One of the books I cited in my review of Walter Scheidel’s The Great Leveler was Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil, Fuels by Ian Morris.
Ian Morris is part of the “Stanford School,” a loosely-affiliated group of scholars attempting to quantify history to come up with long-term patterns and trends. Inequality, for example, is measured by the Gini coefficient. Historians then attempt to define Gini coefficients through time in order to determine the levels of inequality and their change over the course of history. This presents obvious difficulties, as many pre-industrial economies were not heavily monetized. Instead, they were run through more traditional means such as reciprocity, redistribution and householding. Markets were tangential places where people dipped in and out of as needed. Some occupations, like merchants and traders, spent most of their time there. Others, like peasants or religious and military leaders, spent considerably less time interacting with it.
Nevertheless, attempts to quantify historical data such as Gini coefficients over time are engaged in by people like Walter Schiedel and Morris. The Great Leveler, for example, has sections devoted to explaining just how inequality was determined for the purposes of the book. I omitted these from my review because were not relevant to casual readers, and those curious about in the nitty-gritty can read it for themselves in the book.
Morris takes quantification even further than Scheidel. He uses the general criteria developed by the UN to measure civilizational development (energy capture per capita, organization, information technology, and war-making capacity) and applies them to societies throughout history from the Stone Age to the present-day in order to compare developments between various civilizations over time. He even published an entire book on these methods called The Measure of Civilization, in 2013.
There are problems with this approach, however, as Graeber and Wengrow point out:
Let us leave Morris’ prescriptions aside but just focus on one figure: the Palaeolithic income of $1.10 a day. Where exactly does it come from? Presumably the calculations have something to do with the calorific value of daily food intake. But if we’re comparing this to daily incomes today, wouldn’t we also have to factor in all the other things Palaeolithic foragers got for free, but which we ourselves would expect to pay for: free security, free dispute resolution, free primary education, free care of the elderly, free medicine, not to mention entertainment costs, music, storytelling, and religious services? Even when it comes to food, we must consider quality: after all, we’re talking about 100% organic free-range produce here, washed down with purest natural spring water. Much contemporary income goes to mortgages and rents. But consider the camping fees for prime Palaeolithic locations along the Dordogne or the Vézère, not to mention the high-end evening classes in naturalistic rock painting and ivory carving – and all those fur coats. Surely all this must cost wildly in excess of $1.10/day, even in 1990 dollars. It’s not for nothing that Marshall Sahlins referred to foragers as ‘the original affluent society.’ Such a life today would not come cheap.
This is all admittedly a bit silly, but that’s kind of our point: if one reduces world history to Gini coefficients, silly things will, necessarily, follow…
How to Change the Course of Human History (Eurozine)
It is the nature of capitalist economies to commodify resources that agrarian and preindustrialist societies typically got for free. Thus, the commodification is recorded as a net benefit, but the loss of the free stuff is unaccounted for in the balance-sheet calculus, distorting the measures of “progress.”
In fact, much of capitalist economic growth is simply commodification: turning things into salable commodities in order to distribute them via markets and money, thus producing something quantifiable where there was none before. However, the overall qualify of life is not affected, or even reduced (since you must now sell your labor to earn the money to purchase the things you once got for free or nearly free).
Also, many other things, such as the decline of social capital and loss of natural resources are not included at all in the final tally. Such things are also notoriously difficult to measure. Yet any true accounting of wealth, for example, must subtract losses from gains. If you “gain” ten million dollars, but owe eleven million in debt, you have not gained much at all. Yet, by excluding debts, I could produce a very comforting graph of your income over time.
That is, there are some things that can’t be properly measured or quantified (or to quote the old credit card slogan, “There are some things that money can’t buy.”). This is also a major problem with Steven Pinker’s exhaustive number-crunching defense of Neoliberalism, but that’s a topic for another post.
For his next book after MoC–Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels, Morris focuses on energy capture as the chief determinate of social complexity. This alone should endear him to students of energy and peak oil/resources. Unlike most conventional economists and historians, he does not argue that Malthusian constraints were overcome solely by the application of capitalist institutions—for example, “free and open” markets, sacrosanct private property, the division of labor, banking, insurance, wage labor, corporations, stock markets and so on. Indeed, those existed since ancient times. Rather, he correctly attributes it to energy capture. That is, he believes, as do I, that capitalist institutions and scientific advancement were a result of increasing energy capture in Northwest Europe, and not their cause. Capitalist institutions alone would never have provided an escape from Malthusian constraints. In this regard, he has the arrow of cause and effect pointing the right way. He does, however, not follow this idea to its logical conclusion, as we’ll see later.
But Morris’ book is not about economics. Rather, it’s about values. The core thesis of the book is that any civilization’s core values were determined by the amount of energy they were able to capture and utilize. Thus, for example, foraging societies were far more egalitarian than farming ones, because resources depended upon natural bounty rather than human labor, and cannot be commodified. High geographic mobility precluded elite hoarding. The lack of heritable wealth ensured equality, and the diffusion of the use of deadly force throughout society prevented coercion by aspiring elites.
Subsequently, he argues that every civilization has a natural, or “Goldilocks” level of inequality which is determined by its method of energy capture. Too little inequality, and it does not function; too much and the society will break down. He makes this point in an article for the New York Times:
Economists often measure inequality using the Gini coefficient, a scale running from 0 to 1, in which 0 means that everyone in a society has exactly the same wealth, and 1 means that one person has everything and no one else has anything. Anthropological studies of foraging societies suggest that their Gini coefficients for income and accumulated wealth both averaged around 0.25. In farming societies, however, the average income inequality almost doubled, to 0.45. The Roman Empire scored around 0.43, England in 1688 about 0.47, and France on the eve of the Revolution an eye-watering 0.59. Inequality in accumulated wealth increased even more, regularly topping 0.80…[J]ust as in the farming and foraging worlds before it, our fossil fuel world has a “right” level of inequality, and societies that move toward it will flourish, while those that move the other way will not. Successful governments know this and apply taxation and other measures to push economic inequality toward what they hope is the sweet spot…If the twists and turns of economic history over the last 15,000 years and popular will are any guide, the “right” level of post-tax income inequality seems to lie between about 0.25 and 0.35, and that of wealth inequality between about 0.70 and 0.80.
At the same time, the patterns of the past tend to reveal new questions just as much as they answer old ones. Farming swept away foraging and fossil fuels swept away farming; today, there are signs that the fossil fuel world, in turn, is coming to an end. New energy sources, technologies that break down boundaries between mind and machine, and shifts toward living in virtual rather than physical spaces all threaten to make the 21st century the biggest rupture in history, dwarfing the agricultural and industrial revolutions.
If so, then we should learn another lesson from history: that what works well in one age can fail completely in another. It’s quite possible that a century from now worrying about the right level of inequality for a fossil fuel society might seem as irrelevant as worrying about the right level of inequality for Neanderthals does today.
To Each Age Its Inequality (New York Times)
Morris is, as always, highly readable with plenty references to sources for further reading. The book itself is based on a series of public lectures (the Tanner lectures), and so is approachable and mercifully free of jargon. The book also contains reactions to the lectures from various scholars including Richard Seaford (whose work on Greek money we looked at), philosopher Christine M. Korsgaard, and collapse novelist Margaret Atwood.
The blurb for the lecture states that “the way a society produces energy creates the ‘right’ amount of inequality for it to thrive, from foraging groups to the Roman Empire.”
I was quite put off at first by his seeming value judgment and apparent argument from nature – ie: what happened historically was the most efficient way for it to happen. But listening to the lecture he qualifies this a bit by saying that it isn’t the ‘morally right’ but ‘factually right’ amount of inequality that would allow societies in certain periods to thrive over their competitors.
Essentially, his argument is:
People’s opinions on hierarchy and inequality are based on how they extracted fuel from nature.
Foragers: no wealth or power inequality, but some gender inequality
Farmers: high wealth and power inequality, and high gender inequality
Fossil fuel users: low wealth and power inequality, and low gender inequality
He says that there are some exceptions to these patterns, but that we should look at the most successful examples of each society.
He relates the current economic crises to the fact that we have exceeded some sort of ideal level of inequality for how our economies work. He explains away exceptions to his ‘pattern’ by saying that each society was free to choose whatever system they wanted to, but that what they chose was not necessarily the ‘best level of inequality’ that would allow them to organize large-scale labour.
Most wild animals in nature are foragers, as were all humans until relatively recently. Morris has a good definition of foraging: foragers do not alter or modify the genetic makeup of their subsistence. This allows room to include the large number of foraging societies which clearly cultivated some foods, but did not feel the need for fully-fledged domestication of plants or animals. Morris mentions that anthropologists today talk about a foraging spectrum rather than a “typical” foraging society. Indeed, there is evidence that humans processed and ate–and even stored–annual seeds and grains for thousands of years before they decided to cultivate them via farming. They did know how to domesticate (selectively breed) animals, however, as the dog demonstrates.
Stone Age Britons Were Eating Wheat 2,000 Years Before They Farmed It (NPR)
Stone-age people were making porridge 32,000 years ago (New Scientist)
Foragers need to be highly mobile due to seasonal variations, and while they do significantly alter the environment around them with things like fire-stick farming, for example (unlike previously thought), they do not make large permanent investments in goods, settlements, architecture, infrastructure, and the like. This leads to both low hierarchy and low material inequality. No one bosses foragers around—if anyone tries to become too domineering, their “followers” can just walk away. This keeps despotism in check. Since there is no dynastic wealth to pass along (only embodied wealth), foragers are very politically egalitarian, even “fiercely” so.
The major exceptions to this rule are the so-called affluent foragers. Morris uses the Native American Pacific Northwest cultures, the prehistoric Baltic and the Jōmon around the Sea of Japan as examples of this. These are foragers whose locations were so rich in natural resources that could live much like farmers, with permanent settlements of several hundred people, hereditary leaders, large objects and monuments (e.g. oceangoing boats and totem poles), trade networks, slaves, and so forth. But only certain areas were abundant enough to support such cultures without intensive cultivation. Thus, the generalizations of high egalitarianism and low hierarchy are less applicable to these cases:
There are two partial exceptions to this generalization, both of which seem to prove the rule. The first comes from a handful of prehistoric sites that do preserve evidence of wealth inequality, above all, Sungir in eastern Russia. Here, excavators found a group of burials dating around 26,000 BC. Most held few or no grave goods, but two—one containing a fifty-year-old man, the other a boy in his early teens and a slightly younger girl—stood out sharply. More than 13,000 carved mammoth ivory beads had been sewn into their clothes. Around the bodies were dozens of ivory ornaments, including a little carving of a mammoth and several spears, and more than 250 fox teeth adorned the man’s hat and boy’s belt…Why Sungir produced these unique finds remains unclear, although it seems a safe bet that it was a special mammoth-hunting spot; what is clear, though, is that the wealth took the form of tiny, eminently portable objects that could easily be carried from one hunting spot to the next. Sungir perhaps shows that under the right circumstances-where there were rich resources that could be converted to portable forms-economic and perhaps political hierarchies could develop among foragers. pp. 36-37
The second set of exceptions comes…from the prosperous foragers of North Americas Pacific Coast. For several centuries, abundant wild food (especially fish) allowed these foragers to live in semipermanent villages, sometimes with hundreds of residents. Because they stayed in one place for much of the year, they found it worthwhile not only to build houses but also to accumulate possessions, and some people built and accumulated much more than others. The hunting and gathering were so rich here, it would seem, that the Chumash, Nootka, Kwakiutl, and other groups could even break the Sungir rule, progressing from small, portable riches to large, immovable ones. p. 37
The values of foragers are probably well-known by now. Hierarchies are very low, and not permanent. There are indeed “hierarchies of competence” as Jordan Peterson might put it, but there were no hereditary leaders, institutional leaders, bureaucrats, plutocrats or permanent serfs:
Everywhere from the Arctic to Australia, ethnographers have commented on foragers’ aversion to political hierarchy. (In the excellent Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunter-Gatherers, for instance almost all the contributors observe that the people about whom they are writing have no institutionalized leaders.) As usual, there are exceptions, mostly among societies whose food supply permits groups hundreds strong to live together; although some archaeologists claim that even these groups were in reality less hierarchical than they appear.
Foragers almost everywhere would probably have understood the answer that the anthropologist Richard Lee received when he asked a !Kung’ San forager in the Kalahari Desert about the apparent absence of chiefs: “Of course we have headmen! In fact, we’re all headmen. Each one of us is headman over himself!” It is, in fact, closely paralleled by what a forager half a world away in Tierra del Fuego told another anthropologist: “Yes, senor, we, the Dna, have many chiefs. The men are all captains and the women are sailors.”
Foraging groups sometimes have to make important collective decisions, particularly about where to move next in the endless quest for food, but most groups have developed methods that make it difficult for one person or even one small group to seize control of the decision-making process. The most popular solution is to discuss every decision over and over again in subgroups, until a consensus begins to take shape, and at that point, even the strongest-willed dissenters tend to tum into yes-men and get on board with majority opinion. p. 34
In their article, Graeber and Wengrow argue that prehistoric hierarchy was fluid--this is, it came and went depending upon factors like the location and season. That is, there was no fixed level of inequality, and furthermore, hierarchy was not directly correlated with scale. They take issue with the “directional” determinism version of history promulgated by people like Morris, Jared Diamond, Walter Scheidel and many others:
…Most of the Palaeolithic sites…are associated with evidence for annual or biennial periods of aggregation, linked to the migrations of game herds – whether woolly mammoth, steppe bison, reindeer or (in the case of Göbekli Tepe) gazelle – as well as cyclical fish-runs and nut harvests. At less favourable times of year, at least some of our Ice Age ancestors no doubt really did live and forage in tiny bands. But there is overwhelming evidence to show that at others they congregated en masse within …‘micro-cities’ … feasting on a super-abundance of wild resources, engaging in complex rituals, ambitious artistic enterprises, and trading minerals, marine shells, and animal pelts over striking distances.
Western European equivalents of these seasonal aggregation sites would be the great rock shelters of the French Périgord and the Cantabrian coast, with their famous paintings and carvings, which similarly formed part of an annual round of congregation and dispersal…alternations of this kind may be key to understanding the famous Neolithic monuments of Salisbury Plain, and not just in terms of calendric symbolism. Stonehenge…was only the latest in a very long sequence of ritual structures, erected in timber as well as stone, as people converged on the plain from remote corners of the British Isles, at significant times of year…Keeping their herds of cattle, on which they feasted seasonally at nearby Durrington Walls, the builders of Stonehenge seem likely to have been neither foragers nor farmers, but something in between. And if anything like a royal court did hold sway in the festive season, when they gathered in great numbers, then it could only have dissolved away for most of the year, when the same people scattered back out across the island.
Why are these seasonal variations important? Because they reveal that from the very beginning, human beings were self-consciously experimenting with different social possibilities. Anthropologists describe societies of this sort as possessing a ‘double morphology’. Marcel Mauss, writing in the early twentieth century, observed that the circumpolar Inuit, ‘and likewise many other societies . . . have two social structures, one in summer and one in winter, and that in parallel they have two systems of law and religion’. In the summer months, Inuit dispersed into small patriarchal bands in pursuit of freshwater fish, caribou, and reindeer, each under the authority of a single male elder. Property was possessively marked and patriarchs exercised coercive, sometimes even tyrannical power over their kin. But in the long winter months, when seals and walrus flocked to the Arctic shore, another social structure entirely took over as Inuit gathered together to build great meeting houses of wood, whale-rib, and stone. Within them, the virtues of equality, altruism, and collective life prevailed; wealth was shared; husbands and wives exchanged partners under the aegis of Sedna, the Goddess of the Seals.
Another example were the indigenous hunter-gatherers of Canada’s Northwest Coast, for whom winter – not summer – was the time when society crystallised into its most unequal form, and spectacularly so. Plank-built palaces sprang to life along the coastlines of British Columbia, with hereditary nobles holding court over commoners and slaves, and hosting the great banquets known as potlatch. Yet these aristocratic courts broke apart for the summer work of the fishing season, reverting to smaller clan formations, still ranked, but with an entirely different and less formal structure. In this case, people actually adopted different names in summer and winter, literally becoming someone else, depending on the time of year.
Perhaps most striking, in terms of political reversals, were the seasonal practices of 19th-century tribal confederacies on the American Great Plains – sometime, or one-time farmers who had adopted a nomadic hunting life. In the late summer, small and highly mobile bands of Cheyenne and Lakota would congregate in large settlements to make logistical preparations for the buffalo hunt. At this most sensitive time of year they appointed a police force that exercised full coercive powers, including the right to imprison, whip, or fine any offender who endangered the proceedings. Yet as the anthropologist Robert Lowie observed, this ‘unequivocal authoritarianism’ operated on a strictly seasonal and temporary basis, giving way to more ‘anarchic’ forms of organisation once the hunting season – and the collective rituals that followed – were complete.
Scholarship does not always advance. Sometimes it slides backwards. A hundred years ago, most anthropologists understood that those who live mainly from wild resources were not, normally, restricted to tiny ‘bands.’ That idea is really a product of the 1960s, when Kalahari Bushmen and Mbuti Pygmies became the preferred image of primordial humanity for TV audiences and researchers alike. As a result we’ve seen a return of evolutionary stages…By this logic…the Cheyenne or Lakota would have had to be ‘evolving’ from bands directly to states roughly every November, and then ‘devolving’ back again come spring. Most anthropologists now recognise that these categories are hopelessly inadequate, yet nobody has proposed an alternative way of thinking about world history in the broadest terms…
‘Large populations’, [Jared] Diamond opines, ‘can’t function without leaders who make the decisions, executives who carry out the decisions, and bureaucrats who administer the decisions and laws. Alas for all of you readers who are anarchists and dream of living without any state government, those are the reasons why your dream is unrealistic: you’ll have to find some tiny band or tribe willing to accept you, where no one is a stranger, and where kings, presidents, and bureaucrats are unnecessary’. A dismal conclusion, not just for anarchists, but for anybody who ever wondered if there might be some viable alternative to the status quo. But the remarkable thing is that, despite the smug tone, such pronouncements are not actually based on any kind of scientific evidence. There is no reason to believe that small-scale groups are especially likely to be egalitarian, or that large ones must necessarily have kings, presidents, or bureaucracies. These are just prejudices stated as facts.
How to Change the Course of Human History (Eurozine)
As a aside, the calendrical nature of these rituals necessitated some sort of ritual timekeeping function, and this was probably undertaken by certain chiefs who likely used notches in bones to do so, forming the very first “managerial class” that would eventually develop writing and standardization as societies became more complex. The first cities likely evolved out of the ritual meeting sites Graeber and Wengrow describe above, with permanent temples coming to be situated in such favorable locations,as Michael Hudson describes:
The physical orientation and cosmological symbolism of archaic cities, their streets, gates, and the architectural character of their public structures reflect their role as sanctified commercial and ritual meeting places and temple areas long before centralized warmaking, political control and taxation developed. As commercial entrepots they functioned as havens both in the sense of ports (German Hafen, as in what Karl Polanyi called “ports of trade”) and as asylums, literally havens from the surrounding land.
The localization of specialized meeting areas for ritual and exchange may be found as early as the Ice Age, and later in sacred groves and seasonal gathering spots. These sites were occasional rather than year‑round settlements. It therefore is appropriate to view them as social constructs independent of their scale, performing urban functions long before they came to grow substantially in size and attract year-round settled populations…
From Sacred Enclave to Temple City (Michael Hudson)
However, gender equality is not much in evidence among foragers–men and women are not considered to be equals. In every society, men control the political decisions, and the duties of men and women are clearly differentiated and demarcated. Often they are spatially segregated as well (e.g, men’s houses, exclusion of menstruating women, etc.). They had no notion that men and women are, or should be “equal” as we do in our Western, industrial societies (note: “equal” does not mean biologically identical).
Social scientists continue to argue over why men normally hold the upper hand in forager societies. After all, evolutionists point out, biology seems to have dealt women better cards. Sperm and eggs are both essential to reproduction, but sperm are abundant (the typical young man produces about one thousand per second) and therefore cheap, while eggs are scarce (the typical young woman makes one per month) and therefore expensive. Women ought to be able to demand all kinds of services from men in return for access to their eggs. To some extent, this does happen, and male foragers contribute substantially more to childrearing than male chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, or orangutans (our genetic nearest neighbors).
However, some anthropologists speculate, the reason that the price women can demand almost never includes political or economic authority is that semen is not the only thing male foragers are selling. Because men are also the main providers of violence, women need to bargain for protection; because men are the main hunters, women need to bargain for meat; and because hunting together often trains men to cooperate and trust one another, individual women often find themselves negotiating with cartels of men. pp. 39-40
Whatever the details, though, the outcome is clear enough: forager bands are male-dominated, but rarely have steep gender hierarchies. Abused wives regularly just walk away from their husbands without much fuss or criticism, and attitudes toward marital fidelity and premarital female virginity tend to be quite relaxed. As Nisa saw it, “When you are a woman, you don’t just sit still and do nothing-you have lovers.” Promiscuity certainly does cause problems, and can lead to wifebeating and fighting between male rivals for a woman’s affections, but people who are seen as overreacting to infidelity will be mocked, and sexual escapades rarely lead to permanent stigma.
The shallowness of gender hierarchies and the weakness of marital ties, like the shallowness and weakness of economic and political hierarchies, seem to be a direct consequence of the nature of foraging as a method of energy extraction. The food that women gather is vitally important, especially near the equator, where plants make up such a large proportion of most foragers’ diets. But the ethos of sharing normally means that all members of a group will have access to this. The main reason that male foragers generally care less than male farmers about controlling women-and particularly about controlling women’s s reproduction-is that foragers have much less to inherit than farmers. For most foraging societies, wild foods are equally available to all, regardless of who their parents are. Consequently, material success depends much more on skill at hunting, gathering, and coalition-building than on physical property that can be passed down between generations, which in rum means mat questions about the legitimacy of children matter a lot less than they do when only legitimate offspring will inherit land and capital.pp. 40-41
Because there is no monopoly on violence, overall rates of interpersonal violence tend to be higher than in larger, more complex societies, despite not having anything to fight over (some might take issue with this). Because population densities are so low, anthropologists mistakenly thought levels of violence were low too, since they did not record many violent incidents. But as Morris notes, just one homicide every fifteen years in such small bands is enough to give you a homicide rate higher than the most crime-ridden ghettos today! While there is no large-scale warfare or conscription as we know it, there are interpersonal conflicts. These tend to revolve, more often than not, around reproductive access:
That said, arguments between men over women do seem more likely to end violently among foragers than among farmers (and much more likely than among fossil-fuel users). Some anthropologists do dispute this, arguing that when male foragers fight over women they are “really’ arguing about access to food or territory, with women just providing flashpoints and a convenient language for talking about more profound rivalries. No doubt there are cases in which that is true, but on the whole, foragers are so consistent in blaming violence on men’s arguments over women that it is hard not to suspect that they know what they are talking about. Among the Yanomami and Waorani (who both live in the Upper Amazon and combine horticulture and foraging), there is even evidence that men who are more violent have more sexual partners and children than men who are less violent. p. 41
To me, this issue of scale makes homicide statistics rather meaningless, but scholars such as Steven Pinker make a great deal of such facts in their writings celebrating modern industrial society and denigrating earlier forms of social arrangements. This quote is from Christine M. Korsgaard’s essay echoes some of my objections:
My other thought is that there are now, among us, people who design designer drugs, people who spend their time devising advertisements aimed at luring young people into smoking, people who try to save themselves a little money by using risky inferior ingredients in products on which people’s lives depend, and many other people who lure others to their deaths, or put them at grave risk of death, from motives of profit, without ever wrapping their own hands around a gun or a knife. My guess is that when social scientists tally up the number of people who die by violence, the victims of these people are not included. Yet the people who kill these victims are surely just as much killers as those who take the gun or the knife in hand. This makes me wonder just how useful “violence” is as a morally significant category. In the modem world, we do a lot of things less directly by hand, including injuring and killing. p. 197
Here, Morris gets a bit more controversial. He argues that farming societies were generally very accepting of extreme inequality, viewing it as necessary all along the social spectrum, from the leaders all the way down to the serfs. That is, “some were born to command, and others to obey.” Because work had to be performed by muscle-power—either human or animal—slavery and many other forms of coerced labor—and their inverse, despotic leadership—were simply a necessary fact of life in farming societies.
Morris calls this the “Old Deal” and says that it came into existence wherever large-scale farming civilizations developed. Despite their surface differences, the underlying moral logic was basically the same: inequality and hierarchy were divinely ordained and good. Morris terms this type of society Agraria, and uses the work of Ernest Gellner as a reference. The diagram I reproduced in the previous posts was Gellner’s map of Agraria’s social structure. Here it is again:
Disparities of wealth are, of course, much more pronounced in agrarian societies than foraging ones. Large investments in land, buildings and infrastructure are are able to be passed down, leading to the origin of dynastic wealth–and hence steep wealth and income disparities. But, Morris argues, this was simply necessary to get such societies to function adequately. Without a clear chain of command, he says, there was no way to do the sorts of things that agrarian societies needed to do (grow and harvest crops, make tools, build infrastructure, field armies, etc.).
Morris’ argument is basically Darwinian: societies that adopted these core values persevered, while the ones that rejected them died out or were assimilated. Societies which were broadly accepting of despotism and inequality–including hereditary inequality– were able to capture more energy, and hence accomplish more things, from building monuments to fielding large armies. The societies around the world who held on to their old values in the face of these changes were unable to resist and were either killed off or assimilated from the most productive parts of the globe. Some evidence has emerged recently that they were, in fact, killed off (with only the women assimilated).
“Farming society” is a huge category, embracing almost the whole of recorded history, but we can nevertheless identify a broadly shared set of moral values within it. At their heart is the idea that hierarchy is good. Hierarchy reflects the natural/divine order, in which some were put on this earth to command, and most to obey. Violence is valued according to the same principle: when legitimate rulers demand it, it is a force for good; otherwise, it is not.
In the earliest farming societies for which we have written evidence–third-millennium BC Mesopotamia and Egypt, late second-millennium BC China, and early first-millennium AD Mesoamerica–the chief anchor of the Old Deal seems to have been the king’s divinity, and even in early complex societies for which we have no useful texts, such as the third-millennium BC Indus Valley or first-millennium BC Andes, the artistic and architectural evidence seems consistent with the same principles. A great chain of being linked the humblest peasant to the supreme beings, via the intercession of priests, nobles, and godlike kings, guaranteeing the fundamental justice of the political and economic hierarchy. There was probably constant conflict between kings and priests to define and control this idea, and on occasions–particularly following the collapse of the Akkadian Empire in Mesopotamia and the Old Kingdom in Egypt around 2200 BC–it seems to have broken down altogether. Not until the first millennium BC, however, and even then only in Eurasia, did new ideas seriously challenge divine kingship as the basis of moral order. p. 79
Farmers’ values were very different from foragers’ because farmers and foragers lived in different worlds. Capturing energy from domesticated sources imposed different constraints and created different opportunities than capturing energy from wild resources. Farmers could survive only in a hierarchical, somewhat pacified world, and they therefore came to value hierarchy and peace. p.92
Did people in these societies embrace grotesque wealth disparities and hereditary leadership roles, or were they just tolerant of them? It’s a good question, and this is a point of contention between Morris and some of his respondents. Some of them seem to veer toward the latter, but Morris argues strongly for the former. He cites examples that demonstrate that peasants–to the the extent that we hear from them in the historical record–were generally okay with inequality and incorporated it into their core value system. In some anecdotes, he notes the behaviors of peasants who were very much concerned with various levels of status, and the behavior engendered by them. They didn’t like corruption, however, and when they complained it was about violation of the “old Deal” and not inequality per se.
People now lived in close contact, and due to investments in their environment could no longer move away when disputes arose. To deal with this, legitimate violence was centralized in the person of the ruler; blood-feuds and vendettas were replaced with laws enforced by the chief or priest-king. Retributive justice was replaced by restorative justice in the form of fees and fines determined by the ruling class (which as we’ve seen, likely led to the development of money and markets as opposed to random barter). Most ancient law was based on the Lex Talionis principle.
But if farming turned high rates of violence into a problem, it also provided the solution. Foragers living in a relatively empty landscape always had the option of running away from aggression and hunting and gathering in a new place, but farmers, trapped in increasingly crowded landscapes, did not. As a result, farmers who won wars against their neighbors sometimes ended up incorporating the losers into a larger society. This was a brutal process, usually involving rape, pillage, and enslavement, but over time, it created bigger societies, whose rulers-as Gellner said of Agraria- “are interested in extracting taxes, maintaining the peace, and not much else.” Rulers had strong incentives to pacify their subjects, persuading them to work hard, render unto Caesar what was Caesar’s, and not to kill one another or destroy each other’s productive assets. Rulers who succeeded in pacification tended to flourish at the expense of those who did not, and, over the course of ten thousand years, the net effect was that rulers gradually drove down rates of violent death.
To accomplish these goals, rulers needed to convince their subjects that government alone had the right to use violence-that, as Weber put it, “only certain political communities, viz, the ‘states:,’ are considered to be capable of ‘ legitimizing,’ by virtue of mandate or permission, the exercise of physical coercion by any other community.” The main tool available to a government trying to persuade its subjects that it is the only group permitted to act violently is law, but the legitimacy of law itself ultimately rests on the government’s comparative advantage in force:
For the purpose of threatening and exercising such coercion, the fully matured political community has developed a system of casuistic rules to which that particular “legitimacy is imputed. This system of rules constitutes the “legal order; and the political community is regarded as its sole normal creator, since that community has, in modem times, normally usurped the power to compel by physical coercion respect for chose rules. pp. 89-91
The historian Martin Ceadel suggests that “fatalism” is a good description of worldwide attitudes toward violence before the eighteenth century AD. Many people (especially Axial Age religious leaders) preached against violence, and most civilizations developed subtle and often self-serving distinctions between just and unjust wars, but there was broad agreement that the use of force by legitimate authorities was necessary, and could even be admirable. Not until the eighteenth century, and even then only in Europe and its North American colonies, do we see a real break with this pattern of values. New ideas–that war is unnatural, that man in his natural state was peaceful–bubbled up just as the broader critiques of political, economic, and gender hierarchies were beginning, and in the 1790s, a Peace Society in industrializing Britain publicly and noisily opposed war against France on principle. pp. 131-132
Just as the affluent foragers in riverine and other environments provided an exception to the general forager pattern, so, too, did Agraria have it’s major exception: city-states. Morris, a classical archaeologist, has some interesting things to say about Classical city-states (which deserve a post of their own). In brief, he says that due to their trading patterns, they were able to capture and utilize more energy than farming societies, and thus achieve much higher degrees of material wealth and cultural development, in some cases rivaling (and prefiguring) later Industrial societies. These city states existed at many places and times throughout history, with Athens being probably the best-known. Rome started out this way as well in the beginning—it may have even been a refuge for fugitives from other parts of Italy and beyond:
The miraculous exceptions…were mostly city-states. In the farming societies of later prehistory, networks of such city-stares were probably common: in Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus and Ganges Valleys, the Yellow River Valley, Peru, Yucatan, and the Valley of Mexico, city-state networks seem to have flourished until one city-state outgrew the others, conquered them, and swallowed them up into a larger Agraria. In some cases, though, particularly in Europe and the Mediterranean (ancient Phoenicia, and Italy; medieval Italy, Flanders, and the Baltic) and the oases of central Asia and the Sahara, city-state systems survived and even flourished into historically documented periods around the edges of the great empires.
Nearly all these textually documented city-states shared one important feature: a commercial, and usually maritime, orientation. This eased some of the constraints imposed on other societies by the limits of agricultural energy capture. Athens, for instance, imported most of its food in the fourth century BC, using its position at the center of extensive trade networks to increase dramatically the energy available per person. This not only made possible the high population densities mentioned earlier in this chapter, but also sustained economic growth (per capita consumption may have doubled between 800 and 300 BC), leading to real wages that would rarely be matched until the age of fossil fuels. Literacy rates were also extraordinarily high, and Athens enjoyed a cultural explosion that earned it the label “classical.” In many ways, classical Athens, medieval Venice, and several other city-states can seem more modern than agrarian. ..
…we should perhaps see Athens and other city-states as a historically important exception to the larger agrarian pattern…much as the sedentary, affluent, and complex hunter-gatherer societies found in the Pacific Northwest and prehistoric Baltic and Sea of Japan qualify without falsifying the model of forager society… On the one hand, the Kwakiutl and the Athenians both found ways to raise energy capture well above the norm and moved toward unusual social systems that capitalized on this. But on the other hand, sedentary foragers and commercial city-states could flourish only in very specific ecological zones–for the former, coastal zones rich in marine food sources, such as the prehistoric Baltic and Sea of Japan or the historic west coast of North America; for the latter, positions astride trade routes (usually maritime, sometimes riverine, and occasionally overland) supplying bigger empires.
In the final analysis, sedentary foragers could not escape the constraints imposed by hunting and gathering, and commercial city-states were equally confined by those imposed by tilling the earth. Although the size and density of sedentary foraging populations went well beyond what was normal in more mobile foraging groups, none ever broke through to the kind of levels normal in farming societies., and although commercial city-states also supported populations that were large and dense by the standards of farming societies, none ever broke through to the kind of levels common in fossil-fuel societies. pp. 70-71
Not only were they wealthier on average, but city-states were also far more egalitarian than most Agrarias (despite the slaves)—a point Scheidel makes as well. Scheidel attributes this to mass-mobilization warfare where every free male citizen had a duty to defend the city-state from its enemies. Surprisingly, neither of them mention Victor Davis Hanson’s attribution of this egalitarianism to Greek farming practices, which favored small farms and tended to prevent large-scale land consolidation, unlike in later Roman Italy and North Africa. Do they disagree, or are they simply unaware of it? Compare, for example, to the large-scale collaborative labor of Chinese rice farming and their very top-down imperial bureaucracy and god-like emperors.
Tangentially, one of the other factors that may have also contributed was the nature of Greek weaponry. Greek body armor was actually made not from metal, but, remarkably, from cloth! The Greeks had a technique that made linen into tough cuirasses that could resist metal weapons thrusts. I ran across this interesting discussion by accident.
How to Make Your Own Greek Armor (New Yorker)
But, if true, it explains why so many could afford to participate in warfare if effective types of armor could be manufactured by anyone. It might also explain the high effectiveness of Greek warriors if they were more likely to have been armored (and thus less likely to be killed in battle). I think this remains an understudied phenomenon.
I’d also note that city-states later became the major source of financial innovations as well. These financial innovations lay at the heart of the modern world order. As I wrote earlier this year, the concepts of municipal borrowing (i.e. bonds), double-entry bookkeeping, and state banking were all developed in the medieval city-states of Northern Italy. These were all commercial societies which traded far and wide, particularly in the Mediterranean. Later (1500’s), the Dutch Republics combined the mercantilism of city-states with the political power of a larger confederacy. They took the crucial next steps such as a secondary market for trading government debt, a municipal bank and mint, joint-stock corporations, and a stock exchange. These were exported to England just in time for the Industrial Revolution to start, which we’ll take a look at next.
I’ll have more to say about all this in a seperate post. For now, back to the book.
3. Fossil Fuels
Agraria captured much more energy than foraging societies (Anarchies? Utopias?) did. Nonetheless, it ran up against hard ceilings several times in history and failed to break through; Malthusian constraints always pulled them back down (with city-states reaching the pinnacles of social development). When they did break through, eventually, it was the societies of Northwestern Europe that had turned the North Atlantic–a ‘Goldilocks ocean’ (neither to big or too small)–into something like the Mediterranean had been centuries earlier–a commercial superhighway. Hence, these North Atlantic cultures achieved a high degree of material wealth and cultural development through trade relative to the rest of the world.
The industrial revolution began in the English Midlands where coal was extensivly mined and harnessed in the first heat engines used to pump water from the coal mine shafts. Eventually the heat engines were made far more efficient by adding an adiabatic stroke and separating the steam condensing chamber from the piston. It should also be noted that the increasing production of iron thanks to the invention of coke smelting by Abraham Darby (first developed by the Chinese centuries earlier) also made this revolution possible. With efficient steam engines, plentiful steel, and cheap coal, England was poised to turn the North Atlantic into a “triangular trade” economy. In other words, England became kind of a city-state on the scale of a nation-state, with the New World’s vast plundered resources as the catalyst. England’s “tinkering culture” and high degree of literacy allowed many individuals to take these innovations and run with them, while a sympathetic merchant oligarchy increasingly controlled the state apparatus and made sure that any pushback against these changes was dealt with, by force if necessary (a point conspicuously omitted by Morris). Compare that to China where the upstart merchant oligarchy was typically “dealt with” by the Imperial Confucian bureaucracy if it got too uppity or out of hand, and hence “petty household manufacturing” remained the default mode of production rather than factories.
Agraria withered away and was replaced by Industria, where a new set of values would prevail. In this world, there were no hard-and-fast class divisions (in theory). Citizens are not ranked by birth, and become interchangeable. To emphasize this point, Morris cheekily redraws Gellner’s Agrarian diagram as an empty box to depict the idealized society of Industria:
Of course, Morris admits this is an idealized diagram, and reality often fails to live up to the theory. But the basic idea–that there are no rigidly defined caste systems by virtue of birth–is true in liberal Industrial societies. As the old saying went in Agraria, “You don’t get to be pharaoh by working on the pyramids.” Class distinctions were hard, fast and immutable. In Industria, by contrast, the saying is that “Anyone can be president (or prime minister).” And it’s technically true—if you’re a citizen over age 35, regardless of your race, gender, or access to inherited wealth, there are no legal barriers to you becoming the president of the United States, and most industrial nations are similar (even if they preserve symbolic monarchy as in Britain). Again, in reality, this does not play out so seamlessly and various “political dynasties” tend to form, along with oligarchy and plutocracy. But these are perceived by the public as something “wrong” with the system rather than the natural order of things, which proves Morris’s point.
I would quibble with one thing however. Despite basically restating Marx’s materialist doctrine from a century ago, Morris wants to be a good capitalist. I would argue that Industria has at least one hard-and-fast distinction: between those who own the means of production, and those who sell their labor to them. In capitalist societies, the owners of companies and stocks are in charge; in Communist societies it was the central planners, party leaders and government apparatchiks. But there’s still at least one major class distinction that cannot be erased. However, the border between these two classes is much more “permeable,” and many people sit within multiple classes at the same time—surviving on wages, yet earning some sort of rental and investment income.
As for values, Morris argues that social and political inequality is considered generally bad, unlike in Agraria. Sure, it exists, but is seen as something that is undesirable and must be at least somewhat mitigated. While hierarchies exist, hierarchies by accident of birth are seen as undesirable and illegitimate. Everyone is to be dealt with equally under the law, and at the very least lip-service is paid to this idea.
He describes attitudes toward economic inequality as ‘ambivalent’ (I might say conflicted). There is no desire for total leveling, and outsized rewards are considered a “motivator” for pro-social behaviors, as Mandeville famously stated in the Fable of the Bees. At the same time, extreme inequality is considered bad.
Industria seems to call for a wealth hierarchy that is low (by the standards of Agraria, anyway) but not too low. On the one hand, Industria can flourish only if it has affluent middle and working classes that create effective demand for all the goods and services that fossil-fuel economies generate, but on the other, it also needs a dynamic entrepreneurial class that expects material rewards for providing leadership and management. In response, fossil-fuel values have evolved across the last two hundred years to favor government intervention to reduce wealth equality-but not too much.p. 124
One way to make sense of the intellectual and cultural ferment over economic hierarchy across the last two centuries is to see it as an argument over what “equality” actually means when it comes to wealth. Some people emphasize equality of opportunity, making everyone equally free to truck and barter in the marketplace without too much concern over the resulting distribution of spoils, while others emphasize equality of outcome, favoring regulation of market behavior so that no one can pull too far ahead of the rest. Broadly speaking, classical liberals and libertarians champion equality of opportunity and worry that regulation stifles liberty (and with it economic growth); new liberals and socialists generally champion equality of outcome and worry more that malefactors of great wealth will undermine liberty (and with it economic growth). p. 125
Partisan Divide on Benefit of Having Rich People Expands (Gallup)
Of course, I would quibble that regulation of markets can’t stifle liberty because markets themselves are a form of behavioral regulation. It’s only a question of who the markets are regulated in favor of (which is why there is no such thing as “free trade”). In a society of perfect liberty, all you would have rights to would be what you could secure by force of arms.
Nevertheless, the necessity of having a consuming middle class to buy all the stuff that’s produced causes incomes to more broadly distributed than in peasant farming societies. Older ideas such as hunger making people work harder have been downgraded (with the exception of some quarters of the United States).
Violence as a means of problem solving is drastically curtailed in Industria. Extraordinary powerful centralized states claim a strict monopoly on the use of legitimate force and enforce it ruthlessly. While this was more-or-less true of Agraria, the extraordinary reach and power of the modern state backs it up much more effectively. Here Morris basically regurgiates the basic points and statistics of Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature. The drawbacks of an all-seeing police state remain unexplored, however.
Just as the complex division of labor and long-distance trade that made Agraria possible could not have functioned if farmers had been as violent as foragers, so too Industria’s open space of interchangeable citizens could not function if people still settled their disputes as violently as they did in the farming age. Fossil-fuel society depends on extreme pacification, enforced by Leviathans vastly stronger than anything Hobbes ever imagined (it is no coincidence that the first modern police force was created in early-industrial London in 1828). As so often in the past, people adjusted their values to reflect the new reality they lived in. Farming societies reduced the scope for legitimate use of violence to settle disputes, and fossil-fuel groups have reduced it much further. p. 131
Genders are viewed as more-or-less equal. Over the past century, it has been asserted that women should have all the same rights and opportunities as men and never be treated differently, unlike in Foraging and Farming societies. In fact, much of the conflicts today seems to be between people who favor either agrarian values (hierarchy, deference, strict gender roles, nepotism, moral absolutism, identitarianism) or industrial ones (egalitarianism, cosmopolitanism, gender parity, inclusiveness, moral relativism, skepticism). Forced and coerced labor is considered bad. Chattel slavery has been universally abolished and driven underground, replaced by “fossil slaves.”
Industria spread throughout Northwest Europe, and from there through colonialism, took over much of the planet (one needs to sell one’s goods somewhere, after all). Societies which resisted the values of Industria fell behind (most notably the Middle East), and societies which embraced them expanded and prospered (such as parts of East Asia).
Morris claims that there were two major paths to Industria: liberal and illiberal:
Fossil-fuel societies found two main ways to get from Agraria to Industria, one liberal and the other illiberal. Both paths proceeded by sweeping away the lines in figure 3.6 [Agraria], but they did so in very different ways. The Liberal approach involved declaring Agraria’s boundaries irrelevant and giving everyone, no matter what category they would have belonged to in a farming society, equal freedom and equal rights before the law. If traditional rules about how people should worship, whom they could marry, and what jobs they might do interfered with the growth of the markets that were needed to absorb and exploit the energy released by fossil fuels, then those traditions had to go. The illiberal path, by contrast, aimed not at ignoring difference but at eliminating it, by force if necessary. Consequently, illiberal methods tended to be much more backwardlooking than liberal versions and regularly relied on violence, forced labor, and even updated versions of godlike kingship. The two paths were mutually exclusive, and attempts to combine them were disastrous…pp. 107-108
The first indications of the liberal path appeared around the shores of the North Atlantic in the late seventeenth century, as the intercontinental expansion of markets began pushing up the amount of energy in the system. It was only around 1800, though, as the industrial revolution began in England, that the liberal path really became established…nineteenth-century liberals (or “classical liberals;” as they are often called, to distinguish them from their twentieth-century namesakes) tended to see small government as the best path toward Industria. The basic principle–mocked by the German socialist Ferdinand Lassalle as the “night-watchman state”–was that governments should do as little as possible, enforcing property rights and protecting the nation against attack, but leaving the promotion of the general welfare to free markets. The sheer complexity of fossil-fuel society, however, made it difficult to stick to this principle rigidly. As early as the 1830s, Britain’s government felt compelled to legislate on workplace conditions, and by the 1870s most liberal regimes had legalized trade unions and introduced free compulsory primary education. Some governments even offered saving plans for retirement, public health programs, and unemployment insurance. By the end of the nineteenth century, many Europeans spoke of a “new liberalism;…relying as much on the invisible fist of the state as on the invisible hand of the market to promote the greater good… pp. 110-111
The communist and fascist paths toward Agraria were deeply paradoxical, subjecting their citizens to harsh discipline in the name of creating homogeneous classless societies, deploying huge slave labor forces in the name of economic progress, and even swinging back toward godlike rulers in the name of the people. Despite these contradictions, though, there were several points in the twentieth century-especially the 1930s and 1970s-when the illiberal path toward Industria seemed to be faster than the liberal one, and since the 1980s, China’s post-Maoist reinvention of illiberal development has also produced faster economic growth than the liberal versions (albeit from a lower starting point, and also generating the negative externalities of environmental disaster, massive corruption, and violent protests).
In the end, the liberal path decisively did outperform its major twentieth-century illiberal rivals, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia; and since the Soviet Empire collapsed in 1989-91, representative democracy, rule of law, and free speech have spread rapidly. p. 112
One consequence of the half-century of struggle between liberal and illiberal regimes was a massive expansion of state power in both kinds of societies, as governments tried to mobilize national will and resources. This trend ran directly against the nineteenth-century night-watchman tradition, but did mesh with the “new liberal” tendency to use activist big government to dissolve the distinctions left behind by Agraria. The outcome was the forging of liberal New Deals that replaced the last vestiges of Agraria’s Old Deal in the mid-twentieth century. p. 113
For five thousand years, governments had managed defense, law and order, property rights, and worship, but in the mid- and late twentieth century most New Deal regimes also took responsibility (to greater or lesser degrees) for education, health, employment, and the environment. Some instituted wage and price policies, replacing markets with civil servants; others nationalized vital industries, from coalmining to banking. Bureaucracies and tax rolls ballooned, and steeply progressive income taxes drove income inequality back into a range not seen since the age of foragers…Since the late 1970s, however-for reasons that remain controversial, many fossil-fuel national income distributions have decompressed… p.113-114
The more that fossil-fuel societies have moved toward peace, democracy, open markets, gender equality, and equal treatment before the law, the more they have prospered. Consequently, over the astonishingly short period of two centuries, large parts of the world have moved far from Agraria toward Industria. There is still, of course, a long way to go to reach the truly open social space of figure 4.7 [Industria]; economic elites and organized business groups continue to have much more influence on social policies than ordinary citizens, and a recent study of the prevalence of family names in high-status occupations suggests that Industria still has dearly definable elites of birth. But even so, never before in the course of human history has so much changed so quickly for so many. p. 118
Here, I would quibble as well: strictly speaking, both paths were liberal, just different forms of it.
In an important new book, Why Liberalism Failed, political scientist Patrick Deneen argues that Liberalism-Proper is at the heart of all Industrial Societies, both left and right, yet we don’t notice it, because we’ve implicitly internalized its concepts as just the “normal” order of things. It’s the water in which we swim. But there are increasing signs that it is breaking down and that the center cannot hold.
At the core of Liberalism, as stated above, is the solitary individual who has no inherent distinction or obligations. Deneen argues that the “solitary, lone individual” posited by liberal philosophers (most notably Hobbes and Locke) does not exist in nature—we all come into the world on day one within the context of families, cultures, classes, nationalities, religions and so forth.
And this leads to Deneen’s most important insight: the creation of the completely solitary atomized individual necessary for Industria—interchangeable with every other citizen and free from all social obligations aside from those established by contract—requires a vast expansion of state power! It cannot be otherwise. The lone individual does not exist in nature; it must be created by the state. This is why state and market expand in tandem rather than being antagonistic. For markets to work you need commodities, and you cannot commodify everything under the sun unless you establish ownership claims and prevent the spontaneous formation of other more organic forms of social solidarity which undermine commodification and market exchange.
Northwest European intellectuals quickly moved on to extending the mechanical model from the natural to the social order, looking at politics as a mechanism and asking which kinds of machines would work best. As late as 1700, though, the new thinking’s challenge to the Old Deal remained very limited. Not even John Locke’s famous claim in his Second Treatise of Government–that because man is “by nature all free, equal and independent, no one can be put out of this estate, and subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent”–necessarily required rejection of kingship, aristocracy, or the established church, and in 1688 the English elite brought half a century of conflict to a close not by abandoning the Old Deal but by compromises that enmeshed monarchy in a constitutional web.p. 119
Not until the second half of the eighteenth century did the Old Deal itself come under real pressure. In 1762, when Rousseau announced in The Social Contract that the only source of political legitimacy was the “general will” of the people, he was still very much an eccentric (albeit a literary celebrity), in exile not only from his native Geneva but also from France and the city-state of Berne. Just a quarter of a century later, however, the Founding Fathers of the United States–men deeply enmeshed in the new Atlantic economy–had moved far enough away from the values of Agraria to feel that they could write their new constitution in the name of “We the People,” rather than in the name of God or a king. Just two years after that, the bourgeois gentlemen who gave France a Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen baldly stated that “Law is the expression of the general will.” p. 120
By the 1780s, French and American revolutionaries had become every bit as radical as the men who created democracies in classical Greece, but when fossil fuels began flooding the North Atlantic world with energy, the challenges to the Old Deal really took off. By the mid-nineteenth century, societies that had reorganized themselves co look like figure 4.7 were reaping huge rewards, and values that fitted with this boundary-free structure flourished. By the 1860s, a century after The Social Contract, political values had shifted in most industrializing societies. Elites had come to recognize that grounding political power on the general will rather than tradition or claims to divinity would not bring on anarchy. In fact, they saw, in a community of interchangeable citizens the general will really was the only secure basis for legitimate political authority. pp. 120-121
The problem Deneen identifies is that this philosophy requires intentionally breaking up all social bonds and turning us all into stark competitors which in turn undermines the social capital and collective bonds that all societies need to function properly. Not having orders assigned at birth leads to a vicious arms race for social status, which undermines cooperation necessary to form any kind of human society at all. This leads paradoxically to the Hobbesian “war of all against all.”
Thus liberalism sorts societiy into an ever-smaller circle of “winners” and an ever larger pile of “losers” who are understandably upset at being excluded. As Deneen argues, Liberalism, despite its claim to remove all forms of distinction by birth, has seen the formation of a brand new aristocracy, only this time supposedly based wholly on merit. Yet this new aristocracy is increasingly seen by the majority as being as illegitimate and aloof as the one it replaced.
This article from the Atlantic: The 9.9 Percent are the New Aristocracy, makes a convincing case that the divisions under globalized Neoliberalism are between a 0.01 percent Superclass that can buy and sell politicians; a prosperous cosmopolitan bourgeoisie located in expensive urban and suburban enclaves comprising another 9.9 of affluent citizens, and the 90 percent of “left behinds” in post-industrial, post-Fordist “sacrifice zones” scattered across the world which are increasingly feral and ungovernable.
With the coming of globalism, automation, and AI, it remains an open question as to whether Industria will morph yet again into something else. Here Morris displays a total ignorance of Peak Oil and falls flat on his face.
Morris considers only two scenarios: that his numerical indices will continue to increase at they rate they did for the last couple of centuries leading to the “Singularity” as promoted by Ray Kurzweil. Here Morris embraces the transhumanism promoted by people like Yuval Noah Hariri in his book Homo Deus, where humans become some sort of post-human cyborg and all previous human-centered values will be rendered moot. The only other possibility he considers is a nuclear exchange that ends civilization.
Despite his understanding that energy capture determines the social structure and values, he fails to account for the most likley possiblity–an exhaustion of fossil fuels and a long, slow catabolic collapse back to Agraria as the high energy carbon-based fuels are exhausted due to the fundamental laws of thermodynamics.
I readily concede, though, that no one can foresee how–or whether–we will break through the hard ceiling that limits what is possible for a fossil-fuel economy, just as no one in the past could foresee how or whether foragers would break through the hard ceiling over their economy or farmers that over theirs. In many ways, these three great energy transitions are very similar, and yet–as Margaret Atwood observes in her sparkling commentary–this time really is different. Ten thousand years ago, hundreds of separate societies were experimenting with farming. Most failed to shatter the hard ceiling, bringing on Malthusian tragedies for the people involved, but a few succeeded. Over the last two thousand years, at least five societies have pressed against the upper limits of farming economies; four failed to break through, but the experiments kept going, until in the late eighteenth century Northwest Europeans unleashed a fossil-fuel economy. Today, however, we have a single global experiment, and failure threatens everyone with disaster. p. 261
No one in the past could foresee the future energy brekthroughs because they did not have physics, engineering, and the laws of thermodynamics. If they did, they would have been in Industria already. Today, we have all those things, and we can foresee the future thanks to them.
The literature here is vast, and has been available for years. Everything from the works of M. King Hubbert back in the 1970s, to more recent books by petroleum geologists have made the case that Peak Oil will limit energy extraction. Just because the economy did not revert to the Dark Ages after 2008 does not invalidate the long-term prediction. Why does Morris not examine any of this literature, if only to dismiss it?
I’m guessing its the environment at Stanford University where Morris teaches that informs his transhumanist views. It’s the classic Sinclair Principle: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” For a historian so immersed in quantifiable outcomes, his intransigence is puzzling. I have in my library a slim volume by a professor of engineering at another major California university—the California Institute of Technology (CalTech) called Out of Gas. It’s certainly not the most exhaustive work on Peak Oil, but it does have one of the briefest and clearest descriptions of the issue. In that book, the author, Daniel Goodstein, writes:
Until only two hundred years ago-the blink of an eye on the scale of our history-the human race was able to live almost entirely on light as it arrived from the Sun. The Sun nourished plants, which provided food and warmth for us and our animals. It illuminated the day and (in most places) left the night sky, sparkling with stars, to comfort us in our repose. Back then, a few people in the civilized world traveled widely, even sailing across the oceans, but most people probably never strayed very far from their birthplaces. For the rich, there were beautiful paintings, sophisticated orchestral music, elegant fabrics, and gleaming porcelain. For the common folk, there were more homespun versions of art, music, textiles, and pottery. Merchant sailing ships ventured to sea carrying exotic and expensive cargoes including spices, slaves, and, in summer, ice. At the end of the eighteenth century, no more than a few hundred million people populated the planet. A bit of coal was burned, especially since trees had started becoming scarce in Europe (they soon would begin to disappear in the New World), and small amounts of oil that seeped to the surface found some application, but by and large Earth’s legacy of fossil fuels was left untouched.
Today we who live in the developed world expect illumination at night and air conditioning in summer. We may work every day up to a hundred miles from where we live, depending on multi-ton individual vehicles to transport us back and forth on demand, on roads paved with asphalt (another by-product of the age of oil). Thousands of airline flights per day can take us to virtually any destination on Earth in a matter of hours. When we get there, we can still chat with our friends and family back home, or conduct business as if we had never left the office. Amenities that were once reserved for the rich are available to most people, refrigeration rather than spices preserves food, and machines do much of our hard labor. Ships, planes, trains, and trucks transport goods of every description all around the world. Earth’s population exceeds six billion people. We don’t see the stars so dearly anymore, but on most counts few of us would choose to return to the eighteenth century.
This revolutionary change in our standard of living did not come about by design. If you asked an eighteenth-century sage like Benjamin Franklin what the world really needed, he would probably not have described those things we have wound up with-except perhaps for the dramatic improvement in public health that has also taken place since then. Instead of design or desire, our present standard of living has resulted from a series of inventions and discoveries that altered our expectations. What we got was not what we wanted or needed but rather what nature and human ingenuity made possible for us. One consequence of those inventions and changed expectations is that we no longer live on light as it arrives from the Sun. Instead we are using up the fuels made from sunlight that Earth stored up for us over those many hundreds of millions of years. Obviously we have unintentionally created a trap for ourselves. We will, so to speak, run out of gas. There is no question about that. There’s only a finite amount left in the tank. When will it happen?
David Goodstein; Out of Gas, pp. 24-26
When will it happen? Morris does not even consider the possibility. It’s clear that there will be no new energy breakthrough. Instead, we are keeping Industria going on increasingly low-grade sources of fuel and far-flung sources of energy–something that apparently can continue for quite a while, even as the climate is disrupted. New methods of extracting and producing energy exist, but they cannot sustain the exponential growth that capitalism requires. That is, they cannot scale. Thus we are already seeing the beginnings of profound transformations in social values, with continuing disruptive technological progress adding a further element of change.
As automation and AI erode the economic need for human labor, how will social values evolve? Already we see the outlines of the new ethos as promoted by members of movements like the Alt-right and the “Intellectual Dark Web.” Their arguments are that although the elite class is not endowed with superiority by virtue of their birth, they are endowed with it due to their genetics. Furthermore, they contend, genetics are passed down through generations much like aristocratic titles of old. Hereditarianism and genetic determinism replace divine rights, yet serve the same function—it is used as a justification and an apology for an increasingly “winner take all” approach to wealth distribution. This “meritocracy” will be invoked whenever these outsize rewards are questioned; in other words–“just desserts” is the order of he day. In “free and open” markets, any resentment on the part of “losers” will be chalked up to jealousy and envy towards their betters.
Since genetics are not amenable to tinkering with social policy, safety nets will be seen not as a social good, but rather as impediments to social progress by preventing the necessary culling of the herd. Ruthless competition in the Market will be the end-all and be-all determinant of social value rather than previous concepts such as equal rights and the inherent dignity and worth of every man created in the image of God. Instead of promoting concepts such as leisure and virtue, the new elites will be depicted as hard-working and ultra-productive, with the mass of citizenry depicted as feckless parasites who contribute little (that is, the “chosen few” and the “trivial many”). They will even be depicted as more morally virtuous. Social provisions are already being dismantled all around the world because of Neoliberal austerity policies, leaving citizens increasingly left to fend for themselves in a sort of Neofeudal arrangement.
As we saw above, there is already an emergence of a new tech/financial aristocracy as out-of-touch and intransigent as the old aristocratic elite (“let them eat cell phones”). Institutions such as staggeringly expensive university education and unpaid internships ensure that admission to elite circles is reserved for the already wealthy and well-connected. A new servile class has emerged enabled by digital platforms. Instead of the noblesse oblige of the Old Deal, the new elites have embraced an ethos of pure Objectivism and Social Darwinism. Compassion is seen as a weakness, and competition as the ultimate virtue. The winners of these tournaments are seen as advancing the human race, with the losers as “inferior stock” that must be culled in the name of “progress.” Democracy will be seen as vulgar “mob rule” which interferes with the natural workings of the Market by elites, and it will be stealthily dismantled by transferring decision-making authority to transnational institutions beyond the reach of parochial voters.
Extreme inequality will once again be seen as the natural order of things—something that is just impossible to resolve or even mitigate without the wholesale destruction of society. As for violence, high-tech surveillance technology and the digitization of everything will ensure that violence is ever-more monopolized in the hands of the elites making resistance to the new order effectively impossible.Increasingly, violence will be “passive” rather than active (the disappearance of jobs, withdrawal of health care, ostracism through social media, etc.). Thus, elites can feel like their hands are clean, and will blame the victims’ lack of virtue for their own suffering.
In the long run, as net energy can no longer be sustained and capitalist growth recedes, will we transform into a more fair socialist distribution or regress to Agraria? The popularity of reactionary moments and authoritarianism around the world does not bode well for us. Some Peak Oil writers have argued (notably James Howard Kunstler) that a return to Agraria is inevitable. They argue that Science will be discarded in favor of religion and superstition, and social values will once again revolve around the necessity of coercive labor arrangements and folk tradition. Slavery, indentured servitude, and debtor’s prisons will all make a comeback (as indeed they already have in the U.S.). Social mobility will disappear with a sclerosis of existing caste systems. Even chattel slavery—one of our oldest and most durable institutions—-may yet emerge from its underground tomb. It would have behooved Morris to at least explore these possibilities a little more.
On thing is for sure: our values are not done evolving. Obviously, I don’t think much of Morris’ predictions. However, in another very important book, How Will Capitalism End?, the German sociologist Wolfgang Streeck presents a much more realistic and coherent picture of capitalism in its death throws as it decays from its own internal contradictions and an exhaustion of the human and natural resources on which it depends:
Even before 2008 it was generally taken for granted that the fiscal crisis of the post-war state had to be resolved by lowering spending instead of raising taxes, especially on the rich. Consolidation of public finances by way of austerity was and is being imposed on societies even though it is likely to depress growth. This would seem to be another indication that the economy of the oligarchs has been decoupled from that of ordinary people, as the rich no longer expect to pay a price for maximizing their income at the expense of the non-rich, or for pursuing their interests at the expense of the economy as a whole. What may be surfacing here is the fundamental tension described by Marx between, on the one hand, the increasingly social nature of production in an advanced economy and society, and private ownership of the means of production on the other. As productivity growth requires more public provision, it tends to become incompatible with private accumulation of profits, forcing capitalist elites to choose between the two. The result is what we are seeing already today: economic stagnation combined with oligarchic redistribution.
…In his attempt to rehabilitate [Capitalism] by reclaiming its ethical foundations, Max Weber drew a sharp line between capitalism and greed, pointing to what he believed were its origins in the religious tradition of Protestantism. According to Weber, greed had existed everywhere and at all times; not only was it not distinctive of capitalism, it was even apt to subvert it. Capitalism was based not on a desire to get rich, but on self-discipline, methodical effort, responsible stewardship, sober devotion to a calling and to a rational organization of life. Weber did expect the cultural values of capitalism to fade as it matured and turned into an “iron cage” where bureaucratic regulation and the constraints of competition would take the place of the cultural ideas that had originally served to disconnect capital accumulation from both hedonistic-materialistic consumption and primitive hoarding instincts. What he could not anticipate, however, was the neoliberal revolution in the last third of the twentieth century and the unprecedented opportunities it provided to get very rich.
Pace Weber, fraud and corruption have forever been companions of capitalism. But there are good reasons to believe that with the rise of the financial sector to economic dominance, they have become so pervasive that Weber’s ethical vindication of capitalism now seems to apply to an altogether different world. Finance is an ‘industry’ where innovation is hard to distinguish from rule-bending or rule-breaking; where the pay-offs from semi-legal and illegal activities are particularly high; where the gradient in expertise and pay between firms and regulatory authorities is extreme; where revolving doors between the two offer unending possibilities for subtle and not-so-subtle corruption; where the largest firms are not just too big to fail, but also too big to jail, given their importance for national economic policy and tax revenue; and where the borderline between private companies and the state is more blurred than anywhere else, as indicated by the 2008 bailout or by the huge number of former and future employees of financial firms in the American government.
After Enron and WorldCom, it was observed that fraud and corruption bad reached all-time highs in the US economy. But what came to light after 2008 beat everything: rating agencies being paid by the producers of toxic securities to award them top grades; offshore shadow banking, money laundering and assistance in large-scale tax evasion as the normal business of the biggest banks with the best addresses; the sale to unsuspecting customers of securities constructed so that other customers could bet against them; the leading banks worldwide fraudulently fixing interest rates and the gold price, and so on…
Capitalism’s moral decline may have to do with its economic decline, the struggle for the last remaining profit opportunities becoming uglier by the day and turning into asset-stripping on a truly gigantic scale. However that may be, public perceptions of capitalism are now deeply cynical, the whole system commonly perceived as a world of dirty tricks for ensuring the further enrichment of the already rich. Nobody believes any more in a moral revival of capitalism. The Weberian attempt to prevent it from being confounded with greed has finally failed, as it has more than ever become synonymous with corruption.
Wolfgang Streeck; How Will Capitalism End?, pp. 69-71