This is an essay on the interaction between states and social orders, using China as a prism to examine European patterns, rather than the other way around. According to Japanese historian Naito "Konan" Torajiro, the history of modern China began in the Song dynasty (960-1279), making China the first modern society; an analysis known as the Naito Hypothesis. Given that Song dynasty China had paper money, meritocratic bureaucratised autocracy, tax-paid soldiers, public rituals but private religion, scholar-gentry replacing vanishing landed aristocracy--even the offering of prizes for better crossbow designs--I find Naito's proposition to be very plausible.
I see no reason to presume that modernity began in Europe. Especially given the way various Enlightenment folk thought Chinese government more advanced in its forms of management than European states. Britain, for example, did not introduce civil service examinations until the mid C19th, over twelve hundred years after China had pioneered them and about nine centuries after they had become the only path to officialdom.
I am, however, uncomfortable with calling the previous period in Chinese history "medieval", as Naito often did. I prefer the term he also used of middle antiquity (chuko in Japanese), though I would call it China's late antiquity. And yes, that means I hold that China did not have a medieval period as such; it went straight from its late antiquity to the early modern. (The essay continues after the fold.)
It is remarkable how much fine scholarship is available at one's fingertips thanks to the Information Technology revolution. Many scholars and researchers make their papers available for free download. An even vaster array of papers are available for purchase. Due to the prevalence of the "working paper" model, and various public institutions (notably central banks), economics papers tend to be particularly prone to being available for free.
China's dynastic cycle
Recently, I have been reading up on the history of China, about which there are some very revealing economic history papers available. One of particular interest (pdf), part of a dissertation by T.H. Sng, examines Chinese dynastic cycles as a principal-agent problem. A related paper by Debin Ma looks at incentive and information issues (pdf) across Chinese imperial history, including some revealing comparisons of the income available to various central governments, notably that of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) and the UK, from the C17th to C19th. Both papers concentrate on the period from the Song dynasty (960-1279) onwards, when the bureaucratic form of Chinese imperial government crystallised.
The Song dynasty made civil service examinations the only path to appointment as an official, creating a meritorious bureaucracy with the Emperor as the only hereditary element in government, leading to the eclipse of the landowning aristocracy. The three-tax system on individuals, households and land levied as silver and grain taxes plus labour service was replaced by the two-tax system on individuals or households and land levied as silver and grain taxes. (There were also various commercial taxes but these were not a significant source of revenue.) As land was now taxed without any connection to labour service (either military or civilian), the imperial government lost interest in land redistribution, something which had been a facet of imperial government in previous imperial dynasties.
The history of the Chinese imperial state demonstrates particularly clearly the principle that the state creates social orders at least as much as any social order creates a state. The more dominant the state, the more it creates the social order. (The history of revolutionary Marxism demonstrates this very clearly, as Leninist states created the social orders they wanted.) If we look at the origins of states as a process of experimentation to find how to sustain the relevant level of specialisation in control, the process seems to be at least as much moulding the social order to sustain the state as adjusting the state to fit in with the local social order.
In the case of imperial China, the imperial state was clearly the dominant factor driving the form of the social order. Even the gentry were simply those with status from the civil service examinations who had not done well enough to get an appointment, but well enough to gain various legal exemptions and privileges.
The more acquainted with Chinese history one becomes, the more that Mao's comment that he hadn't changed China, merely a few places around Beijing, makes sense. He really does seem to have been the First Emperor with a Marxist gloss rather than a Legalist one. Said Marxist gloss proving to be highly dispensable under his successors. Post 1979, the Beijing regime even looks like the Han (206BC-220AD) trying not to repeat the mistakes of the Qin (221BC-206BC). Ironically, contemporary China is far more like the vision of Mao's great rival Chiang Kai Shek than Mao's; Chiang certainly seems to have had a clearer idea of what really would constitute changing China.
The key element in T.H. Sng's analysis is that the Emperors had severe limitations in monitoring their agents, the imperial officials. Said officials numbered (depending on the period) from 10,000 to 20,000, with the lowest level being the magistrate who ran a county. His main duties were tax collection and running the local court. Under the "law of avoidance" he could not have been born or raised in his county. Local clerks, runners and other staff assisted him. Every three and a half years or so, he would be moved to another position. He would be subject to oversight by higher officials and the imperial Censorate; too little tax collection or too big a court case backlog could see him punished. The local gentry were those most likely and able to be the source of adverse reports. Both the magistrate and his local staff could increase their income via corruption, which would fall most heavily on the peasantry (who were not in a good position to complain) rather than the gentry (who were and enjoyed various legal exemptions).
It was very difficult for the Emperor to get accurate information on the performance of his officials; a problem that worsened the further away from the capital they were. Especially as subjects had a range of techniques to hide information. Expanding the number of officials just magnified the information-and-control problem. Indeed, a somewhat perverse pattern developed whereby Emperors would send out special monitoring agents who would become absorbed into the formal bureaucracy leading to a new layer of special monitory agents who would also be absorbed; thereby expanding the layers of the bureaucracy, so worsening the Emperor's monitoring problem. Sng notes that there were more counties when China was disunited than when it was united, implying a scale limit on monitoring.
It being difficult to tell who were honest and who were dishonest officials (or the gradations in between) magnified the monitoring problem, as punishing honest officials created perverse incentives and sent very bad signals to the suffering peasantry. With the disappearance of the landowning aristocracy, there was a much lower risk to emperors of usurpation by elite conspiracy. The primary dangers facing the emperors were nomad invasions and peasant revolt, both being classic ways dynasties fell.
The nomads were dealt with by a mixture of military effort, investment in very long walls, trade and bribery. The Ming dynasty (1368-1644) famously went for "the" Great Wall. Though under increasing military pressure from the Manchus from the early C17th, the dynasty was actually brought down by internal revolt. The new Qing dynasty, being of nomad extraction itself, managed the nomad problem by territorial expansion and genocide.
Which left peasant revolt as the great danger. The establishment of a stable order under a new dynasty lead to expanding population and economic activity. According to Sng's model, as the population expanded faster than the economy--economic growth being extensive (more inputs) rather than intensive (better skills and technology)--this led to declining peasant incomes, though there is no strong evidence in a drop in average living standards until the mid C19th: this was, however, compatible with falling living standards at the margin. (The Rev. Thomas Malthus very much had China in mind when he did his famous analysis.) The expansion in population and economic activity increased the opportunities for corruption. But said corruption was regressive, so the burden of corruption increased over time (more corruption + falling peasant incomes). The only lever the imperial government reliably had to relieve the pressure on the peasantry was to freeze or reduce taxes.
Note that an expanding population (including official and gentry class), with declining agrarian surplus after a peak and expanding official responsibilities (the population per county increased dramatically) can produce the same effect (pdf) without presuming only extensive growth or falling peasant incomes until late in the cycle.
Which led to the perverse pattern of an expanding Chinese economy leading to falling central government income ( both relative to demands and then absolutely) and increased risk of peasant revolt. At some point, the central government's income fell below a level able to maintain itself, leading to collapse. Borrowing was not an option because the autocrat was too unconstrained: there was no mechanism by which the autocrat could credibly commit to paying loans back. (And revealing one's wealth so explicitly opened up the risk of unwelcome official attention, up to and including simple expropriation.) Building up silver reserves was the central administration's only reliable financial cushion. The Qing government built up silver reserves equal to about two years' revenue from the final consolidation of its rule in the 1680s until the reserve was largely expended suppressing the White Lotus rebellion (1794-1804). The Qing finances then never recovered.
Hence the dynastic cycle. The issue was not having "good" emperors followed by "bad" emperors. It was that the constraints emperors faced got worse over time, while their levers of power became more and more ineffective. The similar duration of the bureaucratised dynasties--the Song dynasty lasted 319 years (and spent much of that time ruling over only part of China), the Ming dynasty 276 years and the Qing dynasty 267 years--does look like a strong pattern.
The Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) only lasted 97 years but it had significantly different ruling structures--being far more troubled by usurpations and powerful local warlords--imposed much more onerous taxes and suffered the Black Death, so is rather a separate case.
Under the Ming and Qing dynasties, the central governments were able to extract probably less than 3% of GDP in revenues, but corruption (i.e. the extralegal income of officials) likely reached around a fifth of total agricultural production. One can see why stability might be a higher imperial priority than promoting economic development.
(Claims that Chinese government was particularly cheap compared to (pdf) that of, say, Tokugawa Japan, have to be regarded as dubious or, at least, overstated. Japan's political system suffered far less from peasant revolts. It also turned out to be far more effective at dealing with the Western challenge.)
Meanwhile, in Britain
An obvious role for representative institutions (such as the English-cum-British Parliament) is as checks on executive (i.e. kingly) power. But that is not why rulers such as Alfonso IX of Leon (r.1188-1230) or Edward I of England (r.1272-1307) decided to expand the use of representative institutions. Representative assemblies were techniques for kingly management. They were forums for negotiation. The king found out what was bothering the folk who mattered--including acting as information sources about the performance of his officials--and lowered his enforcement costs through getting consent for taxes. In other words, representative assemblies operated to lessen the king's information and other agency issues.
By allowing tax-public good trade-offs to be more efficiently managed, such representative institutions permitted taxation levels to be higher than otherwise, with less corruption costs. To put it another way, there was both top-down and bottom-up monitoring of the performance of officials. The commercial-representative polities of the Serene Republic of Venice, the Dutch Republic and the United Kingdom were the highest taxing polities of their time. They also delivered the most effective level of public goods. (Even today, the Scandinavian countries--with their small size and cultural homogeneity--have had the highest tax-expenditure trade-offs because they have the least information, management and monitoring issues: it surely no coincidence that their level of taxation as a share of GDP has been falling as their societies become more diverse due to immigration.)
In each of these polities, the state got more "bucks" and the political nation got more "bangs" for their "bucks". In the case of the Serene Republic, the Dutch Republic and the United Kingdom of Great Britain (after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 entrenched the trade-off of Parliamentarianism), they were the polities least troubled by popular revolts. The main exception being the restive Highlands of Scotland but the mixture of religious difference, geographical distance and lack of connection between the clan and Parliamentary systems explains that--i.e. they were only minimally part of the trade-off, monitoring and information system centred in Parliament and shire government.
It was surely no coincidence that the biggest failure of C18th British politics--the American Revolt--was precisely by folk not connected into the Parliamentary system. "No taxation without representation" may have been a brilliant political slogan but it also pithily expressed the coordination failure at the heart of the American Revolution. The British political class learnt from that mistake and, in the absence of overseas representation in Parliament (probably not all that practical due to transport and communication costs), it subsequently minimised demands on settler colonies.
A feature of the Serene Republic, the Dutch Republic and the United Kingdom was that all three polities gained extra military capacity through their ability to borrow because of the greater credibility to potential creditors their representational systems imparted. The Serene Republic invented bonds, the prestiti, in 1177. When Dutch Billy (r.1689-1702) became King of England, due to the last successful invasion of England (which apparently doesn't count as an invasion because he was invited), Dutch financial institutions were introduced to England, culminating in the Bank of England (1694) and consolidated public bonds, the famous consols (1751).
The United Kingdom was able to spend as much on warfare as its rival France--even though France was much bigger in population and land area--and do so without anywhere near the continental distractions of its rival. Hence its record of military success against its French rival. By 1815, the British public debt was 200% or more (pdf) of GDP (or 20 times or more the annual revenue of the British central government), the joke being it has acquired half of the debt pushing the Bourbons off the throne of France and the other half putting them back on. (The current US public debt of about 100%of GDP--or about five times the annual revenue of the US Federal Government--is not nearly as scary.)
Because the UK had much greater taxation capacity, much better capacity to monitor officials and economic development expanded the financial strength of the British state, by the first half of the C19th, the annual revenue of the British central government was four times (pdf) that of the Qing central government measured by silver value (6,156 tons of silver to 1,367 tons), its per capita revenue was close to fifty times that of the Qing central government by silver value (334 grams of silver to 7) and, even by wage value, was over nine times that of the Qing central government (19 days of urban unskilled wages to 2). So, in the first Opium War (1839-1842), the Qing Empire was taking on a state with four times its annual income (plus the capacity to debt-finance) and better military technology while lacking significant silver reserves. It wasn't going to end well.
Given that, during the C18th and early C19th, wages in Qing China were a third or less of English wages (in purchasing power terms) and interest rates were four or five times higher in Qing China than the UK, the combination of much more expensive labour and much cheaper capital no doubt helps explain why the UK pioneered what became transformative patterns of sustained intensive growth and China didn't. Of course, the higher wages and cheaper capital were a product of much more plentiful capital, which itself was a product of institutions much friendlier to private accumulation because the would-be accumulators had a say in the political system and the state gained higher revenues from increased economic activity while the United Kingdom was big enough to gain benefits from economies of scale and scope (particularly in innovation). That between the mid C18th and mid C19th the British state greatly reduced the ambit of official discretions, further massively reducing corruption, just magnified the effects. (It is instructive to compare the reputations of British politicians c.1750 with their reputations c.1850.)
Using the measure of tons of silver, the revenues of the English-cum-British central administration increased forty-fold (pdf) from the mid C16th to the end of the C18th. Per capita revenues, measured in grams of silver, increased twenty-fold in that time. Measured in days of average wages, per capita revenues increased fourfold. While the C17th was a period of civil war and Revolution, the UK had a very successful C18th, winning the Second Hundred Years War (1689-1815), and setting it up for an even more successful C19th (despite all that debt).
The other path to the modern state
The C16th and C17th in France were also periods of turmoil and civil war, with the French Wars of Religion (1562-1598), the Huguenot Rebellions (1620-1628) and the Fronde (1648-1653). The outcome was not a Parliamentary system, but an absolute monarchy with additions; provincial estates in the outer provinces plus semi-autonomous Parlements--courts that could refuse to register and enforce royal edicts that conflicted with custom. There was also considerable tax-farming, sale of offices, and granting of pensions as favours.
The upper offices, notably the Parlements, were dominated by the noblesse de robe and had become increasingly hereditary. Under them were around 50,000 royal officials (pdf), who had mostly purchased their offices. Hence the reliance on tax-farming--it was a way of dealing with purchased and often hereditary officeholding. France may have been an absolute monarchy but it was very far from an absolute autocracy.
The revenues of the French central administration measured in tons of silver increased increased twelve-fold from the mid C16th to the end of the C18th. Measured by grams of silver, per capita revenues increased seven-fold. The French state shared in the general increase in revenues of European states, just not as dramatically as its British rival. For there were two paths (pdf) to the development of the modern state in Europe--the parliamentary path discussed above and the autocratic path exemplified by the Hohenzollern Kingdom of Prussia and Romanov Russian Empire.
The latter path worked particularly well in highly rural societies. The autocrat wanted reliable extraction of income and soldiers, the landlords wanted official positions and control over the peasantry and no other group was sufficiently organised to matter but valued internal and external security.
The Prussian and Russian crowns backed the landlord cartel (aka en-serfing the peasantry) and the landlord class provided the officers and cavalry for their armies. When it looked like the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth might, after a prolonged period of paralysis, get its act together, the neighbouring Prussian, Austrian and Russian autocracies cooperated to partition this potentially disturbing Parliamentary example into non-existence.
The Parliamentary path worked best in urbanised, geographically small polities (so lower communication costs) with geographical advantages (sitting on islands in the middle of a lagoon, being an archipelago, having dykes, being an isolated peninsula, having protective mountains) lessening the need for a powerful standing army (a classic basis for autocratic rule and subjects accepting the permanent royal taxes-for-security trade-off). Good sea access also helped, so commercial interests would favour military effort to secure and protect trade income.
France as betwixt and between
France was neither one nor the other. It had a landlord class that wanted dominion over the peasantry and access to official positions. But it also had an extensive free peasantry that was an important source of tax revenue. It was large, militating against Parliamentarianism. (The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth managed to be a large Parliamentary state, but even before the Partitions, it had become a less than inspiring example.) The urban-commercial sector was significant, but not large enough to collectively force its way into government and its political aspirations were diverted into purchase of offices. Expenditure on overseas military effort diverted resources from the territorial expansion which was a more reliable source of royal income. Focus on continental expansion undermined overseas military effort, reducing the relative importance of trade income and lowering the growth path of the urban-commercial sector. France was too rural-territorial to be Parliamentary and too urban-commercial to be fully autocratic.
Hence the autocracy-with-checks that evolved. But the checks (notably the Parlements) provided constraints on the autocracy without being effective forums for negotiating trade-offs. They manifested France being caught between the two paths, they were no solution to the problem. The French state found it difficult to either mould the social order to its needs or to adapt to the social order as the latter was evolving. Such persistent discontinuity between state and social order was not likely to end well.
The fiscal crisis of the Bourbon monarchy
The difficulties manifested, as they often do, as a fiscal problem. France failed to develop a central bank on the English model--John Law's disasters during the Duc d'Orleans regency (1715-1723) tainted the entire idea. The French crown could borrow, but on less favourable terms than the British crown. Where the British state would finance war by borrowing and then tax to service and pay down debt in peacetime, the French crown found that its ability to service its debt tending to get worse over time, with both taxes and expenditures being relatively inflexible.
The result was recurring defaults. The swapping out of debt for John Law's paper notes wiped away a considerable amount of debt in the subsequent inflationary collapse. This was followed by converting debt into perpetuals and life annuities with considerably less capital value followed by an interest rate cut being imposed in 1726: a combination of actions that reduced the debt service ratio to tax revenues from 80% to 30%. A second episode involved another conversion of debt into perpetuals and life annuities in 1759, along with halting of scheduled reimbursements on fixed-term loans.
In 1770, the French crown resorted to a partial bankruptcy, defaulting on a significant proportion of its debts. Upon coming to the throne in 1774, the 20 year old king Louis XVI (r.1774-1792) promised that such defaults would not be resorted to again (a promise he kept). Slow, grinding effort by various Ministers of Finance enabled some periods of recovery. Not helped by the American War of Independence (1776-1783), the one stage of the Second Hundred Years War Britain actually lost--France was able to put together an anti-British coalition without continental distractions. France's minimal territorial gains hardly matched the huge financial expense, however.
French officials were well aware of the strategic advantage the United Kingdom and Dutch Republic's greater ability to borrow provided. In an unpublished manuscript, a senior finance official wrote in the 1770s (pdf):
Great Britain finances by taxation neither all nor part of the costs of war, it finances them by loans and increases the annual tax burden only by the amount necessary to face the interest and redemption of the loan. That is the regime that France must adopt, and will adopt sooner or later because its value is only too obvious, and our mistakes will force us to return to this policy. In wartime it is our habit to increase taxes, at a time when perhaps they should be decreased. Indeed in wartime the country suffers enough from the labor withdrawn from agriculture and manufactures to be sent into the army, the navy, and into the production activities necessitated by war.
They were also well aware of the source of the French disadvantage. The aforementioned official also wrote:
Which European states now enjoy the soundest credit? Those where the authority of a single man is less prominent, and we cannot disguise the fact that Holland and England have a great advantage over France by their constitution. ... If we faced the sad alternative of sacrificing the [French] constitution to finances or finances to the constitution, we should not hesitate to choose the former.
In 1784, Jacques Necker, French Finance Minister (1777-81, 1788-89) wrote:
The absolute power of a monarch and full public trust are two notions which need intermediaries to be perfectly conciliated. This authority is in France subject to certain restraints when it comes to an increase in the sovereign's revenues, since the laws which levy new taxes must be registered in the Parlements, and these courts can then enlighten the monarch's justice by their remarks; but a simple arret du Counseil [Order in Council] or a ministerial order authorized by the sovereign are enough to suspend reimbursements or impose a reduction in interest. ... Therefore one can rekindle or sustain public trust only by giving reassurances on the sovereign's intentions, and by proving that no motive can incite him to fail in his obligations.
Necker also observed that:
... suspension of payments is a much less a cause than a result of the lack of trust.
Necker had a very clear grasp of what is known in modern terms as credible policy. Then again, a compare-and-contrast across and along the Channel provided all the "natural experiment" one needed.
Faced with the enormous debt burden left by Louis XIV's (r.1643-1715) wars, the Regent had considered recalling the Estates-General, but had been warned the consequences would not be controllable. Three default episodes and 74 years later, Louis XVI and his ministers decided that a forum able to negotiate new tax-expenditure trade-offs was the only way forward and the Estates-General was recalled, for the first time since 1614.
The results proved to be every bit as uncontrollable as feared; particularly coming during a period of famine/rising food prices that the monarchy lacked the fiscal resources or policy flexibility to deal with effectively. (A typical late-in-dynastic-cycle Chinese experience, even if pulling the Parliamentary lever was not a Chinese response.) Reading a history such as David Andress's The Terror: the Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary France, it is striking how poorly schooled in political negotiation the participants were. The nobles (led by Louis's brothers) would not compromise, the members of the third estate increasingly framed their demands in absolutist terms (which, I would argue, was by far the most important influence of the French Enlightenment on the Revolution: reading their speeches, the contrast between the rhetoric of the American Revolutionaries and that of the French is striking) and Louis and his wife Marie Antoinette could never be trusted to stick with any deal. (Something that Louis shared with Charles I and Nicholas II; which does much to explain the other thing they also share.)
But the participants also had no experience in such politics-by-negotiation (unless they had participated in the provincial estates, which did not exist across most of France). After all, the British only learned how to do it after executing one king, deposing another, a prolonged period of civil war and a Revolution or two. The crown had the examples of Charles I (r.1624-1649) and James II (r.1685-1688) as warnings. The political nation had the death, disruption and chaos of the Civil Wars, the oppressions of the Major-Generals and uncertainties of the Glorious Revolution as warnings. All parties were well aware that there were much worse consequences than a bit of compromise and deal-making.
Back in France, as the immediate outcome of the Revolution was to make the fiscal position much worse (folk stopped paying taxes) and merely having a Parliamentary body--even executing the King and Queen, lots of nobles, then quite a few revolutionaries--did not mean that state and social order automatically cohered, the Revolution fluctuated through various political and monetary regimes, uprisings, massive inflation, bankruptcy and war.
The outcome of the Revolutionary decade--Napoleon's rule (1799-1815)--was a classic "Chinese" solution. A successful warlord unencumbered by previous obligations, with tried and tested supporters and appealing to a desire for order and stability, seizes power and imposes a vigorous new autocracy. Napoleon's meritocratic, bureaucratised, rationalising (i.e. simplifying functionalist) autocratic rule was very like the Chinese imperial model. He even introduced civil service examinations. Particularly as he eschewed borrowing and stayed on a bimetallism (i.e. specie) standard. A policy choice that was rational for an unconstrained autocrat offering stability after an intense inflationary period. Meanwhile, the UK--having the benefit of much greater policy credibility--could suspend gold convertibility and operate with paper money from 1797 to 1821.
Unfortunately for Napoleon, the European state system proved to be stronger than he; a problem that did not confront a dynasty-founding Son of Heaven--rulers of the centre of the universe with an established, if intermittent, history of unity.
Autocracy as management problem
In 1750 (pdf), Qing China had one civilian official per 11,250 people; Tsarist Russia had one per 10,000 people. Fifty years earlier, Louis XIV had one official per 7,700 people just for France's direct tax system and, already by the C16th, England had one official per 4,000 people. Given the limitations in transport and communications technology at the time, the more autocratic the system, and bigger the territory ruled, the greater the difficulty for the ruler in monitoring his or her agents and the less the penetration of officialdom into society.
In the case of the Tsardom of Russia; as well as providing income for the throne's officer and cavalry class, binding the peasantry to the nobility and gentry may have also been attractive as a way of lessening the management burden of the state. Conversely, the improved communications and transport technology of the C19th increased the administrative reach of the state which, along with rising revenue, made the bondage solution increasingly less attractive, culminating in the Emancipation of 1861.
There is considerable evidence that autocracy and corruption are intimately connected. Contemporary China, for example, can be usefully analysed as a kleptocracy while command economies become, as the initial revolutionary enthusiasm wears off, notoriously corrupt.
This is hardly surprising. Corruption is the market for official discretions. Other things being equal, the greater the official discretion, the greater the likely level of corruption. If monitoring is only from above, that in itself will increase the effective ambit of official discretion and so the likely level of corruption.
Those inclined to extol the virtues of autocracy tend to assume that officials are simply extensions of the autocrat's will. As we have seen, that is not so. They are agents of the autocrat, which means that the autocrat has a serious agent-monitoring problem.
A recurring criticism of Hitler's autocracy was his habit of creating overlapping responsibilities. This was deeply rational on his part--it meant that his subordinates reported on each other and had to come to him as final arbiter. Stalin used the triad of government (civilian and military), party and secret police to provide multiple lines of communication and responsibilities. The danger was that local government, party and secret police officials might start colluding. The solution to that was regular purges. Mancur Olson was correct; purges were not some homicidal dysfunction, they were a rational (and highly effective) means to entrench Stalin's control. Mao used the same technique as part of the Cultural Revolution.
The autocrat has to juggle revenue raising, corruption costs and risks of revolt--both popular revolt and elite conspiracy. (Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, for example, was overthrown by a combination of the two.) From the Song dynasty onwards, the Chinese imperial state minimised the risks of elite conspiracy (at least until the Qing dynasty was forced to give provinces more autonomy to deal with the Taiping Rebellion of 1850-1864) via hereditary emperors (increasing the ruler's credibility across time), making the civil service examinations the only route to official office (eliminating the landowning aristocracy) and rotating officials regularly (breaking up local loyalties).
The combination of monitoring difficulties, corruption costs and risks of popular revolt created the Dynastic cycle (pdf) whereby stable rule leads to rising population and economic activity increasing corruption possibilities but also creating falling peasant incomes at the margin (as population increases faster than economic activity) leading to downward pressure on government revenue (to avoid revolt) and, eventually, fiscal failure and dynastic collapse (either due to domestic revolt or foreign invasion or some combination of the two).
The state and social order
The French Revolution, at least in its origins, was a manifestation, within a European context, of a similar fiscal crisis of autocracy arising out of the difficulties in monitoring agents of the autocracy, the costs of corruption (or, to put it more neutrally, the gap between income extracted from the society and income received by the central government) and the lack of means for adaptive negotiation of new tax-expenditure trade-offs. The ancien regime fell because it fell between two stools, France being insufficiently urbanised and commercial to adopt the Parliamentary systems of the Dutch Republic and the United Kingdom but too urbanised and commercial to run the fully autocratic systems of Prussia and Russia. A problem that continued until the advent of the Third Republic, when a republic had become the form of government "that divided them least".
The ancien regime lacked the will, and likely the capacity, to change the social order of France to fit its needs but also failed to adapt itself to fit in with France's evolving social order. Hence its collapse and France's subsequent cycling through of various forms of government (two Empires, three monarchies, various republics) as its successive rulers and political classes tried to find a state structure that could manage both sufficient domestic tranquility and external military effectiveness to survive. (It is currently on Republic number five, the Third Republic having failed the latter test and the Fourth a combination of the two.)
The paradox of politics--the desirability of a state as protection against social predators, yet states are the most dangerous social predators--can be managed more or less badly, but never solved. The difficulties in matching state with social order and social order with state are just another manifestation of that paradox.
[Previously posted at Skepticlawyer.]