J. I. (Hans) Bakker, Brandon University
How can we understand ISIS? What would an Islamic Caliphate look like? I believe it is fruitful to use Max Weber’s theory of traditional authority, particularly patrimonial prebendalism, to answer that question.
Some current scholars are skeptical of using classical theory by Western scholars to explain contemporary events outside of the West. Raewyn Connell (2007) criticizes much work on globalization as merely what she calls “metropolitan theory.” She critiques the way the history of sociological theory is constructed, especially the use of the classics (Collins 1997), like Comte, Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and Simmel. She states (p. 64): “A body of writing about the global in which Weber is a major point of reference, but al-Afghani  is not, defines itself as profoundly limited.” There is a grain of truth in her argument but for the most part she is profoundly misleading.
I propose taking a deeper look at "patrimonialism" than has been the case in previous work, taking Weber's Economy and Society ( 1968) as a whole seriously, and focusing on "patrimonialism" as a whole rather than merely aspects of the ideal type model.
Many sociologists are not familiar with the concept of patrimonialism, despite many presentations of Weber's views on the subject (e.g. Bendix 1977). It tends to be regarded by many sociologists as an "esoteric" concept, yet I argue it is a concept of wide applicability in many contemporary regions. Many sociologists claim familiarity with Weberian ideal types such as the "Protestant ethic," "charismatic authority" and "modern bureaucracy" but apart from a handful of Weber specialists, few have much to say about patrimonialism (Wertheim 1995). Patrimonialism is typically omitted or glossed over in textbooks on classical or contemporary theory. Because the term "patrimonialism" has not had clear lexical or operational definition, it has been employed in many different ways. This essay will clarify one possible use of the term, which I believe captures the general intention of Weber's mature work.
In the chronologically later part of Economy and Society (i.e. the part that is printed first in the English translation and the German versions) Weber developed pure ideal types that were based on conceptual extrapolation from his detailed concrete historical knowledge and his working on historical cases of those ideal-types. Weber’s ideal-types of "modern bureaucracy" and "charismatic authority" are well known, but few recognize the historical or pure ideal-type models of "patrimonial prebendalism" (for a discussion of “pure” versus “historical” ideal-type models, see Bakker 1997). This model of traditional pre-capitalist societies can be compared to "patrimonial-feudalism.” A fully patrimonial-feudalist system is different from a patrimonial-prebendalist form of domination principally in that it includes baronial and/or monastic estates which are at least somewhat militarily and legally independent of the centralizing rulership. Aristocratic land ownership was at one time “progressive” compared to a system of traditional bureaucratic office holders who had no independent military power. The historical realities which are accentuated through these pure ideal-types are tendencies; they often oscillate to some degree, with patrimonial-feudalism representing more centrifugal tendencies and patrimonial-prebendalism representing more centripetal tendencies in a traditional situation.
I have examined historical and contemporary evidence for the applicability of Weberian patrimonialism to the Javanese and Balinese parts of what is now called Indonesia, during pre-colonial, colonial, and recent times (Bakker, 1983, 1987, 1988). The key finding is that Weber’s ideal-type model of traditional authority seems to fit the ideographical details of Javanese history fairly well (Bakker 2010). Indeed, it may be universally true—for all historical societies that have reached a certain level of bureaucratization—that there is an oscillation between prebendal and feudal aspects of traditional authority structures (Bakker 2012). My case-study material comes from the Indonesian archipelago, but I believe the essential idea has great relevance to the Middle East as well as mainland and insular Southeast Asia. It is also relevant to the study of both Indic and Sinitic Civilizations (Collins 1998). Most surprisingly (at least to some) is the fact that Weber’s (1968 ) “oscillation thesis” also applies to Europe, especially in terms of the ultimate failure of the patrimonial-prebendal Holy Roman (“Germanic-Italic”) Empire and the Roman Catholic Ecclesia.
Ideal-Typical Features of Patrimonial Prebendalism
In Weber's mature work, patrimonialism is a key feature of pre-capitalist societies, a usage that corresponds to a general view on the "traditional societies" which immediately preceded modern capitalism. It is a viewpoint that Weber develops in his sociological analysis of domination or authority (Herrschaft). It can reasonably be argued that "The Sociology of Domination is the core of Economy and Society," which in turn is "the sum" of Weber's scholarly vision of society (Roth 1968: lxxxviii, xxxiii). Weber's analysis of traditional authority as patrimonialism, in turn, is a key component of his "Sociology of Domination," and his analysis of legitimate authority.
Weber, as is well known, distinguished between "traditional" and "modern" types of domination (as well as other types). That form of traditional domination which Weber called patrimonial domination is divided into two main types, as well as a number of antecedent "proto-patrimonial" types. The two main types are patrimonial prebendalism and patrimonial feudalism. Weber's ideal type model of patrimnonial prebendalism historically has at least six ideal type characteristics:
- All political legitimacy is held by one ruling group, usually just one ruler and his retinue, (e.g. a "Sultan" or "Emperor" or "Tsar" etc.).
- Provincial elites or traditional ''officials'' (prebendiaries, ministeriales) have no independent power base and in the final analysis owe their power to decisions made by the ruler. Such elite groups are not able to become local dynasties. Furthermore, there is no accepted "structure" of relatively independent elite groups within the "system." If a member of the provincial elite wants to maintain his own army, he must become the founder of a local dynasty or must take over as the ruler of the "nation." There is no halfway point between acceptance of the ruler's total domination and rebellion against centralized rulership.
- Decision-making is ad hoc and there are no rational-legal administrative codes (or only very loose codes). Major decisions concerning the "constitutionality" of a law are decided by "the ruler." Furthermore, the ruler can always promulgate a new set of laws without significant concern with legal or constitutional precedent. The ruler (or ruling oligarchy) can make significant life and death decisions without any consultation whatsoever. There is nothing approximating a "jury of one's peers" for members of the elite, much less for ordinary, non-elite persons.
- All of the land and labor is held in "royal domain," although some rights to land and labor may be parceled out to members of the provincial elites or military for temporary use, subject to the ruler's decision to allow the situation to continue. Although there may be "money" there is no such thing as modern "capital." Hence, "land and labor" are the main sources of material wealth. (The concept of "land" here can also include all agricultural wealth, e.g. livestock, slaves, etc.)
- Subjects in villages are treated as collectively liable to the villages to which they are more or less permanently attached.
- Producers ("cultivators") are subject to servile labor (e.g corvee). Those producers may be regarded as ''peasants" in so far as they are not necessarily totally divorced from markets and may have some access to "money" through the sale of goods in such markets. However, such markets are not fully capitalized; the development of modern capitalism and especially modern capitalist "free labor',' is incipient, at best.
ISIS as a Prebendal Patrimonial Polity
An Islamic Caliphate, if established, would be a patrimonial-prebendal, imperial state. The Caliph would be the patrimonial ruler who would rule through a system of “prebends” involving appanage and a hierarchy of patron-client relationships. The structure of such a Caliphate, in other words, would be like the 12th century Roman Catholic Church and Holy Roman Empire in Western Europe. It would not be a global system. But it would be constructed in opposition to the emerging neo-liberal global finance capitalist world-system. It would be an Islamic “response” to capitalist imperialism (al-Afghani 1968).
It is not clear how long such a Caliphate could continue to survive. The idea that a 12th century Caliphate is possible is in essence the notion that a Patrimonial-Prebendal society can be re-instituted in the contemporary Middle East. Such a goal ignores the history of all hitherto existing patrimonial-prebendal societies; the Ottoman Empire was last such society to be successful for hundreds of years. Patrimonial-prebendalism also continues in vestigial form in the current Roman Catholic Church, with a Patrimonial-Prebendal leader (the Pope) and a notion of celibacy that dates back to an authority structure no longer relevant in the twenty-first century. The earlier 12th century problem was that a priest or monk who had a child could become an incipient “feudal” landholder. Therefore, the clergy, who had many children, could not have legitimate children. Of course, there were situations where bastard sons did accumulate power, but they were the exceptions and the structure was prebendal rather than feudal. Today, for the most part, the Roman Catholic Church in North America and Europe is a denomination rather than a true ecclesia. The Spanish and Portuguese Empires were based in part on the idea that a true Patrimonial-Prebendal system could continue to exist in the New world and in various other colonies.
In the space of a newsletter article, this is of course a quite simplified version of Weber’s nuanced and complex presentation, and I encourage more scholars to continue to investigate the contemporary relevance of patrimonial-prebendalism to contemporary societies. Connell is quite incorrect to think that Al-Afghani, a defender of a patrimonial-prebendalist version of Islamic authority, is more relevant because he is a “Southern Theorist” and Weber is “merely” a classical theorist from the Metropole. He did not merely contrast rigid polar types such as Tönnies’ Gemeinschaft & Gesellschaft or German theories of Naurvölker versus Kulturvölker (Connell 2007). Instead, Weber developed largely historically-based Ideal Type Models which are immensely heuristic for sociologists living in any part of the world to use.
‘al-Afghani, Sayyid Jamal ad-Din. 1968. An Islamic Response to Imperialism: Political and Religious Writings of Sayyid Jamal ad-Din ‘al-Afghani. Tr, N. R. Keddie and H. Algar. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Bakker, J. I. (Hans). 1983. "Village Liability and Common Land Use: Testing the Meitzen-Weber Hypothesis." Pp. 4-30 in The Southeast Asian Environment, edited by Douglas Webster. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press.
______. 1987. "Class Relations in Java in the Nineteenth Century: A Weberian Perspective." Canadian Journal of Development Studies 8 (1): 137-56.
______. 1988. "Patrimonialism, Involution and the Agrarian Question in Java: a Weberian Analysis of Class Relations and Servile Labour." Pp. 279-301 in State and Society: The Emergence and Development of Social Hierarchy and Political Centralization, edited by John Gledhill , Barbara Bender, and Mogens Trolle Larsen. London: Unwin Hyman.
______. 2010. “Deference and Democracy n Traditional and Modern Bureaucracy: Refinements in Max Weber’s Ideal Type Model.” Pp. 105-128 in Society, History, and the Global Human Condition: Essays in Honor of Irving M Zeitlin, edited by Zaheer Baber and Joseph M. Bryant. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
______. 2012. “Weber’s Oscillation Thesis: Patrimonial Prebendalism and Feudalism.” Perspectives 34(1): 4.
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