By Peter F. Drucker, a professor of social science and management at the Claremont Graduate University and a former president of the Society for the History of Technology. He is author, most recently, of "Management Challenges for the 21st Century," just out from Harperbusiness.
T he history of society in the West during the last millennium can--without much oversimplification--be summed up in one phrase: The Rise, Fall and Rise of Pluralism.
By the year 1000 the West--that is, Europe north of the Mediterranean and west of Greek Orthodoxy--had become a startlingly new and distinct civilization and society, much later dubbed feudalism. At its core was the world's first, and all but invincible, fighting machine: the heavily armored knight fighting on horseback. What made possible fighting on horseback, and with it the armored knight, was the stirrup, an invention that had originated in Central Asia sometime around the year 600. The entire Old World had accepted the stirrup long before 1000; everybody riding a horse anywhere in the Old World rode with a stirrup.
But every other Old World civilization--Islam, India, China, Japan--rejected what the stirrup made possible: fighting on horseback. And the reason these civilizations rejected it, despite its tremendous military superiority, was that the armored knight on horseback had to be an autonomous power center beyond the control of central government. To support a single one of these fighting machines--the knight and his three to five horses and their attendants; the five or more squires (knights in training) necessitated by the profession's high casualty rate; the unspeakable expensive armor--required the economic output of 100 peasant families, that is of some 500 people, about 50 times as many as were needed to support the best-equipped professional foot soldier, such as a Roman Legionnaire or a Japanese Samurai.
The knight exercised full political, economic and social control over the entire knightly enterprise, the fief. This, in short order, induced every other unit in medieval Western society--secular or religious--to become an autonomous power center, paying lip service to a central authority such as the pope or a king, but certainly nothing else such as taxes. These separate power centers included barons and counts, bishops and the enormously wealthy monasteries, free cities and craft guilds and, a few decades later, the early universities and countless trading monopolies.
By 1066, when William the Conqueror's victory brought feudalism to England, the West had become totally pluralist. And every group tried constantly to gain more autonomy and more power: political and social control of its members and of access to the privileges membership conferred, its own judiciary, its own fighting force, the right to coin its own money and so on. By 1200 these "special interests" had all but taken over. Every one of them pursued only its goals and was concerned only with its own aggrandizement, wealth and power. No one was concerned with the common good; and the capacity to make societywide policy was all but gone.
The reaction began in the 13th century in the religious sphere, when--feebly at first--the papacy tried, at two councils in Lyon, France, to reassert control over bishops and monasteries. It finally established that control at the Council of Trent in mid-16th century, by which time the pope and the Catholic Church had lost both England and Northern Europe to Protestantism. In the secular sphere, the counterattack against pluralism began 100 years later. The Long Bow--a Welsh invention perfected by the English--had by 1350 destroyed the knight's superiority on the battlefield. A few years later the cannon--adapting to military uses the powder the Chinese had invented for their fireworks--brought down the hitherto impregnable knight's castle.
From then on, for more than 500 years, Western history is the history of the advance of the national state as the sovereign, that is as the only power center in society. The process was very slow; the resistance of the entrenched "special interests" was enormous. It was not until 1648, for instance--in the Treaty of Westphalia, which ended Europe's Thirty Years War--that private armies were abolished, with the nation-state acquiring a monopoly on maintaining armies and on fighting wars. But the process was steady. Step by step, pluralist institutions lost their autonomy. By the end of the Napoleonic Wars--or shortly thereafter--the sovereign national state had triumphed everywhere in Europe. Even the clergy in European countries had become civil servants, controlled by the state, paid by the state and subject to the sovereign, whether king or parliament.
The one exception was the United States. Here pluralism survived--the main reason being America's almost unique religious diversity. And even in the U.S., religiously grounded pluralism was deprived of power by the separation of church and state. It is no accident that in sharp contrast to Continental Europe, no denominationally based party or movement has ever attracted more than marginal political support in the U.S.
By the middle of the last century, social and political theorists, including Hegel and the liberal political philosophers of England and America, proclaimed proudly that pluralism was dead beyond redemption. And at that very moment it came back to life. The first organization that had to have substantial power and substantial autonomy was the new business enterprise as it first arose, practically without precedent, between 1860 and 1870. It was followed in rapid order by a horde of other new institutions, scores of them by now, each requiring substantial autonomy and exercising considerable social control: the labor union, the civil service with its lifetime tenure, the hospital, the university. Each of them, like the pluralist institutions of 800 years ago, is a "special interest." Each needs--and fights for--its autonomy.
Not one of them is concerned with the common good. Consider what John L. Lewis, the powerful labor leader, said when FDR asked him to call off a coal miners strike that threatened to cripple the war effort: "The president of the United States is paid to look after the interests of the nation; I am paid to look after the interest of the coal miners." That is only an especially blunt version of what the leaders of every one of today's "special interests" believe--and what their constituents pay them for. As happened 800 years ago, this new pluralism threatens to destroy the capacity to make policy--and with it social cohesion altogether--in all developed countries.
But there is one essential difference between today's social pluralism and that of 800 years ago. Then, the pluralist institutions--knights in armor, free cities, merchant guilds or "exempt" bishoprics--were based on property and power. Today's autonomous organization--business enterprise, labor union, university, hospital--is based on function. It derives its capacity to perform squarely from its narrow focus on its single function. The one major attempt to restore the power monopoly of the sovereign state, Stalin's Russia, collapsed primarily because none of its institutions, being deprived of the needed autonomy, could or did function--not even, it seems, the military, let alone businesses or hospitals.
Only yesterday most of the tasks today's organizations discharge were supposed to be done by the family. The family educated its members. It took care of the old and the sick. It found jobs for members who needed it. And not one of these jobs was actually done, as even the most cursory look at 19th-century family letters or family histories shows. These tasks can be accomplished only by a truly autonomous institution, independent from either the community or the state.
The challenge of the next millennium, or rather of the next century (we won't have a thousand years), is to preserve the autonomy of our institutions--and in some cases, like transnational business, autonomy over and beyond national sovereignties--while at the same time restoring the unity of the polity that we have all but lost, at least in peacetime. We can only hope this can be done--but so far no one yet knows how to do it. We do know that it will require something that is even less precedented than today's pluralism: the willingness and ability of each of today's institutions to maintain the focus on the narrow and specific function that gives them the capacity to perform, and yet the willingness and ability to work together and with political authority for the common good.
This is the enormous challenge the second millennium in the developed countries is bequeathing the third millennium.