Polarization, 1945

I spent a few hours tonight reading or re-reading George Orwell’s essays, and this one on “nationalism” struck me as relevant today, largely because quite a few pundits seem to believe that political polarization, echo chambers, and outright lies are unprecedented novelties.

(Note, the essay talks about “nationalism” and “nationalists” only for lack of a better term, but he makes it clear that he’s also talking about religious or political zealotry. Today we’d probably say “ideologies” and “ideologues”.)

On echo chambers:

The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them. For quite six years the English admirers of Hitler contrived not to learn of the existence of Dachau and Buchenwald. And those who are loudest in denouncing the German concentration camps are often quite unaware, or only very dimly aware, that there are also concentration camps in Russia. Huge events like the Ukraine famine of 1933, involving the deaths of millions of people, have actually escaped the attention of the majority of English russophiles. Many English people have heard almost nothing about the extermination of German and Polish Jews during the present war.

On lying:

Much of the propagandist writing of our time amounts to plain forgery. Material facts are suppressed, dates altered, quotations removed from their context and doctored so as to change their meaning. Events which, it is felt, ought not to have happened are left unmentioned and ultimately denied.

Probably the truth is discoverable, but the facts will be so dishonestly set forth in almost any newspaper that the ordinary reader can be forgiven either for swallowing lies or failing to form an opinion. The general uncertainty as to what is really happening makes it easier to cling to lunatic beliefs. Since nothing is ever quite proved or disproved, the most unmistakable fact can be impudently denied. Moreover, although endlessly brooding on power, victory, defeat, revenge, the nationalist is often somewhat uninterested in what happens in the real world. What he wants is to feel that his own unit is getting the better of some other unit, and he can more easily do this by scoring off an adversary than by examining the facts to see whether they support him.

Orwell was writing in May 1945, just after WWII ended in Europe. And he was writing from England, not the US. Nonetheless, the essay is a good reminder that political polarization and siloing are not new, nor creations of the Internet; there was no golden age where political parties frolicked together like Elves and Men and read each other’s media.

Now, for Boomers of my age there was a time when politics seemed calm, bipartisanship was possible, and extremists seemed to be on their way out. We call it “1976.” But this was not some normal and enduring state even of American politics; it was a short interlude after the contentious ’60s and before the plutocratic revolution of the ’80s.

This is admittedly cold comfort, when conservatives seem more insane and dangerous than ever. At the same time, reading Orwell is a reminder that things are always pretty dire, a hope for a less dire world is always possible, and the evil people of the day are also liable to make the stupidest mistakes.

Cultural materialism

I just re-read Marvin Harris’s book of this name– subtitle, The Struggle for a Science of Culture. It’s a review of a dozen or so approaches to anthropology– of course he likes his own the best. It’s from 1980, so it’s undoubtedly outdated as a survey of the major schools.

First, should you read it? Oh no, it’s pretty dry, and intended for his colleagues. If you’ve never read Harris, read Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches instead. However, a distinction he makes early on is of interest to conworlders and others.

The distinction is between etic and emic levels of culture. Curiously, these terms were abstracted (by Kenneth Pike) from linguistics. Phonetics is the study of the sounds used for language, and phonemics is the study of the sounds as people speaking a particular language perceive them. We hear and produce the raw sounds, but we think we’re pronouncing the phonemes. See your copy of the LCK for more.

Applied to cultures, the etic level is the physical level: what people do, what constraints they face in resources and ecology, what their technology and social practices are. You could theoretically study all this as a Martian, just observing and measuring. The emic level is what people think. It includes their language, literature, ritual, ideology, their ideas about family and class, what they tell children and each other.

Now, most of the schools Harris discusses differ in how they approach these two levels, and which they consider primary. Oversimplifying broadly, we have

  • Materialists consider that the etic system predominates, and determines the emic level.
  • Idealists put the emic level first, and believe that it determines how cultures work (i.e. the etics).

Now, no one thinks that you can completely ignore either level. You study both, and everyone admits that the levels can influence each other. But your overall orientation influences what questions you ask, what methods you use, and what you consider to be an answer.

To avoid some complications, I’ll use an example from the contemporary US. On the etic level, since the 1960s, the Republican Party has pursued the “Southern Strategy”. Their basic policies are to facilitate the dominance of the rich elite: low taxes, low regulation, a free hand for business, as little redistribution as possible. (Yes, things like tax rates and income levels are etic. They’re objective things, relatively easy to measure; our Martian observer who doesn’t know the language could figure them out.) These things are not very popular, so to win elections the GOP goes for a larger coalition based on region (the South and non-coastal West), race (whites), and religion (mostly Evangelicals). They highlight issues designed to appeal to regional and racial solidarity while hiding their policies (which disadvantage the very populations they are trying to win over). To ensure that the coalition wins, they carefully pass laws to make it harder for the opposition to vote.

The emic level looks very different. Here we look at what the GOP actually says— that febrile stew of resentment of minorities, fear of foreigners, fear of America changing, fear of “socialism”, fear of crime, disgust over homosexuality and abortion, nostalgia for an imagined past, feelings of wounded religious sentiment, and authority worship, with an undercurrent of fantasies of violent suppression of enemies, that we know from figures from McCarthy to Goldwater to Limbaugh to Gingrich to Trump.

If you don’t like that summary, use your own, or a random set of 10-minute segments from Fox News. The point isn’t that the emic level is bad; it’s that it’s different. What you see from the outside is poles apart from what you hear and feel on the inside.

Now, the cultural materialist viewpoint is that the etic facts, most of the time, explain the emic facts. That particular mix of beliefs and preoccupations isn’t random or coincidental; it’s determined by the business elite’s need to win votes for an unpopular set of policies. The easiest way to do so is to hide the actual agenda, and make use of existing resentments.

Another way to see this is to notice how the diversions have changed over time. In the 1950s, the most effective strategy for the GOP was anti-Communism rather than racism. In the 1960s, it was the mainstream’s dismay over hippies, sexual change, and modern art. In the 1980s, the rallying points were Evangelicalism and racism.

The key point is that you’ll understand very little of American politics by looking at what the GOP believes. It may be interesting or frightening, but it’s often quite disposable (note how concern over the deficit completely disappears when the GOP is in power), and it’s a poor guide to what the GOP will do. (Hint: it may or may not pursue culture war issues. It will cut taxes.)

I’m not at all summarizing the book, whose examples mostly relate to non-American cultures. But to use any of those examples I’d have to explain those cultures in fair detail, and that’s not my point here. I should add though that if the analysis sounds rather left-wing to you (all this talk about elites and supremacy)– well, cultural materialism does trend strongly left; it owes a lot in fact to Marx.

What is my point? Well, that the etic/emic distinction, and arguments about which comes first, are useful well beyond anthropology. First, they are relevant to a lot of cultural debates today.

A lot of the anthropological schools Harris discusses prefer the emic level, and some of them feel that this is the only valid level: find out what the natives think, and explicate that with the maximum of empathy and detail. And I think this approach has a strong attraction to anyone interested in other cultures– after all, shouldn’t we study them on their terms rather than ours? Some of the discourse about colonization and privilege falls easily into this point of view, even criticizing “scientific” approaches as objectifying and disrespectful.

Now, if you’re not doing anthropology, your approach should be based on what you’re doing. If you want to be a Buddhist, you of course want to study Buddhism from the inside, and probably shut up the scientific skeptic within you. Reading literature or watching movies or just interacting with people, you can pursue and enjoy the emic level as much as you want. And if you’re not an anthropologist or historian, guesses about the etic level may be quite misguided.

The problems come when you get curious about why things are as they are. You want to know the emic level, it’s very important. But–

  • the emic level is likely to be wrong about why things are as they are.
  • the emic level is likely to be inherently conservative— to put it bluntly, it’s the realm of authoritarian old farts.

The emic level, after all, includes native justifications for slavery, for colonialism and war, for sexism, for foot binding, for the Indian caste system, for Aztec slaughter and cannibalism, for the divine right of kings, for holy wars, for dictatorships and inquisitions and pogroms. If you believe what the culture says and thinks about itself, you’ll accept a lot of immoral trash, almost all of it designed to prop up the local elite.

Not everything in the emic level is tainted, of course. Some of it is purely interesting and enjoyable. Some of it is problematic, but so is almost everything. Some of it you can learn from on its own terms.

I like Harris’s approach, because etic explanations are far more interesting and satisfying. Take sexism, for instance. Emic explanations run toward gender determinism, or else the original-sin-like position that male supremacy is universal yet unmotivated. Gender determinism is itself problematic, and the “universal” position is simply wrong. There are more egalitarian societies, though you may have to go all the way back to hunter-gatherers to find them.

More importantly, there are reasons why all the evils listed above exist, and why some cultures have some evils but not others. Here cultural materialism is critically different from the rather annoying theories that biologists come up with, like evolutionary biology. Cultural materialist explanations may be based on physical constraints, but not on supposed aspects of human nature, because anthropologists know way too much about the diversity of culture. If human nature determined how societies worked, they’d all be the same or virtually so. Instead they’re wildly different in many ways, so these differences have to be examined and explained.

Also, importantly, changing human nature is almost impossible, but changing etic facts is not. So cultural materialism is far more optimistic. If sexism is caused by certain etic constraints, then there’s a hope for eliminating it by changing those constraints. (Indeed, a lot of the progress made in advanced societies is precisely due to changing the etic level.)

Another reason people often prefer emic approaches is that etic ones can seem, well, a little Martian. Just as it’s a little disturbing to take an anatomy class and cut up former humans, it’s a little disturbing to see how cultures are made. Reading about a war, for instance, it’s most rousing if it’s a morality tale, especially if the good guys win. Yet almost all wars can be explained at the level of resources, tactics, and logistics.

For conworlding, you can also take an emic or an etic approach. For the former, I’d point to Lord of the Rings. It’s presented as a literal document from its conworld, written by participants. At all points it adopts the worldview of its protagonists– directly, the hobbits; indirectly, the elves. Tolkien has almost zero interest in ecological constraints, economies, or how power operates, beyond the emic categories of “good kings” vs. “corrupt kings”. At no point in the book does he criticize how Gandalf or the elves think or behave. (I’m aware this is not true of the Silmarillion.)

For a fairly pure etic approach, perhaps take Neuromancer. The focus at almost all times is what people are doing, on a low technical level. Almost all the characters are primarily motivated by practical needs… no one needs or consults an ideology. The organization of society by the elite is directly criticized, without much interest in what the elite has to say for itself emically.

If you’ve been following my conworlds, Almea and the Incatena, you can probably see that I’m equally interested in both levels. I try to indicate what causes various social structure to form– e.g. why Eretald is male dominant and the Bé is female dominant, or why there are far more restrictions on Verdurian kings than there were on Caďinorian emperors. But I also provide extensive presentations of people’s ideological systems.

There’s a scene in Against Peace and Freedom where Agent Morgan more or less explains the etic bias of the Incatena, as opposed to the ideological systems of the antagonists. Morgan says to one of them:

Give us a static society and socionomics will tell you how to turn it into a dynamic one– what to teach the kids in school, what comic books to write, what family behaviors have to change, what sectors to encourage. Of course, a static society won’t like those changes.. that’s why it stays static. No problem… back up a level, we can tell you what to do to generate a liking for them.

Socionomics is essentially far-future cultural materialism. Of course we don’t know today how to do these things, though many people think they do. But the Incatena has way more data.

Again, if all this whets your appetite, try Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches. It’s hard to invent premodern cultures without it. (Or read my books— there’s a lot of Harris in the PCK.)

The Innocents Abroad

One result of the pandemic: I’ve been re-reading what feels like everything on my bookshelves. And I have a lot of bookshelves.

When I was a teenager, I think it was, I loved The Innocents Abroad, by Mark Twain. I just finished re-reading it. It’s an account of his trip to Europe and the Middle East in 1867 on the Quaker City with about sixty other Americans– most of them, by his count, old fogeys “between 40 and 70”. He was 32 at the time, a failed miner and riverboat pilot, but a rising newspaper humorist. His fare ($1250) was paid by a California paper.

quaker city

The Quaker City advances on Europe

His account is mostly an extended comedy routine, though he’s also attempting to convey to his readers what it was like to travel to these places, and that involves quite a bit of serious description and retelling of stories he’s read, or heard from his guides. It’s clear that he read a lot of contemporary travel guides, and that those told visitors what things to see, what they meant, and what their dimensions were, information he sometimes regurgitates half-chewed.

A lot of the comedy holds up. I like his gentle parodying of his favorite traveling companions. E.g. the Oracle tries to get as many learned words as possible into every sentence, while knowing the meaning of none of them. Then there’s what he calls the “pilgrims”: fellow passengers who are far more religious than he is, and yet have a positive mania for cracking off mementos from famous places. He has a chapter where the subhead “The Ascent of Vesuvius– continued” is repeated at least half a dozen times, as he keeps digressing far away from the volcano. He and his closest companions loved to tease guides, calling them all Ferguson, and tormenting them by asking of any historical figure or statue, “Is he dead?” He’s amusing and drily ironic about Catholic relics, counting how many places had the same bones or the same pieces of the Crown of Thorns.

Comedy these days is mostly fast: one-liners or back-and-forth repartee. Twain, like his English counterpart Jerome K. Jerome, is more a fan of the extended bit, a long anecdote full of buildup and color. He was highly in demand as a lecturer, and I picture him acting out the physical comedy and doing all the voices.

Though he grew up in Missouri and set his most famous novels there, here he presents himself as a Westerner, and indeed is a little too quick to compare all mountains to the Rockies and all lakes to Lake Tahoe. Cities are compared to New York (and he was also contributing dispatches to NY newspapers).

He’s obviously well read, and honestly appreciates a lot of what he sees. Though what he appreciates is a little random. He is completely unimpressed by the Last Supper (probably with reason– it was in bad shape) and in fact by most paintings. He is rapturous about the Pyramids and the Sphinx, mostly because they’re so ancient, and because their hardness resists the hammers of the pilgrims.

Sometimes the country bumpkin act gets a little old. A particularly annoying sort of traveler (often but not exclusively American or British) complains at finding things done differently than they are at home. A little too often Twain is that sort of traveler. That business about Tahoe, for instance. Probably he had read too many guidebooks that depicted everything in Europe as uniquely magnificent, but c’mon, Sam, a two-page encomium of Lake Tahoe back home is not necessary. Similarly, though it’s fascinating that the one town he finds “just like an American city” and wholly approves of is Odessa, it’s extremely provincial to only like things you liked before.

Twain has complicated feelings about poverty. On the one hand, he has a hearty distaste for oppression, and (e.g.) castigates the Catholic Church in Italy for living in luxury while the peasants are miserable. On the other, well, he hates seeing poor people– their rags, their diseases and deformities, their neediness. This particularly applies to all the Muslim cities he sees, but also to Naples, and for that matter to Native Americans. He’s not immune to pity (when the tourists are mobbed by people asking for baksheesh, he and the others give them money), but he can’t get past the feelings of repulsion at the people themselves, and he sometimes expresses the wish to get rid of them.

Such thoughts provoke an aggrieved response in some people, so if you’re thinking of that, just don’t go there. There was a lot to like about Twain, and there are things to dislike. He is not immune to be criticism, and frankly anyone who thinks he is hasn’t really understood him. He was an acerbic critic himself when he wanted to be, which was usually. He himself claims that “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness”, and it’s hardly unfair to ask him to live up to his own ideals.

(One possible defense is worth a response: that he was joking. First, it’s usually quite clear when he’s joking and when he’s not, and a lot of the xenophobia is not jokes. And second, pretending to be a bigot is not actually a laff riot; all too often, it’s just bigotry hiding behind facetiousness.)

Readers should also be aware that Twain’s description of Palestine as a desolate and barren place has done some real harm, by allowing some moderns to discount the rights or the very existence of the people who lived there. This article is a corrective. It should be noted that Twain visited in the dry season, when the country presented its worst aspect; also that one of his major themes was the discrepancy between romantic or ancient accounts and present realities, and he was not above exaggerating this for effect. He says about the same thing of Greece, by the way– “Greece is a bleak, unsmiling desert, without agriculture, manufacturing, or commerce apparently”. I’m sure he didn’t mean to deceive, but this sort of analysis isn’t any more reliable than modern columnists’ assessment of national opinion based on talks with their cab drivers.

Something that might be surprising is Twain’s small but real piety. I’ve read other books by him that are far more skeptical. But at this point he seemed to be a faithful Protestant, though not a zealous one. He listened courteously to the “pilgrims” (who loved nothing on shipboard more than an evening of religious talks), he knows his scripture, and there is really nothing in the book that could offend a Christian. He criticizes hypocrisy and a few logical errors, and he’s not going to allow the pilgrims to put him off drinking and smoking, but he says nothing against the religion itself.

The best modern travel writing aims at not just describing the sights, but the people. This requires at least knowing the local language, and access to more than tour guides and waiters. Twain does not achieve this. He knows a little French, but by his own account none of the Americans could make their efforts understandable to a Frenchman. The structure of his tour means that he spends almost all of his time in Touristland, and though he freely talks about national character, this is mostly based on meeting people in the tourist industry.

If you can get past all that, the book is still pretty funny; it’s also quite interesting as a portrait of the times. The non-comedy bits– the places where he rhapsodizes over a building or some scenery he happened to like– are not greatly informative. But you get a good idea, I think, of how a smart but not college-educated American of the 1860s would react to the sights and the slights of the Old World. (His advice on Turkish baths: don’t bother.) Even the mechanics of tourism are worth looking at: obviously a lot of people traveled, because there was a network of guides and hotels and textbooks; but of course you couldn’t call ahead, you had no camera, and you weren’t on a strict schedule: if you could afford the trip at all, you were there for months. You also brought a huge trunk or two of gear– but in Twain’s case, this could be left on the ship, while you made your land excursions with a few suitcases.

Red states pull ahead

Today the red states (the states Trump won in 2016) pulled ahead.

Coronavirus cases in red states: 1.625 million
Coronavirus cases in blue states: 1.590 million

Since my last update, June 26: 188,000 new cases in blue states, 533,000 in red states. 

And that’s despite the hefty lead built up by New York (426,000 cases), and California’s valiant effort to stay in the running.  But the death cult is winning.

Cases per million people is a good stat to look at between nations. The US has 9900; the UK 4200; South Korea 261. Of course whenever South Korea is brought up, people immediately think of reasons we couldn’t possibly learn from them, so let’s look at Canada: 2800.

Here;’s a comparison of daily US vs. EU cases. It’s as of July 1; I couldn’t find a later chart. Today’s new case count is way off this chart at 64,000.  Europe beat the curve; we didn’t bother. Donald Trump’s ego was way more important.

coronavirus-EU-US-july-1-640x452

And the right-wing lie machine is still telling its viewers that there’s no problem.  Could they at least put a health warning on the screen?  “Warning: listening to Fox News can kill you and your family.”

Red state fever

I’m not going to do a full roundup, but I thought it was time to update the counts for red and blue states, as of June 27.

Blue states: 1.4 million cases, 84,700 deaths
Red states: 1.1 million cases, 41,500 deaths

At my last report, May 13, the death counts were 58,600 vs. 22,600. So the increase since then is blue 144%, red 184%.

The death cult is seeing results.

We’ve got competition now, though. Brazil has 1.3 million cases, 56,100 deaths. Somehow, pandemic + right wing idiot in charge = tens of thousands of dead people.

And just to rub it in, our 127,000 deaths were completely unnecessary. South Korea has had 282.  2% as much.  The GOP has managed to kill more people in 2020 than all American deaths in World War I and the Vietnam War. Combined.

The ’Rona: It turns out community is good

It’s been just 18 days since I last wrote about the coronavirus. Since then, numbers have gone boom.

18 days ago, the US had just under 1000 cases. Today it’s 120,000. Deaths are at 2000.

The Financial Times has had the best charts on the spread. Here’s today’s:

rona-3.28

Now, Lesson One is still it can be worse. Exponential growth will hit you in the ass like that. What if we have another 18 days at that rate?  Quick calculation: 14.4 million cases.

Lesson Two, however, is the cross-country comparison.  The US is way out on top in terms of cases and rate of growth. (USA NUMBER ONE!) The European nations (including the UK) are clustered together. The East Asian countries in cyan have already flattened the curve.

The FT helpfully captions these: “South Korea: huge test-and-trace programme”, “Japan: strong social norms around civil obedience and mask-wearing”, “Singapore: strict quarantine rules & contact tracing”.

Somehow these things work better than Republicans running around denying the virus, comparing it to the flu, gathering in groups, and suggesting that old people should die for the sake of the Dow Jones.

A case in point: Landon Spradlin, a musician/evangelist, posted two weeks ago about how the virus was “mass hysteria” designed to impugn Trump, and said the “Spirit of God” would protect against germs.

He died from the virus on Wednesday.

And this isn’t atypical. Republican governors in the South are countermanding cities’ stay-at-home orders; Sen. Rand Paul, who has the virus, was until his test results came back socializing with other senators and swimming in the Senate pool. (Which is still open, because surely the virus wouldn’t dare infect a Congressman? Five so far are infected.)

I’ve been writing for years about US rightism, and each crisis we go through shows what they don’t believe and what they do. The Reagan era (and every GOP presidency since) showed that they don’t actually care about the deficit, only about low taxes. The Bush era showed that they couldn’t competently run a government. Trump’s election showed the continuing dominance of overt white supremacy. And Covid-19 has shown them happily courting death for themselves and their own constituents.

At the end of my “last century” piece, I predicted “collectivism will come back in a big way… but not for another generation.” That was 20 years ago, and right on time, laissez-faire individualism is imploding and the kids are clamoring for socialism.

I’m not promising that the GOP will collapse.  Far from it: outraged, scared authoritarians are capable of even more sociopathy than usual. But there is nothing magic about Trump’s GOP. It’s been unpopular almost since the inauguration. And more broadly, right-wing states always go too far, indulging themselves till they engineer broad social revulsion. The Depression discredited plutocracy for nearly fifty years. Bush II presided over Katrina and two recessions, and got himself and his party solidly kicked out of power. When things go badly wrong, people don’t descend into Lord of the Flies; they suddenly value community, helping one another, making things work.  A party that has spent the last forty years mocking those things suddenly looks very bad.

(Possible counter-argument: the threat of nuclear war, or climate change, doesn’t seem to do this. Yes, because until they happen they’re abstract and far in the future. People aren’t good at abstract threats.  They respond, however, to direct hardship that affects themselves and their communities.)

Trump has been exceedingly lucky: despite his narcissism and incompetence, the economy has continued growing and he stopped short of going to war. He was never going to perform well in a real crisis, and now we have one and he won’t or can’t.

For a few days Trump seemed to take the virus seriously; and then he made a series of noises about “re-opening the economy” by Easter. Dutifully, the right-wing media amplified this into a new litany. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick suggested that old people should die off to protect the economy.  He phrased it as if it was a personal choice and somehow noble, but jesus, people, throwing your old people into the ICU ward to die is not noble, it’s genocidal. Suicidal, too, since those are his party’s key voters.

Less apocalyptically, people have worried about how the crisis ends… we can’t keep cooped up at home for months on end, can we?  Well, the direct answer is, yes we can— we just passed a $2 trillion bill to keep people and more importantly corporations going, and as Matt Yglesias likes to say, we can make the money machine go brr. But it can be useful to go over once again why we’re at home.

  • To slow the spread of the virus. If you’re at home, you’re not catching it or passing it on. (The really insidious thing about Covid-19 is that it can be spread for days by asymptomatic people.)
  • To keep the health care system from imploding. We don’t have enough ICU beds, enough ventilators, enough frigging face masks. Doctors and nurses are worn ragged in Lombardy and Seattle and New York. And when the ICU is filled up with Covid-19 patients, that can be fatal to anyone coming in with a regular old heart attack.
  • To buy us time. We need tests in huge quantities. We need a contagion tracing regime. We need to build up health care capacity. We need to look at possible cures.

I distrust any piece of punditry that ends “…and therefore we must suffer a few million deaths.”  Just don’t go there, even if you’re really concerned about the Dow Jones. And even more so, don’t go there just because you can’t see an alternative.

The alternative is staring us in the face, in that chart above: control the freaking virus, as South Korea has, using South Korea’s methods.

The Financial Times has stumbled on something that doesn’t just explain a few data points, but the crises and opportunities of the next decades: that little point about “strong social norms.” Ultra-individualism and predatory capitalism aren’t working out so well. Maybe we should try some of those strong social norms.

Those norms might prove useful in other areas, you know, like climate change. Slate has an article that points out that the virus is making people do away with a lot of bullshit: being unable to carry 12 oz. bottles of things on planes; jailing people for minor offenses; using the police for evictions; turning off the water for hardship; throttling the Internet to motivate tiered pay plans. If it turns out that bullshit isn’t necessary in a crisis… why was it ever necessary?

There’s a million things to say, but I’ll just add one more.  People work hard to avoid a repeat of a disaster they themselves experienced. So, world wars were avoided for a century after Napoleon; plutocracy was discredited for 50 years after Hoover; Naziism was universally condemned for 50 years after Hitler. As soon as the people who experienced a disaster are dead (or in nursing homes), however, people are ready to repeat the errors.

We had a global pandemic— a century ago. The influenza epidemic ended up killing 50 to 100 million people, far more than World War I did directly. A lot of the same measures were used, such as school closures and prohibitions on large gatherings. And a lot of the same mistakes were made: many cities lifted the prohibitions, only to see a huge spike in deaths.

So: the basic situation isn’t new, it’s just forgotten. And a lot of people are misreacting because they just don’t have a framework for this. Some people think we need to defy the virus, go out and mingle, because that’s what we were supposed to do after 9/11. The virus isn’t 9/11; it’s not a terrorist who wants to cause fear and disruption. It doesn’t care about your fear or defiance. What it wants is large gatherings of victims; don’t indulge it.

Anyway… stay safe, stay sane, take walks, good luck when you have to go out. If you’re wondering what to do with yourself, may I suggest creating a conlang?

 

The virus and how authoritarians fail

It turns out that a global pandemic is one situation where you really don’t want a narcissistic thug as president– a man whose first instinct is to lie, and whose second and third instinct is to lie again, differently.

The basic situation is that the Covid19 coronavirus is highly infectious even when people don’t show symptoms, and has a fairly high mortality rate, especially for people over 65. That means things can go south extremely quickly. Three weeks ago, Italy had 3 cases; now it has over 10,000, with 600 deaths, hospitals are overwhelmed (80% of hospital beds are virus victims) and the entire country is quarantined.

You can have a success story with coronavirus: Taiwan, which has extensive contacts with China and yet just 45 cases.  Or even South Korea, which has had 7500 cases, but is managing to reverse the tendency for new cases to skyrocket. Both countries were prepared for pandemics, took contract tracing and social distancing seriously, and were honest to the public.

By contrast, what has Donald Trump, darling of the GOP, done?

  • Two years ago, fired the person in charge of pandemic readiness, and his team, and never replaced them.
  • Cut the CDC’s global epidemic prevention budget by 80%.
  • Kept testing catastrophically low.  As of March 8, South Korea had tested 189,000 people; the US, 1700. Test kits are in short supply and test labs are backed up. When you hear that the US has had 971 cases (as of today), bear in mind that we just don’t know the total number of cases because we’re barely testing.
  • Lied about the severity of the disease.
  • Lied about it being contained.
  • Encouraged people with the virus to go to work, spreading it further.
  • Lied about the number of tests available.
  • Lied that the coronavirus is just like “the flu.” Coronavirus’s mortality rate is about 20 times that of the flu. (The flu’s rate is 0.1%; WHO has estimated coronavirus’s at 3.6%. But in China, it was 14.8% for people 80 or older.)
  • Misled people about how quickly a vaccine can be produced. (It could take a year or more.)
  • Been more concerned about “the markets” and his own popularity than in combating a public health crisis.

Add to all this the economic world the GOP’s plutocracy has created, in opposition to every other advanced nation: poor health care, limited or nonexistent sick days, a gig economy where people can’t afford to stay home. All of this suddenly matters very much when there’s a dangerous, contagious virus running around.

See here for a good interview with an outbreak preparedness expert on why the president needs to step up in a crisis like this, as Obama did, as Trump is unable or unwilling to.

None of this denial is necessary, or makes sense at all. A national emergency can actually prop up a president– just ask Dubya Bush after 9/11. Democrats would not be somehow enabled if the president had beefed up rather than gutted preparedness, made tests available, told the truth about how to contain the disease.

The rest of the GOP propaganda engine, of course, is falling in line behind the lies. Fox News is downplaying the virus; the online idiots are contributing conspiracy theories. The conspiracy theories are just stupid froth, but they’re a symptom of the underlying disinformation: it no longer matters where the virus came from, and they don’t even realize it. That ship has sailed. When Ted Cruz is in quarantine because he’s been exposed to a conservative American at a conservative conference in America– it’s just beside the point to indulge in anti-Chinese racism, or talk about closing the borders. The virus is now inside the house. Also, inside the House.

The irony is that the people most at risk from the GOP’s lies are the GOP supporters themselves.

  • Older people, who strongly skew GOP, are the most at risk of dying from coronavirus. If you want to keep your elder relatives alive, keep them from gathering in groups, and turn off their damn Fox News.
  • GOP loyalists get most of their news from Fox, Rush Limbaugh, or others spreading the lie that the virus is mild and nothing to be afraid of– and therefore they will be failing to wash hands, failing to avoid crowds, going to work when sick, and spreading the disease among themselves.

The large point about authoritarianism is simply that this sort of stupidity is not an accident. It’s what authoritarianism naturally produces. When a party rejects experts, rejects the ordinary functions of government, rejects everything the opposition says, it makes itself stupid. And eventually it causes this sort of incompetent meltdown.

Authoritarians see themselves as efficient and tough, and when luck is with them they can make other people think the same thing. But when you prize loyalty to the Leader over the truth, and persecute the messengers bearing any other message… well, eventually the truth wins.

That isn’t to say that authoritarians aren’t dangerous. They’re supremely dangerous. But their own system undermines itself, and leaves the system unprotected when a really severe crisis occurs. It’s up to fate whether that gets them kicked out of office in a few years like Dubya, or hung from a tree after causing millions of deaths, like Mussolini, or dying in a pool of their own urine after exiling all the competent doctors, like Stalin.

Edit: I don’t want to liveblog the pandemic, but the stupid keeps coming. Just today, Trump’s budget guy is still proposing a 15% cut to the CDC, and Trump lied that “the Wall” would prevent the spread of the virus.

I also should mention why we do all this “social distancing” (keeping people at home as much as possible). The goal isn’t necessarily to prevent all exposure, though it helps. It’s to spread out the cases, so the health care system can take care of them. When huge numbers are sick all at once, the system is overloaded and burns out.

The betrayal of our allies

Trump is regularly appalling, dangerous, and petty. There’s the whole impeachment thing going on, which is by turns corrupt and comic. It’s bad enough that Trump is trying to shake down Ukraine in hopes of providing some dirt on a political opponent; it’s sad  how foreign officials have learned to buy access by staying at his hotels; it’s baffling that a huge part of this mess is an asinine conspiracy theory: Trump seems to believe that CrowdStrike, an American security company used by the DNC, is Ukrainian.  (One of its founders was born in Russia… you’d think that’d be a point in his favor for the Putin-loving Trump.)

But, well, that’s merely completely corrupt, and so it’s no big surprise. What’s absolutely infuriating is Trump’s betrayal of the Syrian Kurds.

If anyone doesn’t know… these are our allies, the people who did most of the fighting against ISIS, losing 10,000 of their own fighters, and safeguarding nearly 100,000 ISIS combattants and family members. Trump abandoned them to a Turkish invasion, which the White House fucking celebrated:

Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria. The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in the operation, and United States forces, having defeated the ISIS territorial “Caliphate,” will no longer be in the immediate area.

Before anything else, this is sick.  Trump’s disgusting comments about the Kurds only twist the knife he pushed into their back. Who on this planet can ever trust Trump again?  Oh wait, there is a way to buy his respect: let him build a goddamn hotel in your country, as Turkey has.

Beyond that, it’s the action of an idiot. The action does nothing for the US, and plenty of things against us:

  • It plays into Russia’s hands, as they’re left to do as they like in Syria.
  • It plays into Assad’s hands, as the Kurds rushed to make a deal with him. With one less enemy, Assad can further reduce the remaining resistance to his rule.
  • It encourages Turkey to use the Syrian crisis to kill Kurds, and of course to enmesh itself more in Syrian affairs.
  • It adds to the number of Syrian refugees that have already stressed out Europe (and Turkey).
  • It has already freed a bunch of ISIS prisoners and may well free more, as the Kurds shift from guarding prisoners to trying to stay alive.
  • It’s shown the world that allying with the US is a quick path to betrayal and death.

Against all this Trump apparently saw one benefit: he could get a few hundred troops out of Syria. Only to immediately send a greater number, 1800 troops, to Saudi Arabia.

That’s what you get when you put a narcissistic toddler in charge of foreign policy.

Republicans try not to remember this, but perhaps this week will give them a reason to learn: they could end this, all on their own, in 24 hours.  And it doesn’t even require asking the Democrats for help or giving them any more power than they have. The Constitution has a way to get rid of an insane idiot as president: the 25th amendment.

 

A New Green History of the World

I just finished this; it’s by Clive Ponting, and it was published in 2007. Immediate reaction: Human beings suck. I really wish there was a better species to belong to.

ponting

You may get an idea of its depressiveness from the fact that just one chapter is devoted to global warming. Yeah, that might destroy our civilization, but we were already headed that way. Also, if you think the culprit is manufacturing, or oil, or capitalism, think again. The problem goes way back, at least to the beginnings of agriculture.

And that may be letting the hunter-gatherers off the hook too easily. Humans are not only frighteningly efficient hunters, they’re death for other large animals. When humans reached the Americas, they quickly eliminated 75% of all large animal species.

As for agriculture, the main problems are these:

  • Soil erosion. Exposing the soil means that much of it is blown or washed away. This in turn silts up the rivers and causes flooding. The process is particularly deadly in the tropics, because rain forests have very poor soil— after a few crops are grown the land turned into baked clay, good for almost nothing.
  • Salinization. Irrigation in poor soils creates waterlogging and brings up salt, which impedes crops. Sumerian culture basically destroyed itself this way: by 1700 BCE crop yields were 1/3 of what they were when civilization began. (Sumer itself never fully recovered— political power moved north to Babylonia.)
  • The extension of agriculture to more and more marginal terrain.
  • Deforestation. Forests are cut down for building and for fuel. Over six thousand years, almost all of China and all of northern India have been converted into cropland. The current appearance of Mediterranean countries— semi-desert with occasional stands of olive trees— is man-made; forests once covered most of the land.
  • Poor diet. Most peasants survive almost entirely on grain and beans. Hunter-gatherers are far healthier. Plus, living with animals we get all their diseases.
  • These days, the unsustainable and polluting high usage of fertilizers and antibiotics.

Basically, Malthus was right: any increase in productivity is soon eaten up (literally) by increased population. 90% of human beings lived in starvation-level misery well into the 1800s. And that’s before you consider epidemics, war, or slavery.

There’s just one civilization that had a sustainable model, due to its geography: Egypt. The flood of the Nile brought a new coating of soil every year, so salinization wasn’t a problem. The valley is surrounded by desert, so there was no forest to cut down and no temptation to use marginal land. Egypt basically farmed the same way from 4000 BCE till the 19th century. It’s in trouble today, largely because of the Aswan Dam. The dam stops the silting process, so the Nile delta is shrinking, salinization is now a problem, and soil fertility must be supplemented by chemicals. Irrigation has spread schistosomiasis and fresh water is scarce.

Then there’s overhunting and overfishing. The chapter on fishing is particularly depressing. Humans just cannot seem to figure out that fish stocks are finite, even as they exhaust one after another. The fishing industry naturally resists any form of regulation, but again: we don’t just use fish species, we use them up. Once the fish are gone, you don’t have a fishing industry any more.

If you have an early-industrial conworld (as I do), some observations from Bernardino Ramazzini, an Italian doctor. He noted a number of industry-specific diseases in 1700:

  • potters got trembling and paralysis from lead poisoning
  • glass-makers got ulcerated lungs from antimony and borax
  • gilders and hatters got mercury poisoning (thus the Mad Hatter)
  • coal miners got lung diseases
  • cotton mills also produced lung problems, due to lint in the air; people who worked with wood had similar problems due to wood dust
  • coal and oil products caused cancer

Next— colonialism. Here at last the Europeans get to be the clear villains. I’ll just tell one story, which was new to me. In Kenya, whites stole all the good land. But they needed cheap labor for their plantations, so they couldn’t just let the natives continue to use traditional methods on what land remained to them. They instituted a poll tax and a hut tax, paid in cash, to force the Africans to work for them. When this didn’t produce enough labor, they raised the taxes, appropriated more land, and put import duties to raise the cost of living. This “worked” in the sense that the plantations got their labor. It also killed off nearly half the population.

The kicker: this happened, not in the 1720s, but in the 1920s. This is part of why stupid articles about how the American revolution preserved slavery drive me up the wall. The British were evil to the people they ruled… and not much better to their own descendants. (Not to get into too much of a digression: the British were able to outlaw slavery in their own colonies only because they’d lost the biggest slave-owning population, in British North America. And they supported the Confederacy in our civil war. They sold warships and blockade-running ships to the CSA— for which they had to pay the US reparations afterwards. No, they weren’t more benign than any other unelected overlords. And no, monarchy is not cuddly.)

The USSR did its fair share of devastation. They purposely drained the Aral Sea, which was supposed to provide good cropland but instead created a salty desert. Attempts to use Kazakh steppe as cropland was a disaster, resulting in losing 50% of the cropland in Kazakhstan. Collectivization killed millions of peasants and reduced food consumption even in the cities. Most industrial sludge was dumped untreated into rivers… several times rivers caught on fire. A nuclear accident in  Siberia released radiation equivalent to 3000 Hiroshima-sized bombs, and made Lake Karachai the most radioactive place on earth: you’ll get a lethal dose if you just stand on the shore for 30 minutes.

Another big mistake? Cars. Cars use 20% of world steel production, 35% of zinc, 50% of lead, 60% of rubber, 1/3 of oil. Car accidents kill a million people a year worldwide. In car-based Los Angeles, 2/3 of the center city is devoted to roads, garages, freeways, and parking areas. Yet street traffic is actually slower in modern cities than it was in 1900.

As for global warming… not much of this is news by now, but prospects are bad. Temperatures are up 0.85° C on average, and rising 0.2° C per decade. But it’s not uniform: the change in temperate areas is about 150% of that, and even higher at the poles. The goal of limiting warming to 2° C is optimistic. Worrying signs:

  • Polar ice is already starting to melt. That could raise the sea level significantly and, by removing all that reflective white ice, accelerate warming.
  • As the tundra melts, huge amounts of methane are released. And methane is a far more powerful warming agent than carbon dioxide.
  • Ironically, reducing industrial pollution could accelerate warming, by removing dust from the air.
  • The oceans absorb CO2… but there’s a strong possibility (based on examining climate change from millions of years ago) that this doesn’t continue indefinitely.

Predictions are tricky, but if these processes take off, warming by 2100 may be more in the range of 10° C. (That’s 18° F in case you’re rusty on Celsius. And recall, it’s higher in temperate latitudes. So Chicago’s average summer day of 85° F might be 112° instead.) And note, if we haven’t done anything, temperatures continue rising.

I’m naturally an optimist, but it’s hard to maintain that reading this book. At least let me emphasize that all this is a crisis of humanity’s own making. If we keep going as we’re going— well, we get ecological collapse with massive population die-off. But like Scrooge’s ghosts, the message is that we could pick another path. But it will require a hell of a lot of painful change, rethinking our civilization from the ground up. And at precisely the moment we need to make changes, we’re ruled by reactionaries who want to accelerate the collapse.

So, any other species need recruits? Gnolls? Half-orcs maybe?

 

 

 

 

Against the Grain

I just finished this book by James C. Scott, and it’s amazing. It’s one of those books that’ll unwind your mind and rethread your head. I’m tempted to rewrite the early history of Almea, and you may want to do the same with your worlds. Oh, hey, is it clear that the post title is the book title? It’s called Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States.

hamurabi

Actually a bad guy

Everything you know is wrong

At some point, maybe in sixth grade, you probably read some histories that suggested, more or less:

  • humanity progressed from foraging, to pastoralism, to agriculture, the last being true civilization
  • each of these steps was an advance in freedom and prosperity
  • nomads and foragers did not understand agriculture, otherwise they would have immediately adopted it
  • agriculture was necessary for large permanent settlements
  • since agriculture developed, the world has been dominated by large agricultural states

All of these statements are wrong. A truer set of statements would be:

  • People prefer foraging or pastoralism, but can be coerced into agriculture
  • Agriculture (and to a lesser extent pastoralism) is a step backwards in freedom and prosperity
  • Nomads and foragers understand how crops work and sometimes plant them, but prefer not to be tied down to a much more tedious and unhealthy lifestyle
  • Large permanent settlements preceded agriculture by a few thousand years
  • For most of history, the bulk of humanity has lived outside the effective control of states

There’s a simple reason the state dominates history, as opposed to humanity: because that’s what generated stone cities and writing that survived. It takes a lot more work to uncover what happened before states appeared, or in areas where the towns were built from perishable materials. Quite a lot of that work has been done in Mesopotamia, which is the focus of the book. (On the other hand, there’s a huge amount that we’ll just never know.)

Our secret weapon: Fire

A nice trendy argument is when the Anthropocene began: the geological era dominated by humans. Was it when we noticed global warming, or when the industrial revolution began? Scott makes a case that it began 400,000 years ago, when hominins mastered fire. Fire greatly changed our diet, and our own bodies and brains, because it allowed us to cook both meat and vegetables, unlocking a great deal more nutrients. Our huge brains are the product of fire: the other great apes can’t support equally sized brains with their diet of raw food. Fire has shortened our guts, which are about a third as long as those of chimps’, because we don’t need as much digestion. We can eat a wider range of things; that, and the warmth of fires, allowed us to greatly expand our habitat.

What’s less realized is that we also used fire to transform the landscape. Sometimes this was accidental; sometimes a purposeful hunting/foraging technique. Fire could be used to chase prey into a killing zone. More subtly, it encourages certain crops which we happen to find useful, and animals that grazed on those crops. Just about every landscape we consider “natural” has already been modified, thousands of years ago, by humanity, largely through fire.

A little fact which underlies the scale of this change: when Europeans reached the New World, their diseases killed off perhaps a majority of the natives– who for centuries had been using fire to clear the forest. The forests sprang back, incidentally absorbing so much CO2 that global climate cooled, from roughly 1500 to 1850.

Next there’s an extended discussion of what happened in lower Mesopotamia and when. The first oddity is that it looks like there were permanent settlements by 6500 BCE, about 1500 years before solid evidence for agrarian villages. The second is that it took another 2000 years before states developed. (Mesopotamia was not the pioneer in sedentism; there was year-long settlement at various sites around 10,000 BCE.)

What sort of area could support sedentism before agriculture? Not the arid desert that much of this region is today… but at that time it wasn’t desert, it was wetlands, if not actually under the sea: almost half of the current land from Baghdad to the Persian Gulf was then part of the gulf.  Ancient Ur was on the coast. The land was about 10 meters below the current level; the difference is due to 10,000 years of sediment from the Tigris and Euphrates.

It was very rich in resources, especially as it was a mixture of coastal and river environments. Frequent changes of the watercourse allowed planting on rich, naturally cleared silt without irrigation. Animals and birds abounded, and migratory gazelles and asses came through, and could be corralled into narrow areas for hunting. If an area is sufficiently rich, you don’t need cultivated fields to support villages.  (Another such area is the pre-Columbian Pacific Northwest.)

Agriculture isn’t an either-or proposition. The same people could hunt, forage, take care of animals. The same plants that were later cultivated grew wild, and foragers had long had the equipment to harvest it and prepare the seeds for cooking. The sort of opportunistic sowing just described (right after a flood) took little extra effort.

This ecological zone survived to modern times, but farther south, and the lifestyle did too, among the Marsh Arabs. Saddam Hussein drained the marshes in the 1990s, displacing half a million people and turning the marshes to desert. The dikes were breached after the US invasion; the marshes are partially restored but few of the people have moved back.

Why plant?

The big question is: if things were so good, why did Mesopotamia move to agriculture at all?

Ester Boserup posited that the change must be out of desperation, e.g. overcrowding, the loss of large game, climate change. For Mesopotamia, there doesn’t seem to be evidence for any of these. Scott can’t suggest anything better, so really we don’t know why the changeover happened.

Of course, once it has happened, it has a certain inertia. You can support a much higher population with agriculture– which means that though individuals can and do retreat from the lifestyle, entire populations can’t.

Co-evolution in the village

There’s a section on what Scott calls “late Neolithic multi-species resettlement camps”… that is, farming villages. The jargon is meant to underline that a bunch of co-evolution was going on, as crops, weeds, domestic animals, uninvited vermin, and people all adapted to living together.

A lot of this was driven by the humans, of course. In general we want crops with increased fruit or grain size, no toxins, no hard cases or spiky protrusions, and which are easy to harvest– e.g., heads that don’t shatter. For animals we want docility, increased fertility, tolerance for cramped conditions and a monotonous diet, and comfort around humans. We also get some unintended consequences: less genetic diversity and robustness; and among the animals, neoteny, reduced sexual dimorphism, and a certain stupidity. (This even affected our vermin: rats and mice who live among us, for instance, are smaller than their wild counterparts.) Many of our crops and domestic animals couldn’t survive without us.

Something that affected all the species was disease. Cramped and unsanitary conditions spread diseases not only within but between species. (Measles comes from sheep or goats; smallpox from camels; influenza from waterfowl.) And epidemics were one of the failure modes of this lifestyle: they could wipe out a settlement, a kingdom, or an army.

More subtly, living in villages affected us too. Evolution did not stop with the Cro-Magnons; we’ve become adapted not only to cooking but to grains and to large quantities of alcohol (historically healthier than the nearby water). In the West, we’re adapted to drinking milk in adulthood. We have some resistance to all those new diseases. Arguably we too are domesticated animals, subject to some of the same changes, including smaller size, duller teeth, neoteny, less sexual dimorphism, and tolerance for crowding and stress.

The bad guy enters

Cue the Imperial March, because now our villain enters: The State. States appear in Mesopotamia around 3100 BC, and everything goes to hell.

In brief: with the state, you get all the drudgery of agriculture, plus coercion and oppression. Someone evidently noticed that if 90% of the people were farmers, a quarter or half their produce could be taken from them, supporting an elite: kings, nobles, priests, soldiers, merchants, craftsmen. (To be precise: if left alone, the people wouldn’t produce this surplus; the state coerces them to produce more than they otherwise would.)

It’s a bad bargain for the farmer… which is why, to the extent of their power, the authorities kept them from leaving. And that’s if they were free to begin with: there was extensive use of slaves, and one of the main purposes of war was not to conquer territory, but to grab captives.

Scott’s particular insight is that states worldwide, up to at least 1800 CE, were based on grain, and that this was no accident. (For the purposes of this discussion that includes rice and maize.) Grain is a tax collector’s dream: it ripens all at the same time, so you can go right in and take a large part of the harvest. (To ensure this uniformity, states often mandated that fields be planted at a particular time.) Grain can be stored for years, and it’s one of the highest nutrient-per-weight foods, so it can be transported long distances.

Can you have a state based on tubers or manioc instead? Not nearly as easily. Tubers don’t have to be harvested all at once; indeed, the best place to store them is in the ground, till they’re needed. If the tax man wants a share, he has to go and dig them up, and if he does, he has a wagonload that’s heavy, easily spoiled, and barely worth transporting.

All the major empires, Scott asserts, are based on grain– and their effective area of control, as opposed to the lines they or we draw on maps, is the limit of grain cultivation. Beyond that are two major populations.

The misfits

One is the non-grain-growers: people who don’t fit, or don’t want to fit, into the tax man’s grain system. Scott has written another book, The Art of Not Being Governed, about the huge region that never quite fit into the East Asian states: southwestern China, northern Vietnam, Thailand, and Burma, and Assam. These are largely mountainous areas where it was hard to grow grain, and where the people grew other things, as well as raising animals, and if necessary melted away when the administrators and armies attempted to enforce control.

The other exception is the pastoralists, as well as mixed groups (like the ancient Germans and the Jurchens) who farmed or herded as circumstances warranted. Though his picture of states is grim, he presents the nomads as far healthier, happier, and more egalitarian.

One reason, it must be said, is that the nomads noticed that the surplus of the peasants could be skimmed off as easily by themselves as by their own elites. So the peasants endured not only the depradations of the taxman, but that of the horselord.

States naturally fought back, but it’s not easy to defeat nomads, who after all have no cities to loot, and can easily melt away into the steppes. But cooperation was often preferable to war. Nearer nomads could be bribed to fight farther ones, or be co-opted as cavalry.

Most of our sources come from states, and we should be skeptical when states claim that non-grain areas or nomads acknowledge their suzerainty. That was a way of saving face; the reality was often that effective control over either was impossible, and huge sums were spent to keep the nomads happy.

Collapse

The whole structure of states was precarious. States could collapse due to defeat in war, or ecological change, or epidemics, or by peasant revolts, or by the increasing toll of deforestation and salinization. In early Mesopotamia, states were particularly prone to collapse– as Scott puts it, the interregna outnumbered the regna. One historian, Robert Adams, notes that the Third Dynasty of Ur was unusual in lasting a hundred years. Mesopotamia as a whole seems to have collapsed from 1800 BCE to 700 BCE; during this period urban settlements had 1/4 the area they’d had previously. The Greeks famously collapsed around 1100 BCE, losing their cities and literacy for hundreds of years.

Such times are called dark ages, but given the general misery under state control, they may well have been a relatively pleasant breathing space for the people. They were certainly more egalitarian, and cultural output was probably not less; it simply switched from written to oral modes. (The Iliad and the Odyssey are products of Greece’s dark age.)

If you put all this together, and try to look at humanity as a whole before 1500, it may well be that the majority of humans were outside state control, and all the better for it.

Lessons

If there’s a takeaway for your understanding of history, or for your conworld, I’d suggest something like this:

  • The fluidity of people about foraging/herding/agriculture. It’s not a progression, and the same population, or individuals, might engage in all three.
  • How long it takes between sedentism and states. (I’m sure I didn’t leave enough time in Arcél…)
  • The importance of grain. Think hard about starting a state outside river valleys suitable for grain production.
  • The frequency of collapse in the first millennia.
  • The fact that states are bad news for much of the population.

These are not ironclad rules, especially in fantasy. It’s not that all cities were hellholes. (Just one detail: Chinese cities were probably healthier than European ones, simply because the manure was a valuable substance and removed from the city.)

There were also mitigations Scott doesn’t mention, such as debt jubilees. (See David Graeber… I think that’s the first time I’ve cited him as being more cheerful than another book.)

Some grains of salt

As ever, I have a few cavils. One is that Scott can be annoyingly low on details. You won’t get any explanations of how Sumerian city-states differed from the Assyrian or Babylonian empires. He gives population estimates without explaining where they came from or how reliable they are. He admits that slavery and war pre-existed states, which surely undercuts his major villain, but he provides no way to estimate how much.

More seriously, I’m not sure that his ideas apply so well to Africa, or the Americas, or India.

  • There were kingdoms in Africa, for instance, but so far as I know agriculture never depended mostly on grain, as it did in Egypt or Mesopotamia or China.
  • He mentions the Inka and Maya, but on his own admission maize is not as easy for the tax collector as wheat– it can be left in the field to dry.
  • As for India, at one point Scott says that only two large empires appeared in its history, the Guptas and the Mughals– a statement of colossal ignorance.

I’m inclined to think his ideas apply well enough to temperate areas, but he should have left tropical areas to another study.

Finally, I think he over-paints the picture of the state as tyranny and “barbarism” as pleasant and egalitarian. You could be captured and sold into slavery by nomads, or as a nomad. Or you could be forced to serve in the khan’s wars. And the state/nomad balance didn’t always favor the latter: e.g. Rome was not really bothered by the Germans until the 200s.

And the lot of peasants varied– e.g. it seems to have always been better to be a colonist, when your numbers were few and therefore you had to be treated fairly well. I’m inclined to think it’d be better to be a Chinese peasant in the 1C than the 18C, because game and trees were still available.  For that matter, you’d really want to be born in the beginning rather than the end of a dynasty: taxes were lower, the state was more organized, and bandits were held in check.

(Also, wasn’t 19C Ireland a potato state? Scott doesn’t even mention it.)