Working on a new post about religion. But in the meantime, reader Gregg Winston asks:
It was reported this week that the City of Chennai, India, home to approximately 4 million people, is almost out of fresh water. It was also reported that the Himalayan glaciers are now melting faster than replacement rate of winter snow. It is now projected that by 2030 (10.5 years from now) 40% of the Indian population (now at 1.38 billion) will be without access to fresh water. This means potentially 600 million refugees on the scene looking for someplace else to live. Surely no government or human social system can stand under such immense stress. Would be curious about your thoughts in future posts.
That mainly gives me the excuse to post the video from the BBC below, which has been sitting in my drafts for a while.
But in answer to his question – what can you say about that? To me, this is the greatest vulnerability civilization now faces. He’s right, there is no way 600 million people will be able to migrate. Nor is it likely that some sort of technological solution could be pressed into service in time to prevent a catastrophe, even if the political will and technological capabilities existed (which they don’t).
Just that alone is enough to end civilization as we know it, at least in greater Eurasia. But it will, of course, still be slow-moving enough to stymie any sort of constructive efforts to address the situation. How this will affects North America is questionable. But Russia and China will certainly be in the thick of it.
As you see below, the irony is that the very first large-scale civilization in India was also done in by a changing climate. The Harappan civilization, which thrived on the alluvial plains for millennia and constructed some of the most impressive drainage works of the ancient world, was eventually forced to abandon their cities due to changes in the monsoon. No longer could they practice irrigation agriculture with the change in precipitation. So they moved northward, to the foothills of the Himalayas which were fed by rainfall, and reconstituted their civilization there.
But once they settled in agricultural villages, they did not need such sophisticated engineering and left fewer remains behind. It appears that their civilization experienced a reduction in complexity as well, even losing writing. It’s likely that rain-fed farming did not need the cooperative management and political centralization that irrigation agriculture did. As Wittfogel put it, “the scattered operation of rainfall farming did not involve the establishment of national patterns of cooperation as did hydraulic agriculture.” Gone were the blocks and blocks of identical houses, which had apparently existed peacefully for millennia prior. These folks were likely the ancestors of the Indians who were subjugated by the pastoral Indo-Aryan who invaded from the northern plains later on. That new mixture formed the core of what we know as the Hindu culture.
It was a very similar situation to the Tigris/Euphrates river valley, where a complex Sumerian civilization in the lowlands which depended on inundation (flood) agriculture coexisted and intermingled with northern rain-fed highland villages which spoke the Semitic language of Akkadian, and were probably descendants of the original Natufian farmers. Eventually, the highland inhabitants invaded and subjugated their neighbors on the southern alluvium, and incorporated aspects of their civilization, such as writing and religious ideas.
“Harappa and Mohenjo [archaeology sites in Pakistan] are twins, so much alike that archaeologists believed they could have been built by the same ruler… they were planned as deliberately as Brasilia or Salt Lake City and are just as predictable. Everything was arranged. The mechanical, conservative, windowless, unchanging architecture – block after block after block – implies a totalitarian attitude… 2,500 years before Christ… came these unimaginative, dark, flat-nosed builders who knew exactly what a city should look like. And they lived in their geometrical barracks for ten centuries without changing a thing. The style of building never changed. The language did not change. The first carved amulets are the same as the last.” The Aztec Treasure House, (p. 144)
What that can tell us about a subcontinent of a billion people today, however, is probably quite limited.
Since the previous post was about the role that alcoholic beverages played in domestication, and hence the formation of large-scale societies, I thought I’d share this post that I ran across last week. It goes back to the evolutionary origins of our craving for alcohol.
If it’s correct, it would mean that the seeds for later large-scale social groups were sewn very early in human evolution, even back before we diverged form chimps. Millions of years ago, ancient tree-dwelling primates sought out fermented fruits in the canopy. Millions of years later, this craving would lead to the formation of the first civilizations.
According to the [“drunken monkey” hypothesis, formulated by biologist Robert Dudley in 2000], our pre-human ancestors regularly ingested small amounts of alcohol because the substance is produced when ripe fruit or nectar is decomposed by wild yeast. Through natural fermentation, yeast feeds on plant sugars and produces waste products of CO2 and ethanol — the chemical name for alcohol.
Although this spoils fruit, it presents an opportunity for animals that can digest alcohol. Creatures able to eat fermenting sugars would have an additional source of nutrients. Not only would they consume semi-rotten fruits, passed over by other animals, but alcohol itself has nutritional value: There are nearly twice as many calories in ethanol compared to carbohydrates of the same weight. (While this causes unwanted beer bellies today, extra calories are beneficial in the wild.)
Also, fermentation produces strong odors. An animal attracted to the yeasty scent would be able to follow its nose to edible fruit, and potentially find that food source before creatures without the taste for alcohol. And lastly, as many of us have experienced, alcohol stimulates appetite. Individuals munching on fermented fruit may eat more, obtaining bonus calories and nutrients.
In these ways, developing a taste for alcohol — the low levels found in nature — could have given our ancestors an advantage. In a forest full of animals competing for energy-rich foods, “drunk monkeys” would have access to an untapped resource.
It wasn’t until millions of years later, after Homo sapiens created beverages with unnaturally high ethanol concentrations (i.e. beer, wine, liquor), that alcohol consumption became a social and public health issue. According to Dudley, alcohol abuse and addiction are an “evolutionary hangover” of a deep-routed taste for fermented sugars, adaptive long ago.
Food sharing—the basis for feasting—has been observed in bonobos (but not in chimps):
In the wild, sharing of food by chimps typically happens after a rare hunt, and the “sharing” of meat often involves the passive tolerance of theft or simply giving in to relentless begging and harassment by others.
In contrast, the bonobos voluntarily handed over nuts that were solidly in their possession.
“What we are seeing in bonobos is very unusual,” says Krupenye. “We do see food sharing in other species, but in the vast majority of cases it is that one individual tolerates another taking something from them.”
The finding adds to a growing body of evidence that bonobos are uniquely pro-social when it comes to food…
More than 100,000 years ago, humans lived in the caves that dot South Africa’s coastline. With the sea on their doorstep and the Cape’s rich diversity of plant life at their backs, these anatomically modern Homo sapiens flourished. Over several millennia, they collected shells that they used as beads, created toolkits to manufacture red pigment, and sculpted tools from bones.
Now some of these caves, along the country’s southern coast, have shed light on humanity’s earliest-known culinary experiments with carbohydrates, a staple in many modern diets. Small pieces of charred tubers found at the Klasies River site in South Africa date back 120,000 years, making them the earliest-known evidence of H. sapiens cooking carbs, according to recent research published in the Journal of Human Evolution.
The study joins a suite of new findings that illuminate the evolution of our ancestors’ diet. For example, in recent years, scientists have determined that hominins have been eating meat for at least 2.6 million years —with some researchers contending that hominins were butchering bones for marrow as much as 3.4 million years ago. And hominins were roasting nuts, tubers, and seeds about 780,000 years ago. Humans specifically, as another South African find revealed, ate shellfish some 164,000 years ago. And last year, ancient crumbs revealed that H. sapiens has been eating bread for 14,400 years.
In brief, the argument is this: in complex foraging societies with significant food and material surpluses, social prestige was acquired through a consistent practice of one-upmanship by putting on ever-larger feasts, and that such competitive feasts were the impetus for the more intensive cultivation of desirable plants and animals, which eventually led to full domestication.
Feasts were thrown for a variety of reasons, but one end result was the emergence of elites and endogamous (closed) social classes. As this article states:
The practice of feasting—the consumption of large communal meals within a socially constructed setting—has attracted widespread attention as a result of its role in affecting social and ideological change…feasts have been shown to play essential roles in the negotiation and solidification of social relationships. Feasts are heavily imbued with meaning and are often associated with ritual behavior and socially important events such as burials.
The article cited above goes on to document evidence for feasting preceding the Neolithic (farming) Revolution in the Near East:
…community members coalesced at Hilazon [Tachtit cave, a Late Epipaleolithic (12,000 calibrated years B.P.) burial site in Israel] to engage in special rituals to commemorate the burial of the dead and … feasts were central elements in these important events … clear evidence for feasting on wild cattle and tortoises … includes unusually high densities of butchered tortoise and wild cattle remains in two structures, the unique location of the feasting activity in a burial cave, and the manufacture of two structures for burial and related feasting activities.
Feasts likely served important roles in the negotiation and solidification of social relationships, the integration of communities, and the mitigation of … stress [from increased group size]. These and other social changes in the Natufian period mark significant changes in human social complexity that continued into the Neolithic period. Together, social and economic change signal the very beginning of the agricultural transition.
Intensive cultivation of cereal crops for feasts appears to have long preceded domestication. So, early cultivation was not “forced” upon us to feed a growing population, but rather seems to have been largely voluntary, at least in the beginning.
Long before [the Neolithic] there are signs of human habitation in the [Fertile Crescent] by Acheulian, Neanderthal and Natufian people, indicated by the presence of many grinding slabs, hand stones, mortars and sickle blades…. analysis of the micro-wear on flint sickle blades [indicated that]…cereals were being cultivated by about 12,000 BP, but were probably harvested before they were ripe and may not have been domesticated, i.e…cultivation preceded domestication. The great variety of plant remains at Abu Hureyra in Syria, dated to 11,500-10,100 BP, has provided no evidence of cereal domestication, despite the all-year round occupance of the site. In this instance, at least, a sedentary life style preceded plant domestication.
Work Feasts were also the main means of recruiting large-scale labor in pre-market economies. As Michael Dietler states, “[A] work feast is… a particular form of the “empowering feast” mode of commensal politics in which commensal hospitality is used to orchestrate voluntary collective labor. That is, the work feast is an event in which a group of people are called together to work on a specific project for a day (or more) and, in return, are treated to food and drink, after which the host owns the proceeds of the day’s labor.” (Feasts, p. 241)
Note that this turns previous history books on their head:
– Previous histories argued that cereal domestication is what allowed sedentism. Wrong. Sedentism either preceded, or was encouraged by, cultivation in complex foraging societies long before domestication.
– Previous histories had us all living in small, isolated tribal communities with little to no contact with outsiders. Wrong. Complex, long-distance relationships were sustained by feasting and trade even before the Neolithic Revolution, especially among elites. Some of these stone-age cultures appear to have united villages over very large geographical areas even before the much later urban revolution in Southern Mesopotamia.
– Previous histories had elites first emerging with the large, complex civilizations of the Near East and the Levant. Wrong. It appears that specialized elites long preceded these first civilizations, although they may have been more akin to “big men”, paramount chiefs and shamans rather than “divine kings.” Such positions may not have been hereditary at first, but later became associated with certain preferred lineages over time.
– Previous histories claimed the first monumental architecture were the temples and ziggurats of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, and these coincided roughly with both domestication and urbanization. Wrong. Temples and other ceremonial complexes long predating domestication have been uncovered in Anatolia (Turkey) such as Göbekli Tepe, Çayönü Tepesi, and Nevali Çori. Furthermore, large stone monoliths, cromlechs, dolmens, cairns, and tumuli are found all over the world thousands of years before the first alluvial civilizations. These range from Egypt (Nabta Playa) to Malta (Ġgantija), to Britain (Stonehenge) and even East Asia in Korea (Gochang & Hwasun) and Indonesia (Gunung Padang). Many of these sites have been definitively shown to be associated with large-scale feasting events over very large areas.
In particular, the foodstuffs which would have been most cultivated were those with psychotropic properties—i.e. those designed to “party”—meaning things like grains suitable for brewing alcohol, and various other psychotropic drugs. In other words, drug use and civilization are intrinsically linked. Addictive substances may have been what first lured us away from “the original affluent society” of egalitarian hunter-gatherer bands living within earth’s limits, and bound us with the yoke of domestication, hard, labor, disease, malnutrition, and oppressive, hierarchical social dominance structures which continue to the present day. Brian Hayden et. al. write:
Partly through the agency of psychoactive substances, feasts in traditional societies are, and presumably were, used as arenas for inculcating ideologies, creating cohesion and social differentiation within a social group, and introducing new foods and technologies. Feasts require the production and storage ahead of time of large quantities of food and drink, and successful organizers can and do obtain political power and reproductive success. The social competition model proposes that a *wealth* rather than a dearth of resources enabled people to engage in high risk production activities such as cultivation and domestication. (emphasis in original)
Indeed, history has shown that human societies are fundamentally conservative in their outlook, and are only willing to tolerate novel social arrangements and endure disruptive social change in conditions of relative abundance, and not under conditions of scarcity and want (as the last few centuries have demonstrated).
Such feasting would have also inculcated a future-oriented mentality among elites quite different from that of simple (immediate-return) foragers. Those more able to engage in such future-oriented behaviors probably gained significant advantages in status, power, and reproductive fitness. Over thousands of years, this would have added up to significant social change. But it may have all started with beer:
Beer has plenty to recommend it over bread. First, and most obviously, it is pleasant to drink. “Beer had all the same nutrients as bread, and it had one additional advantage,” argues Solomon H. Katz, an anthropology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Namely, it gave early humans the same pleasant buzz it gives us.
Patrick E. McGovern, the director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania, goes even further.
Beer, he says, was more nutritious than bread. It contains “more B vitamins and [more of the] essential amino acid lysine,” McGovern writes in his book, Uncorking the Past: the Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages. It was also safer to drink than water, because the fermentation process killed pathogenic microorganisms. “With a four to five percent alcohol content, beer is a potent mind-altering and medicinal substance,” McGovern says, adding that ancient brewers acted as medicine men.
Beer also played an important societal role in bonding early communities together. It was popular at religious ceremonies, communal events, and celebrations. Brian Hayden, an archaeology professor at Simon Fraser University in Canada, believes that communal feasting fostered social bonding—and lots of beer was consumed during those feasts.
Moreover, beer was thought to be a necessary component in the afterlife—throughout the Middle East, the dead were buried with jugs of frothy refreshments. It was even used as currency—in Egypt, the pyramid workers were paid in beer.
How did man originally discover beer? McGovern and Katz theorize that man first learned to make some sort of gruel from barley. Then, natural yeast, likely supplied by insects, would have fermented the gruel, leading to a primitive form of a beer. Beer was actually easier to make than bread.Once early humans sipped these ancient suds—whether barley, corn, or rice-based—they began cultivating grain, becoming sedentary creatures. “All of these grains could have jump-started civilization as we know it because you really have to stick around the whole year to take care of your plants,” McGovern says…
“The question is really a no-brainer,” McGovern writes. “If you had to choose today, which would it be: bread or beer?”
While large-scale irrigation works have long been implicated in the emergence of the first complex societies, the role of grain alcohol and other psychotropic substances has often been overlooked. But new evidence from China reinforces the notion that beer brewing played a crucial role in the formation of that ancient civilization as well. Specifically, they found that people there came up with two different ways to brew beer!
Was it the lure of beer that encouraged prehistoric humans to begin farming? Archaeological evidence from China suggests it might have been as the region’s first farmers had worked out how to turn millet and other cereals into alcoholic drinks in two distinct ways, hinting at how important alcohol was at the time.
Li Liu at Stanford University and her colleagues analysed the residues left on 8000- to 7000-year-old pottery sherds unearthed at two early farming sites in north China. At both sites, some of the residues contained cereal starch granules with signs of physical damage similar to that caused by fermentation.
At the site of Lingkou, tiny mineral particles from plants – phytoliths – in the residues suggest the brewers simply let the grains sprout, which frees up the sugars. But at the site of Guantaoyuan, 300 kilometres to the west, the mix of phytoliths and fungi suggests an alternative approach. Here, the archaeologists say the brewers triggered the breakdown of starches by using a ‘fermentation starter’ known as qū, which is made from grains that have been allowed to mould. Qū is still used today to produce cereal wines and spirits.
However, [Patrick] McGovern would like to see stronger evidence that the brewers at Guantaoyuan really were using qū. In 2004, he and his colleagues described even earlier evidence of fermented drinks in the region, at a 9000-year-old site in central China. The brewers there used honey and fruit as well as rice. It’s an important distinction, says McGovern. Not only are honey and fruit rich in fermentable sugars, they also naturally carry the yeasts that perform fermentation – which cereals do not. If they used honey and fruit as well as cereals, early brewers at Guantaoyuan would not have needed to use qū to get fermentation started.
But there is agreement that the new study emphasises the important of alcoholic drinks in early farming cultures. Liu suspects the spread of domesticated rice might have been encouraged in part because of its use in such drinks. “Alcohol would be used in feasting which helps some individuals to gain high social status and to form alliances,” she says.
McGovern thinks alcoholic drinks might even have helped encourage humans to adopt farming. The large quantities of grain produced by farming could be stored and turned into beer or bread all year round. Beer might have been seen as the more desirable product. Bread doesn’t have the mind-altering effect of alcohol, which I think is so important for social and religious reasons,” he says.
And that’ not the only psychotropic drug that appears to have been cultivated in China. Recently, archaeologists have discovered the earliest use of cannabis, which they suspect was also used in religious ceremonies (no doubt administered by HIGH priests!):
Archaeologists…found evidence of burned cannabis with high levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) (the cannabis ingredient responsible for the high) on 10 wooden incense burners, known as braziers; the burners were found alongside eight human burials at an ancient site known as Jirzankal Cemetery (also called Quman Cemetery) on the Pamir Plateau of western China.
The burners all carried a mystery residue, which a chemical test soon revealed to be cannabis…
Researchers have known for decades that ancient people in eastern China cultivated cannabis as long ago as 3500 B.C. But this cannabis was grown as an oil-seed and fiber crop, and so it had low psychoactive properties. In other words, the ancient people harvesting cannabis for these purposes probably weren’t smoking or ingesting it for its high.
The cannabis residues found in the braziers, however, tell another story. It’s likely that ancient people purposefully selected cannabis plants with high THC levels and then smoked them as part of a ritual or religious activity associated with these burials, “perhaps, for example, aimed at communicating with the divine or the deceased,” the researchers wrote in the study.
Of note, the burials are more in line with the ancient mortuary practices from ancient Central Asia, including the modern-day countries of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, than they are from China, the researchers said.
The study is the latest to look at cannabis’s origins and historic uses. In May, another group of researchers posited that the cannabis plant likely originated high on the Tibetan Plateau, according to an analysis of fossil pollen. The new finding “provides yet another piece in the biomolecular archaeological puzzle of the ‘abiding mystery of Central Asia’ and its impact on human cultural and biological development through the millennia,” Patrick McGovern, the scientific director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia, who was not involved in the study, told Live Science. “Much more remains to be learned.”
The widespread use of psychoactive substances didn’t end with the Neolithic, but only intensified, and is intertwined with the very history of complex civilizations. For example, the importation of coffee and tea had a major impact on European history. Rather than beer, coffee and tea could provide a source of clean, filtered water, but with stimulative instead of depressant effects. “Until coffee consolidated its hold in the 18th century, beer soup was the breakfast liquid of choice.” (New York Times) Coffee houses became centers of the new, merchant-oriented economy that reshaped Europe in the Early Modern Period. Insurance companies such as Lloyd’s of London were born in coffeehouses. The French Revolution was fomented in coffeehouses by overcaffinated intellectuals, and Americans dumped tea into Boston harbor. Later, Britain would get an entire country hooked on drugs to redress their trade balance, and the United States would use drug laws to imprison millions of its own citizens.
As Hayden et. al. conclude, surveying the long record of psychoactive drugs in human history:
The use of [Psychoactive Substances] precedes agriculture and was widespread in forager societies. Many PAS were exploited for medicinal purposes or were mild stimulants, including tobacco in America and Australia, and khat and betel in Africa and Asia (all these plants were eventually cultivated by some groups). Much forager PAS use focused on hallucinogens for ritual purposes, such as to induce shamanic trances and communicate with the spirit world. Most hallucinogens are debilitating in high doses, and their powerful effects deter widespread consumption, restricting use largely to infrequent rituals by a few specialists. With domestication, however, the focus shifted from perception-altering to mood-altering, euphoric, or stimulating PAS. Domestication enabled the production of large and reliable quantities of such PAS. In the primary Neolithic sites, West and East Asian farmers produced alcohol, while American farmers produced alcohol, coca, tobacco, and cacao. European and Asian farmers added opium and cannabis to the Levantine crop complex; in Southern India farmers produced grains for alcohol; in Africa, coffee and kola were major trade items…
Mood-altering PAS stimulate brain reward pathways. They are highly prized and sought for effects such as amicability, reduction of stress, and feelings of liberation. They are widely used in many cultures, and have been major trade goods throughout history and prehistory. Psychoactive substances were not the only products of early cultivators, but they were typically the most highly valued and were given religious and social significance.
Even today, the majority of adult humans regularly use PAS derived from early domesticates including alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, chocolate, and sugars. Ancient users may not have perceived these as drugs in the modern sense but simply as desirable, good tasting, good feeling foods. In early modern times, PAS played a facilitating role in global colonization, used first to entice indigenous peoples into labor arrangements, and then to reward individuals for labor and production outputs. The effects of PAS upon mood and motivation are critical: “Habitual users tend to develop psychological or physiological dependency on them and, in turn, on the trader or merchant who provides them…
Who is man to challenge the wisdom of the market gods?
By contrast, if the electorate were to recognize that these outcomes are largely determined by public policy, then apologists for the existing order would have a much harder time rationalizing acquiescence.
…Polanyi’s belief in expanding democracy to include the economy is expressed in his idiosyncratic definition of socialism: “Socialism is, essentially, the tendency inherent in an industrial civilization to transcend the self-regulating market by consciously subordinating it to a democratic society.”
Implicit in this definition is a critique of the Marxist stipulation that the coercive power of the state would “wither away” once the socialist revolution ended class exploitation. Polanyi sees this claim as a parallel utopian fantasy to that of the self-regulating [libertarian] market. Indeed, he explicitly follows [Max] Weber in recognizing that political authority and power would inevitably continue into any future social order, especially as a countervailing source of power to that of the economy.
Two fundamental points follow. First, socialists could not ignore the difficulties entailed in imposing democratic accountability on governmental power. Second, Marxists were guilty of imagining that a shift in property relations would—by itself—usher in a new and better society. According to Polanyi, Marx mistakenly had accepted the claims of classical economists, especially [David] Ricardo, that property relations can and will determine the entire shape of the social order.
Polanyi’s view here is based on his unique insight that market society was imposed in the nineteenth century through political means. What we think of as “modern capitalist society” was, for Polanyi, not the result of underlying inevitable economic mechanisms, but rather the consequence of a series of political choices and explicit government policies. The pretense now stripped away of the economy as a “force of nature,” it follows logically that these arrangements can be undone and reversed through the same mechanism–the use of political power.
While Polanyi is usually not explicit on this point, his argument is consistent with those who have argued that private property represents a bundle of different rights that owners had at one particular moment in time. It follows that political and legal changes introduced over time can change that bundle of rights until many of the most important structural inequalities in labor markets, capital markets, and product markets are effectively eliminated. (pp. 26-27)
Private property is a creation of legal systems—and hence of human beings—and not some natural force that we are powerless to affect. Why is this so hard to understand? At one point, land was not private property (but collectively owned with usufructary rights). At one point, other human beings were property, along with horses and oxen. There is no “universal law” of what is and is not property, and what rights ownership entails. As Chris Dillow writes, “The limited company was we know it was created by two acts of parliament in 1844 and 1855. (The notion that free market capitalism is somehow natural and emerged without state intervention is a fiction.)” As the article cited above points out:
…[L]egal markets are themselves a kind of “big government” program. Absent a sovereign entity capable of enforcing contracts by commanding a monopoly on violence, mass commerce between strangers is nigh-impossible. Less abstractly, the introduction of private property across the North American continent required massive state violence and investment. Meanwhile, some human agency must decide roughly how much sovereign currency should be in circulation at any given time, and this decision will inevitably have large, economy-wide implications on how markets function and whose interests they best serve. Tight money will privilege those rich in cash by increasing the value of their holdings — and thus, the interest rates they can charge for lending them. Loose money can privilege borrowers by triggering inflation that reduces the cost of their debts…
These points may seem banal. Sophisticated conservative thinkers are well aware that money doesn’t grow on trees and markets do not make themselves. But efforts to naturalize the economy’s basic ground rules — by obscuring the state’s inescapable role in setting them — remain pervasive in America’s political discourse.
“…President Harry Truman was right when he said that: ‘Socialism is the epithet they have hurled at every advance the people have made in the last 20 years…Socialism is what they called Social Security. Socialism is what they called farm price supports. Socialism is what they called bank deposit insurance. Socialism is what they called the growth of free and independent labor organizations. Socialism is their name for almost anything that helps all the people.’”
“Now let’s be clear: while President Trump and his fellow oligarchs attack us for our support of democratic socialism, they don’t really oppose all forms of socialism. They may hate democratic socialism because it benefits working people, but they absolutely love corporate socialism that enriches Trump and other billionaires…“
In our discussion of Julian Jaynes’s ideas, reader Speedbird recommended the book “Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry” by Owen Barfield. The above lecture covers that book and illustrates some remarkable overlap between his ideas and those of Jaynes. It’s well worth a listen.
And, related, here’s an essay that cites both:
What Barfield points out is that the distinction between mind and matter, or inside and outside, didn’t exist in early peoples. (This is also the basis of Julian Jaynes’ The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, though being a materialist, Jaynes explains this with the dubious theory that our thinking was done unconsciously in one cranial hemisphere, which then “talked” to the other.) Thinking happened to the person, and was not felt as being produced by the person. In the beginning of the Iliad, Achilles is angry because Agamemnon has taken Achilles’ slave-girl away from him. Achilles naturally wants to kill Agamemnon, but if he does that would be the end of the Greeks’ siege of Troy, so he doesn’t. We would say that reason prevailed, but what Homer says is that Athena tells him not to. It is something outside of Achilles that controls his action. And of course, Homer credits his own work to the Muse. One may also note that it is only recently that “genius” came to mean a great thinker, and not some external source that inspires the thinker. There was innovation in ancient times, but such innovation was credited to divine kings and prophets, not to a common individual’s cleverness.
All this is to say that the growth of control in our thinking, feeling, and willing is a marker of the evolution of consciousness, which amounts to a change of common sense. This control moved from “outside” (belonging to the supernatural) to “inside.” Parallel with this change is a change in sense perception. Supernatural control was exercised equally on humans and nature, which means that humans were just as much “nature” as anything else, all pervaded by spiritual entities. And that was perceived. It was not an “animist belief system” that people made up to explain things. Rather it was, simply, experienced. But as our ability to think grew, the perception of spirit in nature declined, until in modern times it has disappeared. Hence modern common sense divides reality into two: our (more or less) controlled minds on the one hand, and on the other, a mindless physical system.
And here’s an older article from Psychology Today describing the psychological transformations of the Axial Age. It feeds into our initial question: how was ancient consciousness different from that of contemporary industrial societies?
Before a certain time, some psychologists believe, ancient peoples also differed from us by exhibiting far less capacity to monitor their internal thoughts, feelings, and motives; they engaged in little or no self-reflection, and lacked a personal identity other than a name, parentage, and a recollection of a sequence of life events.
Before the Axial transformation, human beings told one another myths and other stories about how they came to be. The stories were not regarded as true or false; rather, their truth did not require questioning. Such was the state of human beings, Jaspers believed, because of a lack a self-reflective, fully conscious self-understanding. Under such conditions, abstract truths matter not.
During the Axial-age, however, some scholars argue that dramatic shifts took place in human thought across four geographically distinct regions of the world: India, China, the Middle East, and Greece.
New ways of thinking emerged that defined the world’s psychological culture for all time since. Jaspers wrote:
“What is new about this age…is that man becomes conscious of Being as a whole, of himself and his limitations. He experiences the terror of the world and his own powerlessness. He asks radical questions. Face to face with the void he strives for liberation and redemption. By consciously recognising his limits he sets himself the highest goals.”
Big questions that were specifically psychological in nature emerged: “Who am I?” and “Why are people different…
Since we’re on the subject of podcasts, this is from an interview with Professor Richard Seaford, whom we first met when we talked about where the ideas about money came from in Classical Greece, and what it’s effects were. Here, Seaford makes the case that the emergence of something like an individual spirit, soul, or essence, was paralleled in both Greek and Indian culture.
This is interesting because one of the consistent criticisms of Julian Jaynes’s work has been that he only looked at Greek culture and ignored other, particularly non-Western, civilizations. But Professor Seaford’s studies indicate parallel developments in the civilizations of Classical India at about the same time (6-5th centuries B.C.). The transition from the Rigveda to the Upanishads seems to follow roughly the same trajectory as that which Jaynes sketched out as taking place between the composition of the Iliad to that of the Odyssey with regards to human self-reflective consciousness (the following transcript not blockquoted for clarity):
[Begin 2:36] SHWEP: “…If there wasn’t a soul, what was a human being before [the Axial Age]?”
Richard Seaford: “Well, the two Axial civilizations that I know best, which are also, I think, the two which are best placed…to answer your question, are Greece and India.”
“Interestingly, you have—both in Greece, and in India—early texts which are roughly speaking pre-philosophical. I’m talking about Homer, in particular, in Greece, and the Rigveda in India; followed by—in both civilizations—something like the birth of philosophy, depending, of course, on how you define philosophy.”
“So that in Greece, you move from the world of Homer—which is, roughly speaking, the eighth century B.C.—to a new conception, a radically new conception, of the universe and man’s place in it, in the fifth and sixth centuries B.C., known as pre-Socratic philosophy. And out of pre-Socratic philosophy you have Plato and Aristotle and the whole of ancient philosophy.”
“In India you have the Rigveda, which is (a bit like Homer but even more so) dated to very different periods…from at the earliest about the middle of the second millennium B.C., but clearly the Rigveda—particularly the tenth book—contains material which is much later. And, of course, Homer probably wasn’t written down until the sixth century B.C., but these early Indian texts were not written down until very much later. So the Rigveda was subject to centuries of oral transmission, and therefore very difficult to date.”
“However, what’s interesting, in answer to your question, is that in India from about eighth, seventh, sixth century BC (again dating is impossible with these early Indian texts), you have a new conception of the universe and the place of man in it. Just as in Greece you have a new conception [at] about the same time in the sixth century B.C.”
“And the transition from Homer to pre-Socratic philosophy has some striking similarities to the the transition from the Rigveda to these later texts, in particular the Brahmanas (which are mainly about ritual, but nevertheless contain some proto-philosophical speculation), and the Upanishads. The Upanishads [emerged] out of the need to interpret the sacrifice (which is what the Brahmanas are mainly concerned with), and as a result of the need to interpret the sacrifice, producing something that is legitimate to call philosophy, in which ritual has to a large extent been left behind. That, then, corresponds to pre-Socratic philosophy.”
“Now, what is it that’s similar between the Indian transition and the Greek transition?
Well, let’s take the idea of the ‘inner self,’ or soul. There are a lot of terms which are used for something like the inner self, the soul, the mind, the subject; and it can be quite confusing because they mean different things; they overlap. One is perhaps best advised to think of them in terms of their opposite: so the soul is the opposite to the body…the subject is opposite to the object, and the self is opposite to others. I like the term ‘inner self’ because it implies an individual, but just the ‘inner dimension’ of the individual. It’s quite close, therefore, to soul and mind.”
“Now, it’s striking—and this has been recognized for some time—that in Homer there’s no word for the inner self as a bounded, comprehensive entity of consciousness. That is to say, what we think of as the mind or the soul which constitutes the personality—the ‘real person’ of each individual.”
“I use the terms ‘comprehensive’ and ‘bounded.’ It’s ‘comprehensive’ in the sense that it contains emotions, perceptions, desires; it originates action, it contains the full range of consciousness. It’s ‘bounded’ in the sense that it has boundaries; it can’t be confused with what is outside it. My inner self is quite distinct from your inner self, and my inner self is quite distinct from that table, or my leg. It is a bounded entity.”
“In Homer there’s no word for that. What you have is a number of different words for the various organs of consciousness like thumos meaning ‘spirit,’ or menos meaning something like ‘might,’ and so on. Kradíē. You have a whole list of these Greek words, none of which refers to what later was referred to by the word psuchê (ψυχή), meaning ‘soul,’ which particularly from Plato onward meant precisely this bounded, comprehensive organ of consciousness.”
SHWEP: “We have psuchê in Homer, don’t we? But it means something very different.”
RS: “Yes, we do have psuchê in Homer, but it is has only one role, which is to leave the body on loss of consciousness—whether on death or on fainting. Now the psuchê, then, having left the body on death, goes down to the underworld, and the underworld then has psuchê in it.”
“The psuchê of Patroclus appears in a dream to Achilles late in the Iliad. Now the interesting thing about the psuchê of Patroclus—it’s the dead Patroclus—you can see him, you can hear him, he speaks, he is Patroclus. Except that, there’s a sense in which he doesn’t exist. He’s insubstantial. It’s not quite clear what’s involved here, but he not substantial. Were you to lean out and touch him, he would dissolve like a shadow.”
“However, the fact that he’s Patroclus for all eternity, and in most respects like Patroclus, meant that the psuchê was the word used later on by Plato—but also even before Plato—to refer to the most important part of you, which is the immortal part of you—the part of you which will survive after your death. So you have a development which, in Homer, there is no word for the comprehensive, bounded organ of consciousness. In Plato there is, but the word Plato uses, psuchê, has evolved from being simply the thing which leaves you when you die and plays no role in your life, to the thing which is the most important thing about your life, which is your inner self, which will indeed leave you when you when you die, and is immortal.”
“So, this is an enormous transition in which the psuchê becomes at the center of attention. It, for Plato, is enormously important for understanding the world, and above all for understanding how we should live.”
“Now, if you turn to the Indian material with this question in mind, and ask the same question of the Rigveda: ‘Is there a bounded, comprehensive organ of consciousness?’ The answer, insofar as I can see after some research, is ‘no.’ There are various words—manas, jiva, prana, atman, and so on—none of which refers to a comprehensive, bounded organ of consciousness. So it’s like Homer. And indeed, as in Homer, the words that do exist for organs of consciousness are not particularly important. They’re not at the center of attention. They’re not made into the subjects of sentences in the way that psuchê clearly in Plato is. So it’s rather like Homer.”
“Then you go into the Upanishads—sixth, fifth century B.C., and what you find is that one of the words that was used in the Rigveda as an organ of consciousness, though it sometimes seems to mean rather something like breath, Ātman, has become at the center of everything. The famous expression ‘Ātman is Brahman,’ which you find repeated several times in the early Upanishads, means effectively your Ātman—your inner self—is Brahman, meaning the whole of the universe. Your Ātman is everything. And in the discourse of the early Upanishads, Ātman is enormously important, just as psuchê in Plato is enormously important for understanding the world and how you should live.”
“Now, there are, of course, important differences between the Greek and the Indian material. But this is a respect—and there are others—this is a respect in which they’re strikingly similar. You have a movement from a world in which there is no bounded, comprehensive organ of consciousness, to one in which, not only is there a term for it, but it has become enormously important.” [12:15]
[14:15] RS: “Psuchê is, of course, still with us. We might call it the mind or the soul, but he notion of this bounded inner self is very much still with us…Interestingly, there has been, in the last fifteen years or so, a…debate in British analytic philosophy as to the question of whether the inner self exits.”
“Now, this goes back to David Hume…who said, actually, ‘No the inner self doesn’t exist,’ because if you examine your experience, your emotions, your perceptions, what’s going on in your mind; what you’re aware of is a constant flux of impressions, thoughts, motives, desires, and so on. And where is this ‘extra’ thing which is the inner self? It just isn’t there. We made it up! You don’t need to talk about it in order to describe your subjectivity.”
“One of the interesting features of [the debate] for me is the terminology used by Sorabji: owns, which must be a metaphor. I mean, ‘ownership’ is legally sanctioned possession. You don’t have legally sanctioned possession of your emotions, but he’s constantly using this word, owns. So the question is, what is it a metaphor for?”
“I don’t believe it’s a metaphor, ultimately. I think that ownership, historically, is crucial in constructing the idea of the inner self, in which I stand apart from my inner data—my desires and perceptions and all the rest of it—in the the way that an owner of goods stands apart from his goods, and yet he has exclusive rights to them in the way that he does to his own body, for example.”
“But another interesting thing, of course, is the fact that its happening at all. Because we just take it as a fact of nature that each of us has an inner self. We reify it. But neither of them—neither Parfit nor Sorabji—consider the question anthropologically. They talk about this issue as if they’re talking about whether Paris is the capital of France or not. It’s just a fact about the world, isn’t it, that you either have it or you don’t have it. But actually, if you look outside the tradition in which they’re operating; outside the Western tradition, particularly at Melanesia, you’ll find a wealth of anthropological writing which shows that these people don’t have a conception of the bounded, comprehensive inner self. They just don’t have it.”
“So the question then arises: Have they just not noticed that they’ve got it? This is the question you might put to Sorabji. Are these people in error? Have they gone through their lives just not realizing that they’ve got this thing, they just never got around to noticing it or describing it?”
“And the answer, if you consider it in this light, is, of course, that the inner self is a construction. And, of course, the Buddhists who are cited by Parfitt take the view that we don’t have such a thing…” [End 18:08]
The next section puts forward a fascinating thesis briefly touched on above. It is the idea that the notion of the the unique, individual ‘self’ is intrinsically linked with the emergence of inalienable private property rights in a culture! In other words, the idea that I am the absolute “owner” of something that is my own, personal “self,” corresponds to the notion of “absolute ownership” over things like goods, land, livestock, and chattels, and hence more “modern” economic ideas:
[Begin 20:08] SHWEP: “…Obviously a priori reasoning has led in both directions—to a strong idea of the soul, and to a non-strong idea of the soul. But, you would argue, that this so-called a priori reasoning is always conditioned by the kind of society that a given reasoner finds himself in. That they reason a certain way depending on the kind of society they live in.”
Richard Seaford: “Yes, that’s right. The reason why the issue between Sorabji and Parfitt is undecidable is that the inner self, in my view, is a construction. That’s really pretty much all you can say when it comes to trying to resolve the dispute between them.”
“But then the interesting questions start, which is, why do you find this construction at all? Why do you find this in some societies but not in other societies? And if you look at the anthropological evidence, you can see how the arrival of Western economic models, in particular individual property, promotes the belief in the bounded, individual self.”
SHWEP: “Can you talk about exactly what you’re talking about when you say, ‘the arrival of Western economic models?’ And when this is happening, what exactly we are talking about? Money has something to do with it, I believe.”
RS: “Money has something to do with it, but there’s a…for example, there’s a passage written by a Melanesian anthropologist who is describing the arrival of the trade store in a community. And he has experience of this…the arrival of the trade store makes a big difference, because it brings with it different ways of constructing the world in which you can’t just go and take your cousin’s things. If you do that you might get prosecuted. It’s illegal. And people don’t understand this.”
“But now, because of the trade store, what he says is—by looking the way the trade store operates, it does involve money; it does involve commercial relations rather than sharing and gift exchange. In commercial relations, there’s absolute ownership and absolute separation of goods and money from [the] possessor in the exchange, which never occurs in gift exchange. You are always, in some way, identified with what you’ve given, and that creates links between people.”
“The arrival of the trade store introduces a new model of the person, in which ownership is used to construct the new kind of individual. And if you go to a text which is no doubt somewhat out of date but nevertheless clearly contains some truth by [C.B.] Macpherson about seventeenth century England, you find something very similar. The new conception of the individual is created, he says, by reading back into it ownership of property. Because this is a period in which a new class is establishing itself through the individual ownership of property which is theirs absolutely—it’s not vulnerable to being taken away, in any form, by anybody else. So their freedom and their life potential is defined by the property that they own. And therefore, the notion of the individual is constructed, to some extent at least, out of the institution of individual property.”
“If you go to Greece and India, there’s evidence—quite independent from everything I’ve been talking about—for the development of individual property at the expense of ownership by the kinship group.”
SHWEP: “So, what is exchange like in the Homeric poems?”
RS: “Well, first of all, in the Homeric poems there’s no money. Second, there’s very little commerce, and its only at the margins and performed by disreputable people like Phoenicians. The main form of exchange is gift exchange, and it’s though gift exchange that you create relations.”
“Now, what is exchanged in gift exchange? Well, in Homeric poems—because they’re only concerned with an elite group—it’s prestige objects like tripods and horses and so on. Fine textiles. And that creates links between aristocratic households in different places. And you have genre scenes in which it’s all beautifully described—it’s at the center of what’s going on, socially.”
“When it comes to the Iliad, you have a problem, because the Greeks stormed a city. Not necessarily Troy—they storm a number of other cities. And the issue arises of who has a right to distribute the plunder.”
“Now, it can be done by the Greeks in general, or by the king. The king does it in various versions, and he does it unfairly. So, what he should be doing, is taking this plunder and giving it to Achilles, or Odysseus, or whatever it is. That’s a gift—its not an income—it’s a gift, and by doing that he creates the links. There’s no other link that enables Agamemnon to hold the Greeks into a coherent body. It’s through distributing the goods, and they’re gifts.”
“But things go wrong, and Achilles feels slighted, and he withdraws from the battle. So what does Agamemnon do? He offers gifts, lots of them, to bring Achilles back into the battle. But Achilles says, in effect, it’s too late. ‘I hate your gifts’—ekthrati moi tassadoura: ‘Your gifts are hateful to me.’ That is devastating, because it’s not just about Agamemnon and Achilles, it’s about a whole social system breaking down. He’s rejecting the principle of gifts. And there’s something similar that goes on in the Odyssey.”
“So the Iliad and the Odyssey are about what I call, ‘a crisis of reciprocity,’ in which the old economic system has broken down. And it’s precisely in the context, incidentally, of rejecting the gifts that Achilles talks about his own psuchê. And it’s the passage in Homer which becomes closest to the psuchê being what it is later, which is something infinitely valuable which he’s not going to give up in return for gifts.”
“So it’s the isolation of Achilles as a result of the breakdown of this exchange system which gives you the first glimpse of what would be so important later, which is the valorization of the individual psuchê.” [End 27:08]
See also: Seaford on Soul, Ritual, and Money (The Secret History of Western Esotericism Podcast). This is a “members only” podcast, so if anyone would like to “donate” it to me (link, email, Dropbox, etc.), I’d love to have the chance to listen to it!
1/2 of them: Everything is completely under your control. You can just make your self happy! Individual solutions for collective problems. Poverty is always the result of poor decisions. Everyone can be rich and successful. Bootstraps!
The other 1/2 of them: Genes control everything, from the wealth of the individual to the collective wealth of nations. Your IQ is a fixed number thanks to your parents, and largely determined by race. Men are inherently better at math and science. Black people are born stupid. Chinese are born geniuses. Genetic determinism.
How do you hold both of these these contradictory views simultaneously? I mean, every Alt-right media source I’ve ever spent any time watching serves up a heavy dollop of both. Kind of depends on the day.
The only constant seems to be whatever confirms their views about the status quo and their spot in the money/status/race hierarchy.
“[W]hat may be attained by industrial or commercial success is still the nearest approach to medieval lordship possible to modern man…” ― Joseph A. Schumpeter
Feudal nobles acquired their status by the breakdown of the state. The great medieval scholar Marc Bloch wrote:
“In feudal society the characteristic human bond was the subordinate’s link with a nearby chief. From one level to another the ties thus formed—like so many chains branching out indefinitely—joined the smallest to the greatest. Land itself was valued above all because it enabled a lord to provide himself with ‘men’ by supplying the remuneration for them.” Feudal Society, p.444
As I promised last time, I’d like to take another look at a system I’ve often referred to as Neofeudalism.
I haven’t written much about Neofeudalism since 2013-2014. But, if anything, the trend towards it has greatly accelerated.
What brought this to mind was a widely disseminated news story which, to me, is the quintessence of what I was talking about back in 2013-2014.
Robert Smith, a billionaire investor, surprise[d] students at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, by using his speech at a commencement ceremony to pledge to wipe the debts of the 2019 class. ‘This is my class – 2019 – and my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans. I know my class will make sure they pay this forward,’ he said.
This was widely circulated as a warm-and-fuzzy “feel good” story. But when I heard it, I was shocked. Really? I would argue it’s anything but. If anything, it should disturb people, as it did me. What about all the millions of debt serfs who aren’t lucky enough to have a rich benefactor–that is, almost all of U.S. college students? What about them?
And why the hell should crippling debt for an education even be a thing in the first place?
Really, this should be interpreted as a sad example of a state failing its own citizens.
But it’s not. Instead, the media uniformly portrays it as a paradigmatic example of the generosity and benevolence of our successful entrepreneurial overlords.
And I don’t think that’s accidental.
No, rather, I think it’s quite intentional—part of a desire by elites to change the core mentality of the citizenry of deteriorating democratic nation-states from one in which the state is expected to provide a modicum of basic services to all citizens regardless of luck or rank; to one in which we rely on wealthy benefactors to provide the essential goods and services we all depend on arbitrarily to those whom they deem “worthy” or “deserving,” paid for out of their own pockets.
The media increasingly pushes the line that “society owes you nothing” and that progressive taxes are simply “punishing the successful.” Instead, the things previous generations took for granted will now be “grants” and “gifts” distributed by whim by a handful of oligarchs who control more wealth than many governments—state, local and federal. And if you aren’t in the queue, or in the wrong queue, when the “gifts” are handed out, well then, too bad for you. Better luck next time. Go f*ck yourself.
Once again, incidents such as the one above are always framed as good news stories rather than as what they really are – symptoms of the tragic collapse of the post-Westphalian state and Enlightenment ideals, and the re-emergence of multiple overlapping Neofeudal patronage systems, similar to how medieval Europe and other regions functioned for much of history.
Here’s another perfect example:
The richest man in the world [Jeff Bezos] announced on Thursday that he would give $2bn (£1.5bn) of his fortune to finance a network of preschools and tackle homelessness in America.
James Bloodworth, a writer who went undercover to expose working conditions at [Amazon’s]fulfilment centres, said there was “something slightly ironic” about Mr Bezos’s plan. “There have been credible reports of Amazon warehouse workers sleeping outside in tents because they can’t afford to rent homes on the wages paid to them by the company,” he told the BBC…Others highlighted Amazon’s recent successful attempt to quash a law in Seattle – the home of the online retailer’s headquarters – that was designed to raise millions of dollars to alleviate the city’s homelessness crisis…
For his part, Mr Bezos, who is thought to be worth in excess of $150bn, did little to distance his philanthropic efforts from the business model of his company. “We’ll use the same set of principles that have driven Amazon,” he said in the statement announcing his fund. “Most important among those will be genuine, intense customer obsession. “The child will be the customer…”
Well, given that his employees are already crying sitting at their desks, running schools shouldn’t be all that much different for Bezos than running Amazon. Although one wonders what kind of strange grading system will be implemented:
In case you somehow missed it, working at Amazon is pretty terrible according to The New York Times: brutal hours, unforgiving managers, a culture of cutthroat competition. If you’re a star student of the Amazon ethos, and you earn a perfect score when quizzed on the company’s “leadership principles,” you get permission to call yourself a “Peculiar,” which sounds more like something from Dr. Seuss than a workplace accolade.
Our students are Peculiar! And it is nice that he wants to do something about the rampant homelessness caused in part by the business practices of his own company. (I was actually talking to some Amazon warehouse workers at a bar last weekend. One was fired for not meeting the insane productivity quota after several months, and his girlfriend was summarily fired after suffering a stoke on the work floor. Both of them described it as a “sweatshop”.)
The falling back on wealthy individuals and private corporations to do the things that used to be considered just a part of the government’s basic mandate to its citizens is hardly good news in my opinion. Yet, rather than point this out, the media just engages in shameless hero-worship.
Another case in point is the school funded by basketball superstar LeBron James in Akron Ohio. If you’re one of the lucky lottery winners to attend the school funded by the “King” (yes, the article really uses that word), here’s what you get:
Some people call LeBron James the GOAT for his prowess on the basketball court. Others say it’s his work in the community that really makes him the greatest of all time..The [Promises] school, a project of the LeBron James Family Foundation and Akron Public Schools, provides students with a slew of awesome perks.
According to James, in addition to attending a school run by The King, students will also receive:
– Free tuition
– Free uniforms
– Free breakfast, lunch and snacks
– Free transportation within 2 miles
– A free bicycle and helmet
– Access to a food pantry for their family
– Guaranteed tuition for all graduates to the University of Akron
What’s more, parents of students will receive access to job placement services and help acquiring their GEDs.
The school’s curriculum was crafted with the help of Akron County educators, who say they’ve long seen their students underperforming in the classroom. There will be a focus on hands-on STEM education, with an emphasis on developing problem-solving skills, according to the foundation website.
Students will also have a later start time for school days and more staggered breaks in order to promote year-round education. Although the school is currently open only to third- and fourth-grade students, classes will expand from first to eighth grade by 2022, James told CNN…James, who has given millions to the project, told CNN, “We want every kid to walk through this school to be inspired, to come … away with something. Something where they can give back.”
Is it possible for a media article to be more fawning than this? (synonyms: be obsequious to, be sycophantic to, be servile to, curry favor with, pay court to, play up to, crawl to, creep to, ingratiate oneself with, dance attendance on, fall over oneself for, kowtow to, toady to, truckle to, bow and scrape before, grovel before, cringe before, abase oneself before; flatter, praise, sing the praises of, praise to the skies, praise to excess, eulogize; sweet-talk, soft-soap, brown-nose, suck up to, make up to, smarm around, be all over, fall all over, butter up, lick someone’s boots, rub up the right way, lay it on thick, lay it on with a trowel; smoodge to; kiss someone’s arse..)
And anyway, why is a formerly prosperous major American city dependent upon the personal income of just one man to deliver services to its citizens that would just be considered a standard duty in any other normally-functioning, wealthy, industrialized democracy? Funny how, in its efforts to praise Mr. James, the article does not bother to even ponder that important question. I mean, nothing against Mr. James himself, but what if you don’t live in Akron, Ohio, or if you don’t get accepted into “the King’s School?” Well, once again, I suppose you’re just f*cked and on your own, then…
Welcome to Neofeudal America. Sorry about that, kid. Better luck next time…
2. Our ‘Game of Thrones’ Future
We’ve been here before, of course. It’s actually an earlier and much older form of social organization, going all the way back to the first civilizations, when a handful of aristocratic households were, for all intents and purposes, “the state,” and their family members comprised the ruling class. Even referring to these governments as a true “state” is an anachronism which is unfortunately all too common in historical writing.
A prime example of this are the liturgies of ancient Greece. Today we think of that word in reference to religious ceremonies. But what it originally referred to were the gifts bestowed upon the citizens of Greek city-states by wealthy elites as a matter of social convention. Even armies were provisioned this way. It was, in essence, a “voluntary tax” enforced by peer pressure:
The Greeks put taxation in the field of ethics…There was no tax on income. Taxes were not the way by which the wealth of the rich was shared with the people. Instead, this was achieved by a voluntary alternative: liturgy.
The word liturgy — from the ancient Greek leitourgia — means “public service” or “work of the people.” The idea of benefaction was embedded in the ancient Greek psyche, and had roots in mythology. The Titan Prometheus created humanity and was its greatest benefactor, giving the gift of fire, which he stole from Mount Olympus. The Goddess Athena gave the citizenry the olive tree, symbol of peace and prosperity, and so the city of Athens was named after her…
…Perhaps the city needed some kind of improvement to its infrastructure — a new bridge, for example. Perhaps a war loomed and military spending was required. Perhaps some kind of festivity was deemed necessary. Then the rich were called upon. They were expected not only to pay for the undertaking, but to carry it out as well: It was their responsibility to oversee the work in question.
The rationale was that the rich should shoulder the expenses of the city, given the unequal share of the community’s wealth they enjoyed. Any contribution was not enforced by law or bureaucracy, but by tradition and public sentiment. The motivation of the liturgist was benevolence, a sense of public duty and — significantly — the reward of honor and prestige…
Many of the buildings of ancient Greece were … constructed by benefactors competing for honor. The Stoa Poikile or Painted Porch of Peisianax in Athens, for example…Many works on the Acropolis, possibly even the Parthenon, were also funded by liturgy…The most prestigious and important liturgy — and by far the most expensive — was the navy, known as “trierarchy.” The trierarch had to build, maintain, and operate a warship — a “trireme.” Triremes kept the Athenian navy strong and shipping lanes free from pirates. Given that Athens was a trading center (indeed, taxes on trade were another source of government revenue), their role was essential…
There were anywhere between 300 and 1,200 liturgists in Athens — depending on need (in times of war the number went up) — and the liturgical class was constantly being renewed. Those who were responsible for liturgy volunteered in most cases, although some were assigned by the state. There were also major and minor liturgies, which varied according to the liturgist’s wealth.
While the system of liturgy allowed for public works to be funded and performed by qualified people, it slowly disappeared in the 4th century BCE, with the development of taxation…
Often times, the “state” was, in reality, simply the household budget of the ruler. For a modern analogy, imagine if the the entire budget of the United States was funded out of the personal wealth and income of one single, solitary individual—say, Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos. At the same time, local “governments” were simply councils of wealthy citizens (usually large landowners) who paid for everything out of their own pockets—important infrastructure, poor relief, defense, police, housing, food banks, law courts, etc.). Over time, such people became what we know today as the feudal aristocracy, as noted above.
Maybe it’s not so hard to imagine after all. Because that’s where we’re heading once again!
Cullen Murphy describes how the system functioned in the late Roman Empire:
Patronage spilled over into communal adornment; it was in fact inseparable from it. The Roman magnates competed with one another to endow the capital with improvements. Rome’s wealthiest class, the senatorial aristocracy, constituted by one estimate two-thousandths of 1 percent of the population; then came the equestrian class, with perhaps a tenth of a percent. Collectively these people owned almost everything.
Americans are well aware of the nation’s worsening income inequality, with those in the top 1 percent earning nearly 50 times more a year than those in the bottom 20 percent. The average C.E.O. earns more than 400 times as much as a typical worker. In Rome, the gap between the elite and everyone else was on the order of 5,000 or 10,000 to 1. (“Nothing is more unfair than equality,” observed a very comfortable Pliny the Younger, who would have felt at home in many Washington circles.)
The expectation in Rome was that affluent citizens, as individuals rather than as taxpayers, should provide for community needs. Did the city require another aqueduct? New roads? A stadium? Some magnate would surely provide it—in return, implicitly, for a measure of public power, and, of course, for ample public recognition. Inscriptions on countless marble fragments attest to such generosity—an early version of “Brought to you by … “
On Rome’s edifice of private giving—whether with the seemliness of an Andrew Carnegie or the vulgarity of a Donald Trump—an empire was built.
The Roman system was a remarkable contrivance. But it contained the seeds of its own destruction. For one thing, it fostered an expectation that “others” would always provide. If public amenities came into being through private munificence—and if these in turn served to enhance private glory—then why should the public pay for their upkeep?
This way of doing business “did not work for the common benefit of the overall urban fabric,” writes one historian, much less nurture a sense of common purpose and shared responsibility. I’ve seen the same mind-set at work within my state, Massachusetts, in hardscrabble mill towns whose philanthropic founding families have departed, where local taxpayers resist the idea that support of libraries and hospitals must now rest with the community as a whole. Moreover, even at its most uncorrupted, the patronage system was greased by small considerations: “It was a genial, oily, present-giving world…”
The trajectory of civilization over the last few centuries has been precisely of heading away from this inefficient, archaic arrangement. As Wikipedia states, “…with modernity, traditional bureaucratic patrimonial forms of government eventually gave way to modern capitalist bureaucratic rationalism as the main principle of both government and governance.” And yet, remarkably, the movement toward Neofeudalism is defended and rationalized by many of the same people who call themselves (with a straight face) “Classical Liberals,” and defenders of so-called “Enlightenment Values.”
Not any more. Now we’re going through that same process in reverse. And that’s why the author of the BBC article referred to last time said that Game of Thrones is really about now. As the article plaintively asked, “With its violent, post-democratic world, could Game of Thrones, terrifyingly, be the ultimate near-future narrative?“
Most likely, yes.
3. The New Pre-Post-Westphalian Order
As internal to nation states, so too between nation-states. Not only are the formerly firm guarantees of the living under a democratic nation-state eroding, but globally the capabilities and the importance of the post-Westphalian nation-state itself is declining, replaced by a scattered menagerie of powerful actors—a hybrid regime where institutions are just shells, and leaders are accountable to no one (save their own clients and patrons). We saw this grim future world outlined last time in The Twin Insurgency.
While there is no real examination of Neofeudalism on Wikipedia, it does have a pertinent entry on a related concept called Neomedievalism, a political term first coined by theorist Hedley Bull in The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics. Rather than local politics, though, it deals with the global power relationships both between and within nation-states, and makes an explicit analogy with the pre-Westphalian world order of persistent, low-intensity conflict:
[Hedley] Bull suggested society might move towards “a new mediaevalism” or a “neo-mediaeval form of universal political order”…In this reading, globalization has resulted in an international system which resembles the medieval one, where political authority was exercised by a range of non-territorial and overlapping agents, such as religious bodies, principalities, empires and city-states, instead of by a single political authority in the form of a state which has complete sovereignty over its territory.
Comparable processes characterising Bull’s “new medievalism” include the increasing powers held by regional organisations such as the European Union, as well as the spread of sub-national and devolved governments, such as those of Scotland and Catalonia. These challenge the exclusive authority of the state.Private military companies, multinational corporations and the resurgence of worldwide religious movements (e.g. political Islam) similarly indicate a reduction in the role of the state and a decentralisation of power and authority.
Stephen J. Kobrin in 1998 added the forces of the digital world economy to the picture of neomedievalism. In an article entitled “Back to the Future: Neomedievalism and the Postmodern Digital World Economy” in the Journal of International Affairs, he argued that the sovereign state as we know it – defined within certain territorial borders – is about to change profoundly, if not to wither away, due in part to the digital world economy created by the Internet, suggesting that cyberspace is a trans-territorial domain operating outside of the jurisdiction of national law.
Anthony Clark Arend also argued in his 1999 book Legal Rules and International Society that the international system is moving toward a “neo-medieval” system. He claimed that the trends that Bull noted in 1977 had become even more pronounced by the end of the twentieth century. Arend argues that the emergence of a “neo-medieval” system would have profound implications for the creation and operation of international law.
“It is…conceivable that sovereign states might disappear and be replaced not by a world government but by a modern and secular equivalent of the kind of universal political organisation that existed in Western Christendom in the Middle Ages.
In that system no ruler or state was sovereign in the sense of being supreme over a given territory and a given segment of the Christian population; each had to share authority with vassals beneath, and with the Pope and (in Germany and Italy) the Holy Roman Emperor above.
The universal political order of Western Christendom represents an alternative to the system of states which does not yet embody universal government.”
The problem is that he saw this as possibly a good thing—an alternative to political structures that were too oversized, remote and inflexible. Many people shared his view.
But nature abhors a vacuum, especially a power vacuum, and into that vacuum powerful corporations have stepped in to become the new de facto post-democratic civic structures, and lone individuals, such as Bezos, Smith, Gates, James, Mark Zuckerberg and many others, have become the new de-facto aristocrats—like their historical forebears chosen not via the popular ballot, but simply by virtue of their achieved or ascribed status. And just like Augustus, they couch their munificence (synonyms: generosity, bountifulness, open-handedness, magnanimity, magnanimousness, princeliness, lavishness, free-handedness, liberality, philanthropy, charity, charitableness, largesse, big-heartedness, beneficence, benevolence) in the same pseudo-democratic “first-citizen” rhetoric of Noblesse Oblige that accompanied the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Empire.
It’s the pre-Enlightenment world all over again! As Crooked Timber wrote back in 2013:
…The cosy relationship between corporations … and the government bears a strong resemblance to feudalism (which, stripped of the pageantry, was a complex web of relations and privileges between a small and privileged elite of nobles and the state). It bears an even stronger resemblance to Old Corruption, the strangling web of sinecures and emoluments that radicals like William Cobbett inveighed against in the early nineteenth century.
Government – even at the best of times – has many clunky and inefficient features (the American version particularly so – many of the worst inflexibilities of the US government have their origins in people’s distrust of it). Yet the replacement of large swathes of government with a plethora of impenetrable subcontracting relationships is arguably even worse – it has neither the efficiencies (sometimes) achieved by markets, nor the accountability (sometimes) achieved by democratic oversight.
Sociologists have a term for what is occurring: they call it the “externalization of state functions.” Water and sewage systems are being privatized, as are airports and highways and public hospitals. Voucher programs and charter schools are a way of shifting education toward the private sector. The protection of nuclear waste is in private hands. Meat inspection is done largely by the meatpacking companies themselves. Americans were up in arms…when they learned that DP World, a company in the United Arab Emirates, would soon be in control of the terminals at half a dozen major U.S. seaports—only to discover that the privatization of terminal operations at American ports had begun three decades ago, and that 80 percent of them were already operated by foreign companies, the largest of which is Chinese. Serious proposals to privatize portions of Social Security have been on the table, and the new Medicare prescription-drug plan effectively puts an enormous government program into the hands of private insurance and drug companies.
And that leads us, once again, to the concept of the Hollow State we discussed last time. As you recall, a Hollow State is,
...a set of governmental practices in which states contract with third parties (private companies) in order to distribute government services.
In a hollow state there are many degrees of separation between the source of taxpayer funds and the final distribution of taxpayer-funded products or services. Services paid for by the state are produced by a vast network of providers and the task of the government is not to manage provision, but to negotiate contracts with providers.
There is no “command and control” relationship between government and contractors. Contracts are managed by countless agencies and even more providers, there is no means of central record keeping or data management.
A Hollow State has all the standard edifices of governance although most are under the influence of third-party organizations, either for-profit or non-profit entities.
In the name of “efficiency” government interests are delegated to private contractor[s], who will then often subcontract to other groups. For example, contractors hired to patch roofs with blue tarp for FEMA after Katrina received payment of “between $149 and $175 per (10ftx10ft square).” This price was comparable to installing entirely new roofs at the time. However; through a long string of subcontractors, the firms performing the final installations of the tarps “earned as little as $2 per 10ftx10ft square. Taxpayers end up paying exorbitantly as business interests takes complete control over the process of procurement.
Trump has repeatedly pressured the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Homeland Security to award a contract for building a wall at the southern U.S. border to a North Dakota company headed by a leading Republican donor…
Fisher [Industries] is a curious choice. The company is already suing the government after being rejected for any Army Corps contract for the border wall…Fisher Industries has some assets, though. Tommy Fisher is a major GOP donor. He has North Dakota’s Republican Senator Kevin Cramer in his corner. He’s already working on a private-sector attempt to build a barrier on private land in New Mexico, which is backed by close Trump allies such as Steve Bannon, the former White House strategist; Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater and brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos; and Kris Kobach, the former vice chair of Trump’s voter-fraud commission, who was under consideration as his “immigration czar.”
Moreover, Tommy Fisher has wisely made himself a fixture on Fox News, which the president watches obsessively. He’s used those appearances to pitch his company’s plan. And in a statement to the Post, Fisher Industries struck a positively Trumpian tone, promising to build “faster than any contractor using common construction methods” and adding, “Consistent with the goals President Trump has also outlined, Fisher’s goal is to, as expeditiously as possible, provide the best-quality border protection at the best price for the American people at our nation’s border.”
Instead of presidents or prime ministers, future nations may only have CEO’s:
The remaking of the American state in the image of its biggest corporations reflects the extent to which popular confidence in public virtue has been bleeding out over the long decades since Rollerball came out the year after Nixon’s resignation. The New Deal vision of government as the engine of egalitarian progress, itself the liberal cousin to state socialism’s dream of communitarian paradise, seems almost completely gone. The only utopia left after the “End of History” was the neoclassical economists’ whiteboard world of perfect markets measuring out welfare through price optimization, and the financial crisis permanently discredited that. The dream of the liberation from work has been replaced by the deluded restoration of industrial age proletarian drudgery — and the reversion to a baronial warlord model of governance. Long live the new serfs
This disintegration of the nation-state and tragic failures of modern governance, as we saw above, are usually framed as very good things by many intellectuals and the media. Making a Difference, Uplifting News, Good News, and so forth. Some of commenters I quoted from above were explicitly promoting the idea of philanthrocapitalism as a viable alternative to progressive taxation and procurement of necessary goods and services via states with their own national currencies and civil service.
But at least a few people are recognizing the charade for what it is—extreme taking followed by extreme giving, and fundamentally antithetical to progress, social justice and representative democracy, no matter how its justified:
Some parts of these stories—the protagonists’ determination or generosity, for instance—are certainly admirable. But the accounts as a whole can only be seen as uplifting if we unquestioningly accept the brutal logic of neoliberalism, where a person’s worth, standard of living and even their continued existence are determined completely by their wealth and what they can earn on the market.
Neoliberal ideology that promotes individualism and “free enterprise” does not see the rights to housing, healthcare or an adequate standard of living (enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) as inalienable, but rather as commodities to be bought, sold and bargained for on the market…
Perhaps the two most common subjects for these unintentionally horrifying “uplifting” stories are paying for education and healthcare, the cost of which is off the scale in America compared to the rest of the industrialized world. CNN shared the story of the “inspiring” Ryan Hickman, who, at just three years old, began recycling trash to help pay for college…CNBC also found a North Carolina kid with a “can-do attitude” who did the same (making barely $3 a week doing so). Neither network asked why children have to literally wade through garbage to hope for a decent education in the richest country in world history.
Medical costs are a problem crippling many Americans. Hospital bills are the leading cause of bankruptcy in America, while one-third of all GoFundMe donations are for medical expenses. CBS shared a supposedly “touching” story about a man who sold his beloved Ford Mustang to pay for his wife’s cancer treatment and how, 12 years later, his children bought it back for him. The twist? The owner sold it back to fund her own mother’s cancer treatment, according to the San Antonio Express News.
Any of these stories could have been used as a gateway to discuss many of the crippling economic and social problems the US is facing. But under neoliberalism, every problem is understood through an individualist lens, and not a result of systemic forces that dominate society…
“A feudal system is non-capitalist. In a feudal system everyone has a place – maybe a rotten place, but some place. So the serf has some place in the feudal system, they have some rights within that place in the system. In a capitalist system, you don’t have any rights. And in fact when modern capitalism developed in the early 19th century – this is post-Adam Smith or anything like that, but Ricardo and Malthus and so on – their principle was pretty simple: you don’t have any rights. The only rights a person has are what they can gain in the labor market. And beyond that, you’ve no right to live, you’ve no right to survive. If you can’t make out on the labor market, go somewhere else. And in fact they could go somewhere else, they could come here and exterminate the population and settle here. But in Europe, you couldn’t do that, so some remnants of the whole feudal system and conservative structures and so on did lead to – after all, Europe had huge labor movements, the German social democratic party grew out of very powerful movements, and they just forced the development of what became social market systems…”
Such “generous” measures don’t come out of the inherent benevolence of our new overlords. No, they serve a more base purpose—to tamp down dissent and to keep the serfs in line:
…there is still another, darker way of judging what goes on when elites put themselves in the vanguard of social change: that doing so not only fails to make things better, but also serves to keep things as they are. After all, it takes the edge off of some of the public’s anger at being excluded from progress. It improves the image of the winners. By using private and voluntary half-measures, it crowds out public solutions that would solve problems for everyone, and do so with or without the elite’s blessing.
There is no question that the outpouring of elite-led social change in our era does great good and soothes pain and saves lives. But we should also recall Oscar Wilde’s words about such elite helpfulness being “not a solution” but “an aggravation of the difficulty”. More than a century ago, in an age of churn like our own, he wrote: “Just as the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realised by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it, so, in the present state of things in England, the people who do most harm are the people who try to do most good.”
What they’re really doing is greasing the skids toward a world from before the Enlightenment and the French Revolution that we assumed we had permanently left behind centuries ago. But now we’re drifting back towards it—to an older, more primitive social arrangement; one of pervasive grotesque inequality, grinding poverty, hereditary aristocracy, religious fervor, and a threadbare patchwork of first-world order amidst a widening sea of chaos. Of ineffective states, government by whim, and justice for the fortunate few. And all the way down, if the media has their way, we’ll be grateful for whatever scraps fall from the tables of our new “God-Kings”.
As I wrote back in 2013:
I think that we really are entering a new political arrangement as profound as the transformation from the monarchical/manorial economy into the nation state. Some of the salient points are a dissolution of money and power from centralized governments directed by the citizenry into the whims of unitary individuals who control its distribution and allocation. Another is and a loss of rights and protections traditionally guaranteed to all citizens by the nation state, to dependency on whatever one can claw from the impersonal marketplace, nothing less and nothing more. Public provisions traditionally guaranteed by the state, such as roads, universal education, police and fire protection, a social safety net, etc. are also falling apart, another similarity to the dissolution of power following the fall of the Roman Empire, heightening the similarity.
Thus, I propose to call the new political system “Neofeudalism” to recognize the similarities to the previous system. The key of course, is the “Neo” part. It is a new system, with similarities to feudalism but entirely different and unique. Don’t look for knights in armor or stone castles with moats. Do look for private security contractors, gated compounds and yachts. Don’t looks for lords and serfs, do look for oligarchs living like kings and debt serfs living paycheck to paycheck. I don’t use this term pejoratively, or as a “snarl word,” I mean to really understand what this system is and how it works, because I think it’s going to be the political system that we’re all going to end up living under as capitalism disintegrates and we enter a new Dark Age.
“The idea that each corporation can be a feudal monarchy and yet behave in its corporate action like a democratic citizen concerned for the world we live in is one of the great absurdities of our time—”
― Kim Stanley Robinson, Antarctica
“…Given half a chance, the sons and daughters of peasants would rather not grow up to be servants. It seems bizarre for modern folk to pine for a way of life our ancestors rightfully fought desperately to escape.”
― David Brin, Glory Season