In our discussion of Julian Jaynes’s ideas, reader Speedbird recommended the book “Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry” by Owen Barfield. The above lecture covers that book and illustrates some remarkable overlap between his ideas and those of Jaynes. It’s well worth a listen.
And, related, here’s an essay that cites both:
What Barfield points out is that the distinction between mind and matter, or inside and outside, didn’t exist in early peoples. (This is also the basis of Julian Jaynes’ The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, though being a materialist, Jaynes explains this with the dubious theory that our thinking was done unconsciously in one cranial hemisphere, which then “talked” to the other.) Thinking happened to the person, and was not felt as being produced by the person. In the beginning of the Iliad, Achilles is angry because Agamemnon has taken Achilles’ slave-girl away from him. Achilles naturally wants to kill Agamemnon, but if he does that would be the end of the Greeks’ siege of Troy, so he doesn’t. We would say that reason prevailed, but what Homer says is that Athena tells him not to. It is something outside of Achilles that controls his action. And of course, Homer credits his own work to the Muse. One may also note that it is only recently that “genius” came to mean a great thinker, and not some external source that inspires the thinker. There was innovation in ancient times, but such innovation was credited to divine kings and prophets, not to a common individual’s cleverness.
All this is to say that the growth of control in our thinking, feeling, and willing is a marker of the evolution of consciousness, which amounts to a change of common sense. This control moved from “outside” (belonging to the supernatural) to “inside.” Parallel with this change is a change in sense perception. Supernatural control was exercised equally on humans and nature, which means that humans were just as much “nature” as anything else, all pervaded by spiritual entities. And that was perceived. It was not an “animist belief system” that people made up to explain things. Rather it was, simply, experienced. But as our ability to think grew, the perception of spirit in nature declined, until in modern times it has disappeared. Hence modern common sense divides reality into two: our (more or less) controlled minds on the one hand, and on the other, a mindless physical system.
And here’s an older article from Psychology Today describing the psychological transformations of the Axial Age. It feeds into our initial question: how was ancient consciousness different from that of contemporary industrial societies?
Before a certain time, some psychologists believe, ancient peoples also differed from us by exhibiting far less capacity to monitor their internal thoughts, feelings, and motives; they engaged in little or no self-reflection, and lacked a personal identity other than a name, parentage, and a recollection of a sequence of life events.
Before the Axial transformation, human beings told one another myths and other stories about how they came to be. The stories were not regarded as true or false; rather, their truth did not require questioning. Such was the state of human beings, Jaspers believed, because of a lack a self-reflective, fully conscious self-understanding. Under such conditions, abstract truths matter not.
During the Axial-age, however, some scholars argue that dramatic shifts took place in human thought across four geographically distinct regions of the world: India, China, the Middle East, and Greece.
New ways of thinking emerged that defined the world’s psychological culture for all time since. Jaspers wrote:
“What is new about this age…is that man becomes conscious of Being as a whole, of himself and his limitations. He experiences the terror of the world and his own powerlessness. He asks radical questions. Face to face with the void he strives for liberation and redemption. By consciously recognising his limits he sets himself the highest goals.”
Big questions that were specifically psychological in nature emerged: “Who am I?” and “Why are people different…
Since we’re on the subject of podcasts, this is from an interview with Professor Richard Seaford, whom we first met when we talked about where the ideas about money came from in Classical Greece, and what it’s effects were. Here, Seaford makes the case that the emergence of something like an individual spirit, soul, or essence, was paralleled in both Greek and Indian culture.
This is interesting because one of the consistent criticisms of Julian Jaynes’s work has been that he only looked at Greek culture and ignored other, particularly non-Western, civilizations. But Professor Seaford’s studies indicate parallel developments in the civilizations of Classical India at about the same time (6-5th centuries B.C.). The transition from the Rigveda to the Upanishads seems to follow roughly the same trajectory as that which Jaynes sketched out as taking place between the composition of the Iliad to that of the Odyssey with regards to human self-reflective consciousness (the following transcript not blockquoted for clarity):
[Begin 2:36] SHWEP: “…If there wasn’t a soul, what was a human being before [the Axial Age]?”
Richard Seaford: “Well, the two Axial civilizations that I know best, which are also, I think, the two which are best placed…to answer your question, are Greece and India.”
“Interestingly, you have—both in Greece, and in India—early texts which are roughly speaking pre-philosophical. I’m talking about Homer, in particular, in Greece, and the Rigveda in India; followed by—in both civilizations—something like the birth of philosophy, depending, of course, on how you define philosophy.”
“So that in Greece, you move from the world of Homer—which is, roughly speaking, the eighth century B.C.—to a new conception, a radically new conception, of the universe and man’s place in it, in the fifth and sixth centuries B.C., known as pre-Socratic philosophy. And out of pre-Socratic philosophy you have Plato and Aristotle and the whole of ancient philosophy.”
“In India you have the Rigveda, which is (a bit like Homer but even more so) dated to very different periods…from at the earliest about the middle of the second millennium B.C., but clearly the Rigveda—particularly the tenth book—contains material which is much later. And, of course, Homer probably wasn’t written down until the sixth century B.C., but these early Indian texts were not written down until very much later. So the Rigveda was subject to centuries of oral transmission, and therefore very difficult to date.”
“However, what’s interesting, in answer to your question, is that in India from about eighth, seventh, sixth century BC (again dating is impossible with these early Indian texts), you have a new conception of the universe and the place of man in it. Just as in Greece you have a new conception [at] about the same time in the sixth century B.C.”
“And the transition from Homer to pre-Socratic philosophy has some striking similarities to the the transition from the Rigveda to these later texts, in particular the Brahmanas (which are mainly about ritual, but nevertheless contain some proto-philosophical speculation), and the Upanishads. The Upanishads [emerged] out of the need to interpret the sacrifice (which is what the Brahmanas are mainly concerned with), and as a result of the need to interpret the sacrifice, producing something that is legitimate to call philosophy, in which ritual has to a large extent been left behind. That, then, corresponds to pre-Socratic philosophy.”
“Now, what is it that’s similar between the Indian transition and the Greek transition?
Well, let’s take the idea of the ‘inner self,’ or soul. There are a lot of terms which are used for something like the inner self, the soul, the mind, the subject; and it can be quite confusing because they mean different things; they overlap. One is perhaps best advised to think of them in terms of their opposite: so the soul is the opposite to the body…the subject is opposite to the object, and the self is opposite to others. I like the term ‘inner self’ because it implies an individual, but just the ‘inner dimension’ of the individual. It’s quite close, therefore, to soul and mind.”
“Now, it’s striking—and this has been recognized for some time—that in Homer there’s no word for the inner self as a bounded, comprehensive entity of consciousness. That is to say, what we think of as the mind or the soul which constitutes the personality—the ‘real person’ of each individual.”
“I use the terms ‘comprehensive’ and ‘bounded.’ It’s ‘comprehensive’ in the sense that it contains emotions, perceptions, desires; it originates action, it contains the full range of consciousness. It’s ‘bounded’ in the sense that it has boundaries; it can’t be confused with what is outside it. My inner self is quite distinct from your inner self, and my inner self is quite distinct from that table, or my leg. It is a bounded entity.”
“In Homer there’s no word for that. What you have is a number of different words for the various organs of consciousness like thumos meaning ‘spirit,’ or menos meaning something like ‘might,’ and so on. Kradíē. You have a whole list of these Greek words, none of which refers to what later was referred to by the word psuchê (ψυχή), meaning ‘soul,’ which particularly from Plato onward meant precisely this bounded, comprehensive organ of consciousness.”
SHWEP: “We have psuchê in Homer, don’t we? But it means something very different.”
RS: “Yes, we do have psuchê in Homer, but it is has only one role, which is to leave the body on loss of consciousness—whether on death or on fainting. Now the psuchê, then, having left the body on death, goes down to the underworld, and the underworld then has psuchê in it.”
“The psuchê of Patroclus appears in a dream to Achilles late in the Iliad. Now the interesting thing about the psuchê of Patroclus—it’s the dead Patroclus—you can see him, you can hear him, he speaks, he is Patroclus. Except that, there’s a sense in which he doesn’t exist. He’s insubstantial. It’s not quite clear what’s involved here, but he not substantial. Were you to lean out and touch him, he would dissolve like a shadow.”
“However, the fact that he’s Patroclus for all eternity, and in most respects like Patroclus, meant that the psuchê was the word used later on by Plato—but also even before Plato—to refer to the most important part of you, which is the immortal part of you—the part of you which will survive after your death. So you have a development which, in Homer, there is no word for the comprehensive, bounded organ of consciousness. In Plato there is, but the word Plato uses, psuchê, has evolved from being simply the thing which leaves you when you die and plays no role in your life, to the thing which is the most important thing about your life, which is your inner self, which will indeed leave you when you when you die, and is immortal.”
“So, this is an enormous transition in which the psuchê becomes at the center of attention. It, for Plato, is enormously important for understanding the world, and above all for understanding how we should live.”
“Now, if you turn to the Indian material with this question in mind, and ask the same question of the Rigveda: ‘Is there a bounded, comprehensive organ of consciousness?’ The answer, insofar as I can see after some research, is ‘no.’ There are various words—manas, jiva, prana, atman, and so on—none of which refers to a comprehensive, bounded organ of consciousness. So it’s like Homer. And indeed, as in Homer, the words that do exist for organs of consciousness are not particularly important. They’re not at the center of attention. They’re not made into the subjects of sentences in the way that psuchê clearly in Plato is. So it’s rather like Homer.”
“Then you go into the Upanishads—sixth, fifth century B.C., and what you find is that one of the words that was used in the Rigveda as an organ of consciousness, though it sometimes seems to mean rather something like breath, Ātman, has become at the center of everything. The famous expression ‘Ātman is Brahman,’ which you find repeated several times in the early Upanishads, means effectively your Ātman—your inner self—is Brahman, meaning the whole of the universe. Your Ātman is everything. And in the discourse of the early Upanishads, Ātman is enormously important, just as psuchê in Plato is enormously important for understanding the world and how you should live.”
“Now, there are, of course, important differences between the Greek and the Indian material. But this is a respect—and there are others—this is a respect in which they’re strikingly similar. You have a movement from a world in which there is no bounded, comprehensive organ of consciousness, to one in which, not only is there a term for it, but it has become enormously important.” [12:15]
[14:15] RS: “Psuchê is, of course, still with us. We might call it the mind or the soul, but he notion of this bounded inner self is very much still with us…Interestingly, there has been, in the last fifteen years or so, a…debate in British analytic philosophy as to the question of whether the inner self exits.”
“Now, this goes back to David Hume…who said, actually, ‘No the inner self doesn’t exist,’ because if you examine your experience, your emotions, your perceptions, what’s going on in your mind; what you’re aware of is a constant flux of impressions, thoughts, motives, desires, and so on. And where is this ‘extra’ thing which is the inner self? It just isn’t there. We made it up! You don’t need to talk about it in order to describe your subjectivity.”
“One of the interesting features of [the debate] for me is the terminology used by Sorabji: owns, which must be a metaphor. I mean, ‘ownership’ is legally sanctioned possession. You don’t have legally sanctioned possession of your emotions, but he’s constantly using this word, owns. So the question is, what is it a metaphor for?”
“I don’t believe it’s a metaphor, ultimately. I think that ownership, historically, is crucial in constructing the idea of the inner self, in which I stand apart from my inner data—my desires and perceptions and all the rest of it—in the the way that an owner of goods stands apart from his goods, and yet he has exclusive rights to them in the way that he does to his own body, for example.”
“But another interesting thing, of course, is the fact that its happening at all. Because we just take it as a fact of nature that each of us has an inner self. We reify it. But neither of them—neither Parfit nor Sorabji—consider the question anthropologically. They talk about this issue as if they’re talking about whether Paris is the capital of France or not. It’s just a fact about the world, isn’t it, that you either have it or you don’t have it. But actually, if you look outside the tradition in which they’re operating; outside the Western tradition, particularly at Melanesia, you’ll find a wealth of anthropological writing which shows that these people don’t have a conception of the bounded, comprehensive inner self. They just don’t have it.”
“So the question then arises: Have they just not noticed that they’ve got it? This is the question you might put to Sorabji. Are these people in error? Have they gone through their lives just not realizing that they’ve got this thing, they just never got around to noticing it or describing it?”
“And the answer, if you consider it in this light, is, of course, that the inner self is a construction. And, of course, the Buddhists who are cited by Parfitt take the view that we don’t have such a thing…” [End 18:08]
The next section puts forward a fascinating thesis briefly touched on above. It is the idea that the notion of the the unique, individual ‘self’ is intrinsically linked with the emergence of inalienable private property rights in a culture! In other words, the idea that I am the absolute “owner” of something that is my own, personal “self,” corresponds to the notion of “absolute ownership” over things like goods, land, livestock, and chattels, and hence more “modern” economic ideas:
[Begin 20:08] SHWEP: “…Obviously a priori reasoning has led in both directions—to a strong idea of the soul, and to a non-strong idea of the soul. But, you would argue, that this so-called a priori reasoning is always conditioned by the kind of society that a given reasoner finds himself in. That they reason a certain way depending on the kind of society they live in.”
Richard Seaford: “Yes, that’s right. The reason why the issue between Sorabji and Parfitt is undecidable is that the inner self, in my view, is a construction. That’s really pretty much all you can say when it comes to trying to resolve the dispute between them.”
“But then the interesting questions start, which is, why do you find this construction at all? Why do you find this in some societies but not in other societies? And if you look at the anthropological evidence, you can see how the arrival of Western economic models, in particular individual property, promotes the belief in the bounded, individual self.”
SHWEP: “Can you talk about exactly what you’re talking about when you say, ‘the arrival of Western economic models?’ And when this is happening, what exactly we are talking about? Money has something to do with it, I believe.”
RS: “Money has something to do with it, but there’s a…for example, there’s a passage written by a Melanesian anthropologist who is describing the arrival of the trade store in a community. And he has experience of this…the arrival of the trade store makes a big difference, because it brings with it different ways of constructing the world in which you can’t just go and take your cousin’s things. If you do that you might get prosecuted. It’s illegal. And people don’t understand this.”
“But now, because of the trade store, what he says is—by looking the way the trade store operates, it does involve money; it does involve commercial relations rather than sharing and gift exchange. In commercial relations, there’s absolute ownership and absolute separation of goods and money from [the] possessor in the exchange, which never occurs in gift exchange. You are always, in some way, identified with what you’ve given, and that creates links between people.”
“The arrival of the trade store introduces a new model of the person, in which ownership is used to construct the new kind of individual. And if you go to a text which is no doubt somewhat out of date but nevertheless clearly contains some truth by [C.B.] Macpherson about seventeenth century England, you find something very similar. The new conception of the individual is created, he says, by reading back into it ownership of property. Because this is a period in which a new class is establishing itself through the individual ownership of property which is theirs absolutely—it’s not vulnerable to being taken away, in any form, by anybody else. So their freedom and their life potential is defined by the property that they own. And therefore, the notion of the individual is constructed, to some extent at least, out of the institution of individual property.”
“If you go to Greece and India, there’s evidence—quite independent from everything I’ve been talking about—for the development of individual property at the expense of ownership by the kinship group.”
SHWEP: “So, what is exchange like in the Homeric poems?”
RS: “Well, first of all, in the Homeric poems there’s no money. Second, there’s very little commerce, and its only at the margins and performed by disreputable people like Phoenicians. The main form of exchange is gift exchange, and it’s though gift exchange that you create relations.”
“Now, what is exchanged in gift exchange? Well, in Homeric poems—because they’re only concerned with an elite group—it’s prestige objects like tripods and horses and so on. Fine textiles. And that creates links between aristocratic households in different places. And you have genre scenes in which it’s all beautifully described—it’s at the center of what’s going on, socially.”
“When it comes to the Iliad, you have a problem, because the Greeks stormed a city. Not necessarily Troy—they storm a number of other cities. And the issue arises of who has a right to distribute the plunder.”
“Now, it can be done by the Greeks in general, or by the king. The king does it in various versions, and he does it unfairly. So, what he should be doing, is taking this plunder and giving it to Achilles, or Odysseus, or whatever it is. That’s a gift—its not an income—it’s a gift, and by doing that he creates the links. There’s no other link that enables Agamemnon to hold the Greeks into a coherent body. It’s through distributing the goods, and they’re gifts.”
“But things go wrong, and Achilles feels slighted, and he withdraws from the battle. So what does Agamemnon do? He offers gifts, lots of them, to bring Achilles back into the battle. But Achilles says, in effect, it’s too late. ‘I hate your gifts’—ekthrati moi tassadoura: ‘Your gifts are hateful to me.’ That is devastating, because it’s not just about Agamemnon and Achilles, it’s about a whole social system breaking down. He’s rejecting the principle of gifts. And there’s something similar that goes on in the Odyssey.”
“So the Iliad and the Odyssey are about what I call, ‘a crisis of reciprocity,’ in which the old economic system has broken down. And it’s precisely in the context, incidentally, of rejecting the gifts that Achilles talks about his own psuchê. And it’s the passage in Homer which becomes closest to the psuchê being what it is later, which is something infinitely valuable which he’s not going to give up in return for gifts.”
“So it’s the isolation of Achilles as a result of the breakdown of this exchange system which gives you the first glimpse of what would be so important later, which is the valorization of the individual psuchê.” [End 27:08]
See also: Seaford on Soul, Ritual, and Money (The Secret History of Western Esotericism Podcast). This is a “members only” podcast, so if anyone would like to “donate” it to me (link, email, Dropbox, etc.), I’d love to have the chance to listen to it!
1/2 of them: Everything is completely under your control. You can just make your self happy! Individual solutions for collective problems. Poverty is always the result of poor decisions. Everyone can be rich and successful. Bootstraps!
The other 1/2 of them: Genes control everything, from the wealth of the individual to the collective wealth of nations. Your IQ is a fixed number thanks to your parents, and largely determined by race. Men are inherently better at math and science. Black people are born stupid. Chinese are born geniuses. Genetic determinism.
How do you hold both of these these contradictory views simultaneously? I mean, every Alt-right media source I’ve ever spent any time watching serves up a heavy dollop of both. Kind of depends on the day.
The only constant seems to be whatever confirms their views about the status quo and their spot in the money/status/race hierarchy.
“[W]hat may be attained by industrial or commercial success is still the nearest approach to medieval lordship possible to modern man…” ― Joseph A. Schumpeter
Feudal nobles acquired their status by the breakdown of the state. The great medieval scholar Marc Bloch wrote:
“In feudal society the characteristic human bond was the subordinate’s link with a nearby chief. From one level to another the ties thus formed—like so many chains branching out indefinitely—joined the smallest to the greatest. Land itself was valued above all because it enabled a lord to provide himself with ‘men’ by supplying the remuneration for them.” Feudal Society, p.444
As I promised last time, I’d like to take another look at a system I’ve often referred to as Neofeudalism.
I haven’t written much about Neofeudalism since 2013-2014. But, if anything, the trend towards it has greatly accelerated.
What brought this to mind was a widely disseminated news story which, to me, is the quintessence of what I was talking about back in 2013-2014.
Robert Smith, a billionaire investor, surprise[d] students at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, by using his speech at a commencement ceremony to pledge to wipe the debts of the 2019 class. ‘This is my class – 2019 – and my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans. I know my class will make sure they pay this forward,’ he said.
This was widely circulated as a warm-and-fuzzy “feel good” story. But when I heard it, I was shocked. Really? I would argue it’s anything but. If anything, it should disturb people, as it did me. What about all the millions of debt serfs who aren’t lucky enough to have a rich benefactor–that is, almost all of U.S. college students? What about them?
And why the hell should crippling debt for an education even be a thing in the first place?
Really, this should be interpreted as a sad example of a state failing its own citizens.
But it’s not. Instead, the media uniformly portrays it as a paradigmatic example of the generosity and benevolence of our successful entrepreneurial overlords.
And I don’t think that’s accidental.
No, rather, I think it’s quite intentional—part of a desire by elites to change the core mentality of the citizenry of deteriorating democratic nation-states from one in which the state is expected to provide a modicum of basic services to all citizens regardless of luck or rank; to one in which we rely on wealthy benefactors to provide the essential goods and services we all depend on arbitrarily to those whom they deem “worthy” or “deserving,” paid for out of their own pockets.
The media increasingly pushes the line that “society owes you nothing” and that progressive taxes are simply “punishing the successful.” Instead, the things previous generations took for granted will now be “grants” and “gifts” distributed by whim by a handful of oligarchs who control more wealth than many governments—state, local and federal. And if you aren’t in the queue, or in the wrong queue, when the “gifts” are handed out, well then, too bad for you. Better luck next time. Go f*ck yourself.
Once again, incidents such as the one above are always framed as good news stories rather than as what they really are – symptoms of the tragic collapse of the post-Westphalian state and Enlightenment ideals, and the re-emergence of multiple overlapping Neofeudal patronage systems, similar to how medieval Europe and other regions functioned for much of history.
Here’s another perfect example:
The richest man in the world [Jeff Bezos] announced on Thursday that he would give $2bn (£1.5bn) of his fortune to finance a network of preschools and tackle homelessness in America.
James Bloodworth, a writer who went undercover to expose working conditions at [Amazon’s]fulfilment centres, said there was “something slightly ironic” about Mr Bezos’s plan. “There have been credible reports of Amazon warehouse workers sleeping outside in tents because they can’t afford to rent homes on the wages paid to them by the company,” he told the BBC…Others highlighted Amazon’s recent successful attempt to quash a law in Seattle – the home of the online retailer’s headquarters – that was designed to raise millions of dollars to alleviate the city’s homelessness crisis…
For his part, Mr Bezos, who is thought to be worth in excess of $150bn, did little to distance his philanthropic efforts from the business model of his company. “We’ll use the same set of principles that have driven Amazon,” he said in the statement announcing his fund. “Most important among those will be genuine, intense customer obsession. “The child will be the customer…”
Well, given that his employees are already crying sitting at their desks, running schools shouldn’t be all that much different for Bezos than running Amazon. Although one wonders what kind of strange grading system will be implemented:
In case you somehow missed it, working at Amazon is pretty terrible according to The New York Times: brutal hours, unforgiving managers, a culture of cutthroat competition. If you’re a star student of the Amazon ethos, and you earn a perfect score when quizzed on the company’s “leadership principles,” you get permission to call yourself a “Peculiar,” which sounds more like something from Dr. Seuss than a workplace accolade.
Our students are Peculiar! And it is nice that he wants to do something about the rampant homelessness caused in part by the business practices of his own company. (I was actually talking to some Amazon warehouse workers at a bar last weekend. One was fired for not meeting the insane productivity quota after several months, and his girlfriend was summarily fired after suffering a stoke on the work floor. Both of them described it as a “sweatshop”.)
The falling back on wealthy individuals and private corporations to do the things that used to be considered just a part of the government’s basic mandate to its citizens is hardly good news in my opinion. Yet, rather than point this out, the media just engages in shameless hero-worship.
Another case in point is the school funded by basketball superstar LeBron James in Akron Ohio. If you’re one of the lucky lottery winners to attend the school funded by the “King” (yes, the article really uses that word), here’s what you get:
Some people call LeBron James the GOAT for his prowess on the basketball court. Others say it’s his work in the community that really makes him the greatest of all time..The [Promises] school, a project of the LeBron James Family Foundation and Akron Public Schools, provides students with a slew of awesome perks.
According to James, in addition to attending a school run by The King, students will also receive:
– Free tuition
– Free uniforms
– Free breakfast, lunch and snacks
– Free transportation within 2 miles
– A free bicycle and helmet
– Access to a food pantry for their family
– Guaranteed tuition for all graduates to the University of Akron
What’s more, parents of students will receive access to job placement services and help acquiring their GEDs.
The school’s curriculum was crafted with the help of Akron County educators, who say they’ve long seen their students underperforming in the classroom. There will be a focus on hands-on STEM education, with an emphasis on developing problem-solving skills, according to the foundation website.
Students will also have a later start time for school days and more staggered breaks in order to promote year-round education. Although the school is currently open only to third- and fourth-grade students, classes will expand from first to eighth grade by 2022, James told CNN…James, who has given millions to the project, told CNN, “We want every kid to walk through this school to be inspired, to come … away with something. Something where they can give back.”
Is it possible for a media article to be more fawning than this? (synonyms: be obsequious to, be sycophantic to, be servile to, curry favor with, pay court to, play up to, crawl to, creep to, ingratiate oneself with, dance attendance on, fall over oneself for, kowtow to, toady to, truckle to, bow and scrape before, grovel before, cringe before, abase oneself before; flatter, praise, sing the praises of, praise to the skies, praise to excess, eulogize; sweet-talk, soft-soap, brown-nose, suck up to, make up to, smarm around, be all over, fall all over, butter up, lick someone’s boots, rub up the right way, lay it on thick, lay it on with a trowel; smoodge to; kiss someone’s arse..)
And anyway, why is a formerly prosperous major American city dependent upon the personal income of just one man to deliver services to its citizens that would just be considered a standard duty in any other normally-functioning, wealthy, industrialized democracy? Funny how, in its efforts to praise Mr. James, the article does not bother to even ponder that important question. I mean, nothing against Mr. James himself, but what if you don’t live in Akron, Ohio, or if you don’t get accepted into “the King’s School?” Well, once again, I suppose you’re just f*cked and on your own, then…
Welcome to Neofeudal America. Sorry about that, kid. Better luck next time…
Any NBA/MLB/NFL stars born in Flint??? They’re our only hope!
2. Our ‘Game of Thrones’ Future
We’ve been here before, of course. It’s actually an earlier and much older form of social organization, going all the way back to the first civilizations, when a handful of aristocratic households were, for all intents and purposes, “the state,” and their family members comprised the ruling class. Even referring to these governments as a true “state” is an anachronism which is unfortunately all too common in historical writing.
A prime example of this are the liturgies of ancient Greece. Today we think of that word in reference to religious ceremonies. But what it originally referred to were the gifts bestowed upon the citizens of Greek city-states by wealthy elites as a matter of social convention. Even armies were provisioned this way. It was, in essence, a “voluntary tax” enforced by peer pressure:
The Greeks put taxation in the field of ethics…There was no tax on income. Taxes were not the way by which the wealth of the rich was shared with the people. Instead, this was achieved by a voluntary alternative: liturgy.
The word liturgy — from the ancient Greek leitourgia — means “public service” or “work of the people.” The idea of benefaction was embedded in the ancient Greek psyche, and had roots in mythology. The Titan Prometheus created humanity and was its greatest benefactor, giving the gift of fire, which he stole from Mount Olympus. The Goddess Athena gave the citizenry the olive tree, symbol of peace and prosperity, and so the city of Athens was named after her…
…Perhaps the city needed some kind of improvement to its infrastructure — a new bridge, for example. Perhaps a war loomed and military spending was required. Perhaps some kind of festivity was deemed necessary. Then the rich were called upon. They were expected not only to pay for the undertaking, but to carry it out as well: It was their responsibility to oversee the work in question.
The rationale was that the rich should shoulder the expenses of the city, given the unequal share of the community’s wealth they enjoyed. Any contribution was not enforced by law or bureaucracy, but by tradition and public sentiment. The motivation of the liturgist was benevolence, a sense of public duty and — significantly — the reward of honor and prestige…
Many of the buildings of ancient Greece were … constructed by benefactors competing for honor. The Stoa Poikile or Painted Porch of Peisianax in Athens, for example…Many works on the Acropolis, possibly even the Parthenon, were also funded by liturgy…The most prestigious and important liturgy — and by far the most expensive — was the navy, known as “trierarchy.” The trierarch had to build, maintain, and operate a warship — a “trireme.” Triremes kept the Athenian navy strong and shipping lanes free from pirates. Given that Athens was a trading center (indeed, taxes on trade were another source of government revenue), their role was essential…
There were anywhere between 300 and 1,200 liturgists in Athens — depending on need (in times of war the number went up) — and the liturgical class was constantly being renewed. Those who were responsible for liturgy volunteered in most cases, although some were assigned by the state. There were also major and minor liturgies, which varied according to the liturgist’s wealth.
While the system of liturgy allowed for public works to be funded and performed by qualified people, it slowly disappeared in the 4th century BCE, with the development of taxation…
Often times, the “state” was, in reality, simply the household budget of the ruler. For a modern analogy, imagine if the the entire budget of the United States was funded out of the personal wealth and income of one single, solitary individual—say, Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos. At the same time, local “governments” were simply councils of wealthy citizens (usually large landowners) who paid for everything out of their own pockets—important infrastructure, poor relief, defense, police, housing, food banks, law courts, etc.). Over time, such people became what we know today as the feudal aristocracy, as noted above.
Maybe it’s not so hard to imagine after all. Because that’s where we’re heading once again!
Cullen Murphy describes how the system functioned in the late Roman Empire:
Patronage spilled over into communal adornment; it was in fact inseparable from it. The Roman magnates competed with one another to endow the capital with improvements. Rome’s wealthiest class, the senatorial aristocracy, constituted by one estimate two-thousandths of 1 percent of the population; then came the equestrian class, with perhaps a tenth of a percent. Collectively these people owned almost everything.
Americans are well aware of the nation’s worsening income inequality, with those in the top 1 percent earning nearly 50 times more a year than those in the bottom 20 percent. The average C.E.O. earns more than 400 times as much as a typical worker. In Rome, the gap between the elite and everyone else was on the order of 5,000 or 10,000 to 1. (“Nothing is more unfair than equality,” observed a very comfortable Pliny the Younger, who would have felt at home in many Washington circles.)
The expectation in Rome was that affluent citizens, as individuals rather than as taxpayers, should provide for community needs. Did the city require another aqueduct? New roads? A stadium? Some magnate would surely provide it—in return, implicitly, for a measure of public power, and, of course, for ample public recognition. Inscriptions on countless marble fragments attest to such generosity—an early version of “Brought to you by … “
On Rome’s edifice of private giving—whether with the seemliness of an Andrew Carnegie or the vulgarity of a Donald Trump—an empire was built.
The Roman system was a remarkable contrivance. But it contained the seeds of its own destruction. For one thing, it fostered an expectation that “others” would always provide. If public amenities came into being through private munificence—and if these in turn served to enhance private glory—then why should the public pay for their upkeep?
This way of doing business “did not work for the common benefit of the overall urban fabric,” writes one historian, much less nurture a sense of common purpose and shared responsibility. I’ve seen the same mind-set at work within my state, Massachusetts, in hardscrabble mill towns whose philanthropic founding families have departed, where local taxpayers resist the idea that support of libraries and hospitals must now rest with the community as a whole. Moreover, even at its most uncorrupted, the patronage system was greased by small considerations: “It was a genial, oily, present-giving world…”
The trajectory of civilization over the last few centuries has been precisely of heading away from this inefficient, archaic arrangement. As Wikipedia states, “…with modernity, traditional bureaucratic patrimonial forms of government eventually gave way to modern capitalist bureaucratic rationalism as the main principle of both government and governance.” And yet, remarkably, the movement toward Neofeudalism is defended and rationalized by many of the same people who call themselves (with a straight face) “Classical Liberals,” and defenders of so-called “Enlightenment Values.”
Not any more. Now we’re going through that same process in reverse. And that’s why the author of the BBC article referred to last time said that Game of Thrones is really about now. As the article plaintively asked, “With its violent, post-democratic world, could Game of Thrones, terrifyingly, be the ultimate near-future narrative?“
As internal to nation states, so too between nation-states. Not only are the formerly firm guarantees of the living under a democratic nation-state eroding, but globally the capabilities and the importance of the post-Westphalian nation-state itself is declining, replaced by a scattered menagerie of powerful actors—a hybrid regime where institutions are just shells, and leaders are accountable to no one (save their own clients and patrons). We saw this grim future world outlined last time in The Twin Insurgency.
While there is no real examination of Neofeudalism on Wikipedia, it does have a pertinent entry on a related concept called Neomedievalism, a political term first coined by theorist Hedley Bull in The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics. Rather than local politics, though, it deals with the global power relationships both between and within nation-states, and makes an explicit analogy with the pre-Westphalian world order of persistent, low-intensity conflict:
[Hedley] Bull suggested society might move towards “a new mediaevalism” or a “neo-mediaeval form of universal political order”…In this reading, globalization has resulted in an international system which resembles the medieval one, where political authority was exercised by a range of non-territorial and overlapping agents, such as religious bodies, principalities, empires and city-states, instead of by a single political authority in the form of a state which has complete sovereignty over its territory.
Comparable processes characterising Bull’s “new medievalism” include the increasing powers held by regional organisations such as the European Union, as well as the spread of sub-national and devolved governments, such as those of Scotland and Catalonia. These challenge the exclusive authority of the state.Private military companies, multinational corporations and the resurgence of worldwide religious movements (e.g. political Islam) similarly indicate a reduction in the role of the state and a decentralisation of power and authority.
Stephen J. Kobrin in 1998 added the forces of the digital world economy to the picture of neomedievalism. In an article entitled “Back to the Future: Neomedievalism and the Postmodern Digital World Economy” in the Journal of International Affairs, he argued that the sovereign state as we know it – defined within certain territorial borders – is about to change profoundly, if not to wither away, due in part to the digital world economy created by the Internet, suggesting that cyberspace is a trans-territorial domain operating outside of the jurisdiction of national law.
Anthony Clark Arend also argued in his 1999 book Legal Rules and International Society that the international system is moving toward a “neo-medieval” system. He claimed that the trends that Bull noted in 1977 had become even more pronounced by the end of the twentieth century. Arend argues that the emergence of a “neo-medieval” system would have profound implications for the creation and operation of international law.
“It is…conceivable that sovereign states might disappear and be replaced not by a world government but by a modern and secular equivalent of the kind of universal political organisation that existed in Western Christendom in the Middle Ages.
In that system no ruler or state was sovereign in the sense of being supreme over a given territory and a given segment of the Christian population; each had to share authority with vassals beneath, and with the Pope and (in Germany and Italy) the Holy Roman Emperor above.
The universal political order of Western Christendom represents an alternative to the system of states which does not yet embody universal government.”
The problem is that he saw this as possibly a good thing—an alternative to political structures that were too oversized, remote and inflexible. Many people shared his view.
But nature abhors a vacuum, especially a power vacuum, and into that vacuum powerful corporations have stepped in to become the new de facto post-democratic civic structures, and lone individuals, such as Bezos, Smith, Gates, James, Mark Zuckerberg and many others, have become the new de-facto aristocrats—like their historical forebears chosen not via the popular ballot, but simply by virtue of their achieved or ascribed status. And just like Augustus, they couch their munificence (synonyms: generosity, bountifulness, open-handedness, magnanimity, magnanimousness, princeliness, lavishness, free-handedness, liberality, philanthropy, charity, charitableness, largesse, big-heartedness, beneficence, benevolence) in the same pseudo-democratic “first-citizen” rhetoric of Noblesse Oblige that accompanied the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Empire.
It’s the pre-Enlightenment world all over again! As Crooked Timber wrote back in 2013:
…The cosy relationship between corporations … and the government bears a strong resemblance to feudalism (which, stripped of the pageantry, was a complex web of relations and privileges between a small and privileged elite of nobles and the state). It bears an even stronger resemblance to Old Corruption, the strangling web of sinecures and emoluments that radicals like William Cobbett inveighed against in the early nineteenth century.
Government – even at the best of times – has many clunky and inefficient features (the American version particularly so – many of the worst inflexibilities of the US government have their origins in people’s distrust of it). Yet the replacement of large swathes of government with a plethora of impenetrable subcontracting relationships is arguably even worse – it has neither the efficiencies (sometimes) achieved by markets, nor the accountability (sometimes) achieved by democratic oversight.
Sociologists have a term for what is occurring: they call it the “externalization of state functions.” Water and sewage systems are being privatized, as are airports and highways and public hospitals. Voucher programs and charter schools are a way of shifting education toward the private sector. The protection of nuclear waste is in private hands. Meat inspection is done largely by the meatpacking companies themselves. Americans were up in arms…when they learned that DP World, a company in the United Arab Emirates, would soon be in control of the terminals at half a dozen major U.S. seaports—only to discover that the privatization of terminal operations at American ports had begun three decades ago, and that 80 percent of them were already operated by foreign companies, the largest of which is Chinese. Serious proposals to privatize portions of Social Security have been on the table, and the new Medicare prescription-drug plan effectively puts an enormous government program into the hands of private insurance and drug companies.
And that leads us, once again, to the concept of the Hollow State we discussed last time. As you recall, a Hollow State is,
...a set of governmental practices in which states contract with third parties (private companies) in order to distribute government services.
In a hollow state there are many degrees of separation between the source of taxpayer funds and the final distribution of taxpayer-funded products or services. Services paid for by the state are produced by a vast network of providers and the task of the government is not to manage provision, but to negotiate contracts with providers.
There is no “command and control” relationship between government and contractors. Contracts are managed by countless agencies and even more providers, there is no means of central record keeping or data management.
A Hollow State has all the standard edifices of governance although most are under the influence of third-party organizations, either for-profit or non-profit entities.
In the name of “efficiency” government interests are delegated to private contractor[s], who will then often subcontract to other groups. For example, contractors hired to patch roofs with blue tarp for FEMA after Katrina received payment of “between $149 and $175 per (10ftx10ft square).” This price was comparable to installing entirely new roofs at the time. However; through a long string of subcontractors, the firms performing the final installations of the tarps “earned as little as $2 per 10ftx10ft square. Taxpayers end up paying exorbitantly as business interests takes complete control over the process of procurement.
Trump has repeatedly pressured the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Homeland Security to award a contract for building a wall at the southern U.S. border to a North Dakota company headed by a leading Republican donor…
Fisher [Industries] is a curious choice. The company is already suing the government after being rejected for any Army Corps contract for the border wall…Fisher Industries has some assets, though. Tommy Fisher is a major GOP donor. He has North Dakota’s Republican Senator Kevin Cramer in his corner. He’s already working on a private-sector attempt to build a barrier on private land in New Mexico, which is backed by close Trump allies such as Steve Bannon, the former White House strategist; Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater and brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos; and Kris Kobach, the former vice chair of Trump’s voter-fraud commission, who was under consideration as his “immigration czar.”
Moreover, Tommy Fisher has wisely made himself a fixture on Fox News, which the president watches obsessively. He’s used those appearances to pitch his company’s plan. And in a statement to the Post, Fisher Industries struck a positively Trumpian tone, promising to build “faster than any contractor using common construction methods” and adding, “Consistent with the goals President Trump has also outlined, Fisher’s goal is to, as expeditiously as possible, provide the best-quality border protection at the best price for the American people at our nation’s border.”
Instead of presidents or prime ministers, future nations may only have CEO’s:
The remaking of the American state in the image of its biggest corporations reflects the extent to which popular confidence in public virtue has been bleeding out over the long decades since Rollerball came out the year after Nixon’s resignation. The New Deal vision of government as the engine of egalitarian progress, itself the liberal cousin to state socialism’s dream of communitarian paradise, seems almost completely gone. The only utopia left after the “End of History” was the neoclassical economists’ whiteboard world of perfect markets measuring out welfare through price optimization, and the financial crisis permanently discredited that. The dream of the liberation from work has been replaced by the deluded restoration of industrial age proletarian drudgery — and the reversion to a baronial warlord model of governance. Long live the new serfs
This disintegration of the nation-state and tragic failures of modern governance, as we saw above, are usually framed as very good things by many intellectuals and the media. Making a Difference, Uplifting News, Good News, and so forth. Some of commenters I quoted from above were explicitly promoting the idea of philanthrocapitalism as a viable alternative to progressive taxation and procurement of necessary goods and services via states with their own national currencies and civil service.
But at least a few people are recognizing the charade for what it is—extreme taking followed by extreme giving, and fundamentally antithetical to progress, social justice and representative democracy, no matter how its justified:
Some parts of these stories—the protagonists’ determination or generosity, for instance—are certainly admirable. But the accounts as a whole can only be seen as uplifting if we unquestioningly accept the brutal logic of neoliberalism, where a person’s worth, standard of living and even their continued existence are determined completely by their wealth and what they can earn on the market.
Neoliberal ideology that promotes individualism and “free enterprise” does not see the rights to housing, healthcare or an adequate standard of living (enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) as inalienable, but rather as commodities to be bought, sold and bargained for on the market…
Perhaps the two most common subjects for these unintentionally horrifying “uplifting” stories are paying for education and healthcare, the cost of which is off the scale in America compared to the rest of the industrialized world. CNN shared the story of the “inspiring” Ryan Hickman, who, at just three years old, began recycling trash to help pay for college…CNBC also found a North Carolina kid with a “can-do attitude” who did the same (making barely $3 a week doing so). Neither network asked why children have to literally wade through garbage to hope for a decent education in the richest country in world history.
Medical costs are a problem crippling many Americans. Hospital bills are the leading cause of bankruptcy in America, while one-third of all GoFundMe donations are for medical expenses. CBS shared a supposedly “touching” story about a man who sold his beloved Ford Mustang to pay for his wife’s cancer treatment and how, 12 years later, his children bought it back for him. The twist? The owner sold it back to fund her own mother’s cancer treatment, according to the San Antonio Express News.
Any of these stories could have been used as a gateway to discuss many of the crippling economic and social problems the US is facing. But under neoliberalism, every problem is understood through an individualist lens, and not a result of systemic forces that dominate society…
“A feudal system is non-capitalist. In a feudal system everyone has a place – maybe a rotten place, but some place. So the serf has some place in the feudal system, they have some rights within that place in the system. In a capitalist system, you don’t have any rights. And in fact when modern capitalism developed in the early 19th century – this is post-Adam Smith or anything like that, but Ricardo and Malthus and so on – their principle was pretty simple: you don’t have any rights. The only rights a person has are what they can gain in the labor market. And beyond that, you’ve no right to live, you’ve no right to survive. If you can’t make out on the labor market, go somewhere else. And in fact they could go somewhere else, they could come here and exterminate the population and settle here. But in Europe, you couldn’t do that, so some remnants of the whole feudal system and conservative structures and so on did lead to – after all, Europe had huge labor movements, the German social democratic party grew out of very powerful movements, and they just forced the development of what became social market systems…”
Such “generous” measures don’t come out of the inherent benevolence of our new overlords. No, they serve a more base purpose—to tamp down dissent and to keep the serfs in line:
…there is still another, darker way of judging what goes on when elites put themselves in the vanguard of social change: that doing so not only fails to make things better, but also serves to keep things as they are. After all, it takes the edge off of some of the public’s anger at being excluded from progress. It improves the image of the winners. By using private and voluntary half-measures, it crowds out public solutions that would solve problems for everyone, and do so with or without the elite’s blessing.
There is no question that the outpouring of elite-led social change in our era does great good and soothes pain and saves lives. But we should also recall Oscar Wilde’s words about such elite helpfulness being “not a solution” but “an aggravation of the difficulty”. More than a century ago, in an age of churn like our own, he wrote: “Just as the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realised by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it, so, in the present state of things in England, the people who do most harm are the people who try to do most good.”
What they’re really doing is greasing the skids toward a world from before the Enlightenment and the French Revolution that we assumed we had permanently left behind centuries ago. But now we’re drifting back towards it—to an older, more primitive social arrangement; one of pervasive grotesque inequality, grinding poverty, hereditary aristocracy, religious fervor, and a threadbare patchwork of first-world order amidst a widening sea of chaos. Of ineffective states, government by whim, and justice for the fortunate few. And all the way down, if the media has their way, we’ll be grateful for whatever scraps fall from the tables of our new “God-Kings”.
As I wrote back in 2013:
I think that we really are entering a new political arrangement as profound as the transformation from the monarchical/manorial economy into the nation state. Some of the salient points are a dissolution of money and power from centralized governments directed by the citizenry into the whims of unitary individuals who control its distribution and allocation. Another is and a loss of rights and protections traditionally guaranteed to all citizens by the nation state, to dependency on whatever one can claw from the impersonal marketplace, nothing less and nothing more. Public provisions traditionally guaranteed by the state, such as roads, universal education, police and fire protection, a social safety net, etc. are also falling apart, another similarity to the dissolution of power following the fall of the Roman Empire, heightening the similarity.
Thus, I propose to call the new political system “Neofeudalism” to recognize the similarities to the previous system. The key of course, is the “Neo” part. It is a new system, with similarities to feudalism but entirely different and unique. Don’t look for knights in armor or stone castles with moats. Do look for private security contractors, gated compounds and yachts. Don’t looks for lords and serfs, do look for oligarchs living like kings and debt serfs living paycheck to paycheck. I don’t use this term pejoratively, or as a “snarl word,” I mean to really understand what this system is and how it works, because I think it’s going to be the political system that we’re all going to end up living under as capitalism disintegrates and we enter a new Dark Age.
“The idea that each corporation can be a feudal monarchy and yet behave in its corporate action like a democratic citizen concerned for the world we live in is one of the great absurdities of our time—”
― Kim Stanley Robinson, Antarctica
“…Given half a chance, the sons and daughters of peasants would rather not grow up to be servants. It seems bizarre for modern folk to pine for a way of life our ancestors rightfully fought desperately to escape.”
― David Brin, Glory Season
I think the reason we’re having such a hard time picturing the future—any kind of future—is because this is the first time ever in history where we’ve experienced simultaneous sociopolitical disintegration and technological advancement.
[T]he latest piece of dramatic forecasting is perhaps the most fascinating of all: the…new BBC/HBO drama Years and Years imagines the next 15 years of our planet through the eyes of one extended family…living in the North of England…On the one hand, it is an everyday domestic drama that deals, with great warmth and emotional credibility, with timeless, archetypal relationships…And on the other, it sets this against a backdrop of spiralling global catastrophe – not to mention, in Britain, the vertiginous rise of a shamelessly populist politician, Vivienne Rook, played by Emma Thompson.
There are many factors at play behind the shift towards near-near-future science fiction. Technologically, the disorientating, ever-accelerating speed of advancement makes it harder to conceive what a more distant future could look like. “It means that the future is kind of being pulled directly into the present, so it becomes really difficult for us to be able to think beyond a certain period, because it’s just going to be so radically different,” says Luckhurst. “One really key idea is the idea of technological singularity – that point when machines start to invent other machines – and our control of the future completely disappears. By definition, humans can’t imagine what’s that’s going to be like.”
But technology aside, it also comes from the very real sense that human society in the last few years has reached a crisis point. “The world just seems to be madder and hotter and stranger at the moment,” as Davies tells BBC Culture, and that has triggered a grim sense of foreboding about what may lie directly ahead. The election of Donald Trump was the ultimate catalyst for him to start writing Years and Years: “I think when we’re all in our old age we will see this as the greatest event in our history, more than the Twin Towers – a huge turning point in the state of the world,” he says. “Who knows where it’s heading, but right now it’s astonishing what we’re putting up with.” Though he hastens to add, of course, that it’s not just the events themselves, but the way in which they whirr constantly around us thanks to the advent of 24-hour news, allowing a whole new sense of chaos to flourish. “Has [the world] always been like this or it it getting worse? I can’t answer that one but I can be fascinated by it.”
To me, the most striking and salient example is the fact that you can watch slave markets on YouTube! What’s next, watching lions and bears tear apart gladiators in the Colosseum on Amazon Live streaming services? Perhaps you can buy your very own slave with cryptocurrency on your smart phone—there’s an app for that! (some might argue that this already exists thanks to gig economy platforms).
Here are some similar dystopian examples of the “Dark Future”:
4.) Even China’s explosive growth—constantly trumpeted by Neoliberals—comes joined at the hip with such dystopian features as internment camps for ethnic minorities, an ubiquitous digital surveillance state complete with AI and facial/gait recognition, and a social credit score system designed to squelch criticism and keep citizens in line—i.e. “a digital boot stamping on the human face forever.”
And there are many more examples that I’m sure you can think of. Indeed, in an era in which our buildings turn on the lights, open and close doors as if by magic, and can maintain the same indoor temperature year-round; we have large swaths of major cities where thousands of people live and sleep in makeshift tent cities, and poop on the streets, even in the richest country on earth.
In other words, we’re seeing a profound social disintegration spanning the entire globe at the same time as our science/technological knowledge continues to advance. No wonder we’re so troubled and confused. Every day brings more articles about new developments in genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, renewable energy, space travel, and so forth. Yet in most wealthy countries, most people’s lives are getting progressively, measurably worse every year, as exemplified by the endemic “deaths of despair” across the U.S. and the U.K., and the Gillet Jaunes riots across France (among other things).
This has never happened before, I don’t think, ever before in history. And so we’re fumbling in the dark, as the BBC article describes. Beyond the “next five minutes”, what, if anything at all?
Now, you might say, what about the Fascist and Authoritarian regimes of the twentieth century? Certainly Germany in the 1930’s was a regression? Certainly abominations like the Cultural Revolution and the Killing Fields qualify as going backwards towards barabarism?
But what I would argue is that, as bad as these things were at the time, they were either localized or temporary aberrations. You may disagree with that assessment, but even during those dark times when those despotic regimes took center stage, we had overall social progress globally in the long-term.
Think of it as a cloud passing over the rising sun versus the sunset.
Consider that the Industrial Revolution unfolded simultaneously with:
1.) Democratic, representative governments accountable to citizens supplanted monarchies, landed aristocracies, and various warlords. There was an end to absolutism and the establishment of the universal rule of law for all citizens, including the ruling class.
2.) Professionally-trained civil servants and organized bureaucracies replaced patrimonialism, sinecures, and arbitrary customary laws.
3.) The extension of voting rights to all adult citizens (including women, minorities, and those without landed wealth).
4.) Slavery was abolished everywhere as a legal institution, along with child labor. Unions and worker safety laws were enacted. Debtor’s prisons and indentured servitude went away (Technology played a huge role here).
5.) Leisure time expanded (as compared with the early phase of the Industrial Revolution).
6.) There was a growing acceptance of minority groups and alternative lifestyles (civil rights, gay marriage, anti-discrimination laws, etc.)
7.) There was a slow decline in the most strident religious fundamentalism, and a concomitant increase in religious tolerance (even towards open atheism).
8.) Women were liberated from absolute financial dependency on their husbands and siblings, and gained increasing control over their own occupational choices and reproductive rights.
9.) Mass education and near-universal literacy became widespread. States provided free primary schooling, often along with free secondary schooling (outside of the United States and Asia). There was the establishment of land-grant colleges and universities in the United States and the G.I. Bill after World War 2.
10.) The welfare state was founded and expanded, providing basic security in old-age, relief to the poor and destitute, and universal healthcare (outside of the United States).
11.) From the Great Depression up until the 1970’s, there was increasing citizen equality, sometimes referred to as “The Great Compression.” (Professional economists came up with something called the “Kuznets curve” which argued that inequality follows a “natural” progression of rapidly increasing, and then steadily declining over time. This has been shown to be false, like so much of 20th century economic theory. As Scheidel, Piketty and others have demonstrated, absent extraordinary events, economic inequality simply increases forever without bound).
11.) Advanced infrastructure was built by central governments: roads, bridges, canals, highways, passenger rail (outside the United States), and air travel infrastructure. Not to mention the global ocean trade enabled by impossibly massive cargo ships, cranes, pallets, barcodes, SKUs and the computerization of supply chains.
The Industrial Revolutions fed into the Enlightenment, and, in turn, the Enlightenment fed into increasing technological capabilities (powered by fossil fuels), creating a positive feedback loop. This loop spiraled ever upward—admittedly with a few significant setbacks—throughout the last few centuries of human history.
But no more.
Every single one of those things is under assault right now! And it’s not just localized like before—it’s everyplace on earth!
Even during the grim days of European Fascism, one could point to the United States under the New Deal as a beacon of hope. During the dark days of Stalinism and Maoism, one could look at Western Europe and North America during the “three glorious decades,” when British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan could tell his people that, “You’ve never had it so good,” and Lyndon Johnson could usher in Civil Rights and the “Great Society.” A spirit of optimism pervaded society and drove things like the moon shot.
Today, even the very notion of the nation-state is disintegrating before our very eyes! Some things that were just considered basic human rights–at least in aspiration if not in actual practice for much of the last 200 years—are no longer considered attainable, or even desirable anymore by large numbers of people, including thought leaders. Instead than the Enlightenment, we are now entering the Endarkenment.
To recap, what we’re experiencing right now is simultanously:
a.) Increasing technological and scientific advancement: artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, facial recognition, “deep fakes”, virtual reality, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, genetic engineering, new materials, solar energy, etc., and:
b.) Profound sociopolitical disintegration across all sectors of society: austerity policies, falling life expectancy (in the U.S.), financialization, debt servitude, unemployment, extreme inequality, political corruption, terrorism, religious fundamentalism, mass migration, mass incarceration, separatist political moments, and perhaps most disturbingly of all, the recrudescence of the greatest hits of the 1930’s: ethno-nationalism, institutionalized racism, eugenics, and extreme right-wing reactionary governments taking the reins of power all over the globe (Brazil, Russia, Poland, Hungary, The Philippines, Estonia, etc.). Similarly-oriented crypto-fascist political parties are taking center-stage in many other countries all around the world as well: The United States, India, Italy, Austria, the Netherlands, Greece, Australia, and many, many more.
I think that’s the reason why predictions of the near-near future can be so wildly divergent. Thus you have both the so-called “Neoliberal Optimism Industry,” described as“the ideological project of telling both those in the West and the Global South over and over and over again, that things are, in fact, improving if not already really great,” preaching to the hedge fund managers at Davos on the one hand. While on the other hand, you have these exact same hedge fund managers nervously asking futurist Douglas Rushkoff how to control their servile workforce after they’ve fled to their bolt-holes in New Zealand and Wyoming as the world collapses into chaos around them and money becomes worthless. Even the normally-optimistic Jared Diamond’s has recently claimed that, “There’s a 49 percent chance the world as We Know It Will End by 2050.”
And that’s what makes future predictions so hard (and so radically different). To my knowledge, we’ve never had this kind of situation before in history, and so there’s no precedent to draw upon. As the BBC article says of the show Years and Years, set in the very near future, it provides “a nuanced portrait of a world simultaneously advancing and crumbling.”
One of the most provocative ideas in the BBC piece is the suggestion that the recently concluded television show Game of Thrones may be more indicative of our near future then of our distant past:
[W]hile Black Mirror reflects our collective anxiety about the speed of technological change – a concept often referred to as ‘future shock’ – these other narratives play on a contrary fear that’s perhaps even more pressing and primordial – the looming possibility that we’ve peaked as a race. As a character in Years and Years says, “it’s like we went too far, we imagined too much… and then pop, whatever we had, we punctured it.” In that way, from one angle, a show that could perhaps be viewed as the ultimate near-future narrative is, rather terrifyingly, Game of Thrones. “It’s based on all of these ancient myths, but it’s obviously so successful because it’s dealing with a post-democratic, extremely hierarchical, violent, but also non-digital world,” says Luckhurst, “which is why it’s so it’s brilliant that people got upset about the Starbucks cup [that accidentally featured in a recent episode] … actually that intrusion is wonderful, because [the show] is about now.”
I’ve written about this before: it’s a system I’ve referred to as Neofeudalism. I haven’t talked much about Neofeudalism for a while, but the concept is more relevant than ever, and proceeding, to be honest, even faster than I had imagined! I’ll have more to say about that in my next post.
For now, I’ll just refer you to this article from a few years ago called “The Twin Insurgency”. It argues that the modern democratic nation-state is under dual assault from both “above” and from “below.” From above come the global .01 percent cosmopolitan plutocrats and their intellectual toadies (yes, I actually know what that word means), who increasingly see themselves as disconnected from any particular nation-state (the so-called “Davos crowd” or “Superclass”). With the absolute globalization of capital, these people have loyalty only to other fellow global plutocrats, and feel no solidarity with the average parochial member of their respective societies. They argue for “open borders,” and see nation-states as an outdated anachronism, destined to be replaced by the anarchic global Marketplace (which they see as a good thing).
From below come criminal gangs, terrorists, and other assorted violent groups excluded from participation in the legal global economy for various reasons:
From below comes a series of interconnected criminal insurgencies in which the global disenfranchised resist, coopt, and route around states as they seek ways to empower and enrich themselves in the shadows of the global economy. Drug cartels, human traffickers, computer hackers, counterfeiters, arms dealers, and others exploit the loopholes, exceptions, and failures of governance institutions to build global commercial empires. These empires then deploy their resources to corrupt, coopt, or challenge incumbent political actors.
From above comes the plutocratic insurgency, in which globalized elites seek to disengage from traditional national obligations and responsibilities. From libertarian activists to tax-haven lawyers to currency speculators to mineral-extraction magnates, the new global super-rich and their hired help are waging a broad-based campaign to limit the reach and capacity of government tax-collectors and regulators, or to manipulate these functions as a tool in their own cut-throat business competition.
Unlike classic 20th-century insurgents, who sought control over the state apparatus in order to implement social reforms, criminal and plutocratic insurgents do not seek to take over the state. Nor do they wish to destroy the state, since they rely parasitically on it to provide the legacy goods of social welfare: health, education, infrastructure, and so on. Rather, their aim is simpler: to carve out de facto zones of autonomy for themselves by crippling the state’s ability to constrain their freedom of (economic) action.
What this leads to is something political scientists have termed the Hollow State. The Hollow State still maintains all the outer trappings of the post-Westphalian nation-state: a flag, an army, a capital city, a bureaucracy, foreign embassies, a civil service, tax collection (for non-elites), and a veneer of order. But underneath it all, the Hollow State can provide only nonexistent or threadbare services to increasing numbers of its own citizens, even basics like education, health care, medicine, infrastructure, housing, financial security in old age, and personal safety.
And so, citizens are entirely on their own, dependent upon the whims and the largesse of wealthy individuals and assorted NGO’s who now control more global wealth than do democratic nation-states. In other words–Neofeudalism.
I’m reminded of Ran Prieur’s prediction from a few years ago, which also argued for increasing technological sophistication alongside continuing social disintegration:
…Extreme poverty will cause political upheavals, but not such a deep political collapse that you won’t have to pay taxes. And I expect little or no technological collapse. Even energy-intensive technologies like cars will not disappear, just shrink to serve the elite. And I think information technology will continue its present course, so people with gadgets out of Star Trek will be digging up cattail roots for food…My latest thinking is that the global economy will have a series of stairstep collapses, and nation-states are at risk, but high tech will survive and get weirder.
In conclusion, most future scenarios tend to fall into a few stereotypical categories:
The Kunstlerian “fast collapse” scenario of returning to a localized world of small, independent farming villages, with nary a touch-screen or internal combustion engine, or even light-bulb to found anywhere.
…Or the even more extreme Guy McPherson scenario where humans go extinct in a climatic Götterdämmerung where runaway methane feedback loops turn the earth into Venus and the oceans boil away. (not exactly a good backdrop for science-fiction BTW).
Or else the Kurzweilian “singularity” scenario of post-human cyborgs acquiring immortality and superhuman powers, and spreading out across the galaxy alongside our artificial lifeform “children”, or else uploading our consciousness into computers à laThe Martix.
But, of course, none of the above scenarios are very likely to occur. What is likely to occur is something we’ve never seen before, because we’ve never been here before. And that’s why nobody has any idea, as the BBC article points out:
To get doomier still, there’s also the pertinent question of whether, given current ecological speculation, the human race will even survive beyond the next century or so – an uncertainty which makes applying one’s imagination to a 22nd or 23rd Century rather academic. Certainly, as Luckhurst suggests, thinking of the far future “can only result in a kind of catastrophe so if you want a human-scale drama, it has to be much more immediate and focused on the immediate future.”
Davies, for his part, has chosen to end Years and Years 15 years on, in the year 2034, a decision resulting from a number of considerations – including the simple fact that ageing the characters any more would have required a recasting of the actors. But one key factor was that his mind boggled at the thought of what might have happened to our climate beyond that point. Climate change is certainly an issue that features as an element of the show, but “if there was ever a second series, I think that it would have to be the spine of the series,” he says. “How we survive that, and whether we have any answers to that. Good lord!”
White and middle-aged Americans are the demographic groups most at risk for suicide. Between 1999 and 2017, U.S. suicide rates increased by 45 percent for men ages 45 to 64 and by 62 percent for women in that age group.
In 2017, the world subsidized fossil fuels by $5.2 trillion, equal to roughly 6.5 percent of global GDP. That’s up half a trillion dollars from 2015, when global subsidies stood at $4.7 trillion, according to the IMF. If governments had only accounted for these subsidies and priced fossil fuels at their “fully efficient levels” in 2015, then worldwide carbon emissions would have been 28 percent lower, and deaths due to toxic air pollution 46 percent lower. https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2019/05/how-much-does-world-subsidize-oil-coal-and-gas/589000/
I’m no Game of Thrones expert or superfan, but I thought I’d share a few thoughts considering that the show is ending this weekend.
Now, I should note that I haven’t seen any episodes this season. I’m not technically inclined enough, nor motivated enough, to do what everyone else apparently does and just steal it off the streaming torrents on the Interwebs.
My television access consists solely of a flat screen TV hooked up to a DVD player in my basement, where I watch DVDs that are exclusively rented from the public library, so that I pay zero $$ for my entertainment. But that means I’m usually a bit behind on current teevee—I just watched the last season of Poldark that aired on Masterpiece last year, for example. But the huge 2-year gap between series meant that I was all caught up on all the latest developments on GOT going into this final season. Thus, I was eager to see how they would tie up all those various dangling plot threads and resolve the multiplicity of character and story arcs.
Given all the hullabaloo surrounding the ending of the show, I figured there was no way I was going to isolate myself from the plot developments for the year or so that it will take for it to come out on DVD and wind up on my local library’s DVD reservations list. And so I went the opposite route: I decided to actively read as much as I could about it. Because, let’s face it, I want to know how the story ends just as much as everyone else out there!
And so, my experience of the show has been all second-hand (articles, reviews, and YouTube videos), so I will necessarily be hampered by that. But, having said that, I’m amazed at how negative the coverage has been in the main. Fans, it seems, are quite sore and very disappointed. Unreasonably, I think (although maybe I’ll change my mind once I actually get to see it).
(And, and it goes without saying, that if you ARE one of the people who IS trying to actively avoid any spoilers about what happens this season—and actually think you can accomplish this—then stop reading right now, and do not read any further!!!).
If you’re still here, here a few random thoughts I had about the penultimate episode, with the caveats above.
1. In my opinion, the destruction of King’s Landing by fire seems like the most logical thing to happen, and really is a masterstroke for many reasons. After all, the whole series of books was entitled “A Song of Ice and Fire.” by its author. So, we had the “ice” aspect of the series resolve itself in episode three with the defeat of the Night King and his hordes of ice-zombies, and so now it is time for the “fire” to play its integral role in the plot with the destruction of King’s landing by dragonfire. Song of Ice and Fire, get it?
2. But why was the destruction of King’s landing so meaningful? Why were there atrocities committed? And why was all of that necessary given the logic of the books?
Well, in the medieval-fantasy genre, war and warfare have traditionally been portrayed as “noble” and “heroic”—as the climax a conflict between “pure” good and “absolute” evil. Look at the final battle in The Lord of the Rings, for example. The standard trope is, the “rightful ruler” takes his (usually his) place on the throne; is just and benevolent; all conflict ceases; and they all live happily ever after, et cetera, et cetera.
George R.R. Martin’s books, by contrast, have always been about bringing a sense of realism to the genre and subverting the usual fantasy tropes. And how could there be a better one than this? After all, this is what happens in actual war. It’s a murderous, bloody, and brutal affair. And it was during the ancient and Medieval periods just as surely as it is today. Isn’t it about time that the fantasy genre grow up and acknowledge this gruesome reality?
George R.R. Martin’s novels have always been steeped in history from the very beginning. I believe that a knowledge of history is not just useful, but, in fact, essential in understanding his writing. With that in mind, there were two major historical events running through my mind as I read the accounts of episode five online. The first was the famous Siege of Jerusalem by the Crusaders in 1099. Wikipedia summarizes:
Atrocities committed against the inhabitants of cities taken by storm after a siege were normal in ancient and medieval warfare. The Crusaders had already done so at Antioch, and Fatimids had done so themselves at Taormina, at Rometta, and at Tyre. However, the massacre of the inhabitants of Jerusalem may have exceeded even these standards. Historian Michael Hull has suggested this was a matter of deliberate policy rather than simple bloodlust, to remove the “contamination of pagan superstition” (quoting Fulcher of Chartres) and to reform Jerusalem as a strictly Christian city…”
According to Raymond of Aguilers, also writing solely of the Temple Mount area, “in the Temple and porch of Solomon men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins.” Writing about the Temple Mount area alone, Fulcher of Chartres, who was not an eyewitness to the Jerusalem siege because he had stayed with Baldwin in Edessa at the time, says: “In this temple 10,000 were killed. Indeed, if you had been there you would have seen our feet coloured to our ankles with the blood of the slain. But what more shall I relate? None of them were left alive; neither women nor children were spared.”
The second historical event I thought of is far more recent—the infamous “Rape of Nanjing” that took place during the Second World War:
Following the capture of Nanjing, a massacre, which was perpetrated by the Imperial Japanese Army, led to the deaths of up to 60,000 residents in the city, a figure difficult to precisely calculate due to the many bodies deliberately burnt, buried in mass graves, or deposited in the Yangtze River…B. Campbell, in an article published in the journal Sociological Theory, has described the Nanjing Massacre as a genocide, given the fact that residents were still slaughtered en masse during the aftermath, despite the successful and certain outcome in battle.
The International Military Tribunal for the Far East estimated that 20,000 women, including some children and the elderly, were raped during the occupation. A large number of rapes were done systematically by the Japanese soldiers as they went from door to door, searching for girls, with many women being captured and gang raped. The women were often killed immediately after being raped, often through explicit mutilation or by penetrating vaginas with bayonets, long sticks of bamboo, or other objects. Young children were not exempt from these atrocities and were cut open to allow Japanese soldiers to rape them…
That is what real warfare looks like. This is what happens. This. This is where the untrammeled pursuit of power by flawed human beings inevitably leads. Always. Is it any wonder that this was the core message that George R. R. Martin (and the showrunners) wished to convey here at the end?
3. But by far the most important historical event alluded to, more than the others in my opinion, must be the firebombing of Dresden (albeit by planes instead of a dragon). I haven’t seen this mentioned anywhere else, but I’m sure someone else must have picked up on it.
Why this event in particular? Well, one reason is the fire aspect, obviously. But also it was one of the most destructive military events of the entire Second World War, surpassing even the nuclear weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (only the aerial bombings of Hamburg and Tokyo unleashed more destruction).
Consider this statement by one of the survivors of the bombing:
To my left I suddenly see a woman. I can see her to this day and shall never forget it. She carries a bundle in her arms. It is a baby. She runs, she falls, and the child flies in an arc into the fire.
Suddenly, I saw people again, right in front of me. They scream and gesticulate with their hands, and then—to my utter horror and amazement—I see how one after the other they simply seem to let themselves drop to the ground. (Today I know that these unfortunate people were the victims of lack of oxygen). They fainted and then burnt to cinders.
Insane fear grips me and from then on I repeat one simple sentence to myself continuously: “I don’t want to burn to death”. I do not know how many people I fell over. I know only one thing: that I must not burn.
— Margaret Freyer, survivor.
My guess is that this is the exact feeling intended to be conveyed by the collective writers of GOT in the penultimate episode.
Although I haven’t seen the entire episode, I have seen some of the imagery and clips online. In terms of visuals, I was reminded not of only of the iconic photos of the destruction of Hiroshima, but also of the visuals from the German film Downfall (Der Untergang) showing the unfathomable devastation of Berlin when the war had finally concluded:
From the teaser trailer released online for season 8, episode six, it looks like much of this same visual imagery will be used by the show’s artistic team in the ultimate episode as well. We’ll see. Again, the message is clear: This is what war is really like, and often the people most devastated by the power game aren’t the ones who are playing it.
The second reason is the moral ambiguity of the attack. While it’s true that Germany hadn’t unconditionally surrendered (unlike King’s Landing), the bombing of this city has been controversially considered to be tantamount to a war crime by a few historians.
Several factors have made the bombing a unique point of contention and debate. First among these are the Nazi government’s exaggerated claims immediately afterwards, which drew upon the beauty of the city, its importance as a cultural icon; the deliberate creation of a firestorm; the number of victims; the extent to which it was a necessary military target; and the fact that it was attacked toward the end of the war, raising the question of whether the bombing was needed to hasten the end…Several researchers claim not all of the communications infrastructure, such as the bridges, were targeted, nor were the extensive industrial areas outside the city center. Critics of the bombing have claimed that Dresden was a cultural landmark of little or no strategic significance, and that the attacks were indiscriminate area bombing and not proportionate to the military gains.
Yes, war is often morally ambiguous, another message I’m sure Martin et. al. were eager to convey here in the final season. I wouldn’t be surprised if the final episode (episode 6) featured attempts by certain actors to “whitewash history” and claim that the destruction of King’s Landing was “necessary” and “inevitable” in the aftermath. History is written by the victors, after all. We’ll see.
And, the third reason I think the firebombing of Dresden is the template for the conclusion of the show (and the books) is a literary reference to Kurt Vonnegut’s masterpiece Slaughterhouse Five.
Now, George R.R. Martin has been a writer his whole life, and he is a keen student of the science fiction/fantasy genre in all of its manifestations. He is clearly a smart guy who knows his history and his literature. There’s no way he’s not intimately familiar with Slaughterhouse Five, and would want to honor the late Kurt Vonnegut’s masterful meditation on the senseless horrors of war. The centerpiece of Vonnegut’s book is, of course, the firebombing of Dresden which the young Vonnegut experienced as a German prisoner of war.
There may be a few other references too. I wonder if Bran’s mental time traveling is somehow analogous to Billy Pilgrim’s becoming “unstuck in time”. That’s just a speculation, of course. But Slaughterhouse Five is one of the few books that can be arguably called “science fiction” to have transcended the genre—to have become something more. It rises to become a work of great literature, a mediation on the fundamental human experience. And I’m pretty sure that this is what Martin is aspiring to as well. So it’s no stretch to imagine that he would want both to appropriate—and simultaneously pay homage to—Vonnegut’s masterwork in concluding his own epic fantasy series.
So, in my opinion, that’s why things unfolded the way that they did. The final episode will probably make this intent more clear (or not, we’ll see).
Now, as for the rather abrupt and jarring transition of Daenerys Targaryen’s character; well, I agree with those who see it as a unfortunate contrivance given the fact that the writers were forced by circumstances to wrap up the series in a very limited amount of time. If you’re a literary author, you can spend hundreds of pages and ten years of writing to bring this about in a logically consistent manner. If you’re writing a TV series on a very tight schedule, by contrast, and millions of dollars are at stake, you have to bang out a conclusion whether it is ideal or not. That’s just the reality.
Clearly this outcome had been hinted at all along during series, albeit subtly and ambiguously. And there were several events featured prominently this season that were clearly intended by the writers to undermine Daenerys’ mental state and set her up for her character’s troubling final turn.
But it fits in well with Martin’s sensibilities throughout the entire series–that anyone who fashions themselves as a “savior” turns out, in the end, to be a monster. Recall Nietzsche’s famous dictum: “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.” I’m sure Martin is familiar with Nietzsche as well as Vonnegut. To date, the only consistently “noble” character has been Jon Snow, who has repeatedly insisted that he is not interested in wielding power, and just wants to live a relatively “normal” life beyond the wall once the war is over. No doubt there’s an intentional statement there.
And that has been a central message of the show from the very beginning. It’s what I believe makes it a truly great work of art (along with the brilliant characters and complex world-building). I feel like many of the fans got so caught up in messy details that they forget about the big picture—what I would argue is the central “message” of Martin’s entire Song of Ice and Fire series of novels in my view.
Which is this: There is no “nobility” in the naked pursuit of power. Once you seek to acquire power over others, no matter how noble your intentions may be at the outset, you will inevitably be forced to do things that are immoral. That’s the nature of the game.
And in these dark times, that’s an important message to convey.
Here are a couple of articles I enjoyed about the show’s final season:
Given the title of this blog, I couldn’t not post this article from the BBC:
We look to fiction for eternal truths about our world and timeless insights into the human condition – either that or giddy escapism. But sometimes, in striving to achieve any or all of the above, a novelist will use the future as their backdrop; and just occasionally, they’ll predict what’s to come with uncanny accuracy. They can sit down at their desk and correctly envisage, for instance, how generations to come will be travelling, relaxing, communicating. And in the case of John Brunner, a sci-fi author who grew up in an era when the word ‘wireless’ still meant radio – the specificity of his imaginings retains its power to startle.
In his 1968 novel Stand on Zanzibar, for instance, he peers ahead to imagine life in 2010, correctly forecasting wearable technology, Viagra, video calls, same-sex marriage, the legalisation of cannabis, and the proliferation of mass shootings. Equally compelling, however – and even more instructive – is the process by which Brunner constructed this society of his future and our present…
Ultimately, it is Brunner’s process that makes Zanzibar’s crystal-ball-gazing predictions so enduringly fascinating: he arrived at them via a combination of careful observation, listening and reading – that and a zany imagination. He was looking to the future, but it was only by being fully immersed in the present that he was able to see it with such unnerving clarity, effectively turning his typewriter into a time machine…
(NEGRO. Member of a subgroup of the human race who hails, or whose ancestors hailed, from a chunk of land nicknamed—not by its residents—Africa. Superior to the Caucasian in that Negroes did not invent nuclear weapons, the automobile, Christianity, nerve gas, the concentration camp, military, or the megalopolis.
—The Hipcrime Vocab by Chad C. Mulligan) [SOZ; pp. 85-86]
HUMAN BEING. You’re one. At least, if you aren’t, you know you’re a Martian or a trained dolphin or Shalmaneser.
(If you want me to tell you more than that, you’re out of luck. There’s nothing more anybody can tell you.
—The Hipcrime Vocab by Chad C. Mulligan) [SOZ; p. 41]
I have a backlog of anthropology/ancient history news articles, so that means it’s finally time to clear out the links:
Human ancestors were ‘grounded,’ new analysis shows (Science Daily). See my previous article. It’s long been assumed that we descended from tree-dwelling apes, and that ground-based locomotion evolved much later-possibly independently—in ancestral humans and apes. But this new study indicates that the common ancestor of chimps, bonobos and humans had already evolved for mobility on the ground:
In his research, Prang ascertained the relative length proportions of multiple bones in the primate foot skeleton to evaluate the relationship between species’ movement (locomotion) and their skeletal characteristics (morphology). In addition, drawing upon the Ardi fossils, he used statistical methods to reconstruct or estimate what the common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees might have looked like.
Here, he found that the African apes show a clear signal of being adapted to ground-living. The results also reveal that the Ardi foot and the estimated morphology of the human-chimpanzee last common ancestor is most similar to these African ape species.
“Therefore, humans evolved from an ancestor that had adaptations to living on the ground, perhaps not unlike those found in African apes,” Prang concludes. “These findings suggest that human bipedalism was derived from a form of locomotion similar to that of living African apes, which contrasts with the original interpretation of these fossils.”
The original interpretation of the Ardi foot fossils, published in 2009, suggested that its foot was more monkey-like than chimpanzee- or gorilla-like. The implication of this interpretation is that many of the features shared by living great apes (chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans) in their foot and elsewhere must have evolved independently in each lineage — in a different time and place.
…bipedalism, or two-legged locomotion, was the first major evolutionary change in human ancestors, which is evident from bones. Other distinguishing features, like big brains, small molars and handcrafted stone tools, came millions of years later. Therefore, to find early members of our lineage, anthropologists look for ancient apes with skeletal traits indicative of habitual bipedalism — they regularly walked upright.So who were the first bipedal apes and would you recognize them as relatives?…
For the last 5,000 or so years, the horse has done more than any other animal to affect the course of human history (sorry, dogs and cats…it’s not even close).
Horses have hauled us and our stuff (including our languages, cultures and diseases) all over the world. They’ve charged into battle, plowed fields and crisscrossed continents delivering news. And, after death, they’ve been broken down into a variety of useful products, from hides to food.
But the new research found that some of the traits we associate most closely with horses have only recently evolved. For example, the genetic variations associated with locomotive speed appear to be the product of selective breeding only in the last 1,000 or so years.
The European horse breeds nearly went extinct, and genetic diversity in horses is declining in general:
The genome-wide analysis also found that established populations of European horses were nearly wiped out in the 7th to 9th centuries thanks to the arrival and spread of horses with a Persian pedigree…
Beginning about 2,000 years ago, the diversity of the Y chromosome in domestic horses began to decline, likely because breeders were increasingly choosing specific stallions as studs. But the researchers also found that horses’ overall genetic diversity has fallen by about 16 percent just in the last 200 years, probably because of increased emphasis on the “purity” of a line.
The domestication of horses remains something of a mystery, but I find this author’s speculation a likely possibility:
Archaeological evidence of horse domestication points to the Botai culture of Central Asia at least 5,500 years ago, but those horses are genetically related to the wild Przewalski’s horse, not domestic horses. Various studies have suggested different areas of central and southwestern Eurasia as the homeland of the domestic horse, but the matter remains unresolved.
Personally, I’m betting that the earliest history of the horse took a course not unlike that of the dog: A sweeping 2016 paleogenetic study showed that dogs were domesticated more than once, at about the same time but in different locations, though one lineage eventually dominated.
BONUS: Here’s Brian Fagan on horse domestication from The Intimate Bond: How Animals Shaped Human History:
Capturing or controlling such fast-moving, potentially ferocious animals as tarpans would never have been easy, especially on the open steppe, where close stalking 1s difficult at best for someone on foot armed with only a bow and arrow or a spear. So the hunters often turned to carefully orchestrated ambushes and cooperative drives. Such hunts required dealing with horses at close quarters. Such circumstances must have been commonplace enough, so much so that hunters may have gotten into the habit of corralling some of the trapped mares alive or even hobbling them, allowing them to feed in captivity until it was time to kill them. They may have focused on slower-moving pregnant mares, which would then give birth in captivity. Their foals would have been more amenable to control if brought up in captivity from the beginning. This may have been how domestication took hold, through loose management of growing herds of mares, who still bred with wild stallions.
This was not, of course, the first time that people had wrestled with the problem of domesticating large, often frisky animals. The first groups to domesticate horses were accustomed to cattle management. Like cattle, horses travel in bands. As with cattle, too, there’s a lead female, who decides the route for the day. The others follow. Cattle and sheepherders had known for centuries that to control the leader was to control the herd, whether a flock of sheep or a small group of cattle. p. 138
No one knows precisely where horses were first domesticated, but if genetics is any guide, they were tamed in many locations between eastern Europe and the Caucasus. We will never find a genetically ancestral mare, the “Eve,” as it were, of Equus caballus, for crossbreeding with wild stallions was commonplace. With genetics inconclusive, we have to fall back on archaeological clues. These are contradictory at best. As is the case with cattle, it’s a question of interpreting slaughter curves compiled from jaws and teeth. They can tell us the ages of slaughtered beasts, but not necessarily what the patterns mean. Unfortunately, too, there was so much size variation in wild horse populations that diminishing size is an unreliable criterion. p. 139
Quite when people first rode horses is the subject of unending academic debate, largely because its virtually impossible to tell from archaeological finds. At first, people rode their beasts with some form of noseband of leather, rope, or sinew, which rarely survive in archaeological sites. Bits, bridles, and other equipment came into use centuries later than animal domestication. (The earliest bits date to about to 3000 BCE, made of rope, bone, horn, or hardwood. Metal bits appear between 1300 and 1200 BCE, originally made of bronze and later of iron.)’ But just how big a step was this? Perhaps the transition from herding to riding was much less than we think, accustomed as we are to bucking broncos and rodeos, also to terrified pedigree animals whose every instinct is to flee, flail out savagely, or bite. We shouldn’t forget char the first people to ride horses had almost certainly sat on the backs of oxen, which already plowed fields and served as occasional pack animals. Also the first horses to be ridden on the steppe were much smaller than some later breeds. Even more important, those who domesticated them were intimately familiar with the behavior of agitated horses confronted with the unfamiliar. p. 141
We are learning more about the domestication of sheep and goats:
At the ancient settlement of Aşıklı Höyük in central Turkey, archaeological evidence suggests that humans began domesticating sheep and goats around 8450 BC. These practices evolved over the next 1,000 years, until the society became heavily dependent on the beasts for food and other materials.
The team used the urine salts [left behind by humans and animals] to calculate the density of humans and animals at the site over time, estimating that around 10,000 years ago, the density of people and animals occupying the settlement jumped from near zero to approximately one person or animal for every 10 square meters. The results suggest that domestication may have been more rapid than previously expected. They also support the idea that the Neolithic Revolution didn’t have just one birthplace in the Fertile Crescent of the Mideast, but rather occurred across several locations simultaneously.
According to proponents [of the so-called self-domestication hypothesis, floated by Charles Darwin and formulated by 21st century scholars], as human societies grew in size and complexity, more cooperative, less combative individuals fared better. These behavioral traits are heritable to some extent and also linked with physical traits, such as stress hormone levels, testosterone during development and skull robustness. Tamer individuals more successfully passed on their genes, and so these traits prevailed in the human lineage. Over time, our species became domesticated.
So it’s thought that humans self-domesticated because aggressive individuals were gradually eliminated from society. A happy tale of “survival of the friendliest.”…
Researchers now know that breeding animals solely for tameness ultimately leads to full domestication. That’s thanks to an ongoing experiment in fox domestication, started in 1959 Soviet Russia…domesticates’ tameness results from smaller adrenal glands, which release less stress hormones. This physiology allows the creatures to stay cool in situations where wild animals would enter a “fight-or-flight” state.
Compared to their wild forbears, domesticated species are less aggressive and fearful towards humans. They often have floppy ears, curly tails, white spots on their heads, and smaller skulls, snouts and teeth. As adults, they look and act more like juveniles of the wild ancestors, and the males appear less masculine…affected features are influenced by or derive from neural crest cells, a specific class of stem cells. In developing vertebrate embryos, these cells form along the back edge of the neural tube (precursor to the brain and spine). They eventually migrate throughout the body, ultimately becoming many types of tissues, including parts of the skull, adrenal glands, teeth and the pigment cells affecting fur.
In domesticates, these tissues seem underdeveloped or smaller than their wild counterparts. A deficit in neural crest cells could explain this difference, i.e. the domestication syndrome.
In Soviet Russia, animal domesticates you, LoL!
In natural settings and experiments, people are far more prosocial. Chimps are reluctant to cooperate, quick to lose their tempers and prone to aggressive outbursts. Humans, in contrast, routinely communicate and cooperate with strangers. Even infants will use gestures to help others solve a task, such as finding a hidden object.
Scientists have also found evidence for self-domestication in human skeletal remains. Based on what’s happened to animal domesticates, it’s predicted that skulls should have become smaller and more feminine looking (in both sexes) with reduced brow ridges. Indeed, that’s what a 2014 Current Anthropology paper found, which measured Homo sapiens skulls from the Stone Age to recent times, about 200,000 years of human evolution. These results agree with previous studies reporting that average skull — and by proxy brain — volume in Homo sapiens has decreased by roughly 10 percent in the past 40,000 years.
It wasn’t all fun and games, however:
Anthropologist Richard Wrangham has argued that ancient societies likely used capital punishment to execute individuals who acted as belligerent bullies and violated community norms. Through sanctioned, punitive killings, troublemakers were weeded out of humanity’s gene poll.
And despite our propensity to cooperate, humans are obviously capable of war, murder and other atrocities towards our own kind. In his 2019 book The Goodness Paradox, Wrangham attributes this to two biologically distinct forms of aggression: reactive and proactive. The former comprises impulsive responses to threats, like a bar brawl sparked by escalating insults. The latter is planned violence with a clear goal, such as premeditated murder and war. Research suggests these forms of aggression are controlled by different brain regions, hormone pathways and genes — and therefore could be dialed up or down independently by distinct evolutionary pressures.
The book The 10,000 Year Explosion argued the same case:
Selection for submission to authority sounds unnervingly like domestication. In fact,there are parallels between the process of domestication in animals and the changes that have occurred in humans during the Holocene period. In both humans and domesticated animals, we see a reduction in brain size, broader skulls, changes in hair color or coat color, and smaller teeth. As Dmitri Belyaev’s experiment with foxes shows, some of the changes that are characteristic of domesticated animals may be side effects of selection for tameness.
As for humans, we know of a number of recent changes in genes involving serotonin metabolism in Europeans that may well inﬂuence personality, but we don’t know what effect those changes have had—since we don’t yet know whether they increase or decrease serotonin levels. Floppy ears are not seen in any human population (as far as we know), but then, changes in the external ear might interfere with recognition of speech sounds. Since speech is of great importance to ﬁtness in humans, it may be that the negative effects of ﬂoppy ears have kept them from arising.
Some of these favored changes could be viewed as examples of neoteny—retention of childlike characteristics. Children routinely submit to their parents—at least in comparison to teenagers—and it’s possible that natural selection modified mechanisms active in children in ways that resulted in tamer human adults, just as the behaviors of adult dogs often seem relatively juvenile in comparison with adult wolf behavior.
If the strong governments made possible by agriculture essentially “tamed” people, one might expect members of groups with shallow or nonexistent agricultural experience to be less submissive, on average, than members of longtime agricultural cultures. One possible indicator of tameness is the ease with which people can be enslaved, and our reading of history suggests that some peoples with little or no evolutionary exposure to agriculture “would not endure the yoke,” as was said of Indians captured by the Puritans in the Pequot War of 1636. In the same vein, the typical Bushman, a classic hunter-gatherer, has been described as “the anarchist of South Africa.” pp. 112-113
Changes in the human face may not be due only to purely mechanical factors. The human face, after all, plays an important role in social interaction, emotion, and communication. Some of these changes may be driven, in part, by social context. Our ancestors were challenged by the environment and increasingly impacted by culture and social factors. Over time, the ability to form diverse facial expressions likely enhanced nonverbal communication.
Large, protruding brow ridges are typical of some extinct species of our own genus, Homo, like Homo erectus and the Neanderthals. What function did these structures play in adaptive changes in the face? The African great apes also have strong brow ridges, which researchers suggest help to communicate dominance or aggression. It is probably safe to conclude that similar social functions influenced the facial form of our ancestors and extinct relatives. Along with large, sharp canine teeth, large brow ridges were lost along the evolutionary road to our own species, perhaps as we evolved to become less aggressive and more cooperative in social contexts.
Another very exciting and important discovery: a Denisovan jawbone indicates that Denisovans (or a close ancestor) were the first inhabitants of the high-altitude Tibetan plateau. There they developed particular genetic adaptations to the altitude, and then much later passed these adaptations to the ancestors of modern humans living there today.
Our protein analysis shows that the Xiahe mandible belonged to a hominin population that was closely related to the Denisovans from Denisova Cave,” said co-author Frido Welker, from the University of Copenhagen, Denmark.
The discovery may explain why individuals studied at Denisova Cave had a gene variant known to protect against hypoxia (oxygen deficiency) at high altitudes. This had been a puzzle because the Siberian cave is located just 700m above sea level.
Present-day Sherpas, Tibetans and neighbouring populations have the same gene variant, which was probably acquired when Homo sapiens mixed with the Denisovans thousands of years ago. In fact, the gene variant appears to have undergone positive natural selection (which can result in mutations reaching high frequencies in populations because they confer an advantage).
“We can only speculate that living in this kind of environment, any mutation that was favourable to breathing an atmosphere impoverished in oxygen would be retained by natural selection,” said Prof Hublin.”And it’s a rather likely scenario to explain how this mutation made its way to present-day Tibetans.”
This vast area can also be divided into several distinct ecological regions that stretch in largely east-west bands across Inner Eurasia, consisting of the deserts at the southern edge of the region, the steppe in the central part, taiga forests further north, and tundra towards the Arctic region. The subsistence strategies used by indigenous groups in these regions largely correlate with the ecological zones, for example reindeer herding and hunting in the tundra region and nomadic pastoralism on the steppe.
…They found three distinct genetic groupings, which geographically are arranged in east-west bands stretching across the region and correlating generally to ecological zones, where populations within each band share a distinct combination of ancestries in varying proportions.
The northernmost grouping, which they term “forest-tundra,” includes Russians, all Uralic language-speakers, which includes Hungarian, Finnish and Estonian, and Yeniseian-language speakers, of which only one remains today and is spoken in central Siberia. The middle grouping, which they term “steppe-forest,” includes Turkic- and Mongolic-speaking populations from the Volga and the region around the Altai and Sayan mountains, near to where Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan meet. The southernmost grouping, “southern-steppe,” includes the rest of Turkic- and Mongolic-speaking populations living further south, such as Kazakhs, Kyrgyzs and Uzbeks, as well as Indo-European-speaking Tajiks.
Because the study includes data from a broad time period, it is able to show shifts in ancestry in the past that reveal previously unknown interactions. For example, the researchers found that the southern-steppe populations had a larger genetic component from West and South Asia than the other two groupings. This component is also widespread in the ancient populations of the region since the second half of the first millennium BC, but not found in Central Kazakhstan in earlier periods. This hints at a population movement from the southern-steppe region to the steppe-forest region that was previously unknown…
Interestingly, this is also where the horse was first domesticated, although we don’t know exactly when or where as we saw above. Anyways, back to the first farmers:
Farming was developed approximately 11,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent, a region that includes present-day Iraq, Syria, Israel, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan as well as the fringes of southern Anatolia and western Iran. By about 8,300 BCE it had spread to central Anatolia, in present-day Turkey. These early Anatolian farmers subsequently migrated throughout Europe, bringing this new subsistence strategy and their genes. Today, the single largest component of the ancestry of modern-day Europeans comes from these Anatolian farmers. It has long been debated, however, whether farming was brought to Anatolia similarly by a group of migrating farmers from the Fertile Crescent, or whether the local hunter-gatherers of Anatolia adopted farming practices from their neighbors.
A new study by an international team of scientists led by the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and in collaboration with scientists from the United Kingdom, Turkey and Israel, published in Nature Communications, confirms existing archaeological evidence that shows that Anatolian hunter-gatherers did indeed adopt farming themselves, and the later Anatolian farmers were direct descendants of a gene-pool that remained relatively stable for over 7,000 years.
They also built the world’s earliest temple (that we know of). We also know that they didn’t stay put. Anatolian farmers moved around the Mediterranean and into Iberia (Spain). From there, it appears they migrated northward to the British Isles, where they displaced the original hunter-gatherer populations. It is they who brought the tradition of megalithic stone building (and presumably feasting) to prehistoric Britain.
Researchers compared DNA extracted from Neolithic human remains found across Britain with that of people alive at the same time in Europe. The Neolithic inhabitants were descended from populations originating in Anatolia (modern Turkey) that moved to Iberia before heading north. They reached Britain in about 4,000BC.
The migration to Britain was just one part of a general, massive expansion of people out of Anatolia in 6,000BC that introduced farming to Europe.Before that, Europe was populated by small, travelling groups which hunted animals and gathered wild plants and shellfish.
One group of early farmers followed the river Danube up into Central Europe, but another group travelled west across the Mediterranean. DNA reveals that Neolithic Britons were largely descended from groups who took the Mediterranean route, either hugging the coast or hopping from island-to-island on boats. Some British groups had a minor amount of ancestry from groups that followed the Danube route.
When the researchers analysed the DNA of early British farmers, they found they most closely resembled Neolithic people from Iberia (modern Spain and Portugal). These Iberian farmers were descended from people who had journeyed across the Mediterranean. From Iberia, or somewhere close, the Mediterranean farmers travelled north through France. They might have entered Britain from the west, through Wales or south-west England…
In addition to farming, the Neolithic migrants to Britain appear to have introduced the tradition of building monuments using large stones known as megaliths. Stonehenge in Wiltshire was part of this tradition.
Although Britain was inhabited by groups of “western hunter-gatherers” when the farmers arrived in about 4,000 BC, DNA shows that the two groups did not mix very much at all. The British hunter-gatherers were almost completely replaced by the Neolithic farmers, apart from one group in western Scotland, where the Neolithic inhabitants had elevated local ancestry. This could have come down to the farmer groups simply having greater numbers…
Professor Thomas said the Neolithic farmers had probably had to adapt their practices to different climatic conditions as they moved across Europe. But by the time they reached Britain they were already “tooled up” and well-prepared for growing crops in a north-west European climate…
Someone working on aDNA here. The Mediterranean route is closely related to Cardium Pottery cultures. Radiocarbon dates suggest that there was a rapid spread about 5500 BCE – including into Sardinia, the South French and Iberian coasts; which has been interpreted as evidence for seafaring spread of agricultural societies. These early farmers slowly and progressively intermixed with surrounding Hunter Gatherers (which were as different from the Early farmers as present-day Chinese are to Europeans!), until these were completely absorbed. Before agriculture (and broadly the people who brought it) moved on to Britain, there was about a 1000 year break – why is kind of unknown.
From a historical period closer to our own time, the DNA of several Crusaders was examined and found to be fairly diverse. However, it appears that Europeans didn’t have much of a lasting imprint on the local populations in the Levant:
Archaeological evidence suggested that 25 individuals whose remains were found in a burial pit near a Crusader castle near Sidon, Lebanon, were warriors who died in battle in the 1200s. Based on that, Tyler-Smith, Haber, and their colleagues conducted genetic analyses of the remains and were able to sequence the DNA of nine Crusaders, revealing that three were Europeans, four were Near Easterners, and two individuals had mixed genetic ancestry.
Throughout history, other massive human migrations — like the movement of the Mongols through Asia under Genghis Khan and the arrival of colonial Iberians in South America — have fundamentally reshaped the genetic makeup of those regions. But the authors theorize that the Crusaders’ influence was likely shorter-lived because the Crusaders’ genetic traces are insignificant in people living in Lebanon today. “They made big efforts to expel them, and succeeded after a couple of hundred years,” says Tyler-Smith.
“Historical records are often very fragmentary and potentially very biased,” Tyler-Smith says. “But genetics gives us a complementary approach that can confirm some of the things that we read about in history and tell us about things that are not recorded in the historical records that we have. And as this approach is adopted by historians and archaeologists as a part of their field, I think it will only become more and more enriching.”
The Mississippi changes course quite often, which would break down any long term settlements. Wunderground, when it was good, had a wonderful article on this, and how it’s desperate to change course now, but that would destroy the trade routes etc., along the river, and make New Orleans a ghost town, which shows that what happened in the past, can happen again to our civilization.
That’s true of the Yellow River in China (“China’s Sorrow”), and in fact, containing the Yellow River may have been a spur for civilizational development in China. But its situation was different:
That is actually true of the Yellow River too. There were over 1,000 recorded floods, 18 documented major course changes, and the river made giant swamps/lakes that came and went, and just a lot of shenanigan with that river. I think what helped was that it is long enough and the civilization originated around its upper reaches rather than its incredibly problematic lower reaches, and by the time stable populations started living in the the worst flood plains, the population and technology were enough to prevent/mitigate most floods and handle a few really bad ones (i.e. losing a million or two is bad, but won’t be civilization ending)…[a] combination of where civilization developed, the technology to modify the river’s flow, and population is what saved China.
The Eastern and Roman Empires weren’t separate entities as such at this point: Theodosius later ruled over both. I’m not sure there’s an issue of ‘learning from’ the experience differently but rather different underlying conditions. A huge amount of ink has been spilt on why the West fell (and the East didn’t) but I think some likely elements
– The Western Empire had the less wealthy provinces. Money was vital both for paying armies and for paying off barbarians: later on, the East paid barbarians to go away who went to the West instead…
– The Western provinces simply had more of a vulnerable extended border with barbarian tribes than the East. The East had to deal with Sassanians but they were a single enemy who could be negotiated with, and there was relative peace in the 5th century. Until the Arab conquests the richest provinces were harder to reach for enemies while being well-connected for friends by the Mediterranean. The Hellespont was a natural barrier for easy passage from Europe into Asia.
– The West had more usurpers and less stable continuity of power. As Emperors tended (probably rightly) to see usurpers as more a threat than barbarians, civil wars tended to sap ability to stop barbarians.
– I’m less sure of this one as a cause of the problems, but some attribute the West’s problems to the fact its emperors were more often dominated by military strongmen (weak emperors in the East being usually dominated by civilians). However, you can equally argue those strongmen helped stave off the fall!
In terms of surviving a thousand years, the Eastern empire was reduced to something of a rump state by the Arab conquests (Peter Heather says it became a ‘satellite state’ of the Caliphate, with its ability to act dependent on the rise and falls of their strength rather than vice versa). While the East saw times of regaining strength, by 1453 it was more a city-state than an Empire and successor states in the West had been stronger for some time, albeit without the same institutional continuity.
A thousand years ago, the Wari empire stretched across Peru. At its height, it covered an area the size of the Eastern seaboard of the US from New York City to Jacksonville. It lasted for 500 years, from 600 to 1100 AD, before eventually giving rise to the Inca. That’s a long time for an empire to remain intact, and archaeologists are studying remnants of the Wari culture to see what kept it ticking. A new study found an important factor that might have helped: a steady supply of beer…
Nearly twenty years ago, Williams, Nash, and their team discovered an ancient Wari brewery in Cerro Baúl in the mountains of southern Peru. “It was like a microbrewery in some respects. It was a production house, but the brewhouses and taverns would have been right next door,” explains Williams. And since the beer they brewed, a light, sour beverage called chicha, was only good for about a week after being made, it wasn’t shipped offsite — people had to come to festivals at Cerro Baúl to drink it. These festivals were important to Wari society — between one and two hundred local political elites would attend, and they would drink chicha from three-foot-tall ceramic vessels decorated to look like Wari gods and leaders. “People would have come into this site, in these festive moments, in order to recreate and reaffirm their affiliation with these Wari lords and maybe bring tribute and pledge loyalty to the Wari state,” says Williams. In short, beer helped keep the empire together…
By looking at the chemical makeup of traces of beer left in the vessels and at the chemical makeup of the clay vessels themselves, the team found two important things. One, the vessels were made of clay that came from nearby, and two, the beer was made of pepper berries, an ingredient that can grow even during a drought. Both these things would help make for a steady beer supply — even if a drought made it hard to grow other chicha ingredients like corn, or if changes in trade made it hard to get clay from far away, vessels of pepper berry chicha would still be readily available.
The authors of the study argue that this steady supply of beer could have helped keep Wari society stable. The Wari empire was huge and made up of different groups of people from all over Peru. “We think these institutions of brewing and then serving the beer really formed a unity among these populations, it kept people together,” says Williams.
The study’s implications about how shared identity and cultural practices help to stabilize societies are increasingly relevant today. “This research is important because it helps us understand how institutions create the binds that tie together people from very diverse constituencies and very different backgrounds,” says Williams. “Without them, large political entities begin to fragment and break up into much smaller things. Brexit is an example of this fragmentation in the European Union today. We need to understand the social constructs that underpin these unifying features if we want to be able to maintain political unity in society.”
I don’t know about that last part, we have more microbreweries than ever in the United States, yet we haven’t been more divided since the Civil War :(.
The microbrewery came to a dramatic end, however:
Then, after the brewery had run for hundreds of years, it hosted one final blowout bash. The artifacts at the site, the researchers believe, are a snapshot of what it looked like during its final hours.
Based on the positions of the artifacts, as well as ash and other sediments, it appears that this last festival ended with the Wari intentionally burning down the brewery. Festival-goers smashed their cups onto the smoldering ashes; the fermentation jars were toppled, the pieces strewn about the brewery; and seven necklaces of shell and semi-precious stones were ceremoniously laid on the ruins. The whole thing was covered with sediment.
Why they did this is unclear. But one thing’s for sure: It was a clear signal that the brewery was now closed.
If you’re curious to recreate the bonding experience of the ancient Wari, don’t despair! You may get your opportunity:
The Field Museum had already partnered with Off Color Brewing in Chicago to make a dino-themed brew called Tooth and Claw. And when the Field Museum’s marketing team got wind of the Wari research, they wondered if Off Color might be interested in making a chicha, too.
There were a few roadblocks. The Wari recipe makes a brew that only keeps for five days. That’s slightly problematic in the modern beverage industry. Plus, to legally call a drink a “beer,” certain recipe standards have to be met — fermented corn and pepper berries don’t quite cut it.
But the group persevered. Instead of replicating the exact recipe, they decided, they’d just work to replicate the flavor in the form of a modern ale. Off Color obtained flavor-packing ingredients from the source: purple maize and pink peppercorns from Peru.
The brewers went through multiple iterations with the archaeologists until they got the taste just right. The beer first came out in 2016 and was so popular Off Color is re-releasing it this June.
The Field Museum helped supply Discover with a six-pack of Off Color’s Wari Ale. And, for my personal tastes, the pepper-berry-chicha mimic is delicious. It’s a little sour but doesn’t make you pucker; a little fruity but not too sweet. It’s light and refreshing, and a fabulous shade of purple.
We’re used to imagining extinct civilizations in terms of the sunken statues and subterranean ruins. These kinds of artifacts of previous societies are fine if you’re only interested in timescales of a few thousands of years. But once you roll the clock back to tens of millions or hundreds of millions of years, things get more complicated.
When it comes to direct evidence of an industrial civilization—things like cities, factories, and roads—the geologic record doesn’t go back past what’s called the Quaternary period 2.6 million years ago. For example, the oldest large-scale stretch of ancient surface lies in the Negev Desert. It’s “just” 1.8 million years old—older surfaces are mostly visible in cross section via something like a cliff face or rock cuts. Go back much farther than the Quaternary and everything has been turned over and crushed to dust.
The authors don’t believe that there was, but they use it as a thought experiment to document the long-term effects of human industrial civilization. Perhaps this hypothetical ancient civilization was George R.R. Martin’s Westeros? They do seem to live with extinct megafauna.
The researchers know the beads are fakes, but are still working out why they exist. Odriozola and colleagues propose three possible explanations. The first plays on the fact that amber is rare. It’s possible a shortage of real amber inspired the creation of imitations. Alternatively, the production of a low-cost product that serves the same social function as amber for members of society who could not afford the real gems is plausible. But the third possibility appears the most likely: Traders who could not acquire the valuable and rare items developed counterfeits to sell as the real thing and cheat their clients.
The researchers say this last option might have been the case in Cova del Gegant, where the four resin-covered beads were found alongside two genuine amber beads that are nearly identical in size and shape. Visually, the authentic beads and the counterfeits look exactly the same.
“The quest for power and wealth are conspicuous behaviors in humankind that would fit perfectly on middlemen cheating wealthy people to acquire wealth and power,” Odriozola said. Plus, Odriozola says, if the tradesmen fooled him and his colleagues, who are well-trained archaeologists, with the fake amber, then it’s almost certain they also pulled one over on the wealthy community members.
I’ve got just a few more thoughts about whole the Communism versus Socialism debate. Not about the Peterson/Zizek debate specifically, but about the Capitalism/Socialism debate more generally.
The first is that it’s a lot easier to criticize capitalism than it is to defend socialism.
This is obvious. We’ve seen that even the most ardent defenders of capitalism fully acknowledge many of its shortcomings, as Peterson does in the debate. They are fully aware that there are many problems with capitalism, and sometimes even serious problems with it. Anyone who denies this would look like an idiot.
So that’s a good place to start.
Rather than immediately set up a false dichotomy, why not point out the shortcomings of the current system and go from there?
So many debates assume, implicitly or not, that there is some sort of “-ism” that we can simply plug in and replace the existing system root-and-branch.
I think it’s plain to see that there is no such “-ism.” And so therefore many people just give up and accept the status quo, or make sweeping, facile statements about “overthrowing capitalism” or some such, without any real idea of what they’re talking about. Such people are easily dismissed.
And yet, the current problems with capitalism are not so easily dismissed.
The problem I see is that many of the specific, targeted solutions to specific problems under our current form of capitalism are dismissed and waved away as socialism, as if that was somehow an argument.
That’s the problem.
Stick to the issue not the -ism.
Rather than failings, I think we should focus on how much socialist ideas are responsible for the the prosperity we enjoy under our brand of so-called capitalism.
Whether that’s worker protection laws (currently being gutted), advanced technological infrastructure, or government subsidies keeping “free” market prices reasonably stable, many of the concepts and practices that make current Industrial societies as wealthy and prosperous as they are are as far away from doctrinaire “Classical British Liberalism” as can be.
A lot of what Marx was writing about doesn’t even exist today. And besides, it’s not like Classical British liberalism didn’t kill anybody. The people of Ireland in the 1840’s might have something to say about that. As a percentage of the population, we’re talking about deaths that are on par with Stalin’s crimes. Yet it somehow doesn’t count because it happened earlier?
From my understanding, what Marx was saying was that the inherent contradictions of capitalism would eventually cause the system to undermine itself, making it less and less viable over time. And from where I sit, this prophecy seems to be coming true.
He wasn’t saying that capitalism was worse than feudalism, or that mass-production of commodities didn’t confer benefits to a lot of people. Rather, he argued that capitalism wasn’t an end-stage of human social organization, but a necessary transitory one that we needed to pass through. It *had* to be transitory, for several reasons.
The simplest and most basic one is that nothing grows forever. Capitalism, as currently constituted, requires ever-increasing production, ever-growing surplus, and ever-higher profits. Like an airplane or bicycle, its forward momentum is the only thing that keeps it stable and upright over time. But the idea that you can constantly produce more and more every single year implies that needs and wants—and more alarmingly the biosphere itself—are infinite.
So that’s one contradiction.
Related to this is the fact that capitalism requires scarcity even while producing abundance. The commodities that capitalists sell need to be reasonably scarce, or they will not command a sufficiently high price (i.e. exchange value) in markets to justify their production, and that is what capitalists care about rather than actual use value. And so, you need to keep even abundant goods artificially scarce. You also need to keep people persistently dissatisfied with what they already own so to that they will keep purchasing “new and improved” items—hence the “organized creation of dissatisfaction” that the early advertisers (honestly) claimed was their reason for existing.
Simply put, too much prosperity is bad for business.
And one that has come into very sharp relief today is the fact that capitalism relentlessly drives towards more efficiency, but such efficiency necessarily reduces the amount of total labor that needs doing. Yet everyone is required to sell their labor as a basic condition of survival!
This has recently been brought into sharp relief with recent developments in automation and AI, but it’s been a serious problem for a long time. It’s a problem all over the world today where capitalism has displaced more traditional arrangements not predicated on wage-earning and constant, never-ending growth.
Clearly there is, in fact, a “lump of labor,” at least at any single point in time, otherwise unemployment would never have existed throughout history! Otherwise, how do we explain things like the Luddite Revolt and the Captain Swing riots (just to mention two of them). And, even if the “jobs we can’t even imagine” do eventually manifest themselves, what are displaced workers supposed to do in the meantime under a “pure” capitalist (i.e. non-socialist) system?
It was basic contradictions like these that Marx could see by taking an unflinching look at the system that had developed out of earlier forms of economic organization. He felt that the capitalism of his time could not continue. And, to some extent, these developments have already undermined the kind of imaginary libertarian capitalism taught in economics textbooks, but that exists nowhere in the real world outside of them.
Why it it only a “failure” when it improves the lives of the average citizen?
Instead of arguing for Marxism (whatever that means), why not persistently argue for all the ways that socialism has worked all around the world, and continues to work? Rather than constantly running from the Black Book of Communism, how about talking about how many lives socialism has actually saved through initiatives like universal health care (where it exists), public assistance, worker housing, and the like. I mean, a hell of a lot of the higher living standards we enjoy under capitalism are not, strictly speaking, due to doctrinaire capitalism.
As an aside, the very first thing I ever heard Jordan Peterson say (it was on the Rogan podcast—I had no idea who he was at the time) was to belittle college students for daring to criticize capitalism on their iPhones. So you might say I was predisposed not to think of him as any sort of “deep thinker” from the very start.
This argument is so tired and cliched that it has its very own cartoon:
Not to mention that almost everything in the iPhone was created through publicly-funded government investment and research. And yet, the public now has to buy back their own investment from the richest company on earth, one that sits on piles of cash it doesn’t even know what to do with (while simultaneously being told by politicians in both parties that our government is “broke”). The public can’t even afford to go to sports games in the countless sports arenas and stadiums that they (we) pay for!
Why don’t we talk about that? I wonder, is socialism really such a failure after all?
Finally, to criticize social scientists for being secret “Marxists” not only smacks heavily of McCarthyism, but is also like criticizing biologists for being Darwinians. See the bonus below for why. What does that trope exactly mean, anyway?
Anyway, those are just some random thoughts…
BONUS: I thought this video by someone calling himself the “Finnish Bolshevik (!)” made some good points regarding the whole “Capitalism is the only system aligned with basic human nature” argument:
[Peterson] repeated over and over again that, ‘yeah, there [are] problems, but there’s nothing that can be better.’ He said that climate change is not as big a problem as many people think it is. There’s always going to be inequality but we’re trying to deal with it to the best of our ability…that’s the typical moderate position that, ‘Yeah, it’s not good, but this is the best we can do. Stop talking about any real change…’
Basically, Peterson makes these tired old anti-Communist arguments, extremely cliched; what we’ve heard a million times before: human nature, Communism has killed millions, Communism has never worked, calculation problem, it’s all there…
Then, Peterson basically does the whole ‘human nature’ argument. He says that humans are naturally different, hence you have this natural hierarchy, therefore Communism supposedly goes against human nature and is impossible, and Capitalism supposedly corresponds to human nature. But once again, he doesn’t know about Marx. He doesn’t know that Marx talks about natural differences in people, and that it’s not a problem for Communism. And it’s just a foolish idea to think that capitalism corresponds to human nature, as if you let a feral child loose into the wild for a year, and then he’s going to build Wal-Mart.
No, Capitalism does not exist in what Rousseau would call a “State of Nature.” A hunter-gatherer society exists in nature. Capitalism exists in civilization; in society. In a state of nature, we had a hunter-gatherer society—what Marx called “primitive communism,” because that was a society where everybody worked, where there was no exploiter class, where there were no different classes, there were no means of production, there was no property—that is how humans lived for 250,000 years! That is how humans lived in a state of nature.
Then technology developed. We built civilization; we built society. And then, instead of just having biological evolution, we started to have cultural evolution, societal evolution, technological evolution, what have you. And then we got these different forms of societies—we got slave society, feudal society, capitalist society, socialist society. Capitalism doesn’t naturally grow out of a human’s biology. It emerged as a result of previous civilizations—previous social, cultural and economic development.
And that’s why, if you put a human in a a hunter-gatherer society, he’s going to act a whole lot different than in a slave society. A hunter-gatherer is going to think that it’s perfectly natural that land is not owned by anybody. He’s going to have a ‘naturally’ communist concept when it comes to land ownership. Somebody in a slave society is going to think that it’s perfectly natural that we have slaves. Every society has always said that ‘this is the way it’s supposed to be—this is what human nature is.’ But human nature is malleable, and it greatly varies based on what kind of economic system you’re in.
And that’s the basic Marxist argument. That it really is the class struggle that determines how we act. It defines how our entire society is structured. Different classes = entirely different society. Slaves: slave society. Workers: Capitalist society. Hunter-gatherers: primitive communist society…