In the modern age we inhabit, dynastic power has been forced to evolve along with the new technology and social structures that have emerged. A dynasty is, most simply, a series of people from the same family who hold power in a certain country or regime. Most commonly associated with monarchies, emperors and dusty history books, it can be easy to think of political dynasties as relics of the past. However, as the recent US Presidential election has demonstrated, the days of a single clan of elites dominating the fate of nations are far from over. So how have they shaped our lives? And to what extent have they influenced society?
Dynasties have been found in just about every society, from the legitimisation of the Mandate of Heaven in 2100 BCE China, to the Mayan States in Central America, to the patrician houses of Europe. They have helped shape human civilisation and led to significant advancements in art, science, technology and medicine. They have also been responsible for the repression, torture, and murder of millions of people in the name of greed and ego. Dynastic rule has shaped and reshaped our society, and it can be difficult to say whether this has been for the better.
Two prominent examples are the British House of Hanover and the Chinese Ming Dynasty, both of which demonstrate how dynasties help define their nations. The Hanovers gained power through succession, while the Ming dynasty seized power from the previous Yuan rulers. Both led their countries into eras of rapid expansion, which included economic and technological growth. The stability of these periods allowed for a more ordered government and society. But the ‘divine right to rule’ that sustained their claims to power also enabled them to enact serious harms against their populations, and other nations, for their benefit. These dynasties may have advanced their societies, but did so at an enormous human cost.
These days the distribution of power strives to be a bit more democratic, which seems like it would leave hereditary power in its meritocratic dust. Instead, however, dynasties have evolved, changing their message and tactics to maintain popular support. Families like the Kennedys, Bushs and Clintons have become American aristocrats, while closer to home, the Hughes, Turnbulls and Menzies have all produced generations of MPs, ministers and judges. In order to avoid the perception of elitism, the message has changed, with a desire for public service replacing divine right. But the outcome of these groups has not – since 1988, two families have controlled the White House for more than two decades.
Modern dynasties are not just politicians, with more than 90 percent of the world’s businesses being family managed or controlled, including multi-billion dollar companies such as News Corp, Samsung, and the infamous Koch brothers.
This evolution questions the fundamental definition of dynasties: Are dynasties just families? Or can you expand the definition to include organisations and companies too?
For many, the recent US Presidential Election became a question of the Establishment vs Outsiders. While there is no single family who controls the ‘establishment’ of US Republicans or Democrats, there was a feeling that all these politicians were the same type. There are a number of parallels – supporting each other in order to maintain the status quo of their power and control, with cronyism instead of nepotism, friends and connections instead of relatives, and party loyalty instead of family loyalty. Does that make these organisations dynasties?
Companies such as Google, Apple and Facebook are increasingly and openly politicised. They have access to huge amounts of resources, including significant lobbying power. The technology giants also have extremely loud voices and are using them. Apple under CEO Tim Cook has made a number of public statements on privacy, queer* and trans rights. Moreover, Google, Apple, Facebook and Uber have all recently signed a legal brief against the Trump Muslim Ban.
While companies have always taken sides politically, the scale and organisation of these corporations, as well as the scope of their influence, demonstrates the similarity between that and more traditional political families. The modern and future dynasties may no longer be actual families but rather groups who sustain themselves and their ideas, not through birth and education, but by handpicking the next generation from the same pool – young, high-achiever Silicon Valley progressives.
The implications of these type of modern dynasties are less clear, and their overall influence can only be increased in the future. Democratic governments are intended to allow anyone to advance if they are driven and talented.
If positions of power are concentrated in small groups of elites, does this demonstrate a failure of our systems? Or is it proof that the privileges of money, class and influence can undermine the principles of egalitarianism entirely?