It’s time for the second instalment of ten-and-a-half in my history of the world cycle. But first a couple of brief announcements. First, I just wanted to mention that I’m lucky enough to be getting a number of my blog posts replicated on various other websites. But I’m also finding that I’m spending too much time online and not enough working my holding, so I just wanted to mention that I feel the need to prioritise responding to comments here on my own website at Small Farm Future and may not find the time to respond on other sites, much as I’d like to. Apologies about that – but please do feel free to talk to me if you want to at Small Farm Future where I’ll do my best to respond.
Second, talking of my holding I thought it was time for a new header photo, and what better than this recent drone photograph of (most of) my own humble abode, as fine an example of the gentleman-peasant’s farm as you can find in all of, er, northwest Frome. I’m guessing it’s fairly obvious where the boundaries of my holding are. Something that may not be so clear is where my house is – not the residential cluster on the left, which is outside my boundaries, but the unobtrusive buildings towards the right at the end of the track, which took years of bureaucratic wrangling to gain assent for. Such are the vagaries of the English planning system. But how did we get from the Palaeolithic foraging of my last post to the very apogee of mixed agrarianism shown in the picture? I’m glad you asked. To answer it, I need to go to way back when and return to my main historical thread by looking at some of the tensions within…
2. Agriculture and civilisation*
A major one historically is that between tillers and herders. Livestock herding can’t support population densities to match that of arable cropping but it’s easier to do, it’s compatible with a wider set of ecological circumstances, and its characteristic practices – a wandering way of life, horsemanship, defence of ambiguous boundaries against animal and human predators – provide skills that are readily transferable to warfare. Indeed, much of the history of Eurasia can be understood in terms of conflicts between tillers and pastoralists that only ended decisively in favour of the tillers in relatively recent times as a result of their larger surpluses and more stable forms of political hierarchy. As an advocate of a mixed farming, I’d favour splitting the difference and doing a bit of both. But in historical terms mixed farming is quite a modern high-tech method – which is rather ironic in view of the fact that large-scale commercial agriculture in the wealthy countries today has largely reverted to the old-fashioned separation of arable and pastoral.
There are distinctions worth highlighting within pastoralism too. The classic case is that of grassland peoples who are ethnically distinct from their cropland foes – Mongols, Tatars, Huns etc. But in some cases the distinction maps within a given ‘ethnic’ population over time (eg. the probable abandonment of grain farming in favour of pastoralism in Neolithic Britain as a response to climate change and population decline – lessons for the future there, perhaps?) or space (eg. the distinction between pastoral desert nomads and townsfolk in Arab lands). Then there are mountain or forest pastoralists living a largely self-reliant existence beyond the geographical reach of the hierarchical civilisations bearing down on the tillers of the soil (Switzerland furnishes one later historic example). Extending that logic, there’s the paramilitary pastoralism of frontier or outlaw zones, where growing crops is impossible because it invites enemy expropriation – the reivers of the England-Scotland borders in late medieval and early modern times spring to mind. Finally, there’s the special case of the commercial pastoralist, often in the employ of noble or capitalist landowners. I’ll shortly return to some of these historical types.
But getting back to the political centres, and to my chronology, the agricultural epoch eventually brought forth large-scale Iron Age empires in various parts of the world: to name a few, in the circum-Mediterranean, Egypt, Greece, Rome and Persia; in the Indian sub-continent, the Mauryas; and in China, the Qin and Han dynasties. Smaller and somewhat more mysterious centralised states also arose contemporaneously in the Americas, such as the Olmecs. In the Old World at least, these strong states typically unified large areas through a tripartite and conjoint package of standing army, standard coinage and market trade. This created a set of centre-periphery dynamics which look fairly familiar in the modern world: population growth, population movement (forced or unforced) between periphery and centre, economic growth and rising court and government expenditures.
It’s worth distinguishing between tax and tribute states in the ancient world. Generally, collecting taxes is much more remunerative than taking tribute or extracting rents from land, but more burdensome to organise – so it was only undertaken by states with high revenue costs such as large standing armies or civic administrations. Once established, tax states tend to be stronger, with a more centralised apparatus and fewer tendencies towards fragmenting into regionalised polities. It would be too glib to superimpose a second distinction – between citizen and subject – neatly onto the tax/tribute distinction, but I’d suggest there’s an association. Subjects typically expect little or nothing in return for paying tribute – perhaps at best military protection from other would-be tribute-takers whose rapacity is worse. Citizens, on the other hand, usually expect a whole lot more in return for their payments – services, legal process, perhaps even a say in governance. It’s generally worth asking the question in relation to any particular social actor – am I a subject or a citizen?
In any case, whether we’re talking about strong tax states or weaker tributary ones, the dynamics of territorial, fiscal and population growth created problems for ancient governments of rising state costs that they could only really try to solve in one (or more) of five ways, which again have endured down to the present. They could (first) squeeze the populace harder through tax or other exactions, or (second) expand territorially through conquest, placing the fiscal burden mainly on the conquered – at least until, in time, the conquered too became citizens (one of the problems in the late Roman empire, with its contingents of wandering, militarised Romano-Germans). The disadvantage of these two options is that they involved annoying a lot of people, thus potentially inciting blowback. A third option was various forms of credit or debt finance – essentially, acting as if you have the resources to achieve your ends even when you don’t – a strategy that can work very well, especially if the economy is growing. But eventually debts are almost always called in.
A fourth strategy is to increase economic productivity, but that’s easier said than done. The simplest way to achieve it is by drawing down harder on (often relatively non-renewable) natural resources like soil (or, later, oil), the problem being the potential ecological blowback. An example here is the renowned Vallis Veg grass-mowing trial, which showed conclusively that the medieval scythe was a trade-off free improvement on the ancient sickle, whereas modern mechanised mowing technology involves a less efficient drawdown on non-renewable resources than the scythe. Another problem with Strategy 4 is that, even if initially successful, it tends to prompt population growth and further expenditures which soon bring the original problem around again. The final option is to fiddle about, perhaps by adopting some or all of the other measures in mild form while tightening the government’s fiscal belt, and hoping to keep the resulting tensions in check.
Most of the early civilisations of this so-called ‘Axial Age’ eventually crumbled through their inability to resolve the various contradictions outlined above, perhaps with the exception of China, whose emperors proved for the most part to be highly adept fiddlers down the centuries. In a moment, I’ll consider the consequences of this crumbling, but first I want to look briefly at some other aspects of the ancient empires, beginning with their class structures.
At the bottom end of the scale were various gradations of unfree workers – perhaps a key distinction being between debt peonage, when locals or insiders fell upon hard times (a fate that could happen to almost anyone), and a more juridically absolute chattel slavery, typically applying to people coming in as strangers, often war captives. In his classic account of the transition from ancient to medieval Europe, Perry Anderson identifies the invention of chattel slavery as a new development in the classical societies of both Greece and Rome – but Greece relied more heavily on free peasant farming, whereas Rome depended on the large estate, the latifundium, worked by the gang labour of those enslaved in the empire’s impressive outward drive. So when that drive finally faltered and the Roman empire entered its terminal crisis, the latifundium-based western empire quickly crumbled almost into nothing, whereas the Hellenized eastern empire fared better – its strong tax state and localised small-farm traditions transmogrified into the Byzantine empire, which persisted through various ups and downs for almost another millennium before being carved up by the successor empires of the middle ages. More recent historical research de-emphasises the importance of slave-based latifundia in the west, but so far as I can see doesn’t wholly undermine Anderson’s thesis about the different eastern and western paths.
A parallel dimension of difference between east and west was the relationship between city and country. Rome institutionalised a chronic exploitation of its peasant-soldiers, as described by Tiberius Gracchus: “the men who fight and die for Italy enjoy the common air and light, indeed, but nothing else…they fight and die to support others in wealth and luxury, and…have not a single clod of earth that is their own”. Gracchus’ attempted agrarian reforms in favour of small farmers, the Lex Sempronia Agraria, contributed to his assassination and paved the way a generation or so later for the proto-fascist structure of military strongman, large-scale absentee landownership, urban mass and subjugated peasantry achieved by Julius Caesar, pioneer of the ‘Caesarist’ political tradition that has recurred often enough down the ages. In Athens, Solon’s reforms abolishing debt peonage, and those of his successors in building a democratic polity that limited aristocratic power, were more successful, allowing representation to the voice of the peasant-citizen. Ellen Meiksins Wood has pressed this point further, rejecting the notion that the flowering of classical Athens stemmed from the luxury of its reliance on chattel slavery, which she suggests was limited and marginal to agricultural production. For her, the glories of democratic Athens were essentially the achievement of a free peasant society, and a beacon of possibilities illuminating later ages. But it was eclipsed through a series of conflicts, starting with its defeat in the Peloponnesian war, typically involving alliances between rival monarchical and oligarchical states and its own disaffected aristocracy. So maybe there’s a warning beacon for later ages there too.
Another aspect of the ancient civilisations worth mentioning is their spiritual-philosophical focus. While rulers imposed political order on the ground, thinkers imposed spiritual order in the mind – this was the time of Confucius, the Buddha, Jesus, Plato and – much later on the scene – Muhammad. The ideas that these figures came up with had many differences, which were quite consequential for the politics of the societies they influenced, but the traditions they founded shared a tendency towards universalising, systemic thought. Typically, they were cosmologies of town and merchant, which sought to break the particular identities of kin-group or place. “If any man come to me and hate not his father and mother and wife and children and brethren and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” as Jesus sternly put it.
From this flowed a tension in most spiritual traditions between a structured religious practice with formal institutional trappings which usually validated the political status quo – the religion of church and state – and world-denying renunciative practices which were usually more individualistic or schismatic, transcending and critiquing church-state worldviews. These two poles of religious practice are endlessly malleable and have been reworked according to the designs of numerous groups, classes and social movements down the ages. In the Axial Age civilisations, they often played out in the form of a spiritual and sometimes a material/military clash between a church closely identified with urban aristocratic rule, and renunciative religion associated with the farmers and herders of the rural fringe who took a dim view of urban decadence. This was often expressed in terms of male asceticism and military virtue, and female chastity, especially in view of the pervasive loosening and marketization of social relations in the cities. Think Babylon, Sodom, Gomorrah – or the idea, curious to the religions of city and trader, that you cannot serve both God and Mammon. This tension too has contemporary resonance.
One other feature of Axial Age spiritual thought in the west worth mentioning in passing was the notion that humanity had acquired godlike powers – the Greek myth of Prometheus (‘Promethean environmentalism’ was a forerunner of what now usually goes by the name of ‘ecomodernism’), or the story of Eden in the Book of Genesis (“Behold the man has become as one of us, to know good and evil”, as God put it). Perhaps it seems laughable to us today that these vanished civilisations with their rudimentary technologies should consider their powers divine. Judging by the titles of the books we now write, or our soi disant geological imprimatur of the ‘Anthropocene’, we seem to feel that our Iron Age predecessors jumped the gun, and should have left it to us to do the God stuff. But it’s at this point that Professor Dylan’s admonitions keep coming back to me “…as the present now will later be past…for the wheel’s still in spin…” And so on. These Axial Age philosophical traditions emphasised the hubris of human claims to divinity – a wise counsel even then, I’d argue, and a still wiser one now. So let us leave the overworked seam of human divinity and take a peek at what came after the ‘Axial Age’ states.
* A fully referenced version of this essay can be found here.