Aristocracy or ‘nobility’ is a relatively closed social group that is defined through its hereditary rank and is positioned at the very top of the socio-political hierarchy. Aristocracy emerged with the rise of agrarian societies coupled with their power to subjugate peasants and force them to work for them. Aristocracy historically existed in societies that had an economy based on slavery and in those where the economy was based on feudalism and serf labor. Although aristocracy is most often found in monarchies there have also been aristocratic republics.
In his book Lineages of the Absolute State (1974b), Perry Anderson explores the development of fourteenth-century feudalism. During that period, feudal relations in England and France weakened, but so did those relations in Eastern Europe. He believes that feudalism was reconstructed then because the domination of the aristocracy was transferred from the local feudal estates to the absolutist central state. The absolutist state implemented measures that protected the collective interests of the aristocracy, and it was these measures, although unintentional, that enabled the emergence of the bourgeoisie.
Franz Oppenheimer in the book The State (1907) used the analysis of the influence of land monopolies and the theory of marginal benefits to formulate his explanation of the course of the entire world history. Primitive hunters and Neolithic farmers did not have land monopolies but were created by nomadic pastoralists who conquered the territories of the agricultural population during the Bronze Age. By conquering, nomadic cattle breeders created states on the territory of the Mediterranean, India, China, Mesopotamia, but also in the Andes. Ancient Rome was marked by vast land holdings controlled by the land aristocracy and on which a huge number of slaves worked. The consequences of such a system were hunger, poverty, and depopulation, which led to the collapse of the Roman Empire.
The Germanic tribes, on the remnants of the Roman Empire, created new states in which semi-feudal land relations existed. In some countries, the peasants were in a relatively independent position from the landowners and were organized into peasant cooperatives. The prosperity of the cities, which occurred at the end of the Middle Ages, depended on the relative independence of the peasants and their good economic condition. Since the 16th century, the absolutist states deprived the feudal lords of their primacy, destroys rural cooperatives, and introduces a professional bureaucratic class to run the state. As the absolutist state failed to solve the problems between the landed aristocracy and the peasants, the French Revolution ensued.
In the book The Court Society, Norbert Elias studies the process by which the chivalrous aristocracy, as it existed during the Middle Ages, with the emergence of an absolute monarchy in France during the reign of Louis XIV, was transformed into a refined nobility. In that period, the feudal aristocracy, which was in constant conflict, became part of the court society under the control of the absolute ruler. Instead of an open conflict with the king, aristocrats become part of the court elite who fight among themselves to achieve prestige and power within the court hierarchy. Achieving the highly prestigious status of the aristocracy was closely related to extravagant spending, which confirmed its position.
In the two-volume book On The Process of Civilization: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations, Elias expands his research by studying how the rules governing the behavior of the aristocracy spread to wider strata of society. The spread of these rules of conduct is the essence of the process of "civilizing" Western European societies. The civilizing of society takes place on two levels, on the one hand, aggressive behavior between people is suppressed, while on the other hand, there is the development of very precise rules that regulate individual behavior. Control over individual behavior refers, above all, to the adoption of the rules of good behavior in social situations - the rules of etiquette.
The first volume of this book deals with the adoption of etiquette rules and is called The History of Manners. Elias follows the development of rules that regulate many areas: eating behavior, the way physiological functions are performed, regulation of sexual behavior and gender relations, and the like. He calls this process the "sociogenesis" of civilization. The rules of good behavior are adopted on the cognitive and behavioral levels by individuals. The main change on the individual level is an increase in the feelings of shame and anxiety concerning one's own body and satisfying the most basic biological needs. Behavioral changes are directly related to changes in the structure of the wider society. When the aristocracy became part of the court society, individuals from the aristocracy came to a state of greater physical closeness, but also greater interdependence.
To avoid conflicts, rules of good behavior were created that controlled the behavior of the aristocracy. With the declining rigidity of class stratification, people from different strata increasingly came into close physical contact and interdependence. Thus, there was a need to extend the rules of good behavior to the lower strata of society; first to the bourgeoisie, and then to other strata. Behavioral rules become part of the "habitus" that individuals adopt from birth and throughout life. This shaping of the mentality and behavior of the individual is a process of "psychogenesis".
In the second volume of On the Process of Civilization, subtitled State Formation and Civilization, the focus of research shifts to changes at the macro level and the process of "sociogenesis", the emergence of a social field that includes not only individual states but also the sequential sequence of evolution of interdependent societies. Over time, people, more and more, adjust their behavior in relation to other people, and to progressively stricter and more precise rules. Each individual action is increasingly regulated, in order to fulfill a certain social function. Behavior is, more and more, regulated automatically, from the earliest age, and it begins to impose itself as a compulsion that is impossible to avoid, even with conscious desire.
On the other hand, the state, headed by an absolute monarch, becomes more centralized and begins to monopolize the use of physical force and tax collection. It is the combination of control over the means of force and over cash flows that gives enormous power to the absolute monarch who imposes rules of conduct on the subordinate aristocracy at his court. The emergence of an absolute monarchy does not depend on the psychological character of the ruler but depends on the development of specific social structures, that is, figurations, which enable the emergence of absolute rule and a centralized state. The development of the division of labor, demographic growth, urbanization, the growth of trade, and the monetary economy, created the conditions for the emergence of an absolute monarchy. First, the war relations between the various feudal lords calmed down, which enabled the progress of the cities and increased the division of labor. In particular, the growth of trade and the monetary economy enabled the monarch to create an independent source of income regarding the feudal estates of the aristocracy. As the economic importance of land ownership declined, so did the economic and military power of the aristocracy.
Bourgeois Revolutions and the Downfall of Aristocracy
In his book Ancient Regime and the Revolution (1856), Alexis Tocqueville examines how the collapse of the aristocratic order and the revolution in France took place, as well as the long-term consequences of those events. Citing the reasons for the outbreak of the French Revolution, he singles out several factors. Conflicts within the aristocratic elite, conflicts between the aristocracy and the growing bourgeoisie, the spread of freedom and equality among the citizenry, the excessive centralization of administrative and political power by the crown, and the financial crisis in the decade before the Revolution were the most important contributing factors. to make the change of the old regime certain. Tocqueville especially emphasizes the disastrous influence of political centralization on political and social institutions that acted as a link between the government and ordinary people - craft guilds, local assemblies, and others. Centralization, restriction of political freedoms, abolition of intermediary institutions, and weakening of local public political life, led to excessive individualism, atomization of society, and general dissatisfaction in all classes.
Göran Therborn states that French and other bourgeois revolutions were the consequence of problems and conflicts caused by industrialization and the associated rise of the capitalist class because the new capitalist class clashed with the outmoded political structures of the aristocracy.
Anderson P. Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism (1974a);
- Lineages of the Absolutist State (1974b);
Elias. On the Process of Civilisation (2012, in French 1839);
Engels: The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (2010, in German 1884);
Oppenheimer. The State (1907);
Pareto. The Rise and Fall of Elites (1991);
Therborn. What Does the Ruling Class do When it Rules?: State Apparatuses and State Power under Feudalism, Capitalism and Socialism (1978);
Tilly. Coercion, Capital, and European States: A.D. 990–1990 (1990);
- European Revolutions: 1492–1992 (1993);
Tocqueville. The Ancien Régime and the Revolution (1956).