their financial problems and admitting new (nonaristo-cratic) elements into their service. But in time, in most of these societies, the bureaucracy came to regard its offices as possessions and either transmitted them in the family or sold them in the market; in this way the rulers, despite many efforts to the contrary, slowly lost control over these offices.

This trend was connected, in general, with the tendency by the bureaucracy itself—the very instrument of power of the rulers—to aristocratize itself, to acquire symbols of aristocratic status, and to ally itself with aristocratic forces. In such cases the bureaucracy very often displaced its goals of service to the rulers for those of self-aggrandizement. Its members used their positions for enriching themselves and their families, thus becoming a growing burden on the economy and losing their efficiency.

This development necessarily affected the nature and extent of political activity and the scope of mobilization of political leadership. Insofar as these processes of aristocratization became intensified, they usually depleted the supply of political leaders to the central political institutions. The more active elements became alienated from the regime, whether their alienation took the form of succumbing to the aristocratic forces, falling into complete political apathy, or becoming centers of social and political upheaval and change.

Politics and social class . Similar contradictions tended also to develop in the political attitudes and activities of the major strata in these societies.

Several basic attitudes of various strata and groups toward the basic premises of the political systems of these empires and toward the basic aims of their rulers can be distinguished. The first attitude, evinced chiefly by the aristocracy, was one of opposition to these premises—an opposition that was often shared by the peasantry and sometimes also by other groups that were interested only in maintaining their own limited local autonomy and their immediate economic interests.

The second attitude consisted of basic identification with the political premises of the imperial system, combined with a willingness to fight for one’s own interests within the framework of existing political institutions. This attitude was to be found mostly among the bureaucracy and among various elements of the urbanized professional and cultural elites.

The third attitude, developed mainly by the more differentiated urban groups and professional and intellectual elites, favored changes in the extension of the scope of political systems. This attitude, which was most clearly evinced by the European middle class and intellectual groups at the end of the eighteenth century (Beloff 1954), was manifested in various attempts to change the basic value premises of the political system, to widen the patterns of political participation within it, and to find referents of political orientation that transcended the given political system.

These attitudes often overlapped in concrete instances and varied by group and stratum in different societies and periods. Moreover, the attitudes of any one group were never homogeneous and stable, and they could change greatly according to political conditions. The various political attitudes of the major social groups greatly influenced the extent of their political participation and the scope and the nature of the political leadership that tended to develop from within them. Here again the most significant factor, from the point of view of the continuity of the imperial system, was the bureaucracy’s tendency to aristocratize itself and thus to undermine the very conditions of such continuity. No less important was the possibility that the very administrative organs created for the implementation of the rulers’ policies could develop autonomous orientations and activities that might become opposed to the basic premises of the imperial system.

Imperial decline

It was the interplay between the policies of the rulers and the political orientations and activities of the major social groups that constituted the crux of the processes of change within the empires and also brought about the development of conditions that could facilitate their downfall. These processes were rooted in the basic characteristics of the social and political structures of all the historical bureaucratic empires. However, the exact ways in which these conditions for change developed, as well as the exact processes that caused them, varied in different empires according to the specific constellation of their structural characteristics, the various external processes that impinged on them, and their unique historical circumstances.

Among the internal aspects of the social structure of these empires which influenced the processes of change was, first, the nature of the goals of the rulers. Whether chiefly military and expansionist, or more oriented to the maintenance of a cultural order, or concerned mainly with economic advancement, each kind of goal made different kinds of demands on the various types of resources available in the society. The processes of change and disintegration were also set in motion by (a) the policies that the rulers developed for the implementation of their goals and the repercussions of these policies on the relative strength of different social strata; (b) changes in the relative strength of such strata as a result of internal economic, religious, or political developments; and (c) the development of various internal and external crises and the ways in which the policies developed to deal with them influenced the strength of different groups.

The direction taken by an empire’s decline and the rate at which it declined were also greatly influenced by two residual factors: the initial level of social and economic differentiation in the society and the initial strength of its various social groups in relation to one another. Within this context, of special importance was the extent to which there existed common cultural and political bonds encompassing these major social groups and the rulers, as for instance in the case of the Confucian order in China (see Eisenstadt 1963, chapter 11; Balazs 1964, chapters 1–2).

Among the more “accidental” or external factors that influenced the processes of change, we should mention different extents of external pressure, major movements of population, conquests of nomads, international economic fluctuations, and the degree to which there existed from the beginning ethnic heterogeneity in a given society. Of equally crucial importance was the specific geopolitical situation of any polity: for instance, the special geopolitical situation of Byzantium at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. In general, it was some combination of external and internal pressures and exigencies that precipitated change in the political systems of these empires. The greater the intensity of these internal contradictions, and the more intractable the external crises by which the empires were faced, the quicker and more intensive was the onslaught of change.

Thus, to give only some very preliminary examples (for a fuller exposition, see Eisenstadt 1963, chapter 12), the fact that in China various invasions, rebellions, and the famous “dynastic cycles” did not undermine for a very long period of time the basic institutional structure of the Chinese Empire (from the Han to the Ch’ing) can be understood if one remembers its geopolitical position, which made it relatively immune to the heavy impact of external forces. Furthermore, in China the relative weakness of the aristocracy and the predominance of the gentry tended to enhance the position of the centralized rulers; and the Confucian literati and bureaucracy, who constituted the backbone of the social and political structure, intervened between the central government and the major social strata and provided an indispensable framework of continuity and unity for the empire. By contrast, the geopolitical exposure of the Byzantine Empire, with its strong sensitivity to invasions and continuous internal struggle between the aristocracy and the free peasantry, led to its complete downfall. Similarly, the Roman and Arabic empires, with their extended boundaries that embraced a great variety of autonomous religions and cultural groups, were unable to contain internal dissension at the same time that they were forced to deal with external pressures.

The foci of change

The policies of the rulers and the political orientations and activities of the major social groups within the empires were greatly influenced by two major sources (both external and internal) of pressure and change. As we have seen above, the external, geopolitical factors, in the broadest sense, provided not only the general setting for these polities but also constituted sources of many concrete pressures, such as external pressures of population and problems of military security or of adjustment to international trade. These geopolitical settings indicated, as we have seen, the nature of the international system within which the rulers of the empires worked and the types of problems to which they were especially sensitive. It has been rightly claimed that in many of these empires there existed, because of their basic structural characteristics, what has been called Primat der Aussen-politik (Altheim 1955), or the priority of foreign policy; this implied a much greater sensitivity to a variety of such external pressures than in many other types of political systems. These external pressures were very often connected with internal problems. For instance, close relations obviously developed between problems of international trade and the situations and activities of merchant groups or between military problems and problems of manpower recruitment. Thus it was the combination of external and internal pressures that constituted the major foci of change in the empires.

In more concrete terms, the main factors generating processes of change in these empires were (a) the continuous needs of the rulers for different types of resources and especially their great dependence on various flexible resources; (b) the rulers’ attempts to maintain their own positions of control, in terms of both traditional legitimation and of effective political control over the more flexible forces in the society; (c) the great and continuous sensitivity of the internal structure of these societies to various external pressures and to political and economic developments in the international field; (d) the consequent needs of the rulers to intensify the mobilization of various resources in order to deal with problems arising out of changes in military, diplomatic, and economic international situations; and (e) the development of various autonomous orientations and goals among the major strata and their respective demands on the rulers.

Insofar as there developed strong contradictions between these different factors and especially insofar as the rulers emphasized very expensive goals, which exhausted the available economic and manpower resources, the rulers found themselves in various dilemmas. In such situations, the special sensitivities of these political systems were brought out, and forces were generated that could undermine the delicate balance between political participation and apathy on which the continuity of these systems depended. This meant that the rulers’ tendency toward maintenance of active control over different strata could become predominant, thus increasing the power of traditional forces, sharpening the conflicts between them and the more flexible, differentiated strata, and either depleting or alienating the more “free” groups and strata from the rulers. This depletion may have taken varying forms: outright reluctance to have children (or “demographic apathy,” as it is sometimes called), weakening of the more independent economic elements and their subordination to more conservative, aristocratic-patrimonial (or feudal) elements, and depletion or flight of mobile capital (Eisenstadt 1963, chapter 12).

These processes were usually closely connected with the aristocratization or ossification of the bureaucracy, with its growing parasitic exploitation of the economy, and with the depletion of active political leadership identified with the régime. Such parasitic exploitation of the economy by the rulers was in a way an intensification of the usual economic activities of the rulers of the empires. The special parasitic nature of their activities in periods of decline—or of the setting in of decline—was evident not so much in the mere extension of the demands for taxes or for manpower as in the fact that the resources mobilized by the rulers were used for the creation of new ascriptive positions and groups. Instead of promoting conditions that could have encouraged the extension of greater resources, through trade or the facilities for training professional manpower, the rulers depleted their resources by adding to their already overdeveloped bureaucracies.

Thus there often developed a continuous flux of foreign elements into the centers of the realms. Initially mere merchants, hirelings, and personal helpers of the rulers, these foreign military groups gradually succeeded in infiltrating some of the most important political posts and finally in totally usurping the supreme political power. This was made possible by the depletion of native strata, together with the mounting internal and external crises. Similar developments could take place with regard to foreign merchants who sometimes, as in Byzantium or the Ottoman Empire, finally managed to monopolize all the trading posts abandoned by the indigenous merchants (Ostrogorski 1940). In those cases, as in Europe, in which these economically and socially more active strata were depleted, they became alienated from the rulers and their policies, as well as from the political institutions of the society, and turned to fomenting change and revolt.

Shmuel N. Eisenstadt



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Wittfogel, Karl A. 1957 Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1963.