Sunday, October 31, 2004

Social Justice: Gunsmoke Tribute,

With a President who consciously invokes comparisons to the myth of the West in American culture it seems appropriate to revisit the modern incarnation of the uber-western "Gunsmoke". For those unfamiliar with American culture, Gunsmoke ran for twenty seasons on TV. Here is the TV-land summary:

Premiering on CBS in September 1955 and completing its network run September 1975, Gunsmoke is the longest running dramatic series in the history of television. Two of its stars, James Arness and Milburn Stone, remained all 20 seasons, with Amanda Blake a close second, departing after 19 years.
The series started out as a half-hour show, and expanded to an hour in its seventh season. Prior to Gunsmoke (and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp which premiered the same week), western shows generally focused on fantasy characters such as the Lone Ranger and Hopalong Cassidy, holdovers from movie and radio serials. Gunsmoke was one of the earliest "adult westerns," centering around the exploits of Marshal Matt Dillon (James Arness) in the frontier town of Dodge City, Kansas in 1873. His kindly companion was Doc Adams (Milburn Stone), the town physician who spent many hours chugging beers at the Long Branch Saloon, owned and operated by the shapely Kitty Russell.

Over the years there were several changes in the supporting cast, most notably the replacement of Matt's loyal deputy, Chester Goode (Dennis Weaver), with hillbilly deputy Festus Haggen (Ken Curtis).

Gunsmoke started a longtime trend for TV westerns. At one point there were 30 of them on the air at the same time. But Gunsmoke outlasted the others and at the time of its cancellation in 1975, it was the only show of its kind still on the air.

A testimony of the enduring popularity of the Gunsmoke series is that nearly thirty years after its final episode when I try to visit the official site it gives me back "bandwidth exceeded".

The Gunsmoke series isn't the only indicator of the popularity and defining nature of the Western in American culture. The most popular American author of the post-modern era has been Stephen King, and his defining franchise has been the Dark Tower series. The Dark Tower series is based upon the premise of the trans-dimensional traveler Roland, The Gunfighter, and his companions in search of the cross-temporal nexus known as the Dark Tower. Roland is by King's own admission in his newly issued preface consciously modeled after the infamous Spaghetti Westerns (They derived their name from being filmed in of all places Italy) starring Clint Eastwood (The model for Roland) and directed by Sergio Leone. These movies where in turn modeled upon the work of Akira Kurosawa a Japanese filmmaker most famous for his depictions of samurai swordsmen bringing social justice in difficult and adult situations such as The Seven Samurai (later to be Americanized into the Magnificient Seven). Eastwood would later become famous for playing many different versions of the tough guy and "sheriff" figure including the vigilannte policeman Dirty Harry.

The arisal of Kurosawa movies effectively paralleled in a different culture the same theme that became predominant in the myths of the west, the figure of the "sheriff" or altruistic strong-man. It arose for similar reasons in America as in Japan, namely that economic and political oligarchies (the West was the same age as the Trusts and Robber Barons and post-bellum Carpetbaggers) were by coopting the public trust and appealing to public prejudice essentially looting the common good and producing atrocities.

The mythic figure of the Sheriff, embodied in actual Western history by the legend of Wyatt Earp, is interesting because it reflects the fundmantel flaw in the American culture and social scene. In actuality, President GWB reflects the reality of actual law-enforcement and political leadership in the era of the West. GWB has much in common with the Presidents of that era and other more regional political or military leaders and how they became participants and colluders in exploitation and colonization of illegally seized territory driven by economic and political oligarchies. In that aspect GWB can rightfully claim the mantle of the historical sheriffs who as often as not were "in on the deal" so to speak. However the enduring power of the myth reflects that whatever the historical truth of the American culture there has been an enduring desire for the "white knight" or altruistic strong-man who will save Americans ultimately from their own worst instincts.

All of this is fundamentally interesting because it posits a problem and in artistic terms proposes a solution to the enduring flaw in the public psyche. The drama of a small western town and the various criminals and oligarchs who attempt to exploit others and how they are stopped has lessons for our modern understanding of the present socioeconomic condition.

The people of the western town are concerned with their everyday lives. In a general sense they have a sentiment of social justice that can be outraged, but in practice their prejudices, parochialism, greed, or fear can be exploited to obtain consent (coerced or otherwise) to unjust outcomes. Without a "sheriff" therefore the people of the town are easy prey to the agendas of the powerful.

As a side note, I would point out that the defining space opera of the modern film age, The Star Wars franchise, essentially plays out the same dynamic by positing altruistic figures capable of using discretionary vigillente force to bring social justice - better known as Jedis. As Eastwood himself would comment "It's not possible that The Outlaw Josey Wales could be the last Western to have been a commercial success. Anyway, aren't the Star Wars movies Westerns transposed into space?" Finally even the Star Trek movies are essentially patterned upon the same premise. A close inspection of the original series and all successful spin-offs shows a basic pattern of the ship captain as altruistic law-enforcement, usually accompanied by a side-kick doctor for socialization in the exact same mold as Gunsmoke. Kirk or Picard are just updated Matt Dillons, while Eastwood is just a more cynical version.

This isn't merely art criticism however as clearly Stirling's monographs on the present political, international, and economic situations shows that we haven't moved far from the resource exploitation and economic oligarchy issues of the late 1800's. In the later comment, we see a very interesting comment by Simon:
Has anyone seen "3 days of the Condor"? Made I think in the 1970s? At the end of the movie, Robert Redford has figured out the huge CIA plot -- it is a secret plan to INVADE THE MIDDLE EAST FOR OIL.

And now the CIA wants to kill him. However, Redford gets one last meeting with the secret CIA people, and he gets them to be like "yes, we are going to invade the middle east to get oil." And then, Redford turns and points upwards. Look, he says, IT'S THE NEW YORK TIMES BUILDING! I HAVE BEEN WEARING A WIRE! IT'S ALL ON TAPE, AND THE TIMES IS GOING TO BLOW YOUR COVER.

Well, it turns out that if you do have secret information about government conspiracies to invade the middle east under false pretences, the New York Times is not going to help you very much.

3 days of the Condor because it reveals the problem of the theme of the "sheriff" rescuing us from ourselves. The problem is that it is both necessary and impossible. We posit these fictional hero figures because we are incapable of helping ourselves.

The most interesting part of the film is the dialogue between Redford's character and the CIA spymaster who said that people just wanted stuff and didn't care where it came from so long as they go it. Unfortunately, he was correct. You see the real joke of the film, which couldn't be shown because people really don't want to think this of themselves, is that the spymaster knew that he was in front of the Times and didn't care that he was being taped.

Because as the run-up to Iraq showed, verifiable evidence that you were invading for oil wouldn't be printed by the Times in a serious way.

So if you cut off the "exposure" moment and take the spymaster's revelation of the venality of man as true then the film is absolutely correct.

Because the spymaster was right. People really will give up power to a military caste system and elite rich people who pander to their pride and identity politics in return for giving up all responsibility for making tough choices about basic resource distributions.

To be fair before the war a bare majority of Americans indicated that it probably wasn't a good idea. But then again a majority of Americans also will say that they wish the debt was paid down with any surplus.

The lesson isn't that people are bad but that they're weak. Perhaps naughty is a better word though it triviliazes the enormity of the collective irresponsibility of a 100 million persons. They know what the right thing is generally, and most will even admit it, but they would rather talk themselves out of it or ignore the right thing if it panders to their psychological weaknesses.

This is a crucial social problem and also culturally it has a fantasy solution. The fantasy solution is embodied in the Wyatt Earp and Gunsmoke myth. The reason why it is fantasy is that in historical fact Wyatt Earp had to flee local "justice" for his vigilennte action at the OK Corral. Wyatt Earp as a fugitive from justice for the chrage of murder isn't a comfortable thought for most Americans but that's the history. What it reveals is that even though people long for a "Sheriff" figure that in practice they will allow themselves to be dominated by their parochial and personal interests so that they will discourage or marginalize or attempt to destroy any figure that emerges.

Consider how the establishment effectively manipulated the public in order to reject both McCain and Dean.

But the myth underneath the microscope is Gunsmoke. In the mythical town, the sheriff Matt Dillon performs an important social function. Essentially he destroys the power-base of oligarchal exploiters or criminals. There is a lesson here that resonates with the real lesson of "3 days of the Condor".

Once you expose the bad guys then somebody has to take them down. Without an analogous Colt (God may not have made all men equal, but Colt did is the old saying) revolver and someone willing and able to use it, the bad guys just thumb their noses at you and walk away. Social opprobium has never been enough unless someone has already had their power-base destroyed. Then social opprobrium prevents them from recapitalizing themselves.

But even if they had, without a Matt Dillon'esque sheriff figure to destroy the power-base of the bad guys the good folks of the West wouldn't be able to stand up to bad guys. Public exposure is insufficient unless the power-base is already shattered because the public can always be coopted by appealing to its weaknesses and addictions. Public opprobrium is necessary to the system, because it prevents the reformation of capital for offenders. However it cannot destroy the power-base of "bad guys". The quintessential "sheriff" or "good guy" is someone who is strong enough to destroy the power base of the "bad guys" but won't acquire their capital exclusively for himself. His willingness to limit his acquisitiveness and redistribute resources is what makes him "good".

You could argue that FDR was such a "sheriff" figure. This is not to excuse the man as perfect. The liberal welfare state he built was essential in destroying the economic viability of modern America. Undoubtedly he expected that sooner or later it would have to be revised accomodate changing circumstances. The problem was that there was no political will for change.

The problem is that even after you expose the bad guys, for instance people misleading the public in order to justify a neocolonial war, if they are powerful enough and have enough supporters then nothing happens. The truth may set you free but it certainly doesn't give you justice. Without a powerful enough figure to rein in extremists and to destroy their power-base, public opprobrium simply isn't disciplined enough in order to restrain and disenfranchise powerful rogue individuals.

Napoleon cannot be stopped unless The Duke of Wellington has a showdown at Waterloo with him. Hitler couldn't be stopped except with the combined efforts of FDR, Churchill, and Stalin. Stalin himself lived to a ripe old age unchallenged in his sovereignty principally because of the deal he cut with FDR and Churchill. Without them to overthrow him, his rule was secure.

This was the logic I'm sure that led many Iraqis to endorse an American invasion. They thought they were getting the "white knight" and the "sheriff". Many Iraqis had become convinced that they would never be able to overthrow Saddam and his sons on their own. They thought they were getting Matt Dillon. Instead they got Polk, as in President Polk, him of Manifest Destiny and colonial expansion, territorial annexation, and indigenous ethnocide.

It is testimony to the enduring power of American ideals that they actually thought we would do the right thing by overthrowing Saddam, quickly restore democracy and economic health to them, and quietly leave.

Of course to describe American interests in Iraq as "looting oil" would be wrong. America has never derived its prosperity from direct control of oil receipts. It has derived its power from supporting repressive client state governments that ensure a steady market supply of oil to keep the price low in return for the lion's share of the oil receipts. However even this solution far short from ideal reality would likely have been tolerated by the Iraqis, if only we could have delivered. There is much to be said about the ability to deliver.

As the references to different cultures should have demonstrated - Japan, Iraq, Europe, etc. - the lesson of Gunsmoke isn't limited to American culture.

Ian mentioned in a comment below that he was investigating how could this have happened to America. The answer is that the same thing happened that always happened, with the caveat that this time GWB wasn't up to snuff to become either a Napoleon or Hitler or Stalin. Napoleon whatever else you want to say about him was an exemplary military man and conquered most of Europe. GWB wasn't able to conquer effectively a third world country. So we are at a very awkward point in history.

We have someone who tried to consolidate an oligarchy of social and political power. The faction attempting this came close, but they made a terrible mistake. They chose the wrong man for the job. They preferred a weak-minded figurehead that they could manipulate, rather than risking a strong man who would have become their master, but he couldn't get the job done. So now the world and America pauses.

The faction supporting GWB doesn't want to lose and they have the power to make life miserable for everyone, up to and including escalating to a civil war. However he can't get the job done right. On the other hand there is no one, and by no one I mean to include Clinton, strong enough to stand against him and play the role of the Sheriff - a role doubly dangerous because such a sheriff figure would have to not only withstand Bush but be strong enough to withstand the full force of the public turned against him.

One of the lessons of this campaign election year is to compare the flap over GWB's national guard service and the Swift Boats veteran controversy. The former happened when the media attempted to get on board an attempt to bring down Bush by exposing him. Because they were sloppy and because Bush had a power-base capable of effectively defending him, it failed. That is what happens in the real world when you tape the spymaster confessing in front of the Times. The Times doesn't print it or if it does it buries it in page A-12. This is the reason why the Times goes along with lies. It understands that it cannot destroy GWB and in not destroying him would be humbled by any attempt to do so. If we compare that to the legs that the flip-flopper and Swift Boats controversy had on Kerry, then the media was taught an effective lesson. It was taught that it could not Gore Bush, but that it could Gore Kerry.

So much for the hopes of the press bringing down the President ala Watergate. Nixon's mistake is that he hadn't consolidated his power-base and this is what allowed the press to destroy him. It was able to undermine his core support constituencies. It was only that that allowed a Republican Senator to ask "What did the President know and when did he know it?" and the Supreme Court to rule that Nixon had to turn over the tapes. If Nixon had consolidated his power-base the Post wouldn't have been able to touch him. Bush and the right wing are already beyond that point. There will be no intrepid Deep-throat capable of deep-sixing this movement. Bush started out with the Senate and the Supreme Court in his pocket. Republican Senators have already run cover for him on the 911 commission investigation and the Supreme Court started out his term by ruling 5-4 in his favor.

In the next seventy two hours Americans will choose a President. It is possible that Kerry will be elected and that he will be allowed to take power. That is the hope of many. However there is every possibility that it is not going to happen. Even if it happens the lesson that the right-wing will learn is not that they have chosen the wrong path but that they choose an insufficiently strong leader. The next time there is every possibility that extremists will nominate a Napoleon, someone strong to take it "all the way" even at the risk of them losing control of him and him taking over just the same way that Hitler turned around and put the leash on the Thule group that supported him.

I think McCain's and Christine Todd Whitman's throwing in with this effort is foolish. Understandable but foolish, since they neither believe how far this could go. In a way the best hope for stopping this movement is for Bush to be elected. Bush has proved patently incapable of carrying out successfully the agenda of the movement and his lieutenants have also proven incapable. Four more years of Bush might be utterly disasterous, but American democracy would survive because four more years of Bush would utterly discredit the movement and shatter its broad-based support.

However if he should resort to extreme measures or if he should fall but later be replaced by a more dreadful leader, it will likely take a Duke of Wellington or FDR or Lincoln or Washington, archetypal Matt Dillons, to take the movement down. Only a great man, which is not to say imperfect, could derive the breadth of support and discipline necessary to destroy the power-base from which Bush derives his power.

Every tyrant that comes to power whether Saddam or Mugabe or numerous others is but the leader of a power-base, a clique or Hunta or oligarchy of powerful social and economic establishment actors that benefit from policies that are to the detriment of the public weal and commonwealth. Strong ones like Saddam or Stalin own their power-bases. Weak leaders like GWB are captive to their power-bases.

By all accounts one to one GWB is a likeable guy and frank about his past short-comings and failures. He once described his own business ventures as "floundering" to a ghost-writer. However he is a weak leader unable to handle the burdens and agendas of the various power-brokers and barons in his own cabinet much less his power-base.

However he persists because of the lack of a true sheriff. Dean tried to be that sheriff but he forgot the collary of the sheriff. The movie most honest about this is probably "High Noon" starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelley.
Will Kane (Gary Cooper)is the marshal of a small town on his last day in charge. He is marrying a Quaker (Grace Kelly) and is leaving office for her. But then he hears the news that Ben Miller, a murderer, has been released from jail. Three gunslingers (Sheb Wooley, Bob Wilke and Lee Van Cleef) are at the train depot, waiting for the train carrying Miller, which is due to arrive at high noon.

Kane's junior deputy, Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges) refuses to fight by his side because Will didn't recommend him for sheriff to the town leaders. Will seeks help from everyone, but he is turned down, over and over again. So Kane will have to confront his fears and prove his courage as he goes alone against Frank and his men.

The first test that anyone attempting to become the Sheriff must overcome is desertion by the public. Because the people want a champion to fight for them, not to fight for their champion. This is what McCain and Dean learned the hard way. It is also the reason that there is no one who can oppose GWB much less his power-base which if temporarily defeated will only come back ten times more potent later. It is the reason why in the real facts of history after the OK Corrall that Wyatt Earp had to flee from charges of murder.

The people's champion must first be the people's enemy. It is in a Neitzchean sense of the hero as a criminal that we must conceive of this phenomena. Essentially this is society's manner, however crude, of differentiating between rebels and socioopaths. A sociopath is someone who ignores social conventions in order to abuse the public trust by harming or exploiting others. If you turn on a sociopath or abandon them, they will be undone. A rebel is someone attempting to overthrow a previous social order and institute a new one. Note that this judgement isn't moral, it's simply one of coherence.

In a practical sense the townspeople will neither help Miller or Kane. It is interesting to note that there is a Gunsmoke episode that essentially deals with the same theme of the strong man being abandoned by others. In it, Matt Dillon faces not just one criminal but one coming for vengeance with a gang. He sends back his townfolk posse in order to face them alone and challenges the leader of the gang to single combat. The gang leader accepts but indicates that his lieutenant should shoot Matt Dillon if the gang leader loses.

The way the episode is resolved is the townfolk posse sneaks up and shoots the lieutenant about to kill Dillon after Dillon defeats the gang leader in single combat. This is a theme repeated in the Clint Eastwood movie called Pale Rider. "Pale Ride" features a scene where the "Preacher" - a moralistic gunfighter figure - has destroyed the hired guns and goons of the local economic oligarch and then the "ordinary guy" who he has befriended then shoots the oligarch who is about to shoot "Preacher" in the back.

The lesson here is that the limitation upon any such Sheriff figure arising is that he himself must be strong enough to survive the full force of public opprobium and desertion after he arises, and only after he has proven he can triumph without public aid will others rally to him. The public has got your "back" if you can face down the bad guys - all by yourself. The Rebel fleet will mop up the Imperial fleet if you can defeat Vader in single combat, destroy the Emperor, and blow up the Death Star. The colonies will rally to you against the Redcoats - if you can survive Valley Forge.

The surprising thing is that we actually have had a number of hero-figures step foward in both American and British history. The names have been ennumerated before, peoples' champions who stepped forward and defeated the forces of extremism and oddly enough did not for whatever reason seize tyrannical power for themselves but took a benign attitude. I am not sure where such a figure could arise from now but if we are talking about the mythological arc that society is playing out then this is the standard solution.

Hope you find this helpful with your project there Ian.


At October 31, 2004 at 11:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Very good article. I have to mull over this a bit, so I'm not going to say much now. By the time I have thought a bit, you will have put out 1 or 2 more articles. :-)

I do have some doubts though whether the "movement" can ever be sufficiently discredited to die out. There will (may?) always be a significant number of people either whose interests are represented by it or who will be swayed by its propaganda. See the recent rise of the extreme right in (mostly East) Germany, led by re-imports from West Germany. They were actually never defeated, but sweltered underground, and found (if only somewhat) secret shelter in the general rightwing environment. If what became known about Germany's performance in WW2 was not enough to discredit National Socialism, then what does it take?

At October 31, 2004 at 11:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The picture you paint of our nation is grim one indeed. Though in many ways I agree with it. Our democracy is truly unraveling and our people are balkanizing, though not of their own accord.

The agents of this discord can be traced to Wall Street and super wealthy. They have always wanted to regress the working class back to peons and loot the country properly.

FDR delayed them their dreams by 60+ years but they are now close to their goals. Sure to this day he is evil incarnate to Wallstreeters, economists and richmen. But to everyone else who had to work for a living he made life better. He placed people over money.

The oligarches main tactic is to divide the supporting class on arbitrary and greatly exaggerated wedge issues so they hope to turn the workers against one another and while they butcher each other the rich and powerful are free to loot. Its the oldest tactic in the book "divide and conquer"

NOTE: The following presumes a Bush pustch takes place on Nov 2nd and implies the final death of our way of governance.

As to the question, can they be stopped? Yes, they can be and it doesn't take a supreme leader like Washington or Madison to do it.

For starters this kind of man doesn't exist anymore, they couldn't survive a political system where the ability to bullshit and be telegenic are the main attributes of pols and intellect comes in a distant last. And the ones who aren't are bought and paid for like whores or will be killed. Remember MLK?

So where will the resistance come from? From ordinary people who band together over common ideology and values. The model are the various Iraqi resistance groups show how this could be done.

And the fact is at this point the peons won't have anything left to lose to hunting down the rich for either punishment or as a food source.

This is what the rich businessmen in this country forget and also ignore we're loaded to the gills with weapons and lots of men who have formal training in the use of them.

At October 31, 2004 at 11:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So... are you setting us up for a "Kerry as Sherrif and the public 'got his back' via ballot" scenario? It's an easy script according to your formula: Kerry participates in an oligarch war, turns ronin, champions the voiceless everyman and survives prominently denouncing the war and confrontations with proxy John O'Neil...survives prosecuting the oligarchs in Congress and damages part of their network...primary campaign in tatters, gets written off before Iowa but survives and wins, survives the fundraising battle... supports an oligarch war, gets away with prominently denouncing the war and confrontations with proxy O'Neil...wins the televised shootout, etc... So, has he proven himself? Will the townsfolk have his back? Actually they are the reason he raised enough money and infrastructure for the fight in the first place, and they are so far doing their job at the polls, so... stay tuned?

- Robert E

At November 1, 2004 at 12:08 AM, Blogger Oldman said...


I don't have all the answers. I do know that I'm not sure whether Kerry can pull it off, and that in itself says it's not a done deal either way. I'm worried about electoral vote counts that project Florida into Kerry's column. At this point I think we have to rely on the assumption that Kerry has to win the electoral college without Florida.

What I do know is that Kerry isn't strong enough - yet at least - to destroy Bush's power-base whether or not he can put away Bush. It's a work in progress.

As for the other commentator remarking about all the little people getting together to get the bad guys to back down ... never happens. Never. It's not always concentrated into one person (consider the Founding Fathers) but by definition if they can stand up to the powers that be they are great men - Gandhis, MLK Jr's etc.

History teaches a brutal lesson. The little guy, whether by himself or with other little guys, he always loses against the establishment. Always.

At November 1, 2004 at 12:08 AM, Blogger Oldman said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At November 1, 2004 at 8:24 AM, Blogger Tater said...

Does this sound like a fair summary?

To break an established power-base - to knock down the "bad guys":

- Means to do this have to be available, that are compatible with the desired result
- Someone - a person or a limited, knowable group of people - has to accumulate sufficient power to use those means
- That person has to be willing to spend that power to win the fight - spend as in, when it's done, they may have nothing left

I keep thinking about Terry MacAuliffe's speech to the DNC this year, bragging about having paid for the brand-new Democratic Party HQ building WITH CASH!! I mean, I'm sure that's nice and all, but you're the leader of what is in theory a political party, organized to achieve political aims, and this is your biggest bragging point? It's like their core philosophy is, "First, do no harm to myself or my friends."

At November 1, 2004 at 10:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting post Oldman.

Can't remember the exact circumstance - but there was a historical episode where a gang rode into a western town, made threats and got blown to bits by the entire male population.

Seems the male population were almost all civil war vets - and that was the end of that.

Another recent case was where a noted bully, rapist and thug was killed in a town, in broad daylight, apparently by a single individual.

No one saw a thing. Not a single person. That's more Oldman's case - the public had his back, whoever he was - but they didn't have the guts to do it themselves.

The simplest life support (not solution) for the US situation, oddly, would be a draft - since it would make the army very unreliable for domestic political suppression.

But I'm more concerned about how Bush's backers cohered as social groups (in sociological terms almost status groups) who see themselves opposed to what they consider the American mainstream.

Such barriers are very powerful - if you want a strong group capable of taking action you have to set it off against other groups/society - and the stronger the barrier, the better. That's why succesful evangelical movements are destroyed by success in the long run. Take control of your society, no longer be persecuted, have everyone ostensibly part of you, and you are destroyed by your success.

The religious conservatives would probably be overthrown in about 30 years if they got the American religious state that they want. But from the point of view of other Americans who'd have to live through it, and the rest of the world who'd have to watch it and the rise of China - they'd be a very long, very ugly, 30 years.


At November 1, 2004 at 12:52 PM, Blogger Oldman said...

Such factional take-over states generally experience exponential decay Ian. Consider the Iranian theocracy. 30 years and while wobbly more than capable of still using the Great Satan to crack down on dissidents. As a steady-state society without expansion costs - which would have required capitalistic style growth to sustain - the Soviet Union could have existed indefinitely. The only reason China is having political problems is their internal growth pressure which is forcing them to either economically or militarily expand.

If you look back in history, one realizes that various dynasties can last literally centuries as steady-state societies - and usually it's either some sort of internal demographic shift or environmental change or external force that breaks them up. In other words they become too specialized at their social niche and can't adapt.

The kind of solution I'm positing is the kind that takes place in a single generation.

And your former case fits well within my definition ... as I mentioned sheriffs aren't necessarily single individuals. If you would look at that town full of civil war vets more closely likely there was an informal leadership structure based upon past military organization function.

A group of persons, a single person, whoever is the sheriff they have to be willing and able to take down bad guys.

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