Every nation is run by an organized minority of its population, a ruling class, and that class always tells a story about why its members should be in charge. It could be the divine right of kings, it could be the mandate of heaven, or it could be popular election — every ruling class invests in a narrative that grants itself legitimacy.
The Italian political theorist Gaetano Mosca called this narrative of sovereignty a political formula. It can be easy to assume that these narratives are lies of pure ambition, convenient fictions concocted by the ruling class for its own advantage, but Mosca warns that this is not the case. Rulers never like to see themselves as the villain, and the exercise of pure power wears on the people of a nation, breeding unrest.Subscribe
Any ruling class that seeks to achieve longevity and stability must establish a narrative that rings true both to itself and its subjects, establishing legitimacy through a shared set of beliefs. For our current managerial elite, that narrative is one of efficiency and progress.
But that narrative now sits on a razor’s edge.
While the political formula of our own liberal democracy tells us the people of the nation are sovereign over themselves, this can never be the case. The political formula’s role is to elevate one group above all others and grant that group exceptional powers and privileges. This narrative works best when it is drawn from shared elements of culture and tradition that allow the ruling class to confidently wield their power and the subject class to freely accept its legitimacy. This means that the story told must be particular to the character of the nation it sustains.
Early religions were the natural source of this narrative, as they tended to be tribal. The gods of the city were particular to those peoples and grounded the power of their ruling class in something deeply personal to the in-group. While this was very effective, it made large-scale cooperation impossible, as there was no basis for shared values between tribes.
civilizational coordination among many different peoples who now shared a common point of reference. Although these great religions solved the problem of scaling coordination, they generated a new problem by creating supranational organizations that competed for sovereignty with the rulers of particular peoples. This resulted in the classic Western tension between the authority of the pope and the power of individual principalities. This tension was largely resolved in favor of the ruling classes by the Peace of Westphalia and the creation of the nation-state.
In the United States and other Western liberal democracies, the political formula became one of elections and popular sovereignty. The people were theoretically sovereign, but they immediately transferred that power to a small class of elected officials who ruled in their name. While this is still the official narrative, the actual framework of these nations has moved to a managerial system and the political formula has been slowly shifted to align with this reality over time.
As a result, the powers of legislative bodies like Congress have been increasingly delegated to bureaucratic agencies on the basis of their managerial expertise. Decision-making has been transferred out of the hands of elected officials who now hold ceremonial debates over political action while the real policies are crafted and enacted by “experts” shielded from public scrutiny. The public is assured that while elections are essential and democracy is sacred, politicians are only valuable insofar as they “trust the science” and ultimately place the real decision-making authority in the hands of our new priestly class.
Nothing brought the reality of this political formula into focus as clearly as the events surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. While elected officials held power in theory, the response of most nations was driven by international organizations touting a medical consensus.