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Chapter 6. Patterns

Carroll Quigley never intended to become an historian. As a teenager, he was a science geek, interested in rocks and minerals. As an undergraduate at Harvard, he intended to become a biochemist, and in his first year he came top of his calculus and physics classes. But he was forced, in the interests of intellectual breadth, to also study one humanities course. He chose the history course “Europe since the fall of Rome,” and was awarded a ‘C’ grade. Despite this mediocre result, he decided to abandon his previous plans and transfer to the history department. Eventually, he graduated top of his class in history and went on to a PhD at Harvard. note 61

He moved in 1941 to the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, where he remained until he retired in 1976. Quigley devoted himself to teaching, and his course “Development of Civilization” was the centrepiece of the Georgetown history department, enthusiastically praised by his students, even years later. Former student Bill Clinton even mentioned Quigley’s inspirational influence in his speech when he accepted the Democratic party nomination for President in 1992. (Clinton had taken Quigley’s class in the 1960s.)

Quigley was both an insider and an outsider. As an insider, he consulted for the State Department, the Department of Defence, the Brookings Institution and other bodies in government or close by. He regarded himself as in the intellectual mainstream of Western civilisation, but at the same time he was an unusual historian, an outsider who attempted to apply the methods of science to the study of history. This meant studying many different periods of history to find common patterns — patterns which were never perfectly developed, but always distorted. Most historians, then and now, prefer to concentrate narrowly on a particular topic in a particular period, so they can be an unchallenged expert on one thing. Breadth is dangerous, because it invites mistakes, and Quigley did make some mistakes. But the patterns he saw are a tremendous help in understanding our history and our world.

To understand any subject deeply, you need to see patterns. You need to have a structure on which to arrange detailed facts. Through all of history some particular patterns of social organisation and national government seem to recur again and again. One pattern noticed by Quigley, which I will call instruments and institutions explains why all social organisations tend to degenerate and deviate from their original purpose over time. Another pattern, finite and infinite games, invented by religious scholar James Carse, explains very neatly why the “establishment” elite in any society often makes decisions against the best interests of the society and even against the best interests of the establishment itself. A third pattern, noticed by Quigley, which I will call aspects of sovereignty, catalogues the levers of power in a nation and illuminates exactly how some governments have less control than others.

Let’s start with Quigley’s instruments and institutions. In his book The Evolution of Civilizations, Quigley talks about the various needs of humans living in groups. For example, we might think about the following different human needs: note 62

Quigley suggests these categories, but doesn’t claim they are “correct” — he’s keen to emphasise that the precise number of categories isn’t important. If you don’t like those categories, feel free to invent your own. The important thing is to notice that in groups of humans, social organisations come into existence to satisfy particular needs. These organisations don’t attempt to satisfy every need; they each concentrate on some particular category. These organisations don’t need to be formal or “official.” They consist mostly of personal relationships, of people working together to get things done. Quigley defines a social instrument as an organisation which is satisfying a particular need, its purpose, with relative effectiveness. But over time, all instruments tend to deviate from their original purpose, and become institutions. Quigley explains:

An instrument is a social organisation that is fulfilling effectively the purpose for which it arose. An institution is an instrument that has taken on activities and purposes of its own, separate from and different from the purposes for which it was intended. As a consequence, an institution achieves its original purpose with decreasing effectiveness. note 63

This particular pattern is almost a golden rule of history,: all social instruments tend to become institutions. There are three reasons for this:

For all these reasons, all social instruments tend sooner or later to become institutions. But when an instrument has changed into an institution, what about the needs it should be addressing? Often those needs will still be pressing on the society. In fact, the society may not be able to persist in its current form unless those needs are addressed. Quigley suggests three outcomes:

When we look at military history we can find some particularly good examples of instruments turning into institutions. In the Hundred Years War, says Quigley, “the inability of the French knights to analyze their defeats is one of the best examples we have of the reactions of an institutionalized force to weapons innovation.” Faced with longbow-armed common-folk from England and Wales, the French were unable to register that men of noble blood could be killed from a distance by their social inferiors. note 67

But you don’t have to go far to find institutions. Think about schools — what is their purpose, and how well do they really achieve it? Do they really help transform children into self-reliant mature adults? Why not? What are they doing instead? Think about hospitals, police forces, trades unions, charities. All around, you can see instruments and institutions in your own life. Instruments solve problems; institutions perpetuate the problems they should be solving. And all instruments tend to become institutions.


Another way to look at social groups is to think in terms of finite and infinite games, an idea proposed by religious scholar James Carse. The simplest definition of a finite game is one that you play to win. For example, football and chess are finite games. By contrast, an infinite game is one that you play to keep the game going. Carse gives an example of an infinite game from his childhood. Near to his house there was an empty double-lot where children would gather and play softball. In the summer, with no school, they would play all day long. Sometimes they would keep score, sometimes not. It was, says Carse, an endless game. note 68

Although infinite games share many of the characteristics of finite games, there are some critical differences. In an infinite game there is some ambiguity about who is or isn’t a player and exactly what the rules are. A finite game has definite rules and definite boundaries. The rules are unchangeable, because otherwise there would be no way to tell when someone had lost. For the same reason, in a finite game everyone has to understand and agree where the boundaries are.

Carse explains that an infinite player has the talent to see when someone is about to lose, and is able either to change the rules or otherwise find a way to get that person back into the play. In his childhood softball game, at the end of the summer the Catholic school a few blocks away went back a week early. So each day, in the late afternoon, a stream of high-energy Catholic kids looking to let off steam joined in and nearly broke up their game. Carse recalls how one of the players saved their infinite game. A little kid with a gift for poetic names called the interlopers “Speed, “Ace,” “Slugger,” “Champ,” and so on. The kids, says Carse, were charmed. The infinite game went on — not entirely easily, but it went on.

Infinite games can contain finite games. The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in Wimbledon is an infinite game, but each year’s Wimbledon tennis championship is a finite game. Some lunchtimes, I play badminton in an informal club that’s been running for years. It’s an infinite game. Some days there are twenty people, some days only a couple, and there’s a steady turnover from year to year. We play doubles, singles and when there are odd numbers, two-against-one, which is not an official variant of badminton at all.

When you understand the concept, you can easily apply this classification to other social systems. Most religions are infinite games. An army is an infinite game, but a battle is a finite game. A trading company is an infinite game, and so usually is commerce in general — people like to band together in guilds, cartels and unions to seek their mutual advantage and to “keep the game going.” They resist the efforts of outsiders to shut the game down.

However, not all commerce is an infinite game. Sometimes one firm gets close to a monopoly, then concentrates on removing all remaining competitors by any means available — in other words, winning a finite game. Capitalism is not supposed to work like this — it is supposed to always be an infinite game, but in practice it sometimes becomes a finite game. The only real defence is to have a bigger infinite game called “government regulation,” but of course even that is not infallible. Since money brings political power, someone with enough money might use that power to change the regulations in their favour — again turning an infinite game into a finite game that they can win.

Most political elites or “establishments” can be viewed in terms of infinite games. When you see them this way, it becomes clearer why they take some otherwise strange decisions, harming their society and themselves in the longer run. Although he doesn’t use the term “infinite game,” Quigley gives a good example from the the Roman republic in his book Weapon Systems and Political Stability: note 69

It has often been said that the Romans had no plans of world conquest and that they became rulers of the world in fits of absent-mindedness, like England acquired its empire. This may be correct, but it means nothing. The Romans had no long-range plans for world conquest because they had no long-range ideas on anything. But a state and a ruling group that obsessively judges every situation and every act in terms of aggrandizement of power will end up ruling the world or will be destroyed in the process. The Romans achieved both of these.

That last statement must be modified at once, because it is not true that the Romans were obsessively concerned with power. They were not, for they were obsessively concerned with something else, with honors, or with what they themselves called dignitas. The impression that they were obsessed with power arises from the fact that the chief methods of acquiring dignitas required the use of power. But we must see the relationship clearly, which is not easy because we must see it through Roman eyes, which were quite different from our own. Indeed, we cannot even accept this last sentence as stated because dignitas, the real motivating element in the Roman system, was not a concern of the average Roman and may have been almost as incomprehensible to such an average Roman as it is, say, to the average modern classicist. The fact is that the average Roman, or even the overwhelming majority of Romans, had almost nothing to do with the decision-making processes within the Roman system and were as remote from the thirst for dignitas as they were from any thirst for power. In fact, excluded from both dignitas and power, the average Roman concerned himself with quite other things, including a thirst for land, or for money, or for sensual pleasures or for numerous other things. But these motivations of ordinary Romans, found, perhaps, among the majority of persons then, now, and at most times in history, were not the motivations which made history, least of all among the Romans. The vital decisions which made history in the Roman system were based, more often than not, on the thirst for dignitas possessed by that small and exclusive group who controlled the Roman system and made up the Roman establishment.

Political power in the Roman republic was in the hands of an “establishment” drawn from a couple of dozen noble families. These families were playing an infinite game that they called dignitas. There was always a danger of outside power in the form of military force, money or popular uprisings upsetting that game. The political rules used to dole out power in the Roman republic appear to modern eyes quite strange. But the rules had a purpose:

One of the chief purposes of the rules of the establishment was to exclude these three real elements of power (force, wealth, and numbers) from the system. These rules were set up like those of a game. The game was played according to the rules of families (rather than individuals) and the goal of the game was to maximise the “honors” possessed by each family. These “honors” were very concrete objects and were on display in the atrium of every successful establishment family. Such an atrium was like the trophy room of a yacht club or the gymnasium of a great university, placed so that all visitors to the building must pass by the display and recognise the prestigious record of those who own it.

This was the point of winning office as consul or censor; it was the point of military victories and foreign conquests. Force was excluded from the system by ensuring that the armies of Rome remained at a safe distance from the city. Wealth was excluded from the system by effectively restricting high office to the nobility, and although wealth was always useful, it was not possible to directly buy dignitas. Numbers were excluded from the system by a voting method where the establishment votes counted for more than common folk and where election days could be declared “inauspicious” by the official soothsayers and delayed until the lower classes had dispersed. The celebration of dignitas was most obvious at establishment funerals:

Every great family of the senatorial nobility had a hereditary clientage of supporters and dependents. These had the obligation to report every morning to their patron, the head of their noble family. As they came in, they paid their respects to the honors displayed in the atrium. When their patron died, they formed part of the funeral procession, the culminating event of a noble Roman’s life. In that display the death masks, robes of highest office, and insigniae of honors were worn by relatives or other persons led by the representative of his most remote ancestor (who had made the family noble by first holding a curiale magistracy), each ancestor’s representative walking in file, ending with the one who acted for the dead man himself, wearing his mask and robes, and walking just before the coffin. Here on display was what the Roman establishment was all about, the motivation of the Roman nobility, and the key to the strange anomalies of the Roman social and political system.

The establishment in every society play their own infinite game, though they keep score in different ways. One of the strange anomalies of our own age is the persistent greed of the fabulously rich. For these people, as the Pet Shop Boys put it, “too much is never enough.” This is because the score in their infinite game is measured in wealth. Trophies include the obvious mansions and private jets, but also “charity”: a new wing at a museum or a university building. (In nineteenth century Britain, similar philanthropists built public infrastructure too. This is not fashionable with the modern elite unless it is infrastructure in a third-world country.) For the very rich, money is an end in itself, because it buys the trophies in their infinite game of wealth. Given the choice of further enriching themselves or allowing the lower classes to have slightly more wealth, they make the obvious choice. They can never have too much wealth, just as the Roman establishment could never have too much dignitas.

The British establishment of the nineteenth century had a somewhat different way to keep score. I don’t want to paint too romantic a picture — these were the men whose self-serving “free trade” policies starved to death a million people in Ireland — but they were motivated by something more than mere wealth. “Honour” could not be bought, and it was a gentleman’s most prized possession, sometimes higher than life itself. Their infinite game was closer to dignitas than to wealth. How else can we explain the dedication of middle ranking men who spent decades as “political agents” on the North West frontier of India and then quietly retired to Eastbourne?

There is a danger within all infinite games that the players just assume that the game maintains itself, that they don’t need to make any effort to keep it going. If too many players just assume that the game will continue, regardless of their actions within the game, then it can collapse — perhaps into nothing at all, or perhaps into a finite game with winners and losers. This is how the Roman republic ended. The thirst for dignitas drove the expansion of Roman power abroad. These conquests transformed the countryside around Rome, and changed the balance of Roman society. Once a patchwork of small farms, worked by free yeoman farmers, the countryside became a gulag of slave-labour estates. The free farmers had to sell-up and move to the provinces they had recently conquered as foot-soldiers. The previous inhabitants of those provinces were shipped to Rome, where they worked the fields as slaves. The establishment paid for both the land and the slaves with their war profits.

The game was changing. Where once the Roman army had been an army of land-owners, fighting for their property, now it became an army of the poor, following a particular establishment general, hoping for a payoff when they were triumphant. Once land had been a prerequisite for military service; now it became the reward. The thirst for dignitas concentrated power more and more in the hands of individual establishment generals. From time to time, the establishment united and turned on individuals from their own ranks whose success might break the infinite game. The last, and most successful, of these generals was Julius Caesar. When the dust finally settled, Julius Caesar was dead, but so was the Roman republic. The first Emperor, Augustus, ruled in Rome. Someone had finally won.


Let’s now turn to the last of our three patterns: aspects of sovereignty. We say that nations are “sovereign states” and have something called “sovereignty,” but what exactly is that? Sovereignty is usually something that governments have — but there are organisations which are not governments, and yet seem to have something like sovereignty. On the other hand, there are places even nowadays where claims of sovereignty by any government look pretty thin.

Political theorist Max Weber suggested a useful definition of sovereignty: it’s a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force in a particular place. Your government has sovereignty because if you decide not to pay your taxes, they will send round the police and force you to pay. Their use of force is legitimate, in contrast to a loan-shark’s use of force if you don’t repay him. The government has a monopoly on force: they choose how much force other organisations can use and when they can use it — the police are allowed to use limited force, but the loan-shark isn’t supposed to use any. note 70

However, some states seem to have partial sovereignty, and don’t quite meet Weber’s definition. For example, what about Mexico, where drug cartels use anti-tank missiles to blow up police cars? Where uniformed gunmen from the cartels walk around with the name of their organisation stencilled on their bulletproof jackets? Where gunmen emerge from prison at night to kill their rivals, then return to safety before the sun rises? The Mexican government has no monopoly on force. On the other hand, the cartels are not “legitimate,” but that just raises a further question: who decides?

On the other hand, some organisations not recognised as states do seem to have something like sovereignty. We could call these organisations quasi-states — good examples would be FARC in Columbia or Hezbollah in Lebanon. We need a definition of sovereignty which is a bit more discriminating, and fortunately Quigley provides it in eight aspects of sovereignty, arranged in the order in which they historically tend to appear. Quasi-states tend to have only the first few of these aspects, mature nation-states have most of them.

When we split up sovereignty into aspects like this, we can see that some states have many of these aspects, some have only a few. Some states have these aspects in some part of their territory, but not everywhere. Some quasi-states — not recognised as nations by the UN — actually have more sovereignty than the official government. When we break up sovereignty into aspects like this, the issue of legitimacy fades away. We no longer have to decide whether an organisation has a legitimate monopoly on force. All we need to decide is who, if anyone, controls each aspect of sovereignty.


These patterns allow us to look at history and current affairs from different angles. In every society there are “elites” or establishment groups who have dominant political power. By “political power,” I mean the power to get other people to do what they want. The levers of political power are force, money and persuasion. Of the three, persuasion is most reliable. When you persuade someone that what they already believe means that they should do now what you want, then they are likely to keep doing it when you go away. Take away force or money, and there’s a good chance that they will go back to their old ways, because they never really changed their mind. (In case you didn’t notice, most of the previous chapters were about persuasion. The next two chapters are about force and money.)

Every elite or establishment group plays some kind of infinite game. In order to succeed in that game, the players want political power, and to get that power they each try to control some aspects of sovereignty. Or, since only relative strength is important, they might try to make the aspects controlled by rivals less effective. (Establishment groups can sometimes span several states, and disputes which are apparently between different states may may in fact just be jockeying for position in the infinite game played by their common elite.)

The social organisations supporting these aspects of sovereignty are themselves to some degree either instruments or institutions. The members of the establishment have little interest in whether these organisations fulfil their proper purpose, satisfying some human need in the society. Instead, the most important consideration is how much each organisation satisfies their personal need as a player in the infinite game. To satisfy their needs, they may want some organisations to be instruments, and others to be institutions.

Within the establishment there will therefore be a tension between two groups of people, with different approaches to the infinite game. One group, the long-termers, understands that winning and losing are secondary to keeping the infinite game going, and accepts that it is worth paying to keep society and its instruments in working order. They understand that it is necessary to “leave some money on the table” to preserve the infinite game. The long-termers are really conservatives, but they often look like radicals, because they have to work against vested-interests to reform or circumvent institutions.

The other group, the short-termers, are intent only on winning. (And, of course, psychopaths are most likely to fall into this group.) They assume that the infinite game will continue with no special effort on their part. They might appear to be conservatives, protecting the institutions that benefit them, or they might appear to be radicals, carelessly upsetting the status-quo and going “all in” without thought for the consequences. Although most will be knocked out of the game completely, just by chance one of the gamblers might win big.

Infinite games do sometimes end. Perhaps a short-termer wins so big that they believe they can knock out all the other players for good. Perhaps the game runs up against some resource limit. In a game of accumulation, when there is no more stuff to accumulate, most players will realise that they can never beat the current winner, unless they change the game completely. Long-termers might engage in a rearguard action and try to prolong the game. Short-termers will of course do their utmost to be winners. One way or another, when most of the players want the game to end, it will end.

This was the situation at the end of the Roman republic, and it might be the situation today in the West in general and in the United States in particular. Author William Gibson, in his novel Spook Country suggests that the United States is in the grip of a kind of “cold civil-war” within the establishment, a civil war between long-termers and short-termers. He could be right. Despite its apparent military strength, the United States is in a difficult financial position. The infinite game of wealth has sucked money out of the pockets of ordinary people for decades, but this cannot go on forever. When something cannot go on forever, at some point it will stop. What then? note 75


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Version: DRAFT Beta 3. Copyright © Stuart Wray, 29 December 2011.