Civilization Never Changes

I’m glad I was able to recall where I read this fact:

When humans start treating animals as subordinates, it becomes easier to do the same thing to one another. The first city-states in Mesopotamia were built on this principle of transferring methods of control from creatures to human beings, according to the archaeologist Guillermo Algaze at the University of California in San Diego. Scribes used the same categories to describe captives and temple workers as they used for state-owned cattle.

How domestication changes species, including the human (Aeon)

Because it sets this up perfectly:

Do I even need to comment? Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…

5 thoughts on “Civilization Never Changes

  1. This is one of the most valuable concepts I have learned from reading your work. It’s easy to say that the present is *like* the past, in a metaphorical sense, but difficult to understand that these phenomenon are *literally* the same, just with different names.

    It was your essay on modern wage employment and classical debt slavery that crystalized it for me. As an American living in 2020, it’s hard to admit that all our pride in our progress is just pretense: “I can’t believe this is happening in 2020!” is a tiny prayer to the god of progress, a wish that all these bad things are just deviations and not the norm.

    Building on your writings about human sacrifice as a means of reinforcing social hierarchies, what is the steady drumbeat of police violence against African Americans but a modern form of human sacrifice? Just as young Spartans had to annually murder Helots to reinforce their social control over a subordinate population, American police have to routinely–and almost ritualistically, at this point–murder black Americans to reinforce their social control over a subordinate population.

    1. That’s a great analogy; I hadn’t thought of that! But, yeah, it is quite similar. When you have a internal subject population, violence permeates the whole society on an almost spiritual level, and we in America have been tragically defined by our dark-skinned “enemy within” for nearly our entire history. The violence and authoritarianism of American society is something we’ve mostly ignored up until now, because it’s lurked under the surface, and most of us have not had to confront it directly in such a raw and brutal way. I’m glad we’re finally seeing a push back against creeping authoritarianism, as well as the brutality and exploitation of our economic setup.

      When I heard that ancient Athens had an entire class of foreign workers called metics who were essentially second-class citizens and were brought in to do the undesirable jobs native-born Athenians didn’t want to do (as opposed to Sparta’s helots), I immediately thought of the agricultural laborers and slaughterhouse workers that keep our food system viable. So similar! And thanks to Covid, people are finally aware of these people who have been invisible up until now. It’s almost like modern society requires a certain level of constant denial in order to to function, and when that’s stripped away, people are shocked at what they see. And then they get upset, and sometimes they get angry. And then you see what’s going around us on right now. Personally, I think racial violence and injustice is only the beginning of why people should be taking to the streets here in the U.S., and I hope it doesn’t end there.

      A lot of people are confronting the kind of society we’ve built, when up until now they’ve been sleepwalking in blissful ignorance. I certainly have tried to deal with these issues over the years, trying to give people the tools and context to understand the world we live in. I’m glad people have gotten something out of it.

      1. Well, I, for one, have gotten a lot out of your work, and I greatly appreciate it.

        Even though I consider myself fairly analytical, objective, and cynical, there’s still a subconscious part of me that resists this kind of belief, that insists that the bad things are aberrations from a good trajectory. It’s incredibly difficult to internalize an understanding that there is no trajectory towards the good. But I agree: this kind of denial is absolutely essential to the functioning of the system. Tell people that their modern jobs are functionally indistinguishable from classical debt slavery and they’ll think you’re making an overwrought joke.

        (I can see how this could be tremendously demoralizing, but in some ways I find it exhilarating: the work is never done, the fight will never be over, and it’s worth working every day to make things just a little better, even if just for a little while.)

  2. Within my working life (the last thirty years), company departments which used to be called ‘personnel’ in the UK have all uniformly been renamed ‘human resources’. Perhaps more importantly, they think we haven’t noticed. (What the Three Persons of the Trinity make of it is uncertain. Maybe they ‘caught the last train for the coast’, in the words of the poet.)

    Of course, most people refer to the HR department as ‘Human Remains’. It took me a surprisingly long time to realise they’re not on the side of the workers, they’re there to cover the company’s ass.

    1. I think that’s creeping Americanization at work–it’s always been called “Human Resources” here, as far back as I can remember. Every so often, I see the quote “Remember, human resources is there to protect the corporation, not you.”

      Now, which sounds better, “sacked” or “fired.” I’m not sure. I’d take “sacked”–sounds more civilized. Fired makes me think of gasoline and a lit match.

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