Third Order Thinking:
Elusive Masses
22 May 2019

After 1789, the Third Order was renamed “The People.” What followed was a century and more in which a few People (sons of the bourgeoisie) made pronouncements, declared revolutions, and organized institutions on behalf of most People. In later years, most People were also known as “the Masses.”

Two inconvenient facts doomed these vicarious efforts. First, none of the People had elected or appointed or in any way chosen restless and alienated young men who were obviously unsuited to follow in their fathers’ footsteps as their spokespersons. Aside from inspiring novelists writing in almost every language to create romantic/demonic heroes and villains, it is hard to see what these activists accomplished. Active without achievement, they littered fiction with  monsters and clowns, but the People did not yet read novels.

The other fact was stated by Raymond Williams in 1958: “There are in fact no masses, but only ways of seeing people as masses.”

If the activists represented anything, it was the guilty conscience shared very unequally by everyone who led a more or less comfortable, orderly existence, from clerks to kings, when forced to reflect on the miserable lives of farmworkers in the country and factory workers in the city. This guilty conscience was pricked often enough to bring about more than a few reforms. But political reforms were not interesting to the rumps of the Third Order, however miserable they were. What the rumps wanted was the same old something else, changed by 1789 only in name: what had been called “food” was now called “wages.” Whenever viscerally pressed by the need for a better diet, the rumps of the Third Order did what they had always done: they indulged in coercive protest. Thanks to reforms volunteered by anxious rulers, violent uprisings were gradually channeled into labor strikes. A railway shutdown might not be as destructive as the looting of a town in the long run, but in the far more complex, interrelated world bequeathed by the Industrial Revolution, it was no less disruptive in the moment, and of course strikes inconvenienced many more citizens. It ought to be noted that while the occasional strike, like the occasional riot, might be prompted by widespread dislike of an ill-considered reform, none was ever intended to improve the rumps’ political position.

What Marx, Engels, and all the others seem never to have understood was that politics is inimical to Third Order Thinking. To get a feel for this hostility, one need only consider the similar fact that corruption is inimical to Liberal Thinking.

Before the Liberal reconstitution of Britain at the end of the Seventeenth Century, the world of affairs was both fundamentally and openly corrupt. Everyone knew that the opportunistic extortion of goods was wrong — that’s why it was recognized as corruption — but nobody could design a political system that reliably prevented it. For this reason, the ancien régime favored rulers strong enough to regulate corrupt practices and to prevent the more shocking flares of unjust enrichment. Corruption was officially and philosophically regretted, but it was accepted as a fact of life.

Then something happened in Britain. It would be a distraction to trace the steps, here, by which British leaders hit on a solution to the Grandee Problem. It’s enough to say that the Grandee Problem was and is universal, wherever it is not constitutionally restrained. Every individual ruler is obliged to come to power-sharing terms with his or her most powerful subjects in order to avoid life-threatening conspiracies. These terms are essentially corrupt, in that they are agreed upon without regard for the general welfare. Some rulers are better at coming to terms than others, and some are much, much worse. This puts the stability of the state at the mercy of the ruler’s character. The British solution was to make the state stronger than the ruler. This was achieved by limiting the rulers’ choice of advisers. It took about fifty years to work out the details, but by the 1730s it was understood by all the leading men of the world’s richest country that the king (the ruler), while free to seek the advice of anyone in the country, must take the advice of the leader of Parliament’s House of Commons — who could be anyone in the country, anyone, that is, capable of winning the recognition of a great number of potential, self-interested rivals. (For a long time, this leader might occasionally sit in the Lords, but no matter.) Thus did the Rule of Law take hold in Britain, and, with it, the world’s first political government — government according to the Rules. Corruption and all the other human vices were hardly exterminated by this transformation, but they were practicably condemned, and those who were found to be corrupt were held to be enemies of the political state.

Speaking of the Rule of Law, I have indulged in a bit of piety. It would be more honest to speak of the Rules of the Game. The men who dominated public affairs toward the end of the Seventeenth Century, and even more and ever more the generations that succeeded them, had the same sort of educations and played the same field sports. It was natural for them to regard the ragbag of procedural traditions that they inherited from the Middle Ages as material from which rules of order might be fashioned. The essence of their legitimacy depended upon not being seen to invent things. A purely rational approach to government and legislation would have demanded a great deal of invention, so the founders of liberal practices settled for taking no approach whatever. There was no need for an approach to politics if you already knew how to play. For this reason, British liberalism, almost in full flower by 1789 and admired everywhere for its efficient and good-natured dispatch of partisan difficulties, was never successfully imitated anywhere.

As I remarked in the last section, the rulers of the post-Revolutionary régime, and bourgeois property-owners as well, could not decide how to deal with the rumps of the Third Order — the proletarians and the serfs. They could never abandon for long the conviction that the rumps must somehow be included in political life. They could not understand why the rumps resisted political engagement. They did not want to think that there was any reason for the rumps to persist in the Third Order belief that authority was always and everywhere at least potentially corrupt. And they did not understand that the rumps’ unambiguous grasp of Right and Wrong made it resistant to compromise, and hostile to the practice of making Right and Wrong stakes in a game that, outside of Britain, was played rather badly. Worse, the new régime, being more principled than the old, was less flexible about charitable interventions; in a word, it was much stingier than the nobles and clerics had been. An equal but thin distribution of benefits showered evenly upon an entire society was bound to be far less satisfactory than buckets of plenty dropped capriciously here and there. The new rulers were right to charge the rumps with ingratitude, but mistaken in their failure to see that it was deserved.

And another thing: hierarchy. For centuries, the old rulers had preached that the social structure of Christendom (Europe) was divinely ordained. Indeed, as Duby tells us, those pioneers of the Three-Order model, Adalbero and Gerard, assumed that any proper order on earth would mirror the order of heaven, with its tripartite division of angels. (Medieval thinkers knew a great deal about this sort of thing.) The toilers of the Third Order were assured that they would receive their reward for backbreaking work in the next world — when, that is, they weren’t being told that they were damned to the pits of hell from the moment they were born. Centuries of such imprecation were not without effect. By the closing years of the ancien régime, the Third Order rumps-to-be (certainly not the bourgeois-to-be) were almost comforted by the image of a Great Chain of Being, linking every one of God’s creatures in an order, from angels to worms. This was an arrangement that peasants could count on, in a world where certainty was at a premium that we cannot currently imagine. It was an arrangement, moreover, that was manifested in varieties of dress and behavior. Tales of Haroun al-Rashid drifting anonymously through the Baghdad nights might appealing at bedtime, but peasants did not want to be in any doubt about which person in the procession was the king. Nor did they doubt that the king would dispense more largesse than anyone else, or that more local bigwigs would not tailor their generosity to their rank.

The new régimes were themselves ambivalent about hierarchy. Officially, of course, they declared it to be defunct, but in everyday life they were no more prepared to conduct their affairs without deference and acknowledgment than the rumps were prepared to believe that these no longer mattered. Titles of nobility were swept away by the Revolution, but only for a time. Even before Napoleon’s advent it was agreed that doing away with the feudal claims that were thought to underpin noble status was sufficient, and dukes continued to parade the earth. What’s more, the European aristocracy continued to control (with occasional interruptions) the military forces of the new régime, right up until the fiasco of the Great War (which I see as the aristocracy’s last bid — idiotic but sincere — to regain hegemony). By that time, of course, the rumps were less inclined to bow and curtsy, not least because, the military aside, the upper reaches of the old hierarchy were no longer behaving properly.

We shall return to hierarchical slippage by the better sort. For the moment, we need only notice that in their preference for hierarchy to politics, Third Order rumps displayed a stubborn attachment to the ultimacy of the individual. This was in part doubtless owing to their lack of education and of comfort with abstractions. They never forgot that you do not meet abstractions in the street, but only distinct persons. Similarly, and to the bafflement of those who still saw themselves as their social superiors, they refused to regard themselves as members of groups most of whose other members were completely unknown to them, ie “the working class.” The old rulers might have rattled on about the peasantry as an order, but in their everyday dealings they dealt with actual subordinates and dependents, often by name. The art of stripping a human being of individuality would await more earnest attempts by the totalitarians of the Twentieth Century (and even they would fail). The old and new ruling classes alike were aware that the peasantry and the proletariat could be angered into so-called “mob” behavior, and we know that mob behavior dissolves the sense of individuality — but only for a time, only so long as the anger is white-hot, which it cannot be, owing to human frailty, for long. Terrified of mob misrule, and living in conditions of increasing social segregation, the new rulers and the bourgeoisie rather lazily imagined that workers were always governed by mob psychology, when in actuality they were only very rarely. Hence the spectre of “the masses.”

When Gladstone famously pledged to side with “the masses” against “the classes,” he was projecting (unconsciously, I think) an image of society, part hierarchical, part “middle” and “upper,” from which the working class, considered as a monad, had been cut away. This the rumps would never accept. Rumps never ceased to see themselves as belonging integrally and individually to society as a whole — for all the nodding and curtsying, they knew that the king was no less mortal than they themselves — and they never ceased to demand a minimum wage for the work that they did. That each man was entitled to his due was a belief that the rumps would never trade in for the more advanced benefit of guaranteed welfare; although they were happy to take such benefits, they didn’t like to see them distributed to the undeserving.

In short, the rumps of the Third Order continued — and continue — to regard politics as an interference with the exchange of labor for the rudiments of a prosperous subsistence. At least they were aware of politics, if only as a nuisance. What neither they, plowing along through the catastrophes of the last century, nor anone else had any reason to foresee was that the coming medium of television would get the rumps out of their rut. Even less would anyone have imagined that television would succeed at the task that had bested generations of well-meaning reformers precisely by enshrining the old Third Order way of seeing the world.