The clash of civilizations, literate and pre-literate: a ‘long and tiresome ceremony’ (according to the diary of James King) in which Captain Cook was honored during the festival of Makahiki. The significance of the ritual and Cook's role in it is still debated, not least because the ritual was not formalized at the time. (

A few days ago in Twelve Theses on Institutionalized Power I developed some ideas about implicit versus explicit institutions. An implicit social contract I call an informal institution, and an explicit social contract I call a formal institution. While I find this to be a helpful distinction in terms of clarifying our ideas about institutions as we find them today, in medias res, the distinction cannot be extrapolated backward in time beyond a certain threshold of social organization. Prior to the existence of social institutions in societies possessing historical consciousness and some system of recording this historical consciousness, the distinction has no relevance, except that it suggests some kind of similar distinction might be made, mutatis mutandis, among earlier institutions.

I will posit another distinct species of institutions that exist prior to the fully developed distinction between formal and informal institutions. These pre-formal institutions — institutions emergent prior to the possibility of formalization in a social context — I will call incipient institutions.

I previously discussed some of the conceptual issues surrounding the origin of institutions in The Institution of Language, where I wrote the following:

The social rituals of proto-civilizations lack the intellectual and conceptual infrastructure to emerge as fully formal institutions; however — and this is important — these institutions were formalized in the only way that it was possible to formalize an institution prior to the emergence of written language and explicit legal codes. One could argue that the horror of pre-literate ritual culture was given its horrendous form precisely because it had to make an unforgettable impression at a time when there was no other way to preserve tradition.

I want to continue to explore this line of thought in relation to incipient institutions. Rituals of the kind I refer to above are institutions. In literate, historical cultures, rituals too are literate and historical, often prescribed in nearly neurotic detail. In pre-literate, pre-historical cultures, rituals are incipient institutions. Some of these incipient institutions will fall away as the culture matures, some will be retained, some will evolve into secular institutions, and some will evolve into sacred institutions, i.e., religious institutions. Just as in ancient Greece there was no clear line between science and philosophy, since these two traditions could only be sedulously distinguished after human thought had matured to a given threshold, so too in pre-literate, pre-historical cultures there would have been little or no distinction between secular and sacred rituals. There was only the ritual itself, deeply embedded in the life of the people, and no means to preserve the ritual intact but for the impact that it could be given by the form that it took.

Incipient institutions resemble implicit social contracts, i.e., informal institutions, except that they are formalized to the extent that anything can be formalized in a pre-literate, pre-historical milieu. Incipient institutions can be neither formal or informal, because they are pre-formal. No infrastructure yet exists by which they could be formalized. If anything at all could be said to be a formal institution in this social context, then certainly incipient institutions are formalized in this sense — except that nothing at all, in fact, is formalized in this social context, which context is an absence of all formalized institutions.

Incipient institutions may be present in a state of nature on the verge of transition into a state of non-nature, that is to say, an unnatural state, which is the state of organized social institutions, formal institutions. These conditions are most likely to be found among semi-sedentary peoples of the late Paleolithic, still engaged in hunting and gathering, but also experimenting with agriculturalism and pastoralism.

If we use the term incipient institution not only to refer to pre-formal institutions, but also to institutions that are in the process of development, presently informal but moving toward formalization, then incipient institutions would be a characteristic of any period of historical transition. In times of rapid social change, decadent and incipient institutions would overlap and intersect (as Wittgenstein said of family resemblances), the former failing, in terminal decline, and slowly disappearing, the latter vital and slowly emerging.

This formulation of incipient institutions suggests a further distinction between incipient institutions that are not in a process of maturation into formal institutions (which might characterize many pre-literate, pre-historical rituals) and incipient institutions that are in a process of maturation. Within incipient institutions one might be able to recognize those elements that are stable and which will experience little or no development, and those which suggest much more than they make explicit, and therefore are ripe for development.

Also of interest in the above formulation is the use I have made of Wittgenstein’s famous phrase, that family resemblances “overlap and intersect.” As soon as I wrote that I realized that Wittgenstein’s conception of family resemblances is a static concept and could benefit from being set in a temporal context. Family resemblances over time will be distinct from family resemblances at an instant, as it were; to overlap and to intersect in time is distinct from what it is to overlap and intersect in space. Admittedly, the metaphor is primarily spatial, but there is no reason we cannot engage in some conceptual exaptation and use it for temporal and historical purposes. Incipient institutions in a process of develop into formal institutions, as well as decadent institutions in the process of decomposition, will exhibit temporal forms of family resemblance.

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A Dance in Otaheite, John Keyes Sherwin, engraver (1751–1790) after John Webber (1752–1793) London: 1784 engraving; plate mark 26.5 x 41 cm, Rex Nan Kivell Collection NK10975/4, Pictorial Collection U1244

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In the above I have used the hyphenated term pre-historical to indicate cultures prior to the emergence of historical consciousness. I retain the non-hyphenated form, prehistorical, to indicate the period of history prior to the emergence of history in the narrow sense. This is admittedly a subtle distinction — some might say overly subtle — but I find it a distinction worth making.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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A few days ago I was posting some brief thoughts on Twitter (necessarily brief, given the 140 character limit) about social contract theory, and as the ideas developed I realized that I had something more to say about the exercise of power within institutions. What follows is something of an elaboration of my previously tweeted ideas, which were, in turn, an elaboration of the use of “institutionalized power” as I used that term in Web 2.0: An Alternative Vision.

1. It is not so much power alone that corrupts, as it is institutionalized power that corrupts.

Perhaps in the familiar line, “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely,” it is to be implicitly understood that the power in question is institutionalized power and not merely the power of an individual, but we would do well to be specific that it is an institution that transforms the ordinary vitality of life, which is power, into something sinister.

2. Power channeled through institutions raises the arbitrariness of the power of an individual to a higher order of magnitude.

The power of an individual, while potentially dangerous, is limited to the scope of the individual, and the scope of the individual does not extend to a significant reach in either time or space. Thus the arbitrariness of power of an individual is merely the arbitrariness of a bully, but the arbitrariness of a bully allowed the powers of an institution, to be omnipresent and all but omnipotent, is power not subject to the natural limitations inherent in the individual person.

3. Once an individual experiences the aggrandizement of institutionalized power, the scope of merely individual arbitrary power feels paltry.

To be the representative of institutionalized power (which today means holding political office and basking in the power of that office), is to exercise a power that no individual could cultivate himself in isolation, and which no individual could implement without an institutionalized apparatus of power. To hold institutional power is to have more than the reach of an ordinary man, but it is also to be dependent upon others: in other words, it is to be institutionalized.

Herman Melville has made the definitive comment on this condition:

“It cannot have escaped the discernment of any observer of mankind, that, in the presence of its conventional inferiors, conscious imbecility in power often seeks to carry off that imbecility by assumptions of lordly severity. The amount of flogging on board an American man-of-war is, in many cases, in exact proportion to the professional and intellectual incapacity of her officers to command. Thus, in these cases, the law that authorises flogging does but put a scourge into the hand of a fool.”

Herman Melville, White-Jacket: or, The World in a Man-of-War, Chapter 36: “Flogging not Necessary”

While the scourge no longer takes the form of a cat-o’-nine-tails, the principle remains the same, and, similarly, although the fools who wield the scourge are not the same, the arrogance of office is unchanged.

4. In the state of nature there is arbitrary individual power; it is only in the context of social organization that institutionalized arbitrary power emerges.

Arbitrary individual power in a state of nature, without social organization, can at most result in a duel, which will usually be a contest of equals if not rivals, since a non-equal match will result in the disadvantaged party fleeing. Arbitrary institutional power, made possible by social organization, turns every contest into an unequal confrontation of an individual against an institution, with the individual’s ability to flee the confrontation compromised by the same social organization.

5. The state of nature is a condition of absolute impunity and of absolute absence of impunity.

There is a dialectic of impunity when raised to its absolute form, in which an identity between the absolute possession of impunity and the absolute lack of impunity are seen to amount to the same state of affairs. For further elaboration of this thesis cf. the explication of Theses 10 and 11 below.

6. Impunity of power is an institution that emerges in parallel with the institutions of power, but it is an informal institution.

There can only be impunity is a formal sense when there is a law from which one is immune. However, as we shall see below, there is an informal sense of impunity that is realized in the state of nature. But where the formal institutions of power are present, impunity is an exception to the rules that constitute an informal social contract. It should be pointed out, though, that impunity as an informal institution is a peculiarly modern phenomenon, since in pre-modern states legal authorities were almost always exempt from the rule of law, or, if subject to laws, authorities were subject to separate laws — an instance of the personal principle in law not tied to ethnicity or confessional community — as when English Peers of the Realm were tried in the House of Lords or churchmen were tried in ecclesiastical courts according to Canon Law. This, in turn, is another development of formal institutional power, and impunity is an informal exception to formal institutional power. Thus the historical trend is toward the constitution of formal institutions that acknowledge informal exceptions.

7. An informal institution is an implicit social contract. A formal institution is an explicit social contract.

There is always a degree of exchange between the conventions of implicit social contracts and explicit social contracts, so that formal institutions borrow from informal institutions and vice versa. in other words, the distinction between the two is not absolute. But the distinction is nevertheless valid as far as it goes. This must be taken in the spirit of what I have called an unnamed principle and an unnamed fallacy (which I subsequently christened The Truncation Principle), namely that for any distinction that is made, there will be cases in which the distinction is problematic, but there will also be cases when the distinction is not problematic.

8. The state of nature can be defined as the absence of any social contract, formal or informal, explicit or implicit.

The possibility of an absolute state of nature, lacking either implicit or explicit social contracts immediately suggests the possibility of a relative state of nature in which there may be an explicit social contract but no implicit social contract, or an implicit social contract without an implicit social contract. We can identify the former with corruption and the latter with proto-civilizations. And, again, as above, the distinction between absolute and relative states of nature is not absolute, but remains valid as far as it goes (and subject to the same principle and fallacy noted above).

9. Despite the absence of a social contact in a state of nature, the substance of what we understand by impunity is realized in this condition.

Because in a state of nature, individuals possess the Freudian freedom in which, “their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him,” there is no action whatsoever that is forbidden us in a state of nature. We possess absolute impunity to do as we will — and also to suffer as we will.

10. Impunity in a state of nature is something very different from impunity within a social structure.

Although in a state of nature we possess absolute impunity to do as we will, everyone else possesses exactly the same absolute impunity, and nothing in a state of nature puts me beyond the reach of any individual who seeks to behave with impunity toward me any more than such an one is beyond my reach to behave with impunity. In a state of nature, no one is accountable to anyone, and everyone is accountable to everyone.

11. In a state of nature, no one is untouchable, even while everyone is, by definition, beyond the reach of the law.

As there is, by definition, no law in a state of nature, everyone is beyond the reach of an institution that cannot reach out because it does not exist; in other words, everyone is untouchable. But there is also no law to protect the individual, and so no one is untouchable. The two are merely alternative formulations of the same state of affairs.

12. Formal and informal institutions, explicit and implicit social contracts, exist side-by-side, in parallel in a social system.

Institutions feed off each other. The existence of formal institutions require informal institutions that either allow us to circumvent the formal institution or guarantee fair play by obliging everyone to abide by the explicit social contract (something I previously discussed in Fairness and the Social Contract). There is a sense in which formal and informal institutions balance each other, and if the proper equilibrium between the two is not established, social order and social consensus is difficult to come by. However, in the context of mature political institutions, the attempt to find a balance between formal and informal institutions can lead to an escalation in which each seeks to make good the deficits of the others, and if this escalation is not brought to an end by revolution or some other expedient, the result is decadence, understood as an over-determination of both implicit and explicit social contracts.

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