Notes on Patricia Crone’s discussion about pre-industrial society politics

My following thoughts are based on reading of Patricia Crone’s book Pre-industrial Societies, chapter 4.

  • Pre-industrial society politics tended to be dominated by a small group of people, i.e. the ruling class. Hereditary kings tend to think about the state as their own possession or family property. Those who have easy access to the king, e.g. eunuchs in China, could therefore have more power in their hands if they manipulated properly (or if the ruler was incapable and had to rely on them, like China in the late Ming Dynasty).
  • Inspection was needed to strike a balance between the ruler’s private interests and the interests of the society, but the inspection scheme could sometimes malfunction or even fail. An example is the decline in the power of the inspection officer (谏官) in China’s Song Dynasty. This was one important contributing factor of the breakdown of Song Dynasty.
  • There had always been a conflict between the “office-holders depending on the centre” and “local landowners thriving on local influence” (as Crone put it). The ruler had to find a coordination mechanism to align the interests of the two.
  • Peasant revolts were not uncommon in pre-industrial societies, but they were rarely successful. Crone argues that peasants revolts were “commonly egalitarian” and “wildly utopian”. This could be demonstrated by the Chinese Taiping Rebellion (from 1850s to 1860s). Peasant leaders often conducted revolts under a religion for it was an easy way to organize the masses beyond household level. Note that this is similar to the emperor linking themselves to the divine in order to add validity to their actions. But why did nearly all peasant revolts fail? I cannot resolve this question cannot be resolved by my thinking now. Hopefully I’ll find some clues to it later.

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