the world


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.)

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The recent wave of terrorist attacks has made me worry if technology will ever, or during this century, advance to the point where regular terrorists are able to destroy the world. Humanity has, so far, survived 71 years when it was possible to blow up the world if you had the resources of a superpower. But what if technology advances further to the point where destroying the world gets within the means of your average, run-of-the-mill doomsday cult? Or even a deranged individual like Ted Kaczynski?

Related to this, I think if we would really live in a world like that of James Bond movies or superhero comics, with supervillains regularly trying to destroy the world, the world wouldn’t survive for long: in order for the world to survive, the James Bonds/superheroes would have to win every single time, while in order for the world to be destroyed, the villains would only have to win once. And eventually that one time would come- if you keep rolling the dice, sooner or later they will come up six.

–Raphael

Man, with Britain voting to screw itself, Turkey going full dictatorship, and Trump promoting fascism here, to say nothing of humans slowly roasting the ecosphere, you don’t have enough to worry about?

For what it’s worth, if the world gets blown up, it’s still more likely to be a superpower that does it. Or at least a medium-sized state. This isn’t meant as a reassurance; it’s a reminder that we’ve escaped from nuclear holocaust by the skin of our teeth several times.  Here’s a Mefi page on near misses.

For non-state actors, a weak consolation is that though they are careless about human life, they are rarely self-genocidal. That is, there’s a rough rationality to extremism: atrocities are cheap and get attention, but the extremists do not actually want their enemies to destroy them all, because of course then their cause is dead. Of course, like any other politicians, extremists can misjudge likely results. Osama bin Laden probably didn’t plan on getting killed in a raid.

It’s always worthwhile to get some historical perspective. Here’s a chart of terrorist deaths over 40 years:

Terrorism_fatalities_1970-2010

That is, outside of three countries (two of which are basically in civil war), terrorism is down worldwide. (Also, for comparison, the annual number of road traffic deaths is 1.25 million.)  Nothing to be complacent about, but we can too easily get the impression from the news that everything is terrible and always getting worse.

If you’re thinking of futuristic threats, it’s also worth remembering that people will have a strong motivation to develop futuristic counters. It’s not great worldbuilding (or prediction) to suppose that some agents get doomsday-in-a-box weapons and the motivation to use them, while their enemies have no clue about this, no similar weapons, and no conceivable responses.

Not that doom is impossible! But terrorists generally have their own enemies, they don’t want to destroy the world, and their abilities are limited. But feel free to be terrified of Trump with the nuclear football.

I’v e been proofing China Construction Kit, plus incorporating reviewers’ suggestions.  It’s about time to print another proof; I think I’m still on target for a release at the end of the month.

cixi

Dowager Empress Cíxǐ, the de facto and disappointing late-19C ruler

But I find myself with a few opinions that didn’t get into the book. A few opinions made it in, but opinions take up a lot of room, you know, so I’ll put them here instead.

The biggest point is in reaction to William Rowe’s China’s Last Empire: The Great Qing.  He notes that scholarly tradition, in East and West, has been to divide the Qīng (Manchu) dynasty in 1842, with the first Opium War.  The preceding period goes with the rest of imperial China; the later period is part of modern history.  He describes his book as “revisionist”, incorporating a new overall picture of the Qīng, in which the Opium War is only one incident, and the Qīng were stronger and better than they looked.

He then spends the rest of the book basically showing, despite himself, that the traditional view is more or less correct.

Now, it’s not that he’s wrong, exactly. Early European visitors tended to be impressed with China, until the 19C when they suddenly saw it as backwards yet arrogant (and, more to the point, ready for plucking).  It’s hard sometimes not to just exclaim that 19C Westerners just sucked.  At the same time they were roughing up China, they treated Chinese immigrants, well, about like the West is dealing with Syrian refugees today– that is, with a maximum of ignorant fear and horror.  And when the West got around to the scholarly study of modern China, they were way too interested in the history of Westerners in China.

From a Chinese point of view, an answer to the burning question of why China was slow to modernize was: it came down to really bad luck.  A pattern going back two thousand years is that Chinese dynasties move from active and prosperous, to divided and chaotic. When a dynasty is started, a lot can get done: distribute land, expand the borders, establish internal peace, promote scholarship.  The dynamic period rarely lasts more than 150 years.  Large landowners start to take most of the land, which reduces the tax rolls, which leads to tax increases on the poor, which eventually leads to starvation and revolts.  Often later monarchs are dominated by the eunuchs (or in the Manchu era, their families).  The scholar-officials get bogged down in acrimonious debates, which bring down any serious reform movements. Finally everything falls apart.

The Manchus produced some especially fine early rulers, who lasted till about 1800… which means, the Westerners became powerful just at the worst possible time, after the 150-year mark when the dynasty started to decline fast.  From a purely internal point of view, there was more destruction caused by the White Lotus Rebellion and the Taiping Rebellion than by the wars with the West.

At the same time… well, the Manchu response to the West was pitifully inadequate.  But then, the same can be said of almost every other non-Western nation– it’s not a particular shame for the Chinese.  The Japanese ability to adapt Western ways with great speed is the real outlier.

Development is a tricky problem, and I’d venture to say that almost all the Western advice that China received, for a century, was useless. Not only did 19C Westerners not know how to develop a country, they didn’t even want to.  They wanted to trade, do missionary work, and if possible take over. If they couldn’t take over, they wanted local leaders who would guarantee stability and safeguard Western interests.  To the extent that the West had some good ideas about democracy, free speech, science, civil law, and free enterprise, they did their best to keep it to themselves.

Anyway, see the book for the actual course of events. I do try not to over-emphasize the West, though of course it has to be discussed in the modern period. So I’ve left out (say) what the British ambassador thought of China in 1793, something that tends to fascinate British authors.

And while I’m offering opinions, here’s another one: the Empire was better governed than perhaps any Western monarchy; but monarchy still sucks. This was realized, of course, in both East and West. The Western path was to limit the absolute power of the monarch– basically, in favor of the other power bases of Western society: the nobility, the church, and the towns. The Chinese way was to inculcate in both monarchs and officials an ideology of public-spirited rule.  Mark Elvin quotes some remarkable letters from Manchu monarchs expressing personal shame over reports of droughts and other poor weather. The teaching was that Heaven might show its displeasure with a ruler by bringing such catastrophes; one may wonder if the emperor 100% believed in what he was saying, but he obviously thought it worth saying, and it’s hard to imagine George III or Napoleon or Frederick the Great ever saying it. When the emperor was scrupulous, hardworking, and respectful of his officials, government was more effective than Westerners managed until very late in history.

But of course emperors could also be lazy or incompetent, or paranoid and vicious, or dominated by the court. And in between dynasties, you generally had warlords of varying ferocity. And worldwide, no one ever really achieved a better record with monarchy; see here for more.

(I know, we look at Donald Trump and things don’t seem much better.  But Trump is– thankfully, so far– an opposition candidate, and nothing about democracy guarantees that the opposition is any good.  When you really have a stinker of a president, you can get rid of him in 4 years; a bad monarch can afflict you for decades, and act much more opposite the interest of the masses.)

 

 

 

 

Cartoons are universal… sort of. They often have words in them that need to be translated, and a context, and a cultural tradition. Here’s a cartoon by the French cartoonist Cabu:

cabu

They’re listening to the Marseillaise, with its bloody lyrics: “May impure blood overflow our furrows!” Sarkozy, in the center, pointedly adds “Unemployed and immigrants, you’ve been warned!”

Cabu was murdered by terrorists yesterday, for making cartoons like this.

I find this shocking and insane. I love French comics; I have a page on them. One of the cartoonists on that page is Wolinski… I didn’t have a very high opinion of him, but he was murdered as well, and I feel personally affronted. I had one of his books, and ran into some of the other Charlie Hebdo cartoonists back when I was reading Fluide Glacial. Here’s a cartoon from one of the other victims— Charb, the editor:

charb

The guy is saying “I’d hire you, but I don’t like the color of… um, your tie.”

What’s almost as upsetting is the victim blaming I’m seeing in many places. They deplore the shootings, but after all, weren’t the victims being unwise, being offensive, mocking religion, distributing “hate speech”, being racist, upholding the power structure, maybe even being “neo-Nazi”? It’s left-wing gotcha culture at its most unattractive.

Note, many of these same people would be offended if anyone suggested that Trayvon Martin was holding that pack of Skittles in a threatening manner. Generally when people are murdered in cold blood, you don’t second-guess the victim, at least for a few days. Hell, even if the victim was a criminal, he’s dead now, what other punishments do you want to apply?

Neil Gaiman takes a hard line free-speech position: you have to support everyone’s right to produce offensive speech, because if people can silence the kind you dislike, they will inevitably also silence the kind you like. He’s mostly speaking about the law, but let’s be honest: the only reason some people, left or right, can’t use the law to shut down free speech isn’t because they lack the will, but because they lack the votes.

For radicals who think Charlie Hebdo went too far, I’d like to ask two questions.

  • Did Diane DiMassa also go too far with Hothead Paisan, Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist? The title is pretty descriptive, but to refresh your memory, she has scenes where the title character goes out murdering and castrating random men.
  • Did these Muslim satirists also go too far by mocking and satirizing ISIS? Are you really maintaining that everyone, including Muslims, has to pull their punches to avoid offending jihadists?

Here we’re likely to get a lecture about “punching up” vs. “punching down”. Now, on the whole, “don’t punch down” is great advice. Afflict the powerful and comfort the afflicted, and all that. But I don’t think it’s very clear in all cases who’s up and who’s down. In this particular case, I remind you, the cartoonists were firebombed, then murdered. I think mocking armed thugs is always “punching up”. It took courage for Charlie Hebdo to stand up in the face of very real violence, just as it takes courage for those Muslim writers and comics to stand up to ISIS.

So far I’ve been concerned to defend anyone’s right to free speech, even if we don’t like them. In the case of Charlie Hebdo in particular, I’d go much further: these were the good guys. They aren’t racists and neo-Nazis; to say so is profoundly ignorant and hateful.

I chose the cartoons above to help illustrate this. They both poke fun at xenophobes, racists, and right-wingers. Cabu invented the trope of the “beauf”, more or less the French equivalent of Archie Bunker. Wolinski was deeply influenced by the May 1968 movement and was for some time staff cartoonist for the left-wing L’humanité. They loved to make fun of the French right-wing. Don’t be one of those people who get all upset with an Onion article not realizing it’s satire. Some people have defended Charlie Hebdo as “attacking everybody”, but that’s a misrepresentation. They felt that nothing was sacred, but their particular target was always authority figures, particularly reactionary ones.

When it came to caricatures of Muslims, their targets were not Muslims, or Islam, but jihadists— the people who’ve killed thousands of Muslims, the people who bombed their offices, the people who finally murdered them. This collection from Vox should make it clear— e.g. Charb’s cartoon “If Muhammad returned”, showing the Prophet being executed by a jihadist. One of the stories teased on that cover is also relevant: “French Muslims are fed up with Islamism.” Charlie Hebdo was perfectly able to distinguish between Muslims and Muslim terrorists.

But weren’t those caricatures ugly and nasty? Yes, like all their cartoons. French humor isn’t American humor. It’s closest to our ’60s underground cartoons (like Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton– and DiMassa fits into that line as well), but that element is far more mainstream in France. The Charlie Hebdo style is vicious, dark, deliberately provocative and obscene. And if you’re shocked by it, they’ll double up and do it some more.

To anyone who thinks that art they don’t like must be suppressed… I really wish you’d think about that, in the light of this attack. These people were suppressed. They were shot down with machine guns. Oh, you didn’t want to do it that way, but how did you want to do it?

But but but solidarity with Muslims… yeah, yeah, did you ask any Muslims what they thought? Here’s an interview with an Algerian cartoonist, Ali Dilem.

It’s joking around. There’s nothing nasty about it. It’s not weapons that we’re carrying; we’re not there to do evil. When there were drawings on Muhammad, I was one of those who defended the Danish cartoonists, saying that there’s no need to cut people’s throats because they drew a caricature. There’s things in life that are a little more serious than that. Here [Algeria], there have been massacres, including in editorial offices. In the paper l’Hebdo libéré, people killed the editorial staff in 1994. I knew that they were capable of that, of such an extremity. But to hit cartoonists like Tignous… you can’t hurt someone like Tignous. Cabu, he’s the one who made me want to take up a pencil, who made me dream of being a cartoonist.

He goes on to say that he tries never to enter the premises of his newspaper… for fear of a similar attack. He’s been put in jail for his cartoons.  He knows what dangers he’s risking. But he’s going to go on cartooning.

Some important nuances and caveats:

  • Some reactionaries will blame the attack on all Muslims. They’re idiots, feel free to mock them. Charlie Hebdo would have.
  • It’s not the responsibility of Charlie Hebdo to manage global geopolitics. They publish cartoons, for god’s sake. Grave-minded politicians who lecture them to be careful can spend their time far more constructively.
  • I’m by no means saying you can’t criticize artists. Criticism is not silencing, especially where the point is that we want additional viewpoints. Though I think ignorant dismissals of Charlie Hebdo are offensive, there’s a place for an informed critique. And a time, but that time is probably not this week.
  • European societies are not so good at assimilating minorities. (By this I mean that the majorities are messing up, not the minorities.)  They should do better, but Dilem’s advice is on point: cartoonist behavior is very low on the list of things that need to be taken care of.

This book, by David Graeber, is great.  Provocative, brilliant; also crankish and infuriating.

barter

Graeber is an anthropologist, and the best parts of the book are where he does anthropology. He’s devastating on what he calls the “myth of barter”. Economists love to talk about the invention of money as freeing us from the situation where Fred has arrowheads and Madge has pots, and Fred needs a pot, but they can’t trade because Madge doesn’t need arrowheads right now.

This doesn’t happen.  There was never a “barter stage”; no societies suffer from this hangup.  There’s a number of possibilities, but the basic pre-money mechanism is that Fred goes to Madge and says “That’s a handsome pot.”  Madge gives it to him.  At some later time, if she needs arrowheads, she goes and asks for some.  These may be considered tiny little debts, or they may just be considered the way social life works: people help each other out.

Once money exists, debts tend to be enumerated in units of account– but these are rarely transferred physically, and in fact the system long predates coins and even writing.  For 2500 years, Middle Eastern civilizations had markets, checks, traders, inns, interest, and debt without coinage.  Everything was done on credit.

Coins, according to Graeber, come in with large empires.  This developed out of the existing tradition that strangers are outside the credit economy.  Once you have a large standing army, you need to pay the soldiers, and they need to buy beer and horses and prostitutes.  As they’re rarely natives of the area they’re stationed in, it’s enormously useful to provide small portable bits of currency. It’s only in the last couple hundred years that this marginal coinage-based system took over the whole economy.

And then there’s debt.  As promised, Graeber gives a history of debt from ancient times, and in his telling it’s up to no good.  Debt always gets out of hand.  Ancient societies were plagued by a cycle of debt peonage: peasants would get loans; they were unable to pay the interest; they then sold off implements and furniture, then their fields, then their wives and children, and finally themselves.  Periodically, in the Middle East, kings would decree a vast cancellation of debts– all the records would be destroyed and the debt slaves would return to their restored homes.

In his telling, this process was linked to other bad things– such as slavery and misogyny.  Slavery was once limited largely to war captives, which were a limited resource; debt created a vast and increasing population who were effectively slaves.  Women in early Sumerian society were surprisingly visible and influential, and temple sex was a respected profession; the selling of wives and daughters to repay debts, and the subsequent sexual service, degraded the position of women.  And the fear of such selling-off led to the Middle Eastern focus on honor… meaning a man’s ability to protect his womenfolk, keeping them out of his creditor’s hands– and under his control.

And then there’s the moral effects.  Debt becomes a metaphor for the relationship of children to parents, or humans to gods.  We’re told to pay our debts, and yet most human cultures have despised usurers, and the first act of any peasant rebellion was to destroy the debt records.  Not infrequently kings or religious authorities took the part of the poor against their creditors, going so far as to ban interest or slavery… though these measures didn’t often last.

In the end, Graber suggests, debt– and economic theorists– blind us to how human societies really operate.  There are at least three types of human economy, which he calls communism, exchange, and hierarchy.  ‘Communism’ is the helpful, altruistic systems that underlie all human society– it’s how families work, and entire villages in many cultures, and even how corporations work internally.  Hierarchical exchanges are largely exactions by the rich and powerful, and their salient feature is precedent: a particular tax or tribute, once levied, becomes customary, which is one reason you should be wary of offering a gift to the king.  (On the other hand, it’s rare that an elite simply does nothing but take; usually it needs to attract supporters by giving things away.)

To Graeber, economists go terribly wrong in ignoring or underestimating the non-exchange portions of the world.  The whole attitude of looking at the world in terms of rational, egoistic calculation is a vast misapplication of what was originally a very narrow part of the economy– associated with debt, war, and slavery.

All of this is fascinating and eye-opening, and can be used to deepen (and darken) your view of history, or your conworld.

At the same time… well, for Graeber history is full of villains, and he’s often so busy flinging mud at them that he loses track of who’s worse and who we should be rooting for.  E.g. he talks about the rise of coinage as something of a disaster, destroying the credit economy and ultimately turning the Roman citizens into slaves.  Yet he’s already shown that debt slavery functioned with its full horribleness in pre-coinage societies, and turned the Mesopotamians into slaves.  Later he provocatively suggest that the Dark Ages weren’t so dark, as the Europeans ended slavery, resisted usury, and ended the militarism of the Roman Empire.  But the Middle Ages, as he well knows, replaced slavery with serfdom, and threw out the political and technological advances of the ancients.

The last half of the book is a breezy retelling of history which grows increasingly polemical and tedious.  A particular low point is where he talks about the Iberian traders engaging in the arms trade, the slave trade, and drug trade, and a moment later explains that the “drugs” meant coffee, tea, sugar, and tobacco.  He’s often a bracing cynic and amusing contrarian, but this is just propaganda.

The last chapter, on the world since 1971, is a weird political diatribe of the Everything Is Horrible school.  He’s mostly mad at the US, and throws everything he can at it, no matter how contradictory: the US military is overwhelming, yet is easily resisted; the national debt can’t be eliminated, except it totally could if we didn’t spend so much on the military; the US oppresses everyone economically, but it was forced to grant favorable trading terms to Europe; buying US treasury bonds is a sign of empire, except when the Chinese do it.  Or there’s a bit where the US creates “a vast apparatus of armies, prison, police” to create an atmosphere of fear and jingoistic conformity… er, sorry, Dave, but those two things are pretty much opposites; people celebrating American power are not also afraid of it.  He even inserts charts to show how things are out of control!! with the propagandist’s tool of not correcting for inflation.  Plus his frequent references to “wage slavery” only cheapen his earlier discussion of real slavery.

As an anthropologist, he’s very good at criticizing the fantasy history that economists create; it doesn’t make him an expert on economics.

He’s also an anarchist activist, and was involved with anti-globalization protests, but he’s missed the biggest story of the new century: the fact that the Third World has become far, far better off.  He keeps asserting that capitalism can’t include everyone… and yet it seems to be doing just that.

The problem with a worldview where everything is horrible is that there’s no room for progress at all, including in the future.  A contrarian can point out truthfully enough that living standards stayed the same for most people– that is, on the edge of starvation– until about 1800. But even in that period there were advances, such as the abandonment of absolute monarchy, the rise of science, and the development of a vast array of progressive philosophies.  (The thing about idealisms is that somebody eventually will take them seriously… e.g., you pass a Bill of Rights and then, a couple centuries later, courts start to make it real.)  Plus, even in Graeber’s own telling, not infrequently the authorities found it useful to cancel debts, repress usurers, or free serfs.

And after 1800, it’s hard to deny (though Graeber does his best) that the average American is better off than the average Babylonian.  Knowing more about the world helps; tamping down the claims of kings and priests is valuable; rural villages don’t seem like such paradises to the people who live in them.

Graeber likes to detail how many of our institutions arose in war, debt, and slavery.  And they did!  However, things don’t remain forever tainted because of their bad origins.  He’s fond of pointing out that governments went into debt and issued coins and taxed people largely to finance wars, and that a huge portion of US spending is still military.  But it’s now far from the majority of spending– most government spending is education, roads, social security, health insurance. and so forth.

(The problem with criticizing an Everything Is Horrible person is that some people will get the impression that I’m instead saying that Everything Is Great. It’s not, of course. I understand the impulse to think that the whole system is rotten and has to be thrown out. But sometimes our impulses aren’t so smart. Throwing the whole system out rarely goes well.)

After all that, I should emphasize that I don’t disagree with all of his cynical remarks.  He’s pretty acute, for instance, about the disaster of neoliberalism… the insistence that with every crisis, Third World governments implement “reforms” that favored First World creditors and clawed back social progress for the poor.

He doesn’t say much about what he’d like to do instead; but in his concluding section he does make a practical suggestion: cancel debts!  And he has a point.  High-debt systems generally lead to reforms that do just that; the irony is that under the current plutocratic system, rich debtors get government relief and poor debtors are screwed.  As he points out, we’re trained to say “People should pay their debts!”, and never to ask why people get so far in debt and whether we really want that to be the system we live under.

Sometimes you have to take a step back from the daily news and look at the long term trends.  This chart, by James Plunkett, does a great job of telling what’s happening in the world today:

global-income-1988-2008

What you’re seeing is what happened over the last 20 years to each percentile of income, worldwide. The two big stories:

  • The developing world has moved ahead massively.  The old picture of the well-off First World contrasted with the miserable Second and Third is out of date.  Literally billions of people are far, far better off than they were… a lot of this is in India and China, but also places like Brazil, Turkey, Malaysia, Gabon, Botswana, Chile.
  • The middle and working classes in the US and Europe have been stiffed.  The old picture of middle class countries where everyone prospers is– in these countries— no longer true.  New wealth is still being created, but it goes only to the top 10%.

To put it another way, you can’t assume any more that we’re inexorably moving toward a future like Star Trek— where prosperity just increases so steadily and broadly that traditional economics and inequality no longer matter– everyone joins the 1960s American middle class.  Instead, we’re heading more toward Snow Crash.

The second part of the story– how the US has moved from liberalism to plutocracy– I’ve addressed in more detail before.

Edit: Alert reader Alon Levy points out that the collapse of this part of the graph is also in part due to post-Soviet decline.

The first part we hear about much less.  A good place to start is this report from the Gates Foundation, which spotlights three huge stories:

  • Global poverty is on the way out.  Extreme poverty– the dollar-a-day type– is now limited to a billion people or so, and could be entirely eliminated.  Age-old diseases are being eradicated.  Even Africa is doing much better.
  • Foreign aid works, and it works better than ever.  Aid agencies concentrate on measurable gains, and they’re no longer held back by wasteful attempts to fight the Cold War with money.
  • When prosperity goes up, overpopulation ceases to be a problem.  We’ve already passed Peak Child; the earth’s population is stabilizing.  When people don’t have to have 12 children to have two survive, and when women are empowered, they no longer have 12 children.

The good news is going to engender some resistance, but I encourage you to read the linked report, which goes into far more detail.  Often people seem to prefer to think that the world is falling apart; we don’t have a place for massive good news.  (And I haven’t even gotten into the other huge secular trends to more democracy and less war.)

But global warming!  you cry.  And I’d reply: the big hangup on addressing global warming is not world development; it’s American political stupidity.  We’re the ones who deny the problem, refuse to do anything about it, and embrace sprawl, automobiles, and oil.  It’d be nice if China did more, given its scale, but we need to lead by example.  The developing world isn’t going to take the lead on this while we continue to spew out carbon.

And, of course, there’s that growing First World inequality.  A bunch of people look at the above chart and say, well of course, what we need is to stamp on the US middle class more, and give more money to the rich.  I wish I could say I don’t understand it, but I do: they’re still living in 1979; their worldview is still full of hippies, welfare, inflation, high taxes, and US domination.  Well, it’s time to update your calendars.

Let’s look at death from a conworlding perspective.

He backstabbed that chair, but he's still dead.

He backstabbed that chair, but he’s still dead.

If you took a vote, I’m pretty sure most people would be against death.  Early death is always a tragedy, and most religions offer some (more or less implausible) consolation: reincarnation, resurrection, reabsorption into Atman, or perhaps hanging around in the form of a shade or ghost.  (These are usually depicted as mentally disordered, sometimes due to their misdeeds, sometimes as just a consequence of being dead.)

Helping to take care of parents in their ’90s has given me a different view.  This will probably horrify any readers under 35, but it feels like the last years of life prepare both the person and the survivors for death.  Quality of life declines, mobility lessens, physical problems become overwhelming.  By the time my Mom died, it didn’t feel like a tragedy, more like an ending.  She certainly wouldn’t have liked to just be prolonged in the state she was in the month before she died.  And dying in old age after a fulfilling and busy life, surrounded by family, isn’t the worst thing ever.

With my Dad, of course I want him to keep going as long as he gets enjoyment out of life.  But as I mentioned, he’s declining in both body and mind.  Old folks are notorious for keeping to their habits and likes… he’s no longer interested in finding new music, trying out new cuisines, going to new places.  He’s no longer adapting to social change… he told me disapprovingly of a couple he knows that shacked up together before marriage.  That is, before their marriage which has lasted very nicely for fifty years.  He does read some new things, but there’s not much that changes his mind anymore.

Now, this is a manageable problem in the world as it is.  But what if people lived twice as long?  Or six times as long, as in the Incatena?  Would you really want most people to be conservative old cranks for 85% of their lives?

The ancient Greeks had a myth about a man, Tithonus, who was granted immortality but forgot to ask for eternal youth.  So he ended up immobile and senile.  Oops!

One futuristic approach to the problem: get yourself uploaded to a computer, so you can stay alive indefinitely.  I think it’d be horrible to give up food, sex, exercise, and the rest of our bodily experience, even if we posit that you can still somehow retain your visual qualia.  But I can see the attraction of wanting to find out what’s next.  Perhaps you could hibernate for fifty years at a time, then wake up and avidly consume all the pop culture that’s been created since last time.  Avoid Sturgeon’s Law and read just the best 10% of stuff, forever!

However, I suspect the plan would fall apart in under 200 years.  How much really grabs us from that long ago?  We do read stuff that old, of course, but it’s only a tiny fraction of our mental diet.  The past is a strange world that takes some effort to immerse ourselves in– when it doesn’t repel us with a mindset that’s now confusing, boring, or vile.  400 years ago is even harder to grok, and 1000 is an alien world.  And looking back, I’d maintain, is far easier than looking forward.  We’re exposed to the past as history and literature– we can read Jane Austen or Jonathan Swift or Molière far easier than they’d be able to understand us.

Imagine Jules Verne, for instance, trying to make sense of a Laundry novel.  The prose itself might not be too difficult.  The idea of monsters and government bureaucracies would be understood.  But he’d miss the allusions to Lovecraft and spy novels, and references to the Cold War and computers would require a whole education to follow.  Something like an episode of The Simpsons would probably produce complete befuddlement.

I’m not saying it couldn’t be done, just that it’d require quite a bit more work than it sounds like.  And just visiting the future in one-year reading binges, you’d never really fit into the culture– you’d be an increasingly alienated dinosaur.

In the Incatena, I posit that the problem is solved by people loosening up their brains once a century or two.  Basically, you lose a bunch of memories, fade out some of the more habitual neural pathways, recover some of the intellectual flexibility (and ignorance) of adolescence.  Maybe change your body type and/or sex while you’re at it.  You want to be you just enough to feel continuity, but not enough to become a curmudgeon.  (And becoming an AI, though it’s an option, is viewed as a form of death.)

Evolution, we could say, has found a simpler solution yet: reproduction.  You get new people with the genetic heritage of the species, but neotenous and adaptable to the current environment.

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