What Is the Alt-Left?

First, let’s state the obvious: people are turning to alternative narratives, whether Alt-Right or Alt-Left, because the mainstream narrative is increasingly falling apart. There is a very narrow range of “acceptable” opinions anymore, which is why so many things are increasingly falling under the “Alt” label.

There is a pervasive sense out there that society is spiraling out of control, and that our leaders have no answers. Their “solutions” seem useless and ineffectual; their proscriptions seem counterproductive; and their “leadership” seems craven and self-serving.

It seems like elites and the media live in a different world entirely from the rest of us, whether it’s the enclaves of Manhattan, Silicon Valley, the City of London, “Versailles on the Potomac,” or the “Acela Corridor.” They seem to have no clue as to what 90+ percent of us are experiencing “out here” in the rapidly decaying societies of America and Western Europe.

I first began to think about the existence of an alt-left while contemplating several bloggers and authors/speakers whom you are probably already familiar: James Howard Kunstler, Dmitry Orlov, John Michael Greer, as well as bloggers like Ran Prieur, Nicole Foss, the late Michael Ruppert, Charles Hugh Smith, and many others. I’m also thinking of a lot of the people regularly published on Resilience.org, for example– Gail Tverberg, Ugo Bardi, Chris Martenson, Richard Heinberg, Albert Bates, Nate Hagens, Charles Eisenstein and many others too numerous to mention.

A lot of similar critiques can be found in the Deep Green/Transition Town/Permaculture/Neo-Luddite/Slow ‘X’ movements as well. These are also well outside of the mainstream Left critique. I’m thinking of people like Derrick Jensen, Kirkpatrick Sale, John Zerzan, Rob Hopkins, Chris Smaje, among numerous others.

Now, I don’t think anyone would lump these people together with the Alt-Right as commonly understood. Typically, in today’s climate they are placed on the “leftward” end of the political spectrum. However, Their views diverge pretty dramatically from those of the Mainstream Left as currently constituted, even people considered to be at the “far” end like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. They certainly diverge from the narratives put forward in the current “Left” media, which seems to have degenerated into little more than a non-stop Trump hate-fest (e.g. The Huffington Post, Slate, Salon, The Nation, MoJo, The Atlantic, etc.).

Many of these writers came out of what was known as the “Doomer,” “Collapse” or “Peak Oil” community. While their analyses did include Peak Oil/collapse concepts, their critiques went far beyond that.

A lot of writers have subsequently tried to distance themselves from the “Doomer” label, for example, Ran Prieur, who describes a couple of the alt-left’s key points:

April 12. …Today I want to distance myself from doomers…it’s tricky to say where I disagree with the normal collapse idelology [sic]. I agree with a lot of the details, for example that economic growth can’t continue on a finite planet, and that modern life is a worse fit for human nature than most of the ways we lived in the past. But I don’t think the human response to these crises is limited by my own imagination, that just because I can’t see a way through, billions of people at the edge of survival will just roll over. I have a lot of respect for unknown unknowns.

So who are these people? Maybe they constitute an alt-left? By coincidence, after I began thinking about this, an event was held grouping three of the above writers together on stage. You’ve probably already seen the panel discussion:

John Michael Greer, James Howard Kunstler, Chris Martenson, Frank Morris, and Dmitry Orlov Discuss Trump, the Inequality Taboo and Other Hot Topics (Naked Capitalism)

So, by having these thinkers together on one stage, I think it’s safe to say that there is some sort of coherent enough philosophy that we might be able to outline its key principles and define it as something we can term an “Alt-Left.” But what are those principles?

The Mainstream Narrative

I’ve already discussed the mainstream Left’s views on multiculturalism and diversity in my previous entry. Now, let’s focus on some other aspects of the mainstream left. From a recent post by Peter Turchin:

One of the most interesting passages in [the book] Listen, Liberal is [Thomas] Frank’s characterization of the Republicans as the party of 1 percent—nothing new here—and the Democrats as the party of the 10 percent—which is the interesting part, and a new idea, at least to me.

What does he mean by “the party of the 10 percent”? It is generally agreed that back in the days of FDR, Truman, and Johnson the Democrats were the party of the Working America (even if the leaders were often recruited from the “aristocracy”, like FDR). Today, however, they are the party of “professionals”: “doctors, lawyers, the clergy, architects, and engineers—the core professional groups—the category includes economists, experts in international development, political scientists, managers, financial planners, computer programmers, aerospace designers, and even people who write books like this one.” And college professors. (Parenthetically, although I and my university colleagues would surely object to be called the “elite”, that’s how the fly-over America thinks of us. We are branded as the “East Coast Liberal Elite.”)

Returning to Frank’s point, the 10 percent are the technocracy, the credential class, the meritocracy (“meritocracy is the official professional credo—the conviction that the successful deserve their rewards, that the people on top are there because they are the best”). They believe in the power of education. “To the liberal class, every economic problem is really an education problem, a failure by the losers to learn the right skills and get the credentials everyone knows you’ll need in the society of the future.”

Listen, Liberal – Part II (Cliodynamica)

Now, Frank is ostensibly writing about the “New” Left, but I think he successfully defines the world view of both the Mainstream Left and Right today. The Mainstream Left and Right have, to a great extent, merged–and abandoned the vast majority of citizens in countries around the world in the process. Although Frank is writing of America specifically, his analysis can extend to elites in Europe and Asia as well. They have become a transnational globalized “merit-based” elite, occupying a handful of global cities while the rest of the planet has been converted into basically a heavily-policed colony for resource extraction to support them.

The idea that “more education” is the solution to each and every problem we face, which Frank notes above, extends to both the Mainstream Left and the Right, I think. This has given rise, for example, to the “education-industrial complex” in the U.S. Yet, despite already historically unprecedented levels of educational attainment, problems with joblessness and social decay persist and are getting worse.

The idea that “more education” cannot solve our current problems is alien to the mainstream narrative. The Left wants to make education “more affordable” by extending cheap loans, while the Right clamors for ineffective “market-based” solutions and offers tax shelters (which only benefit children of the already wealthy), but neither is willing to accept that the need for educated workers is dropping, and more schooling alone does not equal a more educated and capable population.

Related to this is the idea that the System is working just fine, and only needs a few tweaks to resolve all of our current issues. The top-down technocratic management of society by the union of Big Government, Big Transnational Corporations, and the Banking Cartel is fundamentally sound. In other words, we’ve hit a temporary hiccup in our progress, but soon the kinks will be worked out and we’ll be back on our regularly scheduled trip to Utopia. Perhaps a TED Talk will have the answer!

Another is a belief in social engineering. “Nudge theory” is only the latest manifestation of this. We are bombarded every day with messages that tell us how we “should” behave (or how elites think we should). The mainstream Right likes to denounce social engineering but engages in it just as much as the Left; they just want different outcomes (docile, obedient cubicle serfs quietly serving their corporate masters and paying taxes). Advertising/marketing/PR itself is just social engineering on a large scale.

I would also posit that an important link between the mainstream Right and Left is the idea that globalized Markets are fundamentally superior and the only valid way to organize society (a.k.a. Neoliberalism). The Left and Right may differ, of course, on how much regulation of the Market they feel is required, or how generous the social safety net should be, but neither of them differ on that fundamental point. The Left may prefer a bit less inequality, the Right a little more, but they all agree on the fundamental points of Neoliberalism and Austerity.

It’s the “end of history” hypothesis. For the mainstream Left and Right There truly Is No Alternative—Globalized Markets and Liberal Democracies have triumphed. Any alternative is unthinkable; there is no going back. We just need a social program or two, maybe fiddle with the tax rates or add a few regulations here and there, and everything will work out just fine.

Another is an almost theological belief in technological innovation as the solution to problems. This attitude was described by Vaclav Smil in an interview with WIRED Magazine:

Today, as you know, everything is “innovation.” We have problems, and people are looking for fairy-tale solutions—innovation like manna from heaven falling on the Israelites and saving them from the desert. It’s like, “Let’s not reform the education system, the tax system. Let’s not improve our dysfunctional government. Just wait for this innovation manna from a little group of people in Silicon Valley, preferably of Indian origin.” You people at WIRED—you’re the guilty ones! You support these people, you write about them, you elevate them onto the cover! You really messed it up. I tell you, you pushed this on the American public, right? And people believe it now.

Both mainstream Left and Right are wedded to the notion of eternal Progress–the idea that things are perpetually getting better and better for everyone. They love to deploy statistics compiled by, for example, the late Dr. Hans Rosling and Stephen Pinker, demonstrating how much richer and safer the world has gotten over the past hundred years under their “enlightened leadership,” and how much wealthier the “poor” nations of the world have become. This is their justification for moving forward with the Neoliberal project. To that end, any dissent from the status quo amounts to a return to barbarism! The “sacrifice zones” of the industrial heartlands of America and Europe are simply the price to pay for global progress. I call it “omelette ethics”—the idea that “You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs…”

Neither side deals with the idea that there are fundamental limits to growth, or that we have lost a great deal in our relentless push to modernize. None of them deal with the crises of unemployment, obesity, mental illness, or pollution, for example. To them, every problem we face can be solved with either more education, more economic growth, more markets, more migration, more regulations, or more technology, full stop.

Expanding and growing the economy is imperative for both the mainstream Right and Left; on this issue, there is no difference. Neither of them question the basic assumptions of our current society on a deeper level. I summarized them last time: productivism (growthism); top-down technocratic management; centralization of power; educational meritocracy; multiculturalism; cosmopolitanism; globalism; corporatism; consumerism; financialization; technological progress, laissez-faire capitalism; natalism, meliorism, scientific rationalism, materialism, the belief in “progress,” and so forth.

For a good overview of “mainstream” Left thinking, you would be hard-pressed to do better than this “Big Idea” VOX article: 7 reasons why today’s left should be optimistic. Among the highlights:

Science and Technology are our friends—Presenting an almost giddy techno-optimism straight out of the movie Tomorrowland:

From smart phones, flat screen TVs, and the internet to air and auto travel to central heating and air conditioning to the medical devices and drugs that cure disease and extend life to electric lights and the mundane flush toilet — the list is endless — technology has made people’s lives both much better and much longer than ever before. The average person today is far, far better off than her counterpart in the past. As the Northwestern University economic historian Joel Mokyr puts it, the so-called good old days were old but they were not good.

And what do we have to thank for all these spectacular advances? It’s technology that has made possible the new goods, machines, medicine and so on that we consume, and that has fueled the economic growth that allows us to consume at such a high level. One would think, therefore, that the left would embrace techno-optimism: After all, if the goal is to improve people’s lives, rapid technological advance is surely something to promote enthusiastically.

Yet many on the left tend to regard technological change with dread rather than hope. They see technology as a force facilitating inequality rather than growth, destroying jobs, especially for manual workers, turning consumers into corporate pawns rather than information-savvy citizens and destroying the planet in the process. We are far, far away from the traditional left attitude that welcomed technological change as the handmaiden of abundance and increased leisure — or, for that matter, from the liberal optimism that permeated the culture of the 1950s and ’60s, the optimism that offered up tantalizing visions of flying cars and obedient robots.

The mainstream Left and Right embrace a muscular techno-optimism, and decry those who don’t as ignorant Luddite “pessimists” standing in the way of even greater progress. Oh, and in case you’re worried about the millions of people already unemployed under the current regime of technology:

Continuing technological advance is unlikely to produce a future of no jobs. It will lead instead to a future of different and more highly skilled jobs… the history of technological advance is full of transformations that put workers out of jobs in one sector only to have more jobs created in others as demand for new products and services grow.

Jobs for the already wealthy and well-connected 10 percent, perhaps. For the rest of us, not so much. According to the mainstream Left, we can just teach everyone to code and problem solved! (c.f. Frank’s comments above). After all, look how well “more education” has worked out thus far. Gee, I can’t imagine why people are abandoning the Mainstream left narrative in droves.

Globalization is a force for Good: – Basically the old “The Chinese are Getting Richer” argument:

Many on the American left seem to miss this, but the world is getting to be a much better place. Since 1950, the proportion of the world’s citizens living in extreme poverty has declined from 72 percent to under 10 percent, while world life expectancy has increased from 48 years to 71. These remarkably positive changes have actually accelerated in the past 25 years, as globalization has intensified.

And they’ve gotten much richer by making all our stuff (although some have argued that subtracting China would make all these alleged global gains disappear). And what about those poor, unfortunate, losers out in the Rust Belt? Just a minor wrinkle; nothing to trouble yourself with:

Of course, it is true that globalization has had some negative effects — for example, on manufacturing jobs in developed countries — but these are exaggerated. The decline of industrial employment is a very long-run trend that predates the sharp rise in globalization toward the end of the last century. If you plot the share of manufacturing jobs in overall US employment since 1948, there has been a steady decline from a high of about 35 percent to less than 9 percent today. This decline can be traced to rapidly rising productivity in the manufacturing sector — the same output could be produced with fewer workers — combined with shifts in demand toward services, reflecting a rise in consumer affluence.

Affluence (even of the American middle-class variety, not the Jeff Bezos variety) leaves more room in family budgets for non-necessities: 46 percent of consumption spending was on the basic necessities of food and clothing in 1947 compared with less than 18 percent today.

A rise in consumer affluence? Wait a minute, in 1947, most families could sustain themselves comfortably on a single income, even without a college degree. I know because my grandparents (and everyone they knew) did it. What’s going on here? From the Turchin post cited above:

…American workers are not stupid and they know that they are fed bullshit. When you go to a meeting with your company’s CEO and other corporate officers and they tell you that you either accept a pay cut, or they will move the factory to Mexico—who are you going to believe, your own experience or the Theory of Comparative Advantage? And then, a couple of years later, despite you having agreed to a wage cut, they still move the factory to Mexico.

Yet both the mainstream Left and Right support unfettered globalism and “free trade,” and denounce anyone who doesn’t as a xenophobic racist.

So, I guess, never mind that opioid deaths are reaching AIDS-epidemic crisis levels in Middle America, the Unnecessariat has plenty of money to spend on McDonalds and iPhones. What are you liberals whining about, anyway? Just ignore those tent cities springing up all over the country.

Besides, the mainstream Left argues, that White demographic is rapidly dying off anyway, and that’s a good thing! All we have to do is sit and wait it out for a few more election cycles:

Consider how strong Democratic growth will be. The share of white non-college voters is dropping 3 points every presidential cycle, replaced by ever more minorities and college-educated voters. The growth of minorities is particularly striking. Right now, there are only four majority-minority states: California, Hawaii, New Mexico, and Texas. But the next two majority-minority states, Maryland and Nevada, should arrive in the next three years. After that, there should be four more in the 2020s: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and New Jersey. In the 2030s, these states should be joined by Alaska, Louisiana, and New York — and in the 2040s by Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Virginia.

And if White people don’t die off fast enough, hopefully the elderly will:

Together, millennials and Gen X-ers accounted for 57 percent of eligible voters in 2016, an advantage that was tamped down by the relatively higher turnout of older generations. But by 2024, millennials and Gen X-ers, plus the emerging post-millennial generation, will constitute fully 68 percent of eligible voters. What’s more, the millennials and Gen X-ers will have aged into much higher turnout years. Silents, the most conservative generation by far, will be down to a mere 7 percent of eligibles.

Gee, I can’t imagine why White Heartland voters aren’t turning out for the Democrats in droves, can you? Maybe it’s because the Democratic party can barely conceal their glee over the extinction of this demographic, rather than, you know, actively trying to engage with their concerns. Reading stuff like this, you can really understand where the idea that the Democratic party actively hates white people comes from.

The clean energy revolution is underway – Electric cars/Elon Musk to the rescue!!!

In the past few years, even as fossil fuel prices have declined, world investments in clean energy, chiefly wind and solar, have reached levels that are double those for fossil fuel. Renewables now provide half of all new electric capacity worldwide. (And two-thirds in China, which has drastically cut its plans for new coal plants.) It’s increasingly common, at least in some countries and some regions of the United States, for clean energy to be cost-competitive with fossil fuels.

The rapidity with which clean energy is becoming cheaper and more available is underappreciated. The cost of solar has fallen to 1/150th of its 1970s level, and the amount of installed solar capacity worldwide has increased a staggering 115,000 times. These exponential trends are hard to properly assess, even for those whose business it is to do so. For example, Ramez Naam, a US technologist and proponent of clean energy, posited in 2011 that solar power was following a kind of Moore’s Law for energy. (Moore’s Law projected that microchips would double in efficiency every two years.) Such efficiency gains would allow solar energy systems, which had by then fallen to about $3 a watt, to drop to only 50 cents a watt by 2030. However, Naam noted in the spring of 2015 that he had been way too conservative: Solar power systems by early 2015 had already hit the 50 cent mark.

Another variation on the “innovation will save us” argument (c.f. Vaclav Smil, above).

Naam, who was a former VP at Microsoft, is emblematic of the kind of rootless, cosmopolitan elites hovering above us that Frank describes as the being the core of the new mainstream Left:

Ramez Naam was born in Cairo, Egypt, and came to the US at the age of 3. He’s a computer scientist, futurist, angel investor, and award-winning author…Between stints at Microsoft, Ramez founded and ran Apex NanoTechnologies, the world’s first company devoted entirely to software tools to accelerate molecular design. He holds 19 patents related to search engines, information retrieval, web browsing, artificial intelligence, and machine learning.


No wonder he’s so stoked for the future!

Implicit in this view is that renewable energy will simply plug in to where fossil fuels were with no changes whatsoever to our living standards or economic arrangements. We will not have to change our extravagant lifestyles–or at least the upper 10 percent will not.

The idea that we have to fundamentally alter our living arrangements—along with our blind dependence on growth at all costs—will never enter the mainstream left narrative. And speaking of growth:

Trump can’t solve people’s problems. The left can. How? Through more economic growth, of course!!!

Nowhere is that opening greater than on the issue of growth that leads to better jobs and higher living standards. The Democratic Party is more or less united around a programmatic approach to the economy that could actually produce such growth — an approach some of us call “equitable growth.” It pushes back on inequality, seeing current high levels as an active detriment to growth, and seeks to combine support and opportunity for the broad middle class with investments to make the economy more productive.

This includes universal pre-K, free access to two years and some four-year colleges, paid family leave, subsidized child care, higher minimum wages, a commitment to full employment, and robust investments in infrastructure and scientific research, especially around clean energy.

How strong growth can be with a better approach is a matter of debate. Certainly, the 4 percent annual rate bandied about the Trump administration is fanciful. But, as Jason Furman, chair of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors, recently pointed out in Vox, we should “do everything that [we] can for growth, because over time a few tenths of a percent really do matter” And of course, the point is not just to grow faster but to better distribute that growth. The left’s approach will do both.

Yes, according to the mainstream Left, growth will solve all our problems, won’t it?

The idea that we can have some sort of magical “equitable growth” not based upon trickle-down seems like a pipe dream given the current political climate, as is the idea that we will have either the political will or the resources to establish the laundry list of big government programs listed above. Our government is entirely captured by special interests. Also, notice how many of those government programs boil down to “more education.”

And, of course, unlike the gloomy realism pessimism of the Alt-Left, the Mainstream Left presents a sunny view of our future, where things are getting better and better for everyone all the time (e.g. “America is Already Great!”):

It’s time for the left to realize that pessimism is an absolutely terrible selling point — and to downplay that aspect of left self-presentation. If things were terrible yesterday, are worse today, and are likely to get even worse tomorrow, this does not motivate the typical person to engage in heroic struggle to change the world. It is more likely to make them cautious, guarded, and determined to hold onto what little they have. To the extent the left wallows in a slough of despond [sic] about the state of the world, it only manages to undercut its ability to mobilize ordinary people. Optimism, by contrast, mobilizes people…Leftists and liberals should promote … a sense that positive change has been, is, and will continue to be possible. That will make it far easier to mobilize their fellow citizens.

Maybe a “heroic struggle” to “change the world” is what got us into this predicament in the first place. Gee, I wonder who could possibly be this clueless and delusional:

Ruy Teixeira’s new book is The Optimistic Leftist: Why the 21st Century Will Be Better Than You Think. He is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

Ah, yes, the mainstream Left’s think tanks are all about “Progress,” aren’t they, while the Right’s are all about “Freedom.” Neither offers much in the way of progress or freedom to anyone besides a small technocratic elite.

Techno-optimism, perpetual economic growth, multiculturalism, globalism, more education, “just desserts” meritocracy—there is really not much difference between the mainstream Left and Right anymore, is there? No wonder people are increasingly flocking to alternatives, including some very toxic ones.


By contrast, the Alt-Left have very different ideas. We can summarize some of the major points as:

– Infinite growth on a finite planet is not possible.

– There are limits to the growth of both resources and population.

– Economic expansion has been enabled by the exploitation of fossil fuels over the last 200 years: coal, oil, natural gas, shale, tar sands, etc.—energy resources which are finite in supply and will eventually be exhausted. Other resources like fresh water, topsoil, fertilizer, and rare earth metals are also critical to our continued economic expansion are also finite in supply and are rapidly being depleted.

– The massive release of these fossil fuels is destabilizing the relatively stable Holocene climate on which human civilization depends.

– Our relentless economic growth has engendered countless environmental catastrophes: the erosion of topsoil, species extinction, algae blooms, the Pacific Garbage Patch, polluted water, air saturated with soot, endocrine-disrupting chemicals, felled rain forests, desertification, depleted aquifers, bleached coral reefs, ocean acidification, melting glaciers, ozone holes, and on and on and on. Our economic system is basically committing ecocide.

– Capitalism and the Market only work in conditions of growing surpluses. They cannot achieve a steady state; only growth or collapse. Issues like extreme inequality and the unfair distribution of resources are ignored by society’s leaders by focusing only on perpetual growth.

– More and more technology is not inherently better. Increasingly, technology is being deployed to solve problems caused by previous technologies, and often ends up causing more problems than it solves. Technology is increasingly delivering diminishing returns. Not every problem has a technological solution.

– The notion of eternal progress is a myth. History is cyclical—periods of growth are always followed by periods of dissolution and collapse.

– Markets are not the idealized, perfectly-calibrated information-processors headed towards equilibrium described in economic textbooks, but rather come about through the interaction of flawed, irrational, ignorant and greedy human beings. They do not lead to the ideal distribution of resources, but rather extreme inequality and instability. They are prone to regular speculative bubbles, manias, panics and crashes. Economic systems are built around things like trust as much as anything else, which are ephemeral, unmeasurable and unpredictable.

– Corporations’ only goal is to maximize profits by any means necessary. To this end they privatize profits and socialize losses to the greatest extent possible. For this reason, they have become threats to human freedom and the natural world. Trusting them to provide for all our needs is dangerous and delusional.

– Money has utterly corrupted representative democracy. We live in a plutocratic kleptocracy. Bankers and financiers—not voters—call the shots.

– Debts always grow faster than the ability to repay them. Building an economy around usury is unsustainable. Without some sort of debt forgiveness, the majority will end up in hock to a tiny minority, hollowing out society.

– Financialization does not produce real wealth, only the illusion of wealth. Speculation is out of control. Banking should be a public utility.

– Extreme inequality has historically torn societies apart, not pushed them to “higher” levels of development.

-The media exists primarily to distract, not inform. Much of it is propaganda put forward to further the agenda of wealthy elites.

– The economic system we have built is inherently fragile. Having us all be dependent on vast supply chains extending across the globe even for our daily needs is a recipe for disaster. We are all roped together like mountain-climbers–any problem anywhere in the system can bring everything crashing down quickly.

– Small, scale, local, regional solutions are more responsive and resilient than large-scale, top-down, centralized solutions. People should have agency to make their own decisions about their own communities. Top-down, one-size-fits-all solutions often do not work.

– Local economies work because money circulates through them. Large corporation suck wealth out of communities and deposit it on Wall Street and other remote financial centers.

– People should be able to meet their daily needs using local resources, including their food needs.

– The idea that we can create enough jobs for everyone, or send everyone to school, and that this will solve all our problems, is delusional.

– The profit motive leads to things like rent-seeking, monopolies, planned obsolescence, lower-quality goods, frivolous patents, etc. It also leads to the wholesale plundering of the natural world.

I could go on, but I think you get the point.

There are also a number of social concepts that arise from the above notions:

– We are social creatures. Our way of life is fundamentally at odds with the kinds of close-knit tribal communities we evolved in for hundreds of thousands of years.

– No man is an island. We are not isolated “rugged individuals,” but part of a broader social fabric, with basic obligations to one other.

– An environment centered around work, the acquisition of material goods, and status seeking, has left us feeling empty and sad.

“Our archaic firmware just can’t keep up in this evolutionarily novel socially networked environment.”

– Depression and mental illness are epidemic because we are living in environments that are highly toxic and unsuited to basic human psychological needs. Advertising stokes our feelings of dissatisfaction and inadequacy in order to get us to buy things we don’t really want or need.

-Our work today is increasingly boring and alienating. Our jobs are precarious. Our need to move around for the economy’s needs prevents developing any sense of community. We are cogs in a machine. Our dependence on “jobs” where we get paid a salary by some big institution, often to do socially useless work, is a historical anomaly.

– We incorrectly believe that economic expansion will somehow solve all of our social problems. In fact, the social sphere is often in conflict with the imperatives of economic expansion.

– The impersonal capitalist Market turns us all into cutthroat competitors, undermining social cohesion. A “dog-eat dog” mentality leads to an environment where sociopaths climb to the top.

– Progress for the few leads to immiseration for the many. Extreme inequality is detrimental to the health and well-being of both the rich AND the poor on multiple levels.

– There IS such a thing as culture, and we abandon it at our peril. The amoral relativism of modernism where “everything goes and nothing matters,” leaves people unmoored, isolated and confused. People inherently want to belong, and they want to be part of something larger than themselves.

Again, I could go on, but that gives a good summary of some of the major points.

If you believe in the above propositions, well, then, you may be part of the Alt-Left. I suspect many people who might identify as part of the Alt-Right will agree with quite a few of these sentiments as well. The differences, as I see it, are in the Alt-Right’s embrace of extreme inequality, individualism, anti-collectivism, anti-democracy, laissez-faire libertarian capitalism, unlimited wealth accumulation, white supremacy, racism, misogyny, hereditarianism and Social Darwinism.

Next time, we’ll take a look at what lies at the heart of the Alt-Left critique.

Diversity and the Alt-Left

In this post by Matt Breunig at Medium, he makes the case that many on the nominal Left are slowly and reluctantly coming around to the idea that diversity makes social safety nets difficult or impossible for societies to create and sustain through undermining social cohesion, and that this realization is fairly recent. The argument is that people do not wish to contribute to the collective social good when they believe it primarily benefits people who are unlike them. In addition, divide-and-rule strategies are easier to deploy by elites of diverse societies to keep the people fighting amongst one another and enable kleptocracies.

I think this realization largely comes from the political climate of the last few decades. Since Civil Rights, the Left has stood by and watched helplessly as pro-corporate forces have used white racial grievance and hot-button “wedge” issues to dismantle the social safety net piece-by-piece, roll back worker protections, and return wealth disparity back to Guided Age levels. The white working class has consistently voted against their own interests since Reagan, and it’s pretty hard to explain by the myth of the “rational voter.” Phenomena like “white flight” in response to well-meaning attempts at social engineering have also contributed to this resignation.

At the same time in Europe, areas hollowed out by deindustrilization have been filled by ethnic migrants from poorer parts of the world (places which, not coincidentally, were impoverished by the imposition of corporate globalism). These enclaves have in many cases, failed to integrate into society, especially with the mass migration of recent times, causing a lot of consternation among Europeans, even those who would never consider themselves racist. The resurgence of domestic terrorism centered around Islam has exacerbated this unease.

This has led to a change in views among the many on the Left that people simply will not contribute as much to a diverse society where people are perceived as being not like them. A social safety net will not work if it applies to all comers, that is, if it is without bounds. And, in turn, attempts to dictate social policy without taking this into account are doomed to fail. Breunig argues that this has been the traditional conservative position all along:

The argument…is that diversity leads to racism, which leads to lower support for the welfare state, and thus creates widespread economic immiseration at the bottom of society. [VOX writer Zack] Beauchamp does not explain why exactly he thinks this is, but other liberal commentators, such as Ned Resnikoff, have attributed it to the “ancient, tribal section of the human brain.”

What follows from this particular argument is pretty clear: you can have diversity or you can have economic justice, but you can’t have both.

Traditionally, this has been the arch-conservative position, especially when you bring in the biotruth of the human lizard brain. It is conservatives who say that we cannot mix different kinds of people, lest we increase social distrust, disharmony, and distance. It is conservatives who say that we need to monitor diversity levels in immigration to ensure that the immigrant share of the population does not get too high and to ensure that the immigrants who do come in are aggressively assimilated so as to erase the differences they initially bring with them.

Not keeping diversity down and different groups separated from one another, conservatives maintain, will destabilize society, turn politics into a dangerous racialized contest for political power, and immiserate people in all sorts of subtle and not-so-subtle ways. And it’s not just white conservatives who say this either. The black nationalist/separatist movements also hold these views…

Liberals and diversity (Medium)

That may have been the traditional arch-conservative position historically, but I think it’s been embraced by many on the nominal Left now, especially based on the political observations during last fifty years in the United States. In their opinion, diversity for its own sake just doesn’t work. The ongoing conflicts between Muslim/North African immigrants and natives in Europe has led many there to the same conclusion. We can consider this as one position which overlaps between the alt-right and what I’m classifying as the alt-left.

Breunig finds this disturbing. He contrasts it with the “traditional” leftist view:

When I was coming up back in the day, this was not the liberal view on diversity…The view then was that racism is a historical development, not an impenetrable feature of the tribal human brain. On this view, human beings are fundamentally the same and socially constructed categories used to divide them… can be overcome by uniting around what human beings have in common.

On this view (which I share) there are obviously frictions caused by difference, especially when a particular difference has been historically weaponized to subordinate people, but those frictions can be overcome by organizing along lines that cut across those differences. The clearest candidate for that is organizing along economic lines that aim to unite working class people of all stripes into political and civil institutions together. But it is also conceivable to organize people along ideological or subcultural lines as well.

If you think that view is wrong, then you should actually explain what you think the consequences of it being wrong are. If diversity and justice really are at odds with one another, then which one should you pick and why? For myself I strongly support both, do not believe they are mutually exclusive, and understand this to be the standard left position.

Breunig may believe what he states above, but I think departing from this “standard left position” is one of the distinguishing features of the alt-left. They might not believe in the strident racism and white supremacy peddled by the alt-right with its questionable science, but they do acknowledge that humans are hard-wired to like cooperate with people like them on some basic level.

Breunig points out the incoherence of the standard liberal position. If the left truly believes that diversity undermines support for the welfare state and social justice, how,then, can they continue to support things like open borders, birthright citizenship and sanctuary cities?

More and more, it seems like liberals in The Discourse agree with this basic conservative assessment of how diversity affects society. But, despite that underlying agreement, they somewhat bizarrely resist the conservative conclusion. Despite telling you that they think increasing diversity will result in children going hungry, as well as the mass incarceration and widespread discrimination of minority groups, they nonetheless support it.

If liberals are going to adopt the conservative view on how diversity operates in society, then they really do need to also work out what they think the implication of it is. Conservatives are very clear: diversity has all these problems and so it should be restricted. But the liberal view — that diversity has all these problems and yet it should be expanded without restraint — is just incoherent on its face.

The Alt-Left has no such contradictions. They do question multiculturalism and diversity, not because of white supremacy or genetic determinism, but because they realize how it undermines social justice and social cohesion when handled poorly (as, indeed, it had been). What makes the alt-left different is that, unlike the alt-right, they really do want a healthier society and less inequality, rather than Social Darwinism. Concerning the question above that Breunig poses, the alt-left does believe that diversity and justice are at odds. And unlike the “mainstream” left, they have made their choice: justice.

Both the mainstream Left and mainstream Right are firmly in the open-borders/diversity camp. I think it breaks down something like this:

Mainstream Left: Humans are all fundamentally the same, and differences are only skin-deep. The trend since the dawn of time has been for larger and larger group connections; for widening “spheres of affiliation.” We went from tribes to nations, to states, to transnational, global networks—it’s a general pattern of history that is inevitable and cannot be reversed. Only ignorance stands in the way, and that ignorance can be defeated by teaching education and tolerance. The elite “thought leaders” of society need to fight back against these attitudes by whatever means are at their disposal. Opposition is solely based on troglodyte racist attitudes by a small fringe and should be ignored. Eventually, these racist attitudes will naturally change as they have in the past—after all, even Southern Europeans, Jews, and Irish were once considered out-groups and they have now successfully integrated into mainstream “white” society. We just need to educate and wait it out. Using the power of the state to make disparate peoples live together is morally acceptable. Besides, we need immigration to maintain economic growth rates and provide for retirement funds in the face of low native birth rates.

Mainstream Right: We are dedicated to smashing labor and maximizing returns to capital and the wealthy, regardless of the effects on the social fabric. From that standpoint, open-door policies bring two simultaneous major benefits: 1.) Bringing in the poorest and most desperate workers from around the world to compete against native-born workers keeps wages low and workers fearful and desperate (and has been SOP in America since its inception), and 2.) We can then then use “divide and rule” strategies to play the workers against each another for the scraps we throw them from the table. They will too busy fighting one another to demand things like decent pay, protective regulations, or social safety nets, or to recognize the true source of their misery: the wealthy and globalized corporate monopolies. As Jay Gould once said, “I can always hire half the poor to kill the other half.”

Now, it’s worth noting that one of the tactics of the mainstream Left is promoting the kumbaya platitudes of the first position, while secretly being motivated by the second. I’m looking especially at Silicon Valley and its enthusiasm for H1-B visas here. A common tactic is to play the “racist” card against anyone who questions these motives.

The Right, by contrast, happily militates against open borders and scapegoats various out-groups, even while secretly supporting policies that ensure continued mass immigration without limit. They distract their followers from this obvious contradiction by using classic misdirection: reliable hot-button emotional issues like guns and abortion (e.g. it’s the “Hollywood liberals’ fault!!!), and a tightly-controlled information-dissemination apparatus (FOX News, etc.). Trump was a rather uncomfortable wrinkle in this tactic.

Both positions boil down to the same thing: continued economic growth at all costs, society be damned. Both support large-scale globalized corporate structures over small-scale, local, communal ones.

Both the mainstream Left and Right are united behind “mainstream” economic theory. They may have their preferred economists–Paul Krugman and Thomas Piketty on the Left; Greg Mankiw and Tyler Cowen on the Right, for example; but they are solidly behind the current economic paradigm of infinite growth, productivism, corporatism, globalism, cosmopolitanism, meritocracy, technocracy, financialism, and so forth. They just differ on some of the details. They agree, in principle, with economists that we are homo economicus transacting through impersonal markets to exchange value rather than what we really are–tribal and social creatures who have needs beyond what the Market can provide.

What I hear very often from commeters is that the stable, prosperous societies of places like Scandinavia and Japan are only possible due to ethnic homogeneity. For people who truly believe that, and who support these types of societies in principle, it makes sense to be skeptical of unlimited immigration and open-door policies.

It also makes sense if you want something to bind people together besides tenuous market relations and formalized contracts. Prior to the One Big Market, people related to one another through various extra-market relationships. They related through family and blood ties; through village affiliation (Neopolitians); through ethnic affiliation (Italians), through religious affiliation (Catholics), through status (Prince and peasant), through occupation (wool merchant), through secret societies (Masons, Jesuits) and numerous other sources. Anthropologists generally designate kinship as the glue which held traditional societies together. Kinship is biological, but transcends biology; marriage is part of it, as is “fictive” kinship. Ibn Khaldun used the term assibiyah to designate a shared communal sense of social identity and the ability for members of a society to act cohesively.

Now, as I described earlier, the alt-right believes that certain people and cultures are inherently “superior” and “inferior” to others. They believe that culture—everything really—flows primarily from genes. They believe that all human cultures are locked in a “winner take all” Darwinian struggle to the death. I don’t think what I would consider the alt-left believes that; at least I hope not. I certainly don’t. In other words, I don’t think the alt-left hates anyone.

No, I think the alt-left simply opposes the rootless globalism and top-down social engineering engaged in by the technocratic elites of both parties to make “globalism” work for a tiny handful of transnational, cosmopolitan elites, while leaving devastated and hollowed-out societies for the remaining 90 percent of us. And , of course, many of the current “mainstream” opinion shapers, both on the Left and the Right, are included in that 10 percent.

They also recognize the cultural devastation that takes place in order to make this cosmopolitan globalism happen. It’s not a natural process. Long-standing, durable ways of life are shoved aside to produce a deracinated class of precarious economic migrants that can be plugged in to the global economy at will and milked for profits. Again, who benefits from this arrangement? Neither native-born nor migrants. As Dmitry Orlov put it:

National borders are very inconvenient from the corporate point of view. Corporations like to treat labor as a fungible commodity, basically shipping it to whereever it’s required and then shipping it out again when it’s no longer required. It creates this homogeneous, cosmopolitan society where nobody is invested in any paricular place, and that makes them very easy to manipulate and control, and destroys any sense of place that they might have had.

The alt-left wants to preserve traditional lifeways and sense of place because these things are often more respectful of fundmental (Maslovian) human needs and much more resilient. They need much less top-down government and social engineering to function. They are not dependent on the vagaries of transnational markets and the impersonal machinations of finance and money, which routinely tend toward bubbles, manias, panics and crashes. To this end, I would say the alt-left is much more suspicious of libertarian capitalism than the alt-right, which sees libertarian capitalism, even in its current globalized form, as something “natural” and independent of government action (e.g. capitalism works better without government, just like baseball works better without rulebooks or umpires/s)

They also realize that beneath all the happy talk of multiculturalism and spurious accusations of racism by technocratic elites, what’s really going on is breaking the back of labor to maintain the privileged lifestyles of those technocratic elites.

The alt-left believes that the mainstream Left obstinately refuses to acknowledge the reality of tribalism and the fact that we are hard-wired to some extent to naturally want to be with our own kind. Unlike the alt-right, they don’t believe this tendency is a GOOD thing; far from it. Nonetheless, it is still there. We evolved in small-scale tribal societies for millions of years, and that legacy is still with us still. Yes, we’ve managed to overcome that to a great extent, constructing past cosmopolitan societies (for example, The Roman Empire, and even parts of Islamic empires-e.g. Muslim Spain), and on a scale never-before seen in modern times. But, in their view, that’s not a justification for constantly doubling-down and attempting to construct a global society by steamrolling any sense of locality or place, consequences be damned. As this comment puts it:

I’ll tell you what I think, and I fully expect to get flamed to hell and back. We could argue genetic racial differences all day, but regardless you’re never going to get past the fact that humans are tribal. Ran [Prieur] has said on this blog… multiple times… that it’s something we need to learn to get past (I think he called it shit-flinging money tribe war consciousness), but my opinion is that we WON’T get past it so long as the average human has an IQ of 100. You have to get it through your head that most people don’t think about anything, EVER.

Now, some final points I feel are necessary.

1.) I do think diversity is a good thing, in principle. I live in a diverse neighborhood in a diverse city, and I don’t have to– that is by choice. I’m fascinated by different cultures, I love to travel, and I have friends who come from all different parts of the world and from different backgrounds. I would not want it any other way. I think the sharing of cultures contributes immensely to your experience of life. In fact, I ofen tend to get along better with non-Americans than with my own people (who tend to be narcissistic careerists focused on little else besides climbing the status ladder, accumulating goods, and watching spectator sports.)

However, I know that everyone is like me (sadly). I’ve studied enough psychology and anthropology to know that, tragic as it is, the tendency toward nationalism and tribalism is there, as well as the urge to trust one’s own kind, and pretending its not is wishful thinking. Now, we have managed to mitigate it to an extent that was impossible in the past, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But the thing is, this happens slowly, over time, by natural means; it cannot be imposed from above or socially engineered by well-meaning bureaucrats.

In short, diversity is a good thing, but like anything else, you can have too much of a good thing.

2.) America is a diverse society and always has been since its inception into the Eurocentric world order. We cannot hope or wish that away, so we’d better just stop whining and find a way to deal with it. We’re not going to be Denmark, so let’s stop trying to pretend we can be.

From day one we’ve had native inhabitants who were shoved aside by invaders from Western Europe. Slaves by the millions were imported from Africa to work in the cotton and tobacco fields. Coolies from all over the world were brought in to keep labor costs low and build infrastructure, such as from Asia. The Southwest is culturally Hispanic and was taken through conflicts with Mexico. Central European peasants flooded in to cities after the Civil War. All these groups are here now to stay, and they’re not going anywhere.

We’re never going to be Japan or Scandinavia, so should we just throw up our hands and give up all hope? We Americans need to find some way to make a functional society despite this legacy. Yes, it makes it harder, but just because something is more difficult does not mean you should not attempt it. You just have to work harder. I’m not a fan of defeatism. Obviously, the situation in Europe is somewhat different.

Or else, we can just wait a few centuries while everyone mates with everyone else and such distinctions disappear as they have in Europe (anyone remember the Goths or the Vandals?). Hopefully we won’t go extinct in the meantime.

3.) I think much of the current ethnic/racial/gender hostility is not caused by diversity per se, but from the zero-sum, musical chairs completion for jobs under globalized corporate monopoly capitalism. That is a problem with our economic arrangement, not with the human “lizard brain.” The Social Darwinism promoted by the alt-right would ensure that this trend becomes ever worse, thereby causing it to become a self-fulfilling prophecy (“see, we’re ‘hard-wired’ to compete against and hate each other!”). They can then claim that such conflict is “natural” and inherent to the human species (instead of being imposed by artificial circumstances, which it is)

If someone’s living comes at your expense, then of course you’re going to hate that person. If it doesn’t, you are much less likely to do so. Capitalists have been using this feature of the Market to their advantage wherever it has been imposed on traditional cultures. It’s led to many flare-ups of ethnic conflict over the years which are subsequently blamed on “fundamental human nature,” or (in the alt-right’s case,) “Low I.Q.”.

Would there be as much resentment and hostility against Hispanics if jobs were plentiful? Against women being economically independent? Against hiring quotas? I think not. These are exacerbated by economic conditions, but we’re told never to think about that. Is it a coincidence that these divisions are flaring up at the same time as jobs are being consolidated and automated away at an increasing rate? Again, I think not.

We’ll explore some other aspects of what I’m calling the alt-left next time.

Where the Alt-Right Goes Wrong

My musings on the alt-right seems to have engendered a larger reaction than I anticipated. It seems that there’s quite a bit of sympathy for many of the alt-right’s positions by people who wouldn’t typically self-identify as “right-wing” or with many of their other positions, which was, after all, a point I was attempting to make in the first place.

First, it’s worth noting that these observations are subjective by nature. No one—and I mean no one—can plausibly give a definitive definition of such a broad and amorphous category, and certainly not one that doesn’t simplify and exclude to some extent. I am basing this mainly on personal observations of what I have seen online. To some extent, anyone’s personal definition is the correct one: “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

But what I mainly wanted to do was point out what I saw as the core linking all of the seemingly amorphous ideas together, and that, in my view, was clearly Social Darwinism. I do not recall seeing that fact pointed out anywhere else, even in the Wikipedia entry or the widely-cited Yiannoplis article (which defines the alt-right much more broadly).

Furthermore, Social Darwinism also links the modern alt-right to earlier strains of right-wing authoritarian thinking, including those which happened to be prevalent in Nazi Germany and other parts of Europe (and, it should be noted, in many circles of corporate America as well during that same time period). I stand by that assessment. To the commenter who claimed that the article I wrote amounted to nothing more than screaming “These are the NAZIS….baaaaahhh!,” well, I think you need to go back and reread it a bit more carefully and engage with some of the arguments. I feel the post was more explanatory that polemic or oppositional. It is you are throwing a tantrum, not I.

It’s worth pointing out that I did not systematically refute all of their points because 1.) That could run to book length; 2.) That was not my goal; and 3.) There are parts of their ideas and philosophies that are worth contemplating to some extent, as with nearly any political philosophy. My purpose was to engage, not to disparage, even though that’s exactly what I was accused of doing. I wanted to find commonalities between the alt-right and the alt-left (which I will define later). However, the sum total of the philosophy I do find objectionable on various grounds.

First, let’s stipulate that humans are animals. They (we) are biological creatures, and thus subject to the same laws of differential reproductive success and descent with modification as all other creatures. That includes the laws of physics and thermodynamics as well. This means that, of course, Darwinian selection is operating on us too. This can be a powerful tool for analysis of the biological world, and, yes, to some extent, human societies, as the recently-developed structural-demographic theories of history attest.

It’s the value judgements that get us, though. Right now, grey squirrels are outcompeting red squirrels in England. Does that mean that grey squirrels are better than, or “superior” to red ones? By what criteria? You could say that their very outcompeting makes them superior, but that statement is such a tautology as to render it meaningless–outcompeting in a biological niche makes them superior by the standards of outcompeting in a biological niche. Are invasive species by definition morally superior?

And besides, what do you do with this information? Does it necessarily lead to the gas chambers of Auschwitz and Birkenau? Are we condemned to forever repeat this tragedy? One is reminded of Whitaker Chambers’ famous review of Atlas Shrugged, which seems applicable to the alt-right in general:

…the mind which finds this tone natural to it shares other characteristics of its type. 1) It consistently mistakes raw force for strength, and the rawer the force, the more reverent the posture of the mind before it. 2) It supposes itself to be the bringer of a final revelation. Therefore, resistance to the Message cannot be tolerated because disagreement can never be merely honest, prudent, or just humanly fallible. Dissent from revelation so final (because, the author would say, so reasonable) can only be willfully wicked. There are ways of dealing with such wickedness, and, in fact, right reason itself enjoins them.

From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: “To a gas chamber — go!” The same inflexibly self-righteous stance results, too (in the total absence of any saving humor), in odd extravagances of inflection and gesture — that Dollar Sign, for example. At first, we try to tell ourselves that these are just lapses, that this mind has, somehow, mislaid the discriminating knack that most of us pray will warn us in time of the difference between what is effective and firm, and what is wildly grotesque and excessive…

“From almost every HBD post and Neoreaction subreddit, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding…”

J.M. Greer had a good insight in response to a comment to one of his posts. Imagine, he said, if you gave chimpanzees the power to direct their own evolution. What would they select for? Most likely enhancing the very things that chimps already do – climbing trees, building nests, hunting colobus monkeys, etc. Or, very likely, aspiring chimp parents would select for the traits that make for an alpha–aggressiveness, physical intimidation, social cunning, and so forth.

Would you ever get to humans this way? No, you’d just have “super chimps.” And the arms race to become an alpha would most likely undermine the viability of the species anyway. That’s a slap in the face to the Social Darwinists who want to select for the traits that allow for success in “free and open” markets and think this will somehow lead to the “next phase” of human evolution. I’m sorry, the idea is just ridiculous.

Now, do the wealthy tend to survive more than the poor? Yes, just as before the advent of modern medicine, all things being equal, healthier people reproduced more than sick ones, and attractive people have more mates than ugly ones. But none of this is due to explicit social design. To some extent, this is unavoidable–it is a law of nature. It stands “outside” of social or economic design; you cannot prevent or encourage it. That was just as true of the middle-class society of the post-war era as the winner-take-all society constructed under Neoliberalism that we currently inhabit.

But that’s a long way from saying that we should intentionally design our societies to kill off large numbers of undesirables “for the good of the species.” Or that those we designate as undesirable in modern-day America truly are so. The bottomless greed, tolerance for risk and Stakhanovite work ethic that makes a good capitalist would probably not have been quite so adaptive in most historical time periods. Who can say which traits will be useful five hundred years from now?

For example, someone may have a mental illness that precludes them from achieving much success in the Market–especially in America where your willingness to blindly follow orders and engage in pointless hoop-jumping seem to have become the main criteria for success. But those same genes may lead to genius a few generations down the line. We simply don’t know, so wiping out those who are unsuccessful at making money right now would most likely backfire. Consider that many of our greatest artists would not have found much success in the Market–Vincent Van Gogh famously sold only a handful of drawings and paintings in his lifetime and was dependent on the charity of his relatives.

Someone posted this article: Survival of the Friendliest (Nautilus). That raises an important point. The Alt-right is very enthusiastic about “science” when it’s confirming their political biases, but when something goes against their preset beliefs, it is simply handwaved away–the very same behavior they accuse their critics of engaging in. Many on the alt-right will solemnly nod their heads at the irreproducability of a lot of scientific research, but then take the most wild and fantastic HBD speculations–devoid of any research at all–as the unvarnished “truth!” (not to mention their faith in economic pseudoscience). Any scientist whose conclusions do not align with their weltanschauung, regardless of the evidence, is a “Cultural Marxist.” Indeed, that’s the only consistent definition of the term I can find. And, yes, there are those on the nominal left who also wave away inconvenient facts as well–it’s not good when anyone does it.

Social Darwinism is based on a simplistic misunderstanding of evolution. Peter Kropotkin pointed out long ago that any species where the members were constantly at each other’s throats would not survive very long. Instead, competition is primarily with outside forces, i.e. securing adequate sustenance and avoiding predators. To accomplish these things, species’ primary strategy is cooperation not competition. And no species cooperates more than man, which is the very key to our success. Undermining that, as the Social Darwinists are wont to do, is suicidal! Yes, there are highly regulated and circumscribed competitions in various arenas, of course, especially for mates. But these are very structured and “ceremonial” in most species. Males butt heads, and then go home. They are certainly not constantly fighting with one another! If they were, they would make an easy meal for predators.

Kropotkin expected to see the brutal dog-eat-dog world of Darwinian competition. He searched high and low—but nothing. “I failed to find, although I was eagerly looking for it,” Kropotkin wrote, “that bitter struggle for the means of existence, among animals belonging to the same species, which was considered by most Darwinists (though not always by Darwin himself) as the dominant characteristic of the struggle for life, and the main factor of evolution.”

Instead he saw mutual aid—everywhere. “In all these scenes of animal life which passed before my eyes,” Kropotkin wrote, “I saw Mutual Aid and Mutual Support carried on to an extent which made me suspect in it a feature of the greatest importance for the maintenance of life, the preservation of each species and its further evolution.” And it wasn’t just in animals. The peasants in the villages he visited were constantly helping one another in their fight against the brutal environment of Siberia. What’s more, he noted a correlation between the extent of mutual aid displayed in a peasant village and the distance of that village from the hand of government. It was just as the anarchists had suggested. “I lost in Siberia,” he wrote, “whatever faith in state discipline I had cherished before. I was prepared to become an anarchist.”

The Russian Anarchist Prince Who Challenged Evolution (Slate)

I read once that the old Roman saying “Man Is A Wolf To Man” (homo homini lupus) is disingenuous to wolves! Wolves, of course, cooperate on the hunt. And wolf packs do not typically fight one another; each has a circumscribed territory. To hear the Social Darwininsts tell it, every wolf would be in constant competition with the Alpha for even a morsel of food, and wolf packs would be constantly fighting each other for every scrap of territory. That’s not what happens. If that were the case, wolves would have gone extinct long ago. And certainly not even the Alpha claims 95 percent of the pack’s “resources.”

The ultracompetitive drive of market capitalism is a historical aberration, and demonstrating that has been the focus of my writing for much of this past year. The analogy between the Market and the competitive pressures in nature is fundamentally flawed. The idea that success in the Market somehow signals evolutionary fitness in a Darwinian sense is ridiculous (which is why Darwin never said it). It also ignores the fact that markets have been tangential throughout most of human history and yet somehow brought us to the society of the 1870s–the very society that produced Darwin, mind you–without any explicit recourse to eugenics, and for most of that time with economic systems based around combinations of reciprocity, redistribution, householding, religious sympathy, and mutual aid. It bears repeating: over 90 percent of our species’ existence has been as hunter-gatherers. It could just as easily be argued that the expansion of markets have made us less intelligent and capable, as indeed some have argued.

The idea that the anarchic market somehow always rewards the best and the brightest is absurd on its face. It’s hard to believe that George W. Bush and Donald Trump are truly the finest the human species have to offer in terms of competence or leadership qualities.

And now, there’s the emerging science of epigenetics, which is just getting started. Environment effects genetics! Our knowledge of evolution (like many scientific concepts) is constantly evolving and quite incomplete, so to say that we “understand” human evolution enough to justify Social Darwinism as policy is a political, not a scientific, stance. People are “undesirable” from a current economic–not a genetic–view. That’s a problem for our economic system, one that should theoretically be dealt with, not simply accepted as beneficial or “inevitable.” Is it truly the case, as Social Darwinists argue, that “if a person doesn’t produce quantifiable value, they are, objectively, not valuable. Everything else is sentimentality.” I don’t think it is.

Plus, there’s the old “ought-is” question. Even if nature were really as unremittingly harsh and cruel as the Social Darwinists depict it, does that means we should necessarily design human institutions this way? Or should we design them instead to lift up our species in general–all of us–and engage in symbiotic cooperation with each other and our natural environment, which is more likely the key to evolutionary success rather than the “war of all against all” promoted by Social Darwinists. It’s the classic Naturalistic Fallacy–the idea that anything “natural” is somehow good:

…In nature the weakest (least fit) die, so the naturalistic fallacy says that we should dismantle welfare states and withhold charity and health care, to leave poor and ill people to die, or even to exterminate the weak. This ignores Darwin’s actual definition of “fit”; not the strongest but the most adaptable and responsive to change, meaning that “Darwinism” would encourage social safety nets and disaster relief.

Appeal to Nature (Rational Wiki)

Social Darwinism rests on two premises: there exists a constant struggle for survival in nature, and nature is a proper guide for the structuring of society. This is not a scientific idea at all, as it is not a statement about what is but rather a statement about what some people think “should” be.

Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection describes the propagation of hereditary traits due to the varying “success” of organisms in reproducing. Basing a moral philosophy on natural selection makes about as much sense as basing morality on the theory of gravitational success: rocks rolling down the furthest are the best rocks.

Social Darwinism is basically a circular argument. A group that gains power can claim to be the “best fit” because it is in power, but then the group claims to be in power because it is the “best fit”. Any group in power can use Social Darwinist arguments to justify itself, not just right-wing groups such as fascists. Communists can claim that Communists are the best fit wherever Communists are in power. Ironically, many eugenicists and other racists will insist that DA JEWWS! are secretly in power, yet will never use this logic to insist that Jews are the “best fit”.

Social Darwinism (Rational Wiki)

If we design markets to wipe out large numbers of the human species, does that somehow guarantee “progress?” Who is “good enough?” Who makes that call? Claiming that these questions are somehow settled by “science” is not scientific, it is political. if you want large numbers of people to die, just come out and say it; don’t hide behind some sort of pseudoscientific claptrap.

Just like the fact that human are animals, I think we can also stipulate that they differ greatly in abilities, personality, intelligence and so forth. We aren’t blank slates, as some on the Left have argued, and things like gender are not merely “artificial constructs.” I’m not sure I’d classify those views as hereditarianism, however.

What I mean when I use that term is using genetic determinism to exclude all other factors, including institutional factors of class and power, and to bolster notions of Just-Worldism. Who are the wealthiest? The most capable. Why are they the most capable? Because they are the wealthiest!

To reiterate, it’s hard to believe that leaders like Dubya and Trump got where they are through dint of superior I.Q. Child poverty has exploded in one generation. It’s pretty hard to chalk that up to genetics. The share of income going to the one percent has increased by leaps and bounds within the span of a few decades. Are they getting smarter by the day? How can that be chalked up to genetic rewards to talent? It’s when genetics are used to justify all of this that I object.

[William Graham] Sumner was unabashed in his admiration for millionaires, and indignant at criticism lobbed in their direction. “The rich are good-natured,” he insisted, model citizens to be applauded for their initiative and patience with lesser souls. He approved the “aggregation of large fortunes” as “a necessary condition of many forms of social advance.” Toward that end, he argued strenuously against restrictions on Wall Street stockjobbing and other forms of speculative gain. “To denounce financial devices which are useful and legitimate because use is made of them for fraud is ridiculous,” he wrote. Also to be avoided were government investigative commissions, increased taxes, and Sunday-morning haranguing about how the rich owed something to the poor…

Sumner’s list of deadbeats and drags on society will be familiar to any casual observer of modern conservative politics. First were the social reformers (usually well-educated Northeasterners, preferably women), whom Sumner chastised for their arrogance, hypocrisy, and dangerous utopian schemes. Next came government bureaucrats, typified by the “obscure clerk” whose small-minded enforcement of rules threatened to crush the nation’s visionary spirits. Finally, there were the poor themselves—often “negligent, shiftless, inefficient, silly, and imprudent.” “A drunkard in the gutter is just where he ought to be,” Sumner argued with his trademark bluntness. He even went so far as to denounce democracy itself, viewing mass voting as a modern experiment perilously close to mob rule.

“A Drunkard in the Gutter Is Just Where He Ought To Be” (Slate)

Recall that the One Big Market is less than a couple centuries old, and even then only in Western Europe. Even the most “rapid” evolutionary traits which have been studied, such as lactase persistence and malaria resistance, take dozens if not hundreds of generations to propagate through a population by even the most generous estimates by geneticists. Evolution did not produce the Market.

By the same token, if you look at inequality in societies, it’s pretty hard to believe they are just due to “natural” genetic differences in ability, capability, intelligence, and so forth. Debt, nepotism, inheritance, the Law of Cumulative advantage, political factors, and just pure, dumb luck also play a role. Hereditarians would have us ignore all of this in favor of “Da Genez.”

Recall too, that nation-states are only a few centuries old, and then, too, only in Western Europe. To claim that entire nations are failures due to poor genetics and low IQ scores ignores the fact that boundaries were drawn up just a few generations ago around arbitrary and unrelated peoples in much of the world, who were then ruthlessly colonized and exploited. Somehow these “Low IQ” countries managed to be viable societies before Europeans arrived on the scene with the One Big Market, the Hut Tax, National Debt burdens, and other social “innovations,” (albeit at a lower level of technology). As much as I rip on mainstream economists, they did have a potent refutation of Clark’s hypothesis: a photograph of the Korean peninsula at night taken from outer space. Here was a population separated for only half a century, and yet half the peninsula blazed bright from one of the most advanced economies in the world, while the other half was almost entirely dark, mired in one of the planet’s most repressive political regimes.

Korea at night. Genetics? Or something else?

How much lower I.Q.’s do the North Koreans have than the South, I wonder? Or from North Americans? Is it genetics? Or is it something else?

When Westerners first came to Japan with their technology, many Japanese were quick to identify themselves as inherently inferior, and argued that their only hope was to systematically breed with the foreigners. Contra Clark, Japan managed to industrialize much faster than England did–bad news for the “genetic” theory. Now they are known for cutting edge high-technology. By the 1980’s the shoe was on the other foot–Japanese were depicted as clearly “superior” to lazy and spoiled North Americans. But then, their real-estate bubble burst and economic growth for all intents and purposes came to a halt. Now their society is quite stable, but their birthrate is among the lowest on earth.

So, are they superior or inferior?

The use of IQ testing has strayed very far from its initial origins. It was never meant by its developers as a winnowing mechanism and all-purpose silver-bullet explanatory variable that it has become in the fevered musings of the alt-right:

“Where did the IQ test start? When Alfred Binet came up with the IQ test, the point of it was to measure where people were as a way to target how they could improve. And then Lewis Terman and the eugenicists hijacked the IQ test and made it this permanent thing. Alfred Binet in 1909 said that this pessimistic tendency [had] developed in terms of what the I.Q. test is, and we have to fight that. If you talk to Carol Dweck who does all the growth and fixed mindset stuff, she’ll tell you that her whole career is basically devoted to undoing the damage of Lewis Terman. This is now a century old…”
[Tangentially Speaking, Episode 234, 41:00]

I.Q. was designed to assess people and help them improve. That’s a nice idea, isn’t it? And improve they have, as the Flynn Effect demonstrates. Its wasn’t meant to determine who was inherently superior or inferior, who is rich and who is poor, and certainly not who should live and who should die. Interpreting all of human history and social structures solely through the narrow lens of IQ and Darwinism, as the alt-right does, leads one down the path to the nihilistic and deterministic thinking that pervades their writings. Yes, using these as tools can be useful, but in the end they are just tools.

Of course, Social Darwinism and heritarianism cut across strict political boundaries, and have for a long time. The right loves to point out that many figures in the Progressive and other past social movements nominally considered “leftist” (mainly due to their efforts to reform capitalism) were proponents of eugenics. “You see, the left are the REAL Nazis!!!” Er, no, not really.

The idea that societies are structured as levels as if in a video game is also not a scientific proposition, and is consistently decried by actual scholars of sociology and anthropology. The concept that our ultimate destiny lies “among the stars” and that this is the end goal of the human evolution is just as much theological as the idea that it is the purpose of humanity to glorify God and sit at his right hand for all eternity. Is a high-tech civilization “better?” By what criteria? As with grey squirrels, by shoving aside competitors, perhaps. But I’m sure readers aware that by most measures of human happiness, well-being, health and sustainability, so-called “primitive” societies have us beat by a long shot: Were we happier in the Stone Age? (Guardian)

Finally, there is the thorny issue of tribalism. As one commenter wrote, “The alt-right is much more focused on the conflict’s [sic] generated by multi-racial or multi-ethnic empires/nations. They are also much more concerned with maintaining a high trust society for white people (europeans).” That’s a tricky subject I’ll wade into next time.

A Skeleton Key to the Alt-Right

With all the talk of the alt-right lately, people have attempted to figure out if there is an alt-left.

I do believe there is one.

But before we can talk about the alt-left, we should at least attempt to define the alt-right.

Much of the commentary about the alt-right seems to me like the proverbial blind men grasping different parts of an elephant and not understanding the nature of the animal they are attempting to describe. They merely define a laundry list of features (e.g. antisemitism, Neo-Nazism, nativism, Islamophobia, antifeminism, homophobia) without attempting to define the core belief system that holds it all together.

In my opinion, the core principle that defines the alt-right is Social Darwinism. This ideology ties together several other often-noted features of the alt-right: racism, white supremacy, misogyny, extreme market libertarianism, disdain for democracy, authoritarianism, reactionary politics, and technophilia. From their Social Darwinist belief system flow all the other seemingly unrelated features.

At least that’s my take on what I’ve been able to gather from reading their writings and opinions where I’ve had the misfortune to encounter them.

There is, it should be noted, a strain of the alt-right that differs from this; one that is influenced by Catholic theology and is suspicious of the market and its morals. This is, however, a less important and influential strain.

From what I can tell, much of the alt-right are die-hard hereditarians. They are utterly obsessed with ideas of race and IQ. In their belief, IQ determines everything from individual success, to the success of entire nations.  Wikipedia defines hereditarianism this way:

Hereditarianism is the doctrine or school of thought that heredity plays a significant role in determining human nature and character traits, such as intelligence and personality. Hereditarians believe in the power of genetics to explain human character traits and solve human social and political problems. Hereditarians adopt the view that an understanding of human evolution can extend the understanding of human nature. They have avowedly rejected the standard social science model in favor of applying the scientific method to human social structure.

Pastore has claimed that hereditarians were more likely to be conservative, that they view social and economic inequality as a natural result of variation in talent and character. Consequentially, they explain class and race differences as the result of partly genetic group differences…The Pioneer Fund, established in 1937 to support academic research into the problem of heredity and eugenics and the problems of human race betterment, is now a leading source of funding for scientists wishing to investigate hereditarian hypotheses.


The alt-right believes that races are real; that is, they believe in race essentialism. Furthermore, they believe that there is a clear hierarchy of races, with greater and lesser races, that is superior and inferior ones. Furthermore, they believe that culture is derived from genes.

One of their “sacred texts” is A Troublesome Inheritance by Nicholas Wade, which asserts that race is a real, measurable phenomenon in the human species. While Wade himself condemns racism and the idea that certain races are superior to others, the alt-right itself embraces that idea with gusto. They believe that Europe and the West got to the top (whatever that means) by having superior IQ’s, and that other races have inferior intelligence. They love to trade charts which supposedly correlate GDP and average I.Q., as if the West’s control of institutions and the legacy of colonialism somehow don’t matter. Or, alternatively, they assert that the expansion of the West merely proves the superiority of Europeans, and why they are the fittest to rule.

This ties together their white supremacism and their fear of immigration. Since they believe that culture is derived from genes, they believe that Muslim and African immigration will destroy Western culture by eroding its gene pool. There are all sort of “facts” asserting the inferiority of, for example, Muslim immigrants heading to Europe. One of the more bizarre theories that is circulating now claims that Muslims are all inbred since they all marry their cousins!

Their view of human history is derived from something called the Human Biodiversity Movement, which asserts that culture is shaped primarily, if not exclusively, by Darwinian forces acting on the gene pool. For example, one popular assertion is that the banning of cousin marriage by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages forced Europeans to deal with strangers more often. This caused the West to from institutions which allowed people to deal effectively with strangers, and hence to capitalism! In other words, capitalism, too derives from genes (about which, more below).

They believe, then, that Westerners are not just a different culture, but are genetically distinct from other populations. To that end, they are opposed to “diversity” and “multiculturalism.” They believe that Western culture is clearly superior, that its superiority is what caused it to dominate the world, and that this superiority derived from the genes swashing around in the Western European population, honed by thousands of years of Darwinian evolution. The stagnation of the Muslim world (once by far the most advanced civilization on the planet) in their view was caused by inferior genes, and that these genes are now flowing into the West thanks to the craven political class.

In America, this belief system usually manifests around the alleged inferiority of African-American I.Q’s. To this end, another “sacred text” of the movement is Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve. In other words, African-Americans are poor because they are stupid, European Americans are rich because they are smart. Full stop. Any attempts to explain this result not using genetics is “feel good liberalism” and, to use their favorite epithet, “Cultural Marxism.” African-Americans are depicted in much of the alt-right as little more that apes. Such people like to call themselves “race realists” (as opposed to “racists”) and claim that the only thing to do with inferior Africans is to exterminate them. To this end, some of the more extreme factions of the alt-right have no qualms with advocating a “final solution” type scenario for those people and races they feel are “inferior” (as determined by them, of course).

It follows then, in their view, that society is, and has always been, a pure meritocracy determined by IQ. That is, the social structure and institutions don’t matter. The cream rise to the top, the scum sink to the bottom, and it’s all based on the packet of genes inherited from mom & dad, no matter what social system happens to be operating. And white males, having the best combination of high-IQ’s and aggressiveness, are the “natural” leaders of such a society. All the “politically correct” denigration of white males in favor of “diversity” and “feminism” is causing society to fall apart, they believe.

So this ties together racism, white supremacy, male chauvinism, Islamophobia, and a hatred of diversity, multiculturalism, and immigration. Misogyny also springs from this same root, but is a bit harder to describe.

In the alt-right, women are depicted as mere “breeding machines” blindly following the dictates of their reproductive instincts above all else. This is tragic, because women’s “natural” instincts will cause the to mate with less intelligent “cavemen” type-men, especially dark-skinned men from regions of the world where women are still treated as chattel. Women are naturally attracted to these “aggressive” males and repulsed by men of their own race because they have been “pussified” by  generations of feminism. This will lead to the gradual elimination of the superior genes that made Western civilization–and laissez-faire capitalism–possible, and cause us to fall back into the Malthusian trap, preventing us from reaching the “next stage” of human evolution (more about that below).

As the alt-right tells it, women will happily join the harems of aggressive dark-skinned foreigners, shunning the intellectually superior, high-IQ men of the West that they ideally should be mating with, and it’s all thanks to feminism and the loss of control over the political and economic institutions of society by white males (they don’t like Angela Merkel and REALLY hate Hillary Clinton).

Furthermore, women are promoting immigration because they inherently want to mate with these aggressive, dark-skinned males. That means, of course, that these men are depicted as both genetically superior AND inferior at the same time.

Womens’ natural reproductive instincts will lead to the downfall of society, the Alt-Right argues, because the superior genes that built the West will no longer be passed along if women’s natural urges are not channeled and controlled by society. Financial independence for women is a grave threat, because women are no longer dependent on high-IQ male “providers,” and inferior genes will begin displacing the superior ones that have brought us to this “high point” of human civilization. This video pretty much explains this philosophy: Why Women DESTROY NATIONS (caps in original)

Might Makes Right and Libertarian Capitalism

So how does libertarian capitalism fit into all this?

Another “sacred text” in addition to those mentioned above is “A Farewell to Alms” by economist Gregory Clark.

Clark asserted that it wasn’t institutions, or social structures, or historical contingencies, or geography, or even the harvesting of half a billion years of stored sunlight in the form of fossil fuels, that caused the Industrial Revolution. Rather, what really caused it was the fact that the rich had more surviving offspring than the poor. He bases this on an analysis of wills from a couple of centuries in medieval England. According to Clark, the Industrial Revolution is all down to genetics.

This rest on a few assumptions 1.) The rich have “superior capitalist genes” that they pass along to their offspring. Clark hypothesized these as intelligence, literacy, a willingness to cooperate with strangers, a tolerance for hard work and long hours, and, most especially, time-preference for delayed rewards (creating a propensity to save instead of spend surpluses). And, 2.) That this was unique to medieval England. He argues that in other cultures, the elites were not merchants, and thus were more focused on martial superiority and did not possess the superior “bourgeois genes” that the English merchants did. Or, the rich did not have as much of a reproductive advantage, and the hapless poor were able to pass along their inferior genes, keeping other societies mired in the Malthusian trap. Only England, with its dead peasants and “downward mobility” of the rich was able to escape.

In short, the Industrial Revolution was caused by the ants out-breeding the grasshoppers.

Now, despite this thesis being rejected by almost all economists, geneticists, historians and anthropologists, the alt-right has embraced it with gusto. It follows, then, that Western capitalism is a “superior” system that relies upon the “inferior” poor dying off as fast as possible.

The best way to ensure this result is laissez-faire (leave alone) capitalism! Only the anarchic market devoid of any rules allows the naturally strong (i.e. the genetically superior) to climb to the top. This is where their love of Ayn Rand and her writings comes into play. Like Rand, they believe that it is the “natural order” for the strong and talented to dominate the weak and feckless (and they invariably depict themselves as the strong and talented, and their opponents as less capable and intelligent). And only capitalism–with as few restrictions on the behavior of the elites–is an effective Darwinian mechanism. Of course, the naturally strong and talented people at the top of society tend to be disproportionately white males.

This is the reason they despise the existence of the state and intervention in the “free” market–it allows the weak and feckless to survive at the expense of the strong and capable. Social safety nets, which keep the poor alive, are bad, because they allow the genetically inferior to survive and breed. They are particularly contemptuous of notions of “fairness.” Things which help traditionally disadvantaged members of society–things like quotas and welfare–are undesirable because people on the bottom are there for a very good reason–that’s where they naturally deserve to be!

They embrace an absolute “Might Makes Right” ethos. Any attempts at justice, fairness or solidarity are doomed to fail, they argue, because society is a constant, unremitting struggle of all against all, and always has been. Furthermore, they believe that this is a profoundly good thing! Not only is it a good thing, but we should strive to create as much of a “winner take all” society as we possibly can, because only such a society will Darwinian evolution be driven to the fullest extent. They believe that human nature is fundamentally competitive and acquisitive. Thus, they take capitalism as “natural” and anything else as “unnatural” and therefore “social engineering.”

Thus, the “free” market is not the best means to ensure prosperity for all, as the original market liberals claimed. Rather, suffering and death must be built into the system because only that allows it to act as an appropriate Darwinian winnowing mechanism permitting the “survival of the fittest.” And who are the “fittest?” Those who rise to the top and make the most money are the “fittest” in this system. And these are, inevitably, those with the highest IQ’s thanks to genetics (tying together economics and hereditarianism).

Thus, they tend to oppose anything that might theoretically make society less brutal and competitive. In their view, it must be capitalism red in tooth and claw or nothing! They tend to virulently oppose “redistribution” and applaud extreme inequality as the “natural” reward for the superior rich. Redistribution is “unfair” in their view, and self-defeating, because it takes from the people who produce the most value and gives it to the useless eaters.

This ties into their dislike of the liberal state, which is based on the principle that “all men are created equal” and gives each man a vote (unlike past systems where only property owners mattered). They believe this  allows the mob of “weaklings” to dominate the natural leaders of society, retarding progress. They are fond of citing something called the Tytler calumny, which asserts that democracy is doomed to fail thanks to the hordes of feckless poors:

“A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse over loose fiscal policy, (which is) always followed by a dictatorship.”

Peter Thiel famously echoed this sentiment when he warned that democracy and capitalism were incompatible because democracy allowed the majority to place checks on the the behavior of the rich and the chaos of the anarchic market. In his view, it was democracy that had to go, and the alt-right wholeheartedly agrees. Many of these beliefs are prevalent among the oligarchs of Silicon Valley (because autism tends to depress empathy).

Directional View of History

Finally, the alt-right believes that not only is society a fundamentally Darwinian “survival of the fittest”, but that evolution is teleological–that is, it is purpose driven and has a logical end goal.

Now, every serious scientific student of evolution knows this to be the most common and pervasive misunderstanding of evolution that there is. Evolution is only concerned with survival in a specific context at a specific point in time. It has no end goal other than that.

The alt-right, however, will have none of it! Their view is that human societies are like stages in a computer game, and the goal is to continually progress to the “next level.” The end goal of this Darwinian evolution is to push human civilization to the “next stage”–from the caves to the stars! To this end, they embrace artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, cyborgs, cloning, nootropics, “better living through chemistry,” and the lot of it. Society is destined to move faster and faster, and anyone who can’t keep up needs to be left behind. Anything that slows or retards this progression to the next level–such as allowing inferior people to breed–must be stopped or curtailed. Along with the notion of “Might makes right;” in their ethics, the ends justify the means.

The “end goal” is variously defined as artificial intelligence, machines displacing human life, or humans becoming some sort of immortal transdimensional space-faring cyborgs. Many believe the so-called “Singularity” is the end goal for evolution. Anyone not directly contributing to this end goal (like neckbeard computer programmers or sociopathic Wall Street financiers) needs to die off as quickly as possible–for the good of the species, of course.

This ties together the last remaining strands of the alt-right–their love of Ayn Rand, laissez-faire libertarian capitalism, Silicon Valley and futurology. Thus, I think we’ve described the elephant rather than the leg, trunk, tail. etc.

The alt-right shares with its more mainstream cousins the “bootstrapping” “make your own luck” just-world belief systems, to wit:

Americans are more inclined to believe that people make their own luck than people in countries with more developed welfare states. According to a Pew global attitudes survey, 31% of Germans think that success is determined by forces within their control, whereas 57% of Americans say the same. It follows from this that those who do not have insurance could get it if they only worked a bit harder.


NeoLiberal ideology has an axiom that “jobs are created by those who have money.”  On the face of it, this seems obvious: nobody without the ability to pay you has ever given you a job, I’d bet. The corollary of this is “the more money that rich people have, the more jobs there will be”. So, under Neoliberal ideology, you funnel money to the rich and corporations and they create jobs. Doesn’t actually work, mind you, but that’s what the ideology says.

The ideology also says “money is earned by people because they fill the needs indicated by the market, which represent what people and society want.” Which means “if you have a lot of money, you deserve to have it because you got it filling other people’s needs”.  It also then follows that people with a lot of money are the sort of people who are good at providing what other people want, so therefore they should have more money so they can provide even more. Poor people, by this ideology, do not deserve to have much money, because if they were doing something that other people wanted a lot of they’d have a lot of money. Etc, etc…


These beliefs drive their approach to political decision-making: cut regulations, cut safety nets, deregulate, put as few restrictions on the ability of the rich to accumulate wealth and do as they like as much as possible (i.e. low taxes and no workplace regulations), oppose redistribution, encourage technological innovation with no restrictions, etc. Since the world is a just world based on genetic superiority, institutions don’t matter much anyway. So long as the Market is designed according to a Darwinian “survival of the fittest,” type scenario then “progress” is assured.

New Wine in Old Bottles

Now, none of this is really new. It’s essentially a repackaged version of the same old Social Darwinism that was prevalent at the end of the nineteenth century. This time, their supporters claim to have “science” on their side, but, then again, so did the Social Darwinists back then. I doubt it’s a coincidence that the popularity of this philosophy tends to be directly correlated with the level of social inequality present.

For example, see this article:

[Herbert] Spencer adapted Charles Darwin’s notion of natural selection and applied the theory to human society in a philosophy that became known as “Social Darwinism.” It was Spencer who coined the term “survival of the fittest,” using it to apply to the fate of rich and poor in a laissez faire capitalist society. Spencer argued that there was nothing unnatural — and therefore wrong — with competing and then rising to the top in a cut- throat capitalist world.

“Spencer told [Andrew Carnegie] that it was a scientific fact that somebody like him should be getting to the top,” says historian Owen Dudley Edwards. “That there was nothing unnatural about it, wrong about it, evil about it.”

Not only was competition in harmony with nature, Spencer believed, but it was also in the interest of the general welfare and progress of society. Many successful capitalists of the late 19th century embraced Spencer’s philosophy. These captains of industry used his words as justification to oppose social reform and government intervention. As Spencer said, these would interfere with the natural — and beneficial — law of survival.
“The concentration of capital is a necessity for meeting the demands of our day, and as such should not be looked at askance, but be encouraged,” Carnegie wrote, paraphrasing Spencer. “There is nothing detrimental to human society in it, but much that is, or is bound soon to become, beneficial.”


Furthermore, the notion of superior Western Europeans and inferior darker-skinned peoples is essentially unchanged from the philosophy of the Third Reich–the only thing changed is who is superior and who is inferior and why. Many of the more toxic beliefs that followed from the Third Reich belief system also find their expression in the modern alt-right as well: the notion of a lost golden age, an obsession with decline and fall, a disdain for intellectualism and “degenerate” modernist culture, a low tolerance for ambiguity, the embrace of a “strong” leader and authoritarianism in general, a scapegoating of out-groups (Muslims, immigrants, blacks, homosexuals), and so forth.

And while there is some scientific validity to the study of how cultures affect genetic expression, the alt-right has the tendency to cherry-pick the studies which confirm their pre-existing biases and ignore those that do not. They also ignore science when it tells them what they don’t want to hear–such as the idea stated above that evolution has no purpose or end goal.

The alt-right also takes these ideas and engages in the most wild and fantastic speculation in order to make their racist ideas sound like”scientific” facts. The way they tell it, genes explain EVERYTHING, from the tendency to haggle among Middle-Easterners, to the collectivism of “Orientals,” to the promiscuity of African-American women, to the “laziness” or southern Europeans, to the tendency of Jews to become lawyers (from the Rabbinic tradition of course), to the high math scores of the Chinese (due to the old Imperial examination system). Many of these so-called “explanations” are nothing more than ridiculous speculation, but are treated as gospel truth on the alt-right.

The alt-right is pouring wine into new bottles, but it’s the same old wine!

It’s an astonishingly sociopathic and nihilistic view. Yet it seems to have acquired a certain cachet among a species of online intellectual who claims that only he or she (yes, sometimes she) is a “realist” and that anyone who disagrees with any subset of these ideas is a wishful-thinking touchy-feely “nonrealist” who refuses to face the ugly truth of human nature, or a “cultural Marxist.”

Spring Grab Bag

A new study claims that desertification of the Sahara may have been exacerbated by human activities such as herding. The Sahara Desert is an interesting case, in the sense that its development was a case of cattle before crops. The reason was because the highly variable rainfall and climate made a mobile way of life like herding far less risky than crops which cannot be moved and demand consistent levels of rainfall. But it seems that the needs of cattle may have altered the environment in negative ways.

BY the way, those desert herders may have been the source of much that was unique about Egyptian culture. Many of those features are still seen in African herding cultures such as Nuer and Masai today.

A new paper authored by archeologists with Seoul National University has suggested that the Sahara Desert, once green and wet, dried out as a result of the actions of ancient peoples. The spread of agriculture depleted the Sahara’s plant life and caused the region’s the shift to a desert biome, the paper claims.

Humans may have transformed the Sahara from lush paradise to barren desert (The Conversation)

Was the Sahara Desert Created by Humans? (Science News Journal)

Ancient Humans Created the Sahara Desert, Says Archaeologist (Sputnik News)

Is human sacrifice linked with hierarchy?

In almost all societies, killing within a tribe or clan has been strongly taboo; exemption is granted only to those with great authority. Anthropologists have suspected that ritual human sacrifice serves to cement power structures — that is, it signifies who sits at the top of the social hierarchy.

How human sacrifice propped up the social order (Nature)

Is our narrow definition of agriculture causing us to miss other methods of “agriculture” –of humans transforming the landscape to meet their needs in sustainable ways?

Indigenous writer Bruce Pascoe has recently published a book called Dark Emu: Black seeds, agriculture or accident? that challenges the popular perception of our Indigenous past. He argues that the economy and culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people has been ‘grossly undervalued’ for the past 200 hundred years. The early writings of white explorers and settlers are central to his argument; they described the cultivated way Indigenous people managed the land.

‘Hunter-gatherer societies forage and hunt for food and do not employ agricultural methods or build permanent dwellings,’ he writes. ‘But as I read these early journals, I came across repeated references to people building dams and wells, planting, irrigating and harvesting seed, preserving the surplus and storing it in houses, sheds or secure vessels … and manipulating the landscape.’.

Rethinking Indigenous Australia’s agricultural past (ABC)

And, related, more evidence that Amazonia was once a food forest, centered around perennials and tree crops:

“Large areas of the Amazon are less pristine than we may think,” said Hans ter Steege, a tropical ecologist at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in the Netherlands, and an author of a paper published in Science on Thursday. “The people who lived there before Columbus left serious footprints that still persist in the composition as we see today.” He was one of more than a hundred researchers who found that domesticated tree and palm species — like cacao, cashews, the açaí palm, the Brazil nut and rubber — were five times more likely to dominate the modern Amazonian forest than nondomesticated plants.

How the Amazon’s Cashews and Cacao Point to Cultivation by the Ancients (New York Times)

Amazon forest ‘shaped by pre-Columbian indigenous peoples’ (BBC)

Evidence of agroforestry in the ancient Amazon (tywkiwdbi)

Archaeologists Have Discovered More Than 450 Large Geometrical Geoglyphs in the Amazonian Rainforest (Science News Journal)

Another example of humans transforming the landscape: An ancient oasis in China’s remote desert (BBC)

It’s built around the Turpan Water System, an underappreciated engineering marvel:

The system has wells, dams and underground canals built to store the water and control the amount of water flow. Vertical wells are dug at various points to tap into the groundwater flowing down sloping land from the source, the mountain runoff. The water is then channeled through underground canals dug from the bottom of one well to the next well and then to the desired destination, Turpan’s irrigation system. This irrigation system of special connected wells has been claimed to originate in Iran (e.g., the qanat system), to have originated indigenously, or to have been invented in other parts of China. Both historical and archaeological research convincingly point to the origins of this technology as arriving from more western regions along with indigenous innovations.

The Irish potato famine was caused by wealthy landlords who prized profit over people — and thousands starved (Raw Story). It was caused by replacing communal structures with capitalist markets, but we can’t acknowledge that.

The route that eventually became the Silk Road developed based on the movement of nomadic herders:

Our model shows that long-term strategies of mobility by highland nomadic herders structured enduring routes for seasonal migrations to summer pastures, which correspond significantly with the evolving geography of ‘Silk Road’ interaction across Asia’s mountains,” said Michael Frachetti, lead author of the study and an associate professor of anthropology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University.

Silk Road evolved as ‘grass-routes’ movement (Phys.org)

Eurocentric history focuses on Greece as the birthplace of democracy, but cultures in the Americas may have had a more democratic arrangement as well:

…Tlaxcallan is one of several premodern societies around the world that archaeologists believe were organized collectively, where rulers shared power and commoners had a say in the government that presided over their lives. These societies were not necessarily full democracies in which citizens cast votes, but they were radically different from the autocratic, inherited rule found—or assumed—in most early societies.

It wasn’t just Greece: Archaeologists find early democratic societies in the Americas (Science)

An anthropologist considers how humans invented numbers:

Numbers are this really simple invention. These words that reify concepts are a cognitive tool. But it’s so amazing to think about what they enable as a species. Without them we seem to struggle differentiating seven from eight consistently; with them we can send someone to the moon. All that can be traced back to someone, somewhere saying, “Hey, I have a hand of things here.” Without that first step, or without similar first steps made to invent numbers, you don’t get to those other steps. A lot of people think because math is so elaborate, and there are numbers that exist, they think these things are something you come to recognize. I don’t care how smart you are, if you don’t have numbers you’re not going to make that realization. In most cases the invention probably started with this ephemeral realization [that you have five fingers on one hand], but if they don’t ascribe a word to it, that realization just passes very quickly and dies with them. It doesn’t get passed on to the next generation.

How Humans Invented Numbers—And How Numbers Reshaped Our World (Smithsonian)

Was the apprenticeship system and the skills it inculcated critical in the rise of Europe and the Industrial Revolution?

Before the Industrial Revolution, almost all useful knowledge was tacit. The main mechanism through which tacit skills were transmitted across generations was apprenticeship, a relationship linking a skilled adult to a youngster whom he taught the trade. Apprentices spent most of their waking hours in the master’s workshop, where they learned from the master and more experienced apprentices and journeymen. As apprentices spent time in the shop, they gradually acquired the skills of the master, often through imitation and guided learning-by-doing…What we argue is that the institutions governing the intergenerational transmission mechanism were of central importance to the dissemination of best-practice techniques. The nature of the apprenticeship system based on personal contacts and mostly local networks was a central factor in the closing of gaps between best-practice and average-practice techniques. We argue that apprenticeship institutions in Europe led to faster dissemination of best-practice technical knowledge and contributed, ultimately, to Europe’s technological primacy.

Apprenticeship and the rise of Europe (Naked Capitalism)

Reddit consideration of why the continent of Africa is impoverished today: ELI5: Why is Africa, as a whole, such an impoverished continent?

Rather than hunter-gatherers being “old by age 30”, it seems like that is a more accurate description of people in modern, industrial societies:

The healthiest hearts in the world have been found in the Tsimane people in the forests of Bolivia, say researchers. Barely any Tsimane had signs of clogged up arteries – even well into old age – a study in the Lancet showed. “It’s an incredible population” with radically different diets and ways of living, said the researchers. They admit the rest of the world cannot revert to a hunter-gathering and early farming existence, but said there were lessons for all of us.

‘Healthiest hearts in the world’ found (BBC)

And, related, Anxious, depressed, distracted — what if the cure is just outside? (Grist)

A geomagnetic spike hit the ancient kingdom of Judah in ancient times. If this were to happen again today, the electrical grid could be a smoking ruin.

Earth’s geomagnetic field wraps the planet in a protective layer of energy, shielding us from solar winds and high-energy particles from space. But it’s also poorly understood, subject to weird reversals, polar wandering, and rapidly changing intensities. Now a chance discovery from an archaeological dig near Jerusalem has given scientists a glimpse of how intense the magnetic field can get—and the news isn’t good for a world that depends on electrical grids and high-tech devices.

Astonishing geomagnetic spike hit the ancient kingdom of Judah (ars Technica)

Sometimes it takes new technology a while to catch on:

By 1907, only 8 percent of Americans lived in homes served by electricity nationwide. It was not dispersed super swiftly because the infrastructure had to be built. Once that was in place, the question was whether you could you afford it. For every new technology, people have to be persuaded that it’s important. I think the thing that made them really want electricity was the radio, which didn’t become ubiquitous until the 1920s and ‘30s.

How the war of the currents brought power to cities (CityLab)

And also: How the world’s first cities got started (CityLab). Similar thesis to what I wrote about the origins of cities.

Before there was Jesus, there was Apollonius of Tyana.

Climate change and the rise and fall of civilizations (NASA)

Is the idea that all scientific inquiry in the Middle Ages was squashed by the all-powerful Catholic Church just a myth that need to be laid to rest?:

About once every 3-4 months on forums like RichardDawkins.net we get some discussion where someone invokes the old “Conflict Thesis”. That evolves into the usual ritual kicking of the Middle Ages as a benighted intellectual wasteland where humanity was shackled to superstition and oppressed by cackling minions of the Evil Old Catholic Church. The hoary standards are brought out on cue. Giordiano Bruno is presented as a wise and noble martyr for science instead of the irritating mystical New Age kook he actually was. Hypatia is presented as another such martyr and the mythical Christian destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria is spoken of in hushed tones, despite both these ideas being totally untrue. The Galileo Affair is ushered in as evidence of a brave scientist standing up to the unscientific obscurantism of the Church, despite that case being as much about science as it was about Scripture.

It’s not hard to kick this nonsense to pieces, especially since the people presenting it know next to nothing about history and have simply picked up these strange ideas from websites and popular books. The assertions collapse as soon as you hit them with hard evidence. I love to totally stump these propagators by asking them to present me with the name of one – just one – scientist burned, persecuted, or oppressed for their science in the Middle Ages. They always fail to come up with any. They usually try to crowbar Galileo back into the Middle Ages, which is amusing considering he was a contemporary of Descartes. When asked why they have failed to produce any such scientists given the Church was apparently so busily oppressing them, they often resort to claiming that the Evil Old Church did such a good job of oppression that everyone was too scared to practice science. By the time I produce a laundry list of Medieval scientists – like Albertus Magnus, Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, John Peckham, Duns Scotus, Thomas Bradwardine, Walter Burley, William Heytesbury, Richard Swineshead, John Dumbleton, Richard of Wallingford, Nicholas Oresme, Jean Buridan and Nicholas of Cusa – and ask why these men were happily pursuing science in the Middle Ages without molestation from the Church, my opponents usually scratch their heads in puzzlement at what just went wrong.

The Dark Age Myth: An Atheist Reviews “God’s Philosophers” (Strange Notions)

Is it possible that ancient people saw the world very differently than we do?:

Homer’s descriptions of color in The Iliad and The Odyssey, taken literally, paint an almost psychedelic landscape: in addition to the sea, sheep were also the color of wine; honey was green, as were the fear-filled faces of men; and the sky is often described as bronze… Not only was Homer’s palette limited to only five colors (metallics, black, white, yellow-green, and red), but a prominent philosopher even centuries later, Empedocles, believed that all color was limited to four categories: white/light, dark/black, red, and yellow…

It turns out that the appearance of color in ancient texts, while also reasonably paralleling the frequency of colors that can be found in nature (blue and purple are very rare, red is quite frequent, and greens and browns are everywhere), tends to happen in the same sequence regardless of civilization: red : ochre : green : violet : yellow—and eventually, at least with the Egyptians and Byzantines, blue.

Blue certainly existed in the world, even if it was rare, and the Greeks must have stumbled across it occasionally even if they didn’t name it. But the thing is, if we don’t have a word for something, it turns out that to our perception—which becomes our construction of the universe—it might as well not exist. Specifically, neuroscience suggests that it might not just be “good or bad” for which “thinking makes it so,” but quite a lot of what we perceive.

The Wine-Dark Sea: Color and Perception in the Ancient World (Clarke’s World)

And, related, non-Western “traditional” peoples’ perception is different than our own:

One explanation for their astonishing focus may come from the cattle rearing itself. Identifying each cow’s markings was apparently essential for their daily life – and this practice may perhaps train the eye with a focus and attention that was lacking in all modern societies. “I think that does come from their traditional lives – the powers to concentrate,” says Davidoff. But it could also be that modern life itself makes us more easily distracted by our surroundings. And it is for this reason that Opuwo is so interesting, as younger generations slowly migrate to the shanty villages on the edge of the small town…

To discover how this move might influence the Himba’s psychology, Davidoff’s team compared Himba migrants to the small town, with those still living the traditional lifestyle. As they had expected, the Himba who had spent years living on Opuwo were less focused on the local details than those living in the countryside. But you didn’t need to have spent your whole life in the town for it to have an effect; the team found that even very short day trips to Opuwo seemed to have had a lasting impact their perception, making them less focused on differences in the local details (and more conscious of the overall shape) when comparing two abstract figures, for instance. Needless to say, the influence was much greater for those who lived in the town – but it was still present even for the Himba who had only visited a couple of times. “There does seem to be a ‘dose effect’ – the more of it you have, the greater the effect becomes,” says Davidoff.

The astonishing focus of Namibia’s Nomads (BBC)

Real Solutions

In the Netherlands, an elder care facility also acts as a dorm, bringing old and young people together to their mutual benefit: The Nursing Home That’s Also a Dorm (CityLab)

Related: The Dutch prison crisis: A shortage of prisoners (BBC) Compare to the U.S.

Is depression an evolved response that actually has a beneficial purpose?

Some psychologists, however, have argued that depression is not a dysfunction at all, but an evolved mechanism designed to achieve a particular set of benefits. I’ve certainly considered whether it’s done that for me, both in high school and later in life. If they’re right, it means that our thinking about depression needs an intervention too.

Does depression have an evolutionary purpose (Nautilus)

Planners hope more benches in urban centres will help build friendlier cities: ‘Street seats’ aim to revolutionise cities through sitting (BBC)

Forget shorter showers; individual solutions won’t save the planet:

As narrator Jordan Brown says, no matter what environmental problem you consider, whether it’s the water crisis, the waste crisis, the emissions crisis, you name it, our personal actions account for very little of what’s going wrong. The vast majority of the problems can be traced back to the industrial economy, which consumes most of the water, generates most of the plastic waste, creates the most emissions, and so on and so forth.

What we do as individuals, he argues, does almost nothing to change the big picture. For example, municipal household waste accounts for only 3 percent of waste in the United States, so what’s the point of encouraging people to go zero waste at home?

Brown identifies four problems with perceiving simple living as a political act.
1) It is based on the notion that humans inevitably harm their land base. This fails to acknowledge that humans can help the Earth.
2) It incorrectly assigns blame to the individual, instead of targeting those who wield power within the industrial system – and the system itself.
3) It accepts capitalism’s redefinition of us as consumers, rather than citizens. We reduce our potential forms of resistance to ‘consuming vs. not consuming,’ despite there being far broader resistance tactics available to us.
4) The endpoint of logic behind simple living as a political act is suicide. If every act within our economy is destructive, and we want to stop this destruction, then the planet would be better off with us dead.
Personal solutions can’t save the planet

Personal solutions can’t save the planet (Treehugger)

Spain’s abandoned coal belt is trying to survive through innovation rather than going back to the past:

…Javi Fernandez’s small house is surrounded by edible plants. Among traditional winter crops grown in this area, like verza, a kind of cabbage, there’s also mustard, Jerusalem artichokes, and shiitake mushrooms. It’s a small patch of bounty amid miles of empty, rolling hills.

Rather than study engineering to work in the coal mines like both his father and grandfather, Mr Fernandez studied agriculture in Cuba. “I couldn’t afford to go to a paying university so I studied for free at the ISCA University, in San Jose de las Lajas,” he beams, digging through the 400 sq m (4,300 sq ft) of artichokes he has planted.

Will Spain’s coal belt survive through online barter? (BBC)

Paris compost urinals open near Gare de Lyon station (BBC)

How food waste can feed the hungry, train the jobless and fight loneliness too (Treehugger)

The food waste fighter (BBC)

On a chilly summer’s night in the centre of Copenhagen, a crowd gathers around the entrance of a restaurant called Dalle Valle. It’s 22:30 and the dinner buffet is winding up and the kitchens are about to close. But these people, mostly in their 20s and 30s, are here for the food that the diners inside didn’t want.

Dalle Valle is one of hundreds of restaurants and cafes listed in an app called Too Good To Go, which lets you order takeaway food that would otherwise be thrown away, for knock-down prices. It’s an example of many social initiatives set up in the last few years to address the growing problem of food waste. And in Denmark, they are leading the world.

The country where unwanted food is selling out (BBC)

Our Society Doesn’t Work

Spending large amounts of time indoors under artificial light and staring at computer screens has helped produce a “myopia epidemic” with as many as 90 per cent of people in some parts of the world needing glasses. Industrial food production has also turned primates’ taste for sugar — which evolved to persuade us to gorge on healthy fruit when it was ripe — into one of the main causes of the soaring rates of obesity in the Western world. And our sense of smell is under attack from air pollution, producing an array of different effects, including depression and anxiety.

‘Mismatch’ between the way our senses evolved and modern world is making us ill, experts warn (Independent)

The Basic Psychological Structure of Our Society Does Not Work (Ian Welsh)

Is the dark really making me sad? Writing this from Milwaukee in March, most definitely, yes.

Old, but relevant: Is Civilization A Bad Idea? (NPR)

What does it mean to be human? (Mosaic Science) Related: Neanderthals may have medicated with penicillin and painkillers:

Neanderthals living in prehistoric Belgium enjoyed their meat – but the Neanderthals who lived in what is now northern Spain seem to have survived on an almost exclusively vegetarian diet. This is according to new DNA analysis that also suggests sick Neanderthals could self-medicate with naturally occurring painkillers and antibiotics, and that they shared mouth microbiomes with humans – perhaps exchanged by kissing.

Neanderthals may have medicated with penicillin and painkillers (New Scientist)


A beautiful rammed earth house in China based on vernacular forms: Modern rammed earth home echoes region’s natural cave dwellings (Treehugger) Also, this Australian home uses tent fabrics to meld inside and outside: Modern Australian tent house seamlessly brings nature inside (Treehugger)

Architecture’s forgotten drawing: the section:

With their Manual of Section, the three founding partners of LTL architects engage with section as an essential tool of architectural design, and let’s admit it, this reading might change your mind on the topic. For the co-authors, “thinking and designing through section requires the building of a discourse about section, recognizing it as a site of intervention.” Perhaps, indeed, we need to understand the capabilities of section drawings both to use them more efficiently and to enjoy doing so.

Studying the “Manual of Section”: Architecture’s Most Intriguing Drawing (ArchDaily)

Interesting article on digital techniques and traditional architecture, probably of interest mainly to architects/engineers: Modern Design from Historical Perspective (AUGI)

Could these techniques give a rebirth to more traditional forms/ornamentation and away from arbitrary ad-hoc form-finding by “starchitects” held together by space-age technology? Related:

Professor Alan Short of the University of Cambridge has published a book advocating for the revival of 19th-century architectural ideas to address the crippling energy use of modern skyscrapers. The Recovery of Natural Environments in Architecture proposes an end to the architectural fetish for glass, steel, and air conditioning, instead drawing inspiration from forgotten techniques in naturally ventilated buildings of the 1800s. The book is a culmination of 30 years’ research and design by Prof. Short and his colleagues at the University of Cambridge.

In his book, Prof. Short highlights a developed, sophisticated science of natural ventilation used in the 19th-century, exemplified by the first Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. After three years digitally modeling the hospital, Prof. Short and his team noted that ventilation performance in the building was equivalent to a modern-day computer-controlled operating theater. During the 19th-century, public anxiety over toxic air led to the development of public buildings devoted to exceptional air quality, a mindset which Prof. Short argues has been lost in the computer-controlled ventilation of modern skyscrapers.

New Book Calls for an End to Our Fetish for Conditioned Skyscrapers (archdaily)

A gallery of round architectural plans. Related, Round runways could save a lot of land, reduce fuel consumption and cut noise (Treehugger)

The Other Fictitious Commodities

One of Karl Polanyi’s central insights concerns the existence of “fictitious commodities,” which are land, labor and capital.

Land and labor are things that, prior to the Great Transformation, were part-and-parcel of the fabric of society and not merely chattel to be bought and sold in impersonal markets. Industrial capitalism determined these should be distributed by markets rather than by traditional means, and central governments proceeded to create these markets by destroying alternative social structures. Capital was deliberately brought about through deliberate state action by monetizing these items, establishing markets for them, and creating centralized financial systems and regulations to facilitate these markets.

The problem is that, as Polanyi points out, these things are decidedly NOT commodities. They are the very fabric of society itself. They are “fictitious” because they are not objects produced in order to be bought and sold—they have no basis in production or sale other than their ability to be sold on the market. Unlike true commodities, they cannot go unsold; absent some other subsidy, workers must work in order to survive, and everybody needs land to live on. Land, for example, is theoretically bought and sold in “free” markets, yet the supply of this “commodity” is inherently limited–we cannot create more of it.

This also demonstrates the impossibility of having a “pure” market society. Markets are subject to all sort of irrationality such as panics and bubbles, despite the fact that economics textbooks invariably depict markets as idealized systems automatically heading towards equilibrium, even though such things exist nowhere in the actual world we inhabit.

Ironically, even though labor is described as a commodity sold in the “labor market,” conventional (neoclassical) economists insist that supply and demand play no role whatsoever in these markets! So, for example, increasing the supply of workers by, say, massive amounts immigrant labor, is said to have no effect whatsoever on domestic wages. Neither does the addition of millions of additional workers via globalization. Rather, according to economists, in this “market” everyone simply gets what they produce, no more and no less!

Earlier, I cited arguments pointing out that what made social democracies such as Northern Europe much more functional societies was not socialism per se, but the decommodification of land and labor. Government policies decouple both of these things from existing in “pure” markets to some extent, which leads to better social outcomes:

Which political system does happiness economics support? (Aeon)

But the point I want to make is that land, labor and capital are not the only fictitious commodities. These were the major ones in 1944 when Polanyi wrote his book. But, if he were writing today, I’m sure he would include three other fictitious commodities that are having a massive impact on our economy today.

The three other fictitious commodities are: HEALTH CARE, EDUCATION, and NATURAL RESOURCES.

Several things tie these items together. For one, your need for these “commodities” has nothing to do with your ability to pay. Your desire for these commodities has nothing to do with your preferences. Your information about these commodities and options for purchasing them are highly restricted and circumscribed. Also, you cannot choose NOT to purchase these commodities, at least not without severe and deleterious consequences to your health and income prospects. In other words, consumer choice does not enter into the choice whether or not to buy them. As such, it makes no sense to treat these as true commodities distributed in “free and open” price-fixing markets. Yet, for reasons of capitalist ideology, we must consistently pretend that they can be and are so delivered.

1.) Health care. That this is a “fictitious commodity” should be obvious to anyone with half a brain. Health care is not, nor can it be, a “product” produced for sale in a market and distributed by impersonal forces of supply and demand. The idea of using markets to distribute health care is so bizarre as to beggar belief.

In fact, this fact is obvious to the rest of the world outside of the United States, so, it is a strange thing to have to even argue against health care being a market commodity, because only Americans believe it. Recall Polanyi’s description of a price-fixing market:

“a site, physically present or available goods, a supply crowd, a demand crowd, custom or law and equivalencies…Whenever the market elements combine to form a supply-demand-price mechanism, we speak of price-making markets…”

That doesn’t sound much like the health care market does it? No one wakes up in the morning one day and decides to go out and buy some health care. They come down with a fucking disease! They need treatment, sometimes urgently. What they have wrong with them has nothing to do with their capacity to pay. They have no expertise or knowledge with which to evaluate the health care “product” (much less the “perfect knowledge” posited by neoclassical economic theory). They are dependent on outside experts. There may even be traumatic injury involved such as a car accident (and there frequently is). Are victims of a car crash supposed to be “rational consumers of health care services?”

Also, everyone has a physical body, so everyone needs health care. On the other hand, most consumer goods are voluntary purchases. You cannot choose not to need health care; whether you need it or not has nothing to do with your actions. Yes, you can take care of yourself, but even Olympic athletes have health care issues that require treatment, from asthma to appendicitis. In traditional price-fixing markets, purchasing the commodity, from a Persian rug to a silk scarf, was a choice, not a requirement to go on living.

Advertising for hospitals and doctors abounds, and yet most people have extremely limited choices for where they can go to get treatment and which doctors they can visit (e.g. in-network and out-of-network). How can anyone honestly claim that “competition” in this system makes it more efficient? Getting any sort of clear pricing for medical services is next to impossible; you only know how much it costs when the (enormous) bill shows up in your mailbox. And the recent highly-publicized hiking of drug prices by predatory capitalists surely proves that supply and demand has little to do with drug pricing. After all, it’s not like you have much of a “choice” whether or not to purchase these products, especially if no generic is available. It’s more like a hostage racket than a “free” market.

Even with the completely “transparent” pricing desired by libertarians, it’s difficult to believe that the “invisible hand” left alone will perfectly align adequate supply with demand, especially with an aging population. Typically you need to purchase most health care at the end of life when your purchasing power is at its low ebb. Even with “Chemo-While-U-Wait” shops on every streetcorner as envisioned by libertarians, there is a price below which health care services will not fall. Should we just deny them to people then? Ron Paul acolytes may applaud this idea, but most non-sociopaths will probably not simply accept sitting by helplessly and watching grandma slowly die from cancer because she cannot afford to pay the corner clinic on her limited income.

Medical costs are currently a significant source of personal bankruptcy. It’s difficult to imagine people voluntarily bankrupting themselves through voluntarily purchases of any given commodity, even automobiles. That should be another indication that health care is no ordinary “product.”

Moreover, what you typically purchase is not even health care, but health insurance, which is redistributive by its very nature. And under the current system in the U.S., you are forced by law to buy this “product.” I wonder how that comports with the ideology of “free” markets. A single pool of people is by nature more efficient than multiple competing ones, which is why all other counties use a single-payer health system as their base.

It seems like we just need to constantly maintain this fiction that there is even a market in healthcare at all. In fact, we already intervene in this market all over the place, from health care for veterans to subsidies for the poor. The supposed “free” market in health care is entirely a creation of government regulations, absent which there would not even be a “market” for health care at all.

I need not belabor this point. Here is an excellent summary of many of the reasons why health care is not a commodity:

Health – A Market Like No Other (Whistling in the Wind)

2.) Education. In the United States, education has become a commodity to be sold by educational institutions and bought by “consumers,” typically by going heavily into debt. Even supposedly “not-for-profit” institutions have become essentially predatory money-making operations. And they are complemented by a vast for-profit education industry expressly designed to prey upon the poor and the desperate who are trying to further their skills to compete in an increasingly winner-take-all global economy.

Now, like labor markets described above, education has another quirk that makes them different from markets determined exclusively by supply and demand. What we’ve seen is this: as demand for the product has increased exponentially, the price of the “commodity” has not fallen, but has risen into the stratosphere at multiple times the rate of inflation! And it shows no signs of slowing down.

In modern industrial economies, an educated workforce is recognized as a social necessity by most people. At one point, even basic literacy and numeracy were rare in the population when farming was still the most common type of labor. To that end, public provisioning of education and universal access were once recognized as the foundation for any prosperous society beginning in the nineteenth century (and earlier in some places). Restricting education only to the children of rich elites was recognized as obviously contrary to American ideals of meritocratic individualism, not to mention economic suicide.

Sometime in the post-war period, this changed, especially in the United States. Employers started using collage as a lazy weeding program for new hires, and a Bachelor’s degree became simply “the new high school diploma.” At the same time, this was accompanied not by an expansion of support for post-secondary education, but a withdrawal of support and government disinvestment in educational systems across the board. Under neoliberalism, the burden of paying for higher education was placed on the workers themselves, and college was transformed into a (highly risky) “investment” in ones future which was required to produce a positive return (ROI). Colleges began to compete against one another in markets, offering luxurious amenities and spending enormous sums to hire “celebrity” professors, as well as purchasing advertising which did not help educate a single student.

Because you need to go to school for your labor to be worth something anymore, this “commodity” is not really a choice, but a requirement. So, for example, if you want to be an engineer, well then, you have to get an engineering degree. Only certain institutions are even allowed to offer this “product” (the accredited degree). These institutions are widely separated in geographical space—they are only located in certain places, meaning access is highly restrictive.

Furthermore, your desire and aptitude to be an engineer has nothing do with how much money you happen to have in the bank. That is, you cannot choose NOT to purchase this product and still be an engineer. Rather than a single product at the point-of-sale, a degree requires you to labor for at least four years to acquire these skills (making it very different than, say, buying a house), and this is typically BEFORE you have any significant income! In fact, you need to purchase this “product” in order to the HAVE any significant income! Often times, the “price” (i.e. tuition) rises dramatically during those four years, and there is nothing you can do about it. And colleges can create sudden and arbitrary rules to make you pay more for the “product” such as requiring more credits for no valid reason other than the fact that they can (this actually happened at my architecture school–they upped the credit requirements for graduation from 48 to 60 simply because they could). What other kind of “commodity” is that true of? Even land and houses have a one-time negotiated purchase price which is known to all parties at the time of sale!

And what else has the “market-centric” approach to education led to in the United States? One effect is schools building grandiose architectural follies designed by brand-name “starchitects” in order to “compete” with other institutions simply to attract a small slice of high-income tuition whales, many of whom come from overseas (even while Americans have less and less access to their own educational system). Americans happily train the world’s rich kids but abandon their own people to the wolves. And then there are the athletic departments taking over college campuses, leading to everything from millionaire sports coaches to multi-million-dollar stadiums, all paid for by heavily-indebted tuition donkeys. This is even while most classes are being taught by non-unionized adjuncts who are so poorly paid that they often must rely upon public assistance. Finally, there’s the administrative bloat and college presidents/provosts who get free palatial homes to live in, salaries in the high six/low seven-figures, and gilded pensions and benefits. How do any of these things help create and maintain an educated workforce?

Do we want only the children of rich parents to be able to be engineers? Or doctors? Or lawyers? Or architects? Or accountants? How is that consistent with our ideas of meritocracy? Right-wingers and conservatives like to retort that truly intelligent and talented people will always somehow find a way have their education paid for through grants/scholarships. etc.That is, money is not a barrier to educational access. Arbitrary and random “gifts” of money for the lucky few help them to uphold this argument, allowing them to maintain their just-world belief systems.

Two points about that fact: first, it is obviously false. But, even if it were true, it merely reinforces the point that education should not be a market commodity!

The fact is that these institutions are really tollbooths to the few remaining professions that pay a living wage anymore. As such, they are able to charge whatever they want, and there will be people willing to pay it. And that means that the idea of a market mechanism being applicable here is just as ridiculous and outrageous as with health care! Education is not a “product”; it is vocational training, and most societies traditionally have had other effective ways to train the skilled labor they needed which did not rely on predatory markets. Many still do today. In reality, higher education in the U.S. seems less like a marketable product and more like a twenty-first century version of indentured servitude. And educational support is under assault worldwide.

3. Natural Resources. Obviously, forests, rivers, farmland and mineral deposits–to name just a few examples–are not produced expressly for sale. They are simply there. Neoliberal economics wants to recast all of nature as “ecosystem services” to be bought and sold in price-fixing markets for ideological reasons. In fact, there are even efforts to create highly artificial markets in carbon via “cap and trade” schemes. Under the Neoliberal ideology, only markets–and not, for example, common resource ownership or rationing–can adequately deal with these scarce natural resources.

[Payments for ecological/environmental services] is a form of commodification, of creating new things out of nature which can be sold. The commodities created thus are ‘fictitious commodities’. Real commodities are discrete entities (coffee beans, timber or diamonds), that are produced to be sold. In contrast commodities like land, money and labour are fictitious, they are not produced specifically to be sold, and they do not physically change hands when sold. What are exchanged are title deeds (with respect to land) or agreements to access time (with respect to labour) in return for notes (bank or promissory) which promise to pay the bearer funds, or simply electronic numbers in bank accounts (with respect to money). Markets in such commodities require complicated social and political exercises to subdivide landscapes into titled parcels, create the banking and state apparatus that allows money to be trusted, and create labour pools and skills.

The enthusiasts for PES recognize the social engineering that fictitious commodities require determining how much carbon, or water, is created by particular land covers, who can own them and how they might be exchanged requires the construction of complex apparatuses for measuring, valuing and titling…They require a demand for the new products to be created. With such commodities created, and with markets established for their exchange and circulation, considerable (trillion dollar) opportunities open up. Without the investments required socially and politically to free PES’ fictitious commodities from their social and ecological contexts, huge potential markets are lost.

…The creation of fictitious commodities of land and labour does not alter the fact that the places and people who provide them still have an entirely separate existence, beyond their commodity form.This means that what markets do to land and labour can have profound social and ecological consequences. Markets may demand homes or nature reserves be surrendered for a mine but the result will be painful. Labour may be laid off in a recession, but the psychological consequences to individuals and families are immense. As Polanyi observed, ‘to allow the market mechanism to be sole director of the fate of human beings and their natural environment… would result in the demolition of society’. So it may be with the carbon, water and other services promoted in PES. The commodities thus created and exchanged cannot be separated from their social and ecological contexts. Forests may only be valued for their carbon, but they cannot be reduced only to their carbon. Critics note that markets have a tendency to forget the social and ecological contexts of their commodities. The consequences of such commodity fetishism are potentially considerable for PES. How markets behave with respect to the commodities they peddle depends very much on the social structures in which they are embedded. This is why the performance of actually existing PES schemes matters so much.

Ecosystem services and fictitious commodities (PDF)

What’s more, much like land, we cannot increase the production of these commodities. Renewable resources like forests can theoretically be regenerated, but not in the time frame that is acceptable to the quarterly balance sheets of finance capitalism. The ultimate stock of non-renewable resources such as petroleum and minerals can only go in one direction—down. This is deceptive, since price-fixing markets only rely on the flow of that particular resource at a specific point in time. The price of oil is determined not by how much oil there is (the stock), but how much is available to the market right now (the flow). In fact, for many such commodities, high prices provide an incentive to increase the extraction of the non-renewable resource, ensuring that it is drawn down even faster. The ultimate amount of the resource has no bearing until it is exhausted (e.g. rhino horns and elephant tusks).

The Markets’ Greatest Failure (Whistling in the Wind)

The consequences for the natural world and the ecosystem are devastating. You cannot have a market without a society, and yet market mechanisms are literally destroying the natural resources without which the human life-support system could not exist. Yet, in the past, common-pool resources were often collectively managed and highly regulated. However, free-market capitalist ideology forbids us from even considering these options.


These other three “fictitious commodities”—especially health care and education—are more relevant than ever before in our current economic situation, because it is these things which are currently destroying the American quality of life. By contrast, actual commodities are cheaper than ever before! In fact, actual commodities—not fictitious ones—have become so cheap as to be practically free. Dollar Stores and Wal-marts are filled with cheap, superabundant (albeit shoddy) goods. Even high-tech electronics can be had at astonishingly low prices. Technology that would be considered miraculous even a decade ago can be purchased with the equivalent of a few days’ salary. Food is also remarkably cheap today, although arguably, like durable goods, much of it is of inferior quality. Still, even quality foods can be purchased for what have historically been low prices, if one knows where to look.

Many electronics-based products have declined in price. According to Yahoo finance the following reductions have occurred: televisions (down 77.9 percent); computers (down 88.3 percent); audio equipment (down 39.3 percent); and videocassettes, video discs and other media, including rentals (down 20.4 percent). Over the last decade they also document a 6.6 percent drop in the price of new cars and trucks, 44.4 percent drop in the price of toys, 11 percent drop in clothes, and the cost of a timepiece fell 6.2 percent. Reducing prices result in individuals having greater income to spend on other items, which from a purely consumption standpoint increases their welfare. In these cases the “magic of the market” actually works to create greater consumption and prosperity. Polanyi conceded that even though commodification of labor imposed severe cultural and social costs to workers and their families, it also contributed to economic “improvement” and growth.

Escaping the Polanyi matrix: the impact of fictitious commodities: money, land, and labor on consumer welfare (PDF)

In fact, many goods need to be made artificially scarce in order to be turned into marketable commodities. I’m referring to what economists like to call “non-rival, non-excludable” goods—easily reproducible technologies that can be duplicated and distributed at no marginal cost, such as software, books, movies and music. And it is these “commodities” which are forming an ever-larger and more important share of our economy! They can only be turned into commodities at the cost of massive central-state enforcement; for example, spying on peoples’ home computers and draconian copyright legislation. Many such goods are already provided “free-of-charge” (e.g. Google and Facebook) but paid for by highly intrusive and wasteful advertising that people are constantly trying to avoid (adblockers, etc.), or by massive data gathering which violates peoples’ privacy with the end-goal of even more intrusive marketing tactics to manipulate us (and potentially political repression to boot).

In fact, it is the inexpensiveness of such items that leads defenders of the status quo to insist that everything is better than ever. Everybody has cell phones! You can look up anything you want on Google! Even the poor are fat!!! I’m sure you’ve heard these arguments before.

But this ignores the crux of the problem—pretending that the fictitious commodities should be distributed by markets in the first place. More and more of our economy consists of these fictitious commodities. In fact, it’s so common we even have a term for it–the “Eds and Meds” economy. Health care and education employ and ever-greater share of our workforce. Add in digital goods which are made artificially scarce, and it appears that much of our twenty-first century economy is not centered around the production of actual goods and servies at all (which are practically free), but instead forcing these fictitious commodities to somehow behave like actual commodities. To this end, we are creating artificial “pretend” markets which are highly inefficient and easily gamed just to maintain this fiction!

The real problems Americans face today are with these fictitious commodities. High housing costs are destroying Americans’ budgets. The costs of living in virtually any urban areas are simply unaffordable given what salaries are. Education costs have turned us into debt serfs. Millions of Americans have inadequate health care, and many people are literally dying because of it. Drug costs are eating into Americans’ paychecks. And overall jobs are going away thanks to automation and outsourcing, preventing many Americans from even earning any salary by selling their labor—workforce participation continues to decline with every passing year.

Low-income Americans can no longer afford rent, food, and transportation (VOX)

In order to solve the fundamental problems with our economy, we need to come to terms with these fictitious commodities. The first step might be to acknowledge that they are fictitious commodities in the first place. One aspect of the problem, I would argue, is that we are wedded to market mechanisms when we should ideally be moving beyond the market. Too bad the “science” of economics won’t let us even consider this. This means that we need to look elsewhere for answers.

Economic History Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed my summaries of the ISCANEE volumes edited by Michael Hudson.  I apologize for the length of those posts. These are essentially the “long” versions; the “rough draft'” i.e. summaries for my own use. If I were to use them in a book chapter, for example, I would summarize and condense a lot of the material, with much shorter citations. By the way, that’s true of a lot of the stuff on this blog. Of course, there’s far more material in these books than I can reasonably summarize, but I tried to hit the most notable points and the most interesting ideas.

Here’s Wikipedia’s summary on Michael Hudson’s biography page:

In 1984, Hudson joined Harvard’s archaeology faculty at the Peabody Museum as a research fellow in Babylonian economics. A decade later, he was a founding member of ISCANEE (International Scholars Conference on Ancient Near Eastern Economies), an international group of Assyriologists and archaeologists that has published a series of colloquia analyzing the economic origins of civilization. This group has become the successor to Karl Polanyi’s anthropological and historical group of a half-century ago. Four volumes co-edited by Hudson have appeared so far, dealing with privatization, urbanization and land use, the origins of money, accounting, debt, and clean slates in the Ancient Near East (a fifth volume, on the evolution of free labor, is in progress)(This is now out-CH). This new direction in research is now known as the New Economic Archaeology.

I don’t think I’m going to review the other two volumes in the series. There is one on the details of the accounting techniques which were developed in Babylonia: Creating Economic Order: Record-keeping Standardization and the Development of Accounting in the Ancient Near East. I think that’s been covered in enough detail in the other volumes. We don’t need to get into the nitty-gritty of how they did it.

The other remaining book is essentially the “main course” in the series: Debt and Economic Renewal in the Ancient Near East. From my understanding, the first two books–on privatization and urbanization, were mainly about setting the groundwork for this volume. After that volume was published, additional volumes on accounting and labor in the ancient world were published to round out the picture (with the one on labor being the last and most recent book released).

However, I think Hudson’s work on debt cancellation is pretty well known by most people at this point (at least, the people likely to read this blog), so I don’t know if the book would shed any further light on this topic. I think the basics are quite well-known: debt grows faster than the ability to repay; ancient societies recognized this as a threat to the stability of their societies, so they implemented regular debt cancellations including the Jubilee Year described in the Bible. Then, when debt and interest-bearing loans came to the West, the debt cancellations were forgotten, leading the social disintegration in Greece and Rome. Those societies reconfigured themselves around money economies and held debt claims sacrosanct. Eventually, creditor oligarchies led to slavery, and, later, the disintegration of the Roman empire, serfdom, and the Middle Ages.

So, in lieu of any more reviews, I’ll just link to a recent talk by Hudson himself describing the inception of the books and their conclusions: If We Don’t Solve The Problem Of Economic Polarization, We’re Going To Go Into Another Dark Age. With that we’ll conclude this economic history phase for now. Some highlights:

The rulers had what we would call an economic model. They realized that every economy tended to become unstable as a result of compound interest. We have the training tablets that they trained scribal students with, around 1800 or 1900 BC. They had to calculate: How long does it take debt to double its size, at what we’d call 20% interest? The answer is 5 years. How does long it take to multiply four-fold? The answer is 10 years. How much to multiply 64 times? The answer is 30 years. Well you can imagine how fast the debts grew.

So they knew how the tendency of every society was that people would run up debts. Now when they ran up debts in Sumer and Babylonia, and even in in Judea in Jesus’ time, they didn’t borrow money from money lenders. People owed debts because they were in arrears: They couldn’t pay the fees owed to the palace. We might call them taxes, but they actually were fees for public services. And for beer, for instance. The palace would supply beer and you would run up a tab over the year, to be paid at harvest time on the threshing floor. You also would pay for the boatmen, if you needed to get your harvest delivered by boat. You would pay for draught cattle if you needed them. You’d pay for water. Cornelia Wunsch…found that 75% of the debts, even in neo-Babylonian times …were arrears.

Sometimes the harvest failed…[a]nd…they couldn’t pay their fees and other debts. Hammurabi canceled debts four or five times during his reign…because either the harvest failed or there was a war and people couldn’t pay. One reason they would cancel debts is that most debts were owed to the palace or to the temples, which were under the control of the palace. So you’re canceling debts that are owed to yourself.

Rulers had a good reason for doing this. If they didn’t cancel the debts, then people who owed money would become bondservants to the tax collector or the wealthy creditors, or whoever they owed money to. If they were bondservants, they couldn’t serve in the army. They couldn’t provide the corvée labor duties – the kind of tax that people had to pay in the form of labor. Or they would defect. If you wanted to win a war you had to have a citizenry that had its own land, its own means of support.

Basically what you had in the Bronze Age and every ancient society was a different concept of time than you have today. You had the concept of time as circular. That meant economic renewal. The idea was that every new ruler, every new reign, began time all over again. It wasn’t really time, it was really the economy had to start from a new position of equilibrium. This equilibrium – basically freedom from debt, the ability to support yourself – had to start afresh.

Economists look at ancient Near Eastern history and think: “You couldn’t have had Clean Slates, you couldn’t have canceled the debts, because then you would have had anarchy.” The fact is that proclaiming a Clean Slate was the way to avoid anarchy. It was the way to restore people to self-sufficiency. So in Sumer and in Babylon, every major ruler would proclaim a Clean Slate. We have the records to detail this century after century. The word that they used was andurarum, a word that has the sense of “a river flowing.” You sort of restore the flow. It really meant that bond servants were free to go back to their families.

These Clean Slates had three elements: Number one, they would cancel the personal debts – not the business debts, not the debts denominated in silver among merchants and other rich people. These debts were business contracts, and they remained in place. It was the petty debts, the consumer debts, that were canceled. Number two, lands that had been forfeited were restored: the crop rights, if they’d been pledged to creditors. And three, all the human beings who had been pledged as bondservants would be free to return to their families.

What happened between writing the Bible…and Jesus?…We don’t know really what happened up until the time of Jesus, except that there was at that time the same war between creditors and debtors that there was in Rome. Every Roman historian of the time – Livy, Plutarch, Diodorus – they all blamed the fall of the Roman republic on the creditors behavior of assassinating the debtors’ leaders, the rule by violence and the takeover of the economy by creditors after centuries of debt war. We know that this was going on throughout the whole ancient world, including in the Near East.

We know that in the very first sermon that Jesus gave when he returned to Nazareth…was to proclaim freedom for the captives, and release for the prisoners, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, deror, which meant, basically, a Clean Slate. …What does it mean: Is he saying forgive us our sins, or forgive us the debts? Well, most of religion’s leaders, certainly the vested interests, say: “He’s talking about sins,” that religion and Christianity is all about sin, it’s not about debt.

Actually, the word for sin and debt is the same in almost every language. Schuld, in German, means the debt as well as the offense or the sin. It’s devoir in French. Basically you had exactly the same duality in meaning Akkadian, the Babylonian language. The reason goes back to an idea, called wergeld in parts of Europe, which is universal – we have it in Babylonia too. If you injure somebody: if you hurt him or you kill him, either you have to go into exile in the city of refuge, or the family gets to kill you, or you settle matters by paying. And the payment – the Schuld or the obligation – expiates you of the sin. So the word for the payment of the offense is the same as the offense, and you’d expect this similarity to occur in every language.

Some of the Qumran [Dead Sea] scrolls really proved that what was at issue was debt. ..

Well, you can imagine how upset most religions were when they found these scrolls. They said they must be by this sectarian group, the Essenes. They must be a radical group, sort of like the Trotskyists. We can just sort of ignore them. But it turns out now that biblical scholars have found that the Qumran caves seem to be the library of the Temple of Jerusalem. During the wars with Rome they moved the library to the caves of Qumran in order to keep them from being destroyed when the Temple was sacked and burned down. So these scrolls were the very core of Judaic religion.

 The fight of Jesus against the Pharisees was about this. At first Jesus said: “Good to be back in Nazareth, let me read to you about Isaiah.” In Luke 4 says it that this was all very good, and they liked him. But then he began talking about debt cancellation, and they tried to push him off a cliff.

 So basically you have the whole origin of Christianity was a last gasp, a last fight, to try to reimpose this idea of the economic renewal – of a Clean Slate – that goes back at least to the 3rd millennium BC and probably all the way to the Neolithic.

So you have this last attempt to try to get a Clean Slate, and we know what happened to Jesus. His followers were not able to bring it about. So by the 1st and 2nd centuries of our era, what could the Christians do? You’re never going to get the Roman Empire to announce a Clean Slate…So all the Christians could do was have charity. Well, the problem with charity is that you have to be rich in order to lend to somebody. It’s like what David Graeber did with Strike Debt. You can buy the debt and pay somebody else’s debt and give money away, but that doesn’t really fix the system. The result was, it really was the end times. The choice was: either you’re going to have economic renewal and restore people’s ability to support themselves; or you’re going to have feudalism.

That basically is how the Roman historians described Rome as falling. The debtors were enslaved, not only the debtors but just about everybody was enslaved, put in barracks on the land. Finally, you needed to have a population, so you let people marry and you gave them land rights – and you had slavery develop into serfdom.

Well we’re going into a similar situation today, where I think we’re going into a kind of neo-feudalism. The strain of today’s society is as much a debt strain as it was back then.

If We Don’t Solve The Problem Of Economic Polarization, We’re Going To Go Into Another Dark Age by Michael Hudson (Dandelion Salad)

For a take on more recent developments, see: How Bankers Became the Top Exploiters of the Economy (Counterpunch)

Privatization in the Ancient World – Summary

The liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than the democratic state itself. That in its essence is fascism: ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or any controlling private power.
– Franklin D. Roosevelt

In today’s world, we tend to make a distinction between “public” and “private” property. But to what extent was this distinction made in ancient societies? We know that foraging cultures do not make such distinctions, and it is in such cultures that we have spent most of our existence as a species. So when and how did such concepts emerge? And what were the social relations bound up in this transformation? These are the critical issues taken up in Privatization in the Ancient Near East and Classical World, the first book in the series of five volumes published by Harvard’s Peabody Museum as part of the colloquiums coordinated by the Institute for the Study of Long-Term Economic Trends (ISLET), co-edited by economist Michael Hudson.

While the modern “science” of economics lionizes individual private ownership and alienable private property, seeing such things as “natural” and “primordial,” it appears that these concepts developed relatively recently in history. Ancient cultures had very different ideas about land tenure and usage. The emphasis was on self-sufficiency and social cohesion, rather than maximizing profit or efficiency. Private property was not “absolute” but a social contract between the members of a society.

…French economist Emile de Laveleye[‘s] Primitive Property found ancient attitudes toward property governed by the idea of  ensuring for all families the means of self-support on the land: “Whether in Europe, Asia and Africa, alike among the Indians, Slavs and Germans, and even in modern Russia and Java, the soil was the joint property of the tribe, and was subject to periodical distribution among all the families, so that all might live by their labor, as nature has ordained.”…this practice was grounded in the classical ideal of equality as a precondition for liberty and democracy. Ancient lawmakers “had recourse to all kinds of expedients: inalienability of patrimonies, limitations on the right of succession, maintenance of collective ownership as applied to forests and pasturage, public banquets in which all took part…” This primitive egalitarianism was the true “state of nature” in Laveleye’s view, not John Locke’s fantasy of private land ownership stemming from a primordial social contract. Surveying the fields of history and anthropology, Laveleye found private property in land to be a relatively late development, emerging only in Roman times…p.4

It appears that property in the modern sense, immune from communal and public overrides, made its first incursions on royal lands in southern Mesopotamia, followed by subsistence lands that had been rendered redundant by the shrinkage of the landholding community’s member families. This surplus land seems to have passed into the market process as property “sold at the full price” voluntarily rather than as property relinquished under economic duress.

If this is indeed the case, then privatization of subsistence land, alienable irrevocably at the owner’s personal discretion, is not something primordial as social contract advocates have argued, but developed relatively late in history. It is thus necessary to examine how privatization developed in each particular ancient society. How far did each society progress (or fail to progress) toward a Roman-style codification of owner rights? What common denominators emerge as the levers of privatization. pp.7-8

Business began in the public sector

One of the big revelations of this book is that what we think of “business activities” began not by the efforts of individual entrepreneurs or families, but in what might reasonably be called the “public” sector.

Now, an obvious problem here is defining exactly what we mean by “public” and “private.” This is always tricky, especially when dealing with times and cultures very different than our own. Scholars have described Sumeria’s temples not as a “public” sector, but a “communal” sector that was administratively distinct from household activities. The temples were not under the control of any particular clan or household, which allowed them to undertake certain functions which would not have been socially acceptable for solitary individuals:

A generation ago, economic historians such as Mikhail Rostovtzeff and Fritz Heichelheim depicted “the state” as being antithetical to private property. Yet public investment by large institutions was undertaken long before the emergence of a private sector as our modern epoch knows it. Contemporary research by Assyriologists points to the state as the great catalyst of private enterprise. It was Sumerian public institutions that created usufruct-yielding lands and set them corporately apart from the periodically reallocated communal subsistence lands…

Definitions and concepts are of critical importance in tracing these dynamics. Southern Mesopotamia’s communally held land was not part of the public sector, yet neither was it private in the modern individualistic sense of the term. It belonged in principle to the community, and originally it was not freely alienable, for an obvious reason: As long as taxes and a stipulated quota or corvee labor were paid by the community, the appropriation and withdrawal of land by private individuals would have thrown the fiscal and labor burdens onto the community’s remaining members…(p. 36)…the Sumerian economy …embrac[ed]… the communal sector of self-supporting cultivators, the temples functioning as what might call public utilities, and the palaces. Each of these three sectors had its own source of handicraft labor and its own form of land tenure, none of which originally were individualistic or “private” in character.

It was…the public sector that innovated the basic array of institutions needed for profit making enterprise: corporate organization, writing and account-keeping, contracts and their formalities, weights and measure, and interest-bearing debt. However, Sumerian public investment ultimately catalyzed the growth of a private sector which ended up undermining temple and palace control. This was just the opposite of the Chicago School scenario whereby private self-seeking is primordial but repeatedly stifled by state activism and taxation…pp. 43-44

If this public entrepreneurial initiative is difficult for many observers to acknowledge today, it is because the modern world has virtually inverted the relations of Bronze Age enterprise and finance. Profit-making investment is now left almost exclusively to the private sector. But this privatization took thousands of years to achieve. Today’s public sectors no longer are creditors as in Bronze Age times; they are in debt, obliged to levy taxes co cover the cost of their operations rather than relying on their own enterprise. p.39

So we can see that what we call “business” activities began in the public/communal sector, for the public’s benefit, and not through countless individuals making anonymous transactions in “free and open” markets. Such “collective” activities were necessary for larger and more complex societies to form historically, contrary to the libertarian propaganda put forth by modern economics.

As Karl Polanyi pointed out, in most ancient and traditional societies, economic activity was undertaken primarily for subsistence rather than gain—“habitation,” rather than “improvement.” The supposed “natural” instincts to accumulate, hoard, barter, profit and haggle turn out to be not natural at all, but socially determined. Once again, to review:

The  outstanding  discovery of recent historical  and anthropological research is that man’s economy, as a rule, is submerged in his social relationships. He does not act so as to safeguard his individual interest in the possession of material goods; he acts so as to safeguard his social standing, his social claims, his social assets. He values material goods only in so far as they serve this end. Neither the process of production  nor  that  of  distribution  is  linked  to   specific   economic  interests  attached to the possession of goods; but every single  step in that process is geared to  a number  of social interests which  eventually ensure that the required step be taken. These interests will be very different in a  small hunting  or  fishing community  from those  in  a vast  despotic  society, but in either case the economic system will be run on noneconomic motives.

Indeed, given everything we know about human social relationships in tribal cultures, surplus-producing activities could have *only* began in the public (i.e. communal) sector:

In retrospect, we can see the logic in public enterprise appearing prior to private enterprise. The accumulation of capital requires a sustained generation of economic surpluses. These in turn require forward planning and account-keeping, and hence the design of standard weights and measures for form the basis for pricing and charging interest. In addition, land rent and interest presuppose the creation of contractual formalities and enforcement procedures. This seems to be why private gain-seeking emerged first and foremost at the center of society, in its public entrepreneurial institutions.p. 8

Sumer’s city-temples accumulated unprecedented amounts of capital. Indeed, it was probably only such public institutions that could have placated the adherents of the archaic consumption-based ethic and generated surpluses in socially acceptable ways. Personal self-seekers could not have easily made the breakthrough on their own, for they would have been condemned as greedy…pp. 37-38…Looking back from today’s vantage point, when private enterprise is overwhelmingly dominant, we must ask why private forms of wealth did not take the lead from the outset. The simple explanation is that a private sector in the modern sense of the term did not yet exist in Bronze Age times.

For a deeper answer it is necessary to review the anthropological record and the subsistence basis of most tribal economies. Almost everywhere they have been studied, such communities have displayed little interest in investing wealth to accumulate more wealth. The tendency is to disparage personal wealth accumulation as being impolite, rude or miserly. Furthermore, the tribal communities known to modern anthropologists have little specialized administrative apparatus; their exchange of goods and services is conducted in an informal person-to-person fashion rather than a formally “economic” manner.” …p.45

Sumer’s great contribution to civilization was a complex of innovations that broke through the traditional “anthropological” or “soft” inrerpersonal reciprocity of gift exchange to create the first known economic regime. The Sumerian innovations included bulk trade, standardized (hence, impersonal) money prices and lot sizes, sharecropping rents, wage-ration allotments, interest and contractual forms, and indeed the general system of weights and measures. All these innovations found their initial focus in the city-temples,” which were organized on the basis of a number of economic innovations that have shaped the entire world’s subsequent evolution.

It would not be too much to call these temples history’s first formal business corporations. Organizing an export trade to obtain foreign metals, stone, hardwood and other raw materials not found in the southern alluvium, Sumer’s temples legitimized capital accumulation, that is, the and to build up monetary savings….

The account-keeping for which public bureaucracies have been notorious throughout history often is viewed as a costly overhead, yet it is a precondition for managing costs and budgeting resources to generate a profit. In this respect public accounting helped pave the way for private management to emerge. Without it, private enterprise would have had to start from scratch among the Indo-European speakers who settled the Aegean and Italy… p. 9

This is a direct contradiction to the thesis promoted by libertarians. In their telling, individual “strivers” engaged in entrepreneurial activities from the get-go because our “natural human instinct” is always to maximize our personal gain to the greatest extent possible. Such behavior causes “free” markets to form ex nihilo where value is exchanged. Then, government comes along and taxes away nearly all the surplus from the value-creators to build gargantuan monuments and wage war solely for the benefit of a feckless, parasitical bureaucracy that sponges off the “makers.”

While surpluses were accumulated in the temples and storehouses of the cities, subsistence on the land was much more oriented to providing for the basic daily needs of the household and its members. To this end, the alienability of land was subject to much more restrictions:

It would be anachronistic to call the cultivators who belonged to Sumer’s landed groupings either a “private” or a “public” sector. They were not characterized by private property, for their subsistence land holdings were not theirs to freely sell or pledge for debt, at least not more than temporarily. Inasmuch as citizens held their allotments in exchange for an obligation to serve in the army and provide corvee labor duties, alienability of this land would have meant a loss of their citizenship status and its associated obligations.

To prevent this public loss, communities imposed constraints in the alienation of land…The land was redivided periodically or alienated as some families grew larger, others smaller, and new entrants joined the commune (these groupings often were open in character, (e.g. as the later Irish gelfine). Families held tenure rights to cultivate this land, but were not “free” to transfer it as they chose-or, for that matter, to forfeit it permanently and thereby lose their economic freedom, citizenship rights and consequent obligations to serve in the army and to provide corvee labor.

Land transfers among communal sector families did occur, but traditionally were limited to only temporary duration. The function of the communal land was to support its holders, not to yield a formal economic rent.p. 44…The early documented land sales from commmunal groupings to the palace suggest that such transfers were irrevocable only when the purchasing party was the king. But a widening array of exceptions developed, enabling formal property to emerge…p. 45

It was therefore this dynamic “interplay” between individual households and the communal sector in the cities that led to the explosive growth of the economy of southern Mesopotamia after 4000 BC. These communal “public” institutions are what allowed something resembling a modern economy to be established in the first place.

In today’s world, the government undertaking any business activity at all is considered something that must be avoided at all costs. We’re told that all such activities must be left to the “private sector.” This assumes that the private sector is inherently “efficient,” and the government is always corrupt and wasteful. Under the Market system the government’s sole purpose is to create a “beneficial business climate” for powerful private interests (business owners, CEO’s, stockholders, bankers, etc.) to do as they please, and the Invisible Hand of the Market will sort it all out. The depiction of governments as merely “parasites” on private sector activities is very convenient for those powerful private interests. Keeping governments in constant debt also acts as a constraint on their activities.

It used to be thought that southern Mesopotamia was a “temple state” where everything was owned and centrally planned by temple scribes and priests. Some textbooks still depict it this way. But this is inaccurate. In fact, most economic production took place in the household. Rather than running production directly, the temples used economic planning to collect and redistribute the surpluses throughout the society.

Most writers have emphasized the nature of state control over craft production. There is, however, ample evidence to suggest that craft production also was undertaken in the context of a private market economy…A potter was involved with a staple finance commodity when producing ceramics for the state authority, but he (or she) could and did produce pottery for a market economy, thus involving the production of wealth finance. A single producer could be (and the texts indicate that they indeed were) involved with both public and private domains of production.

…In sum, although the texts suggest large-scale industrial production controlled by the state, the archaeological record suggests that most craft production took place outside the physical context of a centralized state bureaucracy. This is most clearly evident in the case of pottery…One can hardly avoid the conclusion that the distribution of these commodities was not directed by state bureaucrats from centralized warehouses. These everyday essential goods were obtained from private craftsmen who produced them for purchase or barter within a market economy. No doubt, as in the case of potters, they also produced specific quotas for delivery to state institutions…

Mesopotamian texts suggest that craftsmen and farmers, in fact all primary producers, were responsible for providing a specific amount of their products for delivery to a state authority. I believe that the documentary evidence allows for the following interpretation: all primary producers were responsible for delivering to the state a set quota, a specific amount of manufactured product. Thus, the staple and wealth finance in the hands of the state institutions came in the form of specific quotas derived from primary producers. When the primary producer filled his/her/their quota, the remainder of time and labor was their own. This is what the third-millennium texts elaborate upon when discussing the office concerned with the bala, meaning “to turn over.” That which they “turn over” is their quota. The texts clearly indicate that primary producers were responsible for “turning over” their quotas, the balas, to the state.

Redistributive and household methods of production were not, then, distinct “stages” but interwoven with each another from the start. Redistribution was accomplished via a standardized pricing system administered by the temples. Such prices were not set by price-fixing markets; they were instead established by the temples themselves. However, such prices did eventually carry over into the “private” sector over time. It was this establishment of a society-wide pricing mechanism, and standardized units of currency that allowed money and markets to form, and not the spontaneous higgling and haggling of countless anonymous individuals. So we see that once again, it was the activities of centralized institutions that allowed markets to form in the first place.

The city-temples were the central organs through which the Sumerians mediated the economic surplus (P. 42)…Before price-seting markets developed, public institutions were the major vehicle for distributing output at standardized prices. For these large institutions it was natural for prices to be administered, if only as an internal control to check abuses and as a means of keeping accounts in commmon denominators such as silver and barley. Common prices, once established in this way, helped catalyze the development of market exchange, and ultimately price-seeking markets for goods and services that did *not* pass from the the public institutions to the rest of the economy.

…Karl Polanyi’s idea of a “redistributive stage of development” preceding that of market pricing therefore must be superceded by the recognition that public distribution took place largely via the pricing mechanism. Setting such prices was part of the public administration of measures, weights and interest rates (which were among the last prices to be deregulated, precisely because of the visible role of coercion between strong creditors and dependent debtors falling below the break-even level). Such prices were accordingly announded at the outset of many early royal laws, and appear throughout Hammurapi’s laws. p. 296

Alongside these price exchange systems, older means of gift exchange and subsistence production continued to be employed. Thus, the existence of markets (contractus) did not alter the prevailing social relations (status). Market relations were employed by strangers, foreigners, people who had no organic social relations, or between people of vastly different status:

Of course, most output was for self-use, and hence either was unpriced or exchanged at prices which, under normal conditions, followed the lead of the large institutions whose transactions tended to dominate the market (p. 296)…Private household production existed alongside that of the temples, but seems to have been oriented more towards subsistence needs with only marginal production for the market. The products of these households probably were less specialized and luxurious than those produced in the temple and palace workshops… (p. 42)

The impersonal economic formality of public institutions stands in contrast to the customary familial or neighborly informality. Throughout the Bronze Age, gift exchange continued among people of similar rank, while commercial exchange characterized relations among people of different status, or on opposing sides of the public/private divide, or from different communities. Debt obligations of the “anthropological” type among persons of similar status did not bear interest as late as the eranos loan clubs found among Athenian gentlemen, in contrast to loans from the rich to the poor or financial claims by public institutions on the citizenry at large. p. 43

Thus, we can accurately characterize the economy of these ancient Near Eastern societies as a “mixed” economy. One example of the way in which the temple activities interfaced with the broader household economy can be seen in the use of standardized weights and measures, including, as noted above, the price schedules denominated in silver shekels or bushels of barley. Another was the existence of multiple calendar systems: a lunar one for festivals, and a solar one for economic planning:

One example of how public and private modalities can coexist is reflected in Sumer’s elaboration of the calendar from a lunar one governing communal festivals to a solarized public-sector one. Neolithic and even paleolithic communities appear to have based their festivals on lunar rhythms, but lunar months vary in length and hence are unsuitable for allocating standardized rations.

Sumer’s temples and palaces needed to schedule large-scale flows of barley and other commodities on a regular basis, and therefore took the lead in introducing a 360-day public sector calendar composed of twelve equal 30-day months. This public solar calendar was adopted alongside the popular lunar calendar. (A similar dual calendrical system survives today for setting movable feasts such as Christian Easter, the Jewish New Year and Islamic Ramadan.) p. 42…

The 360-day public year left an extra five days to balance out the true solar year, and an eleven-day excess of the solar year over the lunar year. This interregnum–a “time out of time”–became the occasion for the New year festivals that provided the occasions for new rulers to renew the social and economic cosmos by cancelling agrarian debts, freeing debt bondsmen and restoring the status quo ante, above all lands that had been forfeited to creditors. p. 42

Just as public and private calendars coexisted, so did public and private modes of production. Public commerical production stood in contrast to production stood in contrast to production on communal subsistence lands. Likewise, different rates of interest were adopted for the two spheres of economic activity: silver-denominated commercial debts accrued at 1/60th per month, while agrarian barely debts accrued at higher rates, typcially 33-1/3% per year by the end of the third millennium. The result was a dual financial system operating as a bimonetary standard. pp. 42-43

There is a debate to what extent were temples truly “public” institutions, and to what extent were they actually “fronts” for certain powerful families? Were these actually set up as “trusts” for certain powerful families? Where did the public’s interest end and the private interest begin? How much of the temple activities were undertaken under the guise of providing public benefits on the surface, while behind the scenes administrators were really feathering their own nests? We have several examples of leaders abusing their power. We also have accounts of reformers attempting to restore fairness and balance. In some instances, the same leader can be engaged in both activities simultaneously.

Privatization and corruption

Communal activities and the interface between the temples and the households eventually gives rise to a true “private” sector, whose activities expanded over time. Eventually, these communal activities were more-or-less subsumed into private households–the earliest “privatization.” The people who led this trend were those most intimately connected with the redistributive apparatus–the temples and the palaces, and the merchants whose job it was to interface with those institutions (tamkarum). They managed to use their positions to profit from what might be called “business” activities even while maintaining a veneer of public-spiritedness. In contrast to the conventional story, the history of entrepreneurship really begins when these “business” activities are decoupled from their original context and taken over by powerful individuals and households.

Privatization was accompanied by a rollback of the safeguards designed to protect the average person. This did not lead to a release of pent-up entrepreneurial energy from the , but rather oppression as the powerful took advantage of their positions and cut insider deals. Protections against debts were relaxed. Hudson makes an analogy to Russia after the Soviet Union fell, where people in privileged positions took over much of what had formerly been communally owned property and industries and ran them for their own benefit.

It appears to have been military expansion that caused the repurposing of the old redistributive apparatus into centered around tax collection/tribute. The palace ceased to play its former role as a “great provider” and instead became a military/administrative center. As victorious palaces conquered and absorbed surrounding cities and states, they used the bureaucratic apparatus developed in the temples to collect the taxes. Wealth flowed to the top of the social pyramid via conquest, even as the common person lost their lands and independence in such conflicts. In addition, captured lands were often redistributed as personal property to the ruler’s friends and allies in a sort of “spoils system.” This reminds me of a quote I once read about military conquest abroad generally being accompanied by repression at home.

From the early Bronze Age to late classical antiquity, historians can trace society’s economic dynamics (and the economic surplus) becoming more individualistic and free from central oversight. Individualism first emerges, culturally and economically, not from members of the “communal” (non-public) sector, but from palace rulers and their families…Personal property in the modern sense developed originally in the palace sector. It was the ruler’s own property that was the first to be made immune from communal-sector redistribution. Sargon’s dynasty took over the temples to make the flow of surplus a one-sided tribute for vanquished cities to the new capital at Akkad. In this respect military conquest was a major catalyst of privatization. Palace warlords captured what originally had been public institutions, and transformed them into instruments of their personal and economic power. p. 26

The upshot of privatization was economic polarization between creditors and debtors, landlords and tenants, patricians and clients, while the private sector grew richer largely at the expense of the public sector. A major effect of the privatization of subsistence land, for instance, was a change in the economic uses to which the land’s yield was put. Babylonia’s subsistence cultivators had been obliged to provide corvee labor, serve in the army, and pay taxes or other fees to the palace in exchange for holding land. But the new private appropriators kept the land’s usufruct for themselves rather than passing it on as taxes. The debtor’s labor services, crops and, in time, title to his land were taken as interest and, ultimately, forfeited as collateral for debt. This often obliged the remaining commuity members to make up the individual debtor’s fiscal shortfall; otherwise the net yield available to the palace was simply reduced.

A related consequence of privatization was a shift away from growing grains for the self-support of cultivators to more luxury-oriented and capital-intensive cash crops (olive trees and grape vines in the Mediterranean), increasingly on large estates which came to be stocked with slaves by the time of Rome’s great latifundia.p. 35

Hudson identifies four major means of land privatization in the ancient Near East:

1.) One form occurred when Sumerian rulers appropriated communal land and temple estates as their own personal property…this characteristic of individualism is first found in the royal household , from which it diffused downward via the royal bureaucracy to the rest of society.

2.) A second type of privatization occurred when rulers gave property away to their relatives (often as dowries) or companions, or assigned control of these properties (or at least their prebend rents) as tribute to local chieftains…

3.) A related type of privatization occurred as a product of political decentralization, most notably when palace control collapsed. In such crises, royal managers or warlords tended to seize the royal lands and workshops. This occurred as Hammurapi’s Babylonian empire fell apart, and after 1200 BC when Mycenaean Greece fell into a Dark Age.

4.) A fourth type of privatization became the most prevalent: the transfer of communally held lands to creditors or other absentee buyers. Beginning in southern Mesopotamia, subsistence lands were appropriated by individuals from outside the local kinship-based groupings by royal collectors, creditors or merchants through debt foreclosure; outright purchase at distressed prices; or, less frequently, at the “full market price.”

Rather than the heroic view of entrepreneurship promoted by economists, in this view entrepreneurs look more like opportunists, taking over institutions designed to serve the public good for their own purposes.

Privatization comes to the Mediterranean world

As Hudson tells it, the economic planning tools were brought from the temples of the Near East to the palaces of the Aegean world. The palaces of the Minoans and Mycenaeans contained vast storerooms which collected the output of many different households, which was then redistributed. But they did not have interest-bearing debt and loans. Then, after the Bronze Age collapse, the centralized palaces collapse and are seized by private warlords or “big men.” Greek society reconfigured itself along feudal lines. Phoenician merchants brought the concepts of debt and interest payments (along with the alphabet) to the Greeks, but they did not bring along the idea of debt forgiveness and Clean Slates.

This creates two major differences between debt in its original context the its new one 1.) There was less of an communal role played by centralized institutions in the Mediterranean world, and 2.) The rights of creditors were privileged above those of debtors. In the classical world, rather than periodically expunging the debts, such claims were held as sacrosanct! For this reason, the classical world–Greece and Rome–develop into what Hudson calls creditor oligarchies. It is this tradition which we have inherited in the West.

Greek history begins not with Athens and Sparta, but in the western periphery of the Late Bronze Age world, in Mycenae and other Late Bronze Age towns c. 1400-1200 BC. Here, Mesopotamian practices were transmuted into something new as the Mycenaean Greek palaces adopted syllabic record keeping (Linear B), sealing, and large workshop production–but not interest bearing debt…Not only is debt missing, but money too: “Since the palace revenue is presumably derived from feudal dues and from foreign conquest, monetary or other media of exchange do not play any significant part in the records…In lieu of money and the flexibility it affords for an efficient specialization of labor, the Mycenaeans denominated their levies in standardized “bundles” of commodities fixed in proportion. In the Pylos Ma- tablets, for instance, a number of townships are put down for contributions whose mutual proportions of six commodities remain constant at 7:7:2:3:1-1/2:150.

No evidence of debt appears in Greece and Italy until it is introduced by Syrian and Phoenician merchants around the 8th century BC. Without intersectoral debt balances there was little need for rulers to cancel arrears as part of general restorations of order. Thus, the entire character of kingship became less commercially oriented (and less public).pp. 18-19

The fact that centralized public property and traditions of royal oversight were weakest in Greece and Italy probably contributed to the fact that privatization developed most easily in these formerly peripheral regions after palace authority collapsed throughout the Mediterranean and Levant c. 1200 BC in the wake of a general social breakdown and drastic shrinkage of the population and commercial activity. p. 19

Interest-bearing debt became the prime level of classical privatization, enabling wealthy family heads to pry away the land of smallholders. Elected officials in some Greek city-states pledged *not* to cancel the debts or redistribute the land — just the opposite principle of Bronze age rulership. Under these conditions, the protected property was no longer that of the citizenry at large, but the large estates and fortunes of the few. Debt relations became even more polarized in Rome, where wealthy creditors turned what had been communally held subsistence landholdings into latifundia slave plantations. p. 27

With no Clean Slates to cancel the mounting debts, the Law of Cumulative Advantage and Creeping Normalcy are free to do their dirty work unimpeded. The result is a downward spiral of debt repeatedly reducing of much of Classical society to landless debt serfs.

This debt became a major societal problem. Debt serfs could not afford to equip themselves for the army and train. They could not contribute to the commonwealth via taxes. They could not tend to their own land to produce food. They lost voting rights. Debt was hollowing out society. As a result, the relationship of the state to its citizens was transformed. Corvee labor obligations were replaced by hired and slave labor. Civic contributions were replaced with bequests from wealthy individuals. Soldiers were replaced with mercenaries. Democracy was replaced with plutocracy.

As privatization increased, the city-states had to levy taxes in order to hire mercenaries, rather than continuing to provide cultivators with land tenure rights in exchange for military and other labor services. In classical Greece, property taxes paid in coin paid for public work, which was performed mainly by immigrants and other non-citizens, or slaves (a reflection of the demeaning status of public labor throughout antiquity).

The passing of rents, interest and profits into private hands (especially those of the wealthy) led to the taxation of the commons for the benefit of large landowners. This was done in such a way as to aggravate the dispossession process. The state meanwhile reduced its role as public entrepreneur as its functions were taken over by private entrepreneurs…the Roman state increasingly absorbed the costs or “externalities” associated with private wealth-seeking by the richest families (including the cost of defending the land against both domestic civil warfare and foreign enemies). p. 28

With the privatization of land, and the parallel shift of the handicraft export industries into private hands came tax crises. The wealthiest families managed to avoid taxes, while pushing more of their own expenses onto the public budget. Instead of government reforming land tenure or taking over industry and socializing its revenues, economic control passes almost entirely into private hands. For all practical purposes, the wealthiest landowners became “the state” in alliance with barbarian war chieftains who seized land by military force. p.29

The classical world embraced privatization and individual wealth accumulation to a much greater degree than ever before. I find it ironic that Western history is often portrayed as a contrast between the “slavery” and “despotism” of Near Eastern cultures, and the “freedom” and “equality” of the Greek and Roman world. But as we saw, Near Eastern cultures allowed for debt forgiveness and redistribution of land. Classical antiquity, however, drove people into debt bondage, had massive wealth disparities, consolidated productive land into the hands of a few wealthy families, and had massive amounts of slaves working in many critical industries. Is our view of history backwards?

Privatization in Ancient Rome

If the temples of Mesopotamia were the first large-scale businesses enterprises in history, Rome was the first to introduce the innovation known as the corporation – the publicani, or publican societies. Rome manged its expanding empire under a regime of privatization.

During the [Punic] war, the Roman army, which had previously provided its own food and clothing, needed others to provision, arm, and supply it. Since there were few public employees, the Senate turned to private businesses. The need for public contractors became even greater after the war, when Rome required managers, accountants, and tax collectors to operate its captured mines, quarries, forests, grazing meadows, and fisheries. The army, keeping order, had little capacity to manage these new resources. Its forces consisted only of militias raised for particular expeditions. The governors, who served only a year or so, rarely cared enough to build managerial staffs. Their eyes remained firmly fixed on a future in Rome.

The contracts for managing state resources, ultimately extended to providing public supplies and services, including the collection of customs dues and other levies, were auctioned off around the Ides of March, when an official would solicit bids in the Roman Forum. The bidder, known as the manceps, had to provide guarantees of performance, secured  with pledged property. A guarantor’s liability passed to his heirs, and title to the pledged property was held under seal in the temple of Mercury.

Many of these contracts were too large, risky, long lasting, and complex for individuals. Nor could individuals or partnerships risk the open-ended financial liabilities that the contracts could entail. Partnerships, which dissolved when any partner died, were also too unreliable. Roman lawyers instead found and adapted an ancient entity, the societas publicani. Publican societies became the first business corporations in Western history.

As public contractors, publican societies could hire employees; own necessary assets like cash, land, buildings, and slaves; and make contracts. Limited liability and perpetual life allowed them to attract the large investments they needed. They profited not only from contracts, but also seized every business opportunity that their large staff and financial power could turn to profit. They supplied and traded with the Roman legions and their soldiers and often dominated local commerce as well.

Their most valuable public contracts were for tax farming: private tax collection…Roman taxes took many forms. Property taxes were the most important, although the Senate, whose members owned a great deal of Italian land, used the spoils of victory over Macedonia to eliminate property taxes in Italy–an exemption they enjoyed for several centuries. There were also border tolls, customs duties, and sales taxes on slaves. Augustus created the inheritance tax for Roman citizens in 6 C.E. Caligula taxed food, lawsuits, porters’ wages, and prostitutes, and his successor Vespasian added -vegetables and public toilets…

Publican societies became so profitable that virtually the entire Roman elite, including senators who were theoretically prohibited from commerce, avidly invested in them. Shares of ownership, called particuiae (“little parts”), were traded in the Forum, making it perhaps the world’s first stock exchange. Equestrians, who faced no bar to active involvement even if they belonged to senatorial families, often sponsored the societies and managed operations…

The government’s relationship to publicans evolved over time in a way that strikingly resembles the evolution of international business by modern corporations. Initially, the government sold territories to the publicans, who like independent distributors ran their own operations and took a large share of the revenues. These deals were often corrupt and costly to the treasury. Later, when a large imperial staff allowed closer supervision, the publicans merely earned a commission on the revenues collected. By the third century C.E. the imperial staff had taken over collections completely and publican societies disappeared. OBMM: 149-151

It was the dispossession of Rome’s peasant farming class via debt, and its replacement with large villas staffed by chattel slaves, which hollowed out Rome’s agrarian economy. The wars with Hannibal had destroyed the Italian countryside, and the distressed farmers had no choice but to sell their land at fire-sale prices. These farms were bought up en masse by wealthy senators, equestrians and patricians. Because the slaves flowing in from every corner of the empire were so cheap to acquire, these large plantations were staffed with them instead of the sturdy yeoman farmers of days past. The property laws were rewritten by the rich to favor their own interests:

During 121-100 BC, Rome’s large landowners destroyed the Gracchi and passed three agrarian laws “favoring the increase of large estates. The first…allowed everyone to sell the portion of land which he received.” This law unblocked the way for impoverished landholders to sell their shares to large state-owners. The new landlords occupied the ager publicus without any firm legal sanction, and were permitted to keep this appropriation by a second Roman law, which left this public land “in the hands of its present holders, a rent being paid by them, the amount of which was to be distributed among the citizens…Finally, the third law abolished even the rent; so that nothing remained of the laws of the Gracchi but a single clause, favorable to the aristocracy, which gave a definite title to the possession of public land.”

The result…was that “A few sumptuous villas, and immense pasturages, replaced the varied cultivation, which had been carried on by small proprietors of Latin Samnite, Etruscan or Campanian origin, and had maintained so many flourishing cities. To maintain the populace of Rome and to support the luxury of the great, it was necessary to pillage the the conquered countries. Praetors, proconsuls, and public [tax] farmers, fell on the provinces like birds of prey, and ruined them to support the idleness of Rome. Economic polarization, having dried up the internal market by reducing cultivators to poverty and dependency, thus became the motive for Roman imperialism to seize from abroad what no longer was being produced at home. This dynamic inspired Pliny to decry that latifundia perdidere Italiam, jam vero et provincias, “Latifundia have ruined Italy.”

Underlying Rome’s economic self-destruction was its property-oriented law. Land ownership was legitimized simply by virtue of possession, regardless of how the land was used or what the social consequences were. This was the ultimate in privatization. Considerations of public interest were set aside, and the status quo was blessed…

It was this replacement of small farms with plantations centered around export crops that drove the rise of markets in importance and the use of money, replacing earlier tribal and village relations. As a consequence, the Roman world was much more market-oriented and monetized than any previous society before:

Roman agribusiness…began with the Second Carthaginian War. As in Greece and Pergamum, war’s slaughter of peasants made it possible. Italian deaths numbered in the hundreds of thousands and even survivors were often absent for seven years or more while Hannibal’s armies ravaged their families and farms. Many peasants lost their land or sold it at distressed prices, and others fared worse, as noted by Sallust: “While the generals and the cliques seized the spoils of war, their soldiers’ parents and children were driven from house and home if they had stronger neighbors.

Just as this calamity for peasants was allowing those who profited from the war-patricians whose estates supplied the city and the army, officers enriched with Carthage’s booty, and sundry war profiteers–to acquire land at fire-sale prices, the market system that had replaced subsistence farming around Rome was making it feasible to generate profits by raising crops for sale. The value of supplying that market would only increase during the republic’s remaining centuries as more and more Romans got their provisions from it: 60-90 percent of Rome’s residents by the end of the republic in 31 B.C.

Patrician eagerness for profit helped drive this commercialization. Rome enjoyed an explosion of wealth as publican societies won huge new contracts to operate the mines, forests, fisheries, and other facilities captured from the Carthaginians in Spain. Newly prosperous landowners, publican shareholders, and military officers flush with Carthaginian booty financed increasingly extravagant displays of luxury. An intense new interest in money took hold while conservatives like the historian Sallust complained that avarice was “the root of all evil. Greed undermined loyalty, honesty and the other virtues. In their place it taught arrogance, cruelty, disregard for the gods and the view that everything was for sale.”

After the war with Hannibal, patricians with access to markets were…keen to make farming pay. They read agricultural manuals, used cultivation methods recommended by Greek science, and invested for productivity…The greatest innovation, however, was to use enslaved farm labor. This became feasible where land acquired in the wake of the war came largely free of peasants, clearing the way to use slaves. Slaves were more productive than peasants. Peasants came with hungry families, set their own work schedules, and produced no more than they had to. They participated only marginally in the cash economy, consuming roughly 60 percent of what they produced, using 20 percent for seed, and paying rent and taxes before they could make the occasional purchase. They stoutly resisted change, and as citizens they could not be easily coerced.

Slaves, on the other hand, did what they were told. They were normally single men fed five pounds of mostly cheap gruel per day. It has been estimated that twenty slaves could be fed on what eight peasants and their families consumed. Moreover, in the decades after the war little or nothing was spent to clothe or house field slaves, who were branded in the face, slept in chicken coops, and normally went chained and naked under the overseer’s whips. Although they quickly died, replacements were cheap. In Italy, the use of slaves even cut the one tax landowners had to pay, a head tax on peasants. According to most historians, the Italian slave population, most of them on farms rapidly grew to what contemporaries estimated at two million by the late republic and remained at that level for centuries afterward.

The most profitable cash crop, according to Pliny the Elder, was animal husbandry. Some of the richest Romans owned vast properties devoted to sheep….agribusiness represented a shift in emphasis among mixed field and orchard crops, nothing like modern monoculture, Farms were very small, including those devoted to agribusiness. This was mainly because cultivation was so slow…. The main difference between the subsistence farms of independent peasants and the agribusiness-oriented villas was the larger proportion of land that villas devoted to cash crops like grapes and olives instead of commodities like grain. Grain accounted for 75 percent of the Roman diet, but even the urban poor spent as much on oil and wine. Accordingly, these were highly profitable.

Villas were complex enterprises. In addition to their farm revenues they could also provide lodging, food, fodder, fresh horses, and draft animals to travelers and exploit resources like woodlots and clay, stone, metal, and salt deposits, their slaves produced bricks; manufactured flour, bread, wool, shoes, and clothing; and repaired carts and tools. Many villas kept fish hatcheries and, near Rome and other large cities, sold flowers, fruits, vegetables, poultry, milk, and more exotic products…With their cash revenues, villas participated fully in the market economy.  A patrician might own several villas, visiting them for recreation or to check accounts and consult on strategic issues like the acquisition of neighboring properties. As Columella recommended, a procurator might over see them all and keep track of their iron tools, performing management, accounting, and audit functions much like a modern billionaire’s estate manager, whose role “usually involves overseeing multiple residences…

The combination of private corporate enterprise and the desire for riches and loot from the provinces continued to be a major driver for imperial expansion. But as Rome conquered more and more territories, it brought in less and less value. The people at the top of Roman society, whether businessmen, equestrians, senators, or generals, all entered into self-serving compacts designed to expand the empire, and hence increase their riches. But for average Romans, including the disappearing “middle class” who bore the brunt of taxation, all they got was more poverty and death. Corruption became rampant as self-seeking behavior replaced acting in the public’s welfare. Privatization and corruption spelled the downfall of the empire:

While generating huge profits the publican societies were causing the military considerable grief in the provinces. Publicans aimed to maximize revenues, and the short term of their five-year contracts made exploitation rather than cultivation the method of choice. With revenue a simple measure of success, their agents had to be ruthless or lose their jobs, whatever their personal sympathies. The managers and financiers back in Rome lived far away, like the upper management of multinationals today, and could easily ignore the hardships they imposed. The result was that the publicans “were often dishonest and probably always cruel. In Spain, where powerful tribes remained hostile to Rome, the publicans provoked such frequent rebellions that the Romans called it the horrida et bellicosa provincia (“horrible and warlike province”).

Uprisings were of little concern to publican management so long as the army suppressed them. Normally, then, publicans reaped the benefits of their ruthlessness while largely escaping its costs. The soldiers, on the other hand, were endangered. They also suffered personally from dishonest publican suppliers. In one horrible instance, when Rome was on the brink of destruction by Hannibal it hired publicans to gather and deliver urgently needed provisions for Scipio’s army in Spain where it was desperately trying to cut Hannibal’s supply route. Instead, the patriots bought and sank rotting old ships to simulate a natural loss, sold the provisions on the black market, and claimed compensation for the alleged loss.

Governors had difficulty controlling publicans. Short terms and minuscule staffs made supervision difficult. Moreover, they or their families were often investors. Governors also depended on publican societies. Publican couriers carried their mail, and the societies often provided branch funding governors abroad and collecting reimbursement in Rome. As Cicero wrote to his brother Quintus, the governor of Asia, we oppose [the publicans], we alienate from ourselves and the state an Order which has deserved exceedingly well of us and which has been linked to the state by Our efforts; if on the other hand we comply with them in every case, we shall allow the complete ruin of those for whose welfare and interests we are bound to have regard. Indeed, many governors less scrupulous than Cicero joined the publicans in exploiting the provinces for themselves. So despite enormous military antagonism, the publicans usually had a free hand.p. 160

In Rome, during the decades after defeating Hannibal, the Senate had opposed new military interventions abroad. Fighting in Spain and on the frontiers of Africa kept the militia busy, burdening the Roman citizens who comprised it. The Senate authorized foreign expeditions only reluctantly, and quickly withdrew the army afterward.
Moreover, the conspicuous consumption of the newly rich displeased many upper-class conservatives.

But many were making serious money from their investments in publican societies. Polybius wrote that “there is hardly anyone who is not involved either in the sale of these [public] contracts or in the kind of business to which they give rise. Some buy the contracts in person from the censors; some become partners of the purchasers; others stand surety or pledge their own property on their behalf.

In addition, a military foray against Philip V of Macedonia and Scipio Africanus’s spectacular victory over Hannibal and Antiochus III at Magnesia in 189 B.C.E. revealed the easy pickings available in the Hellenistic kingdoms, just as Xenophon’s Anabasis had earlier whetted Hellenic appetites for Persian conquests. Scipio Africanus, prosecuted for skimming off a portion of the Seleucid booty, took enough to leave senatorial fortunes to each of his daughters. By 171 B.C.E., when Pergamum’s persuasive King Eumenes II advocated a preemptive war against Philip V’s successor Perseus of Macedoma, the Senate’s resistance to imperialism had vanished…

After a surprisingly difficult struggle, Rome prevailed. The legions looted Macedonia’s royal palace, seizing more than six thousand talents of silver from the treasury, and triumphantly sailed the Macedonian royal barge up the Tiber. King Perseus was paraded in chains before a thrilled Roman populace, along with booty officially totaling almost twelve thousand talents. The Senate annexed Macedonia’s royal estates, and publican tax farmers turned the tactics honed in Sicily, Spain, and Carthage to collecting Macedonia’s taxes. The new revenues allowed the Senate to abolish Italian property taxes.

After this, Rome’s colonial empire expanded steadily. Macedonia and later Greece were made provinces, the Seleucid and Ptolemaic rulers became Roman dependents, and in 133, 96, and 74 B.C.E. respectively, Pergamum, Bithynia, and Cyrenaica in North Africa were bequeathed to Rome. Hellenistic city-states sought Roman patrons and lobbied the Senate with bribes and offers of market access in ways now common in Washington and Brussels. pp. 161-162
Roman and Italian businessmen came to command the raw materials and labor forces in virtually every Hellenistic land. The filaments of commerce, linking the personal interests of influential Romans with the Eastern upper classes, rapidly multiplied and strengthened. Romans served as bankers to businessmen, cities, and kings; invested in mortgages, land, ships, and trade; and worked as merchants and farmers as Athens flourished as a cultural tutor to Rome, much as London and Paris were to early twentieth-century America. Romans bought Greek art and became so Hellenized that many contemporaries thought Rome a Greek city.

Despite their love for Greek culture, Romans treated the Hellenistic states with no more consideration than they did the provinces in Spain and Africa. The effect was actually worse, since there was much more to steal or destroy: Deprived under Roman rule of police, welfare, or justice, Hellenistic lands were thrown into chaos, while the Senate blandly ignored pleas for help and intervened only to protect Romans and their aristocratic friends. Some historians even suspect a deliberate indifference, since these conditions generated so many slaves for agribusiness. Hellenes, used to themselves under the limited sovereignty of the Eastern kings” bitterly detested these policies.

They rose up in outrage, and Rome responded in force. In the 146 B.C,E, the legions brutally suppressed uprisings in Macedonia and Greece leaving Corinth so crushed that Cicero found it a heap of ruins seventy’ years later-and finally destroyed Carthage. They plowed the city under, sowed it with salt, and pronounced a curse on anyone who tried to restore it. Its fifty thousand survivors were sold into slavery. p. 162

Provincials were not the only ones to suffer appalling losses…Few Romans apart from governors, certain traders, and publican society investors actually benefited, and Rome’s police actions were so expensive and unrewarding that only Sicily and Asia were profitable provinces. One hundred thousand Roman and Italian men died between 200 and 150 B.C.E., proportional to nearly 3,000,000 deaths in modern America. The survivors gained little, even from their triumphs. The troops who sold 150,000 Epirotes into slavery netted about two weeks’ wage each (16 denarii).

Even the pound of silver that Cato gave his troops in Spain paid only three months’ living expenses, hardly fabulous spoils of war. Upon returning home, Roman veterans continued to find destroyed farms, stolen property, and scattered families. Italians endured even harsher military service and returned to similar losses. But lacking Roman citizenship, they were also denied access to the food, shelter, and employment available in Rome itself.

The most miserable of all were the slaves. The supply of unskilled laborers was so large that their lives were cheap. They were chained, fed starvation wages, whipped to work, and left virtually naked and unsheltered. A slave could be tortured to death on the mere suspicion of misbehavior, while all of an owner’s slaves would be tortured to death if he was murdered. Such treatment drove slaves to desperate revolts. In 135 B.C,E, a Syrian slave styling himself King Eunus of Antioch led two hundred thousand followers in capturing several Sicilian cities and holding off Roman armies for three years. This revolt inspired uprisings at Rome, Athens, and Delos. More followed, along with continuing insurrection in Spain.p. 161-163

While the plebeians fought and died for the “glory of Rome,” in the end, it was really all about the money.

As Hudson tells it, the unrestrained use of debt—devoid of any protections for creditors—eventually hollows out any society and causes it to decline and fall. The reason is quite simple: only independent, self-sufficient people can truly participate in society as equals with a stake in that society’s success and its future. When you reduce the majority of your population to serfs and chattel, then they no longer have any stake in the society. They withdraw support. Society decays and falls apart. People seek other options.

One can’t help but by struck by the parallels with America in the twenty-first century: an impoverished and demoralized population reduced to debt servitude and kept constantly distracted by bread and circuses; ownership of productive assets concentrated in the hands of a tiny, well-connected elite; “achievement” culture; an increasingly “winner take all” society combined with a pervasive “might makes right” mentality; the looting of the public treasury by private contractors aided by rampant political corruption and cronyism; the funneling of taxpayer money into the pockets of well-heeled insiders, increasingly pointless and unprofitable military adventures abroad, tax reductions for the wealthiest members of society and the shifting of tax burdens onto the few remaining productive activities, venal and incompetent leaders surrounding themselves with pomp, gaudy and grandiose architecture; lavish and conspicuous displays of wealth and sybaritic excess; a rigid and hierarchical class system; mass migrations and porous borders; the use of mercenaries and contractors in place of citizen-soldiers; one can even add a changing climate to the mix. One can almost hear the laughing whisper of history from among the dead stones: “Make Rome Great Again!!!”

In his book Are We Rome, Cullen Murphy indicts creeping privatization–the substitution of self-seeking private interests for the public good–as a critical factor in the collapse of the Rome and rise of the subsequent feudal era:

Serious challenges to any society can come from outside forces-environmental catastrophe, foreign invasion. Privatization is fundamentally an internal factor, though it has an impact on the ability to face external threats. [Ramsay MacMullen in his important study Corruption and the Decline of Rome]…asked his question-How does power become powerless–out of dissatisfaction with the many theories put forward to explain Rome’s gradual decline in the West. His answer is privatization–the deflection of public purpose by private interest.

Such deflection of purpose occurs in any number of ways. It occurs whenever official positions are bought and sold. It occurs when people must pay before officials will act, and it occurs if payment also determines how they will act. And it can occur anytime public tasks (the collecting of taxes, the quartering of troops, the management of projects) are lodged in private hands, no matter how honest the intention or efficient the arrangement, because private and public interests tend to diverge over time. Privatization, whether legal or corrupt. It is how the gears of government come to break. In Rome. the consequences were felt in every area of society.pp. 97-99

This is the story MacMullen traces, as throughout the empire a lubricious glaze of venality came to coat every governmental surface. What accounts for the change? No one factor, MacMullen believes, but some combination of many–the sheer growth in the government’ s administrative reach; as a result, the transformation of “public service duty of the curial class into a lifelong career for a larger group; the flight of the elite from public service anyway, because the demands could prove so onerous: the ambiguity of many laws, allowing money to sway judgments; the increasing severity of punishments, which people would pay anything to escape; and the generally poor communications, which among local officials abetted a sense of impunity (“What happens in Bithynia stays in Bithynia”).

A bronze plaque was affixed to a public building in Timgad, in Numidia, a city built as a bastion against the Berbers, which literally provided a recommended price list for payments to ensure the prosecution and success of various kinds of litigation….Time and again imperial decrees throughout the later empire attempt to put a stop to skimming, extortion, and the illicit use of office; or, failing that, to codify what may be permissible. But the emperors are standing athwart the tide, and the imperial pronouncements have a doomed, forlorn, ritual feel to them. Modem newspaper headlines like “Congress Votes New Curbs on Lobbyists” convey something of the same formulaic quality… AWR? pp. 104-105

IN THE END, Rome was heading toward something the Romans couldn’t, by definition, have a term for. But we do: it’s the Middle Ages. The precise definition of “feudalism” is one of those things on which medievalists can’t quite agree-the field is divided into warring fiefdoms- but the historian F. L. Ganshof discerned in feudal society one basic quality: a dispersal of political authority amongst a hierarchy of persons who exercise in their own interest powers normally attributed to the state. Public interest had become private.

This isn’t the place for an extended excursion across a thousand years of Western history. In brief, for many centuries power was wielded in Europe by monarchs and vassals as if it were a form of private property. ‘The levying of taxes, the raising of armies. the meting out of justice-these things were done in e name of the ruler, and the fruits of his administration were enjoyed by those who acknowledged the ruler’s personal lordship. The eventual path away from the Middle Ages was marked by the halting emergence of governments defined by communal interest rather than private prerogative. But sometime in the late twentieth century the arrow began changing direction… AWR? pp. 108-109

The modern logic of privatization

One major point that Hudson makes is that in the ancient world, unlike today, there was no assumption that powerful people acting in their own narrow self-interests would lead to beneficial social outcomes! There was no “logic” of privatization. Rather, it was generally assumed that oligarchies usurping the public purpose was a bad thing and should be avoided if possible. Powerful private interests usurping the public good was associated with immorality and collapse, rather than with progress and efficiency. There was yet no “science” of economics to tell them otherwise:

…nobody in antiquity advanced the idea that private property and personal self-seeking would bring about a more efficient social system than communal property or private property managed unselfishly. Just the opposite: The stoics disparaged private self-seeking. Antiquity produced no Milton Friedman or Margaret Thatcher, nor did an Adam Smith emerge to suggest that an invisible hand would guide personal self-seeking to increase the nation’s wealth. The policy objective was not efficiency, but “straight order” in Babylonia, social equity for the Biblical prophets, and an appeal to the “constitution of the fathers” (patrios politeia) by the Athenian oligarchs and by Cicero’s upholding of patrician Roman values. Creditors were not euphemized as savers performing a public service; they were condemned throughout antiquity as usurers preying on the poor. Nobody suggested that debt-ridden economies might work their way out of debt by saving and investing more. In these respects there were indeed was no doctrine of privatization in antiquity.

Mesopotamian rulers viewed the privatization of enterprise from a different perspective than that of today’s political philosophers. Modern governments are charged with the duty of defending creditor claims against debtors’ rights to their own economic freedom and means of livelihood. But Bronze Age rulers protected debtors against creditors…Mesopotamia’s public institutions coped with this problem of economic inequity and private patronage by countering the arrogance that tended to be inherently associated with wealth. p.53

One result of the modern world emerging out of Rome’s collapse rather than directly from the Mesopotamian upswing is that our legal traditions sanctify debt obligations rather than providing for their cancellation when they grow too heavy. Modern industry is financed with borrowed money via mortgages, bonds, and bank loans. Even our governments are debtors, not creditors as in the Bronze Age. Indeed, in an attempt to service these public debts, governments throughout the world are privatizing natural resources and public utilities long considered to be part of the national patrimony…p. 56

We all know what happened to the Roman empire after is latifundia dynamic ran its course. It declined and fell. Is something similar in store for today’s topheavy debtor economies? Will market forces again become swamped by a new growth in debt overhead? Will a new polarization enable the wealthiest classes once again to free themselves of taxes and other traditional obligations of ownership? Or will history be different this time around? p. 3


Privatization is at the core of the Neoliberal project that has managed the world since the 1980’s. Hollowed-out states act as little more than agencies collecting and funneling taxpayer money to private corporations. Public services in every area of life, from public transportation to health care, are sold off at fire-sale prices or shut down altogether. Politicians sit on the boards of these corporations and have their political campaigns funded by them. Lucrative jobs and lobbying positions await them when they leave Washington. Everything from K-12 schools to basic infrastructure is now under the control of private enterprises acting to maximize profits, rather than in the public’s best interests. It is, in Matt Taibbi’s phrase, a “Griftopia.” Another term might be “kleptocracy.”

Once again, private industry is not taking entrepreneurial risks, but seizing the commons and acting as costly toll-bridges to essential services–in other words, becoming rentiers. Even national defense and incarceration are profit centers for giant mega-corporations, which explains America’s vast carceral state and perpetual wars around the globe (compare to World War Two which was concluded in four years by our central government). We are told every day that the private sector is honest, efficient, and cost-effective, and that the government is corrupt, bloated, inefficient, and wasteful. But, of course, we are given this message by a media which is the property of those very same corporations. Privatization ensures that corrupt and wasteful government becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy (to be fixed by more privatization!)

It appears that private interests diverting resources from the state into their own hands played a large role in the downfall of the Roman Empire. So did reducing entire populations to debt servitude and taking away their dignity and self-reliance. One wonders how far along this trend must go before people realize that the narratives they are being fed by the corporate media and economists are self-serving lies, and decide to rise up and demand a different way of doing things.


Privatization in the Ancient Near East and Classical World. Baruch Levine (Editor), Michael Hudson (Editor). Peabody Museum of Archaeology, 1996.

Are We Rome? Cullen Murphy. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007.

The Origins of Business, Money, and Markets. Keith Roberts. Columbia University Press, 2011.

Urbanization and Land Ownership in the Ancient Near East – Summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fun Facts

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

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

Almost all the US jobs created since 2005 are temporary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 in 4 Alabamans are functionally illiterate.

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

Spam Accounts for Two-Thirds of Total Email Volume.

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

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

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

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