Urbanization and Land Ownership in the Ancient Near East – Summary

This is the normal world. You go to work in a city. All around you are enormous new buildings. They look alike. But you will never be able to afford to live in them. Because they are not really homes. They are blocks of money, bought by global investors, whose money has nowhere else to go.
ADAM CURTIS–Living in an Unreal World.

Urbanization and Land Ownership… begins by looking at the very beginnings of cities as ritual meeting places. These locations would be the places where people would come together at various times throughout the year to conduct what we might call “doctrinal rituals.” Humans, as the most social of species, used these rituals to bind disparate people together. At these sites, various transactions would take place, including feasting, trading, barter, and various dealings and exchanges including bride exchange. Because of their social role, these places acquired a “public” character early on, in the sense of establishing social order, agreed-upon rules, negotiation, and justice. These were places of exchange and communion, and remain so to this day. Most early cities (including Athens and Rome) were associated with their temples. From there, such cities developed into “ports of trade” where people and goods interacted in webs of exchange.

In the beginning, Alexander Marshack points out, the organizing principle had to be time. Hunter-gatherers, who normally were widely dispersed, needed a common means of reckoning just when to come to designated areas. Such gatherings were as much temporal as geographic events…Marshack…shows that the first written notations were calendars. They were associated with “urbanization” in the sense of scheduling when group members would come together…Ease of access to such sites…was important…the major Upper Paleolithic gathering spots, such as Les Eyzies’ caves, were situated on riverine locations.

The elaborate art that survives from these seasonal gathering sites appears to be of a ceremonial character, attesting to the complexity of the rituals being performed tens of thousands of years before the urban civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt…the social structures that shaped the way in which scattered groups convening at designated places (often ritual sites) developed already in Paleolithic times, long before the Neolithic and its agricultural revolution. These urban institutions governed temporary occupation of sites at particular times of the year to conduct exchanges of various forms, including marriages…

While archaeologists used to think that urban agglomerations just suddenly arrived on the scene sometime after the agricultural revolution due to population pressure, in fact humans had already established complex means of cooperation in war, trade, and politics long before, as Michael Hudson notes:

By the time populations settled down on a year-round basis and built temples and walls, houses and workshops, they already had developed a long legacy of customs governing how to come together. Some of these institutions evolved out of the social need to exchange food, crafts, and other basic materials and also to contract marriages linking clans, to provide various forms of mutual support, and to resolve disputes.

It was these religious/public institutions that gave cities their distinctive character, not just practical concerns arising from increased population density. The “cosmological symbolism” that began with cromlechs and tumuli became embodied in the brick and stone temples and walls as humans began to claim territories for themselves and adopt a more sedentary lifestyle during the Holocene:

It was more or less natural for compact sites in which far-flung groups of people had to congregate on mutually planned occasions to be structured, by analogy, as spatial calendars. While animals migrated back and forth across the fields and forests to mate, moult, and give birth in rhythms that marked the pulse of the archaic year, the sun and moon swept back and forth between their northern and southern solstice points on the eastern and western horizons…

The occasional character of designating certain spots for such gatherings at specified calendrical intervals may help explain the symbolism so widespread in archaic cities throughout the world, with their four quarters and four to twelve gates. This spatial symbolism of the year’s division into seasons and months – which is found in Egyptian urban symbolism… and also in China – appears to reflect the civic function of integrating early law with the natural regularities of the heavens. This “natural law” cosmology symbolized and indeed helped sanctify the worldly order emanating from urban centers.

At first glance a discussion of the cosmology of ancient urban sites might seem to have little to do with things as mundane as land use, and townhouse prices. But in archaic times the social and economic kosmoi had not yet become separated. The common objective was to create order, to make rules for people to come together in ways that were perceived to be grounded in nature and therefore mutually acceptable.

Rather than reflecting a merely technological impulse, the most archaic urban sites appear to have played a ceremonial role in creating what could be called a cosmology of social life. In the Early Bronze Age, Mesopotamia’s temples and palaces elaborated exchange relations and their associated functions such as laws, weights and measures, contractual forms, and even proclamations of “forgiveness” of various offenses, fines, and personal debts of various forms so that the community and its families could maintain their economic viability and overall balance.

Calendrical concepts from the Stone Age carried over into a general idea of “measurement” which originated in cities. Not only was land parceled out by the rulers, for example, but the time was parceled into twelve months, along with weeks, days, hours, minutes and seconds. It is commonly known that our twelve-fold and sixty-fold divisions in calendars and mathematics (e.g. 360 degrees in a circle, 60 minutes in an hour, twelve months in a year, etc.) derive from these measuring systems to this very day. Standardized weights led to the first systems of money and currency. Initially, donations to the temple were standardized against weights of barley, then later against weights of silver. Commerce and law, too became standardized, and this is why cities become the very first places of formalized law and government. Written contracts overseen by scribes used standardized measures of weight and time and were stored in temple archives. It is not so much that cities exerted true political control over the countryside–as Michael Hudson points out, they did not. Rather, these temples were the root sources of the institutions that have come to govern our world.

With writing and account-keeping came weights, measures, and standardizarion, and this also shaped early urbanization. Politically, the ideology of Mesopotamian cities was to create an evenly measured and “straight” cosmology of economic and social relations. Sumerian and Babylonian iconography represents rulers characteristically holding the measuring stick and coiled measuring rope to layout temple precincts…Such orientation aimed at grounding cities and their rule symbolically in the eternal regularities of natural order, as reflected in the celestial movements of the heavens.

In the commercial sphere, the principle of equity is exemplified by common prices, at least for transactions with the large public institutions. The fact that standardized prices are to be found most clearly in Mesopotamia’s temples and palaces was inherent in their internal account keeping and planning needs, which also called for sacred oversight of uniform weights and measures. Temples also oversaw the sanctity of contracts, including property transfers. All these were standardized and made subject to strict formalities. One result was to make cities places of lawful rule, in contrast to the often wild countryside and mountains.

In my previous posts on the origin of cities, I pointed out that the earlier view of an impersonal bureaucracy and hereditary ruling class forming out of kinship structures is outmoded. Rather than anything like an impersonal government bureaucracy chosen by merit (which first developed in China), the social structures continued to be dominated by kinship relations and households, and the interaction between small, large, and institutional households formed the dynamics of emerging economic and political systems, as Professor Lamberg-Karlovsky describes:

The archaeological evidence clearly supports the contention that within greater Mesopotamia, from the 6th to the end of the 4th millennium, the household was the primary unit of production and consumption. A household may be defined as a residential group that forms both a social was well as an economic unit of production and consumption. Members of the household consisted of kin and clients providing voluntary labor. Status was defined by the ability of one member of the household to exploit the labor of another–gender and age being the variables allowing for exploitation.

Max Weber, in his study of agrarian relations was perhaps the most prominent in a long line of scholars and historians who argued for the primacy of household organizations in the ancient Near East. Unfortunately, Weber’s emphasis on the importance of the oikos, the household, was almost entirely forgotten due to…Father Anton Deimel…[Whose]…student Anna Schneider popularized the view that within Mesopotamian city states the templewirtschaft, the temple economy, formed the focus of centralized power controlling both labor and land. The idea that initially the temple, and later the palace, held absolute sway over the political and economic organization of the community remains a belief with a powerful hold on the reconstruction of ancient Near Eastern society…

Over the past few decades a concept has emerged in discussing late-fouth-millennium-Mesopotamia best referred to as the emergence of a “managerial revolution.” This view contends that there was an evolutionary displacement of the family, of the household, and of kinship by managerial bureaucracies. Central to this view is the belief that with the emergence of a managerial bureaucracy, the concomitant social and settlement hierarchies become divorced from kinship patterns and household activities. Less explicitly stated, but implied, is the emergence of a bureaucratic meritocracy and the importance of individualism within the new social order. This conventional perspective argues for the increasing importance of a faceless bureaucracy replacing an earlier significance of kinship and the household…Studies…indicate that the household, the family, and the role of kinship continued to play a decisive role in the economic and political organization of Mesopotamia…Kinship was neither marginalized nor replaced by a meritocracy of individualism, rather, and increasing managerial bureaucracy emerged that was controlled by kin-related individuals. Written records and archaeology provide evidence for the emergence of large institutional households (oikoi) by the end of the fourth millennium. These institutional households were self-sustaining and autarchic economic units. The household (oikos) constituted ‘the center of the productive economic  activities we now handle through the market.’ It contained the communities’ basic economic activities and was the focal unit of social organization. With reference to the large village (polis), the household formed the building block for all larger social, economic, and political units…

The household, as the building block of the neighborhood, the village, and the city, has an exceptionally long history in the Near East. Modern ethnoarchaeological studies attest to its enduring significance today. The evolution of the household forms the foundation for an understanding of the social order and its evolution in the Near East. Throughout most of the Near Eastern Bronze Age in Anatolia, the Iranian Plateau, and the Levant, the domestic household remained the principal institution of ownership, production, and consumption…

In my earlier post, I noted how cities became the centers of redistributive systems, and out of this evolved their essential role as centers of surplus storage, economic activity, defense, and emerging political control.

Redistributive systems involve symmetry and centricity, and as the centers of these webs of interdependence, cities, growing up around ceremonial complexes, became the nucleus of such redistributive systems. We’ve already seen that the Mesopotamian city states were ways of economically integrating people living in diverse ecological zones. One interesting paper by Elizabeth C. Stone makes a distinction between “city states” (as in Mesopotamia, Greece, and the Maya) and “territorial states” (such as Egypt and Peru). Professor Stone argues that these two forms of early states have distinctive political and economic structures which are based on the geographical character of the land the people inhabit:

…there are…key differences in the environments in which we find city states and territorial states….these are not defined by basic divisions between irrigation societies versus non-irrigation societies…Instead these distinctions focus on the two key resources for agricultural production: land and labor…territorial states are found in areas where arable land is both permanent and bounded, providing a clear opportunity for elites to maintain the necessary labor force through their control over access to arable land. City states” by contrast, are found in areas where productive land is both temporary and mutable, forcing the elites to find means other than direct coercion in order to maintain the necessary agricultural labor force.

To illustrate these differences, we can take Egypt and Inca Peru as examples of territorial states, and Babylonia, the Maya, and the Yoruba as examples of city states…control over land represented control over the labor force needed to work it in territorial states, allowed the development of a hierarchical political system in which positions of authority were carefully controlled and were assigned on the basis of inheritance. The result was a highly centralized political system based on a powerful ruler supported by an hereditary aristocracy. The rest of the population was essentially disenfranchised. As social mobility was virtually unknown, a clear and permanent divide was maintained between the elites and the bulk of the population.

…Where several of these polities were located in adjacent regions, the takeover of one by another was relatively easy. Once the neighboring elites had been co-opted into the expanding state (whether accompanied by military threats or actual battle), the land they controlled would have accompanied them. The inclusion of local elites in the new ruling class would effectively remove potential sources of opposition from within then new state…

City states, by contrast, could not use coercion in order to maintain their labor force. If they tried, there was always the possibility that people would vote with their feet and leave state society altogether. Under these circumstances, any political system had to involve the population as a whole in decision making, at least at the most basic level. Popular assemblies and advisory councils thus typify city states; they are much less common in territorial states….Decision-making in city-state societies was the result of consensus building between the various elites. The large institutions, the agriculturally based population, the merchants, and the artisans all competed with one another for political ascendancy and forged a larger consensus through the organs of popular government…

Even though these elites held real political power in city states, unlike those in territorial states, they could not become entrenched. Instead, social mobility tended to be high, as different families rose and fell in status over time. The high cost of elite status – reflecting the need to maintain the loyalty of one’s followers, coupled with a partitive system of inheritance- further weakened the population’s economic base from generation to generation. In due course, new elites would rise to the top, often based on wealth accumulated as a result of the high levels of entrepreneurial activity typical of city states- … The net effect was that the major divisions within city states were not vertically based on class as in territorial states, but rather horizontally based on affiliations between elites and their nonelites.

In the economic realm, city states placed a heavy emphasis on entrepreneurial activity. Merchants and artisans represented a significant independent segment of society. While they participated in the larger political system, they also were responsible for the economic success of the city-state system…in city states the surplus production of the agricultural sector did not fall into the hands of the central administration through direct appropriation as much as through the exchange of rural products for urban ones…without a relative degree of economic freedom, the economic fluidity needed to make possible the high levels of social mobility in city states could not have been achieved.

The downside of the city-state system lay in the impossibility of extending this political system over large distances. The city state worked because the key political players all lived in the same city and therefore had the possibility of settling their differences through face-to-face interaction….The physical separation that existed between city states, however, meant that their differences were more often settled by active warfare than by discussion.

The problems began when one city state succeeded in conquering its neighbor or neighbors. Unlike territorial states, where the hierarchical system of political organization easily could be extended to any freshly absorbed territories, this was not the case with city states. When the latter were joined together into larger imperial units-which happened with some frequency · two quite different types of political organization were in place. The process of consensus building continued within the basic units of society -that is, the old city states-but this existed side by side with the imposition of imperial rule by the conquering state. Because of the conflict between the philosophies behind these two systems, the city states never became fully reconciled to their absorption in the larger unit. This eventually lead to the collapse of the system back into city states.

These political considerations engendered very different patterns in urbanization and land-use between territorial states and city states:

…cities characteristic of hierarchical territorial states are characterized by a unified but not very large urban space, in which the major institutions–religious, political, economic, etc. are physically concentrated. The population of these centers are dominated by elites, bureaucrats, and highly skilled craftspeople — especially those who produce goods for elite consumption, with only their servants and slaves constituting any nonelite segment. Finally, it is within these cities that both wealth and high-quality luxury goods are concentrated. Beyond these settlements lie the scattered farmsteads and villages of the bulk of the population, whose material culture remains are little different from their Neolithic ancestors, since they have virtually no access to the goods produced by the urban-based artisans.

By contrast, the urban centers of less hierarchical city-state societies are large and populous, but broken into many different sectors. Most obvious are the physical divisions between the major political, religious, and economic institutions, but the residential sector is also subdivided into numerous face-to-face communities or neighborhoods. Unlike cities in territorial states, these neighborhoods are not made up entirely of elites, nor are there some elite and nonelite areas. Instead, each residential district is similar to others in providing housing for all social classes. The presence of large numbers of nonelites in these cities — many of whom are farmers — allows for a more even distribution of manufactured goods, with no segments of society denied access to these goods. Finally, since the key resource in these societies is labor rather than land ownership, even quite small settlements have their own elites and populations with access to manufactured goods.

I’ve already covered some of the concepts of land ownership my previous post on Labor in the Ancient World. Labor and land tenure are intimately intertwined: most labor throughout human history from the beginnings of agriculture through the Industrial Revolution has been done by farmers to coax a surplus from the soil. But who owns the soil? This has been a major question confronting any human society once the shift from foraging takes place. “Land reform” has been a major political issue from Babylonia to ancient Rome. The major communist revolutions in the twentieth century were all in agrarian societies and were based on land reform (Russia, China, Cuba, Vietnam), unlike what Marx envisioned (who believed that industrialization was a necessary precursor to Communism).

Some major ways of allocating land rights historically have been as follows:

  • Farmers own and farm their own land (Yeomanry)
  • The land is collectively owned and farmed (e.g. a Commune or Kibbutz)
  • The land is nominally owned by someone else, but farmed by others. This could involve:
    • Serfdom: farmers are “attached” to the land, that is, they are part of the property as much as the plants and trees and water, and are bought and sold along with it. Serfdom is different from slavery-instead of being bound to a person, serfs are bound to land. While this is usually depicted as a form of oppression, it does protect farmers from arbitrary eviction and the subsequent loss of land tenure. Serfdom structures appear to have been common in ancient Egypt.
    • Sharecropping: Farmers surrender a portion of their crop over to the nominal owners of the land in exchange for tenure rights. This persisted, for example, in the United States South until well into the late twentieth century. The medieval feudal system was based around sharecropping.
    • Plantations: A large-scale landed estate or ranch where a resident workforce, free or unfree (typcially the latter), lives and works on the property. These are usually large tracts of land designed to produce some sort of export commodity (grain, wine, cotton, tea, sugar, tobacco, etc.) The most famous historical examples are the Roman latifundium and Spanish hacienda. Most of the techniques of human organization employed on factory workers during the industrial revolution were first developed on slave plantations.

In addition, we can distinguish three major modes of unfree (compulsory) labor:

  • Chattel slavery; People are property, and can be bought and sold. Sometimes slaves have rights, sometimes not.
  • Debt slavery (i.e. debt bondage, bonded labor, indentured servitude, etc.): Working to pay off a debt, real or imagined. A percentage (up to 100%) of your income or work output is surrendered to a creditor for a certain period of time.
  • Corvée labor: A duty to perform labor for a specified period of time, often to an institution in lieu of taxation.

The first large-scale industry where cash payment was utilized appears to have been mercenaries until the Industrial Revolution where wage slavery became the norm.

A word about that term: slavery. The reason it is used is because it was widely recognized in the ancient world that any time workers were compelled to labor at times and places and for durations not of their own choosing there was a coercive apparatus involved, and hence, it was a form of slavery. Under markets, that coercion comes from the need to continually procure enough money to purchase the basic necessities of life (food, clothing, and shelter), and the lack of ownership of income-generating property or assets. Since the worker is told what to do, when to do it, where to do it, how to do it, and how long to it for (unlike a free worker), it was commonly recognized as a form of slavery; Cicero noted that receiving a wage was itself a form of bondage: “whoever gives his labor for money sells himself and puts himself in the rank of slaves.” Although clearly distinct from chattel slavery (where workers are property and can be bought and sold), the compulsory apparatus is still there. We’ve just normalized it, much as chattel slavery was normalized everywhere in the world until the nineteenth century.

We’ve seen that corvée and debt bondage appear to be the first forms of compulsory labor to emerge. Corvée was more or less egalitarian (although managers were often exempt, as was the case in ancient Egypt). Debt bondage, however, caused classes of debtors and creditors to emerge. In extreme cases, debt was passed down through generations, leading to caste systems. Ownership of preferred plots of land and other property was likely passed down through generations as well, encouraging the inequality spiral.

As we saw in the last post, land tenure was precipitated on supplying labor for collective construction projects (i.e. infrastructure) in early societies. This seems to have been remarkably consistent in the days before labor markets and fossil fuel-powered machinery. And land ownership appears to have been primarily distributed through usufruct—rights were assigned to use the fruits of the land, but not the rights to sell or to significantly alter it (abusus).

A common question asked throughout the book is when did a true real-estate market develop? That is, when did land became an alienable “thing” that could be bought and sold by private individuals? And when did this become a true market, with prices set by supply and demand? We are so accustomed to thinking of this setup as “natural” that we forget that most cultures throughout history have not recognized the absolute alienability of land or it’s transfer via markets. The volume never really comes up with a convincing answer to this question. We have a lot of contracts on stone tablets, but it’s difficult to reconstruct any dynamics of a real estate market based on them. One scholar points out (in my opinion correctly) that the real roots of our modern real estate markets should be sought in Medieval England, and that Egypt and Babylonia have little to teach in this regard.

One can only sell, forfeit, or otherwise transfer what is privately owned. To put matters the other way around, without being able to transfer one’s land at will, there is no real “ownership” in the modern sense of the term. The public buildings and areas were the distinguishing feature of archaic cities, set apart from any single clan’s control (save that of the ruler). How then are we to explain the alienation of urban houses and gardens occurring so much more readily in Sumerian and Babylonian towns than in the countryside for rural subsistence barley-land?

At what point does the documentary record enable us to find prices for order to build a townhouse? Is there any evidence of buyers tearing down existing structures to build newer, larger, and better ones? In today’s world such shifts in land use represent the single most important economic dynamic of urbanization, as generations of real estate developers can attest.

Hudson makes an analogy with a contemporary (at the time of publication) issue – the breakup of the Soviet Union. Under Communism, all land belonged to the state, and could not be bought and sold by private sellers. Hudson points out that at the time of publication, Yeltsin was attempting to privatize land, thus establishing a real estate market. Hudson argues that the transfer of land was more like a collusion between connected insiders than anything like a true and impersonal “free” market, and points out that there are valid reasons for placing limits on land transfers. However, custom and tradition, not to mention the needs of agriculture, must have greatly constrained any true “market” in land from forming up until well after the Industrial Revolution in most places.

It is easy to overlook how culture-bound modern real estate markets are. The day before our colloquium opened in St. Petersburg, for instance, president Boris Yeltsin unveiled Russia’s proposed new income tax law, a week after issuing a decree permitting companies to obtain ownership of the land under their buildings. The decree was illegal. Only the Duma (Russia’s parliament) is empowered to enact such a law, and it steadfastly refused to do so. This created a crisis with regard to who would control the land and receive its usufruct: the community (the state or locality) or private owners, starting with the best-placed public officials and their friends. Without a land law no legal context existed for real estate rights to be sold or otherwise transferred. No clear idea could be formed of the worth of urban enterprises or their fiscal role in the post-Communist economy.

This situation is strikingly similar to that of Bronze Age Mesopotamia in a number of ways. Most obvious for purposes of this colloquium is the absence of modern market relations. Also similar is the contrast between urban and rural land. Subsistence lands could not legally be sold or transferred in the ancient Near East, and they are likewise blocked from sale in Russia today. In both cases, however, there was a jockeying for position by outsiders (especially creditors) to gain some sort of rights to this land. In Russia today the outcome remains unclear – the same kind of grey area as seems to have existed in the Old Babylonian epoch. In both cases one finds land being transferred without a legal framework to govern such transfers.

Emerging from seven decades of communism, Russians have only sketchy ideas of how to estimate land values or the price at which to rent out urban sites. Indeed, the creation of a modern “western” real estate market does not appear to be inevitable, for as debates in Russia remind us, there are good age-old reasons for not creating laws that facilitate the ready transfer of land rights. When the China Hotel in Moscow recently was sold for a million rubles, it was an insider giveaway, as were other transfers of prime sites. An anthropologist might call this ‘gift exchange” on the part of President Yeltsin to his cronies. Most land transfers (can we really call them “sales”?) in recent years have been insider deals … Indeed, one can view the past nine centuries of English history as the long consequence of William the Conqueror assigning land to his military officers…

It appears that many people owned both rural and urban properties, blurring the distinction between city and countryside. Urban “professionals” would derive income from their rural estates. Village craftsmen would have shops in urban areas. There were no real words distinguishing between urban agglomerations of various sizes; all urban areas, no matter their size, were considered of a piece.

This juxtaposition of urban to rural does not well suit the analysis of Bronze Age Mesopotamia. A symbiosis existed between cities and their surrounding lands. Most owners of townhouses held subsistence lands in the countryside, as such land provided the basis for citizenship (to use another rather anachronistic word)

The idea of cities as housing large aggregations as distinct from small villages or hamlets also is anachronistic, for the Sumerians and Egyptians used the same word to designate large and small cities alike. What was essential was not size, but structure. Indeed, “in the beginning” (prior to the Neolithic), this structure probably did not even involve year-round residence, but seasonal visitation for rituals and other social interaction. The characteristics of cities were those of gathering places and as such were influenced by the social purposes for such gatherings. These purposes were basically public and communal, such as attending the festivals that formed the basis for social cohesion in ancient times.

The essence of cities (before “the state” existed as such) was to act as the nexus of order, including legal judgment, which was long anchored in religion (at a time when religion itself dealt much more with worldly relations than is now the case). Cities were given their character largely by their city-temple and palace, at least in southern Mesopotamia (Babylonia), which forms the major focus of this colloquium.

Rural land appears to have been mostly inalienable. It was not bought and sold, but passed down in families through the generations. If land was forfeited by a family, such as through debt, it was restored to the original owners during the periods of debt cancellation (clean slates). Land and buildings in cities, by contrast, were apparently freely bought and sold, but their prices appear not to have been determined by supply and demand, or by favored location:

The term “land ownership” (and hence, of real estate or real property) …requires some caveats to be borne in mind. First of all, there were different kinds of land: subsistence lands in the countryside (which were deemed inalienable on more than a temporary basis by their holders) and surplus-producing lands that were part of the market-orchards, vegetable gardens, and townhouses. These were alienable.

The idea of ownership necessarily involves the notion of alienability, mainly through direct sale or forfeiture to creditors. Rural land could be alienated temporarily but was supposed to be redeemed by its customary holders or else was restored to them by royal edict. Permanent sale of land was limited mainly to the cities…

Inasmuch as subsistence land provided the basic means of self-support for most families, it could not be sold or otherwise alienated. But, urban townhouses were not necessary for this role. Society could afford more leeway for the transfer of these properties. Given their more or less free alienability, the question naturally arises as to how their prices were determined…There seems no trace of an early intention to increase real estate values, to say nothing of anything as modern as real estate developers hoping to see temples or other public structures built near their own sites so as to increase the value of their property.

In order to signify that such sales were final, and that all the traditional formalities were observed, the term “sold at full price” was commonly used in the documents.

Land alienations were held not to be valid unless “the full price” was paid. A modern economist would be tempted to infer that this indicates the existence of a fairly well-understood market, but that ancient societies recognized that strapped cultivators would only sell their lands (‘”lose their homestead”) under conditions of extreme economic distress. This view would suggest that land sales were only valid if sold “at the full price,” so as to save distressed sellers from being taken advantage of. However, the members of this colloquium find this not to be the case. The words do not seem to represent what they would in to day’s market economies. Transferring land “at the full price” appears to mean simply that all proper formalities were obeyed and properly witnessed by all the affected relatives and neighbors of the seller. In Sumerian times a formal meal with some exchange of presents would have been held to attest to the legitimacy of the land transfer. The meaning of “price” in the phrase “full price” thus appears to mean “condition of transfer.” In archaic times the conditions of land transfer were much more far-reaching than merely paying a sum of money.

One important concept is that you can have multiple, overlapping claims to the same land. We tend to think of absolute or “fee simple” ownership, as the norm. But even in our society, land ownership is subject to restriction – zoning laws, government panels, community groups, etc. In ancient societies, for example, you might have the people living on the land having a certain set of rights, the nominal “owners” having a different set of rights, a creditor having a different set of rights, and the community (embodied by the ruler) with a different set of rights, all to the same plot of land. As Douglass North writes:

Feudal law did not recognize the concept of land ownership. Its basic characteristic was that several person had jurisdiction or held and shared particular rights to the same piece of land. The king, the tenants in capite, the mesne tenants, and the tenants paravail (or, more simply, the king, the lords, and the peasants) each held particular rights to receive income, called incidents, from the land.

In summary, then, we can discern several broad categories of land use in ancient Near Eastern cultures:

(1) Sacred lands of the temple. Permanent and inalienable. Not under the control of any particular clan–only the ruler or the high priest. Not subject to transfers, sales, clean slates, reallocation, etc. This permanence and regularity meant that cities were the cultural, economic and political centers of their respective communities.

(2) Prebends (land stipends) set aside for maintenance of the temple staff. These lands were not alienable, but were rented out for sharecropping by the temple household. The first land rents and interest payments were charged here.

(3) Subsistence lands which were passed down through generations. Ownership was the right to the output of the land rather than absolute ownership (usufruct). Land was owned and maintained by families/households rather than solitary individuals.

(4) Rural land where usufruct rights were temporarily surrendered through debt. These reverted to their original owners during Clean Slates.

(5) Landed estates owned by the literate gentry in return for their managerial services. Many of these estates included a dependent labor force that we might call serfs.

(6) Common lands where multiple claims prevailed. These might be true commons (of which little written documentation would exist), or what anthropologists might call clan lands or corporate kinship lands. These were owned by groups–often kinship groups–rather than individuals, families, or institutions.

(7) Land which was transferred “at full price.” i.e. subject to ceremonial restrictions. The scholars find that most property transfers were not whole farms but parcels – plots of land that were too small for a subsistence farm. This suggests that transfer of lands was done piecemeal, i.e. whole farms were not bought and sold, just small pieces of land which eventually added up over time. Most likely nothing like a “market” in the modern sense.

(7) Townhouses, shops, orchards, gardens, and other “improved” property in urban areas which could be bought and sold. However, there appears to be little relation between the locations of such buildings and their prices. Urban real estate did not gain in value based on proximity to institutions or scarcity, nor was it an “investment” unlike today. Neither was urban land considered more valuable than rural land. The was no “speculative” real estate market; those developed later, for example, in ancient Rome.

Finally, I think this passage by Margaret Mead about the Paupauan Arapesh of New Guinea, quoted in Karl Polanyi’s Trade and Market in Early Empires, well captures the fluidity of economic relations in ancient cultures and the difficulty of trying to explain them in terms of our modern fossil-fuel powered market oriented money society:

A typical Arapesh man …therefore is living for at least part of the time (for each man lives in two or more hamlets, as well as in the garden huts, huts near the hunting bush, and huts near his sago palm) on land which does not belong to him. Around the house are pigs which his wife is feeding, but which belong either to one of her relatives or to one of his. Beside the house are coconut and betel palms which belong to still other people, and the fruit of which he will never touch without the permission of the owner, or someone who had been accorded the disposal of the fruit by the owner. He hunts on the bushland belonging to a brother-in-law or a cousin at least part of his hunting time, and the rest of the time he is joined by others on his bush, if he has some. He works his sago in others’ sago clumps as well as in his own. Of the personal property in his house that which is of any permanent value, like large pots, well carved plates, good spears, has already been assigned to his sons, even though they are only toddling children. His own pig or pigs are far away in other hamlets: his palm trees are scattered three miles in one direction, two in another: his sago palms are still further scattered, and his garden patches lie here and there, mostly on the lands of others. If there is meat on his smoking rack over the fire, it is either meat which was killed by another, a brother, a brother-in-law, a sister’s son, etc. and has been given to him, in which case he and his family may eat it, or it is meat which he himself killed and which he is smoking to give away to someone else, for to eat one’s own kill, even though it be only a small bird, is a crime to which only the morally, which usually means with the Arapesh mentally, deficient would stoop. If the house in which he is, is nominally his, it will have been constructed in part at least from the posts and planks of other people’s houses, which have been dismantled or temporarily deserted, and from which he has borrowed timber. He will not cut his rafters to fit his house, if they are too long, because they may be needed later for someone else’s house which is of a different shape or size…This then is the picture of a man’s ordinary economic affiliations.

As Polanyi points out in that book, unlike other commodities, if land is scarce, we cannot produce more of it, and so the price will only go up. Also, the price can theoretically fall to zero just as easily.

In a time where there are more empty houses than homeless people, economic activity is constricting to a small number of urban archipelagoes, and the average income is unable to purchase—or even rent—adequate shelter in many urban areas, we need to start thinking about new ways to distribute lands and dwellings beyond simply real estate markets. There is nothing natural or inevitable about such arrangements, as a glance through history shows.

Fun Facts

NFL games contain 15 minutes of action in a 60-minute clock time that requires over three hours to broadcast.

A zeptosecond is a trillionth of a billionth of a second.

Almost all the US jobs created since 2005 are temporary.

Smog is related to nearly one-third of deaths in China, putting it on a par with smoking as a threat to health

Severe air pollution has shortened life expectancy in China by an average 25 months.

In the US, at least one person a week is shot by a toddler.

Only one member of the US Congress identifies as unaffiliated with any religion

The term “genuine leather” isn’t reassuring you that the item is made of real leather, it as an actual distinct grade of leather and is the second worst type of leather there is.

In 1940, the median American hadn’t finished 9th Grade.

Many Areas of Appalachia and Mississippi Delta Have Lower Life Expectancy Than Bangladesh.

The opioid epidemic killed more than 33,000 people in 2015. Overdose deaths were nearly equal to the number of deaths from car crashes. In 2015, for the first time, deaths from heroin alone surpassed gun homicides.

1 in 4 Alabamans are functionally illiterate.

Young people today that have a degree with debt earn roughly the same as young workers with no degree in the late 1980s.

Spam Accounts for Two-Thirds of Total Email Volume.

Seventy billion plastic bottles and 1 trillion plastic bags are produced every year globally.

Only three known species go through menopause: killer whales, short-finned pilot whales, and humans.

The Inventor of Vaseline Claimed that He Ate a Spoonful of it Every Morning.

Upper-class types and even members of the British Royalty ‘applied, drink or wore’ concoctions prepared from human body parts, and they continued to do so until the end of the 18th century.

Labor in the Ancient World – Summary

First of all: what is work? Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid.
Bertrand Russell-Ch. 1: In Praise of Idleness

I was able to get my hands on a copy of Labor in the Ancient World, the last in a series of five colloquia published by the Peabody Museum of Harvard University edited by economics professor Michael Hudson. What follows is a brief summary of some of the major themes and takeaways that I thought stood out.

One of the recurring themes in the book is that the concept of work as a “disutility”—that people are inherently lazy and will not lift a finger unless compelled to do so by either the threat of bodily harm and/or starvation on the one hand, and necessity of remunerative reward on the other (i.e. the carrot and the stick)—is pure hokum. This is entirely a fabrication of the modern pseudoscience of economics which is designed to make human behavior subject to mathematical modelling, but it has no basis in actual reality:

In the late 19th century neoclassical economics transformed the subject into “the Calculus of Pain and Pleasure,” by introducing the concept of utility, and creating a theory based on the assumption that each individual aims to maximize their own utility. By introducing a mathematical component, the new theory offers… “a basis for distributing income that is independent of political decisions or moral judgments.” The discussions about class struggle and distribution of wealth, which previously dominated the economics debate, became obsolete. Ever since, the mathematical component has become the norm in mainstream economics.

Rigged: How Mainstream Economics Failed Us All (The Minskys)

Cultures without an official government or any coercive apparatus are able to build large monuments as an expression of their shared culture, as we saw. This ranges from the Ahu of Easter Island, to the marae of Tahiti, to the henges of Northern Europe, to the temples of Malta, to the living megalithic tradition of Borneo. In addition, the spectacular works of art from the Ice Age, from rock art to bone carvings, testify to what Thorstein Veblen called “the instinct of workmanship.” Rather than inherently lazy, people are inherently active. The difference is that people do not wish to do work that is boring, dangerous, or repetitive, at times and places and for durations not of their own choosing.

We know from recent psychological studies that intrinsic motivation for work requires three major components: mastery, autonomy and purpose. People have, quite literally, always “worked,” they just didn’t have “jobs.” People work for a complex variety of reasons that don’t simply boil down to simplistic mental calculations of pleasure and pain, as this post points out:

Work itself can have an intrinsic motivation. Work is such a key part of who we are that when people introduce themselves they usually state their occupation directly after their name as part of their identity (“I am a . . .”). People want to have a skill in life and to achieve something. For many people, work can provide this sense of achievement. Throughout my career I have seen a lot of hard workers, even in jobs that weren’t glamorous or well paid (some weren’t even paid). There is an urge among most people to do a good job, regardless of how much money they’re getting. After all, why do I write this blog? I’m not getting paid or any other benefit. Nor is it easy, you wouldn’t believe me if I told you how many hours I put into this blog post. I write it because I love writing and I’m proud of the end result (well, most of the time).

Even if we didn’t need money, people would still work. It defines us, gives us meaning, a sense of achievement and something to be proud of. Money alone can’t motivate people if they have no control over their job or feel that it serves no purpose. The evidence shows that it can often make things worse.

What Motivates People to Work? (Whistling in the Wind)

Indeed, we must distinguish between labor and compulsory labor. The presence of large stone monuments and other earthworks long before anything like literate, urban civilizations–in the case of Gobecki Tepe, even before plant domestication–testify to the fact that labor could not have been coerced. Nevertheless, there were certainly individuals who used “extra-institutional” means and “free-floating power” to influence communities and organize labor, especially via religion.

We also saw that a work feast was the principle way of marshaling collective labor in ancient times–not wages or threats of punishment. As someone who has helped many people move over the years, I can testify that beer and pizza are still a potent way to marshal voluntary labor even our own time. As Michael Hudson describes:

“By the time written records appear in the third millennium BC, labor had long been mobilized for large building projects that must have involved entire communities. From the early Neolithic through the Bronze Age, this mobilization was organized on different principles from those of the modern world. In view of the ever-present option of flight, it must have been on a voluntary basis. Members of the community were self-supporting on the land, not obliged to compete to find work.”

“Also, the most archaic employment of labor could not have been based on barter or market sales of crops or handicrafts, because (apart from working to produce its one subsistence) labor initially was organized to construct public ceremonial sites and buildings, irrigation works, and to serve in the military. No exchange value was initially involved. And when free labor did come to be organized for commercial purposes, the process was initiated mainly by chieftains, temple and palace officials, whose fortunes merged in a symbiotic relationship with these large institutions.” [LAW: 650]…Being organized communally…the ‘output’ of labor was not marketable or had exchange value. The work produced social value, creating ceremonial building, city walls, irrigation systems and roads as ‘social capital.’ Hence, modern supply and demand curves for labor and its remuneration based on the market value of its output are not relevant.

Several major themes emerge in the papers of the book, which I summarize as follows:

1. Corvee labor appears to have been the first tax, and was based on land tenure. Corvée is defined as:

“unpaid, unskilled manual labor extracted in lieu of taxation in the form of money or goods…it generally entailed involuntary service and normally involved a great mass of people from a given locality.”

Corvée was related to land tenure – in order to farm a given piece of land, one needed to supply labor to the larger community. This could have been anything from irrigation works, to temples to city walls. Military service was also a part of this. Labor conscription was timed so as not to interfere with the harvest.

Property rights–at least regarding land– were based on reciprocal obligations to the community from the very start. Thus, there is no inherent “natural” right to private property without corresponding social obligations. That concept began in England with John Locke, and was used as the philosophical basis for the Enclosure Movement.

A common theme of…this volume is that supplying labor was the prototypical ‘tax’ obligation, leading land tenure to be defined in fiscal terms. ‘The man responsible for the tax was the ‘owner’ as far as the state was concerned. Property ‘belonged’ to its holders in the sense of having the right to administer it in order to meet public obligations. This is the reverse of Locke’s justifying land ownership by the labor that landlords put into the land by clearing and improving it…Land rights were linked to the holder’s obligation to supply corvée labor for [public works], as well as for the military. [LAW: 652]

Instead of outright ownership of the land by individuals and families, land appears to have been distributed by usufruct in many traditional cultures – one had the right to the use of the fruits of the land, but it was not alienable; it still nominally belonged to the entire community. These topics are covered in more detail in their previous volume, Urbanization and Land Use in the Ancient Near East. Usufruct is defined by Wikipedia this way:

The holder of a usufruct, known as a usufructuary, has the right to use (usus) the property and enjoy its fruits (fructus). Fruits refers to any renewable commodity on the property, including (among others) actual fruits, livestock and even rental payments derived from the property. Unlike the owner, the usufructuary did not have a right of alienation (abusus), but he could sell or lease his usufructory interest.

…In indigenous cultures, usufruct means the land is owned in common by the people, but families and individuals have the right to use certain plots of land. Land is considered village or communal land rather than owned by individual people. While people can take fruits of the land, they may not sell or abuse it in ways that stop future use of the land by the community. The oldest examples of usufruct are found in the Code of Hammurabi and the Law of Moses. The Law of Moses directed property owners not to harvest the edges of their fields, and reserved the gleanings for the poor.

Land ownership in many Near Eastern cultures appears to have been superficially similar to the Iroquois/Huron system of ownership, which is typical of many traditional cultures that also do not recognize the alienability of land by solitary individuals, or it’s absolute status as “private property:”

The Iroquois had an essentially communal system of land ownership. The French Catholic missionary Gabriel Sagard described the fundamentals. The Huron had “as much land as they need[ed].” As a result, the Huron could give families their own land and still have a large amount of excess land owned communally. Any Huron was free to clear the land and farm on the basis of usufruct. He maintained possession of the land as long as he continued to actively cultivate and tend the fields. Once he abandoned the land, it reverted to communal ownership, and anyone could take it up for themselves…

The Iroquois had a similar communal system of land distribution. The tribe owned all lands but gave out tracts to the different clans for further distribution among households for cultivation. The land would be redistributed among the households every few years, and a clan could request a redistribution of tracts when the Clan Mothers’ Council gathered…

Economy of the Iroquois (Wikipedia)

As a matrilineal society, women’s councils (Clan Mothers) made the decisions regarding land use and redistribution in Iroquois society. In Mesopotamia, this role was performed by the temples; in Egypt all land was nominally owned by the Pharaoh’s household. Corvée duty in exchange for land tenure appears to have been remarkably common in cultures around the globe, enough for us to say that it was the “original” tax:

Outside the ancient Near East corvée was practiced–to offer just two examples–among the Incas and in ancient China. The Inca corvée, called mit’a, “turn” or “season” was a community service of specific duration (up to ten months per year) used for public projects such as the construction of roads and monumental architecture. All able-bodied citizens were required to perform it. Like the Mesopotamian corvée, the mit’a obligation extended to military service…one month of Chinese corvée was due from all free male citizens between the ages of twenty-two and sixty-five. This labor was in addition to two years of obligatory military service. ‘It was also possible in certain circumstances to pay for a substitute to perform the work.’

Wikipedia adds:

The obligation for tenant farmers to perform corvée work for landlords on private landed estates has been widespread throughout history. The term is most typically used in reference to medieval and early modern Europe, where work was often expected by a feudal landowner (of their vassals), or by a monarch of their subjects. However, the application of the term is not limited to that time or place; corvée has existed in modern and ancient Egypt, ancient Israel under Solomon, ancient Rome, China and Japan, everywhere in continental Europe, the Incan civilization, Haiti under Henri Christophe and under American occupation of Haiti (1915–1934), and Portugal’s African colonies until the mid-1960s. Forms of statute labour officially existed until the early twentieth century in Canada and the United States.

Piotr Steinkeller speculates that the first instance of regular corvée labor may have been necessitated by the need to maintain irrigation works:

I submit that the beginnings of the corvee coincided with the introduction of irrigation-based agriculture on the alluvium, which must have happened sometime during the Obeid period. This suggestion will probably raise some brows, since there has been a tendency lately to downplay the role of irrigation works and their social dimensions in the growth of Mesopotamian urbanism…the growth of Mesopotamian civilization was predicated on the presence of large-scale irrigation networks, which, as the need for surpluses steadily increased due to population growth and various other societal pressures, became progressively more and more extensive and complex. An obvious consequence of these processes was the development of ever more efficient and centralized instruments of control, which were necessary to ensure the coordination and smooth running of all the component parts of the system.

All these facts argue strongly that organized collective labor existed in Mesopotamia already during the Obeid period, and that its ‘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 lass concurrently, with the needs of agriculture dictating the use of labor force [sic] above that of a single family, and with the availability of labor so created enabling further expansion of the 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.

Which leads to the next point:

2. The coordination and management of labor required the birth of a managerial class. This managerial class became ever-more sophisticated as civilizations became denser and more urbanized. Chiefs and Big Men organized labor, later with the help of scribes and bureaucrats attached to their households who were often remunerated with grants of land in exchange for their services:

“One of the byproducts of the Neolithic monument building was…a managerial class. This role originally would have been played by chieftains as calendar keepers and organizers, dealing with outsiders, and centralizing some forms of specialized labor in their own households. Already by Pre-Pottery Neolithic B these men ‘held religious authority that legitimized their right to rule’.”

“…’Supernatural sanction, confirmed and certified by specialist practitioners, offered not only the legitimacy of rule, but the structure of order within the earliest villages.’ Social status was sanctified by authority centered on the individuals responsible for allocating resources, organizing rituals and mobilizing labor for building monuments and temples and other public works. Authorities ‘presided over ritual centers, the nascent forms of the later temples that became the focus of centralized political and economic power.’”

This association of elites with ritual centers became the nucleus for the urban/commercial centers of later cultures. Cities grew up around ritual centers–a concept explored in more detail in the Urbanization and Land Use volume.

We have seen that redistribution involves symmetry and centricity, and these two concepts determined the nature of city-states. We can think of these as sort of centrifugal and centripetal forces. The hubs in this scheme were the temples and palaces, and they became the centers of wealth. This made temples and ceremonial centers ‘scale up’ to become cities, and it was here where redistributive chiefs evolved into kings and rulers. These cities established symmetrical relationships between the city and the countryside, such that everyone was able to obtain what they needed. Market exchange appears to have played a marginal role in ancient cultures. The Urbanization volume tells us that alienable land (buying and selling real estate) began in the cities first, and that rural land was more, not less, valuable than urban, unlike today. In the countryside, land plots were occasionally sold, but for the most part was passed down through generations. Usufruct rights could be temporarily surrendered through debt, however.

It appears that one of the major purposes of the city state model in ancient Mesopotamian culture was to distribute the products of diverse ecosystems throughout the group. So, for example, a fishing village might give up surplus fish, and a farming village might give up surplus grain, and each received the surplus goods of the other in return. Thus, a core purpose of centralized locations such was to aggregate the produce from different ecological zones, as described by Professor Steinkeller:

As I would define it, the “temple state” was an integrating organizational scheme that brought together economic resources and social groups distributed among different ecological zones. It is clear that already in the Pre-Sargonic period rural populations of southern city-states were fully incorporated into the state economy This was true, as well, of individuals residing in and exploiting the most marginal ecological niches.

To make clearer what I have in mind, let me present, by way of illustration, a description of the so-called “vertical” economy of Andean societies under Inka domination, which, in my opinion, offers an instructive parallel to the southern Babylonian situation.

In the Andean economy, each community was divided into three of more groups, which were distributed among different ecological zones. To take the community of Chupaychu as an example, at 3,200 meters was the center or mother village of Chupaychu, where the ceremonial, political, and religious sites of the community were located and where the nucleus of the population lived and grew maize and tubers. In Puna, at 4,000 meters, small groups extracted salt and were engaged in the large-scale breeding of llamas and alpacas. In the Montana, a zone situated several hundred meters above the Amazon, some other families cultivated cotton and were engaged additionally in the collection of timber and coca leaves. In this arrangement, members of each group, though permanently domiciled in the ecological zone they were exploiting, retained all rights to fields belonging to the central village. In this way, each society formed a string of ecological and economic islands scattered around a center.

I would argue that the southern Babylonian city-states showed a similar type of organization, in which segments of a community, permanently domiciled among various ecological zones, at the same time retained full rights to fields and other resources belonging to the mother community. This is precisely the situation…in the city-state of Girsu/Lagash in the Pre-Sargonic period (and later, in Ur III times). There the “marginal” professional groups like sea-fishermen, salt-collectors, and foresters, though residing deep in the countryside, were regularly granted subsistence fields and other forms of alimentation by the temple estates with which they were institutionally associated. Because of this, the economy of Girsu/Lagash and other southern city-states could be described…as “horizontal” or, perhaps more aptly, as “cross-ecological.” [UAW: 291-293]

With the rise of writing as an information-processing technology, managers acquired considerable control over surplus labor and resources. Such ‘capital allocation’ appears to have been seen as having beneficial effect, allowing the “economy” to expand much more effectively that could have from isolated villages alone. These technologies began with tokens, and then proceeded to clay seals, “envelopes,” and finally to written clay tablets:

Managerial innovation was as important as material technology. Above all, writing was required for account keeping. Babylonian training exercised called for calculating the labor time and hence food needs (easily converted to silver value) for corvée labor to make bricks and construct walls, move earth and dig canals. From prehistoric Uruk to Ur III Babylonia we find a labor-time/dietary basis for economic planning by accountants calculating monthly food needs per worker, categorized by male, female, older and younger children.

Egyptian sources suggest that scribes were not from elite families. Their profession was independent from property owning. But their planning and writing functions helped support authority and economic control. In fact, only large complex institutions could have created the measures needed for market exchange to develop. Weights and measures, money and salaries had to be standardized, along with prices and remuneration rates, to schedule the flow of food and raw materials. [LAW: ]

3. Regular feasting was an essential feature of corvée labor. Work feasts go back to the very beginnings of human culture. As we saw earlier, feasting, and the debt/credit relationships engendered by them, may have kicked off the spiral of inequality in transegalitarian cultures and led to the emergence of the first Big men elites. We know that feasting was clearly done at ceremonial complexes such Stonehenge and Gobecki Tepe- evidence for such activities is plentiful. Whole villages may have been inhabited only at certain times of the year during such work times.

No doubt maintaining Neolithic practice, corvée activities had to attract and hold their participants. For Babylonia…rulers emphasiz[ed] their efforts to promote ‘public joy’ in corvée 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…what was being built was not just monuments and palaces but communal identity–a ceremonial expression of creativity–and great feasts and drinking parties when projects were completed…an Egyptian causeway scene [shows] ‘the completion of the king’s pyramid by the dragging and setting of the capstone (pyramidion) with a celebration of feasting, singing and dancing’ by the work crews, ‘perhaps a special feast out of many regular feasts we know so well from tomb and temple texts…We see racks of hanging meat, to be shared and consumed for the occasion.'[LAW: 652-653]

Indeed, the idea that the pyramids were built by unfree labor under whip-wielding overseers has long been debunked. These were skilled laborers in the employ of the Pharaoh, supplemented by the “musclepower” of the corvée, which was timed so as not to interfere with the harvest. Workers were given food and drink, and even medical care, by the authorities when called up. As Sir Leonard Wooley writes, “The building of the colossal tombs of the Egyptian kings was as much an act of faith as was the building of the great cathedrals of mediaeval 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.” Which raises the next point:

4. There was a shortage, not a surplus, of labor in the ancient world. Most families were fairly self-sufficient in their daily needs. As Michael Hudson points out: “…the labor problem down through the Bronze Age was a shortage, not a modern ‘reserve army of the unemployed’ driven off the land. The organization of work to build basic infrastructure could not have been to coercive, because its participants would have run away. The corvee had to be organized with widespread assent.” As Piotr Steinkeller describes:

The fundamental difficulty of making free individuals to relinquish their labor [sic] is responsible for the fact that all ancient economies (and likewise modern underdeveloped economies of the Third World) were faced with a shortage of labor. This shortage was nearly always chronic, and often profound. A widely held view in economic history is that a shortage of labor resulting from a high land-to-population ratio (low population density) invariably led individuals to force others to work for them. Thus…economists have speculated that slavery and various forms of bondage (such as the sefdom of pre-modern Russia) invariably were adopted due to the shortage of labor vis-a-vis low population densities…In the context of bondage, the usual way of obtaining labor was debt-servitude, a pracice that is in use even today.

5. Slavery appears to have played a relatively minor role in the ancient Near East. Although commonly depicted as “slave states,” laboring under “Oriental Despotism” such ideas are outmoded. Most people worked either for themselves on family farms or in craft guilds, or for a salary-granting institution. Most war captives were killed or maimed, with only a few, mostly women, kept as slaves. These women were primarily domestic workers (and some must certainly have been sex workers). Women were no doubt easier to control due to their lower physical strength and aggressiveness. The ability to keep a large, hostile ethnic group in permanent subjugation was simply not present as this early stage, and flight was an ever-present option.

The major role of slaves appears to have been in domestic service. The only major industry to utilize large amounts of slave labor was mining–hazardous, dirty work where exposure to toxic substances meant premature death. Note that such techniques were used by Spanish conquistadors over Native Americans to obtain the precious metals that drove the Spanish money economy (co-opting the Inka mit’a system for their own purposes).

One common method of extracting labor from other human beings, which was widely practiced both in ancient and modern times, is enslavement. Slavery is by far the most economical way of obtaining labor, since it comes essentially free (except for the cost of acquiring a slave and the subsequent outlays to maintain and to police him), and since it makes labor available at all times. In addition, slavery is self-reproducing.

However, in the period before classical antiquity (Greece and Rome) slavery played only a marginal role in the economies of early states. Although slaves are documented in Mesopotamia and Egypt since the end of the fourth millennium B.C., their numbers were always small, and therefore this type of labor was never of much economic importance. In Mesopotamia slaves were predominantly those of the domestic of patrimonial variety. They usually worked as servants, and only rarely participated in productive labor or were trained as craftsmen.

[In Ur III Babylonia]…most of the foreign slaves…were women, who had been acquired by state institutions as part of foreign military operations…Although primarily employed as weavers and in grain processing, these females intermittently worked as agricultural workers as well, most commonly maintaining irrigation systems and assisting with the harvest. They also served as carriers and occasionally even as boat-towers…due to the absence in early states of security mechanisms allowing the utilization of large numbers of male slaves in productive labor, male prisoners of war were rarely turned into outright slaves. if they escaped slaughter–which was the usual method of dealing with them–they were blinded, and only then put to work, at certain specialized tasks. In Babylonia, such blinded captives usually worked in orchards as gardeners’ helpers, drawing water from the wells and irrigating fruit trees and vegetable plots.

Later, in the Classical World, money and debt servitude were adopted, but the clean slates were not brought along, and debt slavery expanded to huge proportions which threatened social stability and military security. Along with chattel slavery, debt slavery helped drive the plantation agricultural system of the late Roman empire (latifundia), which produced surplus export commodities for trade such as wine and olive oil.

These [debt] amnesties ended by Classical Antiquity. And the condition of slaves worsened as their role shifted from that of family members to being put to work in large-scale agricultural and handicraft production. In Athens slaves were foreign, and public labor was drudgery performed mainly by non-citizen metics. Dispossessed Roman citizens became mercenaries, fighting to extend the empire that had expropriated them for debt. Industry was associated with servile labor, mainly by the dependents forced into clientage on the estates of large landowners. ‘The very wages the laborer receives are a badge of slavery,’ wrote Cicero. By imperial Roman times a quarter of the population was reduced to debt bondage or slavery, ending up being housed in barracks on landed estates as economic life de-urbanized.”

Which leads to the next conclusion:

6. The major means of compelling unfree labor was debt. Indeed, unfree labor was of a piece; the Mesopotamian terms for ‘slave’ did not distinguish between debt and chattel slavery, although debt slaves were not considered “property” and could not be sold. Consider that with debt, no coercion is required, people will willingly work to pay of their debts out of their misguided sense of morality, as David Graeber pointed out in Debt: The First 5000 Years. In The Creation of Inequality, anthropologists Flannery and Marcus hypothesize that debt may have been the thing that caused rank-based societies to become stratified. In fact, the creditor and debtor classes may have been the very first classes in history to emerge!

Agrarian and personal usury became a major means to obtain labor services through debt bondage, and in time to pry away and rights. Local “big-men,” tamkarum merchants and palace collectors sought control of labor at the expense of central palace fiscal authority that sought to maintain land tenure rights/obligations as a means of assigning responsibility for providing corvee labor and service in the army.

7. Working for pay was marginal. Unlike today, where we need to sell out labor power to an employer willing to buy it as a condition of mere survival (unless you’re lucky enough to inherit wealth, that is), such exchanges in Mesopotamia were largely ad-hoc and voluntary, and did not constitute a true “labor market” in the modern sense of the term.

Well-to-do citizens could hire surrogates to perform their corvée duty–typically younger brothers or other relatives. Unlike manual labor for construction, handicraft work was typically remunerated on a piecework basis. Weavers worked at home, much like those in England before power looms were introduced. But by neo-Babylonian times, piecework labor by skilled craftsmen became more frequent, as did seasonal harvesting work.

It is clear that hired labor was predominantly used for unskilled tasks. the most common among those were harvesting, preparation of fields for cultivation, weeding, reed-collecting, irrigation works, transportation, and brick-making. However, there are also fairly frequent mentions of the hire of craftsmen, such as carpenters, reed-workers, leather-workers, felters, potters, and boat-caulkers.

How and from where was the hired labor obtained? … In the contexts of provincial economies, many of the hired workers were subordinates of temple households and other local organizations (such as the households of governors), who…were liable for corvée. After their corvée service was over, during the remaining part of the year, these individuals routinely hired themselves out for wages, most commonly, to the same institution they were associated with, and to which they owed their corvée.

The fact that during the Ur III period large numbers of free individuals regularly traded their labor for wages might perhaps suggest to some scholars that already at that early date their existed, in however rudimentary from, a “labor market.” Such a conclusion would be a gross simplification, however, since the Ur III hires were contracted for the most part within an institutional setting, with both wages and the mobility of hired workers being closely regulated and controlled by the state. Free agents they certainly were not…

Wages paid by the temples were not set by supply and demand, but on what was needed for survival–a minimum wage if you will. Initially, salaries were paid out directly in commodities, but later, as prices became standardized in the temples, wages were paid out in silver.

Third millennium temple and palace records show manual labor being paid at standardized rates, ranked by sex and age (and in time by occupation). The basis for most salaries was what adult men, women and children needed for basic sustenance. Schoolbook exercises calculated the food needed per worker, denominated in grain or bread equivalents directly convertible into standard weights of silver money. By Neo-Babylonian times such wages were paid directly in silver.

Ancient Pay Stub Shows Workers Were Paid In Beer (NPR)

Remuneration was done in three ways. For lower-strata “blue collar” workers, their remuneration came in the form of (1) a yearly (or monthly, weekly etc.) salary paid by the institution they were attached to, and (2) supplemental wages made by hiring themselves out to either institutional or private employers (what we might call “overtime” or “moonlighting”). For higher-ranking workers like administrative/managerial personnel (e.g. scribes), their remuneration came mainly in the form land allotments that their home institutions granted them in exchange for their services.

The first type – the wages—was commonly called še-ba, or “barley allotment,” with variations depending on what was given (e.g. siki-ba: “wool allotment, ì-ba: “sesame oil allotment’). These have typically been called “rations” in most history books about Mesopotamian society, but this is highly misleading, as Prof. Steinkeller elaborates:

In spite of its general acceptance and apparent usefulness…the word ‘ration’ is highly inappropriate as a description of še-ba, primarily because it misrepresents the social reality behind this phenomenon…The še-ba was a salary (monthly or yearly) that a given employee received from his home institution as a payment for services rendered, and not a form of organized alimentation…the amount of grain received as še-ba by individual worker families greatly exceeded their caloric needs, thus demonstrating that the allotment was actually consumed by a given family…Moreover, while še-ba is usually mentioned in connection with the lower-ranking employees, not infrequently it was given out also to administrators, scribes, messengers, elite soldiers, and various other individuals holding the status of free citizens. There are also instances where the employees usually compensated with land allotments are given še-ba instead. All these facts assure that še-ba was a form of salary or wages.

Another reason why še-ba is a bad translation…is the fact that, as universally understood, “rationing” denotes an artificial restriction of demand or consumption, an economic phenomenon that not only has nothing to do with the reality behind še-ba, but also one that taints negatively the nature of the relationship between the recipients of še-ba and the granting party. Because rationing by its very nature is restrictive–and therefore arbitrary and manipulative–that relationship unavoidably is perceived as an exploitive one. Neither applicable here is the nuance of “ration” as used in military contexts, since, unlike the še-ba, which was a regular form of compensation, military rations are issued ad-hoc to sustain soldiers on particular assignments of short (usually daily) duration.

And last but not least, the translations “rationing” and “ration” should be avoided for the simple reason that, outside of ancient Mespotamian studies (and to some extent Egyptology and Mycenaean studies), such terminological usage is practically unknown. Although similar forms of remuneration in kind existed in many other ancient civilizations, both in the Old and New Worlds, I could not find, in the pertinent historical and anthropological literature, any instances of the use of this terminology in reference to similar phenomena…In my view, the best rendering of še-ba and the related terms is “x allotment”.

It is important to note that translations of words are difficult, and have given us a distorted picture. When we translate words, we put them in the context of our own society, which distorts what those words meant to the people of the cultures who originally wrote them. This is a common theme in the Urbanization volume as well. As Prof. Ogden Goelet observes:

I think that even the most devoted scholar of ancient Egyptian grammar would admit when pressed that the single greatest impediment towards understanding most Egyptian texts lies not in our imperfect comprehension of their grammar, but rather our imperfect grasp of Egyptian vocabulary. By now it is a well-worn truism among Egyptologists that the Egyptians were intensely religious, yet had no word corresponding to our term “religion;” that they had a highly developed aesthetic sense, yet had no single word for “art;” that they ran a stable, complex, and highly bureaucratic society, yet had no equivalent to the term “the state.” The common theme behind all these observations is that we frequently fail to realize that the Egyptians might have viewed the world entirely differently from the way we do. Even common terms in our language like “town,” “city,” and even “temple” might not have precise equivalents among the Egyptians, because concepts such as these are often heavily dependent upon social constructions.

8. Elites often attempted to siphon off public labor for their own purposes. While labor obligations were owed to the temple and palace households as the proto-state, it was not uncommon for local elites and administrators to attempt to subvert official control and abuse both corvée labor and debt servitude for their own purposes. Local authorities used labor obligations to feather their own nests rather than for the public good. This trend became more pronounced during periods of central state weakness or breakdown:

Throughout history local authorities have sought to divert labor for their own purposes. Sometimes the central authority deters this power grabbing, as in England’s Star Chamber in the 16th and 17th centuries against aggressive local nobility. But the Bronze Age “Intermediate Periods” saw central power wane vis-a-vis that of local clan heads, chieftains and “big men.” Writing of Egypt’s first Intermediate period, Goelet finds that ‘the power of local elites apparently outweighed that of the monarch. The end result was that the status of mrt-laborers and other lower class individuals generally had declined from being serfs bound to the land to becoming purchasable chattel…Palaces remained dependent on local officials or contractors to supply labor, resulting in a political tug of war.

Assyriologists have found a similar reliance of Ur III and Babylonian rulers on local clan heads or lu-gal “big men” acting as contractors to supply labor and military support, especially in Mesopotamian “intermediate periods.”…as temple and palace activities were increasingly privatized in the hands of merchants and leasors of land or public enterprises, the resulting mixed economies had what today would be called a conflict between public and private interest.

This echoes a common theme in Hudson’s work – the breakdown of collective institutions, with their protections for the social order and debtors vis-a-vis creditors, and its replacement with the arbitrary rule of powerful individuals, did not typically result in an outpouring of “freedom” but it’s exact opposite—oppression, for most people. Note that this is the 180-degree opposite of the libertarian version of history heavily promoted by mainstream economics. Economic ideology is inherently biased against both labor and collective institutions in general, even while pretending to be an objective “science.” For example, we can see how well the rolling back of state protections has worked out for most people under Neoliberalism.

9. Labor to produce commodities for export was first organized by temples. Public institutions were essential for the first markets to develop. Prof. Hudson notes that the earliest public institutions were not debtors as in our own time (e.g. ‘national debt’), but rather creditors. Temples, as we saw, established price schedules to standardize tax levies, which eventually evolved into price schedules. They also undertook long-distance trading expeditions on behalf of the whole community.

In order to trade, one must have something to trade. Mesopotamia specialized in high-quality “value added” goods, and it is the employment of labor under the aegis of temples in the Industrial arts and crafts, that the idea of full-time dependent “employees” first takes place.

Southern Mesopotamia needed to trade to obtain metals and stone not found in local soils. Meeting this challenge required workshops to produce exports, mainly by dependent and proto-wage labor overseen by a temple or palace hierarchy, from foremen and scribe accountants to chief administrators. A merchant class was required to organize and conduct this trade, and also credit formalities to reimburse the large institutions for their advance of goods.

Skilled and specialized craft labor and technology were centered in temple and palace workshops but also worked “off the books,” evidently on a piecework basis for whoever could pay for their services. It seems that wives and daughters from the free community also earned money working at weaving or other handicrafts in addition to their household work on the land…Textiles were Mesopotamia’s major export and the employment of non-slave labor is best typified by the widows and war orphans assigned to weaving and other handicrafts in its temple and palace workshops. In contrast to the public infrastructure created by corvée labor, commodity production for trade aimed at gaining a monetary surplus by what today’s economists call profit centers.

Although they were only a small part of the labor force, skilled craftsmen required a broad range of collateral support activities to supply raw materials, schedule their deliveries, and provide tools. This large scale required management, oversight, account keeping and credit, and therefore was centered in the temples and palaces (and on large estates whose owners usually were associated with the temples (or the royal family).

Again, this squares with the idea that the first markets were not locals exchanging their goods and services for money, but were centered around long-distance trade for luxury items, as Carroll Quigley notes in The Evolution of Civilizations (although Quigley incorrectly emphasizes slavery in his account):

At least three times in history a society organized in small self-sufficient agricultural units has shifted to an urbanized commercial society by the growth of a demand for luxury goods of remote origin within the self-sufficient agricultural units. This occurred about 4000 B.C. in western Asia; it occurred after 900 B.C. in Classical antiquity; and it occurred after A.D. 1000 in Western civilization. Without a little thought on the subject we might be tempted to believe that a tradeless society consisting of self-sufficient agricultural units would begin to develop trade by the growth of local trade in necessities, but history and logic demonstrate quite clearly that the earliest commerce to appear in a tradeless society is in luxury goods of remote origin. There would be no possibility of any local trade in necessities among units that were self-sufficient in necessities. Only later, when remote trade in luxuries has given rise to urban concentration of commercial people who lack necessities, does such local trade develop. EoC: 290

Finally, I thought this post from Stack Exchange by Mark C. Wallace does a great job of explaining labor organization in ancient Rome, which is fairly typical for most agrarian societies prior to the Industrial Revolution:

The modern definition of unemployed is “having looked for work recently”. I’m not entirely sure that definition is appropriate for Rome. Modern Western Liberal Democracy is organized around the notion that “companies” provide employment, and that people seek employment. Unemployment results in a dramatic decline in economic and social status.

Although there were workshops in Rome, and there were teams that organized to perform tasks that no individual could, I’m not aware of anything that resembles the modern limited liability corporation. Roman politics and economics were based more on relationships than on companies. Romans belonged to a family, and to a tribe, and usually to some kind of patron/client relationship. Depending on their social class, they may have also belonged to one or more social organizations (e.g. burial society). If someone wanted to work, they would rely on these connections to find them employment. “Unemployment” didn’t really result in the kind of economic and social decline we find today because these social bonds provided a safety net. If for some reason you were isolated from your social network, that might be a definition similar to “unemployed”, but there were mechanisms (adoption, social organizations, etc.) that made the social networks fairly resilient.

…the proletariat lived off the dole. There was no real reason for them to look for work.

I believe, although I can’t check right now that the Aristocracy never worked; I believe the notion that work was unbecoming to the Aristocrat reaches back as far as Ancient Rome. Although they were never employed, they couldn’t be unemployed because they would never seek work. (Obligatory exception: The Aristocracy was obliged to engage in public service, including a number of civic offices).

Tradesmen looked for work, but they weren’t unemployed, they were just tradesmen looking for work. Technically, the self-employed can never be unemployed, it is just that their business is going through a slow spell.
Slaves never looked for work. Many were employed to perform tasks that were mere displays of wealth – for example some were chained to the doors of houses to act as gatekeepers.

Slavery also prevented unemployment in a different way; if for any reason your economic status declined precipitously, you could sell a relative, or ultimately yourself into slavery. You probably only wanted to do this if you had a marketable skill.

The ultimate bottom rung of the ladder was to be sold to a latifundum – a farm. I haven’t researched these very much, but my impression is that a slave on a latifundum may be the only historical example that is more horrifying than American chattel slavery.

How did ancient Rome deal with the unemployed? (History Stack Exchange)
What these ancient forms of organizing labor show us is that work does not need to be compelled by the threat of destitution, that “jobs’ are not required to keep society going, and that there are other means of organizing human labor besides the narrow options were are giving by economists.

Trump Appoints Bane to National Security Council

Bane will sit on the National Defense Council, and several government agencies will be under his exclusive control.

WASHINGTON, D.C.—In an unexpected development, this week Donald Trump announced the appointment of Bane as senior advisor to the White House. In a move certain to raise consternation inside Beltway circles, President Trump also issued an executive order giving Bane a prominent seat on the National Security Council, a position which is normally reserved for cabinet secretaries and high-ranking military personnel, as well as absolute control over several secretive government agencies answerable only to Bane himself. Despite the sudden, extraordinary and very unusual nature of this move, little is known about the president’s latest advisor.

Journalists immediately began digging into Bane’s past to uncover any details about the appointee. Next to nothing is known about Bane’s life before about six months ago. His age, birthplace, birth date, parentage, and real name are a total mystery. Almost immediately, rumors began circulating on the internet claiming that he was born and raised in a centuries-old foreign penitentiary known as “the Pit.” Some sources have claimed a connection between Bane and a number of foreign countries, including Russia, but none of these stories have been substantiated. However, Bane’s more recent political connections are sure to cause some controversy, particularly his association with the so-called Alt-Right, his prior membership in the League of Shadows, and his work for Goldman Sachs.

In a press conference Monday, Mr. Trump criticized journalists for going on what he referred to as a “witch hunt,” and especially singled out news sources owned by Wayne Enterprises as purveyors of “fake news,” accusing Mr. Wayne of “holding a grudge,” and being against the Trump administration from “day one” to pro-Democrat leanings. He also dismissed as a “totally false” reports that Bane had some sort of “inside information” on President Trump and his family, or a thermonuclear device hidden somewhere in a major American city, adding “We’ve got a lot of killers in this country.” As Trump was escorted out of the conference by several burly men, members of the assembled press corps began shouting, “Tell us about Bane! Why does he wear the mask?”

In his first meeting with the assembled journalists, surrounded by anonymous henchmen, Bane noted that, “No one cared who I was until I put on the mask,” setting up an adversarial tone for the rest of the interview. Refusing to answer any questions, Bane then made the following remarks directly to the camera, bypassing the reporters:

“We don’t believe there is a functional conservative party in this country and we certainly don’t think the Republican Party is that. It’s going to be an insurgent, center-right populist movement that is virulently anti-establishment, and it’s going to continue to hammer this city, both the progressive left and the institutional Republican Party. It doesn’t matter who we are. What matters is our plan.”

“Now we came here not as conquerors, but as liberators to return control of this country to the people. We take America from the corrupt! The rich! The oppressors of generations who have kept you down with myths of opportunity, and we give it back to you–the people. America is yours! None shall interfere. Do as you please. Step forward those who would serve. For an army will be raised. The powerful will be ripped from their decadent nests, and cast out into the cold world that we know and endure. Courts will be convened. Spoils will be enjoyed. Blood will be shed. The police will survive, as they learn to serve true justice. This great nation, it will endure. America will survive! America, take control! Take control of your country. This… this is the instrument of your liberation!”

There are very few official interviews on record with Bane, even with right-wing affiliated media outlets such as Breitbart and FOX, so the media are mostly in the dark as to his political philosophies and core beliefs, which remain a mystery. However, on 22 August 2016, writer Ronald Radosh recounted a conversation he reportedly had with Bane at a party he attended in 2013:

[…] we had a long talk about his approach to politics. He never called himself a “populist” or an “American nationalist,” as so many think of him today. “I’m a Leninist,” Bane proudly proclaimed. “I’m necessary evil.”

Shocked, I asked him what he meant.

“Lenin,” he answered, “wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment. Your money and infrastructure have been important–until now. I’m America’s reckoning, here to end the borrowed time you’ve all been living on.”

At the same party, Bane is allegedly said to have remarked to prominent businessman and Democratic donor Bruce Wayne, “The shadows betray you, because they belong to me. We will destroy America and then, when it is done and the United States is ashes, then you have my permission to die.” Bane is also alleged to want to bring about something he calls “The Fourth Turning.” Later that same evening, according to eyewitnesses, an unknown member of the waitstaff was allegedly heard asking Bane, “have we started the Turning?” to which Bane replied, “Yes, the Turning rises.” He told Vanity Fair last summer that Trump was “a blunt instrument for us … I don’t know whether he really gets it or not.”

An anonymous White House staffer told the Washington Post off the record that Bane’s influence over the President and his cabinet is considerable. He recounted once seeing Bane casually place an open palm on Vice President Mike Pence’s shoulder while quietly asking, “Do you feel in charge?” Such stories, even unconfirmed, are sure to raise fresh concerns about the outsized role unelected advisors will play inside the Trump White House.

Also, on Tuesday, a vote is expected on Betsy DeVos, a wealthy Republican Party donor and a former Michigan Republican Party chairwoman whose brother is Erik Prince, the founder of the controversial private security company Blackwater.

The New Double Movement

I hope you enjoyed the summary of the Great Transformation. We’re now seeing the Double Movement taking place around the world as globalization hollows out communities and even entire nations, bestowing its benefits to an ever-shrinking oligarchy who, as we learned last week, are buying up millions of acres of remote property and nuclear-hardened bunkers all over the world to retreat to when it all falls apart (if they’re not eyeing up offshore Seasteads or rockets to Mars, that is), while leaving the rest of us to our own devices. Much of the world has turned into the itinerant laborers, the “masterless men,” whom Polanyi wrote about as the human toll from the imposition of labor markets and the destruction of local economies. Except now those laborers migrate not within their own country seeking paid employment, but disperse en masse across the globe, inundating already stressed communities with millions of desperate refugees.

It is the inevitable consequence of a world run by markets.

Meanwhile, the world spirals into chaos. Syria and Yemen have already collapsed; much of the Middle East and North Africa are failed states, from Algeria to Pakistan; Europe struggles under the burden of austerity, and America and Russia have devolved into a banana-republic-style authoritarian kleptocracies. Many of the so-called “successful” Asian industrial nations have air that is literally unbreathable by humans, and small oceanic countries are on the verge of being swallowed up by the waves.

And yet we’re constantly told by journalists and the media that we’ve never had it better!

This article from the BBC highlights the ongoing rush of the problem, and suggests that it’s only going to get far, far worse as long as we let “The Economy” be the only guiding force for society, and let the chips fall where they may:

In the US, voter anger with globalisation may have led to Donald Trump’s election victory, but those who voted for him could be disappointed as his aim of bringing back jobs is unlikely to work, says Prof [Richard] Baldwin… Protectionist trade barriers won’t work in the 21st Century, he says. “Knowledge crossing borders in massive amounts [is the] big new disruptive thing.” It’s going to help people in Africa and Asia compete more effectively with people in the West, as communication advances mean workers in the developing world will be able to control robots to do jobs in Europe and the US at lower cost, he says.

Developing world labour costs can be a tenth of what they are in the West, says Prof Baldwin. “They can’t get here to take the jobs but technology will soon allow virtual migration, thanks to telerobotics and telepresence.” Ever-faster internet speeds becoming globally more widely available, coupled with the rapidly falling prices of robots will allow workers, for example in the Philippines or China, to remotely provide services to a country like the UK – where the sector accounts for about 80% of the economy…”All you need is more computing power, more transmitting power and cheaper robots – and all that is happening.”

In the 19th Century, the first wave of the industrial revolution triggered an upsurge in global trade. Steam power, the end of the Napoleonic wars and the subsequent era of peace cut the costs of moving goods internationally. Global wealth became increasingly concentrated among just a few nations; the G7 group – the US, Germany, Japan, France, the UK, Canada and Italy – saw their share of the world’s wealth rise significantly.

But from the 1990s a second wave of globalisation kicked in, with the rise of information and communications technology. There’s been a dramatic change of gear, and “a century’s worth of rich nations’ rise has been reversed in just two decades,” says Prof Baldwin. Old-style globalisation “worked on a calendar that ticked year by year” whereas the current wave of globalisation is being driven by IT which is changing and disrupting economies and societies with increasing rapidity…

Will globalisation take away your job? (BBC)

The double movement is particularly strong in nations where the working classes have been thrown under the bus, and which have a harsh, bitter, “work or starve” culture, especially the Anglo-Saxon countries like the UK and the US. In addition, these countries had also instituted a de-facto “open borders” policy over the past few decades in order to drive down domestic wages in the unprotected service sector (while preserving protections for the credentialed professions). Other countries with less of a knee-jerk fear of “socialism” did not have quite the same results, as the benefits of globalization were more widely distributed instead of partitioning society into lords and serfs, for example, Germany and Japan.

In America, by contrast, it’s every man for himself, and anyone who is not immediately useful to the corporate bottom line is castigated as a “taker/scrounger/waster/useless eater/water drinker/parasite, etc.” and the best thing they can do for society, the thinking goes, is to die off as quickly as possible (which is implicitly encouraged through U.S. government policy, for example, tying health care to employment, and abundant, readily available opiates and firearms).

In other words, in the language of Peter Frase’s “Four Futures”, some cultures have slowly inched closer to egalitarianism and abundance, while the Anglo-Saxon nations have enthusiastically embraced Rentism and Eliminationism (with the latter unstated policy in the U.S.). Is it any wonder, then, why the politics in the Anglo-Saxon countries is so acrimonious so as to threaten democracy itself?

All of this has created a backlash, especially in developed economies, as many voters say they are losing out or seeing little of the benefits that globalisation supposedly brings. Prof Baldwin says protectionist policies, such as those of Donald Trump, are ultimately counterproductive. If firms become inefficient by being forced to move jobs back to the US, then ultimately they will lose their business to international competitors.”People are so angry they are doing things that are not in their own interest. Cures are being sold which are not related to the problem.”

He points out that the backlash is not the same in every single country. It often depends on how governments deal with workers who may be displaced by technology. “For instance, in Japan they take care of their workers, and there really isn’t an anti-globalisation feeling there,” he says – unlike in the UK and the US. As a consequence, even businesses that are benefiting from greater automation are increasingly sensitive about the potentially negative social and political consequences.

John Robb, too, points out that America uniquely decided that brunt of globalism would be exclusively borne by its poor and middle classes, with no protection whatsoever, and that this was always a policy choice by American elites:

Unfettered access to US markets (the most valuable in the world) led to twenty plus years of rapid economic globalization that lifted billions of people out of poverty and made many countries rich. However, neoliberalism ..destroyed the only engine of prosperity and political stability in the US, the US middle class. It did this through:

Asymmetric competition. The US was, and still is, the only major nation in the world to fully embrace neoliberalism. Every other country or economic bloc, from China to the EU, has barriers in place to rig the market to create or protect good jobs at home (think: Germany, China, South Korea, Japan…). These barriers work and incomes in these countries has zoomed while US incomes stagnated.

The Neoliberal Trade (jobs out, wealth in). For decades, the US traded millions of good jobs in manufacturing and services for tens of thousands of amazing jobs on Wall Street (NY) and Silicon Valley (CA). This inflow of wealth at the topline created a sense of prosperity even though the median income and the quality of life of the middle class collapsed.

Non-cooperative elites. It didn’t take long before the power and the wealth of the elites benefiting from unfettered globalization became immense. In fact, these US neoliberal elites became so powerful, they were able to completely opt out of the US system of taxation — none of the elites, from Apple to Google to Wall Street banks/funds to the wealthiest American citizens pay taxes. With most of the wealth generated by the US immune to taxation, the US government quickly became a bankruptcy in progress ($20 trillion in debt and growing fast). Worse, this perpetual fiscal crisis eliminated any chance that government services (like in health care, retirement, etc. proposed by Bernie Sanders) could be formulated to cushion the damage done by neoliberal economics.

Trump’s Rollback of the Neoliberal Market State (Global Guerrillas)

Robb points out that as the U.S. middle class was hollowed out as a matter of public policy, in it’s place came the empowerment of the lone individual through what he calls cultural neoliberalism—what most people associate with so-called “political correctness” and “identity politics.”

The effects of neoliberalism put US political elites in a bind. Neoliberalism made it impossible for the US, as it had for two centuries, to grow the middle class economically anymore. The US economy didn’t provide good jobs to the middle class anymore due to the neoliberal trade and it didn’t have the funds to cushion the loss of income with services due to the tax avoidance of non-cooperative US elites. So, it decided to double down on neoliberal ideology by applying it to US cultural identity. Cultural neoliberalism now became the primary political good of the state…By making this shift it became …a market state. A market state, in contrast to the nation-state’s focus on broad economic prosperity and cultural integration, focuses on providing opportunity to the individual.

This “Market State” is exactly what Polanyi feared, and Cultural Neoliberalism eroded cultural capital by giving rise to the strident “politically correct” culture and quasi-Maoist thought policing that the alt-right takes an almost fetishistic delight in reacting against (another sort of “double movement”).

…the rise of the neoliberal market-state didn’t actually solve the internal contradiction of the neoliberal economics…barrier free trade allows a few people to take everything at the expense of everyone else. Like its economic cousin, cultural neoliberalism only benefited a minority of Americans (particularly those already benefiting from economic neoliberalism in NY and CA) while offering nothing but increasingly acrimonious identity politics to the majority. All of this might have continued indefinitely, but for the financial crisis of 2008. That crisis set in motion a deep unrest..that powers Trump’s socially networked insurgency…that is now actively dismantling the neoliberal market state…

So, as Robb describes, Trump is indeed a “double movement” in reaction to Neoliberalism, exactly as Polanyi predicted would happen. Of course the economic priesthood–militant adherents to the “liberal creed”–are howling like stuck pigs at the pushback against their cherished doctrines.

Karl Polanyi had much to say about the Market’s deleterious effects on labor and society back in the 1940’s. The idea that labor is just another commodity like any other to be allocated via impersonal markets in which the state must never “interfere” (even while the state aggressively protects property rights through extensive spying and jailing) is perhaps the most destructive idea currently pushing the world to the brink of apocalypse.

To allow the market mechanism to be sole director of the fate of human beings and their natural environment indeed, even of the amount and use of purchasing power, would result in the demolition of society. For the alleged commodity “labor power” cannot be shoved about, used indiscriminately, or even left unused, without affecting also the human individual who happens to be the bearer of this peculiar commodity.

In disposing of a man’s labor power the system would, incidentally, dispose of the physical, psychological, and moral entity “man” attached to that tag. Robbed of the protective covering of cultural institutions, human beings would perish from the effects of social exposure; they would die as the victims of acute social dislocation through vice, perversion, crime, and starvation. Nature would be reduced to its elements, neighborhoods and landscapes defiled, rivers polluted, military safety jeopardized, the power to produce food and raw materials destroyed.

Finally, the market administration of purchasing power would periodically liquidate business enterprise, for shortages and surfeits of money would prove as disastrous to business as floods and droughts in primitive society. Undoubtedly, labor, land, and money markets are essential to a market economy. But no society could stand the effects of such a system of crude fictions even for the shortest stretch of time unless its human and natural substance as well as its business organization was protected against the ravages of this satanic mill.


…the market for the factor of production known as labor power…could serve its purpose only if wages fell together with prices. In human terms such a postulate implied for the worker extreme instability of earnings, utter absence of professional standards, abject readiness to be shoved and pushed about indiscriminately, complete dependence on the whims of the market. Mises justly argued that if workers “did not act as trade unionists, but reduced their demands and changed their locations and occupations according to the requirements of the labour market, they could eventually find work.” This sums up the position under a system based on the postulate of the commodity character of labor. It is not for the commodity to decide where it should be offered for sale, to what purpose it should be used, at what price it should be allowed to change hands, and in what manner it should be consumed or destroyed.

Here’s a good quote from a more recent thinker:

The 19th and 20th century experience of liberalism has shown us that we can’t conceive of society similarly to the market. We have to start thinking differently or we will fall for the first demagogue that comes along. The state has to be responsive to the weakest sections, which is not how the market works. We need a new social compact of social welfarist democracies. It is politically catastrophic to have huge concentrations of wealth with miserable conditions for large sections of society.

We Can’t Think of Society As Similar to the Market: Pankaj Mishra (The Wire)

This excellent article by Charles High Smith makes a point very similar to the Great Transformation: What Would a Labor-Centered Economy Look Like? (Of Two Minds). He points out that capital only acquires value in a healthy society. It is not an intrinsic property of nature like mass or length. In order to acquire value in markets, capital must be sustained by all sorts of extra-market forces which comprise a healthy society, from social trust to shared institutions. But such things cannot exist in a “pure” market society envisioned by libertarians and Neoliberals; everything must be for sale in markets! It is self contradictory, and a recipe for collapse.

Smith describes many different types of capital. First there is the obvious – tangible items such as land, raw materials, manufactured goods, plants, factories, buildings, crops, and so forth. There is also the financial capital brought about through systems of money, credit and banking. Market liberals typically deal deal only with these. But there are other forms of “capital” that are even more important.

There is also human capital, that is, the know-how to utilize the raw materials effectively. After all, the market is not just goods, but services and inventions made possible through collective human knowledge and accumulated experience. The social connections and shared trust between people that allows any economic exchange to take place is social capital. The prior investments in infrastructure needed to mobilize resources—roads, bridges, canals, ports, dams, the electric grid, natural gas pipelines, broadband and cellular services, etc.—is infrastructure capital. This, too, is necessary; many countries without this form of capital cannot utilize their resources effectively which is one reason why third-world agriculture is so much much less productive than our own. This type of capital is not a product of “rugged individualists,” it is a collective project of a healthy, functioning society.

Conceptual underpinnings, such a standard money measurement (and even other forms of measurement such as the metric system, time zones, voltage, etc.), credit systems, legal and justice systems, corporate charters, and the like, are symbolic capital. The network of scientific journals and research institutions can be seen as a form of symbolic capital, for example, and one which has dramatically contributed to human well-being. Yet these things are intangible and not owned or controlled by any one person or corporation. No single person can “invent” a dollar or a kilometer, since it can only acquire value in a society, yet such things are essential for an advanced economy to function.

Finally, there is cultural capital. As Smith describes, “This is the network of trust and productive values that enable all the other kinds of capital to blossom and work together in a mutually beneficial system. A tool or factory or plot of land does not come with cultural capital. Tools without any cultural capital are left to rust.”

Smith’s crucial argument is that all of these forms of capital are required for the capital studied by economists to acquire value! Yet, many of these forms of capital exist “outside” the market – they cannot be owned or controlled by any single individual or corporation. And many such extra-market activities are not profitable by their very nature! No one has children for profit, for example. Yet a “pure” market society cannibalizes and undermines all these other forms of capital, meaning that it is self-liquidating, exactly as Polanyi described:

…the first thing we notice about cultural capital is that it resides in people, not credit or tools or even knowledge. Yes, this is a shocking development: people are required for capital to become productive…We call human effort labor…

The problem with that is most of human life and activity is unprofitable. How about beautifying your neighborhood? Have you noticed that impoverished neighborhoods tend to be ugly and run-down, and wealthy neighborhoods tend to be attractive and well-maintained? Where’s the profit in creating neighborhood beauty?

Is Google making billions of dollars from beautifying neighborhoods? How about McDonalds, or Amazon, or Apple or Netflix? If it was really profitable, wouldn’t these global corporations be all over it?

It turns out profits only flow from very specific kinds of things and services. The rest of human life has to be done by people who aren’t doing the work to maximize profit, because there is no profit in the work they’re performing…

Remember: new idea = symbolic capital that enables all the other forms of capital to work together more productively.

What Would a Labor-Centered Economy Look Like? (Of two Minds)

The point is clear: an environment in which profits can be made cannot be separated from a healthy society. When societies break down, when the governments libertarians despise with such vehemence are throttled back, profits do not soar, but wither and die. Social trust breaks down, people separate into warring camps, agreed upon standards such as a common currency disappear, cultural institutions such as legal systems break down, symbolic capital like credit and scientific inquiry fall apart, and crime becomes rampant. It becomes rule by the powerful—so-called gangster states (such as post-collapse Russia or Somalia). All these “unprofitable” activities and institutions make profits possible, and yet they are not owned or sustained by any one person! This is why all previous societies before the rise of our own American Ayn Rand-infused libertarianism have understood as self-evident the duty of the rich and powerful to maintain a healthy society through some level noblesse oblige. However, the new, modern conception of the Market is basically unalloyed Social Darwinism—quite literally Hobbes’ “war of all against all.”

Neoliberalism, in seeing housing, people, and even political offices, as simply commodities to be bought and sold in “free” markets, is causing society to fall apart. It is no surprise, then, that even growth and profits have been much lower under this system than under the more “embedded” economies of the immediate post-war period, which delivered more growth, equality, and political stability.

Smith goes on to describe the money-creation pyramid through which financial capital is injected into society. Money is typically described by economists as a neutral medium of exchange, a simple convenience to barter–of no consequence to the “natural” laws of economics. Smith demonstrates how false this is. Instead, it is a rigged system that redistributes society’s wealth to a small rentier oligarchy through supposedly impersonal market relations:

…if you give me $1 billion at .01% annual interest, I am instantly wealthy because I can buy assets yielding 3% and keep the 2.99% I earn for myself. In our credit-cartel-state form of capitalism, money is borrowed into existence at the top of the wealth-power pyramid, in central and private banks. Some modest amount of this new money trickles down the pyramid, but as you can see, not very much trickles down to all the people doing all the work that isn’t profitable, or to all the people without access to the nearly-free-money that’s available to those at the very top of the pyramid.

Now we know that instead of “trickling down” to the bombed-out Bantustans and rusting Magnetogorsks of the Heartland, that money goes to procure 400,000 acres of prime New Zealand real estate and escape helicopters complete with full-time, on-staff pilots. How long before even Republicans and libertarians get wise to the con? Indeed, as the Wall Street Journal reports, corporations are doing everything in their power to create as few new jobs as possible!

Never before have American companies tried so hard to employ so few people. The outsourcing wave that moved apparel-making jobs to China and call-center operations to India is now just as likely to happen inside companies across the U.S. and in almost every industry.

The men and women who unload shipping containers at Wal-Mart Stores Inc. warehouses are provided by trucking company Schneider National Inc.’s logistics operation, which in turn subcontracts with temporary-staffing agencies. Pfizer Inc. used contractors to perform the majority of its clinical drug trials last year….

The shift is radically altering what it means to be a company and a worker. More flexibility for companies to shrink the size of their employee base, pay and benefits means less job security for workers. Rising from the mailroom to a corner office is harder now that outsourced jobs are no longer part of the workforce from which star performers are promoted…

For workers, the changes often lead to lower pay and make it surprisingly hard to answer the simple question “Where do you work?” Some economists say the parallel workforce created by the rise of contracting is helping to fuel income inequality between people who do the same jobs.

“The End of Employees” (Naked Capitalism)

Combine this with the BBC article above, and we clearly see that society is coming apart.

Fearing some catastrophe – particularly since the election of Donald Trump – increasing numbers of the wealthy have been buying boltholes in places such as New Zealand, where they hope they might escape any disaster. But the evidence shows that greater equality makes societies more resilient and adaptable, better able to deal with shocks and uncertainty. That was why Britain’s leaders reduced inequalities in both world wars. They wanted to make people feel the burden of war was fairly shared and gain their participation in the war effort. As we face the threats of climate change and growing political and international uncertainty, reducing inequality becomes a necessity.

Studies have shown that people in more equal societies are more willing to help each other, trust each other, and to take part in community life. The evidence also suggests that they are less out for themselves and more responsive to the common good. But with rising inequality all that fades: trust and community life decline and violence increases. And in some of the most unequal countries, such as Mexico and South Africa, you find that people fear each other. Windows and doors are barred, and garden walls are topped with razor wire or electric fences. Studies of the rich democracies show that higher inequality leads to a higher proportion of the labour force working as security staff or in the police or prisons – occupations needed to protect ourselves from each other.

Prepare for the worst: this inequality rift will tear our society apart (Guardian)

Smith proposes injecting wealth at the bottom of the pyramid instead of the top:

So here’s a new idea: why not create new money at the bottom of the pyramid when people perform useful work in their communities? How about paying people for being producers, rather than paying them to be consumers…what would a labor-centered economy look like?

1. New money would be created at the bottom of the pyramid, in the accounts of people doing useful work in their communities. (The usual global corporations would continue making billions of dollars in profits from doing whatever highly profitable work was available.)

2. Being productive in terms of creating and sustaining cultural and infrastructure capital would be compensated; consumption of corporate goods and services would take care of itself without subsidies like guaranteed basic income.

3. Labor would be paid for being productive, and capital would serve labor.

I’m not sure I understand the mechanism he proposes–he mentions something about cryptocurrencies? To me, it seems that what this calls for something like the Job Guarantee we talked about a few posts ago, but perhaps Smith’s libertarian distaste for government is stopping him from proposing this idea.

In any case, clearly something must be done. The status quo is unsustainable. Yet, to date, I don’t see any real solutions inside the Overton Window. The current administration’s plan seems to be the ad-hoc elimination of taxes for selected large corporations in a quid-pro-quo exchange for preserving or expanding domestic employment. I doubt such an approach will deliver much success, especially with increasing automation and telecommunications as described above. Then what?