The Philosophy of Debt

I thought I’d take the time to transcribe some of one of the more interesting podcasts I listened to last year, Tom O’Brien’s interview with Alexander Douglas, the author of The Philosophy of Debt. It covers a lot of things from a perspective you don’t hear anywhere else:


“I suppose I was interested philosophically when I read an article in the Economist…on heterodox economics. And it was talking about how the [2008 financial] crisis had revived heterodox economics to a certain extent. And it mentioned this guy called Warren Mosler. It painted quite a complimentary picture, but left open the possibility that he was just a crank.”

“I was intrigued, so I thought I would check it out. I watched him on FOX News, because…the first thing that came up was a video of him being interviewed on FOX News. And he started off to me sounding like a crank until he said something like, “Well, remember that government bonds are just saving accounts at the Fed.” And that made me jump out of my seat. I had just never thought of it like that. And it was this very simple philosophical point that, even as somebody who likes to think about these things philosophically…it had just never occurred to me to think, ‘Well, what is the difference between a bond issued by the treasury and a savings account which is just the liability of the central bank’…That’s probably when I started thinking about the concepts like debt and what and like what an asset is and what it means to hold an asset…”

“Following on from this point about bonds, I guess the question that I asked myself was, why does that seem plausible, and why does it seem weird at the same time?”


“If you’re educated in the mainstream of economics, or even in a lot of heterodox traditions…a bond is a debt marker. It’s a certificate of a debt from the government to you. It is something completely different from the thing that’s actually owed. It specifies that you’re owed a certain amount of currency, but it isn’t the currency…

We think about debt intuitively…we think of simple cases like I borrow your lawnmower, and there’s no debt marker at all there, but maybe I could write out a debt marker for you. I could say ‘I owe you a lawnmower.’ And it’s very obvious there that there’s one object in the world that I owe you. And then you have this debt marker that is just your claim on that one object. That’s nice and simple.”

“You have to build up a very long way before you get to a government bond…Suppose your lawnmower is destroyed somehow in an accident. You might say, now I owe you *a* lawnmower. But the, what I call using a bit of medieval logic, the suppisitio of the term, …it has now changed. The thing that I owe you used to refer to one particular object; now it is a distributive term. There’s some lawnmower out there that I owe you. It’s got to be one of a class of certain lawnmowers which are equivalent in value or something like that. But that is now looking like a very different sort of relationship…

What if the class of objects you could present to extinguish the liability [included] the debt marker itself? That seems to be what’s happening with the government bond. So a government bond says you have a claim on any risk-free financial asset worth this amount. But of course that bond itself is a risk free financial asset worth that amount. Both are liquid financial assets that serve the same purpose. And that’s when I realized that was Mosler was doing was not just economics, he was making this interesting philosophical intervention.”

Tom O’Brien (TO’B): “That’s quite a tricky concept…a government bond is not a debt, it represents something that’s equivalent to a debt.”

Alexander Douglas (AD): “Well, the weird thing about it is, it’s a debt and also something that extinguishes a debt…In principle, with a fiat currency, the only thing that the state can use to extinguish any of its debts is other liabilities. You can use Bank of England notes to repay the debt that’s supposedly embodied in the government bond. The Bank of England notes are liabilities of the Bank of England, which are in turn backed by government debt, at least nominally. So the government seems to be extinguishing the debt with its own debt. That’s why we have so much trouble making sense out of it.”

“And there are two dimensions to that. One is the financial accounting which you can just learn. The other is how we should morally think about this. The morals of the lawnmower case seem so benignly intelligible by comparison…It’s pretty clear that if I just walk away with the lawnmower and never return it to you, I’m doing something wrong; I’m harming you. But when we get to these cases where the relation between the thing owed and the marker of the debt, and the two agents involved, is just so completely loopy, it’s no longer possible to apply our moral intuitions in a straightforward way.”

TO’B: “The way I personally like to think about the government debt or the government currency…is [that] it’s the same thing…one is like an interest-bearing currency and one is like a bog-standard currency….”


“The question that we need to start with is, what is it that makes something money? Warren [Mosler] says that we should just avoid the term money because it’s so vexed and so complicated.

I find it very interesting that in economics textbooks you’ll sometimes just introduce this concept [of] money which is given these various roles: it’s a medium of exchange, etc. None of them seem necessary or sufficient to define something as money.

Joan Robinson pointed out a long time ago, in a barter society, if someone barters one object for another object which they don’t actually want but they just keep—so I might be a blacksmith; I’ll barter you a hammer to you for some corn. I just hold onto the corn not because I want to eat it, but because I know that somebody else will probably give up something that I do want for it. That shouldn’t be sufficient to make corn into money, because people do that with objects all the time. In a barter society you might be constantly swapping for things you just want to hang onto. So you need something else. And all these other conditions—store of value, etc.—they don’t seem to work either because the same argument can just be applied.”

“So in economics textbooks you’re then given this sort of pyramid. Well, there are these different “money things” which variously approximate to the condition of money. So cash, that’s definitely money. And then you have these different sorts of financial assets-you’ve got corporate paper, and government bonds fit somewhere in there. This strikes me as just a useless way of trying to throw any light on the important issues…Of course what we’re interested in is the sorts of social relations you can create, the sort of relations of power that you can create. Surely that’s got to be the relevant feature of defining something as money.”


TO’B: “That’s a very deep point; that the nature of money is intrinsically tied to the social relations of society…It sounds a bit too Marxist to be in an economics textbook.”

AD: “Well, I guess that’s right. It’s interesting if you look at the history of discussion of money, to most of the medieval tradition, this was just an obvious point. That of course money is a sort of political contract as some level. Because otherwise it’s impossible to see what could distinguish it form mere commodity…it’s…the point that almost anyone will arrive at if they think of money in any degree of philosophical depth rather than just wanting to have something to stick in as the value of a viable in an economic model.”

“The MMT way of thinking about money…is that anyone can create money, the problem is getting it accepted. So [economist Randall Wray’s] point is, I can issue IOU’s, I could issue my own bonds and see if I can get them to circulate; see if I can purchase things by issuing debt certificates, and if people circulate them around, then why aren’t they money? The tricky philosophical point there [is]…is it ‘the thing is money and then you have to get it accepted,’ or does it become money when you have the power to get it accepted? I think that’s the crucial point here…”

“But with government money, with currency, the story is quite simple. You impose a tax liability first, and then you can choose what that tax liability is denominated in, and then people will have to give up things, at least to you, to get the thing that extinguishes that tax liability, otherwise you’ll subject them to punishments. So in that case it’s obvious what makes something money. So if that’s what we mean by money, if we’re taking currency as the paradigm of money, then the only question you have to ask is…‘how much coercive power backs the asset that you’re circulating?‘ The answer to that question will determine how much we should classify that asset as money.”

TO’B: “It seems that power and money and debt seem to be inextricably linked. Would you go so far as to say that power is the root [of money]?”

AD: “I’m not sure there’s a coherent account of what a commodity is either…The idea of a commodity is something that’s desired for…what [Adam] Smith would call its ‘value in use.’ And so the idea of a commodity money is, in addition to the value in use, it has to develop some value in exchange which isn’t just reducible to somebody else’s desire to use it; to just extract utility from it. And I can’t see what that could be except for power. So if I start telling everybody that they have to turn over green flowers to me or I’ll subject them to punishments, well then green flowers will start to circulate and they’ll stop being commodities. The problem with that distinction is that the whole exchange economy is infected with these relations of power. There is no hard line between a voluntary exchange and a coerced exchange, so that’s where the issue becomes tricky. Maybe that’s why Marxists don’t distinguish between commodities and money in the way MMT would.”


“…It all stems from the question of what a currency is. The mainstream view is that currency is just this medium of exchange. It reduces transaction costs and the government supplies the currency, or the central bank supplies the currency just kind of as a public service, and people now have this medium of exchange.”

“The thing that weird about that is, if we need a media of exchange, why can’t we just create them ourselves? There’s a tension here…which is also what mainstream economists say when they do tell the historical story—that we just sort of developed this medium of exchange. Okay, well then, why do we need the government to come and issue them?”

“The MMT story is, the creation of a state currency doesn’t begin with the printing…and circulating of an asset; it begins with the creation of a liability that wasn’t there before. So what you do is, you just impose this tax liability, and for MMT that’s the source of unemployment.”

“Their model is the hut tax…The idea there is you go from a village that has zero unemployment. Whether or not you want to call it ‘fully employed’…is tricky because you might want to say that unemployment is very specifically not just deprivation. A person who is starving on a desert island, it would be weird to call that person unemployed. Unemployment is a power relation. It’s a situation in which people need to offer their labor in order to acquire a particular sort of asset—in order to acquire currency.

So you go into a village where it’s perfectly self-sufficient. And then you impose a tax liability on all the huts which can only be paid in something that only you have, which is shillings. It goes from zero unemployment to max unemployment overnight. As soon as you’ve done that you’ve created a currency. You don’t even need to print the shillings. You have unemployment there because you have people who are offering their labor because they have no choice [but] to try and earn these shillings to keep themselves out of prison. You already have the currency there. Whether or not you print the shillings just depends on how sadistic you want to be.”

“And so the job guarantee is just a way of saying, ‘since you’ve created all this unemployment, the least you could do is now provide a means of extinguishing it’…people should at least have the chance to earn the shillings that you created the demand for simply by imposing this tax.”

“The difference between full employment as recommended by mainstream economists, and full employment as recommended by MMT, is that mainstream economists tend to think that unemployment is this naturally occurring phenomenon, and the government can try and do something about this naturally occurring phenomenon. Whereas the MMT view is [that] the government created all the unemployment, so the job guarantee is simply reversing the imposition that it’s placed upon society.”

TO’B: “Its a very counterintuitive way of looking at it–that unemployment is created by the government.”

AD: “Yeah it is. There’s a talk that [Warren] Mosler gives where he starts off by saying ‘what’s the purpose of taxation?’ And of course everybody gets is wrong; they think it’s to bring in revenue for government. He deals with that easily, he says, ‘the government is the only issuer of the currency so how could it possibly need revenue paid in that currency?’ And the answer that he ends up with is [that] the purpose of taxation is to create unemployment. That’s the primary purpose; that’s what taxation is for.”


TO’B: “So taxation, in effect, forces people into work that’s deemed meaningful socially…It’s coercive when you think about its root nature.”

AD: “Its fundamentally coercive, yeah. And its not just about coercing labor, its about creating a certain structure of labor…The problem is, you don’t want to compare our society with its coercive apparatus to some idealized version of our society where you just take the coercive apparatus away. That’s where the myth of barter comes form. Just take a society like ours and take the money away. Well then, you’re taking away the entire coercive apparatus of our society. Whether you’re left with anything that would even be logically conceivable shouldn’t be something you can assume.

But imagine some other sort of society where you don’t have money; where you don’t have a state currency like this. People will still work to produce what they need. They’ll still work for each other, maybe, but it won’t all have to be channeled through this single medium.”

“What I mean is, if I’m hungry and I go down to Sainsbury’s, I can only give them money. I can’t give them anything else. I can’t use my labor in any other way to procure what I need from Sainsbury’s. So first of all, I have to find somebody who will exchange my labor for currency. So there’s a whole structuring of labor relations that occurs.”

“People say that currency is a way of overcoming the inconveniences of barter. But in a way you could say it adds all these inconveniences. It might be the case that otherwise I would have been able to go to Sainsbury’s and say, ‘Look, I’ll stack your shelves for an hour, and let me take home a couple of burgers,’ or something. But I can’t do that because…currency’s is in the way.”


“You’re looking directly at the coercive element of unemployment; that unemployment has to be something you impose on a society by coercion. Then you can recognize the thing that Michał Kalecki was trying to talk about in his 1943 article, The Political Aspects of Full Employment. What happens is, you have socialized the power to coerce labor. That’s effectively what you’ve done.”

“The easiest way to think about it is to go back to the hut tax. If you go [back] to the hut tax, and every hut has this tax liability, and then I give the shillings to maybe three or four guys—okay, now I’ve outsourced my power to coerce labor. I’ve deputized it. Now these guys get to decide how they want to use all the labor that there is. Whereas if I have a standing offer that anybody who doesn’t like the terms that those three guys offer can come directly to me—now I’m the government in this example—then you’ve got a socialized system of labor. So [the Job Guarantee] is very significant.”


TO’B: “It seems to me that the people in power—say politicians, and probably the central bankers—I think they know all of this stuff personally, because If you go back to something like, say, World War Two and you look at what America or Britain did; they didn’t say, ‘Oh, Germany’s attacking me, we don’t have enough money to build planes,’ or whatever. They just expanded the monetary base up until everybody was employed to defend the nation and create all the tanks and planes and everything that they needed. They didn’t give a damn about the debt.”

AD: “Insiders are cagey about admitting how much they actually do or don’t agree with this understanding of the issue. I’m sure you know there’s a famous interview with [Paul] Samuelson where, what he says about the deficit is, well, it’s just a ‘noble lie,’ basically. That you want to act as if the government overspend[ing] is some sort of borrowing operation, because otherwise it’s completely unconstrained in what it can spend from year to year. Once people realize that issuing bonds is really just the same as issuing currency, the government can just do whatever it likes. And so somehow this false perception serves some important political purpose by reining in the government. But as you say, does it?”

“You’ve given the clear example there. Britain is running a deficit in 1941. Germany’s on the verge of invading. Does Churchill surrender because he can’t afford to pay for the soldiers? This ‘noble lie’ seems to come and go as it pleases the governing authorities to be subject to it. So who is it constraining? It clearly doesn’t seem to be constraining the decision makers, since they can give up on it whenever they like. It only constrains the population. But why do we need to constrain the population? I mean, we already have the legal system and the police to do that.”


TO’B: “So this seems to really tie into a thing of class and power. What are the problems that [Kalecki] envisions with trying to introduce this guarantee of full employment?”

AD: “Kalecki’s idea is that capitalism has evolved into a system where unemployment is a crucial disciplinary measure in the relation between labor and capital. You can sort of speculate on what would happen if that were no longer there the same way you can speculate about what would happen if prison sentences were abolished. We just don’t know. To not be able to implicitly threaten workers at the bottom–the workers who are as really close as you can get to the threat of unemployment– would change the whole nature of the factory. It’s just unclear that it would be able to be run in anything like way it’s currently run. That was his main concern.”

“He said [that] said the reason why fascism had no problem implementing full employment in Germany is because it did just completely change the nature of the power structure of society. It didn’t have to worry about how things would play out now that these power imbalances had been completely reversed because it sought to do that in the first place; that was the point.”

TO’B: “…The Nazis essentially introduced MMT to get them out of the Great Depression. I think it was called Chartalism back in the day. But they used it to guarantee full employment. They brought their unemployment rates down from like thirty percent down to two percent in a matter of 5 or 6 years.”

AD: “Mind you, any nation that goes to war brings its unemployment rate down to basically full employment levels. So yeah, it’s certainly possible.”


“…the full employment policies that were pursued in the Sixties and Seventies were aggregate demand management polices. So you would just pump as much money into the economy as you could, in the hope that at some point the economic opportunity cost of not hiring any available labor would fall so low as to make it irrational for a capitalist not to do that.”

“Kalecki’s point is that, ‘well, that’s assuming that they’re motivated by purely pecuniary concerns.’ But of course what the capitalist realizes is that unemployment is a useful disciplinary possibility. So the capitalist might be willing to pay for it. In other words, it doesn’t matter how low the opportunity costs, no matter how low their opportunity cost goes, there’s just a certain amount that they’re allocating to pay, or to not maximize their profits, in order to maintain that power which might be vital to the function of, at least at that point, industrial capitalism.”

“So in the U.K. there are bad associations with full employment policy because many people—to some extent rightly—blame it for all the industrial conflict that emerged after that period. You basically had this attempt to subvert an existing power balance that didn’t quite work out. You end up with these pitched battles between representatives of different industrial interests.”

“The job guarantee idea is, well, okay fine, so don’t work within the market. You just circumvent the market entirely. Instead of trying to incentivize capitalists to hire all the available labor, we the government would…just hire them ourselves. Of course that’s even more radical.”

“There are two possibilities One way is to kind of smuggle it in as not that great a departure from the current way of operating, which is how a lot of MMT activists are presenting it: ‘Look this is just the logical extension of Keynesian demand management.’ The other is to show it for what it really is, in which case it takes on a pretty revolutionary character, I think.”

“As a person who only has your labor power to offer, you’re a mendicant, and who are you a mendicant to? The job guarantee just means you no longer possibly can be a mendicant to private interests, because if you don’t like the terms any of them offer you, you can always get these guaranteed fixed terms – a fixed living wage by working for the state. I mean, this is a philosophical question. Its not obvious that that’s better. There’s all the debates about state socialism that need to be had to promote the policy in that way, which is why people are trying to say, ‘look, it really just more expansionary sort of fiscal policy; it’s really just a way of extending things we already have’…but I think it’s not, it inevitably has to be more radical.”


“So you have to go back to the point that the state sets the price of its currency. It sets the price of its currency by determining how much of the currency you need which ultimately comes down to the tax liabilities, and what you have to do to get the currency. During the Seventies, arguably, you had labor governments who were willing to accommodate the increasing wage bargains of unionized labor. So in that sense they were just looking after their interests.”

“And the idea is that in the 1980s you had this move toward ‘free markets.’ But in what sense? I mean, a bank is just a deputized issuer of state currency. And when the Bank of England places certain loans to buy certain sorts of assets on it eligible collateral list, it’s guaranteeing the prices of those assets. And so it does that with housing. And so you get this increase in house prices which is completely state engineered in no less a sense than the increase in wages of unionized labor was state engineered. You just have a different government looking after the interests of a different class, but the technique is exactly the same.”

TO’B: “This idea of the ‘free market’ is very far from what people think. People think that a rise in house prices is just some strange occurrence, but it’s a planned class relation, they re trying to redistribute a certain percentage of the social production to certain classes.”

AD: “Yeah. And it goes directly through the financial system which is a public institution. It might not look that way but it is. Because the Sterling framework is a government instituted framework. ‘Unelected central bankers,’ but it’s still a state institution. And the Sterling framework just determines which assets are going to move where. It puts some on its collateral list and it doesn’t put others on. There are very few people in the UK who are thinking of politics like that. Anybody’s starting assumption is that, of course the 80s were the ‘free market’ years, and before that was the ‘state socialist’ years. To get any traction on this debate you have to first disabuse people of that.”


“It depends on how we’re measuring profit. If you take a Neoclassical view–forget about money, I mean, money if anything is a useful numéraire, but that’s not what we’re reckoning any of our quantities in terms of. Then you might be able to argue that there’s an inevitable tendency for the rate of profit to fall if the government pursues at least a consistent policy. But if you’re doing something like [Andrew] Kliman does, and you’re actually measuring the rate of profit in terms of currency, well he himself says that, look, the rate of profit–the decline can be obscured by financial leverage–buying companies [and] gett[ing] these temporary record profits based on valuations based on loans which are never going to be paid off, impossible loans. Of course the government can just make this impossible loan to itself indefinitely. It can roll over forever. So you can’t say that there’s some tendency of the rate of profit measured in money terms to fall when you’ve got a state that has complete control over its fiscal policy.”

Luddism and Economic Ideology

Smithsonian Magazine has a very good feature on the Luddites, well worth a read. There are many elements you just don’t read in many economic histories; for example, the 40-hour work week was not brought down from the mountaintop by Moses and inscribed in stone tablets, despite what you may have heard elsewhere:

At the turn of 1800, the textile industry in the United Kingdom was an economic juggernaut that employed the vast majority of workers in the North. Working from home, weavers produced stockings using frames, while cotton-spinners created yarn. “Croppers” would take large sheets of woven wool fabric and trim the rough surface off, making it smooth to the touch.

These workers had great control over when and how they worked—and plenty of leisure. “The year was chequered with holidays, wakes, and fairs; it was not one dull round of labor,” as the stocking-maker William Gardiner noted gaily at the time. Indeed, some “seldom worked more than three days a week.” Not only was the weekend a holiday, but they took Monday off too, celebrating it as a drunken “St. Monday.”

Croppers in particular were a force to be reckoned with. They were well-off—their pay was three times that of stocking-makers—and their work required them to pass heavy cropping tools across the wool, making them muscular, brawny men who were fiercely independent. In the textile world, the croppers were, as one observer noted at the time, “notoriously the least manageable of any persons employed.”

The introduction of machinery in cloth manufacture did not make these people’s lives better. In fact, it made them a lot worse:

“They [the merchant class] were obsessed with keeping their factories going, so they were introducing machines wherever they might help,” says Jenny Uglow, a historian and author of In These Times: Living in Britain Through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793-1815.

The workers were livid. Factory work was miserable, with brutal 14-hour days that left workers—as one doctor noted—“stunted, enfeebled, and depraved.” Stocking-weavers were particularly incensed at the move toward cut-ups. It produced stockings of such low quality that they were “pregnant with the seeds of its own destruction,” as one hosier put it: Pretty soon people wouldn’t buy any stockings if they were this shoddy. Poverty rose as wages plummeted.

Yes, you read that right- the introduction of “labor-saving” technology made the amount these people worked increase dramatically. It also made their work much, much more unpleasant. It transferred control to a smaller circle of wealthy people and took it away from the workers themselves. It made the rich richer, increased poverty, and tore society apart.

But more technology is always good, right?

And since history is written by the victors, “Luddite” is a term now inextricably wound up with the knee-jerk rejection of new technology. But the Luddites weren’t opposed to new technology at all! What they were fighting against was the economic conditions that took away their autonomy and turned them into mendicants in their own country:

The workers tried bargaining. They weren’t opposed to machinery, they said, if the profits from increased productivity were shared. The croppers suggested taxing cloth to make a fund for those unemployed by machines. Others argued that industrialists should introduce machinery more gradually, to allow workers more time to adapt to new trades.

The plight of the unemployed workers even attracted the attention of Charlotte Brontë, who wrote them into her novel Shirley. “The throes of a sort of moral earthquake,” she noted, “were felt heaving under the hills of the northern counties.”


At heart, the fight was not really about technology. The Luddites were happy to use machinery—indeed, weavers had used smaller frames for decades. What galled them was the new logic of industrial capitalism, where the productivity gains from new technology enriched only the machines’ owners and weren’t shared with the workers.

In fact, the Luddites actually spared the machines that were used by employers who treated workers fairly. Funny how you never hear that in most popular descriptions of the Luddite revolt:

The Luddites were often careful to spare employers who they felt dealt fairly. During one attack, Luddites broke into a house and destroyed four frames—but left two intact after determining that their owner hadn’t lowered wages for his weavers. (Some masters began posting signs on their machines, hoping to avoid destruction: “This Frame Is Making Full Fashioned Work, at the Full Price.”)

Unlike today, labor actually fought back against these attempts to destroy their way of life:

As a form of economic protest, machine-breaking wasn’t new. There were probably 35 examples of it in the previous 100 years, as the author Kirkpatrick Sale found in his seminal history Rebels Against the Future. But the Luddites, well-organized and tactical, brought a ruthless efficiency to the technique: Barely a few days went by without another attack, and they were soon breaking at least 175 machines per month. Within months they had destroyed probably 800, worth £25,000—the equivalent of $1.97 million, today.

Rather than the “natural course” of free-market economics, once again it was government intervention, including brutal state violence, that made modern capitalism possible:

Parliament was now fully awakened, and began a ferocious crackdown. In March 1812, politicians passed a law that handed out the death penalty for anyone “destroying or injuring any Stocking or Lace Frames, or other Machines or Engines used in the Framework knitted Manufactory.” Meanwhile, London flooded the Luddite counties with 14,000 soldiers.

By winter of 1812, the government was winning. Informants and sleuthing finally tracked down the identities of a few dozen Luddites. Over a span of 15 months, 24 Luddites were hanged publicly, often after hasty trials, including a 16-year-old who cried out to his mother on the gallows, “thinking that she had the power to save him.” Another two dozen were sent to prison and 51 were sentenced to be shipped off to Australia.

But wait, isn’t capitalism all about “freedom and liberty?” Freedom and liberty for some, I guess.

The problem, then as now, was not technology itself, but the economic relations that it unfolded against. What I found most interesting is that even back then, the emerging pseudoscience of economics was used to justify the harsh treatment of the workers and the bottomless greed of capitalists, in particular the “sacred text” of modern Neoclassical economics, Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations:

For the Luddites, “there was the concept of a ‘fair profit,’” says Adrian Randall, the author of Before the Luddites. In the past, the master would take a fair profit, but now he adds, “the industrial capitalist is someone who is seeking more and more of their share of the profit that they’re making.” Workers thought wages should be protected with minimum-wage laws. Industrialists didn’t: They’d been reading up on laissez-faire economic theory in Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, published a few decades earlier.

“The writings of Dr. Adam Smith have altered the opinion, of the polished part of society,” as the author of a minimum wage proposal at the time noted. Now, the wealthy believed that attempting to regulate wages “would be as absurd as an attempt to regulate the winds.”

It seems as though nothing’s really changed. Using economic “science” to justify social inequality and private ownership goes back to the very beginnings of the Market.

When Robots Take All of Our Jobs, Remember the Luddites (Smithsonian Magazine). Smithsonian wrote about this before, see also: What the Luddites Really Fought Against

As the above history shows, there is nothing “natural” or normal about extreme busyness and brutally long working hours. It is entirely an artificial creation:

A nice post at the HBR blog…describes how being busy is now celebrated as a symbol of high status. This is not natural. Marshall Sahlins has shown that in hunter-gather societies (which were the human condition for nine-tenths of our existence) people typically worked for only around 20 hours a week. In pre-industrial societies, work was task-oriented; people did as much as necessary and then stopped. Max Weber wrote:

“Man does not “by nature” wish to earn more and more money, but simply to live as he is accustomed to live and to earn as much as is necessary for that purpose. Wherever modern capitalism has begun its work of increasing the productivity of human labour by increasing its intensity, it has encountered the immensely stubborn resistance of this leading trait of pre-capitalistic labour. (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, p24”

The backward-bending supply curve of labour was normal.

E.P. Thompson has described how pre-industrial working hours were irregular, with Mondays usually taken as holidays. He, and writers such as Sidney Pollard and Stephen Marglin, have shown how the working day as we know it was imposed by ruthless discipline, reinforced by Christian moralists. (There’s a clue in the title of Weber’s book). Marglin quotes Andrew Ure, author of The Philosophy of Manufacturers in 1835:

The main difficulty [faced by Richard Arkwright] did not, to my apprehension, lie so much in the invention of a proper mechanism for drawing out and twisting cotton into a continuous thread, as in…training human beings to renounce their desultory habits of work and to identify themselves with the unvarying regularity of the complex automation. To devise and administer a successful code of factory discipline, suited to the necessities of factory diligence, was the Herculean enterprise, the noble achievement of Arkwright…It required, in fact, a man of a Napoleon nerve and ambition to subdue the refractory tempers of workpeople accustomed to irregular paroxysms of diligence.”

Today, though, such external discipline is no longer so necessary because many of us – more so in the UK and US than elsewhere – have internalized the capitalist imperative that we work long hours, …Which just vindicates a point made by Bertrand Russell back in 1932:

“The conception of duty, speaking historically, has been a means used by the holders of power to induce others to live for the interests of their masters rather than for their own.”

Against busyness (Stumbling and Mumbling)

Honestly, the five-day workweek is outmoded and ridiculous. It’s more of a babysitting operation for adults than anything else. It’s a silly as arguing that we need over two decades of formal education in order to do our jobs.

I was reminded of this over the holidays. In the U.S. we get virtually no time off from our jobs, unlike most other countries (East Asia might be an exception). But Christmas/New Year’s is a rare exception, and we have several four-day weeks in a row (without pay for some of us, of course). Those weeks are so much more pleasant, and I would even say productive, than the rest of the year. Every year at this time I think to myself, “Why isn’t every week a four-day workweek?” Some places do have such an arrangement, but they justify it by four long, ten-hour days. I don’t know about you, but towards the end of ten hours in a row of “work” I doubt anyone’s accomplishing much of anything. Is 32 hours a week really not enough to keep society functioning in the twenty-first century?

Not only that, but many people use whatever little vacation they do have in order to take the whole time period at the end of the year off. This is typical in Europe, but rarer here. In any case, while going to work I noticed that there was hardly any traffic. The roads were empty. There were plenty of seats on the bus. The streets and sidewalks were empty. There was no waiting in the restaurants and cafes. There was plenty of room for everything. There was a laid-back feeling everywhere. It was so pleasant. I couldn’t help but think to myself, “why isn’t every week like this?” If more people could stay home and work less, it very well could be. Instead we’re trapped on a treadmill. Working less would actually pay dividends in terms of reduced traffic, less crowding, less pollution, and better health outcomes due to less stress and more time to exercise.

There’s also a simple logic problem at work here. If we say the 40-hour week is inviolable and set-in-stone for the rest of time, and we do not wish to increase the problem of unemployment, then literally no labor-saving technology will ever save labor! We might as well dispense with the creation of any labor-saving technology, since by the above logic, it cannot save labor. You could equivocate and say that it frees us from doing “lower” level work and allows us to do “higher” level work, as when ditch diggers become factory workers, or something. That may have been a valid argument a hundred years ago, but in an age when most of us are low-paid service workers or useless paper-pushers, it’s pretty hard to make that case with any seriousness anymore.


I often refer to economics as a religion, with its practitioners as priests. So it’s interesting to read that in other contexts. This is from Chris Dillow’s blog, where the above passage about work was taken:

The social power, i.e. the multiplied productive force”, wrote Marx, appears to people “not as their own united power but as an alien force existing outside them, of the origin and end of which they are ignorant, which they thus cannot control.”

I was reminded of this by a fine passage in The Econocracy in which the authors show that “the economy” in the sense we now know it is a relatively recent invention and that economists claim to be experts capable of understanding this alien force:

“As increasing areas of political and social life are colonized by economic language and logic, the vast majority of citizens face the struggle of making informed democratic choices in a language they have never been taught. (p19)”

This leads to the sort of alienation which Marx described. This is summed up by respondents to a You Gov survey cited by Earle, Moran and Ward-Perkins, who said; “Economics is out of my hands so there is no point discussing it.”

In one important sense such an attitude is absurd. Every time you decide what to buy, or how much to save, or what job to do or how long to work, economics is in your hands and you are making an economic decision.

This suggests to me two different conceptions of what economics is. In one conception – that of Earle, Moran and Ward-Perkins – economists claim to be a priestly elite who understand “the economy”. As Alasdair MacIntyre said, such a claim functions as a demand for power and wealth:

“Civil servants and managers alike [he might have added economists-CD] justify themselves and their claims to authority, power and money by invoking their own competence as scientific managers (After Virtue, p 86).”

There is, though, a second conception of what economists should do. Rather than exploit alienation for their own advantage, we should help people mitigate it…

Economists in an alienated society (Stumbling and Mumbling)

This makes a point I often refer to – this depiction of “The Economy” as some of “natural” force that we have no control over, subject to its own inexorable logic. We saw above how the writings of Adam Smith provided the ideological justification for the wealthy merchants to screw over the workers. It cemented the perception that the economy was just a natural force with its own internal logic that could no more be regulated than could the wind or the tides. And over the course of several hundred years, we have intentionally designed our politcal institutions such that government cannot “interfere” in the “natural workings” of the economy. Doing so would only make all of us worse off, or so goes the argument.

There is a telling passage in this column by Noah Smith:

…Even now, when economic models have become far more complex than anything in [Milton] Friedman’s time, economists still go back to Friedman’s theory as a mental touchstone — a fundamental intuition that guides the way they make their models. My first macroeconomics professor believed in it deeply and instinctively, and would even bring it up in department seminars.

Unfortunately, intuition based on incorrect theories can lead us astray. Economists have known for a while that this theory doesn’t fit the facts. When people get a windfall, they tend to spend some of it immediately. So economists have tried to patch up Friedman’s theory, using a couple of plausible fixes….

Milton Friedman’s Cherished Theory Is Laid to Rest (Bloomberg)

Yes, you read that right, economists knew for a long time that a particular theory did not accord with the observed facts, but they didn’t discard it because it was necessary for the complex mathematical models that they use to supposedly describe reality. Rather, instead of discarding it, they tried to “patch it up,” because it told them what they wanted to hear. Note how his economics professor “believed deeply” in the theory, much as how people believe in the Good Book.

Nice “science” you got there.

That methodology ought to tell you everything you need to know about economic “science.” One wonders how many other approaches economists take that such thinking applies to.

Friedman was, of course, the author of “Capitalism and Freedom,” which as we saw above, is quite an ironic title. Friedman’s skill was coming up with ideas that the rich wanted hear, and then coming up with the requisite economic “logic” to justify them, from deregulation, to privatization, to globalization, to the elimination of minimum wages and suppression of unions. His most famous idea was that the sole purpose of a firm is to make money for its shareholders, and all other responsibilities were ‘unethical.’ The resulting “libertarian” economics was promoted tirelessly, including a series on PBS, by wealthy organizations and right-wing think-tanks with bottomless funding, as it still is today (along with its even more extreme cousin, “Austrian” economics). One thing the Luddites did not have to contend with was the power of the media to shape society, one reason why such revolts would be unthinkable today (along with the panopticon police states constructed by capitalist regimes beginning with Great Britain— “freedom” indeed!).

Smith himself has written about what he calls 101-ism:

We all know basically what 101ism says. Markets are efficient. Firms are competitive. Partial-equilibrium supply and demand describes most things. Demand curves slope down and supply curves slope up. Only one curve shifts at a time. No curve is particularly inelastic or elastic; all are somewhere in the middle (straight lines with slopes of 1 and -1 on a blackboard). Etc.

Note that 101 classes don’t necessarily teach that these things are true! I would guess that most do not. Almost all 101 classes teach about elasticity, and give examples with perfectly elastic and perfectly inelastic supply and demand curves. Most teach about market failures and monopolies. Most at least mention general equilibrium.

But for some reason, people seem to come away from 101 classes thinking that the cases that are the easiest to draw on the board are – God only knows why – the benchmark cases.

101ism (Noahpinion)

But the best criticism I’ve read lately is from James Kwak who has written an entire book on the subject: Economism: Bad Economics and the Rise of Inequality. He’s written several posts on the topic, but this post is a good introduction to the concept. Basically, he argues that modern economics allows policies that benefit the rich at the expense of the rest of society to masquerade as objective “scientific” truths thanks to the misapplication of economic ideology. As we saw above ,that goes back to very beginnings of “free market” economics in the nineteenth century:

In policy debates and public relations campaigns…what you are … likely to hear is that a minimum wage must increase unemployment—because that’s what the model says. This conviction that the world must behave the way it does on the blackboard is what I call economism. This style of thinking is influential because it is clear and logical, reducing complex issues to simple, pseudo-mathematical axioms. But it is not simply an innocent mistake made by inattentive undergraduates. Economism is Economics 101 transformed into an ideology—an ideology that is particularly persuasive because it poses as a neutral means of understanding the world.

In the case of low-skilled labor, it’s clear who benefits from a low minimum wage: the restaurant and hotel industries. In their PR campaigns, however, these corporations can hardly come out and say they like their labor as cheap as possible. Instead, armed with the logic of supply and demand, they argue that raising the minimum wage will only increase unemployment and poverty. Similarly, megabanks argue that regulating derivatives will starve the real economy of capital; multinational manufacturing companies argue that new trade agreements will benefit everyone; and the wealthy argue that lower taxes will increase savings and investment, unleashing economic growth.

In each case, economism allows a private interest to pretend that its preferred policies will really benefit society as a whole.The usual result is to increase inequality or to legitimize the widening gulf between rich and poor in contemporary society.

Economics 101, Economism, and Our New Gilded Age (The Baseline Scenario). See also The Curse of Econ 101 (The Atlantic)

All of the above reinforces a couple of points I often like to make:

1.) Capitalism was a creation of government from day one. There is nothing “natural” or “free” about markets.

2.) It is sustained by a particular ideology which poses as a science but is anything but.

These is no fundamental reason we need to work 40 hours a week. There is no reason we have to go into debt just to get a job. There is no benefit to the extreme wealth inequality; it’s not due to any sort of “merit.” And on and on. Economic “logic” is destroying society along with the natural world and preventing any adaptive response to these crises. But its power over the hearts and minds of society seems to be unassailable, at least until it all falls apart.

I’d also like to send a shout out to this excellent blog, Whistling in the Wind, which has a large number of posts on economics (and other things) that are well worth-reading. There are a lot of clear and well-written refutations of “101-ism,” “economism,” and general libertarian economic theories:

I apologize on being late responding to some of your comments. Hopefully, I’ll have some time soon.

American Media Bullshit

There a few things I constantly see in discussions of pressing issues in the media that really piss me off, and I’d like to get them off my chest:

1. Trade

One is on the topic of trade. If you think of the word trade, you think of something very specific. I have something you want; you have something I want, and a mutual exchange would be in both of our interests. The classic example I always think of is trading baseball cards. We each have a different set of players. You have a player I desire, and I have players I’m not interested in. However, the players I’m not interested in DO interest you. And so we trade baseball cards.

In the past, trade was often of natural items that could not be grown or made locally. For example, wine that comes from grapes that only grow in a specific region due to soils, rainfall, and so on. Or a special kind of cheese. Or tropical foods like bananas, coffee and chocolate. Or of items that are unequally distributed around the earth’s crust. Some places naturally have gold, silver, tin, copper, and so on. Or sometimes one country’s workers may have special skills, like Swiss watchmakers. This is trade as it is described in all of the textbooks.

Economists generally refer to these “mutually beneficial exchanges” as trading, and it forms the core of their theories. One early economist (Ricardo) famously used the example of English wool and Portuguese wine–two items that each country was famous for producing where the quality was much higher than what the other country could produce, or that the other country could not produce for reasons of geography, climate, skills, etc. This should be what we mean when we talk about trade.

The dictionary definition of the verb trade is:

Exchange (something) for something else, typically as a commercial transaction; and Buy and sell goods and services.

However, think about the debates on trade. They have nothing to do with trade!!! I don’t know why this is never, ever brought up. The word simply does not apply.

The classic example is Apple. Apple is an American company which designs and markets electronic products. It is headquartered in America. It sells many of its products to Americans. Yet when we talk about “trade” with China, much of the debate centers around Apple, and not the products of any Chinese companies. Why?

Because Apple creates, designs, markets and programs all their products in America, but has them assembled in China. Those products are then shipped back to the U.S. to be purchased by American consumers. So the definition of “trade” becomes “American products made by American companies sold to American consumers, but assembled by foreign workers.” And it’s the same with any wealthy corporation – the owners, designers, managers, and marketers are all in wealthy countries, but the product is assembled in poor countries and then shipped back to the countries that designed them to be purchased (this is oversimplified, of course, but the point is valid).

HOW IS THAT TRADE??? You can use a number of terms for that activity, but “trade” is not one of them. How does any of that square with the above definitions/descriptions?

I thought of this while reading an article in some economics blog talking about how potential tariffs would harm American businesses. Their example, if I recall correctly, was an orchard owner in Washington state who ships his apples to China (the specifics do not matter). This article about “trade” was pointing out how much tariffs would hurt his business and others like him if they didn’t have access to the distant export markets they now have access to. The subtext was obvious–“look how businesses would be hurt by restricting ‘trade.'”

But this is, ahem, an apples-to-oranges comparison! These economic activities are as different as sleeping and skydiving! Why, then do we use the exact same term–trade–for both of them?

After all, the creation of an actual apple is done in America by American workers on American soil. The product is then shipped to China. In return, we may get, I don’t know, rice or pork. That is genuinely trade as we commonly use the term-an exchange of surplus goods produced by specialists in different countries.

But what Apple does is nothing like that. Nothing whatsoever. And most of the debate about “trade” is about what Apple does—American corporations using foreign labor to construct American products sold to American consumers, whether cars or computers or air conditioners. Yet we insist on using the term “trade” indiscriminately to refer to both these activities! It’s insane! No wonder we can’t have a rational debate about these things.

The only way these would be analogous would be if the American apple grower shipped his seeds to China, they grew the tree, picked the apples, put them in bushels, and then shipped them back to the U.S. Clearly that is not done. But often times that is exactly what is going on when we have these discussions about so-called “free trade.”

The counter analogy would be if America made iPods, and China made, I don’t know, DVD players, and we both decided to “trade” these items between our two countries. That is truly an exchange. But there is no national exchange in modern style free trade. Rather, it is wealthy, globalized, Western corporations using Chinese and other inexpensive Third-World labor to make their products. THAT’S NOT TRADE! We don’t buy “Chinese” products; we buy American products designed and marketed by American companies which are just assembled elsewhere. Yet we refer to this activity as “trade!” WTF???

The “English wool for Portuguese wine” analogy commonly deployed by economists has nothing to do with this so-called “trading” in the real world. What we see in the real world outside of economics textbooks is American companies using foreign labor in place of domestic labor. Why, then, do economists, who theoretically should know better, use the exact same words, the exact same terminology, the exact same theoretical framework, and the exact same arguments to justify it? This seems to be deception and charlatanism of the highest order! How can anybody else not notice this? Maybe the reason we can’t have a serious discussion about this  is the fact we indiscriminately use the word trade for very different activities that have nothing to do with each other. Perhaps it’s a fundamental flaw in the English language, or something, I don’t know.

I wish we would stop playing into the economists’ and politicians’ hands by referring to all this stuff as “trade” irrespective of what it actually is. That allows them to perennially recast trade as something always and inherently good when we are really talking about  fundamentally different activities. Trade–true trade (i.e. not the stuff Trump ran on) is usually good. The other stuff that gets called trade BUT IS NOT TRADE (outsourcing, global wage arbitrage, the race to the bottom, etc.) is not. It’s something else. Let’s stop pretending these things are in any way the same.

2. Move to Where the Jobs Are

One thing you constantly hear in the media is that the inhabitants of “depressed” areas of the country – the decaying post-apocalyptic hellholes that most of Middle America has become in the age of globalization- should just move to the booming bi-coastal cities. Once they hit the bright lights of the big city where jobs are growing, the thinking goes, the former coal miners and shelf-stockers will get one of the new exciting “jobs of the future” (programming!), and this will solve the problems of unemployment without any nasty “government intervention” (which is always bad).

It’s part and parcel of a consistent theme I detect in the American media. Specifically, the fault is never with the economy or its organization, or the changing economic conditions—it’s always solely and squarely the fault of American workers themselves. I’m sure you’ve heard these all before—not enough education, living in the wrong place, having too many kids, “immoral” behavior, “frivolous” spending, etc.

The idea is that once these modern-day Tom Joads make their way to Boston or Seattle from Coalton, West Virginia, the American dream is theirs for the taking. My question is this:

How can anybody take this seriously?

I mean, how can the economics commentators in the media, most of whom live cosseted lives in Manhattan and Washington D.C., constantly spew this drivel and not be ridiculed on a daily basis? I suspect this might be one reason why a good portion of America—both people who self-identify on the Left and the Right—regard most of the mainstream media as a joke.

What would happen if all the people from the small towns of the Rust Belt and Appalachia actually did what the commentators are telling them to do? Let’s say they packed their families into the rusty pickup and made their way Boston or Seattle or Palo Alto or Boulder. Would they just be handed a job on arriving? If you listen to the commentators in the American media, apparently so. That must be hard to rectify with the fact that these same cities are already full of low-paid service workers who can barely make ends meet, and have increasingly dire  problems with housing affordability and burgeoning homelessness.

No, what would actually happen is this: assuming they could somehow pay to keep food on the table and a roof over their head in a country with effectively no social safety net—a dubious proposition at best—they would simply be competing with the people already there for the limited amount of low-wage service jobs. This would make the already dire situations of low wages and lack of housing even worse than they already are.

Yet if you listen to the vacuous propaganda spewed by the American media, all you have to do is follow the Yellow Brick Road, like Dorothy, to the magical Emerald Cities of the coasts, and the Wizard will pin a nice, shiny “job of the future” onto your chest. Um, I don’t think so. Anyone who actually knows what it’s like to be poor in America (like I do) knows this is total horseshit.

Rather, such people would just be even more low-paid workers struggling for the limited pool of jobs and housing. That’s all that would happen. Poor people moving to rich areas does not magically cause new jobs to appear, despite what the media tells you. It seems the real purpose of this argument is to assuage the guilty consciences of the “winners” and tell them that there is no fundamental problem with the economy. The “losers” are just too darn stubborn and hidebound to save themselves, hence they deserve what they get! It’s all their fault!!!

I propose we use the presence of this argument as way of determining what media outlets are even worth listening to anymore.

3. Skills

Another thing that pisses me off in the media is the constant refrain that “skilled” workers have literally never had it better!

Who, then, are “skilled” workers? Why, those with a college degree, of course! Especially a degree from an expensive, elite college. After all, the more expensive and elite the college, the more highly “skilled” the worker must be, right? Just like the richer you are the smarter you must be, right? After all, it can’t have anything to do with social connections and affiliation, right??? No, it’s clearly “da skillz.”

And, of course, the greatest “skills” of all belong to those financial professionals and clever bankers in those same bi-coastal cities. By contrast, the people who have seen their wages stagnate for the past couple of decades—truck drivers, nurses, welders, salesmen, managers, teachers, well, I guess they just don’t have enough “skills” to compete in the “new” globalized economy.

Once again, the subtext is clear—all one has to do is pony up and pay the crushing toll to the college cartel to get the “skills” you need, and you will be richer than you parents ever dreamed of! After all, rewards to “skills” have never, ever, been greater, right? What that means is that the people who are falling behind have only themselves to blame for not getting enough “skills.” Again, it’s not the fault of the economy, everything is fine—it is just the “lazy” individuals who refuse to take the proper actions.

Why don’t these commentators just admit the truth–how well you do in American society is based on how much college you can afford to purchase, and do away with this “skills” bullshit? Every time I hear some vacuous, overcompensated media blowhard talk about “skills” or the lack thereof, I want to punch them in the face. By their argument, someone filling out Excel spreadsheets in a cubicle all day is “skilled,” whereas someone who can frame out an entire house in a day is “unskilled” because the former paid $70,000 for a piece of paper from the college cartel. It’s an insult to the very word in the English language, perpetrated by “highly skilled” economists who probably couldn’t boil water or pump their own gas.

Yes, there are highly skilled people in the economy like surgeons and engineers. Yes, they make a good living. They always have. But the idea that it’s somehow entirely “skills” or the lack thereof that is causing much of the country to spiral into poverty and destitution is asinine in the extreme. The biggest factors are where you are born and who your parents are. Can we just dispense with this insulting nonsense about “skills” please?


The common theme of all of the above, besides the violence done to pure common sense, is to obscure or deflect attention from very real problems to phony solutions/issues. With the American media reliably doing its job of, as the X-Files once put it, “Deceive, Inveigle, Obfuscate” it seems unlikely we will ever be able to come to grips with the ongoing deterioration and mounting decay of our society. You can’t take hardly anything seriously anymore. How are we supposed to come to terms with our mounting problems with this constant barrage of bullshit?

So I’m Writing a Book?

This past year was one of trials for me. I spent the majority of it unemployed. That could be the subject of it’s own post. Let’s just say that if I could not have to sell my life away one hour at a time, I would be a much, much, happier person. Sadly, that’s not possible, as I came up with 3 lemons in the family slot machine.

During my involuntary time outside of the labor market, I figured I could–nay should–spend time on doing what I really want to do–write for a living. I began to read extensively and work on a book.

What I wanted to do was write a history book – a book of “Big History” which told not just a fragment of the human story, but all of it. I guess I’m not lacking in ambition! But it went nowhere. All too often I got bogged down in way too many details and essentially being a stenographer of other people’s work. After all, I’m relying on other people’s work for most of the information, as I am not a professional anthropologist or historian. What I was really after was the immediacy and colloquialism(?) of a blog post or Reddit comment.

I wanted it to be something “separate” from the blog. Yet, while I could crank out blog posts easily, the book just was not coming together. I abandoned it multiple times, and probably wasted a lot of time I should have spent doing something else (although I’m not exactly sure what).

But what really changed my perspective is an anecdote I head from Tim Ferriss. Ferris, for those of you who don’t know, is the wildly popular huckster whose “Four Hour” brand began with the book “The Four Hour Work Week.” He’s since become a wealthy mulitmedia celebrity with his own blog, a podcast, series of best-selling books, and numerous other projects. He’s managed to become sort of the Tony Robbins of the Silicon Valley crowd.

When he was writing The Four-Hour Workweek, he too just couldn’t bring it together. It sounded like the exact same problem I was having. Then, someone told him to write the book as if he were writing an email to someone. His technique then became to open an email program (Outlook? Gmail? Not sure which one), and compose his thoughts as if he were writing an email to someone.

That did the trick. The lesson here was obvious—I need to write this book as blog posts. It’s the only way I can get it done. And that has been the genesis of many of the posts this past couple of months.

The other inspiration was sitting right under my nose the whole time. I’ve extensively referred to Marvin Harris’s books as an inspiration. his books are written in an accessible, essay style, without a linear narrative. For example, Cannibals and Kings contains chapters such as “The Origins of Agriculture,” “The Origin of the War,” “The Origin of Pristine States,” and “The Cannibal Kingdom,” to name a few. I feel it’s time to update some of those ideas.

So, you, dear reader, are the beneficiary of this, as these posts will be put up here over the course of, well, however long it takes me to write this stuff despite having a job now :/ . I’m not sure what the ultimate resolution will be – I know the Archdruid manages to wrap up his blog posts in a book and sell it, but I have not decided if I will leave all the posts up when (if) the book is published. Heck I have no idea how to publish a book, or if I will self-publish, or what.

Which is to say I know nothing. Feel free to give any advice and or encouragement (discouragement?) you feel would be helpful in the comments below. So you can look forward to more overly-long posts in the vein of this Quixotic book project, along with my usual ramblings on economics, politics, automation, our failing society, architecture, and whatever else I feel like. Whether that’s good or bad I leave to you.

The tentative outline is as follows:

1. The Earth in Space/The Earth in Time: Borrowed from H.G Wells’ An Outline of History, this will deal with the big picture of our place in the universe and concepts of “deep time.” The usual description of time as a film reel or football stadium. A lot of Big History books start with the beginning of the universe (e.g. David Christian’s Maps of Time), but that leads to a ton of chapters on astrophysics, astronomy, geology, etc. before you even get to the arrival of humans, and history is about humans, after all. Of course everything is relevant (where did that oil come from anyway?), but you’ve got to draw the line somewhere. More setting the stage than anything else.

2. The Origin of People: Human evolution for the hurried. Emphasis on recent discoveries. The “bushy” as opposed to “linear” origins of of humanity. The running-man hypothesis. The Catching Fire hypothesis. Neoteny. Tools. Fire. Baby Slings. The Stone Age. 99% chimp. Domestication of man’s best friend. What happened to the Neanderthals?

3. After the Ice: A brief look at humanity after we became the “Last Ape Standing” until end of the Pleistocene. Migration, bottlenecks and founder populations. The Pleistocene overkill presents humanity’s first experience of scarcity.

4. The Origin of Inequality: largely the Feasting Theory posts.

5. How Feasting Led to Famine: Intensification was a big leap backward for humanity!

6. The Origin of Cities: The most recent series of posts.

7. The Origin of States: Mostly an expanded part 4 of the feasting series of posts.

8. The Origin of Money: The real story from an archaeological perspective rather than the libertarian fantasy. Debt comes first. Money is not metal, etc. Working on this one now-difficult! Material from this post and this post.

9. Why History Happens: Mostly the Fates of Nations series of posts from last year.

10. The Bronze Age Collapse: The rise and fall of the first global economy. Environmental devastation, erosion, non-renewable resources, etc.

11. The Cycles of History: also taken from some of the the Fates of nations series of posts, a description of Peter Turchin’s structural-demographic cycle theories, diminishing returns, Malthusianism, Craig Dilworth’s Vicious Circle Principle.

12. The Origin of the Market: largely  a retread of Karl Polanyi’s work. There is nothing “natural” about markets, globalism was always an elite project.

13. The Origin of the Corporation: Tells us a lot about today’s world.

14. The Origin of capitalism: It’s the fossil fuels (and control of them) stupid! May combine this with above.

15. The Future: the moral of the story, and what the future looks like if we don’t change course.

It will, of course, be a summation of many of the themes of this blog – that intensification always leads to diminishing standards of living for the majority in the long run, that technology leads to more work not less, that letting aggrandizers run the show is a recipe for disaster, that grain-based annual agriculture is bad for people and the environment, that economics is a secular religion that is preventing us from solving our mounting social problems, that we are experiencing diminishing returns to technology and population growth, that more people prevent us from solving our problems, that Markets are not natural or perfect, but quite fallible and just one way among many to organize societies, that our current living standards come from the liberation of a billion years’ stored sunlight in the form of fossil fuels, that thinking otherwise is a cargo-cult, and that industrial civilization is utterly dependent on non-renewable finite resources and cannot continue indefinitely, and that we probably aren’t going to Mars.

I’ll also present an ideal situation centered around Permaculture, renewable energy, and socially embedded, non-market based, yet decentralized, economies. Think Bill Mollison’s Permaculture, Leopold Kohr’s The Breakdown of Nations, E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, with a little Barry Commoner and Buckminster Fuller thrown in. Do I expect anyone to follow this blueprint? No. but that’s not the point. I want to at least demonstrate that a better world is entirely comprehensible and possible, even if we won’t choose it. Don’t worry, it won’t be the usual hopium.

So that’s it. Will it happen? Who knows. But it’ll be fun to try. Thanks for coming along for the ride! Should be a fun year.

The Origin of Cities – Part 4

The Urban Revolution

We’ve seen that cities grew out of sacred ritual/cultural sites, many of them connected with feasting, built by chiefs/shamans. These centers formed the nucleus of cities even before population growth caused by irrigation and agrarian (plow) agriculture. These forms of agriculture caused not only rapid population growth, but also great differences in wealth, and the emergence of hereditary status.

There are a number of theories or “models” which have been proposed for the emergence of cities in southern Mesopotamia over the years.

Some theories argue that rapid immigration to urban centers was brought about by the transformation of marshland into productive farm fields. People would have fled to the temple complexes seeking work, and this drove the rise of cities. Farmers fleeing adverse environmental conditions like erosion and salinization would have also contributed to this.

Others focus on the emergence of social classes, in particular the priest class which gained a monopoly on intercession between men and the gods, and their managerial role centered in “temple cities.” Occupational specialization (such as potters, carpenters, jewelers, smiths, weavers, merchants, etc.) is also thought to have led to the emergence of class structures.

These managerial elites are often depicted as the world’s first “governments” supported by taxes collected from food producers in the surrounding agricultural villages. Specialized producers of luxury goods would have settled down in cities to be close to their customers and the critical trade routes, the thinking goes. The canal system, and later the invention of oxcarts (probably emerging from chariot technology) made the transport of goods easier, and as trade grew, so too would cities in certain favorable locations. This view sees classes and professions emerging at about the same time, and intimately entwined with the emergence of cities and, later, the state.

At least that’s how the standard story goes. But as we’ve seen, early temple complexes were nothing like states in the modern sense. They did not have the power to tax, nor the power to make binding laws over the whole society. They undertook various pro-social activities for the benefit of the community, but did not control them in a governmental sense. Craft specialists were attached to various households; they were not “separate” professions, as we have today. This is a projection of our modern times onto the past. And there is actually no indication of a “separate” class of managers emerging – there is no distinction made between an office and the person who occupies it. Even the form of buildings in the cities does not differ from that of households on the land, unlike what we would expect to see in the emergence of totally new social structures.

Rather than some new concept called social classes, it makes sense that these transformations would grow out of earlier ones. Early cities were most likely ordered by kinship and householding, not the emergence of separate classes or professions in any modern sense. This is the view of Jason Ur of Harvard University, who sees the urban “revolution” as less of a revolution than initially thought.

Households and the Emergence of Cities in Ancient Mesopotamia (PDF)

In his view, rather than “economic rationality,” or “a radical transition to a bureaucratic organizational structure, in the Weberian sense of the term,” he argues that such changes were “the result of cumulative changes in existing kinship structures.” He writes,

“Far from the adaptive outcome of problem-solving deliberations, the enormous urban agglomerations at Uruk and Tell Brak were the unintended outcome of a relatively simple transformation of a social structure. It is only ‘revolutionary’ to outside observers of the longue durée; to the actors themselves, this transformation fit neatly within existing understandings of the social order.”

In his view, kinship was not supplanted at all, but continued to be the principle organizing factor in social relationships, and not just at the village level. The ruling class was simply one among many influential households, and were still dependent upon maintaining social relationships for their authority.

For example, it’s true that the inhabitants of cities far exceeded Dunbar’s number of 150. This is thought to engender the necessity of a separate “managerial” overclass to coordinate all the activities of the society.

But in a society organized around households, households rarely exceeded 150 people, usually close kin. In addition, households were usually managed by a single “head” of the household. These heads typically managed the activities of, and represented their respective households politically, so it would have not been been difficult for 150 heads to coordinate activities among themselves. In addition, not only would people within the households be ranked by age, seniority, skills and gender (as indeed they still are in modern-day families), but the households themselves would have been ranked against one another by various criteria, such as seniority, lineage, household size, and craft specialization. Temples were also organized on this basis, and would have been just another household in this mix; albeit one that was granted special provisions due to its character as a “public utility” and religious institution. Many of these temple activities have been misconstrued by later historians as the first “governments” or as a proper “state.”

So it’s far more likely in my opinion that this “natural” hierarchy most likely led to the inequality that we see in early cultures than the emergence of some sort of wholly new parasitic ruling class. Indeed, we see similar hierarchical structures even in non-state people who lack any sort of professional bureaucratic organizations. As I’ve alluded to earlier, the “state” was really more of a proto-state; essentially the ruler’s personal household writ large. The impersonal bureaucratic “Westphalian” state model that we associate with the term was a much later invention:

Despite the emphasis on administration and bureaucracy in early state models, the concept of an office, which exists independently of the person occupying it, is…not present in Sumerian or Akkadian. No general term for “office” or “officer” may exist, but administrative roles with various “official” or religious (and often both) duties certainly did exist…individuals (“officials”) who filled these roles attained their positions by virtue of kinship proximity to elites, and retained them through continual maintenance of those relationships

If bureaucracy was an unknown concept, what then was the structural basis for urban solidarity?…Often it is suggested that kinship remained important mostly in rural areas. To the contrary, kinship, in the metaphorical but meaningful form of the household, remained a durable organizing principle long after the first cities.

This observation was first made by Max Weber, who recognized that polities in the Near East and Egypt were run as royal households, headed by a patrimonial ruler who treated it as his own personal property. These oikoi (singular oikos), as Weber called them, were not capitalistic in motivation; rather, they were entirely focused around the want satisfaction of the patrimonial ruler and were essentially self-sufficient. Weber’s patrimonial state is the opposite of the rational bureaucracy assumed by many earlier models. “In the patrimonial state the most fundamental obligation of the subjects is the material maintenance of the ruler, just as is the case in a patrimonial household; again the difference is only one of degree”. In a patrimonial state, “offices” are flexible and without fixed boundaries. “Powers are defined by a concrete purpose and whose selection is based on personal trust, not on technical qualification… In contrast to bureaucracy, therefore, the position of the patrimonial official derives from his purely personal submission to the ruler, and his position vis-à-vis the subjects is merely the external aspect of this relation”.

Weber wrote at a time when knowledge of ancient Near Eastern languages was still rudimentary, but nonetheless his understanding has proven to be remarkably accurate. The standard study of social structure (Gelb 1979) shows the predominance of household organization at multiple scales. The Sumerian term e2 could designate a building, ranging in size from a single room to a palace or a temple, but it could also designate a family or a household; with regard to the latter, “the term ‘household’ extends in meaning to cover social groupings ranging from a small family household living under one roof to a large socio-economic unit, which may consist of owners and/or managers, labor force, domestic animals, residential buildings, shelter for the labor force, storage bins, animal pens, as well as fields, orchards, pastures, and forests”. The Akkadian word for house, bitum, had exactly the same semantic range. For Gelb, this Weberian oikos organization pertained only to large-scale “public” households, most typically those of the palace and temples; alongside of them, and presumably subsumed within them, were “familial households” which were much smaller and kinship-based. Nonetheless, this distinction is absent in the native terminology, which used e2 or bitum for both. Despite its firm grounding in the textual record, Gelb’s oikos model has been largely overlooked by archaeologists, with a few notable exceptions…

In fact, the household was an almost universal structuring metaphor in the pre-Iron Age Near East. .. Societies were structured as a series of interrelated and nested households that varied in scale from nuclear families to institutional households (many of them with a religious component, i.e., “temples”) to the entire polity, which was either the household of the king or of the main god of the its capital city. In Schloen’s “Patrimonial Household Model,” these vertical and horizontal connections between households are not disembedded, as in a bureaucracy. Political organization depended entirely upon the maintenance of personal relations between the king (the “father” or “master” in both Sumerian and Akkadian) and the heads of sub-households (“sons” or “servants”).

As a result, here were real limits to centralized authority. The effective power of the ruler is diluted by his need to exercise authority through subordinates (and their subordinates), whose ‘household’ domains are smaller in scale but similar in structure to his own. As a result, all kinds of private economic activity and jockeying for political and social advantage can take place beyond the ruler’s direct supervision. What looks at first glance like an all-encompassing royal household reveals itself, when viewed from another angle, to be a complex and decentralized hierarchy of households nested within one another and held together by dyadic ‘vertical’ ties between the many different masters and servants who are found at each level of the hierarchy. Such an arrangement was inherently dynamic…

Households and the Emergence of Cities in Ancient Mesopotamia (PDF)

Similar social structures existed in ancient Egypt, where the running of Egypt as the household of the Pharaoh was more obvious:

Pharaonic Egypt was organized around a system of phyles (as called by the Greek invaders). These social units were based on the clan structure of previous tribal society which continued to form the foundation of class society in the post-3000 BC period.

Initially, the administrators of the economy were all related (kin) to the king. As the bureaucracy grew more extensive, non-clan individuals who had demonstrated competence in such activities were drawn upon to serve in the administration of the economic and political arrangements of the kingdom. …Strong evidence exists for an ongoing rotation of work in the service of the king by clan membership, including rotation through the various religious cults and royal mortuary temples. This rotation appears to have been organized around the principle in which a regular portion of the available (male?) labour would have been sent for yearly duties in the king’s service. …the construction of the pyramids was undertaken precisely on this basis …the limited redistribution that existed in the Egyptian economy was organized on the basis of clan membership).

As the economy of the Nile Valley grew more extensive and increasingly interconnected, the organization of society by phyle ‘ . . . allowed the king to maintain a central authority by preventing the growth of rival institutions independent of royal control’. Essentially, the continued dependence on the original tribal structure permitted the continuation of the form of that structure even as the king and priesthood usurped the social control previously exercised by the various clans. In short:

“The phyle system as an institution…played an important role in the development and success of Egyptian kingship in the Old Kingdom. The concept of a centralized government and its attendant bureaucracy . . . developed from the clans and village societies of predynastic Egypt. The evolution of the phyle as an institution parallels the development of the state. Emerging from its original character as a totemic system of clans that served to identify and regulate the personal and family loyalties that form the basis of a primitive society, it developed into a bureaucratic mechanism that organized a large number of people for tasks as varied as building pyramids and washing and dressing the statue of a dead king.”

Wray, Credit and State Theory of Money pp. 87-88

So the emergence of an “impersonal professional bureaucracy” managing society on behalf of a single absolute ruler has little basis in fact. Neither does the emergence of separate classes or professional associations until much later. It is yet another Flintstonization of history.

On Oriental Depotism

Religious and military specialists are invariably depicted in the standard history books as a non-productive overclass that extorted tax contributions by the threat of violence from a hapless peasantry in order to fund their lavish lifestyles, or so we’re told. The rise of this overclass—”macroparasites” in William McNeill’s terminology—far wealthier than the peasants, spawned a demand for luxury goods, hence the establishment of monumental “palatial” architecture, specialized luxury goods, fine art, and long-distance trade. The bureaucrats used writing and mathematics to push around a cowering underclass, which is why we see the development of writing and mathematics at this time.

Here’s a textbook example of the narrative from the book By The Sweat of thy Brow (emphasis mine):

Whatever the details of the “Neolithic Revolution, Gordon Childe’s famous phrase, it had by 3000 B.C. transformed the egalitarian communities of the earlier Stone Age, in the advanced food-producing regions, to totally different social structures. In these the masses of the people were reduced to servile status and kept economically at subsistence level by the systematic expropriation of their surplus production for the benefit of a small class of kings, noble warriors, and priests, and to support the army and the bureaucracy (whose chief function was tax collecting, in other words, expropriating the surpluses). Class division, representing a division of labor, thus became the foundation of the social structure. As the elite groups at the top continued to concentrate wealth in their own hands they inspired still more specialists to come into existence to serve their increasingly sophisticated needs. Besides potters, weavers, armorers, and metalworkers, there now appeared clerks or scribes, possessing the mysterious arts of writing and mathematics. In the irrigation civilizations the large agricultural surpluses called into being a class of merchants, in whose train lawyers and other auxiliaries of commerce followed.

Such “despotism” is usually contrasted to the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome, with it’s lack of centralized governments and class divisions, which were based on private ownership and individuals striving in markets, eventually leading to Western capitalism. Yet we now know that chattel slavery only played a very minor role in Asian economies, mostly in domestic work. Most prisoners of war were maimed or killed, not enslaved, as the technology to hold large ethnic groups in permanent subjugation simply did not exist in the Bronze Age. In fact, the first societies where slavery was critical to the functioning of the overall economy were the “freedom-loving” Western economies of Greece and Rome! Certainly “free market” capitalism before 1860 had far more slaves (including “indentured servant” debt slaves) than the “despotic” systems of the ancient Near East. Most unfree labor was due to debt servitude, rather than systematic oppression from elites. The Sumerian word for slavery made no distinction between these various forms of unfree labor.

The emergence of of priests and bureaucrats is depicted in most history books as the emergence of a new class practically overnight, bullying the productive classes, stealing all their money, and forcing them into permanent servitude to build the temples and monuments which served little purpose besides aggrandizing themselves.

This inevitably leads to an obvious question when modern-day people read this: why would ancient people have allowed this to happen? What were they thinking? It’s depicted as some sort of great mystery and endless speculation has been devoted to the emergence of the “state” which is depicted as a useless development serving no purpose whatsoever.

This “mystery” comes from an ignorance of how such people saw their own culture. It’s also heavily corrupted by the ideas promulgated by the modern-day religion of economics. For example, the economist Robert Allen writes: “it is difficult to discern any productive contribution that the Pharaoh, the priesthood, or the aristocracy made. The main function of the Pharaonic state was to transfer a considerable fraction of the income produced by Egypt’s farmers to an unproductive aristocracy.”

But there is no evidence whatsoever that the people themselves saw their societies this way.

Is it so hard to see the bureaucratic and managerial activities performed by priests and scribes as having a pro-social purpose, or at the very least, the perception on the part of society that that their activities served a pro-social purpose? The idea that leaders kept the majority of people at the permanent edge of starvation while seizing nearly every last morsel for themselves is hard to square with the historical evidence.

In fact, we saw that the activities performed by centralized chiefs did allow for economic expansion that would not be possible at village-level societies. We’ve already seen the need for specialization and allocation of goods was enabled by such redistribution-fishing villages gave donations of excess fish, farming villages excess grain, and each received the fish and grain that they could not produce themselves. We also saw how such networks wold have provided a safety net–some villages may have had a bumper crop, others a bad harvest, while redistribution networks would have made sure no one went without. For example, the Inka redistribution system of storehouses was so efficient and abundant that even its detractors acknowledge that poverty was unknown in the empire (per Charles Mann’s 1491). Skilled craftsmen engaged by chieftains engaged in specialized labor such as pottery, metalsmithing and weaving, often as a form of public welfare provision. Long-distance trade has been managed by elites from the very beginning using their social connections as a way to acquire and maintain social standing.

As for the monuments, there is no evidence whatsoever that they were built through coercion. This was most likely a misconception caused by depictions of the enslavement of Jews in the Bible coupled with the staggering size of such monuments. “Only slaves could have built such things,” went the logic, “and we know there were plenty of slaves back then because the Bible tells us there were!”

The modern-day economic priesthood sees any and all work as a “disutility” needing either the threat of force or the reward of money to coax people to lift a finger, since all people are inherently “lazy” by nature (very similar to Judeo-Christian concepts seeing mankind as “fallen” and “sinful”). Since there were apparently no labor markets as we know them, the thinking went, all such work must have been coerced, leading to “Oriental Despotism.” After all, where else would all those ancient monuments and irrigation works come from? But are people truly as inherently “lazy” as economists depict them?

It’s hard to square this with the evidence. Would lazy people have built Göbekli Tepe, with its massive T-shaped carved stone pillars of several tons apiece? Would lazy people have transported the stones of Stonehenge 160 miles? Would they have erected standing stones in the Orkney islands? Would lazy people have erected hundreds of Moai on remote Easter Island?

In fact, all the evidence shows that the people who built these ancient monuments did so voluntarily as a way to define and assert their cultural identity. Besides, ancient “despots” would not have had access to the necessary force to compel people to do these things if they didn’t want to. Nor they could they have “paid” people when the means of subsistence were freely available to all. Metals were very rare in this time period. Are we expected to believe that massive amounts of labor were coerced by aggrandizing elites wielding nothing more than stone spears and flint knives? The amount of metal used by ancients at this time probably could not forge even a single chain, much less enough chains to enslave an entire population as depicted in the Cecil B. DeMille movie The Ten Commandments. Michael Hudson writes:

No doubt maintaining Neolithic practice, corvee activities had to attract and hold their participants. For Babylonia, Richardson cites rulers emphasizing their efforts to promote “public joy” in corvee projects by “invest[ing] such occasions with an atmosphere of feasting and plenty. This made the tasks “something closer to a prebend, an opportunity; a festival” with the benefit of group membership and identity. Indeed, he asks:

“Would it even be possible to create a corps of ‘forced,’ , to semi-free’ laborers to toil under adverse conditions-for no more than one week a year? Would workers who had toiled for 150 days of the year in the dirt and mud to grow barley for state and bare survival choose to resent a few days of collective labor, in the company of neighbors and with the prospect of feasting and song? Should we really imagine teams of tens of thousands groaning under the weight of massive building blocks under the stern eyes of whip-wielding overseers, when the average work .. account text deals with teams of workers numbering fewer than two hundred?

Richardson estimates that institutional building work in Babylonia “only comes to something like 40% of the farming work'” needed for families on the land to produce their own sustenance- ‘not more than a week of’ work compared to six months of farming.”And most corvee labor was seasonal so as not to interfere with the crop cycle. In Egypt, the workers’ town housing the specialized labor force that “worked hard on the pyramids (such as moving megaliths)” was, in Lehner’s description, “a rather elite place of high-status royal service and possibly higher-quality” recompense than recruits might have known in their home districts.

Labor in the Ancient World, pp. 652-653

This was also exacerbated by the unfortunate choice of the term “rations” to initially transcribe the cuneiform texts. This choice has been lamented by Orientalists ever since. It implies a bare minimum of food from a severely limited supply, as if workers were the inhabitants of a particularly nasty concentration camp or gulag. But these “rations” were often quite generous and far beyond bare subsistence. Modern Assyriologists prefer to describe these as “salaries” or “wages” instead. Professor Piotr Steinkeller writes of ancient Larsa: “National building projects were an extremely important tool of political and cultural integration,” a “nation-building” effort instilling an idea of protonational solidarity as workers came to think of themselves as “fellow members of a united Babylonia.” Similarly, Sir Leonard Wooley writes of Egypt, “The building of the colossal tombs of the Egyptian kings was as much an ac of faith as was the building of the great cathedrals of mediaeval [sic] Europe, and its object was not simply to minister to the vainglory of the ruler but to take out, as it were, an insurance policy for the country.” (The Beginnings of Civilization, p. 324)

As for taxes, were these really “extorted” from an unwilling population by the constant threat of violence as we’ve been led to believe by the history books? Again, there is really no evidence of this.

First, it should be noted that taxes were paid by villages and households, not by individuals. Rather than taking all the surplus, taxes were actually assessed based on the harvests. Egyptians used a device called a Nilometer to measure Nile flooding, and assessed taxes accordingly–A poor harvest meant lower taxes. In this, they may be more generous than modern states—thanks to concepts like “national debt,” taxes often become more onerous in times of economic hardship, not less. In addition, since households on the land usually produced what they needed internally for direct use, there was little individual surplus to tax in any case. These were not market-based consumer economies like our own.

Additionally, the payment of taxes was couched not only as a social, but also as a religious duty. Even today, churches promote tithing (as described in the Bible), and many people gladly hand over a tenth of their income with no coercion whatsoever. And it’s likely they get much less benefit to this arrangement than people get from official duties to nation-states.

This is the so-called Managerial Model of state formation. Many Egyptolgists see the establishment of the Egyptian “state” emerging out of these activities. Peter Turchin, in this blog post, describes the managerial (or functional) model (while at the same time dismissing it):

The theories underlying (explicitly or implicitly) the discussions of the Egyptian state by Egyptologists that I have read so far are resolutely functionalist. ..I am going to base my discussion on an article by Fekri Hassan, “The Predynastic of Egypt,” published in 1988 in Journal of World Prehistory, because Hassan makes very explicit the conceptual underpinnings of his model. …Here’s what Hassan says:

” the process leading to the state was set in motion by factors inherent in the socioecology of agricultural production. Attempts to dampen the effects of agricultural fluctuations by pooling the resources of neighboring communities led ultimately to the emergence of the chiefs. Further enlargement of the economic unit led to a hierarchy of chiefs and the emergence of regional political units. Legitimation of power led to an emphasis on funerary offerings and status goods. This political technology stimulated trade. Skirmishes with “Libyan” and “Asiatic” raiders provided a raison d’etre for “military” power and added to the image of chiefs as keepers of world order.”

Note that warfare (“skirmishes with raiders”) plays decisively secondary, if not tertiary role in the process of state formation.

There are two problems with the Hassan hypothesis. The first one is that it goes against everything we know about people living in small-scale egalitarian societies (here I follow Chris Boehm, e.g. his Hierarchy in the Forest). Hassan says

“In its initial stages, the people were able to see the material benefits of representatives and cooperation. The chiefs also had to work harder than others to maintain their position.”

And a couple of pages later:

“The representative may have thus acquired by group consent and support a political power—the ability to act upon the actions of others. … The increase in the power of chiefs probably resulted from the continued benefits to the community resulting from their managerial activities. The extension of the group interaction over larger territories is likely to have led to the rise of a hierarchy of chiefs.”

The problem with functionalist explanations like this one is that it proposes an end point of an evolutionary process in which a new structure arises that fulfills a certain function—in this case, dampening the effects of agricultural fluctuations by integrating many villages within a large-scale society with managerial elites that can take surpluses from one area and direct them to where shortages are. But this explanation does not propose a plausible mechanism of how we get to this end point.

In fact, egalitarian societies are very resistant to the idea of creating permanent chiefs and endowing them with structural power to order everybody else around. Furthermore, the chiefs themselves would be less than eager to submit to the power of a paramount chief above them. Even today, and in dire straits, people coming from egalitarian societies find it extremely difficult to constitute and uphold hierarchies….why should we expect that ancient Egyptians would willingly give up autonomy and submit to the rule of chiefs? This is not just a theoretical argument. By Naqada IIIC (Dynasty I) the rulers of Egypt practiced massive human sacrifices. That’s what happens when you submit to chiefs and kings. It’s almost better to starve during a periodic famine than become a powerless peasant in a despotic archaic state.

Evolution of the Egyptian State – The Managerial Model (Cliodynamica)

Turchin’s favored models focus exclusively on martial explanations for state formation. But as we’ve extensively seen in the past few posts, such societies went through a long transegalitarian period before the emergence of hierarchical societies. The road to hereditary managerial aristocracies would have been paved by the long transegalitarian phase preceding it. The feasting theory does, in fact, provide a plausible model of how we get to such a point. Redistributive chiefdoms have been extensively documented all over the world, complete with monumental architecture, craft specialization, trade networks, and pyramidal levels of hierarchy (paramount chiefs, subchiefs, clan elders, etc.). It’s hard to account for this by warfare alone.

It’s far more simple to explain the emergence of proto-states by seeing them as a mutual social contract rather than the establishment of blatantly exploitative relationships by a parasitic minority as depicted in most history books. Over time this social contact became more and more lopsided, to be sure, but it makes it far easier to understand the emergence of such social structures in the first place by seeing them as 1) perceived at least in the beginning as being pro-social, and 2.) emerging out of existing organic relationships rather than being the result of entirely new ones.

Part of this distorted perception comes from the discipline of economics, which is inherently hostile to the very idea of a social contract. Instead, it sees society as nothing more than countless transactions between isolated individuals. But ancient people did see themselves so much as individuals but as members of various groups.

Besides, is the lopsided relationship between primary producers and managerial elites really so hard to understand?

For example, consider the banking and investor classes of modern-day capitalism. They justify their outsized rewards and staggering wealth by claiming that only they can “allocate capital” appropriately, and through such activities, each and every single one of us is made better off! They claim that if capital was allocated by, say, democratic consensus instead of private individuals, it would inevitably be “wasted” and “misallocated.” “Only we,” the bankers proclaim, “and we alone, have the talent and skills to accomplish this task!!” In this, they are perennially backed up and reinforced by the religion of economics, which argues that institutions of collective governance are always rife with “cronysim,” and that “central planning” is always a recipe for disaster (if not dictatorship, c.f. Hayek).

In fact, we clearly see that more and more of this capital is being “allocated” to support their own lavish lifestyles-exotic vacations, exclusive mansions, private jets and helicopters, palatial condos, rare artwork, luxury goods like sportscars, jewelry, watches and handbags, expensive suits, cocktail parties, and lavish weddings and graduation parties for their offspring that cost more than the average person’s yearly salary.

And yet, in spite of all of this, the bankers and executives still claim that their activities are not only necessary, but pro-social! Take away our ‘incentives’ they say, and society will fall back to a more primitive level. “Only we have the ‘special skills’ to do this work,” they claim, just as the ancient rulers claimed to have “special powers” to intercede with the gods and maintain the social order. In fact, during our latest financial crisis, one CEO banker famously claimed to be doing “God’s work”–most likely word-for word the exact same phrase uttered by the pharaohs, kings, princes and potentates of past eras. Has anything really changed?

Yet do we “rise up” and correct this? Why, then, would we expect ancient people to so? Are we really so radically different than the peasants of past eras?

Just like as the temple scribes and priests used their insider knowledge of writing and mathematics to maintain their privileged position vis-a-vis the rest of society in the ancient world, so too do modern bankers use their knowledge of the complex and opaque banking system to bamboozle the public and claim that only they have the “highly specialized knowledge” to manage the economy. In both instances, specialists make recourse to esoteric knowledge unavailable to the common people.This would have made even more sense in ancient times, when only the scribes and priests could manipulate the symbols of mathematics and writing required to maintain the activities of the government bureaucracy, unlike today where literacy and numeracy are commonplace.

After all, were not the households of redistributive chieftains not also “allocating capital”? Would they, too, not justify a earning premium on such “pro-social” activities, exactly as do today’s banking and investor elites? Is not the control and management of labor and resources the key factor in both? Today’s bankers constantly make reference to their brilliance and their “talent.” The average person could not possibly do these things, they argue. “Just trust us,” they say, “our activities are absolutely indispensable to the smooth running of the economy.” By performing this role, they say, we “deserve” to earn these outsized rewards. After all, we are doing “God’s Work!” Furthermore, they claim that without them and their managerial prowess, society would descend into chaos; “misrule” as the ancient Egyptian leaders called it.

Over time, more and more capital would be kept and less and less redistributed as the wealth of society grew. This wealth would have been increasingly diverted into the coffers of the managerial elites in order to maintain their lavish living standards. But again, this is no different than modern-day society. Eventually those who kept the least and redistributed the most became those who kept the most and redistributed the least. But that is long way from describing elites as merely “parasites” who played no role whatsoever in the emergent social order besides collecting taxes and whipping slaves in order to build stone monuments for purely egotistical purposes.

To be clear, I’m not arguing that ancient proto-states were always benign and never despotic. Or even that they were “necessary” in an objective sense. However, it doesn’t seem as though the people of these societies felt as though they were being “oppressed” any more than most people do under modern-day capitalism (which is to say, somewhat). Most routine activates took place at the village and household levels, and must have gone on relatively unchanged for thousands of years. Nor does it seem like the leaders coerced most behaviors from their citizens, acted in cruel and arbitrary ways towards them, or “enslaved” them in any way. Respect seems to have been mostly given voluntarily, as it is  towards today’s heads of state.

Collective festivals and rituals must have reinforced this spirit. No doubt threats to the “stability” of the social order were dealt with swiftly and harshly, but again, that is no different than modern states. I can find few tales of widespread and arbitrary cruelty or coercion on that part of these “despotic” leaders in any account. Rather, harshness and cruelty was reserved towards members of various “out groups.” There are many stomach-churning accounts of the horrible and shocking things victorious armies would do to the vanquished in many ancient accounts; all one has to do is read the Bible for examples of that. But internally, if one was member of the “in-group,” it appears that the “Oriental Despotism” of ancient rulers may have been greatly exaggerated, again often to discredit the idea collective governance. In any case, it would have been far easier to “run away” during this time period if one had wished to than it is in modern-day capitalist societies where all empty lands are filled and widespread private ownership greatly limits the ability for self-sufficiency.

In fact, often times governments acted a curb on the rapacious behavior of “private” elites. Debt slavery was a major driver of inequality in ancient societies-conflicts between creditor and debtor classes became endemic throughout the ancient world. “Populist” leaders appear often in history, claiming to restore the balance between the first “one-percent” and everyone else. In fact, we see “oppression” more often as the result of the activities of “private” individuals rather than governments! A prominent example is given by one of the first law codes in history, that of the Sumerian ruler Ur-Nammu. He writes of the corruption and abusive practices he put an end to and decrees “equity in the land”:

“…After An and Enlil had turned over the Kingship of Ur to Nanna, at that time did Ur-Nammu, son born of Ninsun, for his beloved mother who bore him, in accordance with his principles of equity and truth… Then did Ur-Nammu the mighty warrior, king of Ur, king of Sumer and Akkad, by the might of Nanna, lord of the city, and in accordance with the true word of Utu, establish equity in the land; he banished malediction, violence and strife, and set the monthly Temple expenses at 90 gur of barley, 30 sheep, and 30 sila of butter. He fashioned the bronze sila-measure, standardized the one-mina weight, and standardized the stone weight of a shekel of silver in relation to one mina… The orphan was not delivered up to the rich man; the widow was not delivered up to the mighty man; the man of one shekel was not delivered up to the man of one mina.”

Very commonly, new rulers would declare a “clean slate” upon their ascension to leadership, annulling previous debts. The famous law-giving king Hammurabi did so, for example. He declared amdurarum (debt annulment) upon taking the throne. This hardly seems like “oppressive” behavior to me.

The key, then, to understanding past structures is to look at today’s. We are fundamentally the same creatures, with the same brains and social instincts, despite our increased technological capabilities. Our technological ability compounds over time, building on previous discoveries, but our social structure is largely limited by how our brains work. Over the past few centuries, our technological evolution has far outstripped our social evolution, as noted by many commentators including Edward O. Wilson:

“Humanity today is like a waking dreamer, caught between the fantasies of sleep and the chaos of the real world. The mind seeks but cannot find the precise place and hour. We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology. We thrash about. We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and to the rest of life.”
― Edward O. Wilson, The Social Conquest of Earth

In fact, the difference in lifestyles between our executive and banking classes is likely far greater than that between the peasants and the rulers of past eras. For example, the bonus of bankers in one year in the United States–just the bonuses , mind you, not the actual salaries–was greater than the combined income of all of every single minimum wage worker in the country-our modern-day equivalent of serfs. Its doubtful that Egyptian royalty could claim the same. Forty million children in the U.S go to bed hungry every night, yet one single hedge fund manager will “earn” over a billion–1000 million-dollars in a single year, even while sleeping and going to the toilet. Would early “despots” have gotten away with such disparities in wealth? And yet we tell ourselves that we are somehow more “advanced” than these ancient societies. Really???

So it’s not hard to figure this out – it’s just the same old manipulation of the social logic, and we are just as susceptible as people thousands of years ago, despite us telling ourselves that we are all much too “smart” and “rational” to fall for any of that that stuff in our high-tech modern era of “science” and “reason.”

Is it so hard to understand why ancient peoples put up with the lavish lifestyles and sybaritic excesses of their ruling elites? Why did they? It is more appropriate to ask, rather, why do we? Answer that question and we have definitively solved the “mystery” of state formation once and for all.

The Origin of Cities – Part 3

The Social Logic Transforms

For a long time Jericho and Çatalhöyük, and similar other examples were isolated enigmas. These were essentially supersized villages of thousands of people. They preceded the Urban Revolution described by Childe by millennia, at a time when most people still lived in villages closer to the optimum (Dunbar’s number).

In the fertile alluvial valleys of Mesopotamia around 4000BC, suddenly dense urban settlements are established once again, but on a very different order from earlier ones like Jericho and Çatalhöyük. These are true cities, with planned streets, temples, palaces, granaries, and so forth.

But why did large groups of people suddenly start living in such dense settlements again? And why did it happen when and where it did? It’s notable that when cities reappear, they are planned, with temples, streets, palaces, etc. This has led to the conclusion that cities are intrinsically tied with the emergence of the state as a governing entity, replacing tribal or chieftainship modes of governing:

At some point during the fourth millennium BC, farmers and herders in Mesopotamia began to concentrate in large, densely occupied settlements, the best known of which is Uruk. For millennia previously, since the start of sedentary life in the Near East, settlements had, with a few exceptions, rarely exceeded a few hectares in size; now places like Uruk and Tell Brak exceeded one hundred hectares of settled area.

Contemporary with this demographic expansion, monumental architecture, specialist-produced status-marking goods, record keeping devices, and mass produced pottery appeared, which have been interpreted as signifying a new complex and centralized form of sociopolitical organization, i.e., the state. On these empirical bases, archaeologists have interpreted the record of the Uruk period as the beginnings of urbanism as a settlement form, and the state as a political structure.

Why did these settlements begin and grow where the previous failed? I suspect that it is because the intervening years had seen a transformation in the social logic. The evidence shows that Near Eastern societies had transitioned from a transegalitarian phase to a much more hierarchical one over the intervening thousand years or so. This allowed for the introduction of much more top-down political systems which were required to make cities possible. Such systems may have emerged as a result centuries of domesticated agriculture and anial husbandry, along with the attendant feasting they engendered.

There are several clues in the archaeological record indicating such a change:

1.) Temples: As Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus point out, the emergence of hierarchy is strongly correlated with the building of temples. Temples indicate the emergence of full-time religious specialists who gained a monopoly on intercession with the gods/ancestors and derived their enhanced status thereby. The lack of any specialized religious structures was noticeable at both Jericho and Çatalhöyük.

We have used the building of men’s houses as an indicator of village societies where leadership was based on achievement. This enables us to use the decline of the men’s house and the rise of the temple as an indicator of societies with some degree of hereditary leadership…the transition from the men’s house to the temple seems to have been associated with the decreasing importance of ordinary people’s ancestors and the increasing importance of the celestial spirits in the chief’s geneology. (COI: 207)

Temples…went on to replace men’s houses in several parts of the New World…the transition was accompanied by evidence of hereditary inequality…we have seen that as chiefly elites emerge, they begin to dedicate buildings to the highest celestial spirits in their cosmos.

Mesoptamia[n]…societies were among the first to replace the small ritual house with the temple. Beginning 8,700 years ago with the Terrazzo Building at Cayonu, Turkey, villages of the Tigris-Euphrates drainage built increasingly temple-like structures. For centuries, some early temples coexisted with circular building that look like men’s houses or clan houses. Finally, between 6,500 and 6,000 years ago, the temples stood alone. (COI: 260)

But we can see this hierarchical transition most accurately reflected in the pottery. Pottery first becomes widespread at this time. Pottery, being fired clay, does not decay, and it has very distinct artistic motifs and creation methods. This leads archaeologists to use pottery artifacts (along with grave goods and building types) to classify distinct cultures before the introduction of writing.

The Samarran culture is defined by Samarran ware pottery, and these pieces have distinctive markings indicating the makers of the pottery, and possibly the owners. This is a clear evidence to archaeologists of 1.) The existence of specialized laborers, and 2.) The emergence of private property.

At Tell es-Sawwan, evidence of irrigation—including flax—establishes the presence of a prosperous settled culture with a highly organized social structure. The culture is primarily known for its finely made pottery decorated with stylized animals, including birds, and geometric designs on dark backgrounds. This widely exported type of pottery, one of the first widespread, relatively uniform pottery styles in the Ancient Near East, was first recognized at Samarra. The Samarran Culture was the precursor to the Mesopotamian culture of the Ubaid period.

Samarran ware was traded far and wide in the Near East at this time. The ability to store goods individually for long periods of time indicated a greater shift toward inequality. As mentioned earlier, storage for foodstuffs would have also aided greatly in feasting.

Following Samarran Ware is the introduction of Halaf Ware, a distinctive polychromatic (multi-colored) pottery style. Early evidence indicated that this style was primarily traded between various political centers in the region rather than between neighboring villages, indicating the presence of an elite trading network.

The clay that allowed pottery to be made also allowed the first permanent records to be kept. Halaf culture also saw the introduction clay seals called bullae, indicating ownership and management of surpluses. Even more importantly, such seals were often included in burials indicating that status position were now being inherited.

Tell Arpachiyah is the main settlement of the Halaf culture that has been excavated. Excavations start to show differentiation in housing sizes and belongings. There are also the presence of what are called tholoi: keyhole-shaped structures that are thought to indicate the presence of early temples and religious specialists. The clay token heralds the eventual appearance of writing later in Mesopotamia:

In pre-agricultural Mesopotamia, there was little need for counting. Egalitarian societies practise reciprocity (the rule of hospitality) and there is no separate portion of society which needs to keep track of what it is owed or who owes it…With the development of agriculture, one sees the introduction of clay tokens representing quantities of grain, oils, etc., and units of work. These tokens indicate a major conceptual leap as well as a need for systemization.’

[T]he conceptual leap was to endow each token shape … with a specific meaning’. Previously, any markings, such as those on tally sticks, could not be understood outside the context in which they were notched. With tokens, anyone conversant with the system could immediately understand their meanings. Moreover, as each token represented a particular object, it was now possible to systematically ‘. . . manipulate information concerning different categories of items, resulting in a complexity of data processing never reached previously’.

In the fourth millennium, accompanying urbanization or the formation of classes, these tokens assumed new shapes, were of a higher quality indicating production by specialized craft workers, and featured lines and marks which required the development of writing and reading skills. Writing emerges from bookkeeping. The marks are designed to solve the technical problem of storage and cumbersome tallying. When tokens were few in number, it was easy to both store and count them. With a growth in the number and types of token, a new system had to be developed to allow easy maintenance ‘of the books.’ Hence, a particular mark indicated so many tokens, and one mark replaced the physical presence of (say) ten tokens.

We also now begin to see tokens as part of the funerary goods found in grave sites, and these are only found in the graves of the wealthier members of society. Tokens are a status symbol, indicating a change from egalitarian to hierarchical society. Eventually, the production of tokens and their administration becomes a temple activity, associated with the system of taxation that has supplanted the older tribal obligations. Writing – in this case the marks on the clay tokens that are the unit of account – was ‘invented to keep track of economic transactions’.

Taken together, these indicators show that the transegalitarian societies of Mesopotamia, especially in the Northern plains, were becoming more stratified.

A number of ancient villages in Northern Mesopotamia provide us with clues to social inequality such as elite children buried with sumptuary goods, long-distance exchanges of polychrome pottery among elite families, the clustering of satellite hamlets around chiefly villages, and the burning of elite residences in raids. For Southern Mesopotamia, the evidence for rank is more subtle… (COE: 260-261)

2. The plow: The domestication of cattle allowed for eventual the introduction of the plow. The plow may seem unrelated to the emergence of the state, but in fact it likely had a great social impact.

Early gardening was based around the hoe. Archaeologists believe that much of this hoeing labor was initially done by women, possibly as an extension of their gathering role. In fact, agriculture was typically associated with female deities, possibly indicating their initial role in cultivating grains. Or it may simply related to the earth being perceived as “womb” from where the planted “seed” grows, similar to the female’s role in human reproduction:

Early agriculture may …have made use of an organization of work along sexual lines, the women, perhaps assisted by children, planting and cultivating while the men hunted. Ancient mythology possibly lends credence to the assumption of women as agriculturists; Isis, Cybele, Demeter, and Ceres, the Egyptian, Asian, Greek, and Roman divinities of grain-raising are all goddesses. More probably, however, the goddess seemed appropriate as a symbol of fertility…(BtSoTB)

But it takes significant grip and upper-body strength to control a plow pulled by large animals. The first plows in Mesopotamia were called ards, and were basically hoes attached to a wooden frame.

In all of the Old World’s high cultures, crop cultivation started with plowing. Its indispensability is reflected even in the oldest writing. Both the Sumerian cuneiform records and the Egyptian glyphs have pictograms for plows. Plowing prepares the ground for seeding much more thoroughly than hoeing does: It breaks up the compacted soil, uproots established plants, and provides weed-free, loosened, well-aerated ground in which seedlings can germinate and thrive.

The first primitive scratch plows (ards), commonly used shortly after 4000 BC in Mesopotamia, were pointed wooden sticks with a handle. Later most of them were tipped with metal. For centuries they remained lightweight and symmetrical (with the draft line in a vertical plane with the beam and share point). Such simple plows, which merely opened up a shallow furrow for seeds and left cut weeds on the surface, were the mainstay of both Greek and Roman farming. They were used over large parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia until the twentieth century. In the poorest regions they were pulled by people. Only in lighter, sandier soils would such an effort be speedier than hoeing (EWH: 30)

Plowing was undoubtedly the activity where animals made the greatest difference. Given the relatively high power requirements of this task, it is hardly surprising that the first clearly documented cases of cattle domestication involved plow farming. In time, these animals were also used in many regions for lifting irrigation water and for processing harvested crops, and they were eventually used everywhere for transportation (EWH: 41)

Evidence indicates that cattle became much more common in the Ubaid period:

Archaeologists…find impressive numbers of cattle bones in the refuse of ‘Ubaid villages. Their abundance raises the possibility that oxen had now been harnessed to wooden plows, allowing families to cultivate larger tracts of land.(COI: 283)

With plowing came significant social changes 1.) The control of food production passed exclusively into the hands of men. If women and their children wanted to eat, they needed to submit to the control of their fathers, uncles, brothers and husbands. This is thought to be directly related to the emergence of patriarchy and the demotion in the status of women to little more than chattel in many ancient Near East cultures.

Its often said that the passing down of land to firstborn sons led to the need for “paternity assurance” and hence the strict and oppressive controls imposed on female sexuality. This is unlikely, as land was typically collectively owned by the temples and clans until later periods. What’s more likely, given the evidence of clay seals above, is that it is status positions that being passed down. Thus, men needed to be assured of paternity, and marriage contracts became dependent upon strict assurances of virginity.

Once patriarchal authority became established and politics became firmly entrenched in the hands of males, much more hierarchical structures were able to form, leading to much more hierarchical householding systems replacing the communal structure we see in the earliest farming villages:

Farming, as it started and spread from the Fertile Crescent, was originally hoe-based, thus largely women’s work, as hoe-based farming can be done while child-minding. The men hunted and later herded, the women farmed. There was no inherent reason to shift away from egalitarian norms and beliefs. But the larger population led to the development of substantial permanent settlements, which persisted for centuries or even millennia, and then collapsed. Settlements which were physically structured in a way that did not reflect any apparent social hierarchy.

It has been suggested that such settlements failed because the belief system could not longer sustain them. But it had for many generations. It is more likely that some new factor destabilised the social arrangements, leading to the abandonment of the concentrated settlements. Otherwise, they would more likely have simply reached an upper limit and plateaued in size.

One factor could be climate change: the productivity of the region declined. Though there is apparently no correlation between a drop in regional surges and collapses in population in Europe and climatic conditions.

A possible disrupting factor could be pastoralist raiders; disrupting the productivity of the region. This has been suggested as reason for the collapse of “Old Europe”, the farming settlements of the Danube valley…

A third possible factor could be the introduction of the plough, disrupting the social logic of the egalitarian settlements…Ploughs have two effects–they increase the productivity of farmers and they concentrate farming in the hands of males. More productivity means (1) more people, (2) more possibility for social differentiation, (3) a more sizeable possible extracted surplus. Moreover, ploughing is men’s work–both because of the greater grip and upper body strength required and, more crucially, as it is not compatible with childminding. As neither is animal herding, that leads to a male monopoly of the major productive assets and, as a consequence, male domination of public social space.

Suddenly, family relations become much more hierarchical. Hierarchical families provide easier support for wider social hierarchy: ploughs predate the first states. Contradiction between the egalitarian social logic which originally sustained the first wave of urban settlements–manifested in their physical construction–and the new logic of male domination of productive assets, and so public social space, could have been so disruptive as to lead to the abandonment of the first wave of concentrated settlements–which reflected, and were associated with, the previous social logic–and dispersal into new villages, which could now reflect physically the new social logic. Possibly helped by the plough increasing the land area which could be cultivated. A social logic that had not yet developed the means to support larger aggregations of population.

When sizeable settlements arise again, they are both significantly larger in population–they are undoubtedly cities–and physically reflect much more hierarchical social arrangements. Including explicit physical public spaces, which Çatalhöyük, the largest of the earlier settlements, had entirely lacked–it had no streets, one went from house to house via roofs.

Hierarchical families, based on unequal gender relations, may well make the generation and acceptance of wider social hierarchy more acceptable, but that is hardly enough in itself to generate states. Though the larger populations, higher individual productivity and capacity for social differentiation from the plough created a much larger possibility for the creation of states.

Origins of the state (Thinking out loud)

In fact, we see in the ethnographic record that the introduction of cattle does lead to significant status differentiation between individuals and families. As mentioned earlier, cattle-herding cultures often do have a hierarchical structure of powerful chiefs, subchiefs and clan elders who control the political life of the tribe. They also engage in elaborate feasting rituals, often involving sacrifices to the gods.

In fact, North Africa is unique in that it developed cattle herding before crop cultivation. Unreliable rainfall during the “wet Sahara” period placed a premium on being able to move around with changing climate conditions, meaning herding was much a more logical way of life to adopt than sedentary farming, and domesticable sheep and goats are not native to North Africa. Some archaeologists consider this crucial to the formation of Egypt’s hierarchical top-down political system. The Pharaoh often depicted himself as a “great bull” trampling his enemies, and carried the crook and flail–herding implements–as symbols of his authority. Some archaeologists believe that the office of Pharaoh is the direct decedent of the powerful headmen typically seen in herding societies.

Of special relevance to the development of economic institutions is the work of Thurnwald. From his ethnological studies in East Africa he developed a theory of development of simple societies into stratified social systems, feudalisms and despotisms. He pointed out that a stratified society with clearly distinguishable social classes usually results from cultural contacts between gardening, artisan, or hunting-fishing peoples on the one hand and herding peoples on the other, with the herdsmen tending to form an aristocracy. Such a society may develop along feudal lines if the clan heads of the herdsmen remain relatively equal rivals, into a despotism if power can be centralized under a single dynasty, or into a tyrannis if someone outside the traditional aristocracy can seize power. The ancient despotic state, such as Egypt is a development typical of this scheme. Not only is the economy intimately connected with the social structure in Thurnwald’s schema, but the development of the two is pictured as a dynamic relationship.

Thurnwald also placed great stress on gift-giving, or reciprocity, as a pervasive element in primitive economic life, a pattern far removed from the acquisitive motives of the market economy and requiring a symmetrical pattern of social relationships for its operation. Indeed, Mauss has suggested that gift exchange is the fundamental principle underlying all primitive trade.

Polanyi, Trade and Market in Early Empires, pp. 345-347

Much larger tracts of land could now be cultivated via the plow. This meant that a single farm could feed many more people than before. While earlier agriculture had been based on shifting cultivation, in the alluvial plains of Mesopotamia, the same ground could be cultivated year after year, allowing land to be passed down much easier than it could in earlier farming villages.

The bump in energy utilization via plowing also freed up more people to do non-agricultural labor. The ability to cultivate larger fields most likely resulted in significant inequality. Throughout history we see that new technology that allows labor to be more productive allows fewer people to manage more labor, leading to inequality in and of itself.

With limitations on field size due to labor needs, there was a limit on how big a farm could grow. With plowing, certain families could effectively cultivate much larger fields if they had access to cattle. Although plantation slavery did not develop in Mesopotamia as it did later in Rome, often times debtors would become debt slaves to large landowners, causing a spiral of inequality. People who lost their farms and people fleeing from debt were likely some of the earliest inhabitants of cities.

Sumerian descent was reckoned in the male line, although elite women were mentioned in the genealogies of aristocrats, and women could hold high office. Sumerian kings, like the monarchs of other societies, were allowed multiple wives. Royal polygamy was not just a perquisite of office but a diplomatic strategy, allowing rulers to forge marriage alliances with the aristocracy of other cities.

Commoner marriage, with few exceptions, was limited to one man and one woman. Divorce was allowed, but bigamy and adultery were punished, often severely. One inscription discovered at Lagash states that “the women of former days used to take two husbands, [but] the women of today [if they attempted this] were stoned with stones [upon which was inscribed their ‘evil intent.’

What evil intent? Most of the societies discussed in earlier chapters saw no harm in polygamous marriage. For societies that believed in reincarnation, paternity was not a concern. Babies were seen as recycled ancestors, and all children born into a polygamous marriage were considered full siblings.

The logic of Sumer was different. Men were seen as “planting a seed” in the woman, and because of the male-oriented system of inheritance, the origin of this seed was a major concern. A woman who lost her virginity before marriage, committed adultery, or took two husbands had created intolerable doubt about paternity. The state intervened to protect what it saw as a husband’s rights but phrased it in terms of good and evil to make it appear that it was carrying out the will of a deity.

The term for “father’s brother” appears in Sumerian cuneiform texts. This suggests …that one of the preferred types of marriage might have been between a man and his father’s brother’s daughter. Anthropologists call this “patrilateral parallel cousin marriage,” and it is still common today in parts of the Near East.

Sumerian marriages, like those of the less complex societies seen in earlier chapters, required gifts between the bride’s and groom’s relatives. Exchanges of gifts could go on for months. Marriage was considered a legally binding contract, and divorce could cost the husband a fee in silver. Owing to sexism, it was harder for women to get a divorce.

It is probably from the Sumerians that later Near Eastern societies, including the Aramaic-speaking authors of the Old Testament, got the notion that marriage should be restricted to one man and one woman. The flexible marriage partnerships of egalitarian societies, which came in six or seven varieties, had been arbitrarily reduced to a legal contract between a man and a woman. Nothing could be allowed to make a man worry that his male heir was the result of someone else’s “seed.” (COI: 478-480)

3. Marriage: One intriguing theory for the origin for inequality in Flannery and Marcus’s book, The Creation of Inequality, is marriage alliances with neighboring cultures. For example, societies with surpluses often wished to establish regular trading relationships with neighboring cultures who had access to desired status goods. To create such relationships, women from the “advanced” society would be often exchanged as wives with the leaders of such cultures. The recipients of these wives then emerged as a hereditary overclass in the “lesser” culture.

We know that the inhabitants of southern Mesopotamia established trading outposts all throughout the ancient Near East early on. We know that they desired all sort of goods from neighboring cultures, from timber to ivory to precious stones, and later metals for bronze. We know that trade took place, including of jewelry, metals, pottery, and other artifacts. Might this have been instrumental in expanding social inequality throughout the region? In fact, even into the era of Bronze Age kingdoms, marriages between royal households was commonly used to establish political/economic alliances, and only aristocratic households could participate. This certainly must have cemented status differentiation all cross the Levant.

In their book they describe the establishment of hereditary inequality in a Burmese hill tribe called the Kachin by way of interactions with a more complex hierarchical farming society called the Shan:

There may Once have been more than 300,000 Kachin living in the hills of northern Burma. Hpalang lay 5,800 feet above sea level in forested hills receiving 120 to 150 inches of rain a year. The Kachin cleared patches in the forest, growing rice, millet, buckwheat, yams, and taro by taungya, or slash-and-bum agriculture. Taungya is called a long-fallow system because’ new land must be constantly cleared, while old fields are given 12 to 15 Years to regain their fertility. The Kachin also raised zebu (humped) cattle, water buffalo, pigs, and chickens. The meat of the larger animals, however, was eaten only after the latter had been sacrificed during ritual, and at such times many guests shared in the feasting…

The Kachin themselves used the term gumlao to refer to societies in which all social units were considered equal. ‘When such units became ranked relative to one another, they used the term gumsa…The contrast between gumlao and gumsa leaders was great. Under gumlao, each village was autonomous. Some gumsa chiefs, on the other hand, oversaw more than 60 villages at a time. They could ill afford to forget, however, that it was the chief’s entire lineage that enjoyed high rank, not the chief alone. This led to a complex dynamic among brothers…

One scenario [for hereditary inequality]…includes interactions with a more complex neighboring society, called the Shan. The Shan differed from the Kachin in significant ways. Instead of practicing long-fallow, slash-and-burn agriculture in the highlands the Shan were supported by permanent wet-rice paddies in the riverine lowlands. Shan agriculture was so productive that it could support princely states with lineages of aristocrats, commoners, and slaves. While the Kachin sacrificed to spirits of the earth and sky, Shan rulers had been converted to Buddhism.
Hereditary aristocrats sought to communicate their rank through displays of valuables called sumptuary goods. The sumptuary goods sought by the Shan included jade, amber, tortoise shell, gold, and silver. The resources of the Kachin hill country included all these items. Significantly, the Kachin were chronically short of rice, while the Shan produced a surplus.

For several generations the family of the saohpa, or Shan prince, of a district called Möng Hkawm sent noble Shan women to marry the Kachin leaders who controlled the jade mines of the hill region. Sometimes a dowry of wet-rice land accompanied the bride. The Kachin chief reciprocated with raw materials for sumptuary goods.

One effect of this intermarriage…was that it encouraged the shift from gumlao to gumsa. Having a Shan wife raised the prestige of a Kachin leader and encouraged him to model his behavior on that of a Shan prince. Incipient Kachin chiefs might convert to Buddhism, dress like a Shan, and adopt Shan ritual and symbolism. They did so in spite of a serious contradiction in social logic: the mayu-dama relationship of the Kachin, in which the recipient of the bride was inferior, was incompatible with Shan logic. Shan princes all had multiple wives, and it would be unthinkable for any of their marriages to make them someone else’s dama.

While ambitious Kachin leaders considered Shan-like behavior a mark of prestige, it only increased their followers’ resentment and hastened their over throw. The result was an inherently unstable situation in which hereditary inequality was repeatedly created, lasted for a few generations, and then collapsed. (COI: 197-198)

Interestingly, both the unification of Upper and lower Egypt, and of Northern and Southern Messopotamia, was preceded by a cultural unification, in the Naqada and ‘Ubaid periods respecitively. All throughout these area, we begin to see cultural uniformity–similar goods, similar temples, similar artistic motifs. We also begin to see much more status differentiation–for example the Naqada III shows the presence of elite graveyards set apart from commoners. Did intermarriage play a role in this? Did the “lesser” cultures slowly adopt the religion and behaviors of the “higher” agricultural people with whom they traded, just as the Kachin adopted Shan customs and religion?

4.) Irrigation: While the old ideas put forward by Wittfogel about managing canals leading to the first central governments may have been oversimplified, the necessity of organizing collective labor to build irrigation works and keep them free of silt would have certainly required some way of managing it, even if just at the village level. This would have led to the creation of an elite supervisory class with control over labor. Piotr Steinkeller writes:

I submit that the beginnings of corvee coincided with the introduction of irrigation-based agriculture on the alluvium, which must have happened sometime during the Obeid period…organized collective labor[‘s] “invention” was directly connected with the appearance of extensive irrigation networks. It is impossible to say which of them came first. In all probability these two phenomena developed more or less concurrently, with the needs of agriculture dictating the use of labor force above that of a single family, and with the availability of labor so created enabling further expansion of irrigation works. This spiral process led to the formation of village clusters based on a shared irrigation system and subordinated to a single agency of control, eventually resulting in the appearance of urban centers and city-states.

In order to manage this labor, the priest caste used clay tokens combined with standardization of both time and materials. Out of this record-keeping developed writing and numeracy. Those knowledgeable in the specialized tasks of reading, writing, and mathematics emerged as an elite class of people. The presence of clay bullae seals indicates that this class had emerged long before the first true cities were founded.

4.) The household: Mesoptamian society seems to have transitioned from a Tribute Economy based on villages where reciprocity and redistribution prevailed, to one based primarily on Householding (oikoi). A household has a distinctive hierarchy, with a “pater familias” at the top, and a ranking order underneath that person (younger brothers, primary wives, secondary wives, elder children, younger children, servants, slaves, etc.). So too would a society based around householding structure itself along similarly ranked lines, with the “head” of the overall “household” being the ruler. Not only that, but various households would also have been ranked against each other. This would have created a gradient of hierarchy that is often mistaken for the establishment of social classes. Religious beliefs reflected this dynamic-the gods, too, were portrayed as living in a household with it’s own ranking hierarchy, overseen by the supreme ruler god, the ultimate “alpha.” The temples themselves were also organized on the household basis:

The gods were the alphas of two dominance hierarchies, one human and one divine. In the city of Lagash, for example, there was a great temple called Eninnu…It had two temple staffs: one visible and one invisible. The invisible staff began with a doorkeeper and butler, both minor deities. Below them were a divine chamberlain, counselor, and bailiff, and still further down the list a divine charioteer, gamekeeper, inspector of fisheries, and goatherd, as well as musicians, singers, and errand boys. The visible staff began with a high priest and continued with human counterparts for all the divine officials. The city’s ruler was ex officio head of the church…(COI: 478)

Most labor was “attached” to various households, and even though it was organized along kinship lines, households often included unrelated people, including full-time craft specialists (leather workers, jewelers, smiths, carpenters, etc.). These craft specialists would produce for the household primarily, but over time it appears that craftsmen could also sell their labor to others for an agreed-upon wage. These wages were paid in the temple’s unit of account. Because the temple denominated such units in weights of silver, this became a common way of paying craft specialists. This may have given rise to the misconception that people’s labor was primarily organized by “labor markets” using silver coins as a medium of exchange. In fact, coins did not exist until the Classical period, and most “salaries” were paid by the public sector, i.e. the temples, often in commodities such as wool, oil and barley.

All of these changes paved the way for the creation of early Sumerian cities in the Tigris-Euphrates river valley after 4000 BC. These cities were invariably centered on their temples, the home of the gods, with the priests organizing and managing the day-to-day operations of society. It is these activities which give cities there special character, above all the need for long-distance trade.

Temples and their precincts comprised the earliest city centers. Set corporately apart from the community at large to serve as self-supporting households of the city god and/or ruler, they were larger, more specialized and more internally hierarchic than personal households. They also included many dependents whose families on the land were unable to care for them, e.g., the blind and infirm, war widows and orphans, and others who could not function in normal family contexts. Placed in the institutional households that served as the ultimate sanctuaries, these individuals were put to work in handicraft workshops or other public professions (e.g., the blind musicians) in an early form of welfare/workfare.

It appears that archaic populations felt that the best way to keep handicraft production and exchange in line with traditional social values was to organize such activity under the aegis of temples, or at least to establish a strong temple interface as a kind of “chamber of commerce.” Public ritual and welfare functions already existed as the germ out of which this economic role would flower. As gathering places, temples became natural administrative vehicles for sponsoring trade. In retrospect it seems quite natural that the temple’s ritual functions broadened in time to include the role of sponsoring markets. Populations attending sacred ceremonies engaged in trade and exchange, much as they did at the fairs of medieval Europe. Out of this commerce developed temple sponsorship of standardized weights and measures, contractual law and the regularization and enforcement of trade obligations.

Concentration of the economic surplus was first achieved in the temple sector. Temple workshops were set corporately apart from their communities, endowed with their own land, dependent labor, herds of animals and stores of precious metal to support their handicraft activities and generate commercial surpluses. Many temple and palace lands were farmed by community members on a sharecropping basis, typically for a third of the crop or some other fixed proportion. Indeed, as history’s first documented landlords, the temples earned the first known land‑rent.

Administrators were assigned such usufructs to provide food for their support, and may have exchanged some of this barley-revenue for luxuries. The resulting “redistributive” system of production and consumption preceded market trade and pricing by thousands of years. Also, as business corporations (in contrast to family partnerships), temples appear to have earned interest.

In short, profit‑accumulating enterprise was public long before being privatized. This explains why the first economic accounting and the organization of large-scale handicraft industry appears first in public, often sacred contexts. Temples systematized profit‑seeking in ways that only gradually became acceptable for private individuals acting on their own. (Wealthy individuals were expected to use their resources openhandedly or consume them in conspicuous displays such as burials or marriage feasts.) Indeed, the temples’ entrepreneurial functions emerged out of their sacred status “above” the community’s families at large, most of whom still functioned on a subsistence basis after taking into account their luxury spending….The first organized surplus‑yielding property thus was public rather than private. ..

From Sacred Enclave to Temple to City (Michael Hudson)

COI: Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus, The Creation of Inequality.

EWH: Vaclav Smil, Energy in World History

BtSoTB: Melvin Kranzberg and Joseph Gies, By the Sweat of Thy Brow

The Origin of Cities – Part 2

Jericho – the First City

Cities were preceded by proto-cities, which were in essence large-scale farming villages. The most famous of these are Jericho in Israel and Çatalhöyük in Turkey. Proto-cities are distinguished form true cities in that they do not have a pre-planned layout, show no signs of hierarchy or separate social classes, and do not appear to have distinct religious or governmental buildings outside of private dwellings. All of the residences at Çatalhöyük were the same layout, for example, and there were no palaces or specialized religious structures. There were no streets either; the city was a honeycomb warren of mud-brick houses built on top of one another and accessed via ladders from openings in the ceiling which also allowed for ventilation.

For Lewis Mumford, the consummate historian of cities, Jericho alongside the Jordan river was the first city. Yet Jericho was established long before the transition to domesticated agriculture, meaning that it cannot be a response to the surpluses caused by it. It was still in essence, a large pre-agricultural village inhabited by people who were still largely hunter-gatherers. The reason it was mistaken for a city is because it was surrounded by a four meter high wall, with an eight meter tower that has been dubbed “the world’s first skyscraper,” and which was likely the tallest structure on earth at that time.

For Mumford, then, walls are the hallmarks of the city, that is, the distinguishing feature of a city are its walls. In his estimation, the walls were testament to the rising surpluses caused by sedentary agriculture and the need to defend those surpluses. Walls protect the surpluses from raiders–cities, walls, warfare, and centralized governments all went hand-in-hand, and they all stemmed from population growth engendered by agriculture, went the thinking. By hiding behind city walls, early people could stay safe from the increasing violence caused by a population growth and develop the first “private” property, went the story.

Mumford also sees walls in cities as the beginnings of the first “surveillance state.” By putting up walls around a city, the rulers could determine who was coming and who was going– and manage accordingly. In this view, the watchtower completes this picture. The watchtower allowed the inhabitants to keep a lookout for distant raiders coming for their surpluses, and retreat behind the walls as soon as the marauders showed up.

And yet, we may have misunderstood the walls of Jericho.

What caused archaeologists to doubt the walls’ defensive purpose was the lack of any evidence for large-scale warfare or raiding, such as weapons or skeletal injuries. And why was Jericho alone walled? If there was all this fighting going on in the Neolithic, surely we would see similar walls elsewhere, and yet we don’t see any other walled cities in this time period. The layers of Jericho that showed destruction came much later in its history, closer to the early Bronze Age.

What archaeologists did find, rather than signs of warfare, was a massive buildup of river silt and related debris along the base of the walls. This led archaeologists to surmise that the wall of Jericho were built as flood walls, to prevent the village from being inundated by the nearby Jordan River during the rainy season (Jordan river flooding is mentioned in the Bible). The river provided a source of water for growing the cereal grains which were becoming increasingly central to the new way of life at this time. The cereal grains grown nearby may have been used for feasting, and the walls may have been to keep out those who were invited to the feast from those who were not. Not only that, but there were hardly enough people in early Jericho to adequately defend such a long perimeter of wall!

Since third-millennium Mesopotamia, urban density has been catalyzed by the defensive military need of inhabitants to gather in walled towns. Indeed, the word “town” derives from the German Zaun (“fence”), typically referring to the walled military camps planted across Europe by the Roman emperors in standardized designs. But civilization’s first urban areas are not well characterized as such towns. Although Jericho appears to have been a walled center by about 9000 BC, its walls were not necessarily fortifications; they may well have been flood walls. In any event, when archaeologists next encounter urban sites, such as Çatal Hüyük in the sixth millennium BC, they find a cosmopolitan neutrality….It appears that the earliest towns were sanctified from raids. Southern Mesopotamian fortifications, for instance, do not appear until relatively late, c. 2800 BC.”

From Sacred Enclave to Temple to City(Michael Hudson)

In fact, Jericho’s walls may have served primarily a social purpose, rather than a defensive one.

Or, at least, that’s what a number of archaeologists believe. In their opinion, the walls served a similar purpose as today’s gated communities–to separate selected people from those around them. And the tower was a part of that. The tower may have actually built as a promotional technology – built by aggrandizing elites to demonstrate the riches and power of the village, rather than to keep a lookout for raiders.

Recently, archaeologists have argued that the tower was specifically designed to play on the fears of the local population. The stairwell of the tower was oriented in a very specific way relative to the sunset on the longest day of the year:

In a 2008 article, the Tel Aviv University researchers proposed that the tower and wall of Jericho should be seen as cosmological markers, connecting the ancient village of Jericho with the nearby Mount Qarantal and sunset on the longest day of the year. The new paper fortifies their hypothesis…”Reconstruction of the sunset revealed to us that the shadow of the hill as the sun sets on the longest day of the year falls exactly on the Jericho tower, envelops the tower and then covers the entire village,” .. “For this reason, we suggest that the tower served as an earthly element connecting the residents of the site with the hills around them and with the heavenly element of the setting sun.” Its construction may be related to the primeval fears and cosmological beliefs of the villagers…

The “cosmological significance” of the tower connects it with the previous megalithic sites which also had very specific orientation relative to nearby geographical features and celestial objects. The researchers go on to describe how constructing such a monument would serve the interests of the important people of the village:

The researchers note that this is the first instance of human beings erecting such a tall structure, even before the transition to agriculture and food production in the region. Liran and Dr. Barkai now believe that the tower, which required about ten years to build, is an indication of power struggles at the beginning of the Neolithic period, and that a particular person or people exploited the primeval fears of Jericho’s residents in persuading them to build it. ..”This was a time when hierarchy began and leadership was established,” Dr. Barkai told the Jerusalem Post. “We believe this tower was one of the mechanisms to motivate people to take part in a communal lifestyle.”

First skyscraper was a monument to intimidation: How Jericho’s 11,000-year-old ‘cosmic’ tower came into being (Science Daily)

Thus, the tower may be some of the earliest evidence anywhere of the transition from transegalitarian societies to more collective, hierarchically-based lifestyles, well before domesticated agriculture or the much later cities of Mesopotamia.

We’ve already talked about the “lures” that Triple-A personalities used to get people to work for them – the lure of profit, and the lure of addictive and psychoactive substances. We also talked about the need to attract “highly motivated and skilled” labor from rival villages and the competition between aggrandizing individuals to acquire followers. We mentioned that such villages often constructed elaborate public works to “advertise success” and attract people from neighboring villages to come and settle there (such as the totem poles of Northwest coast villages). Was the tower at Jericho built for this purpose? As a side-note, I recently read the CEO of a major company here where I live (Northwestern Mutual) say in an interview with the local newspapaer that he hoped the new skyscraper they were erecting downtown would allow them to attract “top talent” to our decaying Rust-belt city. So using tall towers to “advertise success” by aggrandizers is not so far-fetched.

Schlifske says new Northwestern Mutual tower will attract talent (JSOnline)

The walls would have enforced separation between “us” and “them.” Inside the walls would be the feasting ceremonies with their rich foods and plentiful psychoactive substances, including possibly alcoholic beverages. Great exchanges of food and wealth, moderated by the Big Men, would take place. The tower, with its cosmological significance, would have attracted people from far and wide to come there and work the Big Men, as the archaeologists posit. It would have enticed people from the surrounding areas to abandon their hunter-gatherer ways (and the related freedom) for the lure of psychoactive substances, whose characteristics would have eased the transition. It would also serve to attract the Stakhanovite “hard workers” from other surrounding villages. As we’ve seen, labor was almost universally pooled through work feasts, and no doubt the construction of Jericho’s wall and tower was a result of such lavish feasts. No doubt the cosmological orientation of the tower and its connection to the surrounding hills would have reinforced the “supernatural” powers and abilities of the Big Men elites.

So, then, walls were actually a physical manifestation of many of the behaviors that Hayden associates with the beginning of hereditary rank societies–bridewealth, specialized training, secret societies, and so on. The social logic became manifested in the actual physical world as walls separating elites from commoners. While we cannot entirely rule out walls as protection form raids, its notable that early walls were just as likely to be within cites as around them. This clearly implies that they were less about defense than about social exclusion. And they would have helped to reinforce a new social identity apart from the hunter-gatherer bands of the outside world:

In Peter J. Wilson’s book The Domestication of the Human Species, the anthropologist argues that humans first walls were probably a social or cultural development. They allowed people to develop a sense of individual and group identity in villages and cities that grew far beyond the size of any hunter-gatherer group. It’s possible that humans needed walls to deal with the psychological stress of living in bigger groups; they gave people separate spaces where they could cool off from conflicts or share their feelings without social judgments.

In the years since Wilson’s book came out, archaeologists have confirmed that many city walls appear to serve a social purpose rather than a military one.

In the Neolithic village Ilıpınar, located in the Anatolian region of Turkey, walls helped villagers consolidate their identity as a community. These people’s biggest threat was not a military incursion, but fragmentation into hunter-gatherer groups. And indeed, it seems that Ilıpınar’s inhabitants did eventually return to a semi-nomadic way of life. The village was slowly abandoned after several hundred years of permanent settlement. But first, it was occupied by people who only lived there for part of the year. It’s as if they became partial nomads, then abandoned village life altogether. Early walls in cities were also used to enclose small groupings of homes rather than the entire settlement. Perhaps these internal walls were used to separate powerful groups from everyone else.

Why Do We Build Walls Around Our Cities? (io9)

Indeed, the lifestyle of such a large agglomeration of people would have been highly unnatural to people accustomed to either hunting and gathering or very small villages. Walls were as much about keeping people in as keeping them out–Richard Manning speculated that the Great Wall of China may have been less about defense than about keeping the first inhabitants of agrarian civilizations from running away from the drudgery of farming to join the nomads. As we’ll see below, early walls may also have demarcated sacred ground as societies became more hierarchical with the emergence of full-time hereditary religious specialists. The walls seen around early cities may derive from their origin as sacred spaces rather than just a need for defense.

Thus walls appear to have played a social role first, with the defensive one coming later due to the “militarization” of the ancient world that came with the Bronze Age.

Another possibility is that the walls served a ritual purpose; to demarcate sacred space from common areas:

Excavations by Orkney College at the nearby Ness of Brodgar site between the Ring and the Stones of Stenness have revealed several buildings, both ritual and domestic and the works suggest there are likely to be more in the vicinity. One structure appears to be 20 metres (66 ft) long by 11 metres (36 ft) wide. Pottery, bones, stone tools and polished stone mace heads have also been discovered. Perhaps the most important find is the remains of a large stone wall which may have been 100 metres (330 ft) long and 4 metres (13 ft) or more wide. It appears to traverse the entire peninsula the site is on and may have been a symbolic barrier between the ritual landscape of the Ring and the mundane world around it.

Mesopotamian temples, for example, had walls around them because they were concerned with ritual “purity.” In order to enter the sacred space of the temple, the priest had to first perform ablutions before entering:

The need to please the gods made ritual purity a major concern in Sumer. As early as the Uruk period, some temple precincts had been walled off from the secular parts of the city. Before entering the temple, even a Sumerian ruler had to perform ritual ablution, washing away the pollution of the secular world. (The Creation of Inequality, p. 481)

Similar separating walls may have been more to demarcate ritualized landscapes than protect private property. Since the first true cities centered around temple precincts in Mesopotamia, this may have caused the misconception that cities were always places of military rule and centralized government. Walls may have also simply served to demarcate a group’s territory, with its major monuments serving as the cultural identifier.

The Enigma of Çatalhöyük

Çatalhöyük, in central Turkey, was on of the world’s earliest “cities” discovered by archaeologists. It discovered in the late 1950’s and excavated British archaeologist James Melaart beginning in the 1960’s. The city began and ended long before the cities of the marshlands of southern Mesopotamia were founded.

This was a much larger agglomeration of people than anywhere else in the world at this time, leading to speculation about what caused it. The city was occupied about 8000 BC, and had what is estimated to be over 2000 inhabitants:

It’s hard to say what, exactly, Çatalhöyük was. Was it a city or just some kind of bizarre, outsized village? We know it lasted for millennia, with thousands of people living there continuously from about 7500 BCE to 5700 BCE. Perhaps we might say that was the closest thing to a city in the Neolithic, since hundreds more people lived there than in typical villages nearby. But it had none of the features we associate with the grand, walled cities that emerged thousands of years later in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

How Farming Almost Destroyed Human Civilization (io9)

The most notable feature about Çatalhöyük is the lack of hierarchy. Here, in this early proto-city, all the dwellings are approximately the same size and layout. There are no specialized buildings such as palaces or temples. Sacred spaces, to the extent we can identify them, were within private houses–there were no temple structures. Nor does there seem to have been much in the way of gender inequality. The dead were buried under the floors of the dwellings. Sometimes the skulls of these bodies were removed and plastered to resemble the living, and stored in dwelling units. This has led to speculation about ancestor worship.

There were no palaces, no massive ziggurats or pyramids dedicated to the gods, and no signs of class distinction. Every family had a small, slightly rectangular one-room home with a hearth. Each home was roughly the same size. Streets didn’t exist in Çatalhöyük — homes were erected next to each other, honeycomb-style, and people just walked over each others roofs to get home through doors in their ceilings. Though there was art, there was no writing. And there was little in the way of specialized labor. Unlike in ancient Uruk or Mohenjo-Daro, there were no cottage industries in bead-making or weapons production. Families lived by hunting, but mostly by keeping farms and small herds of animals like goats in the nearby hills.

How Farming Almost Destroyed Human Civilization (io9)

Çatalhöyük was built on two hills near the Kashen-Dag volcano, which provided a rich source of obsidian–volcanic glass. Such a sharp substance would have been particularly useful before metal was commonly utilized – even today it’s used in some surgical tools because, unlike metal, it never rusts or dulls. Obsidian from this region has been identified at sites all over the Levant, including Jericho, indicating the presence of long-distance trade networks between large groups of people long before the emergence of the first literate civilizations.

One remarkable recent discovery is that the people living together as “families” in these dwellings were not biologically related to one another, as revealed by DNA. These were unrelated people living together in the Neolithic – a very strange condition indeed!

Perhaps Çatalhöyük was a “city of refuge.” As places “set apart” from their surrounding communities, one of the functions of the first cities may have been as places of refuge for fugitives such as convicted murders. There, they would have been outside of tribal justice systems and accepted into a “new” family. Such cities appear to have been common in various cultures around the world and functioned as a way of keeping tit-for-tat blood-feuds from escalating out of control. Perhaps disease played a role too. For example, “leper colonies” were places where diseased people were quarantined and lived with one another apart from society, and are widely attested to in the Bible. These “penal/leper colonies” may have been the world’s first large agglomerations of people:

The first city that appears in the Bible (Genesis 4) is not a commercial port, administrative capital or military outpost, but the city of refuge located “east of Eden . . . in the land of Nod,” to which Adam’s son Cain withdrew after he killed his brother Abel….Such cities of refuge are found not only in the Old Testament but also in Native American communities at the time of their first contact with white men, suggesting a nearly universal response to the problem of what to do with public offenders. Throughout history, exile has been a widespread punishment for manslaughter and other capital crimes, including treason. The exile is obliged to leave his native community on pain of death, liable to retaliation by the victim’s family taking revenge.

Sanctuaries for such fugitives must have been well peopled, for an early myth says that Romulus helped populate Rome by founding an asylum for them.The Israelites are said to have created twelve cities of refuge, one for each tribal region…Such cities are assumed to have been placed on hills, mountains or other prominent spots plainly marked, as described in Deuteronomy 19…In any event, each year public workers are reported to have been sent to repair the roads leading to them, and to maintain signposts guiding manslayers…

From Sacred Enclave to Temple to City(Michael Hudson)

Or, perhaps it was some sort of religious commune, maybe even a type of monastery/nunnery. One feature noted by early excavators was the presence of a large number goddess figurines. This led to the speculation by Melaart that Çatalhöyük was the center of a “goddess cult.” Although this has been dismissed by most later archaeologists, certainly some sort of collective religious sentiment would have been needed for such a large agglomeration of people–unrelated people no less– to live together in relative harmony for thousands of years. Perhaps they were similar to today’s Amish, whose religious beliefs are key the the enforcement of strict egalitarianism, and hence communal solidarity and a stable social structure.

As enigmatic as Çatalhöyük’s social structure and religious beliefs is the the reason why is was abandoned. Early speculation was that a change in climate was the cause. Yet recent research has indicated that abandonment occurred during a period of relative climatic stability. Another speculation is that disease outbreaks, caused by living in close proximity to domesticated animals, may have caused large die-offs of people and the abandonment of villages.We know that people lving in close proximity to animals is the vector for a whole host of new diseases that were established for the first time in the Neolithic, such as smallpox. Communicable diseases would have spread much more easily. Or perhaps the soil became exhausted and the forests were overharvested to provide fuel for heating.

One tantalizing speculation is that Çatalhöyük outgrew its social structure. As the village grew larger, it need to form various hierarchies in order to manage its growing numbers. Yet this also introduced wider class divisions that were antithetical to the egalitarian social norms at this time, a legacy of hunting and gathering. This tension was unable to be resolved, and so people eventually just walked away rather than submit to the “control” of elites.

The problem is that people in Neolithic mega-villages had inherited a system of social organization and spirituality from their nomadic forebears. Because nomadic life requires everyone in the group to share resources to survive, these groups would develop rituals and customs that reinforced a very flat social structure. Certainly there would be families that had more prominent positions in a hunter-gatherer group or small village, but if they ever started hoarding resources too much that would be bad for the entire group. So people would strongly discourage each other from ostentatious displays of social differences.

All of this works nicely in a small community, where you know all of your neighbors and only share with people whose lives are bound to yours (even if you don’t like them very much). But once you have a thousand people living together, it’s harder to have a flat social structure. People need local representatives to stand in for them, and perhaps even a system of writing to keep track of everyone and what they own. Some people start to do specialized tasks, and social differentiation begins.

But the ideology of these Neolithic people in mega-villages…may have treated any kind of social differentiation as taboo. As soon as somebody took enough power to be a representative or proto-politician, other people would rail against them…major conflicts may have grown out of this tension between a belief in flat social organization and the need to create social hierarchies in larger societies. It’s an intriguing hypothesis, especially when you consider that when cities re-emerge in the 4,000s BCE, they have rigid social hierarchies with kings, shamans, and slaves. Plus, they have writing, which is primarily used to tally up who lives where and owns what.

How Farming Almost Destroyed Human Civilization (io9)

Recent evidence has shown that increasing signs of inequality begin to emerge later in the settlement’s history, closer to its eventual abandonment. Coincident with this development is a large degree of non-fatal head injuries seen in the skeletons, apparently caused by projectiles. The speculation is that increasing inequality led to increasing social tensions, exhibited by the blows to the skulls, which are absent from earlier generations.

One reason this may have happened was cattle. Cattle were domesticated in this same region of Turkey, and yet there is little evidence of cattle-herding at Çatalhöyük even long after it became commonplace elsewhere in the vicinity. It’s speculated that, again like the Amish, certain “technologies” that would lead to class divisions may have been deliberately ignored or suppressed. After all, an excavation of a modern Amish settlements by furture archaeolgists (assuming there are any) would raise some interesting questions if you had no idea of what Amish social structures and belief systems were like.

The hundreds of homes excavated thus far exhibit remarkable unity in how they were built, arranged and decorated, with no sign of any distinctive structure that could have served as an administrative or religious center. In most of the layers of successive settlement, each household seems to have had a similar amount of goods and wealth, and a very similar lifestyle. It’s primarily in the most recent uppermost layers, after about 6500 B.C., that signs of inequality begin to emerge. [Ian] Hodder speculates that this uniformity, as well as a strong shared system of beliefs and rituals, kept people together in the absence of leaders. He cautions, however, that it may not have been an egalitarian utopia.

“We believe people in Çatalhöyük were quite equal, but it might not have been the nicest society to live in,” he says. “Residents had to submit to a lot of social control — if you didn’t fit in, you presumably left. What Çatalhöyük may show is that such a society only works with strong homogeneity. For many generations, it was very unacceptable for individual households to accumulate [wealth]. Once they started to do so, there is evidence that more problems started to arise.”

In line with Hodder’s theory, the skulls with this characteristic [injury to the top back of the skull] were found primarily in later levels of the site, when more independence and differentiation between households started to emerge. Hodder speculates that, with these inequalities potentially creating new tensions among the community’s members, non-fatal violence may have been a means to keep everyone in check and prevent or diffuse full-fledged conflicts that could break the settlement apart. “The head wounds, in a way, confirm the idea of a controlled society,” Hodder says. “They suggest that violence was contained and regulated, not something that led to large-scale killing.”

What Happened to Turkey’s Ancient Utopia? (Discover Magazine)

So once cattle-herding was introduced, the thinking goes, class-based differences start to emerge.

Farmers in the Fertile Crescent, more than 200 miles east of Çatalhöyük, began domesticating cattle around 8000 B.C. By 6500 B.C., the practice had moved to parts of Turkey’s Central Anatolia, Çatalhöyük’s general neighborhood. But evidence of domesticated cattle at Çatalhöyük is scarce until after the move to the West Mound. Compared with their neighbors, the people of Çatalhöyük appear to have been “late adopters” of that era’s hottest new innovation: domesticated cattle.
“Every domesticated animal is a hugely complex new technology that offers great potential for change, but also requires great investments,” says Katheryn Twiss, an associate professor of archaeology at Stony Brook University and co-director of Çatalhöyük’s faunal analysis laboratory. “If you have cattle, you can start to plow, but you also have to be able to get enough water and graze, and to keep them healthy and safe from predators. There may have been reasons to resist adopting this technological advance.”

Some 3 million animal bones have been found at Çatalhöyük — primarily from sheep and cattle, but also goats, horses, dogs, boar, fox, deer, hare and other species. Twiss’ team has been analyzing them to determine when, and why, the settlement transitioned from hunting to herding. Ongoing research may link the arrival of domesticated cattle with emerging inequality between households, and increasingly individualistic behavior among Çatalhöyük residents.

What Happened to Turkey’s Ancient Utopia? (Discover Magazine)

Whatever the reasons, proto-cities were abandoned all over the Near East, not returning to such levels until the establishment of literate Near-Eastern civilizations of Egypt, Mespotamia and the Indus Valley. This shows that there is nothing “inevitable” about population growth leading to cities. For a long time, walking away was a viable option.

The Origin of Cities – Part 1

It may seem odd to connect the rise of cities to ritual, inequality, and debt, and yet they play a very large role in the urban revolution.

The conventional story has cities as a sort of natural response to the population growth and the sedentary lifestyle engendered by agriculture. The need to settle down and abandon a nomadic existence led to villages, and agglomerations of people in certain ecologically favorable spots inevitably grew over time as population increased, becoming the first cities. The concentration of population, the need to control labor and redistribute surpluses, and the need to conduct military campaigns, led to the emergence of specialized “classes” – bureaucrats, soldiers and rulers – who heralded the emergence of “states.” Taxes flowed into the capitals where rulers used them to build infrastructure, as well as grandiose temples and palaces for their own aggrandizement, paid for seizing the surpluses of the productive classes, often through violence. Such early states are invariably depicted as “despotic.”

Or so the story goes. But what if that picture we’ve told is too simple?

The archaeologist Vere Gordon Childe first coined the term “Urban Revolution” to describe the rise of cities starting in the third millennium BC. Childe assumed that cities were a natural response to increasing population pressure thanks to intensified agricultural methods, and that the subsequent characteristics of cities emerged spontaneously from people living in close quarters. He listed ten characteristics of the urban revolution, among which were: Full-time economic specialization and the division of labor; monumental public architecture; a hereditary ruling class; writing and mathematics; predictive sciences such as astronomy; standardized systems of weights and measurement; naturalistic art; and long-distance trade.

Yet, as we saw last time, large-scale construction and economic specialization was commonplace already in chiefdom societies, with their redistribution networks and their work feasts. And we saw that large-scale construction was often done under the aegis of chiefs and other important figures to establish a unique “cultural identity” and express social solidarity, not through slavery or coercion. Such large-scale public structures long preceded cities. As we saw last time, monumental stone megaliths reach back to end of the Ice Age, when the caves were abandoned.

And as we saw redistribution allowed greater economic specialization, larger social networks, insurance for shortages, a safety net for uncertainty, more trading opportunities, and greater population growth than simple reciprocity. Such activities were apparently viewed as beneficial for the wider society, rather than being ‘extorted” by violence as commonly depicted. Many of these tasks no doubt grew out of the early neolithic feasting complex. The benefits of wider social networks would have become even more important given the need to provide for defense from neighboring cultures as population increased.

Historians and archaeologists usually interpret cities as heralding the rise of a “new” social form; that is, the replacement of kinship structures with social classes. This is connected with the emergence of a full-time “professional” bureaucracy which is needed to manage  the distribution of goods and labor, as well as a hereditary ruling class set apart from the “commoners,” that controls the whole affair. This bureaucracy is sustained by “contributions”–taxes–from food producers, who remain in smaller-scale villages governed by reciprocity and kinship.

In addition, the standard story continues, specialization of labor caused people to from new “professional” associations apart from kinship structures. Specialization of labor concentrated in cities in order to cater the new wealthy upper classes, leading to the first markets, and later spreading to encompass long-distance trade. As people became full-time specialists instead of generalists, they needed some way to exchange their goods, leading to the spontaneous formation of “free and open” markets using a precious metals as a medium of exchange. From this economic activity, the standard story goes, the bureaucrats and ruling classes “extorted” goods from the productive classes in return for “protection money;” yet the vast majority of these “contributions” did little but support a parasitic ruling class living in luxury off the backs of the producers.

Yet in this period people did not so much interact as “individuals” as members of various communities. As we’ll see later, economic interaction was not via strangers using cash (which would not exist for thousands of years) in markets. Nor is there evidence for “despotism” or the “coercion” of taxes, or the forcing of labor to construct ancient monuments. Such monuments were managed by rulers, but appear to have been built by corvee labor and other specialists who were compensated for their work, often through feasting. It’s another “Flintstonization” example of us projecting our “modern” social structures onto the past.

In fact, many parts of the standard narrative for the beginnings of cities may be entirely too simple and wrong. For example:

– Agriculture–growing food in the same place year after year,–requires sedentism, but as we’ve seen, sedentism more likely lead to agriculture than the other way around. Sedentary populations existed as far back as the Neolithic era, and proto-cities were founded in the Levant as far back as 8,500 BC. Widespread trade networks and collective labor also apparently existed as far back as the Neolithic era, thousands of years before the first cities–we see beads, copper, and obsidian traded all over the Levant for thousands of years before urban forms emerge, for example.

– Monumental stone architecture long predates cities, from Göbekli Tepe, to Nevali Çori, to the orthostats of Nabta Playa and and Stonehenge, to the megalithic stone temples of Malta, to the barrows and cairns of prehistoric Europe. In places like Easter Island and other places in the South Pacific, monumental structures were built by chiefdoms without cities or significant population density.

– Rather than a separate “professional” bureaucracy, or the speculative existence of social “classes,” such relationships may have emerged out of existing social structures. A “ruling class” and hierarchy existed in many chieftainship societies all over the world without cities or even the cultivation of cereal grains. Nor is sedentism even required: pastoral nomads typically have powerful chiefs and headmen, for example, the Mongols, or the Masai herders, while still being largely nomadic.

– Cities were centers of long-distance trade between cultures, but internally were run by debt/credit relationships and/or centralized redistribution networks, and not by “free and open markets” or money exchanges. Specialized labor began under the aegis of temples, often as welfare provisions for the sick/poor/elderly/disabled. Temples functioned as “public utilities.” Profit making enterprises and the charging of interest began through the activities of “public” institutions, and not through the activities of “private” individuals. Social norms were ordered around preserving and maintaining social relationships and trust, which would would have precluded economic “competition” for profit.

– Cities were often autonomous and “cut off” from the surrounding countryside, both politically and economically. They can not be seen as centers of “government” or anything like a “state” in the modern sense of the term. They were places where unrelated people were able to come together to conduct arms-length economic transactions apart from the embedded cultural institutions which functioned at the village and household levels. These transactions were “sanctified” by the religious authorities. This gave temples a “cosmopolitan” character early on. Temples were often sanctified from raids, and thus became places where the community stored its surpluses for safe-keeping. Some early cities may also have been “cities of refuge” where offenders were banished to escape the reach of tribal justice. Defensive walls around cities appear to have arrived later with the Bronze Age.

Michael Hudson sees the unique characteristics of cities identified by Childe not as responses to population density, but rather stemming from their origins as religious/ritual centers dating all the way back to the ice age. These sites were not occupied year-round, but served as places where widely distributed communities came together to conduct “doctrinal rituals” that bound the society together. He writes, “…all ten of Childe’s urban characteristics turn out to be grounded in preurban ritual activities that long retained a public character, above all those associated with Bronze Age temples, their communal storage facilities, handicraft workshops and sponsorship of the festivals that were the focal point of the archaic calendar.”

Thus, the origin of cities was long before the agricultural revolution as was very much tied together with the activites of ritual feasting. Many of the ancient megaliths show the same “cosmological” orientation as the early temple cities do. The calendrical orientation was associated with the priestly caste who used astronomical observations to determine the timing of the feasts. The design of these sites was intentionally made to represent a cosmic order manifested on earth, a common theme of early ruling classes who were establishing a celestial “order” on earth – “as above so below” in language of hermeticism. Just as the sacred feasting rituals provided the opportunity for the gift exchanges that led to the interest-bearing debt and inequality, so too did the written debt/credit relationships which supplanted them originate in the sacred context of the temples.

Concentrations of people first occurred at ritual sites. ..The localization of specialized meeting areas for ritual and exchange may be found as early as the Ice Age, and later in sacred groves and seasonal gathering spots. These sites were occasional rather than year‑round settlements. It therefore is appropriate to view them as social constructs independent of their scale, performing urban functions long before they came to grow substantially in size and attract year-round settled population…Only if we assume that the earliest gatherings of people must have been year‑round does it follow that urban forms could not have developed prior to the agricultural revolution. Seasonal gathering sites existed already in paleolithic times. The idea of sanctifying their ground must have survived to play a germinal role in patterning more permanent cities…

It may seem unusual to begin the history of urbanization in the Ice Age, but this is a logical corollary of viewing cities as originating simultaneously in sacred cosmological functions ‑‑ ordering their communities, supporting astronomical observers who helped administer the festival calendar, and sponsoring festivals of social cohesion ‑‑ while also organizing external relations (trade and war) with the objective of preventing external trade and warfare from deranging the ordered proportions that governed domestic social life.

From Sacred Enclave to Temple to City (Michael Hudson)

In fact, such ritual feasting centers long predate cities. Religious/cultural centers are present in societies all around the globe at various stages, as we saw last time. They are not the result of population density. For example, most cultures throughout the South Pacific have a large ritual complexes, despite not having anything like a “city”:

A marae (in New Zealand Māori, Cook Islands Māori, Tahitian) malaʻe (in Tongan), malae (in Samoan) and mālaʻe (in Hawaiian) is a communal or sacred place that serves religious and social purposes in Polynesian societies…In Māori society, the marae is a place where the culture can be celebrated, where the Māori language can be spoken, where intertribal obligations can be met, where customs can be explored and debated, where family occasions such as birthdays can be held, and where important ceremonies, such as welcoming visitors or farewelling the dead (tangihanga), can be performed.

In Māori usage, the marae atea (often shortened to marae) is the open space in front of the wharenui or meeting house (literally “large building”). However, the term marae is generally used to refer to the whole complex, including the buildings and the open space. This area is used for pōwhiri – welcome ceremonies featuring oratory. … The meeting house is the locale for important meetings, sleepovers, and craft and other cultural activities. The wharekai (dining hall) is used primarily for communal meals, but other activities may be carried out there. … Marae occur in various sizes, with some wharenui being a bit bigger than a double garage and some being larger than a town hall.

Interestingly, many of these ritual complexes were surrounded by walls and palisades, such as “Old Lapaha” in Tonga. Such walls were not defensive, but rather a way to “set apart” ceremonial and religious grounds. Thus, the earliest walls observed in cities may in fact, stem from their role as sacred ground and not from a defensive need (as we’ll explore below). In fact, such religious structures were apparently “sanctified” from raids, and hence became the place where the community stored its valuables. We see this even today, with Christian churches functioning as “hallowed ground” where fighting is prohibited and enemies can interact peacefully. Churches were traditionally the place where a community kept their valuables (such as gold) to keep them safe from raids (although this backfired for Christians when the pagan Vikings showed up).

Much like the ancient cities of refuge (such as that to which Cain withdrew in Genesis 4, and which Numbers 35 and Joshua 20 describe as being established throughout Israel), temples served as sanctuaries for fugitives from the retaliatory fury of local feud justice. They also served as sanctuaries to store the savings of their communities ‑‑ gold and silver, seeds, tools and other sanctified assets deemed free from attack by neighboring communities that shared a common religious belief that such seizure would be sacriligious.

Such ritual sites needed to be centrally located, and they were often situated on waterways to facilitate travel to and from them by all members of the community at various times of the year. Other times, such ritual sites were set at the boundaries of their communities, rather than the center, where different people came together to conduct commerce, or at critical trade routes.

To perform this role of neutral bridges, such sites tended not to develop at the center of their communities (i.e., “automatically” as a result of growing population density and scale), but at boundaries or natural crossroads between diverse communities. Assur, for instance, sat astride the Tigris intersecting central Mesopotamia’s major east/west trade route, and many other entrepots likewise were situated near the sea or on major transport rivers. The landlocked town of Çatal Hüyük seems to have been the center of its own regionwide trading network.

These sacred sites became the centers of trading. The reason is fairly simple – inside the society, economic relations were governed by principles of reciprocity and redistribution (and later householding). Market exchange -interaction with strangers–was rare. Thus, ritual sites provided the locations–the “portals”– where people from disparate cultures could come together without fear of attack. And the negotiations would have been conducted under the watchful eyes of the gods, sanctifying such exchanges. After all, what is the motivation to deal honestly with “strangers” that you would never see again otherwise? We have also seen that long-distance exchange networks were established by elites such as “Big Men,” and that the control of this trade and the display of “prestige” items took place at ritual feasting events. Thus, feasting centers and their entrepreneurial exchanges (as we’ve already seen), naturally emerge as centers of long-distance trade and ritualized profit-seeking:

Cities were not an automatic byproduct of population pressures sprawling inward from the land, but were a planned and structured response to the need to conduct external relations, above all trade…Urban development thus may be attributed largely to heterogeneous groups coming together to engage in commerce and communal rituals….Early southern Mesopotamian cities took their character from their temples, which played a major role in this trade. Prior to the Bronze Age these temples served as ritual centers and gathering places, and their commercial functions evolved out of this role.

Thus, the “cosmopolitan” nature of cites is present from the very beginning, long before population growth or even recorded history. In fact, the first true city that emerges in the historical record, Eridu, appears to be not only a sacred site centered on its temple complex (Sumerian kingship was said to have descended directly from heaven to Eridu), but also a meeting place of the three distinct lifestyles of ancient Mesopotamia – herding, farming, and riparian. Eridu was where these distinct cultures interacted.

Eridu appears to be the earliest settlement in the [Mesopotamian] region, founded ca. 5400 BC, close to the Persian Gulf near the mouth of the Euphrates River….According to Gwendolyn Leick, Eridu was formed at the confluence of three separate ecosystems, supporting three distinct lifestyles, that led by the Abgallu (Ab = water, Gal = great, Lu = man) came to an agreement about access to fresh water in a desert environment. The oldest agrarian settlement seems to have been based upon intensive subsistence irrigation agriculture derived from the Samarra culture to the north, characterised by the building of canals, and mud-brick buildings. The fisher-hunter cultures of the Arabian littoral were responsible for the extensive middens along the Arabian shoreline, and may have been the original Sumerians. They seem to have dwelt in reed huts. The third culture that contributed to the building of Eridu were the Semitic-speaking nomadic herders of herds of sheep and goats living in tents in semi-desert areas. All three cultures seem implicated in the earliest levels of the city. The urban settlement was centered on an impressive temple complex built of mudbrick, within a small depression that allowed water to accumulate.

The inhabitants of Eridu may have not only had radically different lifestyles but also spoken very different languages. Some have speculated that the religious structures of Eridu were the inspiration for the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel, where differences in languages and cultures were first said to have emerged.

Pathways to Civilization

Megalithic Stone Temple in Malta

Maltese temple at the solstice

Hope everyone’s having a great Christmas!

Apparently we can add the Amazon rain forest to the list of sites with ancient stone monoliths:

Rancher discovers massive ‘Stonehenge’ in the depths of the Amazon (The Week)

I recently picked up a book by Colin Refrew written in the 1970’s: Before Civilization. I was intrigued by a remark Marvin Harris made about Renfrew in Cannibals and Kings where Renfrew pointed out the similarities between ancient stone monuments around the world and speculated that they functioned as the centers of prehistoric redistributive chiefdoms. Harris, in his explanation of state formation, writes about the mico corn granaries of the Cherokee chiefs, and how they were “a public treasury…’to fly to for succor’ in the case of crop failure, as a source of food ‘to accommodate strangers or travelers,’ and…a military store’ when they go forth on hostile expeditions.'” However, everyone had to acknowledge that the “public” treasury was under the control of the head chief, who had “…’an exclusive right and ability…to distribute comfort and blessings to the necessitous.'” The chief, however, was not yet despotic or controlling, however, and “associat[ed] freely with the people as a common man”. This ties in directly with the “feasting theories” we’ve been discussing recently:

Colin Renfew has drawn attention to the rather stunning similarity between the circular wooden Cherokee feast center council houses and the mysterious circular buildings whose wooden post-holes have been found within the precincts of neolithic ceremonial enclosures, or “henges,” in Great Britain and Northern Europe. The increasingly elaborate burial chambers, earth mounds, and megalithic alignments characteristic of the period from 4000 BC to 2000 BC in Europe have rather precise parallels among the mounds erected by prehistoric inhabitants of the Ohio and Mississippi valleys , the stone burial platforms and monolithic statuary of Polynesia, and the monolithic tombs and memorials of modern Borneo. All of these constructions played a role in the smooth functioning of pre-state redistributive systems, serving as the locus of redistributive feasts, community rituals dedicated to controlling the forces of nature, and memorials to the generosity and prowess of deceased big man hero chiefs. They seem enigmatic only because they are the skeletons, not the substance, of redistributive systems. Since we cannot see the investment of extra labor in agricultural production, monument-building appears to be a kind of irrational obsession among these ancient peoples. But viewed with in the living context of a redistributive system, tombs, megaliths and temples appear as functional components whose costs are slight in comparison with the increased harvests which the ritualized intensification of agricultural production makes possible. pp. 112-113

These stone monuments are the heart of Renfrew’s book. The main thrust is that the “diffusionist” school of cultural development was being invalidated by the “radiocarbon revolution,” at that point still fairly recent.

Before this time, it was commonly believed that all the major cultural innovations – from writing to metalworking to large-scale construction, were “discovered” by the ancient civilizations of the Near East and and diffused outward from there. But radiocarbon dating proved that this view was wrong. It showed that ancient monuments like Stonehenge and the megalithic temples of Malta, were, in fact, older than the pyramids! Likewise, metalworking appears to have been developed just as early outside of the early Near Eastern civilizations in some locations like the Balkans. There are even intriguing signs of an independent discovery of writing through such things as the Tărtăria tablets and Rongorongo script. Renfew also points out several remote cultures and locations where such traditions have been practiced independently of any contact with other cultures.

What this tells us is that there is not a “linear” path to some sort of civilizational “end point,” but rather different cultures will adopt and reject different technologies, and the introduction of a certain technology does not dictate the path of that civilization. We now know that many of the innovations of the Near East were discovered independently all over the world. It’s fascinating to hear Renfrew talk about how these megalithic stone structures and tombs cause us to reevaluate our view of history, and this book was written almost twenty years before the discovery of Gobeckli Tepe! This book was way ahead of its time.

But what I want to highlight is this section, where he talks about the connection between feasting, inequality, and monolithic construction. It ties together a lot of what I’ve been reading lately. It will also be important for the next posts on the development of the first cities:

At this point it is illuminating to look at some modern, non-industrial communities in other parts of the world…What is particularly suggestive in the present context is the picture these communities give of the potential availability of neighbouring groups- whether lineages or whole tribes-to join in the construction work. All of them imply some social framework where such co-operation is possible. And often the motivation for the construction is less religious than social. The desire for an impressive monument which will reflect credit on the community as a whole and not simply on the dead man. In this sense, impressive funerary monuments are often designed for the living rather than the dead.

Indeed, if there is suitable incentive, co-operative effort can work to build impressive monuments even for single individuals. The Kelabits of north Borneo have a living ‘megalithic’ tradition, where imposing monuments of large stone are erected as memorials or tombs, generally to a single man. One of these, erected in 1959. was built by an old, heirless man by the usual expedient of inviting his neighbours to a great feast, in return for which they willingly lent their services. Tom Harrisson records the graphic statement of the old man in question:

“The whole of the perishable rest (of my belongings), salt, rice, pigs, buffalo as well as many other things to purchase, like tobacco, betel nut, eels, and labour, I will expend with due notice at a mighty feast after the next rice harvest. I am in a position to give a very big feast. Hundreds of people will come, including my relatives over in the Kerayan and Bawang to the east and as far as Pa Tik beyond Kubaan to the west. It will be a splendid amusement, splendid exchange.”

“On the last day I will declare my monument. All my imperishable property is to be collected in a heap on the ground over there, a dart’s flight from the long-house ladder. Every man present will come out when it has stopped raining and form a line from the fine old dragon jar in the centre of the slope down to the single bank of the stream bed. Along this living chain, from hand to hand, should pass first the small surface stones and gradually as the work goes down, larger stones and then boulders. All this will travel from the river bed up to bank on to the little knoll above flood level, slowly shaping a pile of stone. Presently this will grow into a mound higher than the long-house is off the ground, and twice the width anyone can leap. All mine.”

Thus will my belongings be secured forever. Thus my own memory will stand to eternity- It will be larger than any ordinary man’s can be, because so many come to my feast and are so well entertained- since I have nothing to keep and pass on, I will spend the lot in one great formal display; and in consequence make a mighty effort to do well by me, piling rock upon boulder upon pebble upon stone.”

This splendid description cannot, of course, be compared in its details with the collective burial monuments of Europe, yet it does reflect two general points which may well be applicable. In the first place there is the importance of the social occasion, the feast, at which the actual construction of the tomb is only one among a number of memorable events. And secondly there is this passionate concern for status-whether personal, or of the family or group-which can be enhanced by the display and the conspicuous consumption of wealth. Families and tribes will invest considerable labour in accumulating the food resources and the other ‘capital’ needed to hold such a feast and impress neighbouring groups.

Another example, from a different tribe in Borneo. is reported by Tom Harrisson and Stanley O’Connor; this time it concerns the erection of impressive standing stones or ‘menhirs’. These were brought from far away and erected as a proof of rich and powerful status, as a memorial to bravery, or to mark the grave of a person:

“As the stones were collected from a distant place, those bringing the stones were likely to meet with all sorts of enemies. Head-hunting at that time was frequent. To erect a stone would therefore need a strong force. A great gang of people was needed to meet these dangers and to transport the stone to the erecting spot. Only big stones were used by powerful families. It involved three to four days to get a stone to its destination. The ceremonies were almost the same whatever the reason for erecting the stone. One buffalo a day was killed for bravery; and one buffalo and one pig a day were killed for status-and the same number was necessary for childlessness. The total number of animals depended on the number of days involved in the operation of erecting the stone.”

“Repeat ceremonies took place yearly following the erection of the stone.”

Often in Borneo the occasion for feasting and the erection of monuments is entirely funerary. And in general there is no great difficulty in gathering together a band of willing helpers, if the occasion is primarily a great feast, at which it would be churlish to refuse one’s co-operation.

Indeed, in some societies the whole process of feast-giving, with the accompanying exchange of gifts, takes place on a regular basis and is the very core of the social life of the area. An example is afforded by the Kyaka people of the western highlands of New Guinea. Here the exchange and the feasting are certainly not ad hoc, on-off affairs like the rather informal examples already described. Groups or dans occupying adjoining territories entertain each other in a regular manner, which is prescribed by a definite cycle. Much effort goes into the accumulation of foodstuffs for the feast, and into the preparations. The success and magnificence of the occasion is of crucial significance to the whole community governing as it does its esteem or standing in the eyes of its neighbours.

Settlement here, as in Arran or Rousay, is dispersed, in homesteads or homestead clusters, and each clan, numbering between 20 and 160 adult men, has its own continuous territory- These groups are identified or referred to by the name of their best-known ceremonial ground. Children of clan members marry outside the clan, and the clan generally acts together in the event of hostilities, as well as in the ceremonial exchange festivals.

These festivals do not involve the erection of permanent monuments, and indeed I do not know of an ethnographic instance where the erection of such monuments takes place as part of a regular annual festivity of this kind. Yet it is easy to see how such a social cycle could be turned to advantage if a claim or other monument had to be built.

The three instances discussed here, all from south-east Asia, certainly offer a plausible range of social circumstances that could have facilitated the building of the tombs in Arran or Orkney. Indeed, I believe that we should regard these Scottish tombs as the chief monuments of basically egalitarian tribal societies of this kind. In most cases, they must surely have been the principal feature of the territory in question, which may itself have been known by the name of the monument, just as the Kyaka clan territories are often known by their chief ceremonial ground.

In this perspective we can see the megalithic monuments- ‘tombs’ now becomes too restrictive a term – as permanent social centres for the group within whose territory they lay and whose dead they received. We can visualize too that, as in New Guinea, when the population of one territorial group rose above an acceptable figure, some of the younger members would break away, and set up a comparable group with its own territory. The construction of a megalithic tomb would be one of the steps such a group would have to take in order to establish its identity, just as among the Kyaka it would be necessary to be the host community at one of the ceremonial feasts and exchanges in the annual cycle.

I suggest that we should view the tombs of Arran or of Rousay as an indication of societies where co-operation between neighbouring lineages, this social and ceremonial activity involved some elements of competition. In Rousay, for instance, the stone cairn of Midhowe must have been a source of great pride to the group which it served, and of admiration or even envy to adjacent communities. It is, in its way, a magnificent monument, and very probably its grandeur was dearly bought through the extravagant use of cattle and sheep in feasting, offered in exchange for labour.

There is, indeed, evidence for ritual or feasting activity outside some of the chamber tombs of Britain, where animal bones have been found in excavation; and a number of the tombs have impressive exterior features, such as the ‘courts’ in northern Ireland, or the facades, of massive upright stones, of the Cotswold tombs. Moreover, the abundant evidence for a traffic in stone axes over long distances in neolithic Britain has already been interpreted by Grahame Clark as an indication of ceremonial gift exchange. Since we have this independent evidence for formal exchanges, as well as indications of feasting, it seems appropriate to place the megaliths in this wider social context.

Ethnographic comparisons can be misleading if too much is made of similarities and differences in point of detail; and indeed, to make too close an equation between prehistoric Orkney or Arran and modem communities in Borneo or New Guinea would be rather foolish. Yet the comparison helps us to see how small farming communities, living not far above the level of minimum subsistence, and with very limited technologies, can co-operate in impressive enterprises. In the same way small neolithic communities could well, in the right social framework, create monuments which at first sight seem more appropriate to a great civilized state, such as Egypt. (pp. 138-142)

Beyond this point, the argument is as yet purely hypothetical, but we can see that those communities which were dose-knit, at peace with themselves and able to resist pressures from neighbours would be at a considerable advantage. Now it is precisely this common participation in social events and religious observances, which the megaliths symbolize, that often serves to strengthen a community, especially a dispersed community where the homesteads may be several kilometres from each other. The mesolithic people of Téviec and Hoëdic with their well-organized family burials, already marked and given significance by a stone cairn, may have found such solidarity of real value when dealing with their new neighbours. In such circumstances, with an increasing population and an increasing pressure on the land, the features favouring solidarity in the community would be reinforced, so that the social significance given to proper burial and the importance of the actual physical memorial would be enhanced. These factors, together with the usually peaceful competition of neighbouring groups, expressed in social terms by generous gift exchange or the erection of still finer monuments, would favour the rapid evolution of unifying and prestige-bestowing monuments and hence of megalithic architecture. (pp. 144-145)

Here, Renfrew discusses the dynamics of chiefdom societies, which are different from egalitarian and transegalitarian village societies, and yet also distinct from fully developed “kingship” societies like Egypt and Mesopotamia. Many of the ancient monument-building societies appear to have been organized along these lines. The economy of such societies involves a high degree of specialization, yet instead of market exchange, redistribution is accomplished via the chief’s activities. And as we’ve seen, such societies are able to pool large amounts of voluntary labor, usually through work feasts rather than coercion:

Archaeologists have in mind two extremes of social organization when discussing the prehistoric past: neolithic “egalitarian’ society, and the state, with its hierarchical social structure, its bureaucracy and its armies. Yet between these two extremes lie some of the ‘barbarian’ societies of prehistoric Europe. The temples of Malta, for instance, are too big to have been the product of single small and independent farming villages.

Anthropologists have recently been thinking very carefully about such societies as Malta must have been: more highly organized and more complex than simple ‘neolithic’ farming villages existing at the tribal level, yet not civilizations or states like Egypt or Sumer. They have identified what may be called chiefdom societies. These share a good many features in common, beyond the obvious one of boasting a chief as leader. In particular, along with the social structure there is often a distinctive economic structure, different from the simple tribal one, with its gift and different again from that of the state, with its written records and sometimes its commercial market economy.

The essential feature of chiefdom society is the marked social hierarchy, in which status is governed to a large extent by birth: those most closely related to the chief, and hence closest to direct descent in the male line, often have a particularly high status. Generally the chiefdom is divided into groups, each with its sub-chief, and sometimes (in the case of a ‘conical clan”) each group will trace its descent from one of the sons of the ancestral founder. The chief, who enjoys enormous prestige, naturally officiates or takes pride of place at ceremonies, when the whole tribal group may meet together, and he will often command and lead in time of war. A whole series of villages, each with its petty chieftain, can be linked together in a social unit, all owing allegiance to one chief.

The chief has an economic role as well as a social one: he receives, in the form of dues or gifts, a significant part of the produce of each group and area. Most of this he distributes among his people, perhaps at a feast, in the form of gifts. And this redistribution, although perhaps at first sight purely a social courtesy, does have a real economic significance: possible some measure of specialization. Fishermen, to take one example, can specialize in an activity that their coastal situation makes particularly convenient, catching more fish than would be needed simply for themselves and their families. The surplus can then be passed on as a ‘gift’ to their local chief, who may pass some on to the paramount chief, keep some himself and give the rest to other members of the community. The fishermen know, in making their gift, that they will receive comparable goods” perhaps produce of the land, by the same method.

This redistribution thus allows the ecological diversity of the chiefdom to be exploited much more efficiently, making locally concentrated resources available far more widely. And it encourages craft specialization by potters or metallurgists, or canoe builders, or any others whose craft is so complex that it demands resources of labour and skill beyond those of a single family.

Both socially and economically, then, the chiefdom draws together the various repetitive elements of an unstratified tribal society, where each community is much like its neighbour, and forms out of them a larger, if rather loosely articulated unit where different people have very different social and economic roles. This is the beginning of the shift towards what the sociologist Durkheim called ‘organic solidarity’ and away from the ‘mechanical solidarity’ of the egalitarian tribe. The greater efficiency and productivity of this more integrated society makes possible a greater population density, and often results in larger individual village or settlement groups.

What interests us particularly when we are talking about Malta, however, is that the frequent ceremonies and rituals often seen in a chiefdom, and which serve to express and enhance its unity, are sometimes matched by the emergence of a priesthood-of specialists in ceremony and ritual-who, like the other specialists, participate in the centralized redistribution. Also highly relevant to Malta is the great capacity of chiefdom society for mobilization, for organizing considerable bodies of men who can devote much labor to the fulfillment of some task essential to the well-being of the community. Three features of the chiefdom make this possible. The first is their larger population-so that there are actually hundreds or thousands of people in the group who might be available. The second is the solidarity of the group: it can work together, and people will participate willingly in a common task which has the approval of the groups as a whole and has been organized by the chief. And finally, the system of redistribution gives the economic means- the capital, so to speak-for such enterprises: the chief can arrange for his subjects to contribute foodstuffs which can be used to feed such a task force. In this way, the chiefdom population can undertake impressive public works-irrigation schemes, for example, or monuments-which would be right outside the scope of a single village.

Comparison with recent non-civilized societies in other parts of the world can help to make this model more vivid and real for us. Above all, it documents in practice how relatively simple societies of chiefdom type can in fact achieve feats of construction that we would more readily expect in a developed civilization. In Africa there are many well-developed chiefdom societies, and indeed states, with elaborate systems of government, Indeed, the great stone buildings at Zimbabwe may well have been built within a comparable social framework.

The most striking similarities of all, however, are found among the isolated societies in Polynesia, some of which were organized as chiefdoms. Here again, generally without any permanent central bureaucratic machinery, ceremonial platforms and burial monuments were constructed that at first sight we might expect to find in a sophisticated urban civilization. Malta is not alone in the creation of massive monuments by a chiefdom society…(pp. 155-159)

In this section, Renfew draws a comparison between the statuary tradition on Easter Island and the construction of the megalithic temples of Malta:

The structures of Easter Island are, however. the most relevant here: together with the celebrated statues, they constitute a complex of monuments quite as surprising as the temples of Malta, although some four millennia more recent. In fact, Easter Island offers a splendid analogy to Malta: both islands are remote-Easter Island, far in the Pacific, incomparably more so-and both bear enigmatic signs of activities on a gargantuan scale by a vanished population.

The funerary platform, or ‘ahu’, of Easter Island was a long wall, running parallel to the sea, up to five metres high and in exceptional cases a hundred metres long. It was buttressed on the landward side by a slope of masonry, below which was a gently sloping stone terrace containing burial vaults. The wall had one or more oval pedestals for the colossal statues, which faced inland towards the terrace. Some of the Easter Island statues are more than ten metres high.

Easter Island has a hundred of these image ahu, chiefly along the coast, and a further 160 ahu of different types. A few, like the Ahu Vinapu, have carefully dressed masonry as impressive as that of Hagar Qim or Mnajdra in Malta. The seaward wall of some of these monuments, with a first course of great upright slabs, has an undeniable if superficial resemblance to the Malta temple facades…

This burial was only a family affair, and nude no special demands on the organization of the chiefdom. Yet the bigger platforms, some of them built no doubt to mark the death of a chief, demanded more labour than could be supplied by a local residence group. It was here, as in the construction of the ceremonial mounds of Tahiti, that manpower had to be and this was made easy by the chiefdom organization. The impressive and monumental stone carvings, the work of specialist craftsmen, were likewise dependent on the redistribution system.

My proposal is that some social organization arose in Malta, Just as in Easter Island, resulting in what was effectively a chiefdom society, where the chiefs could mobilize their tribesmen to construct great monuments. We know Easter Island was sub-divided into ten tribal regions, and have tentatively suggested that the Maltese islands may have harboured six. And in Malta, as in Easter Island, these chiefs were not personally very wealthy, lacking large or permanent houses or great stores of goods. Indeed, the chiefs, like the priests and the artists carving the reliefs and statues in Malta, and the images in Easter Island, were themselves part-time specialists. They did not have the bureaucracy or the palace organization of the kings and princes of the great early civilizations.

The similarities between the two cases spring from a single feature, however, which can hardly be gainsaid in face of the monuments: a social organization which in favourable circumstances could lead to the mobilization of considerable manpower resources to accomplish communal tasks, and which allowed the development of a considerable measure of craft specialization, these things being possible at a fairly low level of technology, and specifically without the use of metal.

David Kaplan, writing of Mexico, yet another area of great and early monumental achievement, has put the general point rather well:

“I think that we have greatly underestimated the ability of many stateless societies, particularly chiefdoms, to engage in communal production on a fairly large scale, the notion apparently being that such production requires the direction of a powerful, centralized, coercive state. we have also underestimated the ability of such societies to engage in specialised production, the idea being that this kind of production requires large numbers of full-time specialists. By doing so we nave often overestimated the socio-political complexity of the pre-Hispanic cultures of Mesoamerica to the point where they have become difficult to understand and explain without calling into pIay such hard-to-find features as large-scale irrigation systems or monopolies over ceremonial trade.”

(pp. 159-166)

We can see how such craft specialization and mobilization of labor can have given birth to the first “urban” and “literate” civilizations of the ancient Near East. Many histories describe these civilizations as a radical departure from previous social structures with the emergence of full-time bureaucratic class of specialists and the arrival of class stratification replacing kinship structures. However, as we’ll see later in our exploration of the birth of cities, much of that history is probably wrong.

Fun Facts

It’s the last Fun Facts of 2016!

Your chances of dying in a car crash are at least 9.5 times lower than dying in a human extinction event.

It takes about an hour for a snowflake to fall from a cloud.

The richest 10% hold 76% of the wealth.

The world’s 25 largest defense budgets

A Wyoming Resident’s Vote for Senator is 68 Times as Influential as a Californian’s.

The cost of U.S. healthcare is now 800% higher per person than it was in 1960, even when adjusted for inflation.

Tic-tacs are almost pure sugar but due to their weight are allowed to be labeled as zero sugar per serving.

The real incomes of about two-thirds of households in 25 advanced economies were flat or fell between 2005 and 2014…If the low economic growth of the past decade continues, the proportion of households in income segments with flat or falling incomes could rise as high as 70 to 80 percent over the next decade.

According to the White Paper (WP-16-02) published by the European School of Management and Technology…more than 95 percent [of the] initial Troika loans to Greece went to pay principal and interest on prior Troika loans, or to bailout Greek private banks, or to pay off European private investors and speculators. Less than 10 billion euros was actually spent in Greece.

The average American family had the same amount of wealth in 2013 as it did in 1989.

Pablo Escobar had so much wealth that he spent $1,000 a week on rubber bands just to keep his mountains of cash neat.

Air pollution kills more people than malaria and HIV/Aids combined.

Nearly one in every 200 children in the world is a refugee

Developing countries are home to 89 percent of the world’s 10- to 24-year-olds; by 2020, they will be home to nine out of every 10 people globally.

More Police Officers have died due to 9/11 related illnesses as a result of their work at ground zero than in the attack itself. The numbers continue to grow.

69 of the world’s top economic entities are corporations rather than countries in 2015.
The world’s top 10 corporations have a combined revenue of more than the 180 “poorest” countries combined including Ireland, Indonesia, Israel, Colombia, Greece, South Africa, Iraq and Vietnam.

Nearly 80% of the nitrogen found in human tissues originated from the Haber-Bosch process in which artificial ammonia is produced.

In in the 1970s professional 10 pin bowlers made twice as much as NFL players.

Out-of-pocket [medical] expenses dragged 11.2 million people into poverty in 2015.

In Fiscal Year 2012, DOL recovered $280 million in back pay for 308,000 workers. That amount far exceeded the total lost to criminals in street and highway, bank, gas station and convenience store robberies in 2012.

Hippo ranching almost came to America.

Just 3% of American adults own half of guns in the US.

When Julius Caesar died he left today’s equivalent of about $270 to each and every Roman citizen.

San Francisco has less than one-tenth Bangkok’s population but six times as many homeless people.

Racial wage gaps were larger in 2015 than they were in 1979.

Tuberculosis caused 20% of all human deaths in the Western world between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.

Law enforcement officers beat their significant other at nearly double the national average.

The Forbes 100 billionaires are collectively as rich as all black Americans combined. At current growth rates, it would take black Americans two hundred and twenty-eight years to have as much wealth as white Americans have today.

Police make more arrests for marijuana possession alone than for all violent crimes combined.

Payday loan facilities outnumber Taco Bell and McDonald’s restaurants in the United States.

The amount of debt held by current and former students in the US is more than the total GDP of 180 countries.

The cost of attending an in-state public university has risen 77% since 2005, yet wages have only risen 24%.

Between 2005 and 2015, those under 30 went from owning their home at about a 34.5% rate down to 27.7%. Over the same decade, they went from owing $350 billion in student loans to over $1.3 trillion by the end of the first half of 2016.

From 1980 to 2014 none of the growth in per-adult national income went to the bottom 50 percent, 32 percent went to the middle class (defined as adults between the median and the 90th percentile), 68 percent went to the top 10 percent, and 36 percent went to the top 1 percent.

1 in 6 adults in the US take antidepressants and sedatives.

America’s overdose epidemic shown in interactive map